Big Think Interview With Edward Hirsch
Edward Hirsch's first collection of poems, "For the Sleepwalkers," was published in 1981 and went on to receive the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award from New York University. His second collection, Wild Gratitude (1986), received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Since then, he has published several books of poems, including "Special Orders" (2008) and "Lay Back the Darkness" (2003). His latest book, "The Living Fire" (2010), his first retrospective collection, selects from each of his seven previous collections, published between 1981 and 2008.
He has been a professor of English at Wayne State University and the University of Houston. Hirsch is currently the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Question: What was the first thing you read that made you want to become a poet?
Edward Hirsch: When I was eight years old my grandfather died and I knew that he had written poetry because I used to see him writing poetry in his books and I was very close to him. And after he died I went down to the basement of my family house where my family kept books, anthologies and things and there was an anthology without any names attached to it and I read a poem called Spellbound and I somehow attached it to my grandfather’s death and I thought my grandfather had written it. In fact, I was sure he had written it and it was a great consolation to me and something planted in my mind that you could write poetry, that you could read poetry, that poetry could somehow console you. I didn’t sit down then and start writing poems, but it was in the back of my mind.
Now, when I was in high school I was leafing through an anthology that our teachers had given up and I found a poem, I go, “That’s so strange. This poem looks so much like my grandfather’s poem.” Then I found another one, grandpa’s poem. It turned out it had been written by Emily Brontë and it wasn’t my grandfather’s poem at all, although my response to it, I think, was pretty much the same, I just had the author wrong. But, that was the beginning, though I didn’t start writing until I was in high school and when I was in high school I really began to write poetry with great energy and enthusiasm.
Question: When did you begin showing people your poems?
Edward Hirsch: When I was in high school I used to show them to my sister and I thought everything I wrote was so great and my poor sister who is a year younger than I am couldn’t understand them at all. But, she was enthusiastic about my writing them. When I was a freshman in college I went to Grinnell College in Iowa. I brought my poems to my freshman humanities teacher whose name was Carol Parsinan, a wonderful teacher. And Carol did a really great thing for me. She taught me more than anyone. She somehow read my poems and came back to me and convinced me that I could be a poet, that I had the passion and the enthusiasm and the creativity to become a poet, but that what I was writing was not poetry because I was just expressing my feelings and I wasn’t try to make anything.
The oldest word for poetry in Greek is “poesis,” which means making. A poet is a maker and a poem is a made thing. And Carol somehow convinced me that I could become a poet but that I was not writing poetry and that I would have to try and make something to write poetry. I started then to try and shape something rather than just express it and when I started to shape something and to imitate other poems that were written by other people, when I had tried to integrate my reading and my writing I was on my path. I guess that would have been 1968. I was a freshman in college and I wasn’t writing good poems, but I was at least trying to write poems then.
Question: What is the best way to learn how to write poetry?
Edward Hirsch: There's been no poet, no great poet in the history of poetry who hasn’t also been a great reader of poetry. This is sometimes distressing to my students when I tell them this. Now, I do say, “It’s possible. You might be the first. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the odds are very much against you.” All great poets have been great readers and the way to learn your craft in poetry is by reading other poetry and by letting it guide you.
A great model for this is the way that Dante calls on Virgil at the beginning of The Inferno, The Divine Comedy, to help guide him through the underworld. And, in a way, that’s also a recognition that Dante needs Virgil and that the Inferno needs the Aeneid and that the epic needs a model and that for Dante to write this great poem he needs someone to come before him and he turns to Virgil’s text, especially book six where Aeneas goes down into the underworld. And for me, that’s a model of the poet’s relationship to previous poetry, to another poetry as calling out for guidance.
Question: Which poet stands out as your model?
