Monthly Archives: July 2015


Here’s an ‘around the water cooler’ post for assiduous readers today on time, that familiar stranger in our lives. How did the topic come about? Every so often-which is, at it turns out, once every couple of months-I pick up some donuts and head out to say hi to the boys at my old work, Bayside Mechanical out in Sidney. For one it’s fun to catch up on how everyone is doing. And then it’s a good excuse to jump on the bike. Pedal bike that is. If only they could make cars as dependable as bicycles. A bike can sit unused for years: just pump up the tyres (notice saucy British spelling!) and away you go. Built in climate control: if it’s hot slow down. If it’s cool, push the pedal to the metal! Beautiful machines. They make life efficient. No need for gym membership! But what was I talking about…ah…time.

‘What Do You Do With All Your Time?’

One of the things my colleagues say is: ‘Man, what do you do with yourself? I wouldn’t know what to do with all that extra time! I’d go nuts’. Well, that’s not quite what they say, but something along those lines. For those readers just hopping aboard, I used to work at Bayside Mechanical full time up till November last year. The routine was: out the door to catch the bus at 6:30AM and get in the door at 6PM. All-in with the commute (and I think that’s the proper way to calculate how long work takes) that’s almost twelve hours or half the day. So the way my colleagues are seeing it, well, I have a whole lot more time on my hands!

Accounting for All That Extra Time

Let’s see how things have changed. Before I used to go to bed around 11PM and get up 5:30AM. Now it’s more like bed at midnight and get up at 8AM. So I’m sleeping 1-1/2 hours more. What else? Grocery shopping used to be once a week. A big shop on Saturday at Fairway Markets. Now I go between Market on Yates, Fairway, and Fisgard Market in Chinatown for best pricing. This probably knocks 3 bucks off the weekly grocery spend of ~$55. It wouldn’t have been worth it to do this last year, that’s for sure. Milk and specials at the Market, meat and most staples at Fairway, and fruits and veggies in Chinatown. So shopping consumes another, say, 15 minutes a day on average (shopping is not every day but since everything is being calculated by day, keeps the numbers apples to apples). Then the library. Walking to the library and back again, coming home for lunch, going back… That’s gotta be another hour a day right there. Then blogging. That’s the amazing one. Blogging is actually very time intensive. This blog right here will probably take 2 hours altogether (I work on it on and off). Actually, maybe even more. It’s getting faster with practise though. Remember Seneca’s aphorisms? Witty things like ‘upon the author crimes come back?’. Well, these didn’t just ‘come’ to Seneca. In his educational treatises, he advises students of oratory to come up with one or two sententia each day. Blogging requires practise too. And hey, blogging is good for writers. Its an exercise to get your thoughts out there right here right now as opposed to labourious writing in the ‘academic’ style that is constantly written and rewritten. So, what are we at? Almost 5 hours. 7 hours of ‘regained’ time are still unaccounted for. That must be the time I’m writing and reading. Oh, and snacking. Good thing there’s time to work out because I snack a lot more. Also cooking more at home and eating out a lot less. But really, that should be time neutral: the time saved by going out is burnt by well, going and and coming back.

The Nature of Time

The strange thing is, it doesn’t seem like there’s all that extra time. There must be something psychological in how time flows. Actually, there is. And as project managers, we know this: give a worker a task, and he will fit his day to it. Time and productivity are like a gas in a container. If the container is small, the gas will fit but be at a higher pressure. If the container is large, the gas will also fit but be more ‘relaxed’. Operating at high pressures for too long, and something’s going to blow up. Operate at low pressures for too long, and the container might even implode out of boredom. The trick is to find a happy medium.

So, for those of you fearing that when you retire, there’s going to be too much time, well, don’t worry. That’s not going to be a problem. The one thing that is hard to understand is that once time becomes your own time why its considered to be time wasted or time off the grid. Why shouldn’t time be worth more when it is your own time?

There’s a really good book that I read years ago that shaped my thinking on work and time. It’s called Your Money or Your Life. It’s by Robin and Dominguez. It’s one of the few books that I’ve read multiple times. Do you know what actually happens when you get paid? Well, you’re actually trading in your life for money, which you spend on other things. By consuming, you’re actually consuming your own life. Ever talk to the old guys? You hear they say lots of things, but have you ever heard an old guy say, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office?’. Betcha you haven’t. And if you have, I’d sure like to know why!

My Efficiency Rating

So, it would seem in hindsight that when time is my own time, I’m less efficient than before. Or that I’m underutilized. Grocery shopping in multiple places. Sleeping more. Walking more. But that’s an illusion. Sometimes you hear people saying we only use 10% of our brains. Well, that’s an illusion too, because if someone lopped out the 90% that is not being used, I’m sure the brain would not work at all! So, I’m at, taking a guestimate, 75% efficiency compared to before. But it’s in my downtime that the ideas appear: during walks, taking a break, hey, even in my dreams sometimes! And I think this is true not only of me, but also of a lot of artists and, dare I say it, scientists as well? For the Curies to have experimented enough to discover radiation or for Mendel to have come up with genetics, they must have had a lot of spare time. But really, its not ‘spare’ time! It’s ‘spare’ only in the sense of ‘we’re only using 10% of our brain’!

So, although from a purely quantitative perspective, my production is down, it is the way it has to be. A certain amount of leisure is necessary in the production of art, or *gasp* even science. But though the production seems down, my days are still too short. As Seneca said in another aphorism: no day is too long for the busy. It.s already 7:42PM and I still must finish Plato’s Phaedo and the Ion tonight and start on something else. Maybe finish Schiller’s The Robbers which has eluded me for a month now.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and there is much to do when one is Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Finish Line Psychology

Almost There!

Writing a theory of drama’s been a goal since the late teenage years. I’m forty now. It’s been like a long distance run. The last major intellectual hurdle was cleared this afternoon. So, if we’re going to compare writing with long distance running, it’s the moment where the Boston Marathon runner gets over Heartbreak Hill. While Heartbreak Hill isn’t the steepest hill out there, it’s location, location, location. It’s after the 20th mile right before the finish. Runners are usually pretty tuckered out by then. Not that I’ve experienced it. The longest I usually go for is 10k (which is roughly 6 miles) and I’m pretty tuckered out by that! But writing the book has sure been like a marathon. Looking back, the preface was written way back in 2010. So, by clearing the last major intellectual hurdle, it should all be downhill from here!

