France and China
These two countries
are my favorites, the realms outside the U.S. that I feel most akin to.
Sitting here on the beautiful terrace of the Martinez hotel on the Croisette
in Cannes, after spending time with the Chinese contingent at the electronic
media show here, I remember the surreal opposite: trying to explain to
a group of French tourists on a train from Shanghai to Hangzhou how France
and China are alike. They don't seem alike right now the airy,
insouciant Provençale luxury by the sea is the polar opposite of
Chinese luxury, with its dark-clothed princelings smoking and drinking
cognac in the dim karaoke bars of the joint-venture hotels. Wealth here
is casually displayed. There it runs deeper and it's dirty, but they don't
feel guilty about the ubiquitous corruption.
Here are some ways France
and China are alike:
- The inhabitants smoke like fiends.
- The are both the mainland, in opposition to an island.
I.E. they are not Great Britain or Japan, two countries I've never cottoned
- They are both feminine in general feel, and France in
a language sense.
- Atheists are in the mainstream in both.
- They both have top-drawer cultural history. France's
glory is much more recent, and they're in touch with it. The communists
set out to destroy the connection with traditional Chinese culture,
and mostly succeeded.
- They have world-class cuisines.
- They both allow dogs in restaurants (but in different
Optimal Mental States
I always drink beverages
while I read. My two favorite mental states are the alert coffee high,
and the alcoholic reverie.
Bibliothèque of the Brain
When I was young I thought
that each book I read, piece of music I came to know, movie I saw, would
be added to the store in my brain, the mental equivalent of purchasing
a book and putting it on my shelf. Now I know that brain capacity is limited,
that reading a book pushes out some of what was there before and leaves
a residue that diminishes with time. As I get older I don't expect books
to improve me much.
Actively creating – writing or composing,
for example – expands brain space more than more passive activities.
Reading books for a writing project makes me tussle, react, synthesize,
tying them to my own thoughts, building a firmer and longer-lasting structure
in my mind.
Becoming a celebrity is worth millions
of dollars to a person. Simply being known to millions of people makes
you a cultural referent, regardless of the value of your accomplishments.
So it is with memes. In the jostling for widespread recognition, certain
ideas gain wide currency, depending on the fashions of the moment, regardless
of their truth or merit.
"Meme" is a new word for an old
concept memes are part of what Jung called the "collective
consciousness." The fact that we've mostly forgotten this idea under
the old name means that celebrity is short-lived, even for memes.
It's difficult to decide when the experts
don't agree, but we do it all the time. In elections, for example. Two
candidates who espouse different economic policies will each have his
panoply of expert economists, and each set will contradict the other.
It's hard to make a decision that forces
us to accept our losses. The hardest part of chess, for me, is when the
time comes to make a move that will finally lose a piece of material that
I have been gradually losing, in the form of tempo and position, for some
time. It's hard to admit to myself that it's lost, and choose the best
of the two bad choices.
In chess I'm forced to move, but this is
not the case in life, where there's always the choice to do nothing. This
is very attractive when action brings immediate negative consequences.
But my rule is to always consider inaction as one of the choices and not
to chose it by default.
When I worked among a bunch of computer
engineers at MIT, one of the worst epithets was "random." We'd
say someone was "pretty random" if he did strange, unreasonable,
unpredictable things. Behaving this way, instead of being guided by reason,
was about as low as you could sink.
But randomness has one great virtue
it's not unfair. Arts panels that select grants recipients are notorious
for politics and cronyism, a systemic and systematic unfairness. Giving
some of the grants at random would make things fairer. There are lots
of areas of life where introducing a random element in a subjective assessment
dilutes the effect of bias.
Once you are beyond childhood it becomes
very difficult to learn a foreign language really well, and there's an
exponential scale to it, as with so many skills. Anyone who applies himself
enough can learn to play the piano as well as the average college piano
major, can get a karate black belt (barring physical disabilities), or
acquire fluency in a foreign language. But the scale of difficulty goes
up steeply from there.
My benchmark for language fluency is the
same as Freud's for adjustment to life: love and work. If you can sustain
a romantic relationship and hold down a job in a foreign language, you're
But that's just the first-degree blackbelt
level; there's a long road to true mastery and it takes much more time
and effort than attaining basic fluency. Look at it from the other side:
how well do American native speakers write and speak English? Most college
graduates can't write a prosaic page without making grating errors in
usage and orthography. I want to do better than this in my foreign language,
but that sets the bar pretty high.
How much is it worth to get rid of your
accent? You can do it, if you're talented, with enough application, and
possibly the help of a dialog coach. But how many foreigners who learned
English as adults managed to get rid of their accents? I think this talent
runs in my family — my father's first wife's mother came from Holland,
where foreign languages are imbibed as mother's milk. Returning to this
country from Mexico, she told the US border guards "I don't speak
English," pronouncing it so well that no one believed her. I've had
a similar experience in Mexico, giving directions to a taxi driver with
an accent good enough that I got a full blast of colloquialism (which
I didn't understand at all) in response.
This brings me to argot, slang, high vs
low language. I can understand 95% of the French in an Eric Rohmer movie,
and about 10% of what comes out of the mouth of Jean-Paul Belmondo. The
low is harder than the high. Berlitz doesn't teach it, and you can't study
it in books; you have to live it. It diffuses to the middle class in TV
and movies, but it takes a long time to learn it as a foreigner. It's
like jiu-jitsu holds: it works marvelously well if you get it exactly
right, but it's useless if you make even a slight error.
To get really good at anything you have
to like it for itself, and language is no exception. That's the reason
most foreigners in the U.S. never get even as proficient in "American"
(as the French and Chinese sometimes call our language) as the average
American. That's a pretty low standard.
How Long is Human History?
Are we near the beginning or the end of
human history? It's easy to imagine it either way: we could vanish next
year in a nuclear blast or an ebola plague, or our history could continue
for another 100,000 or a million years. The existential risks to the human
race on our planet are high enough that the odds for our being around
for the long term will be increased significantly when we have "backed
up" the human race on another planet.
As the world gets smaller everything is
being consolidated. What used to be local diversity is transforming into
a global monoculture. Crops are narrowing down to wheat, corn and rice,
and, increasingly, the same genetically engineered species world-wide.
Sports focuses on global mega-events rather than home-grown local ones.
A few huge Hollywood studios dominate the world-wide movie market, and
the same thing has happened in music. If you run a local arts organization,
the mantra you hear from your funders is "what is your plan for growth?"
Your non-artistic friends will assume that your quality is inferior if
you can't become an international superstar.
The common denominator is money, which is
increasingly making the world go 'round. Businesses are consolidating,
for increased economies of scale and increased brand and political clout.
Money, the life-blood of business, is ever more accepted as the primary
value in all fields. Celebrity, which can be easily monetarized, becomes
more valuable as our brain space consolidates. You are what you buy or
see on TV. The choices are diminishing.