Dinner conversation

We had a little family reunion today, and at dinner I ended up having a very nice conversation with my mom.

At one point she was describing her childhood, growing up in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants parents. She explained to me that for their time, her parents were very liberal and openminded, willing to entertain ideas about politics and society in a very forward thinking way.

I love hearing my mom’s stories, but at this point in the conversation I needed to stop her.

“I don’t mean to brag,” I said, “but as cool and liberal as your parents may have been, my parents were even cooler and more liberal.”

Unholy Trinity

On my last day in Dublin, one of my hosts pointed out that both Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde attended Trinity College.

Which of course led me to ask the obvious question: If Count Dracula were to face off against Lady Bracknell in a fair fight, which one would emerge the victor?

As with most questions of this kind, we can never know for sure what the outcome would be. But I suspect the poor vampire wouldn’t stand a chance.

Time machine

Being in a pub in Dublin, immersed in the sort of ambience of ancient tradition one does not find in New York, it was natural that the conversation with my friend this evening would turn to questions of antiquity.

And at some point I began to describe the 1957 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that I loved as a child, a cherished set of volumes which my mother had purchased, I believe, because it matched the furniture.

When I was eight, nine, maybe ten years old, I would pour over those volumes for hours at a time. Every evening I would choose one volume pretty much at random and do a deep dive.

My favorite topics where things that were no longer true — the nations that did not exist any more, the inventions that had ceased to be cutting edge, the scientific theories that had become hopelessly out of date.

Looking back on it now, I realize that what I loved most about those articles was the way they embodied a sort of time machine. “This is the way things are now”, they seemed to be saying, in a kind of etherial transmission from the past. They were a timestamp out of history, an up-to-date record of the no longer existent, a voice of Truth from a time now gone.

It is no longer so easy to have such an experience. Thanks to the internet, everything is now up-to-date. Yes, you can dig back through the archives of the Wikipedia, and discover the state of the world from an earlier time. But this is not easy to do, especially if you want a consistent snapshot, across a broad range of topics, from a specific moment in history.

Sometimes I miss my old time machine.

When Shakespeare was only 28

I am staying at Trinity College at the moment. My gracious hosts have put me in a lovely little room that is all old-fashioned old world charm. Looking out my window at the beautiful and ancient campus, I am wondering what academic visitors from an earlier era may have been offered this very room — perhaps using some of this very furniture.

I can picture Charles Dodgson, hard at work on his sequel to “Alice in Wonderland”. Or C.S. Lewis, sitting at this very desk while writing of the adventures of gallant Reepicheep on the Dawn Treader. Or maybe Tolkien, up from Oxford for a seminar, working out Tom Bombadil’s casually metrical banter.

Of course this place goes much farther back than even those esteemed worthies. The University was founded in 1592, an event officially presided over by the first Queen Elizabeth. One of the famed Darnley portraits of Her Royal Majesty hangs in the faculty sitting room where this afternoon I had a spot of tea.

It would be wonderful to be transported back to that time, if only for a day, when this august university was new, when the world was younger, when Shakespeare was only 28.

Seven billion wonders

A friend and I were walking down a Paris street yesterday, looking at all the people, when my friend expressed a sense of wonder at all the unique minds. And of course my friend was right.

Each person’s mind is an entire world unto itself. As far as we can know for sure, each of those minds is as complex and wonderful a thing as we have yet discovered in nature.

We tend to take this for granted. With seven billion people in the world — many of them living in very difficult circumstances — we can forget that each of those individuals is a vast universe of thoughts, memories, perceptions transformed into ideas.

Familiarity can sometimes breed contempt, but just a little reflection can bring us back to the deeper truth: That each individual human mind is a marvel, a true wonder of the Universe.

Not important, but essential

As I walked around Paris today, a thought came back to me that I’ve had many times about places I know and love well: Their reputation, their place in the world, as it were, is a separate thing from the specifics of their existence.

There are a million little details that come to define a city for you, once you spend any time there. Very few of these details would show up in the movie version. For example, the fact that you go one way on the 4 line to get to Porte d’Orleans, and the other way to get to Porte de Clignacourt. Or that when you walk south on Bd de Sebastopol, you arrive at the Fontaine du Palmier.

New York, Paris, London, Berlin, any city you can name, is full of such details of happenstance. These details add very little, if anything, to the mythic stature of a great city, but to anyone who lives there, they end up being the very soul of the place.

It’s such little details that make a place real. In the grand scheme of things, they may not be important, but if you live there, they are essential.

C.P. Snow would weep

In today’s New York Times, William Grimes wrote an art review on ‘Marks of Genius,’ Works From the Bodleian, at the Morgan.

Most of the review was fun to read, but one sentence I found completely horrifying.

Speaking of Euclid’s “Elements” and Newton’s “Principia Mathematica”, and thinking back on his own failure to learn geometry and calculus, he remarked that these “immortal works, beautifully printed and bound, are, in the end, math books.”

I am sorry that Mr. Grimes had a bad experience in high school, but personal experiences of adolescent trauma have no place in a discussion of works of unsurpassed intellectual beauty and genius.

After all, if you were once beaten up in tenth grade by some angry Hassids, does that mean you should dismiss the work of Arthur Miller, because the great playwright was “in the end, a Jew”?

The Political Party at the End of the Universe

The U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, one of the leading forces in the Republican party — and, because of his longevity, one of the most politically powerful — was unexpectedly defeated in his own party’s primary by an unknown Tea Party candidate.

Apparently he was insufficiently zealous in his portrayal of Barack Obama as an evil force intent on nothing less than the total destruction of America and our way of life.

I cannot resist the temptation to misquote Douglas Adams:

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Republican Party is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

A little noise

Near the start of my career in computer graphics, I came up with some techniques that played with the boundary between order and chaos. It seems that people have found those techniques to be useful.

When it comes to visual stimuli, humans love order, and we also love chaos. But we especially like our signal and noise together, in just the right mix.

I wonder whether this principle can be extended to all human thought. Maybe we look at all things — politics, music, personal relationships — in terms of an optimum balance of order and chaos.

We may not always know how to find that balance, but we can generally feel it when we’ve hit the sweet spot. And perhaps our need to strike that balance drives much of our decision making.

When life feels too chaotic and out of control, we seek order. But when everything seems to be going well, with perhaps a bit too much clockwork precision, we might feel a powerful urge to create some chaos.

Who hasn’t had that urge at one time or another — just to mix it up a bit, to add a little noise?