Trains of Thought
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XXIX. balls & bugs

“The signaler tried to terminate us early at the last station.” A new reason for a morning’s train delay.

Illusions become stale. Once you’ve seen the Müller-Lyer arrows they won’t fool you again. Psychologists may at some point in the future run out of illusions to illustrate the mind’s foibles.

Follow simple rules and study the effect. For example, take a deep breath before you use an electronic device. What happens?

Most of us become obsessed with work at some point. How many calories are channeled into corporate endeavours?

There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx? They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, Mr. Beale, will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.  Paddy Chayefsky, The Network (1976)

The old trains are best. You can open a window on a Friday morning when the air is fresh and it feels like a train in motion should feel, especially when it’s not too crowded.

The fast trains are always full, the semi-fast starts off half-empty. Ten minutes of added time to destination is a price worth paying.

Rather than writing something down immediately mind-mark it and commit to recall the event through the filter of memory tomorrow:

The young woman filing her nails yesterday standing by the door in a crowded train. A persistent scraping sound for 20 mins. Public nail-grinding as an expression of freedom.

Wait until you have twenty seconds left to record the most immediate impressions from a half-hour journey:

Red trousers, beard, jumper over white shirt, talks about firing someone then turns back to The day’s headline in the Evening Standard: Sex Slave Beheading Outrage.

I am playing golf in a light fog accompanied by a reading of Why Buddhism is True. It is not a thick fog, that would be against the rules. “We have a strict rule that you must not hit a golf ball unless the area in which it will land is clearly visible.” Go against advice like this and you may run into a complicated case of negligence the outcome of which will be difficult to predict.

Decisions on liability for common law negligence in relation to golfing accidents are very fact specific. It is dangerous to lift dicta from one case and apply them in another. Phee v Gordon (2013) H&FLR 2014-46.

Listening to the book on Buddhism stirs me to examine my situation before I tee off: buttercup petals on creased white, wet golf shoes. Swing gently to stay on the course. As the ball flies my audiobook informs me that The Matrix hit a chord with Western Buddhists.

Among these people, The Matrix seemed an apt allegory of the transition they’d undergone, and so became known as a “dharma movie.” The word dharma has several meanings, including the Buddha’s teachings and the path that Buddhists should tread in response to those teachings. In the wake of The Matrix, a new shorthand for “I follow the dharma” came into currency: “I took the red pill.” Why Buddhism is True

Playing golf on a wet, low-visibility day is not a simple pleasure. My shoes are water-logged. I have lost many golf-balls.

The depth of pleasure is hidden from us. People insist that the pleasure that they get from wine is due to its taste and smell, or that music is pleasurable because of its sound, or that a movie is worth watching because of what’s on the screen. And of course this is all true . . . but only partially true. In each of these cases, the pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he or she is getting pleasure from. Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works

From the 7th (or 8th?) tee, I search in wet knee-high grass. Two runners appear, ruddy and red-faced: “We didn’t think we’d meet anyone here.” Neither did I.

Lots of people suck at golf, of course — most do, really. It’s just that many prefer to confront their ineptitude aspirationally… It’s amusing that the only guaranteed game enhancer, whose utility is explained in its very name, is one that far too often languishes in the pro shop, overlooked and unloved. Best of all, high-­visibility golf balls help you do the work of self-­betterment all by your lonesome, allowing you to identify your problems so that you can fix them yourself. At this point, my game has improved to the point that my blinding yellow Bridgestones have begun to feel like training wheels. But there’s a part of me that isn’t quite ready to let them go. They gave me a little bit of light when things were at their darkest.

Letter of Recommendation: High-Visibility Golf Balls, NYTimes

In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright pitches Plato vs. Buddha: “self-control has often been described as a matter of reason prevailing over feelings. Plato invoked the metaphor of a charioteer (the rational self) keeping horses (the unruly passions) under control.” He then goes on to explain the (enlightened) view that there is no charioteer: “this is a matter of nearly unanimous agreement among psychologists: the conscious self is not some all-powerful executive authority.”

So what does Plato actually say?

But since that which is moved by itself has been seen to be immortal, one who says that this self-motion is the essence and the very idea of the soul, will not be disgraced. For every body which derives motion from without is soulless, but that which has its motion within itself has a soul, since that is the nature of the soul; but if this is true,— that that which moves itself is nothing else than the soul,—then the soul would necessarily be ungenerated and immortal. Concerning the immortality of the soul this is enough; but about its form we must speak in the following manner. To tell what it really is would be a matter for utterly superhuman and long discourse, but it is within human power to describe it briefly in a figure; let us therefore speak in that way. We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome. Plato, Phaedrus

An essay on Why Plato is True could start by introducing some terminology. Let’s call the connection between the charioteer and his noble horse “System 1.” Similarly, the relationship between the charioteer and the ignoble horse is “System 2.”

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no [need] sense [?] of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration…

System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

The System 1 / System 2 theory maps to Plato’s metaphor of the souls. A “good” horse self-drives, while a “bad” horse requires concentration and agency from the charioteer. Now reverse the map: let System 1 be the bad-horse system and System 2 the good-horse system. You can again map systems with horses. The “bad” horse is impulsive and unrestrained while the “good” horse next to it operates carefully and counter-balances when necessary.

The ancient illuminates the modern. The System 1 / System 2 model is contained in the “composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer.” Truth depends on tender empiricism. Plato may not just be true, but a bit more true.

Darwin’s admiration for Goethe … makes good sense because, despite their many differences, they share what Goethe called a “tender empiricism” (zarte Empirie), a confidence that an intimate observation of nature can yield genuine insights, that a likeness between apes and human beings, for example, can be empirically seen and studied. Darwin and Goethe trusted their senses, although neither believed science was purely about sensual observation. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind

When does technology become a crutch to compensate for a decline? Edward Gibbon on the use of ancient machines for military purposes: “We may observe that the use of them in the field gradually became more prevalent, in proportion as personal valour and military skill declined with the Roman empire. When men were no longer found, their place was supplied by machines.”

Taste for technology is like a taste for wine. In both cases, bugs can add interest to experience. When we race through the tunnels leading into London on the semi-fast Class 365 the hopper windows snap open. In a way it’s a fault. But it’s the sort of lovely fault that adds flavour to a journey.

Of course, you can kill all natural yeasts, then use industrial yeast to start the fermentation, saturate the wine with SO2 and then strongly filtrate your wine. There will then be no remaining yeasts, but also no taste and no typicity. That is the difference between natural wine and industrial wine, between craftsmanship and mass-market product.’


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