14 October 2011

Overdrawn at the Metempsychotic Bank

I like the idea of reincarnation. In general, I feel life is good, and I would like to continue living. But I know I cannot live forever, nor, because of the inevitable disintegration of my body and the likely waning of my mind, can I believe that life will continue to be good. The idea of moving on to a new body and beginning anew as an infant takes away some of the sting. And life  has not been all good, with too many sorrows, sins, defeats  and errors. Being given another chance to do a little better would please me.

Believing as I do that the mind is embodied, I find it difficult to accept that anything of oneself can survive the death of the body. For if the mind is the content of a massively complex system of computations executed in the nervous system and perhaps in other parts of the body, then without this organic “hardware” to act as its medium, how can the mind continue to exist? Saying that the mind could leave the body and  continue without a nervous system is like saying that data erased from a hard drive could float around in the air instead of utterly vanishing. There is no law of the conservation of information.

Of course, people say that it is the soul, not the mind, which transmigrates in reincarnation. The soul is said to be made neither of matter nor energy but of something spiritual, that physics knows nothing about. I do, in fact, accept the reality of spiritual experience, but for me, it is something that occurs in the symbolic world we have in our minds and in our networks of social interactions. I have no experience of anything that seems to be a soul, and I don’t see any necessity to assume there is such a thing, particularly with no real evidence.  I don’t feel that I have a soul and I don’t feel that I am lacking a soul. So I am very skeptical about reincarnation. But I don’t let  my skepticism  rob me of the pleasure of thinking about it.

I see some problems with how reincarnation as conventionally imagined works with our evolutionary history, beginning with the earliest humans, hundreds of thousands of years ago.  This is assuming that reincarnation occurs only among humans. But I think the same explanations apply (with a little adaptation ) to reincarnation between humans and animals.  For instance, the Jataka Tales, which tell of past lives of the Buddha, relate several in which he is in animal form. But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll restrict my speculations to human reincarnation.

Depending on how one defines a human, there was a time very long ago when the first humans lived.  These were, of course, very small in number. These earliest humans had the first souls, occurring either naturally or supernaturally.  This tiny population, with its presumed evolutionary advantages, began to grow in numbers. I wonder where the souls of  their children came from? Only when some of the first humans died would there have been souls available for reincarnation. So from the beginning there must have been a shortage of souls, since there was an ever-increasing number of bodies, with only the souls of those who had lived before to  occupy them. Perhaps new souls were created as needed. It  seems a little complicated.

Another problem arises when you think about what might occur after a great catastrophe. For instance, during the century of the Black Death, ending around 1400, the world lost perhaps 25% of its population. This means that there would have been millions of souls with no new-born humans  to accommodate them.  What happened to the extra souls when their usual places to go were not being made?  One could imagine a sort of metempsychotic bank which takes up the surplus of souls after a die-off and saves them until there is a time of increase. But such a bank would not have been able to supply extra souls to the increasing population at the beginning of humanity, since there were no previous souls in reserve. The traditional concept of reincarnation does not work unless the population is always the same size, which has certainly not been the case.

This problem arises because of the tacit assumption that when a soul is freed from a dying person, it reincarnates in the immediate future. But there is an alternative hypothesis which disposes of the problem of surpluses or shortages more economically. If  a reincarnating soul could jump backward in time and be reborn in its past, or could jump far into  its future, then the problem of where surplus souls go after a die-off and where extra souls come from during an expansion simply goes away. After the Black Death, some of the souls would have jumped back in time to be reborn at an earlier time when there was a shortage of souls for all the new humans coming into being. Other souls could have jumped into the future to find places a generation later when the population began to recover, or generations later, into our time when population is increasing even more.

If one were able to remember one’s previous incarnations, some would seem to be in the past and others in the future of whatever time the soul was in. The order could very well be completely non-chronological. It would even be possible for the same soul to inhabit two different bodies at the same time. An older soul could meet a younger version. Assuming that some memories persist, this might explain some experiences of déjà-vu; one really has been there before, just in a different body. Among the six billion humans on this planet, the number of souls within them could be much smaller. This is economical, in a way.

