-Search Search Herman Studios ------------------- Last updated—16th May, 2015
Self portrait, September 09. Oils on panel 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm)

The optimist thinks that this is the best of all possible worlds, the pessimist knows it. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER

Only discontent leads to happiness. From the Mahabharata

A little still she strove, and much repented,
And whispering "I will ne'er consent"—consented. LORD BYRON, from Don Juan

I loved not yet, yet loved to love ...I sought what I might love, in love with loving.
St AUGUSTINE from his Confessions

I live in fear of waking up one day to the realization that
everything I have done so far is trash. ROBERT BLAIR PORTER (painter)

I'm going to laugh till I cry,
I'm going to live till I die. FRANK SINATRA

Seduction is no more than the balanced combination of
being interested and being interesting. PAUL HERMAN

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. PABLO PICASSO

Click here to try Paul's fun and challenging: Art-Q Quiz! pg1 - pg2 - pg3

Paul's Mental Workshop, pg 1 of 9
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Of Sons & Fathers

The Meaning of Life

Self portrait 2014

Grey hen

Art & Perfection

Of Dogs and Men

A Brief History of Books

Fish crossing

Global warming

New painting: Coyolxauhqui

New painting: Africa

Latest news

How to look at paintings


The Canvas

Territorialising territoriality

Image & self-image

Dylan Thomas (on words)


Ants & People

Four ducks

A painter's style

Thinking with Google

The Vulture's Throat

Tortures of the Damned

Memory and self

Hinduism and me

The Barber

Glasgow Smile


False advertising


Govandhan pooja

Mean Streets


Back in New Delhi


Science and Philosophy

Happiness and Theory of
the Mind

Boat races in Sarasota

Would you kill yourself to
go on living?

More Happiness

Theo Jansen's kinetic sculpture

ebooks and writers

Arthur Ganson

Thai politics



Googling our minds

Knowledge transfer



A study in ideal form


The Ant and the Grasshopper

Conceptual Art

The importance of punctuation

California, first impressions


Conspiracy theories

I love you; thanks’; you’re welcome



Egon and the other animals

A note about price:size ratio in paintings

Strange tales

P'sMW- page 2

Christ’s devil


Life's funnel


Moon Myth

How chaos was subdued in the Japanese genesis myth

Noah Lukeman and the murky world of today’s book publishing

Morality and religion

Music and Love

Temeris Mortis

The Dream


God's Tick

Old Man (short story)


Curious Fact

P'sMW- page 3

Photos of the spring fair in Sevilla in a new window

Why Humans prefer other Humans to be like themselves

A letter to painters

Why do people talk?

The Painter's Eye

I'bn al Alhí's treasure (short story)

Associative Personality Disorder

Love poems, death poems

The Golem

Elitism in Art

Theory of the Mind

Shorter of breath, one day closer to death

Politics II

Rock and Roll

Words II- more words

P'sMW- page 4


How to steal from gullible artists

Priests behaving badly

How to make a painting

Oats and history

A note about signatures on paintings

Bob Dylan

Number of atheists among scientists

Theoretical physics and me

Faust and Mephistopheles

Children's reading habits

How to get good photos of fireworks

The 20th century

Further Dialogue on the 20th Century article (here)with comments by Bobby Porter

Love is


Martial Art as sport

Blind Boy Fuller

Becoming an artist

Insomniac notes



José Tomás

Black Adder

This is not a Blog

P'sMW- page 5

Chivalric ethics


Shibumi: Comments by Bobby Porter

The artist’s relationship to his work

Bobby's response
to The artist's relationship to his work



Memories of my father II
P'sMW- page 6

Men and Women

Girls: come closer and I'll tell you a secret about men

Catholic Spain

Art is

Bad luck

Dogs are the Best People

Tough Love

Dense, intense and condensed: a short love story.

Cubans, Norwegians and me

From the Guggenheim to Santiago's tomb

Memories of my Father

Ecco il uomo

Divorce and maturity

Arcos de la Frontera

Inspiration and process

Bulls and men

P'sMW- page 7

Why do artists paint?

A Monk's Funeral

Pet theory

The Bicycle Thieves

Stories from here and there

Truth and beauty

Bugs as food

What is art? part II- Is modern art, art?

A painter’s thoughts about self-portraits

The Piraha of the Amazon jungle

Thailand: stories

P'sMW- page 8

We'd be better off without Religion

East Meets West

Thoughts on Memory


Frank Zappa

Art and Dreams by Ilene Skeen


Rush to change names in Isaan

The Artist and Emotion

The art critic

What is Art? Part I

Note of introduction added to the Masculine-
feminine article

Rebuttal to Raymond S Kraft

P'sMW- page 9

I'm back!

Masculine versus feminine, Muslim versus Buddhist.

Driving with Muslims or Buddhists

Peter Feldstein and Stephen G Bloom's Oxford project

How to argue

On 'happiness', in answer to Ivan's comments.

Thoughts on Happiness

The birth of Chiang Mai

War Story (short story)

Happiness Versus Suffering

Cogitations upon observing the life of an ant, from its birth to its death by old age, while I lay in a bathtub.

Scopes II pg 1 of 11

At the beginning of what the media began calling the ‘Scopes II’ trial I thought it would become more polemical than it turned out. I began collecting media reports, commentary, cartoons, defences and attacks published here and there by some of our leading scientists —I started at the very beginningand continued for about four months.

*  I collected everything from science and Church to morality, philosophy, etymology, politics, poetry and parody, like the clever and funny web-site called the Spaghetti Monster. Also a bit of history, historical quotes on the subject and transcriptions of interviews and debates with Richard Dawkins and the like.

* Unfortunately the trials weren’t as amusing as they might have been if the Intelligent Design camp had better arguments and more credible support but in the end I think I have compiled a fascinating and entertaining document.

* It covers both sides thoroughly and, I hope, with a minimum of repetition (and includes links to further reference).

* I have added my two cents here and there in red. It is chronological with dates noted.  I originally saved it to a very large (260 page) Word.doc which I have converted to 11 pages of web site weighing between 30 and 130 or so kbs each.

Scopes II pg 1 of 11

self portrait 2013

Self portrait, Jan 2012

Self portrait Sept 09. oils on panel 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm)

Self portrait May 09. Oils on panel 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm)

Self-portrait Jan 31, 09. Oils on panel 10 x 8 inches

Self-portrait May 2008

Self-portrait 1994. Oils on canvas on board 100 x 50 cm

Self portrait 2

Self-portrait 2004. Oils on gold ground on panel. 45 x 45 cm

Self portrait 5

Self portrait 6

Self portrait 7

Self-portrait 2007

Oil sketch. Oils on panel

Self portrait 2014



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page 1

saturday 12th of december 2015 ---------------

Tele-transubstantiation (2140 words)

Beliefs are a kind of information, thinking a kind of computation, and emotions, motives, and desires are a kind of feedback mechanism in which an agent senses the difference between a current state and goal state and executes operations designed to reduce the difference.”

A brain is a computational system in which knowledge and goals are represented as patterns in bits of matter (‘representations’). The system is designed in such a way that one representation causes another to come into existence; and these changes mirror the laws of some normatively valid system like logic, statistics, or laws of cause and effect in the world. … The design of the system thus ensures that if the old representations were accurate, the new ones are accurate as well. Deriving new accurate beliefs from old ones in pursuit of a goal is not a bad definition of ‘intelligence’.”
Steven Pinker

Whether one is, or is not, a science fiction aficionado, the many years of Roddenberry's Star Trek sagas—the old and the new generation—have given much food for thought, both scientific and philosophic.

I have heard two explanations for how fictional teleportation works. I could, of course, find the correct answer in a moment by using the database that includes all of man's cumulative knowledge, the Internet—itself the subject of scientific technology so unthinkable even as recently as my own lifetime, that it wasn't presaged by sci-fi writers, as can be seen by the charmingly primitive vision of futuristic computers on the first series of Star Trek.

One explanation is that the matter that makes up the body of the transported is reduced to its essential state, energy. That energy is sent through space and re-materialized at its destination. This, like warp drive, would take more energy than that contained in a few large stars. The other, more logical concept, is that the body, that is to say, its cells, molecules, atoms, or even sub-atomic particles, are mapped and a new body is assembled out of the naturally occurring elements present in both places. The point I want to make, however, doesn't rely on which reasoning Roddenberry's writers meant.

If we ignore the question of how the energy of a teleported body travels through space in either scenario (in the latter the information must be moved just as the energy it is reduced to must in the former), an ignorance necessary to maintain the fiction of interstellar travel (theoretical quantum connectedness aside), then the interesting concept that remains can be examined.

Would, my old friend Bobby Porter asks (who you will, if you are a habitual reader of this Blog, have met before), the perfect replication of a body, necessarily include its thoughts and memories? An interesting and, to science's present state of knowledge, unanswerable question. Even though there are some clues that point to an affirmative conclusion.

Pinker discusses studies done with identical twins. Although identical twins are not actually identical (they don't, for instance, have the same fingerprints), they are close enough to share similar thought patterns as a result of similar physical make-up. He gives the example of a pair of identical twins separated at birth. One was brought up by German, Nazi Catholics while the other lived his whole life as a Jew in Trinidad. When they met for the first time in a lab in Minnesota, they both wore navy blue shirts with epaulettes. They both like to dip buttered bread in their coffee, and flush the toilet both before and after using it. And both take an odd pleasure in pretending to sneeze in crowded elevators to see people jump at the noise.

There is another interesting conundrum to ponder. If the body being transported is de-materialized on the platform it leaves from, and is re-made on the platform of its destination, then, what if it were mapped without the destruction of the original? Or, let's say that for security purposes, the original was not destroyed until after assembly at arrival. It would mean there would be, even if only momentarily, two impossibly handsome, swaggering Bill Shatners in the universe.

The one who arrived at his destination would care little about the first. But the one who left on the voyage, although aware that he now exists somewhere else, would still, inevitably, resent being reduced to his elemental parts and dispersed.

If, instead of transporting a person over large distances, he were transported to a locus in the same room, and the first could see himself existing only a few paces away, could he, if he were you, blithely accept that his destruction is not equivalent to his death?

Even though, in fact, you do go on existing, every cell and every memory, it is impossible for a person to overcome his sense of self. That self, is here, in the body that does the thinking—it is where the I exists. It would take a consciousness greater than a human primate's to simply, and without qualm, go on living as he had before but in a new, identical body.

It is from there, the irrational I, that soul myths develop. The immortal and immaterial soul in temporary conjuction with the corporeal body, for the few years each of us dwell on earth. It is because of the false dichotomy we feel between the mind and brain, that is to say, the mind that watches the brain work; the I and the self; the witness and the actor.

The phenomenon is reflected too by our experience. We project a pale and poor image of complex and marvellous interior worlds, to others. The real, solid and complete I watching the fuzzy, incomplete, partial I perceived by others. Many of us have felt the duality clearly when drunk, the sober mind that watches the brain's functions impaired by the consumption of alcohol.

No single cell in your body, or any single organ, knows or cares about the you it is a part of; erythrocytes pick up oxygen from alveoli because of their iron content (forming ferrous oxide, FeO, a simple chemical interaction we call breathing); kidneys filter; nerves carry electrical impulses; muscles contract or relax in complete ignorance of their usefulness to you, nothing more. Just as an ear couldn't in a million years, guess what an eye is, or, having guessed, imagine what sight is, the brain has a million compartmentalized functions, none of which could understand the other. It is only through the conflation of all these diverse functions that sentience is formed. The body, regardless of the sense of romance we attach to it, is not ontological but mechanical.

The holomorphic self is necessary in order for the brain to filter the constant cacophonous chaos of outer stimuli into a coherent whole—using a recently evolved and none too efficient pre-frontal cortex—if, that is, one is to have self-consciousness instead of mere sentience. It creates a sense of the witnessing self as separate to the simple agglomeration of data our brain produces based on its perceptions, in the same way it translates stimuli to the dormant brain in the form of dreams, or begets a streaming image of visual reality through pattern recognition from the crude signals carried to it by our retinas and optic nerves.

Without the creation of an ego—a kind of imaginary overseer—the pile of data that enter through our sensory perceptions, could not be erudite, could not be holistic. At this point we need to ask ourselves what is this putative 'self' we have such an unerring belief in. There can be no question that I am myself, you are yourself, and the twain never shall meet, right? My self is a whole entity, I have been my self for all the time I have existed. My self cannot be confused with any other. The self who writes this essay sits in its comfortably heated house as winter howls outside and enjoys the leisure to ponder philosophic questions many would consider of no consequence. It is a self with wide experience of the variety existence offers. It is a self made up of genetic tendencies forged by varied circumstance.

And yet, this self, a self with a reasonable quantity of sympathy for other selves, might at any moment be subjected to, say, an invasion by a powerful and cruel enemy. Let's depersonalize, let us say it is not an enemy from Latvia or the isles of Borneo, but an alien race come from a far-away planet. A species who, more than cruel, is as indifferent to my well-being as I am to that of a bacterium that lives in the earth's substrata, a bacterium which neither harms nor aids my experience of life. If that alien species destroyed the civilization I lived in, and killed men like me with the same impassivity I swat a mosquito, I would, in short order, become accustomed to seeing the streets strewn with bodies of those self-same people I used to have empathy for. Who knows? For lack of choice I may even become wont to eating them to fuel my own body.

And still, I would be the same self I have always been, right? The self is a non-fiction narrative we write as we go along. Or is it? I won't delve into the questions of the subjectivity of perceptual understanding that posits so strong an argument for the subjectivity of reality, because I have already done so in other essays in this blog. Just as Plato did, or Kant whose ding an sich, refers to the un-knowable true essence of reality, if indeed, it exists at all. We may, after all, be no more than part of Shiva's dream with no way to judge that the construct we think of as reality is really only part of that same dream.

But, if we skip that more fundamental question, to examine not reality itself, but the self within a given reality, then we must consider the narrative we write during the 750 million present moments an average longevity experiences.

What of those who suffer a multiple personality disorder? Are they also in possession of a self like you and I? If you ask any one of those personalities whether it is an organic self, it will answer categorically: yes. Perhaps more to the point is the example Dan Dennet offers, people who suffer a break in their Corpus Callosum, the tiny bridge that is responsible for the communication between the two hemispheres of our brains that makes their subsequent coordination possible. Since each hemisphere has some proprietary functions not shared by the other, once the Callosum is broken, each hemisphere becomes capable of having differing experiences of the world and, therefore, of the self, within the same body.

There is no dichotomy between mind and brain. There is no mind. There are only the processes of the brain. In other words, there are physical manifestations and consequences from the particular make-up of our transitory and unique collection of atoms we each call I. A consilience of myriad chemical interactions that occur as a natural phenomenon of our interacting parts. Until, that is, that pile of loosely aggregated atoms, those borrowed parts (animated by a temporary loan of the universe's energy on its way from the centre of a star to final stasis), separate again and return to the cosmos.

The mind is simply a construction invented by the brain for the purpose of collating the brain's functions into an imaginary, fictional narrative we can, for convenience or sanity, call self.

The self that exists independently of the physical form, is invented by the physical form.

Just this year, in a collaboration between a research institute in Austria and one here in Edinburgh, scientists were able to grow a simple brain from undifferentiated stem cells. Quite a feat even compared to growing livers. It was a tiny brain, about four millimetres wide, far from an actual brain's abilities. And yet, it was a brain with differentiated parts, neurons that fired and the beginnings of a retina, among other things. It might not impress unless one considers how short a time this kind of research has been going on. A mere lifetime since men of science believed in phrenology.

It won't be long before we, as part of nature, part of the natural world, naturally create brains (if we want to) in a more efficient fashion than nature itself has—taking 350 million years of chance mutation before succeeding as far as it has. When we do, you can be sure that even if it lives in a Petri dish it, too, will consider its consciousness so magical and mysterious that it will believe it possesses an immaterial and immortal soul created by a God.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity and vanity, all is vanity.


thursday 30th april 2015

Of Sons and Fathers   (1100 words)

I don’t know if anyone reading this had a father who was as hard on him as mine was with me. By “hard” I don’t mean beatings or anything like that, but rather, showing expectations beyond the pale. When one’s father is as brilliant as mine was, and one is still an unformed boy, one naturally asks himself: Is he right? Are the things I say, do, or think, as substandard as he says? Won’t I deserve love or respect until I live up to those expectations?

My Dad was an unusual man, and by that I do not mean simply that he was different to other men, but that his character, his decisions, his point of view, his actions, motivations and his life philosophy, were unique in the sense that all the things which other men have in common, were entirely absent in my father.

Although improbable, it is possible that he, or I, for that matter—now that I am a fully-formed man—is right, and all the world is wrong, but where one can’t reasonably allow the possibility, is when considering his relationship to the lower animals instead of the human ones.

Dad bought a dog when he was in his fifties, the first house dog he had ever had (his previous experience was limited to working, outdoor watch-dogs when he lived in a place a man might be shot with impunity and at any moment—but that is a story for another time) he bought a Belgian Shepherd pup he called Fergus—A Scottish version of the Greek Cerberus, he claimed, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of the underworld.

Being as he was, a man lacking the gene for multi-tasking, as do I, his strength instead was in his ability to concentrate on one task with all his being, and for as long as it took. A handy trait when studying or painting in his studio. And so, now, he focused all he had on his new dog.

He began training Fergus by reading books about how such things were done and succeeded to an impressive level. I can remember, for instance, taking the dog to the park for his daily run, with my Dad. At full gallop, and at a distance where it surprised that he could hear my father’s voice—not shouted—the command ‘Down!’ brought him to the position even if mid-air between strides. Still, Dad was not satisfied.

He exercised Fergus, doted on him, trained him, talked to him, praised him & punished him. And, he never stopped expecting more. But, despite being a man who quoted Sartre’s definition of hell without a smile (other people)—a man who loved solitude above all, he never stopped to think that it is trying for a dog too, to have constant feedback.

At one point, he wanted to get his hands on one of those collars that give electric shocks from a remote control, illegal everywhere but Germany.

Fergus was a dog as strong as a bear. I can also remember watching my little sister playing with a ball out on the lawn while Fergus was tied to a nearby tree. Not by a clothes-line cord, mind you, but honest-to-goodness rope. He barked and jumped excitedly, wanting to join in. Finally, he backed himself to the tree and ran forward without looking back, and the rope snapped like dental floss without so much as slowing him down.

As Fergus grew to adulthood he began to show a wild temperament, a neurotic temperament. He would, without apparent incentive or warning, go from ears-up, tail wagging, to vicious and lethal biting. He bit Dad more than once (a number of stitches). He bit Clive, Dad’s best friend, who also had to be sewn up, and others. Dad went to the London police, rightly considering them expert dog trainers, and found a man nice enough to get on a train on his day off and visit Dad at home. They spent the day at the park together, and the policeman went home with eleven stitches (I happen to remember) in his forearm.

One day I took Fergus to the park by myself, holding him by his thick, chain leash. As always, he behaved perfectly, touching my right leg the whole time, not pulling, or getting distracted, or lagging behind, or showing any will of his own. When we arrived, I told him “Sit!” and when he had, I unleashed him and gave him permission to run with the command ‘Go!’ Instead of rushing off, however, he moved about twenty paces from where I stood, turned, and broke into a gallop straight for me. Knowing his strength, speed and intent, I did not run, and I did not hold back. I raised the chain above my head and waited till he was upon me, indeed, in mid-air as he lunged, and… brought it down with all my strength, knowing I had only one shot. He took the blow without complaint, though he fell under it.

He then backed up, this time keeping his eye on me, and launched into a second try. I managed to repeat, though I knew I couldn’t count on the luck of timing for many more attempts. He then raised himself, wagged his tail and took off on his run. I was among few who escaped his murderous nature.

In the end, when he bit my sister, only about ten then, Dad, tearfully, had him put down. But, he didn’t give up. He bought a Collie next—a gorgeous specimen of his breed—as big, beautiful and smart as any I have seen. (I am a dog lover who has had a long series of well-behaved, charismatic mutts, all convinced all the world loves them as much as they love all the world), who he also turned into a neurotic, sociopathic animal. In Fergus the II’s case, Dad kept him at his side at all times and warned everybody not to come near.

I never saw the second Fergus attack anyone, I didn’t live with my Dad then, but I heard the stories. Having tried to pet him when visiting on one occasion, and receiving a blood-chilling growl in response, I never went near him again; not the kind of angry growl meant to intimidate, but a simple, confident, calmly delivered statement with half-closed eyes, like a Mafioso’s threat: If you touch me, I will kill you.

Am I wrong? Can such a dog owner be trusted to decide whether a son has achieved a father’s expectations?

sunday 12th april 2015

The Meaning of Life (2450 words)

I have been thinking about the purpose or purposelessness of human life—and of my life—since childhood. I have enough interest in the question to take the trouble to consider, also, what some of the men who dedicated their lives to the inquiry, thought.

We all of us strive for objectivity in our understanding of reality, but are sadly limited by our subjective senses. Like a bat that can’t imagine there is a way to understand the shapes and distances of things—aside from listening—we too, cannot imagine a sense we don’t have but which might, if we did, rip a tear in the fabric of reality that revealed to us its hidden machinations.

Some believe that there can be nothing in the universe but that which is made of its atoms and animated by its energy. Others decide that true reality is not even what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste—as unreliable as those clues are—but lie beyond in an un-seeable, unknowable environment where, for instance, the true essence of who we are will dwell forever after the death of our bodies. Or, where reality isn’t real at all, but is an illusion, and we, just players in another’s dream.

B. Kliban

Those capable of believing reality is made of something our senses can’t perceive, can believe that there is purpose to human life because, in a speculated actuality, it is easy to ban death—and, a being that lives forever has inherent purpose. This is true, too, for a life remembered by others, but only if the remembering generations go on forever—a memory that is lost, whether in a moment or a millennium, cannot have definitive purpose. I will come back to this idea later.

Where my thesis may seem to confuse epistemology and physics, it is because I don't recognize a division between the two since any philosophy, or theology for that matter, must be devised within a framework of understood reality. And, for that, we rely on our senses, and the tools science gives us to use our senses to greater advantage—like seeing very small things through a microscope’s eyepiece. All the world’s sacred books describe the universe, and all, despite rampant luddism, have had to adjust to scientific discoveries like the distances of outer space, the lack of place for a heaven that hangs just above our sky, or the existence of continents ignored by writers who describe the world but who didn’t know they existed. Like the medieval Chinese emperor of Marguerite Yourcenar’s wonderful tale, who, locked in his palace, imagines his throne the centre of a universe held up by turtles at its perimeter, philosophy is coloured by our changing understanding of our universe. Indeed, it is this understanding that must perforce be the basis for all philosophy.

We live in a century when, by definition, we have greater cumulative knowledge than ever before, but also, have made greater and faster strides, reached further distances, and deciphered the world of microscopic reality in unprecedented ways. We, whose evolution made us as we are for the purpose of finding food and surviving long enough to procreate, not, to understand in any real way the distance from here to the Kuiper Belt, or the size of an Electron, much less the infinite or eternal.

Our depth of understanding of the human brain and DNA, now that we have tools that begin to scratch the mystery’s surface, was unimaginable to our grandparent’s generation; and yet, rather than closing the circle of our knowledge (as some of the nineteenth century’s best scientific minds thought they were within reach of), we have more questions. Even Nature’s basic laws, those understood long before there were equations to explain them, are thrown in doubt by Quantum Mechanics. Is the universe finite, or infinite? Is it expanding inexorably, or will it implode one day? Is it even just a universe, or is it only one in a multiverse? Does matter exist, or is it just a manifestation of energy? Does man have free will, or does his consciousness merely interpret his genetic mandate as independent choice?

Contemporary philosophers no longer ponder man’s place in the world, but rather, ask: What does his consciousness consist of? Is his reasoning computational or analogical? Which is the cognitive process involved in what is known by all, and always has been, as common sense? (A question larger than it seems at first glance, and one that went unasked until recent advances in artificial intelligence.) New and improved questions, bigger and more essential questions—which is similar to saying, greater ignorance has come to us with greater knowledge.

Of the things we have learned, none give us the sense of stability we had not so long ago when we believed the world was made for us and that we came into it as we are; its plants, weather, air, water, land and animals were infinitely reliable and renewable resources placed here for our convenience. And the universe, just a little one—where angels controlled the movements of stars—revolved around us. Now we know that we live in a distant suburb of an unimportant galaxy, and we know that, as a species no different to any other, we are doomed to inevitable extinction by death or evolution. Throughout man’s history he has seen himself as enduring; now we know that if we survive at all, Homo Sapiens will, one day, be a quaint memory just as the Neanderthaler, or the small mammal we were before becoming hominids, is to us.

We are like Gepetto’s puppet, or a Golem, inanimate matter brought to life by having at our temporary disposal a tiny bit of the universe’s energy, as it passes through us—a vortex that whips our atoms into a particular shape for a moment—while on route from the centre of a star, to final stasis.

So, from Plato’s cave, to Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, to Berkley’s no will no matter, to Kant’s ding an sich, to Nietzsche’s will to power, to Becker’s denial of death… my brief summary of the ultimate truth. The one that subsumes all others. (Who needs Kant’s 800 indecipherable pages, when you can get the truth in little more than 100 plain-talking words right here ;-)

The concept of conservation of energy in a closed system goes back to the Greeks, but wasn’t formulated by Rudolf Clausius until 1850: energy cannot be made nor destroyed.

The universe has a finite amount of energy.

The universe's energy is held within its atoms and is distributed unevenly throughout its space in different chemical reactions. A sun produces a lot of energy by releasing that which is held in the atoms that make it up, while empty space has very little in comparison.

Ordered energy is turned into unordered—just as we stave of death by eating food (ordered energy) and turn it into unordered energy (heat).

The laws of entropy dictate that a closed system cannot generate as much energy as it takes to operate—and, therefore, all closed systems eventually grind to a halt. (Entropy is the reason that a perpetual motion machine is impossible even in theory.)

The universe is a closed system (in all likelihood); the energy in its atoms will one day be all turned to unordered energy and will spread evenly throughout the confines of the cosmos.

Once the energy that holds atoms together is released from them all, they will fall apart and all matter will exist as indivisible subatomic particles—also spread out evenly—and at distances too great to interact with each other. The atomic particles may retain volume without mass, or, as some hypothesise, they may just transubstantiate into what their real nature has always been, energy.

Gravity will cease to exist. And as Leibnitz pointed out, in a universe where there is not a minimum of two objects moving in relation to each other, time also ceases to exist (since time is no more than a measurement of movement). In such a diminished universe, the dimensions of height, width and depth, also lose significance. And, if space was, as is surmised, created by the mass of matter as it hurtled through an inconceivable absence of space at speeds a hundred times that of light, then, once matter loses its mass, will even space continue to exist?

The theoretical physicist, David Deutsch, whose brilliant mind really does make him appear to be on a higher plane of perception, might counter that the universe’s destiny is not entropy since we live in a multiverse instead. It may be that my mind is not brilliant enough to grasp Deutsch’s reality, but I think my shallow understanding is matched by mankind’s in general, and I am conservative about jumping at wild and unimaginable explanations based on no more than fantastic imagination, advanced arithmetic, and un-disprovability.

One might posit, likewise, that the universe itself is a creature, a couth consciousness, & the stars just its unknowing cells. Imagine what an unimaginable being it might be; so huge compared to us, the metaphoric organelles or molecules of its cells. What mightn’t an entity like that know that goes beyond our paltry awareness? But, in the end, even an organism such as he would have to overcome its own physical laws if it were to survive entropy. It would need to create new energy which, as far as we know, is something the universe will not allow.

Is time, as part of the spacetime continuum, as curved as space? Does it meet itself like a snake biting its tail? Have Big Bangs been happening forever within a close-looped but eternal epoch? No beginning, no end; eternity in both directions, past and future. To a consciousness other than human, one capable of understanding reality in terms of non-lineal time, this might imbue our every action with purpose, as it would suppose that every moment, past, present, and future, exist concurrently. Unfortunately, if true, it is beyond our perceptual limits.

However, I don’t consider the likelihood or otherwise of suspected but still unproved Dark Matter—causing the universe to regress to another Big Bang—relevant to the question of entropy. Even if the universe breathes in and coughs out a new universe regularly, each of them would have different physical laws. There is no reason to think another with our precise equilibrium, and conscious life to match, would ever arise again. It would be like pouring 100 glass marbles onto level ground in the hope they all roll into the exact pattern they made the last time. So, in terms of ultimate purpose, a universe that ends in entropy is the same as one that reverts to a singularity—which may or may not explode into another, different, universe.

Long before that happens though, our sun will die, & before that: our self-centred species may commit collective suicide through violence or irrepressible gluttony. Or an asteroid collision might do away with all life on earth. And yet, even if our neighbourhood dies; even if it seems unlikely we will ever be able to cross the unthinkably huge distances necessary to relocate outside of our dead solar system, our species can hope. We can hope that technology will overcome the trials of distance—that technology will turn the improbability of travelling to another star to reality; or that a heaven where our formless souls—somehow still us—will live, would still exist despite the loss of our planetary ecosystem.

The universe, now 100 billion light years across, sparsely populated by its 100 billion galaxies—each made up of a 100 billion stars—will, in 100 billion years, cover a far larger space, but its galaxies and stars will have died. The temperature will be absolute zero, the darkness too will be absolute, there will be no movement.

It is difficult to believe in an eternal soul or in returning to Brahma’s bosom, in a universe that has ceased to exist, or, for that matter, outside of it. And, not even our most rampant imaginations can people a universe without matter or energy with corporeal life. And so, in the face of universal death, can there be any purpose human life?

Before we try to answer, I suppose we must define purpose; what does it mean, exactly, to be, or not, purposeful—in the context of man’s existence. A biological continuance and evolution, could be considered purpose; a species-centric, or even, a purpose focused on individual ancestry, fits the definition. But what if, as in the case of my sister and I, three hundred and fifty million years of unerring ability to procreate despite fierce competition and innumerable dangers, against all odds and throughout hundreds, if not thousands, of physical iterations, from protozoa, to lizards, will end with her and I. Can it still be called purpose? I suppose our role in society, my sister’s and mine, might be considered contributive to the evolution of the species—and, therefore, purposeful—but, what if the species itself goes extinct?

Purpose could be formulated as a Venn graph. With purposeful endeavours from finishing a painting—which, ideally, introduces a new object of beauty to the common consciousness, to helping a neighbour, or aiding the continuing survival of your family’s, or humanity’s, pattern of Deoxyribonucleic acid—each represented by its overlapping circles of different sizes, each circle a purposeful objective within a limited but complexly inter-connected diagram of man’s definitive, overall, purpose.

Still, outside the perimeter made of the outer edges of the outer circles—outside the diagram—remains the larger, universal, context of purposelessness which must, ipso facto, define all it contains as purposeless too.

At this point we might ask, is purpose possible even in theory? Well, yes, yes it is. We need go no further than the Christian or Muslim soul, or the more laudably abstract—less animalistic—idea of soul in the orient, to see real purpose; a purpose innate to anything eternal. It is precisely this, this question of eternity, that is the crux of the matter.

What possible purpose could something of finite existence have? Anything that ends without memory or influence in the future, can only be without meaning. All of man's dreams, all of his ability to assign himself objective importance, is based on the denial of his own extinction.

Entropy is, therefore, the primordial truth; not even a god could live in such a universe, however lively a believer’s imagination. We, we self-important humans, are mere chemical anomalies, just as everything else in the universe is, and we will, one day, vanish without a trace, and be remembered by none. Could there be a more monumental truth? Less chance of ultimate purpose?

friday february 7th, 2014

Self portrait. Oils on panel 58 x 62 cm (about 2 x 2 feet)

Self portrait by Paul Herman

friday december 20th, 2013

Painting of a grey hen. Graphite, acrylics & oils on panel. A little more than 2 x 2 feet (58 x 61 cm)

Grey hen

thursday december 5th, 2013

Art & Perfection

I have talked in these pages about how I think the painting that comes closest to perfection as a painting can, is Velazquez' Vulcan's Forge. No matter how you look at it: its subtle though modest tones (he never used more than six colours on his palette—four earth tones plus black & white); the composition that works in depth instead of two dimensions; the precise figurative work, the expressive portraits & the interaction between them; the minimalism of the setting where every object, like a theatre stage, invokes ambience larger than itself. The light, the heat, the sweat, the banging of metal on metal, are all there in the silent canvas.

