Tag: Religion

The Ghost of Christmas Past: A Look At the History of Christmas

Christmas, as a festival, has changed a lot throughout history, with many of its core modern traditions being more recent than we think or of surprising origin. Historically, Christmas was often a time for upending social structures.


Christmas, at least as we know it today, resembles nothing of its past. A lot of what happened would shock us today: heavy drinking with rules abandoned in an unrestrained carnival. “A kind of December Mardi Gras,” Stephen Nissenbaum writes in The Battle for Christmas.

With the dawn of the early nineteenth century, that behaviour became increasingly threatening, “combining carnival rowdiness with urban gang violence and Christmas-season riots.” Given this backdrop, the appeal of the Christmas we know today is understandable.

“Santa Claus,” far from being a creature of ancient Dutch folklore who made his way to the New World in the company of immigrants from Holland, was essentially devised by a group of non-Dutch New Yorkers in the early nineteenth century.

For much of the first two centuries, most people did not celebrate Christmas.

In fact, the holiday was systematically suppressed by Puritans during the colonial period and largely ignored by their descendants. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings). Only in the middle of the nineteenth century did Christmas gain legal recognition as an official public holiday in New England.

Most other states fell into the same category. But why?

There is no biblical or historical reason to place the birth of Jesus on December 25. True, the Gospel of Luke tells the familiar story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth— how the shepherds were living with their flocks in the fields of Judea, and how, one night, an angel appeared to them and said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” But nowhere in this account is there any indication of the exact date, or even the general season, on which “this day” fell.


It was only in the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25. And this date was chosen not for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice, an event that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. The Puritans were correct when they pointed out— and they pointed it out often— that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.


Most cultures (outside the tropics) have long marked with rituals involving light and greenery those dark weeks of December when the daylight wanes, all culminating in the winter solstice— the return of sun and light and life itself. Thus Chanukah, the “feast of lights.” And thus the Yule log, the candles, the holly, the mistletoe, even the Christmas tree— pagan traditions all, with no direct connection to the birth of Jesus.

They also suppressed Christmas because it looked nothing like today, involving “behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today— rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes.”

While it seems odd to us today to think of Christmas that way, there was a reason.

In northern agricultural societies, December was the major “punctuation mark” in the rhythmic cycle of work, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing it for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals— meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled. St. Nicholas, for example, is associated with the Christmas season chiefly because his “name-day,” December 6, coincided in many European countries with the end of the harvest and slaughter season.

In our own day the Christmas season begins as early as the day after Thanksgiving for many people, and continues to January 1. But our culture is by no means the first in which “Christmas” has meant an entire season rather than a single day. In early modern Europe, the Christmas season might begin as early as late November and continue well past New Year’s Day. (We still sing about “the twelve days of Christmas,” and the British still celebrate “Twelfth Night.”) In England the season might open as early as mid-December and last until the first Monday after January 6 (dubbed “Plow Monday,” the return to work), or later. … (We should look at Christmas as) an ongoing contest, a push and a pull—sometimes a real battle —between those who wished to expand the season and those who wished to contract and restrict it. (Nowadays the contest may pit merchants— with children as their allies—against those grown-ups who resent seeing Christmas displays that seem to go up earlier and earlier with each passing year.)

Europe was little different.

In early modern Europe, roughly the years between 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season was a time to let off steam— and to gorge. It is difficult today to understand what this seasonal feasting was like. For most of the readers of this book, good food is available in sufficient quantity year-round. But early modern Europe was above all a world of scarcity. Few people ate much good food at all, and for everyone the availability of fresh food was seasonally determined. Late summer and early fall would have been the time of fresh vegetables, but December was the season— the only season —for fresh meat. Animals could not be slaughtered until the weather was cold enough to ensure that the meat would not go bad; and any meat saved for the rest of the year would have to be preserved (and rendered less palatable) by salting. December was also the month when the year’s supply of beer or wine was ready to drink. And for farmers, too, this period marked the start of a season of leisure. Little wonder, then, that this was a time of celebratory excess.