For the purpose of even greater economy, the number of souls jumping back and forth in time could be extremely small.  In fact, there need be only one soul for all the humans that now exist, have ever existed, or will exist . This soul zigzags forward and backward throughout time, eventually being incarnated as every being.  As it leaves its final body (having been in all others during the span of humanity) the single soul could vanish (into nirvana or oblivion) or return to its first body to repeat the cycle again. This echoes Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence,  but in the minds of the reincarnated, not in the physical universe. 

Rather than myriad parallel streams, reincarnation seems to be but a single web fashioned from a single strand.

If people became generally aware that they were all either future or previous incarnations of each other, perhaps their feelings, attitudes and actions toward each other would change. One would hope that this change would be  for the better. Imagine that one were about to hurt another person in some way and then remembered that this other person was an earlier or later version of oneself. Would the harsh word remain unspoken? Would the clenched fist uncurl?

There is also a dualistic variant, less productive of social benefit.  There could be instead two* souls, making their separate yet intertwined journeys back and forth through space and time, forming two interlocked webs. Any individual being would be a stage of either one soul or the other. Perhaps each soul perceives itself as good and its opposite as evil; they could be engaged in an eternal and irresolvable struggle.

Which soul wrote this text? Are any manifestations of the opposite soul reading or listening to it? If you the reader or listener feel a sense of sympathy or antipathy when experiencing it, does this identify which of the warring siblings inhabits you?
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
*Speculating about three or more souls is less interesting

30 August 2011

Swallowing the Sun

Text for my part of a performance created by Tom Plsek, Joanne Rice, and Matt Samolis, realized on 8 August, 2011 at Church of the Advent, Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts USA, by around forty musicians and performers, who made 250,000 sound events in the course of one hour. These events correspond to the approximate number of deaths resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, exactly sixty-six years earlier.

100 letter word



How many are dead?
250 000--
that many are dead

Hiroshima a---
a a a a a a a
Hiroshima a---

One thousand summers'
winds blow as one wind that smashes
all things before it

Red dawn, golden light
blue sky yellow sun, a sound...
white white white white white

Ring around the sun--
ashes ashes ashes ashes a---
now we all fall down

Nuclear fission,
heat light blast nothing

Ghost radiations
penetrate silently, kill

White shadow, black wall,
the light so bright made a print:
the only remains

Summer heat is on.
Great nuclear fission heat--
end of the world heat

Playground equipment
black and twisted in silence
games of nothingness

Summer sun eclipsed
by light so bright, brighter than
twenty thousand suns

How many shadows?
250 000
white shadows, black walls

Summer sky riven
by sound so loud, louder than
twenty million screams

Little white bone
charred around its edges:
whose finger were you?

August Rhapsody.
Kurosawa remembered
fearful destruction

I, young boy, reading
"The Effects of Atomic
Weapons". How could they?

We thought a million
men would die while invading
but we can't be sure

Some historians
say Japan was near collapse
so why not just wait

This evil commenced
(bombing civilian targets)
before the a-bombs

The killing affects
the victims but it also
affects the killers

Nagasaki i---
i i i i i i I
Nagasaki i---

Mountains of ashes
250 000
corpses in two heaps

I walk

I walk through ashes
crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch
ashes pass through me

I walk through vapors
whish whish whish whish whish whish whish
vapors pass through me

I walk through xrays
zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz zzz
xrays slice through me

i walk through blast wave
hwoom! hwoom! hwoom! hwoom! hwoom! hwoom! hwoom!
blast wave shatters me

I walk through great heat
sssss sssss sssss sssss sssss sssss sssss
great heat consumes me