And yet, I have also talked about how I believe Rembrandt is the greatest painter there ever has been. I stand by both statements. If I had to choose just one of Velazquez' regretably small ouvre, each piece a gem, I would ignore the miracle that is Las Meninas, the great ensemble piece, Los Borrachos, or even the wonderful portrait of Pope Innocent X, & choose his portrait of Juan de Pareja instead (below). It is a painting that, like many of Rembrandt's, has psychological depth & will never tire the way perfection can. (Velazquez painted Juan Pareja's portrait to loosen his hand before beginning Pope Innocent's painting.)

The pose for Juan de Pareja's portrait was first used by Titian in his Man with Blue Sleeve (below). Titian died in Venice some 25 years before the others were born (Rembrandt & Velzquez were close contemporaries). Rembrandt used the pose after encountering an engraving of Titian's painting for his Self Portrait at 34 (below), & Velazquez (who may have seen the original in Italy) for his portrait of Juan, a mulato painter who worked for Velazquez in his atelier. Of all Velazquez' work, this portrait comes closest to Rembrandt's technique & human insight—perfection inspires awe but some things go deeper than amazement.

(Click images for high resolution in new window. For a closer look without leaving this page see the detail of the left eye beneath the portraits. All three painters favoured a rough-toothed surface—especially as they grew older—but note, in the detail, how Velazquez' precise hand (fewer layers to get it right) leaves the Hessian canvas visible.)

Titian Rembrandt Velasquez

blue sleeve, detail- Rembrandt detail-Velazquez detail

monday june 3rd, 2013

Of Dogs and Men (570 words)

When a dog lives in your house its every action is guided by human rules. Don’t get up on the furniture; wait until your pack’s leader decides when, & how much, you should eat; don’t bark when your instincts tell you danger threatens—your human will decide that for you. Don’t jump up, don’t beg, don’t hunt, don’t forage in the kitchen garbage bin; decide for yourself where you want to go, as long as it isn’t further than leash or fence allows.

But when you take a few dogs for a ten mile walk in the mountains or countryside, even when they are dogs that don’t belong to a pack, who don’t live together, everything changes.

Their purpose is different to mine, they aren’t impressed by the beauty of the landscape, they only see the outing as an opportunity to capture prey. And they know that you, the bipedal creature, is useless in a hunt; slow, noisy & with no olfactory sense to speak of, & so, they take over.

Instead of following you from room to room, lying beside your chair or bed, they take the lead. I remember observing a martial organisation in an impromptu pack made up of a Golden retriever, a Dachshund & a ‘Ratero’, a small & wiry Spanish ‘rat dog’ of the kind commonly used by farmers in Cádiz to keep their lands free of mice.

Between them it only took a few minutes to voluntarily establish rank, the smaller dogs recognized not only that the Retriever was stronger & swifter but also that she had the better sense of smell. They trotted along in formation twenty paces ahead of me, the Retriever in the lead—the Ratero sometimes climbed a rock to see further since her short legs limited her view. But when the Retriever slowed & pointed, both Ratero & Dachshund would stand stock still waiting for her decision, she knew there was a rabbit (or something) on the other side of the cactus copse which they couldn’t intuit.

As soon as the Retriever broke her stance to run around the far side of the cactus the Ratero would run the short side, while the Dachshund ran straight through, under the thorny pads rabbits use to hide from predators.

And yet, though they seemed to ignore me, they would, if I changed trajectory, & without looking back, turn with me—still respecting my rank though snobbish about my limited abilities.

Unlike me also, it is impossible for them to get lost on the way back since they can smell the traces of our passing hours earlier. I have found myself relying on their sense of direction many times when my own weak orienteering skills weren’t up to the task.

Since, at home, my dog depends on me for everything from food to safety, & must, often, fight its instincts to obey my decisions, it is good for her mental health (& my respect for her) to give her opportunity to behave in the way she was designed for; to give her the occasional chance to follow her gene’s dictates & feel the sense of dignity & purpose she deserves.

The pride a dog feels when it lays a dead animal it has hunted at your feet, after being fed dry or cooked food every day by you, is clear; he is no longer a grateful slave but a partner.

friday october 12th, 2012

A Brief History of Books (2100 words)

Sometime during the 12th century before the Common Era, 3200 years ago, there really was a war between Greeks & Trojans; aside from Homer we have archaeological evidence.  At that time, referred to by historians as Greece’s dark ages—after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization—the city-states (& other political entities) that made the loose confederation that we call ancient Greece today, had no alphabet.  In the 9th century before Christ Greece adopted the Phoenician script & adapted it so well that though originally intended as no more than a means for record keeping in trade, the resulting Greek alphabet spread throughout occidental civilization.
A scant century later, in the 8th century BCE, Homer gave us the Iliad & the Odyssey which recounted the events of the war, already four centuries old, its heroes & the gods’ involvement in it. 

Homer did not invent a brand new way of using their nascent writing; he did not invent ‘the hero’ whose description he so indelibly coloured our culture’s understanding of.  He did not invent plots that urge the reader forward, nor did he invent the Dactylic Hexameter it is written in, he simply took an oral tradition & committed it to paper for the first time (as far as we know by reference to older writings by later writers, there are other, older, texts that were destroyed or are still waiting to be found).

The poets of those days were not sensitive souls brooding alcoholically in solitude as today’s stereotype posits.  Just the same as those of the Indus valley to the east (who wrote sacred texts that described a war already millennia old as format in which to define man’s role in society & the cosmos, around the same century as Homer), poets of those times, both Greek & Indian (an India, like Greece, not yet unified), were also bards & musicians. 

The Homeric tales & the Mahabharata are written in metres that fall in with a natural breathing rhythm & were sung or chanted accompanied by music & acted out through emphasis of the orator’s speech.  The formal rhythmic structure kept those who memorized the stories fairly true.  Each bard might embellish or add six lines of his own but he would have to compose them purposefully unlike the liberty for improvisation allotted to the story-teller who uses his own words.

In Homer, the poet's, words, Odysseus says:

All men owe honour to the poets—honour
& awe, for they are the dearest to the Muse
who puts upon their lips the ways of life.

These poet-story-tellers gathered apprentices who, with years of listening & reciting, each learned in their turn the same narratives.  Although Akhilleus (Achilles) was surely an outstanding warrior, it is doubtful he was actually son of a Goddess—the embellishments, the philosophising & mythologizing, must have come a little at a time between the soldier’s own stories to Homer’s version four hundred years later.

By the fifth century BCE the performance by the story-teller had evolved into theatre. It was for ancient Greek theatre that, finally, punctuation was invented, to help the players in their inflection & so they would know when to take a deep breath for a long soliloquy.

Although we don’t even know if a man called Homer actually existed it seems to me that he was likely a singing poet, famous to his generation for the stories he performed who, in old age, turned to writing them down.

Can you imagine lying back in the hours after supper cradling a cup of watered & maybe, honeyed, wine if you were in ancient Greece, or perhaps a bowl of Ragi (fermented Barley) if you were in India in the same century, & spending a month or more listening nightly to the bard & his musical troupe recite in high poetry the epic deeds, heroic thought & philosophical doubt of your forebears?

Compared to the snippets of story-telling a two hour feature film is to us today, it must have been a life enriching experience. 

As much as I love movies even including the best of them in what I agree is the—still disputed—seventh art form, we talk of the necessary ‘suspension of disbelief’ as a requisite, inspired or not by the quality of the film, to enjoy it.  In other words, a repression of imagination that allows the movie-goer to immerse himself in the story the movie tells.  If we were listening to a verbal recounting instead, it is the engagement of imagination, rather than its suppression, which gives us the greater pleasure; that involve us in a way that makes it more difficult to distinguish from actual experience. 

In Homer's day each listener had a different interior image of Achilles, all formed around the stories they heard but individualized by each listener’s unique imagination; today he looks to most of us, in our mind's eye, like Brad Pitt since the film did the job for us leaving our imaginations obsolete.

Story-tellers were capable of memorizing chunks of history in beautifully composed poetry 10,000 lines long; an impressive feat looking at it from a world where poems are kept in books & we have trouble remembering our passport & credit card codes, our passwords & telephone numbers.

Finally, in the third century before the new calendar, our calendar, Socrates complains about the spread of books (more on Socrates & books in the essay below—October 31st, 2011) & their deleterious effect on the intellect.  True to his principles, his opinion about books along with the rest of his words would have been lost to us if his pupil, Plato, had not written them down for him—and us.

In the 2nd century BCE, Rome takes Greece by force, muscle over mind, ant-like efficiency over human spirit, but Greece’s influence over its victors was as insidious as it was profound.  The Greek slaves were not treated as the Ethiopian (et al) were in the Roman Empire.  Greek doctors, philosophers, political theorists, mathematicians & other learned men were used as advisors to powerful Romans & teachers to their children.

In the first century BCE Horace writes: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, Greece, after it was captured, captured the ferocious victor.

Rome imitates Greek art, becomes pious to their gods &, above all, the Roman loves to write.  We know all the details of epic political movements across centuries of Roman history, the lives & thoughts of its leaders as well as the recipes for their meals & even the cost of the ingredients because Romans wrote so much.  

Among them were great thinkers, inventors, biographers & memoir writers not to mention historians but none excelled the Greek artists, philosophers & students of nature.  The Greeks had the advantage, I suppose, of being as influenced by India & Asia as they were by Europe; the Romans, though multicultural within their empire, remain essentially Mediterranean.

Aside from books they also kept a sense of the importance influencing with speech had, face to face with an audience.  It was they, despite the spreading use of the written word, who formalized rhetoric.

With the fall of Rome in the 4th & 5th centuries CE, roads weren’t maintained or policed, trade dwindled, coin was no longer common across borders & societies became more isolated.  Europe fell into a long period of illiteracy. 

Still, the written word was cherished, largely by monks, some with extraordinary talents, as religious texts were copied, adorned & bound for the ages.  To the east of Europe & in its south, the rising Muslim world wrote tomes of science, wisdom & beauty whose calligraphy reached heights otherwise only striven for by the Chinese, so valuable was the written word to them.

As Europe again organized itself into states that traded with each other, they recovered their ancient history & looked forward.  The 12th century brought Gothic Cathedrals & the rise in production of cheap linen & cotton paper (because of the introduction of the spinning wheel invented a century earlier in China) to replace costly kid-skin vellum (the best was foetal); the 13th century gave us a common enemy in the Mongol Empire, the Magna Carta & Cimabue who broke with Byzantine tradition to start the Italian Renaissance from a small studio in Florence.

The 14th century heralds Dante whose Divine Comedy, written in Italian (a phonetic transcription of spoken language, i.e. there was no dictionary) instead of Latin, puts books in the hands of the layman.  In the same hundred years Chaucer also publishes in dialect & Wycliffe translates the bible to English for the first time (after Wycliffe’s death Pope Martin the 5th has his bones exhumed, crushed & thrown into the sea).

In Strasbourg at the start of the 15th century, Gutenberg invents moveable type & suddenly books no longer had to be copied out or carved in wood a page at a time on blocks that wore out after a few hundred printings.  Books were no longer precious things read at lecterns only by the privileged.  The book was abruptly available to nearly anyone.

The printing press becomes used mostly for popular literature, almanacs, erotica, newspapers, but the man with a library still carries the semblance, the scent, of the kings & popes who were the only library owners up until then.

When the Dutch create a lucrative market for printed maps, the Italians sail to survey coastlines.

A fine turn of phrase circulated quickly, our English of today is still strewn with Shakespeare’s expressions, metaphors & descriptions.  He seems to be at his best when he composes phrases that signify nothing at all but make each reader’s imagination reach the same meaning: as merry as the day is long; even at the turn of the tide; forever & a day; fancy free; green eyed monster; hot blooded; primrose path; sorry sight… we remember these phrases not because of the efficiency of their descriptive qualities but because we thrill at the play of imagination necessary to divine their meaning.

The middle of the 19th century saw the invention of paper made of wood pulp by the Germans, the cheapest alternative yet which made books even more attainable & disposable (wood pulp’s acid content means it decays in under 50 years).  By the end of the same century literature is divided between escapist silliness read mostly by women (not serious men unless, of course, they were Russian) in the form of the novel, &: books of information, the sciences (whose fundaments were new to that era), philosophy & the classics.

In the beginnings of the 20th century something happened that had a big influence on the role of books in people’s lives, film was invented & spread like wildfire.  It wasn’t until mid-century though, that moving images were brought indoors.  In a time so short that some of those who remember a television-less world still live, every house has an ‘entertainment centre’ but very few have libraries.

Of the minority who still make a committed reading public even the most ardent share reading time with television or videos viewed on digital screens.

Here in the ‘States television is even more ubiquitous than most countries, they are in every room, they are slept with & are left on even when no one is watching them, left to feed one’s subconscious a steady stream of irrelevancies—an ugly & cacophonous soundtrack for life.  I notice my thoughts crowded with snippets whose source I sometimes have to locate consciously as having come not from experience, not from the carefully composed, edited & published works of some great mind but from Sheldon on Big Bang Theory (thought fragments that distract without leading anywhere—they numb the creative numen).

Digital books are hardly worth mentioning in this discussion because though mass produced paper made a difference to the distribution of books, digital media is only another means of reading the written word, it doesn’t, as I see it, change reader’s habits.

I may be a simple Luddite clinging to things past, unable to exchange the greater efficiency of modern information sources for the written or spoken word but the fact I can remember multi-evening plays I listened to on shortwave from parts remote, thanks to the BBC world service; or Alistair Cooke's wonderful, weekly Letter from America which I use to tune in forbefore satellite feeds made the world service redundant—better than I can remember what I saw on television last night, gives me pause.  If you don’t need to engage your imagination ‘the story’ will always be a vicarious experience instead of a personal one.

friday october 5th, 2012

Fish crossing (230 words)

Yesterday I saw two fish crossing the street. I, & a Crane nearly as tall as me, stopped to watch them. I think the Crane's interest in the fish was as food, but though he stood so close that I might have reached out & grabbed him by his impossibly thin neck, he resisted, I suspect, because of my presence.

The brown fish, scale-less Catfish about seven inches long, wiggled their way forward with great effort stopping from time to time to catch their breath. Nearby was a turtle so big that when he slowly ran away for fear of me, his fin-like legs labouring—his head looking over its shoulder at me, & tried to hide beneath a garbage container, he found he didn't fit & so, retreated inside his shell to impersonate a moss-covered rock instead. It must have taken the fish ten minutes to slither across the wet asphalt (it had been raining) before reaching the storm drain they happily threw themselves into.

On our way back (I was walking my dog) I saw thirty or forty chattering parrots on a high tension cable & a little further on, the same electric wire weighed down by a large Falcon undoubtedly looking at the parrots the way a redneck eyes a Big Whopper.

The best part of Florida is, without question, its animals, & I am not talking about the human variety.

monday september 24th, 2012

How to Slow Global Warming at Home (790 words)

I had a thought the other day & so looked up some data to see if my idea was any good &, sure enough, a study has been done; figures are available. The idea came to me when thinking of the mown-grass lawn, that left-over Victorian symbol of threatening nature, domesticated.

Unless one needs a surface to play croquet on, I don’t see clipped grass being more desirable aesthetically than indigenous flora left to its own devices & natural cycles.

Yes, I am championing the weed & tall grass, not only for their beauty but because, if we let our lawns grow—all 128,000 square kilometres of them in the ‘States alone, more irrigated land than the U.S. dedicates to corn—they could do their part in slowing global warming, at least making up for much of the harm that has otherwise been done by covering far larger swaths of earth in concrete & asphalt. The natural cycle would fertilize the earth naturally. If wild growth on lawns reached knee length its oxygen production would increase ten-fold. Insects would proliferate; the common honey-bee might be brought back from the brink of extinction (in the wild).  It would be a boon to birds & lizards that eat bugs & on up the line to the ultimate natural-resource consumer: man.   

REVOLT! REBEL! Just say NO to mowing your lawn! Put a sign up so that your neighbour knows it is an ethical decision & not suburban irresponsibility.

No more symbolic nature, green but cowed, no more harvesting grass clippings in exchange for the efforts of planting grass, no more pesticides or herbicides or synthetic fertilizers used outdoors by private households.

Governments talk of the impossible expenditures involved in satisfying consumer desires when all it really takes is a small change of attitude*, a grass roots effort, so to speak, to see that it wouldn’t take real sacrifice by the individual to stem the runaway effects our runaway population is having on a planet increasingly choked in plastics, concrete, asphalt & all the gases & dangerous chemical compounds manufacturing & using our unnecessary devices, including lawn mowers, cause. (How many lawn mowers does it take to keep 128 thousand square kilometres, 50,000 square miles, of grass short? How often & how long are they run?)

The scientists wring their hands & tell us "Come on you guys, I'm not joking..." the time is nigh but we look at the sky & can't see any changes. Still, the waters are rising, some of the Maldives islands have already sunk; the Artic ice measures half of what it did in 1979 (first satellite photos); the United States also will soon be castrated when Florida is overcome (some say that 3 more inches of rising ocean, like the 3 we've already seen, are all it will take for the land that is southern Florida to become sea).

Don't you think it odd that the candidates for presidency of the world's most powerful nation, the nation responsible for the majority of greenhouse gases, campaign on debates over gay marriage, stem cell research (aka Christian morality) & the right to abort babies but neither Obama nor Romney has mentioned what he thinks about the destruction of the world? When we are, in the end, flooded by the crisis, all seven thousand million of us, one of the solutions taken seriously by at least some in our scientific community, is throwing up so much dust into the air that the sun is obscured enough & for several years, to allow the atmosphere to return to its natural balance. Of course this would also result in widespread famine among other things & may not even work.

Who knows? Maybe it is better not to worry, maybe there will still be time after something dramatic that people notice happens... maybe they'll invent something...

* Like the one that occurred suddenly from one day to the next sometime in the eighties; women in countries with cold winters went from considering fur coats extremely desirable for their warmth, comfort, beauty & prestige (due to their expense), to despising them as symbols of cruel treatment to animals. Hendrix, Joplin & Morrison all wore fur. Why did the change come about? Because, for the first time, we realized the finiteness of natural habitat & the species of animals that depend on them.

The same is true for Chlorofluoro Hydrocarbons. While governments, who worried first about economies, made thirty year plans to incrementally phase out their use, companies that put more expensive versions of their sprays without CFHCs on shelves, found that consumers chose to spend more in order to save the Ozone layer. It is us, you & I, not short lived, self serving governments, who must make changes.

satuday september 8th, 2012

New painting, Coyolxauhqui, the goddess, some say, of the milky way. Oils on canvas 132 x 120 cm (4'4" x 4') (larger image)


tuesday august 14th, 2012

New painting: Africa. Oil on canvas. See full size: 2700 x 2600 px (3 MB). (With artist for scale.)


tuesday june 19th, 2012

Little more than a week ago it was this blog's sixth birthday. I miss making more frequent entries. Up until recently I have been concentrating on my longer fiction projects (I am working on a second novel or, perhaps, novella, I'm not sure yet) but have had to interrupt progress for an interesting offer that has reached me as painter, not writer.

My team & I have been wrapped up in the exciting project all of this last month. It is a big contract with a large company—that I won’t name here—that contacted me to prepare a proposal. Although our focus has so far been mainly on legal, contractual & budget concerns, my design partner (Bobby Porter) & I have been working on sketches for a plan we think will be bold & original as well as being a reasonable approach to covering 10,000 square metres (107,000 square feet) of wall in the time allotted. The final drawings will be done to scale & transferred by silk-screen to porcelain enamelled steel panels for installation. If you would like to see our rapidly increasing number of sketches & slowly evolving style click here.

friday march 30th, 2012

How to look at paintings (1350 words)

I once read about a study whose conclusions stated that the average time spent by a museum visitor looking at any one painting was Rubens_Landing_of_Marie_de_Medicis_at_Marseilles.jpgthree seconds. I don’t know how the sum was calculated. If they simply divided the number of paintings on a visitor’s route by the total amount of time spent in the museum then the figure would be skewed since we don’t stop and look at every painting. But yet even if we multiply the three seconds by a few times the resultant figure still tells us one thing clearly about the visitor’s experience of the paintings: he looks at each only long enough to understand its subject; it is a man on a horse or a ship landing with some noble personages being received with pomp. Some mermaids lift themselves from the waters below to moor the galleon while an angel floats above, that sort of thing. If one is familiar with the history of the times he might notice those receiving the guests are French by the golden fleur de lis on blue ground of the bowing man's cape. Or the ship's coat of arms: the six pills of the Medici family. A little more time invested shows one the trumpeters (aboard & in the air above, with brass, & in the water with a conch shell), while below, where Neptune directs the sirens, a canon shoots a celebratory volley, & suddenly the silent painting is filled with boisterous sound, breaking waves & salty air—in the viewer's imagination. Before the devaluation of 'the image' I'm sure this kind of synaesthesia was the norm. Behind the gentleman with the Maltese Cross on his chest, hardly visible amid the ornate carvings of the stern, a lascivious sailor looks down at the mermaids. All of this is available even to those who don't understand the 'art' of it.*

Any other consideration, like understanding the composition or how the figure’s torsion and placement guide the viewer’s experience of it—how the light and shade add drama or tranquillity—how the emotions and character are captured in those depicted and their interaction with each other or the colour balance controlled by the painter’s unique palette. The finish, the texture, the brushstroke—glaze, bravura, frottage—the painter used to express the play of light or the mood of the whole. The surfaces, shiny, furry, rough; cotton, satin, silk, skin, hessian, leather, metal, wood, ceramic, each painted in a way the spectator finds unremarkable unless it is badly done. The dominion also that a painter has over the viewer’s understanding of these illusions. Look at a Rembrandt portrait clothed in wool, lace and fur and it seems they look like wool, lace and fur because he has copied how they look in real life; but approach the canvas more closely and marvel at the few select brushstrokes that were capable of fooling you. These pleasures that art offers, and many more, all take longer than several seconds to appreciate.
Velazquez La Forja de VulcanThe Prado in Madrid holds an important collection from Europe’s long art history, generous numbers of Riberas, Zurbaráns, Goyas and what I personally consider the single painting that comes as close as a painting can to perfection: Velázquez’ Forge of Vulcan.  And yet, year after year, the results always show that the most popular painting in the Prado's collection is Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I don’t mean to deride poor old Bosch and his production of painters for his painting factory (four painter sons), but only to point out that again the painting’s popularity leads us to the same conclusion: Bosch offers hundreds of whimsical little figures, human and animal, to while away a few minutes looking at. He even offers little rewards to those who look long enough, detail-Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delightshidden figures or interactions between them or humorous details, a man being eaten by a clam—only his lower legs still visible, or a pair of ears carrying a dagger & suchlike. I love Bosch, his painting is delightful but if you subject it to a scrutiny like that described above, going beyond the subject of his painting, you find it has very little to offer. It is simply a sophisticated game of ‘Where’s Wally?’

As you approach the painting from a distance, before you divine the hundreds of curious little figures, you see the plodding, unimaginative composition centred in the middle of the central panel & reflected to either side; the perspective is haphazard, the colours workmanlike, their relationship, unconsidered. The charming figures don’t share a light source; indeed, they have just enough shadow to define their shape while disregarding natural light or anatomy. Bosch was interested in symbolism (much of whose meaning has been lost) and visual puns, not art—and his triptych is a wonderful, imaginatively conceived, patiently laboured, giant doodle with a cryptic message.

Manet- AsparagusSalvador DalíAnother painter popular among the art-uneducated is the twentieth century’s most successful buffoon among the many playing the role of artist, if not actually getting at the matter of it: Salvador Dalí. The average museum goer may not know what all the fuss is about when looking at a sombre portrait by Titian, but can wonder at Dalí’s soft clocks and if he wishes to, he can attach any personal meaning that is significant to him, like time’s inexorability, or relativity, or cruel dominion over man’s mortality, to feel the painter intended some deep philosophical message. Dalí’s compositions are desultory, his colour theory elementary and his technique is that of a competent but trudging craftsman—but he provides a subject to look at—pandering to those who don’t know what else to look for in a painting. While Manet reaches depths of beauty and mastery of atmosphere with nothing more thought provoking for subject than a bunch of asparagus.

The neglect the twentieth century has introduced in educating a painting’s spectator with the concepts one must understand in order to enjoy what the painter has laboured to present to Damian Hirsthim, has left the viewer wondering what it is all about. Why do we need art anymore? He asks himself. Where is the relevance for paintings in a world saturated with images of all kinds that bombard us from every side?

One of the various reasons our society lost its interest in paintings is because the end of the nineteenth century introduced the photograph. But it wasn’t until the end of the twentieth that nearly every person on earth began to carry an image making machine in his hand more often than Capa or Bressón carried their Leicas. In order to impress him now we leave him to wander lost among sharks in formaldehyde and unmade beds wondering what art is for but at least entertained by its being new and surprising; and, perhaps more importantly, he is amused by its easy controversiality—it takes no more than the opinion “it’s stupid” to qualify as valid art criticism.

* The painting described is one by Rubens about which Delacroix (the leader of the Romantic, or: 'Colourist' movement of the late nineteenth century, opposite Ingres' neo-classical of which the elder David D'Angers was the first proponent) described the water droplets on the skin of the mermaids in Ruben's painting. I happened to be in the city where the painting hangs when I was reading Delacroix's journals & so I went to see what he was talking about. It is a large canvas like so many by the master's studio. It is painted to a high finish & if one stands at the appropriate viewing distance—rule of thumb: three times the diagonal—every detail looks like it is carefully & exactly described. But if one approaches the canvas as Delacroix suggest we do, to see the water drops on the mermaids' skin, he finds three small brushstrokes that hardly touch much less are they painted carefully in a teardrop shape as one expects. Red, green & white. Rubens knew his craft so well that he could trust these almost impressionistic daubs to merge in the viewer's eye to form a glistening water drop. return

friday march 23rd, 2012

Raskolnikov (2000 words)

Bobby the painter wrote to me with an interesting point about the essay below. Why, he asks, would I criticize a wide-spread empathy incited by television—or perhaps more to the point: an empathy spread wide (extending globally, there is no longer a spot on earth where there is a man but not a moving image camera & a screen to watch them on), but not the emotions one feels for Raskolnikov, for instance, a fictional character born of Dostoyevsky’s imagination.

Before I address Raskolnikov, television & Bobby’s germane doubt, I will try to clarify a basic notion.

The idea the rest of the aforesaid essay stemmed from is actually one that occurred to me in an essay from a year or two ago; since then the hypothesis has grown in interest for me. I don’t think I explained myself in either case—the recent essay or the original—well enough to make the point I wanted to.

We humans share, to differing degrees, certain socio-genetic tendencies & instructions. A man might, for example, be inclined to think a woman has a nice personality because, in reality, he likes the shape of her glutei maximi or the relative dimensions between her chest, waist & hip. A woman might feel a man will protect her because he has big muscles. We have all met someone at some time who behaved in every way normally, was courteous in every detail & yet we felt we did not trust him, or that there was some hidden malignity he had shown no visible manifestation of. A result of a micro-gesture perceived & judged by our sub-conscious unbeknownst to the forebrain? Theory of the Mind in action? Or perhaps a result of a cultural prejudice from early indoctrination or an association with a forgotten experience. At least some of these interactions are controlled not by the mind but by instinct—by genetic mandate.

The most basic of these natural urges, like the first two examples above, are those which serve the purposes of procreation. And since we procreate so much more successfully when we live in groups, the second, like the last example (in its genetic version), guide our behaviour toward tendencies that allow groups to form.

Since not all social give-and-take is direct—in many cases one gives today in hopes of receiving tomorrow; parents might hope their children will care for them in old age, for example—developing good judgement in matters of trust is crucial to all of us. And, it turns out, we are hard-wired by our genes to analyze the mystery that is other people; which in most of its ramifications can be traced back to the root: can I trust him?

The advantages of the community over the individual alone include security, the efficiency of collaboration, the delegation & specialisation of certain members of the community for the benefit of the rest. Instead of making one’s own bread every day or expecting the baker to grow his own wheat, he makes bread, we pay him with the wheat we grow (or the equivalent in currency).

The glue that binds us together for these purposes & more, despite our crotchety, invidious & greedy natures, include the joys of companionship, the solace in sharing the sometimes bewildering, sometimes scary, experience life is. There is also the sense there are others who will stand by us in a fight whether it be your neighbour against a burglar or your country against another. As well as the altruism one can rely on receiving in certain circumstances from his community, which is really reciprocal altruism. I give to you with no strings attached & you give to me—with no strings attached. Despite the lack of strings the system falls apart when one stops giving back. Even when we give a coin to an unknown mendicant in the street we give ourselves a little pat on the back for the very anonymity of the deed, though many of us feel some good will come back to us because of it. That is our genes talking to us. Since altruism helps glue the community together it is also good for the individual.

Our empathic abilities, however, those which incite us to acts or even just to feel sentiment for another person, fluctuate wildly according to our community’s circumstance. In a small town there is room for the village idiot, for the wife-beater, the drunk who cannot feed his family & even the enemy—all within the domain & responsibility of the group. In a big city where one might be asked for a handout every couple of hundred paces by people in need (whether of food, alcohol, discipline or shelter is inconsequential) he gives his limit & ignores the rest. He ignores not only their requests but also their need, the trigger for his empathy. When mother Theresa acted out of empathy until she had given all she had, all the moments of her life, did she continue to feel empathy? Continue sharing the suffering of each of the thousands who passed through her hospitals? Or did she relax her empathic disbursement? A more extreme example is the capacity for a gentle & sensitive man to become completely inured to the mutilated human carcasses that litter the street between the baker where he buys his bread, & his home, in wartime.

Empathy is a powerful emotion that can move one to act heroically, or regret he didn’t. It can save lives or make them more bearable. It can also be a large expenditure of one’s resources, emotional, cognitive, temporal & material.

These genetic triggers formed to assist us in living together, can be precipitated by many things. Like laughter which the theory has is nature’s way of saying ‘everything is okay’. We laugh when someone slips on a banana peel, but only if he gets back up. The laughter can be translated to: it looked like there might be a person in need, but no, everything is okay. Except for empathy we would find nothing funny about someone falling down unexpectedly.

Since we are rabidly territorial animals I think our shifting sense of territory—on a New Delhi train one’s rightful territory is smaller than one’s own body; in a car it can extend to the harmless act of someone putting a foot on its bumper; on a ship, boarding without permission—has a great effect on some of the triggers that make us act in inappropriate ways. Where in the big city we learn to shut our empathy off at a personal limit, if the mendicant were in our home, on our territory, we would be far less likely to be able to ignore his need. This is where my theory about television triggering our empathy comes in; because our genes know nothing of televisions & so only see a person within our territory who pulls our empathic strings.

I remember when I was in the ‘States recently, where television is made up in good part of morbid voyeurism, an image I caught accidentally that will stay with me the rest of my life. The large screen filled with a close up of a face bigger than life size of an obese man. He weighed as much as some cars & was bedridden. The tears ran freely over the huge face as he repeated with heart rending anguish: “what have I done to myself, what have I done to myself?”

The people around me were not as impressed as I; indeed, they weren’t affected at all, or even drawn to consider the tragic image of the suffering man. The difference between them & me is not that I have an extraordinary capacity for empathy in comparison to them, but rather that I was the only person in the room unused to seeing such things.

If it were correct to empathize with all those people in worse circumstance than our own just because they are presented to us on television, why not all the people in the world? It is an obvious absurdity, caring about everyone in a poor situation would paralyze the empathizer (i.e. exhaust his emotional resources) & be a matter of complete indifference to those empathized with.

An actual example to illustrate comes to me. I was at my sister's house in Los angeles, we have a difficult relationship though we both wish it were easier. She called me into her room as I passed by her door telling me I 'had' to see what she was watching on television. It was a show about a young man who had killed a six year old boy when he himself was eight or nine. He was now twenty-one & there were people campaigning for his release. Details of the abuses he suffered as a child from his parents were delved into & I still remember his face looking into the camera at his present twenty-one years & saying: I did it because I wanted to, I felt very good afterwards. I must have sat there, on the edge of my fifty year old sister's bed, for half an hour or forty minutes of sheer suffering—I not only didn't want to spend my time or emotions—the former limited by mortality the latter by character—that way but also I didn't want to imprint, indelibly as it turns out, the images, thoughts & acts of this rotten young man on my mind for the rest of my life. I sat through it because it was a sharing of sorts with my sister. She, on the other hand, was entirely committed to the experience & cried with deeply felt sympathy for the poor young man. The point is not our differing judgements of the protagonist of the documentary but that she chose to spend all that emotional energy in my silent presence instead of say, playing a hand of Rummy with me as we used to when we were children. Although I remember the child-murderer, I bet she doesn't. A clear instance of caring about the wrong person, someone far away that has nothing to do with you while someone who does sits ignored nearby.