The excess took many forms.

Reveling could easily become rowdiness; lubricated by alcohol, making merry could edge into making trouble. Christmas was a season of “misrule,” a time when ordinary behavioral restraints could be violated with impunity. It was part of what one historian has called “the world of carnival. ” (The term carnival is rooted in the Latin words carne and vale—“farewell to flesh.” And “flesh” refers here not only to meat but also to sex— carnal as well as carnivorous.) Christmas “misrule” meant that not only hunger but also anger and lust could be expressed in public.

It’s no wonder there was a “bulge” in September and October births.

But all of this disorder wasn’t necessarily chaotic, it was ritualized. A way to earn goodwill by turning the social hierarchy upside down.

During the Christmas season those near the bottom of the social order acted high and mighty. Men might dress like women, and women might dress (and act) like men. Young people might imitate and mock their elders (for example, a boy might be chosen “bishop” and take on for a brief time some of the authority of a real bishop). A peasant or an apprentice might become “Lord of Misrule” and mimic the authority of a real “gentleman.”

To this day, in the British army, on December 25 officers are obliged to wait upon enlisted men at meals.

The most common ritual of social inversion, however, remains familiar to us today: we would call it charity. The rich were expected to offer “the fruits of their harvest bounty to their poorer neighbors and dependents.”

Some historians argue that role inversions actually functioned as a kind of safety valve that contained class resentments within clearly defined limits, and that by inverting the established hierarchy (rather than simply ignoring it), those role inversions actually served as a reaffirmation of the existing social order. It was all a little like Halloween today— when, for a single evening, children assume the right to enter the houses of neighbors and even strangers, to demand of their elders a gift (or “treat”) and to threaten them, should they fail to provide one, with a punishment (or “trick”).

In New England, Christmas was hardly to be found in almanacs before 1720, but hardly avoided after 1760. Early almanac issuers, in an attempt to reduce the excesses, started calling for more moderation.

What Benjamin Franklin and Nathanael Ames were calling for was a Christmas that combined mirth and moderation. Both of these men were shopkeepers— versatile, thrifty, and self-made. What they were trying to do was actually similar to what the Puritans had done a century earlier: to restructure people’s work habits by having them do away with periodic binges. But unlike the Puritans, their strategy did not entail the elimination of Christmas. Instead, they were spreading the idea— a new idea—that Christmas could be a time of cheer without also being a time of excess.

[W]hen Christmas returned to New England in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was embraced by different groups with different cultural agendas. Then as now, there was no single “Christmas.” For some it was probably little more than the name for a day in the year. For others it was a time of pious devotion, devotion that could range all the way from mirthful joy in the Savior’s birth to angst over personal failings, and from stately prayers to ecstatic hymns. For others still it was a time of feasting— accompanied or not by a supply of alcohol. Finally, Christmas might mean misrule and carnival, in which alcohol could lead to sexual liberties, social inversion, or even violence.

But not one of these ways of celebrating Christmas bore much resemblance to the holiday that most of us know today. All of them were public rituals, not private celebrations; civic events, not domestic ones. In none of them would we have found the familiar intimate family gathering or the giving of Christmas presents to expectant children. Nowhere would we have found Christmas trees; no reindeer, no Santa Claus. Christmas in late-eighteenth-century New England— or anywhere else— was not centered around the family or on children or giving presents. It was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.


[R]eligion failed to transform Christmas from a season of misrule into an occasion of quieter pleasure. That transformation would, however, shortly take place— but not at the hands of Christianity. The “house of ale” would not be vanquished by the house of God, but by a new faith that was just beginning to sweep over American society. It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus of Nazareth but by a newer and more worldly deity— Santa Claus.

