Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Versailles

Then it all bursts out before us, the tapis vert that slants gently down through the trees that are brought tightly in to focus the view, the Bassin d'Apollon, the Grand Canal, and, most of all, the overriding sky. Louis tells us to admire it all. He was quite aware that it was a moment of vast release. The oval of Latona opens up and surprises us, releasing us to the burst of velocity that explodes at the middle of the garden. Our gaze moves rapidly down the tapis vert, but when it hits the water it literally takes off. It no longer adheres but slides across the water to the sky reflected on it ... We are released to infinity, or at least to indefinitely expanding space. 
~the architect theorist Vincent Scully


Whether the gardens of Versailles provoke an intrinsically sublime and passionate experience, or whether by nature of their strict regularity they allow for a similar, albeit lesser, release, they embody the concept of beauty proper, namely of "free beauty," despite their stiffness and mathematical regularity, which are a mere means, an aesthetical judgment to the judgment of taste, that is, to the judgment of the beautiful, which is not the same as witnessing the unfolding of beauty, for that experience lies within, and is sublime. 

While Versailles is a man made object of nature, unlike an ocean or a mountain peak, the experience her architecture provokes is immesurable. Versailles presupposes a concept of what beauty should be, she introduces us to simplicity through elaborately designed features of self subsisting beauty. 

Flowers, those free beauties of nature, thrive in Versailles, and flourish near the Petit Trianon, there is no perfection of any kind, no internal finality, as something to which the arrangement of beauty underlines our judgment [of it]. They are fantasias (without a theme), and, indeed, like music that is not set to words. They are not appurtenant to the objects around which they flourish, they are the flourishing around which edifices are erected. 

~the philosopher Sophy Laughing

Critics of taste have long since attempted to define, regulate, or otherwise deconstruct Versailles into her most basic concepts, but these concepts are absent of finesse, a minor verdict carried out by minor figures who are without the concept of beauty. Mathematical regularity serves its purpose. It speaks of symmetry, but cannot perceive it. Deconstruction forms an estimate of an area of a plot of land, rendering intelligible the relation of divided parts to one another and to the whole, but those regular figures, even the simplest kind, are a delight to the mind which immediately gives way to the senses the moment these figures strike the eye. 

Construction is serviceable in all its possible purposes, it makes rooms out of walls and oblique angles, it brings forth a garden out of plots of land, it arouses figures of animals and mythological gods from its violation of symmetry, but alone it is only practical, valuable to us only for its all manner of possible purposes. 

Taste is different. When it is pure, it combines delight with immediate aversion to bare contemplation of an object. It elevates a concept to the indispensable condition (conditio sine qua non) of grasping its significance and connection to accomplishment. We have merely to allow for the value to set itself upon our minds, to entertain our mental acuity with what is called beautiful. It is the understanding of the service of imagination. 

Versailles owes her existence to purpose, not to a building, a particular sculpture, her regularity, which consists in symmetry, but to the unity of the intuition accompanying her concepts to their natural end. Her heart lies in cognition, a free play of acute powers that decorate the mind's many chambers, that flourish in the mind's ornamental gardens. Her good taste is the furniture that brings to life beauty as conceived in the mind insofar as it is possible to conceive of a free flowing concept. 

The contemplation of Versailles affords us lasting entertainment. She brings the mystical in to view, she expands the scope of our imagination, and her final play is the long lasting freshness her beauty evokes. 

Versailles is full of charm, and her mid-forest with her rows of parallel stakes on which plants twine themselves infer that wild heart within. Across seasons her appearance changes, to know her is to know her in the rain and bitter cold, to welcome her in the spring and lounge with her in the summer. For some winter might evoke an irksome constraint upon their enjoyment of her majesty, but it is precisely during the cold winter months that the constraints of her artificial rules awe us with her libertine bursting. How in constraint she can still express a luxuriant variety to supply the mind with constant food for its taste is part charm and part mystique. 

Geometrical layout in Versailles is a necessity. The garden is ordered starting from a principal axis, with secondary axes, alloys out of stars, basins in circle and half-circle. Her symmetry is staged on several levels, with rigorously cut trees, which compose a true vegetable architecture. The concepts supporting her regularity and symmetry are not only proper to garden design but also an essential characteristic of Baroque aesthetics. 

The Baroque does not yield to the terrain, on the contrary the Baroque masters the terrain and tries by all means to impose on it a homogeneous character. The Baroque reigns over symmetry. It is the regularity of Versailles that characterizes the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque. 