Driving to Maine three days ago

Friday Afternoon
hot car to Maine not thinking
of Hiroshima

Friday Afternoon
hot car to Maine not thinking
of Nagasaki

Friday Afternoon
hot car to Maine not thinking
of radiation

Friday Afternoon
hot car to Maine not thinking
of destructive blast

Friday Afternoon
hot car to Maine not thinking
of bone-stripping heat

Friday Afternoon
hot car to Maine not thinking
of eye-melting light

Friday Afternoon
hot car to Maine not thinking
of so many dead

Hear the sounds

Hear the sounds of birds
There is no sound just silence
Hear sounds of no birds

Hear the sounds of boys
There is no sound just silence
Hear sounds of no boys

Hear the sounds of girls
There is no sound just silence
Hear sounds of no girls

Hear the sounds of men
There is no sound just silence
Hear sounds of no men

Hear sounds of women
there is no sound just silence
sounds of no women

Hear the sounds of frogs
There is no sound just silence
Hear sounds of no frogs

Hear the sounds of cats
There is no sound just silence
Hear sounds of no cats

Hear sounds of cattle
There is no sound just silence
Sounds of no cattle

Hear sounds of crickets
There is no sound just silence
Sounds of no crickets

Hear sounds of foxes
There is no sound just silence
Sounds of no foxes


i i i i i
i i i i i i i
i i i i I (“ee” as in “beet”-- this and other examples not to be spoken)

I I I I I (“i” as in “bit”)

e e e e e
e e e e e e e
e e e e e (“e” as in “bet”)

æææææ (“a” as in “bat”)

a a a a a
a a a a a a a
a a a a a (“a” as in “father”)

α α α α α
α α α α α α α
α α α α α (“a” as in “pause”)

Ø Ø Ø Ø Ø (“o” as in “bought”)

o o o o o
o o o o o o o
o o o o o (“o” as in “boat”)

U U U U U.
U U U U U (“u” as in “but”)

oo oo oo oo oo
oo oo oo oo oo oo oo
oo oo oo oo oo (“oo” as in “book”)

u u u u u
u u u u u u u
u u u u u (“u” as in “boot”)

ə ə ə ə ə
ə ə ə ə ə ə ə
ə ə ə ə ə (“a” as in “about”)

w w w w w
w w w w w w w
w w w w w

y y y y y
y y y y y y y
y y y y y

r r r r r
r r r r r r r
r r r r r

l l l l l
l l l l l l l
l l l l l

n n n n n
n n n n n n n
n n n n n

m m m m m
m m m m m m m
m m m m m

p p p p p
p p p p p p p
p p p p p

b b b b b
b b b b b b b
b b b b b

f f f f f
f f f f f f f
f f f f f

v v v v v
v v v v v v v
v v v v v

θ θ θ θ θ
θ θ θ θ θ θ θ
θ θ θ θ θ (“th” as in “thin”)

ð ð ð ð ð
ð ð ð ð ð ð ð
ð ð ð ð ð (“th” as in “those”)

s s s s s
s s s s s s s
s s s s s

z z z z z
z z z z z z z
z z z z z

§ § § § §
§ § § § § § §
§ § § § § (“sh” as in “shin”)

Ʒ Ʒ Ʒ Ʒ Ʒ (“zh” as in “azure”)

t t t t t
t t t t t t t
t t t t t

d d d d d
d d d d d d d
d d d d d

k k k k k
k k k k k k k
k k k k k

g g g g g
g g g g g g g
g g g g g

h h h h h
h h h h h h h
h h h h h

ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ
ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ
ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ ŋ (“ng” as in “ring”)

100 letter word


a narrative

I was just 16 years old, but had worked for a year and a half in a clothing factory. They had taken us all out of school so we could make uniforms for the soldiers. It was hard work, and we were really happy when they let us return to school at the beginning of August. It was a beautiful day with a blue sky and yellow sun that was already beginning to be hot, even early in the morning when we walked to school We had just started our physics class, it was the second week, and I was a little bored, so I looked out the window. I saw two B-29 bombers, but I didn't worry much about it. "Only two bombers. Not much danger for us.." I looked back at my book. Suddenly there was a very bright flash of light and I felt very hot, as if I were inside an oven. All I could see was orange. A few seconds later there was a tremendous sound, as if every building in the world was falling down at once. I screwed my eyes closed, covered my ears, and jumped under my desk. Now everything was black and I couldn't see a thing; I think part of the roof had collapsed. Everyone in the classroom was very quiet. I began to crawl across the floor. In my mind I was praying to Lord Buddha. "Help me, Lord Buddha!" Never before had I prayed to him.

