Weekly Photo Challenge: Up

Chine Temple ceiling Xian (1)Chine Temple ceiling Xian

Looking up at the Temple of the Yellow Emperor’s Tomb

The Mausoleum of Yellow Emperor is the burial site of the legendary Chinese Yellow Emperor, located in Huangling County, Yan’an City, Shaanxi Province, China. The Mausoleum is located on Qiao Mountain, north of Yan’an. in 2010 my wife and I visited the tomb and paid our respect to the Number One ancestor revered by all of China. It was a three-hour trip from Xian, where I was attending a conference. The site is a beautiful and very spiritual place with hundreds of Chinese visiting each day. We were the only westerners there that day. It was a memorable experience.

The photos are of the ceiling of the temple in the park with very ornate traditional decorations.

Very impressive.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Color

Buenos Aires La Boca

La Boca, with its brightly colored houses, is one of the most colorful neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. As the story goes the paint they used for houses were remnants left over from ships in the port of La Boca. Which is the reason for the patchwork of colors. That was over 100 years ago. Today it has been accentuated even further and, as you walk around, it makes for fantastic visual entertainment, like visiting a Peter Max world. The neighborhood is one of over 40 in the city, also known for it world-famous fútbol team, the Boca Juniors. This particular street is El Caminito.

We visited Buenos Aires just before we boarded our cruise ship. We did not know it then but we were about to be surprised. It was in La Boca we were introduced to a very special grape. We were touring for the afternoon, having recently arrived from San Telmo, another famous neighborhood to the north, when our tour guide released us to walk around on our own. We came across a wine store specializing in wines from Salta, a region not as well known for wines as Mendoza, and we were intrigued. Salta is a province of Argentina with a very dry climate. Who would have thought they grew wine grapes? But the proprietor had us try a Torrontés, and we were hooked. It was delicious. It reminded us of a Gewürtztraminer we drank in Barboursville, Virginia from Thomas Jefferson’s vineyards. Very aromatic and mild. Come to later find out this particular Torrontés was made from the Riojano variety of grapes, one the three grown in Argentina. And it was originally brought to the New World from Spain. Which made sense since Spain has many dry regions similar to Salta. The winery was Viñas de Cafayate.

We bought two bottles, smuggled them onto our cruise ship that night and enjoyed them over the next few days. Sure enough, as we cruised around Patagonia, we pursued our newly found grape and asked for Torrontés at every port, never finding one equal to the Salteño we found in La Boca.

We promised to return for more. Maybe even visiting Salta some day…?

Weekly Photo Challenge: a future tense with fiery menace

Weekly Photo Contest: future tense

The volcano Osorno in the south of Chile, although beautiful in its perfect conical shape, holds the implied menace of future fiery eruptions. In 1835 Charles Darwin did see this volcano erupt while traveling aboard the HMS Beagle. Interestingly, as a keen scientific observer classically trained in geology, he foreshadowed the scientific theory of plate tectonics. It took scientists another 100 years to agree with him. The quote below from his book “Voyage of the Beagle” not only showcases his keen eye for observation, but also his striking intellect in the far reaching conclusions he draws from the volcano eruptions all around him. What a mind!

“On January the 15th, 1835 we sailed from Low’s Harbour, and three days afterwards anchored a second time in the bay of S. Carlos in Chiloe. On the night of the 19th the volcano of Osorno was in action. At midnight the sentry observed something like a large star, which gradually increased in size till about three o’clock, when it presented a very magnificent spectacle. By the aid of a glass, dark objects, in constant succession, were seen, in the midst of a great glare of red light, to be thrown up and to fall down. The light was sufficient to cast on the water a long bright reflection. Large masses of molten matter seem very commonly to be cast out of the craters in this part of the Cordillera.

