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some of my narrative posts
Made to be broken
Champagne Lacan
dogwalk Vincennes
Summer Yoga
wild berries
painting again
raining spiders

June 30th, 2010

02:40 pm - I'm moving my blog.
livejournal feels like a ghost town. I'm going to be posting more on wordpress.

my current entry there is about Psychoanalysis as art.

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June 21st, 2010

12:53 pm - Jason Mraz
There are so many things I like about this Jason Mraz performance. Just the stage is harmonious-- the side banners with their Japanese woodblock wave motifs; the persian carpets on stage; the mystico-Pop emblem of the winged heart over the stage.

And then there's the funky brass and the ecstatic singing... a great way to start off this Fête de la Musique.

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February 1st, 2010

07:33 pm - More GDP is not the same as more happiness
From Robert Fogel's article about how China will dominate the world economy:

...Europe's culture confounds economists. Citizens of Europe's wealthy countries are not working longer hours to make higher salaries and accumulate more goods. Rather, European culture continues to prize long vacations, early retirements, and shorter work weeks over acquiring more stuff... those living in most Western European countries appear to be more content than Americans with the kind of commodities they already have, for example, not aspiring to own more TVs per household. Set aside whether that's virtuous. A promenade in the Jardin du Luxembourg, as opposed to a trip to Walmart for a flat-screen TV, won't help the European Union's GDP growth.

(emphasis is mine... and let me add that I practice Tai Chi in the Jardin de Luxembourg every week, and do not own a flat-screen TV. ;-) )

Now contrast this with what James Howard Kunstler writes about how our obsession with GDP can mislead us:

By the way, it is established fact that the GDP figure benefits from increases in medical services, meaning that the more obese, diabetic, two-pack-a-day cigarette smokers this country produces, the better off our economy is assumed to be. Bring on the Little Debbie Snack Cakes! Let's turn up the dial on hospital admissions!

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January 25th, 2010

02:10 am - video of a philosopher thinking
So I am watching this lecture on Heidegger, in French, by François Fédier.

This is from Fédier's Khâgne class, which prepares students aspiring to sit the entrance exam for the literary section of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, training grounds for writers and thinkers from Sartre to Foucault.

It is a very unusual teaching style for me, but maybe French students are used to it? Basically the teacher dictates verbatim the notes that the students take, down to the punctuation-- "comma"... "dash"... "question mark"

He breaks from dictation to give clarifications and asides, and to answer questions. But he always comes back to the dictation, which forms the backbone around which he improvises the rest of the lecture.

The content is interesting, but the process seems so time-consuming; I'm 25 minutes into the lecture, and he has spent all this time so far answering one question: why does Heidegger put "is" in quotation marks?

This lecture lasts for two hours, and there are 26 lectures total, all devoted to one work: Heidegger's Letter on Humanism. I think it's rare to come across such close reading-- I certainly never experienced this in my education. And his students are only about 18 years old.

There is something hypnotic about this slow pace. He basically creates this steady pulse of thought in all his listeners. He shows us the process of a philosopher at work, thinking.

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January 22nd, 2010

11:35 am - Avatar, computer chess, toxic praise
I found an interesting analysis by Caleb Crain of the wishful thinking behind the film Avatar:

on Pandora, all the creatures have been equipped by a benevolent nature with USB ports in their ponytails...

In order to ride a horse-like creature, for instance, Sully is instructed to first connect his ponytail-USB port to the horse's. Same with various species of flying dragon. And if you want to connect to the Na'vi ancestors, you plug your ponytail into the willow-tree-esque tendrils of the Tree of Life. In other words, on Cameron's Pandora, the animals cavort with one another much like the peripherals on his desk, plugging and playing at will, and the afterlife is more or less equivalent to cloud computing. Once you upload yourself, you don't really have to worry about crashing your hard drive.

Also, an article about computer chess and its influence on human chess, by Garry Kasparov

There is little doubt that different people are blessed with different amounts of cognitive gifts such as long-term memory and the visuospatial skills chess players are said to employ. One of the reasons chess is an "unparalleled laboratory" and a "unique nexus" is that it demands high performance from so many of the brain's functions. Where so many of these investigations fail on a practical level is by not recognizing the importance of the process of learning and playing chess. The ability to work hard for days on end without losing focus is a talent. The ability to keep absorbing new information after many hours of study is a talent. Programming yourself by analyzing your decision-making outcomes and processes can improve results much the way that a smarter chess algorithm will play better than another running on the same computer. We might not be able to change our hardware, but we can definitely upgrade our software.

