Monthly Archives: August 2017

Japanese zen art – just go away

Japanese zen spiral -- it's a cartoon about meditation. It looks like a monk and a spiral, and note that both ends point inward.

Japanese zen spiral — it’s a cartoon about meditation. It looks like a monk and a spiral, and note that both ends point inward. Cute.

The purpose of art is not generally to show the world as it is, but to show a new, better way to look at the world. As such, my take on Japanese zen art, is that it is a very cool, fun way to say “just go away.” What follows are some nice (to my eyes) examples, with my commentary.

As with most Japanese art, the zen art looks simpler and more free-form than western religious art. In a sense that is true: there are far fewer lines, but the paintings take as long to make, to a good estimate, since they only appear to have been made with casual ease: flicks of the wrist and waves of the hand. In actuality the artist had a vision of what he wanted, and then made free-hand waving copy after copy until he had some correct, free-looking ones ready for delivery. Because of this, you can look for a meaning in every wiggle — something that you would not do with US free-form abstracts, or with religious paintings of the 1600s. Take daVinci’s last supper — the grand layout is clearly planned and meaningful, the details of the wrinkles, not really. With these, though, no detail is accidental, and the non-accidental sense, as I see it, is “just go away.”

Buddhist Master. I can imagine this work is effective at keeping guests from over-staying their welcome.

Buddhist Master. Art like this keeps away guests.

Take the spiral at left. It’s sort of cool, and claims to be an allusion to meditation. Mystic, no? As I look carefully a the spiral, the first remarkable thing I see is that it circles in on itself at both ends. At a simple level, I think that’s an allusion to the inward nature of meditation, but note that, at the top end of the coil there’s a wiggle that looks like a face. I take that to be a monk’s face, looking away. The geometry of the coil then suggests the legs and thighs of the rest of the monk (sitting?). If that’s the image (and I think it is) the fact that the monk is facing away from you, leaving you behind suggests to me that the owner has no desire to have you join him. I see nothing in this that would cause another person to want to meditate either. There is nothing attractively persuasive as in western religious art. Here’s an essay I wrote on meditation.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I also imagine these artists living on an industrial treadmill, making painting after painting in his shop and throwing most away because, for example, the monk’s back extended past the paper. Western expressionism also sometimes puts many paintings on a single canvas, but the hidden image stays, at least in a sort-of half shadow. And the wiggles strive to be less learned, even if the faces of some western religious art is distant –even more distant often. At right, above, you’ll find another popular zen-art approach. It shows a zen master in nearly full face. As with most zen art, the master (Buddha or a disciple) looks calm -ish with a sense of the put-upon, as if he were Christ carrying the cross of you being there. Perhaps the intent was to make you go off and meditate, or to see society as worthless, but I think the more-likely message in the master’s look is “why me Lord.” The master looks like he isn’t unhappy with life, just unhappy with you being there. I imagine that this work was placed in a noble’s living room or study for the same reason that many American today put up a picture of Yosemite Sam, sometimes (for those who don’t get art) “Keep Out! This means you.”

A monkey looks at the moon in a well. Don't touch, the moon seems to say.

A monkey looks at the moon in a well. Don’t touch, the moon seems to say.

As with the Warner-bros. classic, there is a flowing look to the brushwork, but a fair amount of detail. As with the Warner Bros. cartoon, the casual lines seem to serve the purpose of keeping the viewer from taking offense at the message. Sort of like, “Don’t go away mad, just go away.” Cool, but I also like Western cartooning.

As one last example, at left you’ll see a painting illustrating a zen parable. in this case it’s the parable of the monkey’s and the image of the moon. Shown is the moon’s reflection in the water of a well — moon is that big round face. A monkey is about to touch the moon-image, and as we can expect, when the monkey touches the image, it disappears. There are several understandings to be gained from this, e.g. that all is illusion (similar to Plato and his cave), or suggesting that it is better to look at life than to interact with it. Which is the main meaning? In this picture, my sense is that the moon seems put-upon, and afraid. Thus, the lesson I take from the picture is one of inaction: “don’t touch the reflection.” Once again, the choice to depict a frightened moon rather than an impassive one, seems to be the painter’s way of saying “please go away.” Very cool image, but as messages go, that’s the one I see in most Japanese zen art.

Robert Buxbaum, August 17, 2017. I’ve also written on surreal art (I like it a lot, and find it ‘funny’) and on Dada, and conceptual (I like it too, playfully meaningful, IMHO). If you like zen jokes (and who doesn’t) here’s a story of the Buddhist and the hot-dog vendor, and how many zen Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb? Four. See why.

Kennedy’s perfect, boring college-entry essays

To get into any college you have to write an essay or two, generally including one describing why you want to go that particular college, and many students have trouble. How do I make myself stand out, they ask. My suggestion: Don’t. Make it clear that you want to go, but dare to be dull with the details. John Kennedy did; you can too.

