Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Round-Up #31

Our feature presentation reminds you to cultivate your garden.


Aphorisms and Shorts

 While a Matrix metaphor might work when describing the masses, it is better to think of the elites in the U.S. as lotus eaters.  They are too doped up on greed to make any moves.  Alas, they've also locked the doors to the cockpit and are the only ones who can steer.

Possible rule to blunt consumerism: after you have secured food, shelter, heating/cooling, only buy things that you will do at least three hours of work with.

"History is an art, like the other sciences" Veronica Wedgood.

"Liberty is not the fruit of order alone; it is the fruit of mutual concessions between order and disorder." Don Colacho.  I despair of this ever being widely (enough) understood.

Rank and file Republican voters think everything is a conspiracy, and then vote in such a way as to conspiracies happen.  (Democrats now do it too, but with different conspiracies).

In the age of the printing press,  anonymity was a way to avoid the hectoring of the outside world and achieve authenticity.  In the internet age, anonymity is a way to join in the hectoring and with it the pan-societal effort to make sure no can be authentic anywhere.

Why has all conservatism become a project in personal vanity?  It's the logic of profit that surrounds our culture.  It's impossible for nearly anyone to imagine investing in something that might cost them more than they receive.  Thus the conservatives feel their best return on investment is to set back and proclaim.

Traditionalism in America has nothing to do with tradition.

Related.  "Speech is sharing -- a cooperative art.  You're not sharing, merely egoizing."  Ursula Le Guin.  From The Dispossessed.

The real curse of living in interesting times is watching people try to win iteration after iteration of a negative sum game.

Links and Research

I likee.

Always looking for the visually stunning.

Here's a sub-Reddit that aggregates interesting articles better than I do.  I think I am going to stop doing that soon.

Speaking of Reddit, here is a good thread of Weird Collapse thought, one not destined for the kind of aggregation mentioned just above.  

Cal Newport on the dying art of book reading.

I am working on another spiral through Western History for deeper understanding and amusement.  I started at 1455 and am reading each year in Wikipedia.  This will explain why my tid-bits might cluster together by year for a while.  I have no time-frame for how long this project will take.  I also will follow my own inclinations in reading whatever I want

The 1518 Dancing Plague -- maybe mushrooms, maybe mass hysteria.

I read this  short book on Martin Luther.  And it made me think of the nature of the Reformation as a revolution. From the text:

He [Martin Luther] was a revolutionary, but a conservative one.  
. . .
So often a new movement suffers from overenthusiasm. The Reformation was no exception in this respect. Zealots took the usual shortcut from bondage to freedom by way of turmoil instead of restrained orderly procedure. 
In parts of Germany the old ways were thrown off hastily. Organs, paintings, and statues were thrown from the churches, vestments were discarded, bread and wine were both administered to the laity, priests married, nuns took husbands, monastic vows were renounced, various forms of the mass were discontinued, priests and worshipers who persisted in the traditional forms were attacked.

It is interesting to contrast this with the French Revolution, which I recently learned more about in a book by J. F. Bosher.

Looking for a really basic investment strategy?  You could do worse than this.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Gambler's Edge

Nack Ballard, in all probability the most dominate backgammon player of all time, once in an interview described the time of his life he was first able to support himself through gaming and mentioned the following man:
There was a wonderful German fellow with an unquenchable spirit named Klaus who smoked a constantly pivoting pipe and would sometimes drop a hundred points to me in his lunch hour; that went a long way.
I used to have a hard time understanding what could motivate someone to play someone better than them for significant amounts of money, and often do so no plan to get any better.

Now I realize that people like Klaus are trying to feel alive for those moments.  They are trying to experience what Pirsig refers to Dynamic Quality, as well as the "cutting edge of reality."  I think I part company with Prisig on the semi-theological capitalization, and on the use of “the” in “the cutting edge of reality.”  I think we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that this Quality (last time I’m capitalizing) has multiple edges.  I am not sold on their being one, and only one, thing [1]; rather, I limit myself to the claim that there are spaces beyond our ability to use language.  We know more than we can say.  Also, that is where we feel alive, in a precognitive bliss of play and possibility.