A Visit from St. Nicholas

At the early 19th century, there were two incompatible “styles of celebrating the holiday season.” One was a daytime affair, formal, and quiet. The other, the revelers in the street, was nocturnal, aggressive, and noisy.

But first let’s recap where we are. Traditional misrule did not “ordinarily pose a significant threat to the social order or to the authority of the gentry class. In fact, it actually served to reinforce the existing order of things by providing a sanctioned opportunity for the poor to let off steam; it was a safety valve that allowed them to express resentments in a fashion that was generally apolitical.” Inverting the social hierarchy was a method of garnering goodwill. This changed as paternalism became the dominant form of social relations. Also the nature of work changed.

By the early nineteenth century, with the spread of wage labor and other modes of capitalist production in England and the United States, what I have chosen to call the “battle for Christmas” entered an acute phase. For some urban workers, the Christmas season no longer entailed a lull in the demand for labor; their employers insisted on business as usual. (It was this impulse that Charles Dickens would caricature in his character Ebenezer Scrooge.) For other urban workers, the coming of winter brought the prospect of being laid off, as the icing-up of rivers brought water-powered factories to a seasonal halt. December’s leisure thus meant not relative plenty but forced unemployment and want. The Christmas season, with its carnival traditions of wassail, misrule, and call it humpian “street theater,” could easily become a vehicle of social protest, an instrument to express powerful ethnic or class resentments. Little wonder, then, that the upper classes displayed little interest in making the season a major holiday.


By 1820 Christmas misrule had become such an acute social threat that respectable New Yorkers could no longer ignore it or take it lightly. … By the 1820s bands of roaming young street toughs, members of the emerging urban proletariat, were no longer restricting their seasonal reveling to their own neighborhoods; they had begun to travel freely, and menacingly, wherever they pleased. Often carousing in disguise (a holdover from the old tradition of mumming), these street gangs marauded through the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, especially on New Year’s Eve, in the form of callithumpian bands, which resembled (and may have overlapped with) the street gangs that were now vying for control of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.


In 1828 there occurred an extensive and especially violent callithumpian parade, complete with the standard array of “drums, tin kettles, rattles, horns, whistles, and a variety of other instruments.” This parade began along the working-class Bowery, where the band pelted a tavern with lime; then it marched to Broadway, where a fancy upper-class ball was being held at the City Hotel; then to a black neighborhood, stopping at a church where the callithumpians “demolished all the windows, broke the doors [and] seats,” and beat with sticks and ropes the African-American congregants who were holding a “watch” service; next, the band headed to the city’s main commercial district, where they smashed crates and barrels and looted at least one shop; still unsatisfied, they headed to the Battery (at the southern tip of the city), where they broke the windows of several of the city’s wealthiest residences and tried to remove the iron fence that surrounded Battery Park; finally they headed back to Broadway for a second visit.

These problems seemed cultural.

Since there existed no Christmas rituals that were socially acceptable to the upper class, (John) Pintard took on the responsibility of inventing them— characteristically enough, in the name of restoring something that had been forgotten.

DURING THE TWO DECADES from 1810 to 1830, while Pintard shifted his energies from December 6 to January 1, then from January 1 to December 25, this much remained constant: The season was to be celebrated with members of his own social class. But one thing had changed nevertheless, and it was more important than the simple date of the celebration. Pintard had gradually moved from a celebration that took place in public (first at City Hall, with the New-York Historical Society, then on the city streets and in the houses of kinsmen and old acquaintances) to one that took place in private, in his own home, with his immediate family. Just as important, the new celebration focused on a single group within the family: young children.

The Battle for Christmas explores at what point and how Christmas became commercialized as well as the Christmas tree itself – which first entered “American culture as a ritual strategy designed to cope with what was already being seen, even before the middle of the nineteenth century, as a holiday laden with crass materialism— a holiday that had produced a rising generation of greedy, spoiled children.”

How to be 10% Happier

Think you had a bad day?

Dan Harris had a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people.

