Sunday, May 1, 2016

Living on 24 hours a day

Though the contexts may vary from those cloaked in spiritualism with suggestions of meals with a Buddah to those that guide you to a state of mindfulness, the essence of self-help books seems to be very much the same. 
And yet you are in search of happiness, are you not? Have you discovered it?
The chances are that you have not. The chances are that you have already come to believe that happiness is unattainable. But men have attained it. And they have attained it by realising that happiness does not spring from the procuring of physical or mental pleasure, but from the development of reason and the adjustment of conduct to principles.

That's what struck me when I read the really short book, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett with a copyright date of 1910.  The author consciously references other book titles that say "How to live on X amount a day" to emphasize the point that time is money and even more precious and more evenly distributed than currency. I took a copy out from the library, but you can read the entire text online for free from the Gutenberg project here.
The book's central theme is maximizing one's time to achieve happiness, though not the happiness one pictures in a extroverted sense (see The happiness is rather the result of achieving harmony between one's principles and one's actions. This point is revealed in chapter 8: 
We do not reflect. I mean that we do not reflect upon genuinely important things; upon the problem of our happiness, upon the main direction in which we are going, upon what life is giving to us, upon the share which reason has (or has not) in determining our actions, and upon the relation between our principles and our conduct.

The book is a 20th Century product, so it's no longer deferring to the Church for guidance on how to live. Rather it is exhorting one live according to principles and reason. In contrast to Disney's advice to follow your heart, you are advised to use your head. But in doing so you also gain an appreciation for science, art, music, literature (if those things interest you) or even your own daily life. What would be packaged today as "mindfulness," he calls reflecting on genuinely important things. 

Chapter 5 is entitled "Tennis and the Immortal Soul." The conjunction here is not intended to suggest a deep connection as one finds in  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. On the contrary, the suggestion is that tennis and other leisure pursuits are what people regard as important while they neglect the type of "cultivation of mind" that the author believes is essential to feed the soul. That becomes clear from the end of the chapter:
 But I do suggest that you might, for a commencement, employ an hour and a half every other evening in some important and consecutive cultivation of the mind. You will still be left with three evenings for friends, bridge, tennis, domestic scenes, odd reading, pipes, gardening, pottering, and prize competitions. You will still have the terrific wealth of forty-five hours between 2 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Monday. If you persevere you will soon want to pass four evenings, and perhaps five, in some sustained endeavour to be genuinely alive. And you will fall out of that habit of muttering to yourself at 11.15 p.m., "Time to be thinking about going to bed." The man who begins to go to bed forty minutes before he opens his bedroom door is bored; that is to say, he is not living.But remember, at the start, those ninety nocturnal minutes thrice a week must be the most important minutes in the ten thousand and eighty. They must be sacred, quite as sacred as a dramatic rehearsal or a tennis match. Instead of saying, "Sorry I can't see you, old chap, but I have to run off to the tennis club," you must say, "...but I have to work." This, I admit, is intensely difficult to say. Tennis is so much more urgent than the immortal soul. 

I find it fascinating that the core of such advice is so consistent for over a century, despite the massive changes the world has seen over two World Wars and the rapid advance of technology. That is not to mitigate the differences in contexts. They are quite striking. Clearly, the people the book addresses are not feeling the same stress people do today when they rise early to commute to work and return from it. Work begins for them at 10 AM and ends at 6 PM. The commute is assumed to take at most half an hour, though there also is an assumption of a sixth half day of work ending at 2 PM.

For people living in England in 2010, leisure time is not frittered away in front of a screen (not even a movie screen, never mind a smartphone, computer, or television). Even a radio is out of the picture, as music is only to be found in live events. Still they manage to fritter away time but just by doing this and that until thinking of going to bed for a good 45 minutes before doing so. In that way, one lets time slip through one's fingers instead of getting one's real 24 hours' worth. In fact, the author doesn't expect one to use all 24 hours but just to make better use of the time spent outside work by exercising one's mind for 90 minute sessions and actively reflecting at other times when is apt to adopt a "semi-comatose" state.

Another difference most of today's self-help books and this one is that very little attention is paid to exercise of the body. Bennet does mention that 10 minutes a day of that can make a difference. However, he is not arguing that one needs to put in the time for the physical regimen but for exercising the mind and getting it into shape. Likely people walked a lot more just to get around as we're talking about a time before cars were owned by the average person.

