Nepalese Doctor Brings Sight To Over 100,000 People Worldwide

While it is easy to focus on acts of extreme barbarity — which seem all too-common given our natural bias for the negative and sensational — the world is full of unsung heroes, often obscure, who devote their lives towards living up to the best of human potential.

One such figure is Dr. Sanduk Ruit of Nepal, who has devoted the past three decades to providing vital eye care to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations, as well as imparting his valuable knowledge to eye surgeons in the developing world. As CNN reports:

Driven by a belief that the world’s poorest people deserve safe, affordable and high-quality eye care just as much as anyone else, Ruit has made it his mission to eradicate avoidable blindness.

In 1994, he joined the late Australian ophthalmologist and philanthropist Fred Hollows, who was his mentor and close friend, in establishing Tilganga — an eye hospital in Kathmandu dedicated to providing world-class eye care to the people of Nepal.

The hospital manufactures state-of-the-art lenses that are commonly used in treating cataracts or myopia, and exports them to more than 30 countries worldwide.

For those who cannot reach urban areas, Ruit and his team conduct mobile eye camps in remote parts of Nepal and neighboring countries, often trekking for days and cleaning out structures like tents, classrooms or even animal stables for use as temporary operating theaters.

When the eye patches come off the day after an operation, it’s an incredibly moving moment for all involved.

You can imagine how powerful it is to witness formerly blind people finally seeing their loved ones for the first time in years. Ruit has even managed to offer his miraculous services to infamously isolated North Korea, circumventing politics for the greater good.

Han Mong Guk, 80, embraces his son as he sees him for the first time in 10 years after eye surgery in North Korea in 2005.

Moreover, Ruit’s work helps entire communities thrive, since fully-blind individuals require constant care and attention that most loved ones cannot afford. By restoring sight, he is helping alleviate the suffering of more than just the patient.

His motivation and attitude for his work are as touching as you would guess:

Ruit grew up in a small village in the Himalayas so isolated that the nearest school was a week’s walk away. When he was 17, his sister died of tuberculosis despite the disease being treatable. The loss left Ruit with a sense of urgency to pursue a path that benefited others, not only himself.

It’s a decision he doesn’t regret.

“I am so grateful that I can make a difference in so many people’s lives,” Ruit said.

At 59, that same sense of urgency that motivated him as a young man remains. When asked what it feels like to watch as a patient sees the world clearly the first time, he responded: “It really recharges you and makes you move forward.”

But he cautioned that there remains so much he wants to do.

Indeed, as the CNN piece notes, most of the eye conditions that afflict Ruit’s patients are preventable, stemming mostly from poverty and lack of access to public health services. An estimated 39 million people are blind worldwide, of whom 90 percent live in low-income areas and 80 percent suffer from conditions that can be prevented or cured. Selfless humanitarians like Ruit are certainly doing their part, but the systemic causes will need to be addressed to prevent so much needless suffering.

Kim Chun Son, 48, is overcome with emotion when Nepalese doctor Sanduk Ruit takes off her eye patch during a postoperative examination in North Korea in 2005.

Music of the Ancients

Raw Story reports on an interesting effort to faithfully recreate the music of the millennia-old Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Combining musical talent with meticulous archaeological research, this unique endeavor is delightful on both an anthropological and sensory level. You can hear haunting and elegant samples through the hyperlink or here.

More about the team behind this one-of-a-kind project:

…After completing a degree in music composition [singer and composer Stef Conner] got deeply interested in Babylonian literature and poetry—which was originally recorded in cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets.

But the words on the paper, the modern incarnations of these mineral etchings, were not enough for Conner. She wanted to know what these languages sounded like, to summon life from stone. Many of these poems and snatches of writings were sung and chanted, according to historians. The tunes played an important part in rituals in Mesopotamian societies, from funerals to lullabies, Conner says.

So she teamed up with Andy Lowings, who reconstructs ancient instruments and plays a mean lyre, a musical instrument with strings that resembles a harp. The two set out to create music that brings ancient Babylonian poetry to life, and The Flood is the result. It was produced by sound engineer Mark Harmer and can be found on Conner’s website; it will also come out on iTunes next month.

I strongly recommend giving their work a listen. It has been captivating me for the past two days now, especially during my busier working hours. Very soothing stuff.