Edward Hirsch: There are many poets that use as my models. In my first book of poems, I had several for the “Sleepwalkers,” I had several poems that were apprentice poems like this in which I take a walk with a poet who is no longer alive. One of them is I walk with Federico Garcia Lorca around the Upper West Side in Manhattan because that was a neighborhood he lived in and I imagine walking around Paris with Cesar Vallejo, a great Peruvian poet who lived in Paris. And I kind of create the walk as a kind of drama of my apprenticeship.
Now, it is true that I think one of the things that distinguished my work from the beginning when I was in college was my turning towards poetry from other countries. That I didn’t ever consider poetry the province exclusively of English and American literature and I discovered a great amount in reading Polish poetry and other Eastern European poetry and reading Russian poetry and reading Latin American and Spanish poetry and I’ve always found models in those other poetries of poets who could help me on my path.
Question: How did your childhood shape your poetry?
Edward Hirsch: I think it shapes it in very deep ways that you don’t entirely understand. Rainer Maria Rilke said there are two inexhaustible sources for poetry. One is dreams, and the other is childhood. I think childhood is an inexhaustible source of your becoming who you will be and certain deep feelings are set inside of you. A certain construct of emotions that really define who you are and who you will become and I feel very much that my childhood is very alive inside of me, very close to me, very much part of me. And it’s a sometimes painful, sometimes joyous inexhaustible resource for poetry. And a lot of poetry is putting yourself back into the state of wonder that you have before things when you’re a child. It’s not only a joyous wonder, it’s sometimes a grief stricken wonder.
I have the idea that lyric poetry is a poetry that’s driven by a sense of the presence of death. That there's something unbearable about the fact that we’re going to die and that we can’t stand it and I think you find that out in childhood and you don’t really - at least I found it out in childhood and I found it hard to get over and now I’m 60 years old and I still find it hard to get over. And I think it’s one of the things that drive lyric poetry, our sense of mortality. Our sense that things are transient, that everything is passing and then if you want to save something from the endless flux of experience and the world’s movement, you have to set down a stake and try and make something that will last.
Question: What is your process for creating a poem?
Edward Hirsch: I think it’s changed over time. I mean, when I was young I could write all through the night and I loved to work late into the night. Now that I’m older I work really well in the early morning when your synapses are firing a little better. But I work at different times of the day. I don’t have a set schedule to work on poetry at any given time, at the same time every day, but I do try to work on poetry every day and I do find some time every day that I can with some exceptions to work on poetry. But, the best times I have found, in my life, are late at night or early in the morning and I think it’s because you’re outside the social realm. You're alone with yourself and your own feelings and that gives you deeper access to what you need to get in touch with to write poetry.
Now, the process of writing poetry is very messy. Not systematic, never quite the same. Sometimes I have a feeling that I just can’t get rid of. Sometimes there’s an experience that I want to write about that I have to get off my chest. Sometimes there are some words that appeal to you. Often you’ve read another poem that you think is so beautiful that you’d like to make something like that. And so you try to make a sonnet that works in a certain kind of way, or you try to make something that’s songlike, or you create a refrain, or you love the way a poem works in two line stanzas and you try to do that. And what I’ve found over time is that for me to write a poem that I think is worthy that I can live with, two things have to happen. One, something emotional has to be at stake. There has to be something important for me that I’m writing about. And then two, I have to have a formal idea. Something has to be being worked out in poetry. Now, that can be a traditional form or it can be something you're inventing. It can be the development of a metaphor, the working through of a metaphor. But, something has to be worked through formally as well as emotionally. Now, when those two things come together I’ve got something, I think, that I can be proud of.
Question: When do you think about the titles of poems?
Edward Hirsch: Sometimes the title comes to you at the beginning, sometimes it comes at the end. The very best way in my experience is when it comes in the middle. That you write a phrase or you think of something and it seems to have a deeper charge because the title has to be some kind of marker, something setting out a space, creating a space for what's going to come. And my experience is the best titles, for me, emerge in the process of writing. They don’t usually come at the very beginning and hopefully they don’t come at the very end because then it’s getting late in the day.
