(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘curiosity

“The element of mystery to which you want to draw attention should be surrounded and veiled by a quite obvious, readily recognisable commonness”*…

Day And Night (1938)

An appreciation of the marvelous M.C. Escher…

Despite being a fan of Rennaisance Art and the work of the Impressionists, he feels increasingly pulled in a different direction…

When you look at this picture, you’re flipping between world views. Either you’re seeing the white birds, and the bright, presumably sunlit day scene with its cheerful flotilla of steam ships puffing their way upriver – or you’re seeing the black birds, and your eye is drawn to the night-shrouded landscape where the houses have their lights on and the sky’s already eaten the horizon & is creeping nearer…

Except, that’s not quite right. The black birds are in the daylight side, and the white ones are flying into the night. These aren’t just mirror images: they’re like the Ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol, each side containing part of its opposite…

Escher’s love of the fantastical is primarily inspired by what he sees around him, not what he can dream up out of next to nothing… By looking closely at the real world, and trying to understand how it works, Escher will invite his initially small but intensely loyal fanbase to explore some very strange mysteries indeed.

Ascending And Descending (1960)

It’s the 1960s now, and nonconformity is all the rage. Hair is getting longer, psychedelics-powered artistry is flourishing, and anything that seems to scream to hell with the rules is increasingly in vogue… Because of the fantastical elements of his work, Escher is acquiring a reputation as a surrealist. As a self-identifying “reality enthusiast,” it’s the very last thing he wants. Take Ascending & Descending, where he’s clearly turning his imagination to the futility of so much in the human-centred world. In a letter to a friend, he says:

“Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; one step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it get us? Nowhere.”

But until the end of his career, his work will continue to speak to something deeper – a rebellion against human incuriosity, or a constant rallying-cry for the act of paying attention…

Read it in full: “Fooling With Certainty: The Impossibly Real Worlds Of MC Escher,” from Mike Sowden (@Mikeachim)

* M. C. Escher

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As we look closely, we might recall that it was on this date in 1859 that our perspective was shifted in a different kind of way: Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species.  Actually, on that day he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life; the title was shortened to the one we know with the sixth edition in 1872.

Title page of the 1859 edition

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(Roughly) Daily will be on a brief Thanksgiving hiatus, returning when the the tryptophan haze has passed…

“Curiosity has its own reason for existence”*…

This is, as nearly as I can tell, the 5,000th (Roughly) Daily post (4,505 blog posts, preceded by 495 email-only pieces). On this numerologically-significant occasion, my deep thanks to readers past and present. It seems appropriate to devote this post to the impulse that has powered (Roughly) Daily from the start, curiosity– free-range curiosity…

Recently I read a terrific blog post by CJ Eller where he talks about the value of paying attention to offbeat things.

Eller was joining an online conversation about how people get caught up in the “status and celebrity game” when they’re trying to grow their audience. They become overly obsessed with following — and emulating, and envying— the content of people with massive audiences. The conversation started with this poignant essay by the author Ali Montag; she concludes that rabidly chasing followers endows your writing (and thinking!) with “inescapable mediocrity.” (It also tends to make you miserable, too, she points out)…

Instead of crowding your attention with what’s already going viral on the intertubes, focus on the weird stuff. Hunt down the idiosyncratic posts and videos that people are publishing, oftentimes to tiny and niche audiences. It’s decidedly unviral culture — but it’s more likely to plant in your mind the seed of a rare, new idea.

I love the idea of “rewilding your attention”. It puts a name on something I’ve been trying to do for a while now: To stop clicking on the stuff big-tech algorithms push at me… social behavior can influence our attention: What are the high-follower-count folks talking/posting/arguing about today? This isn’t always a bad thing. We’re social animals, so we’re necessarily (and often productively) intrigued by what others are chewing over. But as these three writers note, it’s also crucial to follow your own signal — to cultivate the stuff you’re obsessed with, even if few others are.

On top of the social pressure from people online, there’s technological pressure too — from recommendation systems trying to juke our attention… Medium’s algorithm has deduced that … I’m a nerd. They are correct! I am. The other major social networks, like Twitter or YouTube, offer me the same geek-heavy recommendations when I log in. And hey, they’re not wrong either; I really do like these subjects.