So, either one is expending energy empathizing with those people who are none of his business or he turns empathy into a cheap thrill, a sensation he feels while watching other’s misery or stupidity or bad luck on television & can conveniently forget afterwards.

Raskolnikov is not a cheap thrill, a momentary emotional buzz, or even an emotionally vicarious one. Being presented to Raskolnikov by Dostoyevsky is an honour one doesn’t soon forget. We don’t just get to know him as you & I might know one another, we get to be Raskolnikov. His thoughts, deep & superficial, his doubt & decision, his philosophical delusion & rationalism, his valour, his cowardice, his delight & guilt. All within the context of Fyodor’s world, so artfully described that it turns reality, that is, the time not spent reading, into a cheap paper cut-out for as long as the book lasts & sometime after. Whether he is a fictional character or a real one is immaterial. It is far more important we live the emotional range offered by Raskolnikov than devote it to the emotional shock tactics of a remorseful fat man on a twenty-six minute show meant as entertainment. Or, for that matter, an entire country of poor souls suffering from war, disease or catastrophe.

Drawing entertainment, or a tawdry emotional jolt—shallow & tolerance building—from the suffering of a morbidly obese man is, in itself, a morbid activity.

I don’t mean we should care less for other people but rather that we should care the same amount but for fewer people. We should care for those close enough to be considered our business; those who can be helped by the acts inspired by our empathy, in other words: those relevant to our resources—within the jurisdiction of our concern; & let the others be cared for by those close to them.

tuesday march 6th, 2012

The Canvas

The reason my entries in this blog have been so sporadic these past months is because I've been devoting my time to writing a novel, my first novel: The Canvas. To help me visualize what I'm writing about I sometimes sketch my characters & their settings. Below, Damian in profile. He is the old painter, failed in his career, bitter, isolated from the world in the shambles of his one room studio. The other character pictured in the second drawing—listening to Damian under a bare 40 watt bulb in Damian's studio—is Rami, a talented young artist with a promising future. A series of coincidences overcome the improbability of a friendship between them...


Rami & Damian

sunday february 26th, 2012

Territorialising territoriality (1440 words)

During my lifetime it has become easier to imagine the human race as a single organism spanning the globe. Each individual human like a cell, contributes, even if unknowingly, to the organism’s conduct. Just like the cells of a body, each human is compelled to do what he does out of personal interest but, unlike cells of a body, humans are so badly organised in the collaborative sense that the organism lurches blind in one futile direction & another. It seems we humans make up a body without a brain.

If I belabour the allegory further I might ask myself which part of the body I, as metaphorical cell, might represent. There has never been perfect leadership or a perfect human society anywhere in the world at any time. I wish I could think of a big answer the way Marx did, but if I am a cell I am not only not a brain cell but not even of the neurological system.

With the economic crisis we have been suffering I find everyone around me is suddenly an expert economist, political strategist or sociologist, & they all propose vehement solutions… in fact it is difficult to find anyone without a definitive answer. I don’t know how they do it but I am glad I don’t have the power of decision because though I have a few reasoned opinions, I am smart enough not to recommend my own advice on questions so wide, deep & impossibly complex.

We can see my metaphor for society more clearly, perhaps, if we apply it to the pefection of an ant colony. The colony doesn’t care about the sacrifice of the individual & the individual doesn’t mind making the sacrifice for the colony. Each individual has a clear function in the defence, alimentation, fecundity & upraising of the organism. The existence of a single ant without its colony is as meaningless as a single muscle or skin cell.

But if we toy with the ant’s perfect society by say, increasing the number of individuals beyond the necessary, the system breaks down. Similarly if we take the individual ant & blow him up to the size of a dog, not only does the system break down but even the individual ant is crushed under his own weight by the effects gravity has on the engineering of his anatomy.

Rather than leadership for our global society—the brain for our headless organism—I think we need to do the opposite. I'll explain in a moment but if we begin by asking: Why do we become societies? Why do humans reach out beyond the family structure to the alliances of a tribe? And agree the answer lies in making sacrifices like sharing food in a community instead of eating one’s fill—in exchange of giving the individual greater strength in defence; a new ability to hunt prey faster or stronger than he can alone; the advantages of the division of labour along the lines of ability instead of necessity; making, for instance, a small or old woman, incapable of hunting or foraging her own food, valuable to the tribe for her ability to make earthenware pots or stone weapons, & is fed & protected by them in exchange.

To the practical considerations like removing each other’s fleas from the spots we can’t reach ourselves, we might add the pleasures of companionship, obvious even in simpler mammals. We might also add crazy projects out of reach to smaller societies like, travelling to the moon or trying to find a cure for cancer. The advantages of the unlimited growth of this community, those which began with Alexander of Macedon & have grown into global communication & transport, & hence: economic infrastructure, are breaking down our proper function as parts of an organism just as it does for that of the hypothetical ant's.

The other day I found myself in a room with a television broadcasting the news, a situation I would never allow if I were alone. Since I had no choice I sat down & listened to it. The leading item of news was the third day Barcelona was suffering cooking gas outages because of the freezing weather. The others in the room with me, accustomed to this type of thing, saw nothing strange in it. In fact, despite my refusal to watch news programs or read newspapers, I had already heard about the gas problems in Barcelona. People here in Cádiz, where we sunbathe in February, commented on the cold weather problem in Barcelona.

I, on the other hand, was both flabbergasted & resentful at being exposed not just to such irrelevant triviality, but more to the point: to something which is simply none of my business.

You might say: “well, the temporary shortage in the supply of cooking gas in Barcelona, really is a triviality that doesn’t merit attention, but what about when the news is really bad?” Well, I think that whether it be five hundred people killed in an airplane crash or a child kidnapped by a pederast, if it lies outside a smallish circle that surrounds me, it is none of my business. My circle should include my family, friends, neighbours & maybe painters I admire, little more. And yet, if I see the crying parents pleading for the return of their child on television, I will automatically devote a good deal of my emotional resources to thinking about them & feeling for them, until I forget about them, or until they are replaced by some other compelling image of people far away from me whom I do not know.

I think the natural instincts that allow us to form communities of collaborating individuals such as empathy, reciprocal altruism, a sense of responsibility, discipline, sacrifice of personal interest, are excellent traits whose exercise offers great rewards. But these instincts are too easily fooled into behaving foolishly by the irrelevant information they are exposed to. We can extend them successfully to family, friends, tribe, but after that their use is a questionable drain on a system with very limited resources in questions of altruism, sacrifice & discipline. One only has so much brain space & emotional energy to invest in his life, it should be invested wisely. To use one’s emotional resources to worry about a missing child a thousand kilometres from where you live, while you haven’t time for your neighbour, is the wrong order of priority. The instinct to succour a child separated from his parents is a good one but when it is triggered by an image on a television screen, though it be on one’s own territory, it is not really people but only a two-dimensional image of people, far away and: ...none of one's business.

A hundred years ago the only far-away news one could get was in fairly unreliable &, by today’s measure, tardy, newspaper reports. But if the events happened so far away that it took a long time for the news to travel, why would it matter to anyone if they weren't made aware of it in real time? Now, we are bombarded with far-away news as it happens even when one tries, as I do, to hide from it. Furthermore, far away news can have an effect on us, like an earthquake in Japan that affects American economy. But only because we want reliable cars & they want muscly ones, or we want computer chips & they want cowboy boots, or whatever. There isn't any real reason both sides could not do without, & far away earthquakes would cease being personal problems.

At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, & I fear, not for the first time, what I was suggesting earlier when I said: 'the opposite of building a head for our organism,' I meant we could do with less global infrastructure, fewer live satellite feeds, fewer television channels, less tourism which eats, digests & excretes the cultures it travels to see. Or perhaps, expand Paul Bowles' personal rule & ban all travel at speeds too fast to permit one to see the changes gradually. Roads should end as they leave populated areas.

As our organism reaches for nine billion individuals inside of thirty years I think back thirty years to when people talked of overpopulation, quoting two & a half billion in awed tones.

We should, like the ants, know our limits, reduce our numbers; only eat fruit in season; only eat livestock, no more emptying of rivers, depleting of oceans or the further reduction of wild animal numbers in the name of sport. We should have a dozen choices of car models instead of hundreds. We should live headlessly but relevantly, care less about those far away & more about those who are close.

back to Raskolnikov article, above

friday february 17th, 2012

Norman Rockwell, self portrait

Image & self-image (1350 words)

What is it people want most from others in their society? The answer is: they want others to be in agreement with their self-image. A poor & difficult life can be made bearable by a family who share good perceptions of each other; while a rich & easy life can be soured by finding others think less of one than one does of himself.

We may enjoy it if other’s opinion of us is better than our own, if our boss thinks we are better at our work than we actually are. We may even make some effort to convince others of an image of us better than our own, by, for instance, never letting others see us without make-up, hiding the true ‘us’—the one we know—from others.

But the attractions of a betterment in our self-images by others is limited, if it goes too far above our own estimation then it becomes a challenge we may be called on to prove. A man might like it that his wife thinks he is stronger than other men but does not want to be put to the test too often.

Where we allow no leeway is in the other direction, we cannot stand to find out others think less of us than we do of ourselves.

A self-image is a delicate thing, difficult to judge objectively & yet of great importance to our well-being. The distance between our actual self-image & our ideal one is the measure of our self-esteem. One might forget the time he ate the last slice of pie but remember the time he offered it to someone else & therefore think of himself as generous. The other person might do the opposite, remember the selfishness & forget the self-sacrifice.

Anyone exposed to varying situations will run into understandings & summations of his character by others which do not agree with his own. He might, as a consequence, feel misunderstood, unjustly unappreciated for his true worth. Or, alternatively, he might question his own self-image based on others’ reading of it. Neither is comfortable or pleasant.

We naturally like to think that we are comprehensive in our characters, that we are always brave, that we are always kind & trustworthy, that we are always attractive or charming. In fact we are all cruel & kind, selfish & giving, attractive & repellent & all the other possibilities, but in differing degrees. Character is no more than a collection of vague tendencies that manifest in different ways according to circumstance.

We would like to believe that the times we can recall when we behaved in a self-image-enhancing way, was the true ‘us’. While when we did something we regret, we want to categorize it as a mistake, an aberration that forms an exception which does not define us. This bending of reality is aided by the ease & pleasure we feel at remembering the former & the facility with which we can chase the latter away when it rears its head to our mind’s eye.

When our self-image distances itself far enough away from the truth we are labelled ‘mad’ by others & find that the dissonance causes us to make poor decisions that repercuss badly for us. Finding equilibrium between what one wants to believe about himself & what he can believe about himself, is difficult because of a combination of the opinions of others which disagree with our own & each other, & the range of ways we react to differing stimuli. We might play the wise man to the child & the humble student to the elder without being either wise or humble.

When Einstein was thirty & hailed universally as a genius it might well accord with his own understanding of himself without any psychical dissonance but when he reached seventy & his surname was established as synonymous to genius, though he hadn’t had another good idea in the forty year interim, the label must have been a weight for him to carry.

Often it is enough to share a self-image with only one other. One sample of all the perceptions of who one is that agrees with one’s own closely enough to make all the others irrelevant. A cruel dictator who is hated by all his people may find it enough to be loved by his wife to feel he is not wrong about himself, she, after all, understands him while the rest don’t.

Some people, like public figures who have expert image consultants, professional public relations support & a structured marketing of their image, can closely control other’s perception of them. Actors also develop not only subtle ways of expressing themselves we mere mortals never learn, but they also cultivate a control over gesture the rest of us are unaware of. A shy person commonly thinks of himself as projecting an attitude of modesty while others see him as simply, & in most cases, justly, insecure—a humble person is not shy because he doesn't fear or resent other people's low opinion of him. Most people’s physical self-image is tied closely to their biggest personal experience: what he sees in his bathroom mirror; precisely the image the rest of the world never sees.

So, what to do about this slippery question? If one can never be sure his own understanding is correct &, furthermore, his character is really made up of tendencies rather than absolutes & is capable of acting uncharacteristically, of falling short & disappointing, how can we get a healthy grasp, an objective knowledge? Age might provide a certain bird’s eye view, but it also colours old, repeatedly reconsolidated, memories. The mythologizing nature of memories turned over by a mind very different to that which had the experience.

If one is able to ignore all opinion but his own, so sure that other’s conception of him isn’t as correct as his own that they never inspire introspection—so that he can say: "I don't care what others think of me" he will be considered wrong at least some of the time. But since he rejects others' opinion of him, they will reject him in turn. Consequently, unless a man wants to live his life alone he must admit differing views of his actions. The word 'unsociable' has inherent negative connotation that go beyond wanting to be alone, & such a man, in the occident at least, will be thought of as 'not sociable', i.e. unfriendly, which has an aggressive quality absent in the word 'solitude'. In the Orient, by contrast, there is a tradition of cutting off earthly chatter to open the path to enlightenment. In the West he will be considered eccentric at best, cantankerous & not a little crazy, at worst.

The Indian concept of Dharma removes conflict, if not difficulty, by defining correct behaviour not according to the individual but rather his circumstance. A husband's Dharma will be different to a son's, a friend's or an enemy's, though one man may fill all those roles.

If, on the other hand, one considers other’s opinion above his own he will never become a holistic personality but will bend instead according to the direction of opinion.

If one were able to make a comprehensive infrastructure covering all one’s protocols of behaviour; & he was willing to die before deviating from any of them; & also he avoids situations where his personal rules conflict with those of others, like a cloistered monk, I suppose he can consolidate a character of unquestionable solidity. Anyone who disagreed about who he is would be wrong. And still, where one might judge a cloistered monk as a Saint securing God’s eternal love, another might think he is simply, pitifully & sinfully wasting the only life he has.

As painter I have found that since I am capable of making myself proud as well as disappointing myself, that since I can be charming or obtuse, right or wrong, the only thing that keeps me from the form of madness mentioned earlier is that, regardless of all the conflicting forms of me, I always have my work; it is the only thread that makes me, undeniably & irrevocably, me.

tuesday january 31st, 2012

Dylan Thomas on words

I fell in love [with words]—that is the only expression I can think of—at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behaviour very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. I tumbled for words at once... There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black on white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable.

Notes on the Art of Poetry 1951

monday january 16th, 2012

Fifty (330 words)

Today I turn fifty; what a surprising turn of events.

I remember a time when I was still adolescent & my father was fifty. We were exercising in a boxing gym when he turned to me, arms outstretched, & asked my opinion: "How do I look? I'm not in bad shape, am I? I am after all, middle aged now." I didn't begrudge him his curiosity, he was by no means a vain man & he had been a professional athlete in his youth. I did not have to resort to a lie when I told him he looked very good for his age. But inside I sniggered secretly to myself: "middle aged indeed! Who do you think you're fooling? You are old." And so, whatever people might say or however I might feel, I know I too am now old.

I remember also when I turned thirty. I communicated with my mother by snail-mail, in the days when it was still called: mail. With ten day delays between missives we corresponded between two continents. We discussed age, my mother had just turned fifty & I remember her saying it was an easier milestone than turning thirty had been. Now that I too have reached the former I understand what she meant.

When young I wanted to be a poet but luckily for me, & the world, I discovered without undue delay that I had no predisposition or talent whatever for it. I left the writing of bad poetry behind, though not the reading of the good, for other pursuits I found suited my natural inclinations better, & yet the urge sometimes still surfaces. And so, upon presenting my rhyme-less, graceless poem to you, as poor & spare as a nineteenth century orphan working a fifteen hour shift, I can only beg your indulgence, it is, after all, my birthday.


death looming

knees aching

mind bright

life flavourful

the best moment


yet to come

sunday january 8th, 2012

Ants & People (540 words)

When we observe ants, they impress us with their sense of purpose. Or, to express it anthropomorphically, they seem to work convinced that what they do is of the utmost importance, far greater, for instance, than the ant’s own life or, for that matter, the next’s.

From the great heights of our greater neural complexity we can see what the individual ant cannot: the only purpose for his single-minded efforts is to produce more ants who will work single-mindedly to produce more ants who will… etc.

The ant’s mission forms such a prerogative that if its purpose is taken away, say, for example, the queen, the only egg producer, is killed, the colony of individual ants doesn’t, as it might, go on to concentrate on feeding itself & lying around on blades of grass enjoying the sun’s rays as the grasshopper does. Once its purpose is removed it curls up & dies.

We naturally see nobility in the ant’s absurd futility; of the millions of beings we might hold up, the ant is one of our favourites for parable & metaphor alike & never as a symbol of futility. "Look to the ant thou sluggard; consider her ways & be wise" King Solomon admonishes us in Proverbs. Ants are industrious, foresighted, responsible.

If I imagine a being that compares to me the way I compare to an ant, not a God but simply a creature with so much more comprehension than I that I cannot envisage him—just as the ant, with only a few neurons to call a brain, is unable to fabricate an interior construct of me—I can see a creature who sees us like intellectual ants.

The great thinkers in man’s history, the philosophers, though we might just as easily talk of scientists or artists, like Plato who describes us, humankind, as chained to a wall in a cave. Higher up & behind—out of our line of vision—are the real people who live around a fire & are not chained. The real people’s shadows mingle with our own & are the only clues we have for judging the reality we cannot under any circumstance see first-hand (our chains cannot be broken). Descartes who thought that the thought ‘I am’ was all there was & especially Kant who summed it up so convincingly: there is the inner world of our understanding, reached through a filtering of subjective perceptions by a subjective brain; & there is the outer world of ‘ding an sich’ the thing in itself, unknowable to the inner self. But Schopenhauer might have put most elegantly what the Indian subcontinent has been trying to tell us since before Greeks wore clothes: “The world is my idea”

They recognized that the pursuit of truth was marred by our innate inability to understand it. If Nietzsche had lived as his beliefs dictated he wouldn’t have found reason to write so many books. They each, these supra-human thinkers, in their way decided that truth in its ultimate form is unknowable & then decided to dedicate their lives to knowing it. Just as the ant is unaware of the ulterior purpose of his life’s work, we humans, we intellectual ants, scurry to purposes of no consequence & therein lies our nobility.

friday december 16th, 2011

Four ducks (1060 words)

I have four ducks, two males and two females. I have never been so near to the species before. It was curious to find that despite being of very limited intelligence when compared to say, a dog, they each have their own character. They sound differently to one another and they waddle differently, one with rolling gait, shoulders first; another with its webbed toes foremost as if—if you’ll pardon the pun: it were goose-stepping like one of the Fuhrer’s men; although they all laugh like Donald, the duck: WHA-HA-HA-HA.

When I first got them, recently hatched, they made high-pitched, small-bird sounds; it wasn’t till they reached maturity that their laughter turned cynical.

Now that I’ve had an opportunity to understand them better I realize that Walt Disney must have spent time with ducks, Donald is not just a frivolous if enduring fictional character but a close psychological study.

To a human eye they are comical animals, badly designed and clumsy on land. What acts as prow to a ship on water is, for a duck, all unbalanced weight when it walks. But where a child will laugh at how they stumble on small stones or even a single blade of grass and, lacking hands to stop the fall, will land flat on their faces; an adult might also notice how they make no sound when they trip up, how they get up with a sense of dignity, foregoing the look back a person always follows a stumble with, as if to say to anyone watching: “it wasn’t my fault: there was something in my path.”

They always stick together though one will sometimes hang back in some spot where they forage, and the other three will, complaining all the way, always return in single file to pick the laggard up.

Their patterns are precisely the same, the females are brown though each of their feathers is rimmed in black so that their bodies are covered in the converging design of a thousand black triangles each framing its brown content. And still, each have unique markings, one of the females is wide-eyed while the other has a black stripe intersected by its eyes that makes her look disgruntled.

But one of my four ducks distinguishes itself from the rest; he stands nearly twice as tall and is undisputed king of the farm. Even the dogs show careful respect after having been nipped a couple of times with his big beak. When the dogs approach the ducks, jealous of my feeding them, the big duck puts his beak near the ground and coils his neck into an S shape while hissing, warning that he will soon strike like a cobra. The others, his mate and the smaller couple, gather immediately behind him.

His head and neck are covered in feathers so small that, together, they give the impression of a single sheet; metally Ultramarine or deep Viridian depending on how the light catches it. His wing tips are Cobalt blue and, forming a triangle across the shoulders with its point between his wings, are small white feathers loose enough to be transparent. Each of these white feathers has a series of faint black lines and since they are see-through, wherever the lines intersect makes a dot of darker black. As the duck moves, the delicate pattern of black spots on his back shifts constantly as if it were the dots themselves which were in independent motion.

A peacock would smack of mere and empty ostentation beside him.

Of the range of recognizable sounds my ducks make there is one which, like that of a human baby, is unmistakable as a cry of emergency. Now that I am familiar with their ways I can translate for you, it goes something like this: “something terrible has happened! I don’t know what to do. Won’t someone come and help? I’m only a duck for Christ’s sake! HELP. HELP. HELP.” The first time I heard it I dropped what I was doing and ran to the swimming pool where the sound came from. Before I arrived I guessed what had happened. The female was near the filter inlet and looked back and forth between me and it as I approached, alarm on her expressionless face. The big duck must have been following a line of the small snails that gather on the wall above the surface of the water, and when he reached the filter, he was sucked in. The flapping door only opens inward and so he was stuck in the narrow cylinder, half filled with water, without a cubic centimetre to spare.

His mate was beside herself. I cast about for something to stick in the hole to pop the top and found a short length of rebar. Before sticking it in the hole, however, I looked through it and found the duck’s eye looking back at me. He had managed to squirm around so that his cheek was flat against the cover with a view of the world outside for a single eye. My dog watched, aware I was doing something purposeful but unable to figure out what it was. When I popped the lid the duck came out with it as if his head were stuck to it, or, perhaps, a big spring propelled him from below. He jumped out spreading his wings with a loud squawk of joy and nearly gave my dog a heart attack from the surprise.

This morning I called the ducks to come and eat, they all came, waddling with urgency, except for the big one who usually leads the way. Surprised, I went to look for him and found him floating in the pool where they usually sleep, head beneath the water on unnaturally bent neck.

If I found such an excellent specimen of his species at the butcher’s I would clean it knowing its fatty liver would make fine foie gras, and I would bake its body with orange stuffing. I didn’t imagine when I got the duckling I could be so moved by its death.

I buried him under a totem of stones, one balanced on the other. They will topple and fall and the piled earth will settle as will my feelings for the nameless duck.

monday november 7th, 2011

A painter's style (350 words)

Artists do everything on purpose, every brushstroke, every colour, tone and hue; composition, lighting, expression; even just knowing when to stop—to recognize when a painting is finished—is a complex consideration. Each daub of paint is a deliberate decision based on infinite combinations of multifarious variables. Painters know the public is mistaken in its common belief that a painting can be a ‘natural expression’ instead of conscious decision. As if painting were a spontaneous manifestation of para-psychological phenomena like automatic writing or talking in tongues.

When looking at the whole effect, however, the big picture, so to speak, the painter’s style, he not only is not in control of it but often, doesn’t himself understand it.

An artist might make exhaustive efforts deciding how to treat his subject, which composition, which framing, which illumination; but once chosen, he can only see one way of painting it.

If two artists set their easels side-by-side to paint the same subject, when they finish and look at each other’s canvas, they’ll inevitably find each is very different to the other. Each of the painters may well look at the other’s work and think “what a novel and aesthetically pleasing approach to the subject, it never would have occurred to me to paint it that way.” Each can only paint it in the way he knows how; the way which is obvious to him; the only way.

That one way is the painter’s style, the part of painting which can surprise the painter with every painting though he knows exactly how to make it so.

When Monet painted the same haystacks twenty-five times or Rouen Cathedral's façade from the same vantage point more than thirty, despite the intense scrutiny and experimentation studying the same subjects so long allowed, everything in the canvases changes—except the way he painted them.

In essence, a painter’s style develops from trying with sincerity to paint his subject honestly. As the years of making this effort accumulate, the painter notices a pattern, he always makes the same mistakes. And that, in a nutshell, is his style.

Life, if you know how to use it, is long enough.

monday october 31st, 2011

Thinking with Google (1340 words)

In Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates lamenting the spread of writing.  He worries about its effect on human intelligence: when knowledge can be stored in, and retrieved from books, people will become lazy about using their brains, which will become forgetful and weak through lack of exercise.

From the distance of time we shake our heads with a chuckle at his luddism.  We agree that the knowledge we can appropriate from the vast pool of written words is more valuable than any disadvantage its not being memorized can point to.

socratesRather than seeing books as an alternative repository for knowledge, we see them as a source of new thought. In some cases a book might be a summary of the thought dedicated over a life-time by an extraordinary mind, to questions of importance to all mankind, as is the case with Socrates whose ponderings would likely be lost to us if Plato hadn’t done us the favour of writing them down.

Although we assimilated mobile telephones with great ease, without fuss and hardly noticing the huge difference they have made to our lives, I remember a world lost not so very far in the past where Dick Tracy was the only one with a mobile ‘phone.  In that dark yesteryear, where one became unreachable and un-locatable as soon as he distanced himself from a land-line, I knew the telephone numbers of everyone I knew, as well as any pizzeria or mechanic I had ever called more than once.  I have no idea how many combinations of numbers, with their associated names, I stored in my brain, but there was never any worry about running out of space for more.  All it took was repeating the series of numbers a couple of times while paying attention, like folding and laying it in a drawer, for it to be there when I got back.

Now, I who move around a lot and therefore change ‘phone numbers often, don’t even bother learning my own; I know I can hit a couple of buttons on the machine in my pocket for a number to appear which I can pass from eyes to mouth without engaging my brain.  Is this an example of the loss of the very cognitive exercise Socrates referred to? Does the relegation of my friends’ telephone numbers to an outside device make my mind weaker? It is true that if someone wants to tell me a telephone number today I reach immediately for paper and pen or mobile 'phone, having lost my confidence, along with the practice, of being able to memorize it.

I remember the exciting sense of mixed greed and despair as a child at the public library; so much attractive knowledge and beauty and so little time to get it into my head.  Now we have Google, and not only in its capacity to resume knowledge, but also as warehouse that offers full texts of nearly any book you can think of as long as it is out of copyright (that is, almost all the important ones)—not to mention an image of nearly every painting painted by any famous artist; it wasn't long ago that Saint Petersburg's entire Hermitage collection was an impenetrable mystery in the occident. Google's credo, to collect and organize all of man’s knowledge, has been an incredible boon as interface for accessing information.  I use it constantly for learning either deep or superficial.  I can use it, for instance, to pull up everything ever written by a philosopher as well as all the critical studies and, in many cases, even live discussion of the subject by interesting minds.  Far more depth than that provided by the book-and-microfiche libraries of my youth and all from the comfort of my comfortable chair.

But I can also use it as an appendage to my own brain in real time.  As I discuss something with a friend I can casually look up tidbits of information that aid my argument as I speak—on the laptop that beckons from the coffee table.  Tidbits I can use in the same way I would those stored in my mind. I don't even need to remember them, they will be there to look up next time I want to know, just as they were this time.

In a not inconceivable sci-fi future it is possible that we do away not only with keyboards and bi-dimensionality but that we invent an actual, biological and cybernetic interface with the machine.  The recent leaping advances in neuroscience might make it possible, for example, to insert a tiny chip with a syringe into an appropriate part of the brain which would communicate directly with an exterior data-base and translate that data into electrical impulses the brain would understand as thought.

Whether or not the hypothesis is farfetched is irrelevant to the interesting consideration of how this would affect how we think.  And, by extension, how the information age affects how we think.

On the one hand it would be no more than taking what Google—the Internet—gives us today, to an extreme.  We would have access to what amounts practically to the sum total of human knowledge as if it were stored in our own individual minds.  The information would be there in the form of a memory in the sense that it would be retrieved in the same way as our own memory, but with the difference that it wouldn’t actually become a memory until it were accessed for the first time.

Imagine what one could do! The raw power of knowing everything there is to know about any subject one cared to delve into. 

On the other hand, the question remains, would we begin to treat knowledge as I have learned to treat telephone numbers? Would we find any purpose in transferring knowledge from the exterior data-base except for those moments of direct relevance to external stimuli? Would we become indiscriminating and indiscriminate piles of erudition, without the spark of contemplation that draws wisdom from knowledge?

Our own measly store of knowledge, that which resides in our heads alone, is haphazardly collected.  Apart from the formal efforts we may make to learn something in particular, the way we handle our understanding is influenced by aleatory experience. 

Would the advantages of possessing all knowledge be outweighed by our loss of associative thought? The best in the history of thought has always been, after all, the intuitive, the creative, the inspired, the thought which results of the magical association of incongruent and often disparate information.  If I had all of Plato’s writings in a surrogate mind, would I have bothered to read them in order to come up with the thoughts I now write? Or would I—knowing Plato’s every thought could be called to mind by simply wishing it—wait to use them until I needed a pithy quote in conversation?

What of the great literary characters that live within us? Although Heathcliff, Raskolnikov or Siddhartha each have a different face for each of us, we each lived with those characters because the authors brought them to life with words.  If we have their memory without having lived through the words, who would give them life?

Even the pilgrimage or the hunt, itself adds to the experience—to the value ascribed to the experience.  I can remember bundling up against the snow to walk to the library; entering its hushed order like a temple; deciphering the mysterious Dewey Decimal code to find a book on a lost shelf—on which its many lovers over time had left their marks.  The great books ate my reality, turning the day into something extraneous which I had to do before returning to the real world between the covers of my book.  Can the easy retrieval of superbly cross-referenced intelligence on our screens ever match that? Am I as much a reactionary as Socrates was when I question the use of vast knowledge in comparison to the romance of the hunt and collection—and consequent possession—of scant knowledge? Or are we both right? He, at least, usually was.

(If you arrived here from the link in A Brief History of Books, click here to go back to where you left off)

wednesday October 12th, 2011

The Vulture's Throat (400 words)

pmw00_clip_image002_00001.jpgIt started with a light-hearted invitation to join some friends in a visit to the 'Garganta del Buitre', The Vulture’s Throat, a gorgeous national park here in Cádiz.

The ‘throat’ in the name refers to the narrow ravine cut through the sandstone to a kilometre’s depth by the river; and ‘vulture’s’ to the fact that the gully and its precipitous cliffs are home to the world’s largest population of Tawny Vultures. As it happens we found one dead on the route and so had a chance to study it up close. An amazing bird with a wingspan that reaches nearly 3 metres, 9 feet, the feathers at its wing's tips are around 60 centimetres, 2 feet, long.

I began to sense I hadn’t been fully informed when I reached the meeting point to find my friends pulling helmets, ropes and harnesses from a van. My suspicions grew when I saw how seriously the park ranger and police who guard the entrance studied our permissions, warned us there was no way out once we entered but the long way to the exit at the other side, and explained the importance of knowing exactly who was in the Vulture’s Throat at any time in case of the necessity of a helicopter rescue. And yet, my friends wouldn't let me back out when I tried.buitre3.jpg

You can see in the photo how inappropriately dressed I arrived, with leather boating shoes, now ruined, and jeans, but what you can’t see is the chest-high and gelid river, so deep in the cleft of the stone gorge that it is never touched by sunlight, which we had to cross several times, or my dog who accompanied us—wrapped in our shirts and lowered with ropes when necessary—surely the first of its species to complete the route.

Despite my unpreparedness I had a great time and just as it was typical of the Andaluz Spaniard to approach danger casually, during the 10 hour trek, 5 kilometres of which were climbing, rappelling and wading through the boulder-strewn crevasse (which narrowed to as little as a metre in places) we stopped three times for lavish banquets. Sandwiches of excellent dry-cured ham and olive oil, potato omelette, choice cuts of grilled pork, olives marinated with garlic, fruits and a selection of beverages. What we lacked in equipment we made up for in luxuries. A fine day I am be sure to remember.

wednesday june 10th, 2011 today marks the fifth anniversary of this blog!

