December 17, 2002
Progress and Romanticism
A fascinating and thought-provoking article by SF author David Brin looks at the Lord of the Rings saga in a very unconventional light. Titled "Tolkien: Enemy of Progress," Brin traces the Tolkien's philosophical background through the ages; he's a classic exponent of Romanticism. His revisionist history of Middle Earth is tongue-in-cheek, but it's a refreshing look at a work I'd been taking more or less for granted. Speaking of the origins of the Romantic movement:
Temblors began splitting a chasm between Romantics and Enlightenment pragmatists. The alliance that had been so formidable against feudalism began turning against itself. Trenches soon aligned along the most obvious fault line, down the middle -- between future and past.
In this conflict, J.R.R. Tolkien stood firmly for the past.
Calling the scientific worldview "soul-less," he joined Keats and Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, Henry James and many European-trained philosophers in spurning the modern emphasis on pragmatic experimentation, production, universal literacy, progress, cooperative enterprise, democracy, city life and flattened social orders.
In contrast to these "sterile" pursuits, Romantics extolled the traditional, the personal, the particular, the subjective, the rural, the hierarchical and the metaphorical.
By the turn of the century, Romanticism was fast losing all vestige of its initial empathy for the concerns of common folk. One solitary artist -- or entertainer or lost prince or angry poet -- loomed larger in importance, by far, than a thousand craft workers, teachers or engineers (a value system shared today by the mythic engine of Hollywood). Just as in Homer's time, 10,000 foot soldiers mattered less than Achilles' heel.
It's a conflict between pragmatism and idealism, can-do and should-do, doers and dreamers, those who see reality as it is, and those who want to live in a different reality. The contempt Romantics feel for reality (and indeed, the common man) has led them over the ages to construct dream societies where all the ills would be cured and mankind would be happy again. The most famous work of this genre is Thomas More's Utopia
. In the vernacular, utopia means an elysian place of happiness. However, one common features of most utopias, including Thomas More's, is that all of these ideal dream societies are highly totalitarian and the rights of the people are severely circumscribed. The first Romantic in this sense was Plato, whose utopian fantasies of the ideal state was in effect a fascist oligarchy. Abolition of property has been recurring theme in utopian fantasies throughout the ages, as chronicled in the first chapter of Property and Freedom
. The first exponent of the opposing force of realism and common sense came from Aristotle. The conflict between the two sides has been going on ever since, right down to the battle between the values of the Englightenment and the darkness of communism.
The original concept of a Golden Age also stems from Greek antiquity. In Greek mythology, the Golden Age existed after the creation of earth, ruled by the Titan Cronus, with all goods plentiful and everyone in a state of grace. The following Silver, Bronze and Iron ages were successively worse. It's not entirely different from the Christian version, where the Golden Age was Adam and Eve's time in Eden; they too, fell from grace and man is still suffering the after-effects. It's only been the Enlightenment that moved the Golden Age from the past to the future, as Brin explains in his article.
While socialism in its many forms has been discredited, the conflict between the utopian Romantics and the realist Modernists still persists, despite the overwhelming evidence that the Modern way of doing things is infinitely superior. It has brought unprecedented wealth and prosperity and indeed liberty. We are fortunate to live in a time where we are the freest members of homo sapiens ever to have trod on the face of the earth. And that freedom and prosperity is now under threat by a particularly violent non-western offshoot of Romanticism. The Islamofascists also yearn for the return to a Golden Age that never was, and do not shy away from using violence to impose that Golden Age upon. It is not very surprising that our home-grown Romantics of the anti-war movement should be aiding them in this endeavor. The siren call of the Romantic movement has its appeal in the fact that it proposes a simple answer to complex problems. Go back to doing X or Y, and all will be well. It's an easy way of avoiding the confrontation with reality. Obviously, it's doomed to failure. After all, reality is that which, if you stop believing in it, does not go away.
December 13, 2002
The color of money
What does money look like? No, really. One of the interesting things I have noticed is the completely diametrical view European and Americans have on this issue. Many Europeans will say that dollar bills don't look like real money, because they're so dull and uniform, lacking the distinctive art work that goes into European bills. Conversely, Americans will cite exactly the same reason for claiming European bills are toy money, because they're so colorful and frivolous, lacking the gravitas of US dollar paper money. I guess it's a matter of pattern imprinting while growing up. The bills you handle every day become the benchmark for what you consider "money," and these perceptions become deeply engrained. There's no "natural" look to paper money, it's just what it is.