Finish Line Psychology

So there’s some odds and ends to tie up. The last hurdle was differentiating between ex-ante and ex-post arts. Ex-ante and ex-post arts? What are those? Well, those are my terms for backwards and forwards looking arts. Comedy and tragedy are ex-ante: they look forwards into the unknown. History and philosophy are ex-post arts because they look backwards. History was easy to classify as ex-post because there’s no history of the future. Philosophy was more of a challenge. I thought for a few weeks I would have to go through the philosophical corpus (which is tough slogging) until a solution presented itself. Thankfully, an easy solution came to mind: philosophy must be ex-post because it is based on interpreting experiences which have already happened.

All there’s left to do now is to compare and contrast tragedy and comedy. Unless there’s some hidden hobgoblin I can’t see, this should be straightforward. A page should do it. Maybe less than a page. And then after that, final words on the consolation that the various genres offer. Another page for that. AND THEN I AM DONE LIKE DINNER!

But the interesting thing about finish line psychology is that I seem to be slowing down as I approach the finish line! Where’s the finishing kick runners are famous for? It’s like a part of me has been living with writing this thing for so long that I don’t want to finish! Could it be? Of course, even when I finish and type out ‘THE END’, it’s not really done. Then there’s the editing. I’ll go back, reread the whole thing (it’s been so long I can hardly remember the first few chapters), and delete about half of it. A lot of the time when I’m writing it feels like it’s something awesome but then looking back on it, it isn’t so great. I want the book to be short rather than long. Crisply argued rather than densely argued. I value my readers’ time. In fact its a privilege to have someone read your work.

So even when I’m done it’s not done. In fact the whole process of seeing this thing come to print after the draft is ready might be as hard as producing the draft in the first place! That’s what the self-publishing ‘how-to’ books have been telling me. So why is this finish line psychology slowing me down?

Maybe it has been the routine of writing. Once I finish it means that I’ll be reading the manuscript and beginning the rewriting process. Maybe I’m afraid of doing this. Maybe there’s something in there that I won’t like. That must be it. But good thing I read the War of Art. The book is all about situations such as this. It says that the fear is the ‘Resistance’ talking. The ‘Resistance’ is the built in negativity that prevents us from doing stupid things but also prevents us from going on to do great things. The important thing now is to get over this finish line psychology. Time for the final kick. Faster and faster towards the finish line. There’s one thing worse than writing a bad book: not finishing. But what am I saying? It’s going to be great!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have been Doing Melpomene’s Work now for a long time.

Going Beyond Dualistic Thinking

Many thanks to diligent reader LH for asking the question in response to yesterday’s post: is it possible to go beyond dualistic thinking? The post yesterday discussed ageism in Plato’s Apology: is Socrates condemned in part because of a conflict between the old and the young? Of course, the focus on ageism is not to discount the other factors, such as the conflict between the aristocrats and the democrats. Oops, that’s another example of dualistic thinking! It’s sure hard to get away from it.

Dualistic Thinking in Philosophy

Since it’s been steady stream of philosophy books of late, what better place to start the discussion on dualistic thinking! So, what do we have in philosophy? For starters, there’s materialism (primacy of matter) versus idealism (mind over matter). Then there’s empiricism (trust sense) versus rationalism (trust logic). But that’s not all. There’s nominalism (particular examples) or realism (existence of universals) and naturalism (natural laws) and theism (God exists). Lots of examples of dualistic thinking!

Monistic and Triadic Structures

Now the question is: does it have to be like this? For example, instead of dualistic dichotomies, there could be monistic or triadic structures. Let’s start with triadic structures. Plays sometimes have three acts. There’s the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. And of course the Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Then there’s music: the triad of the root, third, and fifth form a cornerstone of harmony. What else? There’s the troika: the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. Oh ya, and triangles too.

Then there can be monistic structures. A line or a strand is monistic. One can make patterns out of it. Celtic or Muslim arts come to mind. They weave the strand into patterns and shapes sensible to human understanding. Instead of a chord, a note is a monistic structure. One could play scales. What else? I’m having a hard time thinking of other examples.

Part of the problem with monistic structures is that there’s nothing there to oppose them. So it’s hard to define them. We don’t think about it all the time, but a lot of the time we define what something is by coming to terms with what it is not. Take a superhero. He is defined as much by his powers as by the types of villains he fights against. The negative part is half of understanding. So that’s the drawback of monistic structures: the lack of the negative element.

What about triadic structures? Well, the common denominator looking at the above list is that they’re complicated. The Trinity is just complicated a priori. Anyone been following the Greek crisis?-just look at how complicated any negotiations are with the Troika! And then consider geometry. The complexity going from a point (monistic structure) to a line (dualistic structure) isn’t doubled. It’s more like a hundredfold more complex. The same with going from a line to a triangle (triadic structure). The geometry isn’t doubly complex, it’s infinitely more complex than the line. So that’s the drawback of triadic structures: they’re very complicated.

As a matter of fact, you can have triadic structures in philosophy. Take Hegel. His logic is triadic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And his system is also threefold: logic, philosophy of nature, and philosophy of spirit. But can anyone properly understand Hegel? Just look at the multiplicity of competing interpretations out there of each of his ideas! Just exactly how does one get to the Absolute Spirit through synthesis and why is it possible? Through a faculty of the soul? How does he know about this?!? Could you imagine having Hegel as your professor lecturing at 8AM Monday morning on Absolute Spirit? So, like I was saying, triadic structures are like chords. The amount of sounds harmonic structures (chords) can make on, say a piano, aren’t doubly or trebly more than is possible playing individual notes but is infinitely more complex (remember there are also the harmonics of notes blending together when played simultaneously).

So, with dualistic thinking, you get the drawback of an us against them mentality. With monistic thinking, there’s ‘us’ but who’s ‘us’? This is the superhero without the villain. Finally, with triadic approaches, the complexity becomes too great for most mortal minds to handle. It’s not very accessible. Opportunity cost. Always opportunity cost.

Another Approach

One thing that’s been of interest of late is the question of monism and dualism as it pertains to consciousness. Dualism would say that there is the body and the mind and that the mind (or consciousness) is something separate from the body. Monism would say that consciousness arises from the physical properties of matter. So, in a way, the philosophy of the mind or the philosophy of consciousness is dualistic in nature. And since the monist and dualist views have been duking it out since Plato’s time (with Plato expounding dualism and Lucretius monism-there is a specialized type of atom making up the Lucretian soul), it’s likely that the solution will not come from within philosophy itself.

