Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What I’ve been up to

Man, does time fly! I look back at the good ol’ blog and it’s been almost a month with no posting at all. An unpardonable lack of politeness to my increasing audience! Well, time to take up the metaphorical pen and get back to work. My writing is as shabby as ever, as convoluted and baroque and circuitous and muddled, and it would benefit from a bit of practicing and cleaning up as much as in any other moment of my life. And how do I clean up my writing? Well, practicing it, in long-winded posts that almost nobody reads, of course! Although I swear I try to make ‘em less long-winded and more to the point, less derivative and meandering and more precise and focused, I recognized I’ve not been so far an exemplar of pithiness and grace…
Now before we get back to the ill-starred fate of our global society, its many evils and more or less imminent demise, I feel like I owe to my readership an account of what has kept me away from the keyboard these last weeks, as it touches (tangentially as ever) in many themes of the blog, like how to live and what pursuing a worthy life looks like nowadays.

First, in the intellectual front, I started a new university career in September, and had been taking the first batch of examinations until recently. Yup, after a lot of reflection of what I wanted to learn and develop after getting my PhD in philosophy, I settled in mathematics. I considered retaking my studies of Economics (having almost three courses completed, that’s the degree I was closer to, and the one whose achievement would have costed me less, both in time and in money), but I’ve come to see the whole discipline as so muddled, so essentially dishonest, so useless and so lacking in the basic decency to acknowledge its uselessness as to make every single minute devoted to it a complete waste of time (you may find the beginning of my musings about such dishonesty here: Economics suck I, for a less-dishonest than usual take on the limits and shortcomings of the discipline, from one devoted practitioner I’ve quoted other times, John Cochrane, see: Economic humility? Hah!). So Economics was discarded. I had enjoyed researching sociology and history for my dissertation, and both seemed entertaining, but pretty full of bullshit and baloney overall, so I also discarded them.

I have not entirely abandoned the idea of doing a PhD in history later in life, specializing in some truly obscure subject matter, period and geographic area (peculiar versification in Norse sagas developed in the first stages of Greenland settlement, between 1000 and 1200 AD, say, or distinctive guerrilla tactics of the Saracen raiders from Andalusian origin that built a holdout in Fraxinet, in Provence, between 889 and 973 AD), but right now I know myself, and I would immediately hover towards universal history, the whole of humanity, in a period during no less than a hundred centuries, trying to discern the currents, the tendencies and the drifts in such an enormous mass of facts and events (something serious historians tend to dismiss, and to confine to the later years of a life previously filled with what for me now seems like uninteresting and trivial minutiae).

I also toyed with the idea of studying something truly alien and even tinged with some utilitarian argument, as it could be used to improve my professional prospects. To be more specific, I toyed with the idea of studying law (and, being an all-or-nothing sort of guy, taking the bar exam so I could practice as a barrister). But it just seemed a) too practical, b) too serious and c) boring as hell.

So I really had to dig deep within what motivates me, what makes me tick and what I thought would be a valuable commitment of my all-too-scarce time. I went back to what a life well lived should look like for my particular circumstances. And two immediate features of such life came to my attention: it had to be a life of achieving difficult things and of deep understanding and pursuit of the absolute (absolute truth, absolute beauty and absolute goodness). After six years immersed in philosophy I had a passing familiarity with words and thoughts and how whole societies had ended up believing a bunch of noxious balderdash and thinking it formed a sacred description of naked facts revealed by Nature herself. So it seemed to me like pursuing more words and ideas people happened to have had wouldn’t take me much closer to that absolute truth I was endeavoring after…

But if words wouldn’t cut it, imprecise and biased and amenable to misinterpretation and manipulation, what could work? What symbols had humanity devised that were devoted to precision, to exact communication, to rigorous reasoning not subjected to ideology or propaganda, to certain verification, regardless of what sorry state the world may be in? Numbers and mathematical operators, of course! When Aristotle thought about the best life for man, he concluded that the life of an Athenian gentleman, slave-owning and all was objectively the best. When Hagel did the same exercise more than twenty centuries later, surprise, surprise, it was the life of a Prussian bureaucrat of his day and age, with exactly the same worldview and set of beliefs as himself, what he clearly “saw” was best. Ditto for Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Wittgenstein and all the philosophers of a conformist bent. There were revolutionaries, sure (what I have called “critical” thinkers, starting with my much admired Kant, and following with Schopenhauer and Marx and Nietzsche) but even them, it’s difficult not to admit, ended up validating the old Protagoras dictum “man is the measure of all things” (every single man considered in himself “and his circumstances” we may add, quoting my countryman Ortega y Gasset).

Something you can hardly say of Euclid, Cantor, Leibniz, Hermite, Lebesgue, Riemann, Cauchy or Fermat. In general they did not give a rat’s patootie about their fellow men circumstances or opinions (or they fellow men full stop), as they didn’t much care about their own. They carefully constructed their trains of thought, identifying with exacting precision what followed from what, and invented new ways of reasoning in the process. More than that, they defined what reasoning consists in, what is the proper way of doing it and what ways, sensible as they may seem, end up guiding you astray. They definitely knew a thing or two about how to discover truth. Stupendous truth, undeniable truth, self-evident, kick-you-in-the-teeth truth. No matter if you’re black or white, a man or a woman or something in between, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, an ISFJ or a ENTP, a proper demonstration is a proper demonstration, and a logical fallacy is a logical fallacy. 2 + 2 = 4 here and in China, today and 30,000 years ago (and in another 30,000 years, even if there is nobody left to appreciate it).  