“I was surprised at hearing afterwards that Aconcagua in Chile, 480 miles northwards, was in action on the same night; and still more surprised to hear that the great eruption of Coseguina (2700 miles north of Aconcagua), accompanied by an earthquake felt over 1000 miles, also occurred within six hours of this same time. This coincidence is the more remarkable, as Coseguina had been dormant for twenty-six years: and Aconcagua most rarely shows any signs of action. It is difficult even to conjecture whether this coincidence was accidental, or shows some subterranean connection. If Vesuvius, Etna, and Hecla in Iceland (all three relatively nearer each other than the corresponding points in South America), suddenly burst forth in eruption on the same night, the coincidence would be thought remarkable; but it is far more remarkable in this case, where the three vents fall on the same great mountain-chain, and where the vast plains along the entire eastern coast, and the upraised recent shells along more than 2000 miles on the western coast, show in how equable and connected a manner the elevatory forces have acted.”

Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, pp. 312-313.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Forward

Weekly Photo Challenge: Forward

An imperial shag, a type of cormorant, based in Patagonia’s Beagle Channel, is going home with some seaweed for his nest, his forward movement impeded by a stiff head wind.

During the Voyage of the Beagle journey, Darwin wrote of such sights:

“I do not doubt that every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced when he first breathed in a foreign clime where civilized man had seldom or never trod.”

We encountered these sights on a daily basis as we cruised in Darwin’s wake some years ago. Nature was breathtakingly beautiful.

Intently Tugging

Intently Tugging

Ever seen a tugboat? They are a marvel. Earnest, that’s what they are. I just saw one on the Hudson River, plowing through winter ice, going upriver. It was red with a black rubber nose for a prow, and it was really trucking. I mean, it was going fast. I could tell because it was passing a large barge filled with rocks being ponderously pushed downstream by a much smaller tug, and my red tug made a large wake. Just above Peekskill where the river narrows and there are jagged rocks on the eastern shore. My southbound Metro north train was doing thirty miles per hour so I only had a few seconds to glimpse the passing. It was over in a blink of an eye. I say earnest because, as we came abreast of my fast tug, I saw the control cabin in profile, towering over the deck. It slants forward. I imagine that shape helps keep off the ice and rain on stormy days. That forward slant gave my red tug a mean, ferocious look. An earnest look, as it plowed through the surface ice, intent on getting north. Getting to wherever it was going, trucking no interference. Not from the ice, not from the river. Intent. Intense. Purposeful. Farewell my little red tug.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home
Penguins family Voyage of the Beagle
Penguins cgickes Voyage of the Beagle

Home is a hole in the ground in Isla Magdalena, off Puenta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. There are 70,000 penguin pairs that nest there every summer and they have two chicks each. Mom and dad penguin go back to the same hole on that island to have more chicks every year. There were over 250,000 jackass penguins when we visited in 2009 while following Darwin on his Voyage of the Beagle. We saw what he saw….

Charles Darwin describes the peculiar habits of these southernmost creatures in page 210 of “The Voyage of the Beagle” during his trip to Tierra del Fuego:

“Another day, having placed myself between a penguin (Aptenodytes demersa) and the water, I was much amused by watching its habits. It was a brave bird; and till reaching the sea, it regularly fought and drove me backwards. Nothing less than heavy blows would have stopped him; every inch he gained he firmly kept, standing close before me erect and determined. When thus opposed he continually rolled his head from side to side, in a very odd manner, as if the power of distinct vision lay only in the anterior and basal part of each eye. This bird is commonly called the jackass penguin, from its habit, while on shore, of throwing its head backwards, and making a loud strange noise, very like the braying of an ass; but while at sea, and undisturbed, its note is very deep and solemn, and is often heard in the night-time. In diving, its little wings are used as fins; but on the land, as front legs. When crawling, it may be said on four legs, through the tussocks or on the side of a grassy cliff, it moves so very quickly that it might easily be mistaken for a quadruped. When at sea and fishing, it comes to the surface for the purpose of breathing with such a spring, and dives again so instantaneously, that I defy any one at first sight to be sure that it was not a fish leaping for sport.”

I tried the same trick and, wouldn’t you know it, the little guy fought me off! Whenever i tried to cut a penguin off from reaching the sea, he got around me. He would not be denied from the sea, his home and source of food and refuge.

Weaving The Fabric Of Innovation

In 2007 I attended a conference in Xian, China where I presented a paper on innovation. The paper touched on the theme of Prometheus as an exemplar of the Western innovator. I also made the observation that innovators show up in all societies and throughout all ages and we should look to all exemplars for guidance. One such exemplar innovator revered in China, I pointed out, is the Yellow Emperor. I knew I was geographically close to the ancient tomb of this Chinese innovator and I was determined to visit .