I finally got outside, and I saw that I had many little cuts from slivers of glass but I wasn't really hurt. I looked around and was amazed to see that every building, as far as I could see in every direction, was in ruins or badly damaged. I had thought the two bombers could have dropped just a few bombs, but this seemed to be the work of hundreds of aircraft dropping thousands of bombs over many hours. It didn't seem possible that so much destruction could come from so little. Many of the buildings were in flames.

My friend Takashi came out behind me, his face covered with blood, from a deep cut on his head, I tied a handkerchief around his head, and he leaned against me as we walked to the hospital. It wasn't very far, we just had to follow the tram tracks. We saw a lot of people walking away from the center of the city. Many of them were terribly burned, skin coming off their heads, clothes burned off, almost naked. Many had no hair. With some of them, I could see muscles appearing through the skin, very red. They walked with their arms raised in front of them, in a queue, like a ghostly parade, hundreds and hundreds. Others were crawling, trying to get to the river, to cool their burns with water. Some died before they got to the river, others died on the riverbank, and of those who entered the water,many drowned. Bodies floated everywhere on the surface of the river. It seemed as if everyone in Hiroshima was dying. We reached the hospital; only part of it was still standing. We got inside where we found hundreds of wounded people seeking help from the few doctors and nurses who, despite their own wounds, were able to help them. It looked like it was going to be a very long wait, so I led Takashi outside and we began to walk back in the direction of our dormitory. A rescue truck stopped and took Takashi to another hospital some distance away.

I continued by myself to the dormitory, but found only a mountain of rubble and ashes. I decided to go to the farm where my mother was staying. I walked some distance, and then found a train which stopped near her village.

The next day, I woke up with diarrhea and a high fever. I was very sick, delirious the first few days, but got over it in a week. It was caused by radiation, of course, but I was lucky that I didn't stay long in the city or I would have gotten much more exposure. People who stayed in the city to help with rescue work weren't so lucky; most of them died. A few times since then, I've gotten sick again, but I always get over it, and I'm still alive.

I don't feel angry at the Americans about the a-bomb, even though it caused a huge amount of suffering, destruction and death. Everyone who fights in a war goes crazy. They will do anything to kill their enemies. I suppose that if Japan had had one of these bombs, we would have used it, too. For me, it is better to look to the future rather than the past, but it should be a future where everyone in the world works together to abolish nuclear weapons.

100 letter word


05 June 2011

Tweeting Ulysses: Read Part Two & Wrote First Draft

At last, I have come to the end of Part II of Ulysses, & have read my segment for 11ysses in context. Richly rewarding experience. I shall finish the book before Bloomsday. Next, I firstDrafted my tweets. They seem OK to good, so I’ll sleep & look at them again tomorrow. I’m using Unicode characters quite a bit; they save space and can add a shock of optical energy to the tweets.As an example, I am spelling Bl∞m with an infinity sign, saving a character & alluding to his Everyman attribute. I got the Unicodes from http://www.ssec.wisc.edu/~tomw/java/unicode.html . I was able to copy and paste them from the website; only the ones that show up in Microsoft Word using the Arial Unicode MS font seem to work well in Twitter. Perhaps someone might find the following collection useful. Just copy and paste…
⁂⌂⌛⌨⌬▣▲▽❒〄♬ ☑☒✔✇❁❀✿☮✾✽✵
£§✉✖✣✰� ۩ † ‽∎
☻☺☹☯☤☠☢☃ ☟☞☝☜☛☚✌
∞ ⊥ ↑Ⅶ

