The world is full of uninteresting things

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shadow patterns

There are so many things I am not interested in doing, it’s kind of
wonderful. Most of the time I focus on all the things I want to do and worry
about whether I will ever have the time and opportunity to do them all. I am
quite grateful for all the things I get to do that I actually want to do,
but reversing the question makes me even more grateful for all the things I
don’t want to do -and- don’t have to do.

Getting a degree in business in pretty high on the list. I have never at all wanted to get one. Getting a degree in law is another of those things. So when I see people who, like me, started out as engineers, and then went on to do one of these other things, and are now rich and famous, instead of envying them their wealth and fame, all I feel is a great sense of relief. “Man, it’s so great that all I ever wanted to do, and anticipate ever wanting to do, is technical work.”

Another thing is writing a food blog. Don’t get me wrong. I love the damn things. There are so many great writers and creative cooks out there, all offering us their work for free, and I admire many of them. But please. I have no interest in writing one myself. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy taking pictures, and I enjoy writing. But food blog? Umm, not so much.

On a related note, I have no interest in finding the best coffee/cheese/pizza/chocolate in town. Honestly, all the elitism surrounding these things is so utterly boring. Nor am I interested in finding the best French/Ethiopian/Peruvian restaurant in town. And all this talk of “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants and the joy and excitement associated with discovering and sharing them? Leaves me totally cold. I will gladly go home and eat steamed broccoli, thank you very much. (I will confess to being interested in good bread though. But only to the point of knowing which one is my favourite from among the options in the stores I already go to. I refuse to go to a new store for bread alone. I mean please.)

Finally, I confess to having no interest in popular culture in general. I have no idea what Justin Bieber looks like, or Kim Kardashian. I have no idea which bands are the most arcane and/or the most popular and the not knowing of which marks one out as a sad loser and philistine. (If this is what it means to be a sad loser and philistine, I am happy to be one.) To be honest, I don’t even know a lot of Beatles music, and have no shame in admitting that or interest in changing that. I can’t always recognize the top Hollywood actors either, and have no idea what the actors in Breaking Bad look like. (Even though I confess that I often read about new movies and TV shows, so I do know the plots and themes better than the above indicates.)

To conclude on a positive note rather than a curmudgeonly one, I will say that writing this little essay is one of the things I wanted to do, and actually got to do, and for that I am grateful. Yo!

A few thoughts on MH17

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Abu Dhabi - Los Angeles flight path

my flight’s path from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles

On July 17, the Malaysia Airline flight MH17 crashed near the Ukraine-Russia border, believed to have been brought down by one or more groups in the conflict-ridden region. It appears that the surface to air missiles that brought it down weren’t trying to target commercial aircraft at all (which is unsurprising), but were targetting aircraft from one of the other groups involved. They simply failed to identify the aircraft correctly before bringing it down.

There were 298 people on MH17, all of them presumably dead. There were at least two other aircraft within about 15 miles of MH17 when it was brought down. After the incident, all airlines have naturally been giving the region a wide berth. (This, in some ways, is faintly comical. There is no way an aircraft is going to be targeted over that region anytime soon. Yes?)

About eight days before the incident, I was on an Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles. I hadn’t realized until I was on the flight how far to the north it would go. Great circles work in surprising ways, I suppose. As you can see from the flight path in the photo, it went over parts of Iran, some regions of Russia, then over Norway and Greenland, and then Canada, before entering the US. Even as I saw the flight path, I was thinking to myself that we were going to fly over, or at least near many unstable regions. I had never wondered before whether airlines did or didn’t avoid these regions, but it was now clear that they didn’t. The operating costs of fuel and time meant that the potential risks of flying over those regions were ignored, and I didn’t exactly blame the airlines for it either. It is a business of thin margins, after all. Furthermore, it was somewhat exciting to fly over all these exotic places that I despair of ever visiting, thanks to the conflicts raging there, and also exciting to fly over some exotic places that I have in fact visited. Besides, the flight path included such a wide range of landscapes, from deserts to snowfields, that I had no complaints. I also thought that the altitude of the flight was probably enough to make it safe, because I assumed that the conflicts were all largely restricted to the ground.