Something had to change. He knew it. Almost immediately after the panic attack on the air he was assigned to cover religion, which introduced him to meditation, which made him, as he puts it, 10% happier.

He wrote about his on-air panic attack in great detail in his fascinating book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.

Harris argues that meditation has a PR problem.

… largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.

Originally Dan wanted to call his book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole. We all have that voice.

To be clear, I’m not talking about “hearing voices,” I’m talking about the internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad, of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous, or funny. But if we don’t pay close attention —which very few of us are taught how to do— it can be a malevolent puppeteer.

The voice in your head is what takes you out of the present.

Consider Dan on day 9 of a 10-day meditation retreat. In the morning question-and-answer session, the instructor insists that the participants not tune out during the closing hours of the retreat.

As he presses his case, he says something that bugs me. He urges us not to spend too much time thinking about the stuff we have to do when the retreat is over. It’s a waste of time, he says; they’re just thoughts.

This provokes me to raise my hand for the first time. From the back of the echoey hall, in full-on reporter mode, with my overloud voice apparently not atrophied one bit from disuse, I ask, “How can you advise us not to worry about the things we have to do when we reenter the world? If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.”

Fair enough, he concedes. “But when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful’?”

His answer is so smart I involuntarily jolt back in my chair and smile.

“Is this useful?” It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my “price of security” motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan, he’s saying— but only until it’s not useful anymore. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to balance my penchant for maniacal overthinking with the desire for peace of mind.

At some point, you just have to move on. Mediation helped him draw the line.

How do you stop thinking? How do you stop the voice in your head? Dan asked Eckhart Tolle, who simply replied that “You create little spaces in your daily life where you are aware but not thinking,” he said. “For example, you take one conscious breath.”

As for how to meditate, Dan’s instructions are simple. Simple but not easy.

1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to be cross-legged. Plop yourself in a chair, on a cushion, on the floor —wherever. Just make sure your spine is reasonably straight.

2. Feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out. Pick a spot: nostrils, chest, or gut. Focus your attention there and really try to feel the breath. If it helps to direct your attention, you can use a soft mental note, like “in” and “out.”

3. This one, according to all of the books I’d read, was the biggie. Whenever your attention wanders, just forgive yourself and gently come back to the breath. You don’t need to clear the mind of all thinking; that’s pretty much impossible. (True, when you are focused on the feeling of the breath, the chatter will momentarily cease, but this won’t last too long.) The whole game is to catch your mind wandering and then come back to the breath, over and over again.

After a while of daily forced practice, Dan started to notice big changes.

Pretty quickly, my efforts began to bear fruit “off the cushion,” to use a Buddhist term of art. I started to be able to use the breath to jolt myself back to the present moment— in airport security lines, waiting for elevators, you name it. I found it to be a surprisingly satisfying exercise. Life became a little bit like walking into a familiar room where all the furniture had been rearranged. And I was much better at forgiving myself out in the real world than while actually meditating. …

Meditation was radically altering my relationship to boredom, something I’d spent my whole life scrambling to avoid. The only advice I ever got from my college adviser, a novelist of minor renown named James Boylan (who later had a sex change operation, changed his name to Jenny, wrote a bestselling book, and appeared on Oprah) was to never go anywhere without something to read. I diligently heeded that guidance, taking elaborate precautions to make sure every spare moment was filled with distraction. I scanned my BlackBerry at stoplights, brought reams of work research to read in the doctor’s waiting room, and watched videos on my iPhone while riding in taxicabs.

He started to see more of life.

The net effect of meditation, plus trying to stay present during my daily life, was striking. It was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm. It became a way to steel myself as I moved through the world.

This was great but it wasn’t the point. The point was mindfulness — the key to thinking like Sherlock Holmes. Mindfulness, as Harris discovered, is Buddhism’s secret sauce.

In a nutshell, mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now— anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever—without getting carried away by it. According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, reject it, or we zone out.


