Objet trouvé: modesty

A great man is always willing to be little. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A modest little person, with much to be modest about. – Winston Churchill

I want to stretch out my tentacles to tackle the idea of modesty. Sound the clarions, hoist the flags, this self-proclaimed writer marches in to lecture about a virtue that has been blemished by the stains of arrogance and self-righteousness from the beginning of text. That writer is anti-consumption, anti-capitalism, and if you don’t commit to end the destruction of the natural world, also anti-you, so he’ll probably offload his praise of Modesty as a vehicle to promote his vegan wonderland of post-consumerist nudist self-absorbed disciples of the Loving Unity and feel good about it. Before you know what has happened, he’d have moved on to his next sermon. His Vision is expanding circles or Truth, and Modesty if the Way to Salvation, to turn you into a blessed celestial elephantine Being of Grace and Glory.

But hold on for a second. Let’s strip off this layer of convenient anti-ideology, this dishonestly cynical modus essendi of lowest possible moral energy levels. It’s getting late, the serpent needs to get rid of his skin. You and I need to find a way again to write large virtues small.

Life is transient. We are guests on this prety blue planet. In fact, we consist of fickle molecules that will be recycled as part of our solar system, which is itself nothing but a speck of dust.
– O, please.

Modesty, being humble, is thinking of yourself – behind closed doors – as a triviality, as just not the thing the world is revolving around. But this is not possible unless we see ourselves as a functional part of something bigger, because as floating egos, cut off from the world around us, there is no way to escape the notion that we are in the center of everything.

The knowledge that we are part of something bigger inevitably makes us feel more important than we are. This feeling can be turned into boasting, a sense of entitlement, and generally the opposite of modesty. But it can also be “put in parentheses” through the application of living irony.
– O, please.

I feel that modesty is an impossible virtue if we follow this logic, a virtue that contradicts itself, a virtue that can not survive its own expression. This does not mean that the virtue is in itself a bad thing. The practice of approaching, circumventing, meandering around impossible virtues might be beneficial to the well-being of our species.
– O, please.

In the case of modesty, our mere intention to be modest can teach us about our innate immodesty, and lead us to live life lightly. Once we learn that we can sing in different registers than those ultra cynical ones that castrate our dear grammatically impossible virtues by portraying them as self-absorbing hypocricy, tainted with the same immoralities they claim to doubt the existence of, we might feel better.
– O, please;-

Drawing by ianbourgeot.com

Objet trouvé: modesty was originally published on Meandering home

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Professor Trompsky #1

Professor Trompsky, welcome to our studio. At 87, do you have any plans for retirement?

Listen, the burden of the world rests on my shoulders. I can’t just give up because the fragility that is slowly but certainly shutting down my body. My responsibilities are grand, and with grandure I shall go to the grave. Can we talk about something less morbid now, provided such a topic exists in the current state of the world? [chuckles]

Yes we can. How would you analyze the current state of political discourse?

It is the fundamental unwillingness to learn from the other side, as people refer to political opponents, that strikes me as dangerous. I don’t see a humorous and convivial back and forth of well-stated arguments, but a general retreat from eloquence and the joy of seeking out a worthy opponent. Believe me, there have been better times for political debate.

What do you suggest as a solution, professor?

Well, there is no panacea. We have to carefully prepare the public for more sophisticated discourse. Right now, they seem to accept very low intellectual standards. We should welcome contrarians at our institutions of higher learning. We should let no student graduate who takes one particular standpoint without seriously questioning it, before their third year in college. Universities should teach students how to be your own best critic, not how to be your own best proselytiser.

Thank you for your clear suggestion. Do you think it has any change of success?

Of course not. I am just saying these things because I owe it to my stature as an intellectual giant. I am playing the character people expect me to play.

Do you never lose hope?

What do you want me to say? Professor Trompsky never lose hope.

Professor Trompsky #1 was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Value

What do we mean when we say of something that it has value? And isn’t all our speaking inherently evaluating? Isn’t every utterance we make freely, an assignment of value? Isn’t it much more elegant if we consider ourselves living in a ‘soup’ of value, rather than in a generally valueless world, in which we occasionally elevate some special things as valuable?

Let’s breathe calmly as usual. This is a meditation, not a treatise. Value is a powerful abstraction. Quantified value is the premise of economic activity and qualified value underpins all other human interaction.

Here, I understand value as receiving attention. In this sense we turn everything we look at into something valuable. It is not an ontological trick. We think of value this way because we can’t find another meaningful distinction. In other words, we deconstruct the distinctions that were made in order to ‘save’ value. This is sympathetic when we talk about the value of material items. When we take on the special value of life and living beings, we seem to be in trouble. We don’t want to apply the same concept of value to the life of a child, and a stone. We can look at the stone all we want – it should never be valuable in the same way as the child.

I’m afraid we won’t find the ontological key to some sort of higher-level value of conscious or sentient life. The best we can do is becoming aware of our evaluation, of the way we attribute value to whom and what we encounter. In the example of the stone, when we do look at it for many generations, shave off some oddities and build a museum around it for good measure, we call it Unesco Cultural Heritage and indeed condemn those who destroy it in the strongest possible words. I am referring to the 2001 destruction of Buddha of Bamiyan statues by the Taliban.

