What are words, even?

Day 96: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: What did the Python-programmer say after computing this expression?

list = [[2, 3], [5, 9], [2.359, 3.0], [92.1, 2], [3.0, 2.592]]

sum([anum[i] for anum in list for i in range(2)])

Stay tuned to find out.

I’ve spent the last couple days mostly just programming in Python, so if this post doesn’t make sense, you’ll know why.

If you ever want definitive proof that the Humanities and the Sciences are fundamentally incompatible, try writing a poem after a long computer-programming spree.  I just realized that the last three strophes I’ve written all inexplicably begin with the same word, ‘class’; the first line of each ends with a colon instead of a comma.

But seriously, computer science does take a lot of mental processing power, even if I shouldn’t be telling a U Chicago health-care professional that science and humanities are incompatible… I guess that’s not a very liberal-artsy thing of me to say.

But, Zak, I have a question: what’s so liberal about the liberal arts?  How do they have anything to do with politics?  And even if they do, why are they more blue than red?

For that matter, why is there such a thing as ‘light blue’ but not ‘light red’?  Is pink so distinctly feminine that it needs its own separate name?  What’s feminine about pink anyway?

On my side of the pond things are different.  Here in Italy there’s no such thing a ‘light blue’.  That’s called azzurro.  I’m teaching my English students the names of the colors.  They all insist on distinguishing between ‘blue’ and ‘light blue’ in English…  What I’m trying to tell you is that there are literally more colors in this country than in the US.

It’s a strange world.

Zak, I’m willing to concede that the way each culture partitions these various categories may be more or less arbitrary.  There may be nothing absolute about the divisions between red, pink, science, blue, humanity, liberalism, or Donald Trump…  But which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

In your last entry:

“Tim, I didn’t learn drinks could have calories until I went to college.”

I’m pretty sure drink-calories work just the opposite of colors.  There are more of those in the US.  Actually, between you me and the wall, I suspect that soda-pop may be one of the primary sources of the whole obesity problem in America…

Secondary sources may disagree…

That last sentence was just for the humanists, but the Python joke is dumb enough for all of us:

“That’s some sum.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Drinks have WHAT?!

Day 95: Friday

Morning, Tim!

I’m in a class on the US Healthcare system with students from numerous academic areas — business, law, public policy, social services, and medical. It’s a remarkable experience to have each of those perspectives represented in a dialogue.

We recently had a delightful conversation about social determinants of health, particularly within a rural setting. Social determinants are all of the things outside of your actual health that impact the person — their ability to retain housing, get transportation as needed, obtain food, clothing, etc. Coming from the business side of things, I’m always pleased when I hear others so passionate about others — thinking about how to set up society for human flourishing on a macro level while making a significant difference on particular individuals on a micro level.

Our dialogue around social determinants quickly turned to responsibility (and for good measure, genomics was brought in to make sure we had clinical determinants!). Questions ranged from personal responsibility — how much should the individual be held accountable for their own health — to that of a society, which naturally had substantive dependencies on the answer to personal responsibility.

Responsibility is fascinating. We each want to believe we have so much control, and act accordingly. We take credit for our actions (at least when good!) and blame others for theirs. We hand out awards for success, perhaps even a shiny medal. Yet, at the same time, we recognize that this responsibility might be overstated. When pushed, we recognize that there are myriad factors that impact each of us, shaping how we act, shaping who we become.

One of those factors for me was my childhood spent in a rural setting. I learned a lot there. I learned about simplicity, about living within means and not in abundance. I learned about working with your hands, about hard work. I learned about taking care of others in the community, because that’s what neighbors do.

There were also things I didn’t learn. Like that drinks had calories.

Tim, I didn’t learn drinks could have calories until I went to college.

Yes, we are shaped by much around us. And for some, that impact is particularly negative, and something we should strive to recognize and address. Yet the story doesn’t end there — for others, there are opportunities to be uniquely positioned to make an impact.

I’m feeling a weight to think more about rural healthcare. There’s got to be a way to bring health and vitality to rural communities.

Or at least let them know that drinks have calories…

Until Monday,

Zak

The Music of the Spheres

Day 94: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s cloudy outside in Milan.  I don’t really feel like writing.  I think I’ll just curate other people’s words today.