Tortures of the Damned (2000 words)

My curiosity was piqued when I found an old copy of Dante’s Inferno (from the Latin infernus which means 'being underneath' usually interpreted as ‘Hell’ in modern English) translated by Harvard’s Ichabod Charles Wright and published in 1833.  More elaborately elizabethan than the colloquial of the original, its long introduction shows the attitude of academic endeavour of its time: sentimental, melodramatic, hyperbolic and always with a tip of the hat for the truth of the Christian creed, it begins:

Ichabod's introduction

Here are three examples I chose to illustrate how different translators deal with Dante's unflinching frankness of speech.  The difficult word here being 'cul[o]', which in modern usage, both Italian and Spanish, might be 'ass', although its use in front of children or on daytime television points more to 'bum, bottom, or buttoks'.  Wright prudishly translates Dante's:

Ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta
coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;
ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.


But to their leader every demon first
Put forth his tongue, as looking for a sign-
When from behind, the sound of trumpet burst.

Compared to the Princeton Dante Project's (1997-98) more coarse than colloquial:

but first each pressed his tongue between his teeth
to blow a signal to their leader,
and he made a trumpet of his asshole.

Longfellow achieves a largely unaffected English (1865) which flows in easy poetic metre despite the loss of rhyme:

But first had each one thrust his tongue between
His teeth toward their leader for signal;
And he made a trumpet of his rump.

The first line: "Ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta/coi denti" translates literally to: 'But first each one had his tongue tight against his teeth'.  Wright chooses "put forth his tongue", Princeton: "pressed his tongue between his teeth" and Longfellow: "thrust his tongue between his teeth" each decides to anglicize the mediterranean gesture.  Princeton's version tries to straddle both meanings with its physically impossible 'pressing' between teeth.  Wright makes the tongue gesture an expectancy, Princeton: a prelude to sound and Longfellow, a request.  With Wright it is unclear who makes the sound or from whence it issues.  Princeton's lack of lyricism is often made up for in clarity but, like Longfellow's version, I would like to see the 'he' capitalized so that it is clear it is not each of the tongue-thrusters who make the trumpet-sound, but rather their boss, the devil.  When I think of all the literature I have come to love but whose original language I cannot read I can only imagine how great is the loss to translation.

Since Dante wrote in colloquial Italian, instead of the Latin of serious work that was the custom at the time, it is still intelligible (although, personally, I need the English translation as reference) because Italian, like Spanish, has not changed so much as to become archaic like the English language has over the same seven centuries.

I thrilled again at the apparent spontaneity and ease resultant of the heavy labour Dante applied to his rhyme and also the clear imagery of his cleverly metaphoric Hell.  But despite the ingenuity of Dante’s description of his progress through the nine circles—an ingenuity that goes beyond the vulgar Hell of the bible—a doubt began to form in my mind.  I wondered about other descriptions of Hell including that of the New Testament which I wasn’t sure I was entirely familiar with.  I must have read a million words in my search, from sacred texts to Cicero and Averroes’.

I looked into Hells from Zoroastrianism to Jainism; from Judaism to the Aztec—to Sartre's “other people”.  The reasons for being banished to Hell in the afterlife, or, according to Taoism: this life, vary from denying a true God to passion in any form.  The grounds for punishment are usually tied to moral behaviour defined in a surprising range of transgressions according to culture and circumstance.  Although many coincide in the basics of social collaboration, even the most fundamental: do not kill other humans or they may kill you, has exceptions like the cannibals of the south Pacific who only avoid a hellish hereafter by either killing an enemy (normally a member of the neighbouring tribe) and imbibing his soul, or dying in the intent.

Despite the dizzying array of differing cultures, from militant—Norse or Islamic—to pacific—Buddhist and Taoist; and their wildly divergent circumstance: Ancient Egypt, grown in the soils of an oasis in the desert recreated each year by the Nile’s delta flooding its banks (where, until the end of the Old Kingdom (2010 BC), only the ruling nobility were allowed any afterlife at all), or, the gentle Jain religion in the south of India which arose during the same millennium, to those living in jungles so dense that their inhabitants never see more than ten metres distance in their whole lives and can know nothing of seasons.  I found the promised punishments for lives unrighteous by whatever definition, were just as surprisingly and disingenuously common, even standardized, across all the different theologies.

In concept, all divine penalization is a threat made by a mortal to an eternal soul (or eternally living body, depending) and hence, I believe, limited in its menace.  Not all are forever of course, some offer a cyclic and never-ending succession of chances as through reincarnation (Diyu, the Chinese Hell of atonement which occurs between transmigrations), though if one is Hindu and rejects his dharma he increases the distance from his goal through diminishing forms. Not as punishment, as it is understood by many in the west & east alike, but, having failed at the complexities required to dispatch his dharma correctly in one form, he is given a simpler existence, an easier challenge, to try again with. Indeed, the whole concept of punishment is replaced by Hinduism with that of Karma. Others offer another judgement at the end of the game, the ‘second chance’ to escape the tortures of the damned at the apocalypse as of certain branches of Christianity.  The ancient Greeks offered annihilation of soul and body as ultimate penance, while others, like Hindu and Buddhists, offer the same as ultimate prize—an equivalent to the concept of heavenly reward—another way to return to the bosom of the creator, only the properties of the creator change.

Some offer conceptual pain difficult for a mortal to grasp, alienation from God’s love, for instance, but with certain rare exceptions that vary little in their crude conception, almost all describe physical pain even when it is the incorporeal soul that suffers it.

Guad treeIn a Thai temple I once saw a scene of Hell painted on carved bas relief, figures whose faces were chiselled in permanent gestures of extreme dismay, climbing the trunks of thorny trees (Guad tree, right), with demons, grinning sardonically from below, forcing them up with pointed lances.  Christianity is more imaginative: Lakes of fire in atmospheres of brimstone, the old name for sulphur, flesh-eating worms, eating a flesh which, presumably, regenerates forever and ever.  Others threaten immersion in human excrement or terrible and unrelenting cold to which the Aztecs add skin-flaying winds.  The Parsi have baths of molten metals while the Jain are trampled by domestic animals if they were cruel to them during their lifetimes.  All things which scare or repulse mortals but wouldn't impress an immortal eternally.

Dante adds some moral inventiveness and macabre twists to the torments.  His seers and fortune-tellers, in punishment for sinfully trying to see God’s future, walk the eighth circle with their heads turned backwards so, now, they can only see what has been (in Wright's translation):

ché da le reni era tornato 'l volto,
e in dietro venir li convenia,
perché 'l veder dinanzi era lor tolto.

Of each, in manner wonderful reversed.
So that the face was twisted back;
And want of faculty to see before
Compell'd them blindly to pursue their track.

and Princenton's version:

Their faces were reversed upon their shoulders
so that they came on walking backward,
since seeing forward was denied them.

Among the other exquisite tortures Dante concocts, political traitors (whose sin is the greater for being wholesale since they betray all those they represent) twisted into awful shapes: one foot brought up to the face the other to the back of the head for example, are buried in solid ice.  Sometimes only the head protrudes, in others: only a foot sticks out above the ice while the rest of the punished body, fully conscious, lies encased head-down, below:
Now—and I shudder as I write it out in verse—/I was where the shades were wholly covered,/showing through like bits of straw in glass./Some are lying down, still others stand erect:/some with their heads, and some their footsoles, up,/some bent like bows, their faces to their toes.  (Già era, e con paura il metto in metro,/là dove l'ombre tutte eran coperte,/e trasparien come festuca in vetro./Altre sono a giacere; altre stanno erte,/quella col capo e quella con le piante;/altra, com' arco, il volto a' piè rinverte.)

Milton also paints a compelling picture: "...and to the mouth of the internal pit, which seemed like unto a well; regions full of horrid darkness, of foetid exhalations, of shrieks and loud howlings.  Near this Hell there was a worm of immeasurable size, bound with a huge chain, one end of which seemed to be fastened in Hell.  Before the mouth of this Hell stood a great multitude of souls, which he absorbed at once, as if they were flies; so that, drawing in his breath, he swallowed them all together; then, breathing, exhaled them all on fire like sparks."

However terrible these imaginative punishments may be or as bad as each person’s personal fears might invent, whether it be having a nail perpetually hammered into one’s eye, his fingernails removed with pliers or having his intestines pulled out to be eaten by wolves as he watches, even the most perverse mind’s most repellent resourcefulness, is, in the end, merely physical pain.  As dreadful, fearsome or horrific as the thought of suffering physical pain might be, it is only a true threat to a mortal because as awful as burning, being eaten alive or breathing sulphur might be at first, the first day, week, year or even century, after a thousand years, or a million—eternity is a very, very long time—one’s mind is sure to wander, sure to get used to the worst physical pain imaginable.

I am surprised none of the religions I looked at thought of the torture which must by definition be far worse: emotional pain.  If theologians threatened the immortal soul with eternal regret, shame or guilt—not the emotional distress that results from physical torture, but rather: pure in its essence and detached from circumstance—the suffering would indeed be everlasting and far more efficient at putting the 'fear of God' into a mortal.  Even during our short stay alive on earth human psychology will get used to most anything.  If one has committed a terrible act, say, he has killed someone as Dostoyevski's Raskolnikov did, he will, if he does not succumb to madness (disasociation, for instance) or suicide, find a way of integrating his behaviour by either managing to categorize it as an abberation which doesn't define him, or by eventually accepting the diminished sense of self.  But the threat of divine punishment in the form of agonizing emotion not tied to an individual's own estimation of a particular and personal conduct, but rather as imposed castigation, must needs become inescapable however long one feels it.

In other words, to resume the concept in its simplest iteration, instead of: "if you are good you will be happy in the afterlife but if you are bad you will be tortured with unspeakable cruelty"which psychology doesn't work for raising children nor even training a dogtheologians threatened with: "if you are good you will be uninterruptedly happy for an eternity after you die, but if you are bad you will be unhappy forever" wouldn't it be more effective motivation?

monday april 18th, 2011

Memory and self (2400 words)

An old memory and I ran into each other today.  I rummaged in an old box inside of which, among other things, I found a smaller one.  When I opened it I discovered an artefact from my past, a silver and Carnelian broach nested in cotton.  And in that same moment I saw in my mind's eye a young woman wearing it on a strangely unattractive Tweed jacket she, my first great love, used to wear a quarter century ago.

It caught me in a moment that wanted to linger and I recalled her toothy smile, her wit, her reluctant attraction to me and her perfect, dark breasts, in a flood of feelings that connected the then to the now.  I remembered our first date, one she wouldn’t have agreed to if we had given it that name.  She was born into the privileges of Bombay's Parsi aristocracy and had a solid education behind her.  She took me for a brash, ignorant and vain young American, which was hardly strange as it was likely precisely what I was at that age, more boy than man. 

I had overheard her asking for a recommendation for a gym, I broke in and suggested mine, a sweaty men’s gym above the Covent Garden market back when Covent Garden still belonged to Dickens. Before its transformation into the fun tourist trap it is today.  But when she asked for directions I insisted on taking her. 

She had said she wanted to try the gym out but tried her first escape instead.  Instead of changing into gym gear herself she waited politely while I changed, she wished me a good work-out when I came out and turned to leave.  But I, convinced I would never have another chance, told her I wouldn’t be five minutes and turned without giving her possibility to point out there was no reason for her to wait.  I changed back into my street clothes as fast as Superman in a ‘phone booth, full of trepidation she mightn’t be there when I emerged again from the locker room.

I wheedled and charmed, I made her laugh and worried a little at how easy it was; worried she might think me wittier than I am and be disappointed when she discovered my limitations.  I pushed her through a walk in the park, food, and after dark, drinks at a club, I knew London better than she did, back then.  We spent three days and two chaste nights together.  I remember music from an open window as we walked along a dark street and how she hopped up onto the low wall of someone’s front garden and improvised a humorous dance that never-the-less, showed her training; and how my heart throbbed at the private performance.

Three days of resisting and succumbing, three days of attraction and repulsion, three days without future or, for that matter: past, ended with her getting into bed with me on the third night on the assurance I would not try to make love to her.  A promise I might have kept had it been possible, if we hadn’t both wanted to so very much.  I can still see her long legs for the first time as she climbed into bed in panties and undershirt.  I can still feel how the union of our bodies was a birth, a resuscitation.

And yet I had no way of knowing that of the many women who had driven me to single-minded, adolescent desire, who had filled me with passion and inspired ardour, she would be the one I remembered decades later as my first great love in a lifetime that has only offered two—so far.  I can recall with pleasure many worthy women, indeed, worthier than I merited, many delightful infatuations.  But in the case of my Indian love I can still feel, smell, see, the moment that belongs to an ancient, personal past.

It is even possible that except for her and the experience she gave me, I might never have learned there was such a thing as love that gave greater pleasures in the contemplation of another’s pleasure than one’s own.  Typical of the paradox inherent in all definitive truths.

Such memories, those able still to move one a lifetime later, made me think of all that is lost to the past, unrepeatable firsts and depths of emotion untethered as yet by longer experience.  Memories not only of youth but by youth.  Feelings I can live only by recalling them since I can no longer be inspired by the present to feel them.  Feelings I can only share with a Paul expired and disappeared.

Although I am fundamentally the same person who fell in love twenty-five years ago, I am also essentially different and so even though the pleasure at the memory might seem a personal one, it is actually more like a vicarious one.  A pleasure I share with a badly remembered, perhaps even, a mythologised self who no longer exists.  Since that time I have changed every atom and almost every cell that makes me (I am told our corneal cells live as long as we do).

In fact, if I look at the big picture, the universe of which I am a part, I see space which compared to me, the observer, is so vast as to seem infinite, filled with varying quantities of matter.  Today’s science tells us its densest concentrations of matter exists in black holes while its weakest density can be found in open space though Heisenberg showed us we can never be sure a vacuum actually contains no matter at all. 

If I choose to look at a small portion of the universe, namely: me, in this context, I see that compared to the air in which I walk I make a huge massing of matter, a whirling vortices of innumerable atoms attracting, repulsing, joining and abandoning a point in space which is I.  I remember a ninth grade chemistry teacher putting it in perspective when he told me: ¨If the nucleus of a Hydrogen atom were the size of a baseball, its electron would be at the same approximate distance as the earth from the sun, and still, the electron would be so small as to be invisible to the naked eye¨ So, if I look at the same me on a subatomic level there is so much more space than matter I can no longer distinguish myself as a discrete entity surrounded by air.  One day, whatever it is that made the loose confederation of elemental matter coalesce, will stop exerting its influence and all the indivisible components will spin back out into the universal space.  In other words: seen from a grand scale I am insignificantly small while on a small scale I am an object so diffuse as to hardly merit being considered a thing at all. 

Who is this ‘I’ who not only thinks about its ‘I’-ness but remembers and even feels what an I who ‘existed’ in the past thought and felt? What is it that makes me, I? And what is the sense of continuity that ties it to another, indefinable, ‘I’ who only exists as a chaotic, subjective and often mistaken pile of memories that was Paul in his youth?

We are all aware of neuroscience’s definition of thoughts as electro-chemical paths that run along select neurons of the brain.  As fascinating as that information is, it explains but little the sense of place, its smells, sounds, tact and taste I can bring back by simply willing it.  If the argument for the existence of me as corporeal form is weak, then the only definition of self left is as perceiver.  I am a loose incorporation of universal matter and space which, because of its particular construction, perceives its surroundings and thereby infers its own existence.  In essence I am no more than my ability to perceive.

But if what makes each of us ‘I’s’ is not physical presence but rather its consequence: perception, then we must consider what exactly this ability to perceive is.  One might argue that all living things perceive but a cellular biologist could object claiming, for instance, that bacteria are alive but instead of perceiving, they limit themselves to chemical reaction since they have no sense organs or neurons with which to analyse or store their perceptions.  But if we look at ourselves on a cellular level, we do no more than bacteria though we do a lot more of it.  And so the distinction in the definition of ‘I’ becomes dependant on quantity instead of type.

Moreover, if the definition of ‘I’ is ‘that which perceives’, then the next step would have to be an examination of the senses responsible for perception—the chemical reactions whose cumulative effect is awareness.  Worms have neural networks and some even have eyes and might be said to have the senses of taste and smell since they recognize food by chemical interactions with their environment.  But their simple eyes do not ‘see’ in our sense of the word but rather distinguish simply the contrast between dark and light, night from day or the sudden shadow thrown by a bird about to eat it.  We can look at the worm from the great height of our advanced evolution, our sophisticated sensual perceptions, and laugh at its ignorance.  With our ability for theoretical speculation we might even imagine how, given the means to express itself, the worm might describe the universe it lives in.  With its limited sensory perception it would understand the world as a place with food, mates, night, day and large but formless predators who offer quick and unexpected annihilation.  It could know nothing of animals and plants, of its home, the planet that whirls on its axis as it spins around the sun as part of a planetary system that speeds through the universe at dizzying velocities.

As perceiving beings we are so far ahead of the worm as to make his conception of reality and of himself, so primitive that even if it had the ability to express itself we could not communicate with it for lack of basic understanding that coincided well enough to form mental images on each other’s sense of reality.

But what of our own abilities? We know enough to have discovered (only recently in our history) that the spectrum of light we perceive is only a narrow range of existing light.  A man who is colour blind can die of old age without means of suspecting the colour of grass is indeed distinguishable from that of a sunset.  We needn’t even speak conceptually when we speak of sensory sensibility, we need go no further than certain birds to see examples of sight far more sensitive than our own (or frogs who are capable of recognizing a single photon in the darkness), owls who can see their prey as points of brilliance in the night since they have the ability to discern light into the infrared range (body heat as light)—entirely invisible to us.  Or eagles who can spot a mouse in high grass from half a kilometre above.  For the olfactory sense we need only look to our dogs who give constant evidence of great sophistication when compared to the paucity of our sense of smell.  We cannot even smell water, a basic tool in the survival kit of many mammals (not to mention the other taxonomic branches).  Our auditory sense is a joke compared to a cat’s.  Where we can pinpoint the direction of a sound in six locations, above, below and in the four cardinal directions a cat can locate the source of a sound with precision at sixteen points of the sphere that surrounds it.  And so it is with all of our senses, even a cockroach serves as example of heightened awareness since its tactile sense is so sensitive it can tell by the movement of air, before its sight alerts it, that you are trying to crush it beneath your shoe.  Without going so far as the world we cannot perceive we can even imagine the fundamental difference to our general understanding if we, for example, had eyes placed on the sides of our heads like a hare’s, giving us a near 360 degree vision of our surroundings.  How poor a cinema screen’s frontal view of reality would seem in comparison!

If we are naught but perception and perception is no more than deception, then if one person says to another: ¨every man is an island. Although we take as a given that you and I share the universe we both live in, in fact my universe is very different to yours.¨  and the other disagrees: ¨actually, I think no man is an island, we are all connected as 'mankind' by our common experience¨ the very difference of opinion smacks of such a fundamentally conflictive understanding of reality as to prove the former right.

Despite the sounds we make to describe our sense of reality to each other we can only use words the person we speak to already has a definition for and these definitions, though, all considered, are wondrous in their efficacy, vary inevitably between listeners.  If I tell a group of ten people that I saw a green field topped by a blue sky, the image in each mind will vary invariably in tone hue and even colour like Homer’s ¨wine-red sea¨.  Not only is man’s perception/conception subjective but each man’s is incalculably different to every other’s.  One need only consider the different universes a painter, musician or sommelier live in, due solely to the degree of reliance each puts on different sense organs.

If we go beyond comparisons to other animals we can not only imagine what a world seen with heightened sensory perception might be like but can also imagine that there might be phenomena we could perceive, given the sensory organs to do so, which we cannot imagine for lack of them.

Might it be that if we had perfect sensorial abilities we would understand everything? That we could even understand the I, the perceiver, like the gods we imagine? Or could it be that perceiving everything accurately would make the perceiver irrelevant to his own musings? And, more importantly, would the conspiratorial intimacy of love be possible if we weren’t so misled by our perceptions, so mistaken?

monday february 14th, 2011

Democracy is a circus where a bedazzled audience votes for clowns.

wednesday february 9th, 2011

Hinduism and me (1480 words)

Anyone who has read these pages of my blog to any length will have noticed my interest in theology and my special affection for Hinduism.  It wasn’t until my most recent trip to India, however, that I delved deeper in my attempts to get a better grasp of it.  I bought a few books, critical summaries and translations of the ancient Vedas and Mahabharata (the last includes the Baghavad Gita, made famous in the west by Jung, Hesse and Huxley, among others; together they make up the largest body of sacred texts of any religion) which I am still re-reading and using as reference for further research.

Aside from beginning to scratch at the surface of Hinduism’s subtleties, and enjoying the literary pleasures of its great romantic poetry, I am starting to feel another influence.  If Lancelot Andrewes’ bible for King James is a peak of English literature it differs in that despite its evocative imagery it is, compared to the Hindu texts, a screenplay made up of dry events and ‘he saids’, waiting to be brought to life on the stage, while the Mahabharata is colouring my universe with vivid scenes of real people and marvellous events.  I begin to get an inkling of the vast differences growing up with Hinduism must make to one's understanding of reality. 

The gods have a sense of humour, they are even able to laugh at themselves, something entirely missing in the Iliad & the Odyssey or the bibles. It is odd to think of all the images we have of Jesus' life embedded in our minds without one occasion for laughter. The Mahabharata's heroes don't fight like Spartan automatons convinced of the glory of war & their doubts & regrets make the killings affairs of greater gravity, & heroes more difficult to distinguish. It seems to me, from the point of view of the one who must honour a God, an ability to laugh at oneself—more than diminishing a God's dignity, makes him easier to adore.

I can imagine the scene of Pilate’s ecce homo transcribed by Hindus instead of Christians.  Gods on either side of the issue debating philosophically, the lives of individuals in the crowd described along with their reactions; the smell, the heat, Jesus’ thoughts, his mother’s and all his family’s.  More like Rembrandt’s 'human' depiction of the scene than the bible’s:

Ecce homo, Rembrandt- fifth state

If I compare it to the religion of my father, the Jewish tradition, or my mother’s Christian one, either is all black and white morality, cultural cynicism and angry gods presiding over dire events and frightened congregations.  The Vedas and Mahabharata are instead, poetry in a metre meant to be sung or chanted.  They describe images, smells and feelings in people and gods alike.  The dealings, decisions and doubts each might have about his dharma, his duty in the various roles he plays in life, make for inner conflict and constant introspection about what is good or bad.

On the eve of the great battle that culminates Vyasa’s tale—the Mahabharata—with the death of nearly everyone and only remorse for the winners, Krishna, God incarnate and charioteer to his friend the great warrior Arjuna, discuss the right and wrong of it.  Arjuna, pondering the great suffering and loss of life the war is sure to produce, asks: “is one’s duty to what is right, or what is good?” Through a long discourse of 700 verses that makes up the Baghavhad Gita, Krishna defines ‘dharma’ for all humanity as he convinces Arjuna that ‘right’ must needs be ‘good’. Duty is righteousness.

Still, in a moment that might have turned the battle to victory, Krishna jumps from the chariot he steers to attack Bhishma, whose own dharma is flawless, with his chakra* but is tackled by Arjuna who pleads for the enemy general’s life remembering how he sat on his lap as a child.  But in the end, it is Arjuna who tearfully fulfils his duty and kills Bhishma who lays down his shield and arms to allow it. 

Amartya Sen recounts a talk he had with his grandfather, also a celebrated man of letters in Bangladesh, while he was still a young man.  He confesses to him his doubts about Hinduism and his fears that he may not be able to believe because his growing understanding of the universe didn't seem to allow it.  His grandfather reassured him that his path was noble; he should continue to discover and to learn, so that he might eventually form a mature opinion.  But he also added that he was sure that, given time, the young Amartya couldn't fail but find the truth and value of his religion.

Many years later the older Amartya is back in Bangladesh (from Harvard where he holds a chair in economics) helping his grandfather translate a book he wrote into English, when the subject comes up.  Amartya tells his grandfather that he now considers his opinion mature and is sorry to say that he, his grandfather, turned out to be wrong.  Amartya's search had only increased his scepticism and ultimately brought him to atheism.  But his grandfather imperturbably explains: "ah, then you belong to the Lokayata end of the Hindu spectrum: those who don't believe."

And so Hinduism embraces all reality instead of picking and denying.  It has no creation myth, no genesis, because it denies creation i.e. a definitive reality.  It admits only the self’s experience of self as manifestation of the universal principle, Brahman: the universal soul or being to which individual souls will be reunited after the illusion of time and space has been conquered.

Now the wonderful world is born,
In an instant it dies,
In a breath it is renewed.

From the slowness of our eye
and the quickness of God’s hand
we believe in the world.

It is God’s sleight of hand that makes us believe in the illusion there is a God or even in the existence of a self that might judge whether or not there is.

Hindu gods are not capricious like Greek gods, though they may be impulsive, they are instead, conflicted and unsure though wise.  They are moved to admiration, sadness and joy by man’s affairs.  But also show man's ultimate insignificance in the grand scheme of things, in 'the width of space and vastness of time'.  Where the Judeo-Christian ethic does the opposite, aggrandizing man’s role.  Though puny when faced with God’s wrath God’s pleasure relies also on man’s behaviour.  Where Christianity and Judaism list bulleted rules and Islam spells out correct behaviour, Hinduism understands that the universe’s fundamental law is actually paradox.  They somehow conciliate deep religiosity and existentialism, a religion an atheist might embrace.

Kausika, the Brahman, who is now roasting in Hell,
set his heart on Virtue
and in all his life never told a lie even in jest.

Once, having seen their helpless victim run past him and hide,
Kausika, sitting where the rivers meet,
answered the thieves: “That way”

It is easy for Europeans to think of themselves as descendants of Romans with a little influence from the Arab world but in fact our culture and even our language is Indo-European and much of what we consider Arabic is actually Hindu.  Even what we call ‘Arabic numerals’ are referred to in Arabic as Hindu numerals since they come directly from the Sanskrit.

While Europe wallowed in the fall of Rome, Christianity finally put down roots after many centuries of struggle and Islam spread like wildfire; eight centuries before Copernicus, in India it was common knowledge the world was a sphere and travelled around the sun. A theory only put to the test by Europe in the 15th century in a bid to reach India more easily.  I think there is also convincing argument that the Buddha’s teachings influenced Christ’s.  And just as Christ died a Jew, not a Christian, I believe Gautama Buddha died a Hindu.  Indeed, I imagine he himself would not have claimed more than a new interpretation of dharma within a Hindu context.

And so, it seems that just as our genomes lead us back to sub-Saharan Africa, our history of thought takes us back to the old wisdoms of India. 

When I decided to familiarize myself better with the Indian writings I expected literary, aesthetic and conceptual pleasures but more than anything I have been enjoying the beautiful backdrop it is painting in my mind of scenes and charismatic characters driven by a noble love of truth to ignominious folly.  It seems to me a wondrously romantic soil in which to plant the seeds of a culture.

* Krishna's chakra: a weapon impossible to defend against.  One of three objects made of the sun’s energy by Vishvakarma and given to Krishna—incarnation of Vishnu—by Agni the fire God, after holding on to it for him since the beginning of the world. -return

sunday february 6th, 2011

The Barber (1300 words)

There was a time I lived in Buffalo, New York, the mere mention of whose name will bring a derisive smirk to any North American’s face.  A drear city of under three hundred thousand, down from the half a million of my childhood since the steel mills closed.

It has a poor and dangerous East side, a poor working-class south side and a sad little downtown whose death rattle chokes in the silly, short subway line, put in at great expense in an unsuccessful attempt to try to save its image as a real downtown.

Its winters are long and their snows heavy.  Fresh falls seem to wash the city clean but its dirt seeps through soon enough so that most of the year is just black salted slush, leafless trees and featureless white skies. The long grey winters coloured everything; we played ice hockey all winter like our Canadian neighbours and street hockey, with a tennis ball instead of a puck, all summer.

I can remember times my sister and I walked to school covered like astronauts, peering out at the world through the small window of our laced parka hoods, like Kenny on South Park, with the snows swirling so thickly we reached with our hands to feel for the next tree to guide us, and I remember accepting it as perfectly normal.

And yet, to be fair, it is also a town filled with faded glories, world-class architecture and cemeteries, old tree-lined avenues whose canopies mingle. Joyous, if short, summers. Grand old mansions built of noble woods and old traditions like its chicken wings, on menus now anywhere from Spain to Thailand but invented in the Anchor bar still open for business at the rough end of Main street. And of course its night-life: more bars and good live music than any city its size.

It is known also as the city of good neighbours. Despite its high crime rate and its segregation along racial, economic and nationalistic lines—Poles, Italians and Blacks all have their own sections of town though few of them have seen their ancestral countries of origin in at least three generations. And yet, while sliding around on the slush with our cars, it was not rare to take a long time when we met at a stop sign while each driver politely insisted, with gestures through iced windshields, that the other go first.

There was a small barbershop on Allen street when I was a kid, a tiny remnant from the straight-razor days surrounded by a world of salons, hairdressers and stylists. It was just large enough for one old, heavy, cast-iron, barber’s chair, a small bench sometimes occupied by a few old men like birds on a wire, and the barber himself.

For most of my youth I wore my hair long but during the period I knew the barber I was crazy for cycling and my whole look had taken on an aerodynamic feel. Down to my minimum weight, with muscles thin and strong as steel cables, tight lycra clothes and hair close to the scalp. I’d drop in every couple or three weeks for a quick, cheap and standard 1940s haircut.

I don’t remember the barber’s name though I can picture him clearly in my mind’s eye. He was short and plump and hairy except on the top of his head where he was bald.

When I sat on the bench with the old men waiting my turn I found their chatter dull, how cold the weather was, whether or not they had put chains on their car’s tires yet, how one of them had been caught out by a dead battery—killed by the lethal cold—and how a friendly stranger had stopped with cables to get him going again with his own battery, that sort of thing.

The barber was practiced but his participation in these conversations was desultory, except for one subject that made his eyes light up, his country, his home: Romania.

He had lived in Buffalo for nearly fifty years and had forgotten much of his own language but had not become fluent in English either. I found myself wondering if he didn’t sometimes get stuck in his thoughts for lack of words in either language, to describe them to himself.

But on this one subject he was loquacious, marking rhythm for his speech with the clickety-clack of shearing scissors deftly clipping hairs. His sentiment made up for his poor vocabulary. He remembered childhood in an idyllic ‘România Mare’, ‘Great Romania’, between the wars, before communism and having its natural resources stripped by the Soviet Union; and with ancestral memories of Transylvanian glory.

If one encouraged him, as I did, he would wax volubly on the proud skies, forever blue, of his memories, his noble traditions and warlike history, the monumental cities, the charming old towns of his countryside and their rich folklore, not to mention the food. His mother’s tripe and sour calf-foot soup was… but the qualities of his mother’s cooking were beyond the range and scope of his small vocabulary. His gesture and blissful expression, head back eyes closed, thumb and forefinger together, however, left no room to doubt that his mother’s soup was joy made corporeal.

The barber, in his characteristically expressive way, teared up when he told me of his brother whom he hadn’t seen since escaping Romania as a young man. “My brother will be old like me” he said with a shake of his head. It was more difficult for him to change his image of his brother into an old man than it was for himself.

I asked why he didn’t go back for a visit and he assured me he would. The political situation was delicate under Ceauşescu’s tyranny and besides, he was saving up, he wanted to return with money in his pocket but he’d been planning on it a long time, it would be soon.

Although I wondered if he meant it or would have the courage when it came to it, he finally, one day, did go. His shop was closed but there was a notice on the door about when he’d return. I was curious and I went in for a haircut. What I found was heart-rending, the barber was a broken man. The dream of ten thousand haircuts was dead. He didn’t grace me with his usual friendly smile nor was he talkative in his usual friendly way, but prompted by my questions he told the story of his trip, his reunion with his world. He arrived to find family and friends passed or gone and the distant relatives he looked up saw him as a foreigner and were only interested in the dollars he brought.

The country was poor, worse: it was raped. Romania’s proud culture had been squashed like a cockroach by a single megalomaniac and in less time than it takes to grow a child to adulthood. The people had suffered for lack of bread for a full generation while their autocrat deified his own image, commissioned golden statues of himself and killed, oppressed or imprisoned at a whim. The barber found not only that the country of his hand-coloured fantasies was actually grey, cold, uncomfortable and inhospitable but its people were scared and shorn of hope. Their poverty such that there was no room for the proud culture he remembered.

