A Gentle Tree

My well of inspiration for post topics has run dry today so I am going to emulate a friend and write about trees.

My favourite tree is the Kowhai, especially the sub species with very fine leaves (Sophora microphylla). To me the kowhai is a gentle tree, welcoming spring with a spectacular burst of bright yellow flowers for the tuis and bellbirds to feast upon. Then once clothed in its summer leaves woodpigeons love to munch upon the new leaf shoots, teetering their bulk on fine branches.

At each of the two houses we have owned I planted kowhai trees. The best seedlings came from an old chap in Owaka who raised seedlings from his son’s farm in the Catlins and sold them for a song. These were hardy plants, well suited to a coastal climate but slow growing. I also managed to grow some from seeds, first soaking the seeds for a week in water to get the hard outer shell of crack open.

The seeds of kowhai are actually poisonous, containing a compound which mimics the effect of nicotine and in amounts sufficient to make a person quite ill. However, the seed coat is so tough that it resists degradation in the human digestive system so fortunately actual poisonings are quite rare as only the green seeds are soft enough for a person to chew and release the toxin. It seems a little incongruous that a tree I view as being ‘gentle’ would have poisonous seeds, but perhaps it is just as well for it to have some defence against opossums.

Another interesting thing about kowhai trees is that they are legumes. They have nodules on their roots containing bacteria which can fix nitrogen from the soil, making it available for the tree to use. This enables kowhai trees to grow in low quality soils such as sandy, gravelly areas with less organic material in the soil.

I’m not sure exactly why I consider kowhai trees to be gentle, it may be due to the softness of the leaves and it’s wiry delicate shape when young. But to me even mature old kowhai trees have a gentle dignity about them. They are not one of the mighty giants of the New Zealand forest, but they provide food for some of my favourite birds and have some of the most spectacular flowers of all our trees. There is a kowhai beside the bus shelter where I catch my morning bus to work and in the spring it leaves a carpet of fallen yellow flowers, making a great contrast of yellow softness against the black harshness of the asphalt footpath.

Always an idea

I read to discover meaning.

Obviously there is meaning in the words I read. But there is much more than that. I keep reading to experience the jolt of realisation when something finally clicks.

It’s this jarring shock which keeps me searching, drives me to read more.

I read to not understand.

The emotional impact of a poem that baffles me.

Reading is an exploration of the human condition, seeking the edges, searching for the core. Pursuing a phrase that smacks me out of the mundane into profundity. It is a drug, an elusive hit hidden within text. When I find it tectonic shifts of insight occur, a tsunami washes away the dross of trivia.

The effect can last for hours, days, weeks even. Then the search continues for another hit, never knowing where it might be found; a web article, a book, a poem, graffiti in the street. I can’t describe what it might look like, could be a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter.

Always it is an idea.

A hot day but a storm is coming

Today reached a high of 34°C in Dunedin and even now at 10:30pm it is still 26°. But that’s due to change in about an hour when a deep low left over from tropical cyclone Fehi hits with lots of rain and a southerly change. We are not likely to see much of it, but there is also a lunar eclipse tonight.

On Holiday

No blog posts this week while I’m away on holiday with only an iPhone to connect to the internet. I will resume posting next Monday (29 January).

Am I actually going to read this?

The start of the year is a good time to ‘clear the decks’ and cleanup excess stuff cluttering my shelves, home, workspace and mind. I began by reducing my clippings of websites/articles stored in Evernote from 6500 notes down to 3800. I still have some work to do to prune it right down to only the essential reference material I need to keep.

Starting back at work today I was confronted with an overflowing tray of paper that needs sorting, junk on my computer desktop, and a very full downloads folder. A common theme of all this stuff I have accumulated is that at the time of saving it I had some intention of reading it. Unfortunately I don’t have time to read everything.

I love information, it fascinates me to learn new facts, ideas or tips on how to do something better. When I was a kid the primary source of information was from books. I lived in a small country town with a small public library and few shops selling books. In this setting it was achievable to have read all the books available that interested me, and I did just that. It was possible to know the limits of the information available in my small world.

Now it is not possible to know the limits of information available to me with an internet connection. Yet I still have an information scarcity mindset. This belief causes me to hold on to sources of information despite understanding that by the time I get around to reading it that information is likely to be outdated. This is a costly mistake.

