Alain de Botton on Existential Maturity and What Emotional Intelligence Really Means

By Maria Popova (brainpickings.org)

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“Maturity is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts,” poet and philosopher David Whyte wrote in one of his most beautiful meditations. A generation before him, Anaïs Nin took up the subject in her diary, which is itself a work of philosophy: “If you intensify and complete your subjective emotions, visions, you see their relation to others’ emotions. It is not a question of choosing between them, one at the cost of another, but a matter of completion, of inclusion, an encompassing, unifying, and integrating which makes maturity.” And yet emotional maturity is not something that happens unto us as a passive function of time. It is, as Toni Morrison well knew, “a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory” — the product of intentional character-sculpting, the slow and systematic chiseling away of our childish impulses for tantrums, for sulking, for instant self-gratification without regard for others, for weaponizing our feelings of shame, frustration, and loneliness. Like happiness — another life-skill we have miscategorized as a passive abstraction — it requires early education, consistent relearning, and unrelenting practice.

That is what Alain de Botton, one of our era’s most uncommonly perceptive, lyrical, and lucid existential contemplatives, offers in The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) — the book companion to his wonderful global academy for self-refinement, a decade in the making.

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Alain de Botton

De Botton considers the type of learning with which the road to emotional maturity is paved:

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The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.

Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.

The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.

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Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:

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The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.

In 1983, the psychologist Howard Gardner devised his seminal theory of multiple intelligences, expanding our narrow cultural definition of intelligence as verbal and mathematical skill to include seven other modes of intellectual ability. A decade later, Daniel Goleman added a tenth form of intelligence — emotional intelligence — which quickly permeated the fabric of popular culture as hoards of humans felt suddenly recognized in an endowment long neglected as a valuable or even extant faculty of consciousness. Building on that legacy, De Botton brings his own sensitive perspicacity to a richer, more dimensional definition:

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The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm… There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.

De Botton is careful to acknowledge that this line of inquiry might trigger the modern intellectual allergy to the genre of learning dismissively labeled self-help. And yet he reminds us that the quest for self-refinement has always accompanied the human experience and animated each civilization’s most respected intellects — it is there at the heart of the Stoics, and in the essays of Montaigne, and at the center of Zen Buddhism, and in the literary artistry of Proust (whom De Botton has especially embraced as a fount of existential consolation). He aims a spear of simple logic to the irrational and rather hubristic disdain for self-help:

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To dismiss the idea that underpins self-help — that one might at points stand in urgent need of solace and emotional education — seems an austerely perverse prejudice.

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Art by Corinna Luyken from My Heart — an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem.

Our cultural failure at making emotional intelligence an educable thing, De Botton argues, stems from two flawed baseline assumptions of our education system itself — its focus on what people are taught over how they are taught, and its tendency to mistake information for wisdom. (Adrienne Rich shone a sidewise gleam on these flaws and their remedy in her superb 1977 convocation address about why an education is something you claim, not something you get.) De Botton envisions the emotionally enlightened alternative:

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An emotional education may require us to adopt two different starting points. For a start, how we are taught may matter inordinately, because we have ingrained tendencies to shut our ears to all the major truths about our deeper selves. Our settled impulse is to blame anyone who lays our blind spots and insufficiencies bare, unless our defenses have first been adroitly and seductively appeased. In the face of critically important insights, we get distracted, proud, or fidgety. We may prefer to do almost anything other than take in information that could save us.

Moreover, we forget almost everything. Our memories are sieves, not robust buckets. What seemed a convincing call to action at 8 a.m. will be nothing more than a dim recollection by midday and an indecipherable contrail in our cloudy minds by evening. Our enthusiasms and resolutions can be counted upon to fade like the stars at dawn. Nothing much sticks.

It was the philosophers of ancient Greece who first identified these problems and described the structural deficiencies of our minds with a special term. They proposed that we suffer from akrasia, commonly translated as “weakness of will,” a habit of not listening to what we accept should be heard and a failure to act upon what we know is right. It is because of akrasia that crucial information is frequently lodged in our minds without being active in them, and it is because of akrasia that we often both understand what we should do and resolutely omit to do it.

How to overcome akrasia and live with life-enlarging emotional intelligence — by absorbing the beauty and wisdom encoded in literature and art, by harnessing the power of ritual, by undertaking the difficult, immensely rewarding and redemptive work of self-knowledge — is what De Botton offers in the remainder of the throughly helpful The School of Life: An Emotional Education. Complement this small prefatory excerpt with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the intelligence of emotions, then revisit De Botton on what makes a good communicatorthe psychological paradox of sulking, and his lovely letter to children about why we read.

