Thursday, December 30, 2010

Notes from "Letters to a Young Contrarian", Letter IV

Letter IV

Conflict and opposition have been with humanity all the time. It seems it is part of being human.

[I]njustice and irrationality are inevitable parts of the human condition, but that challenges to them are inevitable also. On Sigmund Freud's memorial in Vienna appear the words: "The voice of reason is small, but very persistent."

[I]t will very often be found that people are highly attached to illusions or prejudices, and are not just the sullen victims of dogma or orthodoxy. If you have ever argued with a religious devotee, for example, you will have noticed that his self-esteem and pride are involved in the dispute and that you are asking him to give up something more than a point in argument [emphasis added]. The same is true of visceral patriots, and admirers of monarchy and aristocracy.

George Orwell said that the prime responsibility lay in being able to tell people what they did not wish to hear.

Karl Marx, asked to give his favorite epigram, offered de omnibus disputandum ("everyting must be doubted").

John Milton in his Areopagitica proclaimed that, whatever one believed to be the right, it should be exposed to the claims of the wrong, because only in fair and open fight could the right claim or expect vindication.

This is a beautiful one. It is how science works and it is also why it works!

Frederick Douglass announced that those who expect truth or justice without a struggle were like those who could imagine the sea without an image of the tempest.

Conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich.

If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Got the internet

It's been almost two weeks since 'the big move' and today (well, it's yesterday now) I finally got the internet connected. These past days I was using an USB modem (ZTE) from the Claro company. It had the advantage of reaching an effective download speed of 200 Kb/s during the late night and sometimes during the day. What I didn't like is that the connection dropped during the day. Probably too many people connected at the same time(?) Another good feature of the modem is that it worked out of the box in Linux Ubuntu 10.10, a good reason to love Ubuntu ;-)

Now I have the Turbonett service also from Claro. When in the USA, I used to have the slowest speed connection, about 200 Kb/s for download. I did the same here and the result was dreadful... I got a speed 15 times slower. Perhaps I should consider upgrading to a higher speed. Any software update above 10 Mb will be agonizingly slow!

Speed tests from are below. The high one is for the USB modem and the slow one for Turbonett at 148 Kbps.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Notes from "Letters to a Young Contrarian", Letter III

Letter III

The main argument of this letter is that life would be boring if there were not argument or disputation of any sort.

[T]here is something idiotic about those who believe that consensus [...] is the highest good. Why do I use the offensive word "idiotic"? For two reasons that seem good to me; the first being my conviction that human beings do not, in fact, desire to live in some Disneyland of the mind where there is an end to striving and a general feeling of contentment and bliss. This would be idiocy in its pejorative sense; the Athenians originally employed the term more lightly, defining as idiotis any man who was blandly indifferent to public affairs.

My second reason is less intuitive. Even if we did really harbor this desire, it would fortunately be unateinable. [...] [I]n life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation.

The second reason is the statement that many of the most brilliant ideas are born out of necessity or the desire to defeat current predicaments. It is not an invitation to create chaos where it is not. It could be that conflict comes natural to our species.

If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the "center" will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and where it is.

The next one is lovely, since most people hold the Dalai Lama in great esteem, but this case his logic sucks.

[The Dalai Lama wrote in the opening of The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living]: "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness." [...] The very best that can be said is that he uttered a string of fatuous non sequiturs. There is not even a strand of chewing gum to connect the premise to the conclusion; the speaker simply assumes what he has to prove.

It's often observed that the major religions can give no convincing account of Paradise. They do much better in representing Hell; indeed one of the early Christian dogmatists, Tertullian, borrowed the vividness of the latter to lend point to the former. Among the delights of Heaven, he decided, would be the contemplation of the tortures of the damned. This anthropomorphism at least had a bit of bite to it; the problem in all other cases is that nobody can seriously desire the dissolution of the intellect. And the pleasures and rewards of the intellect are inseparable form angst, uncertainty, conflict and even despair.

That last sentence is a bit frightening. I can't say I understand it fully.

Towards the end, Hitchens narrates one experience from his childhood as he was in bible-study class; and his teacher starts to "hymn the work of god in Nature" saying: "How wonderful it was [...] that trees and vegetation were green; the most restful color to our eyes. Imagine if instead the woods and grasses were purple, or orange." Hitchens was about ten years old at the time. He closes the story reflecting on his childish ignorance but instinctive resilience to fall for the teacher's argument:

I knew nothing about chlorophyll and phototropism at that age, still less about the Argument from Design or the debate on Creationism versus Evolution. I merely remeber thinking, with my childish and unformed cortex: Oh, don't be silly.

I remember something along those lines when I was ten. The teacher said that we had nerves even in every strand of hair. I dismissed that statement almost immediately. I thought that if it was true, it would be really painful to have a haircut.

Based on the childhood experience just told above, Hitchens tells us:

I am quite sure of two things. The first is that even uneducated people [...] have an innate capacity to resist and, if not even to think for themselves, to have thoughts occur to them. [...] The second, which is only a corollary of the first, is that we do not naturally aspire to any hazy, narcotic Nirvana, where our critical and ironic faculties would be of no use to us.

Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as [Aldous] Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch.