Finally, a quote from parenting consultant Naomi Aldort about how praise can be detrimental to children:

At first, I thought that commenting, acknowledging, and praising children for their achievements express love and build self-esteem. In time, I realized that these well-intended interventions do just the opposite: they foster dependency on external validation and undermine the children's trust in themselves. Children who are subjected to endless commentary, acknowledgment, and praise eventually learn to do things not for their own sake, but to please others. Gratifying others soon becomes their primary motivation, replacing impulses stemming from the authentic self and leading to its loss.

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January 15th, 2010

03:01 pm - the limits of notation.
Reading A Viable Way reminded me that, yes, expressions of truth are dependent on human language. (and hence constrained by the expressive range of language).

It would be difficult to express the truth of Hamlet using mathematical notation.

We may have developed a "good enough" system of musical notation, but nothing comparable exists for dance notation. The closest attempt, Laban notation, is incredibly difficult to master, and none of the choreographers I've worked with have ever used this. From time to time they might draw little stick figures, but most of the choreography remains in their mind. They have to demonstrate it to the dancers step by step.

I've bought quite a few Taiji books with diagrams of a standing man with arrows pointing this way and that from his arms and legs. It's been impossible to learn a Taiji form from such books. At best, they can serve as memory-aids after I've learned the movements from a master.

After over a year of learning the Zhaobao Taiji form from my teachers, I am still discovering new details in the familiar movements. From session to session, my attention shifts from the broader to the finer aspects of each movement and back again. To notate this would require many transparent layers superimposed on each diagram.

(and this is related to this previous post of mine, because the makers of the Known Universe video had to make certain fudges-- compromising approximations-- in their attempt to depict multiple spacetime scales in a single presentation. These fudges are quite ingenious in their own right, and so are adopted into the notational convention... kind of like geometrical perspective being codified for painters by Brunischelli in the 1400's... kind of like the invention of zero greatly simplifying calculation).

But of course, neither of my teachers learned Taiji from diagrams and notation.

Reading my Alexander Technique teacher's book, I realize that it takes pages and pages of very precise writing for him to convey in words the inhibition and direction he demonstrates to me in a matter of seconds by touch.

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January 10th, 2010

04:30 pm - horseback archery, figure skating, memory palaces
 This week's web browsing brought with it three references for my learning projects.

Tim Ferriss attempts to learn Samurai Horseback Archery in five days, acquiring skills it takes others years to master.

Tim Ferris has also been a Kickboxing champion and a Tango record-holder. When asked if his "learn a new skill and move on to the next" approach might make his practice superficial, here's what Ferriss said:

I don’t try and “hack” everything and move on. I do believe in the enjoyment of constant practice as an exercise, almost like meditation. It’s important to balance achievement with appreciation, and there are skills that I continue to practice without abandoning them. In fact, I don’t feel like I abandon much. Even if I haven’t really practiced tango since 2006, for example, the skills and awareness I developed in tango are applicable to other things, even yabusame. I feel like each is intertwined with the next, so I’m — on a macro-level — constantly working on a process of skill-development that spreads across these various experiments.

In simpler terms, I’m just having fun and doing what makes me most excited. I see nothing wrong with this. For some, that will mean 1 skill a year, others 1 skill a month, and others still, one skill a lifetime.

All are fair.

. . . . . 

Jonathan Weir's use of his body is impressive, from an Alexander Technique viewpoint. When he skates, it looks like his whole body is animated by an outward expanding force. It's a great illustration of the Alexandrian concept of direction.

. . . . .

Historian Tony Judt
, with most of his body paralyzed by Lou Gerig's disease, spends much of his days constructing a palace within his imagination.

Unable to jot down ideas on a yellow pad, Judt has taught himself elaborate memorization schemes of the sort described by the Yale historian Jonathan D. Spence in his 1984 book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. Like Ricci, a 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China, Judt imagines structures in his head where he can store his thoughts and ideas. The basic principle: Picture entering a large house; turn left and there is a room with shelves and tables; leave a memory on each surface until the rooms fills. Now head down the hall into another room. To retrieve your memories, to reconstruct a lecture or recall the content and structure of an article, you re-enter the building and follow the same path, which should trigger the ideas you left behind.

