Archive for ‘Philosophy’

March 31, 2011

Since we last poked

Take that smirk off your face and get your nose out of Urban Dictionary – the subject of this post refers to the innocent act of nudging a person on social networks.

Back in 2007, poking someone on Facebook wasn’t lame and annoying yet; it was a cute way of saying “hey” to one of your friends or of introducing yourself to people you didn’t know (unless you were an 18 year old male, in which case it was never cute). My best friend and I used and abused that functionality quite frequently, and it was my turn to poke back when she passed away several years ago.

Facebook gives users the option to remove items they don’t wish to respond to, like pokes and events. I never returned the poke or removed it simply because I liked having the constant notification and reminder that she poked me on my Facebook page. It made me feel like her digital self was still active.

I accidentally deleted it today while using my phone and I’m devastated. That was the last sign of life I had from her and it’s gone.

Meanwhile, her profile is still up and I can’t decide whether it is a blessing or a curse. On one hand, it is reassuring and comforting to still be able to access the page; but on the other, it almost feels indecent in a staying-way-too-late-at-someone’s-house-after-the-party-is-over kind of way.

I guess that, in a world where everybody is scattered all over the place, Facebook profiles of the deceased can have the same cathartic effect as traditional headstones. People can stop by the page, reflect upon a person’s past by looking at pictures or quotations, or post a message to a wall in the same way one would leave flowers by a grave. Will the dead read the posts or sniff the plants? Probably not. Both gestures nevertheless help anchor in the present the strong feelings of the past.

The number of these inactive profiles will inevitably multiply with time and I wonder when Mark Zuckerberg will introduce a digital cemetery feature to help organize all these defunct yet relevant pages.

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February 7, 2011

Predicting creativity

After discussing nuclear fission and solving the world’s problems, my husband and I started daydreaming about the upcoming release of the new Fleet Foxes album (out on May 3). Will it be better than their first LP? Or at least as good? What will the future bring?


(best song on their last album. I “hearted” 10 out of their 11 songs on my mp3 player.)

John, being a realist, dished out the following piece of advice to help manage our expectations:

Think of the worst song on their last album and imagine a CD comprised entirely of that.

According to him, the worst songs on an album are symptomatic of artists running out of creativity and needing to produce fillers to complete their projects. Many times, artists use up all their creativity in their first albums and fizzle out when they work on the sequel.
We’ve seen this happen to Band of Horses, Midlake, and too many others who we describe as now “hanging out in the Shearwater house.” So this could very well happen to our beloved Foxes (shudder).


(worst song in my humble opinion. The only one that didn’t get a heart.)

I wonder if this theory can be applied to other creative areas in life. I was trying to think of this concept in terms of books and chapters, but, according to John, songs are “self-contained environments” when chapters aren’t (can you tell how philosophical we get about music?).

While I appreciate John’s conservative and rational approach to creativity prediction, I like to hold on to the hope that sparks will fly no matter what. While music can be created scientifically using algorithms, a true piece of art also contains a soul. This soul may waver, explaining some inconsistency in the musician’s output, but it’s still there. It cannot be mathematically replicated or measured. Pressures of the music industry may cause great songs to be born prematurely, with little time to mature, but talent will find its way through the system.
If an artist’s music has punched me in the stomach, leaving me breathless and in an awe, I’ll stick around – weathering the blandness and waiting for the next revelation.

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January 9, 2011

Book review: Tunnel and the Light

It feels like discovering a treasure when you pick up a book to read about a particular subject and end up learning a lot about something else in the process. I love finding gems about Communication in unexpected places.

The latest book I read is “Tunnel and the Light: Essential Insights on Living and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross M.D.
The book is a collection of lectures the author gave on death and features a lot of anecdotes. My first encounter with her writing took place shortly after my best friend passed away three years ago. This woman has the most thorough understanding of all the emotions felt by the grieving and the dying and the most gentle style to write about them. Not sure why I impulsively decided to read another of her books a few days ago – it was really random. Here’s the quote that has stuck with me:

There is no one dying, whether he is five or ninety-five, who does not know that he is dying. And the question is not: do I tell him that he is dying? The question is: can I hear him?

Words of stomach-punching force. Shows that:

  • we’re all equals in the face of death – being older doesn’t prepare one more for it,
  • some human experiences are absolute,
  • one should never underestimate the interlocutor/audience,
  • mastering the art of listening is key to being a good communicator.

A significant portion of the book is a lesson on the importance of non-verbal communication. Kubler-Ross interacted with so many children who were facing death in some way and who did not have the vocabulary or ability to express freely how they felt.  So she gave them paper and pencils; and they drew. These drawings told her everything she needed to know to help them.

The limitation of the written word is notably what prompted information designers like Edward Tufte or Sunni Brown (former classmate and leader of the “Doodle Revolution” ) to create work that is becoming increasingly relevant and important.

Another memorable part of the book warned against trying to make small talk with people who are suffering and to avoid telling them that everything will be just fine. The dying know what’s coming and feel censored and even more lonely when their loved ones refuse to acknowledge the painful situation. This warning is also key to corporate communication – nobody in their right mind would tell employees everything is fine and dandy while the ship is sinking. Trying to protect people from painful information is not only futile, it also generates a lot more harm than good.