December 12, 2002
Now we need the positronic brains
It turned out to be a rather longer day than anticipated, so I'll leave you today with a short item on Honda's new robot. It anthropomorphic, can recognize faces and gestures and can follow you around. In fact, you can lease it for a mere $162,000 a year. Honda has already been leasing the previous model to IBM and some other companies.
All we need now is the positronic brain.
December 08, 2002
The inscrutability of modern art
I suppose I am one of those who's not sophisticated enough to appreciate modern art. The concept of "art" has been defined to be so broad these days, that it's actually hard to tell whether you're looking at a profound statement of 21st century urban angst that also satirizes western consumerism and the SUV, or whether it's actually just a piece of flattened horseshit on the road.
I take comfort from the fact that I am not alone in this. The visitors of an art show in Germany thought the body of a woman lying on the floor was a piece of performance art. It took them a while to realize that she was dead. (Via GeekPress.)
December 01, 2002
Getting people's attention
Some time ago I read an article in the Wall Street Journal (not available online for free) about the different attitudes to advertising in different country. The article focused on Germany, where the use of humor in ads is generally frowned upon, although it is gaining in popularity. The way to advertize to Germans is by giving them the facts, and lots of them. The reason I bring it up is because I remember a funny radio commercial for the Baltimore Opera while I was in DC. Their slogan: "Opera, it's better than you think. It has to be." Their latest commercials aren't online, but some older ones are. Especially Sacrifice is funny.
Then there are the rather more mysterious aspects of advertising. Perhaps it's meant as a incongruous reminder, but why would you employ Giant Parking Chickens to remind people to take their parking tickets with them?
Then there are those who seek attention by imitation. Since Mr. Seven and Mr. Eleven got together to build a major brand, two other numerically-named people thought they could follow suit. It just ain't the same.
November 14, 2002
I am always skeptical about claims that hilariously funny quotes are actually real, but one should not underestimate the human mind. The following are supposedly actual quotes from performance evaluations. Might come in handy when I have to do them again next year...
"Since my last report, this employee has reached rock bottom and has started to dig."
"His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of morbid curiosity."
"I would not allow this employee to breed."
"This associate is really not so much of a has-been, but more of a definitely won't be."
"Works well when under constant supervision and cornered like a rat in a trap."
"When she opens her mouth, it seems that this is only to change whichever foot was previously in there."
"He would be out of his depth in a parking lot puddle."
"This young lady has delusions of adequacy."
"He sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to achieve them."
"This employee should go far - and the sooner he starts, the better."
"This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot."
October 22, 2002
Now this is a story that will send shivers down the spine of anyone who's ever been on an airplane:
Barbara Hewson, from Swansea, south Wales, suffered injuries including a blood clot in her chest, torn leg muscles and acute sciatica and remains in pain two years on.
The obese passenger had only been able to fit into her seat by raising the arm rest, which meant her body parts weighed down on Mrs Hewson.
Airlines in general do seem to encourage fat people to buy two tickets if they can't fit into a single seat, but why not require them to do so? It seems rather straightforward to me that if you can't fit into a single seat on an aircraft, you should pay for the extra space that you are taking up. By enforcing this rule airlines would be doing their non-hypertrophic passengers a great favor, because it's not much fun sitting next someone's who that fat. Southwest Airlines in the US is already doing this, but inevitably is being sued for it by fat people who think it's OK to inconvenience (and even injure) their fellow passengers with their gargantuan bodies. Aspiring to victimhood, the highest of perquisites one can attain in postmodern society, they cry discrimination. You bet it's discrimination. It's discrimination on the basis that they're taking up more space than the one seat they've paid for. Simply because they stuff themselves at every meal does not entitle them special treatment. Pay for the appropriate amount of space on the plane, and the discrimination vanishes. If you want to be fat, fine. But also accept the consequences.
October 21, 2002
The Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto
Eric S. Raymond (the S is important, because he's also known as ESR) is working on the Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto. I wanted to link and comment on it sooner, but of course never got around to it. As it stands, it's close to a final version and is looking pretty good. It's a good distillation of what the Blogosphere is all about. As Glenn Reynolds put it at Instapundit, it's not about left or right, but it's Anti-Idiotarian.