But … I’m also interested in so many other things that are far outside these narrow lanes. I am, for example, a Canadian who’s deeply into Canadian art, and a musician who spends a lot of time thinking about composition and gear and lyric-writing and production and guitar pedals, and a father who thinks a lot about the culture my kids show me, and I have a super-snobby fanboy love of the 18th century poet Alexander Pope.

You’re the same way; you contain your own Whitmanian multitudes, your pockets of woolly-eyed obsession. We all do.

But our truly quirky dimensions are never really grasped by these recommendation algorithms. They have all the dullness of a Demographics 101 curriculum; they sketch our personalities with the crudity of crime-scene chalk-outlines. They’re not wrong about us; but they’re woefully incomplete. This is why I always get a slightly flattened feeling when I behold my feed, robotically unloading boxes of content from the same monotonous conveyor-belt of recommendations, catered to some imaginary marketing version of my identity. It’s like checking my reflection in the mirror and seeing stock-photo imagery.

The other problem with big-tech recommendation systems is they’re designed by people who are convinced that “popularity” and “recency” equal “valuable”. They figure that if they sample the last 15 milliseconds of the global zeitgeist and identify what’s floated to the top of that quantum foam, I’ll care about it. Hey, a thing happened and people are talking about it, here’s the #hashtag!

And again … they’re sometimes right! I am often intrigued to know the big debates of the day, like Oscar Wilde peering into his daily gazette. But I’d also like to stumble over arguments yet more arcane, and material that will never be the subject of a massive online conversation because only a small group of oddballs care about it.

You’re the same way too, I bet. We’re all weird in different ways, but we’re all weird.

Big-tech recommendation systems have been critiqued lately for their manifold sins— i.e. how their remorseless lust for “engagement” leads them to overpromote hotly emotional posts; how they rile people up; how they feed us clicktastic disinfo; how they facilitate “doomscrolling”. All true.

But they pose a subtler challenge, too, for our imaginative lives: their remarkably dull conception of what’s interesting. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else.

That’s why I so enjoy the concept of “rewilding”… For me, it’s meant slowly — over the last few years — building up a big, rangy collection of RSS feeds, that let me check up on hundreds of electic blogs and publications and people. (I use Feedly.) I’ve also started using Fraidycat, a niftily quixotic feed-reader that lets you sort sources into buckets by “how often should I check this source”, which is a cool heuristic; some people/sites you want to check every day, and others, twice a year.

Other times I spend an hour or two simply prospecting — I pick a subject almost at random, then check to see if there’s a hobbyist or interest-group discussion-board devoted to it. (There usually is, running on free warez like phpBB). Then I’ll just trawl through the forum, to find out what does this community care about? It’s like a psychogeographic walk of the mind.

Another awesome technology for rewilding my attention, I’ve found, is the good old-fashioned paper book. I go to a bookstore, pick up something where it’s not immediately obvious why it’d appeal to me, then flip around to see if anything catches my eye. (This works online, too, via the wonderful universe of pre-1923, freely-accessible ebooks and publications at the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, or even Google Books. Pre-WWI material is often super odd and thought-provoking.)…

Step away from algorithmic feeds. In praise of free-range curiosity: “Rewilding your attention,” from Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99).

See also “Before Truth: Curiosity, Negative Capability, Humility, ” from Will Wilkinson (@willwilkinson)

* “Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” — Albert Einstein, “Old Man’s Advice to Youth: ‘Never Lose a Holy Curiosity.'” LIFE Magazine (2 May 1955) p. 64”

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As we revel in rabbit holes, we might send insightfully-humorous birthday greetings to William Penn Adair Rogers; he was born on this date in 1879.  A stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator, he traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.  By the mid-1930s Rogers was hugely popular in the United States, its leading political wit and the highest paid Hollywood film star.  He died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.

Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was a Cherokee citizen, born to a Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma).