Now, sometimes I change the title. I was surprised recently to find a book called “Poetry in Persons” that’s coming out about visit to poets to a class that Pearl London gave. And when my second book had come out, “Wild Gratitude,” I went to Pearl London’s class and she worked through different drafts of poems and there were the drafts of my poem, Wild Gratitude, and I saw that I had begun the poem with the title August 13th. And it was the title August 13th for most of the way and then near the end, sometime in the process, I got the idea that maybe that would be a somewhat bland title and I got the idea for wild gratitude, which I’m very proud of as a title. So, I think it works best when you find it in the process.
Question: Does it take a certain wealth of experience to write a poem, or is it more effort and practice?
Edward Hirsch: Well, I would say there are different kinds of poems. There are things that poets in the history of poetry hit upon when they're very young that can never be outdone and it’s a remarkable, strange experience when you think of say Arthur Rimbaud who write poetry between the ages of 17 and 21 whose career was over by the time he was 22. Or John Keats who notoriously died in his 20’s and yet had packed a wealth of experience into his poems before then.
Scholars of the Hebrew bible define something they call wisdom literature and I would say clearly the poetry of wisdom is something that comes with age or that might come with age which has to do with reflecting on experience. And a certain kind of poetry looks back at experience from an older perspective. It’s hard to think that say Shakespeare could have written “The Tempest” when he was young. It seems to be reflective work or retrospective work.
At the same time there's the brilliant audacity of youth that poets strike upon in their earliest work sometimes that they never can hit upon again. And sometimes you look at the first poems by someone and you go, “They have freshness and a sense of wonder that is never recaptured again by that poet.” So, I think there are different kinds of poetry for different stages of life and there's the wild, exuberance of youth, there's the painful agony of midlife experience, there's the late poetry in the presence of death and I think what you hope for is that at different times of your life you’re able to write the poetry that reflects the moment that you’re in on your own journey.
Question: What is your revision process like?
Edward Hirsch: I was once doing a question and answer period with the novelist Jane Smiley in a bookstore and someone asked us what our processes were and Jane said hers and then I said mine and Jane said, “Well, if I had a student like that I’d force him never to write like that again because you could never write a novel in the way that you write poetry,” which is: I wish I wrote drafts and then revised them, but I don’t. What I do is I seem to revise as I go. And so, I write a line and then I revise the line and then I write two lines and then I revise lines one and two and then I write one, two and three and I revise one and two and then I write seven and eight and then I see that should be line four and I continually work it over as I go. So, it’s a continual process of trial and error and then I find things and I throw it out and start again, but I keep writing it over again.
So, the result though is by the time I’ve got something, it’s been worked over so many times that although I do make changes as the end, often by the time I’ve gotten it, it’s pretty much completed. Now, that can take two days, it can take three weeks, it can take four months depending on how the process is going. Now, as I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to write more quickly. Sometimes I get in the space of something and I can do a lot in a day.
The mysterious thing about writing poetry is that when you're - when things are going poorly, when you're not thinking well, even making two sentences together is extremely hard and I just can’t make the connections. And when I’m writing well and when I’m inside the feeling, then I can do fairly complicated things with some fluency. So, some of the most difficult formal poems that I’ve written, say one sentence sonnets, I’ve been able to do those fairly quickly whereas some of the clearest, simplest lyrics that I’ve written have taken me the longest to get to the clarity of feeling that you're looking for.
So, the process of revision, it’s not systematic. But for me, I mean, I know a lot of poets who write out a draft and then revise it and I think they're happier people. But, I’m just not able to do it that way. I need to just continually examine it as I do it.
Question: In this age of digital media and short attention spans, what is the future of poetry for young people?