Here’s my second favorite quote from the book,  great advice to help the next generation communicate – and live – better than we do:

Do not protect your children! Share your anguish and your pain with them. Otherwise they will develop into cripples. Because sooner or later the plants have to come out of the greenhouse anyway and then they cannot withstand the cold and the winds.

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December 31, 2010

On Mediocrity and Excellence

New Year’s Eve is a great time to reflect on existential matters. Such as the brand of champagne we’re going to drink tonight or the most efficient way to attend three parties in one evening.

It’s also a time to look back at what we’ve accomplished during the past year and weep. And try to become better.

What’s weighed heavily on me lately (besides the chocolate on my hips) is the inversely proportional relationship between the number of my interests and the time available to pursue them. Especially in the musical field. I’ve been learning and playing the mbira for two and a half years now and recently started learning how to play the oud. Am I happier as a result? If music is my passion, more music should result in more happy, right? No.

I’ve been consumed with guilt for the past four months because each time I pick up an instrument, I feel bad for not playing the other. It is such a frustrating feeling and the amount of progress I’ve made with each instrument since September is tell-tale sign that the multiplication of my activities inevitably leads to the fragmentation of my skills. It’s not rocket science: to become excellent at something, you have to give it your all.

When I took up the mbira back in 2008, I gave up horse riding. I miss horses a lot but still feel I made the right decision. To be a good rider, you have to keep your mind on riding mode even when you’re nowhere near a horse. Your posture, the way you walk, what you read, your exercise routine, and everything else you do daily is part of the training to become a better rider. All of that changes when you want to become a good musician. Horsemanship is about detail and precision. Mbira playing – to me – is about transcendence and abandon. I ride better when I’m “on” at all times, and play better when I get my mind out of the way.

When I embarked on the oud learning journey, I thought I’d be able to fit this new activity smoothly into my life because it was already consumed by music. I was so wrong. Music instruments are not interchangeable. They require different physical skills (mbira is percussive, oud is stringed), they are windows into different cultures (mbira is Zimbabwean, oud is Middle Eastern) and song patterns are different (mbira is polyrythmic and cyclical, oud follows a bunch of different scales and has more melodic variety). The differences are mind blowing and becoming familiar with them is mind consuming.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, developed this happiness formula:

To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

So my hopes for 2011 are:

  • to recognize I don’t have infinite amounts of time,
  • to accept I can’t become an expert at everything,
  • to continue playing both instruments,
  • to allow myself to favor one over the other,
  • to seek growth, regardless of its speed,
  • to enjoy the music, no matter what.

That seems doable.

June 15, 2010

Nostradamus

That could have been my nickname 5 years ago as I SAW THE FUTURE.

A friend of mine just e-mailed me the log of a conversation we had on MSN way back in 2005, when I was still a graduate student. A random blast from the past. Here’s a first highlight:

my dream would be to work in comm. for public sector
as silly as that sounds
I’m in ad school
and I’m in public service school

the thing is, I feel that those schools don’t teach you shit
they just put stuff on paper to make you more marketable but you still have to take on near-entry level positions
so you have to take on jobs that are remote from your goal but you have to take them anyway to put your feet in the door

So true!

I now work in the communication division of a state agency and got my foot in the door by taking a customer service job. It took me 3.5 years after I graduated to feel I was putting my two master’s degrees to good use.

I’m going to keep reading to see what other insightful things I thought back then. I’m living the dream and I didn’t even know it!

For serious. I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated with work lately and this is a random and healthy way to put things back in perspective.

Reading the rest of the chat log is not as rosy. My friend notably wrote:

you know we work because we have to
there has to be something to fill the years
basically the gap between birth and dying

For serious.

May 3, 2010

Loophole: closed

I am all caught up on Lost and am happy to announce my return to Full Internet Bliss – I fib you not!

During the past 3 months or so, my husband and I religiously watched a couple of Lost episodes every night so we could see the show finale at the same time as everyone else. As a consequence, we had to limit our internet browsing experience in order NOT to fall prey to any spoilers. John survived that pretty well, but that was TORTURE to me. One of the things I enjoy most in life on the Internet is participating in forum discussions about things that interest me. Not being able to read the theories random strangers had about this or that episode felt very limiting.

To me, an experience isn’t 100% fun or fulfilling if I don’t get to communicate, compare and contrast it with others. After I got back from Japan 5 months ago, I spent hours reading about the journeys of other people who traveled there and looking at their photos. When I started playing the mbira, I searched for more people online who share this passion. All this multiplies the effects of the experience.

Some people told me they think I’m an exhibitionist or a show off because of the things I post online, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I used to write a personal blog before this one, on the now defunct journalspace.com. In the four years I blogged there, I met new people whose presence migrated from the comment box to being my wedding guests. I was also exposed to opposing views of the world that completely blew my mind.  I also learned to navigate the Web like a fish in water. I 0wned the place, man.

It’s simple, the key to opening yourself up to new experiences, people, ideas is to put all of yourself out there – there’s no room for compromise. Those who choose to be more discreet claiming they’re modest are  just afraid of their untapped potential.