It's interesting to note that the use of the memory palace can involve the kinesthetic sense-- as you visualize walking through the inner palace-- and so is also a kind of body learning, like horseback archery and figure skating.

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December 29th, 2009

11:01 am - Known universe video
I enjoyed this video.

It takes us far beyond the space-time scales we are biologically hardwired to perceive in. (links to a previous post of mine)

Indeed, for a moment it even takes us outside space and time, so that we see the universe as this expanding sphere, from some floating, abstract, external viewpoint.

Of course, this is just a pictorial representation of the universe. There's a lot of fudging about, simply because the distances leaped are so humongous. The mapmakers have sacrificed technical precision in order to gain readability.

To give an example, at one point we see the entire earth encircled by the orbits of its artificial satellites. The orbits are rendered as glowing green rings (Matrix-green, the color of early alphanumeric code).

We see the green orbits, but we don't see the satellites themselves. This is because the satellites are orders of magnitude smaller than their orbits, so the two cannot be simultaneously visible.

If you zoom in to look at a single tree, you can no longer see the entire forest. But if you zoom out to see the entire forest, you can no longer make out the individual trees.

For the same reason, this model can only be taken in dynamically, as a video. It's like music in this respect. Music only makes sense as one event after the other. Only a God-like intelligence could take in an entire symphony at a single, timeless glance. Mortals like us must listen from beginning to end, or at least sweep our eyes over a score, from left to right.

In the case of the Known Universe video, we are not sweeping our gaze along melodic and harmonic currents; rather, we are sweeping across a spectrum of spacetime scales, from small to vast (from geological to cosmic), and back again.

A lot of human ingenuity has gone into making this dynamic representation which allows us to conceive of aspects of reality that would otherwise be inaccessible to our biologically limited sensory apparatus. (our eyes were not made to see light years, after all!) 

The Facebook friend who posted this video said something like, "don't watch this unless you want to feel like a totally insignificant speck..."

But for me, it enhances my sense of being significant. Life, and conscious life in particular, are incredibly precious. As far as we know, across billions of light-years, we are the only species capable of making and reading such a map of the universe. As the sole attributors of meaning (as far as we know), we are the linchpin of the cosmos.

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November 23rd, 2009

07:34 pm - Bedrock Thoughts
Hahaha... my sister just sent me back some life-advice I'd sent her in 2002! This was before Gmail existed, so I sent it from my Yahoo account, which has been deleted long since due to inactivity, resulting in the loss of my only copy.

It was strange to reread these thoughts, and to think about which parts I might write differently today (probably the last sentence). Here is the entire thing, then, for your reading pleasure...

* * * * *

Here is some explanation of my “bedrock” thoughts, which I shared with you over the phone. It's a bit long, read it or not as you wish! Love, Ulysses

Anyway, I call them bedrock because we often try to construct towers of illusion to distance ourselves from these seemingly distasteful truths. We proceed to live in our tower, and never bother to explore the vastness of existence. So the first step towards freedom, towards mobility, is to climb off our tower of illusion, to step onto the bedrock, to fully live by the following truth: Human existence is one of absolute poverty, utter solitude and certain death; we live in a world that is totally impermanent and ultimately meaningless.

This seems like a pretty depressing statement, and yet it doesn’t have to be. It expresses the bare truth, and it is always reassuring to touch the bare truth—like seeing a person without his mask or makeup, like weeping rather than keeping the sadness suppressed, like drinking fresh water rather than chemical soda, like walking on bare earth or beach rather than linoleum flooring. Each time we give up an artificial illusion of how life should be, to embrace the reality of how it actually is, we find that reality is not that bad after all, that accepting it is cheaper and requires less effort than maintaining our illusions. No, more than that; we discover a new richness we never suspected existed!

So for me, these four qualities (poverty, solitude, impermanence, emptiness) delineate the bedrock on which we must stand to live an authentic life.

First; We are utterly poor; and yet by embracing this fact (and only by embracing this fact), we can become immeasurably rich. Second; We are alone and only death is certain; and yet by embracing this (and only by embracing this), we find the potential for authentic relationship, not to mention a greater appreciation of the value of every moment. Third; All is impermanent and unpredictable; and yet by embracing this fact, we can come to see life as an engaging, ever-emerging narrative of interconnections. Fourth; things and life have no inherent meaning; reason is thus useless in dealing with existential problems; and yet by embracing this, we can come to a new way of relating with the world—through dancing with matter.

