Hard(en) Deceleration

According to Marcus Eliott, director of the Peak Performance Project, which has analyzed the biomechanics of hundreds of NBA players, Brooklyn Nets basketball player James Harden is pretty pedestrian by all traditional performance metrics. But when Harden came for a closer examination there were several areas in which Harden was an outlier—not only among basketball players, but among thousands of athletes. And they were all related to the same underlying trait: Harden is the best at slowing down. The force he generates when he stops his downward momentum ranked in the 98th percentile, and his “rate of eccentric-force development” was in the 99th percentile. To play this way requires an extraordinary amount of body control. It’s more common to see players who are better at the exact opposite: accelerating quickly and decelerating slowly. Acknowledging the ability to slow down as an elite type of athleticism is seen as a radical idea.

James Harden’s counterintuitive ability combined with the notion of hara hachi bu, eating until you’re 80% full, inspired the shrink choreography “The 5&1 Step-back”. This simple move is executed by simply taking five steps forward and then taking a step back. While taking the step back there’s the subtle experience of the creation of space. Harden’s creation of time and space is the result of a rapid slowdown, a distancing himself from the forward motion the others are entangled with. That’s why The Incredible Shrinking Man loves him.

Salmons Too

Most of us presume growth of body length in vertebrates to be unidirectional, with organisms progressively increasing in body size as they become older. However, under challenging environmental conditions for some vertebrates body length shrinkage is also possible. This ability is called the Dehnel phenomenon. Small mammals, such as insectivorous shrews, show body length shrinkage of up to 7%, while their skulls can shrink up to 20% and loss of mass of up to 35% in anticipation of winter. The ectothermic Marine iguanas living in the Galapagos archipelago can shrink as much as 20% of their body length when food availability dramatically decreases. The dynamics of the growth in length of these animals can be explained by a combination of anorectic stress and environmental conditions. According to research by the University of Oulu and the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute young salmon have a similar ability to shrink. In examining in 2010 how juvenile salmonid fish responded to harsh environmental conditions, the researchers were faced with unexpected and previously undocumented observations, indicating that young salmonids shrink up to 10% of the body length, over the course of winter.

The Incredible Shrinking Man continues to collect stories like this to resist the prevailing idea that shrinkage is an unnatural movement. That it goes against some higher principle of growth. Shrinking is not and it does not, neither in the body, nor in nature, nor in culture.

Short-Tongued Bombus

A study in Science shows that in a period of just 40 years two alpine bumblebee species (Bombus balteatus and Bombus sylvicola) rapidly evolved significantly shorter tongues. Short-tongued species are more generalist foragers, able to feed on many different types of flowers. They are replacing more specialised, long-tongued bumble bees that feed on flowers with deep corolla tubes. The shift seems to be a direct result of a reduction in flower abundance due to global warming. Alpine regions are considered “canaries in the coal mine” for their sensitivity to increasing temperatures and drying soils. With lower floral resources, fitness advantages of long-tongued specialist phenotypes have diminished, driving the rapid evolution of shorter-tongued bees.

Ecological partnerships evolve through the matching of functional traits between partners, such as tongue length of pollinators and flower tube depth of plants. Changes that disrupt such matching can alter plant species recruitment and the trajectory of coevolution. As it stands, the longer-tubed and the longer-tongued are struggling to make ends meet. Short prevails.

Vamana

The Hindu god Vishnu manifested himself on earth through ten primary incarnations. Within each of these incarnations are lessons for humanity. The first four incarnations are animal/human hybrids between a man and a fish, a turtle, a boar and a lion. The last six manifestations are people, including for example Krishna, the popular blue god, and Buddha (although this is generally contested by buddhists). The first in the group of the human avatars is a dwarf called Vamana.