Back to our gambler, the one who is simply donating money to a superior player.  He has a deficiency of feeling alive during the day, and so he wants to do something about it.  He has a socially conditioned pattern that says money has value, so playing for money adds a context for results to have meaning.  The number of positions on a backgammon board is vast, so he can enjoy variety.  Also, he has internalized the rules of the game so he can move the pieces with some fluidity, a feeling that is only heightened because he isn’t slowing himself down with hard calculations or worrying about what he doesn’t know about the game. (In a way, he is trading money for not having to make the vastness of possible moves into a trouble spot). The tactile feeling of the pieces, and the sounds of them clicking on the board, along with the sounds made by the roll of the dice is pleasant.  And it is great to have people around.

Instead of "the cutting edge of reality," I often prefer the term "the cutting edge of creation."  But Klaus the gambler isn't creating, is he?  You can make an argument for our gambler being on the edge of creation, as long as you realize he is not one who is creating.  It can be a joy to watch someone showing mastery of a difficult game.  And our gambler can be seen as paying for a front-row seat [2].

It is interesting how many similarities there are between the gambler’s experience and when I go to a coffeehouses to write.  I get a tactile experience, and even sometimes the sound of my work.  I get to see people in a comforting way.  I am also on the edge of creation/ Dynamic Quality/ whatever you want to call it, because it is a gQtimptan.  The main difference being, of course, that  I am not playing for money stakes.  I have enough to load into my mind to push the event to a high level of gqtimpTAn, about the highest Quality my life can be.  I do not judge the backgammon player who "wasted" his money, or at least I do not judge him as much as I used to.  He just seems like someone trying to get something more out of life, something that are current systems are not built around providing.  There is something noble about losing graciously, repeatedly.  I admire this man, with some distance . . .  I love bad decisions.  I could watch them all day.


[1] I am not convinced by Pirsig's reasoning here in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
What Phaedrus has been talking about as Quality, Socrates appears to have described as the soul, self-moving, the source of all things.  There is no contradiction.  There never really can be between the core terms of monistic philosophies.  The One in India has got to be the same as the One in Greece.  If it's not, you've got two (386). 
 Interestingly enough, earlier in the book, there is another quote calling this into question.
. . . I don't know whether Phaedrus' claim that Quality is the Tao is true.  I don't know of any way of testing it for truth, since all he did was simply compare his understanding of one mystic entity with another.  He certainly thought they were the same, but he may not have completely understood what Quality was.  Or, more likely, he way not have understood the Tao.  (256). 
I feel like it might be an egregious spoiler to explain what happened to Phaedrus that might explain the change.  As is usual, it is best to go the source and read it for yourself.  But who has he time? 

[2]  This will be a long aside about tennis. . .

Damn, it was a joy to watch Roger Federer play. He forced his opponents to scramble across the court, grunting and straining while it often seemed like he barely moved.  He took the fewest steps possible, never appearing to hit  all that hard.  I am glad that my grandparents were fans of tennis, so I got to see this type of greatness, a  beauty of wei wu wei, or action through non-action.  Wei wu wei is probably easier to understand as actions that are so efficient they barely show up to normal, untrained human perception.  That was how Roger Federer played tennis.  I’d be remiss to not point out the counter example of Rafa Nadal.  He looked like a wild man on the court, with dust flying everywhere and maximum power on virtually every play.  The fact that still style worked best on clay courts, especially early in his career, added to the scene of dirt and destruction.  He even expended energy between sets, with a whole series of nervous tics before nearly every point, power just leaking out of his muscly frame.  It certainly wasn’t wei wu wei, but to tell the truth, even if inconvenient to my project of endorsing daoist aesthetics, it was stunning to watch as well.  First, there was a certain transitive property: Federer had beauty through mastery of a game, and Nadal could master Federer, ergo. . . Secondly, I must confess a certain lifelong pleasure in what others call "winning ugly."  I’m not sure other people would agree that Nadal won ugly; after all, tennis is an individual sport and he was personally charismatic, but when you think about his style of play, it had a lot in common with what is called “winning ugly” in the context of team sports: a focus on playing defense so well that you eventually grind down your opponent's flow, allowing you, eventually, to get the scores you need from their mistakes.  Wear down the body, and the flow will fall.  Also, it is an appreciation of austere beauty, in that a defensive game can give you a clear focus that removes so much possible clutter.

