The Mystery of Ambrose Bierce

Quotation, noun: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.
― Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), was a friend and rival of Mark Twain and one of nineteenth-century America's most renowned satirists. A Union veteran of the Civil War, he became one of the best-known writers and journalists in the country.

Bierce's book The Devil's Dictionary was named as one of "The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature" by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration.

His story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" has been described as "one of the most famous and frequently anthologized stories in American literature." Author Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "... I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is '[An] Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,' by Ambrose Bierce. It isn't remotely political. It is a flawless example of American genius, like 'Sophisticated Lady' by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove."

His The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary of epigrams, essays, verses, and vignettes targets the religious, the romantic, the political, and the economic, in equal measure.

Acquaintance, n.: A person whom we know well enough to borrow from but not well enough to lend to.
Bride, n.: A woman with a great future behind her.
Consult, v: To seek another's approval of a course already decided on.

Bierce employed a distinctive style of writing, especially in his stories. This style often embraces an abrupt beginning, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited descriptions, the theme of war, and impossible events.

One of the best known things about Bierce is something we don't know - how he died.

In October 1913, Bierce, then age 71, departed from Washington, D.C. for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had passed through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution.

He joined Pancho Villa's army as an observer, and in that role he witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca and made it as far as the city of Chihuahua. His last known communication with the world was a [purported] letter he wrote there dated December 26 which ended "As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."

He vanished without a trace, his disappearance becoming one of the most famous in American literary history. An official investigation by U.S. consular officials found nothing.

Bierce's friend and biographer Walter Neale said that Bierce had not ridden horses for quite some time, was suffering from serious asthma, and had been severely critical of Pancho Villa, and so concluded that it would have been highly unlikely for Bierce to have gone to Mexico and joined Villa.

Despite a lack of hard evidence that Bierce had gone to Mexico, there is also none that he had not. Therefore, despite an abundance of theories (including suicide), his end remains a mystery.

The edition of his dictionary shown here is illustrated by Ralph Steadman. This artist, writer, sculptor, political cartoonist, and designer of labels for vintage wines, is the author/illustrator of the novel Doodaaa, as well as the illustrator of Lewis Carroll's Alice, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The Face in Your Mind

The "Face on Mars"

When you see a face, what tells you that it is a face?

Humans are good at recognizing faces. We even see "faces" where there are no faces - in clouds, on a piece of toast, a man in the moon. A satellite photo of a mesa in the Cydonia region of Mars has been nicknamed the "Face on Mars." I don't see it as any evidence of extraterrestrial habitation, but just a natural rock formation. But it definitely registers as a face.

Neuroscientists have been studying this ability and it is part of what is labeled as pareidolia. Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus (an image or a sound) by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists

Why do most of us have the ability to tell one face from another, even if the differences are extremely small?

Some rather amazing research from the California Institute of Technology was done with macaques, a genus of monkey. Researchers identified a small group of neurons that they believe specialize in picking out individual features of faces and creating a single image.

The macaques wore EEG caps as they looked at a series of several thousand faces and recorded which neurons were active. They believe they even identified specific neurons that corresponded to different features.

The amazing part is that then working backwards they tried to reassemble faces using the information from firing neurons. They were able to rebuild very accurate versions of the faces that had been viewed. Recognizing faces seems to be a process of breaking faces apart into smaller parts for recognition. We still don't know the whole process. For example, why can we pick out a recognizable face in a crowd?

It seems that the brain’s ability to see faces from random objects is due to "configural processing." Do we always need to put together the components — eyes, nose, ears? Sometimes we just seem to recognize a face when we see it.

What can this research lead to? If researchers could stimulate the right cells in the brain of a blind person, it should be possible to give that person the experience of seeing a face, though they wouldn't actually be seeing someone with their eyes.

Sources and Further Reading

Do Nothing To Be More Competitive

It's hard to ignore a title like "Want a competitive edge? Do nothing every day."  Call it a bit of clickbait, but the article went on to discuss a way to reduce work stress, boost energy, improve focus, and help you be more productive at work. Is it a drug? No. Nothing with side effects. Do I have to buy some new tech gadget? No special equipment. Do I have to go to a gym or run 100 miles a week? Nope.

It is ancient. It’s meditation.

According to the article, 40% of us say we already meditate at least once a week. That seems high to me.

The benefits of meditation are many and have been found in multiple studies: reduced anxiety and stress, improvements in focus and cognitive function. Those are results after just a few weeks of mindfulness training. If you do it long-term, there is some evidence that your brain may age more slowly.

Probably some people meditate at home but the article suggests that meditating during the work day is also important. 

Since I have seen it suggested that you should take short naps during the work day - which sounds like a bad thing for the boss to catch you doing - I guess some meditation is possible at work.

Actually, some of the big "best places to work," like Google, Ford, Aetna and Adobe, offer corporate mindfulness programs. Viewed as a kind of preventative care, they say it improves employees sleep quality, lowers stress and increases productivity.

There are lots of classes and books and even apps to get started with meditation. I have done both of those approaches multiple times. I know what to. The tough part is doing it.

The basics are having a space that is quiet and private, and being consistent in your practice.

Every class I took or book I read starts with following your breath. That may involve counting the inhalation, holding and exhaling. Most of us are pretty shallow breathers.

The second thing that is emphasized is emptying your mind. That is much harder than the breathing. You're told that when a thought comes, realize it is that and let it go. Much easier said than done.

How much mediation do you need to do? Start out small. Even after years of on and off practice, I had trouble with sessions that ran for an hour or more (zazen). It is okay to start with 5, 10 or 15 minutes a day.

An old old Zen adage is that you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day—unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.  Fifteen minutes a day every day is better than an hour twice a week.

It was a revelation to me to realize that meditation - or mindfulness, which is a term I prefer - can be incorporated into activities. I am very fond of recommending kinhin which is walking meditation. It is usually done between long sessions as a break, but I like doing it as its own activity. It is a lot more than just taking a walk in the woods. But it can be done as a start just walking from your desk to lunch.

Another place I often bring my meditation is in the garden. I particularly find the usually unenjoyable and "mindless" chore of weeding to be a good activity for mindfulness. It has actually become enjoyable.

Sitting on a nice empty beaching to meditate is great, but not practical for most of us on a regular basis. Find you places and times.