Friday, 27 September 2013

On Seeing Patterns (On Vi Hart)

Everything I have seen by the 'mathemusician' ('mathemagician') Vi Hart has been mind-blowing and inspiringly brilliant, all presented in her very charming half-folksy, half-genius-showoff style. I particularly enjoyed this (30-minute long) clever meditation on 12-tone music/the nature of art/the insanity of copyright law/the psychology of pattern-finding. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

On Being Grateful For Small Things

At one particular low period of my life, I decided to make a list of things I liked. This turned out to be a very instructive exercise. Many things that made the list were things that I already had or that were very easy to obtain, so the world started to seem quite manageable. After I made the list, I started eating a lot of pre-cut pineapple, which I could buy at my local grocery store. It cheered me up greatly. It is so nice when someone else cuts up fruit for you.

Here's a selection of good things from my list.
- Drinking earthy red wine
- Watching epic films that take place in ancient times
- Having it rain when I am supposed to water the lawn
- Beauty
- Exquisitely detailed bone or ivory carvings
- Religions that have a different God for every human need
- Probability theory
- Having stereo speakers in the kitchen
- Visiting extremely populous cities
- The quality of the light at twilight
- Anything sour with lime
- Solo piano music
- Witticisms
- Stocks with a P/E ratio under 10
- Good teeth
- Digital cameras
- The computer language LISP
- The incense they use in Catholic cathedrals
- Basil, fresh ginger, and garlic
- Japanese furniture
- Dishwashers
- Chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa
- Hammocks in the woods
- Walking in old growth forests
- Floating on my back in the ocean like a piece of driftwood
- Sleeping
- Having an umbrella with me when it rains
- Old trees
- The art of Tom Phillips
- A high speed Internet connection on a cell phone
- Drinking Calvados after a meal
- Ouzo
- The Montreal Jazz Festival
- Seeing people I love smiling
- Eating Greek lamb
- Politeness
- 'Bring your own wine' restaurants
- Bonsai trees that are older than I am
- Champagne
- Public displays of affection
- Watching the ocean from the back of a boat
- Things that are dappled by the sun
- Rice paddies at sunset
- Five-year light bulbs
- Automatic garage door openers
- Goat cheese
- Portabello mushrooms
- Indian, Japanese, and Thai food
- Spring skiing
- Salt and vinegar potato chips
- Seeing my friends in love
- Generous hosts
- Bed quilts when it is cold
- Soft beds
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Monty Python
- Travelling without a goal (the dérive)
- Nectarines that are perfectly ripe so the pit falls right out when you cut them in half
- Pre-cut mango and pineapple
- Recursion
- Idealists
- Cruise control
- The game of 'Go'

Friday, 20 September 2013

On Self-surgery

I have had reason in my writing life to consider a topic that few people ever look into: the topic of self-surgery. Only a few people have the combination of misfortune and courage that could make self-surgery possible. Merely hacking off a limb to escape from some horrible trap hardly even counts. Any mammal worth the name would do as much. I am interested in more difficult surgery. In 1921, a Dr. Evan Kane took out his own appendix, to show that local anaesthesia was a good idea. His case brings to mind perhaps the most famous self-surgeon, Dr. Leonid Rogozov, who also cut out his own appendix, as a matter of necessity, in Antarctica in 1961, using a novocaine solution for local anaesthesia. These two had the advantages of being medically-trained and having access to good pharmaceuticals. More recently, in 2000, a Mexican farmer's wife, Mrs. Inés Pérez, gave herself a C-section with a kitchen knife, using only a few glasses of liquor against the pain. The operation, while inelegant, succeeded in saving both mother and child.

I admire these people intensely. They make me proud to be a human being.

It is interesting to think about why this is so.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

On Hidden Noise

Marcel Duchamp’s (1916) piece called With Hidden Noise is kept in the Arensburg collection near The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, at The Philadelphia Museum of Art. With Hidden Noise consists of a ball of twine secured with bolts between two plaques of brass. When he was putting it together, Duchamp invited his friend and collector Walter Arensberg to add a small object inside the twine. Nobody knows what it is. Clearly, the essence of With Hidden Noise is the hidden object.

