Saturday, December 29, 2007

Internal Work III: Cultivating the Three Treasures

In my last post on the Internal Work I mentioned the san bao (三寶, three treasures), namely jing, qi, shen, and their progressive transmutations at different stages of the work. Their collective name, three treasures, is far from accidental, as they are the basis of the elixir. They must be preserved and cultivated at all cost, as life and well-being depend on them.

But, how?

I know no better advice than the one given in Chapter IV of Taoist Yoga, a translation by Charles Luk of a treatise on internal development by the Daoist Master Chao Pi Chen. Here it is:
  • The essence (jing) changes into vitality (qi) when the body is immobile,
  • The vitality (qi) changes into spirit (shen) when the heart is not agitated,
  • The spirit (shen) turns into Void (xu) as a result of the Immutable Thought.
So, now you have it. Notice that in all three case immobility plays the pivotal role. Immobility, not death: the conscious outcome of letting go, immobility that is the very height of awareness.
Not easy to come by, of course (just try to keep your body relaxed and immobile for a few minutes). But think of this: every moment you reach this immobility in the midst of ordinary life, the san bao are cultivated.
The Three Treasures are our true inborn treasure. We can be wealthy beyond our wildest dreams, if we use them judiciously.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Musical Rambling IV: Christmas with Torelli

Giuseppe Torelli is, with his contemporary Arcangelo Corelli, one of the creators (*) and chief exponents of the Concerto Grosso.

The Concerto Grosso is a form of baroque music where two groups, a smaller one known as the concertino, and a larger one, colorfully named ripieno (i.e. filled), play together a musical ping-pong of sorts that fuses into a stately harmonious whole.

I love the Concerto Grosso: it is full of great pathos that never decays into sentimentalism. You can clearly feel that each story in the Seicento was still a destiny...

Please enjoy Torelli's Christmas Concert Opus 8 Number 6, skillfully played by the Solistes de Versailles.

Merry Christmas everybody!

(*) actually, some attribute the paternity of this form to Stradella, but the first printed Concerto Grosso is, as far as I know, one by Corelli.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Poetry Readings I: Abdication, by Fernando Pessoa


Toma-me, ó noite eterna, nos teus braços
E chama-me teu filho... eu sou um rei
que voluntariamente abandonei
O meu trono de sonhos e cansaços.

Minha espada, pesada a braços lassos,
Em mão viris e calmas entreguei;
E meu cetro e coroa - eu os deixei
Na antecâmara, feitos em pedaços

Minha cota de malha, tão inútil,
Minhas esporas de um tinir tão fútil,
Deixei-as pela fria escadaria.

Despi a realeza, corpo e alma,
E regressei à noite antiga e calma
Como a paisagem ao morrer do dia.


Take me, O eternal night, in your arms
and call me your son.... I am a king
who willingly forsook
my throne of dreams and fatigues.

My sword, heavy in tired arms,
I entrusted to virile and calm hands;
my scepter and crown-I have left them
in the antechamber, broken in pieces.

My chain mail, so useless,
my spurs of so futile tingling
I have left them on the cold staircase.

I dismissed royalty, body and soul,
and went back to the ancient and calm night,
like the landscape at the end of the day.

Fernando Pessoa, 1913

Translated from the original by Polymathicus, the 18th December AD 2007

PS F. Pessoa will appear again in this blog, but not as the great gnostic poet he most certainly was. Instead, he will crop up as a remarkable example of accomplished personality shifter.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Proverb From Hell

Today at lunch an hispanic friend & colleague was telling me about his previous life as an investigative reporter in the Southern California's area.
At one point of his captivating story he quoted the following dictum, coming from some anti-crime operative:

-Los crimenes que se cometen en el Infierno no tienen angeles como testigos-
-The crimes that are committed in Hell do not have angels as witnesses-

Now, that is a hell of a proverb!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Internal Work II: The Three Crucibles

In my last post on the Internal Work I have talked about the meaning of dantian. As it turns out, there are three dantian, not just one. They are known as the xia (low) dantian , zhong (middle) dantian, and sha (high) dantian. Their location is in the belly, in the solar plexus, and in the middle of the front, respectively.

The dantian that is mentioned all over internal martial arts is in fact only the lower elixir field. One could then ask why the other two are usually ignored. They are not. Quite simply, one must start with a good foundation, and that comes from the work with the lower crucible. To be precise, the work that is accomplished in the xia dantian is epitomized by the saying 煉精化氣 lianjing huaqi, refine (lian) the essence (jing) and transform it (hua) into the vital force (qi).

The essence, or generative force, is the basic raw fuel without which the body decays. It is "boiled" into qi by the fire of attention in the lower dantian.

Later on, when sufficient qi has been produced and stored, the further steps are 煉氣化神 lianqi huashen, refine the vital force & turn it into spirit, which takes place in the middle dantian, and finally 煉神還虛 lianshen huanxu, refine the spirit & turn it into the Void (xu), inside the upper dantian.

As everything comes from the Void, or hunlun (the Primordial Chaos, see the recent post by Unurthed), everything must go back to it.

Before I leave, let me just point out one thing: each of the three stages is made of two components, the refinement and the transmutation of one substance into the next one.
Indeed, these two are one: it is by proper refinement that transmutation occurs.

PS The picture at the top, known as the neijin tu, beautifully illustrates the alchemical work in its entirety (notice the three levels, corresponding to the three dantian). You can take a more detailed look at the neijintu here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Musical Rambling III: Damrau in Der Hölle Rache

A friend and true opera's lover has brought to my attention this outstanding interpretation of the immortal Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen ("Hell's vengeance boils in my heart") by coloratura soprano Diana Damrau.

