A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Curiosity’ Category

Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.

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I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.

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Lastly:

Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,

d

Of this we can be uncertain.

In Curiosity, Life, Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

“House” member, kvnpete, put a question to me that, I think, everyone might appreciate. The question, a good one, a big one, warrants a larger canvas than just a “comment.”

Here’s what kvnpete asked (I took the liberty to link a few references mentioned, should one wish to pursue further):

“You mention things like the Geodetic Effect and I am wondering if you ever read anything by Roger Penrose? Besides being in the same class as a Stephen Hawking, his most recent book, The Road to Reality, is a physics book that I think that is supposed to be really worth a look, more philosophical than pure science. Penrose always holds some interesting views on the inflationary universe and the human consciousness that may sometimes be unpopular and unproven but there maybe is something there. I haven’t seen The Road to Reality myself; I understand it is more of a project than anything else, but one worth undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics except that is two words and not one and I’m not suggesting Penrose is writer that compares to the authors you often mention; but that is apples and oranges. Also quantum mechanics just doesn’t seem to be the most practical topic and maybe more of a religion in the way that it is only discussed by others in the congregation who read the relevant books; but do you think it holds anything that is more than just math equations and physics, and if it does, what is it’s place in all of this? Thanks”

Thanks for the question, kvnpete. Damn, we are a smart and good-looking bunch, aren’t we? The reviewer at The Guardian wrote of Penrose’s bookFile:The_Road_to_Reality (2006), The Road to Reality: “…if you are at all interested in different sizes of infinity, or different dimensions, or quantum particles, the thermodynamic legacy of the Big Bang, then here is chapter and verse, at least until matters are sorted out by a grand unified theory once and for all. You can skate over the equations and let the more comprehensible assertions, or the more stimulating questions, lodge themselves in your mind and assume the character of poetry.” So let’s set Penrose (a Platonist, Penrose has written, “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.”) and his soon-to-be-procured book aside and get to the meat of the matter, the only mouthful I can attempt to chew–and that is kvnpete’s question, “quantum mechanics…what is its place in all of this?” Great question!

By “all of this” I suspect you’re referring to the big stuff, the universe and our place in it, the meaning and implication of that, and so on. Here’s the little bit I know and what I deem to be the import of that information.

Einstein originally built a fudge-factor into his Theory of Special Relativity. His calculations indicated that the universe was expanding–this was pre-”Big Bang” theory–and he couldn’t accept the fact that the universe was not constant and secure. Later it was demonstrated that, indeed, his initial calculations were correct, that the universe was on the move. In the timeline of things, this was the beginning of the new physics (quantum) and the diminution of the old physics. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton before him, Einstein thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. From the philosophical side of things, Bertrand Russell summed it up: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But change was afoot. Feeling the ground shifting under his feet, Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

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The Uncertainty Principal

Personally, the question settled on me heaviest when I happened upon Heisenberg‘s Uncertainty Principal. I was not alone in this and committed, like so many other lay people, all sorts of intellectual sins as a result of my limited understanding. In summary, Heisenberg (1901-1976) discovered that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a sub-atomic particle. The big hook here was the notion that observation changes the outcome. You can observe the speed of the particle, but that changes its location. You can observe the location of a particle, but that changes its speed. This is of course, sub-atomic stuff we’re talking about, but to the casual, philosophically-inclined, thinker, this was a very big deal. Imagine: the fashion in which we interact with the world, changes the reality of it. At least that was the simplistic conclusion I came to–I said I commented sins. (Oh, forgive me father, for I have made unwarranted philosophical leaps.)

To continue our journey down the history of an idea: The general sense of things is/was that the old guard was losing the battle to explain the universe, and by implication, our place in it. The new quantum guard was painting a picture of chaos and change at every physical level. Philosophically the foundation was being laid that the quest to find meaning in the universe was, at best, absurd.

“…to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world…” ~ Kierkegaard

File:Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, patron saint of the absurd.

As I’ve said before, I subscribe to Camus‘s notion that one is responsible for creating meaning in existence–it will not come from outside, not from the universe, not from a super-natural being, or a cosmic vibe. (The only cosmic vibe is the repeated echo of the Big Bang. Back in the days of analogue TV, you could tune your television to that fuzzy spot between channels and listen to the resounding pulsing static of the Big Bang.) This position, the place of the absurd, was not conceivable before the modern physicists showed up. It was hinted at–God is Dead, said Nietzsche–but did not carry the weight of physical reality until the math was done.

There is much to be made of all this, and many have gone there to do so–are still going there, even as our understanding of the physical world continues to change.

I find great freedom and energy as a result of this (post-modern) position. (A recent Times Magazine article included this sentence: “[the] atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world.”) Freethinkers everywhere have a legitimate claim, even a responsibility, to make of existence what they can. It will not come from a church, a god, a cosmos, “an other.” We must pray at the altar of the absurd and practice the religion of chaos. We are alone, but for the effort to be otherwise. And it is the effort that counts.

