A Skin of Mirror

[Video: “Eulerian Video Magnification,” by a team of researchers at MIT. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Keiji, a long-time Zen student, approached his master and said: “I don’t see how there can be any enlightenment that sets you free once and for all. I think we just get ever greater glimpses of Buddha-nature, the vastness that is our true Reality. It’s an ever-expanding process.”

The master replied, “That may be what you think. But what is your experience, your experience right now?”

Keiji was confused, “My experience right now, Master?”

“Yes. Do you know yourself as Keiji, having ever-expanding experiences of Buddha-nature? Or do you know yourself as Buddha-nature, having the experience of Keiji?”



No one has ever seen fish.
Fish secrete highly reflective compounds
That act as a skin of mirror.
It is thought the fishes’ sides
are painted in landscapes,

(Annie Dillard [source])

Not from whiskey river:


As punishment, my father said, the nuns
would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day’s erasers.

Punishment? The pounding symphony
of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm’s length overhead

(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)

was more than remedy, it was reward
for all the hours they’d sat
without a word (except for passing notes)

and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk

baton, the only one who got to talk.
Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,

poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black

chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices

gladly forgot themselves. And that he still
can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn’t spell

this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
who grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.

(Mary Jo Salter [source])


Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.

Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. We make our living by catching electrons at the moment of their excitement by solar photons, swiping the energy released at the instant of each jump and storing it up in intricate loops for ourselves. We violate probability, by our nature. To be able to do this systematically, and in such wild varieties of form, from viruses to whales is extremely unlikely; to have sustained the effort successfully for the several billion years of our existence, without drifting back into randomness, was nearly a mathematical impossibility.

Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Everyone is one in 3 billion at the moment, which describes the odds. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.

(Lewis Thomas [source])


Living in the Body

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

(Joyce Sutphen [source])


About the video: Let’s say you take a video of something which is barely moving, maybe not even moving at all. For instance — to use one example cited by somebody involved with the project — suppose there’s a person, immobile, lying on a ledge on a sheer rock face, or even a building. Without actually being present, can you tell if the person’s breathing?

The researchers who produced this video have developed tools for altering individual pixels to exaggerate minute changes (in an object’s position and/or color) to make it immediately obvious whether something is moving or has changed color at all. The effects are striking, even surreal. The pulsing — writhing — of the veins beneath the surface of someone’s wrist gave me the willies, but thankfully did not go on too long.

(Here’s the site of a paper presented by the research team at the 2012 SIGGRAPH conference, with links to other videos and media coverage.)

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  1. How do you find this stuff? (Yes, I know, it’s all out there on the Net, but… I spend a lot of time online, but I don’t think I turn up a tenth as much stuff as you do. And 95% of the best stuff I find… comes from you!

    The opening video I found riveting (in a slightly uncomfortable way; I think this is straying towards the ‘uncanny valley’!), and I have already shared it with a colleague who is teaching a maths class on ‘measurement’ in the upcoming semester.

    • The video was a lucky last-minute find. I just had an image vaguely related to the “theme” in the post, up until maybe the hour before I posted it. Then I was searching on some phrase or another and turned that thing up. It was too cool not to use.

  2. Annoyed!

    I was just told “That ReCaptcha response was incorrect.” First time ever. And it wasn’t, dammit! It was a very tough one, but their ‘accepted answer’ is obviously wrong.

    • reCaptcha is growing more crotchety with time. It’s gotten a certain amount of tech-world coverage recently for being not all that effective anymore — well, not reCaptcha specifically, but “captchas” in general. The alternatives seem rather clunky to me, and some of them are flatly beyond what I’m willing to invest time in. (People say things like, “I developed a PHP application which can be adapted to a WordPress site without too much trouble — you just have to edit [obscure file critical to the functioning of said site] as follows…” Bleeagh.

  3. But more importantly, why is the Rally Monkey hiding behind the man with the blue snake in his arm?

    (Sorry – very obscure reference for long-time readers of the site, and of the former blog of one of the other long-time readers.)

    • Well, I tried to give her plenty of time to reply for herself. But the former blogger to whom you allude is, I fear, gone for good from the blogging world. (She is, however, reliably active on certain — gasp! — social-networking sites which I know are off your own menu.)

      [Intriguing reCaptcha: Franklin PhDell. Capitalized just like that.]

  4. Sigh. I can’t even tell you how I feel about my body right now. Though I still try to dance from time to time.

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