This is where science comes in. This is the approach that will allow us to go beyond dualistic thinking. If the scientists can come up with a hypothesis of consciousness and devise a proof of concept (through artificial intelligence, perhaps), then the debate between monism and dualism (not to be confused with dualistic!) can be solved once and for all. And until science steps up to the plate, the debate between monism and dualism will never be solved by reason alone. Either consciousness can arise from matter or it can’t. Now, given that the brain is the most complicated machine in the whole universe, it’s going to be a tough go for science to find out it’s secrets. But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to one day in the future. Monism can be proved if a physical basis can be found for consciousness. And dualism can be proved if there was a way to separate consciousness from the body. Like they do in the movies when the lawnmower man uploads himself into the internet. A self aware machine could also prove dualism.

My take is that dualistic structures have drawbacks but something in the deep structure of how we think (from fight or flight instincts, etc.,) makes them appealing. Triadic structures are too labourious for all but the most hardy intellects. And monistic structures lack the negative portion of a definition. Dualistic structures can be transcended, but not by thought alone, which, for all the things it does has limits. If philosophy with its love of dualistic structures is going to be transcended, it’s going to be by the slow trial and error process of science. Philosophy is that area which science has not figured out yet. As science progresses, it does so at the expense of philosophy, whose domain is becoming ever more encroached upon.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and there’s no dualistic roadblocks in my single minded pursuit of Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Bonus dualistic comic! Materialism vs idealism–

Dualistic Comic Marx vs Descartes

Dualistic Comic Marx vs Descartes

Apology – Plato

The writing of Paying Melpomene’s Price has taken me to the final showdown between tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy. They each have a different worldview. That’s why they’re different genres. Or at least that’s what I’m going to argue. The sections outlining the differences between tragedy, comedy, and history are in the process. I’ve been holding off on the philosophy section though. Philosophy intimidates me a little more than the other genres. Because it’s about thinking, it always involves more thinking. So, to get me into the swing of things, I’m rereading Plato.

Rouse’s Translation of Plato

On the bookcase is an edition of Plato’s Complete Works published by Hackett, Burnyeat’s Theaetetus (which will be next on the reading list: epistemology suddenly has become interesting), a Penguin edition of The Republic, an Adam and Bryn Mawr commentary on the same, a Skemp monograph on the state of Plato studies in 1976 (when I was two years old), a Stokes commentary on The Apology, and The Great Dialogues of Plato translated by W. H. D. Rouse. The Hackett edition is hardcover and bigger than my hardcover bible. The Rouse edition is paperback and small. The Rouse edition it is. There’s a certain pleasure in reading a paperback sitting in the comfortable rocking chair listening to music. The big hardcover wouldn’t be the same, although I am sure Hackett makes a fine edition.

Here’s the cover illustration. If you guessed it is from the 50s, you guessed right!

Great Dialogus of Plato Cover

Great Dialogus of Plato Cover

I love these 50s covers. But unfortunately, the gold bar after ‘Symposium’ on the cover looks like it covers something up: maybe there was one more dialogue that was in the original scheme of things but got deleted when it went to press?

Here’s the back blurb:

‘Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato.’ – Emerson

The Republic and other great dialogues by the immortal Greek philosopher Plato, masterpieces which form part of the most important single body of writing in the history of philosophy, are here translated in a modern version. Beauty, Love, Immortality, Knowledge and Justice are discussed in these dialogues which magnificently express the glowing spirit of Platonic philosophy.

This paperbound volume, containing more dialogues than any other inexpensive edition, was translated by W. H. D Rouse, one of the world’s most outstanding classical scholars and the translator of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad.

I wonder how Rouse (one of the greatest scholars in the world) felt when he read that Mentor Books chose to use his laborious translation in their budget and inexpensive series! Powerful quote from Emerson. If I recall, like Plato, he was an idealist as well…

Reading Plato

Well, reading Plato is just fun. I’ve read The Apology in translation as part of a first year philosophy class and I’ve also read it in Greek in a fourth year language class. Plato grows on you as well. Before, I thought that his hero Socrates was annoying as hell. But after reading Kant and Hegel, it’s very nice returning to Plato. Socrates is always walking around. He’s talking to people. It’s much more welcoming than something like The Critique of Pure Reason. Returning to Plato is like listening to Led Zeppelin. Growing up I never much appreciated Zeppelin. But now, Zeppelin has grown on me to the point where I can say I rather enjoy them.

Ageism in The Apology

In the recent survey of historiography, it came to my attention that one could write speculative history based on conflicting dichotomies. In 1 and 2 Kings, history is based on good and bad kings, kings who ‘do evil’ or ‘do right’ in the sight of the Lord. And in Marx, the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeois is what gives shape to history. What other conflicting dichotomies are there? How about between young and old? Someone could certainly make the argument that recent history (1960s) is shaped by the conflict between the young (change) and old (tradition).

This was on my mind as I was reading Plato, and, when I got to The Apology, it seemed like there may have been something of a prejudice against age going on in his trial. Here’s a summation of what happens in The Apology for those of you who haven’t read it in a long time (I would imagine that is most people!):

The trial of Socrates took place in 399 B.C. when he was seventy years old. Meletos, Anytos and Lycon (Anytos is one of the characters in the Meno) accused him of impiety and of corrupting the young men.

The court which tried Socrates was composed of 501 citizens, and was a subdivision of the larger court of six thousand citizens, chosen by lot, which dealt with such cases. There were no judge and jury in the modern sense; the decision of the court was that of the majority vote.

When the court had pronounced Socrates guilty, the law required him to propose his own penalty, as an alternative to the death penalty proposed by Meletos; no penalty was prescribed by law for his offence. The court then had to choose, by a second vote, between the proposals of the accuser and the accused.

From the mention on page 439 it appears that Plato himself was present at the trial.

With respect to age, Socrates emphasizes in the opening statement how old he is and how speaking in the court is an entirely new thing to an old dog. As well, the charge is that he corrupts the youth. So there is this old-young dichotomy at the get go.

Then there are the repeated jabs at the vanity of the punishment: at 70, he is about to die anyways. 70 must have been back then an exceedingly long time to have lived. In addition, there are the references to how he would have more supporters, if they were not already dead, such as Theodotus and Chairephon. It seems Socrates is a bit like Gandalf at the end of the Lord of the Rings: his age is past. The new ‘age of man’ dawns…

Socrates himself categorizes his listeners as young or old, though there is no real advantage to his defence in doing so: ‘if anyone desires to hear me speaking or doing my business, whether young or old, I have never grudged it to any’, he says.

