Cyber Landscapes

Day 67: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

One thing my studies in Italy have been teaching me is how much of an American I really am.  I mean as a composer.  You see, in contemporary concert music, American composers have a huge indebtedness to European traditions.  All told, it’s probably a lot bigger than the National Debt.

But there are some trends that originate directly from American concert music.  One thing America brings to the table is it’s large open landscapes.  Zak, I know you have a special appreciation for this.  So does composer John Luther Adams.

“My hope is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming – sometimes even frightening – landscape, and invites you to get lost in it.”

-Adams

Adams lived in Alaska for about 35 years.

I think moving to a place like that is an attractive prospect to a lot of us who live in cities.  We’ll probably long for it even more as the world continues to urbanize.

It’s easy to feel nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ before modern cities.  Especially while you’re sitting in a little room in front of a computer… surfing the web.

It’s funny we call it surfing.  Makes it sound a lot more exciting than it really is…

Anyway, Zak, you asked me a question:

Do you think that the amount of language has proliferated?

I once had a composition teacher who told me that if you sit down a child of the modern era in front of a piano for the first time, they’ll take one look at all the keys and ask you one of the most instinctual and automatic questions in contemporary society: how many are there?

It’s an interesting question, and probably not the first one that would come to mind a century or so ago.  There are 88 keys on a piano.  How much language is there in the world?  I guess it depends how you count.  This blog post has 435 word.  But it’s gonna show up on, I don’t know, ten different computer screens.  Three people will read it.  So how much language does that count as?

My intuition is that people individually put out about the same amount of language at any period of history.  But there are more people in the world today, and it’s a lot easier to make copies of written and spoken language.

The strange and frightening thing about the internet is that it’s much bigger than any of us.  It’s like one of John Luther Adam’s endless open landscapes.  For better or worse, it’s easy to get lost in it all.  Or to disappear.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

A proliferation of purpose?

Day 66: Monday

Morning, Tim!

I’m wifi-less at the moment, so I’m not sure when this will end up heading your way. Crazy to think of traditional mail and how, for a very, very long time, you wouldn’t know when something got delivered — just hoped that it did some time in the future.

We’ve talked about this before, of course. Words perhaps carried more meaning. Each time I wrote (presumably) I’d have something to say. The yearning for a loved one that much greater — and rightfully so! If all you got from your loved one was a letter every couple of weeks, it better be a darn good letter!

So here I am, put under the same circumstances, writing to you with all of the pressure of traditional mail…

Thankfully that’s not true. And, moreover, if it’s not that good you have tons of other things to read! Tremendously more than you ever could, a wealth of information in front of you.

Last week you wrote that human contact was the end purpose of language. And I believe it that to be correct.

In more recent times, there has been an absolute proliferation of written language. Books, followed by more prolific newspapers, followed by regular blogs and junk emails, followed by and even more consistent [hourly] updates on Twitter or Facebook.

Do you think that the amount of language has proliferated? Has there been more language, more desire and reach for human contact? Or simply a change in form? If there has been a shift in the amount of language, with more desire for human contact, what it is the cause?

Hoping this gets to you before too long, of course. Say hello to the pony express for me!

Until tomorrow,
Zak

Space is Big

Day 65: Friday

Good morning Zak,

So the other day I went to a percussion ensemble concert.  In between each piece they had what you call a “science slam.”  Have you ever heard of this?  Don’t worry, it’s not what it sounds like.

A “science slam” is actually just a spicer name for something you may already be familiar with: a science lecture.  They turned out the lights, and a guy got up and talked about how big space is.  At the end he even threw in a bit of New Age-y philosophy.  I think that’s the part where we were supposed to be slammed.  You know, so that it would make sense.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the universe.  I mean it’s a pretty cool place and everything.  It’s just, once you’ve seen enough of these things, they start to get to you.  It seems like they always tell you basically the same facts.  We zoom through space at however many million light-years per second, and then we look at impressive giant balls of gas.  Now, on Earth, I’m used to people being embarrassed about their giant balls of gas—somehow in space it’s considered majestic.

But you never see anything new at one of these presentation.  Space pretty much looks all exactly the same.  There are stars, clouds of dust, debris… Why isn’t there anything unique or interesting in space?  Like why isn’t there a bouncy castle?  Or a secret space library?  Or literally anything that looks at all different from anything else?  I mean for all their grandiose claims, these presentations actually make the universe feel pretty monotonous… and small.

I made my own space presentation several years ago.  Enjoy…

No, I don’t apologize.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Could you have meant porpoise?

Day 64: Thursday

Morning, Tim!