Magic Flute is my all-time favorite operatic masterpiece. It is at once:

  • an unbelievable musical tour de force
  • a deep masonic & alchemical journey
  • an amusing, spirited fairy tale

I can hardly imagine anything more appealing to my taste.

As for the Queen of the Night, she says it all in the final somber pentameters:

Hört, Rachegötter,
hört der Mutter Schwur!

Hear, Gods of Revenge,
hear the mother's curse!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Winter Landscape

Winter has finally arrived. Just a couple of hours ago I was driving home with my friend Zeno along some back road in the midst of a (moderate) snow storm, and I truly felt elated: finally nature was once more on the front stage. The endless row of cars, the hosts of grey workers and their bad moods, the maddening noises, the silly malls, all gone. One occasional pair of car lights would suddenly pop up and disappear, leaving the scene unspoiled.

How majestic must life have been in the not so remote past, when mankind was still small in the vast canvas of life! My thoughts went back to the sublime paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and particularly to Winter Landscape (1811). What was the name of that castle in the distance, or was it a church? Who lived there? Nothing is spoiling the sober beauty of the capacious expanse, nothing pollutes the unassailable silence that envelops the world.

There is peace, in that silence.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Internal Work I: The Field of Cinnabar

-Focus on the Dantian-, -Sink Qi in the Dantian-, -Center yourself in the Dantian-. Practitioners of Internal Arts are reminded of these basic principles innumerable times during their practice.

But, what really is this Dantian after all? If you feel uncomfortable listening to the often muddy explanations on the life-force, you can just think of the dantian as the area near the belly, the ideal centre of gravity of the body, as well as the set of muscles and fasciae that make it up. It is, interestingly enough, what Joseph Pilates called the powerhouse of the body (and right he was).

If, on the other hand, without falling under the easy spell of New Age mumblings, you crave for more, keep on reading.

A good starting point is (as it is almost always the case) the etymology: Dāntián (in Japanese Tanden) is a double word. The first character means elixir, and the second one field. It is thus the field of the elixir, the place where the alchemical process leading to the body's transformation takes its dutiful place. But there is more: Dān is actually a very specific substance, the red cinnabar, or mercury sulfide, the chemical HgS ( is made up of the root for well, and a dot inside, representing the cinnabar in its ore). Why then elixir? Students of western and eastern alchemy will immediately recognize the elixir par excellence, composed by the two main alchemical agents, sulphur and quicksilver.

Two agents, one result.

Summing up: the dantian is a crucible, the meeting place of two agents whose merging brings about the body's medicine, the sought-after elixir of long life and physical power. I have not said what the sulphur is, nor the mercury, and I am not going to. I shall stop here instead, and wish you good practice.

Time to focus on my own dantian.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Musical Rambling II: Round Midnight

All nights are magic. Die Welt ist tief, und tiefer als der Tag gedacht, the world is deep, and deeper than the day thought, as one reads in the unforgettable chapter of the Zarathustra (Das Nachtwandler-Lied, 12).

There is an unfathomable depth that unveils only to the happy ones who vigil when everyone else sleeps. That depth, that mystery, that lush, is conjured up at every turn of Thelonius Monks' magisterial work.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vermeer's Gentle Light

A few months ago I received an e-mail from my old friend Mimmo, who had spent a few vacation weeks touring art museums in the Nederlands. Upon reading those brief notes, a clump of dusty memories of my own stay in the Low Lands suddenly cropped up. Memories of long bike rides, of strolling along the grachten, of drinking jeneever, of lengthy discussions with my cosmopolitan colleagues on math, logic and life. Memories, most of all, of the uncanny light trapped in the canvas of Jan Vermeer.

I always loved his paintings, and always will. His art will be forever uppermost in my heart, just as the austere philosophy of his contemporary Baruch Spinoza (many have noticed the hidden parallelism between these two great Dutch geniuses. Incidentally, they were both born the same year 1623, and died prematurely at almost the same age).

That light is a gentle light. It is the light of reason, not the brutal and coarse Raison of the illuminists and their epigons, not the Ratio, but the light of the divine Intellectus, the light of the spinozan Amor Dei Intellectualis. Things levitate weightlessly in that gentle light, almost dissolving in it. There is no pain, no cries, no tragedy left, only a pervasive lingering melancholy in the very texture of being. And that melancholy is a blessing.

The world is tenuous in Vermeer's gentle light...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Musical Rambling I: Widerstehe doch der Sünde

Widerstehe doch der Sünde, aka Stand steadfast against sin (you can read it here in the original german, and here in english translation), is a magnificent cantata by J. S. Bach (BWV 54, to be exact). A good start for my musical ramblings is this spectacular interpretation by Glenn Gould from 1962 on YouTube. The singer is countertenor Russell Oberlin.

Bach and Gould, what could be more sublime and more sobering? From time to time it is wise to pause, shut the endless noise of this world out, and listen with full attention for a few minutes to a different Voice....

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Time within time, or how particles act like bees

Time flows, an instant goes away and is replaced by the next one, in a endless, silent, dull procession (at least, that is what our collective imaginary keeps repeating to us usque ad nauseam).

Pretty boring, right?

Unless... unless you can zoom into one of those instants, and find another time, a hidden time. After all, atoms of matter were thought of as indivisible only a little over one hundred years ago, and, as it turns out, they very very roomy; why should instants of time be any different?