02 June 2011

Tweeting Ulysses: Unicode rebuses

Although I am re-reading Ulysses (just entered the bar with “bronze by gold, Miss Douce’s head by Miss Kennedy’s head”) I am also looking at my twitter section wherein Stephen is about to get beaten up by some soldiers in Nighttown & Bloom intervenes to save him). I’m wondering how I’m going to do it. The episode swings between factual description of what is being said & wildly hallucinatory images, among which we see King Edward VII dropping in (he for whom the Edwardian era was named) and at the end, a Croppy Boy (short-haired Irish rebel from the century previous) being hanged in a proto-Burroughsian fashion. I am thinking of developing separate tweetStyles for the straight passages & the hallucinatory passages, the latter to be done in a more visual, less prosaic manner.

In yesterday’s post I listed different tactics for saving space in tweets, and the rebus idea has been interesting me more & more. A certain amount of rebusing can be done with the conventional character set (“2 B or not 2 B…”) but since Twitter accepts Unicode, there is a big store of visual dingbat types of characters available. I have installed a little web browser tool called TwitterKeys, which provides 40 or 50 useful symbols, & have also looked at the WikiPedia article that lists many many Unicode characters http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Unicode_characters . I did an experimental tweet that verifies to me that I can copy & paste characters from this Wiki page or the browser tool. I think I’ll collect all the even remotely conceivably useful characters from Wikipedia, and make a document I can take them from. Presently, I am thinking of icononizing King Edward the Seventh into ED.VII♚ , using the black chess king symbol, 7 characters instead of 23.
I am eager to use symbols like these ♨ ♬♒☽☠ ➨ ✣ to show but a few, but will discipline myself to be true to the text.

01 June 2011

Tweeting Ulysses: Saving Space

I’ve read eight chapters of Ulysses, up to page 175 of my 735 page edition. This in preparation for my twriting (or tweading as Steve of Baltimore puts it) of a small part of the novel this coming Bloomsday, 16 June on Twitter at @11lysses. Most of this time, I have been in the mind of Leopold Bloom, experiencing his thoughts, feelings, and associations in a direct and plausible manner. After a few years of meditation followed by a few more years of psychotherapy, I’ve been able to follow my own stream of consciousness somewhat, and Joyce’s rendering of Bloom’s has an impressively authentic quality. I am appreciating the novel as a story with genuinely human characters more than before, when my interest was focused more on language experiments.

While I read, I am thinking of how I’m going to make 4 to 6 tweets of my seven pages. I want to tell the story and convey the feeling, and I want to use Twitter in a creative, experimental way. My first thought, of course, is “not enough room!” A tweet has a maximum of 140 characters, so I can use at most 840. There are different ways to respond to this challenge, many quite Joycean.

Joyce likes to agglutinate words, metaphorically glue two together to form a new word. This happens sometimes in English, but usually with a hyphen… “not-uncommon” is an example. But Joyce doesn’t use hyphens. For instance, on the page I am about to read, Joyce writes “darkgreener.” This technique saves a character, either a space or a hyphen, and gives the resulting compound word a heightened, poetic quality. It reminds me of how many computer programmers, myself included, give camel-case names to variables: “numberOfRepetitions” agglutinates three words, with the second and third words written in upper case in the midst of the compound to ease reading . “Camel-case” is named because the upper-case letters in the midst of the word stand up like camel’s humps. Perhaps it should be spelled self-referentially as “camelCase”.

Another way to save characters is the rebus, substituting a character which sounds like a word. This is common in tweet and mobile-phone text messages. “C U later” or “Me 2.” An interesting literary usage is in Alfred Bester’s SciFi novel, The Demolished Man, where two characters have the surnames @kins and Wyg&, (“Atkins” & “Wygand”.)