Chapter 7 is entitled "Controlling the Mind," and like many modern books on meditation, the goal is to achieve concentration and focus, though Bennet skips the thinking about nothing step and jumps right into focusing on your end goal:
"What? I am to cultivate my mind in the street, on the platform, in the train, and in the crowded street again?" Precisely. Nothing simpler! No tools required! Not even a book. Nevertheless, the affair is not easy. When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what, to begin with). You will not have gone ten yards before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is larking round the corner with another subject. Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the station you will have brought it back about forty times. Do not despair. Continue. Keep it up. You will succeed. You cannot by any chance fail if you persevere.
When you achieve a certain mindset, you can appreciate that "nothing in life is humdrum" as stated by the title of Chapter 10. In that chapter Bennet demonstrates how an appreciation of cause and effect can make one more philosophical and less shocked when things don't go one's way with the example of accepting one's stolen watch as the result of knowable causes. But it's not just a matter of learning to appreciate human nature but all of nature:"The whole field of daily habit and scene is waiting to satisfy that curiosity which means life, and the satisfaction of which means an understanding heart." That is something that can even be appreciated by someone who does not care for art, music, or literature. But for those who do care for the latter, Bennet devotes an entire chapter.

"Serious Reading" is the title of Chapter 11. By using that term, Bennet's intention is to exclude novels because they do not require the mental exertion that should be applied to the 90 minute program. Good novels are all too easy to read, he says, and bad ones just aren't worth reading at all. It's remarkable that what was considered merely popular literature then are are now seriously studied in college courses. Wouldn't any reader today be proud for working her way through something like Anna Karenina if she were not required to read it for a class? Bennet has loftier reading goals, as he indicated by his own choice of reading, including the works of Marcus Aurelius (he doesn't leave home without him in book form), Epictetus, Pascal, La Bruyere, and Emerson. No women featured here, though he does reserve special praise for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and recommends that everyone read Aurora Leigh.

Aside from praising poetry over prose, Bennet offers two concrete suggestions for the one who embarks on improving reading:

The first is to define the direction and scope of your efforts. Choose a limited period, or a limited subject, or a single author. Say to yourself: "I will know something about the French Revolution, or the rise of railways, or the works of John Keats." And during a given period, to be settled beforehand, confine yourself to your choice. There is much pleasure to be derived from being a specialist.

The second suggestion is to think as well as to read. I know people who read and read, and for all the good it does them they might just as well cut bread-and-butter. They take to reading as better men take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how many books they have read in a year. Unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow. Never mind. Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find yourself in a lovely town on a hill.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Tech overload in the bathroom

I just got a promotional email for "bathroom upgrades" from Bed Bath and Beyond that makes me
wonder if we've really gone completely mad in embedding sensors in everything. In truth, I enjoy shopping in the store. It's fun to see various kitchen gadgets and doodads for decor. Most of the stuff no one really needs, though it can be put to some use, but I do question some of these things.

These items each have their own promotional videos to try to really convince you that your life will only be complete with an illuminated toilet bowl, automatic soap dispenser, smart mirror, or connected scale.

The first item is called Illumibowl, that a night light for your toilet -- not your bathroom, mind you, but just the toilet that gives you a choice of nine different colors. Hurrah! I must say, it really makes it so much more fun to go to the bathroom at night if your toilet bowl is illuminated in UFO-eerie green or spooky blood-red. And what bit of utility are you supposed to gain from this $19.99 gadget? Well, "no more blinding lights, wandering in the dark or late night misses or messes." I am assured that my "bathroom will never be the same." But maybe I do want it to be the same. And maybe I don't think it's so very hard to flip on a light when I want it. And maybe, just maybe, if I really have a problem with full light, I could just put one of those traditional night lights in. But then I wouldn't have that UFO glow effect.

The second item is simplehuman® Rechargeable Bath Sensor Pump in Brushed Nickel. For a mere $49.99, you can eliminate the hassle of washing your hands. Well, actually, it won't wash your hands for you, but it will eliminate the need to go through the trouble of actually pumping the soap out, dispensing it in a remarkable .2 seconds! Yes, that will save you a whole 2 seconds, giving you more time to scrub up!

This is the kind of thing that has some utility built into public restrooms as people are concerned about touching what others have touched, but it seems just a bit OCD to me to have to keep one in your own home.

I was most disappointed in the third item, the simplehuman® 5X Sensor Vanity Mirror. For the price of $199, I thought it should at least talk to you like the mirror in Snow White. But no, all it really does is light up as your face approaches because it's just too darn hard to hit a switch for an illuminated mirror.

This mirror only has a single light setting to simulate natural light. Back when I was a kid there was one that even offered a choice of different lights, to duplicate four different conditions, daylight, office, evening, home. It was called the Clairol True to Light mirror, and it still has some fans who now may purchase the Jerdon Tri-Fold Two-Sided Lighted Makeup Mirror with 5x Magnification for $34.99 on Amazon.