The barber’s dreams of home had kept him happy his whole life and now that they were poisoned by reality there was nowhere for him to turn. He was alone in the town he lived, and a stranger in the home of his imagination. I never saw him again but noticed, not long after my last haircut in his chair, that the barber shop had closed and the bar next door had taken over the small space to store its beer in.

thursday january 27th, 2011

Glasgow Smile (1270 words)

Although my Dad was a kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing Glaswegian, and though I have visited Scotland a few times, this is my first time in Glasgow and the first time I live in the country. Victor Herman


My father, Victor Herman, or 'Vic Herman' as he was known when he was British flyweight champion boxer in the early 1950's. A Scottish Jew, as you can see from the Star of David on his tartan robe.

The day I landed in Glasgow, just before Christmas, I found everyone in town wearing kilts, bagpipers played on every street-corner and a weather phenomenon that I have only ever seen before in Niagara Falls. Every wire, branch on the trees, indeed: everything inanimate there is, was covered in micro-crystals of ice that branched into tiny icicle earrings, turning the whole city into a white-glass fantasy. For a moment, I thought I'd stumbled upon Brigadoon, but the icy decorations soon turned to slush and, it turned out, the kilts and pipes were in support of the football team.

It is a city of just over half a million but at the turn of the twentieth century it had expanded to its largest population before or after: a million.  All of its grand buildings were built during the Victorian era and tend to a stolid gravity with few frills though they may include such things as oversized, muscular caryatids, carved in the local red sandstone, flanking a portico.

Its nineteenth century riches were earned with its world-famous shipyards—building and engineering. 

For its size (population: 5 million), Scotland has also produced a large number of important thinkers; philosophers, scientists and writers.  Combining Glasgow’s pragmatic, industrial and engineering history, and Edinburgh’s academicism, they produce a rich history with strong tendency to rational thought.

And like anywhere where violence is a ready option, the Scots are great lovers and writers of poetry.

And yet I find that, like Andalucia in Spain, popular culture focuses on Glasgow’s most vulgar aspects.  The NED (Non Educated Delinquent) phenomenon has somehow grown to have a certain popular appeal, a kind of home-grown charm, a sort of tribal validity.

The disproportionate number of young men with knife scars on their faces use them as a kind of Masonic handshake, to signal strangers that they belong to the same club.  Questions about the scar’s history make conversation openers: “So where’d you get your Glasgow smile mate?” (The Glasgow smile is the knife-cut from the edge of the mouth up a cheek and is usually earned with a short blade after losing a fight).

The NED is a social type.  He is born to the poor working class and inadequately educated to rise above a hopeless future.  In the ‘States, by comparison, the equivalent class made up of poor black, and badly educated people, are responsible for a huge creative productivity with a popular impact far beyond their own culture.

Where the NED may be involved in criminal activity like theft or drug-dealing, criminality is for him more of a personal expression, an assertion he exists in a world which has no room for him.  His criminality will manifest as vandalism or random violence more easily than something he benefits by materially.  His benefit is instead the simple and unadulterated sense of raw power most easily expressed in a destructive form.

The Scots’ identity is influenced by a historical warring spirit, where, in the wilds of the highlands a man protected his own family and the far-flung clan protected every man.  I remember a time in my youth when I lived in London when the Scots played the English in an important football match there, half the city closed down, main routes were gauntleted by police in riot gear and people stayed at home till the three day invasion of Scottish football supporters ebbed back across its borders.

The NED phenomenon is taken seriously by general society but it is also winked at as a kind of indigenous emblem worthy of cultural pride. Heavy penalties and enforcement against carrying knives has only resulted in the NEDs carrying glass bottles of health drinks instead, turning them into weapons when needed.

I was visiting a Scottish friend who mentioned a performer, a comic of sorts, I hadn’t heard of before.  He found a recording on the Web of the fellow recounting a five or six minute anecdote for me to hear.  He is enjoying a certain success here in Scotland though I couldn't find anything funny or entertaining about his tale.  I did, however, find an undeniable kind of disturbing fascination for the insight it provided into the workings of this kind of mind.  Its most interesting aspect was its clear zoological symbolism.  I imagine its author doesn’t realize how clearly he is describing basic mammalian instincts.

I will write a synopsis below from memory but without the thick Scotch brogue or quite as many swear-words.  It began something like: “So, this bloke walks into me local”

…and asks the barman if he can use the men’s room.  The barman tells him the restrooms are only for clients.  The story-teller decides to follow him out to the next spot he goes into, asks the same question and is directed to the toilet.  The story-teller joins him at the urinals.  The fellow is about to urinate when the story-teller, urinating himself, addresses him: “oy, remember me?” The man, in fear, now has trouble urinating.   The story-teller taunts him: “didn’t ya wanna piss?” His taunts turn aggressive: “Piss, ya cunt!” The man, torn between the vaso-constriction of fear and a wish to do as he’s told, farts.  At which the story-teller, justified by the offence, grabs the man by the back of the head and slams his face into the tiles above the urinal.  He goes on with a grizzly and graphic description of kidney punches, blood, and blows inflicted as permanent damage after the man is unconscious (kicks to eyes, teeth or groin).  End of anecdote.  No punch line, no irony, no biting observation.

In other words: a mammal tries to piss on another’s territory.  He is scared off by the leader of the pack.  One of the pack follow him to a nearby spot where he also tries to urinate.  Although off his own territory he intimidates the other male into not urinating there either while doing so himself.  And finally he wounds the other male to insure he will not be coming back trying to claim territory that belongs to the story-teller’s pack and perhaps, encouraged by lack of male enforcement, compete for females.

Otherwise Glasgow is great, I am meeting interesting people and finding strangers remarkably pleasant and polite. But what I like best might be characterized by a difference I observed in attitude toward the weather. Where the Londoner is famous for carrying his umbrella in climate fair or foul, here in Glasgow, where the weather is always foul, one can look up and down the street in cold rain, sleet or snow without seeing a single one. Even the old women advance under lashing climes unsheltered, red cheeked and with unhurried step. It seems that where the Londoner is proud in the self-sufficiency of preparedeness, the Glaswegian is proud in his simple self-sufficiency. By the same token, comments about the weather are always met with polite feedback in England, even if the interaction is made up of no more than the reiterated description of the weather each are experiencing as they speak, here in Scotland a complaint about inclement weather is more likely to be answered with ¨well, it's better than none¨

friday december 26th, 2010

Airports (1300 words)

I like airports because though the people who gather in them are harried and unwashed, tired and dishevelled, struggling to communicate or get informed in the wrong language; they share a sense of collective inconvenience that makes for ready smiles and unaccustomed tolerance within a temporary club whose members are in constant flux and are tied by the common tedium of human transport.

But what speaks most of the traveller’s camaraderie is the dingy little airport smoking room.  In otherwise scrupulously clean, indeed, spotless airports like Dubai’s, it is the only few square meters (or cubic meters, if you want to count the air it holds) which is not only not clean but is genuinely disgusting.

Like all airport smoking rooms its walls are a dark cancer yellow, its bin ashtrays overflow and often, smoulder perpetually under a lazy column of acrid smoke.  The floor is covered in butts and the extractor fan wheezes ineffectually—it is one of the universe's inexplicable mysteries how a billion dollar hub like Dubai’s can’t organize an extractor fan as good as any commonly found in a McDonald’s restroom.

The sense of group is strong despite its inevitable diversity, each is drawn to the others as indiscriminately as family by having the brainlessness of still smoking thoroughly brought home by the fact this horrid little room is the culmination of a personal odyssey for each of us.

Each person there has been frustrated for several hours of nothing better to do than think of his desire for a cigarette.  Finally off the airplane, with rising hopes, he rushes from its confines after the interminably slow taxi to the gate, pushes past other passengers in the long corridors, runs up stationary stairs while the rest stand on escalators… only to be thwarted by the wait for immigration and security: shoes through a scanner again? What could I possibly have hidden in them since the last scan just before boarding? Then the long walk to the airport’s furthest reach, taunted by innumerable signs egging him on, the anticipation so high its achievement can only disappoint.  And finally, the anti-climactic moment of finding the sad room filled to brimming with smoke and people, each grimly sucking on his cigarette determinedly for the seven minutes it takes to get the tobacco’s essence into his bloodstream.

In a vain attempt to ‘stock up’ for the long flight ahead, many will uncharacteristically light a second from the butt of the first.

Through the glass walls of our shabby asylum, barely visible through the dense atmosphere, the smoke-free look upon us as at a pen of pigs eating their own excrement.

Each person that approaches the dim room’s door, young or old, male or female, and from wherever they come in the world, first make a face of wrinkled nose and down-turned lip sometimes followed by an expletive: “Fakin’ ‘ell” and then… he smiles… and the rest of us smile, knowingly, back.

It is a pleasure to see someone arrive from a 12 hour flight after an infinite 3 kilometre walk through the airport to the small refuge in a smokeless world and see his engrossing, urgent, sometimes desperate desire, satisfied.

It was in that very room, the one in Dubai’s busy and remarkably efficient airport, the smoking room filled to capacity and billowing smoke out a door illegally propped open with a standing ashtray, that I joined the group congregated outside the entrance.  We were presently harassed by unsympathetic airport staff to enter and close the door, and some began to protest.

A fierce and elderly Turk said: “I respect non-smokers’ right to a smoke-free environment, the problem is that they don’t respect us!” This was received with general approval and a German added an anecdote about a flight so long that when he reached Singapore he found himself reduced to the choice of catching his connection to Bali or having a cigarette.  None of us addicts expressed dismay at his decision to miss his flight, stay the night in Singapore and buy a new ticket for the morning.

When an old man of undisclosed origin but a thick accent and bona-fide smoker’s rage said: “I cannot go 8 hours without a cigarette” i.e. the airport’s disregard for a circumstance beyond a man’s control was fundamentally unjust.  But when I piped up among the murmurs of sympathy with: “Well, you do sleep 8 hours without smoking” everyone looked away ignoring my remark as they pulled a breath through their cigarettes thoughtfully.

The group, with nothing in common but the sense of being shipped rather than transported—due to the shared bad habit—was heating up at the feeling of unfairness and humiliation they fanned in each other.  A beautiful young Swede whose youth pointed to an acquaintance with Raleigh’s leaf too short to have yet marred her skin tone or ruined her lung functions, broke the awkward silence with: “It is not illegal to smoke, we paid for our tickets the same as everyone else, we should be shown better regard by airlines and airport” A tall Dutchman agreed: “Heroin junkies are shown more respect in my country than smokers are by the rest of the world”

I, wondering how far I could rile the impromptu legion, said: “Yeah, we are an oppressed minority!” although everything I said was meant tongue-in-cheek I kept getting serious and increasingly emotional reactions: “We really should do something about it” “Like what?" Asked a middle-aged Australian woman who really did look ready for anything, “well,” I improvised, “what if we refuse their laws? We could all of us march back the three clicks to the centre of the busy duty-free area, stand in a circle, light up and refuse to put them out when the security guards come, what could they do to us?” “We are in the Middle East” someone cautioned, but the German quickly squashed the dissenter: “Yeah but what are they going to do? Stone a whole group of foreign nationals to death for smoking? They have a billion dollar business in this airport; they don’t want to turn it into an international incident” “Yeah! What could they do?” Chimed in a hitherto stereotypically silent Korean girl “maybe when the security guards come we should all run in different directions” “We could wear roller skates” added the big Turk and we all paused a moment in our shared fantasy to imagine the pot-bellied, elderly man skating gracefully away from the bumbling coppers like one of Disney’s hippopotami, cigarette burning gloriously in his right fist.  “I’m sure they couldn’t even make us miss our flights, the airport gets millions of transients, but I bet our protest would make a mention in the International Herald Tribune” I teased.

The tension rose, the possibilities excited and with abandon, we all lit new cigarettes from the butts of the old since most of us had had our lighters confiscated at security; the few who got through with theirs proudly lit all comers.

And in the momentary silence coloured by the vision of our communal strength and buoyed by the sudden shared empathy among travellers who, more than feeling transported, are already irritated at being treated like so much freight by airlines, we pondered the fantasy of revolt; the seizing of our dignity; the righteous reversal of our humiliation; we the few, the downtrodden, the unjustly incarcerated in small, drab and distant rooms, exhaled with a satisfied air.

Then, looking at our watches, we all wished each other good journeys with sincerity and disbanded. But I, at least, was left looking forward to the next meeting of the ad hoc club that gather at whichever airport I find myself in to again celebrate our affection for each other’s bone-headedness.

wednesday december 8th, 2010

False advertising

These signs are not offering sexually transmitted diseases but rather the services of the State Telephone Department.

STDs n

Pushkar is one of India's most sacred places because it is the site of Brahma, The Creator's, death. No animal is killed here and no meat, fish or egg is offered as food, much less, as this menu advertises, are aborigines roasted (although aubergines are).

Roasted aborigine

wednesday december 1st, 2010

Buttons (920 words)

It took me awhile to find Praveen, the tailor who did such good work for me last time I was here, due to my complete lack of orienteering skills. Here one cannot just ask directions like most places because of the twisted sense of agency the Indian tourist-belt has developed. Anyone who takes anyone else to spend money earns a ‘commission’ on the sale, as they call it, though it is not really a commission but a kickback.

If you tell a rickshaw driver to take you somewhere, even if he has never been before, or you ask directions as I needed today, or you tip any one off in any way to a purchase you make before you make it, or even before you have decided to make it, it is enough for the rickshaw driver, helpful stranger or anyone at all, to walk past the shop in question and nod at the owner for the shop-owner to recognize he owes him a kickback for bringing you to your purchase and will then automatically tack it onto your purchase price. The kickback system can, when feeling un-ambitious, cost as little as 10% of your expenditure and when it’s not: as much as 50%. Some shops even offer a standard fee to anyone brought to their door regardless of whether they end up buying or not.

In the end I developed a little story I told as if by-the-way, a head-scratching ‘shucks, silly me’ kind of story they are quite willing to believe since to most Indian merchants anyone who doesn’t know about Indian stuff, knows nothing at all. In other words: they are ready to believe foreigners do things dumber than any dumb Indian. I told the people I asked that I had already ordered clothes from Praveen and now could not find him to pick them up.

It was not however, enough that I remembered his name or his appearance or indeed, everything I had learned about him except his location in the space-time continuum—yes, aside from orienteering problems I am also chronologically challenged—but when I mentioned his small hands (when we shake, his fingers barely extend past my palm) everybody knew.  

We were each pleased to see the other when I finally arrived at his place of business, a small space where bolts of cloths are neatly stacked but that extends to twice its size with large, colourful textiles strung up beyond the entrance into the thoroughfare.

As we drank spicy Masala tea we quickly agreed on everything from the colour and size of the Jodhpurs I was having made for a horse-riding friend to the prices on everything; except the buttons of my shirts since he could only provide plastic.

I said I would see what I could find and get back to him. In a pleasant chase that led me through various establishments filled with tempting goods I finally found the button maker. She was a small woman who might have weighed 35 kilos and was probably in her fifties though she looked older. Her unusually unattractive, but clearly open-hearted husband bustled with the clientele while she sat on the small space on the floor surrounded by her tools and materials.

As she made the buttons of the size and colour I asked for, I sat beside her and communicated in extremely broken English. I asked how long they had been married and both laughed though neither could remember. They explained that she had been about nine and he around twelve when they united their lives. To even the most callous observer it would have to be inescapably obvious that their marriage was as solid as their parents’ good decision had turned out to be. And I reflected how everyone in my family, all with free choice, range of options and a judgement developed into adulthood, are all divorced at least once, all, that is, except for me, but then I never married.

We sat together some forty minutes as she made the fifteen buttons (plus one she added “just in case”) that I paid 3 rupees each for (2.1 British pence-2.4 U.S.). Eventually she asked where I was from. But it turned out she did not ask for the usual reasons I am asked the same question every day: to predict how much I might spend, to decide which language to speak to me in, to lead from apparent personal interest to a suggestion to buy proffered goods, etc but rather as a lead-in for something she wanted to talk about.

With some trouble she went on to make me understand that her son was director of research (head engineer, I think) for a Nokia facility in Florida. She repeated the word ‘chips’ though I got the distinct impression it was she who didn’t know what it meant.

I asked if she ever visited him there but, of course, she had never left India and had probably never ventured as far as Delhi or even to see the sea. I asked why and she answered that she didn’t like the cold (no, I didn't mention that Florida is in fact warm) but, she added delightedly, her boy was coming to visit on his Christmas holidays this year.

During the time I shared their happy union in their tiny hovel with his unrelenting, gap-toothed, crooked smile and fierce brow; the almost enlightened quietude in her slow, sure and steady movements, I marvelled at how many penny buttons it must have taken to get her son through university and from a desert backwater to the forefront of global technology.

saturday november 27th, 2010

Govandhan pooja (200 words)

On a certain day of Diwali (actually 'Deepawali' or: 'row of deepak' which are votive oil lamps, i.e. small sun-fired clay bowls into which ghee—clarified butter—is poured and a cotton wick inserted, as can be seen centre-bottom in the image) people paint their door-stoops decoratively with iron oxide and gypsum paints and also make figures for what is known as Govandhan Pooja (pooja means holy offering) shaped out of cow paddies:

Cow paddy brothers

The pooja commemorates Shiva's victory over Indra, whose titles include God of rain. When Shiva told the people they needn't worship Indra, Indra became angry and sparked a tempest that deluged the land. In only a few days the people feared the worst but Shiva lifted Govandhan mountain with his little finger and holding it aloft, sheltered the people from Indra's downpour, thus proving who was the mightier.

Since cows are sacred so are their products like the milk the Jain wash their stone idols with in the temple every morning (along with honey, sugar, cow urine and butter) or the ghee used in the aforementioned deepak. Cow paddies are used for everything from cooking fires to house-building and, it seems to me, these good-luck effigies made of the sacred substance give a new and literal meaning to the exclamation "Holy shit!"

friday november 26th, 2010

Mean streets (400 words)

Brown sugar addict on Delhi street

Men and women have theorized about the differences between them since the beginnings of the species—without making much headway—but there is a lesson I learned about those differences comparing places like Delhi, where I am now, to living in northern Thailand, whose conclusions are inescapable.

delhiIndia, Bangladesh and even Pakistan all treat women as second rate citizens and, in some cases, as the chattel of men, and yet they have all three had women prime ministers. But though these countries will accept female leadership, on the ground level everything is decided and run by men. All three of these countries eschew cooperative organisation in favour of ruthless competition and as a result are filthy (the attitude seems to be: don’t clean until necessary), rude, corrupt and depressed in spirit.

In the image at left, the capital of India’s waste disposal management in action: men with two small boards to gather and scoop, and a wheel-barrow.

When I compare them to northern Thailand where, on the ground level everything is run by women, it is clean, polite, considerate and organized.delhi2 It seems whatever other differences there may be between men and women it is the women who have better talents for structuring communities.

I spent the day in one of Delhi’s forlorn neighbourhoods where tourists don’t, apparently, wander; communicating—if not actually talking—looking, photographing, eating, in this sub-world hidden from the world.

Once again I find that where Bombay’s poverty smacks of hope, Delhi’s is thoroughly disconsolate.

I am not a man prone to sentimentalism but, or perhaps: therefore, I feel to my core the pathos of the human condition so evident here in the raw but in essence no different to when it is dressed by Gucci and sprayed with Chanel.

Considering how Delhi has always made me feel, spending the day in its underbelly makes me wonder whether it would be burden or boom if Babur were here today to burn it to the ground as he did in the fifteenth century (hence: ‘new’ Delhi, since it was rebuilt during the following century). If hope cannot be rekindled in fire than this is Becker’s metaphorical man on all fours, up to his breathing apparatus in his own excrement, raising his maw to the heavens and declaring life good; but for the difference that here, there seems to be little raising of maws.

Right: brown sugar addict chasing dragons on Delhi’s mean streets.

wednesday november 24th, 2010

Udaipur market. Oils on wood board 12 x 12 inches (30 x 30 cm) Paul Herman 11/10
Udaipur market. Oils on wood board 12 x 12 inches (30 x 30 cm)

wednesday november 24th, 2010

Population (1850 words)

Today, in New Delhi, while working my way like a cork on ocean waves through a vast throng of pulsing, pushing, perspiring people, beasts of burden and vehicles—mechanized and otherwise—of such density it made New York at its worst seem a haven of kynespheric surplus; it unsurprisingly, made me think of the world’s burgeoning population. 

The crowds, with nary a space between individuals, included cars and other vehicles sometimes forcing their way through in the direction opposite the halting flow. We pedestrians walked among them for lack of sidewalks or because of the cars parked in the thoroughfare or on pavements; Sleeping in the streeteverybody beeping constantly, not in protest or warning but merely as a matter of form. Through these same lanes, congested by a mixture of rickshaws, lathered and labouring cows or men pulling wagons; undernourished, often lactating dogs, automobiles and motorbikes, were people sleeping in the skinny median between opposing lanes.

Buying a token for the subway can mean an hour of hard jostling by crowds that refuse to queue.* The trains separate men and women in gender-exclusive cars; not for religious reasons like some countries, but because in such close quarters, Indian men cannot be trusted to treat their women like ladies.

I have noticed that in this competition for personal space even small, often sub-conscious forms of cooperative communication break down. The Indian forgoes the tenth of a second glance shared between strangers walking in opposite directions to decide who will take which side of a walkway. Even the motorcycle that cuts off the walker so closely that he must stop and wait, will not look at him but will make the turn that barely misses running over his toes, as if he hadn't seen the pedestrian at all. Cars will pull to the curb inches in front of someone walking and think nothing of the detour he forces the walker into making: turning back to walk the length of the car before rounding its back, other side, and front, in order to rejoin the path he followed. Once, on a narrow street where a car driver had simply stopped his vehicle in the middle of the road in order to run an errand in one of the shops, I was forced with my back against the wall, to wait while a few motorbikes squeezed between the parked vehicle and me. Eventually, when given a tiny space between bikes, I stepped the two strides necessary to cross behind the parked car and continue on my way. But as I did the rider paused a moment, irritated, and said "Only short wait" meaning: since motorized vehicles move faster than pedestrians, it was I who should have waited. The fact the madding stream of bikes would stop the unassertive pedestrian forever didn't seem to occur to the biker. And If the path narrows to one, person or car, two will enter and face each other, without looking at each other, until the obstacle passes, instead of taking turns that allow each to pass.

But it was a happy young mother holding a recently born child that took me back to a memory of a dinner I attended long ago in honour of a friend’s third child.  He, the father, was a chef and he threw us thirty or so guests a beautiful meal on long tables on the grounds of his country house.  But I was disconcerted by the toast he offered because it sounded self-consciously heroic and more brave than genuinely celebratory.  I turned to my old friend Bobby, wiser in many ways for having lived nearly twice as long as I, and asked him why the reservation in our host’s voice, why didn’t it sound like the undiluted joy typical of a new father? It turned out I was the only one confused.  Bobby pointed out that a child born with Down’s syndrome as this one was, was a great deal more trouble for a good many more years with no hopes of independence or brilliant futures a parent can be proud of.

It occurred to me then, as it did today, which the purported reason for having children; is it in hopes he will be beautiful, smart, strong, disease resistant and survive to great longevity? Are points taken off the satisfaction for the degree to which he fails to achieve those hopes?

The young Indian mother repositioning her baby onto her other shoulder with a loving look prompted me to revisit my thoughts from that earlier time about the purpose of having children.  Aren’t we taught from the earliest of ages that despite the experience being self-fulfilling in the happiness it provides: a purpose in life unimaginable to the childless; in fact we do it for the altruistic purpose of giving life?  Like belief in a God, the will to have children begins as a given rather than a decision or a consequence of reason; procreation is, after all, the raison d’etre of all life on the planet.  It is this biological imperative that has shaped all the societies of earth to encourage the dreams of starting families in children, and to celebrate them in adulthood. 

Dan Gilbert, the psychologist, describes answers given by parents on a questionnaire designed to discover the truth of the matter.  They showed that when tricked into honest answers, parents unwittingly show distress, anxiety and resentment toward their children that they themselves are unaware of, instead of the standard pleasures of parenthood they claim if asked directly whether they are pleased to be parents.

Up until recently, however, there were other reasons for having children and the younger one started, the better.  In an agrarian society bigger families mean more land sowed and more crops reaped.  In a tribe, more sons mean greater strength to defend or attack, more daughters mean a better choice of alliances with other strong families.

There is also the decision to breed children as investment for one’s own future.  As one grows older and weaker his offspring are the most likely to step up and return the care lavished on them as children.

In today’s world, however, societies developed to greater complexity than the agrarian are weaker, not stronger, for their large families.  Children become a financial burden; they do not help their mothers with housework or younger siblings as they still do here in India.  They do not bolster a father’s efforts to provide before they are six years old but instead, require expensive gadgets and cost money to educate.  And without an education that takes them well into adulthood, they can barely compete to care for themselves. 

Even India is now relinquishing its tradition of the extended family as educated children move away.  They are still far behind the trend led by the United States in near abandonment of family once independent, but they are moving in that direction.

With the world-wide loss of reasons for respecting one’s elders, because it is, after all, the young, nowadays, not the old, who understand how the world works, family suffers another blow as the aged become encumbrances (and keep on aging so much longer than they used to) however well loved they may be.  Like the mythical tradition among the Inuit of launching their aged on ice floes, in the Occident many are sent off to live among their like which reduces the onus on their progeny to grudging weekly visits, each chipping away at the genuine intimacy once shared.

When Indira Gandhi tried to stem the population growth here in India by offering incentives for vasectomies, she barely escaped lynching by her voter base.  In China with its traditional philosophy of sacrificing the individual for the greater good, the one child per family rule was followed only out of fear of draconian enforcement (while their Soviet neighbours, with their expansionist ideology, were still rewarding mothers of more than 7 children with official public approbation even in the union’s last years).

Some experts warn we will breach 9 billion by 2050, a year I may still be alive.  I remember when there were just 2.5 billion and overpopulation was already a salient theme.  I also remember when bottled water first hit the supermarkets and though I was just a child I remember laughter among people and jokes on television; who in their right mind would buy drinking water, as plentiful as was its free supply. 

Now, or soon, we of the human epidemic will be buying air.  Although the Israelis have, with huge investment and many years effort, turned small bits of desert into arable land, land also is clearly a diminishing resource like all the others we are accustomed to.  And yet, if we could just get back to the 2.5 billion of a mere 38 years ago, all the world’s ills, the pollution of our waters and atmosphere, global warming, wars over resources and even just those caused by the heat of friction between bodies too close to one another, would end.

What can be done with our present near 7 billion, swarming, greedy, selfish individuals (yes: me included) to come to our senses and stop reproducing mindlessly? The alternative, as science fiction has long warned, is clearly the extinction of our species and possibly even of our planet.  The ‘our’ unthinkingly used to describe the earth at the end of the last sentence is telling, it has so long been our custom to consider us, one of tens of millions living things, its de facto owners. 

Despite most religions offering us divine permission for such narcissism it is evident that, as E.O. Wilson says, “All entities and processes in life come to life through natural selection” and so even if we succeed in controlling our baser instincts our run as a species will never rival that of cockroaches even in the most hopeful circumstance. 

What should we do to stem the tide? To save ourselves? The rest of nature as we know it will never again be a threatening force, a force which limits our pandemic spread, though an unsuspected asteroid, volcano, bacteria or virus, could well change everything overnight, leaving nought but bones for future palaeontologists to study just as we study the dinosaur’s.

But if we cannot stop using petroleum or depleting the ocean of its life despite the clear danger, nor either can we halt the march of medicine that allows us to outlive our procreative cycle to such ludicrous extent, what are the chances we can get people to stop having children for the greater good? If we can’t change the behaviour of people capable of reproducing, i.e. adults, we must start the indoctrination at an ironically younger age, that is: teach our children that having children is not really the dream of fulfillment parents thought it was when they bore the children they teach.  In other words: at home and in schools, replace the sentimentality attached to the unthinking biological urge with cynicism and dire warning.

* As I discussed in my last blog entry about India, almost a year ago, unlike the Confucian Orient, Indians choose tolerance over consideration for one another. Return

tuesday november 9th, 2010

Radsche-Shyam Brahma cows, Udaipur
Radshe Shyam- Brahma cows, Udaipur. Oils on wood panel 12 x 12 inches (30 x 30 cm)

sunday november 7th, 2010

Back in New Delhi (1090 words)

As always when I find myself in New Delhi, I think again how well it and not Bombay, deserves its reputation for the five ‘di’s: discourteous, dishevelled, disorganised, disconsolate and dirty.

Of course it is also a grand old city with opulent architectural marvels dating back as far as 1500 BC all the way to those built by the English when they ruled here (Edwin Lutyens figures large in the British reform of the city after they lay it to waste in the mid-nineteenth century bid for power over the last Mughal emperor) as well as marvellous gardens and even bits of protected forest right in the centre of the city. 

The old town reminds me of the souks of Marrakech, dizzying rabbit warrens of slim alleys alive with commerce of all sorts.  But all the rich history and aesthetic aspects of the city are veritably smothered in shoddy concrete structures and the seething masses who live where they can.

For a country whose police until recently carried no arms but a truncheon—& could frequently be seen walking down the street in chappals, holding hands while patrolling—the sand bunkers manned by serious men in bullet-proof vests with old Russian Kalashnikovs, often worn or with jerry-rigged, duct-taped butts, on streets, in public buildings and subways, is shocking. 

When I was last here just under a year ago I also felt what I am feeling this time, India’s exposure to the world through the windows of Internet and television, the 7% annual growth of its economy over the last decade, as well as the changes in its type of tourism from the serious minded traveller often drawn by India’s ancient spiritual wisdom to the clueless tourist come to enjoy the oxymoron of a safe adventure, has hurt its culture in more ways than one.  Where before the Indian was as fascinated by us as we were by him, now we are merely a bother mitigated only by a spending power they both resent and covet.  And he, from untouchable to Brahmin, is no longer fascinating for the very same reason.

In the old days of my first aquaintance this was a country with a worrying percentage of people relegated out of necessity to begging for their bread while the rest shared just enough to keep them from the worst, now it seems the true beggars, the clinging, tireless and relentless hordes of humans with outstretched hands, are fewer but ‘the rest’, the working class and even the emerging middle class, have joined in the begging mentality without, apparently, any sense of loss of dignity.  The same Indian who, because of his caste or his wealth, because he is a diner talking to a waiter, a motor vehicle operator negotiating road use with a pedestrian or anything else that gives him power over others, treat other Indians with a complete lack of respect, consideration or even courtesy. They have lost their pride and think it a game to beg or cheat the visitor.  Compared to some countries I suppose, a saving grace is that if they cannot fool you or beg from you, at least they seldom resort to violence or robbery.  Their hospitality or even the lingering sense of respect for the foreigner taught by the English Raj, are substituted by a shameless pride in getting something for nothing.  In my early visits to India more than a quarter of century ago, the foreigner was treated as an equivalent of a high caste Indian though he didn’t always deserve it, whereas he is now, at least in Delhi, treated as casteless; that is: not even deserving of a place in the system.

I try to put myself in their shoes, I scan my memories for some time I was on the other side of the equation.  And I remember when I was sixteen and making a living doing portraits of tourists on the streets of the West End [of London].  It was during the years the newly, fabulously wealthy Middle Easterner, arrived for the first time in Europe.  They walked the streets in silken robes, leading entourages and carrying bottomless bags overflowing with money.  They entertained themselves in ways that made us, poor in comparison, wonder and marvel.  They stole trinkets from Harrods, a thrill because in some of the countries they came from, stealing was punishable by the lopping off of a hand.  When caught, the judges would fine them heavily knowing the quarter of a million pound penalty was a laughable amount to people who dropped a million per spin on the roulette wheels of London’s old casinos.

One time I was trying to cajole one of these hugely rich Arabs into sitting for a portrait as we did with everybody in the crowds that watched us work.  He, possibly a prince or at least the son of an obscenely wealthy oil man, possibly miscalculating the exchange rate or maybe just my level of need, he held up a five pound note in front of me and laughing, ripped it in half.  I moved in to punch him for the insult—we fought a lot in those days of working on the street—but his two very large and doubtlessly capable bodyguards immediately closed in between us.  And off they went leaving me feeling ill-treated enough to remember it still after all these years.