Abbreviations might work. I remember SpeedWriting ads from the 50’s and 60’s: “f u cn rd ths, u cn gt a gd jb.” The “u” in this example is more of a rebus than an abbreviation. This method can produce text that is quite difficult to read, and is often rather ugly.

In Joyce’s time, people sent telegrams where we use email today,, and were motivated to keep messages short to save money. So people developed telegraphic writing, leaving out pronouns, articles, and conjunctions. Example written telegraphically—words dropped, sentence shorter. At times Joyce’s stream of consciousness writing in Ulysses resembles this. But if you write telegraphically, you shouldn’t use abbreviations or rebuses, as there won’t be enough redundancy in the message to enable the reader to reconstruct it.

Another stratagem might be to use slang expressions that are shorter than their equivalents in conventional English. I’ll be tweeting part of the Nighttown section, which is in the red-light district, so I may be referring to a prostitute now and then. “Whore” is shorter, and “ho” is really short. But I’m a little uncertain about using “ho”: it’s a black American vernacular (Ebonics)or perhaps hiphop word, and it may be too wrenching to the text. I’ll have to try it out and see how it feels.

These are the experimental tweetniques (forgive me) I have found so far coming from the need to save space. Later I’ll write about some ideas that derive from different sources.

31 May 2011

Ulysses Meets Twitter 2011

On Bloomsday, 16 June, 2001, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses will be tweeted more or less in real-time. I am honored to be one of the twriters, tasked with distilling 6 to 9 pages of the text into 4 to 6 tweets. An explanation of Ulysses Meets Twitter 2011 can be found on the 11ysses Blog. You can also follow @11ysses on Twitter as the project develops.

The organizer, Steve of Baltimore, has divided the book into 96 sections; I am working on section 71, in the Nighttown/Circe chapter. The tweets will flow commencing 8 AM, GMT/Dublin time (2 AM Eastern US Time), and will continue for 24 hours. Section 71 will go out between 1:30-1:45 AM GMT or 7:30-7:45 PM Eastern Time.

I first read Ulysses when I was sixteen years old, about fifty years ago. My parents had a copy of the Modern Library edition, and I borrowed Stuart Gilbert’s “James Joyce’s Ulysses: a Study” from the library. A month later, August, 1961, I finished and I felt that I had undergone a kind of initiation into modernist fiction. In the intervening years, I’ve read here and there in the book many times, but never again all the way through. I feel like I should re-read it before starting my alchemy on section 71, and started last night with Part I. What a pleasure to savor Joyce’s language, and, with fifty more years of life and experience, it seems much more rewarding than in my adolescence. The Modern Library book disintegrated, so now I am reading a beautifully printed Folio Society edition. I must make haste to read 500 more pages and get to my section so I’ll have time to write my tweets in an appropriate twitter-style. It is good that I am retired.

I’ll post on my progress from time to time until I submit my tweets to 11ysses, in a week or so.

05 March 2011

How a true-life character in “True Grit” made possible the existence of my family

The current Coen Brothers’ film of “True Grit” has generated an unusual amount of interesting web responses.

Languagelog (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2873) considers whether the paucity of verb contractions in “True Grit” is not a realistic depiction of American speech of the later nineteenth century. Analysis of other literary works, including Mark Twain’s, indicates that it isn’t.

Another linguistic take on “True Grit, “ specifically on Rooster Cogburn’s incredible diction, is in a subtitled video on Collegehumor.com (http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1945368.)

Cocktail Party Physics admires the physics of “True Grit” in http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics/2011/02/and-the-oscar-goes-to.html. The time delay between Rooster’s pulling the trigger on his rifle and the shot hitting the distant bad guy, and the effect of the recoil of Maggie’s rifle are both noted.

The film opened in France and in Spain a couple of weeks ago, and two different people have told me how much they liked it: J. in San Sebastian and G. in Anglet, near Biarritz. I felt obligated to tell each the following story.