Here is more about the music from the original website, from which you can pre-order the album:

Out in December 2014, ‘The Flood’ is a creative collaboration between Stef Conner, Andy Lowings (instrument-builder, harpist and creator of the Gold Lyre of Ur Project) and Mark Harmer (sound engineer, producer and harpist). Based on Mesopotamian texts from as early as the 4th millennium BC and composed for voice and the Lyre of Ur (a reconstructed 4500-year-old instrument excavated in the early 20th century from the Royal Graves at Ur), the album is the first ever CD of new music sung entirely in Sumerian and Babylonian. The incredible texts have inspired some of the strangest, rawest and most gripping, otherworldly songs you will ever hear, as well as some fun, amusing and often downright bizarre little excursions into the ancient Mesopotamian world, which reveal that in many ways, people in that remotest of times were actually a lot like us!

As the Raw Story articles notes, neither Conner nor her collaborators claim that these songs are a totally faithful recreation — after all, no human voice has uttered these compositions in thousands of years. But it definitely comes as close as one ever could. Conner studied the Babylonian and Sumerian languages deeply to determine the likely stresses and innotations, while Lowings built his lyre to be as similar to the ancient designs as possible. They even got help from Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who recreated the 4,000-year-old Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, considered the oldest song in the world.

Given all that, I think it is safe to say that this is accurate as the piece comes given all the time that has past. It is amazing that anyone even made the effort! And whatever its authenticity, this labor of love is a beautiful listen. It almost transports you back to the mysterious city-states that made comprised these cradles of human civilization.

Portrait of An Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Today’s Google Doodle honors the148th birthday of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who is credited with being the first painter to produce purely abstract works. (Despite this pioneering role, he appears to be virtually unknown in the West, at least among non-artists; I only learned of him through Google!)

Kandinsky’s fifty-year career spanned such major movements as Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism, Bauhaus architecture and abstract expressionism. His vast collection of works thus reflect a wide variety of styles and influences, as well as the particular moods and thoughts put into each individual piece.

Kandinsky used shapes and colors as expression of emotion, and often likened the painting process to composing music. According to Wikipedia, he harbored a deep fascination with colors since childhood, which intensified during the course of his college studies:

In 1889, he was part of an ethnographic research group which travelled to the Vologda region north of Moscow. In Looks on the Past, he relates that the houses and churches were decorated with such shimmering colours that upon entering them, he felt that he was moving into a painting. This experience, and his study of the region’s folk art (particularly the use of bright colours on a dark background), was reflected in much of his early work. A few years later he first likened painting to composing music in the manner for which he would become noted, writing, “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”.

By 1896, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky gave up a promising career as a teacher to enroll in art school in Munich. An encounter with the works of Monet at a Moscow art exhibit prior to leaving only further solidified this path — and the rest is beautiful and colorful history.

Wassily Kandinsky (Photo)

The Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore

It no doubt sounds like a dream to most fellow bibliophiles: a well-stocked bookstore that is freely available 24/7 for as long as you want, even if you do not buy a single thing. Not only would I love to patronize such an establishment, but one of my dreams is open one of my own.

A recent article in the Guardian reveals that a company in Taiwan has already beat me to this idea by several years: Eslite, one of that country’s largest retail bookstores. (Official website, in Chinese, here.) Bucking the trend of most chain bookstores the world over, the company welcomes as many non-paying visitors for as long as they wish to stay:

When I visited the 24-hour shop, the busiest time was from 10pm to 2am. People were hunkered down in corners, sitting on the stairs, or hovering over the display tables. Everybody was absorbed in a book.

Yao Hong, a 31-year-old office worker, who was sitting on a set of small, hardwood steps, explained why Eslite’s Dunnan branch is a favourite hangout. “I come here three to four times a week. On Saturdays, I arrive around noon and stay till 4am the next day,” she said. “I’ve been to bars, but I don’t like them. I love to read. Here, I can read books I like and nobody bothers me.” That night, she had already ploughed through to page 275 of a 319-page memoir.

What attracts the large and loyal crowds is not only the wide selection of books – there are around 250,000 in the Dunnan store alone – but Eslite’s policy of allowing customers to read for as long as they want without having to buy.

Given the beleaguered state of a lot of bookstores across the world, from independent vendors to national chains, how does Elsite manage to pull this seemingly unprofitable business model and still remain highly successful?

Apparently, by coming one big arts and media center, offering everything from wine, tea, and food, to clothing, art exhibits, and film screenings. The company’s approach no doubt endears itself to customers as well: I would be more than happy to shell out a few extra dollars than I otherwise would if it meant keeping such an establishment afloat.

