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

Multitasking

Day 59: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

Cell phones are dangerous.  The other day, I was checking my email on my phone while heading back to my apartment, and I walked right into a parallel universe.  That’s the problem.  You feel like you can do it.  You can multitask.  I mean, this morning I was able to sing a song while taking a shower at the same time.  Why should this be any different?

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Socrates was Smart

Day 55: Friday

Good morning Zak,

Under the present circumstances I am reminded of something the wise old Socrates once said: “there is nothing more annoying than someone who quotes the wisdom of Socrates on almost every occasion.”

Maybe you don’t remember that one.  There’s a long tradition of falsely attributing things to Socrates, so it’s hard to know what the dude actually said.  For all we know he might have said that.  He might also have said, “come on guys, stop pretending to quote me all the time.”

Can you imagine being Socrates?  This is one of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about.  I mean, how frustrating would that be.  Like, one of my students represents me and my views however he wants in his books, and then those books get read for millennia after my death.  And I’m just supposed to be cool with that?

Zak, you raise a serious moral question. 

“Thinking about healthcare as a business feels kind of grimy at times — you are making money off of those who desperately need help, many times in order to live.”

This is the sort of thing that could keep a person in your shoes up at night.  But to me, it’s just a mildly entertaining intellectual exercise.  I’m not in your shoes.  Your shoes are like, ten sizes too big for me.  But in the face of an issue like this it would be nice to have access to some real wisdom…

The other day I walked past a mom with two boys practicing their multiplication facts:

“Tre per quattro.”

One of the boys was literally jumping up and down with energy, anxious to beat the other to the answer.

“Quindici!” “Dodici!”

We train little people to be very fast at these kinds of things.  I remember those days of training myself.  They might as well have thrown us circus peanuts when we got the answers right.

Some people know other things in the same kind of way.  Things besides math facts.  Many of us haven’t outgrown the habit.  For grownups in higher education, the fastest and loudest person… to identify the source of a Shakespeare quotation… wins the smartness contest.  That’s why we have standardized testing.

But, Zak, something’s just occurred to me: when thinking about a moral issue like healthcare monetization, the ability to quickly recall a large number of Shakespeare quotations is actually not that helpful.  I mean, I’m trying to remember… did Othello ever say anything smart about medicine?  Maybe if we recite the lines loudly enough the answer will come… “O THAT THIS TOO TOO SULLIED FLESH WOULD MELT!”

“The sages there were marked with dignity
And grave authority their faces showed.
They spoke infrequently with gentle voices.”

-IV.112-4, Inferno

One day, Zak, we’re going to make ourselves a nice little locus amoenus, a “pleasant place.”  You’re going to build us a library like you always say, and we’ll find one or two friends who will sit, read, and think… especially think.  That’s really all one could ever ask for.  Nothing beats rich conversation (well, nothing except for the fast, loud person who beats it).  For as Socrates himself once said, “the answers to the modern public health crisis lie in proper legislation and systemic reform.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

You’re Ugly

Day 45: Friday

Good morning Zak,

I don’t have much to write today.  I think I’ll just use this entry to curate a few quotations…

Quotation 1

Since the middle ages mainstream love poetry has pretty much always centered around idealizing the beloved.  I think that’s basically what people mean when they talk about “romanticism.”  But as long as romanticism has been the dominate feature of secular literature, there have also been charming little reposes from it…

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;”
-Shakespeare, Sonnet 130

Lines like these make me wonder about Shakespeare’s love-life.  I mean, I know the last couplet of this poem is something of an apologia for the rest of the thing, but I still have trouble picturing this woman just falling into his arms as he tells her that her breath stinks (ln. 8).

However that may be, as poetry the sentiment is simply lovely.  Of course, this kind of anti-romanticism is predicated on the predominance of romantic sentiment in society at large.  It’s fun to call your mistress ugly in a love poem only because it goes against the grain of the genre as a whole.

Quotation 2

“I buy you rogaine
when you start losing all your hair,
sow on patches
to all you tear.”
-Ingrid Michealson, “The Way I Am

Apparently Michealson likes this kind of irony too.  I’m putting this song at the bottom of today’s entry.

Both of these quotations are about the outward appearance of the beloved.  Basically Shakespeare and Michealson are both saying the same thing: you’re not hot, but I love you anyway.

Or does “sowing on patches to all you tear” carry some kind of metaphorical meaning?  That’s a pretty jejune way of reading it… right?  I mean haven’t we moved past the days when everything in art was somehow supposed to signify something other than itself?

Quotation 3 & 4

“You take me the way I am.”

This is Michealson’s version of Shakespeare’s final couplet…

“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

Both very charming little passages.  There’s something philosophically appealing about the notion of being accepted along with all of one’s flaws.  Warts and all, as it were.

But the more I think about it, the more I feel there’s some kind of deeply rooted fallacy in the ideological fabric that underlies this poetry… Both poems are reactions against romanticism.  If they cannot be called realist they are at least anti-idealist.  And yet, when I reflect on my own identity—the way I am—outside of any kind of idealist point of view, I must admit that I am not that satisfied with myself.  I have my reservations about the prospect of being taken precisely the way I am.