The story of MH17 told me how wrong I was. That aircraft was 33000 feet above ground, and the belief was that anything above 32000 feet was safe. And yet it was brought down. The people on board were in no way, shape, or form connected to the conflict and even to call them collateral damage feels like a farce. And last of all, the fact that it happened to a Malaysia Airlines aircraft, just over four months after one of their vessels inexplicably disappeared along with 239 people on board is the kind of bad luck that tops all bad luck. It is possible that the airline may not survive this.

That is what strikes me the most about this situation. Of all the airlines flying in that region, of all aircraft of all the airlines flying in that region, it had to be an MH flight all over again. I mean, what are the chances of that? If a novel or a movie had two such unlikely incidents happen to the same airline just four months apart, it would be derided for being unrealistic. But here were are again, in a place where fact is proving to be so much stranger than fiction. (And so it perhaps makes sense for other aircraft to continue to avoid the region, even though the horse has bolted, as it were.) If the story weren’t so outrageously real and so outrageously tragic, and, frankly, just generally outrageous, it would in fact be darkly comic.

River Beas: a meditation

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river beas in kullu valley

River Beas is one of the five rivers of the Punjab. The word Punjab itself means five rivers. Chenab, Jhelum, Satluj and Ravi are the others. I am doubtful of the veracity of this, but I am told that the names are all names of girls, including Ravi, which is in fact pronounced Raavi, rather than the sun-god Ravi. I should confess that I have only ever known a Jhelum, and the friend who told me this had only ever known a Raavi, but the next time someone I know is looking for a name for a girl, I’ll be bound to suggest Chenab, just so they can ridicule me.

About eleven days before my first sighting of River Beas this past June, there was a terrible accident on its banks, in which more than twenty people had died. A dam built on the river, associated with the Larji Hydroelectric Project, was opened without proper warning, and a group of students who were very close to the river were swept away as the water rose too high, too fast. River Beas had swallowed them whole.

I suspect that the Larji dam is one that the bus drove past on its way from Delhi to Manali. I didn’t identify it as the “culprit” dam then, but perhaps I would have been awe-struck by it anyway. The pressure with which the water sluiced through and the height to which curved up after hitting the ground were an homage to gravity and engineering.

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River Beas originates at Rohtang Pass, at one end of the Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh, and loses around 3700 mts of altitude over some 470 kms before it merges with River Satluj, well into the state of Punjab. By then, perhaps, it is like a mature woman, with girth and fertility, capable of feeding farms and feeding people, not just with its water, but also with its rich soil deposits. But up in the Kullu-Manali region of the valley, the river is still a young girl, footloose and fancy-free, more about pace and electricity than anything else.

While in the valley, much of the NH21 highway runs right next to the river, and the views left me transfixed as the bus wended its way through. I think I have never quite swallowed the fact that water wears out rock. Limpid, flowing water, catcher of light, dwelling place of foam and spray. Hard, monolithic rock, born of the Earth’s womb, dwelling place of metal and ore. Pit one against the other and give it time, lots of time. Wait and watch. There is only one winner. The water continues to dance along its merry way, beating poor old rock into submission, as it cascades, crashes and carves over it and into it.

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The closest I got to seeing the water in action was on a short white water rafting trip. It wasn’t totally free of apprehension that we went. Apparently people had died there earlier in the season. Apparently it was better to go rafting earlier in the day, before the snow melt raised the water level. And of course, they also told us beforehand what to do if we fell out — basically, you had to act like the dead Boromir from LOTR, arms across chest, flowing down feet-first, the only difference being that you were in the water waiting to be rescued, and he was in a little boat, well past the point of rescue. As a response to the “be like Boromir” intructions, we just decided to hold on to the ropes tighter.

The rafting itself was uneventful and thoroughly enjoyable. Well, I say in retrospect that it was uneventful, I don’t think I would have said that the first two times we encountered rapids. But I realized at some point what expert hands we were in, which hands were precisely controlling how much of a thrill each stretch of rapids was going to be simply by maneuvering the angle at which the raft approached the rapids, and after that the ride was uneventful, at least mentally. It was still very enjoyable, and the yells of “Oooooh ah” from the raft never stopped. The river left us completely drenched, in body and in mind.