As is normally said, what can be used to explain everything doesn’t explain anything. A set of knowledges that obtain whatever the state of the universe doesn’t describe much at all, and then the universality of mathematics is not its main strength, but its Achilles heel. Bollocks, I say. The more I learn the more I realize that apparent discrepancies between mathematical order and the deepest structures of reality only reveal our insufficient grasp of such structures, and once the veils are removed and the errors corrected we find an even deeper agreement. That is what guided me back to a very peculiar and highly idiosyncratic form of belief in an all-powerful (and likely all-benevolent) mind in the origin of reality itself many years ago, but that would be a topic for another day.

What I mean with this, as usual, tortured and full of circumlocutions discourse, is that the clearest path for me in my search for truth was to deepen my understand of mathematics. Not this time by reading a bunch of books and reaching my own conclusions. Mathematics is subtle and complex and vast and branching. So I paid the tuition fees, and enrolled in a full degree, to ensure I get the basics right. Slow and steady, as I’m not leaving my day job, or my training, or my family (God forbid!) but surefooted and disciplined as always. Do not be surprised, then, if more rigorous reasoning occasionally creep in this blog, and if some numerical concept shows its head every now and then. Not that the blog couldn’t benefit from some more streamlined and logical argumentation, mind you.

And is maths difficult! Specially if you haven’t practiced it formally for years (or rather, for decades, as in my case). I may work in an engineering firm, but I don’t remember having done anything more challenging than basic algebra (add, substract, multiply and divide) for most of my career (I’m in quality and organization, after all). So this is like having been all your life in a “toning/ weight loss” program in the gym and suddenly starting a powerlifting routine to take you in a short time over 1,000 pounds competition total (for those not in the know: tough!) But that is the other reason I chose maths. It is difficult, and doing difficult things, mastering complex and challenging subjects, is what a life well lived looks like.

But of course, that’s not the only thing that has kept me away from posting. Doing difficult things with your head is allrighty and well, but we shouldn’t forget the old Greek adage about the healthy mind requiring a healthy body (funny that we all think that comes from the Greeks, whilst the sentence used to convey it is in latin…) And since the end of last year I was thinking in what physical skill to invest into once I finished the brunt of preparing the first examinations (in mid February).

Although my initial inclination was to learn how to properly box, and had been informing myself about boxing gyms close to my work location, an unexpected opportunity opened up with the creation of a weightlifting club in the Crossfit box of one of my loved ones. Weightlifting is something I’ve been doing (awfully) since I was about 12 years old, without much progress in the last twenty five years (well, I clean and jerked 100 kg again, something I hadn’t done since I was 23, and I also equaled my best snatch soon afterwards, but just couldn’t keep the momentum and let my PBs fall again). And if you intend to do something for, roughly, the rest of your life (as I do), you better learn to do it right.

So a month ago I also enrolled in a weightlifting team, with a coach and all, and for the first time in my whole life have been following a program written by someone different from myself. A program that has me snatching, clean & jerking and squatting basically every friggin’ day of the week (and then somehow trying to recover in the weekend). Not half assedly performing the power versions of the lifts every now and then, or doing three or four 90% lifts and calling it a day, but doing 6-8 sets of 6-8 reps of each one day in day out.

I’ll devote considerable more space to what I’m learning, about the lifts and about myself, but I’ll just advance here that I’m a) loving it and b) being thoroughly challenged by it and c) adjusting to the new rhythm, trusting in the process and the coach and trying not to rush it, as I’ve done so many times before, just to reach a plateau faster, and then paying attention to a different thing and having to start all over again a few months later. And having somebody actually knowledgeable in the lifts watch me clumsily try to perform ‘em and correct my many, many failures, so my inconsistent and inefficient snatch starts being more predictable and focused:

Not yet the nicest view, I know. I’m old and rusty and slow and not that strong and specially not that mobile (in the muscles and joints required to move the weight stably and with agility and grace… I’d be happy with just doing it competently).

The thing is that with such an increased demand on my time (studying mathematics plus weightlifting every day plus job plus family plus regularly reading to try to understand how the world and the mind work) I haven’t had that much time to blog, hence my lack of posting. But despair not, o faithful readers! Even if I have to write much shorter posts, writing is one of the characteristic features of my life, one of those things I’ve been doing from as far as I have memories (I still keep the reams of paper that received my first musings, and occasionally reread them and smile by how naïve, but also how intellectually daring and curious and most definitely unconventional I was at such early age), and I do not intend to interrupt it. I may write more haphazardly, more touch and go, more discontinuously, but you can keep coming back here for some scathing social commentary, some amused advice on the barbell sports and some abstract musing about what this human life may be all about. 

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