Unfortunately, I don't know to work of Huxley. But I do agree that such kind of life would be agonizingly dull. The worst is that it is the kind of afterlife that people expect to have in "paradise"...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Notes from "Letters to a Young Contrarian", Letter II

Letter II

In letter II we have a few excerpts from Rainer Maria Rilke.

One beautiful quote is the advise Rilke offers to a young writer:

There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if your were forbidden to write. This most of all; ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity...

This passage by Rilke is restated briefly by Hitchens saying that you must write not because your want to do it, but because you feel that you have to do it.

Hitchens also mentions Rilke's approach to Eros saying that:

His [Rilke's] seven so-called Phallic Poems are among the best non-love verses since the brave days of Marvell and the Metaphysicals; they openly announce that fucking is its own justification.

After reading this, I was prompted to find who were the Metaphysicals. It turns out that they were a group a 17th century English poets, characterized by the use of conceptual metaphors with complex logic.

I also found the Phallic Poems here. It doesn't take long to read them. It is amazing how something so straightforward can be said in such elaborate way. Take poem IV, for instance:

You don’t know towers, with your diffidence.
Yet now you’ll become aware
Of a tower in that wonderful rare
Space in you. Hide your countenance.
You’ve erected it unsuspectingly,
By turn and glance and indirection,
And I, blissful one, am allowed entry.
Ah, how in there I am so tight.
Coax me to come forth to the summit:
So as to fling into your soft night,
With the soaring of a womb-dazzling rocket,
More feeling than I am quite.

Finally, there is a reference of what Rilke wrote about solitude. So I went to google it as well and I found a book that looks really interesting and wich is also online. It's called "Letters to a Young Poet" by Rilke himself. Going briefly over the word "solitude" I found several references to solitude, love and why we must take on difficult things:

We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it. To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. [my emphasis]

As it often happens in the virtual world, one link takes you to another and yet another website; I found this peculiar quote. Alas, I couldn't find which book was it from.

Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.

On second thought, it might work like that.

Notes from "Letters to a Young Contrarian", Letter I

In lethargy of the holiday season, I find myself reading "Letters to a Young Contrarian" by Christopher Hitchens.

Usually I keep notes on every book I read. I've decided to make those notes public instead of keeping them private. There are passages in every book that make me feel guilty if I don't share them, because (in my biased opinion) I think they have an original insight that might as well spark someone else's inspiration, wrath, enlightenment or thought. Thus, here we go.

Letter I

The noble title of "dissident" must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement, and it has been consecrated by many exemplary and courageous men and women.

I myself hope the live long enough to graduate, from being a "bad boy" --- which I once was --- to becoming "a curmudgeon".

From amateur to professional!

[T]here are in all periods people who feel themselves in some fashion to be apart. And it is not too much to say that humanity is very much in debt to such people, whether it chooses to acknowledge the debt or not.

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.

There is a saying from Roman antiquity: Fiat justitia---ruat caelum. "Do justice, and let the skies fall."

Another observation from antiquity has it that, while courage is not in itself one of the primary virtues, it is the quality that makes the excercise of the virtues possible.

[T]he determination of one individual [is] enough to dishearten those whose courage [is] mob-derived.

Quite often, the "baptism" of a future dissenter occurs in something unplanned, such as a spontaneous resistance to an episode of bullying or bigotry, or a challenge to some piece of pedagogical stupidity. There is good reason to think that such reactions arise from something innate rather than something inculcated."
I love this one. I remember a few such episodes of "pedagogical stupidity"...

To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The transport of earthly possessions

For some time I knew this moment was coming, the end of my adventures as a physics graduate student in the USA. Aside from the omnipresent annoyance of paperwork, the other real hassle was how to ship my belongings to my home country. After a little more than eight years, I manage to accumulate stuff that I didn't want to get rid of. It was not much, but it would never conform to the baggage allowances of commercial airlines. Furthermore, how the hell was I going to carry it?!

When I came to the USA I had only one suitcase. After my graduate school adventure and after filtering and disposing of loads of crap and useless artifacts, I was able to reduce the amount of earthly possessions to about 27 cubic feet. Now, how much is that in international units? Go to google and type "27 cubic feet to cubic meters" and magically we get 0.76 cubic meters. Take the cubic root to arrive at 0.91 meters. That means that my things fit in a cube of 0.91 meters per side. If you think about it, it's actually not much.

The volume was distributed in ten boxes. A fun fact: half of them contain books. And they really are my treasure. So I hope to see them again soon.

Boxes in the apartment, ready to be taken to the van.

It turned out that the cheapest way to send the stuff was by sea. I contacted a company that takes care of this sort of affairs. The first step was to put everything in boxes. It took a few days and it was very effective to get rid of old and crappy stuff.

Boxes in the van, ready to be taken to the warehouse.

Step two was to take the boxes to a warehouse. I rented a van and set course to the warehouse. It was huge. Several trailer trucks were being unloaded very fast by the skillful forklift drivers. At moments it looked like it was a forklift race. When they were done with the trucks, one of them went outside to pick up the wooden pallet where I had previously unloaded my cargo; which looked like a joke compared to the trailer trucks.

Boxes in the warehouse, ready to be taken to the ship.

Now it's just a matter of waiting. With some luck by end of the year my cubic meter of stuff will be ready to pick up and bring home.