The story involving Vishnu’s incarnation as Vamana is an interesting tale of hubris, underestimation and a ruler’s desire to be liked. It is set during the long-running battle between gods (the Devas) and demons (the Asuras). After the battle seems to be decided in favour of the demon king Bali, Vishnu comes to the aid of the Devas. He reincarnates as a dwarf and asks the now ruler Bali to gift him a piece of land the size of three footsteps where he can meditate. Although Bali has been warned of the true nature of Vamana as the incarnation of Vishnu he does not regard him as a threat and grants him his wish. As soon as he does Vishnu/Vamana expands to his cosmic size and spans all of Heaven and Earth in just two enormous steps. Left with no place to put his third step bali offers his head and is pushed back into the underworld. The story shows that prejudice against smallness is ill-informed. The continued debate as to why Vishnu manifested himself as a dwarf seems to originate especially in the general yet mistaken view that dwarfs are inferior to regular-sized people. They’re not, obviously.

For a detailed account of the story visit HERE.

Suez-Maxed Out

At 07:40  on 23 March 2021, one of the largest containerships in the world, the Ever Given (400 x 59 x 21m) , was passing through the Suez Canal. After losing the ability to steer because of high winds the ship became stuck and blocked the canal, creating an economic choke-point. As many as 360 containerships piled up behind the Ever Given waiting to pass the canal. The blockade lasted for 6 days but the ripple effect is believed to continue for many months to come. We’re reminded of the words of science journalist Debora MacKenzie“It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down. To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity.” It seems that a big ship and a long canal, both intended to tackle the complex puzzle of an Ever Increasing consumer demand, have lived up to that analysis.

Since the beginning of containerization in the mid-1950s the capacity of containerships increased by some 4000%, from about 500 Twenty-foot equivalent units to over 21.000 TUEs today. The Ever Given is a ship in the so-called Suezmax category, a naval architecture term for the largest ship measurements capable of transiting the Suez Canal in a laden condition, and specifically designed to make maximum usage of the canal’s depth and width. The economies of scale continue to incite the use of the largest container ships possible while a shrinking number of harbours and canals are able to handle these colossal ships. They’ve simply outgrown the infrastructure leading to what is called a diseconomy of scale where higher output leads to increasing prices. Still, there are are even larger ship designs on the drawing boards, such as the Malaccamax class that is designed to just squeeze through the Strait of Malacca and could carry up to 30.000 TEUs. The question is if this will add to, rather than solve, the problems facing us. Perhaps we should ask the livestock, trapped on the Ever Given, how they feel about it.

Buddhist Auxology

Buddhist auxology is the not-yet-existing study of all aspects of human physical growth from the perspective of the desire to be as small as possible. It would be a multi-disciplinary science involving health sciences/medicine, nutrition science, genetics, anthropology, anthropology, anthropometry, ergonomics, history, economic history, sociology, public health, and psychology, among others. Buddhist economic theory considers it a sign of elegance when needs are fulfilled with as little resources as possible. An increase in human size is quite the opposite from elegant.

Although the larger human body requires more, it is not more human. Perhaps one might even argue that, pound for pound, larger humans are less human since their human essence is diluted in more flesh. Human essence and elegance is sacrificed in order to maintain the ever more demanding biological presence of the larger body. Its increasing needs degrade and transgress our humanness while at the same time degrading and transgressing our environment. In order to become more human again, to concentrate as much human essence in as little human flesh as possible, buddhist auxology investigates how to shrink towards abundance.

Woolly Desire (35 kg)

Between 13.000 to 11.000 years ago, sheep were the first animals to be domesticated by humankind. At first flocks were kept mainly for meat and milk. Archaeological evidence found at sites in Iran suggests that selection for woolly sheep began around 6.000 BC. As wool became more important for the manufacture of textiles the selective pressure on sheep to be more productive increased. Eventually this led to several of the domesticated species losing the ability to naturally shed their wool. In nature the ability to shed is part of an autonomous management system to deal with changes in temperature, entanglements, and for purposes of general hygiene and health. By losing the ability, or rather by mankind taking this ability from them, the sheep lost their autonomy. Shedding became shearing, as sheep became fully dependent on people to releave them of their woolly coats.