Edward Hirsch: The attention deficit disorder of the culture is very distressing in America now and I think it puts a lot of things at risk, not just poetry. There's never been a culture without poetry in the history of the world. In every culture, in every language there is expressive play, expressive word play, there's language use to different purposes that we would call poetry. So, I think poetry will survive and I don’t think it will be the end of poetry. Our tremendous onslaught of mass media all the time that we’re suffering and we don’t really know how to think about, I think that puts certain things at risk. I don’t think poetry will die, but I think that poetry does demand a certain kind of attention to language. It does demand a certain space in order to read it and I think that space is somewhat threatened by the lack of attention that people have and the amount of time that they give to things.
So, I just think that limits the kinds of experiences that people can have with poetry. But, poetry will survive; I don’t worry about that. But, I do think that it may save fewer souls if people can’t pay attention.
Question: Do MFA programs help or hurt poetry?
Edward Hirsch: I think they can do both things depending on the poet. I think that the dark side of MFA programs is that they're generating more poets than the culture can absorb and there are more people writing poetry than possibly read it or can certainly earn a living around it and so that’s a stress on the system and I think a painful thing for many young poets who are looking to find a life in poetry that they're not going to be able to find.
The very good thing about MFA programs is their democratizing. They bring a lot of different people to the table. It’s not - I mean, in the history of poetry there have been a lot poetries where you have to inherit the position of poet from your ancestors and I think that if you just leave anyone to become a poet based on an aristocratic society, then a lot of people are left out who might have something to offer. And I think the MFA program is a way of bringing a lot of different people to the table and inviting them in. So I think that’s very good.
I would be happier if people who went through MFA programs also were already, by then, deeply committed readers of poetry because we need readers of poetry as much as writers of poetry. And I think in terms of educating a group of readers, MFA programs are very good. I just think the model of MFA programs in which a young poet goes through the program, publishes a series of books, gets teaching jobs, that’s a bit at risk. I think the culture can absorb so many people writing poetry and trying to earn their living in poetry.
Question: What is your advice for an aspiring young poet?
Edward Hirsch: First of all I think that poetry is very noble and I always have with me the sense of the nobility of poetry. And when you are entering into poetry, whatever stage you're at, you are participating in something with a very long and noble tradition. And so, I would keep in mind to a young poet that you are entering into something that is very important, that has always been important in terms of human concerns.
The way to become a poet is to read poetry and to imitate what you read and to read passionately and widely and in as involved a way as you can. It’s not important - it’s not necessary that you read everything. What is necessary is that you care about things that you read and that you find something that really matters to you and you try and make something like that. And I think that as long as you have other poets before you and that you can learn from them, then it’s always open ended for you. There's always some place to go. You don’t need workshops, you don’t need friends necessarily, you can be befriended by literature itself. Emily Dickinson calls previous poets her kinsmen of the shelf. You can always be consoled by your kinsmen of the shelf and you can participate in poetry by going to them and by trying to make something worthy of them. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers.” I would say I write for myself, strangers and the great dead.
Question: For someone who might not be familiar with the genre, what is the best way to read a poem?
Edward Hirsch: Double Take Magazine once printed a little pamphlet in which I listed ten different things that you should do. I can’t remember all of them, but the first one was turn off the television set. I don’t think you can read poetry while you're watching television very well.
The idea of how to read a poem is based on the idea that poetry needs you as a reader. That the experience of poetry, the meaning in poetry is a kind of circuit that takes place between a poet, a poem and a reader and that meaning doesn’t exist or in here in poems alone. That readers bring their own experiences, their own range of - their own wisdom, their own knowledge, their own insights to poem and the meaning of a poem takes place in the negotiation between the poet, the poem and the reader. And that as a reader you have a task to do, you have something to do. You bring your experience to it. It’s not all inherit in the poem.