Quotation 1

Allow me to start you off with a piquant taste of French existentialism, as it were.  The vintage year on this one falls somewhere in the 17th century.  Of course we all know the French have been existential for at least that long:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

-Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Quite memorable, isn’t it.  I know this line about the emptiness of the universe has become kind of trite and overused, but I think there’s a good reason for that.

It was inspiring enough for 20th century composer George Crumb to cite it in the preface to his piece Makrokosmos.

Quotation 2

But the naturalistic pessimism of the 20th century is really too much for me sometimes.

In the Middle Ages people used to think that the planets made music as they revolved around the Earth.  The proportions between their respective orbits created a perfect, mystical harmony called Musica Universalis or “Music of the Spheres.”

The ‘silence’ which frightened Pascal was, according to the [Medieval] Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow.  You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Item 3

Well no… it really doesn’t.  Here’s what the proportions between the revolution frequencies of the eight planets really sounds like:

That’s the sound of a 20th century universe, the sound of humans and all living things gradually perishing into chaos.

Quotation 4

But that’s what imagination is for, right?

Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors.  But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Maybe the godawful dissonance of the planets and all the apparent chaos of the universe is just a part of a larger harmony too great for us to perceive.

Quotation 5

That’s what early medieval philosophers proposed in response to the dualistic heresy known as Manichaeism.

Faced with the misgiving that in the world there may be established a dialectic of uncertain outcome between good and evil, the Scholastic tradition seeks to confirm the positivity of all creation, even in the apparent zones of darkness.

-Umberto Eco, Scritti sul pensiero medievale

Maybe that sounds like a naive proposal in modern times… maybe naivety is a good thing.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Sunshine

Day 93: Monday

Morning, Tim!

I’m glad to get back to it after a wonderful Easter break.

Sunshine is a beautiful thing. Nature thrives, and it makes a bit of America-nada possible. It makes you want to write poetry:

Life abundant, sharing space

Bird with a bow tie grins from ear to ear

Fluttering onward, twigs and sunshine

A sweaty beginning to the day

I’m most proud of stealing your ever present poetry reference to bow ties.

I do hope all is well in Italy, and I look forward to hearing of your springly adventures.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

More like America-nada

Day 92: Friday

Good morning Zak,

Zak, you’re too clever for me.  I think I must have spent twenty minutes mulling over your use of the letter ‘d’ before I got the pun.

Anyway, you raise a good question: is technology partially responsible for the Excess I’ve been whining about?

When I first got music notation software, I went through a phase of writing all my music directly into the computer.  Eventually I stopped that and went back to writing by hand before copying into a notation program.  The quality of my music improved drastically at that point.

I know correlation is not the same thing as causation.  But I do think there’s something to this…

A lot of music and art in general is predicated on the mechanism of pattern recognition.

“In effect aesthetic pleasure derives from the fact that the soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.”

—Umberto Eco (In reference to the views of Ugo di San Vittore)

I don’t know if the physical process of writing by hand makes it easier for me to recognize patterns.  At the very least, it makes the artistic processes much more intimate.

But patterns are a big deal.  The more arcane a pattern is, the more rewarding it is when our brain/soul recognizes it.  But if it’s too arcane, of course, there’s the danger that we won’t recognize it at all.

I’ve written before about the pattern of pairing love with death in medieval poetry:

“All I can say is that the collective wisdom of Western poets throughout history tells us that love is a kind of death.”

That’s maybe one of the most interesting patterns in Western literature.  It’s something that resonates with us all on a fundamental level.

That’s why people like the story of Paolo and Francesca so much.  Frankly I get a little annoyed by the excessive popularity of Inferno Canto V.  The fame of Francesca’s little vignette has tragically eclipsed the rest of the Divine Comedy in popular culture.  I went to Bergamo and saw this excessively Romantic depiction.

While the hipster in me is, as I said, a bit annoyed, I do understand why people like this kind of thing.  This story should be popular.  When we experience a piece like this, our soul recognizes in the material the harmony of its own structure.  We understand on a fundamental human level that life couldn’t really be a thing without love to the point of death.

