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

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

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

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

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

It’s All a Jumble…

Day 57: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

“When man wanted to make a machine that would walk he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg.”

-Guillaume Apollinaire

Descending melody is a universal in world music.  Every culture that we know of has some examples of melodies that generally start high in pitch and end low.  Ethnomusicologists think this is simply due to the nature of our physiology: whenever someone breathes out to sing a melody, they start with a lot of breath and end with very little.  This makes it natural to descend in pitch toward the end of a melodic line.

If I were to indulge myself in speculation about this, I might even take the explanation a step further.  It seems like downward motion is a pretty universal part not only of our physiology, but of all of nature in general.  I mean, here on earth, things pretty much always move downward if nothing stops them.  Water, tree branches, trees themselves…  I guess in that way descending melody is a lot like Cage’s 4’33’’; it’s the sound of nature when people don’t interfere that much.

The so-called “lament meter” in ancient Hebrew poetry is probably an example of this.  Although we don’t have direct evidence of the original melodies, the lopsidedness of the poetic meter itself seems to evoke a diminishing energy toward the end of the verse.  The first part of the verse (the first “colon”) is generally longer then the second.

I feel like there’s something inherently lament-ful about this kind of verse structure.  Isn’t it kind of sad how everything on earth eventually falls back to the ground and dies?  Everything except for some small amount of helium, which, I understand, escapes the atmosphere because it’s so light.

But the really strange thing is how relatively rare this melodic typology is within Western concert music.  Our melodies tend to climax about two-thirds of the way in.  In a sense, you could maybe say our musical tradition is about contrasting the entropy the natural world with the creative energy of human life.

“Right, well, I mean… this piece behind me, I call it ‘The Afous II.’  And, I mean, it’s really about how confusing, you know, society is.  Because, you know, it’s all a jumble, isn’t it.”

-Adam Savage

schermata-2017-02-07-alle-12-39-25

A river or a waterfall might tend to flow downward, but human discourse generally moves the opposite way: I say something, you say something, and eventually we reach some kind of logical consequence… an agreement or a main point or something like that.  Contrary to the entropy of the natural universe, human conversations, or “language games,” tend to snowball, accumulating more energy as logical discourse progresses.

Here’s a a very famous lament, which climaxes, no less, toward the end of each strophe.

God, who created all that comes and goes
and shaped this faraway love,
give me strength, since I already have the intention,
so that I see this love far away
in reality and in a fitting place
so that rooms and gardens
shall seem to me to be new palaces.

-Jaufre Rudel, source

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