The idea of hidden noise plays a role in my novel The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even in various ways. There are always unknowns inside things and people, even inside ourselves. At one point my narrator, named Isaac (though he has another name too), discusses the value of Duchamp's piece:

“What dollar value can we put on the ball of faded boric twine known as With Hidden Noise? It is impossible to answer. Duchamp made the only copy of the piece for his friend Walter Arensburg. Arensburg donated it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains today. It has never been put on the market. In the normal sense of the word, the piece has no value at all.  Only market price determines the value of art. With Hidden Noise has never had a market. It is art that does not act like art.
    When Duchamp was asked if he knew how much Arensburg had paid for his fabulous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (which was $240, in case you are wondering), Duchamp replied “No, I wasn’t interested. I never knew the price.” He went on to add: “It’s the same for With Hidden Noise...what’s secret is the price!”
    It pleased him to be unable to say what anything was worth.
    If it went on the art market today, would With Hidden Noise be worth as much as one million dollars?
    Oh yes.
    Let’s be serious.
    Oh yes.
    I am definitely sure that With Hidden Noise is worth much more than a million dollars. I can be definitely sure because, if it went on the market today for just a million bucks, I would sell my house so I could buy it.”

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

On Things Not Being What They Seem To Be

Claes Oldenburg's (1962) Ghost Drum Set is one piece of visual art I have always loved, ever since I saw it at the George Pompidou museum in Paris when I was in my 20s (many decades ago now). There is always something a little bit thrilling about things that just cannot be what they nevertheless seem to be (Oldenburg's speciality).

Saturday, 7 September 2013

On Some Untrue Facts About Me

[All these statements were randomly-generated by my freeware text generation program, JanusNode.]

        I have never used white bread recreationally.
        I have never used Worcestershire sauce in an immoral way.
        I did not invest in punk.
        It is absurd to be pretending that I called Elizabeth Taylor a "pottle-deep sack of neuroses".
        I am not the kind of person who would knowingly enjoy priestess-subjugating.
        I don't know why unskilled laborers are saying that I wanted to ban curry.
        I emphatically deny that I touched Al Gore's nipple.
        It is simply untrue that I called Hank Aaron a "strange ass cooer".
        Contrary to what you may have seen on the Internet I have never used maraschino cherry juice to do anything unnatural.
        I am not the kind of person who would knowingly get caught drinking American beer.
        I did get caught being statistically illiterate.
        I did destroy forgiving your enemy. 

        I did ingest whiskey.
        I will not deny that I did get caught gossiping.
        I will not deny that I did get interested in mischief.
I will not deny that I did get caught having sex. 
        I did get caught repressing emotion.
        OK, I did have sexual relations with an aardvark.

Friday, 6 September 2013

On How You Can Write

One of my favourite poems is William Carlos William's (1934) poem This Is Just To Say:

                I have eaten
                the plums
                that were in
                the icebox

                and which
                you were probably
                for breakfast

                Forgive me
                they were delicious
                so sweet
                and so cold

To me this poem is the poetic equivalent of J.D. Salinger's (1953) book-length Nine Stories, which blew my mind when I read it 35 years ago.

Until I read each of these, I did not know you were allowed to write like that.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

On Tending Lawn In The Era of George Bush

Ah, when you have your own blog you can publish anything you like. How liberating. The tyranny of The Other, overthrown. Here is a parody of Robert Frost's wonderful poem Mending Wall that no one except you and I has ever read.

I wrote this some years ago, in deep despair [as who wasn't in those days, before Barack Obama taught us how stupidly gullible we had always been, before we were all just resigned to the dull ways of this world, when we still clung with such simple and naive hope to the belief that things would eventually get better?] after the casual killer George Bush Jr. had– incomprehensibly to all non-Americans– been invited to blunder his way through a second term as US president.