FROZEN’S QUEEN ELSA IS A DANGEROUS AUTOCRAT

Disney’s Animated Franchise Sends Children an Anti-Democratic Message 

Frozen’s Queen Elsa Is a Dangerous Autocrat | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

At Disney Consumer Products’ VIP Halloween Fashion Show in October 2014, two kids modeling Anna and Elsa costumes pose at the end of a runway. Courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Associated Press.

by JOE MATHEWS | NOVEMBER 26, 2019 (zocalopublicsquare.com)

So far, our republic has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars, and even the 2016 election. But can it survive the new sequel to the mega-hit animated film, Frozen?

I doubt it.

While this now-concluding decade has seen autocrats rise and democracy decline around the globe, no unelected ruler of the 2010s has set as seductive an example of unaccountable authoritarianism as Queen Elsa, the monarch at the center of the Frozen franchise.

For all its lovely images and irresistible songs, Frozen celebrates the illogic of monarchs from Louis XIV to Trump: l’etat c’est moi, or “the state is me,” reflecting the idea that a society is defined by the feelings and needs of its rulers.

Sadly, the blame for this animated attack on democratic values falls on our fellow Californians—specifically, Disney executives, writers, and animators. They are the most powerful players in the great California-based enterprise of exporting narratives that capture children’s imaginations, and thus shape the future of culture and politics worldwide. Unfortunately, these creative Californians—who live in a state built on the promise that you can live like a king—prefer tales of princes, princesses, and other pretty people whose power is not derived from the consent of the governed.

I’m sorry if this sounds overwrought, but I’ve suffered under the Frozen tyranny personally. My three kids are among the hundreds of millions of people who loved the original Frozen film, an animated tale of a young Scandinavian queen named Elsa, who has the magical voice of Idina Menzel, the power to create ice with her hands, and a loyal-to-the-death sister, Anna (Kristen Bell).

But the overwhelming success of that 2013 film—$1.2 billion in global box office and two Oscars—has become a form of cultural oppression. The film’s best-selling soundtrack, its ubiquitous swag, its endless YouTube fan videos have made Frozen inescapable, so visible and audible in our lives as to raise questions about whether Disney marketers are violating the Geneva Convention. The torture is worst for parents; by my rough count, I’ve seen the movie 25 times—not once of my own free will.

I would compare Frozen’s cultural tyranny to that of the sloppy neo-authoritarians—Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Duterte, Orbán, Erdoğan—who now dominate media and politics worldwide. Except that Disney is a more effective, disciplined, and ambitious demagogue than any of these guys. Here in America, Frozen’s dominance of the media has lasted six years, while Trump has monopolized the headlines for only three.

To be fair, the filmmakers clearly intended their 2013 movie as a celebration of loyalty and familial love. We are meant to identify with Elsa, who becomes queen of the kingdom of Arendelle when her parents are lost at sea. She can’t control her ice-making powers, so, after setting off an epic winter freeze, she flees to an ice castle in the mountains. Anna chases after her. Eventually—after adventures including a scary monster, a reindeer, romance, and trolls who mercifully aren’t on Facebook—love and magic conquer all, and Elsa and Anna return to Arendelle to continue their monarchical rule.

The seeming villain of this piece is Anna’s boyfriend Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who is left in charge of Arendelle when Elsa abandons her post. Hans is portrayed as the bad guy because he doesn’t really love Anna and because he seeks to retain power when Elsa returns to reclaim her throne.When Elsa leaves her people in total darkness after a disaster of her own making (who does she think she is—PG&E?), Hans steps in to comfort the public, hand out blankets and food, and try to find some way to end the winter. He, unlike the narcissistic and irresponsible Elsa, sees climate change as a real emergency.

But I don’t think he’s the real villain. After my first half-dozen-or-so forced viewings of the film, I began to see Hans—voiced by the Tony Award-winning actor Santino Fontana, the Stockton-born son of a schoolteacher and an agronomist—as the film’s flawed and tragic hero.

While Elsa and Anna are unelected rulers consumed with their own personal dramas, Hans is the only character in the movie who thinks about the needs of Arendelle’s traumatized citizens, who barely register in the film.

When Elsa leaves her people in total darkness after a disaster of her own making (who does she think she is—PG&E?), Hans steps in to comfort the public, hand out blankets and food, and try to find some way to end the winter. He, unlike the narcissistic and irresponsible Elsa, sees climate change as a real emergency.

So I, for one, find it hard to blame Hans when, upon Elsa’s return, he tries to slay a tyrant who effectively abdicated her throne during a national crisis. His action would seem to qualify both as a good-faith defense of Arendelle’s national security, and as a brave application of the Jeffersonian principle that the people possess the right of revolution against dictators.