And that, dear kvnpete, is what I make of quantum physic’s place in all of this.” Thanks for the outstanding question.

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So sorry to have carried on like this. If you stayed the course, thank you. If you bailed, I understand. Perhaps next time we can simply talk about dogs and walks in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

D

“Oh, the vision thing.”

In Creativity, Curiosity, Life, The Examined Life on January 3, 2013 at 6:00 am
Report on the annual slate cleaning.

Report on the annual slate cleaning.

I used to joke that my only New Year’s resolution was to not make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a tired little ditty now and I don’t bother with it. (I’m sure my old logic professor would smile then discourse on the inherent irony in all things tautological.) No resolutions for this hard-bitten curmudgeon. But that does not stop me from exercising my annual habit of purging my space of annoying and distracting artifacts of the previous twelve month’s existence. I like the slate clean. Indeed, I should clean it every day but repeatedly fail to muster the necessary discipline for that. There is probably a correlation to the amount of Maker’s consumed at day’s end and the lack of late post meridiem discipline, alas the occasional surrender of the cerebral cortex to dissipation–but that is altogether another conversation.

Yesterday I wiped the white board clean. Almost.

I installed it a couple of years ago after a young friend, a documentary film maker, convinced me of the benefits of “brain-storming.” I confess that I never fully grasped this brain-storming business. My natural inclination is to seek cover during a storm and my experience with the board proved no different. Who wants a storm, really? Give me a nice sunrise. In other words, the board didn’t get much use after the initial enthusiasm wore off.

So, as I said, I wiped it clean yesterday.

–But for one scribbling. Here is what I kept:

  • Stay true to your vision.
  • Nurture your talent.
  • Do what you love.
  • Wake Up!

I don’t know where I stumbled across these four–for lack of a better word–rules. But they are important enough to keep them on the board. (For perhaps another year?)

I think I like them because they, upon reflection, are surprisingly oblique, and I am naturally drawn to things that are difficult, a weird and annoying personal quirk I figured out in my youth. Though pithy and resounding of feel-good truth, these are not easy admonitions. Here’s the thing:

“Always look to the language,” said Christopher Hitchens (appropriately penned in his wonderful little book, a rif on Rilke, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)). The language that jumps out at me: vision, talent, love–and of course Wake up!–these are words that challenge. (“The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” observed Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

Consider: What is my vision? How do I best exercise my talent, assuming I’ve figured out what that is? What do I love? And for god’s sake, how does one wake up? To honestly wrestle with these notions is no small matter. Sure, there are easy and pat answers, but the easy path most frequently lacks insight. (Case in point: a former US president quipping, “Oh, the vision thing.”) I’d rather be dismissive then settle–but I can’t dismiss this stuff. I can’t because even at 57 years of experience I can’t answer the questions with the depth of understanding I believe warranted.

So, as you are likely used to if you’re a long-time reader here at …the house… I leave you without answers, only more questions. (“I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates.) I hope they are new questions: what is your vision/what is your talent/what do you love/how do we wake up? It’s a new year and if nothing else, a set of new questions gives us something to work on.

Best,

D

Ray Bradbury, Nietzsche, a New Year, and How to Live. Whew!

In Books, Creativity, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 7:22 am

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Did you read the Sunday Time’s magazine last Sunday? It is the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. As you might imagine, for a guy who’s spent a lot of time working on the project How Best To Live, this issue is always and annually most welcome. I don’t think one has to lead a life of pronounced accomplishment to live the best life, but for a lot of people, people far more motivated than I am, accomplishment is often the gauge of their existence.

There is one life in particular I want to share with you. Ray Bradbury (b. 1920). Here is the piece in full:

Shortly before his 90th birthday, when asked which moment of his life he’d return to were time travel possible, Ray Bradbury told his interviewer: “Every. Single. Moment. Every single moment of my life has been incredible. I’ve loved it, I’ve savored it, it’s been beautiful–because I’ve remained a boy” Bradbury was a rare and necessary antidote to the tortured-genius myth–that toxic cultural narrative that requires great creators to suffer lest their work have no depth, no gravitas, no legacy.

Bradbury left high school with plans of going to college, but no money. So he set out to educate himself by going to the library three days a week, a regimen he continued for 10 years, never romanticizing poverty or the so-called writer’s life. Instead, he celebrated the joy of writing itself. In 1951, living in Los Angels with his wife and two infant daughters, he got a bag of dimes and rented a typewriter in the U.C.L.A. basement for 10 cents an hour. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451″ for $9.80.

His secret? “You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past–you just explode.”

Two and half years ago I posted a note about the biography I’d read of Nietzsche by Julian Young. In that post I quoted the opening paragraph. I’m posting it again–the paragraph–because I think it the perfect end piece to the Bradbury life we’re considering.

Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s fee, shout “Da capo!–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!–to “the whole play and performance.” In perfect health one would “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return” of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.