Lastly, most telling is the age of his accusers. There were three. In his cross-examination, the age of one of them is made clear: ‘Oh, dear me, Meletos’, says Socrates, ‘I so old and you so you and yet you are so much wiser than I am!’.

So, it is my conjecture that there is a bit of ageism going on. Like class struggle, or the clash between good and evil, there is a bit of an ‘age struggle’ that works as an agent of history motivating things to happen. It could also be seen as the conflict between change and tradition, with the young representing change and the old as representing tradition. In some ages, tradition wins out. In others, change wins out.

I wonder if a historian has written a speculative theory of history with ageism as the motivating factor. Or would this just be a form of discrimination? What do you think?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work in my middle years between liberalism and conservatism.

The Quantum Moment – Crease & Goldhaber

The Quantum Moment: How Plank, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty

What a handful! Short title and a mouthful of a subtitle. It was actually the last word of the subtitle that caught my eye, the word ‘uncertainty’. One of the things I’m researching while writing the Paying Melpomene’s Price is the nature of the unexpected or unexpectation (that’s actually a word, spell check be damned!). Well, ‘uncertainty’ is close enough. Maybe the book will have some hidden insight that leads to a eureka moment…

That The Quantum Moment came out in 2014 was another selling feature: so many of the physics titles I’ve been reading are from the 80s. Various John Gribbin titles, Davies’ Cosmic Blueprint and others. What have the physicists discovered in the last 30 years? Maybe all those old books are outdated? By the way, though I said ‘selling feature’, like so many of the books I read, this is a loan from the might Greater Victoria Public Library, or GVPL to the initiates. Usually I’ll borrow secondary sources. Primary sources (which writers like to have around) I’ll usually buy used at Russell Books. They’re the go to used book place in Victoria. They might actually be one of the largest used places in BC, if not Canada: their main outlet on Fort street occupies two units on three floors. Then they have a satellite store a short walk away on View street. They’re not quite The Strand with their 18 miles of books, but hey, that’s in New York City (a fascinating adventure if you get the chance, take a NYC cab to get there for the full hair raising experience).

But for all the success of Russell Books (its good for readers and kudos to them), sometimes I wonder: it’s gotta be hard on the other local used book places. I mean, if you have books to sell or trade, you’d probably take them to Russell because it’s a one stop shop. If everyone’s selling their books to Russell Books, it’d be hard for other used places to stay open. I hear the owner of Renaissance Books is retiring. And Dark Horse Books on, what was it, Johnson street, is no longer there. But I digress…

Cover Illustration

Quantum Moment Cover

Quantum Moment Cover

The chair reminds me of Glenn Gould’s old piano seat. The picture frame has the peculiar quality of being transparent and removing the person (who’s holding it up) from the image. There’s a set of tire marks in parallel. Do you get it? I don’t. The thing about the quantum moment was that it taught us that the observer is part of the system: by observing we change things. The magic frame seems to take the human out of the picture. The boldness of the image is catchy, but confusing.

Back Blurb

Since this is a hardcover, the back blurb to The Quantum Moment is actually on the inside of the dust jacket:

The discovery of the quantum-the idea, born in the early 1900s in a remote corner of physics, that energy comes in finite packets instead of infinitely divisible quantities-planted a rich set of metaphors in the popular imagination.

Quantum imagery and language now bombard us like an endless stream of photons. Phrases such as multiverses, quantum leaps, alternate universes, reinvented continually in cartoons and movies, coffee mugs and T-shirts, and fiction and philosophy, reinterpreted by each new generation of artists and writers.

Is a ‘quantum leap’ big of small? How uncertain is the uncertainty principle? Is this barrage of quantum vocabulary pretentious and wacky, or a fundamental shift in the way we think?

All of the above, say Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scarf Goldhaber in this pathbreaking book. The authors-one a philosopher, the other a physicist-draw on their training and six years of co-teaching to dramatize the quantum’s rocky path from scientific theory to public understanding. Together, they and their students explored missteps and mistranslations, jokes and gibberish, of public discussion about the quantum. Their book explores the quantum’s manifestations in everything from art and sculpture to the prose of John Updike and David Foster Wallace. The authors reveal the quantum’s implications for knowledge, metaphor, intellectual exchange, and the contemporary world. Understanding and appreciating quantum language and imagery, and recognizing its misuse, is part of what it means to be an educated person today.

The result is a celebration of language at the interface of physics and culture, perfect for anyone drawn to the infinite variety of ideas.

I feel like the blurb should have included something about the ‘Newtonian moment’. To define the ‘Quantum Moment’ the authors spend a lot of time contrasting it to the mechanistic Newtonian world where models can be still used to demonstrate ideas.


The best part are the cartoons that occur periodically through the book:

Misuse of Quantum Terminology

Misuse of Quantum Terminology

Part of the book is devoted towards clarifying the misuse of the ideas of quantum physics in popular culture. Here’s another jawbreaker from Dilbert, one of my favourites (I used to work in an office):

Dilbert Uncertainty Principle

Dilbert Uncertainty Principle

Although it’s a misuse, it’s because it’s wrong that it’s funny. Diligent readers will recall that nothing gets me going like the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Here’s a good one:

2nd Law

2nd Law

One of the focal points of the book is defining the quantum moment against the Newtonian moment. This cartoon captures the differences between the two worldviews:

Quantum Versus Newtonian Worldview

Quantum Versus Newtonian Worldview

The Takeaway

So, has a lot changed in the last 30 years? My impression is that historians of physics will see the period from 1900-1930 as being more revolutionary than the period between, say, 1980-2010. Between 1900-1930 you had Einstein, Bohr, Poincare, Planck, Heisenberg, and Pauli at their primes. Who do we have today? Hawking the only one I can name off the top of my head. To be sure, today there is CERN and things like ‘hunting for the God particle’ (which they might just have found), but to me things sure seemed more exciting in the first decades of the 20th century. So, it appears as though most of the physics books in the upstairs bookshelves are still up to date. Well, relatively up to date.

Despite this, the last two chapters, Saving Physics and The Now Moment taught me something new. Quite a few of these quantum physics books written for lay readers emphasize the weirdness of it all. Take The Dancing Wu Li Masters with the psychedelic image of multiple legs with pantyhose all revolving around a central axis as the cover:

Dancing Wu Li Master Cover Art

Dancing Wu Li Master Cover Art

This book, lent to me by Mr. Durance, my indefatigable grade 7 teacher, equated quantum physics with psychedelia and eastern mysticism.