Xian Yellow Emperor Tile
That part of China is pregnant with history. It is quite different from the southeastern coast, with seafaring cities such as Hong Kong, which I had visited quite often. Xian’s climate is drier and the food is based on wheat, not rice. The cuisine is more like the middle east than South East Asia, which is more familiar to Americans. That came as a big surprise to me, since as a naïve westerner I kept asking for rice dishes only to be brought noodle-based food. I was in China, after all and I was looking for “Chinese” food! Xian is the ancient capital of the Chinese empire from where Kublai Kahn ruled. It was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, so richly described by Marco Polo. I enjoyed the city very much, but it held a mystery for me. And when I had my chance to explore it, I seized it.

Xian is several hours away from a very special place in China: the city of Yan’an. It is the site of the pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Chinese each year. Just as the middle east has its Mecca, China has the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Saanxi province. Chinese flock there by the thousands on pilgrimages to honor their most revered ancestor: Huangdi. It is a requirement even for Chinese leaders to make the pilgrimage. And the walk up the mountain must be made on foot, in the ancient tradition of humility before one’s illustrious ancestor. Even Mao did it (even though the communists excoriated the emperor). So I felt compelled to visit. It turned out to be an eye opener, and pregnant with a personal epiphany.

I was the only foreigner there that day. The overwhelming majority of pilgrims I encountered had never seen a non-Chinese person. They constantly kept coming up to me, right up to my face, to examine what I looked like. I was the different one. Literally, up to my face, and stared. The tomb turned out to be a grassed-over mound of earth on top of a mountain in an ancient cypress forest. Very beautiful and very peaceful.

The Yellow Emperor is a mythical figure that bequeathed to the Chinese people many technological advances. Huagdi ruled over China more than 4,500 years ago and he is credited with inventing the cart, astronomy, a calendar, musical instruments, and much more. He caused the Chinese writing system to be created. His wife is credited with inventing silk farming and the weaving of silk cloth.

The celebration of the master as the focal point of society’s advance is a classic focus of eastern philosophy. The Confucian approach of insisting on a master-student relationship in learning and creativity, and a reverence for one’s elders works well for eastern societies. But in America we have chosen a different path. “All men are created equal”, the Jeffersonian ideal, commits us to celebrate everyone as capable of contributing, in small and in big ways, to innovation, to creating the next in our society. The celebration of the self-made man, following in the footsteps of Franklin and fulfilling the Jacksonian ideal, runs deep in our society. The entrepreneurs of today, crafting startups by the millions, are the direct inheritors of that creative thrust that started our country.

The economy of America is a made up of economic needs as the warp and technology as the weft woven by innovative threads laid down by many people, not just one. We celebrate the appearance of the American innovative genius, not as a singularity, but as a plurality. All Americans have an innovative mind and it appears in numerous places and in numerous ways through numerous individuals. There may not be one place in America to make pilgrimage to celebrate that innovative genius, since there would probably be thousands, but it should be celebrated never the less.

Brian Arthur, in his The Nature of Technology, points out that the economy of a nation and its technology are inextricably interwoven. That as economic needs appear, they push individuals to create new technologies to meet those needs, and the new technologies are in turn absorbed into the economy, changing everything, driving the need to create even newer technologies. What we see unfolding through the historical record is a rich tapestry of creation being woven by the weft of economic needs and the woof of technological response.

We know innovation appears roughly in two forms, incremental and radical. Incremental innovation is like walking up steps, small changes to existing technology to improve it, to perfect it. Radical innovation, on the other hand, is like jumping a fence. Once it appears we find ourselves on the other side, a new side. And then the incremental changes begin, the perfecting of the original radical idea.

As we weave a tapestry of our culture, our economy, our communal life and history, the sectors of economic activity, our various needs as a people, (energy, agriculture, communication, finance) become the weft threads. As radically new technology threads appear, driven by the shuttle of an individual mind (the radical innovator with a radical new idea), it makes it way across as the woof, a thread of an idea, touching and combining itself and changing the weft and creating a new pattern.