So the process continues, this business of how best to live. Why should a new year be any different?

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What is going on here? A couple of posts since shuttering …the house… Are we back together, the first breakup never lasting? I don’t know quite honestly. I have missed sharing my thoughts and observations, that is true. And something is nagging me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it brought me back here.

I’m not going to analyze it. Going forward (with life, the big picture, that is) I wish to make fewer plans, establish fewer goals, make fewer commitments. In summary, I just want to live as best I am able in this moment. I’ll never be the boy Bradbury claimed to be. Nor can I say with Nietzsche that I would do it all again without editing. But those are lessons and I value them–lessons I wish to better incorporate.

I do hope our paths cross again, you, dear reader, and me. I so enjoy your company.

Happy New Year.

In closing…

In Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Memoir, Writing on October 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

Behold the dangerous beauty of obsession!

My life can be easily reduced to phases, measured by degrees of obsession. These phases link to interests, which are sparked by curiosity. I do not know how to be interested in something without being obsessed by it. Obsession and it’s odd opposite twin, Discipline, have been my brightest marching outposts. My capacity to sustain pace is, however, inelastic and, pushed to the limit, fails me. Then, just like that, everything stops. Let me give you an example.

Several years ago I became interested in the classical guitar. I took lessons, went to workshops, sat in on master classes at a world-reknown conservatory. I studied music theory, took classes in composition. I played in recitals, practiced for hours. A guitarist grows long nails on the right hand to pluck the nylon strings of the guitar. One day, out of the blue, I cut my nails and put away the guitar and never played it again.

This pattern has repeated itself for years. Some passions–for that is what they are–last years, some only months. Some are still born and buried the next day.

That, friends, is the position in which I now find myself. I sense the nascent hankering to move on and redirect my laser-view of life. The blog, this house I live in, is on the wan. I trust you understand. You must know me by now, you know I can’t help myself. I figured I owed you a head’s up.

But before I go, please allow me to do something I have tried to not do. I don’t like to give advice. As a writer, I try to practice the old dictum, show, don’t tell. But let me tell you something now that we are going to be seeing less of one another. (“Parting ways” is such a strong and definite phrase–I just can’t go there.)

Let me tell you that life is the adventure–or lack thereof–that you make of it, as trite as that sounds. My flitting from obsession to obsession might appear random and ultimately meaningless; but the reality is that I encourage life to tickle my curiosity. I have trained myself to conform to the nature of my curiosity. There is a great natural harmony to be experienced in such a practice. If I am curious about the classical guitar, I will throw myself into it. I become a musician. If I am curious about the literature of David Foster Wallace, I throw myself into his work. I become a critic. Want to know what sunrise looks like in Nepal? Me too, let’s go, let’s become adventurers! Reinvent yourself over and over. Pursue the contrary, avoid the ruts. Stay interested–and interesting. Nurture curiosity. Allow yourself the freedom to embrace wholly, as well as relinquish freely.

Let us consider how to live, to paraphrase Thoreau. The terms of my consideration are different from yours. But consider we must! There is no greater challenge, no richer reward, than to carve from the marble of life a vision specific to one’s nature. A life well-lived is the greatest art. Become an artist.

Unrelated (?) Miscellany.

In Curiosity, Death, Life, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on August 6, 2012 at 6:00 am

The elegance of binary.

Biology is binary. Yes or no. In-between does not exist. We are here or we’re not; alive or dead; breathing or suffocating. I am reminded of a post I put up a year or so ago (and too lazy to go find), whereby I said that every decision can be made by answering the question: Do I stay or do I go? Do I stay in this job, or do I quit? Do I remain with this person or do I leave? Should I complete this book, or shelve it? Do I keep writing the blog, or do I walk away?

I see the world, now more so than ever, as binary. Why would this be? Is it a function of getting older–I am alive now, but someday I will not be–or is it the increasing evidence of science? (Free will as a function of biology, yes or no.) I exist, rapt in data stream of zeros and ones.

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Ten questions as prompt to starting a new life.

  1. What did you love as a kid?
  2. How many “things” do you really need?
  3. You’ve got ten minutes to pack a bag for surprise extended trip. What do you take? Why?
  4. Are you a beach, mountain, desert, woods or city person?
  5. Would you dye your hair green? (Or, put another way: How strong is your self-confidence?)
  6. Name three famous people you admired growing up.
  7. Your house is on fire. What do you pick up as you rush out?
  8. Rate your sense of adventure on a scale of one to ten, one being beach with chair, ten being Everest.
  9. Name three famous people you admire now.
  10. Do you have enough money? (The answer is yes, no matter.)

* * *

For anyone with a modicum of introspection, there is no escape from the specter of eternity. I am reminded of this when reading a unattributed quote: “I write so I won’t be dead before I die.”

* * *

I’m not sure where any of this came from. I can only attribute it to the pressure of a deadline. When you wake up wondering what you will write about for the next day, your hours are spent in a scramble of desperation.