But is quantum physics that weird? In a way it says that, well, the observer is part of the observation. It’s like the hunter and the wolf: who’s the hunter and who’s the prey? In the final chapters, Crease and Goldhaber argue that there are things weird with Newtonian objectivity as well. Perhaps it’s because we’re so used to it that we don’t notice:

Quantum mechanics undermines a notion of objectivity based on nineteenth-century, Newtonian science-but only that notion. At the same tie that quantum mechanics was emerging in the twentieth century, so was a notion of objectivity that was suitable for describing quantum objects. The term ‘objectivity’ refers to an ideal of knowledge that is frequently characterized as a ‘view from nowhere’, one that an observer might somehow achieve when standing completely apart and disconnected from what was being observed. (emphasis added)

Quantum mechanics, for instance, has helped rid philosophy of the spectre of a Laplacean ideal of knowledge, and ‘intelligence sufficiently vast’ that it could see and describe things as if from no particular time and place, and rid philosophy as well of the vision of a unified science, of a too-narrow conception of phenomena, and of an impossible objectivity.

The Newtonian worldview posits that the scientist can stand and observe things from a godlike perspective outside time and space while the Quantum worldview posits that the observer is also part of the observation. Weird things happen during the observation (such as breaking down wave-particle duality), but in a way, the quantum view is a more human way to look at things. I like this thought.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and it’s been a pleasure to be Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Brownian Motion, Tragedy, Comedy, and History

The Discovery of Brownian Motion

In 1829, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown observed microscopic grains of pollen suspended in water. Instead of moving in straight lines or staying still, they moved about in an erratic and entirely unpredictable manner. They followed, as it were, a ‘drunkard’s path’:

Brownian Motion

Brownian Motion

To Brown, the pollen grains seemed invested with the primordial rudiments of life which gave imbued them with the capacity to meander about like drunkards following a random walk. Cool! Too bad though: he was wrong. But like so many things, even though his hypothesis was incorrect, the search for the correct explanation changed the way we look at the world. The correct explanation for Brownian motion is that the grains of pollen were being bombarded by myriads of water molecules moving at random. The molecules were too small to be resolved by the microscopes. Their presence could only be inferred by observing Brownian motion.

So, Brownian motion is the name given to the random motion of particles in gases or liquids. The particles follow a ‘random walk’ or a ‘drunkard’s path’ because they are round and elastic, bouncing off one another in proportion to the temperature of the system. Or so the kinetic theory of gases would argue. If this seems self-evident, it sure wasn’t in 1829. Molecules: what are those? Didn’t matter contain phlogiston, an element with the property of fire which enables combustion? And so on. It wasn’t until 1905 that someone figured out the true cause behind the disturbingly random movements in Brownian motion. It took Einstein to figure it out.

Levels of Uncertainty and Order in Brownian Motion

Now, what is most interesting about Brownian motion is that here is a system that is completely random, unpredictable, and lacking certainty on one level but exhibits form, predictability, and order on another level.

On a micro level, the random walk of a gas particle in a container is, well, completely random. That is to say, there is no force in the universe which is capable of predicting whither it will go. God doesn’t know. Ask Laplace’s demon and he would tell you many other things, but the random walk is beyond his intelligence.

All this uncertainty: very frustrating! What can be done? Well, nothing can be done. The uncertainty resolves itself! How? On a macro level, a container of gas exhibits form, predictability, and order. Gas in a container-that is to say millions of billions of particles all randomly walking-is governed by such things as Boyle’s Law (pressure inversely proportional to volume) and the transfer of kinetic energy (temperature) of the container to the outside world is also well regulated.

How it happens that on a micro level things are completely random (individual particles of gas randomly walking) and on a macro level things are completely determinate (billions of particle of gas have well defined characteristics including temperature, energy, pressure, etc.,) is beyond me. At some point, however, chaos gives way to order. Keep this in mind for now.

Tragedy, Comedy, and History

Ever thought about how randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected dominate comedy and tragedy. In comedy, the unlikely couple overcome cantankerous patriarchs, and social and economic barriers to become happily married. In tragedy, the unexpected also dominates: Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane hill every time. But now turn your attention to history. Patterns emerge. Some of the patterns are linear. Fukuyama thought that history aimed towards achieving democratic capitalist societies. Then history ends. Marx thought history strives towards the communist revolution. Patterns can be linear. Polybius believed in anacyclosis, the doctrine that constitutions move cyclically from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to ochlocracy and then back again to monarchy. The patterns in history are reflective of a reality that has form, order, and is predictable. If tragedy, comedy, and history all represent reality, is comedy and tragedy correct or is history correct? After all, the unexpected reigns in comedy and tragedy while the expected reigns in history.

Come back now to the behavior of gases on a micro and macro level. On a micro level, Brownian motion is the term used to describe the unexpected ways particles move around at random. On a macro level, patterns emerge that are predictable (e.g. as pressure increases volume decreases). Tragedy and comedy look at the world from a micro level. They usually dramatize the actions of a day or less (the unity of time). History looks at the world from a macro level. It records actions taken place over decades and centuries. In this way, the short term randomness of a day yields to long term order and patterns. So comedy and tragedy versus history is like looking at Brownian motion: on a small scale, disorder. On a large scale, order. Neither are right or wrong. They are looking at the same reality from a different perspective.

It always astounds me how many parallels there are between science and art. It may have something to do with how we look at the world. Whether we are artists or scientists, we look at the world with the same set of eyes and the same intellectual apparatus. So perhaps the parallels between science and art rests on humanity and the all-too-human way of understanding things.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by figuring out the secrets to tragic literary theory.

The Prologue in Comedy

Diligent readers will recall that comedy has been on the reading list of late. There’s the Old Comedy of Aristophanes (446-386 BC), the New Comedy of Menander (341-291), and the Roman comedies of Plautus (254-184) and Terence (186-159). Next up will probably be Moliere, Congreve, and Shakes. The purpose of reading comedy is to see how it handles the theme of the unexpected. Of course, reading comedy is also a delight unto itself! Just finished reading Terence’s The Eunuch where a young man disguises himself as a eunuch to go in the whorehouse. You can just imagine what happens! Of course, some of the things are politically incorrect to laugh at nowadays. Women, for example, are frequently ravished, and when they find out they are actually freeborn, they get married to their ravishers and everyone rejoices. But some jokes maintain their timelessness. For example when the head mistress complains that her incompetent champion needs a champion himself:

Thais: You must talk to him firmly.