Hidden time. A tantalizing hypothesis, and the basis of a fascinating model of Quantum Mechanics concocted by Pavel Kurakin and George Malinetskii, from the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics and the Russian Academy of Sciences (you can read an informal account here). Kurakin and Malinetskii have developed Cramer's transactional interpretation of QM, and gone a bit further. When a subatomic particle has to move, say from an emitting source to a detector, it sends out probing waves, like scout bees. Each goes its own way, hits the possible targets, and comes back. At the end, a global decision takes place, and the particle moves from one point to the next. This entire set of transactions happens in hidden time. In other words, before the particle has made up her mind, there is no time tick, at least as far as our physical clocks are concerned.

Intriguing, isn't it? A tacit assumption one always makes is that all phenomena occur within the same time scale. But there are other options. Perhaps what for me is a time tick, for you is an entire lifetime, or an eternity...

Yet another chapter in my book on Time.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Colonizing the Social Web

Back to this world, and back to business. As I have mentioned in a previous post, in the last year I have spent many (I mean, many) hours clarifying to myself what would be the exact point of application for my R&D start-up. I knew it would be connected with that most fascinating phenomenon we are all witnessing, web social networking. And, of course, it would have a lot of analytics and math modeling involved, as that is both my passion and my specialty. Well, I think I know now where to go. But, it is no time yet to make public statements. Instead, I want to mention a very interesting book I have just read on riding the wave of social communities. It is written by David Silver, founder of the Santa Fe Capital Group, a seasoned investor with broad and visionary perspectives. The title? Smart start-ups. How Entrepreneurs and Corporations can profit by starting on-line communities.

David Silver is very bullish on web and mobile communities, and sees the near future as the second step of a full-fledged large-scale colonization. Whereas the early history of the web took care of the basic plumbing, of building roads, docks, sewers, and what else, it is now prime time for creating communities that offer all services one would expect from a burgeoning colony.
In other words, the virtual equivalent of guilds, banks, schools, that turned a land of pioneers into a comfortable place to live. Silver provides a plethora of interesting scenarios. I shall quote just one, so I am not going to spoil the fun: a virtual money market exchange site, where you can trade real currency for virtual money earned in a multi-player gaming universe. He also gives a list of useful recommendations on how to bootstrap your communiteering business. Chief among his advices is: no ads. I think the fellow is right: who the heck wants to join a community where stupid and really ugly ads pop up uninvited? Plus, it sounds so big corp to work. Better let your community members generate content and revenues, and get a nice cut.

I could go on, but you get my point: if you are (as I am) interested in online communities from a potential business standpoint, take a deep look at this book. Only one minor caveat: to get people aboard may be a touch trickier than this sparkling booklet seems to imply.

PS By the way, David Silver is even more enthused by mobile communities than by web-based ones. The reason? You can make money by striking some deal with the service providers, each time members access your community.

Better learn real fast how to program in the mobile arena! This great new blog, by a true scout in the budding mobile software development world, is an excellent resource for the rest of us. Do not miss it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

By the Rivers Dark

The pouring rain, the crumpled dead leaves, the melancholic restless wind, we know them well: few days to Halloween, the mood is eery. A subtle magic is at work here: that tiny opening between the worlds, between ours and the other one, is a bit larger.

Imperceptible ghostly presences, fleeting spirits of the air, sly grimacing goblins and withered old witches, all come and go, leaving behind a weird trail and an unpleasant chill.....

No use fighting the gloom. It is a better course to let Old Time have its way, relax and tune your inner chords accordingly. Here are some useful suggestions for the evenings:

  • Cinema. If you haven't watched it yet, rent or buy Suspiria by Dario Argento, preparing for the Third Mother (last update on the movie: it will be released on Halloween's eve in Europe. US must wait a couple of months more)

  • Book. I would grab a copy of the superb John Silence cycle by Algernon Blackwood, and dive right into the intensely malignant tale Secret Worship. No one could conjure up such a strong sense of the supernatural as Blackwood managed to do in just a few evocative lines, trust my words.

  • Music. A friend of mine, The Mountain Keeper, has given me a wonderful gift, Ten New Songs by Leonard Cohen. Try out By the Rivers Dark: you won't be disappointed (if we were still in the psychedelic era, I would say it was a bad trip, but we are way past that point)

  • Comics. A copy of The Essential Doctor Strange Volume I fighting the Nightmare is a must. Talking of the great doctor: may the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto protect you and your loved ones from the lures of the Dark Side.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Six Skills of Master Kung

In a comment to my post "The Four Arts", Greg from unurthed pointed out that the famous taijiquan adept Professor Zhèng Mànqīng (Cheng Man-ch'ing in the Wade Giles system) was known as Master of the Five Excellencies (poetry, martial arts, painting, traditional chinese medicine, and calligraphy). He also suggested that perhaps there was some sort of precedent in China's past.

The topic deserved further investigations. Here is what I found: Zheng once said of himself that he was 70% Confucian, and 30% Taoist. Perhaps the key was in Confucius himself and his exemplary life, a model for Zheng and countless of other followers of the Confucian Way. Indeed, that was the case, with an interesting twist: Confucius actually practiced six arts, Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy, and Mathematics, and so did many of his students. As it turns out, the six arts were the recommended skills to be acquired during the Zhou Dinasty (1123 BC-256 BC), in order to qualify for the status of perfected gentleman.