Of course, your high-tech bathroom would not be complete without a Wi-Fi connected scale. This email included 2, one of which is supposed sync with the data in your Fitbit to help you track your progress. That eliminate the difficulty of either remembering a number of writing it down. Who can be bothered with that? You have to conserve all your energy and your time for your fitness regimen. That extra second can be used for another jumping jack!  Put tech on your side, and you will, no doubt, achieve your goals!

I'm not an absolute Luddite. I think technology can be very helpful in promoting health and enabling an unobtrusive form of monitoring. But that doesn't mean we need to adopt everything that cuts out really easy tasks like switching on a light or pumping out soap just because we have the tech that makes it possible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why the focus on Wisconsin for Climate Change?

map source
This is the question that bothered me when I first learned of the Wisconsin Glacier that is considered responsible for the natural formation of New York, including the the large boulders that remain in Central Park. On a NYC Park tour at Alley Pondour guide (whose last name is actually Park -- an aptronym if ever there was one) explained that there was a time when the entire area was covered by ice a mile thick.

I found it somewhat confusing that the ice over New York should be named for Wisconsin and discoverd the answer in the online Britannica : "Wisconsin Glacial Stage, most recent major division of Pleistocene time and deposits in North America (from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). It was named for rock deposits studied in the state of Wisconsin."

Mystery solved, at least as far as that goes. The entry does point out the correlation of the end of that period with the extinction of certain species, including the mammoth and sabre-toothed cats. But it's says it's not necessarily accurate to say that their demise was simply the result of overhunting because a lot of factors go into climate and even more into species survival.

There's more information about Wisconsin geology here That's the source of the map pictured above.

Obviously, the climate policy censors have not yet gotten around to that site yet, as it says, "Changes in climate have followed a regular pattern for the past 700,000 years. Each cycle lasted about 100,000 years and consisted of a long period of generally cooling climate during which glaciers grew, followed by shorter periods of conditions similar to or warmer than those of today."

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Seeing the whole picture

Perhaps you've seen some of these pictures in the past. Generally, at first glance you'll be sure of what you're seeing. But if you take a close second look, you may not be so sure.  Is it a duck or a rabbit? The answer is that it is drawn so that it could represent either, depending on your perspective.
Here's another one that is old enough to have been rendered into an 1888 German postcard. The old/young woman illusion is sometimes titled "My wife and my mother-in-law." 

I find if I look at these types of pictures for too long, I start to feel a bit dizzy, as my perspective keeps slanting to see it first one way and then the other. Perhaps that's what Calvin's cubism experience is meant to represent -- that feeling of dizziness -- one can experience when shifting perspectives.

Calving opts to drop the dizziness in favor of dogmatic certainty. In that way he reminds me of the figure of Dilke in the matter in which he is immortalized in John Keats' famous "Negative Capability" letter: "I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

In truth, most people go through life with a Dilke-like attitude that averse to being at all uncertain. There is great satisfaction in finding certainty due to the mental relief it brings. However, there are many things that are really not all fixed as either old or young, duck or rabbit. Forcing only one designation on them actually distorts the truth of the image by telling only half the story. But that is exactly what many people do in their adoption of dogmas: at a particular point in their lives, they chose the equivalent of "Team Duck," and will forever vehemently oppose "Team Rabbit" as evil incarnate for pushing a false agenda. Any reasoned approach to point out that the picture has elements of both will be ignored or refuted by repetition of the assertion, "This is a duck; everyone who has any sense agrees it's a duck. You have to be really stupid or possibly insane to claim it can be a rabbit."

That's my view of political affiliations and self-affixed labels; they lock people into only one way of seeing things. While insisting they have the answers that settles everything, they have not even begun to comprehend the questions. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Context for common content

This is a reworking of a post I wrote this past August 6th, Andy Warhol's birthday, and the same week of my visit to the Whitney Museum in its new location. I had been to the old one a few times,
including once for a special Hopper exhibit.

The MoMA houses some of his most iconic works, which includes the Campbell's soup cans. But what Whitney has is his Green Coca-Cola Bottles pictured here. The museum's description begins as follows:
Green Coca-Cola Bottles was created the year that Andy Warhol developed his pioneering silkscreen technique, which allowed him to produce his paintings through a mechanical process that paralleled his use of mass culture subjects. Here, the image of a single Coca-Cola bottle is repeated in regular rows, seven high by sixteen across, above the company’s logo.
. Instead of stressing the monotony inherent in repetition and mass production of consumer goods, Warhol stressed that there was a great equalizing effect in offering everyone the same Coke, no matter how rich or poor they may be: “'A Coke is a Coke,' he explained, 'and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.'”

