Trains of Thought
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IV. 12/02-17/02/17; s’ingénier

Work is what you do for others, art is what you do for yourself. Sondheim finds a way of connecting Seurat’s approach to painting with the experience of a modern artist: Seurat paints point by point and the picture only comes together in the visual cortex (?) of the viewer, where the points merge into a greater whole. Similarly, the modern artist must pool followers and financial support drop by drop, but how does it come together in the end? Who has the patience to keep looking?

Image may contain: 1 person, standing

Sunday in the Park with George, Stanwix Theatre

Full moon, drifting dark clouds like ink in water. A perfect orb, itself flecked with dark marks, like smaller versions of the clouds that mask it from the viewer on earth.

Lantern festival, 15 days into the new lunar month. Traditionally this was the one day in the year when young women could go out on a date without fear for their reputation. You can imagine the scenes: lanterns of all shapes and sizes, mechanical contraptions, the bustling street, throbbing in the young night, thousands of little flames straining upwards, and glowing outwards, filtered and red.

According to Adam Smith it is possible to do something for yourself while also doing something for others.

A train journey in free time lacks tension. The tension of the commute makes ideas pop up faster, neuronal fire, strafing, tracers that reveal the position of a new thought. The drive to concentrate on the train to work is greater because time is more limited, squashed inwards by the arrival in office, with its own laws of space-time.

Deadlines encourage creativity. On the way back from work, time flows outward again. It’s similar to when you compress air: the compression is controlled and methodical but when you let go the expansion back to equilibrium is slower and sometimes even messy, like when you let a balloon fly and it sputters, blubbery and messily until it settles out of shape.

An older train with its low blue seat, the breeze from an open window, the light dimmed and yellow through tarnished covers. “Please note you have to press and hold the open door button for the door to open,” says the driver through the intercom. Small rounded side tables, ledges, just barely convenient and unobtrusive. There are no nasty smells as in Virgin’s Alstom Pendolinos.

Silver MacBook, brown shoes and beige socks, dark blue slacks, clean, fresh white shirt, very tired face — deep frown, hair purposely messy with gel, looks a bit like Vincent Cassel. The man next to him also with laptop, Asian characteristics, light-rimmed black glasses, he yawns widely and immediately Vincent yawns. The yawn is infectious through peripheral vision. It’s not a coincidence — another yawn and again Vincent follows up.

Rusty railings, brown brick houses backing onto the tracks, dark green and brown, slow through Finsbury Park, the train will be late. Grey high-rise apartments. A man standing: “it’s complex, it’s complex” he is saying to an admiring audience. I’ve seen him before. He talked about the best way of traveling in to London from Letchworth.

Tall man, white hair, rugged face, gone.

No fog this morning except in small cracks between the fields; miniature valleys. I haven’t seen a man with a physical copy of the Financial Times for a long time. Half of the copy sticks out of the back-pocket of a frayed satchel. The other half sits on the lap of its owner, the disheveled-looking business man. His collar is unironed, which also makes it look unwashed. He is reading an article on tax reforms pushing US stocks and the dollar to new records.

The man behind him is wearing a blue walking coat and reads an article about Trump on his phone.

The man opposite the financial times has deep wrinkles on his forehead, eyebrows raised in concentration: he is deep-reading something on his phone. His red hair is becoming thin on the crown, his glasses stick out significantly  beyond the edges of his sockets.

The cracks of morning light in the sky have the same colour as the pink sheets of the FT, all of which are now tucked into the satchel. Its reader has tilted his head back, he wants to sleep. He fingers his unironed collar. He is restless, wipes his nose with his hand, shabby elegance indeed.

The man next to me is reading Metro and chewing his fingernails. His teeth slip from the nail and hit together, giving off a medium-bright sound, which has some depth and body because it reverberates through his jaw bone. Now he has moved from biting his nails to picking his nose. Elegance is relative.

The FT-coloured edges of the blue sky are becoming thinner. Islands of pink remain where the cloud breaks the light.

Teacups in the Financial Times, Benjamin Hope

This is a serious commute. It is very quiet, not a single word has been spoken for over twenty minutes in a full carriage.

Once you have an image in mind, a night-time scene of the Thames by Whistler, then you start to see it everywhere. Reality “snaps to grid” where the grid is given by deep memories connected via highly weighted associations. You could visualise it as a topological map taken from reality, similar to what happens in topological data analysis.