Well worth reading, and distributing once it's finalized.
October 20, 2002
Why I am not an Acolyte of a Capitalized Ism
Good titles for posts are prone to pop up in several places, and the same title was used over at Shoutin' Across the Pacific. One thing I would to add to those comments is that once you get into Capitalized Isms, I tend to get somewhat nervous. Too many Capitalized Isms have had pernicious influences throughout history, and that makes hesitant to nail my colors to any Capitalized Mast. Furthermore, the Acolytes of Capitalized Isms in their action define the Ism itself more powerfully than the philosophical underpinnings they may have. The empirical evidence of what the Acolytes actually do is the best indicator of the practical implications and worth of the Ism in question. And that's my problem with Objectivists: looking at how they're behaving makes me unwilling to join them, although in many ways I am sympathetic to the philosophy.
October 13, 2002
I never really understood modern art anyway
It must be because I am too dim-witted. Plain unsophisticated. But I still don't get how keeping a corpse in a drawer for 18 years is art. Quote:
The council, which is governed by health and safety rules, would be likely to insist on burying Diogenes, as it tried to do in 1984.
The rules state that a body cannot just be kept or stored - it must be either buried or cremated.
But art experts and friends of Mr Lenkiewicz may argue that the tramp is a piece of art and should be put on public display - a move which could mean Diogenes becoming valuable commodity.
Yes, by all means. Put a corpse on public display. Show everyone what the cutting edge of modern art is these days, and let us revel in its Profound Truth. That is, if simple peasants like yours truly ever can hope to ascend to that level of sophistication.
Question: do you suppose The Great Lenkiewicz got any public funding?
Eating considered harmful
Since I'm in a weird mood anyway, here's another mind-boggling link. To quote:
Our bodies don't require physical food and they have only adapted to live on it because we have forced them to do just that. Food is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful to our health and well-being. Everything in life , including food, has an energy pattern which is influenced by the powerful transmissions of our consciousness, plus the consciousness of others around us. When we consume this food, it then mixes with the energies of our bodies and causes our energy patterns to be so distorted, that it's difficult to see clearly.
Of course, once you've managed to kick the addiction to food, you'll be able to see clearly. Very very clearly. The nice people in the white coats and the foam-padded rooms will take good care of you. So next time you feel esurient, even peckish, just take a deep breath and feel the energy flow into you. But first you need to see clearly.
I think I'll go have a snack.
The endless variety of the web
Clicking from one link to the next, I sometimes end up in places that are weird beyond belief (I'm sure you're thinking the same thing about this site, but that's different.) For instance, there's this, which is written in a language that appears to be some resemblance to English, although it makes no sense whatsoever. It has a nice picture though, but what to make of this?
Rabbit's,Deer,ect. like to run in pack's,herds ect.(safety in number's)AS not to be gotten by the KING of BEAST'S. I Glen Pearson am not a frickin animal! I will devour the King Of Beast as is my perogative as a non-animal. What herd are you part of?
That must explain that recent of herd of cats that came through. You Glen Pearson are a fricking idiot. Make sure you use your perogative (is that something like peroxide?) to devour proper English orthography. Here is the voice of the Herd of Those Who Speak English.
Where are all the billions of dead people of the dark ages ect.. they are not so long ago and many were in the perfect enviroment for preservation where the hell are they?Please do not bore me!
Billions of dead people? Where are they? Dead? Decomposed? Gone to meet their makers? Fallen off their perch? Become ex-people? They're dead. Get it? Yes, where the hell are they? Questions need to be asked! Please do not bore me!
Isn't the Web wonderful?
October 12, 2002
Why I am not an Objectivist
They've gone off their rocker again. The Ayn Rand Institute has called Lawrence Lessig a Marxist because of his position on the Eldred vs Ashcroft that is now before the Supreme Court. As he himself points out, that puts him along other well-known Marxists such as Milton Friedman and those red-flag waving insurrectionists at the Cato Institute. Jeeeez folks... try to stay at least a little in touch with reality. Taking a principled position is one thing, but if that principled position is anchored to a semi-planetary object in a highly eccentric orbit around the Sun, you've got a problem. This kind of stuff may play well to the converted, but it is alienating people (like me) who otherwise would be sympathetic. I am afraid Objectivism looks more like a cult than a philosophy to me. Michael Shermer expanded on this theme in Why People Believe Weird Things. Not that I think libertarianism is weird per se, it's just that the Objectivists have taken it to unhealthy extremes.