It is worth noticing that the Six Arts eventually morphed into the four which I discussed in my previous post, leaving out important components, such as mathematics and martial prowness. Evidently, from The Zhou to the T'ang society had undergone deep changes. Martial arts and math were now for lower classes (fighters and accountants), and the gentry contracted its ideal accordingly. This phenomenon is not expecially chinese: all nobility is, at its inception, noblesse d'épée (nobility of the sword), as the french used to call it. Similarly, all archaic priesthood has mathematics at its very core (astrology, geomancy, etc.). Both nobility and priesthood later forget their roots and intents, as the social system becomes more sclerotic. China was apparently no exception.

Be that as it may, I am quite happy with the Six Arts as a template for excellency. The compleat polymath should strive to imitate great Master Kung, and diligently develop body, soul, and spirit, day by day.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A widespread virus called Mumbo Jumbo

I am about to spend a few words on a morbid, resilient and widespread virus called Mumbo Jumbo. In the last post I was pointing the finger to the copious outpouring of bad verse, which certainly contributes not a little to the ever increasing entropy of this world. Nevertheless, lame poetry is positively nothing in comparison to the foul mental marshes where Mumbo Jumbo grows and breeds. It has many exotic names, gobbledygook, abracadabra, gibberish, hocus pocus, to quote just a few, but one single meaning: total lack of sense. The scary thing is, almost no one seems to be completely immune from this hardy parasite: even scientists, particularly when they want to impress laymen with so-called popular science, all too often indulge in Mumbo Jumbo, and contribute to its dissemination.

So, why is Mumbo Jumbo so pervasive? There are many answers, but three stand first in my mind:

  • the primary one is simply lack of mental clarity. Contrary to the general belief, real thinking is quite uncommon. Thinking is hard: it requires effort. Most of what we consider thought is really nothing more than mental parroting, repetition of hearsay. We are so crammed every day by thousands of pseudo-ideas that it becomes difficult to wake up and think.
  • the second is power. Here is what the dictionary has to say: -Mumbo Jumbo. A term used to denote an object of senseless veneration, or a meaningless ceremony designed to overpower impressionable people- Yes, to use big words to intimidate the ignoramus is an old trick, but still very much in use.
  • last is fear, sheer fear. Fear of what? Of acknowledging that we do not understand. It requires courage to confess it (even to ourselves). And yet, only by a candid avowal we can make progress on our journey to real knowledge. Till we do, Mumbo Jumbo will provide the veil that hides us from truth.

PS Still like Mumbo Jumbo? Then fear not. There are a few good resources for filling your writings and speeches with nonsense without a single drop of sweat: the dowloadable Nonsense (check its hilarious "stupid laws" demo) does the job for you. Gibberish generator uses markov chains to output nonsense when fed with real text. Here is my little experiment with my own post (I have set it to level 5, done a touch of orthographic cleanup and overall polishing afterwards):

-Jumbo Jumbo grows and breeds I am about to the...... nevertheless, lame poetry is not a little to the ever increasing of bad verse, which certainly contributes to the copious outpouring entropy of the bad virus called Mumbo Jumbo. Mumbo Jumbo, Jumbo Jumbo Jumbo it grows and spreads wide verses, which certainly contributes not a little to the foul mental marshes where is Mumbo. Jumbo Jumbo grows and breeds-

Not bad at all.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Poets, do you know your feet?

Poets, do you know your feet? I mean, of course, metric feet, i.e. iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls, and their kins.
As you set out to navigate the slimy waters of the net, you are going to meet legions of wannabe poets. College boys and girls, housewives, corporate executives, scientists, loafers, millionaires, their vast nation knows no boundaries. Nothing wrong with that, make no mistake: the impulse that prompts us to engrave a fleeting moment, a searing emotion, a delicate mood, is innate and holy. It is healthy and noble to try one's hand at poetry, and share with friends and loved ones our newborn creatures. Nevertheless, if you aspire to write verses that stand a chance to last, it is imperative to remember the Horacian labor limae, the meticulous work of the mental chisel that polishes and repolishes our first attempts, till they truly shine.

So, how do you start? By learning how to march on your feet (it just occurred to me that metric feet are real feet indeed, to stand, walk and run). Poetry was born to be sung, aeds and bards were the first poets. They will be the last ones, too.

Rhythm is the soul of poetry, and rhythm is living arithmetic: one-TWO, one-TWO, one-TWO (a iamb), or ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three (a dactyl)....

Thus, here is how you begin: read out loud your verses, and listen. The sound will not betray you.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The timeless universe of Julian Barbour

Bookshops and public libraries are powerful attractors in my life: hardly a day passes by without a fleeting visit to these cornucopias of information and dreams. Friday was no exception: I was at Borders loafing about, and I ended up in the Physics section. My trained eye spotted an interesting title within seconds: The End of Time, by Julian Barbour. I had vaguely heard of the fellow before, through some readings on the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and on Quantum Gravity. Barbour, I seemed to recall, does not believe in Time. He in not alone, mind you: Melissus, Nagarjuna, Plotinus, McTaggart, and numerous others were also vocal disbelievers. But there is a difference: Dr. Barbour is a theoretical physicist, and physicists (with some notable exception, such as the Loop Quantum Gravity folks) assume space-time as the background where physics happens.

What kind of universe does Barbour envision? His world, which he cleverly christened Platonia, is a world of Nows (by the way, Platonia is also the name of his web site). Each Now is a possible configuration of the entire universe, complete in itself, and static (think of a single photo snapshot). How are Nows concatenated to one another? They aren't. Quite simply, there is notion of similarity describing how far apart two Nows (i.e. two universe's configurations) are. Some photos look similar, others do not. By arranging a list of contiguous Nows, one gets a factitious timeline, a bit like arranging photo grams one gets a movie (notice that you could arrange the deck in more than one manner).