Recalling this time in my life I must admit that I, like the others, might indeed ask for seven pounds or even ten for a five pound portrait from the rich Arabs.  The only reason for doing so was because we counted the money in their wallets instead of offering the fair price we were satisfied to earn from any other sitter. 

At sixteen it didn’t occur to me to think how the Arab might feel about me, his portrait, or even all of London, not because of the five pound difference on the cost of a likeness drawn in twenty minutes on the street, but for being treated badly when a guest in my country.

It may not compare to the thoroughness with which the foreigner is mishandled here in India, nor either to the scale or pervasiveness of it.  But I am ashamed to have to admit it was none-the-less, fundamentally the same thing.  By the same token I am pleased to say that I learned somewhere since being sixteen that it is a harmful psychology for both parties.  I do hope the Indian, who is going through his global adolescence now as I was going through my chronological one then, does also, because it is difficult to see his undeniable charm through the steam on the glass his greed blows, and it is heartbreaking to watch him give away his deep culture in exchange of mere money.

saturday october 9th, 2010

And if we must carry further the offence of being born,
let us find, through the crowd, an opening toward the port
and the paths of unruled sea


Turning water to urine- B Kliban

monday july 26th, 2010

Science and Philosophy (1120 words)

I have always liked the concept, true until the end of the 19th century, that the sciences existed to support philosophy. In the 18th century, Newton's time, the sciences were referred to as 'natural philosophy'. In the 19th, even some extraordinary minds like Tolstoy’s could afford to disdain the sciences as a kind of trivial pursuit to explain details that couldn’t possibly help fathom the big picture as philosophy could.

In the 20th century, often as per Tolstoy’s criticism, branches of science did explain highly specialized details which, though fascinating, didn’t in themselves affect (or effect for that matter) understanding of the big questions. At other times science really did tackle a big one as the General Theory of Relativity did for our fundamental understanding of the universe.

But scientists continued to doggedly dedicate entire careers to understanding the first third of a second after the Big Bang, the make-up of mitochondrial DNA or the purpose of a single Drosophila gene. Over the duration of the century though, the details added up and became big and surprising bodies of knowledge. Today, after such a short time relative to man’s history, anyone can get a map of his own genetic code for a fee, an image of the instructions responsible for his appearance and, largely, his behaviour, and possibly, even his expiration date.

Philosophy, like history, became a pedant’s game, a bookish interest for old men lost in the inconsequential past. It shed light on none of the important truths as science now did. I have even heard 20th century philosophers say that there are only semantic questions still open to their field, all the big questions having been thoroughly treated by four thousand years of pondering; just as the late 19th century scientists—decades before Einstein and Bohr—expressed sorrow for future generations of scientists since the 19th century's scientific community had already discovered and figured out all the big , important stuff.

The old philosophers sometimes inform man’s cultures so inherently that we think of them as discovered truths rather than invented doctrine. Confucius in the East, the Bhagavad Gita on the Indian sub-continent, the ancient Greeks in the occident, all imbue culture with such basic tenets that we never question them.

Pinker, the cognitive neuroscientist, explains that it wasn’t until artificial intelligence engineers began trying to program robots with the most basic common sense (like the bomb-fighting robot programmed to remove or deactivate an explosive in a building and decides to do so by throwing it out a window thereby killing the multitudes below) that scientists realized just how mysterious the concept of common sense is though the great philosophers took it so for granted they never thought it worthy of consideration.

When the bomb-fighting robot is programmed to consider the consequences of different courses of action it becomes paralysed by the study of literally infinite possibilities. A human knows ‘automatically’ that he needn’t consider the importance of the death of a bird flying by the window when the bomb goes off but a robot cannot know until it ‘thinks about it’. How does common sense work? How can a man divide relevant and irrelevant categories without considering their content piecemeal?    

When Aristotle said: all men are mortal; Aristotle is a man and therefore: Aristotle is mortal; his system of logic was not an organization of the natural structure of thought but rather the imposing of an artificial structure on instinct (and logic is indubitably the most reliable way to extract cogent inference devised so far). Some people think that having a brain means they have an involuntary ability to think, when in fact thinking is something which is learned, or not.

And now, it seems to me, it has come full circle: science begins not only to take an interest in philosophy but also to contribute philosophical speculation based on physical research.

Physicists don’t have to try very hard as theories of matter made of energy, multiverses or quantum mechanical processes naturally brush questions of philosophy and even metaphysics. Now that neuroscience is explaining so many of the workings of the brain, science is realizing that certain thoughts or understandings, self evident in themselves, appear physically inexplicable. Concepts like the meaning we extrapolate from knowledge, free will, or the most fundamental and defining facet of humanity: sentience; our sense of self.

What is ‘self’ after all? A combination of experience and knowledge? The behaviour of the individual? The experiential sense of one’s own existence? The agglomeration of its beliefs? Of its neural patterns? But all of these things are in constant flux and the self has different reactions to the same circumstances at different times. The same thing that might make the self happy one day can make it angry or sad the next, like the company of a friend who betrays. The self cannot even find evidence of its own existence, if it wishes to it can decide to believe it is a hallucination or part of another’s dream.

Among his examples, the contemporary philosopher Colin McGinn points out that we can understand numerals insofar as, if you add the quantity: 1, to any number, it will become larger by 1. And so we can conceive and understand any sum but are nonetheless still incapable of understanding infinity—except in theory—because our brains, like our other organs and parts, came to their evolutive design as tools for successful survival and procreation, which do not require it to deal with great or tiny distances or innumerable quantities.

Abstract thought is to the mind what painting is to the hands, an application as by-product of tools meant for other, more urgent, necessities.b. kliban

Since the invention of agriculture, which ended a long nomadic history and increased the size of communities to such an extent and complexity that we now need a minimum of eighteen years, a full quarter of a natural lifetime, to learn enough about the world, forms of communication and protocols, to successfully collaborate and compete within the extended clan, tribe, state... global community.

Pinker reminds us that the brain is an organ like any other and just as we do not wallow in dejection because our eyes cannot see x-rays (a proven part of reality), the brain also has its specific duties which do not include seeking or understanding definitive truths but rather surviving as hunter-gatherers which is how we have managed during most of our 15 million year hominid history.

And so, while science removes the reasons for theology and metaphysics, it may turn out that philosophy’s only answers to the eschatological questions that have haunted man’s understanding of his own existence throughout his history, are not something either science or philosophy can provide but are simply answers we are not physically equipped to understand.

wednesday july 7th, 2010

Happiness and Theory of the Mind (1030 words)

Among the theoreticians of happiness I discuss below, there is one consideration I have heard little mention of: companionship. I don’t mean that of a mate or the loyalties that belong to friendships, which they do talk about, but the social circle as well as the daily casual interractions with strangers, that informs our conversation, our inner musings and often, to a surprising extent, our mood.

If you are surrounded by people who think like you, who appreciate, express and reason in similar fashion, regardless of whether their conclusions or opinions are different to yours, certain consequences for the self manifest.

A conversation can inspire, bore, enlighten, beguile or frustrate. One of the things we can devote a great deal of our cognitive resources to as a consequence of conversation is theory of the mind, born of the basic need to judge whether or not we are being deceived.

In this, its simplest iteration, it can be important to a bird to be able to reliably determine that if it responds to an appeal by a neighbouring bird to remove the parasites on its head, those it cannot reach itself, that his neighbour will in turn do the same for him after he is parasite-free.

We humans rely far more heavily on judgements far more complex than: will he return the favour? Aside from predicting other’s behaviour, an important function of theory of the mind, we, being sentient: self-aware, also use it to try to construct an interior representation of ourselves inside the representation we have cobbled together of the interior of the person being considered. To think as others think about how we think about them or vice versa, in other words: we try to imagine how we appear to another person from his point of view, how they might predict our behaviour (e.g. do I appear trustworthy to him?) or how well he appreciates our ‘self’. Just to give an example of the myriad uses we put the mental energy to, sometimes with good reason and at others as disastrous waste of cognitive resources.

All of this might seem plain and self-evident to someone who hasn't stopped to consider it, and why would one? Thinking about each other's thoughts is not the type of thinking one must learn to do, it is one of the cognitive tools hard-wired by our genes, just as reciprocal altruism is, in order that we may collaborate as a species. Indeed, it is difficult to fathom life without this ability and curiosity about each other's thoughts; and the consequent inner picture we construct of each other's inner world. Pinker points out that in fact people suffering certain degrees of autism may well be examples of that inability. With their self-awareness trapped in a mind unable to recognize other's self-awareness, incapable of imagining the thoughts of others, they would see people simply as scary, lurching, unpredictable, inexplicable and noisy entities.

I have talked of the theory of the mind before and I don’t want to go over it again here, but to consider it instead in light of all this theorizing about happiness. It seems to me that to be in a social circle which does not think like you, not only wastes experiential time but also colours the consequent experience wrought of thoughts about the experience.

I think being in a society that reflects your interior world is of great importance among the factors considered capable of making one’s existence happier, more satisfying and inspiring. Funnily enough I had these thoughts not while listening to Gilbert expound his theories but while observing his evident satisfaction with his life and himself. I even found an old photo of him looking geekish and with a body language that showed defensiveness and insecurity which contrasts sharply to his contemporary image and extreme confidence of posture. I found myself thinking: I bet when he was a young, unknown psychology graduate, though equally brilliant, he couldn’t expect Dawkins, or Dennet or Pinker, to answer an email discussing some question of mutual interest, as he can now.

By being successful in his vocation he has entered a society with whom the conversation is always interesting because it is always the conversation he wants to have. The importance he feels about his own thoughts is shared by others. This must influence his level of happiness a lot.

Considering the essay about happiness below, if it is the remembering self instead of the experiencing one that accounts for our decision-making as well as our general state of satisfaction, and memories are inevitably confused in their substance, subjective in their form and biased in their arrangement, wouldn’t an ability to twist our memories even to the point of delusion be attractive since their enjoyment when recalled would only be greater?

There are plenty of people willing to misrepresent their pasts, to deceive others and perhaps themselves, about who they are. We have all met people willing to misconstrue their experiences in the telling of them to us, people willing to exaggerate their role in a good experience or minimize it in a bad, or even lie altogether about experiences they’ve never had. In general we all have well-trained deception meters and a liar or exaggerator is usually sniffed out soon enough by his society, but usually he is not challenged though his lack of honesty or sincerity is commented about by his circle when he isn’t within earshot.

Often people who lie or exaggerate their roles in life to those around them, seem to become immune to the signs that should tell them they are not convincing. For instance, when the people around them don’t ask questions about something extraordinary they have recounted. A lack of challenge to his lies is probably enough to help enable his ability to begin remembering things as he describes them instead of as they actually were because of the feedback loop he creates.

Even if objective memory is an impossibility, the attempt to keep it as close to objective truth as one is able, is important. Not only is it important to remember things as truthfully as we may, but also not to cover our mind's ears when memories which cause regret, remorse, shame or embarrassment come to us, since they are a legitimate part of who we are now.

I think the reason the people who invent their own experiences never seem happy to us is because inside they know that their invented self—who lives in the past—never concords with the present self. Although the remembered self might be improved through self-deceit, his bravery, or smarts, or suavity, can never be counted on in the present moment and it is this conflict of personal reality that is difficult to live with.

tuesday july 6th, 2010

Boat races in Sarasota (570 words)

The boat races in Sarasota on July fourth, the anniversary of American independence from the British empire in the 18th century.  Crowds, food smells, beer beginning before noon on a very hot day.  Blaring bands playing old rock and roll on the streets, lots of American flags everywhere from decorating drink stirrers to bandannas around the necks of dogs and, of course, the roaring boats. 

The men were all dressed almost exclusively in combinations of only four clothing items: short-sleeved buttonless shirts often with words written on them that in some small or large way, describes something intimate about the person wearing it, which kind of motorcycle he likes, the music he listens to or which bar he drinks at; short trousers or jeans and baseball caps. 

The women tended more to tight and scant attire revealing more of their suspiciously large breasts than is normally considered civil.  Extremely fat people queuing for extremely fattening foods, including, endearingly, alligator sandwiches alongside the Italian sausages.

The racing boats are 60 and 70 foot long, that’s more than 20 meters, with covered cockpits that seat two pilots.  They cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars and are carted from race to race on trucks that cost nearly as much.  Now, I am not saying I have anything against the boats themselves really, we have cigarette boats in Spain too but we don’t use them for racing there.  We put them to practical use instead transporting contraband, namely: cigarettes [from Gibraltar] or to dash back and forth to shore from ships carrying hash from Morocco.

Description: Cigarette boat The boats and the races are flashy affairs, with plenty of noise, colour, speed and above all, power.  Not only the power of 2000 horses of engine but the power to pursue interest in such ludicrously expensive and extravagantly useless machines.

All I see when I look at the excited crowds, the festivities, the races, is gross consumption.  A sense of Roman gluttony and excess.  Unlike sailing regattas, here the demand is top-down, people come to see these boats race because these boats race, where sailing, for example, whether as sport, hobby or even lifestyle, is undertaken for its own pleasures and subsequently organized into races.  A sailboat’s speed is entirely dependant on human astuteness and physical effort rather than the largest sum paid for the most powerful engines.  Money creating money with multitudes ready to spend it.  Large amounts of fuel for racing and transportation, plus the chemical and sound pollution, the latter, a large part of the draw.

It is true I am indifferent to sports in general but, is this a sport? It must take some skills I am ignorant of to pilot such boats but they do, after all, just race in a straight line on a clear day as fast as they can trying to beat a clock (unlike the cigarette boats in Spain whose more challenging skills are honed by evading coast guards at night and as often as not, in bad weather.) 

I think that though the audience may not be consciously wishing for a dramatic accident: boat upturned by excessive wind resistance due to its speed, ripped to shreds in the air, explosions, flames, death; it is the images of such crashes in the minds of those who watch, that attract them to watching.  If it isn’t that I just can’t think what it might be.

monday july 5th, 2010

Would you kill yourself to go on living? (360 words)

Suppose it were possible to make another you.  Exactly like you in every way but stronger, disease-resistant, more symmetrical, in other words a you that was exactly like you in every way but: optimized. This new you would also hold precisely the same memories and neurological patterns you do.

After the new you is made you become sick and are facing a long, painful and inevitable death. In order to go on living as you did before the illness, all you would have to do is kill yourself since you would already be alive and in good shape in the new you.

It is an interesting conundrum which had an impact on me when I read a narrative version of the dilemma by one of the more philosophical science fiction writers I used to read when I was a young adolescent. A Polish author whose name I don’t remember.

The sense of ego and individuality would make it difficult for most of us to plunge the knife into our respective chests. A religious man might make the argument that all souls are unique and since he is sure his own resides in him, the other him, though indistinguishable in every way, can only be a cheap, soulless facsimile and not really him.

Of course, if the two ‘you-s’ are given enough time for separate and different experience, they gradually become less strictly interchangeable. If it were possible to make sure all sensorial input were exactly the same for each of a pair of monozygotic twins, would they not be exactly the same as one another not only in body but in every memory and thought?

To someone like me who believes the mind is a consequence of the brain and the body is no more than its precise and unique agglomeration of atoms, the two ‘me-s’ are in every way me, with only the odd circumstance that I now occupy two places in space at the same time [made of two sets of atoms each undifferentiated individually or collectively from the other]. But it would still be difficult for me to plunge the knife.

wednesday june 30th, 2010

More Happiness (2960 words)

Memory is a crazy woman who hoards colored rags and throws away food.
Austin O'Malley

I learned something today that made me think about its implications: in psychology three seconds is used as a practical measure of a person’s experience of his own present. 

I only recently discovered Steven Pinker, the cognitive neuroscientist and Darwinian psychologist. I knew nothing about Dennet’s computational model of the brain or the polemics between it and the behavioural model.  I bought Pinker’s How the Mind Works and it has led me through the discovery of various scientists, professors, linguists, philosophers, neuroscientists and the like, each referenced by the others and consequently searched out by me. 

All the new information about studies and experiments and the subsequent thought which is novel to me, has brought me back to the philosophical questions habitually interesting to me to see how they look in the light of this new knowledge.

And so, I find myself again examining ideas about happiness and man’s subjective experience of it, but illumined now by Gilbert, Kahneman and others working in this branch of psychology and neuroscience.

When I am learning something new I have become aware that paying attention to a lucid explanation, spoken or written, is enough to understand it, but it is not enough to be able to rely on the information still being there when trying to recall it later.  And so, I have learned to do this exercise: by composing in written words a recapitulation of my new knowledge I can commit it to memory even if I never again go back to read what I wrote.  In this manner I consolidate a memory so as to be able to reliably reconsolidate it in the future for the purposes of say, referencing it in light of some new understanding not yet attained, or to be able to explain it to a friend as part of a conversation on the subject.

The reason I am telling you this is because that is what this essay actually is though I decided it was interesting enough to publish for the pleasure of sharing its thought provoking qualities with you.  Who knows? They might be memes gathered by me which, given your shared interest and previous ignorance, be passed to you and be capable of soldiering on in both spatial and temporal dimensions, with even a chance, however remote, of leaving the earth aboard a ship, in the form of radio waves or a Trekkie tachyon beam, to settle on worlds far from our own (!)

I calculated how many of these three second present moments make up an average lifetime and it worked out to approximately 735 million units of perceived ‘presents’ for the experiencing self.  The remembering self, on the other hand, might, in a lifetime, only spend time remembering some thousands of them.  No one, however much they dwell in the past, will spend anywhere near two weeks remembering a two week holiday even if it comprised the best two weeks of their entire lives.  Most three second present units make no memories at all.

Although we may think the present moment is the most important since it is the one we are perpetually living; as much as we may enjoy our memories, we can no longer taste the ice cream that has been swallowed but only remember that it was good.  In fact it is not the experiencing self who makes the decisions, it is instead the remembering self.  I thought Kahneman’s definition of thoughts of the future as ‘anticipatory memories’, very telling indeed. 

In a simple thought experiment he suggests imagining a luxury holiday in Hawaii (as an example of something generally considered desirable), do you go for the experience, or the memory of the experience? There is a simple way to decide: what if you are offered the holiday on the condition you take an amnesia-inducing pill afterwards? There you have the experience without the memory and clearly its attractiveness pales.

Personally, I decided while still young that the best purpose life can be put to is collecting memories.  It is not only all we have, i.e. the memories of our lives, but also who we are.  Anyone experiencing a moment of regret or remorse feels this keenly, the past mistake diminishes his life and his sense of self.  But can it really be reasonable to sacrifice the life of the experiencing self who lives every moment of your life to that of the remembering self who only recalls occasional moments, often badly and out of context?

I suppose the question would have to come to rest on a choice between satisfaction and happiness.  The experiencing self is the one who feels happy, or not, while the remembering self draws the conclusions about whether or not the experiences satisfy him as a whole.  If the effects of doing something directed by the remembering self in spite of the experiencing self were cumulative over a lifetime; in other words: if doing that thing makes you increasingly satisfied with your life despite the experiencing self, then I suppose it is worthwhile.

I have also talked in earlier essays of meditation as representative of living in the moment compared to the normal rat-race existence where pleasures are often assigned an imagined future while sacrificing the present to them.  Time seems to slow for the person meditating, the one living his present, while the rush of the competitor in the rat race compresses time so it seems to pass all too quickly.  But when considering the memories each have of his life, the one who meditates finds he has only made one memory while the rat has a rich tapestry to choose from. Time as inversely relative.

When I think of the approximately 30,000 meals I have eaten in my life I can recall very few indeed.  Maybe a few dozen where the food, the company, the event, the place or something else, made it extraordinary enough to remember.  I seem to have learned a tendency to choose the thousand dollar night out, the one that makes the memory, over the thousand dollar vacuum cleaner I might need more, will serve me longer, will do me more good, but is so banal as to enrich my memories not at all.

It is the remembering self that makes me realize also that though my experiencing self might be improvident enough to casually throw 4000 units of present moments at watching random television, my remembering self reminds me that it is more unlikely to make memories, create greater satisfaction, than doing something else instead.

So which is more important to happiness? Experience or the memory of experience? In another example Kahneman uses a study done with colonoscopies, something which can generally be counted on to make a bad memory but, how bad? People undergoing the procedure were tested for pain levels throughout.  I imagine them turning a dial or pushing a lever back and forth to match the level of pain in real time thus creating a graph that describes, in a sense, the experience’s actual ‘badness’. 

Some time afterwards the same patients were asked about the experience.  Surprisingly some of those for whom the procedure took twice as long described it as less bad than the others.  It turned out that the deciding factor was how the procedure ended, if it ended at a high level of pain it was remembered more badly. 

If the people who suffered the procedure for half the time had a second colonoscopy where after the procedure ended painfully, the doctor left the apparatus inside but didn’t move it around for a couple of minutes; meaning that despite the discomfort, the pain level was low, then, if the patient had to choose between doctors for a third colonoscopy he would choose the one that ended the procedure with less pain regardless of the amount of time it took or level of pain while it lasted.
Plato said that what distance is to scale time is to value.  In other words: the further something is from us in space the smaller it looks, just as the further something is from us in time the lower is its value.  This is the fundamental problem we have in judging the things and events that will make us happy when compared with those which actually do.  The 70 year old man might erase his first, youthful, sexual encounter in exchange of ten more years of life while the 17 year old boy would give ten years of his life for his first sexual encounter. The value of everything is relative to its context.  We wouldn’t dream of paying $25 for a Big Mac in a McDonald’s but would consider it a tantalising offer if we were lost on a desert isle and dying of hunger with $25 in our pockets.

The same is true in the devaluing sense for someone who smokes cigarettes, he can ignore the statistics that tell him that the 365,000 cigarettes he smokes over a lifetime will give him a long, painful and premature death, and concentrate instead on the improbability the cigarette he lights in this moment will be the one that causes the cancer to start.

Gilbert offers a neat thought experiment.  He used a twenty dollar bill in his example but when I tried it myself with a few people around me, their answers went against Gilbert’s results until I raised the stake to $100.  This showed me that when considering it conceptually they were not answering the question according to its stated criteria but rather in function of how little they cared about a twenty dollar bill.  It goes like this: say you go to the theatre with a ticket that cost you $100 as well as a $100 bill in your pocket.  When you arrive you reach in your pocket and find you have lost your admission but not the $100 bill.  Do you spend the hundred dollars replacing the ticket you lost? Or do you change your mind about going to the theatre because you have lost your ticket?

The majority answer: no, they would not replace the lost ticket.  Their reasoning is a value judgement based on comparison: “the ticket is worth one hundred dollars, I will not pay two hundred for it.” Or “If it had cost $200 originally instead of 100, I would not have bought it.”

Gilbert then goes on to ask: “What if you reach the theatre and find that instead of losing the ticket you have lost the hundred dollar bill, do you still go to see the show? Here everybody answers: yes.  What does losing the money have to do with the question of going or not to the show? But as you can see, the results of replacing the lost ticket or going to the show despite having lost the currency, are exactly the same, you enter the theatre with nothing in your pockets either way.

Why are we so bad at judging value? We are ill-equipped because we are genetically constructed for a world where choices are few, life is short, there is little we control and our only desires are for food and copulation. But we live in a world where all of nature is under our control, we are frequently called on to make a decision from among infinite choices, we have food aplenty, options more attractive than sex and we live much longer than our biological purpose: the sexual cycle, requires.

One more: when people were offered 50 dollars now, or 60 in thirty days, the majority chose the 50 in the moment.  When people were offered 50 dollars in 12 months or 60 in 13, the majority chose to wait the full 13 months.  However, as the twelfth month approached they regretted their decision and wanted the 50 instead. 

Interestingly Gilbert illustrates Plato’s comparison of scale and time in a literal way, he shows us two figures on a screen one of whom is much taller than the other.  He then makes them recede into the distance and we see how, though their relative heights never change, as they become smaller (in visual terms: more distant) the difference in their height appears to diminish. In his work with blind people given sight later in life, Sinha shows us that the image of the world reflected on our retinas is a two-dimensional patchwork of tone and colour, it is the brain that extrapolates and organizes a three-dimensional representation from the raw data. This is our brain summarizing images, deciding that at that distance the relative difference no longer matters.

We can see by this that what we've always been told about our sight is untrue; it is not that my eye, like a camera, sees every detail within my visual range but cannot recall it later because the brain has 'dumped' information irrelevant to my interests. It is rather (or, in addition to) that between lens and cognition—not after—the brain is already censuring data before presenting the inner eye with a representation of the reality before it.

The inability to value things or events at a distance makes us mistake which are the objectives worth pursuing.

I once calculated the chances of winning a lottery with a friend who mentioned wanting to buy one, by calling each ticket sold a second.  Multiplied by the chances, it turned out to be a question of having to choose the single second of a specific hour and day, out of 36 days plus some hours and minutes. The big lotteries which offer 100 million+ can have odds rounding 150 million to one or the equivalent of choosing the specific second inside of 4 years and ten months, i.e. your chances of winning are more or less the same whether you buy a ticket or not. (Knowing the odds, the only times I have ever been tempted to buy a lottery ticket was when I couldn't actually afford one, in other words: out of desperation rather than hope.)   

When Gilbert made the same point with a different analogy (also involving time), someone stood up in the audience and said: “I have interviewed more than a thousand lottery buyers in a psychological study I conducted which showed us that in fact people do not buy lottery tickets for the remote chance of winning the prize but rather for the anticipatory illusion inherent in the purchase.  Although that may be true, or, as Gilbert pointed out: despite the odds, they do believe there is a chance of winning, “someone, after all, has to.”  It seems to me, however, that in order to maintain the illusion he is actually paying for, one must believe he might win the prize, which means he must make the miscalculation of risk Gilbert refers to in the first instance.

Another example was of a lottery made up of 10 tickets at 2 dollars each with a prize of 10 dollars.  The cost of the ticket is one fifth the value of the prize and one tenth the cost of all the tickets; a fair lottery: ten people each with a one in ten chance of winning, which it turns out, most people will play.  But if you are offered one of the ten tickets at two dollars and know that I own all of the other nine, you become more reluctant because though the odds have not changed, it becomes clearer how much likelier it is that one of my tickets will win.

When people spout the cliché: “money doesn’t buy happiness” I usually retort: “the question of whether or not money buys happiness is debatable but there can be no doubt whatever that poverty buys only misery.”  It is normally good for a chuckle, but I felt vindicated when Kahneman backed me up with science.  Apparently here in the United States, people with incomes below $60,000 a year are less happy than those who earn more, but the surprising thing is that of those above the 60,000 dollar line, it didn’t matter how much they earned, whether it were 60,000 or 600,000, they showed a perfectly flat graph line of happiness.  In other words, riches of all levels brought similar grades of happiness but the impecunious, who have difficulty paying for the essentials, are all miserable according to just how poor they are.

We are all familiar with the studies that have shown that the rare lottery winners, skyrocketed from ordinary circumstance to fabulous wealth, find that within a year they have settled back into their customary ratio of happiness and sadness despite the circumstantial changes.  The same is true for tragic change, a car crash victim who is turned paraplegic also shows the same levels of happiness a year after the accident.

Despite the obvious advantages of winning a multi-million dollar lottery over living the rest of your life in a wheelchair, it seems that we pursue happiness pointlessly since, in the end, we are neither capable of choosing which things or events are worth striving for, nor do we experience more happiness than our natures allow regardless of whether we achieve what we pursue or, its opposite.

Since I am interested in happiness the same way I am interested in religions, for philosophic reasons rather than wanting to learn how to get more; I think it is quite right we dedicate our experiencing selves to our remembering ones if for no other reason than that the experiencing self only feels happiness in lieu of unhappiness, whereas the remembering self can make happy memories of both. Just as a self-made man cherishes memories of his wretched origins, life is not made successful by a successful pursuit of happiness, by a filling of its time with happy experiential moments, but by structuring a satisfying whole informed by much besides happiness.

friday june 25th, 2010

Theo Jansen talks about his kinetic sculpture. In the second half of the video he explains some of the fascinating (and surprisingly simple) mechanisms that account for his sculptures' extraordinary behaviour.

thursday june 24th, 2010

e-books and writers (1240 words)

Kindle has been on the market for two years now. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, measures sales of the ebook reader in “the millions” and claims that for every 5 sales of a particular title on paper, 3 people will download the same book to their Kindle. Its appearance on the market is largely credited for Amazon’s 32% increase in profits since its launch.

Although the iPad has only been out three months it has sold 3 million units already and will undoubtedly open a new market segment to people willing to read books on the iPad but not the Kindle or, lagging way behind: the Sony reader. Although the iPad costs nearly double, beginning at $500 compared to Kindle’s $259 (recently marked down to $189), the fact most people buy the iPad for its functions other than the book application means that many people who have been unwilling to try the switch from paper to screen will be converted by-the-way.

It is still early days, only 3-5% of book sales are accounted for by their digital versions. As the percentages rise I will be among the people who will miss the book as friend, as beautiful object or decorative one; what, after all, can make a room more appealing than book-lined shelves?

But, in the end, the excuse we once used, that we weren’t comfortable reading at our computer screens, is now moot. We have no choice but to get used to the greater convenience. I, for one, will not miss the weight of paper books when travelling, for instance.

Here is a rough breakdown of comparative costs to publishers for traditional printing and digital publishing (source: New York Times, Feb 28, 2010):

comparative publishing costs

There are some expenses reflected in this chart that seem suspect to me, for instance, instead of counting the ebook as essentially storage-free, publishers include in the expenses of selling ebooks the storage of all the paper books they distribute divided by the digital books that need no warehouses. Also, 50 cents per book is counted for the digitalizing of printed books though any book produced in the last twenty years began its life in digital form. Besides, Google is set to get into the market selling cheap digitalized versions of older books to publishers. Regardless of these caveats it is not bad that publishers are willing to admit a price slash of fifty percent from the get-go.

We can see what the digital book revolution means to publishers, scared early on by Kindle’s $9.99 ebooks, when they calculate their own costs at $12.99. But though their own margins might shrink in a future price war, the growing strength of the market will make it more interesting nonetheless. The infrastructure for publishing will be reduced from printing, warehousing, distribution and promotion costs (and the administrative teams necessary for the logistics) to an office large enough to fit a few editors and a computer.

Just as we see with self-published books for sale now on Amazon, when digital sales begin to account for greater percentages of the whole, the negligible cost of publishing will mean even more books by people who mistakenly think they are good writers. Which is why, in time, we will come to rely on publishers just as we do now as filters who can be relied on for professional proofreading, editing and taste.

Among the sea of words will rise the talented on whom paper-print publishers would not risk the large investment. And instead of counting on New York Times book reviews or expensive New Yorker advertisements to help us in our choices, the Web will offer us genuine feedback from other readers like ourselves. Furthermore, the ease and low comparative cost of purchasing books will make us more willing to try new writers who turn out disappointing.

If you go to the iPad applications store you will find user comments, honestly pro or con, directly below the item for sale. We have gotten used to this interactivity among consumers but it wasn't long ago that outside a ring of acquaintances such feedback was unthinkable.

Ebooks already offer automatic book-marking, note-taking and search functions. Integrated dictionaries, text to voice option, zoom and background music while you read, as well as many pre 1923 [uncopyrighted] titles for free. Other options like direct to-and-from footnote travel, highlighting or annotation, will surely appear soon.

I think there can be no doubt that though the big publishers are doing everything they can to slow the conversion, it will only take a market share still in the minority—of people accustomed to reading the new way—to make publishers see the light, and the profits within a new infrastructure. It isn’t as if the old structure weren’t corrupt, writers can no longer even speak to publishers of books without the intermediary independent agent and most books spell a financial loss for their publishers.

So we get to the most important consideration: how will it affect writers, without whom the whole question becomes irrelevant. I think there can be no incertitude: it will be a boon, right? We have already seen how the Internet has made user opinion and word-of-mouth recommendation more powerful than conventional advertising or movie trailers that are better than the films they advertise. Publishers will be more accessible to writers and writers to readers.

Although we may miss concrete libraries and physical bookstores or books we can hold in our hands, the old industries will close and a new, better way to read will revitalize a market waning in the face of digital competition i.e. people do their reading on the Internet instead of turning paper leaves.

The writer, as the only person in the chain of earnings between the $3.90 paid to him in royalties and the $26 charged to the reader for the book (half of which goes to the retail bookseller), for whom the costs are the same regardless of the form his product takes on the market, he could continue to earn the same royalties per book and rightfully become the biggest earner in the chain even if readers are paying a quarter of what they are used to for printed books.