October 11, 2002
Why all the fuss?
The blogosphere is up in arms today about the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Jimmy Carter. I don't see what all the fuss is about. I mean, does anybody take the Nobel Peace Prize seriously anymore?
Jimmy Carter got a Nobel Peace Prize.
Then again, so did Yasser Arafat.
October 09, 2002
I almost did it...
Why bother taking a passport if nobody's going to check your ID anyway? This time around, I almost managed to do the entire trip without getting my ID checked. On the flight to Milan, I slipped through the various stages of boarding at Amsterdam without anybody asking me for an ID. That's the third time in total this year... and I almost added a fourth time on the way back from Milan, but at the very last moment when boarding the plane, they demanded to see my passport. I guess I'll try again next time.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I understand the need for security, and I am not too keen on having people on board whose identity is completely unknown. On the other hand, I do bristle at the fact that my ID needs to be checked at all when traveling. It is an imposition. Argh. I hate real life. It's so much easier to live in a dream world...
October 07, 2002
The best 404 page ever
Inevitably, it's at Lileks.
(Well, perhaps not the best ever, but still pretty damn good...)
Posted by qsi at 11:49 PM
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October 02, 2002
Obsession with the past can take many forms. Aside from the righteous fanaticism that poisons the historically obsessed mind, there are other, stranger, less threatening forms this can take. In fact, they're a bit quaint, yearning for a mythical Golden Age.
Some people have become enamored and mesmerized by Old Rome. I must admit I have always had a weak spot for the old Roman Republic, the age of Real Latin. The early empire was OK too, but after the first hundred years or so, I began to lose interest. Still I am not quite sure I would want to go as far as these people are going. Of course, they are not trying to recreate the exact conditions of the Roman Republic, as they are leaving out minor details like slavery. It is hard to see how it might be possible to recreate the essence of Roman society without these elements. There's a half-hearted attempt at creating a patrician class in Nova Roma, but the patricians don't have any more rights than the others. So that is a bit of an empty shell too. It's more a of modern reinterpretation of Rome might have been like in this day and age rather than a real throwback to old Roman times.
The attempt to resurrect the old Roman religion is also interesting. They're rather vague on whether anyone actually practices the religion, or whether it is put up just for show. I've always liked the idea of the Graeco-Roman pantheon with its many gods and semi-deities. So much more fun than Christianity. And the relationship between morals and gods was different; whereas in Christianity the relationship is very hierarchical, the Romans had gods you can look in the eye and argue with. You could get hurt really badly if you picked the wrong fight but on the other hand, you could also play politics with the pantheon. Seems a much healthier attitude to take to one's deities, if one is to believe in any. But that's a whole different story.
I wish Nova Romans good luck, but I won't be joining.
Posted by qsi at 11:45 PM
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The road to happiness
Here's the real reason for my sunny and cheerful disposition, the vibrant optimism, the fusion reaction that sets emits the rays of sunshine which I resemble, and it's proven by scientific research no less: cleaning makes you unhappy. Given the general state of my apartment, this makes me a very, very happy man. I think I'll drink to that.
Posted by qsi at 08:04 PM
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October 01, 2002
Italy is always fun to go to. The great Get a Cab Adventure Ride keeps the blood flowing (at reasonable pressure and speed), and it also occupies the mind by keeping track of the number of near-accidents that happen. Motorized traffic in Italy is different from the cold north of Europe. And to think I've only been to northern Italy this time around. In the south the relative order that still exists in the north break down completely. Naples is one of those places where you won't see a single car that is not dinged, dented or broken in some way. At least in Milan they can afford to fix their cars.
A cab out to Malpensa airport takes 45 minutes to an hour, and it ends in the distant countryside. Malpensa is a new airport; I think it opened in 2000, and has consequently been placed in the convenient middle of nowhere. One of the things they've never been able to get to work is the far door of the departures hall. It's been broken ever since I first visited the airport. The reason I know or care is that the KLM check-in desk is in that part, and since the door is continuously broken I have to walk a considerable distance to get there. At the check-in desk, I got my boarding pass as usual, minus the routine question to see my passport.