The Renaissance was concerned with giving architectural motives, but without giving them relationship, all remained without a unity of composition; whereas the Baroque made progress toward architectural composition of an entirely unified space, one that interpreted progress as a political fact but was simultaneously aware of its natural composition to space and its expression of power. 

Versailles seizes visual control over her viewers, gently guiding them toward the illusory symbolism in her sunlike magnificence. 

Power radiates outwards into France from Versailles. Her grand avenues draw crowds of subjects reveling in the magnificence of her trees and shrubs, in her topiary proper, and in her masterful expression of power in nature. 

The unlimited sky as seen from Versailles reflects the limitlessness of our world. Her fountains are endless streams of life's flourishing. The rich interior decorations and dramatic spatial and lighting sequences contrast and heighten the structure's physical immediacy. It is from the vantage of regularity that we perceive the unlimited vistas of her gardens. From her balcony the vanishing point disappears, merging with the horizon and our imagination. Her massiveness implies infinity, linking us to the unlimitedness, which gives rise to the sublime questions of nature. 

Generally the sublime refers to the formlessness of an object. The sublime provokes rather than involves. It is immediate in its thought of totality, yet limited in its grasp of it. It is a delight produced by the beautiful, a furtherance of life compatible with charm and playful imagination. It is an unleashing of vital forces, an intense release from restrain as our earnestness overrides our judgment. 

The mind is attracted to this interplay, and produces more positive pleasures as a result ... admiration and respect being the two primary characteristics of mind. Their effect on our mind is sublime, a natural cousin to earnest passion. 

The beauty of Versailles is only limited by one's pre adapted power of judgment, a condition violent toward our imagination, as it attempts to override it. Considering Versailles as an expression of overriding power, in relation to her overriding sky, is like welcoming chaos into peace, a wild irregular disorder and desolation of spirit filled with rational ideas, visible only in their construction and limitation and attempt to constrain imagination's natural flourishing. 

The sublime is that characteristic that supersedes, where even the grandest ideas seem small in comparison. The sublime provokes the representation of absolute magnitude, it disappears on the horizon and is an unlimited vista. The sublime excites the mind toward progress and infinitum, whereas the idea of the sky itself is a mere subjective judgment, a candidate of our own inner progress, or lack thereof. 

Attempting to explain the beauty of Versailles requires a quantum in the imagination that involves both imaginative apprehension and comprehension, and is incapable of taking the two along anything other than the axis that leads to the horizon, whereas the vastness of the sublime seems to call us forth, toward the magnificence of infinity; a place where even we disappear as we reach the vanishing point. 

It is the sublime that accounts for the lovely bewilderment, a sort of perplexity, which, despite understanding of mythology and its relation to self, seizes visitors upon their first entering of her gates. Here a feeling comes home of the inadequacy of our imagination for presenting the idea of a whole, and thus our imagination fights to attain its maximum, and, in fruitless effort to extend its limit, before recoiling in on itself, succumbing and then resting in emotional delight. 

For the few brief years that Marie resided in her Petit Trianon, she raised her children in this very state of emotional delight. Their deepest connections were those that were linked to the magnitude of living and loving, those that honored the sublime, in an dynamic interplay with nature in a fanciful picturesque world overriding the turbulence of the times and the difficulty of inheriting a nation in financial ruin with none other than vicious, self serving courtiers, who would just assume throw their benefactors to the lions than extend a gracious hand of solidarity. Such grace and solidarity can only flourish when known within. 

Fear is not the sentiment the Sun King dedicated his life to evoking, and while a formidable foe, its powers are commensurable to the task of opposing it. We bid adieu to its grasp upon our psyche, and return to where we feel secure: in our Gardens, whether alone or shared with our relations, their sublime nature evokes our imagination, and their effect is the truest way to feel the presence of magnificence, to bow before it in a dynamic unfolding of what it truly means to be in the presence of majesty. 

The gardens of Versailles honor majesty, and imply a real presence that is the self embodiment of mastery over limitation. Versailles relationship to self is a principal characteristic of her charm, and a prescription for anyone seeking self understanding. Versailles transitions us from form to formlessness, from her Château to her picturesque layout sweeping across the French skyline. 

She is the embodiment of nature without ruling, despite her mathematical relationship between foreground and background. Such a relationship is the genius behind her unfolding, but not the essence of it. 

Versailles links us to ourselves by separating us from the spell of self hood. In this way, Versailles is a linkage between the human and the divine, honoring our relation with self and other. Versailles proudly imposes not limits but heights upon which infinity rests. Any finitude is from within, any order to her universe entirely intellectually conceived, any rational organization of her beauty into geometrical patterns is suitable only for stately progress ... 