On the cushion, the best opportunities to learn mindfulness are when you experience itches or pain. Instead of scratching or shifting position, you’re supposed to just sit there and impartially witness the discomfort. The instruction is simply to employ what the teachers call “noting,” applying a soft mental label: itching, itching or throbbing, throbbing.


The idea is that, once you’ve mastered things like itches, eventually you’ll be able to apply mindfulness to thoughts and emotions. This nonjudgmental noting—Oh, that’s a blast of self-pity . . . Oh, that’s me ruminating about work—is supposed to sap much of the power, the emotional charge, out of the contents of consciousness.


Once I started thinking about how this whole system of seemingly spontaneous psychological combustion worked, I realized how blindly impelled—impaled, even— I was by my ego. I spent so much time, as one Buddhist writer put it, “drifting unaware on a surge of habitual impulses.” This is what led me on the misadventures of war, drugs, and panic. It’s what propelled me to eat when I wasn’t hungry or get snippy with (my wife) because I was stewing about something that happened in the office. Mindfulness represented an alternative to living reactively.


By way of example: you can be mindful of hunger pangs, but you think about where to get your next meal and whether it will involve pork products. You can be mindful of the pressure in your bladder telling you it’s time to pee, but you think about whether the frequency of your urination means you’re getting old and need a prostate exam. There’s a difference between the raw sensations we experience and the mental spinning we do in reaction to said stimuli.

The Buddhists had a helpful analogy here. Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall. Again, elegant theory— but, easier said than done.

The book is a great read that just may make you happier. Complement with this short video of Dan on the science of meditation.

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

“There certainly have been many new things
in the world of visualization; but unless
you know its history, everything might seem novel.”

— Michael Friendly


It’s tempting to consider information visualization a relatively new field that rose in response to the demands of the Internet generation. “But,” argues Manual Lima in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, “as with any domain of knowledge, visualizing is built on a prolonged succession of efforts and events.”

This book is absolutely gorgeous. I stared at it for hours.

While it’s tempting to look at the recent work, it’s critical we understand the long history. Lima’s stunning book helps, covering the fascinating 800-year history of the seemingly simple tree diagram.

Trees are some of the oldest living things in the world. The sequoias in Northern California, for example, can reach a height of nearly 400 feet, with a trunk diameter of 26 feet and live to more than 3,500 years. “These grandiose, mesmerizing lifeforms are a remarkable example of longevity and stability and, ultimately, are the crowning embodiment of the powerful qualities humans have always associated with trees.”

Such an important part of natural life on earth, tree metaphors have become deeply embedded in the English language, as in the “root” of the problem or “branches” of knowledge. In the Renaissance, the philosophers Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, for example, used tree diagrams to describe dense classification arrangements. As we shall see, trees really became popular as a method of communicating and changing minds with Charles Darwin.

The Kept
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

In the introduction Lima writes:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.


The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

Our relationship with trees is symbiotic and this helps explain why it permeates our language and thought.

As our knowledge of trees has grown through this and many other scientific breakthroughs, we have realized that they have a much greater responsibility than merely providing direct subsistence for the sheltered ecosystems they support. Trees perform a critical role in moderating ground temperature and preventing soil erosion. Most important, they are known as the lungs of our planet, taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. As a consequence, trees and humans are inexorably intertwined on our shared blue planet.

Our primordial, symbiotic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological associations to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

While we can’t go back in time it certainly appears like Charles Darwin changed the trajectory of the tree diagram forever when he used it to change minds about one of our most fundamental beliefs.

Darwin’s contribution to biology—and humanity—is of incalculable value. His ideas on evolution and natural selection still bear great significance in genetics, molecular biology, and many other disparate fields. However, his legacy of information mapping has not been highlighted frequently. During the twenty years that led to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin considered various notions of how the tree could represent evolutionary relationships among specifics that share a common ancestor. He produced a series of drawings expanding on arboreal themes; the most famous was a rough sketch drawn in the midst of a few jotted notes in 1837. Years later, his idea would eventually materialize in the crucial diagram that he called the “tree of life” (below) and featured in the Origin of Species.