JFK's dull letter to Harvard. It's his only essay.

JFK’s dull letter to Harvard. It’s his only essay.

Most school essays limit the number of words. The reviewer too prefers you keep it short. If you want to go to Harvard, or Princeton, or Iowa state, show you can say what needs to be said within the word limit. The first sentence must tell them that you want to go that college, specifically. Mention the college: you want to go to Old Ivy, say. Once that’s taken care of, just state your reasons. Unless you’re going into the writing program, the baldest, simplest terms will work just fine — e.g. that Old Ivy provides an excellent education. It’s better if you can mention a more-specific field of study, e.g. liberal arts or zoölogy, but that’s not necessary. You can now list three or so details to back up your claims. For example, you might mention that the zoölogy program at Old Ivy is well-regarded (mention the school often), that you enjoy their sports team (the ground-hogs, say), or their extracurriculars. Mention that your dad went there or your uncle (and is your hero — hero is a good word) or that you like the location. Surely there is some reason you want to go. If you can mention a famous teacher or alumnus, all the better. Flesh it out if you have space; don’t if you don’t. Conclude with a sentence pointing to the future: that this school will help me do something you want to achieve. You can be specific or not, but don’t lie. Dull is more effective than a lie. I’ve copied, above, John Kennedy’s essay to Harvard, and below his essay to Princeton. These essays follow the pattern, and are dull within the pattern. His conclusion for the first essay: that he wants to go to Harvard to be “a Harvard Man.” He got in. He used the same, dull letter for Princeton, but had more space. For Princeton he said It would have a good effect on me, and that he wanted to be “a Princeton Man.” He got into Princeton too, and went there for two months before switching to Harvard.

John F. Kennedy's, almost identical letter to Princeton. He got in there too.

John F. Kennedy’s, almost identical letter to Princeton. He got in there too.

You may think that letters like this only work if you are John F. Kennedy, and to some extent that is true. But not totally. I got into Princeton grad school from a background in public school, with no famous relatives or money. My grades were better than JFKs, but my essay had the same structure with some more specifics. As I recall, I explained that I wanted to go to Princeton because I wanted to study chemical engineering in a top department. I may have mentioned a famous professor, and stated I wanted to work on nuclear fusion — a big Princeton specialty at the time. That’s about all, as I recall.

This formula can be tweaked for the other college (and non-college) essays. I’ve previously written about the two speeches at the opening of the Gettysburg cemetery, in 1863. Edwin Everett gave the first speech of the day, excerpted and analyzed here. His speech followed the formula and was lauded. He told folks that it was important that we are here honoring the dead, and followed with three or four reasons for why it was important. His conclusion pointed to the future significance of the events. Republicans and Democrat listeners agreed this was a speech to remember from a scholar of note. Everett’s face graced the $50 bill for the 40 years after his death.

Abraham Lincoln also spoke at the Gettysburg dedication, but he didn’t follow the formula. He spoke of liberty, and America, and of a government of the people. His speech was panned at the time, even by Republicans. More details here. Though people now see his Gettysburg address as a landmark, at the time even the Republican press didn’t like it  Fortunately for Lincoln and the republic, they warmed to the speech over the next year – in time for the election of 1864. When you apply to college, you want entry now. You can’t wait a year for people to warm to your essay. Stick to the formula. You don’t want the compliment of finding, years from now, that one of the reviewers who rejected you remembers your words fondly. That will be too late. Write for the dull audience in front of you; help them put your application in the “accepted” box. As a last note: If you can not find any truthful reason that you want to go to Harvard or Old Ivy you probably should not be going there. The beginning of wisdom is self-knowledge, and the primary audience for your essay is you.

If you find you have good reasons, but find you need help with the process or with your english grammar, I should mention that my niece owns a company to help folks get into college — link here. She also has a book “From Public School to The Ivy League.

Robert E. Buxbaum, August 7, 2017. Some two years ago, I wrote an essay for my daughter on the joys and pressures of entering her junior year in high school. Here it is. 

Activated sludge sewage treatment bioreactors

I ran for water commissioner of Oakland county in 2016, a county with 1.3 million people and eight sewage treatment plants. One of these plants uses the rotating disk contractor, described previously, but the others process sewage by bubbling air through it in a large tank — the so-called, activated sludge process. A description is found here in Wikipedia, but with no math, and thus, far less satisfying than it could be. I thought I might describe this process relevant mathematics, for my understanding and those interested: what happens to your stuff after you flush the toilet or turn on the garbage disposal.

Simplified sewage plant: a plug-flow reactor with a 90+% solids recycle used to maintain a high concentration of bio-catalyst material.

Simplified sewage plant: a bubbling, plug-flow bio-reactor with 90% solids recycle and a settler used to extract floc solids and bio-catalyst material.

