Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Knowledge, memory, dreams, and reality

Knowledge is power.
Francis Bacon 1561 - 1626
This is where Shakespeare belongs but like the Bible, I’ve skipped over him. Between those two sources one could write a piece similar to this that would be twice as long. So I’ll content myself with a single favorite quote.

Brevity is the soul of wit.
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616

An infinite God would not have stopped at a finite universe.
Giordano Bruno D. 1600

A statement, if he actually made it, that got him burned at the stake by one of those Popes with the heavenly names. (I think it was Clement VIII, although Bruno may have been arrested by Innocent IX. The "trial" took seven years [Bruno was of course in the slammer the whole time]). Giordano is one of my heroes. I really need to do serious research into his story; I may have a significant dollop of fiction about him in my brain packets. He was one of the most intelligent men who ever lived and John Crowley, the fantasy writer, has written about him movingly. And I have a dream-like connection with Crowley's books (The Aegypt Cycle) as well. It goes like this: I was working on the Washington Post crossword and I came across a series of interrelated clues. “Romain de Tirtoff’s nom de peinture, which I translated as Tirtoff’s pen name, and “ [his] genre. Well I was able to work out the genre part using the verticals and it appeared to be “art deco” and the nom was apparently “Erte” which I sort of remembered, and Chris confirmed. Then the fun began. I went to the dictionary to double check and there was no entry for Art Deco, Tirtoff, Erte, deco, or anything even close. I tried two other dictionaries including the OED; nothing. I tried two encyclopedias; nothing. I tried two Art history books; nothing. Now for the strange part:

John Crowely has written several books with the premise that the world (the universe) is not fixed, but may, in an instant change. You may awaken one morning with memories of things that no longer exist, actually never existed in the accepted history of your world or conversely, awaken with “new” memories of things you somehow don’t believe that you believed yesterday (it’s convoluted). You may have these memories as shared “hallucinations” with a few other people, but there is no way to prove or disprove their existence. In Crowely’s book, when Giordano (AH HA! I SEE!) conceives the universe to be infinite; it becomes so. As I struggled with the “Erte/art deco” disappearance, I felt that a universe change had happened to me. I can of course deal more than nicely with the “disappearance” of French words in cross word puzzles; I could also deal nicely with the disappearance of French words in general, and even with the disappearance of France, it’s people, history, products (have you ever tried to clean a Cuisanart, or heard Click and Clack talk about Renault and Peugeot?), language, and culture (really, that's way too strong; but it's MY rant). But the disappearance of the words “art deco and Erte” out of all the other words that I recall bothers me.

Then I just “googled”it. There it all was, just like it had always been there. Tirtoff and Erte and art deco… So why couldn’t I find it yesterday?

If it disappears again and this essay doesn’t exist tomorrow; I'll know that Crowely’s premise is true. Or at least that I may have awakened one more time from a dream (what happens if you awaken more or fewer times than you’ve slept?). Now, if only France would fade.....

Now are the ancient times... Not those which we account ancient by computation backward from ourselves.
Cena di Cenere 1584

I like this because of the twist of perspective. Certainly the world is older now than it was long ago. So why does now seen “new”? Which way is time really “moving”? But what of the past? I recall a fiction where a time traveler went back, and of course he was struck by the ancientness of the great trees and the untrammeled wilderness, the undammed rivers and unexplored lands. They were all so much older than the works of man; they were part of the “ancient times”. Things were newer than now but seemed old.