Chremes: I will…

Thais: Prepare yourself for action [aside] Good heavens I’m lost. What a man to defend me! He needs a champion of his own!

The Prologue

One thing that sets apart the comedies of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence is the presence or absence of a prologue. Terence uses the prologue to give credit to his Greek predecessors and defend himself from critics. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to The Eunuch:

If there are people who try to please as many and hurt as few honest men as possible, the poet begs to announce himself one of their number. Furthermore, if someone has thought something too harsh has been said against him, he must realize that this was not an attack but an answer, for he launched the first assault. For all his competence as a translator, his poor style of writing has turned good Greek plays into bad Latin ones. He is also the man who has just given us The Spectre of Menander, and in his Treasure made the defendant state his claim to the money before the plaintiff puts his won case…

Plautus uses the prologue to set the scene and lay out the argument. Frequently a divinity addresses the audience. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Amphitryo delivered by Mercury:

The scene is laid in Thebes. That is Amphitryo’s house. He comes of an Argive family. His wife is Alumna, daughter of Electrus. At the moment, Amphitryo is commanding the Theban army; Thebes is at war with the Teleboians. Amphitryo went away leaving Alumna pregnant. Jupiter…well, you know, of course, how-what shall I say-broad minded he has always been in these affairs, what a wonderful lover he is, when he comes across something he fancies…

Menander uses the prologue in much the same way as Plautus. Here’s an example from Old Cantankerous delivered by Pan:

Imagine, please, that the scene is set in Attica, in fact at Phyle, and that the shrine I’m coming from is the one belonging to that village (Phylaeans are able to farm this stony ground). It’s a holy place, and a very famous one. This farm here on my right is where Knemon lives: he’s a real hermit of  man, who snarls at everyone and hates company…

Aristophanes does not use prologues. What is to happen develops as a matter of course from the action. Here’s the beginning to The Clouds:

Strepsiades: Yaaaahhuuuuu. Great Zeus Almighty, what an endless monster of a night it’s been! Won’t the daylight ever come? I could have sworn I heard the roosters crowing hours ago. And listen to those slaves. Still snoring away! By god, things around here were a long sight different in the good old days before this war! Drat this stinking war anyway! It’s ruined Athens. Why, you can’t even whip your own slaves any more or they’ll desert to the Spartans. Bah. [pointing to Pheidippides] And as for him, that precious playboy son of mine, he’s worse yet. Look at him, stretched out there sleeping like a log under five fat blankets, farting away. All right, if that’s the way you want it, boy, I’ll snuggle down and fart you back a burst or two. Damn! I’m so bitten up by all these blasted bedbuggering debts and bills and stables-fees, I can’t catch a wink.

So, the play will be about his son and debts. But this is known not by prologue, but by action and dialogue.

Which is Best?

Which style do you like best? No prologue (Aristophanes), prologue to hear dramatist venting (Terence), or prologues that give out the argument of the play (Menander and Plautus)? If you ask me, the best is Terence: with prologue but prologue is not about events in the play. It is best just because it’s fun seeing him dig up dirt on rivals. And acknowledging his debts and sources is always excellent as well. Second best is Aristophanes: no prologue. In both Terence and Aristophanes’ cases, the plot develops organically from the action. Drama is from the Greek verb dran ‘do, act’. The natural function of drama then is to do or act, not narrate, which is what a prologue does. If I had wanted narration, I would have read a novel, not seen a play. So, having said this, least best is the prologue in Menander and Plautus which tells the audience what will happen instead of acting out what will happen. It is least best because narration is foreign to the function of drama. Why would Menander and Plautus used the clumsy prologue than? Perhaps they were unsure of the sophistication of their audiences, the capacity of their audiences to follow the action. The prologue would have solved this. Aristophanes wrote in Athens for an Athenocentric audience: they likely shared a similar point of view so the danger of being misunderstood was low. Menander and Plautus likely wrote plays which would have been performed throughout the wide Hellenic world: more danger of misunderstanding. So that might be a reason why. Not that I forgive them for this indiscretion to the spirit of drama, though.

Other Examples of Art Doing Things Contrary to Its Nature

Lately there seem to be some movies fascinated by stills. So if prologues in drama is a drama wanting to be a novel, stills in movies is a sign of a movie wanting to be photography (a still instead of a moving image). One movie that had a lot of breathtaking stills was Snyder’s 300. Though breathtaking, the cinematic experience allows motion: motion is its natural element whereas the frozen frame is the natural element of photography. Why confuse the two?

A common feature of medieval art is the speech scroll or the banderole:

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Here is a visual representation of Psalm 14, ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’. The banderole quotes the psalm, non est Deus. But this is a painting, whose function is not to narrate speech. The painter could have depicted the man trampling the bible or doing some other act visually to indicate this. The purpose of painting is to capture the imagistic heart of a moment. The banderole, being speech, takes away from the image and is contrary to the nature of the visual representation.

The other day, I was watching Kurosawa’s The Idiot (his adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel) with MR and MA. One thing that got my attention was Kurosawa’s use of text to get the audience up to speed on the prehistory and argument of the movie. Again, I thought, ‘if it is a movie, why couldn’t this be done through the action proper?’.

In each for of art, there must be a telos: its proper function. When art observes its telos, it is in order. When art exceeds its telos, what is it-out of order, perhaps?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have been Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Amphitryo – Plautus

The goal this morning was to read 3 plays by the Roman comedian Plautus: AmphitryoThe Pot of Goldand A Three-Dollar Day. The first two I had before; the last was brand new. What a day! I got through the first play: Amphitryo. The other two will have to wait till later tonight or tomorrow. That’s ok though. I got in a good session painting my walls. I’ve been living here 8 years now and painting has been on the ‘to do’ list for the last year. Painted a hallway and half of the open loft area. Ah, the sweet smell of paint: a reminder of childhood, moving to a new house, the feel of ‘freedom’ in being able to choose the colour of the bedroom.

Of the ancient Greek and Roman comedians, Plautus is my favourite. Aristophanes’ themes are too fantastical. Plus he’s sort of vulgar for people with puritanical sensibilities. Too many references to bodily functions. And too many references to carrots and radishes. If Aristophanes is too fantastical, Menander is too formulaic. Maybe that’s why the ancients considered Menander to be second only to Homer: like Homer working in the oral tradition, the writing of Menander is also rather formulaic. Plautus is just right. It’s fantastical enough to generate suspense. But the characters are formulaic enough that it’s easy to follow (e.g. the clever slave, the spendthrift son, the kind hearted courtesan, and so on). No Being John Malkovich here thank goodness. An easy but entertaining read. Just my cup of tea after a day of physical labour.