To explain in more detail: What does it mean to be utterly poor? I don’t mean we should try to be poor. I mean, try or not, we are poor, it is our basic condition. We don’t own anything definitively. We might own our toothbrush, but it can be taken away from us, or be lost, or wear out. We might buy a vacation house near the sea, and then only use it for a few days a year—in which case, though we certainly “own” it in a legal sense, we don’t actually get much use out of it. We might own a thousand precious leather-bound books which we never read because they are written in Russian; a Stradivarius violin we don’t know how to play…and so on. We would be astonished when one day a friend arrives and suddenly plucks a Russian book off the shelf and reads a passage, or picks up the Strad to play a few measures. Because he knows a bit of Russian, or took some violin lessons, he has managed to enter instantaneously into a more intimate relationship with our possessions than we could ever enjoy. So, let’s remember: there is no possession but in interaction. Instead of desiring to possess, we should desire to learn to better interact.

And of course, we can’t take it with us. We obviously can’t take our accumulated “treasures” with us when we die, but we can’t take even take them to work in the morning. We may own a wardrobe full of expensive clothes, but we can only wear one shirt at a time—to wear all our shirts at the same time buttoned one on top of the next would only make us look bloated, grotesque, like the Michelin Man. We might own the fork in our hand, but we have to set it down to pick up the knife, and eventually set down the knife as well, to pick up the glass of water. If we refused to let go of the fork, the knife and the glass, the napkin, our cellphone and wallet while eating, we would end up with a big mess, and lots of food in our lap! All because we didn’t want to accept the rule of poverty and simplicity—which is that we can hold onto only one thing at a time, we can only do one thing at a time. To try to hold on to several things, or to do even two things at once, produces only farcical failure. When we give up trying to own more and more things, when we give up the idea of possession, then suddenly we seem to own everything! It’s like being in a library. No single user “owns” the books, and yet we have hundreds of thousands of books that we can read and enjoy. No user owns the tree-lined park, or the public pool, or the sidewalk café, and yet we can enjoy these when we want. Walking through the streets of Paris, especially when the sun is out, we feel a sense of immeasurable wealth. We own none of it and yet the entire city is ours.

Furthermore, though we have nothing, we have enough. Just by being alive—we have the most incredible of gifts. Think of all the great men and women of history—Napoleon, or Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, Queen Elizabeth—even they, even they, can’t enjoy the sweetness of this next breath we are about to take. We are supported by the earth with every step we take, we are warmed by the sun, we are nourished by every breath of air, and that is enough! We have pretty much the same organic substrate as Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, the founding emperor of China and so on. We have the potential to do what they did as well. Nothing holds us back except ourselves!

When we embrace material poverty, we find an organic sufficiency and an incredible-- a colossal-- fortune in inner potential and possibility. A similar thing can happen with people. When we stop fixating on certain individuals, suddenly, all individuals are beautiful (not “pretty” beautiful, but beautiful in their rugged, basic quality), and contact with all people becomes interesting; even getting yelled at by a drunk in the street becomes interesting, like being in a film.

For we are fundamentally alone. We are born and will die alone. We feel joy and pain alone. When we feel “lonesome” we might call up a friend. We get together and have a pleasant time, laughing and drinking tea. And then our friend leaves and, strangely, we feel empty, lonely again. We wish we could be joined to our friend, joined at the hip like Siamese twins, or maybe just at an arm for better mobility—but then we realize how grotesque this image is. It would be a nightmare trying to move together, to climb stairs, to shower and to put on clothes, joined to someone like this.

We have to accept that we are alone, to accept that that no matter how much we “love” someone, we would never want to be glued to them. That their fundamental liberty, and their unpredictability (we don’t know when they will come and go) are part of their fundamental beauty. Solitude can have a sweet quality to it; and in any case Solitude is absolutely necessary for any creative work to take place, for meditation, for getting closer to God. Solitude offers us a true opportunity to renew ourselves, but not if we spend the entire time fidgeting anxiously and craving company. When we accept we are alone, when we stand up on our own, we gain a certain reassuring authority, a stability and strength that others find attractive. Ironically, it is when we’ve decided to fully flourish alone, that others start approaching us with curiosity, because they are intrigued, sensing that we have somehow connected ourselves to a primordial source.