All right, but how come we do experience the flow of time? Here is a clever move by Barbour (as matter of fact, a few others, like Emanuele Severino in Destino della Necessita', had a similar argument, albeit from a different angle). It is called time capsule. A time capsule is a special type of Now, containing some data that appear like traces of other Nows, or fragments of recorded history. Thus, in his view, there is no flow whatsoever, only we (you and I) are inside the same time capsule that suggests the existence of past & future.

Crazy? Not really. After all, what do we know about past and future? Only what our memory and our imagination tell us. No more, no less.

Summing up, Julian Barbour brings us back to the number 3 instead of the Minkowskian 3+1 =4. Space is real, time is not (*). Instead of increasing dimensions, like String theorists do, he reduces them by one. He kills Time.

Allow me to add a coda here, before quitting. I like all of the above, so much so that in my book on Time a section will be dedicated to charting the charming land of Platonia. However, I have a gut feeling that this is a great start, but not the entire story. Perhaps space too is not that real after all. Perhaps we live in a space-time capsule, and the entire vast expanse of this universe is no more than a mad game of mirrors within mirrors. Perhaps the basic ingredients of reality are not Nows, but a multiplicity of Here-And-Nows, hic et nunc. Perhaps....

(*) A note for the math-savvy: I hope my sentence above hasn't mislead anyone into believing that Barbour's universe is R^3. It is not; his kosmos is the so-called configuration space, whose dimension depends on how many entities there are. For instance, if there were only 3 particles, our physical universe would be the manifold whose points are the different configurations of a three-body system. As you can see, it is a pretty roomy house...

PS After coming back home, I chased Barbour all over the net. He appears in a riveting 1/2 hour video, which I truly liked. It is called Killing Time: enjoy.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sherlock Holmes on Decluttering

A few days ago an acquaintance of mine suggested a post on decluttering, after I had been extolling its broad benefits at all levels of the human ladder: physical, emotional, mental & spiritual. I shall candidly avow that by nature and by inured habits I tend to be a hoarder, so only quite recently I came to realize the importance, indeed the absolute necessity of letting go.

At the very moment when I decided to follow through with the cited suggestion, a chunk of memory emerged rather abruptly to the surface of my consciousness: it was none less than an entire passage from A study in Scarlet, first novel of the wildly successful Sherlock Holmes series.

To be sure, I could not recollect the exact words, only their gist and flavor, but a quick look up over the net came to rescue (I was away from home, where on my library's shelves loom large the two stately volumes of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes). Here is Doyle's text, in all its sparkling elegance and wit:

-His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

"You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
"To forget it!"
"You see," he explained, I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
"But the Solar System!" I protested.
"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

As you can see, there is more to decluttering than getting rid of that nasty heap of junk mail on the couch. This often neglected activity must be quietly and persistently carried out across the board, day by day: everything that is not useful must be disposed of, not excluded bad habits, stale friendships, ill-digested information, and, of course, physical trash.

Decluttering is a large component of the subtle metabolism of life: let us thus boldly embrace it, and we shall feel healthier, lighter and smarter too, voire the inimitable and unforgettable Mr. Holmes.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mathematician and Art Collector

In the aftermath of his passing (January 30th 1998), two tight and a bit idiosyncratic communities independently mourned Professor Samuel Eilenberg: mathematicians and art collectors said goodbye to one of their brightest stars.

For several decades this remarkable man had shifted, with no apparent effort, back and forth between two worlds as far apart as our modern compartmentalized culture would permit: in the first one, populated with commutative diagrams, abelian groups, towers of topological spaces, he was simply and only Sammy to everyone. In the other he painstakingly bought, sold, exchanged, assessed Burmese statuettes, Chinese ceramic, south east Asia religious artifacts of all kinds and sorts, all the while being known as the Professor. And professor he certainly was, but of what? Of math, of course, but I bet you that most of his fellow dealers wouldn't know, and wouldn't care either. He was The Professor, a darn good dealer.

I hear a voice rising:- What is the big deal? Aren't there thousands of individuals out there having a career and a hobby? - Well, sure there are, but there is a difference, a big difference, in fact two big differences.

First, Eilenberg was extremely successful at both. As a mathematician he literally changed the course of many fields of research, not to mention the fact that he was also at the very heart of countless initiatives and relentlessly promoting a mathematical enterprise of gargantuan proportions. In art, starting from virtually nothing (he immigrated in a rush from his native Poland, fleeing the Nazis), he built a unique collection worth several millions at the time of his donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

Second, he tried (and apparently succeeded remarkably well) to keep his two identities as separated as he could. He was two-in-one-body: a Mathematician and an Art Collector.

How did he manage to handle his dual life? What was the hidden thread between the two passions that ruled his life? What kind of mind shift (if any) did he need in sliding from one world to the next? Why did he keep his two roles so far apart?

So many questions....

Few weeks ago I called one of his students, asking for answers. There was only one: -I am afraid I cannot help. Sammy did not volunteer any information- To be sure I expected it, but I have to confess I was a bit disappointed. Somehow, I was still clinging to the tenuous hope that the veil would be lifted and I could peep inside Sammy's mysterious life...

In the last few years, after a long neglect, laymen books on mathematicians and outstanding math problems have cropped up at a steady pace (who hasn't heard of A beautiful Mind? ). I hope that someone, with a lot of time available and a good deal of patience (a bit of detective skills wouldn't hurt), will inquire into Sammy's story and write it down for the rest of us.