It’s the yellow street lights against the blue sky and the skyline of trees. Here you have versions of the most salient characteristics in the Whistler and the mind instantly makes that connection. So now the question is how to broaden out your standard set of “go-to” images.

Another morning but a different crowd in the carriage. Diagonally in front, with straw hair and a week or two-week old beard, light blue-Green jacket, socks with reindeer on them and well-kept brown shoes, sits a young programmer. His attention is glued to a small portable laptop with its camera taped over and he is writing what looks like code from afar or at least he was for a while before he began browsing.

A couple of rows down is a man wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. Perhaps he will run to work from the station. His right leg sticks out into the aisle ending in a green-tongued running shoe. The leg is an impressive specimen, long and muscular, gleaming with the reflection of the interior lighting from above. It could be the leg on a marble statue by Meštrović. It has the same rough-hewn quality. In front of him is a cerebral looking man with a phone in his front shirt pocket, camera facing out, elegant small watch with a brown strap, rimless glasses that are slightly wider across the face than usual, a half-body of hair, white and grey and still dark by the ears. White shirt, black suit trousers, lost in concentration on his iPad. And behind the marble leg is a hipster wearing black impenetrable sunglasses, brown hair styled diagonally backwards, an immature fuzzy beard around his mouth.

The man next to me has £756.31 in his PayPal account. He has not looked up from his phone once.

The sky is cream-coloured where the clouds don’t cover it and grey/blue otherwise. Coriolanus consumed as an audio-book.

I am known to be a humorous patrician, and one that
loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying
Tiber in’t; said to be something imperfect in
favouring the first complaint; hasty and tinder-like
upon too trivial motion; one that converses more
with the buttock of the night than with the forehead
of the morning: what I think I utter, and spend my
malice in my breath. Meeting two such wealsmen as
you are–I cannot call you Lycurguses–if the drink
you give me touch my palate adversely, I make a
crooked face at it. I can’t say your worships have
delivered the matter well, when I find the ass in
compound with the major part of your syllables: and
though I must be content to bear with those that say
you are reverend grave men, yet they lie deadly that
tell you you have good faces. If you see this in
the map of my microcosm, follows it that I am known
well enough too? what barm can your bisson
conspectuities glean out of this character, if I be
known well enough too?

The same seat as yesterday morning, with the programmer also sitting where he was yesterday. Same shoes and jacket but different socks. Next to me a man wearing a windstopper has just finished the introduction to Machiavelli’s The Prince: “accept therefore, your magnificence, this little gift in the spirit that I send it…” Now down to business: “But it is in the new principality that difficulties arise.” He seems impatient, flips forward the pages to see what is coming up. He has the air of a building site supervisor, no that’s not quite right. Civil Engineer: Pragmatically dressed, no nonsense all around, civilised and gentle but firm. One had the urge to ask or to follow and find out in order to train one’s instincts.

There are certain moments, one feels, when someone is challenged by a new idea or impression, that his mind becomes vulnerable to accepting the necessity of building a philosophy of life for himself.

The instinct to defend one’s territory is one of the most elemental forces in human psychology. It’s the character trait which would be most revealing to know if it could be measured and summarised.

What is your territory? The body itself is of course the most immediate territory we guard, followed by the people in our family or tribe and our physical property. However, day to day questions of territory are usually questions about the ownership of ideas or processes. Concepts and ideas are fluid and difficult to collapse into clear definition. A rigorously developed mathematical proof is just a glimpse into an uncountably infinite dimensional space of concepts. So unless the encroachment into one’s territory is a direct physical violation, it is usually wise to look for a different perspective, an alternative reduction of dimensionality. This is the spirit of  philosophies (the Zhuangzi comes to mind) that say: “everything you can do, I can do meta.”  You may even offer the other cheek because the pain is trivial from a metaphysical perspective.

The term engineer comes out of the Sanskrit “jan” to be born which became “gen” in Latin, the French then coined “s’ingénier”. Le Littré (1880); INGÉNIER (S’) (v. réfl.)[in-jé-ni-é]: Chercher dans son génie, dans son esprit, quelque moyen pour réussir.”

And so, as the essay “Siemens Brothers – 1858-1958” points out, “an engineer is anyone who seeks in his mind, who sets his mental powers in action, in order to discover or devise some means of succeeding in a difficult task he may have to perform.”

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