Who’s Plautus?

Here’s the back blurb from the Penguin edition translated by Watling:

The plays of Plautus (c.254-184 B.C.) are the earliest complete works of Latin literature we possess. Plautus adapted for the amusement of Roman audiences the Greek New Comedy of the fourth century. His wit is clever and satirical and his entertaining portrayal of slaves firmly set the style for the ‘low’ characters of Elizabethan comedy, of Moliere, and many others.

Another reason why it’s so nice to be reading Plautus is that it’s like an encounter with an old friend. In 1st year Latin class at UVic, the edition Professor Bradley used was the ‘Cambridge Latin Course’. To teach students Latin, the reading book used dumbed down excerpts from Plautus’ Amphitryo and The Pot of Gold. They were entertaining back then, even in their simplified versions. I remember the thrill of ‘getting a joke’ in Latin. For me, Plautus is forever associated with those ‘good old days’.

That Plautus reminded me of the ‘good old days’ made me think: in your different stages of life, did you encounter books you would read that made perfect sense to read at that time but at any other time would have been an unappealing read? Today, I think if I read Hesse’s Demian or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for the first time, I wouldn’t like them that much at all. But I remember stumbling on those book in my late teens and they were dynamite reads that changed the way I looked at the world.

Other books, however, seem less vulnerable to, what shall I call it, ‘time selection’, maybe? Homer’s Iliad was good back then (early twenties) and I think if I were to read it for the first time today (40 years old) it would just be as dynamite. Plato I didn’t like at all back when I was younger, but he seems to be growing on me as I get older.

Ah the occupation dangers of being a writer! Not only do you have to find the right reader, it may be that your right reader has to be in a certain stage of life to appreciate what you’ve written as well!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and revisiting Plautus has made Doing Melpomene’s Work a joy today!

Plays and Fragments – Menander

Last week on the reading list was Aristophanes, writer of Greek ‘Old Comedy’ in the 5th century. Up this week is Menander, a writer of Greek ‘New Comedy’. The goal of going through Aristophanes and Menander is to see how what comedy treats the unexpected. Given that certain unexpected outcomes provoke laughter, the hypothesis is that the unexpected trumps expectation in comedy.

The Edition of Menander

Always a delight to be reading another fine Penguin edition of Menander: Plays and Fragments. Clear text (and larger too in the newer printing), expert introductions balanced between the needs of a layperson and a student, and dependable translations. Translated by Norma Miller. Here’s the back blurb:

Menander (c. 341-291 B.C.) was the foremost innovator of Greek New Comedy, a dramatic style that moved away from the fantastical to focus upon the problems of ordinary Athenians. This collection contains the full text of Old Cantankerous (Dyskolos), the only surviving complete example of New Comedy, as well as fragments from works including The Girl from Samos and The Rape of the Locks, all of which are concerned with domestic catastrophes, the hazards of love and the trials of family life. Written in a poetic style regarded by the ancients as second only to Homer, these polished works – profoundly influential upon both Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terene, and the wider Western tradition – may be regarded as the first true comedies of manners.

Menander Cover Art

Menander Cover Art

When the blurb mentions that New Comedy moves away from fantastical elements, it is referring to to Aristophanes’ crazy themes: cities built by the birds in the clouds or sex strikes by the women to bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War. What had changed in a 100 years? Well, Aristophanes had written for an Athenocentric audience. While Menander hailed from Athens as well, he wrote for a more cosmopolitan audience. Between Aristophanes and Menander’s day, travelling theatre troupes had sprung up and comedy was being performed all over the Hellenistic world thanks to the Hellenizing efforts of Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The age of fiercely independent local city-states was gone. The age of empire had arrived. As a result, culture would also be international, and a playwright would have to be writing for an international audience. As such, the material would have to be reduced to its lowest common denominator: family issues and stock characters (the crafty slave, the young lovers, the grumpy old man, etc.,). It’s sort of like sitcom in the TV era: what were formerly local dialects gives way to a version of spoken English that is at once intelligible in the deep South to Boston burbs.

Menander and the Unexpected

The first three plays in the edition are: Old Cantankerous, The Girl from Samos, and The Arbitration. The first play is complete, the second is almost complete, and the third, to put it kindly, is a glass half full. As the edition progresses, plays become more and more fragmentary until only the fragment remains.

If a pattern can be drawn from the first three plays, it is that they revolve around familial life. In Old Cantankerous, a young man is trying to woo the grumpy old guy’s daughter. In The Girl from Samos, a young suitor gets his girlfriend pregnant. And in The Arbitration, a domestic quarrel results when the wife gives birth five months after the marriage.

Here’s how the plot makes use of the unexpected in these plays. In Old Cantankerous, the grumpy curmudgeon falls down a well. Who should save him but the young suitor? In The Girl from Samos, the father overhears that the father of his baby is actually his stepson whom he had left home alone with his stepmother. It’s sort of a Potiphar’s wife theme. But what had happened is that it wasn’t his child at all: his stepson had gotten the next door neighbour’s daughter pregnant, and when the baby was born they ‘lent’ it to his wife so that his stepson could have a proper marriage with the girl next door. In The Arbitration, the husband rejects his wife when she gives birth five months after marriage. But the recognition token carried by the baby indicates that the husband IS the father of the baby: he had raped the mother during a drunken festival before the marriage.

Beside the very different outcomes, the unexpected occupies a central position in the comic and tragic view of the world: things are unpredictable. When tragedy engages the Potiphar’s wife’s theme, the outcome is completely different. In Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, the father (Theseus) leaves his stepson (Hippolytus) with his stepmother (Phaedra). The unexpected takes place. But, unlike The Girl from Samos, there is no happy outcome. So while comedy and tragedy both rely on the unexpected as a plot driving device, somewhere they take a different turn.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work and having a good laugh at the same time.