Darwin was cognizant of the significance of the tree figure as a central element in representing his theory. He took eight pages of the chapter “Natural Selection,” where the diagram is featured, to expand in considerable detail on the workings of the tree and its value in understanding the concept of common descent.

Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

A few months before the publication of his book, Darwin wrote his publisher, John Murray: “Enclosed is the Diagram which I wish engraved on Copper on folding out Plate to face latter part of the volume. — It is an odd-looking affair, but is indispensable to show the nature of the very complex affinities of past & present animals. …”

The illustration was clearly a “crucial manifestation of his thinking,” and of central importance to Darwin’s argument.

As it turned out it was the tree diagram, accompanied by Darwin’s detailed explanations, that truly persuaded a rather reluctant and skeptical audience to accept his groundbreaking ideas.

Coming back to the metaphor, before we go on to explain and show some of the different types of tree diagrams, Lima argues that given the long-lasting nature of the tree and its penetration into our lives as a way to organize, describe, and understand we can use the tree as a prism to better understand our world.

As one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting visual metaphors, the tree is an extraordinary prism through which we can observe the evolution of human consciousness, ideology, culture, and society. From its entrenched roots in religious exegesis to its contemporary secular digital expressions, the multiplicity of mapped subjects cover almost every significant aspect of life throughout the centuries. But this dominant symbol is not just a remarkable example of human ingenuity in mapping information; it is also the result of a strong human desire for order, balance, hierarchy, structure, and unity. When we look at an early twenty-first-century sunburst diagram, it appears to be a species entirely distinct from a fifteenth-century figurative tree illustration. However, if we trace its lineage back through numerous tweaks, shifts, experiments, failures, and successes, we will soon realize there’s a defined line of descent constantly punctuated by examples of human skill and inventiveness.

Types of Tree Diagrams

Figurative Trees
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

Figurative Trees

Trees have been not only important religious symbols for numerous cultures through the ages, but also significant metaphors for describing and organizing human knowledge. As one of the most ubiquitous visual classification systems, the tree diagram has through time embraced the most realistic and organic traits of its real, biological counterpart, using trunks, branches, and offshoots to represent connections among different entities, normally represented by leaves, fruits, or small shrubberies.

Even though tree diagrams have lost some of their lifelike features over the years, becoming ever more stylized and nonfigurative, many of their associated labels, such as roots, branches, and leaves, are still widely used. From family ties to systems of law, biological species to online discussions, their range of subjects is as expansive as their time span.


Tree-Eagle Joachim of Fiore
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge
tree of consanguinity-compressed
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge
the common law-compressed
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

Vertical Trees

vertical trees
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

The transition from realistic trees to more stylized, abstract constructs was a natural progression in the development of hierarchical representations, and a vertical scheme splitting from top or bottom was an obvious structural choice. … Of all visualization models, vertical trees are the ones that retain the strongest resemblance to figurative trees, due to their vertical layout and forking arrangement from a central trunk. In most cases they are inverted trees, with the root at the top, emphasizing the notion of descent and representing a more natural writing pattern from top to bottom. Although today they are largely constrained to small digital screens and displays, vertical trees in the past were often designed in larger formats such as long parchment scrolls and folding charts that could provide a great level of detail.

La Chronique Universelle-compressed
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge
horizonatal tree
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

Horizontal Trees

With the adoption of a more schematic and abstract construct, deprived of realistic arboreal features, a tree diagram could sometimes be rotated along its axis and depicted horizontally, with its ranks arranged most frequently from left to right.