Bookstores seeking to innovate in an era of declining brick-and-mortar sales should take note of this approach — I know I will!

A Brief Thought On Holiday Greetings

“Happy Holidays”, “Seasons Greetings”, “Merry Christmas”, “Have a Blessed Day” — as an atheist, I personally do not care in what manner you greet or part with me so long as it is with kindness and sincerity.

I feel that considerate human interaction, at any time of year, should be welcomed, appreciated, and encouraged regardless of the belief system or lack thereof (allegedly) attached to it. (I say allegedly because many people often read too much into what is being said and assume the worst intentions.)

That said, I hope everyone is doing well!

Google celebrates Annie Jump Cannon

Eupraxsophy:

Glad to see Google once again using its ubiquity to raise awareness of otherwise forgotten but pivotal historical figures.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

No, I hadn’t heard of her either, and probably only astronomy buffs know much about her. But I became aware of Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) when I saw this doodle on Google this morning (click on the screenshot to go to her Wikipedia biography). You can read yourself about how instrumental Cannon was in classifying stars (she herself classified more than half a million!) while working at the Harvard Observatory. Her work was pivotal in leading to the modern classification of stars based on their light spectra, which in turn tells us about their surface temperature and something about their age.  In fact, some of classes she devised are still used today: see here for a list.

The Doodle celebrates Cannon’s 151st birthday:

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Two notes from Wikipedia; the first on her proficiency:

She classified more stars in a lifetime than anyone else, with a total of around 500,000 stars. She also discovered 300 variable stars…

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Articles of Interest

[Since I have more articles to reflect on and share than I have time to devote fully written posts to, I will try my hand at this new approach: a weekly installment of my favorite recently read pieces, with excerpts and links to pique your interest. This should hopefully condense my queue of topics to discuss. Hope you enjoy!]

Technological solutions inspired by nature…

Human innovation, some thinking goes, should take cues from naturally occurring processes, because after billions of years of evolution, nature has determined what is efficient, effective, and enduring. This isn’t a novel idea. From airplanes to Velcro, inventors have long turned to flora and fauna for inspiration and instruction. But now more than ever, biomimetics is generating product designs — not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment — that are not just pioneering, but also potentially sustainable.

Some intriguing reasons why the universe may not exist…

Physical realism is the view that the physical world we see is real and exists by itself, alone. Most people think this is self-evident, but physical realism has been struggling with the facts of physics for some time now. The paradoxes that baffled physics last century still baffle it today, and its great hopes of string theory and supersymmetry aren’t leading anywhere.

In contrast, quantum theory works, but quantum waves that entangle, superpose, then collapse to a point are physically impossible—they must be “imaginary.” So for the first time in history, a theory of what doesn’t exist is successfully predicting what does—but how can the unreal predict the real?

Why the Second World War should not be glorified…

Any argument that the Great War [World War I] was uniquely wicked and wasteful is plainly false in statistical terms, and the idea that the Good War was uniquely noble is absurd in view of its moral ambiguities.

Worse than that, the glorification of the second world war has had practical and baleful consequences. It has led us to an easier acceptance of “liberal interventionism”, founded on the assumption that we in the west are alone virtuous and qualified to distinguish political right from wrong – and the conviction that our self-evidently virtuous ends must justify whatever means we employ, lighting up a bomber flare path from Dresden to Baghdad to Tripoli.

Cultural differences between collective and individualistic attitudes…

People in the rest of the world are more likely to understand themselves as interwoven with other people — as interdependent, not independent. In such social worlds, your goal is to fit in and adjust yourself to others, not to stand out. People imagine themselves as part of a larger whole — threads in a web, not lone horsemen on the frontier. In America, we say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In Japan, people say that the nail that stands up gets hammered down.

These are broad brush strokes, but the research demonstrating the differences is remarkably robust and it shows that they have far-reaching consequences … What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.”

The problem with positive thinking…

In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

Why doesn’t positive thinking work the way you might assume? As my colleagues and I have discovered, dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.

And something fun to wrap it up…

The 50 words listed here are all genuine entries taken from Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary as well as a number of other equally fantastic local British glossaries, including John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808), Francis Grose’s Glossary of Provincial and Local Words Used in England (1787), and John Ray’s Collection of South and East-Country Words (1691). Ranging from the bizarre to the useful, they all would make a brilliant addition to anyone’s vocabulary.