The thousands of pdfs stored on my computer are not only taking up bytes, they take up mental space and each causes a mild stress by being unread.

An Information Flood

Information is no longer scarce, we are flooded by it. In a flood the problem in not getting enough water, the real problem is keeping excess water out. Added to having too much water is the issue of it being dirty. There is water pouring in all over the place but it is so contaminated with filth that it is unusable, even hazardous. This is the situation we are now in with information.

Social media channels are like sewers, plenty of content running through them but little of true use to us. If I jump into the Twitter or Facebook feed I’m carried along in the torrent but all it does is waste my time. News websites are not much better, actual news stories are so similar to click bait that it can be tricky differentiating the two.

Search engines such as Google or Bing are not reliable conduits of clean information. They are like using the same bucket for bailing out flood water and collecting drinking water, cross contamination is constantly occurring.

Filters

To avoid the negative effects of misinformation we need to filter our sources. A clean stream can easily be muddied so I have to consciously filter all incoming sources, picking out what is helpful and leaving behind the trash. I do seek out good curators but what is considered useful to that person may not be relevant to me.

The ability to efficiently filter information, both from the flood and also from reliable sources, requires training. Fortunately my work and education have trained me reasonably well. Perhaps this is going to be the primary benefit of having a degree, learning how to identify reliable sources and developing critical thinking skills to discern what is most true.

In our society the scientific method and peer-review are held to be the best information filters. Working at a university I have ready access to such information but even that can go stale and outdated if stored too long.

Storage

Books used to be a great way to store and retrieve information, in some cases they still are. These days so much new information is being generated and it changes so fast that storing information is hardly with the trouble. Assuming I have internet access, all I need is the information required to go about my daily life and work. Holding on to more than that comes at a cost and it will be quickly outdated so unless what I need is historical records there is no point keeping old stuff. The obvious exceptions are photographs and family records.

So back to my original problem, I am flooded with information, I don’t need more and don’t need to keep it all. If I need to know something I can easily look it up. The cost of keeping what I’m not actively using is higher than the small effort required to find anything I want to know.

Rest in the Sun

What most of us need these days is a chance to ‘dry out’, an opportunity to escape the flood and catch our breath. This is related to my goal of reading books rather than blogs this year. I want to stem the tide of incoming information and clear out all the stuff I’m not able to keep up with. This should enable my mind to quieten down, think more clearly and create.

Inspired

appreciating-art

I took my youngest two children to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery this afternoon and as on other times I’ve been there, wondered why I don’t go more often. The kids enjoyed it, spontaneously posing in a ‘life imitates art’ posture in front of one picture.

imitating-art

I’m finding that as I grow older my appreciation of art is becoming more liberal so found myself understanding the work of contemporary artists more than I have in the past.

Gordon Walters: New Vision

There was a major exhibition of the work of Gordon Walters (1919 – 1995) showing how his art developed over time and some of the influences which shaped his work. I found this exploration of how an artist’s work developed fascinating, especially his notes on works in progress.

art-notebook

What inspired me about this is how Walters was able to take very simple forms and create beautiful works of art. On the surface it looks simple and mathematical but seeing the complexity of his notes shows a fascinating depth of thought going into each painting. This inspires me to also create, to somehow take the complexity of life and communicate this through simple forms.

On Bullshit

I just wasted about 15 minutes reading an essay by Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit. Why? I followed a link from Venkatesh Rao’s ‘Reading Now’ page out of curiosity. I have included a link to a PDF of the essay below, if you really want to read it I recommend looking at the last two pages first as they sum up what to me seems a tenuous argument.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. (One sentence I found worth quoting from On Bullshit)

What is more interesting is the page on the Faversham Stoa philosophy discussion group’s site about the topic of bullshit. From there I followed a link to an article in Slate magazine at the bottom of which was a few paragraphs about how much bullshit was emanating from the Bush administration.

The Bush administration is clearly more bullshit-heavy than its predecessors.

In the shadow of Trump that comment seems quaint.


Pencils

I have an odd obsession; pencils.
Don’t laugh, I’m serious, there is even a podcast that exclusively discusses pencils.

