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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Currently Reading: Duke

I made a mention of this biography of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout previously. It finally came through the library's ebook queue a couple of weeks ago. I am reading it slowly at bedtime.

At 15%, the author has just got to the Cotton Club, a Harlem club owned by a notorious Irish gang boss Owney Madden and his violent legbreakers. The Cotton Club served up light-skinned, scantily-clad showgirls and black jazz musicians to an exclusively white clientele who ventured to Harlem for a flavor of the exotic. By all account Madden is the worst type of gangster. But he paid the musicians and showgirls fair to good wages and never bothered them artistically or bodily. Oddly, working for the worst gangsters afforded by-proxy protection for them from other troubles.

Curiously, Madden frequently played bridge with Ellington and Bubber Miley (the trumpeter) after the shows. Another band member (Sonny Greer) said he "loved Duke and loved me." They were said to get along quite well. In later years, Ellington never talked about the segregation and seediness of the Cotton Club and called it a classy joint.

If I were to write this into fiction it would be way too cheesy and cliched. I guess I'd have to do it in Chinese. [g]

Other mind-tickling observations about Duke so far:

He showed early talent in art and started a sign-painting business in the U Street neighborhood when he was but a teenager. He worked on that and music was only moonlighting. He made quite a lot of money from both sides of the business, enough to buy a house (!) before he hit 20. 

Musicians who worked with him and knew him well complained about his deft manipulation of them ... and admitted that his manipulation made them better. 

He couldn't study anything systematically to save his life. Instead he would always pick things up bits and pieces here and there, like driving around Central Park in a cab with a classical musical teacher to learn the basics of composition. The rest he just made up as he went along.

He loved contrasts.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Word on the Street Continued

Continuing with the thought on an insatiable appetite for random chatter on the "street" in the "neighborhood".

I wonder if this phenomenon is in any way related to a previous observation about a thirst for "knowledge" (discussed here).

Sharing knowledge and opinions through either oral gossip or written words is a fundamental human activity. A certain thought originated in another brain (for example, "the movie The Shining is an allegory of European colonialists' history of massacring Native Americans and the blood debt they since left." or "George RR Martin is wrong about ancient Romans not knowing who lived beyond the Hadrian Wall.") ends up in mine, although I'd never have come up with it in a thousand years spontaneously.

So, anyway, this sharing blurs the boundaries between other minds and my own. The world I take in using my senses in a given moment, firsthand experiences that leave a mark in my memory, and thoughts and digressions bubbling in the skull, products of introversion. These are mine, but the secondhand information that is pass into my brain one way or another is not processed in a different meat grinder. It is the same meat grinder that grinds my meat and their meat, and soon enough all the meat is mashed together and becomes indistinguishable from each other.

A simple illustration is this: I go to a restaurant or watch a movie/TV show or read a book. I form my immediate reaction toward it --- I like it. I don't like it. I'm ambivalent. I read a review published in Washington Post about the restaurant/movie/TV/book. Maybe two reviews. Maybe a review in WaPo, one in The New Yorker, and a bunch on Yelp. And then I chat with a friend and he or she gives me his or her take. I process all of this in my head. What is left? How much of my own direct, firsthand, instinctive impression is left the the blob of opinion/memory in my own head?

What are people saying about XXX? The urge to know is strong. That is what drives my uncontrollable curiosity. What do others think about "Game of Thrones", the gravitational wave discovered in background cosmic microwave images, the new Michael Lewis book, the political situation in Syria/UK/China/Washington, the wrinkles under my eyes? Perhaps more important, how do they feel about it?

Why do I want to know? Why do I NEED to know?

This is not a rant against sharing knowledge and feelings. Can you imagine everyone living on his own direct senses, experience, and ingenuity? He won't last a week in this world.

On the other hand, I want to understand better --- the grey blob in my skull, the crackling electrochemical activities, every moment different from the past and next --- how much of this is mine and how much is someone else's. I want to have a better grasp. If I am feeling the need to reduce and exclude others' thoughts from rushing in, maybe it's because turning off one faucet helps me see how much and what exactly is coming out of the other faucet, ie, mine.

Also, maybe I feel like the "other minds" faucet has been running a bit too fast and voluminous as to drown out the other faucet, because the "neighborhood" has expanded massively to any stranger living in a basement three thousand miles away with Internet access, and sharing gossip has become vastly easier by moving nothing but nine fingers (the left thumb has no use on the keyboard). Perhaps the "me" faucet has grown irritated with being drowned out.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Online Comments

I don't know the origin of the saying but someone compared online comments to sewage. Seems about right to me.

Reading online comments to articles never yields any substantive benefit or enlightenment or satisfaction that lasts more than five minutes. Of course not all comment sections are excrement. New York Times and The Onion's AV Club have a markedly higher density of non-pukable comments on their Web site. (The Onion's own site wisely avoids the comment section altogether.) But these are exceptions. Most online comments are ... stupid is less of a problem than the mindnumbing dullness. So boring. So predictable. So repetitive. The comment sections are largely filled with pathetic attempts to make commenters feel smarter, wiser, better, and more consequential than they really are. A kind of mental masturbation. One can leave dozens of comments under YouTube videos mocking Adele's fatness. Does that change an iota of one's own worthlessness in comparison to Adele's magnificence?