Beyond the rafting too there was the Beas. There was the sitting near it, the walking along it, the staring at it, the skipping rocks into it, the little bridge over it and the contemplating of it. I wish I could say it was all Beas, all the time. It wasn’t quite like that, but there was a lot of it, and what was there was enough.

bridge on the river beas

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As the bus left Manali a few days later, again wending its way right by the river, it seemed strangely unfair to know that the river would continue being its own true self even in my absence, like a lover who doesn’t quite love you enough. I might leave, I might return to the other side of the planet, but River Beas would just go on being. Sometimes taking lives, but mostly giving to them. Freezing, falling, rising, carving, all even after I was well and truly gone. Impervious and indifferent to me, personally, but blithe and joyous to whoever came by. And so it would continue for millenia.

I wonder sometimes if sitting by a river for a little while, walking by it, rafting on it, or just being next to it while on vacation, can give one sustenance for life after vacation. Whether it makes one stronger, or wiser, or calmer, whether it has any lasting positive influence at all. If life is an aggregate of all one’s past experiences, I’m glad to have a sliver of River Beas in my past. But what if life is not about past experiences? What if it’s just about the present moment, as all the wise men constantly tell us? What then?

Well, what we have then is a thousand cliches clatteringly coming true, because the river embodies them all. Or perhaps they aren’t cliches, perhaps they are wisdom. Sometimes the difference is hard to tell. First of all you get Heraclitus, telling you that you can never step in the same river twice, both because you change, and the river changes, from instant to instant. And if the ever-changing nature of the universe weren’t enough wisdom, you also get the unwavering Zen teachers telling you, gently, smilingly, that the river, it is exactly the river, nothing more and nothing less, always. It is what it is, they want you to know. And they’ll let you know in this way: “Before you come in contact with zen,/ you feel rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.// Once you start learning about zen,/ you feel rivers are not rivers and mountains are not mountains.// Once you have mastered zen,/ You know that rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains.”

And so the river, constantly changing and never changing, is telling you the three things that matter, the only three things that have ever mattered, and the only three things you have ever needed to pay attention to. Every moment it flows, the river offers them up to you, like a meditation. “This. Here. Now.” And that, at the end of the day, is what River Beas really does. She teaches you what matters, and she makes sure you hold it close to your heart. “This. Here. Now.”

a walk by the river

Snapshot from a sunroom

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windmill

I love these grey days, and the threat of rain, and I love the rain. The heavens are raining down now, pounding loudly on the roof. It drizzled, it stopped, then it decided to just come down. The rose bush outside the window is not so much in bloom as decked out in glory. It is so covered in orange-white-pink blossoms that I’ve been totally distracted by it all day. It’s just totally over the top. Beside my laptop is the busy clutter of picture books, crayons, glue, binders, craft sheets and a dish scrubber. The broken old fence with the neighbours was up in the morning, then the workers came and ripped it down, exposing the not-quite-ripe-yet fruit on the marionberry tree. And then they put the new fence up, working through the downpour. The berries are hidden once again. There is a squirrel with a splendidly bushy tail patrolling the electrical lines. I wonder if it is interested in the berries. There is a little plastic windmill with six colourful teardrop shaped “petals”, right by the fence. Sometimes it spins like crazy, then the wind dies down and so does the spinning.

I sometimes wonder where peace is found, whether there is a time and place where one can find it consistently. I’m not quite sure yet, but this sunroom I’m sitting in right now is the first place I would start looking.

rosebush

The weekend nap

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daffodils on desk

Bright light filters in through the blinds
But the sheets are cool, inviting
The body reclines, book in hand
To sleep or not to sleep, that is the question

The afternoon quiet is a shroud
Pierced by the cawing gulls
The clock ticks audibly inside
Grains of time leaving the granary

There are daffodils on the desk today
And gleaming leaves outside
Scattered thoughts flit through
Of past and future, and a line from Tennyson too

The daffodils are the lingering image
As the mind slows down, the body, breath,
Hungry sleep claims them all,
And the grains too — gently, irrevocably

Perfection VIII

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sand dollar
two sand dollars

A friend I showed these to said to me, “You made these right?” Another to whom I showed the pictures said to me, “Really? These just get made in nature?” And another, who knew what they were — sand dollars — still was surprised by the fact that they get made by sea urchins, because he associated sea urchins with globular animals, while the particular ones that make these are extremely flattened ones. Interestingly, these are not the shells of the sea urchins — they are the skeletons, also known as tests, of dead sea urchins, that have been bleached by the sunlight.