For sale, buy as is.

I’m going to just go ahead and give you my opinion here.  There is nothing truly poetic or beautiful about man unless it is his potential to become beautiful—not the way he is but the way he may be.  Let scientists and historians report the facts of nature and society; the duty of a poet is to look at humanity with an artistic vision.  To see not actuality but potentiality…

and preferably not to confuse the two.

Until Monday,

Tim

P.S. Consider this my confession: I dropped the ball, and we missed precisely two weeks of the daily blog.

Wisdom

Day 43: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

So you might know that in ancient Greece an idiotês was what they called a person who withdrew from society and kept private.  We might say, someone who kept their head in the sand.  In the context of Athenian democracy, this type of individual was viewed very negatively, since individuals who kept to themselves rather than engaging with society were seen as a threat to the political system—a system based on public discourse.

By the way, the word īdiotês is based on the same Greek root as the English word “idiot.”

But you’d have to be an idiot to think that knowing the Greek somehow gives you a more proper understanding of the modern English.  If you subscribe to this line of thinking then you are falling for what’s known as “the etymological fallacy.”  That’s a fancy term we non-elitists use to stigmatize certain elitist philologists—people who clam to have a superior understanding of proper uses and usages as a result of their knowledge of where words come from.

“Proper,” by the way, comes from the Latin adverb proprius, which is close in meaning to the Greek word idios.

These days, the general consensus is that language is best understood in terms of both diachronic and synchronic analysis; this means that we need to look at not only where modern words come from, but also how they relate to other words within the same modern language.  A proper idiot is clearly not the same thing as an idiotic idiot.  Right?

The one type of analysis I haven’t seen anyone yet consider is metachronic analysis.  Perhaps, an idiot is not merely distinct from an ancient idiotês nor merely from other people who exist synchronically—at the same time and in the same society.  An idiot, in the truest, fullest sense of the word, is an individual.  Someone who must be analyzed outside of time all together.

Maybe human identity isn’t only about other people who come before or at the same time or even after.  Maybe it’s also about the human as an individual.  A man who chooses to wear a yellow bow tie exists not only in relation to past and present fashion trends.  He also exists outside of time all together, in relation to all possible men with and without every possible kind of neck piece imaginable.

A good philologist is someone who also considers unusual uses and usages…

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Five Humans

Day 41: Monday

Good morning Zak,

Zak, there’s something I wrote in one of these posts one time that I think was particularly insightful:

“My fishes have rights.”

I do in fact believe this.  If my dentist stopped by one day and asked for one of my fishes to help feed his family, I think I would turn him down.  That’s because my fishes have rights.  I’m quite fond of my fishes.  They are entitled to live a peaceful life in my aquarium; I shouldn’t have to mourn their loss just because my dentist didn’t have dinner planed for his family one night.

That being said, white wine does go nicely with salmon.  It’s my understanding that wine experts in the US award gold metals to wines almost at random.  Most people who aren’t trained in wine tasting tend to prefer cheep wine to expensive wine.  There is only a very small subset of the population that enjoys more expensive wine.

But why am I telling you this?

There’s also only a small group of people in the world who enjoy modernist concert music.  They like composers like Webern, Schoenberg, Boulez, Xenakis… I’m willing to bet those dudes are all complete strangers to most of our readers.  There’s also a pretty good chance that most of our readers wouldn’t care for modernist music if they did hear it.

It would make a lot of people happier if we reallocated the resources we’re spending on “fine wine” and modernist “art music” toward making popular wine and music cheeper and more abundant.  If people acted rationally, we would outlaw fancy wine and pretentious music in order to please the masses.  Taylor Swift could perform an extra concert with free wine for everyone.

Business runs on efficiency, but people don’t.  We could increase total overall human happiness by sacrificing just one of my pet fishes to feed my dentist’s family of five.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Airport Romance

Day 37: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

Sorry this letter comes to you later than usual.  I’m still jet-lagged from my flight over.

Zak, I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but my recent flight has reinforced for me how much airports are different in different countries.  As a case in point, when I was going through security in Italy, there was a girl in her twenties playing with her hair, leaning casually against the conveyor belt:

“dove vai di bella questo pomeriggio?”

“USA”

“he he he, ‘USA’. che bello!  USA, cio è USA dove?”

“Chicago.  Ha ha… I guess that is pretty funny.”

It’s very strange.  The security officials in the US are completely different.  Despite using fancy technology to look at you in the nude, they don’t seem as interested.  Maybe that’s not as paradoxical as I think:

“Sir, you are required by national United States law to accurately disclose your destination to me.”

“Dis year, to keep me from tears…

Am I allowed to find this amusing?  I mean, Italians find my accent amusing all the time…

In Italy, one of the things employees often look for in a job candidate is presenza.  They will declare this in the advertisement:

Wanted: airline security person. Experience with international law enforcement, competence with standard policing weaponry, and presenza.  Please be sure to wear a nice outfit to the interview.  You know, try to show a little skin.  Giggly coquetry preferred.

Sorry everyone.  I’m just telling you the way things are.

I know in recent months many of us in the US are bemoaning a massive step backward for gender equality

Until tomorrow,

Tim