The repercussions of our desire for greater quantities of wool recently manifested itself when animal rescuers located a sheep that got lost in the Australian wilderness about five years ago. During those years its fleece had continued to grow. In the end the thick wool coat weighed over 35 kilograms, putting an almost unbearable weight on one lost sheep’s shoulders. It seems there is no escape for sheep, even if they do. Their DNA has been infected with the human desire for growth. Embedded human desire has become their prison.

Vertical Empathy

He who shrank is a 1936 sci-fi story by Henry Hasse, originally published in Amazing Stories Quarterly. It is about a man who is forever shrinking through worlds nested within a universe with apparently endless levels of scale. Written long before moon travel and our current explorations of Mars, and decades before Richard Feynman gave his famous lecture titled  “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, it directs our attention to what is right in front of us.

“If I could not pierce the stars above, that were so far, then I would pierce the atoms below, that were so near. They are everywhere. In every object I touch and in the very air I breathe. But they are minute, and to reach them I must find a way to make myself as minute as they are, and more so!” 

As the protagonist in the story shrinks, an interesting reversal of size happens where in some moments he is as big as the stars he travels between, only to shrink onto the surface of planets in the next moment where he meets with lifeforms, then again becoming the size of a breadcrumb and beyond, before shrinking into the next universe where a similar sequence of events unfolds. And again. And again, endlessly. The story interprets the act of shrinking as a way to travel through dimensions without moving horizontally. Rather, the protagonist travels through infinite space vertically by becoming ever smaller. It approaches  shrinking as a way to explore in depth the realities invisible to our current senses. Not just from an empirical perspective but as an intimate mode of knowing and experiencing. Shrinking as an act of vertical empathy.

No Small Fish

One of many food-related ecological challenges is the overconsumption of fish. Worldwide, especially in the global south, fish is still a key component of a nutritious and healthy diet. Until we find and are able to produce widely available and sustainable alternatives (which we must) hundreds of millions of people depend on what the oceans provide for them. Overfishing is threatening the balance in our oceans as we’re struggling to allow fish stocks to restore. This is especially the case for a number of larger fish species because they generally need more time to mature and create off-spring.

Marine ecologists argue that rather than eat these large fish like tuna, salmon and halibut it would help to eat smaller fish like herring, mackerel and anchovies. The strategy for survival of small fish is designed by nature to withstand heavy predation. They grow faster and have more offspring and therefor have the ability to bounce back relatively quickly. As a welcome and healthy side-effect there’s also less time for contaminants like mercury to build up in their fat reserves which makes it a healthier alternative to large fish.

Peeling a Pomelo

“Peeling a Pomelo” is a simple exercise allowing you to experience what it’s like to be very small. All you have to do is imagine you’re peeling a mandarin rather than a pomelo.

The pomelo (Citrus maxima) is the largest member of the citrus fruit family and can have a diameter of up to 25 cm. To help create the illusion first rub a mandarin peel under your nose and on your hands so that the scent of the mandarin dominates the scent of the pomelo. It also helps to hide references that may disrupt your suspense of disbelief such as pieces of furniture or household objects that unwittingly remind you of your real size. Remember that we use our body to measure things in reality but that things in reality also give us a sense of our size. Perhaps find an empty space, sit on the floor, face a wall. Create a context that helps you to inspire the fantasy of being small. Place the pomelo in front of you while conjuring up an image of a mandarin. Perhaps squint your eyes to blur reality and fantasy. Touch, weigh, feel, use your hands to measure the fruit, and the fruit to measure your hands. Then, start peeling. Break through the skin into the soft layer just beneath. Experience its thickness, its resistance, as you encounter the bouncy juicy fruit body. Rip out a big fleshy part of mandarin. Use both hands to bring it to your mouth. Close your eyes. Bite into it, and feel your body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing.