May 31, 2008

The Book of Disquiet, text 134

I finally managed to get my permanent residency visa application in on the last day of the three-month deadline. It'll take another one to three months to process, and then I should get a little card that means I'm no longer tied to a job and can pretty much do as I please. A decisive shift in the current balance of terror between myself and my employer. And so the 50+ hr weeks are to get the f*** you money to back up the visa and put independence in my back pocket. After 10 yrs it'll be good to be free in Taiwan.

More from Pessoa.

One's life should be so arranged that it remains a mystery to other people, so that those who know one best in fact know one only as little as anyone else, only from a slightly nearer vantage point. That is how, almost without thinking, I have designed my life, but such was the instinctive art I put into it that even to myself my individuality is not entirely clear-cut or precise.

May 29, 2008

Exotica and narcotourism

Finally got around to seeing The Darjeeling Limited. It wasn't good, but since I like the colors blue, green, yellow and red, and have a weakness for just-so mise en scène, I was more than satisfied.

When the movie came out it got criticized for a) making too much of India being exotic, and b) Jack [one of the American brothers] wanting to bed Rita [the Indian train stewardess]. This seems odd.

a) Anyone who goes to to India for the first time and doesn't feel it's one of the most colorful and exotic places they've been to has been to a lot of places, or they've come from a neighboring country, or they're missing a basic sense of awe. For Western film-makers and audiences it's not your everyday location, and to elide that would be forced. Also, it shouldn't be forgotten that for all it's seeming dominance the West is a shaky concept, with America not entirely like France. [My students are so happy to say Westerners do this, Westerners do that, when what they really mean is Americans in popular culture and myth.] Plus, this supposed West is far in the minority with regard to numbers, and we're exotic too. Place an Englishman in New York and watch him freak out at the cool of being somewhere else, never mind a guy from Mumbai in L.A..

b) The first or second thought of any young man [and I can only speak for them] when he goes abroad is how to f*** either a local or another tourist. If I was a historian I'd make sex and empire my specialty, and then become an alcoholic. My secret history of the British Empire would be young men setting out for adventure, $ and harems, fueled by patent medicines full of cocaine, opium and hash. The only way to travel.

Clip from the still above follows:

May 27, 2008

Had you not lost all your sheep...

Finished that talk on Totalitarian Consumerism from the post before last, and it didn't develop in any meaningful fashion. The man has a whole page of credentials and honors and speaks well, but there's little point to it beyond aren't commercials dumbing, aren't multinationals too much of a good thing, and shouldn't we do something to resist things. He confesses to driving an Audi in a guilty tone, and I although I lack the car-savvy to grasp the consequences of this, I'm sure his home is full of tasteful knick-knacks. In short, he seems like an odd person to be calling for a return to a level of existence beyond which basic needs are not met - although that call itself takes some guts or gall when speaking to a public audience in what was once behind the Berlin Wall.

His prescriptions were not clear, but he didn't suggest running any workarounds on the primate systems just below the surface of us all. And in truth it's so easy to resist on a personal level, by just not buying their stuff. Also...the ability to turn away from the world and it's judgments on success and failure needs to be cultivated, you need to understand your head and learn that nearly all the good things are created inside. Stoicism should be acquired, because even if you have the ability to remain ultra-virtuous you can be sure others will come along and f*** things up before long.

I keep returning to the survivorship bias. The visible success are a small outcrop of all the necessary failures. In many fields, the average level of achievement is very, very low. Think of actors in L.A., the vast majority of whom are waiting tables, so the cliche runs, waiting for their big break. Their level of achievement is zero to date and mostly likely zero in the future. In this I can comfort myself with being statistically bang on target.

In most endeavors outside of the well-run profession the majority of people will fail. That's why it's important to find some work you enjoy or that pays well enough and you can live with.

And yet there's always a secret success, the germ of which is a kind of madness, a refusal to live purely externally and be judged on appearances. Reality is out there, but directly inaccessible to us all, so the construction we perceive is wholly subjective. In short, cultivate your garden.

Pangloss used now and then to say to Candide: "There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts."

"Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but let us cultivate our garden."
The end of Candide
Related posts tagged 'happiness'.

May 26, 2008

Computing on the backs of beetles

For decades, scientists have dreamed of computer chips that manipulate light rather than electricity. [...] For now, though, optical computing remains a dream.

Enter a beetle known as Lamprocyphus augustus. In a study published this week in Physical Review E, researchers at the University of Utah describe how the inch-long Brazilian beetle's iridescent green scales are composed of chitin arranged by evolution in precisely the molecular configuration that has confounded the would-be fabricators of optical computers. [...]

"Optical computers could do in a second what now takes days or weeks," said Bartl. "And we're providing the materials."
Full story at

Related post:

"...there are certain problems, such as folding proteins, that for humans [and their computers] seem to be intractable, but for nature are easy, instantly done..." Intractability vs Evolution

May 25, 2008

Shopping with your genitals

About half way through a talk called Totalitarian Consumerism and the Death of Citizenship by Benjamin Barber [details and MP3 - look for the little speaker icon - at the link], and I'm sure it will develop better, but it starts from the well-worn premise that, in developed countries, all our needs are met and now the market has to construct essentially superfluous wants to keep things going, with Barber giving the example of the iPhone. This is an argument that only an intellectual could make, one who doesn't think, or doesn't want to give the impression of thinking, with their genitals.

We're primates, and our main want, after food and shelter, is for some good place in the hierarchy, leading to status / friendship / sex. That kind of thing. A flashy phone, the right pants, a new car - these things are cool, in certain circles, and lead to status / friendship / sex. It's true that the markers themselves are fairly arbitrary - this brand or that - but the underlying values that they represent, obtaining an object of scarcity, rationed either by an underground coolness quotient or the financial barriers to ownership, are genuine markers of social / sexual desirability. Rich guys and cool guys get to f*** more women and hotter women, if they want to, than the poor and uncool. Status counts, and even if you don't fall for the rules of this group [LV, Ferrari, etc], you'll fall for another [insert subculture fetish here], or another [ditto]. Such needs are not really manufactured, but are clamored for.

Obvious question: that accounts for men buying supposedly useless crap, but what about women? I'll be honest and not claim any detailed understanding of their status games, but have no doubt these are operating in some way, as they must do in all healthy folk of both sexes up to, say, 40 or so, the original life expectancy of the species, the age to have raised your own kids beyond sexual maturity.

But I'll finished the talk tomorrow, while washing up, and will no doubt recant all of the above.

May 21, 2008

The Book of Disquiet, text 54

The most contemptible thing about dreams is that everyone has them. In the dark, the errand boy dozes away the day as he leans against the lamp post in the intervals between chores, immersed in thoughts about something or other. I know what he's daydreaming about: the same dreams I plunge into between entries in the summer tedium of the utterly still, silent office.
Text 54
I don't see anything contemptible in the shared quality of dreams. We're all rulers of our heads, at least in theory, and there's reason to feel that someone else's sovereignty in any way detracts from your own.

Had a student come to class today with a low cut top, a push-up bra and plenty to put inside. It was distracting, so I kept trying to avoid her side of the room, but it was like a loose tooth that will nag until you poke it.

Tom Waits says you're innocent when you dream, but I don't know if that holds for daydreams.

I'm innocent until then.

Buy Frank's Wild Years by Tom Waits.
Buy The Book of Disquiet.

This is your brain on drugs

Image lifted from James Kent

James Kent of Dose Nation / Tripzone is a reliably sober reporter on the psychedelic beat. He's not a believer in machine elves or other-dimensional beings, which makes him a good counterpoint to most of the stuff a naive psychonaut is going to encounter as they gather more information, Which is not to totally discount the freakier readings, only to make a strong case for the straight approach of How does this substance change the brain? The beliefs on the wilder fringes of the scene seem no better than other religious mythologies. Far better to deal with what is observable and can be shown to be true, than to make up grand theories about things that can never be proven. Still, we'll see looks more foolish in late December, 2012.

Probably me, but for reasons unconnected with the content of this post.

Anyway, sometime ago James Kent produced an excellent classroom poster PDF of his signal theory of psychedelic effects, subtitled "Hallucinogens and recurrent excitation in cortical circuitry", available at the link. No drug education class should be without one. He's now written a new paper developing the same ideas in a much more technical fashion. The title is: Selective 5-HT2A agonist hallucinogens: A review of pharmacological interaction and corollary perceptual effects, and it can be found here.

Related post: A methodology for studying alternate reality

May 20, 2008


William Steig - for details click the picture

Somewhere in Bukowski there's a line about being young and talking about death and wanting to die fucking, and then getting older and hoping to die quietly, alone. This is how I feel about fame.

When I was in school it seemed life would be wonderful if everyone knew who I was, but the older I get the more obscurity suits me. How lucky I am that a) I'm still alive, and b) almost nobody knows what I've done. Life becomes a secret, an action and not a performance, and everything is quickly forgotten.

The Book of Disquiet, text 69

Life for us is whatever we imagine it to be. To the peasant with his one field, that field is everything, it is an empire. To Caesar with his vast empire which still feels cramped, that empire is a field. The poor man has an empire, the great man only a field. The truth is that we possess nothing but our own senses; it is on them, then, and not on what they perceive, that we must base the reality of our life.
Text 69
More from Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet.

May 19, 2008

Things fall apart

'Many of the people we are seeing borrowed money over the past couple of years simply because they could. I had a young semi-professional in last week who owns her home and had borrowed £25,000. When I asked her what she had borrowed the money for, she couldn't tell me.'
I'm frugal to a fault, i.e. stingy. For me the fear of being destitute is perhaps more real than it should be, but I plan with the idea that everything may fall apart tomorrow and I'll have to flee / rebuild my life with little more than my passport, bank IDs, a set of clothes and my glasses.

I'll spend a little money that I've earned - the work's been done, it's in bank, but I'm not going to sell my future and buy things on credit. I don't have that kind of confidence, nor that kind of need for things.

But I'm lucky, I have cheap tastes and my wife is the same. We have no children and our cat is a low maintenance animal. So for me these choices are very easy, we get our thrills from our heads.

Stories about middle class people in debt amaze me. Spending to keep up with their peers, who are also in debt. Trying to buy happiness, which can be done, but you need to be very careful with the dose, as a tolerance is known.

My life is all about trying to find the weaknesses in my system and then constructing workarounds to exploit these to get the outcomes that I want, or rather that I need, and that I kid myself into wanting. I have so many weaknesses that there's a lot of potential for improvement, a lot of tweaking to be done, and one way is to keeping jumping on and off the hedonic treadmill.

A case in point, as I think about going almost full time with proofreading in the next year or so, is the understanding that teaching a class or two every day is probably necessary to ensure that I a) get dressed, b) talk to people, and c) don't start drinking before nightfall.

Related post: Taleb on f*** you money

May 18, 2008

Market forces

A big increase in bicycles on the roads lately in Tainan, with anecdotes [and Reuters, click the picture] suggesting this is due to gas prices. This city is ideal for bike rides, it's not so big, and many people live downtown. The only drawback is the weather - too hot if you have to be somewhere fast, well-dressed and dry.

It's cool to see market forces in action with such a beneficial outcome.

May 16, 2008

Dig the new breed

The Guardian has an article on European middle-class 20-, 30-somethings waking up to reality - stagnating or declining living standards, and, although unspoken, the rise of other regions, primarily Asia. My main reaction on reading it was 'duh!' - that goooood thing of global competition for blue collar jobs is hitting the white collar types, and things are not as much fun any more. The bigger picture is that it can't be fixed, but the article doesn't go there, it just recites various stories of apparent woe from overeducated people who still manage to pay the rent, eat out, etc, but who worry that there's no steady path of improvement and prosperity ahead. The odd thing is, for students of the humanities - as many of them are - it oughtn't matter so much - the consolations of philosophy and all that. And why is a higher living standard than one's parents so essential, especially when those parents had it good? Extracts follow, full article here.

The kids learning to swim at the pool near Via Casilina, in a working-class suburb of Rome, could not ask for better qualified instructors. One is a literature graduate with a masters in communications from Brussels, while another, Antonio di Martino, is an aerospace engineer.
'Some of the pressure to graduate also slipped away when I saw one friend get his degree and then only earn €500 a month at an Italian space firm and another get €800 a month at the European Space Agency.'
On Friday night, Lorenzo, 35, was on a train heading to work a nightshift for a major American sales website's Berlin branch. He trained as a historian and a photographer. 'The pay is just about OK - €2,700 a month for a 40-hour week - but it is hardly the job I dreamed of doing,' he said.

With inflation soaring, property prices sky high, wages relatively static, labour markets gridlocked and sluggish or slowing economies, Nathalie, Lorenzo, Arias and Di Martino are among tens of millions of Europeans raised to expect that their degrees and diplomas will assure them a relatively high quality of life who are now realising that the world has changed. The disappointment is a shock with big political, social, cultural, even demographic consequences.
Freelance architect Emilio Tinoco Vertiz, 32, earns just €1,000 a month. 'Who needs architects when no one wants to build houses?' he said. In Spain people such as Emilio are known from their pay as the 'mileuristas' (thousand euro-ers). In France they are the 'babylosers' - a term coined by sociologist Louis Chauvel to contrast them with 'babyboomers'.
Only eight years ago, 62 per cent of Germans were in the middle-class bracket, according to a second study. Key markers of middle-class status - such as overseas holidays - are disappearing or becoming blurred. 'I haven't been away for two years,' said Aurel Thurn, 38, who works for an art gallery in Berlin and has top-level qualifications, 10 years' experience and speaks four languages fluently. 'I have enough money for my rent, my telephone and food. But that's it.' [Full article here]

Out here [Taiwan] most students still study science and engineering, with various forms of design about as flaky as things get. I'm not saying this is a good thing overall, just a good thing if you want to get a job related to your training. Not many folk studying philosophy, film or literature. In addition, engineers out here will work for less than €1,000 a month, and still be making good pay, and they'll work hard, knowing their job might be about to move to China. People live closer to the reality of things out here, there are fewer invisible or nameless forces.

Looking to the past and looking to future are both difficult and somewhat disinteresting to me - see the previous post. I used to do both far too much, and I always misremembered and / or dwelled on the past, filled the future with all kinds of nonsense. These days I can just about manage to look at what's happening now, and that's enough to fill a life.

May 15, 2008

Historian vs Futurist

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future"
The past is all we can talk about - predictions are just extrapolations, but it's the future we'll all be living in.

Niall Ferguson and Peter Schwartz, a futurist, had a debate the other week at the Long Now Foundation. MP3 here. Schwartz came off the worse, if only because it's so much easier for a futurist to get it wrong (it's almost guaranteed) than for a historian. There's one past, but many futures.

The one line summary is that Ferguson is a pessimist and Schwartz an optimist. I veer between the two, happy today but aware that it could all go very wrong, very soon. Consequently I see myself as a good boy scout, although in practice I tend to be ill-prepared.

Without pessimism there's less incentive to work for a decent future. All the optimists I know - something will turn up - are getting picked off by reality, one by one. Meanwhile, the pessimists are grinding themselves down...

Consider climate change - is the good work being done by those who think it’s not a problem or by those who think it is? Or is no good work being done? Be pessimistic about the future but work towards a better one, which also seems to be behind Ferguson’s liberalism [or conservatism, for American readers].

More Niall Ferguson on MP3

May 14, 2008

Visa work

William Steig illustration for Listen, Little Man
You've been more successful in winning your freedom than in securing it for yourself and others. This I knew long ago. What I did not understand was why time and again, after fighting your way out of a swamp, you sank into a worse one. Then groping and cautiously looking about me, I gradually found out what has enslaved you: YOUR SLAVE DRIVER IS YOU YOURSELF. No one is to blame for your slavery but you yourself. No one else, I say!
Wilhelm Reich, Listen Little Man, p13
Nearing the end of my first attempt to get a permanent residency visa, which requires so many hoops, the majority of which are to show that I have a clean police record in the UK [my country of origin]. Have no idea if crimes committed outside the UK or Taiwan would show up anywhere in the system. It doesn't bother me - I'm internationally clean.

Working too much and running around doing paperwork, with the eventual aim of being able to wave my visa - if / when it arrives several months down the line - and negotiate a somewhat more humane schedule of no split shifts. All the while trying to ramp up my proofreading hours so that I can spend as little time as possible in the classroom while still getting forced / paid to work with people, otherwise I'd never get dressed and would start drinking too early.

"Know thyself" - well, I do, and consequently need a whole trunk of workarounds.

May 12, 2008

A game of chance and skill

Scientific American highlights a study that suggests the Red Baron was as much lucky as the best ace of his war.

He racked up 80 official air combat victories—the biggest winning streak on either side—before being shot down on April 21, 1918...

German records list 2,894 WWI...[...]...[analyze the pilots' defeat rate—their total chances of being shot down after each flight. That rate started off high—25 percent for the first flight—but fell sharply; by the 10th flight it had leveled off below 5 percent, consistent with the weaker pilots getting picked off and the remaining aces having similar skills in the air. At that rate, the researchers conclude that the odds of one in 2,894 pilots racking up an 80-win streak are about 30 percent—not so remarkable after all.
Still, I wouldn't bet my life on a on being the one in 2,894 with a 3 in 10 chance of success, with success being an 80-win streak that ended being
hit by a single .303 bullet, which caused such severe damage to his heart and lungs that it must have produced a very speedy death.

May 11, 2008

Deception, trickery, vanity, falsehood

It turns out I highlighted all the right sections in that history of ancient Chinese philosophy. Right in that they still make sense and seem to be the important things on each page, although it's notable that despite all that's happened to me in the 11 yrs since I read the book - the changes I thought I'd gone through - I'm still turned on by things that make a case for inaction, disengagement and ease.

Digression. When I was a child I heard about Howard Hughes and wanted more than anything to be a millionaire recluse, and when that began to recede from probability I thought about being a monk, like Thomas Merton, and then - due to lack of belief - extreme criminality seemed to be a way that would yield an impregnable hermitage. As a halfway house I live in Taiwan, where I can move around as abstract as I choose.

He died in Bangkok on 10 December 1968, having touched a poorly grounded electric fan while stepping out of his bath.
Wikipedia on Merton
Still, the dominant themes in Taiwanese life are more Confucian than Taoist - lots of rituals, rules and hierarchies. Having said that, chaos and going with the flow are clearly the ruling spirits on the roads.
Now let me tell you what man essentially is. The eyes desire to look on beauty, the ears to listen to music, the mouth to discern flavors, intent and energy to find fulfillment. Long life for man is at most a hundred years , and the mean eighty, at the least sixty; excluding sickness and hardship, bereavement and mourning, worries and troubles, the days left to us to open our mouths in a smile will in the course of a month be four or five at most. Heaven and earth are boundless, man’s death has its time, when he takes up that life provided for a time to lodge in the midst of the boundless, his passing is as sudden as a thoroughbred steed galloping past a chink in the wall. Whoever cannot gratify his intents and fancies and find nurture for the years destined fro him, is not the man who has fathomed the Way.

Everything you say I reject. Away with you, quick, run back home, not a word more about it. Your Way is a crazy obsession, a thing of deception, trickery, vanity, falsehood. It will not serve to keep the genuine in us intact, what is there to discuss?
“Robber Zhi” to a Confucian, Zhuangzi 29:48–53,
from Disputers of the Tao, p64

The secret of happiness is this...

Souls of Mischief - 93 Till Infinity

Something like a mission statement from Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness. [Also available for free on this Japanese site with a number of strange images and gifs.]

The world is vast and our own powers are limited. If all our happiness is bound up entirely with our personal circumstances it is difficult not to demand of life more than it has to give. And to demand too much is the surest way of getting even less than is possible. [...] The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.
Which is all well and good - drinking beer with a stack of books on the balcony, until I was driven to retreat by a couple of mosquitoes I was too lazy / slow / compassionate to kill - but the flaw in the above is the injunction to 'not demand of life more than it has to give'. How to test the limits of this and be confident one isn't holding back not out of timidity, but wisdom?

Another book in the stack is Disputers of the Tao, by A.C. Graham, which I picked up in Shanghai 11 years ago and read, made notes in. Am curious what my old self felt important. Chuang-Tzu [aka Zhuang-Zi] has the idea of 'the untroubled idler', 'interested only in doing nothing', and it's one that's always appealed to me. This is the tension / dilemma - do nothing or work furiously? I did very little for years, but now I lack the balls to be a true idler, or maybe just the resources.

Which brings me to the third leg of this post, something else I read today, entry 38 in Nassim Taleb's online notebook [scroll down].
I am involved in an activity called “glander”, more precisely “glandouiller”. It means “to idle”, though not “to be in a state of idleness” (it is an active verb). Gandouiller denotes enjoyment. [...]Glander is how I write my books, how I brew ideas. Remarkably it best describes the notion of lifting all inhibitions to “tinker intellectually in an undirected stochastic process aiming at capturing some idea that will enrich your corpus”. “Researching” or “thinking” smack of a top-down activity. Newton was my kind of a “glandeur”; In [Dijksterhuis 2004]:
George Spencer Brown has famously said about Sir Isaac Newton that “to arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behavior of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is that one needs to know.”
My doing nothing is dangerously close to doing nothing. Everyone knows someone who wanted to be an artist of some kind, who was dedicated to their craft and knew they were going to succeed, because perseverance and talent were the keys to success, and they had both. At the very least, they had the former, and success, as Woody Allen promised, is mostly turning up. Everyone knows someone like that. Many people, [most?], have been or remain someone like that. But not many people pay the rent as artists, there's plenty of losers hidden behind each winner. Likewise, my doing nothing is no doubt doing it's part in the complex math of reality to support someone who'll bring something useful back from their lounging.

But that's looking at things only from the standpoint of $ and acclaim. The idea is to live a somewhat stoic life, immune from the highs and lows of fortune. The work of real value is internal, which is in any case where all happiness comes from.

Related post: The myth of 1,000 true fans

May 10, 2008

Mishima in leather

At 16 Mishima receives a letter from his father:

I hear that some high and mighty writers speak of you as a genius, or precocious, or some kind of deviate, or just unpleasant. I think it's high time you took stock of yourself.

"Most writers are perfectly normal in the head and just carry on like wild men; I behave normally but I'm sick inside." [Mishima in conversation, 1960s?]
This morning I handed over the money for a new scooter, a Yamaha GTR FI 125, and almost at once had doubts. Had hoped to pay and get the paper work done fast, so I could ride into the hills and let the thrill counter any regret, but have to wait until Monday [now Sat] to pick it up.

Can't understand folk who get a thrill when spending money; unless it's other people's cash I've no interest in the sport.

May 09, 2008

Don't ask

A monk asked Zen Master Kuangguo of the Luohan Monastery, "After you have passed away, if people should ask 'Where has the Master gone?, what shall I say?" The Master said, "In future, when you come across some enlightened Masters, discuss this question with him, you might learn something." The monk asked, "Who are the enlightened masters?" Kuangguo replied, "The enlightened would not have asked this question."
- Recorded Dialogues of Zen Master Kuangguo of Luohan, from Jinge Record of the Transmission of the Lamp
Am supposed to be deciding on a replacement for my death-trap motorcycle, but knowing nothing am just trawling forums and will choose whatever acceptable machine looks best. Am gearing up for the inevitable post-purchase sense of emptiness and regret, although I may be surprised when I take it out for a ride in the country. It will cost around US $2,000, maybe less if I get a cash discount and something for the death-trap. It will be the largest purchase that I've ever made. I'm 38 years old.

May 08, 2008

Drinking quietly, doing nothing

Zen, for when all else has failed.

They say patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but I'd add art and blind obedience / brain death too. Possibly also TV, but definitely also Zen. You're never too far gone to come home to Zen, which welcomes the dumb and deranged, asking only that you're willing to give up your self, a bargain that even the devil is supposed to offer pretty good terms on.

When I was younger - and I was always younger - my aim was sitting quietly, doing nothing. That never really paid rent, so now I'm a riot of activity, but I still have way too many books on Zen and Taoism, it's Chinese cousin.

Neither of which, in their original form, cross the line from philosophies to religions - still no need for a man in the sky- and neither of which I mean to disparage in the second paragraph, above.

It's just I came across a Zen book today and put it in the slow-skim pile to let me feel better about failing in so many other areas. Zen isn't impressed with worldly success (except when it is), but either way it's a welcoming discipline that offers a wholesome alternative to madness / depression / suicide. None of which I'm feeling, but it's always good to build reserves ahead of time, to get ready for the return to the mean, and I'm feeling good enough today that some crash is due.

Slight digression. Success, money, sex, fame. It's what the game is supposed to about, right? Pick any two of those and you've got it made. Just ask Elvis:

Little Man

William Steig illustration for Listen, Little Man

I have a thing for angry books written by people who feel they have nothing to lose. The genre must contain a lot of trash, but the works that last tend to have good things inside, or at least certain lines that work at certain times. One of my favorites is Listen, Little Man [1945], available for free [albeit with no paragraph gaps in the second half] by clicking the title, or from Amazon by clicking the picture. The book is Wilhem Reich's reaction to the rise of fascism, to the 'little men' who, when given a chance of freedom, voted for uniforms, war, regulations and a false sense of security. I like it a lot, and aim to slowly get some of it posted on here.

For now I'm (happily) stuck in my own things.

May 06, 2008

Theory / practice

Busy and tired, but want to post something, and this idea came to surface in a lull during class, when I was feeling particularly 'on' about my ability to teach a certain thing, a skill that I never got from reading books but had to learn, like a craftsman, by doing again and again, (and failing - I'm not a natural teacher).

The idea was that however foolish people are in vast areas of their lives, everyone has an area of expertise, something that they know way more about than they should and from which something useful can be extracted. Although, of course, like craftsmen, not all knowledge can be easily codified, and most of what is important remains tacit - things that can't be learned from books.

Anyway, as with everything, it's been expressed better elsewhere before, and this time it's from Geoffrey Miller's answer to The Edge question for 2008 [What have you changed your mind about? - many interesting answers, worth a download / print]. Excerpts follow:

I used to think ... that the intricacies of human nature were not just dark, but depopulated — that a few exploratory novelists and artists had sought the sources of our cognitive Amazons and emotional Niles, but that nobody actually lived there.

Now, I've changed my mind — there are local experts about almost all aspects of human nature, and the human sciences should find their way by asking them for directions. These 'locals' are the thousands or millions of bright professionals and practitioners in each of thousands of different occupations. They are the people who went to our high schools and colleges, but who found careers with higher pay and shorter hours than academic science. Almost all of them know important things about human nature that behavioral scientists have not yet described, much less understood. Marine drill sergeants know a lot about aggression and dominance. Master chess players know a lot about if-then reasoning. Prostitutes know a lot about male sexual psychology. School teachers know a lot about child development. Trial lawyers know a lot about social influence. The dark continent of human nature is already richly populated with autochthonous tribes, but we scientists don't bother to talk to these experts.


For example, suppose a psychology Ph.D. student wants to study emotional adaptations such as fear and panic, that evolved for avoiding predators. She learns about the existing research (mostly by Clark Barrett at UCLA), but doesn't have any great ideas for her dissertation research. The usual response is three years of depressed soul-searching, random speculation, and fruitless literature reviews. This phase of idea-generation could progress much more happily if she just picked up the telephone and called some of the people who spend their whole professional lives thinking about how to induce fear and panic. Anyone involved in horror movie production would be a good start: script-writers, monster designers, special effects technicians, directors, and editors. Other possibilities would include talking with:
  • Halloween mask designers,
  • horror genre novelists,
  • designers of 'first person shooter' computer games,
  • clinicians specializing in animal phobias and panic attacks,
  • Kruger Park safari guides,
  • circus lion-tamers,
  • dog-catchers,
  • bull-fighters,
  • survivors of wild animal attacks, and
  • zoo-keepers who interact with big cats, snakes, and raptors.

A few hours of chatting with such folks would probably be more valuable in sparking some dissertation ideas than months of library research.

May 04, 2008

Sunday - when idiots go to church

Click to enlarge. From Mr Fish at Harpers

Christians shouldn't be offended - their faith gets them into paradise for eternity, while I get to burn in hell for the duration. In their eyes, the joke's on me.