When you can look at a half dozen reviews in half a dozen newspapers in a few minutes, or simply take a recommendation from a Facebook news feed, click to go to a virtual store, purchase for a few bucks and be reading your new book shortly after; all while riding in the back-seat of a car or on an airplane, there is simply no reason why not. This is the future of books. All we have to do is get used to the idea. I think the iPad is going to take us a step closer to that inevitability. It will not be the end of the physical book but their buyers will become collectors instead of simple readers.

The author Anne Rice said. “The only thing I think is a mistake is people trying to hold back e-books or Kindle and trying to head off this revolution by building a dam. It’s not going to work.”

I think books on screen might develop in the same direction people of my generation have seen music develop: to include moving images. With these images will come a whole new reading public, those who were brought up on the internet instead of reading books.

wednesday june 16th, 2010

Engineer and artist Arthur Ganson introduces his beautiful moving sculptures on TEDtalks:


wednesday june 2nd, 2010

My expat friends and long residents of Thailand write or call with long, outraged and detailed accounts and analyses of the regrettable political upheavals in that country. Today I received a summing up in broken English from a Thai friend who cuts to the chase dumping all the superfluous detail for a crystalline clear concision: "About problem in Thailand, now is finished, with ecomomic go down, country broke and city burn, so stupid people!" 

monday may 31st, 2010

I visited the Ringling museum of art today and on its grounds
noticed this stone putto being consumed by a Banyan tree:

Ringling grounds

tuesday may 18th, 2010

Misanthropy (1230 words)

I see I am still mulling recently touched themes:

We human mammals, to give an example, have retinas made up of three types of photoreceptive cells. On its upper layers, about 20 times the number of rods as cones, which gives us a certain ability to see tone and colour, or: an ability to see certain tones and colours.

Some other mammals have only rods and no photosensitive ganglion so though they see shades of light and dark they don’t know that colour exists. Some complex eyes that belong to mammals give their owners a conception of a visual context for their existence, even less sophisticated than the simple eyes that belong to bees.

While others, like owls, have a hundred times the photoreceptors of humans; imagine how different their visual abstract of the world is to ours. I suppose that a human born sightless must still see something. His visual cortex is still intact though the synaptic intelligence cannot be fed by outside stimuli, just as we see images in our dreams while our eyes are closed by sleep. In other words without the tools for phototransduction, the translation of the stimulus of photons on retinal cells into the mind’s visualisation of them; or one might say: the conversion of light into electrical signal, he cannot base his ‘sights’ on the confirmation offered by direct incitation of reflected photons. It would be as impossible to describe a cloud in visual terms to a blind man as it would be to describe colour to a mammal only equipped to see tone: the quantities of light instead of its quality.

We might look at a dog and think of all it misses in its colourless world but our own ability to perceive light ends within a narrow range and saturation, missing the wide extremes at either side of red and violet. And, of course, if we spoke of the olfactory sense instead, a dog would look at me with his 150 cubic centimetres of sinus chamber and pity me for my measly 5 cubic centimetres. A dog might think of my discapacity as akin to blindness. If there were a creature able to see all light, his conception of the same world he and I share, would be far more different to each other’s than mine is to the dog’s. And this is without mentioning the wide range of sensitivity to light and colour between fully sighted humans.

In fact there are an estimated eighty types of eyes in the world, each describing to their owners a very different world.

If we draw back from the chemical reactions between molecules of the photoreceptor cells; the eye as mechanism that houses them or the brain that perceives them, to the mind that collates the two, the person; the ‘I’. We can clearly see that that person, that unique character, is a manifestation of the unimaginable number (at least to the ‘I’) of the precise combination and organization of the atoms that comprise his unique form.

And yet not one of the atoms that make up ‘you’ right now is the same as the ones that made up you sometime in the past. What seems, to someone of our scale, a solid and discrete body when looking at each other, is in fact no more than a moving cloud of loosely and magnetically joined parts which are constantly secreted, excreted, expired, pulled away or repulsed or even just fall off the edges to float among the gases that surround and form a part of each of us. As you read this you may well have breathed through your mouth, your trachea, your bronchioles and alveoli, to be carried in turn through the oxidation of haemoglobin to form a part of your Pancreas, an atom that once belonged to Chaucer’s nose.

And if we consider that atoms are made predominantly of empty space with only a tiny amount of whizzing matter-energy to define that space as an atom, the 'I' clearly becomes a vague and theoretical entity.

Without going so far as the literally, inconceivably miniscule scale of atoms, let’s just consider that of a typical human cell. Its outer wall might be an impenetrable barrier in its own world while in ours it is a mere liquid with the viscosity of light oil. Within its walls the space is too small to be reached by the gravity of our planet while the massing of huge piles of them that are us, are very subject to its pull. We must admit that our conception of ourselves is strictly subjective, prejudiced and meaninglessly distant to any definitive reality.

If we add the equally approximate ideas of reality the rest of our sensory perceptions allow us, we can see how widely diverging our experience and consequent understanding of life and its surroundings must be. Yet each of us, each individual cloud of maniacally vibrating and spinning atoms with their temperamental electrons flying in all directions, garners an inner construct of its outer world it, we, feel quite confident is definite because of its long predictability, rocks are always hard and water is always wet.

A good example is that you understand that when I refer to our shared perception of water being wet, or rocks being hard, it is simple hyperbole understood to mean the common experience of the material world. Why is it a good example? Because, how is it that we confirm our shared experience with other humans? Aside from observation such as learning that fire is hot by watching someone else burn himself with it, we have language.

A series of sounds within our narrow range of hearing made with our vibrating vocal chords which issue from the acoustic chambers of our mouths and are carried by the air between us to cause the tympanum and small bones to resonate in our listener ’s ear in sympathy. These sounds are, by tacit agreement, translated by our minds from symbols of abstract concepts like: “careful! The fire is hot” to understanding. Or we can go further just as I am doing now and write squiggly little marks translated by a binary code from pressure on keys to digital shape on my, or your, screen. These squiggles are further removed by being symbols of the symbolic sounds which we translate into meaning.

So though someone may make the noises: "I am sad" "I feel love" "I feel pain" his empathic listener has no way of knowing if his definition and experience of sadness, love or pain, is similar to the listener's own or not.

Still, we humans, we of the human community, do feel we share our experiences of life in this way, and indeed, there is no denying that we do. It is only that the extent to which this crude and clumsy system is capable is actually very far from an individual concept-transfer from one vaguely understood ‘I’ to the other, since it must be translated into the language of shared experience to be intelligible at all.

If we could understand each other in a real way we might all be misanthropes and not just because of the unimagined secrets that await us in each other’s minds but simply because of the reflection of our own dark and unexamined machinations. Could our inability to understand each other be an evolutive grace that keeps us in an ignorance just deep enough to let us love one another?  

saturday may 15th, 2010


Someone close to me is dying. Once again I find myself wondering at how a lifetime of loving life and fearing death can turn out in the end,—whether the end be the interminable seconds that linger outside of time during a car crash, or a dimming illness—life often fades into death without the question of fear or love ever coming up.

But I'll tell you one thing, as realistic as television or film might seem, they are so far from real life as to be completely wrong. No matter how good the actors or how much they pile on the make-up, when death is really in the room his presence is conspicuous and unmistakable.

saturday may 8th, 2010

Googling our minds (830 words)

I read the American Scholar article and also the one in the Atlantic that he refers to in the first, about how Google is changing the way we think. I am interested in the concepts they delve into, I read with attention and with hopes they would give me some new ideas to contemplate, but, in the end, I feel they are alarmist and a little hysterical.

Many years ago I used to join a small and informal club gathering of intellectuals in an all-night diner in New York city. On a Wednesday night we would sit in a naugahyde booth overdosing on coffee and pieces of bad chocolate cake as we talked excitedly about anything under the sun until the early hours of the morning. We gathered for no other reason than the thrill of exchange between interesting brains, there was no agenda, no objective other than the pleasures in joining our minds through words for the mutual stimulation of networking our thoughts. Like Paris’ Café Philosophique but without the focus, commonality or rigor.

There was one man there who became my standard reference when considering ideas like those discussed in the articles, contemplation, analysis, knowledge warehousing, mind/brain dichotomy, relevance of reference... it was rumoured he had an immeasurable IQ and certainly his store of hard-won data was inhuman. These were the days before Internet and he, on government disability, dedicated his life to gathering data which, because of his powerful brain, meant that what he studied was automatically, largely, stored in the library of his mind thereafter. It seemed no information was bad information to him since his knowledge base scanned with certain depth an apparently infinite range of topics.

I never visited him at home but was told his apartment was barely navigable through narrow aisles between piles of books and sheaves of paper.  He was also, by the way, fat, of an unhealthy, sallow pallor, dressed poorly and missed a number of teeth.

He was not only a repository of knowledge but was also able to draw on his varied information base with novel association. What I found however, was that he never concluded; he had problems giving succinct answers to concise questions, or formulating personal opinion.  There was simply too much criteria for him to sift through to put it to any consequential use.

The experience of meeting him reinforced an opinion, an observation, I had come to while still a kid: all of history's great men in any field had just one thing in common, they dedicated themselves to just one thing.

I think Google's mission to systemize and store all of the world's knowledge is a noble one; isn't that precisely how we think romantically of the library at Alexandria? If we think of Google, or the Internet in general, as something biological, say: a new lobe that grows on our prefrontal cortex in which all of man's knowledge is stored. Any part of that knowledge can be consolidated but unlike memory it cannot be recalled until it is first accessed.   

Then, instead of being a scary external force that threatens to change the way we think for the worse, it becomes something we would all like to have. The inarguable fact that the Internet’s format scatters attention, requires encapsulation, brevity and summation; which in turn harms contemplation and depth of consideration, is really no different to the information storage in its varying forms that we have always had. Those who write these fearful and foreboding articles are as good examples of those unharmed by the new availability of information as we who read their lengths, cross-reference and ponder their content.

The author of the first article bemoans those ruined by the Net for such cognitive pleasures as reading War and Peace, but the truth is that when books were our best repositories of knowledge the majority of people who could read preferred the topical news and shallow content of newspapers to Tolstoy.

The analysis of all those terabytes of user behaviour data can only tell Google one thing: what the average user wants. And since the average user represents the majority—the same majority who never read War and Peace—what he wants will propel the general development of the Web.

My point being: there is nothing wrong with this new technology’s [evolving] format or its new ability to make accessible hitherto undreamed quantities of information, just as there wasn’t in removing the responsibility to remember things in one’s own mind or disseminate them through the telling, was harmed by the invention of the book.

History’s better minds, as I mentioned earlier, will know how to filter out the information which is none of their business. They are not the information-byte addicts who surf links to interesting, superficial and irrelevant knowledge. It has always been in the filtering of the unwanted, the unnecessary, that deeper minds find the discretion, the space and time, to fill themselves with the germane.

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

wednesday may 5th, 2010

Knowledge transfer (840 words)

An old friend of mine and his assistants have been working hard for several months on a scientific paper recently published in the prestigious Implementation Science journal. As I read it, or more accurately: studied it, it was precisely because of the concentration it took to understand it that my thoughts began a parallel course not on the content of the study but its structure, and I began comparing it in my mind to literature.

What made this paper stand out to me among others of its class were two aspects: first, though it refer to a concrete application, it was purely conceptual, with nothing even as real to grab onto as the surreal energy flow between theoretical, elemental particles or other unimaginable phenomena studied by science, but only pure, stark, abstract idea. There are no unexplained esoteric terms or any words in it not familiar to us laymen; it is strictly the concepts that are difficult to grapple with.

The second aspect is my friend, Joe’s, supra-human mastery of concise language: accurately and exactly defined words in precisely chosen combinations. And yet, though Joe’s rare ability to explain himself lucidly at all times, informs the paper, it took months of refining, with outside help and revision, to make sure it was as perfectly explained as possible before submitting it for publication. The result is some 9,000 words of which if any were removed, changed or another added, the paper’s clarity would be less good.

He does allow an analogy between the states of matter and the three basic stages of development he describes, to run through the paper but it is not a literary pretension, just something that helps us gel his ideas in our minds.

My more metaphorical mind thought of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game but if the game represents abstract thought; where the magister ludi in the book played with game-pieces which, though evocative, were mysterious and undefined; here, Joe, played the same thought-experiment with very real game-pieces: words.

If Hesse’s immense literary talents, as opposed to his explicative powers, are able to draw us in to our own thoughts while still guiding us to his abstract point, then Joe, as player of the game Hesse describes, must—by the rules—use only his explicative instead of invocative powers.

Since both are basically information transfer I think the main differences between literature and precise scientific jargon of conceptual purity, lie in only a few distinctions of formatting. Aside from any lyrical-literary devices, the stylistic difference is essentially that the scientist talking to his peers must not recur to example, emphasis or generalization.

Joe’s purpose is an unmistakeably clean and unchanged transfer of knowledge from his mind to the reader’s and any deviation from pure, succinct and concise exposition, risks this objective. He cannot inspire his readers with enthusiasm or personality but only ideas.

I also thought of something Feynman said about language as communication, where most people think of it as information transfer it was in fact, in his opinion, more a question of translation from one personal framework to another.

The literary author, the story-teller, the poet, provoke the reader’s mind with artistic license, subjective focus, words chosen for their inherent beauty and lyrical combinations, while the scientist’s challenge is to avoid provoking the reader’s mind to, instead, place within it an idea like a brittle crystal sphere, made of words so pristine, the reader cannot help but translate its concepts into his own framework as the writer intended.

If you read the paper by clicking on the link above you’ll see the study's content also deals with knowledge transfer in a specific context.

It is interesting, I think, that though it seems we all share a universe, the belief relies only on language and observation of each other's actions. We might all be moved to similar degree emotionally by Romeo and Juliet's tragic plight, while each of us has a widely varying experience or understanding of love*. Shakespeare can poke and prod us with his emotive words to more than empathic response, reaching even experiential ones, since the feelings his words invoke are our own. But if it weren't for all the uncertain and approximate knowledge we share, Shakespeare's poignant tale of dashed love would hold no meaning whatever.

If we had to explain the play to someone without similar experience, say an asexual creature, alien to our planet and with whom we only share definitions of words, we would be forced to use Joe's language to attempt the impossible task of explaining, among other things, the depth and fire of adolescent ardor and why it is tragic Romeo and Juliet should die for it.

In fact when we say to the human standing next to us: "look at that green tree." We don't really have any idea, nor either does he, whether he sees a pink tree instead, though in his personal universe pink is green. John Donne was wrong: language is a crude, slovenly means of communication at best, and every man is an island.

* In the Confucian orient, for instance, the play runs into all kinds of problems with its audience, not least of which is the shocking and intolerable disobedience Romeo and Juliet show their parents. Return

Sunday May 2nd, 2010

Stephen Wolfram's presentation of Mathematica was irresistible and once there, as usual, I couldn't tear myself away from the fantastic TEDTalks Site for several hours. I spent a couple of them charmed by Richard Feynman's simple passion for understanding how and why things are, his metaphors always precise and evocative. When asked about his famous intelligence he answered: Why not ask a centipede which foot comes next?

But it was a bon mot by Richard Dawkins that led me to write this short entry; talking of how atheists are generally perceived by society: We are all of us atheists in the eyes of most religions, it is just that some of us go that one God more (paraphrased)

Saturday April 24th, 2010

Viggo Mortensen (420 words)

ViggoViggo Mortensen is an interesting man. Everyone knows he is a an able actor (even if it took the badly written role in those god-awful Lord of the Ring films to make him popular—in the scene where he rallies his troops I couldn't help thinking he kept turning his horse's ass to the camera out of embarrassment at the thought of Olivier or Branagh at the gates of Harfleur) and we all know how photogenically handsome he is. The results of a combination of genetic good luck plus talent and hard work. What is less known about him however, is how atypical he is in Hollywood: he considers his acting career a means to the end of his more serious work: artistic photography, poetry, short story writing and painting.

In fact if it weren't for his extraordinary good looks and consummate success I'd say we have a lot in common: our multi-cultural backgrounds, our attitudes and our interests.

One of the things he has done with his Hollywood money was found, and now run, Perceval Press, a publishing house that specializes in books of art, critical writing, and poetry for those who might otherwise go unnoticed.

One of his languages is a faultless and fine Argentinean Spanish whose charming formality is largely archaic in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. Today I stopped at a book store for a foamless latte and pastry. I picked up a Spanish magazine from the shelf because it had Viggo's photo on the cover. I flipped to the interview precisely because I had been so happily surprised by others with him before. Instead of Hollywood-speak about what a pleasure it was to work with the latest co-star or plugging his most recent film, he roamed his interests from the subject of life, where he quotes Robert Louis Stevenson's ''To travel hopefully" to express his attitude toward death, when he reminds the interviewer that the suit he wears to his grave will need no pockets.

Of his death-fear he says life will teach him how to deal with it when it is time and with dry Scandinavian irony adds: "surely in fifty years I will have gotten over it"

With the press quoting any unintelligent nonsense the likes of J Lo or Tom Cruise care to utter, it is refreshing to hear a Hollywood actor close an interview with: "You could ask me a thousand questions and never learn who I am, but then, you don't need to know... and neither do I"

Saturday April 24th, 2010

From Sir Kenneth Clark's treatise: The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form

The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word "nude," on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art. ...in the greatest age of painting, the nude inspired the greatest works; and even when it ceased to be a compulsive subject it held its position as an academic exercise and a demonstration of mastery.

Monday April 19th, 2010

Fables (340 words)

Before [re] writing the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper, below, I did some research to be sure my idea was indeed original.

I read many versions old and new, including La Fontaine who made Aesop popular again in the 17th century and whose packaging of the fable has come down to us. When I discovered Disney's 1934 version I was momentarily stymied until I realised that though Disney's genius recognised the moral ambiguity that needed addressing (two and a half millennia later), his solution was still a condescending charity offered by the correct to the incorrect; the smart to the stupid; the righteous to the degraded, i.e. in the end the grasshopper's attitude is brought into line with that of the ant's.

The most brutal versions belong, of course, to the religious. Like the unforgiving children's tales of the Germans, the Catholics use Aesop as Aquinas used Aristotle: to impose their doctrine, to instil a fear of God. The Spanish version has the Grasshopper offering the ant his immortal soul as collateral to the loan of food he promises to repay with usurious interest. But the ant, who has plenty, rejoinders flippantly: "You sang all summer now you can dance for your food all winter." And, instead of using the fable to teach children about Christian charity, the ant closes the door & leaves the grasshopper to die.

Aesop, like Epictectus, was a slave. In the end I think all fables, all folk wisdom, is tedious with fears.  The same fears brutish peasant farmers, subject to the weather’s whim and their own lack of education, survive season to season with; just like the ant.

I can think of three morals that are different in my version to that about sloth that belongs to the original: a philosophical one, a sociological one and a cultural one. The first is the most obvious: pride, which both the ant and the grasshopper regret before the end of the story. The second: prejudice against those who are different; the inability to put ourselves in each other's shoes. And finally: the need industry or science has of art, just as art must rely on those who haven't the time for such abstract pursuit.

Monday April 13th, 2010

antThe Ant and the Grasshopper, a story with a moral by Paul and Aesop,
illustrations by Steve Morrison
as published by the Core Knowledge Foundation, copyright 2007 (1300 words)

6 Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:

7 Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,

8 Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.

9 How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?

11 So shall thy poverty come like a robber, and want, as an armed warrior.

(proverbs 6.6-9)

The ant & grasshopper, summer

Once upon a time there lived an ant and a grasshopper in a verdant meadow.

All day long the ant would work hard collecting seeds and grains of wheat from the farmer's field far away.

Every morning as soon as it was light enough to see, she would hurry to the field and toil back with a heavy grain of wheat balanced on her head. She would put the grain carefully away in her larder and rush back to the field for another one.

All day long she laboured without stop or rest, running to the field and returning more slowly under her burden. She never wasted a moment but was always industrious and responsible. She collected the grains of wheat and stacked them carefully in her storeroom every day until dark night fell and she slept.

The grasshopper would instead spend his nights looking at the stars and wake long after the ant's working day had started.

The grasshopper would look at her and laugh. "Why do you work so hard, dear ant?" he would say. "Come, rest awhile, listen to my song. Summer is here, the days are long and luscious; why not enjoy the sunshine a little instead of sacrificing it all to labour and drudgery?"

The ant would look up at him and tsk tsk: “don’t you know worse days are coming? You must prepare, prepare, or you will be sorry on the morrow.” “But” answered the grasshopper a little disheartened: “if I wait for tomorrow to become today I may never have time to learn to make my music sublime” but the ant didn’t seem to hear the grasshopper’s last words as she had already taken up her long walk again. Head bent and hurrying to the field a little faster to make up for the time lost in idle chatter with her neighbour.

The grasshopper played a tune so sad in homage to the hard working little ant that a tear came to his eye.  

The ant & grasshopper, the song

Spring turned to summer and it got hotter and hotter until one day it rained and it started getting colder and colder. Summer faded into autumn, and autumn folded into winter. The sun was hardly seen now; the days were short and grey; the nights long and black. And finally it became freezing cold and snow began to fall.

The grasshopper was gelid and famished and could no longer sing, his belly hurt and his hand trembled on his violin. He had nowhere to shelter from the snow, and nothing to eat. The meadow and the farmer's field were covered in ice and there was no food to be had anywhere. 

"Oh what shall I do? Where shall I go?" wailed the grasshopper. Then he remembered the hard-working ant. "Ah - I shall go to the ant and ask her for food and shelter!" thought the grasshopper, but as he did he recalled the ant’s admonishment: “prepare, prepare…” and he resolved with an iron will that whatever were to happen to him he would not impose on the farsighted ant. She had been right, if the grasshopper had cared less about the beauty of his music and simply worked a little, accepting life’s demands and ignoring art’s, he might also have prepared cover and pantry. What right had he, after all, to beg the ant to share what she had worked so hard for? “I will die caressing my instrument, my friend, my
only lover… and never ask her for charity.”

The ant & the grasshopper, autumn

After a time the grasshopper barely had energy enough to shiver under his slight shelter of a rock covered by a dried leaf of the tree, fallen from high above onto its roots below.

He no longer played his violin, he was too tired and hungry for the effort it took; it lay carefully on a small ledge above the wet ground safely dry. Little by little his determination wavered and again he thought desperately and despairingly of the worker ant’s food.

When he had so little strength left that he didn’t know if he could make it all the way to the ant’s hill, he found himself walking toward it, his violin carried close to his chest for fear it might get wet by the snows his feet fell through with every step. And with each weary footfall he could hear her voice again: “prepare, prepare…”

Finally he dragged himself to the door of the ant’s home and shamefaced, knocked. He could hear noises from within but it felt like an eternity before the ant pushed her heavy door open against the snows that had gathered across it, and put her head around its corner. The grasshopper felt a wave of warm air emanating from within and noticed how plump and healthy the ant looked. He opened his mouth to speak but his jaw shivered with the cold and though he moved his lips the words were frozen on his tongue.

The grasshopper knocks at the ant's door

The ant saw who was at her door and without even a salutation she began: “I’ve been thinking a lot about you grasshopper” and she continued: "I imagined you frozen or dead of hunger by now. I ran through my mind a hundred times how I warned you against your ways, your living in the moment instead of preparing for the future. I also remembered your parting words: 'beauty must have its day' you said, and then from a distance I heard your bitter-sweet song but I was too busy with important things, with life’s necessities, to feel it."

Now here I am, fat on my patiently gathered stores of grain and prepared to sit out the long winter, while here you are, frozen, hungry and near your last before winter has even begun to blast in earnest. But still, though you can hardly stand, you clutch the instrument that unmade you.

I took pleasure in the proof I had been right, but do you know what happened to my gloating, my pleasure, grasshopper? Well, as I sat in my warm, dark hole, surrounded by my food and my pride I had time to reflect: 'I will do nothing but sleep and wake in order to eat, before I return to sleep again, and so on until the end of winter. I asked myself: and for what? And the answer came to me: to wait for next summer’s long labour to repeat and so on till I die.' 

You, at least, were brave enough to have lived one summer though it be your last. I have yet to do so much though I have survived many winters. Are my mind and heart worth nought, that I dedicate their desires and curiosities to nothing more than the survival and comfort of my body?

And I heard again in my inner ear the sad melody you played that summer's day, but this time it accompanied tears of remorse.

Oh yes, I have thought of you grasshopper, I thought of your carefree charm which can only grow in the soils of passion, your violent love and the dulcet strains of your song, and I wished—oh how I wished—that you would come and seek me out. So come in my brother and welcome. We shall each have to eat less than our fill but your music will satiate our hearts and each other’s pleasant company will occupy our minds, an ant cannot live, after all, on grain alone. 

I rejoice that you spent the summer perfecting your art, now let me help you with your violin before you drop it! And do come in to warm yourself while I fix us something to eat dear grasshopper: I haven't much variety but your company will give it new flavour.

Thursday April 8th, 2010

Conceptual art (750 words)

Bobby the painter—whom you have already met here and there in these pages—and I, have been exchanging letters discussing conceptual art lately. I thought some of Bobby’s comments were original and interesting and so I am going to edit our correspondence into a short entry about the state of modern art.  

I mentioned the Stuckists in one letter; they celebrated their opening by walking a faux coffin in procession, ostensibly containing the dead body of conceptual art, to deliver it to the doors of the White Cube (of Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin fame) just 70 metres away.  
We noted that the Stuckists’ own manifesto, although claiming a return to traditionalism, pushed social meaning in painting’s content as practically its sole concern. Bobby and I agreed that without beauty (which is not mentioned among the manifesto’s tenets) such a definition for art is indistinguishable from illustration. It might even be argued that art defined by its illustration of social statement, is also conceptual art but in a different sense. Bobby:

Keith Arnatt's conceptual artThe ideas or concepts being explored are not original or profound (thus the cloak of obfuscating language in the manifestos) and usually offer no more than a wry irony, sophomoric social comment or masochistic displays (also the direction of performance art, with performers hired to enact reproductions, like a franchise or a forgery) - particularly irritating are the seemingly endless takes on the patronizing idea that in a fine art setting pop art references are somehow imbued with meaning. I still cling to the belief that the task of an artist is to develop and communicate an all encompassing aesthetic.

I recently read an item * about a dispute concerning the authenticity of one of the Duchamp urinals that has come on the market ($2.5 million without signature and of doubtful provenance). It appears that nobody knows how many ‘authentic’ urinals are in museums and collections around the world. The original one was lost or destroyed after the first exhibition. I guess the movers-and-shakers in the art industry had not yet realized that people will pay big money for that shit [as we mentioned in the Duchamp reference in another blog entry about art, Duchamp himself seemed to deem the idea, not the art object, the thing of main importance].

The wily genius himself "authorized curators to purchase urinals in his name" in 1950, 1953 and again in 1963 (something I imagine he did with a great deal of wry enjoyment). The original was exhibited in 1917 but some of these others were also signed with the Mutt pseudonym; others with his own name while some were left unsigned. There was also an ‘authorized’ edition of porcelain replicas (I am not making this up). I would say that this first piece of purely conceptual art has manifestly made its point and that the countless imitations and riffs that followed making the same point are superfluous and inferior (Hirst and Koons come to mind). The true stroke of genius was in his choice of urinal as found art, I mean, no-one remembers the rest of his 20 found-object ouvre including the snow-shovel he 'found' when still new to the United States, where he saw his first.

This brings to mind the controversy surrounding the story of the cleaning lady who threw out the rancid lard that was part of a Joseph Beuys installation (whether apocryphal or not this, though probably inadvertent, was as pure, succinct and definitive an act of art criticism as I can think of). There was much discussion whether replacing the original lard would make the work inauthentic. Is it any wonder that with this kind of parochial navel-gazing the art world is not taken seriously by the world at large?

Picasso, bull headPaul: I think it is interesting to consider one of my favourite pieces by Picasso in this context, his bull's head. It is in an entirely different category to Duchamp's found art, since it is a sculpture made of found objects. Even if it is so simple that he might have found its two parts lying together on the floor of his garage and thought: hey! That handlebar and bicycle seat look like a bull's head! It is a piece no-one can doubt his right to sign as his own.

*footnote: if you clicked on the link above taking you to the article about Duchamp's urinal mentioned by Bobby (Economist March 24th) note the comments people made. All outrage and indignation though not one of the 21 understood Duchamp's intention nor that, for better or worse, he introduced a lasting idea that has influenced the art world ever since. 

The art world does not suffer for its inclusion of conceptual art as category (even if Bobby and I don't like what is produced under its flag), it suffers instead from the lack of education of those who deem themselves judges. Indeed, the greater phenomenon of the evolution of art in the last century is not Duchamp's subversion but the new and widely-held belief that anyone has a right to judge whether a urinal is art though they wouldn't presume to judge its plumbing without some training first. Return

Sunday March 21st, 2010

The importance of punctuation

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
The rock band re-formed
The rock band reformed
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Every lady in this land
hath 20 Nails on each hand.
Five and twenty on hands and feet.
And this is true, without deceit.
Every lady in this land
hath 20 Nails. On each hand,
five; and twenty on hands and feet.
And this is true, without deceit.
He was having extra-marital sex
He was having extra, marital sex

Tueday February 2nd, 2010

California, first impressions (1330 words)

California is sooo organised compared to anywhere in Europe (at least southern Europe), and we won't even mention the orient. Robot tills at the supermarket do away with queues and the shopping carts have electronically operated wheels that lock if you try to pass the boundaries of the continental parking lot with them.

Upon arriving at the Getty museum for a wonderful, nicely lit (a rarity in museum exhibitions), informative exhibit of Rembrandt etchings, it was raining lightly. As little as it rains here they were never-the-less prepared: getting out of the shuttle monorail from the parking lot to the entrance, there were museum guards handing out white umbrellas lest their guests get damp on the 100 metre walk to the main entrance. Entering the rooms dedicated to the show one wished he thought to bring a magnifying lens to study the etchings better, and what does he find? Magnifying lenses thoughtfully hanging on the wall for his use.

Other good things? Iridescent hummingbirds more like large insects than small birds. Brilliant emerald green hovering over colourful flowers and then the sun catches its head and it turns bright crimson red, magical. Their miniature hearts beat 400 times a minute and one I watched drew nectar from what seemed 100 tiny flowers on a rosemary bush in just seconds, I wonder if we humans, move in slow motion in its eyes the way the Sloth does in ours.

People have an easy and open friendliness with those they don't know. Men more than women invent interesting looks for themselves (I'll have to take some photographs) without inspiring overt prejudice. Individualism is respected.

Compared to other parts of the world the overall affluence is striking. It is not the cars that cost more than some homes, they can be found also in uncomfortable and badly organised cities anywhere. It is the public services, the cleanliness and security, the sense at all times that someone has thought of the citizen's comfort. With this comes a phenomenon I have noticed in Scandinavia where some people drive their 6-airbag Volvos with helmets on; a sense that if one is just careful enough he will live forever.

When what most of the rest of the world consider luxuries are here birthright, I think one can tend to concentrate on smaller and smaller risks. The anti-bacterial towelletes offered free at the entrances of supermarkets to cleanse the previous user's germs from the shopping cart handle, is probably supremely sensible and yet, psychologically, I think it reduces life's concerns to trivial risk.

It is only the questionable avoidance of the risk of catching an occasional three-day flu which, by the way, makes opportunity for your body to create defences against it which last as long as you live. Considering the fact the number of bacteria that live only on the surfaces of our bodies are equivalent to 1500 times the number of people on earth (the overwhelming majority of them good for us) I think traditional soapy cleanliness quite enough. The more one avoids trivial risks, the more he believes they aren't trivial at all. What will seem reasonable next? Gas masks to avoid breathing each other's unfiltered exhalations?

It seems everyone here has allergies and other hyper-sensitivities to their environment though it be more sterilised than places where allergies are practically unheard of. And though I have never seen such beautiful and HUGE health food supermarkets with anything you can think of grown, cared for and processed organically, the Californian is not sick less and he falls second in longevity to the Frenchman who enjoys his food for its flavour instead of its healthfulness.

More observations? People here laugh easily though it be more as social lubricant than in appreciation of humour, this sometimes makes for a somewhat hysterical tone to a dialogue for those unused to it. But where the stony silence a serious German or dour Scot might give your failed attempt to make him laugh might be uncomfortable, the confidence with which one can expect a laugh here has degenerated the level of wit and even the category which qualifies a witticism.