Horizontal trees probably emerged as an alternative to vertical trees to address spatial constraints and layout requirements, but they also provide unique advantages. The nesting arrangement of horizontal trees resembles the grammatical construct of a sentence, echoing a natural reading pattern that anyone can relate to. This alternative scheme was often deployed on facing pages of a manuscript, with the root of the tree at the very center, creating a type of mirroring effect that is still found in many digital and interactive executions. Horizontal trees have proved highly efficient for archetypal models such as classification trees, flow charts, mind maps, dendrograms, and, notably, in the display of files on several software applications and operating systems.

Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge
Web trigrams-compressed
Source: The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge goes on to explore multi-directional, radial, hyperbolic, rectangular, Voronoi, and circular treemaps as well as sunbursts and icicle trees.

What Is Meditation?

I’ve been putting this off for years. Now is a perfect time.

Meditation offers a path toward increased happiness, creativity and mindfulness. Steve Jobs was a lifelong practitioner, reading deeply on the subject and taking meditation retreats. Each year he’d re-read his copy of Autobiography of a Yogi.

I’ve always put off exploring meditation until later. I convinced myself I was too busy. That I’d explore it when things were less hectic. But I was wrong for two reasons. First, logically, if meditation is beneficial enough to practice at some point, it is probably valuable enough to practice now. That is if I think it will add value to my life, choosing to start becomes a matter of opportunity costs. What would I do with the time I’m spending meditating versus the benefits of meditation. The only way to really evaluate that is to do it and see the results. Second, and somewhat less logically, is that I’ve met some amazing – and incredibly busy people – in the past year and one thing that seems to keep coming up is meditation. None of these people “makes time for meditation.” Rather they all see meditation as an enabler of everything else they do.

As I reflect on my life, my priorities, my friendships, and my place in the world, there is no better time than now to start exploring meditation.

Dan Harris has the best practical advice on how to meditate but I wanted to explore it a bit more. In Buddhism for Beginners, Thubten Chodron does a good job looking at meditation.

Let’s start with what meditation is not.

Nowadays meditation is sometimes confused with other activities. Meditation is not simply relaxing the body and mind. Nor is it imagining being a successful person with wonderful possessions, good relationships, appreciation from others, and fame. This is merely daydreaming about objects of attachment. Meditation is not sitting in the full vajra position, with an arrow-straight back and a holy expression on our face.


Meditation is a mental activity. Even if the body is in perfect position, if our mind is running wild thinking about objects of attachment or anger, we’re not meditating. Meditation is also not a concentrated state, such as we may have when painting, reading, or doing any activity that interests us. Nor is it simply being aware of what we are doing at any particular moment.

Why do we meditate? What are the benefits?

The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. This has the same verbal root as “to habituate” or “to familiarize.” Meditation means habituating ourselves to constructive, realistic, and beneficial emotions and attitudes. It builds up good habits of the mind. Meditation is used to transform our thoughts and views so that they are more compassionate and correspond to reality.


By building up good habits of the mind in meditation, our behavior in daily life gradually changes. Our anger decreases, we are better able to make decisions, and we become less dissatisfied and restless.

What is meditation? How do we learn to meditate?

Some people think they can invent their own way to meditate and don’t need to learn from a skilled teacher. This is very unwise. If we wish to meditate, we must first receive instruction from a qualified teacher.


First, we listen to teachings and deepen our understanding by thinking about them. Then, through meditation we integrate what we have learned with our mind. For example, we hear teachings on how to develop impartial love for all beings. Next, we check up and investigate whether that is possible. We come to understand each step in the practice. Then, we build up this good habit of the mind by integrating it with our being and training ourselves in the various steps leading to the experience of impartial love. That is meditation.

Meditation is of two general types: stabilizing and analytical. The former is designed to develop concentration and the latter to develop understanding and insight. Within these two broad categories, the Buddha taught a wide variety of meditation techniques and the lineages of these are extant today. An example of stabilizing mediation is focusing our mind on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enabling us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not to worry so much. The visualized image of the Buddha may also be used as the object upon which we stabilize our mind and develop concentration. While some non-Buddhist traditions suggest looking at a flower or candle to develop concentration, this is generally not recommended by Buddhist traditions because meditation is an activity of our mental consciousness, not our sense consciousness.