When you first left for Italy I had moderately regular thoughts about you over there during fashion week. I was eager to get the lowdown on what it was like, and knew you’d have some pretty good takes:

“…jean jackets with one arm torn off…”

“…frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers…”

“…art like flamingo jackets…”

“…use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry…”

I’m not sure the last one will really catch on, but I suppose I know nothing about fashion…I hope yesterday was just a taste of more to come.

And, inspired by the talk of art and communication, I thought I’d write a poem.

Others
make me
a Sandwich

Squishy
Not on Rye
No bag of chips

Paper plate
Unevenly spread
Nevertheless, calories

Why
am I
a Sandwich

FullSizeRender.jpg

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Art and Purpose

Day 63: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada?  That designer brand, Prada—they’re based here in Milano.  You would think there would be swarms of little devils marching all over this town to get their shopping done.

It’s interesting.  I’ve never really thought about this: what sort of outfits does this Prada-wearing devil really like to wear?  I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff during settimana della modo, the annual city-wide fashion week.  Does he like jean jackets with one arm torn off?  Maybe something frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers?settimana-della-moda-donna-milano-2012

To a fashion-industry outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of these things.  They are “fashion-statements,” but what exactly is being stated?

Usually when we “state” something, we use language to do it.  Regular old language, like English or Italian or what have you.  So there’s obviously something metaphorical about the concept of a “fashion-statement.”  It forms a comparison between fashion and language.

Actually a lot of art forms make analogies to language.  In music, there’s the concept of phrase—a coherent musical thought with a beginning and ending.  Italian musicians take it a step further; the word frase also means “sentence.”  Even painters think of their work as language.  We’re all poet wannabes.  Meanwhile poets themselves talk about poetic images and the musical lyricism of verses.

If all the arts are like language on some level, then they all have similar purposes and similar obstacles to accomplishing those purposes.  So what is the purpose of language?

Well, writers might have some pretty good insight when it comes to a question like that.  Kurt Brindley recently asked a bunch of them why they write.  The answers were pretty interesting.  You should definitely go check it out.

dsc_8770But purpose is a funny thing.  A lot of philosophers these days are skeptical that there really is such a thing as purpose.  Like, back in the day, Aristotle used to explain natural phenomena teleologically, in terms of their purpose.  But today, some people say there really is no purpose behind nature.  A rock falls to the Earth because that’s the way physics works, not because the rock intends or longs to return to its proper place.

But language isn’t a part of natural science.  I think it’s less controversial to argue that a human phenomenon like language has a purpose.  Humans made shoes, and shoes were made for walking.  They’ve even written a song about it…

So here’s my answer to the question: human contact is the end purpose of language.

img_1178Here’s what I mean.  The end purpose of a pen is writing.  If you use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry, that doesn’t mean that crying is the function of the pen.  The pen still functions as a tool of writing.  Crying is only an ulterior effect.

The same is true of language.  Zak, if you write an email to a coworker that results in some restructuring of your company, that doesn’t mean business is the purpose of language.  Language itself still functions merely to bring you in contact with that coworker.  The rest is only incidental to that function.

Some people say that language played a role in evolution.  A species that can use language to cooperate is more fit to survive.  But the survival value of linguistic clarity is only an accidental byproduct of its main function.

Anyway, sorry for just vomiting random thoughts all over the place today.  I guess the point I’m trying to make is that human contact is the end purpose of art.  We can evaluate art—even weird art like flamingo jackets—in terms of its potential to fulfill that function.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Image sources:milanandoblog.blogspot.it & www.justfashionmagazine.com

Trip to India

Day 62: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

You may be immediately suspicious of my title — and rightfully so, as I didn’t actually take a trip to India. That said, it’s a little less dubious than when I tried to pass off a visit to Cologne

I did, however, visit Devon street, which was much closer to experiencing India than I ever had before. I went with a friend who took us to what he called a cabbie restaurant – nothing fancy, just very authentic. We had food from Hyderabad, what he described as the southernmost northern tasting – and in being so, took some spicy queues from the south. My friend ordered in what I believe was Hindi. We ate mutton biryani, chicken 65, and paratha. We ate with our hands as my friend told me about chicken 65 being a leaked recipe from the ever popular 65th item from the Buhari hotel restaurant.

It was an interesting experience. Unique. Growing up in a very rural, very small town in midwest America I didn’t encounter different cultures. I don’t say ‘often’ there because that wouldn’t be true – we simply didn’t encounter them at all. In college I wasn’t really faced with them either. It’s interesting to see how gigantic the world is, and wonder how anyone could act as though they’ve figured it out.

It’s eye opening – starting to see how much you don’t know. And ever more realize there is so much you don’t know that you don’t know.