Of course, this is a film for young people, who, as the political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have shown, are turning against democracy. So Hans is thrown into a dungeon without trial. Meanwhile, Elsa melts all the ice she created. Then, instead of rallying her administration to respond to the dangerous flooding that such a sudden melt would produce, she holds a party outside her castle—thus establishing the emergency response model followed by the federal government after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.

For the sequel, I’d been hoping to see Arendelle’s residents rise up against the monarch, free the political prisoner Hans, and turn their kingdom into another robust Scandinavian social democracy. Alas, Frozen 2’s plot is instead an imperial adventure about an enchanted forest and the royal sisters who continue their undemocratic rule.

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By this point in the column, you may say that we shouldn’t worry about a computer-animated fantasy. But mass entertainment has a huge impact on how we think and feel. Animated films from the Disney empire have inspired major social shifts—most notably Bambiwhich spawned the environmental movement, not to mention a population explosion of deer. And Disney has never been more powerful than it is right now, with the corporate bullies from Burbank having bought up Marvel and Star Wars properties to form a veritable cartel of fantasy.

So, while our current civic problems are rightfully pinned on white supremacy, economic dislocation and digital disruption, Frozen shouldn’t entirely escape blame.

It’s understandable that frustrated parents, given the difficulty of finding childcare, might use this film to distract their kids temporarily with sweet songs. But I worry about the long-term effects of these movies. One question: If we’re going to teach our children to sing along with an unaccountable autocrat like Elsa, how will we ever muster the social consensus to remove real-life authoritarians from office?

The Secret Life of Trees: The Astonishing Science of What Trees Feel and How They Communicate

“A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.”

Brain Pickings|

  • Maria Popova

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Available as a print.

Trees dominate the world’s the oldest living organisms. Since the dawn of our species, they have been our silent companions, permeating our most enduring tales and never ceasing to inspire fantastical cosmogonies. Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” A forgotten seventeenth-century English gardener wrote of how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”

But trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical — they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (public library).

Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.

But Wohlleben’s own career began at the opposite end of the caring spectrum. As a forester tasked with optimizing the forest’s output for the lumber industry, he self-admittedly “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” He experienced the consequence of what happens whenever we turn something alive, be it a creature or a work of art, into a commodity — the commercial focus of his job warped how he looked at trees.

Then, about twenty years ago, everything changed when he began organizing survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists in his forest. As they marveled at the majestic trees, the enchanted curiosity of their gaze reawakened his own and his childhood love of nature was rekindled. Around the same time, scientists began conducting research in his forest. Soon, every day became colored with wonderment and the thrill of discovery — no longer able to see trees as a currency, he instead saw them as the priceless living wonders that they are. He recounts:

Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.

The revelation came to him in flashes, the most eye-opening of which happened on one of his regular walks through a reserve of old beech tree in his forest. Passing by a patch of odd mossy stones he had seen many times before, he was suddenly seized with a new awareness of their strangeness. When he bent down to examine them, he made an astonishing discovery:

The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.

How can a tree cut down centuries ago could still be alive? Without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance. The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way — for hundreds of years.

Beneath the mystery lay a fascinating frontier of scientific research, which would eventually reveal that this tree was not unique in its assisted living. Neighboring trees, scientists found, help each other through their root systems — either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system connecting separate trees. If this weren’t remarkable enough, these arboreal mutualities are even more complex — trees appear able to distinguish their own roots from those of other species and even of their own relatives.

Art by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree.

Wohlleben ponders this astonishing sociality of trees, abounding with wisdom about what makes strong human communities and societies:

Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.

[…]

A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.

One can’t help but wonder whether trees are so much better equipped at this mutual care than we are because of the different time-scales on which our respective existences play out. Is some of our inability to see this bigger picture of shared sustenance in human communities a function of our biological short-sightedness? Are organisms who live on different time scales better able to act in accordance with this grander scheme of things in a universe that is deeply interconnected?

To be sure, even trees are discriminating in their kinship, which they extend in varying degrees. Wohlleben explains:

Every tree is a member of this community, but there are different levels of membership. For example, most stumps rot away into humus and disappear within a couple of hundred years (which is not very long for a tree). Only a few individuals are kept alive over the centuries… What’s the difference? Do tree societies have second-class citizens just like human societies? It seems they do, though the idea of “class” doesn’t quite fit. It is rather the degree of connection — or maybe even affection — that decides how helpful a tree’s colleagues will be.

These relationships, Wohlleben points out, are encoded in the forest canopy and visible to anyone who simply looks up:

The average tree grows its branches out until it encounters the branch tips of a neighboring tree of the same height. It doesn’t grow any wider because the air and better light in this space are already taken. However, it heavily reinforces the branches it has extended, so you get the impression that there’s quite a shoving match going on up there. But a pair of true friends is careful right from the outset not to grow overly thick branches in each other’s direction. The trees don’t want to take anything away from each other, and so they develop sturdy branches only at the outer edges of their crowns, that is to say, only in the direction of “non-friends.” Such partners are often so tightly connected at the roots that sometimes they even die together.

Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié.

But trees don’t interact with one another in isolation from the rest of the ecosystem. The substance of their communication, in fact, is often about and even to other species. Wohlleben describes their particularly remarkable olfactory warning system:

Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.

The reason for this behavior is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.

Because trees operate on time scales dramatically more extended than our own, they operate far more slowly than we do — their electrical impulses crawl at the speed of a third of an inch per minute. Wohlleben writes:

Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty bite out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf tissue sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute. Accordingly, it takes an hour or so before defensive compounds reach the leaves to spoil the pest’s meal. Trees live their lives in the really slow lane, even when they are in danger. But this slow tempo doesn’t mean that a tree is not on top of what is happening in different parts of its structure. If the roots find themselves in trouble, this information is broadcast throughout the tree, which can trigger the leaves to release scent compounds. And not just any old scent compounds, but compounds that are specifically formulated for the task at hand.

The upside of this incapacity for speed is that there is no need for blanket alarmism — the recompense of trees’ inherent slowness is an extreme precision of signal. In addition to smell, they also use taste — each species produces a different kind of “saliva,” which can be infused with different pheromones targeted at warding off a specific predator.

Wohlleben illustrates the centrality of trees in Earth’s ecosystem with a story about Yellowstone National Park that demonstrates “how our appreciation for trees affects the way we interact with the world around us”:

It all starts with the wolves. Wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, in the 1920s. When they left, the entire ecosystem changed. Elk herds in the park increased their numbers and began to make quite a meal of the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods that lined the streams. Vegetation declined and animals that depended on the trees left. The wolves were absent for seventy years. When they returned, the elks’ languorous browsing days were over. As the wolf packs kept the herds on the move, browsing diminished, and the trees sprang back. The roots of cottonwoods and willows once again stabilized stream banks and slowed the flow of water. This, in turn, created space for animals such as beavers to return. These industrious builders could now find the materials they needed to construct their lodges and raise their families. The animals that depended on the riparian meadows came back, as well. The wolves turned out to be better stewards of the land than people, creating conditions that allowed the trees to grow and exert their influence on the landscape.

Art by William Grill from The Wolves of Currumpaw.

This interconnectedness isn’t limited to regional ecosystems. Wohlleben cites the work of Japanese marine chemist Katsuhiko Matsunaga, who discovered that trees falling into a river can change the acidity of the water and thus stimulate the growth of plankton — the elemental and most significant building block of the entire food chain, on which our own sustenance depends.

In the remainder of The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben goes on to explore such fascinating aspects of arboreal communication as how trees pass wisdom down to the next generation through their seeds, what makes them live so long, and how forests handle immigrants. Complement it with this wonderful illustrated atlas of the world’s strangest trees and an 800-year visual history of trees as symbolic diagrams.

This article was originally published on September 26, 2016, by Brain Pickings, and is republished here with permission.

SCIENTISTS: OMINOUS BLACK HOLE IS WAY TOO BIG TO EXIST

Black hole, artwork

December 1, 2019 VICTOR TANGERMANN (futurism.com)

Chungus

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have spotted a mindbogglingly colossal black hole, according to Live Science, that’s roughly 70 times the mass of the Sun.

That’s more than three times the presumed upper limit of 20 solar masses that astrophysicists believed a black hole in our galaxy could be, setting up a scientific race to explain the existence of the cosmic monster.

“Black holes of such mass should not even exist in our Galaxy, according to most of the current models of stellar evolution,” lead researcher LIU Jifeng of the National Astronomical Observatory of China of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

LB-Fun

The black hole, dubbed LB-1, is some 15,000 light years from Earth and is one of an estimated 100 million stellar black holes in our galaxy — though only about two dozen have been spotted so far. A paper of their research was published in the journal Nature last week.

Towards the end of a typical Milky Way star’s life cycle, most of its gas is shed due to powerful stellar winds, leaving almost nothing behind. Yet “LB-1 is twice as massive as what we thought possible,” Jifeng said. “Now theorists will have to take up the challenge of explaining its formation.”

The researchers used China’s Large Sky Area Multi-Object Fiber Spectroscopic Telescope to spot signs of the black hole using a technique that’s only been around for about four years.

READ MORE: Stellar Black Hole in Our Galaxy Is So Massive It Shouldn’t Exist [Live Science]

W.H. Auden on crisis

W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden was admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; his incorporation of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech in his work; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information.