We try to understand value. Not any specific value, but the gesture of giving-value in itself. We tell the story of a world in which we are surrounded by value and highlight some at the expense of others, but never relegate them to a domain of no value. We communicate values implicitly (by merely focusing our attention on something) and explicitly (by capturing it in words). Perhaps authenticity is the alignment of our implicit and explicit ways of gesturing values.

Meditation on Value was originally published on Meandering home

Experiment

It is not because I have conclusive evidence of it, but because I enjoy teaching new things to my daughter Miru, that I believe we should introduce the most basic concepts of science to our children as early as possible. When Miru and I were wondering if the sea could freeze over, I suggested that we could do a little experiment with two cups of freezing water, one with and the other without salt. She is only five, so I decided a binary setup was enough: “does contain salt” versus “does not contain salt”. I explained her what a hypothesis is and that ours was that the water in the salty cup would not freeze. We filled two small cups with tap water and placed them in the freezer.

The next morning I reminded her of our experiment.
“Oh yes yes yes the experiment!” my little girl shrieked, rushing to the freezer to open the door. I took out the two cups. When she found out that the pure water had turned into a block of ice, while the salty water only had a layer of frost on the top, she smiled victoriously and we high-fived.

the scientific attitude at its most fundamental defies any authority that doesn’t try to defy itself

What did she actually learn from this experiment? Can she design experiments now in order to answer questions about the structure of the world around her? Can she judge a good experiment? Does she know the difference between a hypothesis and a wild guess? Perhaps not. But she has been primed and prepared for more experiments. She has been introduced to the scientific attitude, that at its most fundamental defies any authority that doesn’t try to defy itself (I just came up with that definition, let me know what you think). Eppur si muove.

Soon, she will learn that the theory generating our hypotheses should be falsifiable, and that the experiment should be repeatable. I don’t plan to replace her bedtime reading of Tolkien and Roald Dahl with Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn, but to do more experiments with her. Don’t take daddy’s word for it – trust only that what you can most readily question – your own senses and mind.

Experiment was originally published on Meandering home

Reminder: Orwell’s Advice

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

From: George Orwell – Politics and the English Language (1946)

Reminder: Orwell’s Advice was originally published on Meandering home

Music as a universal language

We often hear people say that language is a universal language, and we like to uncritically accept such assessment. I thought today of polishing up that metaphor a little. Why don’t we consider music as a language family, like the Niger-Congo, Austranesian, Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asiatic or Indo-European language families.

Communication between speakers of different languages of such families can be difficult and will resort to other than linguistic means, such as gestures and facial expressions. Consider for example that Russian, Punjabi and French are all Indo-European languages, but if a Russian, Frenchman and Punjabi walk in a bar, they aren’t likely to celebrate their newfound camaraderie with an intellectual conversation. Yet, they might get along well. The way they understand each other shows the universality of human language. It is apparent in the ease with which we intuitively understand the intention of a tender lullaby or a fierce insult, a cheerful invitation to drink or a disapproving grin.

I compare this to different genres in music. So what is a better place to test the thesis that music is a universal language than musical cross-overs, collaborations between musicians with completely different backgrounds (like jazz and baroque) or interpretations of music from the ears of another genre?

I have compiled a list of a few of these musical collaborations and would love to know your thoughts and additions!










Music as a universal language was originally published on Meandering home

Online Poem Generator

As someone who loves the belief that poetry is a form of communication, I am inclined to see its authenticity threatened by the emergence of automated poem generators. I am aware that strong AI will be among us within a few decades from now, if we believe the predictions of researchers in the field, but from my vantage point that doesn’t depress me as much as it perhaps should. I am curious how machines will generate poetry that will be virtually indistinguishable from human verse and often indeed be judged more ‘authentic’, ‘heartfelt’ and – human.

I found this silly online poem generator today, that among other things allows you to create a sonnet based on some words you enter in an online form. I typed in ‘music’ along with some verbs and adjectives that came to my mind. This is the generated result after 3 attempts, which bears the obvious signature of the machine’s non-comprehension:

Ode to the Music
My bright music, you inspire me to write.
I love the way you echo, stop and sound,
Invading my mind day and through the night,
Always dreaming about the ultrasound.

Let me compare you to a cool buffoon?
You are more quiet and more fantastic.
Cute sun heats the peaceful peaches of June,
And summertime has the big monastic.

How do I love you? Let me count the ways.
I love your calm rhythm, timbre and notes.
Thinking of your bold timbre fills my days.
My love for you is the soft petticoats.

Now I must away with a splendid heart,
Remember my strange words whilst we’re apart.

When I did the same for free verse, I can still quickly discern the mark of the machine, but it becomes easier to imagine myself tricked:

How happy is the quiet sound!
Down, down, down into the darkness of the sound,
Gently it goes – the tranquil, the restful, the noisy.

How happy are lovely tunes!
Now lovable is just the thing,
To get me wondering if tunes are endearing.

How happy is the fat pop!
A pop is double-chinned. a pop is rich,
a pop is profitable, however.

Online Poem Generator was originally published on Meandering home