Saturday, October 28

Meaning

For millions this life is a sad vale of tears
Sitting round with really nothing to say
While scientists say we're just simply spiralling coils
Of self-replicating DNA
- Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life

What's it all about? I have just begun reading this book by Julian Baggini, in which he explores the many possible answers to the question in the title. A large question mark is printed on the cover of the book. I have to admit I've only finished one chapter so far. In Looking for the blueprint, Baggini discusses the possibility of a meaning of life given to us by God. He wonders why we often assume that a meaning given by a divine creature, is somehow worth more than the meaning we can give to our lifes ourselves. Baggini considers the history of the Post-it notes. The repositionable adhesive that the notes use was discovered in 1963, but nobody had any idea what possible use this glue could have. Six years later, someone hit upon the idea of lightly adhesive bookmarks, an idea eventually resulting in Post-its.

"The Post-it note may seem like a trivial example, but it illustrates neatly the point that, when it comes to use or purpose, what matters is not necessarily what the inventor had in mind, but the uses or purposes the inovation actually is."

"What's it all about?" is one of those pocket-sized books to take with you on your way to work or school, reading a little everyday, and taking the time to reflect on the matter. Another book to recommend!

Friday, October 27

To the core

I have noticed it is hard to get to know me well. I am only truly myself when I am alone. Whenever other people are around, I change - anyone's presence will turn me into a slightly different person. She doesn't just act and talk differently - she also thinks in a different way than I do. The change of behavior around different people is quite universal, I assume. A way to optimalize communication - people will subconsiously imitate anyone they're talking to. But to what extent do we lose ourselves amongst others? If we strip away all imitations and assessments of the way we are seen by everone around us, what will be left of us? I am convinced we do all have a unique identity and character, a foundation beneath our 'everyday' shifting personality. On the other hand, I do not know where this 'core of being' came from, how it was created, what its exact characteristics and boundaries are. Is there really any possibility that my identity cannot be traced back to other people?

Perhaps I could say I - meaning, my mental self - have created myself in a process of filtering out influences from the outside world. The outcome of this continuous process in any person will determine his thoughts, opinions, and behavior; his character, the expression of who he 'is'. Genetics might play a part in either someone's identity, the extent to which one is able to express that identity, or the way in which information is filtered. After all, we do have something to begin with, a base from which to build. And arising from this concept, it could be that I feel I am 'myself' most at times on which the 'core of my being' - the mosaic of influences I have collected from birth - is well-balanced. When new influences start to come in; certain parts begin to dominate in order to provide the right response. That would imply I am in fact doing no such thing as losing myself amongst other people. Although I still don't like being thrown off balance.

Saturday, October 21

Sweet scents

Who wouldn't want to buy a perfume that evokes the universal scent of happiness? Researchers hope to develop that perfume by investigating the brainwaves of volunteers, to discover the exact characteristics of the fragrance that makes everyone feel good. Sensory scientists have assumed for years that our reactions to smell were only dependent on our cultural background, but brain scans now indicate that our responses to some smells are innate. Could it really be developed, a perfume of universal joy? Maybe we should rather try to capture the scents of our beloved ones, and find a way to reproduce those sweet fragrances. This would provide a way to be taken back to the events of our distant memories, just for a brief moment every now and then, even after the people we hold dear are gone. We could catch the very fragrances that personally bring about strong associations with happiness and love - grandmother's apple pie, oranges, a particular aftershave mixed with the scent of sigarettes. That last one makes me loose my mind every time I smell it - or rather, it makes me loose my heart.

Wednesday, October 18

Sparkling

Even though my vote is like a single grain of sand on the beach, it’s my grain and it sparkles.- Lynn Sislo

If I would have choose between Republicans and Democrats, I would vote Democratic. Easy. Not because that's the only right choice, but because left-wing viewpoints match my personal ideas best. Anyway, in the Netherlands, things are a little different. Politics are not so much a battle between two heavyweights, there are a lot of political parties that can really make a difference. I reckon that is a good thing, because voters have a better chance of finding a party that really matches their viewpoints. On the other hand, I found it can be very hard to actually find the party that appeals most to me. The upcoming elections for the Tweede Kamer - the main chamber of parliament in the Netherlands - are going to be my first chance of casting my vote as a citizen of the Netherlands, and I reckon it is important to make a considered decision. However, I am still doubting between three different left-wing parties. The issues on which they have different standpoints are the very same issues on which I don't have a strong opinion. Not because I refrain from thinking about these issues seriously, but rather because I don't feel I have enough information about them to make a decision of any significance. Who am I to judge? Frankly, I reckon that's perfectly alright. Not choosing between two choices can be a choice as well. But next month I do have to make a choice. I wonder if my vote will sparkle.

Saturday, October 14

Mistakes of reason

Objectivity is the perfect reflection of reality, an ivory tower that we can never reach, standing forever at the far horizon of our world. We know it's there, but we cannot see it clearly; its image is always enveloped in mist. The fact that it is unlike anything man has ever visited before makes it hard to estimate the distance between ourselves and this mythical beacon. Sometimes objectivity can appear close while being far away. We do not notice it, but this actually happens all the time. Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini is a distinguished cognitive researcher who wrote a captivating book on this subject - not in the misty way I am describing it, but in the language of exact science. In Inevitable Illusions Piatelli-Palmarini explains how we fool ourselves time and again. And we rarely ever notice how absurdly wrong our conclusions really are; everything seems to make perfect sense. The book gives numerous examples showing what goes wrong in our minds, and although I must admit that at first, I thought this was simply an easy way to fill the two-hundred pages, it turns out these examples are essential in understanding the matter. Assessing the implications of our mistakes of reason would be impossible for anyone who hasn't studied cognitive science.