At the security check leading to the gates, there was some confusion as the x-ray machine operator seemed a bit confused about which direction the belt should run. At one point, a lady in front of me was desperately pushing back the bags that were spilling back onto the floor. The buzzer did not go off as I walked through the metal detector, and I was on my way to the gate. They did not check my boarding pass. Getting onto the plane was easy too... no identity checks there either. Today I managed to board a flight without anybody checking my identity. And it's not just an Italian problem; earlier this year the same happened to me at Stuttgart airport in Germany. Seems that airport security isn't working all that well.
Posted by qsi at 11:37 PM
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September 29, 2002
Chocolate and happiness
A new study published in the scientific journal Appetite suggests that men crave chocolate more when they are happy. The research consisted of showing men bits from films to invoke specific emotions and it turns out that when they're feeling happy, men are more likely to crave chocolate.
You have to love Appetite's self-description:
Appetite is an international research journal specializing in behavioural nutrition and the cultural, sensory, and physiological influences on choices and intakes of foods and drinks. It covers normal and disordered eating and drinking, dietary attitudes and practices and all aspects of the bases of human and animal behaviour toward food.
I wonder whether they need more volunteers for their chocolate research. I think there is a market opportunity here if they set up a chocolate-dating service, akin to Yahoo Personals or Match.com. I'd be more than happy to offer my services to serious chocolate research.
The next few days will see an expansion of my own chocolate research. I'll be in Italy for the next two days, and the shops at Malpensa airport in Milan sell great chocolate. Last time I was there I bought a box of neapolitani of what they call "mono-origin" chocolates. It's the chocolatic equivalent of a single-malt scotch whiskey, or a varietal in wine. The box had chocolates from Ecuador, Grenada, Jamaica, Madagascar, Trinidad and Venezuela, and all chocolates have a minimum cocoa content of 70%. Very powerful flavors which even in small quantities last for a long time. The Amedei web site has more information on their offerings. More research in this area is definitely needed.
Posted by qsi at 07:22 PM
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The end of the bear market!
The end is nigh. The end of the bear market, that is. One of the traditional indicators for rising or falling stocks is the ever-reliable hemline. They're going up. Models are strutting on catwalks in miniskirts and bright colors again. About time, I say.
Posted by qsi at 06:43 PM
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September 24, 2002
Man's Victory Over Nature
Modern technology is a wonderful thing. We can write things on a screen, erase things we have written on a screen and wish we could erase things we have foolishly written on paper and have forgotten to shred. However, one of my favorite achievements is temperature control. In summer, air conditioners keep us cool and in winter we have heaters to keep us warm. Whether there's a blizzard dumping a foot of snow, or the sizzling sun blanches the molten streets, we can poke our nose at Nature from our thermally controlled environment. It's a statement of defiance: no matter what Natures throws at us, we can still make funny faces without breaking a sweat or suffering from frost bite. (At least until the Big One hits and destroys the air conditioners.)
The only place on earth where thermal control fails is in my office. It's not particularly limited to one office, but whereever I seem to work, it's too damn cold. I must have upset the God of Thermal Control in a previous life, because no matter how much the Building People tinker with the settings, it remains cold in my office. And they're serious Building People too; they have moustaches, speak in diffident tones with just the right amount of Amsterdamese that qualifies as them Building People Who Know Buildings. These are not people buildings should mess with. Deep furrows run down their brows at they look into my office, sizing up the Demon of Cold as it lurks on my windowsill, eyeballing it with a look that says "your days are numbered, buddy." They nod gravely, make a grave note, and say with a calculated mix of gravity and reassurance that they'll fix it.
But they don't. It's still cold. By afternoon, I go to the lavatory once an hour to let hot water run over my frost-bitten fingers. By evening, I when I get into the car, I turn the heater up to 80 so I can warm up on the drive home. When I get home, I take a hot bath.
Any recommendations for space heaters?
Posted by qsi at 10:54 PM
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September 22, 2002
Improve your English
I came across this wonderful onlne version of the original "English, As She Is Spoke," a phrasebook originally printed in Portugal in the 1880's. More information and links are at Enigmatic Mermaid.
I am catched cold in the brain.
UPDATE: I entirely forgot when I posted this, but for more contemporaneous mutilations of English, one need look no further than Japan.
Posted by qsi at 11:57 AM
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