If I decide to take a short walk to the nearest of the ubiquitous malls (on average, larger than some villages I have lived in) because the day is fine, the pavements wide and clean; and the cars so polite they stop long before the pedestrian reaches an intersection he must cross. Bounteous in their generosity, I suppose, because of the rarity of its demand and yet I can feel the driver's eyes on me, idly curious: did his car break down? Is he one of the homeless? Or maybe just Mexican...

In the park where I walk my dog there are metal dispensers on the trees that offer plastic 'doggie bags' which a master is meant to fill with his dog's excrement. The world-wide club of dog owners whose only requirement for membership is ownership of a dog (and any member is allowed to address any other) is present and friendly. Unlike other chapters of the club however, here, the first question I'm asked is of which breed my dog is. When I answer: "I don't know, she's just a dog" I feel I should stick a finger up my nose to complete the image. Sometimes the other dog owner's confusion will be followed by disdain and, I'd swear, even a glimmer of reproach as if to say I am not responsible enough to be a dog owner if I haven't even taken the trouble to delve into my bastard bitch's genealogy. Even their own inbred, overfed and over-pampered dogs seem to raise their noses at my country bumpkin who believes all the world loves her just as she loves all the world.

I suppose we have all been exposed to California English on television but it is not clever scriptwriting meant to make us laugh, they really do speak like that. Magniloquent, figurative and euphemistic, sprinkled with just a few overused adjectives such as: ‘awesome’ and ‘amazing’. As if these adjectives weren’t already overstated they are, as often as not, backed up by adverbs like: ‘intensely’ or ‘profoundly’. The favourite however is the adverb ‘really’, often used as substitute for ‘very’, as if the veracity of what one said needed confirming when what is actually meant is ‘more than a little’.

And since no one takes the time or trouble to find the appropriate word, the word, ‘like’ is injected at the beginning to warn the listener the forthcoming description will be approximate, a slovenly simile: “Like, wow! You know?”

Non sequitirThe words 'love' and 'hate' are used more easily than 'like' and 'dislike' and 'total' no longer means 'the sum of all the parts' but rather: 'I agree with your sentiment'. So if a southern Californian says: "I really love dolphins; they're so awesome" they will consider it appropriate if you reply: "oh, totally"

Platitudes and pat phrases abound. It is good to know for instance, that they do not mean incapacitated by tension when they say: ‘stressed out’ nor are they exhibiting irrational behaviour and loss of emotional control due to an extreme shock when they declare: ‘I’m freaking out’, or he ‘freaked’, as in: “He freaked out when I told him how really, reeeally amazing the painting of Bathsheba by Rembrandt was, you know?” the ‘you know’ being synonymous with the east end of London’s rhetorical ‘innit?’ whose true meaning is: you agree, of course; and whose purpose is a faux involvement of the speaker's interlocutor. Just as 'tell me about it' means: don't tell me about it because I suffer from the same problem, as in: "It takes me four hours to drive to work on the freeway" "tell me about it."

First impressions; an outsider's impressions... we'll see how I assimilate; how my opinion evolves; perhaps in six months I too will grow a huge bum and think the greatest manifestation of me is my car...

Sunday January 24th, 2010


Well, here it is as promised, the 'special page' (too long to insert as article on this page) with photos of India and a rather random travel journal.

Click to go the special report from India

Saturday January 16th, 2010

Conspiracy theories (1190 words)

Happy New Year! I haven't updated this, my Mental Workshop, in just over three months because I've been travelling, but more on that later. I am preparing a special new page to add to these nine, written on my travels. It will probably be a week or two before it is ready to upload and I hope to see you back for it. In the meantime:

Below, a letter I just wrote to my mother after a telephone call and in response to what I am realizing is becoming a consuming concern: they are boggling her mind with stupid reality shows and crazy conspiracy theorists albeit as she describes: "well documented". She asked me to watch some of the same shows and give her my opinion of their veracity.

When she spoke of the Mayan calendar I asked: End of the world again? She laughed and I added: I don't need forewarning; if it comes I will surely notice. The Mayans, by the way, hadn't invented the wheel and were wiped out by a handful of Spanish soldiers because they fought steel and shot with sticks and stones.

(My mother is also a painter)

...because if Plato was right, and he usually was, when he said: truth, justice and beauty are the only pursuits worthy of man, then yours are neither truth nor justice, but beauty.  What's more, beauty is the easiest! I have learned that living with only a single responsibility as priority: making the next painting better than the last, never fails to satisfy.

I also learned long ago that despite my keen curiosity, no man can know everything.  And today even more than the time when I learned it, it is more true: ALL the information is now available to every man.  And you know what else? It is ALL important. There are some who will kill or even die over a collectable postage stamp, it is ALL important... to... somebody...

BUT NOT YOU- HOORAY! All the bad people who do things that scandalize you, all the big bad corporations, blood-leeching Kings, failed democracies or perhaps more to the point: successful ones, who might harm you with their conspiracies; winking corruption that poisons your waters, or assassin squads (hypnotised or otherwise!) which you will do nothing to change, are simply and unmitigatedly neither your business nor your responsibility.  Phew, what a relief, hu?

If you feel badly about battered wives; sexually exploited children; the tradition of clitoral amputation; those people just a few miles from where I sit who will kill for a rock of crack; all those who are killed unjustly in lawless countries or who die of famine- guess what? You're not going to believe it when I tell you; are you ready? THEY DON'T MATTER, not in the general scheme of things of course, they do after all matter to themselves, BUT NOT TO YOU!

We are pack animals like dogs, we have genes set to socialize. When combined with higher intelligence (above motor control and instinct, i.e. abstract reason) these genetic instructions are valuable and can be spread thin to include even a community of as many as 5000 people.  Five thousand people: a self sufficient agrarian society of cooperating individuals all of whom can be genuinely moved by the misfortune of any of its members... beyond that (at least if you are one of us: the beauty pursuers) you are simply caring more than your capacity, instead of directing the energy (intellectual and emotional) at what's important to you and those of your circle. If we all focused on caring for our own circle, we would all be better off than when each of us is concerned with too many.

If everybody were really, really good, so good that each and every one of them cared about each and every other, human society would become immediately paralyzed and the human species would become extinct within a dozen years or so. It is just those brainless little pack-animal genes telling you that now that you are exposed on your own territory—on television—to samples of the entire planetary pack, you should care about them too. World be damned! What did it ever do for you after all?

Imagine being an insect that has only its instincts and no brain at all, flying around a light bulb because it is hard-wired to guide itself by the light of the moon. For 100 million years guiding its direction by the light of the moon has worked very well for his genus' survival but he hasn't the wherewithal to understand that electricity has been invented (or at least: discovered and tamed). It might, likewise, take another 40,000 years for human genes to understand that the people on television are not really in our territory but just images of people far away and none of our business.

Have you noticed how many of our contemporary television series are about knowing the unknowable? Supernatural and psychic powers, or amazing feats of deduction by mathematicians, forensic scientists, facial gesticulation experts etc. The conspiracy theory shows you watch are just buying-in to the trend.  Did you know there was never a recorded claim of a UFO sighting before the fashion for films about aliens in the 1950s?

When the first telegraph lines were being strung across the United States just after the Civil war many complained, they said if the news happened so far away that it could only reach them by telegraph, it wasn't important enough not to wait for. 

James Stewart, Cary Grant, Bette Davis is good television time, reality TV is like video games: mind-numbing and stupid, but mostly, just plain useless. 

If the consequences of newly acquired knowledge can be firstly, just plain bad and you can't do anything about it, or secondly bad but if you do something you can make it better, or thirdly it is just plain good; take for instance: health, you go to see your doctor and he tells you your nose is going to fall off unless you stop breathing, or your nose is going to fall off whatever you do or, finally: your nose is not going to fall off if you continue breathing. Then the rule is: if it is 1- good, it changes nothing; if it is 2- bad and beyond your control, then you suffer vainly in the knowledge and 3- since you will not stop breathing even if it does make your nose fall off, you have two possible negatives and one indifferent, by which you can deduce: it is better not to acquire the knowledge that your nose will fall off if you keep breathing.

Somerset Maugham wrote of an English aristocrat living in the south pacific as diplomat, governor or maybe banana plantation lord I can't remember, whose London Times was delivered irregularly although always months after its printing. He followed the news assiduously and was, for example, very interested in the progress of the Boer War, but rather than receive his news haphazardly or worry in anticipation for the next issue, he simply had his manservant iron the paper before breakfast and leave it laid out along with his boiled eggs on its exact date but a year later.

In the end, what difference did it make to him?


Sunday October 11th, 2009

I love you; thanks’; you’re welcome. (970 words)

Sometimes pat phrases take on a legitimate meaning of their own regardless, or even in spite of, the meaning of the words that compose them and yet their roots, the reason a linguistic custom is taken on, is telling.

In Spanish, for instance, there is no equivalent to the English: you’re welcome. The most common response to a ‘thank you’ is: de nada, which, like the French ‘du rien’, literally means: ‘of nothing’ but comes from ‘it was nothing’ or by extrapolation: ‘think nothing of it’. A gallant enough response to a declaration of gratitude but it does not allow the inference a ‘you’re welcome’ does, i.e. “it was not nothing, but you are welcome to this sacrifice on my part because I did it for you gladly.”

The same is true for the phrase ‘I love you’ which translates literally to ‘te amo’ in Spanish. It is more common, however, for people here in Spain to say: te quiero instead, which means: “I want you”. The Japanese, on the other hand, tell their beloved: taisetsu, which is the simple statement: ‘you are precious’.

Typical of Japanese delicateness, the general statement of value avoids, with Confucian modesty, the declaration by one ego for another. However, in common usage it expresses a more appropriative if unsaid: “you are precious to me” which likens it to the Spanish expression of desire: I want you, with, presumably, the underlying innuendo: because I love you.

While it is often true we think the person we love is precious and furthermore want to possess him/her, true love does not necessarily imply either. In fact some purists claim pity is love at its closest to an altruistic ideal.

If we refer strictly to romantic love we all have a fairly firm grasp of when what we feel is love and yet not only are hard-put to define the feeling precisely in words but can be confused, even when old and experienced, by the line that separates it from infatuation which is based more strictly on desire than love.

An argument might be made that the only reason for long-term monogamous love after the practicalities of predictable companionship, comfortably reliable promises of future love, the strength of collaboration or the responsibilities of rearing the young, is the need of a witness. A witness who provides a sense of continuity to our existence in the face of the pile of individual moments whose very chronology, duration or verisimilitude even we ourselves are often unable to recall.

I have been looking up the word love to see if the scholars, both linguistic and otherwise, have managed to pin its significance down to a quantifiable definition only to find they are as challenged by the task as the rest of us. The phrase: “tender solicitude” reappears in various official attempts but is buried among some of the longest entries in both dictionaries and encyclopaedias that meander through interminable etymologies that include the seeds of chivalric love in Medieval French poetry to its influence on the English version, until it becomes a concept so vague that love’s longing is restricted to a high ideology whose true expression precludes consummation or possession and is only represented in its purity when chastely directed at a virgin or another man’s untouchable wife. The sacrifice of self-interest becomes an integral part of true love’s definition.

It is intriguing to ponder the fact our loosely shared sense of romantic or chivalric love in the west arises during the dark ages instead of either the later artistic flowering and book-printing of the Renaissance or of the earlier ancient Greeks (whose roots lie in the Orient not the Occident) who famously won the war with the Romans by losing it and being sold into a slavery that included tutoring young Romans or counselling architects and politicians; thereby winning brutish Rome with philosophy to their culture from the inside-out, and eventually passing it down to us.

It was during the centuries of Europe’s chaos, a quarter of its population decimated by the black death, its history lost, Rome’s empire buried by the Barbarians; travel restricted by crumbling roads and lack of policing. A world where the privileged were grandly swathed in golden tapestries, had surplus food and defecated indoors, but were otherwise relegated to the same mean and meagre life as their serfs; it was a time that wallowed in a stagnant economy limited by lack of trade, where even kings might be illiterate, that love’s ideal takes root to flower even into our time.

A few nameless poets wrote Europe’s sentiment on frail paper during these dark years, its striving for a return to civilisation; and their few surviving fragments have coloured our sense of romance ever since.

The defining love poem of northern Europe tells of an affair between the king’s brother and his own fiancé which relies on an irresistible love potion Tristan and Isolde of the white hands, are tricked into drinking. It seems that in the cold climes of Scandinavia love is a demon that 'possesses' while the southerner’s possessive passion 'expresses' instead. Might the difference derive from Spain’s hot immersion in an impetuous, Bedouin-proud, horseman-warrior, woman-robbing, Moorish past?

In Italy the pat phrase which has come to mean the same as ‘I love you’ is: “Ti voglio bene”, but in its literal root it actually means: “I want good for you”. If Germans are Europe's thinkers, the English, guardians of its poetry and Italians of its sentiment, this wanting good for the beloved seems a subtle improvement on Spain’s sweaty: “I want you!”

I think love must in the end, include finding the greater pleasure in watching its object eat the last pastry above the pleasure in eating it oneself.

Chuck Close, self portraitInspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just turn up for work.

Chuck Close

Tuesday September 22nd, 2009

A graffito on a wall in Granada: ERRATUM ERGO SUM

Wednesday September 16th, 2009

Fear (500 words)

Despite writing this Blog, albeit pretentiously redubbed Mental Workshop, I seldom find time to spend on the few gems shining amid the vast wastes of blogdom’s mud myself.

While researching something else I did never-the-less, stumble upon one by a young lady still at university whose introduction touched me- I will reproduce it below verbatim, spelling mistakes included.

Its uncontrived syntax positively oozes a sincere despair and repressed passion. Its terrors are palpable and the unscalable walls that limit her choices are clearly built by her instead of imposed by life’s circumstances as she believes, and therein lay the tragedy:

Life is speeding past me. Nothing is happening the way I pictured it would, and more and more everyday its seems there is nothing I can do to 'get back on track'.

I am seriously considering moving somewhere foreign, like Italy or Syria, or Montenegro. Somewhere beautiful, and different in all aspects. I imagine I would enjoy "Culture Shock". More like a clean slate to start fresh from; a rebirthing almost.

I could very well do it. I would do it, but something holds me back. And that something, being strong enough to hold me back, intrigues me beyond belief.

That “something” that intrigues her while “holding her back” is fear; fear of the unknown, fear her decision—being different to those around her—will be a mistake. Fear of the unimaginable consequences of putting herself in an unknown environment; fear of making a bad decision when required to make decisions outside her sphere of understanding i.e. decisions that rely on criteria she is not yet in possession of.

I recently saw Up, Pixar’s latest and, as usual, great animation. After the show my friend and I discussed the film and when we touched on the guilt the old man felt after his wife’s death at not having provided her the adventure of life she had hoped for, my friend commented: “He had no choice, there were regular disasters that they had to attend, like when the tree falls on their house, they had to spend their travel money repairing the roof.”

I, however, disagree. At the end when the old man finally lets the house that had come to symbolize his wife to him, go, he says to the boy: “It is only a house after all”, he might have said the same when the tree broke its roof. These are life’s choices and the protagonist of Up chose a life of material security and predictable comfort over pressing the boundaries of its experience of itself.

I wish the young lady of the Blog strength in her struggle with the same faulty reasoning and if she asked I would tell her: The most important part of life is living. Trust yourself; if you make the right decision now then know you will know what to do in the future and under other circumstances also.

Fear is a poison to living and the antithesis of love.

Monday September 7th, 2009

Egon and the other animals (1940 words)

My dog Egon is a natural-born killer. I did not teach her the textbook pointer’s stance, body all atremble in anticipation as she waits for an unwary rabbit to distance itself so far from the protective briar, or warren, that it hasn’t time to get back before she outruns it.

When she was still young she chased rabbits with more enthusiasm than technique, once even following a rabbit into its cover of cacti. We arrived back home before I noticed she had about fifteen two inch thorns stuck deep all over her body including one to the hilt in her nose; indeed, the last I pulled from her was so profoundly plunged into a leg that I didn’t notice it until a couple of days later when she yelped at my touch and I wondered: “Is she retarded?!” but no, the first time was also the last, I guess it just took fifteen to teach her where they came from, until then her little walnut-brain must have been thinking simply: “Ouch, it sure is sharp out today.”

Nor did I teach her to jump like a Gazelle at every third galloping stride when running through a grassy field. At first I couldn't figure out why she did it, it was only when I noticed she runs at a normal, ground-hugging gallop when there is no grass, that I realised she did it in order to spy her prey at greater distance.

I have always had dogs and have studied different training methods and dog psychology so as to avoid anthropomorphising their reality but there is no question that where she’s lacking lips to smile with, there is a definite childish glee in her eyes and ears after she drops a rabbit at my feet and looks at me waiting, I suppose, for me to raise my ears in delight at the gift of the half-killed animal. Instead I tell her: “Thanks’ but you go ahead and eat it yourself” to which she answers: “No, hombre, I insist, today dinner's on me!” and I am forced to carry the bloody thing home and dispose of it later so as not to hurt her feelings, ehem.

Description: Egon & her preyI don’t know why she refuses to eat the rabbits, snakes, partridges, she kills, I have seen her happy enough to scrounge putrid carrion and even roll gaily in its maggot-filled carcass (why do they do that?). She is not hungry, I never ration my dog’s food but leave a whole bag of dry food open for them whenever they want it and have found that once a dog feels secure about his food source he doesn’t overeat and I don’t take the chance of underfeeding out of misjudgement*.

But I was proudest of her agility one day when a dove swooped to a height above my own and Egon, without missing a stride, jumped like those amazing athletes that get over bars eight feet high in the Olympics and, chomp! -caught it in mid-flight; she landed ugly but did not release the bird.  

I discovered something else watching my dog hunt, what I always thought of as an anomalous behaviour in animals caught in the lights of an oncoming car, freezing instead of running, as being due to the animal’s instincts not being prepared to react to lights at night time, was probably due to a valid defence mechanism. One day Egon chased a rabbit that ran very close to me in its attempt at escape and it was just then, not a few feet from me, that it knew there was no chance it would make cover before the dog, just a few paces behind, caught him up. Do you know what he did? He froze in mid-gesture just like a deer before a car; I was so close I could see his hurried breathing. And do you know what my genius of a dog then did? She pulled to a Road-Runner, dust-cloud stop, and looked around asking: “Where did it go?”

I was telling a friend of Egon’s exploits and mentioned that though most people think rabbits are innately quiet animals the truth is they are only silent because they are just plain scared most of the time, once in the jaws of a predator they are very vocal indeed and in the last moments make up in decibels for a life-time’s silence. Egon plays with them in cruel delight, breaking a few ribs and then squashing gently and repeatedly but at intervals, to get that jolly squeaky-toy effect.

My friend asked: “Doesn’t it make you feel bad seeing the animals die?” and I had to stop and consider my feelings because though I knew it wasn’t comfortable I had made a decision on a sub-conscious level about letting her kill and about watching, or picking up the still-warm corpse.

It isn’t a question of protecting indigenous rabbits as a species. Since the farmers killed the last foxes and wolves all our birds of prey are fat and there are still so many rabbits that a large proportion of the population dies each year at the end of summer of a terrible disease that slowly inflames their eyes to blindness and turns their tongues blue. In the original ecosystem the population was undoubtedly culled to proportions where the disease wouldn’t spread to start with.

Country folk, those who live nearest nature, have the least empathy for it. It wasn’t long ago and despite the government efforts that the last Spanish wolf and the last Spanish bear were killed by furtive hunters. One of my neighbours opened a conversation with me asking if I had ever eaten the ‘little birds’ (pajaritos). I asked which little birds he referred to knowing it wasn’t sparrows, and he answered more loudly: “The little birds, the birds that are small” holding his hand close to my face with its forefinger and thumb at a short distance from one another, to help me comprehend the concept of ‘not big’.

I made no comment and he went on: “Last Sunday my family and I ate four dozen” and I asked: “Aren’t they a protected species?” Despite the long-standing ban, northern countries have had crop problems for millennia because the Mediterranean countries kill the migrating birds en mass as soon as they hit the European shores from Africa. And Jose Antonio answered with a proud smile: “Of course! They are a luxury.” I asked how he hunted them and he explained that they are too much trouble to hunt: “I go out in the morning and paint the branches of the trees with rubber cement and then go back at night and pluck them from the bark like fruit."  

It took a little while but wasn’t that difficult to make Egon understand that ducks, chickens, geese, sheep and goats, were off-limits and she didn’t need to know it is because they belong to neighbouring farmers—though I had to rescue a bloodied, if not badly hurt, turkey from her very jaws one day when a frenzy of bloodlust made her deaf to my orders. But I might just as easily have taught her all killing was forbidden.

As far as the ethical question of killing for pleasure instead of procuring proteins, if I took pleasure in slowly torturing a rabbit to death and then abandoned it when it was no longer able to gratify me with its desperate death squeaks, it would be unquestionably inhuman of me. And so it is of my dog but since she is not human she is under no obligation to behave humanely.

A sentient being feels an automatic empathy for other living beings, there is a kind of recognition of life by life even in a psychopathic killer, he doesn’t after all, take pleasure in hitting a rock, he must feel something for other life even if only to enjoy ending it.

But though we be sentient beings most of us have removed ourselves far enough from the question that when we see minced meat in the supermarket we think: hamburgers, not: gentle cow with big watery eyes. The same goes for a dog, he isn’t reminded of his own life’s fragility the way we humans are when he sees a live rabbit, he only sees food.

As far as the sense of injustice of being out in a field doing rabbitty things while minding your own business when suddenly a huge dog comes out of nowhere and eats you, I can see that between them, the rabbit and the dog, the rules are clearly understood and the rabbit dies without resentment, it is merely nature in action.

The fact I am happy to order rabbit in the restaurants in town but not willing to clean them before preparing them at home and that my dog also decides not to eat her kill, does not mean they are not eaten. Nature’s living demolition team move in immediately, from crows to ants, and leave naught but bones and fur within three days, it is just that my dog and I except ourselves from the process.

The question still remained of why, when she brings a rabbit to me, do I watch her kill it? I feel squeamish when I do and with each gleeful squeeze of her jaws, there is a voice in my breast that silently implores her to make a finish once and for all. And yet I watch.

I remember a story I read as a child, the reminiscence of boyhood by a man who had been around ten in 1945. His father and he were survivors of one of the nuclear bombs and when they looked out on the vast devastation after the fact, he, the boy, cried uncontrollably and hid his face in his father’s side. His father reached down to his shoulders, lifted him straight, turned him around, held his head level with his hands and ordered him to open his eyes and look.

The story apparently had some little impact on me as I remember it after all these years. Even as a child I had understood the author’s father’s intention, they stood at the edge of the biggest event in their country’s history, their culture’s, their family’s and their own- the child had as much right to his experience as his father had and the cruelty would have been to shield him from it even if he mightn’t fully understand it until adulthood.

In a word: it is cowardly to selectively hide from reality, to choose the milky-smelling puppy and reject the carrion-stinking dog. It is sentimentality in its least attractive form to uhh or ahh at a sunset while refusing to look down at the mud you stand in, pretending only beauty exists or even, that only beauty is beautiful.

By the same token, to enjoy eating a rabbit baked with rosemary, almonds and bacon with plump raisins, in a nice, bloodless restaurant, but look the other way to avoid seeing one die as nature intended (compared to say, watching one chew its paw off in one of the cruel traps they use, illegally, here) is just another way of creating a fantasy-bubble in which to live, and life's just too rich in variety to live in a bubble.


* Though most say an adult dog needn't eat more than once a day my dogs have shown me they like two concerted meals, morning and evening, and will usually leave their food untouched the rest of the day. None of them have had any weight problems and I think dogs sometimes do just because they become neurotic about their food if they are made to spend their lives waiting for their master's whim while being disallowed to hunt their own. Return

Thursday September 3rd, 2009

A note about price:size ratio in paintings (420 words)
If a painter gets so stuck in the routine of painting-making, or becomes so satisfied with his work that he falls into the rut of essentially painting the same painting over and over again limiting himself only to changing the subject but not varying the brushstroke, he can equably price his paintings by the square centimetre because the time, effort and talent it takes him to cover a canvas’ surface can be measured in its own breadth and height.

If, on the other hand, the painter changes his approach to his canvas according to the subject’s exigencies, or uses larger brushes to cover a larger canvas, in the end the amount of detail contained in a painting will be determined by the subject and remain the same within a range of sizes, the pricing therefore becomes largely contingent on ‘finish’ instead of square centimetres.

For example, if you compare the work involved in painting a portrait life-size to one that is one and a half times life size, if the ‘finish’, the level of detail, is the same with the only difference being the size of the head and the canvas it is painted on, it is fundamentally the same amount of work and I, at least, will offer such a range of sizing for the same price. If two people ask me for a portrait of the same proportions on the same size canvas but one wants only a bust while the other wants bust and hands, the latter can be considered twice the work (and in artistic terms: a composition at least twice as complicated and ultimately: expressive) and the price will go up.

The limit to the range works in both directions, if someone asks for a portrait still larger, say, twice life-size, well, it begins taking on a size which cannot be accomplished with the same level of detail. At a certain point the amount of enlargement requires closer observation and rendition rather than larger brushes. The same is also true if the client wants a very small painting; still using the portrait as example, if a collector asks for one much smaller than life-size there is a point where the painter switches from hog-hairs to soft sables. Working on a miniature up close, with the careand caution necessary to get the same amount of detail a finished portrait (as opposed to a sketch) needs, it also becomes more expensive than the standard life-sized portrait.

Thursday August 27th, 2009

Strange tales (730 words)

Jacob and Leah begat Judah (Yahuda) who founded the Israelite tribe called by his name, which means: to praise (Yahweh) in Hebrew. Judah, his three boys and the popular wife of one of them made a shockingly dysfunctional if very touchy-feely family with uncommonly ambiguous morals.

Judah’s elder boy was called Er (evil when read backwards), and he married Tamar, while Judah’s second son, Onan, remained single and his youngest, Shelah, was still a child. The scriptures are sketchy with the details but some rabbinical authorities interpret the reason for God’s anger with Er as being due to Er intentionally avoiding getting his wife, Tamar, pregnant because he didn’t want her to lose her attractive figure.

God’s ire with Er reaches such a point that he simply kills him and Er isn’t mentioned again. At this point Judah entreats his remaining adult son Onan, to impregnate Tamar in his brother’s stead to insure familial inheritance rights through the patriarchal bloodline into the following generation.

Although Onan takes on the onerous burden of sexual relations with his dead brother’s wife willingly enough, he also is disinclined to inseminate her in order to insure inheritance rights for his own future sons.

Judah & Tamar (school of Rembrandt)Onan uses coitus interruptus as his preferred contraceptive method but when his father finds out he has been spilling his seed anywhere but in Tamar (occasioning the word onanism to eventually become synonymous to masturbation) he gets as angry as God had with Er and with the same consequence: he kills his second son, Onan*.

Judah promises to marry his last son to Tamar as soon as he grows up but is wary of keeping his promise having come to the supremely rational conclusion that with two sons murdered in anger, the fault just must be Tamar’s.

She waits and Shelah ultimately grows to marrying age before Judah breaks his word definitively.

Eventually Judah’s wife dies and he decides to go to Enaim to avail himself of the services of a prostitute but Tamar disguises herself cleverly with a veil and tricks the old man into thinking he is having sex with a stranger instead of his daughter-in-law.

The price was agreed at a single goat and she asks for his staff and seal as guarantee against later payment.

When Judah is told Tamar has become a prostitute (I wonder where she got the idea that her main value was as a receptacle for semen?) he decides to burn her alive as punishment for the shame her immorality brought his family name; but when he sends the goat he owes to the woman of Enaim, it is Tamar who presents him with his ring and he is forced to recognize she is the more righteous of the two. Finally he takes her into his home and honours the twins she later bears with his name. She, for her part, bears no grudge towards those responsible for her double widowhood, her abandonment by the family she married into, her fall from respectable marriageability into becoming so morally soiled by her 'infertility' she has no recourse but harlotry; nor for her father-in-law's plans to execute her or her lack of right to decision as she is passed around by the men who promised her father they would care for her when he handed over her dowry.

Thus she exculpates the sin of not providing inheritors to the men who refused to seed her while Judah finally has his genealogical line assured (perhaps these are the roots of the old adage: if you want something done right do it yourself) and they live happily ever after under the eyes of God. As far as I know they killed and ate the goat without further intercourse.


* Not to 'honour and obey thy father' is not a capital sin but is the fourth and fifth commandment according to the the New Testament and Talmud respectively. The Christian tradition follows St Augustine's interpretation which divides the commandments into three for the relationship between man and God, the next five: between man and man while the last two govern personal thought. In Judaism it is the first of the tenets that deal with man's relations to man, the first four dealing with man's relationship to God. Although metaphorically, the son is to the father as the father is to God. Return


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Four ducks | A painter's style | Thinking with Google | The Vulture's Throat | Tortures of the Damned | Memory and self | Hinduism and me | The Barber | Glasgow Smile | Airports | False advertising | Buttons | Govandhan pooja | Mean Streets | Population | Back in New Delhi | Buskers | Science and Philosophy | Happiness and Theory of the Mind |
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I love you; thanks’; you’re welcome
| Errata | Fear | Egon and the other animals | A note about price:size ratio in paintings | Strange tales |

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Christ’s devil | Timelines | Life's funnel | Souvenirs | Moon Myth | How chaos was subdued in the Japanese genesis myth | Noah Lukeman and the murky world of today’s book publishing | Morality and religion | Music and Love | Temeris Mortis | The Dream | Peace | God's Tick | Old Man (short story) | Intuition | A Curious Fact |

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Why Humans prefer other Humans to be like themselves | A letter to painters | Why do people talk? | The Painter's Eye | I'bn al Alhí's treasure (short story) | Associative Personality Disorder | Love poems, death poems | The Golem |
Elitism in Art
| Theory of the Mind | Death Scenes | Politics II |Rock and Roll | Words II- more words | Words |

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Confidence | How to steal from gullible artists | Priests behaving badly | How to make a painting | Oatsand history |
A note about signatures on paintings | Bob Dylan | Number of atheists among scientists | Theoretical physics and me | Faust and Mephistopheles | Children's reading habits | How to get good photos of fireworks | The 20th century |
Further Dialogue
on the 20th Century article (here) with comments by Bobby Porter | Love is | Civilisation |
Martial Art as Sport
| Blind Boy Fuller | Becoming an artist | Insomniac notes | Mind-brain | Age | José Tomás |
Black Adder
| This is not a Blog |

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Dammit! (final comments on the article Karma without metaphysics) | Laic morality (comments on Karma without Metaphysics) | Karma without metaphysics | Chivalric ethics | Shibumi | Shibumi: Comments by Bobby Porter |
Oxford Project revisited | How to travel | How Wang-Fô was saved | Fish memory | The artist’s relationship to his work |
Bobby's response
to The artist’s relationship to his work | Egon | 20,000+ | Memories of my father II |

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Men and Women | Girls: come closer and I'll tell you a secret about men | Catholic Spain | Art is | Bad luck |
Dogs are the Best People | Tough Love | Dense, intense and condensed: a short love story | Cubans, Norwegians and me | From the Guggenheim to Santiago's tomb | Memories of my Father | Ecco il uomo | Divorce and maturity |
Inspiration and process
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Truth and beauty | Bugs as food | What is art? part II- Is modern art, art? | A painter’s thoughts about self-portraits |
The Piraha of the Amazon jungle | Thailand: stories |

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We'd be better off without Religion | East Meets West | Thoughts on Memory | Scared | Frank Zappa |
Art and Dreams by Ilene Skeen | Indoctrination | Rush to change names in Isaan | The Artist and Emotion | The art critic | What is Art? Part I | Note of introduction added to the Masculine/feminine article | Rebuttal to Raymond S Kraft |

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I'm back! | Masculine versus feminine, Muslim versus Buddhist | Driving with Muslims or Buddhists |
Peter Feldstein and Stephen G Bloom's Oxford project
| How to argue | On 'happiness', in answer to Ivan's comment.| Thoughts on Happiness | The birth of Chiang Mai | War Story | Happiness Versus Suffering |
Cogitations upon observing the life of an ant, from its birth to its death by old age, while I lay in a bathtub
(first upload: June 10, 06)


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