September 1, 1939

W. H. Auden – 1907-1973 (poets.org)

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Chronicle Covers: A San Jose lynching that’s still shocking

By Tim O’Rourke Nov. 27, 2016 Updated: Nov. 26, 2018 5:12 p.m. Comments (SFChronicle.com)

The Chronicle’s front page from Nov. 27, 1933, covers the lynching of two kidnap suspects in San Jose.Photo: The Chronicle 1933

Mob rule and blood thirst took control in the Valley of Heart’s Delight that night.

The Chronicle’s front page from Nov. 27, 1933, covers the lynching of two kidnapping and murder suspects in San Jose.

“Lynch law wrote the last grim chapter in the Brooke Hart kidnapping here tonight,” the story read. “Twelve hours after the mutilated body of the son of Alex J. Hart, wealthy San Jose merchant, was recovered from San Francisco Bay a mob of 10,000 infuriated men and women stormed the Santa Clara County Jail, dragged John M. Holmes and Thomas H. Thurmond from their cells and hanged them in historic St. James Park.”

It was a shocking scene, even 83 years ago. The Chronicle’s Royce Brier was there, and he would win the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting that night. The headline read “Kidnapers lynched!” using the accepted spelling of the time, and the size of the headline reflected the hangings’ impact in the Bay Area and beyond.

“Swift, and terrible to behold, was the retribution meted out to the confessed kidnappers and slayers,” Brier wrote. “As the pair were drawn up, thrashing in the throes of death, a mob of thousands of men and women and children screamed anathemas at them.

“The siege of the County Jail, a three-hour whirling, howling drama of lynch law, was accomplished without serious injury either to the seizers of the 35 officers who vainly sought to defend the citadel.

“The defense of the jail failed because Sheriff Emig and his forces ran out of tear gas bombs,” Brier continued. “Bombs kept the determined mob off for several hours.

“Help from San Francisco and Oakland officers arrived too late to save the Hart slayers.”

See more front pages: Go to SFChronicle.com/covers to search a database of hundreds of Chronicle Covers articles that showcase the newspaper’s history.

Chronicle Covers highlights one classic Chronicle newspaper page from our archive every day for 366 days. Library director Bill Van Niekerken and producers Kimberly Chua, Michelle Devera and Jillian Sullivan contributed to the project. Tim O’Rourke is the executive producer and editor of SFChronicle.com. Email: torourke@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @TimothyORourke

(Click to enlarge)

Hallucinations Are Everywhere

Experiences like hearing voices are leading psychologists to question how all people perceive reality.

The Atlantic (getpocket.com)

  • Joseph Frankel

Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty .

There’s a good chance you’ve hallucinated before.

If you’ve ever felt the buzz of your phone against your thigh only to realize the sensation was entirely in your head, you’ve had a sensory perception of something that isn’t real. And that, according to the psychologist Philip Corlett, is what makes a hallucination.

To many, this definition may seem shockingly broad. Hallucinations were long considered the stuff of psychoses or drug trips, not a regular and inconsequential part of life. But Corlett operates on the idea that hallucinations exist within a hierarchy. At the highest level, according to Corlett’s collaborator Albert Powers, they would be something like hearing “whole sentences of clearly spoken speech of a being who seems quite real.” But, moving further down the line, hallucinations can be far more banal: an imagined text message, a phantom raindrop, a new parent’s mistaken sense of her child by her bedside.

This hierarchy perspective represents an ongoing revelation in how widespread and varied hallucinations can be. A survey in the early 1990s found that 10 to 15 percent of the population of the United States experienced vivid sensory hallucinations at some point in their lives. And scientists have begun to take seriously the idea that voice hearing and other forms of auditory hallucination can be benign or “nonclinical.” This newfound ubiquity has come with a host of questions. Why is it so common for people to perceive what isn’t there, and how does the brain allow this to happen in the first place? To find answers, researchers have turned to the mechanics of how we perceive reality itself.

For Corlett and Powers, both from the Yale School of Medicine, hallucinations have everything to do with expectations. In a paper in Science, they explore how the mysterious experiences fit into a larger, speculative idea about how the brain works—and, in a sense, what the brain is. The pair recounts a 2017 study they conducted, in which their group tried to induce hallucinations both in people who commonly report hallucinations across the psychotic spectrum and in people who don’t normally hallucinate. The participants were taught to expect to hear a tone after being shown a flashing light, and then were made to press a button when they thought they heard a tone. They were told to hold down the button longer to rate their confidence in what they heard. People who regularly hallucinate held the button—that is, they hallucinated—significantly longer than those who don’t.

Corlett and Powers see this experiment as evidence for their perspective on how people understand the world around them. By their way of thinking, the brain works by “predictive coding”: integrating new information based on the beliefs built on old information. “When we go about the world, we’re not just passively perceiving sensory inputs through our eyes and ears,” Corlett says. “We actually build a model in our minds of what we expect to be present.”