A solitary walk along her avenues, in her fully enclosed microcosm affords us a magnitude so absolute that it calls us forth from the chateau to infinity ... the effect of which cannot be understood, only felt. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Secret Logic Behind Romantic Chemistry

Biologists know a lot about how living systems work; ironically, they know even less about how chemistry between two people begins than cosmologists know about the beginning of the universe or social media enthusiasts know about the Kardashians. 

Where "chemistry" begins is a hot debate (pun intended). We can look to the laws of physics which allow computation at the scale of atoms, electrons, photons, and other elementary particles. Thanks to computational universality, systems at large scales are also computationally universal. You, I, and our smartphones are also capable of the same basic computation. Computation can take place at basically any level above the atomic scale. 

Chemistry is that science that describes how atoms combine, recombine, and disassociate. Simple chemical systems are also capable of explaining romantic "chemistry". 

But just how does this compute? Imagine, if you will, a container, such as a small pore in a rose, filled with various chemicals. At the beginning of our chemical computation, some of the chemicals have high concentrations. You can think of these chemicals as bits that read 1. Others have low concentrations: these read 0. 

These chemicals react with one another. Some that start out in a high concentration are depleted; the bits corresponding to these chemicals go from 1 to 0. Some that start out in a low concentration go to a high concentration; these bits go from 0 to 1. As the chemical reactions proceed, some bits flip while others remain the same (which usually leads to break-ups). 

Explaining romantic chemistry in scientific terms sounds promising. After all, break ups are just bits flipping in a systematic fashion. In order to save relationships everywhere, all we have to do is (1) show that chemistry can perform AND, NOT, and COPY operations, and (2) then figure out how to keep them in the preferred AND, NOT, or COPY state. 

Let's start with COPY

Suppose that Francine enhances the production of happy chemicals for François, so that without lots of affection from Francine, François' happy chemicals remain low. If there is a low concentration of Francine's affection and a low concentration of François' happy chemicals, then the concentrations of love chemicals for both individuals remains low. 

If the bit corresponding to Francine's affection for François is 0 initially, as is the bit corresponding to François' happy chemicals, then these bits remain 0. That is, 00 -> 00. 

Similarly, if there is a high concentration of Francine's affections for François and a low concentration of François' initial happy chemicals, then the chemical reaction gives rise to a high concentration of affection from Francine directed toward François together with a high concentration of resulting happy chemicals for François as a result. That is, if the bit corresponding to Francine's affection is 1 initially, and the bit corresponding to François' happy chemical reaction is 0, then these bits both end up 1.10 -> 11. 

Here the reaction has performed a COPY operation. The bit corresponding to Francine's affection for François is what it was before François' happy chemical reaction and the bit corresponding to François' happy chemical reaction is now a copy of the bit corresponding to Francine's affection for François. 

Note that in this process, Francine has an effect on whether or not François produces a happy chemical response, but Francine herself is not consumed in the reaction; in purely chemical terms, Francine is called a catalyst for the production of François' happy chemical response. 

NOT is produced in a similar fashion. Suppose that instead of enhancing the production of happy chemistry for François, the presence of Francine inhibits the production of happy chemistry. In this case, the reaction leads to François' bit being the opposite of Francine's bit; that is, François' bit is the logical NOT of Francine's bit. Ouch! 

What about AND

Suppose that Francine goes from a low concentration to a high concentration if and only if there are high concentrations of François' good humor and drive to succeed around. Then a reaction that starts out with Francine feeling lukewarm for François, i.e., having a low concentration (her bit is 0) leads to a higher concentration of happy chemicals if and only if both good humor and the drive to succeed are in high concentration (good humor and the drive to succeed can be replaced with other desired traits in mate selection). In other words, Francine produces happy chemistry if and only if good humor and the drive to succeed are both 1. After the reaction, Francine's bit is the logical AND of François' good humor and drive to succeed. 

Chemical reactions produce AND, NOT, and COPY operations. By adding more chemicals to the set, such logic operations combine to produce a set of reactions corresponding to any desired logic circuit. Thus, romantic chemistry is computationally universal. 

Basically, as the chemicals in the pore of a rose react, some are catalysts for the initial set of romantic reactions and some of the products of these reactions are catalysts for yet further reactions. Such a process is called an "autocatalytic set of romantic reactions" : each reaction produces romantic or non-romantic catalysts for other reactions within the set. 

Autocatalytic romantic sets of reactions are powerful systems. In addition to predicting romantic chemistry, they also produce a wide variety of chemical outputs. In effect, an autocatalytic set of romantic reactions is like a tiny, computer-controlled factory for producing chemicals. Some of these chemicals attract us to others, some do not. 