It seems important to interact with things different than what we know. The unknown can be terrifying – the downside risk seems overwhelming at times, so fearing embarrassment for a cultural misstep, a violent act for reasons we can’t really explain, or perhaps even a bad case of diarrhea, we sometimes find ourselves closed off to new experiences and unknowns.

I’ve hated the city for quite some time. Growing up in my farm town I had space, I had nature with beauty abounding. I could see stars, breath fresh air, get a moment without smelling the sewers, hearing the whizzing of machines or the honking of car horns. Yet getting a taste of India helped me appreciate what the city has to offer.

Diversity isn’t a pillar, Tim. It’s no end in its own. But it’s remarkable how it helps provide perspective.

The world is too big for us to ever stop learning. We at times act like we learn what we like – growing up experiencing some positively and decide ‘yes’ and others negatively, deciding ‘no’. But the world is far too big – something completely unknown might be good. While we fear the downside of it being bad, we also must realize that all the good was once unknown to us as well, was once foreign. We have to continue to learn, continue to grow and develop, continue to take share ideas and life together…

…and food. Because that was good stuff.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Oh! Almost forgot. Though I regrettably didn’t take pictures of my food (because that’s a thing now-a-days), I also had Thums Up, what my friend described as ‘Indian Coke’. Owned by the Coca Cola company, it was less carbonated and less sweet, and the sweetness almost had more of a molasses quality to it. It was pretty good!IMG_1110.JPG

The Connection Crisis

Day 61: Monday

Good morning Zak,

Remember this post from before Christmas?

I wish I could bring you back something that would summarize what Milano means to me… There’s just something in the air here that I wish I could share with you.  Cigarette smoke, smog, and then something else.

What I ended up getting you was coffee and conversation.  Here in Italy, coffee is what you Americans call “espresso.”  In retrospect maybe I should have gotten a different gift, since the coffee-drinking habit might kill us some day.  On the bright side, it may also help us live longer

Many news sources and journalists say that our society is entering a post-truth age.  This is supposedly a recent development.

“What is truth?” -Pontus Pilate c. 32 A.D.

what-is-truth02

The public too often disposes of facts and evidence in favor of conspiracy theories and other unfounded nonsense.  In a post-truth society, science and fact are sometimes replaced by gut-feeling, superstition… and mystery.

Every year in ancient Greece there used to be this famous religious rite known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  This was an initiation ceremony for the cult of Demeter and Persephone.  As any good history student can tell you, participants in this ceremony were required to… well…

We have no idea what they did.  It’s called the Eleusinian Mysteries not the Eleusinian Tell-Everyones.  Initiates to the cult were required to keep its practices a secret, and they remain a secret to this day.

It’s easy to understand why people were attracted to this sort of thing—it’s about connection.  I mean, secrets can be a lot of fun. They can bring people closer together.  As a case and point, take our blog’s secret peer review process for unusual uses of spoons.  It’s nice to be a part of a small community that shares certain exclusive knowledge—even if that knowledge is of no real consequence.

fvf-lgThe scientific community is like that.  It has its secrets I mean.  Only scientists really understand why we believe humans evolved from fishes, or how the entire universe once fit into a mass the size of a golf ball.  As a layperson, I don’t really have access to all the data and methods that lead to those conclusions.  But Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and other public pundits insist that I adopt these beliefs and the ideologies that accompany them as an article of faith.  Faith in a method and process that I do not see.

Speaking of faith, it might be worth pointing out that the modern English word “pundit” comes from the Sanskrit paṇḍita—a Hindu pandit is a priest or wise-person.

The gradual dogmatization of science has begun to cause us problems.  Whenever philosophical opinion gets presented as scientific fact, it undermines faith in the objectivity of the field as a whole.  Needless to say, this is starting to have very negative consequences…

280px-a_small_cup_of_coffeeBut the biggest problem with the cult of science has nothing to do with politics.  In my view, the main issue is much more personal—it’s about connection.  Unlike traditional cult mysteries, the secrets of science don’t bring people together; if anything they do the opposite.  The founders of the new religion have failed to consider some very fundamental questions: where are the faithful supposed to gather? what rituals will they perform together?

“And if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, […] but have not selfless love, I am nothing.”

Corinthians 13:2

Those are not rhetorical questions; they represent the main syndrome of our society.  If we solve the connection crisis, if we figure out how to have meaningful human contact in the Age of Information, a lot of the symptoms we’re experiencing will start to go away.

To our American readers, hope Saint Valentine is good to you tomorrow… or whatever you people say.  Seriously though, hope you can find yourselves some coffee and conversation.

Until tomorrow,

Tim