Memory and Writing

Memory, Cell Phones, and the Invention of Writing

There’s an old story about memory that’s valid in today’s age of cell phones and other devices that make the memory superfluous. At least superfluous until the device breaks down. I remember the story, but not where it’s from. Maybe Plato? That would suit him since memory plays a large role in his philosophy, which he claims is hard wired into the brain: one simply has to remember how it works. It would be easy enough to look up where it’s from, but that would be cheating! It goes something like this: in the old day before there was writing, people simply remembered things. It was an oral tradition. Travelling rhapsodes could remember the whole of the Iliad and recite from memory. In case you’re wondering how impressive that is, well, it’s LONG as the Iliad itself is long. Hence the popular expressions ‘an Iliad of trouble’ means a LOT of trouble. Maybe its one of those popular expressions that no one knows… At any rate, people in general had very good memories. Even dates involved remembering who won the Olympiad, since they didn’t say ‘in 450 BC’ but rather ‘in the second year after so and so won the Olympiad’.

But anyway, one day Thoth invented writing. He was showing off his new invention to Ptah or one of the other gods claiming that writing is the best thing since they invented sliced bread. ‘Look, you can write it all down now!’, he would say. Ptah replies, ‘What will happen to people’s memory?’, and walks away, unimpressed. I could just imagine his reaction to the iPhone.

Memory and Writing

It occurred to me while working on Paying Melpomene’s Price today how crucial memory is. I’m currently working on the section juxtaposing tragedy with history. One of the tasks is to note how tragedy downplays the importance of history and vice-versa. Well, in one of Goethe’s tragedies one character attacks another by telling him ‘he should be a historian’. But I was having a hard time finding a history writer who belittled tragedy or tragedians. The best was Tacitus’ A Dialogue on Oratory where the orator Maternus gives up the bar to to become a tragedian. His fellow orators question the use of tragedy, glorifying the importance of the lawyer life in the public eye. The example wasn’t a good fit to my thesis. But since I couldn’t remember anything else, I stretched it into the Procrustean bed of the argument. It wasn’t pretty. First of all, although Tacitus is a historian, he’s really talking about tragedy versus oratory, not tragedy versus history. And it’s almost as though he takes Maternus’ side in the debate. Aper, the fellow he argues against, is a bit of an unlikable hothead. Anyway, I argued that although it was oratory versus tragedy, orator stood in for history since it was active in a sense. After all, a lot of histories are just one speech after another speech, or, in other words, oratory. It wasn’t a pretty argument.

But hey, in another post I argued that when a writer gets stuck, the best thing to do is to keep going: you’ll find a solution down the road. It turns out this time the advice works. So today I was reviewing Polybius’ The Rise of the Roman Empire and what do you know: there’s a passage that begins, ‘the task of the historian is the exact opposite as that of a tragedian’. Bingo! So I excised the paragraph on A Dialogue on Oratory from the text and inserted Polybius. But the funny thing is that in my edition of Polybius, many years ago I had marked up that section! Not only had I marked in up, I had written little notes in the margins. Well, I had completely forgot! If I had remembered, it would have saved a considerable amount of time. And that’s what got me thinking on how important memory is to writers. I mean I could make a rolodex or some kind of spreadsheet of where everything is, but it’s hard to know ten years in advance what sort of information you’ll need in the future! Can you plan ten years in advance? So memory remains important: you can carry it around until its required.

Writers Who are Masterminds at Memory

Boethius is the first name that comes to mind. In the 6th century, the Emperor Theodoric threw the philosopher in jail on possibly trumped up charges of treason. Without his books, Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy to comfort himself. In the book, Lady Philosophy visits Boethius in jail, and helps him find consolation by recalling the philosophical precepts which he had forgotten (since he had been gallivanting around town with the poetical Muses, of course).

In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius quotes Plato (he’s a neo-Platonist), Homer, Herodotus, Cicero, etc., And not just little quotes: there’s some substantial block quotes thrown in there. That’s just the sort of memory a writer needs.

I used to think writing was an art. Something based on inspiration. Still do. But it sure helps to have a good memory. If you can’t remember, you can’t be inspired. But if you happen to remember at the right time, the world’s your oyster. That’s probably why so many writers recommend walks. Walks stimulate the memory into remembering old patterns. Nietzsche said that ‘any thought not originating from a healthy walk is not worth a dime’ (or something like that). Nietzsche liked the ‘superman’ type of walk: there was a certain mountain he would go up and down each day. That’s sort of surprising given his poor health. Goethe was also a big walker. So was Beethoven, who loved his woodland hikes. Think of the famous bird call played on a flute in the Pastoral Symphony. Showers work in the same way. Elon Musk of Tesla Motor and Space X fame has spoken of the virtues of the tub.

Memory Techniques (or Mnemonic Techniques)

Yoast SEO gives me extra points if I use the keyword many times. Guess what the keyword in this article is? Yes, I have shamelessly used it even when a better word was available. That’s my journalistic integrity for you!

Poetry used to be a good way to work out the memory. The mind must be sort of like a muscle (though it’s not). But like a muscle in that if you work it out it pumps it up. And, considering the mind is the most complicated thing in the universe, it seems a shame not to use it to the maximum. I’ve been thinking of committing parts of the Iliad to memory. Once, on an exchange trip to Germany, there were all of us young kids and one retired doctor. I can’t even remember his name but I can see his face. When I told him I studied Classics, he started reciting the beginning of the Iliad. In Greek. When he was a lad in grade school, they still taught Greek and encouraged students to memorize large portions of the texts. Memory might have even been its own subject back then. But much more than it is now. He could still remember the lines. And he spoke it with such feeling that it was amazing to hear.

Another mnemonic technique is ‘the house’. I learned this one from Professor Charles Fornara. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to encounter genius. In my life there’s maybe two people whom I have met that might have fit that word. He was the first one. Anyway, in class one day he told us the ancient technique. If you have something to remember, make a house in your head. It helps if you’re familiar with the house. Start somewhere: a hallway or a room. Say you start with a hallway. Next time you have something to remember, stick it somewhere in the room: on the wall, behind the painting, under the matt. You pick. And each time you have something else to remember, put it somewhere else. Do it until the room is full. Then move on to the next room. Keep going.

The technique is interesting since it seems to be in accord with how the mind works. It’s almost like a computer files, which are set up along the same lines. You might not remember what’s in a spreadsheet, but you can remember the path of folders and subfolders to get there. Professor Fornara did this technique for years, but eventually abandoned it after it got too big: the housekeeping was enormous and it was ‘getting up to be the size of the universe’, as he said. I tried it too. For a few months. It works. They cool thing after a few months is that you can start wandering through the house, finding things as you go. Yes, sometimes you have to do some light dusting to refresh the memory about what is where. Try it out and let me know! It might make you a better writer!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work in the muggy summer heat.