Trains of Thought
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II. 30/01-03/02/17; Waiting on the Barbarians

Luberon is still in the Rhone, though it could be Provence. A border town. All the reds contain Syrah and some Grenache and perhaps Mourvèdre and Cinsaut.

“If you attack Persia, you will destroy a great empire.” The art of giving predictions that will hold true: Croesus attacked, believing this prediction to be in his favour and lost the empire he had built.

It’s the 365522 today. The puddles had already formed on the platform, puddles of people accumulated where the doors are known to open. A group of regulars form a private puddle. Sure you can join it, but you’ll never be first on. One of them will have a better spot and they work together, letting each other in.

It’s crowded today, no seats except on one of the 4 seat islands with 2 facing 2. None of the other three are wearing suits. Diagonally opposite: a woolly hat drawn down to the tip of his nose, all dressed in black, his head against a cushion propped against the window. His beard is mostly black on the upper lip, mixed and then white as it joins his hat by the ear. Next to him and opposite me another bearded fellow. A high collared jacket over a black t-shirt. iPhone earphones. His beard is still brown except for a small fleck of white. A pale blue adidas cap shields his eyes.  The rim at the front is frayed, more so on his left than his right.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.  MEDITATION XVII – Devotions upon Emergent Occasions – John Donne

One row behind someone is still wearing a Remembrance Day poppy pin. It smells damp. A man on the other side of the aisle wears a pale pink shirt with white stripes. His headphones are enormous, covering a significant part of his head. AKG they say. His belly is an armrest, folding out over his hips. He has an iPad set up in front of him but doesn’t look at it.

An interesting story requires tension, knotted malignancies and complications should strain against an increasing load until the knot bursts. We look at people and most of the time we probably imagine them to be like us. What other reference point do we have? All the men are awake now. The tiredness flows from their faces remarkably quickly.

It’s still dark outside. Yellow street lights, carriage lights from passing trains, slim station roof lights, lights from waking households, most of the apartment block windows are still dark. The station is announced; complete darkness outside except for some signal lights; tunnels. The source of the damp musty smell becomes clear now as my neighbour stands up.

Islands of debris faintly illuminated on the track-side as the train draws into the station.

So many of our thoughts remain untapped. Of course we can’t keep a hold on all the fragments, figments, associations. If we started to write everything down, we’d begin to repeat ourselves. That’s the risk here as well. Won’t it be the same sort of thing over and over again?

There are days (work-days) when you wonder what you’re contributing. What value are you adding? But then immediately the follow-on: what is valuable? Does anyone know that? Bridgewater, Netflix, Palantir: companies who try to build identity by appealing to the calling of extreme excellence. So you have people who are more intense, their clock speed is higher, they push the envelope. Is that a setup worth idealising?

System engineers are relaxed about sub-optimality. You look for overall optimality at a systems level. Of course everything depends on how you define “system.” Everything you can do, I can do meta” (Daniel Dennett and Charles Simonyi).

At dusk the landscape is Corot-like. Patches of colour, scattered huts, landscape muted and brownish. Blue grey sky.

It’s dangerous talking to people when they’re tired and at their limit. You don’t know how much general resentment they’ve stored up. The smallest addition can bring it all to boil over and suddenly that resentment is all for you to deal with.

A long stretch of wire, the posts are about 50 meters apart.

Saul Gass: The merging of the user and the modeller should cause cautionary alarm bells to go off.

It’s the 365535 today. The same group of four is sitting where it was yesterday. Safety mid-carriage next to a man who was friendly when I woke him up. Fleece overcoat, all blue, grey hair styled like a young boy straight out from the hairdresser, with a crest of gel. It’s the year of the rooster.

Bernard Henri-Levy on Charlie Rose: he has evangelical flair. What does it mean for a prophet to be sent to Nineveh, to preach to a notorious people. How does it feel? The Aleppo massacre: one doesn’t hear much about it: very true. Why?

The Great Surprise; Lerman’s life notes; forever dreaming about the work he felt was inside him (“the enormous book I want so much to do”) but distracted by high society. Mendelsohn writes he was a Proust fanatic but then why did he discard Proust’s central lesson? Is Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza based on The Great Surprise? It feels like that. Jean Santeuil: “whitewash brush” – crude strokes and slashes. Remembrance: “the brushes used are the finest sable…, so sensitive that the fiercest storms are minutely impaled.” And then he compares the development in J.S to a movement through milky Whistlers… damp fog, starry lights, glowing sharply in the blue-White, skim milk light… And this sketchbook should be exhibited alongside Degas’s, Manet’s, Saint-Aubin’s. (Ignorance: I have not seen Saint-Aubin’s – a Louvre catalogue entry describes him as a marginal artist who roamed the streets with a sketchbook in his hands.)

Brushes are important. The good water colourists are honoured by art supply shops: they get a line of signature brushes. A homage; a marketing ploy…

We must give up, as Lerman writes, “just existing, just riding on the tide from moment to moment…” The only escape from the chain of hours is to create a work that integrates these moments.