This mental setup works great for allowing us to move smoothly through the world, taking in each detail without a second thought. But sometimes, Corlett and Powers say, the brain has the capacity to overpredict: It can expect something that isn’t there, and this expectation can be so strong that we actually perceive the nonexistent thing. Thus, a hallucination.

The idea of predictive coding is part of a way out of a knotted, overlapping, and sometimes competing lineage of trying to explain hallucinations. Another model, inner-speech theory, was popularized in part by the writings of the 20th-century psychologist Julian Jaynes. It holds that people who hear voices are really hearing their own thoughts that feel like someone else’s. This explanation has been propped up more recently by corollary-discharge theory, which states that the body’s tracking of its boundaries and actions (the neural machinery that makes your arm feel like your arm and your foot feel like your foot) fails for the thoughts and voices of people with psychotic disorders who experience auditory hallucinations.

“We’re still working to see how our model fits in with those models,” Corlett says.

This quest for a leg to stand on in researching hallucinations has yielded some theatrical—and sometimes even poetic—experiments. In his book on the science and history of auditory hallucinations, Charles Fernyhough, a psychologist at Durham University, tells how a psychiatrist in the ’40s found that as a group of people with schizophrenia hallucinated voices, muscles in their throats responsible for speech would twitch along with the words they heard. The voices seemed to be their own words hidden elsewhere.

Decades later, researchers recorded the voices of hallucinators with psychotic disorders and presented these subjects with electronically distorted copies. They wanted to see if the hallucinators could identify their own distorted voices. In the same vein, researchers have explored using computerized avatars à la Second Life in the past decade to try and help hallucinating psychotics assign their “presumed persecutors” a face to talk to, with the goal of softening the things these voices said to them.

Corlett also pointed me toward sine-wave speech, a particularly stunning example of the way expectation can seem to shape our reality when it comes to language. You can try it yourself: Listen to this sound (don’t turn your volume too loud). Most people will hear an R2-D2-like swell of vocoder-tinged whistling. Next, listen to this recording of a woman saying, “It was a sunny day, and the children were going to the park,” in a soothing, southern English accent. Now try R2-D2 again. Listening to the whistling sine-wave speech, you’ll likely hear a distorted version of the same “sunny day” sentence. And in all likelihood, you won’t be able to un-hear the words in the first recording now.

Hallucinators may have an easier time parsing the R2-D2-like sounds, even before listening to the other recording. In a 2017 study, nonclinical voice hearers were far better at recognizing the presence of a voice in sine-wave speech than their non-voice-hearing counterparts. And as a group, their brains fired along a pattern distinct from those who couldn’t tell that the sine-wave speech was a voice. This example, Corlett says, builds the case that auditory hallucinations are linked to the processes of expectation and prediction.

Still, Fernyhough points out, there are some potential holes in the idea of predictive coding. “Compared to the conventional view of the brain as a device that processes information coming from the environment, predictive coding starts with a different set of assumptions about how the brain makes predictions about what is in the environment and then learns from them,” he said. And that can make it hard to reconcile with other, more established ways of looking at the brain.

Corlett, meanwhile, argues that there’s a gap in inner-speech theory. Citing a study in which people rendered mute from birth reported hearing voices in their heads, he says that the phenomenon can’t be completely explained as the brain misreading itself.

Whatever explanations stand the test of time, the stakes of this science are much higher than understanding why many of us imagine text messages. For some people, hallucinations can be more persistent and disturbing. The science of how these hallucinated touches, sounds, and sights manifest in the mind is still unclear. It’s too early to say how much the causes of auditory hallucinations and other kinds might overlap, Fernyhough says. So far, the research has focused on auditory hallucinations. And to many, the need for that work is quite clear. Eleanor Longden, a mental-health researcher and advocate, has publicly recounted how her own auditory hallucinations have shifted between neutral and distressing at different points in her life. She’s made the case that the social stigma and judgment she received from her doctor at the time made them more negative.

“Hallucinations can be very distressing and debilitating. They can also be neutral or positive,” Fernyhough says. “A better understanding of how they occur and how they can be managed could alleviate a great deal of mental distress.”Joseph Frankel is a former editorial fellow at The Atlantic.

This article was originally published on October 2, 2018, by The Atlantic, and is republished here with permission.

Why You Should Re-Read Paradise Lost

The greatest epic poem in the English language, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, has divided critics – but its influence on English literature is second only to Shakespeare’s, writes Benjamin Ramm.

BBC Culture (getpocket.com)

  • Benjamin Ramm
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Milton’s Paradise Lost is rarely read today. But this epic poem, at over 350 years old, remains a work of unparalleled imaginative genius that shapes English literature even now.