That’s easy to recognize.  As far as other patterns go… a hyphen may be well advised.

Until Monday,

Tim

More like Americanada

Day 91: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I really appreciated the context around ‘Americanata‘. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, but it seems like the connotations indicate a certain degree of excess, of some bizarre need for the over-stimulation Aquinas feared.

Obviously the pendulum swings both ways. We have discussed the balance of history, moving between extremes — in this case, minimalist to maximalist (ha). I’m terrible at the music trends, but the same happens in philosophy.

I think it proper to put that caveat forward, though in all honesty I intend to do nothing with it. I agree that we’re in a bit of a ‘maximalist’ society, raising the Americanata flag. And that it is so very distasteful. I spend part of the weekend cleaning out my closet, with a large bag of clothes I no longer need/wear. I look around the train and see many heads down, focused on screens (Though I see two rare objects that I’m not sure I could name — ancient cream things with black etchings, folded open. Still, a head down focused intently). I’ll likely watch a TV show or movie tonight, constantly entertained (or at least busy). There is a lot of excess. Be it ‘noise components, odd timbres, aleatory’ or the ridiculousness that is action scenes in movies, we ‘need’ lots of stimulation.

Yet you seem to dislike it as well. I’m sure many others agree. And under the guiding principle of “I want to enjoy things as much as I can”, I think many times it’s easy to fall prey to having others explain what will be most enjoyable. That’s where there exists a very, very lucrative advertising business — we don’t have to know what we want, others can simply tell us. And yet, it seems that we may just enjoy ourselves all the more if we considered the possibility that less is more.

I look forward to your piano piece.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

p.s. I realize Americada as a play on Americanata isn’t quite right. It’s not nothing I’m after, but Americaminimo doesn’t quite have the same effect…

p.s.s. How much is technology a culprit? Is it a phase that we simply haven’t figured out how to deal with it? Or it it here to stay?

Americanata

Day 90: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I just picked up this book from the library.

IMG_1211

I can explain… it was an honest mistake.  I went to the bookstore the other day to pick up a different book, but they didn’t have it.  Then I saw this monster.  Umberto Eco’s Writings on Medieval Thought.  It was too late.  I had seen it!  How could I resist now?

IMG_1212

A sense of scale

I have to return it in a month, and the library has a strict “no backsies” policy—one of the many reasons I miss the old country.  *Sigh*  If it turns out to be half as good as I’m expecting I think I’ll have to go out and buy it.

Anyway, just starting to read this thing has got me thinking about a few things.  One of them is this: how intense does an experience need to be for us to enjoy it?

Thomas Aquinas was opposed to the use of instrumental music in Church.  He was afraid that the aesthetic rapture elicited by the music of instruments would be so overwhelming that it might prove an obstacle to focused worship.

Now Zak, I listen to a lot of medieval music… some of it with instruments… I don’t have a clue what this crazy old man was talking about.  I mean it’s very beautiful music.  That’s why I listen to it.  But distracting?  Enrapturing?

I guess what I’m saying is, what ever happened to the days when maximum euphoria consisted in a few notes plucked out on a lute?  Today I go to concerts, and people are adding laser shows, eight-channel surround-sound, live electronics…  Even the sounds themselves need extra spice.  We add noise components, odd timbres, aleatory…  It’s all great stuff.  But what happened to mere music?  You know, like pitches and rhythms… harmonies, if you wanna get fancy with it…

I have a flat-mate who watches TV on her computer while listening to music on her phone at the same time.  There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you want to do.  I’m a contemporary composer, so I’m used to noise.

The Italians have a word, americanata: “an action or behavior characterized by an unsophisticated taste for grandeur and ostentation, which is usually attributed to the Americans.”

If I have any ascetic impulse in me, it’s there out of selfishness, not moralism.  I want to enjoy things as much as I can.  That’s the only reason I’d prefer less over more.  I’m a fan of synesthesia.  It’s excess that bothers me.

I’m writing a piano piece of just chords.  One chord about every two to five seconds.  In between there’s nothing.  Just resonance.  I think it would go nicely with wine and dark chocolate, in an intimate setting, with friends.

Until tomorrow,

Tim