But in the final analysis, having Nadal and Federer together in the same era made for a perfect yin yang.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Where the Author Introduces a Deliberately Odd Term

Many of the best works on daoism don't even mention dao.  This makes perfect sense.  After all, the daodeing, though it is a book that uses the word dao still begins with the warning
Dao called Dao is not the eternal Dao
Names that can be named are not eternal names.
One book that is long on daoism, but short on using the word is The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander. After the opening pages of the book, which read as mysticism [1], Alexander proceeds in pages 29 to 40 to prove the need for the mystical language by giving a demonstration of the inadequacy of language to describe what makes spaces wonderful to be in and around.  To begin with, he tries to use the dichotomy of alive/lifeless:
Things which are living may be lifeless; nonliving things may be alive.  A man who is walking and talking can be alive; or he can be lifeless.  Beethoven's last quartets are alive; so are the waves at the ocean shore; so is a candle flame; a tiger may be more alive, because more in tune with its own inner forces, than a man (pg 29).
But alive is just a metaphor, and that leaves the word too imprecise.
The metaphor makes us believe that we have found a word to grasp the quality without a name.  But we can only use the word to name the quality, when we already understand the quality (pg 30).
So, he tries the word "whole," but then finds that whole implies enclosure.  The word is more cramped than the quality (Quality?)

So, he tries "comfortable."  But you can become so comfortable that you become lifeless, too sheltered.

So, he tries "free." But finds that could be "too theatrical: a pose, a form, a manner" (pg 34).  So-called "free style" art is often not whole, and certainly rarely comfortable.

So . . . "a word which helps restore the balance is the word exact" (pg 34).  That's an odd turn for mysticism, no? Well, so be it.  Alexander uses the example of trying to add a table to a landscape so that blackbirds would made us of it. To make it work, you need to make it exact in ways that work for the birds.  If you keep observing and adjusting, you'll probably get there.

Of course "exact" is loaded down with too much linguistic baggage as well -- too mechanical, cold, cookie-cutter.

So. . . egoless?  But we're not trying to efface the creator. The creator has forces that need to be balanced harmoniously as well.

So . . . eternal?  No.
It hints at a religious quality.  The hint is accurate.  And yet . . . It is not mysterious.  It is above all ordinary.  What makes it eternal is its ordinariness.  The word "eternal" cannot capture that (pg 39).
As a person who had made a study of daoism/quietism for some time before reading these passages --  which, I had read after A Pattern Language -- and thought I had a good grasp on the subject, I was greatly surprised and then moved by this argument that the dao is unnameble because it is more precise than any word we can use [2]. I felt my mind put up resistance to the idea, but quickly realized it was the truth [3].


Our words are what traps us.  But since we are still trapped using words, ie there is no outer text, what are we to do?  We still must use words, but provide the feedback when someone tries to use words as a replacement for reality more precise than the word used.  This bears repeating:
Dao called Dao is not the eternal Dao
Names that can be named are not eternal names. 
I think there is a lot to be gained from using a word outside of one's language.  It gives a connotation of the exotic which can help you from too quickly settling upon one meaning and then making the map-replaces-territory mistake.

It is like yoga instructors using the word namaste at the end of a session, rather than "farewell."  Even if you use that old timey English word, and put quite a bit of spiritual lilt into your voice, it just is not the same.  With that said, this use of namaste shows how quickly a word can be encapsulated in bullshit.

The word dao/tao, as well as the Chinese symbols, really just means way, or path.  They are everyday words, and their spiritual use exist both is so-called daoism as well as Confucianism [4].  This allows for some great confusion as these two schools say very different things about the nature of hierarchy, ritual, and the like [5].

Instead of a word from another language, I propose a deliberately odd term, however, to try to keep the conceptual space in free play:


Which comes from the acronym of a (others would say "the" or "The"; I still content a) Good Quality That Is More Precise Than any Name.

Also, to keep the play going, keep shifting around which letters are capitalized

GqTIMptan, gqtimPTan

. . . and so on. The idea is to always leave it something weird.

Perhaps this will be a worthy contribution to a cluster of ideas I cherish so well.


[1] For example
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness.  This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named. pg ix.
The dao meets architecture and city planning.

[2] See Sarah Perry for a discussion of Alexander's sense of objectivism. One, two, three

[3] My first understanding of dao all had to do with pace. I noticed the beauty in those who take their time.  I saw it in my grandparents, and I saw it the unfolding of nature over a season.  I now realize that one takes ones time to make sure their is precision where it matters.  A system needs slack.

[4] See Slingerland's Trying Not to Try for a great discussion of this.  The whole book is the discussion.

[5] As an example of this confusion:
It is melancholy, and slightly disturbing, to realize that these passive, mystical doctrines, expressed with such beauty and vigor, helped set in motion a system of despotism that lasted almost unchanged for 2,000 years.
To attribute this all to daoism with no mention of Confucianism and its fundamentally conservative project is a mistake.