Till then, we are left with a great mathematical legacy, and a treasure trove at the Metropolitan Museum. Till then, we can just think one more time of a truly enigmatic man:

Sammy Eilenberg, Mathematician & Art Collector.

PS The photo of Sammy with his penetrating & pensive eyes at the top of this post renders full justice to the man (I know, as I was under his scrutiny for 30 very long seconds). However, there was another side of him, lighter, brighter, and a bit ironic too, as marvellously witnessed by this great pic at a Math Conference, in 1992 (please notice the big cigar & the exotic ring).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Three Mothers of Dario Argento

Most men would tell you that they have one mother. Dario Argento has, aside his natural one, three more. Their names are: Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darknesses), and Mater Lacrimarum (Mother of Tears). The Three Mothers are collectively named Mothers of Sorrow, as they are the ultimate source of the host of countless pains, griefs and sorrows ceaselessly haunting this ravaged world.
But, who is Dario Argento anyway? If you are an italian, chances are you know (primal fear's imprintings can hardly be erased). Quite simply, Argento is the creator of some of the scariest movies ever produced. A name for all will suffice, the terror-filled and blood-stained horror legend Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975).

In 1977, with Suspiria,Argento started the Three Mothers trilogy. The first Mother appeared, an old wicked witch and dance teacher named Helena Markos. A few years later the saga continued with Inferno and the second (unnamed) Mother. Afterwards, a long intermission. Several other movies have been penned by the Dark Maestro, but no word of the third installment. Then, the announcement: The Third Mother, starred by his daughter Asia (yes, the cute and gothic brunette partnering with Vin Diesel in 2002 action movie XXX), will see the light of the day late October this year.

Tremble folk, because the last mother, Mater Lacrimarum, is by far the most beautiful but by no means the nicest one! An old urn containing her ashes is recklessly opened, and there is no telling what will happen next...

Where did Argento got to learn about his Three Mothers? Folklore would have it that they come straight out of the mad fancy of the great English psychonaut, Thomas De Quincey, a character whom we shall encounter again in this blog. In Levana and Our ladies of Sorrow De Quincey ominously states:

Let us call them, therefore, Our Ladies of Sorrow. I know them thoroughly, and have walked in all their kingdoms. Three sisters they are, of one mysterious household; and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end.

This is not the entire story. The Three Mothers are old, very, very old indeed. Older than De Quincey, older than Merry England, older than Christendom, and perhaps even older than our dusty historical memory. In a seemingly more benign perspective they were the lunar Triple Goddess worshipped everywhere along the shiny coasts of the Mare Mediterraneum & on the foggy hills of Northern Europe, and whose cult has been resurrected by the poet and mythographer Robert Graves.

There is no denial of the Mothers. Pain, Grief and Sorrow are there, with their mute stubborn questioning. If you escape them in fear, they will chase you till the end of the world, as the Eumenides of Greek tragedy. But, if you bravely look into their eyes, the first light of day will dissipate their nightmarish gaze, and you will slowly awaken from the long, long slumber..

Friday, September 7, 2007

Stanislavsky's elusive word

The book An actor prepares by the great Russian theatre director Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky is known to virtually everyone interested in acting, and is perhaps the single most influential manual for actors of the twentieth century.

I have read it carefully and jealously keep a copy close
by on my shelves, not because I plan to become a professional actor (although I would not rule out that I might, at some point in time); rather, I take the sentence " all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" very seriously, and therefore strive to play my roles well (notice that I said roles, as they are plural, being a neophite practitioner of conscious personality shifting).

This wondrous manual has so much to commend it, that I have decided to refrain from saying anything at all about it. Instead, let me spend a few lines on a single elusive word.

A strange expression crops up quite frequently in Stanislavsky's method: perezhivanie. What does perezhivanie mean? In my russian vocabulary it is simply translated as experience. I remember asking my russian friends about it, and being told that perezhivanie is used frequently in common speech in the sense of enduring, living through: Ja perezhivaiou....

As a matter of fact, perezhivanie is a compound: the prefix -pere- stands for again (who has forgotten Gorbachev's battlehorse pere-strojka, i.e. re-construction?), but also through, whereas -zhivanie- is from the verb stem zhit', to live.

Stanislavsky asks the actor to live through the part, to re-live it, mentally, physically and emotionally. This is of course hardest in the extreme (particularly on the emotional side), yet a lofty goal for someone who wishes to bring a role to life.

Do you want to explore new roles? Do you feel like sneaking out of your skin from time to time and be free? Do you think there is more to you than what everyone (included you) knows about yourself?

You do?

Then keep this single magic word in your pocket, and never forget it: perezhivanie.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

From harmony to harmony

George Friederick Handel's An Ode for St. Cecilia's Day
is a true feast of mind & senses for disciples of Pythagoras, old and new. The text was written by poet laureate John Dryden, and is replete with Pythagorean themes, such as one finds throughout the works of the English Rosicrucian Dr. Fludd. Consider, for instance, the majestic Chorus:

From harmony, from heav'nly harmony,
This universal frame began,
From harmony to harmony,
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man

and compare it with the figure at page 47 of Robert Fludd
by Joselin Godwin. You will not fail to notice the close kinship between them.

It is so easy to lose oneself in the sublime and solemn gait of Handel's music and forget the equally wonderful rhymes of Dryden. Yet, for the full degustation of this rare pearl it is imperative to read carefully the libretto, and listen once more to the tunes.