                       Tending Lawn [in the Era of George Bush Jr.]

                        Something there is that doesn’t love the wild
                        That thrives in Other’s houses and their lawns
                        And spews its vile seed forth in the wind,
                        And brings unwelcome Chaos to our lives.
                        The work of insects is that kind of thing:
                        I must go after them and make repair
                        Where they have left not one blade on my lawn
                        But they will not come running out of hiding
                        To help my killing work. The bugs I mean,
                        No one else knows they live or cares they live,
                        But all through my life I have sensed them there.
                        I ask my neighbor to help with killing;
                        If any day we meet between our homes
                        And point out the disorder as we talk.
                        To each the vermin that fall to either.
                        And some are huge, and some so hard to see
                        They must be the devil's to have survived here:
                        "Go forth, oh Fiends, and multiply on lawns!"
                        I wear my fingers rough with killing them.
                        It is not just a kind of old man's game,
                        My fight against Them. It means something more:
                        Where Others thrive I should not need to point:
                        My neighbour should see that order's breaking down.
                        My good advice will never get across
                        And save that mad chaos that he calls a life.
                        I only know good killing means good living.
                        Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
                        If I could put that notion in his head:
                        "Why can't you make a nice lawn? Isn't it
                        Order you crave? And here you have a chance.
                        Before I'd buy again I'd ask to know
                        What kind of killing all my neighbours do.
                        And if they knew which Others give offense.
                        Something there is that doesn't love what lives,
                        That wants it dead." I could say 'Us' to him,
                        But it's not just Us I know, and I'd rather
                        He said it for himself. I watch him now,
                        Playing with his children, with one small one
                        In each arm, laughing as their life runs wild.
                        I am alone; I have no time for play,
                        Or love or friends or laughs or carefree times.
                        They do not understand what living is.
                        I say again, "Good killing means good living."

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

On Not Being Able To Touch Our Treasure

Andy Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. In the era of blogs, reality TV, and cynically-manufactured pop music, his remark seems  amazingly prescient.

However, Warhol could have gone further. In the future that is today, everyone gets to be famous for fifteen seconds. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media allow us to achieve fleeting 'micro-fame', that lasts for each of our 'micro-fans' only as long as it takes them to click 'Like' or 'Re-Tweet'.  When the button is clicked, the fandom relationship ends. A few seconds after he has liked you, your micro-fan,  now clicking other buttons, will not possibly be able to remember your on-line handle, let alone your real name.

Many Twitter users who have nothing to say (and are saying it) have acquired tens of thousands of followers, while tweeting sporadically about their morning toast, the weather, and the fact that they have annoyingly misplaced their running shoes. To amass so many followers while offering them so little requires actual effort; boring, relentless, persistent work.

What are those people working for, when they are working to get all those micro-fans?  Why do humans crave this kind of highly abstracted micro-fame? Why do we find it so satisfying? Why are we the kind of animal that is willing to work for the mere idea of something good, a pointer to a thing that we cannot actually grasp? 

The Jewish/Catholic/atheist mystic Simone Weil suggested in her book Gravity & Grace: "To ascertain exactly what the miser lost whose treasure was stolen; thus we should learn much."