Imagine you were to take a clinical test for an illness affecting 1 percent of the population in the same age group as yourself. The test is 79 percent reliable. That is, 21 percent of all positive outcomes is false. In your case, the test comes back positive. Knowing this, what is the probability that you actually have the illness (not taking into account any symptoms or signs)? Think about it.

The majority of people who were asked this question answered with some confidence that the probability of having the illness is equal to the reliability of the test, 79 percent. This would certainly have been my answer as well. But the statistically correct answer is 8 percent! Our intuition miserably fails in this case, and many others. If you'd like to know more, I warmly recommend reading Inevitable Illusions. You might not be able to avoid making mistakes of reason after reading this book, but at least you will have a better insight in the error margin of your intuition.

Friday, October 13

Up to me

If I would make a list of all the things I want to do before I die, it would certainly be very long. And somewhere in that list you'll find "eating a bagel in New York". Probably listed right after "going to New York". Bagels are sold in the Netherlands as well, of course, but it doesn't quite feel like the real thing. I don't know if the taste of a Dutch bagel is very different from a New York bagel - I have to admit I have never bought a bagel here either - but they've probably spoiled it by adding egg and making it a 'normal' bun. But I do love making bagels myself. It's unlike baking anything else. Making bagels is almost meditation, requiring patience, attention, and an unknown secret ingredient that makes it so lovely to do. My bagels aren't the real thing either, but they are made with love. Maybe that's what makes them taste so good, especially with some cream cheese, onion, and chives.

Thursday, October 12

In truth, part 2

Truth is a very relative notion in our subjective conception of the world. But we do have a more or less collective truth, of course. Very few people will question me if I say I am wearing a grey sweater today, once they have seen me. But some issues are easily interpreted in different ways by different people. And unfortunately, these issues are often of more importance than the color of a sweater. I will not be offended by anyone calling my sweater green as opposed to grey, but I will be offended if someone calls me rude in a situation where I consider myself friendly. It's easier and of less significance to agree on the color of a sweater. I have discussed the naming of a particular color before, but the discussion was light-hearted and would never have resulted in an argument.

Should we always be as honest as possible? I reckon we shouldn't. I feel it's worse to hurt somebody over something of little importance, than to keep my actual opinion from them. I've used this quote before, but I reckon my opinion doesn’t hold much water outside of My Universe. Why bother? On the other hand, even hurtful truths have their advantages. Take Cedrick, for instance. Cedrick doesn't come across as a friendly guy at first. This has an obvious reason; he always says exactly what he thinks. Ask a random person for a honest opinion on something you have made or done. They will probably wrap their criticism in friendly advice, trying to make it 'constructive' and easy for you to deal with. Ask Cedrick, and he will tell you the truth - that you've done it wrong. All wrong. And that kind of criticism is much harder to handle. But if Cedrick says you're doing alright, if he says your work looks good? Then he makes your day.

Wednesday, October 11

In truth, part 1

If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything. - Mark Twain

The truth has the unmistakable ability to hurt. Not because there is anything wrong with the truth itself, but because the lies - that so often replace it - tend to be more pleasant to hear. And we have all gotten used to those sweet little lies. Should we always speak the truth? Is everything other than the truth to be called a lie? I think many will agree with me that it's not that simple. Between the unconquerable tower of absolute truth - a perfect reflection of reality - and the low pits of twisted lies, we find the plains of politeness, old wives' tales, and small lies that are supposedly used only to protect one's feelings. These common alterations of the truth can hardly be called lies. They might or might not be harmful or depraved, but can certainly not be condemned that easily.

Nobody can always be truthful, because nobody knows the truth. As I have mentioned before, it seems to me that we are forced to fix our entire worldview onto crooked foundations. We cannot even be sure that the most constitutive facts match reality for one-hundred percent. The Matrix-concept illustrates this idea perfectly; how can we be sure we can trust our senses? How can we be sure that we even control our thoughts? These ideas might seem very far-fetched, but if you dismiss them as nonsense you're missing the point. I'm not saying I think we are all living in a virtual world constructed of lies, or that we are likely to be deceived in such a way. Frankly, I am of the opinion that the chance of this idea resembling the truth even slightly, is extremely small. Small, but existant. None of us is able to completely exclude the possibility of something so improbable to be true anyway - against all odds. We just can't be sure. This goes for every accepted fact and every insane conspiracy theory - we can only evaluate the likelihood of something being true. It's mind-stretching, indeed, but it's also a very important thing to realize.

Sunday, October 8

Sound

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. - Aldous Huxley

What is it about music? I'm not talking about an average broadcast of any given radiostation. What makes your favorite music better than just good music? Why do I associate Josh Radin's music with taking the metro at a rainy day? Why haven't I been able to listen to Our Lady Peace for years, being shocked by the singer's voice too much? What is it about Frank Sinatra that makes my heart a dancer? Why does Evermore's It's Too Late take me back to events I would have forgotten otherwise? Some music seems to be able to reach out and grasp hearts.

I cannot explain why. There are more or less logical explanations for even the most intense sensations. Falling in love feels all but rational, but why it should feel like that can be founded in a scientific way. The same goes for being influenced by other people and events. But there is something different about music, something inexpressible. It can make you feel buoyant or wistful, courageous or timid. It can take you places. Music shows that not everything is logical. It's way beyond reason.