We are, my fellow lovers of unbridled knowledge, los arduous alumnos de Pitágoras, as the great Argentinian bard knew so well (see La Noche Ciclica). Let us therefore pay homage to our Master and to the Celestial Muse Saint Cecilia, by listening reverently & gratefully to this heavenly music.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Four Arts: Polymaths in Imperial China

The Four Arts ( 四藝 in pinyin si yi), or Music-Board Game-Calligraphy-Painting ( 琴棋書畫 qin qi shu hua ), were the traditional four skills that the well-rounded chinese scholar and gentleman was supposed to master, since at least the Tang dynasty (618 CE-907 CE).

The idea of packaging these four traditional Chinese arts together was first mentioned in the writings of Zhāng Yànyuǎn, a polymath who was at once an art historian, a painter, and a calligrapher.

The qi in qin qi shu hua is actually the game of wei qi, or GO. Everyone who has played GO a few times will immediately know why it was made one of the Four Arts: it is a great tool to develop strategy skills (I shall return in another posting to the intriguing connections between GO and Chinese politico-military strategies).

The first time I heard of the Four Arts I was a bit disappointed, as martial arts were not in the list, at least as far as physical training goes. I make no claims to be anything more than an amateurish sinologist, but I will venture an interpretation for this omission. Martial Arts, or wushu,were practised as a way of living only by members of the lower classes, hoping through their prowess and acquired martial skills to make a name for themselves, and ultimately gain a position in the army or as private guards. It is perhaps this association that made wushu unfit for the gentleman's official repertoire. Nevertheless, it is well documented that some noblemen and scholars did get martial art training, as witnessed by the fact that, as late as the nineteen century, kung fu stars such as taijiquan Master Yang Luchan were making a very good living training high-level officers at the imperial court.

I do not know how much of this noble ideal has survived in modern China. I am afraid very little, especially after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution. It is nonetheless a testament to the greatness of chinese civilization, and a great example for all candidate renaissance men and women, that such well-balanced polymathy was for so long at the very peak of their educational system.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The double vocation of Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade is universally known as one of the greatest specialists in comparative religion of the twentieth century. Less known is the fact that he wrote many novels and short tales throughout his fairly long and quite eventful life.

Over the years I have read three of his literary works in translation: Şarpele (The serpent), Nuntă în cer (Wedding in Heaven), and, more recently, Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr. Honigberger. The english version is available in the booklet Two Strange Tales).

The last one seems to me the least worthy of them, but it is still a valuable quarry of information for everyone curious enough about the practical knowledge of Yoga gathered by Eliade during his early stay in the Himalayas.
From time to time, I entertain the slightly reckless idea of learning Romanian, to read his works (but also the poetry of Mikhai Eminescu and Tudor Arghezi) in the original tongue.
-After all-, whispers a malin génie inside of my head:-you know well that he studied italian to taste the explosive prose of Papini, so why can't you do the same with his books?- Thus far the little devil has not prevailed....

A few weeks ago, while I was scouring my favorite library, yet another novel of Eliade cropped up on the shelves after mysteriously disappearing for a good year, the English translation of Noaptea de Sânziene (The Forbidden Forest), published by Chicago University Press (Eliade helped create the world-famous Chicago School of Comparative Religions). I definitely plan to read it, as The Forbidden Forest was, in the great romanian's eyes, his Opus Majus, and also because its main theme is the escape from time and history (thus, good raw material for my work-in-progress on Time). In the meantime, I have skimmed through the preface written by the author, and here is what I found: it looks and feels like a confession of sorts. Mircea Eliade tells us how two souls have inhabited him since his childhood, a solar one, that prompted him to become a rigorous and encyclopedic scholar, and a lunar soul, that from time to time erupts like a volcano and forces him to abandon all his projects to write stories.

It is, with his vast production, a bit like the chicken and the egg: his scholarship provided a wealth of data and cues for his literary production, but, equally true, his systematic interest for myths was driven and nourished by the recurrent forays in the magic world of story-telling. Indeed, in the preface Eliade avows that some themes of The Forbidden Forest emerged to his lucid conscience only several years after the book was completed.

I find all of the above fascinating and oddly familiar: Eliade was unquestionably a prototypical polymath. Something in him violently rejected, even against his conscious will and well concocted plans, any form of compartmentalization of learning. There is, deep down in every polymath, a voraciously curious infant, that knows no boundaries.

A word of advice: let him play, from time to time....

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Imminent Rise of the Metaprogrammer

Caveat Lector: I shall indulge here in that most futile of all exercises, predicting the future. Allow me to put on the cloak of Merlin (not to mention his infamous pointed hat), look at the crystal ball, and solemnly proclaim, announce and declare
The Imminent Rise of the Metaprogrammer.

You have guessed right: a metaprogrammer is someone who develops metaprogramming code (metacode), i.e. code that creates and/or modifies programs (included, perhaps, itself).

Metaprogramming is by no means a new game: folks in functional programming (remember LISP?) have been writing metacode for many years. However, it is only quite recently that metaprogramming paradigms have percolated down to the world of mainstream programming (I am not counting in compilers, debuggers, etc.). Languages such as Python and Ruby, and to a lesser extent the new Java with annotations, have built-in metaprogramming capabilities.

Now, what kind of metacode can one write? The possibilities are, of course, endless. Nevertheless, for the sake of simplicity, we can classify metaprograms into two main categories, static and dynamic (for reference, check this synthetic presentation by Aussman and Kessler), somewhat mirroring the distinction compile time versus run-time: in the static category a metaprogram creates, edits. inspects some code, whereas in the dynamic model the same happens while the underlying program runs.