Yet the crushingly dull banter floating in the sewage of Internet holds a kind of bizarre attraction for me. Whenever I read a semi-interesting piece, my finger on the mouse automatically pull the cursor down to scan the comment section. I caught myself doing this and began to wonder why. I seem to have a morbid curiosity for this crap and get micro-thrills akin to opening emails.

Perhaps it is akin to eaves dropping on a bunch of chattering strangers in a closed room. What's the gossip? What are people saying about this and that? What is on their mind? And then the question is why am I so keen on hearing the chatter. Why do I care what people are saying?

A friend of mine recently mentioned that she dragged herself up in the middle of the night to attend a company teleconference in a different timezone. She didn't need to but felt compelled. What are the news? She did not want to be left out. I suspect that this curiosity for neighborhood gossip is behind the many hours I have wasted on reading worthless sewage in the online comment sections.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Henry IV, Part 1

I feel a bit bad about being half asleep through most of the play. It's the spring, ugh.

The only clear impression I got was Hotspur prancing around half naked, showing off his sixpacks.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Dog Park

The other day I took a detour on the trail across the street and went to the other side of the Four Mile Run river. A fence appeared on the trail, but the wire gate was unlocked, so I pushed it open and walked through. Before long a dog skipped down the path, unleashed. Then another. On a wooded opening clusters of dogs were yapping and snapping at each other --- I couldn't tell whether they were serious or just playing. It dawned on me that I had entered a dog park.

I had never been surrounded by so many dogs in my life, not to mentioned unleashed. Of course, the humans were also hanging around, an indifferent eye on their pets. There were various breeds, sizes, colors, and looks. A yellow one, medium size, hopped over and sniffed me. I pretended not to notice. Another ran toward and then skipped past me.

Research says dogs read people better than people. I wondered if they could see the flutters in my chest. I was a little nervous. Anyway, none bit me. Some of the humans shot me a puzzled glance, as I had no dog with me. I passed the dog park uneventfully, all the while wondering why the canines running free did not begin tearing into each other's flesh despite that looked like fake fighting. But they didn't.

As I shut the exit gate behind me, I wondered if people had wondered the same about people.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Living in Others' Dreams, continued

When I read Oliver Burkeman's column this Sunday something clicked in my head. The subject of pursuing "the interesting" rather than "the truth" has to be related to in some way to the issue of living in other people's dreams instead of one's own dreams instead of a waking state.

Burkeman quoted Murray Davis to suggest that our pursuit of ideas is not motivated by a pursuit of truth but rather a pursuit of mental excitement. Or, more precisely, an escape from boredom.

I am as guilty as anyone in this escape. The mind is bored by ... what? Not working outdoors? Not hunting and gathering? Not struggling for survival every day and every moment? Not threatened by a thousand dangers of living in the wild? Not exhausted by constant physical exertion day after day? I'm not complaining, but the butt is indeed in the chair all day (like now), and the mind is indeed bored.

For a short while I got into the Chinese knock-off version of Quora known as 知乎。I could spend hours on it browsing various answers to various questions, most of which I could not give a toss or relate to my own life. It's positively addictive. Of course one could argue that this addiction has to do with the urge to know others, to learn, to understand, to peek into another mind. Whatever, but at one point I began to wonder about the meaning and purpose of acquiring knowledge.

In the world I grew up, the acquisition of knowledge is always good. The more the better. When I was small I had a knack for acquiring and retaining a variety of factoids from books I read. My father was proud of that, and a lot of people envied my "wide base of knowledge." Positive reinforcement might have given it a push, and now it is self perpetuating. This thirst for knowledge led me into a journalism job at one point, which I enjoyed a lot. I could have been at it still, despite sometimes wondering about the point of it.

I occasionally read the blog Farnam Street by a Canadian economist (or maybe a trader, I'm not clear on the difference). He reads several books a week, mostly nonfiction, and posts thoughts about them daily, usually quoting blocks of text from each book. The volume of his reading is very large. The tag line in his email newsletter is "Do you want to get smarter?" It's another big subject altogether about whether knowledge makes one smarter.

I'm not knocking this lifestyle of constantly trying to absorb a lot of knowledge and living in other people's dreams. That is how I have lived for most of my life. The proliferation of TED Talk is an indication that I am not alone in this. Of course, the mind's thrills do not have to come from TED Talk type of knowledge. It could also be knowledge of how your family and friends are living, what they had for lunch, what movies they saw, and how big their babies are now, via Facebook and WeChat and whatever. Or knowledge of how your favorite celebrities are living.

This is also a part of the issue of the separation of mind and body. The mind pursues thrills that the body cannot provide (unless you're an extreme sport practitioner). So it goes elsewhere and, in today's world, finds thrills easily in movies, computer games, and the Web. Not even books any more for the thrills come too slowly from the pages.

Skating is the only time when the mind cannot detach itself from the body. Running is only partially so. What is real experience of my own? If the mind does not register the body's experience, is it real? If the mind gets its thrills without the body's involvement, is it real? Are we all living in day dreams all day long? Worse, are we all living in other people's day dreams all day long? The problem is, at least in today's world, it is so easy for the mind to find endless thrills, and the body only gets in the way. The real thrills brought about by the body, like the sunset mentioned in Burkeman's article, can't compete with a blip on the screen.

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