In the card next to the work in the  museum the description actually was even more positive, as it also included this statement, "All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good." I looked up the quote and found that it's part of a full paragraph from  The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again). Here it is:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
Objectively, we know that the  sugar-loaded, caramel-colored drink is not a really good choice for nutrition or dental health. But there is something reassuring in the sameness and the fact that the exact same quality of the product is within everyone's reach. Coke puts consumers all on equal footing.

This becomes even more fascinating in light of  Horace M. Kallen's "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot" published in the Nation on February 25, 1915. Contrary to the general spirit of the age that promoted the assimilation of immigrants into a more uniform American culture, he defended the differentiation of ethnic identities what only came into vogue many decades later. Nevertheless, he maintained that a certain amount of assimilation is inevitable.

A certain uniformity occurs with no conscious agenda through fashion or what he calls, the "process of leveling up through imitation" that is promoted through "'standardization' of externals." This was the age in which people came to be more alike in terms of consumption:  "In these days of ready-made clothes, factory-made goods, refrigerating plants, it is almost impossible that the mass of the inhabitants of this country should wear other than uniform clothes, use other than uniform furniture or utensils, or eat anything but the same kind of food."  Certainly, Coke fits into that category.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What the Brontosaurus skull can teach us about science

I enjoy visiting science museums as much as I enjoy art museums. Just as you don't have to be an artist to appreciate art, you don't have to be a scientist to appreciate science and how discoveries are made and new theories formed. The latter is one of the things that tends to strike me about exhibits that admit to having set things up incorrectly based on mistaken assumptions about, say how the dinosaur was likely to have stood,  on two feet or all four (as was the case for a star dinosaur at the Museum of Natural History in New York).

In the case of the Peabody Museums's Brontosaurus, the exhibitors actually lost their head. That is, to say, they now realize that the skull they put on it doesn't belong to the species at all. Unfortunately, they do not have the right skull to complete the skeleton, so the one on view is admittedly wrong, as you can see from the explanations posted here:

But, wait, there's more!  What you thought of a Brontosaurus might, in fact, be an Apatosaurus. With respect to the identification, what had been proposed back in the 1870s proved to be more correct than what was said in 1903, as was proven by a study as late as 2015!

Fascinating, isn't it, that  even something based on truly ancient and fixed evidence -- the fossils of long-extinct dinosaurs -- can be subject to changing theories that have to be revised.  Scientific advancement requires some measure of humility, the ability to say, "we were wrong" and accept the better explanation rather than force the contrary evidence to fit into the pre-established paradigm.

This what I believe Richard Feynman meant in his often quoted, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts." Science can only advance if people do not accept previously established theories as axiomatic but continue to test and experiment. The job of  the true scientist is not to make the data fit the theory that corresponds to a particular agenda but to make the theory fit the data.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What do you expect?

Today I heard someone say what crystallized for me what exactly irks me about the popularization of the meme pictured at right. 

The initials after the quote stand for Erin Hanson, a twenty-year-old Australian who penned these lines while still in her teens:

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask "What if I fall?"
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?

On that site, the picture used to illustrate the poem shows a drawing of a girl sitting with her legs dangling over a cliff and a pair of colorful wings on her back. 

The theme is a twist on "nothing ventured, nothing gained." You have to assume some risk to gain the potential benefit of advancing and changing. That's quite true, but I'm still bothered by the way this is set up because we all know what will happen to anyone who tries to jump off a cliff with just a pair of costume wings. 

A life devoid of hope and dreams is pretty gloomy. However, a life based on false hope and irrational expectations is pathetic and sad. So what do you do? You keep your expectations within the realm of possibility and keep the risks within check.

Perhaps that's my own parental bias, but I see it this way. You don't do your children any favors by encouraging them to try things that are not only beyond them but would cause them injury. In other words, you don't tell your kid to go ahead and climb a mountain until s/he has completed training for such a feat. 

What you can do is tell a kid to try to ride a bicycle even if there is a risk of falling and injury (I broke my ankle twice by falling off a bike) because it is a rational expectation that the kid will pick up on the balancing skills and the risk of a broken limb along the way is a manageable one. 

Aspiration is a good thing, but an expectation that one will achieve actual flight is dangeorusly delusional. Before anyone says I'm being too literal, I assure you, I'm very adept at abstract thinking. My point is  not just about defying the laws of physics but about the larger idea of setting up expectations.  

What's attainable, and what's worth the risk? That's something that everyone has to answer for him/herself. Would I venture into woods near dark? No. But I would venture on trails with plenty of hours of sunlight and adequate water. 

From my perspective, venturing out, say to go for an interview, meet friends, or see a new place is worth the risk of hitting traffic or getting somewhat lost, so long as you have a way to get back on track without getting into seriously dangerous areas.  But if I wanted to fly, I'd take a plane. 

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