In most of the USA, sanitary sewage, the stuff from your toilet, sink, etc. flows separately from storm water to a treatment plant. At the plant, the sewage is first screened (rough filtered) and given a quick settle to remove grit etc. then sent to a bubbling flow, plug-flow bioreactor like the one shown at right. Not all cities use this type of sludge processes, but virtually every plant I’ve seen does, and I’ve come to believe this is the main technology in use today.

The sewage flows by gravity, typically, a choice that provides reliability and saves on operating costs, but necessitates that the sewage plant is located at the lowest point in the town, typically on a river. The liquid effluent of the sewage, after bio-treatment is typically dumped in the river, a flow that is so great more than, during dry season, more than half the flow of several rivers is this liquid effluent of our plants – an interesting factoid. For pollution reasons, it is mandated that the liquid effluent leaves the plant with less than 2 ppm organics; that is, it leaves the plant purer than normal river water. After settling and screening, the incoming flow to the bio-reactor typically contains about 400 ppm of biomaterial (0.04%), half of it soluble, and half as suspended colloidal stuff (turd bits, vegetable matter, toilet paper, etc). Between the activated sludge bio-reactor and the settler following it manage to reduce this concentration to 2 ppm or less. Soluble organics, about 200 ppm, are removed by this cellular oxidation (metabolism), while the colloidal material, the other 200 ppm, is removed by adsorption on the sticky flocular material in the tank (the plug-flow tank is called an oxidation ditch, BTW). The sticky floc is a product of the cells. The rate of oxidation and of absorption processes are proportional to floc concentration, F and to organic concentration, C. Mathematically we can say that

dC/dt = -kFC

where C and F are the concentration of organic material and floc respectively; t is time, and k is a reaction constant. It’s not totally a constant, since it is proportional to oxygen concentration and somewhat temperature dependent, but I’ll consider it constant for now.

As shown in the figure above, the process relies on a high recycle of floc (solids) to increase the concentration of cells, and speed the process. Because of this high recycle, we can consider the floc concentration F to be a constant, independent of position along the reactor length.

The volume of the reactor-ditch, V, is fixed -it’s a concrete ditch — but the flow rate into the ditch, Q, is not fixed. Q is high in the morning when folks take showers, and low at night. It’s also higher — typically about twice as high — during rain storms, the result of leakage and illegal connections. For any flow rate, Q, there is a residence time in the tank, τ where τ = V/Q. We can now solve the above equation assuming an incoming concentration C° = 400 ppm and an outgoing concentration Co of 2 ppm:

ln (C°/Co) = kFτ

Where τ equals the residence time in the tank. Since τ = V/Q,

ln (C°/Co) = kFV/Q.

The required volume of reactor, V, is related to the flow rate, Q, as follows for typical feed and exit concentrations:

V = Q/kF ln( 400/2) = 5.3 Q/kF.

The volume is seen to be dependent on F. In Oakland county, thank volume V is chosen to be one or two times the maximum expected value of Q. To keep the output organic content to less than 2 ppm, F is maintained so that kF≥ 5.3 per day. Thus, in Oakland county, a 2 million gallon per day sewage plant is built with a 2-4 million gallon oxidation ditch. The extra space allows for growth of the populations and for heavy rains, and insures that most of the time, the effluent contains less than 2 ppm organics.

Bob Martin by the South Lyon, MI, Activated Sludge reactor

Bob Martin chief engineer the South Lyon, MI, Activated Sludge plant, 2016. His innovation was to control the air bubblers according to measurements of the oxygen content. The O2 sensor is at bottom; the controller is at right. When I was there, some bubblers were acting up.

As you may guess, the activated sludge process requires a lot of operator control, far more than the rotating disk contractor we described. There is a need for constant monitoring and tweaking. The operator deals with some of the variations in Q by adjusting the recycle amount, with other problems by adjusting the air flow, or through the use of retention tanks upstream or downstream of the reactor, or by adding components — sticky polymer, FeCl3, etc. Finally, in have rains, the settler-bottom fraction itself is adjusted (increased). Because of all the complexity. sewer treatment engineer is a high-pay, in demand, skilled trade. If you are interested, contact me or the county. You’ll do yourself and the county a service.

I’d mentioned that the effluent water goes to the rivers in Oakland county. In some counties it goes to the fields, a good idea, I think. As for the solids, in Oakland county, the solid floc is concentrated to a goo containing about 5% solids. (The goo is called unconsolidated sludge) It is shipped free to farmer fields, or sometimes concentrated to more than 5% (consolidated sludge), and provided with additional treatment, anaerobic digestion to improve the quality and extract some energy. If you’d like to start a company to do more with our solids, that would be very welcome. In Detroit the solids are burned, a very wasteful, energy-consuming process, IMHO. In Wisconsin, the consolidated sludge is dried, pelletized, and sold as a popular fertilizer, Milorganite.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, August 1, 2017. A colleague of mine owned (owns?) a company that consulted on sewage-treatment and manufactured a popular belt-filter. The name of his company: Consolidated Sludge. Here are some sewer jokes and my campaign song.