“True Grit” takes place around 1885, at first in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and later in the Choctaw Nation, part of Indian territory, now in Oklahoma, the state of my birth. The film was not shot in Oklahoma, but further west in New Mexico, so you don’t see the rolling green hills of Eastern Oklahoma. In Fort Smith we see a hanging and a courtroom scene. The presiding judge at that time was Judge Isaac Parker, and he was a real person who is depicted in the film. Parker was famous as the “Hanging Judge,” because he sentenced 160 defendants to death, of whom 79 were actually hanged (according to Wikipedia.) The film showed three desperados being executed on the same gallows; Parker’s gallows could actually accommodate six.

In 1892-93, my grandfather, C S Petty, worked for Judge Parker.

Clarence S. Petty was born 11 November, 1871 in Gadsden, Alabama. In 1892 he received a degree in Business from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and moved to Ft. Smith, Arkansas where he taught at the Business College for two years, studying medicine with Dr. J. C. Daly and working as a clerk some of the time in the court of Judge Parker= “the Hanging Judge.”

In 1894 he entered the Chicago Homeopathic Medical School and was graduated in May, 1897; one of the seven to graduate with honors out of a class of fifty seven. After graduation, upon the strong urging of [Oklahoma Territorial] Governor Barnes, he moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma to open his office. It is interesting to note that Governor Barnes had lost his personal physician, a homeopathic physician, and wrote his friend, Judge Parker, to ask if he knew of anyone he might interest in coming to Guthrie to open an office and also care for him….Judge Parker spoke highly of Clarence and Governor Barnes’ invitation was forthcoming.

-Germaine Petty. The Petty Family (1985), page 5

Because of my grandfather’s work for Judge Parker, he gained a very good position in Guthrie, the new capitol of the Oklahoma Territory. If this had not happened, he would not have met my grandmother…

The Parker court of 1893 was very different from that of 1885 shown in “True Grit.” In the 80’s, Parker had jurisdiction over all of Indian Territory, which covered most of what is today Oklahoma. And indeed, federal marshals did go into the Indian nations and capture criminals, many of whom had fled into what was then the last of the Wild West. A few years later, in 1889, the first of five land runs began the process of stealing land from the Indians and allowing white settlers to claim it. What later became Eastern Oklahoma remained under the control of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, but when Oklahoma Territory was organized out of the newly white-settled part of Western Oklahoma, a new federal court was organized to deal with both Oklahoma and Indian Territories; Parker’s domain shrank accordingly. So it is not very likely that my grandfather saw colorful federal marshals or multiple hangings.

08 February 2011


These photos show the conflict that sometimes occurs between what designers think is best and what people, acting collectively and nearly unconsciously, will redesign if they can. And then there is a surprising resolution to the conflict.

The top photo was taken 27 June, 2009. It shows a sidewalk near the Plaza of Benta Berri in Donostia (San Sebastian), in the Basque Country of Spain. Crossing the sidewalk at a diagonal is a well-defined footpath. I'll explain below why people preferred to walk this way, but the gentleman pictured evidently prefers to walk on the sidewalk; and it's not because he is going to turn to the right. I have another photo showing him turning to the left. I took this photo because I have had a long interest in this kind of collective creativity.

About four months later, the city began to rebuild the plaza, and I was amazed to see them tear up the old sidewalk and begin to lay out a new sidewalk, more or less following the redesign made by the feet of the people. The third photo, just below, shows the completed reconstruction; it was taken this month (February, 2011.)

Why was I amazed? I don't remember seeing or hearing of an example where a designer has allowed a mostly unconscious group of non-professionals to collectively lay out a path.

The reason this collective (the public) redesigned the path was to get it to lead more directly to the local fitness center, or, going in the opposite direction, to Calle Matia, the main shopping street. The clipping on below shows this clearly.