“I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”- Will Rogers

220px-Will_Rogers_1922

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“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”*…

An argument for curiosity, openness, and the humility that underlies them both…

Philosophers aren’t the only ones who love wisdom. Everyone, philosopher or not, loves her own wisdom: the wisdom she has or takes herself to have. What distinguishes the philosopher is loving the wisdom she doesn’t have. Philosophy is, therefore, a form of humility: being aware that you lack what is of supreme importance. There may be no human being who exemplified this form of humility more perfectly than Socrates. It is no coincidence that he is considered the first philosopher within the Western canon.

Socrates did not write philosophy; he simply went around talking to people. But these conversations were so transformative that Plato devoted his life to writing dialogues that represent Socrates in conversation. These dialogues are not transcripts of actual conversations, but they are nonetheless clearly intended to reflect not only Socrates’s ideas but his personality. Plato wanted the world to remember Socrates. Generations after Socrates’s death, warring philosophical schools such as the Stoics and the Skeptics each appropriated Socrates as figurehead. Though they disagreed on just about every point of doctrine, they were clear that in order to count themselves as philosophers they had to somehow be working in the tradition of Socrates.

What is it about Socrates that made him into a symbol for the whole institution of philosophy? Consider the fact that, when the Oracle at Delphi proclaims Socrates wisest of men, he tries to prove it wrong. As Plato recounts it in the Apology:

I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man—there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.”

If Socrates’s trademark claim is this protestation of ignorance, his trademark activity is the one also described in this passage: refuting the views of others. These are the conversations we find in Plato’s texts. How are the claim and the activity related? Socrates denies that his motivations are altruistic: he says he is not a teacher, and insists that he is himself the primary beneficiary of the conversations he initiates. This adds to the mystery: What is Socrates getting out of showing people that they don’t know what they take themselves to know? What’s his angle?

Over and over again, Socrates approaches people who are remarkable for their lack of humility—which is to say, for the fact that they feel confident in their own knowledge of what is just, or pious, or brave, or moderate. You might have supposed that Socrates, whose claim to fame is his awareness of his own ignorance, would treat these self-proclaimed “wise men” (Sophists) with contempt, hostility, or indifference. But he doesn’t. The most remarkable feature of Socrates’s approach is his punctilious politeness and sincere enthusiasm. The conversation usually begins with Socrates asking his interlocutor: Since you think you know, can you tell me, what is courage (or wisdom, or piety, or justice . . .)? Over and over again, it turns out that they think they can answer, but they can’t. Socrates’s hope springs eternal: even as he walks toward the courtroom to be tried—and eventually put to death—for his philosophical activity, he is delighted to encounter the self-important priest Euthyphro, who will, surely, be able to say what piety is…

Socrates seemed to think that the people around him could help him acquire the knowledge he so desperately wanted—even though they were handicapped by the illusion that they already knew it. Indeed, I believe that their ill-grounded confidence was precisely what drew Socrates to them. If you think you know something, you will be ready to speak on the topic in question. You will hold forth, spout theories, make claims—and all this, under Socrates’s relentless questioning, is the way to actually acquire the knowledge you had deluded yourself into thinking you already had…

It’s one thing to say, “I don’t know anything.” That thought comes cheap. One can wonder, “Who really and truly knows anything?” in a way that is dismissive, uninquisitive, detached. It can be a way of saying, “Knowledge is unattainable, so why even try?” Socratic humility is more expensive and more committal than that. He sought to map the terrain of his ignorance, to plot its mountains and its rivers, to learn to navigate it. That, I think, is why he speaks of knowledge of his own ignorance. He’s not just someone who acknowledges or admits to his ignorance, but someone who has learned to dwell within it.

Admittedly, this may seem like a paradoxical project. It’s one thing to be missing your wallet—you will know it once you’ve found it. But suppose you’re missing not only your wallet, but also the knowledge that you ever had a wallet, and the understanding of what a wallet is. One of Socrates’s interlocutors, Meno, doubts whether it’s possible to come to know anything if you know so little to begin with. If someone doesn’t know where she’s going, it doesn’t seem as though she can even take a first step in the right direction. Can you map in total darkness?