The great post-Holocaust poet, Paul Celan, said that a poem is a message in a bottle sent out in the not always greatly hopeful belief that somewhere and some time it would wash up on land on heartland perhaps. The idea of a poem as a message in a bottle means that it’s sent out towards some future reader and the reader who opens that bottle becomes the addressee of the literary text. Celan was picking up something that the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had written in 1916 called On the Addressee. And Mandelstam says a poet - you go down to the shore and you see an unlikely looking from a bottle from the past, you open it. Mandelstam says, “It’s okay to do so. I’m not reading someone else’s mail. It was addressed to whoever found it. I found it, therefore it’s addressed to me.” And that when you find it you become the secret addressee of a literary text and I felt that their reader had been left out of this experience of reading poetry or what the experience of poetry was.
And so, my focus is on the reader and that the poet’s job is not to inspire himself or herself. The poet’s job is to inspire some future reader. And so, as a reader you have a task to do in finding those bottles and opening up the messages and experiencing what's in them inside of yourself.
Question: How do you create that connection with your reader?
Edward Hirsch: I think that’s a connection that you can only hope for. It’s not something that you can make because it needs someone else. I find in Walt Whitman and in American tradition a certain kind of, I would say, desperate American friendliness in which the poet tries to reach out through the page to make a connection by the side of the road with some other person. But, ultimately that’s a longing, not a completion, that has to be made by other readers. You can seek clarity, you can seek warmth, you can try to make something for lasting. You can pack something in salt so that it’s well made and you can hope that it outlasts time. But, ultimately that’s not up to you. Ultimately you’re trying to reach across and find some other person, some other human warmth. But it is, especially in written poetry, it is inscribed in a text and the text can’t do that work by itself and you as a poet can only do your best.
Question: Can poets learn from fiction writers?
Edward Hirsch: When I taught at the University of Houston in the Creative Writing program we required the poets to take workshops in fiction writing and we required the fiction writers to take workshops in poetry. And the reason for that is because the fiction writers seemed to need to learn how to pay greater attention to language itself, to the way that language works.
The poets needed to learn to pay greater attention to character and to narrative. That is many poets don’t know how to tell a story and they don’t have a sense of how to put things in order to tell a story and we thought the poets could learn from fiction writers something about developing a character over time who wasn’t just you and also creating a narrative structure. So, I think it’s true that that’s something that poetry can go to school on fiction. I think poetry can go to fiction to learn.
I think the deepest thing is that many fiction writers tell stories but are not elegant writers. But, we’re not writing journalism when we’re making literature. We’re trying to make something that lasts in language and there's no question that many fiction writers began as poets and it’s hard for me to think of any good fiction writers who don’t also read poetry. That fiction writers learn about the development of metaphor, the use of rhythm, the way that language is compacted in order to express the feelings of - express their own feelings and the feelings of their characters. So, I think fiction goes to poetry for the intensity of its use of language.
Question: Have you tried your hand at fiction?
Edward Hirsch: When I was young I did. In fact, when I was young I wrote everything and I thought I would be an all around writer, that I would write everything. When I was in my early 20’s I still had that idea and I wrote an unpublished novel and I wrote a lot of short stories. But what I discovered about myself is that my temperament is so fiery in terms of what I think in literature, that I like so much intensity that too much was happening all the time. It was just like starting with too much adrenaline and you stayed at that adrenaline rush all the time.
Well, it turns out that doesn’t work for fiction. A novel takes place over time. It’s a historical narrative and it needs to have a series of peaks and valleys and the move through. You can’t just start at the highest pitch and stay there, but you can in a lyric poem. And so, I found my temperament is very much drawn to lyric poetry and for the compression of lyric poetry. So, it seems that I have the temperament of a poet, not entirely of a fiction writer.
Question: What words are you looking for as a poet?
Edward Hirsch: There's a debate in the whole history of poetry between the plain style and the golden or ornate style and that poetry is continually in some kind of relationship between these two pulls. Something more baroque and ornate, something more ornamental and something more plainspoken, something simpler. And I feel the tugs of those two traditions in, say, the 17th century or in Spanish baroque poetry or the work of John Donne who I admire very much.