We cannot say with certainty whether or not autocatalytic romantic sets determine chemistry between people until we identify the circuit diagram and the program for autocatalytic romantic sets that first started producing butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms. For now, the computational universality of autocatalytic romantic sets tells us that someone has too much time on her hands, a big imagination, a kooky sense of humor, and romance on the mind. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Little Romp Through My Personal Library

The greatest ideas are the greatest events.


I only have one criteria for selecting reading material. It must connect me with a sentiment that is pleasurable for my brain to contemplate.

Arguably we are influenced by what we read, and in some cases, by what we don't read. Generations of intellectuals have fostered an appreciation for wisdom writing, for those subjects that inspire personal reflection, a quest for sagacity and insight that might bring solace and clarity to the many experiences of living.

There are also those reading experiences that help us learn about the triumph of time. We as an interval, and then our place is no more.

But what is the use of reading, if it can be reached only in solitude, or by reflecting on our reading? We know that most of what we have ever learned flies out the window when we are in crisis. How do we maintain the integrity of that which we learn and make it our own?

For me the answer to this question has been writing and reflecting about those things I introduce into my brain. Naturally I am more influenced by those subjects on which I have a deeper understanding, but new information is difficult to resist. It introduces my brain to an unknown protagonist that expands my insight into the inner worlds of other people.

Since childhood, I have been comforted by literature. Adventures in imaginary lands, whose landscapes I know as well as any contemporary city in which I have lived.

Frolicking through King Solomon's mines, discovered by Allan Quatermain's expedition to Kukuanaland, Africa, in 1884 ... the Three Witches Mountain, The Silent Ones, the Place of Death, and the secret door, opened only by means of a mysterious device, which leads us into the Chamber of Solomon's Treasure, where over four hundred elephant tusks, trunks full of gold pieces and uncut diamonds of many sizes lie scattered ...

Closing that door, I might instead visit Poe's Island of the Fay, that small, round island in a river, near a waterfall, somewhere in the mountains of the United States, where the grass is short, springy, sweet-scented, and interspersed with asphodel. The trees are lithe, mirthful, erect, bright, slender, graceful as Eastern figures, with a smooth, glossy and particoloured bark.

I meander, over to the eastern end of the island and lie in the blackest shade to contemplate the lifecycles of the Fays, which are brief; every time they go from light to shade, it is as if they went from summer to winter.

Whether visiting Moreau's island or Middle Earth, the stories shared and lamented throughout history transfer our innate disenchantment, the one that sends us questing for meaning, and exchanges it for the tragic vision of the Iliad or the superb primal authority of ancient wisdom writings that draw us out of our egocentric predicament with their rhetorical hooks.

A variety of subjects evoke my many internal passions, but none bring me home like the writings of Plato, by which I cross the metaphorical sea to Socrates and join his expedition for wisdom. Never have I read so subtle an ironist than he.

Only Homer himself stood before Plato, and that comment is based by strictly literary criteria. The mental fight, however, Plato won hands down. Homer was a teacher of the Greeks, and Plato the enigmatic chronicler of western enlightenment.

The Aristophanesian farces, i.e., the Clouds (424 BCE), today's modern equivalent of what often passes for humor, are surely good for a laugh or two, but are, in the end, nothing more than a genial dismissal of human failings in which I find no solace.

What captures my attention most is that superb dialogue, the sublimely ironic fiction, a Deuteronomian hero that introduces me to what true mastery over an unsurpassed control of irony looks like. This catches my sense of urgency in my own determination to triumph over the experience of living, even while held within it.

A capsule of our inner life is largely given to us by what we read. The literary arts evokes that ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy (Republic 607B), and snatches lyric and comic verse that have nothing to do with philosophy but that do speak of pompous and arragont types who may win a reputation among the undiscerning.

The turning point is digesting that which we intellectually consume to make its presence meaningful, to improve our behavior and reminds us that even the best writers can creatively misread their own sharings.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Thank God It's Friday: ISO 8601

Friday is the day after Thursday and precedes Saturday. Countries that adopt the Monday-first convention, as recommended by ISO 8601, perceive Friday as the last day of the workweek and the beginning of le beau week-end. 

The International Organization for Standard (ISO) 8601 was first published in 1988 and represents the exchange of date and time-related data. 

It relates to the dates in the Gregorian calendar, and operates on a 24-hour timekeeping system, time intervals and combinations thereof. 

While the standard does not assign any specific meaning to elements of the date/time to be represented, the meaning of Friday depends on the context of its use. 

Most people in the English-speaking world are familiar with TGIF, the acronym that stands for "Thank God It's Friday!" or "Thank Goodness It's Friday". 