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Sleep deprivation is killing your career

Eupraxsophy:

Some practical advice to consider implementing, when or if possible. I have definitely seen big benefits in many areas of my personal and professional life from adequate sleep, but I am fortunate to have a work and lifestyle schedule that accommodates most of these suggestions. What is most important is experimenting with these and other ideas, since sleeping needs vary wildly by individual.

Originally posted on Quartz:

The next time you tell yourself that you’ll sleep when you’re dead, realize that you’re making a decision that can make that day come much sooner. Pushing late into the night is a health and productivity killer.

According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, the short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood, ability to focus, and access to higher-level brain functions for days to come. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep.

Why you need adequate sleep to perform

We’ve always known that sleep is good for your brain, but new research from the University of Rochester provides the first direct evidence for why your brain cells need you to sleep (and sleep the right way—more on that later)…

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The Greatest Books According to 125 Top Authors

Given the sheer volume of literature out there — and just in the English-speaking world alone! — deciding the best works of fiction seems virtually impossible. Every great book has something exceptional to offer, and each is distinct enough in style, theme, narrative, and so on that none really compete; rather, these works complement each other, together offering a rich selection of morals, concepts, characters, and inspirations to draw from.

Nevertheless, it is always an interesting exercise to see what books have most captivated and impacted readers, especially when the audience consists of other authors of great books. Who better to weigh-in on the subject than some of the (Anglophone) world’s current literary greats? The Atlantic has more:

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers—including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates—”to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time- novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”

Of the 544 separate titles selected, each is assigned a reverse-order point value based on the number position at which it appears on any list—so, a book that tops a list at number one receives 10 points, and a book that graces the bottom, at number ten, receives 1 point.

As the article observes, you can learn a lot about a writer from what they selected as their favorites books and authors, since it reveals some of the possible influences, motivations, and ideas that color their own works — after all, what great writer hasn’t had at least contemporary or predecessor to inspire them?

You would have to read the book to see what each respondent listed, but you can view the overall consensus below (the asterisks denote links to free public domain works):

Top Ten Works of the 20th Century

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  4. Ulysses* by James Joyce
  5. Dubliners* by James Joyce
  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  7. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  8. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  9. The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor
  10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Top Ten Works of the 19th Century

  1. Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary* by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  5. The stories of Anton Chekhov
  6. Middlemarch* by George Eliot
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Great Expectations* by Charles Dickens
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  10. Emma* by Jane Austen

Top Ten Authors by Number of Books Selected

  1. William Shakespeare – 11
  2. William Faulkner – 6
  3. Henry James – 6
  4. Jane Austen – 5
  5. Charles Dickens – 5
  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 5
  7. Ernest Hemingway – 5
  8. Franz Kafka – 5
  9. Tied: James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf – 4

Top Ten Authors by Points Earned

  1. Leo Tolstoy – 327
  2. William Shakespeare – 293
  3. James Joyce – 194
  4. Vladimir Nabokov – 190
  5. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 177
  6. William Faulkner – 173
  7. Charles Dickens – 168
  8. Anton Chekhov – 165
  9. Gustave Flaubert – 163
  10. Jane Austen – 161

I would have to put a lot of thought into what my  own top ten would be in these categories, although I do personally concur with most of the top selection (namely Lolita and One Hundred Years of Solitude). I am definitely intrigued to read more James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, whom I have always heard are amazing.

It is also interesting to see Tolstoy figure so prominently in terms of 19th century literature and total points; he is one of my all-time favorite authors, but I never realized his works were that acclaimed until recently (I have seen a lot more articles discussing his brilliance and literary influence as of late).

I would love to see the answers and opinions of non-Anglophone writers, especially since the overwhelming majority of the world’s non-English literature remains untranslated and thus largely unknown. I am sure it would be very revealing. A similar list involving non-fiction works, perhaps divided by genre (politics, science, etc.) would also be very interesting, if perhaps a bit more difficult.

Anyway, what do you think of these results? What would your own top ten lists look like?

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Twenty words that once meant something very different

Eupraxsophy:

The interesting (and often hilarious) ways that language has changed. Some of these evolved meanings may some degree of sense (such as clue and flirt).

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

Words change meaning all the time — and over time. Language historian Anne Curzan takes a closer look at this phenomenon, and shares some words that used to mean something totally different.

Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”) — and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?

The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Here is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.

  1. Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish…

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