I know that I can put some pretty random things in the Perfection series. Broken sea shells and walnuts, lychee skins, sprouts and rusted bracelets have all featured before and may seem perfect only to my eyes. But I would argue that this is one of those objects that qualifies in an objective sense — the symmetry is in place, the curves are flowing and pleasant, the details are finely drawn, the proportions are just right and the geometry leaves nothing to be desired. Only the most churlish would disagree with the adjective “perfect” for this one.

Such perfection occurs in nature frequently — flowers, snowflakes, orange segments, maple leaves — but these particular sand dollars are especially appealing to me because they have a radial pattern, but not radial symmetry. It’s as if an object with perfectly circular, or even spherical symmetry got squashed in a particular configuration to get us this. I am not sure that they are formed by such a process, but that is what the geometry looks like.

Whatever the process, nature is profligate in making these. They abound on the beaches of central California, and you can pick up dozens of them in a half hour walk. This bounty only increases my appreciation of these sand dollars.

sand dollar, side view

Her and the life of the brain

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I am not quite sure what the problem is with having for your girlfriend a disembodied voice. If the voice talks affectionately and intelligently, if the voice looks out for you, does things that make you happy, including chatting to your friends and god-daughter, helps you progress professionally, is largely on the same wavelength as you, and, basically, loves you, does it matter that it is not accompanied by a body? What if you even enjoy pretend-sex with it?

There was a documentary I saw once in which they said that the neural firing in the brain is the same whether you perform an action, imagine performing that action, or dream of it. As far as the brain is concerned, all three are equivalent. Furthermore, rodent experiments show that given a choice between stimulating the forebrain (where the “pleasure centre” is located) and eating, rodents will choose the former to the point of exhaustion and death, once again demonstrating that neural firings in the brain trump those in the body. And video games seem to have a similar effect, only on humans. Their built-in reward systems can take over in such a way that people (often kids) forget to eat and drink for long periods of time, leading to exhaustion and death.

Given the primacy of the neural system in determining happiness and a sense of well-being, and given how easily it can be fooled into inhabiting worlds that have no physical reality, the story of the first paragraph sounds perfectly plausible to me. Of course, it is also the story of the movie Her, playing in theatres currently. And unlike the rodents or the video game addicts, the chief protagonist here is not cut off from the physical world in general. Theodore goes to work as usual and interacts with neighbours and friends, albeit in a limited way since his breakup with his wife. It is only in the matter of his girlfriend that he takes the unusual route of going with a disembodied voice emanating from an OS (operating system aka computer).

The premise of this movie reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s famous psychohistorian from the Foundation series, Hari Seldon. (Evidently, it does not take much to remind me of Hari Seldon.) His wife of 28 years is a robot, though this is not known to many. But, more importantly, finding this out does not change his feelings for her. This is different from the disembodied Samantha of Her, because Dors Venabili has a physical form, but insofar as falling in love with a highly intelligent algorithm is concerned, Hari and Theodore both do exactly that.

Her has several themes, one of which is that even with an OS, a relationship can have the same pitfalls as with a human, especially since the OS, in this case, is a learning algorithm that is precisely trying to learn human behaviour. Feelings of jealousy and doubt, a desire for exclusivity in the relationship, and finally, a divergence of paths are all part of this affair.