In more than 10,000 lines of blank verse, it tells the story of the war for heaven and of man’s expulsion from Eden. Its dozen sections are an ambitious attempt to comprehend the loss of paradise – from the perspectives of the fallen angel Satan and of man, fallen from grace. Even to readers in a secular age, the poem is a powerful meditation on rebellion, longing and the desire for redemption.

Despite being born into prosperity, Milton’s worldview was forged by personal and political struggle. A committed republican, he rose to public prominence in the ferment of England’s bloody civil war: two months after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, Milton became a diplomat for the new republic, with the title of Secretary for Foreign Tongues. (He wrote poetry in English, Greek, Latin and Italian, prose in Dutch, German, French and Spanish, and read Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac).

Milton gained a reputation in Europe for his erudition and rhetorical prowess in defence of England’s radical new regime; at home he came to be regarded as a prolific advocate for the Commonwealth cause. But his deteriorating eyesight limited his diplomatic travels. By 1654, Milton was completely blind. For the final 20 years of his life, he would dictate his poetry, letters and polemical tracts to a series of amanuenses – his daughters, friends and fellow poets.

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Milton is shown dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters in this engraving after a painting by Michael Munkacsy. Credit: Alamy.

In Paradise Lost, Milton draws on the classical Greek tradition to conjure the spirits of blind prophets. He invokes Homer, author of the first great epics in Western literature, and Tiresias, the oracle of Thebes who sees in his mind’s eye what the physical eye cannot. As the philosopher Descartes wrote during Milton’s lifetime, “it is the soul which sees, and not the eye”. William Blake, the most brilliant interpreter of Milton, later wrote of how “the Eye of Imagination” saw beyond the narrow confines of “Single vision”, creating works that outlasted “mortal vegetated Eyes”.

Clever Devil

When Milton began Paradise Lost in 1658, he was in mourning. It was a year of public and private grief, marked by the deaths of his second wife, memorialised in his beautiful Sonnet 23, and of England’s Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, which precipitated the gradual disintegration of the republic. Paradise Lost is an attempt to make sense of a fallen world: to “justify the ways of God to men”, and no doubt to Milton himself.

Milton’s religious lexicon – which sought to explain a ‘fallen’ world – itself has fallen from use

But these biographical aspects should not downplay the centrality of theology to the poem. As the critic Christopher Ricks wrote of Paradise Lost, “Art for art’s sake? Art for God’s sake”. One reason why Milton is read less now is that his religious lexicon – which sought to explain a ‘fallen’ world – itself has fallen from use. Milton the Puritan spent his life engaged in theological disputation on subjects as diverse as toleration, divorce and salvation.

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John Martin’s 1825 painting depicts Pandemonium, the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost. Credit: Alamy.

The poem begins with Satan, the “Traitor Angel”, cast into hell after rebelling against his creator, God. Refusing to submit to what he calls “the Tyranny of Heaven”, Satan seeks revenge by tempting into sin God’s precious creation: man. Milton gives a vivid account of “Man’s First Disobedience” before offering a guide to salvation.

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven – Milton

Ricks notes that Paradise Lost is “a fierce argument about God’s justice” and that Milton’s God has been deemed inflexible and cruel. By contrast, Satan has a dark charisma (“he pleased the ear”) and a revolutionary demand for self-determination. His speech is peppered with the language of democratic governance (“free choice”, “full consent”, “the popular vote”) – and he famously declares, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”. Satan rejects God’s “splendid vassalage”, seeking to live:

Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile Pomp.

Nonconformist, anti-establishment writers such as Percy Shelley found a kindred spirit in this depiction of Satan (“Milton’s Devil as a moral being is… far superior to his God”, he wrote). Famously, William Blake, who contested the very idea of the Fall, remarked that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it”.

Milton was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it – William Blake

Like Cromwell, Milton believed his mission was to usher in the kingdom of God on earth. While he loathed the concept of the ‘divine right of kings’, Milton was willing to submit himself to God in the belief, in Benjamin Franklin’s words, that “Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God”.

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William Blake, who called Milton ‘a true Poet’, produced several sets of illustrations for Paradise Lost in the early 19th Century. Credit: Alamy.

Although discussion of Paradise Lost often is dominated by political and theological arguments, the poem also contains a tender celebration of love. In Milton’s version, Eve surrenders to temptation in part to be closer to Adam, “the more to draw his love”. She wishes for the freedom to err (“What is faith, love, virtue unassayed?”). When she does succumb, Adam chooses to join her: “to lose thee were to lose myself”, he says:

How can I live without you, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart.