Socrates’s answer was no. Or at least: you can’t do it alone. The right response to noticing one’s own ignorance is to try to escape it by acquiring someone else’s knowledge. But the only way to do that is to explain to them why you aren’t yet able to accept this or that claim of theirs as knowledge—and that is what mapping one’s ignorance amounts to. Socrates stages an exhibition of this method for Meno by demonstrating how much geometrical progress he can make with a young slave boy by doing nothing but asking questions that expose the boy’s false assumptions. It is when he refutes others’ claims to knowledge that Socrates’s own ignorance takes shape, for him, as something he can know. What appears as a sea of darkness when approached introspectively turns out to be navigable when brought into contact with the knowledge claims of another…

Socrates saw the pursuit of knowledge as a collaborative project involving two very different roles. There’s you or I or some other representative of Most People, who comes forward and makes a bold claim. Then there’s Socrates, or one of his contemporary descendants, who questions and interrogates and distinguishes and calls for clarification. This is something we’re often still doing—as philosophers, as scientists, as interviewers, as friends, on Twitter and Facebook and in many casual personal conversations. We’re constantly probing one another, asking, “How can you say that, given X, Y, Z?” We’re still trying to understand one another by way of objection, clarification, and the simple fact of inability to take what someone has said as knowledge. It comes so naturally to us to organize ourselves into the knower/objector pairing that we don’t even notice we are living in the world that Socrates made. The scope of his influence is remarkable. But equally remarkable is the means by which it was achieved: he did so much by knowing, writing, and accomplishing—nothing at all.

And yet for all this influence, many of our ways are becoming far from Socratic. More and more our politics are marked by unilateral persuasion instead of collaborative inquiry. If, like Socrates, you view knowledge as an essentially collaborative project, you don’t go into a conversation expecting to persuade any more than you expect to be persuaded. By contrast, if you do assume you know, you embrace the role of persuader in advance, and stand ready to argue people into agreement. If argument fails, you might tolerate a state of disagreement—but if the matter is serious enough, you’ll resort to enforcing your view through incentives or punishments. Socrates’s method eschewed the pressure to persuade. At the same time, he did not tolerate tolerance. His politics of humility involved genuinely opening up the question under dispute, in such a way that neither party would be permitted to close it, to settle on an answer, unless the other answered the same. By contrast, our politics—of persuasion, tolerance, incentives, and punishment—is deeply uninquisitive…

Knowing takes radical collaboration: an openness to being persuaded as much as an eagerness to persuade: “Against Persuasion,” from Agnes Callard (@AgnesCallard)

* Socrates

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As we listen and learn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1966 that the Eleventh Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party was hastily convened to advance Mao Zedong’s by then decidedly radical agenda for China– teeing up “Red August,” a series of purges of reactionary or otherwise impure thinkers. According to official statistics published in 1980, from August to September in 1966, a total of 1,772 people—including teachers and principals of many schools—were killed in Beijing by Red Guards; 33,695 homes were ransacked and 85,196 families were forced to leave the city. (1985 statistics, which included the areas immediately around Beijing, put the death toll at around 10,000.)

Red August kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or as we tend to know it, The Cultural Revolution, which lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. Its stated goal was to preserve Chinese communism by purging alternative thought– remnants of capitalist and traditional elements– from Chinese society, and to impose Mao Zedong Thought (known outside China as Maoism) as the dominant ideology in the PRC. A selection of Mao’s sayings, compiled in Little Red Book, became a sacred text in what was, essentially a personality cult.

Estimates of the death toll from the Cultural Revolution, including civilians and Red Guards, vary greatly, ranging from hundreds of thousands to to 20 million. The exact figure of those who were persecuted or died during the Cultural Revolution, however, may never be known, as many deaths went unreported or were actively covered up by the police or local authorities. Tens of millions of people were persecuted (especially members of ethnic minorities): senior officials were purged or exiled; millions were accused of being members of the Five Black Categories, suffering public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, hard labor, seizure of property, and sometimes execution or harassment into suicide; intellectuals were considered the “Stinking Old Ninth” and were widely persecuted—notable scholars and scientists were killed or committed suicide. Schools and universities were closed. And over 10 million urban “intellectual youths were sent to rural areas in the Down to the Countryside Movement.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 1, 2021 at 1:00 am

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