Other meditations help us to control anger, attachment, and jealously by developing positive and realistic attitudes towards other people. These are instances of analytical or “checking” meditation. Other examples are reflecting on our precious human life, impermanence, and the emptiness of inherent existence. Here we practice thinking in constructive ways in order to gain proper understanding and eventually go beyond conceptual thought.

Buddhism for Beginners is a great place to start and offers “a manual for living a more peaceful, mindful, and satisfying Life.”

The evolutionary function of religion

Excerpts from Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal on the evolutionary function of religion.

In his trailblazing book Darwin’s Cathedral, the biologist David Sloan Wilson proposes that religion emerged as a stable part of all human societies for a simple reason: it made them work better. Human groups that happened to possess a faith instinct so thoroughly dominated non-religious competitors that religious tendencies became deeply entrenched in our species.

Wilson argues that religion provides multiple benefits to groups. As the sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote, “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices … which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.” Second, religion coordinates behavior within the group, setting up rules and norms, punishments and rewards. Third, religion provides a powerful incentive system that promotes group cooperation and suppresses selfishness. The science writer Nicholas Wade expresses the heart of Wilson’s idea succinctly: the evolutionary function of religion “is to bind people together and make them put the group’s interests ahead of their own.

If you’re skeptical

Wilson points out that “elements of religion that appear irrational and dysfunctional often make perfectly good sense when judged by the only appropriate gold standard as far as evolutionary theory is concerned-what they cause people to do.” And what they generally cause people to do is to behave more decently toward members of the group (co-religionists) while vigorously asserting the group’s interests against competitors. As the German evolutionist Gustav Jager argued in 1869, religion can be seen as “a weapon in the [Darwinian] struggle for survival.”

The darkside of religion

There are good things about religion, including the way its stories bind people into more harmonious collectives. But there is an obvious dark side to religion too: the way it is so readily weaponized. Religion draws co-religionists together and drives those of different faiths apart.

Still curious? After you read The Storytelling Animal, pick up a copy of Darwin’s Cathedral to better understand the role of religion in evolution.

The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences

What are the most important ideas ever put forward in social science?

I’m not asking what are the best ideas, so the truth of them is only obliquely relevant: a very important idea may be largely false. (I think it still must contain some germ of truth, or it would have no plausibility.) Think of it this way: if you were teaching a course called “The Great Ideas of the Social Sciences,” what would you want to make sure you included?

The list:

  • The state as the individual writ large (Plato)
  • Man is a political/social animal (Aristotle)
  • The city of God versus the city of man (Augustine)
  • What is moral for the individual may not be for the ruler (Machiavelli)
  • Invisible hand mechanisms (Hume, Smith, Ferguson)
  • Class struggle (Marx, various liberal thinkers)
  • The subconscious has a logic of its own (Freud)
  • Malthusian population theory
  • The labor theory of value (Ricardo, Marx)
  • Marginalism (Menger, Jevons, Walras)
  • Utilitarianism (Bentham, Mill, Mill)
  • Contract theory of the state (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau)
  • Sapir-Worf hypothesis
  • Socialist calculation problem (Mises, Hayek)
  • The theory of comparative advantage (Mill, Ricardo)
  • Game theory (von Neumann, Morgenstern, Schelling)
  • Languages come in families (Jones, Young, Bopp)
  • Theories of aggregate demand shortfall (Malthus, Sismondi, Keynes)
  • History as an independent mode of thought (Dilthey, Croce, Collingwood, Oakeshott)
  • Public choice theory (Buchanan, Tullock)
  • Rational choice theory (who?)
  • Equilibrium theorizing (who?)