An apartment block with a wood paneled, balconied facade and hundreds, perhaps thousands of lights. Perhaps 20 for each balcony.

The breeze and I by Shifrin as we pull in. The screeches are fitting, could be the train braking.

My neighbour has a shiny new leather satchel with yellow stitching. It must have been a Christmas gift. And indeed look: there’s a red ribbon still attached to one of the buckles with blue and yellow stars. I strain to read the brand, the text is obscured: Di Martini?

Now I am like one of those  people who can’t stop writing texts and emails as they walk except I am writing this.

You don’t expect to face moral dilemmas at work, but you do. That’s when you find out whether you have character or not.

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. Repeat this mantra. It’s important to “go deep” to the the truth behind the act, the script, the books, the written word. The beauty of Judaism is its singular focus on the written word.

Trump probably thinks that all the world’s a stage too. And Barron is the stage director. But the production lacks depth. What is keeping him going is the fact that it takes more energy to dispel bullshit than to create it. Bullshit begets bullshit, it multiplies like bacteria do. Easy to make, difficult to clean up. The bullshit asymmetry principle. Education is the only vaccination. Shakespeare  remains truthful in the so called post-Truth era.

The 365540 this morning. Another person wearing a poppy on his jacket; a perennial poppy. Red hair and beard, Diesel glasses. A woman talking on the phone about treatment options for a chronic illness. She’s a doctor, probably: “yeah, yeah that’s fine, not a problem.” A woman in red hair scowls and stares. All in black and large black glasses. Gothic professional.

On the island of four across the aisle, every inhabitant is concentrating on their mobile phone. The bearded red-haired passenger is playing a game.

The ticket collector is passing through. Why does it take manual labour to check tickets? They say ticket collectors in Japan are the most polite: a bow and a greeting to each passenger separately. If all the world’s a stage then you might as well turn out a good production, with a hint of something grander behind it all.

Not many people read books on trains. Perhaps there would be an opportunity to sell books cheaply at the station or to loan them out somehow. It’s surprising that libraries are not more popular. That’s a failure of the state. Amazon is filling the gap.   But Amazon can’t integrate into a local community, can it? Maybe Amazon could start a local library partnership programme. Step in where the state is failing.

From the 365536 (Rufus Barnes) you see the pinkish  morning light seeping through the clouds like the colours of an unwanted painting through the whitewash.

Imagine a club of fine writers who call themselves the Angry Essayists. They correspond to each other through critical essays they get published in literary magazines. The messages are between the lines, decipherable only by the initiated.

The sunrise in the distance is like a curved shield of bronze reflecting a bright light of the setting sun from the west.

How long will it be until there is an app that takes as its input not just your accelerometer data, your sleeping noise, your heart rate, but also all the writing you produce in a day? What KPI could that give you?

Tattered paper lines sections of the tunnel like clouds line the sky.

“What I try for is the half-conscious insistence on the nobilities of the subject.” The portraits of G.F Watts: his self portrait, head forward, giving an impression of reticence, a shy dog. Simple garb, red beard, a rich rough, red (burgundy?) background. John Stuart Mill: deep dark eyes, impenetrable, inaccessible, dark as his black cloak, white collar, a landscape of wrinkled wisdom above the nose, a continuity from nose to eyebrows: like a mountain landscape.  He died soon after the portrait was made. Thomas Carlyle did not like his portrait: chin jutting forward, cheeks red-speckled, eyes cast downwards: “decidedly the most insufferable picture that has yet been made of me, a delirious looking mountebank full of violence, awkwardness, atrocity and stupidity… the fault of Watts is a passionate pursuit of strength.” Julia Margaret Cameron, a specialist in close-up photography: a mournful saint, gaunt and introverted, her gown simple but rich, perhaps silk.

In Waiting For The Barbarians Daniel Mendelsohn compares the competing theories about Homer’s Iliad to differing attitudes towards a a Wiki. What is more important: the incremental process of creation, refinement by edits and deletions or the first entry, the initial seedling, the core that laid the foundation? The purists want to find the original, true core, while the pragmatists look at the entries over time, the dynamics of the timeline.

A window into another world: a woman in a yellow-green coat is V-chatting with a man in China. That’s a presumption, of course. He might be in an apartment in Cambridge. He is showing her his dinner on a low wooden table. He is wearing a grey pullover and a jacket, it must be cold inside. The quality of the video is excellent. The girl is happy, excited, but the man who is presumably her boyfriend seems shifty, keeps looking away, not meeting the eye of the camera. His smiles are short, hers are long. They hang up and the happiness leaves the woman like air on an out-breath. She has a small red flower tattooed on her hand and uses the phone as a mirror.

The grass is rich and wet but marred by the ugliness of the impromptu metal sheet structures on the fields. A round island of shrubs, trees – a mini-wood – surrounded by farmland. How did that come about?

365524, the train is a bit less full at the end of the week. “But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty…” That’s the last line of a fragment of a poem by Sappho. What next?

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