Oddly enough, in ancient Rome Christians were called atheists, because of all the gods they didn't believe in.
Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.
Richard Dawkins

May 02, 2008

Cognitive surplus

We have a TV, but no connection, because there's nothing worth watching. Things come out on DVD, but they mean very little. I realized the other day that I pay for hardly any media save for books. I don't buy newspapers, magazines, CDs or DVDs, and the movies I do watch are generally pirate copies rented from a local store. The owner pirates them because legal copies of many interesting movies are not sold in Taiwan. Books I'm happy to pay for, for a number of reasons, but perhaps mainly because the physical object is such an important part of consumption. For other forms this isn't true. What's more, I don't really care what happens to the other forms, because the needs they meet, if real, will still be met.

A few things from other places related to this, that if I had the drive I'd synthesize more thoroughly

There was a good post the other week called Is Content Worthless?, extracts below:

Content may be king, but, ironically, its perceived value today is being driven towards zero. In the eyes of consumers, content is becoming a commodity -- more a commoner than a king. [...]

Everyone focuses on piracy, but there actually six related reasons for the devaluation of content. The first is supply and demand. Demand -- the number of consumers and their available leisure time - is relatively constant, but supply -- online content -- has grown enormously in the last decade. [...]

The second is the loss of physical form. It just seems natural to value a physical thing more highly than something intangible. [...]

The third reason is that acquiring content is increasingly frictionless. It's often easier, particularly for young people, to access content on the Internet than through traditional means. [...]

Fourth is that most new media business models are ad-supported rather than pay per view or subscription. If there's no cost to the user, why should consumers see the content as valuable, and if some content is free, why not all of it? [...]

Fifth is market forces in the technology industry. […] ...non-professionals, long denied access to distribution, rush to use the new technologies, as do pirates of professional content. As a result, technological innovation reduces the market share of paid professional content.

Finally, there's culture. A generation of users has grown up indifferent or hostile to copyright, particularly in music, movies and software. [Full article here]

People like making things, and is much of the professional media, the kind that attracts and earns the big $, all that good? I have more fun messing around with a music editor [Acoustica Mixcraft - a GarageBand for Windows] than with listening to other people's music. My stuff isn't good, but it's mine.

This leads into an interesting article on the 'cognitive surplus' that has supposedly opened up now that people watch less TV and spend more time doing creative things online. Excerpts follow, but the whole thing is here:
Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened--rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before--free time.And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first... [...] Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society. The early phase for taking advantage of this cognitive surplus, the phase I think we're still in, is all special cases. [...]

And I'm willing to raise that to a general principle. It's better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, "If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too." And that's message--I can do that, too--is a big change. This is something that people in the media world don't understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race--consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you'll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it 's three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share. [Full article here]

A final quote, to patch together things and really add little of my own. It doesn't matter. This blog was started to take the place of the index cards I used to note down things of interest in my reading, with the idea I'd have a box of cards full of ideas that set me off in new directions, a box of feelings to be accessed any time. So, as I was putting together the above I took a break with a coffee on the balcony and took a Henry Miller anthology from the stack of slow skim, drop in anywhere books I keep to read / reread very slowly [The Book of Disquiet being the current ultra-slow skim fave], and it fell open and my eyes landed on these lines:
All art, I firmly believe, will one day disappear. But the artist will remain, and life itself will not become "an art", but art, i.e., will definitely and for all time usurp the field.
Make yourself something today.

May 01, 2008

Mario many-worlds traffic death

What I lack in logic I often make up for in certainty, it's another one of my winning qualities. I get the idea of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics about as well as any other innumerate liberal arts graduate. My main objection is where would it all go? But that's not the point of this post.

I had a minor traffic accident the other night. I wanted to make a turn and a car backed up and hit my motorcycle, making it / me topple over into the road. Fortunately the important lights were red, so it wasn't into the path of a vehicle, but still I felt the rush of adrenalin, boosted by the fumes from the gasoline that leaked out of the tank. The sense of death being just a few seconds / centimeters away, and how many times I've been in situations like that. For all that my life is or is not, there've been many occasions when things should've gone a lot worse. Hit by a car and falling down in a small pool of gasoline, it felt like death streaming around me, as if, in most other other worlds, something terrible had happened.

It made me think of this video:

Which is what? It's someone doing a level of a Mario game with all the failed attempts / dead Marios overlayed. Scroll down this until So what’s this about quantum physics? for more details , and here's where I originally came across it.

My motorcycle is 20 yrs old and in very bad repair. I'm going to buy a new scooter and pay attention when I drive.