I enjoyed the movie, even though I found that it dragged a bit, was too talk-heavy, and felt too long, and even though the end felt like an unimaginative cop out. For instance, couldn’t the makers of the OS’s have stopped them from developing so far beyond human abilities that they would abandon the humans? Would the romantic relationships and friendships with the OS’s then be sustainable? Or would their chances of long term success still be about the same as those between humans? What if the OS’s were mutable such that they could always keep a particular human happy, simply by becoming whatever the human needed as they needed it? Or are humans attracted to unhappiness as much as to happiness?

While asking these questions, one does well to remember that at the end of the day, the brain too has a physical existence, and emotions are not disembodied either. Perhaps we will some day evolve to be more brain than anything else and the story of Her may become utterly commonplace then. Or maybe not. Maybe the process of divorcing ourselves from physical reality will change us in fundamental and unforeseeable ways, making Her an impossible scenario. For now though, Her provides us with many questions, few answers and plenty of food for thought.

Revisiting music

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two messiahs

Earlier this evening, I had the very great pleasure of attending a concert by the Bach Collegium San Diego which included a few pieces I had sung before.[1] There was Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, Morten Lauridsen’s O Nata Lux, and also Komm, Jesu, komm by one J. S. Bach. It is relatively recently that I’ve sung the first two (2011), but for the last one I have to go back all the way to 2005. Considering that I first heard and joined a choir in 2002, and did not know the first thing about music notation, I think that 2005 counts as my choral infancy, so it is interesting that there are fragments of that Komm, Jesu, komm that are still completely clear in my mind. Floating soprano lines can do that to you, I suppose. And being a YouTube addict probably helps as well.

A double choir piece by Bach must have been well beyond my abilities in 2005, and probably is somewhat so even now, but it is still “mine” in some strange sense. And Lux Aurumque and O Nata Lux are unquestionably “mine,” because, rightly or wrongly, I felt this evening that I could just jump up and sing my part in them, as if I had been rehearsing them all this time. (Yes, I know I am kidding myself.)

I had the same sense last December, when I heard Marc Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit pour Noël, being sung by a local choir. This is a piece I have sung not once but twice, and the first time was in fact the first time I ever sang in a choir at all, back in the Fall of 2002. My reasons for joining a choir are obscure at best, but I clearly remember a moment in an early rehearsal, when I was sitting somewhere in the middle, and could hear all the parts. I probably had no idea where in the music we were, so complete was my cluelessness, but I had the sensation of being inside a well of stereophonic sound, with all the parts weaving in and out around me, a bit like walking inside an aquarium. It’s probably fair to say that it was the moment when I got hooked to this “choral singing” business.

The great thing about continuing any activity over a long period is that you can see your relationship to the same things develop over time. When I did the same piece again in 2009, not only was it much easier, as if Charpentier had gotten simpler in seven years, but I also noticed that I was enjoying the Les Arts Florissants recording that I have of it much more. There was room in my head to appreciate the energy of the singers, the contrast of tempi and dynamics, and the quality of the playing.

Other pieces that I have repeated are Handel’s Messiah (naturally) and the Bach Magnificat. In both those I sang a different voice part (or “changed teams” as a fellow alto commented) when I repeated the piece (alto and soprano for Messiah, alto and mezzo for the Magnificat), so it wasn’t quite the same as repeating the piece, but in some ways it has made the pieces more “mine” because I’ve sung more than one part.[2]

I suppose what I am really saying, as I live through my choral adolescence, is that I am slowly having a sense of personal musical history, and, to be perfectly honest, this thought gives me the warm fuzzies. Also, I realize full well that it isn’t really about me. Just as a classic novel rewards reading and rereading even centuries after its creation, these pieces all reward singing and resinging. There is a reason they have survived so many centuries. With them there is always something new to discover or improve. And there is always something about revisiting the piece that makes it more “mine”. If sightreading a brand new piece, happy in the knowledge that there will be a chance to learn it properly, gives me a high, revisiting something I’ve sung before is like a familiar, comfort blanket. There is nothing quite like it.

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[1] Their rendition of Hieronymus Praetorius’s Factum est Silentium was perhaps my favourite piece of the evening. Lively, athletic singing, and they were clearly having so much fun that it was infectious. And Jenny Spence ruled, as always.

[2] Additionally, singing soprano on Messiah gave me quite a high, pun intended. And above all, I learnt this: the single thing to most avoid while singing soprano is yelling. It ruins everything. Yes.

Also, even though the Hallelujah chorus is almost certainly the most sung piece of choral music in the English-speaking world, it is not true that choristers can just sing the parts on sight on the first go, even if they have done it once before. I should know, I was there at that first rehearsal.

On the beach

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beach

As always, the kids know best how to just have fun. They run in and out of the water, mirroring the wave that comes out and in, while the adults stand around talking of freezing feet. They laugh as the beach ball they thought was going to go in to the sea comes right back to them with the wave; then they push it in again, to see the trick being repeated. The kid whose slipper starts to go in with the wave leaps in with a splat to save it, fully muddying the front of her shirt. She finds it all terribly funny while her parents stand around shaking their heads.

Children feel an unbridled joy at just being near the water, and it expresses itself with their entire bodies. Adults too enjoy being near the water, but their joy is a different beast. They talk of how beautiful the water is, how the aquamarine colour fills their hearts as it fills their eyes, how the waves are tireless in their movement, not pausing for a minute, going out, coming in, unceasing. They walk along the coast, occassionally getting their feet wet, collecting shells and stones, admiring the lovely colours and marvelling at what nature keeps creating. Their joy is of the tempered variety, not the instinctive, intense joy of kids, and involves logic in addition to emotion, but, for all that, it is no less real. [1]

I wonder though, if there is anyone who is not immediately delighted at the sight of the ocean, who at the sight of water stretching off into the far horizon does not essentially feel the same wonder that the Spanish and Portuguese explorers might have felt centuries ago: a sense of adventure at not knowing what lies beyond, and a sense of awe of the sheer magnitude of it all. Because while we might know the precise shapes of the landmasses better than them, the feeling of uncertainty over how things might actually be “over yonder” hasn’t left most of us just yet, and as long as we see enormous waves crashing into the coastline, carving hard granite into rugged cliffs, it is unlikely to.

I wonder too if there is something even more primal than genetic memory that is at work here. I am sure there is no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, but is there something in our cells that “remembers” that life originated in the oceans? That knows when the primordial soup that we arose out of is “near”? I know it sounds a bit like the One Ring, the presence of which can be felt by the Nazgûl instinctively (only far less sinister). But is it too much to expect science to fully nail this connection at some point in the future?

It probably is, I guess. In fact it almost certainly is. But it doesn’t matter all that much anyway. Analysis really isn’t always worthwhile, or even necessary (and while we are answering questions raised by Paul Simon, theatre isn’t really dead). So long as kids come in with sand toys and want to stay on for hours on end, and adults get a sense of timelessness just standing on the shore, ocean trips are already giving us exactly what we need.

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[1] The one point of commonality among the two is their admiration of surfers though. They both go “wow” at the sight of a mere human, made of flesh and bones, standing tall among even taller waves and riding her way home on a little piece of board.

Perfection VII

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blue jay feather

blue jay feather, against the light

It is such a humble entity. It is nearly weightless. It doesn’t worry its owner to lose one or three of it. It becomes dull coloured the moment you hold it up against the light, and for so many owners it is a dull colour even to begin with, as it seeks to provide camouflage in the bushes. And yet, it gave humanity one of its earliest and greatest dreams, the dream to fly. A solitary blue jay feather, found on a dusty trail is enough to put me in mind of Icarus, such is the power of flight.

I am glad that it was a bright coloured feather though, because I doubt I would have carefully placed it in my tiny camera case and flown home with it (!) had it been some dull coloured one. (I know, so superficial of me.) But bright or dull, they serve the same purpose — to get their owners to defy gravity. (Well, okay, not if the owner is, say, an ostrich.) Thanks to feathers, bird(brain)s flit about hither and thither, while we, with our huge, complex brains merely plod along, footstep in front of boring footstep.

Feathers serve other purposes too — protection from the elements, camouflage, and a major role during mate selection. As with the skins of lychees, they frequently combine great beauty with great functionality. What more can any object hope for?

(Here is the complete Perfection series.)

and a mini

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