And so, what I would say is I, myself, have a - especially as I’ve gotten older, I long for clarity and I long for the pure, clear word. But, by the drive of the feeling and the intensity of the expression and the thing you're trying to express and make you hope that the words have wings. That is, you're looking for something that will lift off. Now, how to get that lift is, no one knows exactly and there's no recipe for it. If there was, everyone would be writing great poems. Everyone would be going to school with Emily Dickinson and writing those remarkable lyrics of hers or writing Shakespeare sonnets.
But, what you're looking for is a kind of clear language that gets a depth charge that lifts it and gives it wings. So, you hear the phrase, “Brightness falls from the air,” and you know you're in the presence of poetry, that something has happened to the language. The words themselves, brightness falls from the air, are all very clear and very simple, but when they come together in this particular way they’ve got a radiance and a beauty that stands all alone. And I think that what is that, the observation of light, the clarity of the feeling, the sense of wonder the words give you. No one knows exactly, but you're seeking in this combination of words to find something new and fresh that will strike a deeply resonant chord so that when we read Sappho now, it’s as powerful to us as when it was written in Lesbos so many centuries ago.
Question: Special Orders
Edward Hirsch: This is the title poem of my book Special Orders.
Give me back my father walking the halls
of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company
with sawdust clinging to his shoes.
Give me back his tape measure and his keys,
his drafting pencil and his order forms;
give me his daydreams on lined paper. I don’t understand this uncontrollable grief.
Whatever you had that never fit,
whatever else you needed, believe me, my father, who wanted your business,
would squat down at your side
and sketch you a container for it.
Question: What do you want your legacy to be?
Edward Hirsch: Well, the first thing you’d like to be remembered for are for your poems and I’ve spent my life in poetry and I’d like my poems to last and I’d like be remembered for my poetry. And in terms of my legacy, I think everything radiates from that. And so, first of all, you’d like to be remembered as a poet and a poet who tried to bring the deepest feeling to poetry. And I’d like to be remembered as a passionate poet who kept what John Keats calls the holiness of the heart’s affections.
Secondarily, I’d like to be remembered for my advocacy for poetry and my trying to defend poetry in a time when poetry was at risk. And there have always been great defenses of poetry and I’ve tried to write mine and I think all of my work and criticism is a defense of poetry to try and keep something alive in poetry.
And then, as a teacher of poetry, I’d like that to be - I think the teaching of poetry is part of that legacy of trying to carry on the tradition of poetry everywhere in the world and keeping it going.
And then lastly, I think this has spilled over into my work in trying to support the arts, not just poetry, but all of literature and all of the arts, through the Guggenheim Foundation. So, that we’re trying to keep something alive in the culture. We’re trying to keep something going that we don’t want to die that seems important. And so, I’d like to be remembered for that work too.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Edward Hirsch: You have a lot of worries. I think there are the things that keep me up aside from personal things which can always get you and keep you up in terms of your personal life. Are you doing your best? Is this the best work you can do? You’re shadowed by your own dream, especially as you get older, of trying to create something that will last in poetry. And so, you're working on its behalf.
Now, sometimes I’m awake at night brooding about a particular poem. Sometimes I’m awake with something less noble in terms of what happened in the day or in the days. One of the gratifying things for me about this is I’ve always written about insomnia and insomnia has been one of my subjects from the time I was in my 20’s because I've never been a very restful sleeper. And I like the metaphor of insomnia in poetry. That is, someone who’s awake in the middle of the night is a soul consciousness when everyone else is asleep and that creates a feeling of solitude in poetry that I very much like. So, sometimes when I’m awake - well, when I was younger I would just write right then, but now I just remember the feeling and think I can make something out of this, out of this sense of isolation or loneliness or desolation that you get at 4:00 a.m.
Recorded on February 4, 2010
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Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.