Canon Fodder

When Paradise Lost was published in London in 1667, Milton had fallen out of favour. Just months before the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in May 1660, he had published a pamphlet denouncing kingship. Now Milton was scorned, his writings were burned, and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London – only narrowly escaping execution after the intercession of a fellow poet, Andrew Marvell.

Yet Paradise Lost gained immediate acclaim even among royalists. The poet laureate John Dryden reworked Milton’s epic, casting Cromwell – a regicide with dictatorial tendencies – in the role of Satan. Samuel Johnson ranked Paradise Lost among the highest “productions of the human mind”.

Milton’s style was suggestive and free from what he called ‘the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’

Romantic writers celebrated Milton both for his stance against censorship (“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience”, Milton wrote in the pamphlet Areopagitica), and for his innovative poetic form, which was suggestive, allusive and free from what he called “the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming”. Paradise Lost inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while Wordsworth began his famous sonnet London, 1802 with a plea: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee”.

But not all critics were so favourable. The 20th Century brought us the ‘Milton Controversy’, during which his legacy was fiercely contested. His detractors included poets TS Eliot and Ezra Pound (who wrote that “Milton is the worst sort of poison”), while support came from both devout Christians (like CS Lewis) and atheists (including William Empson, for whom “The reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad”). Malcolm X read Paradise Lost in prison, sympathising with Satan, while AE Housman quipped that “malt does more than Milton can / To reconcile God’s ways to man”.

No one, not even Shakespeare, surpasses Milton in his command of the sound, the music, the weight and taste and texture of English words – Philip Pullman

In recent years, Paradise Lost has found new admirers. Milton is “our greatest public poet”, says author Philip Pullman, whose acclaimed trilogy His Dark Materials was inspired by the poem (and takes its title from Book II, line 916). Pullman loves Milton’s audacity – his declaration that he will create “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme” – and his musicality: “No one, not even Shakespeare, surpasses Milton in his command of the sound, the music, the weight and taste and texture of English words”. Pullman has declared: “I am of the Devil’s party and know it”.

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Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials takes its name from Paradise Lost; the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, was turned into a movie in 2007. Credit: Alamy.

Milton’s enemies regarded his blindness as divine retribution, but his condition enhanced his acute musical sensibility. Pullman is enchanted by the poem’s “incantatory quality”, and implores readers to experience it aurally: “Rolling swells and peels of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies… that very form casts a spell”. Paradise Lost makes an excellent audio book.

It is said that Milton had fevered dreams during the writing of Paradise Lost and would wake with whole passages formulated in his mind. The first time I read the poem, I did so in a single sitting, overnight – like Jacob wrestling with the Angel until morning. Each re-reading brings intoxication, exhilaration and exhaustion, and vindicates Milton’s observation: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

This article was originally published on April 19, 2017, by BBC Culture, and is republished here with permission.

Putumayo Presents – Paris

Strack Vinil

Putumayo World Music

Putumayo World Music
Founded1993
FounderDan Storper
GenreWorld music
Country of originUnited States
LocationNew York City
Official websiteputumayo.com

Putumayo World Music is a New York City-based record label that specializes in compilations of world music.

History

In 1991, on his way home from Bali, Dan Storper stopped in San Francisco, California. In Golden Gate Park, he heard the Nigerian band Kotoja. He was impressed by the music and the way it gathered many different people.[1] He made a compilation of music he had gathered on his journeys and gathered a positive response. This led him to give out his first release in 1993. Storper took the name of his record label, Putumayo, from Colombia‘s Putumayo Department where he travelled in 1974, which subsequently came from the name of Putumayo River.[2] The word is said to be the name of a bird (heron).[3]

Artwork

Every release features the art of Nicola Heindl. Her art is both folky and modern, and, according to the Putumayo website, “represents one of Putumayo’s goals: to connect the traditional to the contemporary.”[4]

Putumayo Presents

Typically a Putumayo World Music compilation is presented as a theme under the title “Putumayo Presents:” The themes can be regional (South AfricaCaribbeanAsia), music types (reggaefolkLatinjazz) and other themes (loungegroove, party).

The Putumayo Kids division was created in 2002. Since the release of the World Playground CD in 1999, Putumayo Kids has achieved honors from Parents’ Choice Awards.[5]

Putumayo launched the Putumayo World Music Hour in 2000, a commercially-syndicated world music radio show. Rosalie Howarth of KFOG hosted the Music Hour. The weekly show was heard internationally on over 150 commercial and non-commercial stations.[citation needed]

Putumayo has ten offices worldwide.[citation needed] Their products are sold at a network of more than 3,000 book, gift, clothing, coffee and other specialty retailers in the US. The label claims to distribute their CDs in more than 80 countries around the world.[citation needed]

Putumayo’s compilations have been available digitally since August 2011.[6]

(Wikipedia.org)