As for impermanence. Everything is in flux. We want to try to freeze the moment, relive it, but it goes as soon as it comes. We cannot definitively understand anything, because all is constantly changing. Every person or thing is part of a net, part of a process. But we can come to see our existence, all the people and objects and places we come across, as being part of a vibrant narrative, like an action film or a detective mystery.

Finally, emptiness. This is my way of saying that things have no meaning in and of themselves—Buddhism has another use for the word emptiness, so I should probably choose another “unoccupied” word, but for now… You would never pick an apple off a tree and ask, “What does this apple mean? What is the meaning of this apple?” You would simply eat the apple, or throw it, or put it in a basket, or feed it into a juicer. It has no inherent “meaning”. Of course, we could “lend” a temporary meaning to an apple by using it as the prop in a narrative. The apple might come to symbolize nourishment, or original sin, or illustrate biological reproduction, or serve as a decorative object, it could be the apple of discord, the apple of one’s eye. We could stick little labels onto the apple, but underneath the sticky paper, remains that same apple, with no inherent meaning.

Similarly, life itself has no meaning. We could manufacture one with our language and imagination, but it would be, to some extent, arbitrary. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to construct meaning, but it does mean that we should give up the illusion that there could be a definitive meaning. It would be misguided to say, for example, “once I figure out what life means, I can really start living it.” Instead of trying to create meaning or understanding or an ideal solution, it would be better to dance with matter, and in so doing, create paintings, songs, stories, healing, whatever—and to dance with people and so create friendships.

Dancing is a wonderful metaphor. People will dance for hours, moving this way and that, leaping up, spinning around, gyrating this, shaking that. What are they doing exactly? What is the meaning? What are they trying to explain? Actually, there is no meaning, it is simply exhilarating. They are doing it for the love of it, exploring different gestures, different rhythms. This is what we can do—dance with matter. Only when we fully embrace the bankruptcy of conceptual thought, the ultimate meaninglessness and emptiness of the world, can we begin to create with a fresh eye, a fresh mind.

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November 17th, 2009

03:15 pm - meditation, the Red Book
Meditation involves paying attention to attention; being aware of awareness; sensing sensation.

It does not involve, however, thinking about thinking, which would more properly be called philosophy or cognitive science.

Philosophy and cognitive science are important pursuits in their own right, but not to be confused with meditation.

I've always thought of my philosophizing as a kind of obsession, a desire to project categories upon the chaos which surrounds me, and in doing so, obtain some semblance of security and familiarity. In philosophical mode I toy around with concepts; I create new ones, refine them, winnow them down, see how they relate to what I experience.

In meditative mode, I suspend all concepts, and apprehend the world in a more direct way-- surfing on naked energies. As a most obvious entry into this other way of being, I suspend the use of words-- this is why Zen arts like archery or the tea ceremony are conducted in silence.

* * * * *

I bought Carl Jung's The Red Book not necessarily intending to read the text.

The Village Voice Bookstore called me saying "Your order has arrived... you'll probably want to come with a wheelbarrow to pick it up."

I ended up going with a small suitcase with wheels. And was glad I did!

Anyway, it's not the content of the text that is important. Rather, The Red Book offers a record of a psychoanalytic modality, the one that worked for Jung.

I wouldn't expect to get transformative insights just by reading transcripts of sessions of somebody else's psychoanalysis. The only way to get that insight would be to undergo psychoanalysis myself.

That said, after much reflection, I don't intend to undergo traditional psychoanalysis myself. Not for the time being at least. It's going to be one of those roads not taken, mostly because of the huge financial outlay it would require.

Jung encouraged everyone to "Create your own Red Book..." I take this literally: get out the pens and inks and create your own illuminated manuscript, your own sacred object. That would be a better modality for me.

It's interesting to note that Jung's individuation process including building a stone tower with his hands, creating stone sculptures, drawing mandalas, and painting and writing the myths of the Red Book. Traditional psychoanalysis ("Talk therapy") alone could not get him where he needed to go.

* * * * *

* * * * *

So many of my LiveJournal friends have left the site.... I am thinking of shifting my blog to another host as well. Anyone have any advice for me who has made a similar move?

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