The redesigned path is near the center of the clipping. The gray rectangle in the lower left of the clipping is the building housing the local swimming pool and fitness complex. The new path lines up with the sidewalk, just to the left of the smaller green triangle, leading to the entrance of the building, at the bottom of the clipping. To the left of the fitness center one can see the corner of a large set of concrete playing fields. Going in the other direction, the redesigned sidewalk flows into the sidewalk heading toward the trees of the plaza, and, beyond that, the shops. This clipping was grabbed today, even though the concrete sidewalk was torn up sixteen months ago. Google often has a significant lag in updating their maps, and, particularly their satellite images.

It appears that as people approached the sidewalk, they saw their destination and began walking toward it before they reached the concrete. People like to save steps. The concrete sidewalk was at a right angle to the other sidewalks, and in general, people prefer to turn gradually rather than quickly. They may be inhibited from walking on the grass, but once a few people have pioneered this route, the grass becomes obliterated, and the inhibitions drop away. Depending on the terrain, the shape of the path will be influenced by people's preferences not to step too high, wade through plants, or get wet. Depending on the time of year, the path may stay in the sun or in the shade.

I often observe my mind while walking, and most of the time, it seems to function completely automatically; I don't need to think or make any decisions. But when I am approaching a destination and see it, I feel a kind of pull, not literally of course, but as if some hidden part of me is trying to turn my body toward the goal. Once I've left the orthodox path, I find it more comfortable to walk where others have walked before; if my foot is about to leave the collective path, I feel a little anxiety that is eased by keeping to it. At any time, I could start walking in any direction, but it's easier to follow the impulses that seem to float up from the interior darkness. These are transient experiences, scarcely noticed and immediately forgotten.

People decide how to walk in a partly conscious manner. Part of each decision is made unconsciously, by mental processes that deal with the mechanics of walking, measuring distances and heights, looking out for obstacles, and so forth. The rest of each decision is made consciously, by a liminal consciousness that receives information from the unconscious processes, in the form of feelings, emotions, or the kinesthetic equivalents of images; these are weighed and quickly a decision is made of where to step. By liminal consciousness, I mean consciousness right at the threshold of the unconscious, able to receive the output of the unconscious processes but otherwise ignorant of their natures or even their existence. Because of its liminality, this kind of decision-making is forgotten almost as soon as it happens, unless a person makes a special effort to observe it. The kinesthetic equivalents of images are anticipations of where the feet might go, how balance would be affected, how much the leg would need to be lifted to go a particular way, as well as other concerns of the unconscious processes responsible for moving the body. The feelings, emotions, and kinesthetic images, which constitute the data from the unconscious processes are fleeting, occupying part of the attention for a fraction of a second before being replaced by the next set of data. When a person, walking, is also carrying on an interior monologue (perhaps constructing the narrative of his or her life) the experience of attending to the unconsciously derived data and weighing the possibilities of where to walk, is lost in the background.

The conflict between the professional designer and the public is illustrated in an apocryphal story about Dwight D. Eisenhower, while he was president of Columbia University; he headed Columbia after World War II, before he was elected president of the US in 1952. He was approached by the head of Buildings and Grounds with a vexing problem. The students weren’t respecting the sidewalks, and were instead wearing their own paths in the grass. Couldn't the retired general order them to walk on the sidewalks? Ike, instead, is said to have suggested that they rebuild the sidewalks to follow the paths the students obviously preferred to walk. I always liked this story, because it demonstrated a flexible, pragmatic attitude in Ike, that you don't see in many Republicans today. Alas, there is no evidence for this story. It's an urban legend, one of many such stories, each set at a different university, sometimes with a variation: they built a new campus, but waited a year to construct the sidewalks so they could see what the students tramped in the snow.

There is another legend that the twisted, irrational streets of downtown Boston follow cow paths. In fact, early Boston consisted of scattered farms, and, as people walked from house to house, they avoided obstacles-- ponds, marshes, masses of thorns, trees-- that no longer exist today.

I am happy to see this design (or anti-design) idea applied in my neighborhood. Is it part of a new sensibility that younger designers are cultivating, one that might make our cities more livable?