Obviously I’ve used bog standard pencils for years, generally without giving them much thought aside from noting which ones pissed me off when the leads broke in sharpeners, the wood split or they were gritty and scratchy when writing. Since finishing school my use of pencils diminished in favour of pens, especially as my use of handwriting moved from the presentation of finished work to being used for writing rough drafts that would end up typed into a computer.

With the superior presentation facilitated by computers and laser printers, handwriting for me has become something that generally only I see and a thinking tool for getting ideas onto paper away from screens and gadgets. These days my handwriting no longer needs to be neat or free from cross-outs, meaning that pen is as convenient as any other writing tool. Pens don’t need to be sharpened and the tips don’t break as do pencil leads.

However, with my change of occupation back to being a lab technician after over ten years in office environments, I’m finding pencils are more versatile, being easier to manipulate with gloves on and quicker to use for brief notes. Pencils work instantly and write on surfaces that ballpoint pens don’t, such as damp or frozen labels, thermal paper, and electrophoresis strips. Obviously pencils are also erasable and in my job we often use paper checklists and need to erase the previous set of check marks so pencil is the only option there. Somehow the simplicity and disposability of a wooden pencil seems more appropriate in an environment where we have concerns and regulations about chemical and biological contamination.

Beyond the lab I am enjoying using pencils again for general note taking and writing tasks such as drafting blog posts. I prefer to write my drafts by hand and with pen the result is a lot of cross outs as I correct my spelling or think of a better way to phrase something. With pencil I can rub out the mistakes and end up with a cleaner draft that is easier to follow as I type it into WordPress.

A major contributor to my new enjoyment in using pencils is the discovery of better quality pencils. I used to think that pencils came in two categories, those that were OK and the crappy ones with spilt wood and fragile, scratchy leads. Through listening to Tim, Johnny and Andy on the Erasable Podcast I learned about the iconic Palomino Blackwing 602 so ordered a couple online and was amazed at how nice they are to write with compared to the Staedtler Tradition pencils I’m accustomed to using. There is a real difference between el cheapo pencils and quality pencils.

My next step down the rabbit hole of pencil geekery was to order an assortment of pencils from what may be the only retail shop in the world that specialises in pencils and related accessories, CW Pencil Enterprise. I’m still in the process of trying those out so will reserve judgement until I’ve used them enough to determine which are my favourites.

(I wrote this over a year ago but never published it until now. At least this enables me to say confidently that my all round favourite pencil is the Swiss Wood, it is smooth to write with and holds its point really well. The main drawback is the price at about NZ$7 each by the time you get it shipped from the UK or US.)


Some interesting links:

Worthless pursuits

Looking at phone

I’ve been thinking about ‘internet idolatry’ lately and when I read Proverbs 28:19 it was so relevant that I decided to memorize it.

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
(Proverbs 28:19)

Obviously I do not consider all internet use to be a worthless pursuit or this blog would not exist! What is wasting time for me could be part of your job, the mass of information out there is not generally the problem, the real issue is how we interact with that internet content. Most of us know only too well the ways in which our use of the internet can amount to a complete waste of time.

So, is your use of the internet using up time that you should be using for other things? This could be more productive use of study time, or at school, or at work or even your personal time. I would also expand the ‘productive use of time’ to include the work of walking faithfully in Christ — the ‘plenty of poverty‘ of Proverbs 28:19 need not be restricted to a lack of money, as indicated in Mark 8:36-37 and Revelation 3:17 we can have lots of stuff in this world yet have an impoverished soul and a tenuous relationship with Christ.

It is easy enough to stay off YouTube and Facebook at work when your paycheck depends upon it, what about at home when it would be better for your soul to be reading your Bible or (heaven forbid!) praying? Or the time I spend catching up on blog feeds and email when my wife and children would like to relate to me rather than the lid of my laptop?

We reap what we sow, if we follow worthless pursuits we will reap rottenness; if we work on the health of our souls in Christ we will reap eternal life (Proverbs 28:19 and Galatians 6:7-8).

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
(Galatians 6:7-8 ESV)

Are there any worthless pursuits (internet-based or otherwise) in your life that you should replace with something of more lasting benefit?

(This is an edited repost from my old blog)