Such truth as opposeth no man’s profit nor pleasure is to all men welcome.
Thomas Hobbs 1588 - 1679

Now this may be something new. The spirit of rebellion is nicely separated from the passion of the mob. So called revolutionaries that rabble rouse do so among their supporters; they preach to the choir. But stand up at an unsympathetic forum and state your case. That is very hard to do. I know, I’ve chickened out myself. I recall a public hearing about bear hunting regulations where one could offer written comments and/or speak. I wrote my comments for the record but the facilitator called my name for an oral presentation of what I’d written (I suspected that he’d made the “mistake” on purpose.) And I looked around for the guy that they called on just like everybody else, wondering why he didn’t get up and speak his piece. Live to fight another day, I say (“Discretion is the better part of valor.” - Shakespeare again). I’m not going to hang a “kick me” shingle out unless it counts for something. My written comments were going into the official record, regardless as to whether I spoke them out loud or not. Screw the facilitator if he wanted me to be recognized by the 90 % majority of bear hunters in the room. Also by Hobbs (and I’d love to chat with Waterson about what Thomas Hobbs said that so inspired him to name the tiger Hobbs...):

No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worse of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Certainly short, probably somewhat solitary, if you consider any group less than a thousand to be small... But the rest? I believe that Hobbs is showing his adherence to the theory of “Original Stupidity”. I’ve read conflicting theories about our stoneage ancestors. It may be anti intuitive but Marvin Harris postulates that given low human population densities (less than one per square mile) hunter gatherer cultures have to “labor” less than two hours a day for their sustenance, every day, for their life times. It’s agriculture that increases population density and increases the work hours per day necessary for survival. And as civilization and technology increase so does the work day. Certainly, the average work week today supports the theory. All these labor saving devices and we work 45 to 50 hours a week to pay for them.

Am I working more hours today in order to pay someone else to do the things that I could do for myself, if only I didn’t have to work so much?
Me, 1985.

(Although I probably got the gist of this from The Whole Earth Catalog). And I quit my job in 1996 and started doing everything for myself. Of all the "professionals" that I've ever hired to do work for me in my home, I have only had one of two that did as good of a job as I would have done for myself. In house building, the nastiest (but maybe the most important) job is waterproofing the basement. Most builders will hire a high school kid who doesn't give a rat's ass about what kind of job he does to do this task. So the 3 million dollar home has a leaky basement that cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. Or maybe can't be fixed untill after damage to valuable property has been done. That's one reason we need so much insurance. If more folks were more assiduous (or just honest enough to accept responsibility for their work) we wouldn't need half the insurance or half the lawyers.

I think therefore I am.”
Renee Decartes 1596 - 1650

Now this may be meaningful in light of existential debates of reality. But it’s also something we took for granted both before and after the question of existence was raised. It’s one of those answers that isn’t necessary until the question is asked. Reminds me of the bureaucracy. There was always some dumb-dumb willing to ask for a “clarification” of some policy and it always resulted in the loss of any common sense, discriminating application of the rules. The “by the book” answer was always worse than what everyone had been applying, even the bosses. Some people have missed out on the Anonymous Truisms: “Obtaining forgiveness is always easier than getting permission.” And “No good deed goes unpunished.” And where else should we put Murphy's Law (and corollaries) but right here:

What ever can go wrong, will go wrong.
Dropped bread lands butter side down.
The level of interest in a subject is proportional to it’s proximity to the corner of the map.
Weather channel talking heads can’t remember to stand in front of the Atlantic Ocean.

Old people like to give good advice as solace for no longer being able to provide bad examples.
Francois La Rochfoucauld 1613 - 1680
Everyone complains of his memory, and no one complains of his judgment.

There is great skill in knowing how to conceal one’s skill.

This is the inspiration for the “Columbo” program. And it really does work. Nothing puts a liar into a more dangerous position of hubris than to have him believe that he’s talking to an idiot. At DEQ we ran up against a politically powerful, millionaire businessman that believed that “we couldn’t find our own butts with both hands…” and that he could “squash us [our inspectors] like a bug”. When all was said and done, by allowing him to believe that he was right, we got to catch him using white out to cook his books for all the world to see. We gave him the confidence to be as much of a jerk as he wanted to be. He obliged. He may be a confident, politically powerful rich man, but he’s also a convicted felon (fraud through the US mail). His connections with the Governor didn't help in the end.

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