Not surprising, Thursdays and Fridays are two of the best days [of the week] to post on social media

According to Buffer Social, engagement increases nearly 20%. 

But, from where does our culture's fascination with Friday originate? 

A quick Internet search of "Friday" will lead you to the Old English Frīġedæġ, meaning the "day of Frige," an association with the goddess Frigg or with the Roman goddess Venus

Venus on Seashell (1st Century CE) 
Roman copy of the famous portrait of Campaspe, mistress of Alexander the Great
Fresco, dug out in 1960
Pompei, Casa di Venus

Venus is the Roman interpretation of the Greek Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sensuality

In Hesiod's Theogony, she was born from Uranus's reluctant offering to the sea, roused by Cronus. She then rose from the sea foam (aphros) ... 

La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus) 1483-85
Sandro Botticelli (1445 - 1510)
Tempera on panel
Uffizi Gallery

Her festival, Aphrodisia, was celebrated across Greece, inspiring creative forms of worship. By the 4th century, Attic philosophers drew a distinction between Aprodite Urania as a more celestial Aphrodite who represented higher, or transcendent spiritual love, and Aphrodite Pandemos, the goddess representing earthly, non-spiritual love. 

Urania Pio-Clementino (4th Century BCE)
Muse of astronomy
Roman copy, Marble

Urania is the name used in astronomical observatories such as the Urania in Berlin. Optics and optical instruments used in astronomical telescopes are also regulated by International Standards Organization, ISO 14134:2006

Frigg spun the clouds, Venus rose from the foam, Aphrodite inspired creativity, and Urania guards the stars

*Cloud computing was conceived of by Kurt Vonnegut on a Friday after work, he was tired of doing "all the heavy thinking for everybody" and invented the cloud, writing about it in his book Sirens of Titan (1959) ... 

(Quantum) Foam refers to space-time foam, a concept in quantum mechanics devised by John Wheeler in 1955, and is used as a qualitative description of subatomic space-time turbulence at extremely small distances (think Planck length). At such small scales of time and space, ISO 8601 goes out the window, barely able to describe the phenomenon without violating physical conservation laws. 

These days there's hardly a mission statement that doesn't include the word Creativity, or a CEO who doesn't laud it. But despite the maddening rise in the use of the word, studies suggest that creativity is at an all time high on Fridays on account of all the people trying to "creatively get out of Friday afternoon meetings." 

Whether Friday originated in the stars or in standards, people are less creative when they are fighting the clock, which results in the condition known as time-pressure hangover, a condition alleviated only by the embracing the ancient tradition of celebrating Friday! 

*I do not know on which day Kurt Vonnegut conceived of the "Cloud" but it makes the article sound more compelling. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Opinion on Everything

The Ancient Greek aphorism, “know thyself” was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek periegetic (travelogue) writer Pausanias. 

The first time I heard this aphorism I felt humbled by it. The sentiment that arose within me was one associated with honest inward reflection. In later years I read that in the Suda, the 10th century encyclopedia of Greek knowledge, the proverb “applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are” and that “know thyself” was a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude.  There is a similar reference in Aristophane's Clouds, a dialogue between the father and son with respect to the son's lack of learning. 

I hadn’t originally conceived of this aphorism from the second perspective, but I see how that too is a truism. Sometimes we do claim more authority than we possess, and of course, focusing our attention on the opinions of the masses only drowns out our own internal regulator of personal truth. However you wish to interpret the concept, it has wisdom written all over it. 

If we know ourselves no one can deceive us. This is not to say that people cannot lie to us and have us believe them, but the moment we blame shift is the moment we forget the role we play in the experience. We can chose to play the self-righteous victim, or we can chose to play the observer, examining human behavior instead of reacting to it.

Of course, this is not so easily done when the emotions are triggered, but knowing that we have this choice is a step in the right direction. And by right, I mean less emotionally tasking. 

I’m not saying that we continue to associate with people who deceive us. We can chose instead to disassociate ourselves because it is not right for us to have them in our lives. Excluding people from our lives solely as emotional reaction keeps us stuck in that vicious circle of blame and regret/anger and sadness that so many people experience in interpersonal relationships.

The trick to following sage advice is to know how to live in accordance with its meaning. While Socrates was not the first to express this concept, he most certainly ascribed truth to it. In fact the foundation of thinking stemmed from these two seemingly contradictory concepts: know thyself and I know that I know nothing

If I know that I know nothing, how can I ever know myself? This might make for an interesting philosophical dialogue, but it is a discussion for another day.

Now back to my opinion on everything ...