Rails is a successful example of static metaprogramming: it generates a template web project out of thin air (incidentally, I note in passing that there is a Java version of Rails, known as Grails. I shall talk on my experience with Grails in a future posting). There is no question in my mind that static metaprogramming will make further strides in the very near future.

However, my interest and hopes lean more toward the second category. I dream of a new generation of enterprise programs that modify themselves at run-time, to accommodate the ever-changing, often erratic business needs. Those programs will use both pillars of reflection, introspection, to see themselves, and introcession, to adapt and evolve.

In spite of the promises, and the fact that languages like Ruby amply provide the plumbing for sophisticated dynamic metaprogramming, so far (at least to my knowledge) we have only whetted our toes.

So, what do we need to get there? My gut feeling is that, aside the obvious step of educating mainstream programmers to the benefits (and potential marvels) of metaprogramming, two more things are necessary:
  • a single rock-solid example of applied dynamic metaprogramming

  • tools and environments to ease the work of prospective metaprogrammers

Some brave visionary soul must rise up to the challenge: any paladin out there to pick up the glove?

PS Conjecture: the two bullets above will pop up together in a single breath-taking sweep

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The great mantra of Guy Kawasaki

The great mantra of Guy Kawasaki is: Make Mantra. Last year, after creating my own start-up company, I began reading haphazardly and voraciously about entrepreneurship, till I found Guy' s remarkable little book: The Art of the Start. There are plenty of goodies therein, but to me the most sublime is the foregoing mantra. Why? Well, quite simply, because it is true.

Mantras are, literally, tools for the mind (from the sanskrit roots man-mind, and tra-tool), words, syllables, incantations, short sentences, that bring the mind to focus. Mantras are, chief and foremost, words of power, that should be repeated frequently, either loudly or silently. As words of power, they capture the soul of a thing.

When you start something new, always ask yourself (and be honest): does it have a mantra? If yes, you are half-way through: the mantra will gently lead you. If not, stop: there is no soul there yet.

I shall conclude this posting with my own all-purpose, ultra-powerful mantra:

-Find The Mantra First-

PS After reading the -Make mantra- lines, I have decided to temporarily freeze my company and forget about grants, angels, contracts, etc. Instead, I have bought a comfortable cushion, sat still in mokuso, and meditated to find the missing mantra. I think it has been a wise decision: stay tuned, world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Nayra qhipa: a walk through time facing backwards?

I have started writing a book on Time (in the same spirit of these ramblings), so I am collecting a conspicuous bulk of material on the old god Chronos, from every imaginable quarter: phenomenology, physics, high-brow literature, pulp fiction, anthropology and comparative linguistics.

In a recent surf I have stumbled upon this article, by Núñez and Sweetser: it describes the way in which the Aymaras denote past and future. As it turns out, the term for past is nayra – which means “eye,” “front” or “sight”. They use qhipa – meaning “back” or “behind” – to denote the future.

I find all this fascinating: after the initial shock, it makes perfectly good sense: futurum semper incertum, or, in the immortal dictum of Yoda on Dagobah -Impossible to predict, the future is-.
We see the past (to some extent), but the future is out of sight (except for our boring, restless imagination, and our arrogant reason).

What is even more intriguing is the following thought that dawned upon me a bit afterwards: perhaps Aymaras walk through time facing backwards.

In other words, suppose your attention faces only the past, and you reject all attempts to anticipate the future. Then, you are walking through time a' rebours, a bit like squids.
And why not? What is the point of facing the future if it is totally invisible?

Somewhere, as if by magic, I hear a tune singing the enchanting words:

-Que Sera, Sera,Whatever will be, will be. The future's not ours, to see. Que Sera, Sera-

Sunday, August 5, 2007

From Dantes to Monte Cristo

I have just watched The Count of Monte Cristo(2002) on DVD. I shall not comment on the movie itself. Instead, I am going to spend a word or two on what seems to me the magic core of the novel (and subsequent movies), namely the transformation of Edmond Dantes, an illiterate sailor, into the well-read, articulate, cosmopolitan and mysterious Count of Montecristo.

After being thrown in the hideous jail at the Château d'If and believed dead by his beloved Mercedes, Edmond experiences its descensus ad inferos. At the bottom of despair, he has unwittingly completed the first step of the alchemical work, the nigredo.

He is now ready for the Guru, the legendary Abbé Faria, who trains him in all sort of lores (languages, math, history, swordsmanship ...). Edmond becomes an outstanding polymath. Faria's unlimited wealth will complete the metamorphosis, allowing him the leisure of living fully his new personality, the Comte de Montecristo.

Shape Shifting is a common topos in fairy tales and myths, and it has received a lot of attention. But, what about the more modest goal of Personality Shifting? Children practice this noble art every day, and so do adults, when they dream. A good polymath could perhaps emulate Dantes and exert oneself in exploring alternate roles: a good way to add back spice to life.

I have got to hurry now, and order without delay the full unabridged french version (1256 pages) of the Comte de Monte Cristo: Dumas rules!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

On polymaths

The Dictionary states:

a person of great learning in several fields of study; polyhistor.
[Origin: 1615–25; is a polymath?

My take is that we are all born budding polymaths. Children learn every day, passionately, relentlessly, whatever comes their way. Then, the curve slows down... Yes, we still learn new stuff from time to time, but the candle flickers, till it dies.

But not for all: a few retain child's eyes, heart and mind all their life. They simply refuse to stop.
To them, the world is what it should always be: a vast, multifarious, undending feast of knowledge.