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Archive for August, 2011

One of my favourite things about the Kindle is being able to buy long essays or short stories in the form of Kindle singles such as The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield, an American author and poet.  I have always wanted to know more about haiku and was able to satisfy my curiosity for just 99 cents.

Hirshfield uses her own poetic skills to write beautifully about the poetry, life and journeys of Matsuo Bashō, who in the seventeenth century, “substantially remade the shape of Japanese literature, by taking a verse form of almost unfathomable brevity and transforming it into a near-weightless, durable instrument for exploring a single moment’s precise perception and resinous depths.”

Bashō taught his students “that if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you” and used this philosophy to master image-based poems of seventeen sound units, written in lines of five, seven, and then five units each.

They combine the concepts of  sabi which is “to feel keenly one’s own sharp and particular existence amid its own impermanence” and wabi, which is to appreciate the beauty of the most ordinary circumstances and objects.

Two of my favourite haikus in the book:

spring leaving –

birds cry,

fishes’ eyes filled with tears

yukuharu ya tori naki uo no me wa namida

a hangover ?

who cares,

while there are blossoms

futsukayoi monokawa hana no aru aida

Hirshfield shows that the form has been brought bang up to date in the 21st century with more than 19,000 haiku about Spam, “Spamku”, being posted online.

She provides proof that “even the briefest form of poetry can have a wing-span of immeasurable breadth.”

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Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweet spots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouser legs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Out of all the books I have read that are set in New York, Colum McCann has done the best job in capturing the everyday energy of the city.

The passage above truly describes the constant noise that accompanies that energy, so it was very eerie when the city fell silent while waiting for Hurricane Irene. Unlike Vermont and the Catskills, Manhattan was lucky enough to escape without serious damage and the precautions, some of which are seen in these photos, proved unnecessary.

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The Atlantic’s In Focus has a selection of more professional images from Hurricane Irene and its aftermath.

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After feeling the tremors from the Virginia earthquake on Tuesday, New York is now preparing for Hurricane Irene – I never had this kind of weather in England.

NASA’s footage from  International Space Station, 230 miles above the Earth, captures Hurricane Irene over the Bahamas at 3:10 p.m. EDT on August 24, 2011.

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus says Irene may be similar to the 1821 Norfolk and Long Island hurricane, the only hurricane in modern times to directly make landfall in the five boroughs.:

This time around could be worse. Astronomically speaking, we are nearing the new moon, and the time of the month when the highest tides usually occur. What’s more, Irene is currently forecast to affect the New York City area within an hour or so of high tide, the combination of which could add an additional six feet to the already incredible storm surge that Irene will bring. (MarketWatch)

The Book Bench has a selection of great writers describing hurricanes, which includes these lines from Rimbaud’s poem The Drunken Boat:

Now I, a boat lost in the hair of bays,
Hurled by the hurricane through bird-less ether,
I, whose carcass, sodden with salt-sea water,
No Monitor or Hanseatic vessel could recover:

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This is dedicated to my nephew who did fantastically well in his GCSE exams and now has to decide what to do with the next stage of his life. I can’t think of a better advisor than Steve Jobs, who stepped down as chief executive of Apple this week, and his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005:

“I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots. I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out? It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple.

I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example: Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss. I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down – that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley.

But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together. I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.

I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

My third story is about death. When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes. I lived with that diagnosis all day.

Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now. This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there.

And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. Thank you all very much.”

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I don’t expect to be introduced to new poetry when flicking through channels on my TV but that is what happened this weekend. I caught the end of In Her Shoes and it included a moving recital of I Carry Your Heart With Me by E E Cummings – I cried even though I hadn’t seen the beginning of the film.

So now, not only am I going to have to read more poems by E E Cummings, but I am also going to read Jennifer Weiner’s novel on which the film was based.

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Last week I wrote about Tariq Jahan, who managed to speak with dignity and compassion after his son was killed in the UK riots, and this week 20,000 people attended a prayer event before the  funeral:

” Atif Iqbal, from the multi-faith group United Birmingham, said the number of people turning out to show their respects on Thursday would be testimony to the men’s honour.

“Tariq Jahan has become an inspiration for all of us because he really at that moment in time showed the best of humanity,” he said.

“He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t shouting, no bitterness, he was a calming, reassuring voice and single-handedly, there’s no doubt about it, he brought peace and calm to the streets not only of Winson Green and Birmingham, but he had a profound impact nationally as well.” (BBC)

– Christopher Hitchens offers his unique take on the riots : Britons have been violent and cruel for generations (Slate) ;

– more cheerfully the last ten years have seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (Foreign Policy) ;

– which is good as although the human race took about one million years to reach one billion people (around the year 1800), we have been adding successive billions every 10-20 years since 1960 (Project Syndicate) ;

– in an ever-changing world “retweet’,  “sexting” and “cyberbullying” enter the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (The Daily Telegraph) ;

Have a good weekend.

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On a timely basis, I have just finished reading Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself, a collection pulled together from the great man’s letters, notebooks, taped conversations, prison diaries, calendars, and an unfinished autobiography.

A few on my favourite quotes:

“Those Greek plays are really worth reading. It’s like the classics, you know, the works of Tolstoy and so on, because after reading … that literature, you always come out  … feeling very elevated and your sensitivities to … fellow beings having been deepened. It is one of the greatest experiences you can have” (page 113);

“Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliations, and even defeat” (page 175);

“The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, off course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. ” (page 211);

“Through peace you will be able to convert, you see, the most determined people, the most committed to the question of violence, and that is the method we should follow.” (page 238)

“Compromise is the art of leadership and you compromise with your adversary and not your friend ….In every dispute you eventually reach a point whether neither party is altogether right or altogether wrong. When compromise is the only alternative for those who seriously want piece and stability.”

(Thank you Anna for a perfect birthday present)

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