The stories that guide us

“…Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry—that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast flowing tears of the child and the man—Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales, and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.”

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“I do not know what young Catholics today actually learn, but my brief experience with teenage preparation for Confirmation suggests that it is nothing much beyond vague sentimentalities about God’s love…. Hooper would be barely sensible to the shipwrecks of Paul, the exile of Athanasius, the trial of Formosus, the conversion of Augustine, and the death of Joan of Arc. Annoyance and sentimentality are the only passions left to the Hoopers of the world. Greatness is quite literally unimaginable to them, whether that greatness be heavenly or hellish; Paradise is bland and the Inferno desolate. Heroism and hedonism alike hold no appeal for Hooper.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

We humans are a talking breed. Language and story are inextricably mixed, and it seems clear that the stories we tell eachother around the campfire—the narratives of our lives and imagination—are what define us as moral and ethical beings.

Life provides us with various types of existing narratives. There are the stories of our childhood, the teachings of religion, the tales of heroes. We learn from these what it is to be good, true, courageous, loyal, stalwart, cunning, indomitable, kind. We hear how to rise from defeat, how to withstand trial, how to protect others, and how to sacrifice ourselves when all else fails.

And most of all, we learn how to judge behavior—our own and everyone else’s. We explore what it is to be a coward, to be the object of shame. We internalize these judgments, and that helps keep us from shaming ourselves and makes us reliable and trustworthy members of our communities. As the stories tell us, there are always people who fail to live up to these standards, as we do ourselves from time to time, but at least there is a general consensus about what we’re aiming at, or trying to.

But that was then.

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The limits of autodidacticism

When I was 10 years old (5th grade), circa 1963, I thought I might have discovered some new principle of numbers, but it was almost impossible for me to find out. There was no one to ask, and no references I could find.

My father would take me to his office (attached to a flour milling operation) on the weekend to give my mother a break, and there I would wander around entertaining myself by admiring the sailfish mounted on one man’s wall, and the manual plug-in switchboard. There were, of course, many desks in an open area for clerical work, and many of those desks had calculators.

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God is in the dice

Escher-NatureWe are part of nature, an animal like other animals, and our minds preserve that heritage.

I’m conscious of this every time that I’m startled by a grouse shaking the bush along my path when it erupts and I take an involuntary step backward, preparing to fight or run, once I determine what threat is coming my way. My rational mind knows it’s ridiculous, but I’m the product of thousands of ancestors who decided that sometimes it really is a lion, and it’s better to treat it that way, and laugh about it afterward. The ones who didn’t, after all, were sometimes wrong enough that they left no trace.

What do animals do? They observe. They watch the behavior of their mother and siblings, the way their herd, or pack, or flock treats its members. They watch their prey, if they are predators. And vice versa.

Humans, well, we watch everything. We’re fascinated by animals from our very earliest age. Not just our own family and tribe, but all animals. We can spend hours and days just watching them.

What do we learn when we watch animals? We learn, species by species and circumstance by circumstance, just what they are likely to do — depending on the season, the environment, the weather, their state of health, or lust, or maternity. We know they make their own choices, within circumscribed limits. We might not know why, exactly, but we know what — they’re like us, or they seem to be, even the alien ones like bugs. We learn how to predict what they will do. We are wired, I would say, to pay attention to animals this way, just as they pay attention to each other. They have agency, and we want to understand how they work. … Read more…

The hidden personal cost of your computer ecosystem

TechEcosystemI’m an early adopter of technology, esp. software. It’s an essential component of my self-image that began with mathematics in grade school. Back in the 70’s I entered early computer businesses after college and made my entire career in a variety of young companies in the software, support, and consulting wings of the tech industry.

Outside of business, in my personal tool kit, I eagerly embraced home computers for general use, and specialist devices and software for hobbies like music and photography. I immersed myself in evolving standards for good user design and knowledge management philosophies. I studied the engineering principles of mainframe operating systems. By today’s standards I may not be a tech expert, but I am, by god, an experienced technology user.

And I am paying for it. Every day. With the only currency that matters — time.

And so are you. … Read more…

Devices vs Brains: Musical Memory

Hins Anders (Anders Zorn)
Hins Anders (Anders Zorn)

Thousands of tunes

Among other things, I’m a fiddler of folk music — have been for 25 years or more. Unusually, for an American, I specialize in traditional music from Scandinavia — Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland — instead of Irish, Scottish, or Appalachian. It’s a very rich tradition, with roots in the Baroque and earlier, and a number of interesting bowed string instruments besides the violin, namely the nyckelharpa and the hardingfele.

Except for a handful who grew up in a Scandinavian musical tradition in America (very few), we almost all come from outside the ethnic culture, inspired by the love of the music itself.

Most of us play for dancers or are associated with people who do so. There are a number of thriving dance groups in America — the ones that have local musicians dance to live music, and the rest dance to recordings. These are social dance groups, by and large, not performance groups — it’s like having a local square dance. Both the musicians and the dancers are tightly connected with their counterparts in Sweden and Norway, and instructors travel regularly to America to lead workshops and teach at dance and music camps.

At a guess, there are maybe a couple of hundred musicians who dabble seriously in Scandinavian fiddle music in the USA, and perhaps a thousand or so dancers. That’s a small community, small enough that the musicians who’ve been around a while pretty much all know each other, as do the leaders of the dance groups.

In a traditional community in Sweden, the locals would have had a dozen or so dances, and the musicians would have played tunes in those genres. In America, where it’s an adopted tradition, the dancers tend to have a collector’s mentality: “Ooh, let’s learn that dance next!”  So, while a fiddler tied to a village in Sweden might have mastered a few genres of tunes for dances (and many tunes for each type), a fiddler for a modern American dance group needs to be able to cover, say, forty dance genres, with at least two tunes each. A typical free-for-all dance party for Scandinavian dancers might require a basic repertoire of eighty tunes, to just barely cover an evening (80 x 3 minutes each = 240 minutes = 4 hours), and that’s assuming all the ad hoc musicians know all the same tunes.

One of my early Swedish mentors recommended that I specialize in the tunes of a particular district (almost any area has dozens or hundreds of tunes). I explained to him that, as an American Scandie fiddler, I was already specializing — I wasn’t playing Irish or Scottish. Different worlds.

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