As the loom holds the warp threads under tension it facilitates the interweaving of the weft threads. A shuttle is a tool designed to neatly and compactly store and carry the thread across the loom weft yarn while weaving. So it is with the economy, technology and the innovator: weft, woof and shuttle. In America we have a rich tapestry of innovation being constantly woven by many innovation shuttles.

shuttle and loom images
There has been much published lately on the lone inventor as a myth. And indeed that is true in that innovators mostly don’t live and work in a vacuum. They are often supported, goaded and influenced by a community of workers in the field, and they stand on the shoulder of giants that went before them clearing a path. But in the end it is the mind one individual that carries the innovative day. It is the one who writes down the idea, has the vision and carries it out with single-minded purpose. Others contribute, they sometimes co-create, and other times goad the inventor to reshape the invention and perfect it. It often falls to these colleagues to do the science or the engineering to make the breakthrough idea a reality. In the end it is one person + one idea= innovation.

Arthur has observed, I believe correctly, that it is the individual that makes the breakthrough in technology. For every radical innovation, or any type of innovation for that matter, there is a lead thinker. Inheritor of the work of others, working in a community of workers who contribute, but in the end, making the breakthrough individually.

Take the breakthrough in government that became the hallmark of America: a representative republic. It was for its time a new technology, as Brian Arthur defines technology. It is true that it was a community of founding fathers that created this nation. But the declaration of independence, as the founding idea of “all men are created equal” was Jefferson’s. And our unique form of government, embodied in the constitution, a great technological advance in government, was Madison’s. Yes, many contributed to the final documents, and they were the inheritors of Enlightenment thinkers, but the thought leaders, the shuttles carrying the new threads, were Jefferson and Madison.

The thought leader does not have to be the initiator. In other words, they don’t necessarily have to create the technology itself, but they are the visionary who have and keep the vision for what could be and relentlessly drive its manifestation.

Take all the Apple products that appeared in its entire history, from garage to economic giant. The Apple II, the Mac, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, even Pixar, that’s quite a few wefts. It was Steve Job’s vision. Jobs could not have created any of the technology himself, but the technology would not have been created without his monomaniacal vision for what it was to be. The same with the Xerox copier. It was only the perseverance of Chester Carlson to see his invention of the xerography process, which he patented in 1930, converted into a practical machine that caused it to eventually happen. It took thirty years of work and over thirty chemists to bring the first Xerox machine to the market in 1971.

The same could be said of William Shockley, who is credited with the invention of the transistor. Yes, he had two co-workers Brattain and Bardeen, who rightly so shared with him the Nobel prize for the discovery, and a labfull of scientists and engineers at his command. It was a cooperative effort of back and forth, of prototypes and ideas, of concepts and of trying to understand the physics of electrons and holes, that eventually gave us the junction transistor. But historian Jon Gertner in his book Idea Lab shows us how Shockley, in a fit of ego and jealousy, one night, in a hotel room, alone, desperate that others would invent it before him, was compelled to come up with the final working design. He drove his team, which he was leading, with his vision. The transistor, with Shockley as the shuttle, weaving the next woof that would come to eventually touch all wefts in the economy.

Gertner’s story of Bell Labs shows a part of the American innovative tapestry that is laden with the creations of many American minds. It is a celebration of Americans doing what makes us unique. Manifestations of the innovative American Mind. Another prominent example at Bell labs is Claude Shannon, who made breakthroughs on information theory and gave us the foundation for the digital age. It is true that he followed other geniuses (Hartley for one) and he worked with brilliant people, but Shannon gave us a concise and tight view with his information theory that could be operationalized. It was a complete package that inspired his colleagues to create the digital communication revolution. The golden age of the research labs in the second half of the twentieth century is a rich example of the many woofs woven into the economic fabric of this country, not by one but by many shuttles. A clear celebration of the American Mind.

As I stood on that ancient cypress forest contemplating the tomb of the mythical hero emperor, paying my respects, as millions of other had done before me, I was glad I was an American. That I had my own heritage of many innovative individuals to honor, respect and emulate. And I was glad to be a small part of that American tapestry, having pulled a few small threads through myself.

Back to America.