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

On David Hume As My Kindred Spirit

I am, I believe (at least, I think I do), a natural-born skeptic. I firmly believe that I remember five events from my childhood (all before I hit puberty) that lead me to believe that I came out of the womb a skeptic.
  1. I once vomited while I was in my mother's (Anglican) church, due to some sort of stomach bug. I remember thinking that this involuntary act was proof that God either did not exist or (but perhaps I did not really go this far at the time) that God did not care. God as I understood Him would not let me (or anyone else) vomit in His church. [This event plays a role in my (as-yet unpublished, first-spawned) novel, Red Stockings For Beginners.]
  2. I remember sitting in our kitchen watching a kettle boil and thinking: "It is totally crazy that the difference between boiling and not boiling depends on such a tiny thing as whether or not the kettle is plugged in." I was young, but I had some idea of the science of electricity and of scientific causality, more generally. Nevertheless, I felt that the difference between being plugged in and not plugged in was absurdly small to have such such a large effect. I was dubious that it could really be so. I thought it might be a con.
  3. I used to lie in bed and imagine that I was not actually living my life, but rather listening to a story that my mother was telling me about one way my life might be. The oddest part is that I had a very distinct picture of my mother, a very large-breasted and sweaty lady from the southern United States, who bore little or no relationship in either biography or appearance to (the woman I assume to be) my real mother.
  4. I used to lie in bed at night and consider, in a rather obsessive way, that it was possible that I was the only real person in the world and everyone else might be a robot. I wondered in particular if my parents could be robots. I considered the fact that they bled when they were cut, and decided they might just be the kind of robots that bled when they were cut. I am very proud of my young philosopher self because I eventually decided that the question was undecidable. I decided that I just had to live with not being sure either way.
  5. I nurtured and loved a vivid memory when I was a child, of floating up the stairs without touching them. I looked forward so much to doing it again one day. Now I assume I must have just dreamt it. But I still remember it.

One might take these facts to be simply signs of early mental instability. But I have had no trouble in my life navigating the apparent reality in which we are embedded as if it were really the only reality. For example: I always plug in my kettle when I want boiling water.

When I encountered the skeptic philosopher David Hume (my first skeptic!) in university, I was so delighted to have encountered a kindred spirit! I had never discussed these ideas with anyone. Until I read Hume, I thought I was the only one who had them. After that I began to realize that I belonged to a club that has existed for centuries.

Today, age 50, I drive a car with a vanity license plate: "I D0UBT".

Monday, 2 September 2013

On 'On Physiognomy'

My Dad gave me a Penguin paperback of Michel De Montaigne's Essays when I was studying philosophy and computer science at McGill University in Montreal. I had never heard of Montaigne, but my Dad seemed very sure that I would like him, so I wanted to read him. I was taking a summer reading course in Greek Philosophy, the only course I needed to graduate, and asked if I could write my term paper on the influence of Greek skepticism on Montaigne. The professor said I could, so I spent a wonderful summer reading Montaigne and the Greek skeptics. I still re-read both, and I hardly re-read anything.

I do love Montaigne: he so human, so real, and quite funny at times. After you read his essays you feel like you have made a new friend.

One of my favourite stories from Montaigne is the one he tells in his essay entitled Of Physiognomy (the essays often end up having little to do with their titles) about how he invited in his enemy's soldiers even though he thought they might kill him.

"...after came four or five of his soldiers, who presented themselves in the same countenance and affright, to get in too; and after them more, and still more, very well mounted and armed, to the number of five-and-twenty or thirty, pretending that they had the enemy at their heels. This mystery began a little to awaken my suspicion; I was not ignorant what an age I lived in, how much my house might be envied, and I had several examples of others of my acquaintance to whom a mishap of this sort had happened. But thinking there was nothing to be got by having begun to do a courtesy, unless I went through with it, and that I could not disengage myself from them without spoiling all, I let myself go the most natural and simple way, as I always do, and invited them all to come in. [...] We make, methinks, a mistake in that we do not enough trust Heaven with our affairs, and pretend to more from our own conduct than appertains to us; and therefore it is that our designs so often miscarry. Heaven is jealous of the extent that we attribute to the right of human prudence above its own, and cuts it all the shorter by how much the more we amplify it. The last comers remained on horseback in my courtyard, whilst their leader, who was with me in the parlour, would not have his horse put up in the stable, saying he should immediately retire, so soon as he had news of his men. He saw himself master of his enterprise, and nothing now remained but its execution. He has since several times said (for he was not ashamed to tell the story himself) that my countenance and frankness had snatched the treachery out of his hands. He again mounted his horse; his followers, who had their eyes intent upon him, to see when he would give the signal, being very much astonished to find him come away and leave his prey behind him."

I miss my Dad.