Archive for December, 2018

Exercise and Ethics

While running to the gym, I started thinking about why I exercise. People quite often associate exercise with moral values. Top executives and politicians like to pose as champion triathletes. Obedient workers exercise to take care of themselves in order to provide more value to their employers. Regular exercise supposedly shows others that you are a disciplined person in other fields of life as well. I didn’t like any of this reasoning and wanted to find something else that makes sense.

While running, I noticed I was enjoying myself. My first reason for doing it, then, is enjoyment. I do it because it gives me pleasure. However, when I thought back to the time when I started jogging, it was far from pleasurable. When I started going to the gym, I did not like that very much either. When I did it, I was also cycling a lot, because it was the best way to get around. Therefore, the second reason for doing this is utilitarian. You could even extend the immediate motivation and say that I exercise, in general, so I can get around better. I noticed this was especially important when I broke my ankle a few years ago and had to get around on crutches. Had I been in better shape, it would have been much easier.

Those were two reasons I came up with: enjoyment and utilitarian motives. But there wasn’t a strictly moral element to these. Where does it come from? The one proper reason I could think of that comes close to morality is that physical exercise is an expression of free will. I can go for a jog or choose not to go. Then again, I could do something else with my time. I could work for a charity, or something similar. Wouldn’t that be preferable to running around in the woods?

Is there a continuum of choices? I could sit at home and do nothing, go for a run, or volunteer at a charity. Which one would be preferable? Obviously, helping others at a charity would be the better option. Why choose running over charity? Why not engage in selfless activities instead of relatively futile pastimes like exercise? Compared to more morally commendable activities, exercise seems selfish and perhaps even unethical. Having said that, if sitting at home and exercise are worse options compared to charity, why not just sit at home and do nothing? This leads to the complicated topos of free will and moral responsibility. A single blog post is not the place to go through all that, but at least I found something that links exercise and ethics in a way that I could relate to.

I halt this interior monologue when I go running or go to the gym. Ultimately, it is a moral choice that gives me time to reflect. The odd thing about ethics is that people often try to reduce moral choices into algorithms. Answers should be automatic and follow a moral principle that has been pre-installed in the speaker. This is a bizarre way of thinking about ethics. The questions are difficult and require a lot of reflection. That’s the human element in them and what makes ethics ethics. You will often not find a simple formulaic answer to a moral problem and have to proceed on a case-by-case basis. It’s messy and complicated. Putting one foot in front of the other makes it clear that going through life unthinkingly by following a moral principle systematically can become a systematic way of being stupid unless you mind your step.

I guess that’s why I exercise.

People Standing Around Talking About How Busy They Are

Everyone is in a hurry these days. And everyone talks about how everyone is in a hurry. I was re-reading Bruce Boyer’s True Style tonight to relax. He made me think about the connection between sprezzatura and manners. He writes:

It’s an important lesson we seem to have forgotten, this idea that civility rests on the little lie, the sin of omission, the harmless compliment, the overlooked slight, the tiny fabrication, the artful ability to conceal effort and inappropriate passions. These little niceties – manners, they used to be called – are the grease on the wheels of social friction. […] Sprezzatura is a matter of reaching for perfection, while cultivating the impression of never having given it a thought. It’s the sense of ease, the air of never having prepared, that wins the day. The man who’s all color coordinated is the one, we feel, who blatantly tries too hard. His clothing sends a clear message: he’s insecure.

Concealing art and effort have their own national manifestations, I’m told. Like Boyer says, there’s the Italian sprezzatura, there’s American cool, and then there’s a distinct British rumpled nonchalance. You can see the latter in upper-class people or people who like to pose as upper-class people: they never have to try very hard. If they do it right, you won’t know the difference. In fact, you may think their work and life are  just a well-rehearsed stage show they just happen to effortlessly star in.

If you approach complaining about being busy as a question of manners (as opposed to a question of style), people might take offence. Is it rude say you are stressed out and overworked? I don’t think so, especially if it is a call for help or, as is more often the case, empty small talk. However, I think the small talk in this case may drown out actual calls for help. In this sense, it would be rude to talk casually about stress, because you may be making light of someone’s real distress.

What, then, should be done? Talking explicitly about how people use talk about being busy is crossing the line in both cases, so a smartass meta-analysis is not the way to go in casual conversation. Perhaps the thing to say is: “I won’t keep you, since you are so busy.” Or: “Let’s talk some other time when we both have the time.” Both of these options seem fine to me. What you shouldn’t do, I think, is start comparing notes about how busy both of you are. If you do that, at the end you will be two extremely busy people wasting time talking about how busy you are. And that’s just silly.

Tools of the Trade

I have to create videos for my classes, finally cracked and bought Adobe Premiere. I also subscribe to Pro Tools, which means there are no more excuses. I more or less have the same tools that the pros use in audio and video production, or at least the software. It’s been a relief, but nerve-racking the same time. Like I said, no more excuses.

I used to do audio and, to a lesser extent, video on a shoestring budget. If something went wrong, I could blame the software. With DAWs, of course, whatever works for you the best is the best. There seems to be more variety in audio production software anyway. I’ve used everything from Cakewalk to Cubase to Reason and Reaper and many others in the past, so I really had no trouble moving to Pro Tools. It actually feels pretty nice. More than nice, to be honest. We get along very well.

I have less experience with video editing suites. I’ve used DaVinci Resolve, but that’s about it. Premiere seems very powerful, but I’ve almost lost my stuff a number of times already. Premiere’s autosave has rescued me a couple of times, and I also save backups every few minutes manually when I’m working. I hope it will settle down soon and I can trust software a little better as I get to know it better.

All this hassle made me think that teachers today are expected to be multimedia wizards. We have to be to keep up with the demands of our duties. If I didn’t have some previous experience in media production, I don’t think I could do this job. I really feel for my colleagues who have to jump in with no prior knowledge. Everyone I know already works very hard and has a very busy schedule. It would be difficult to fit in an intense course on video editing. That said, many of them make great stuff with less experience than I have. This tells me that the tools are finally easy enough to use even for beginners. That’s great, but it also means, once again, fewer excuses. If we can do it, almost anyone can.

Running With Purpose

This was not the first time I did it. I picked up my keys and left the apartment for a run, and quickly noticed that I had once again picked up the wrong set of keys and locked myself out. My wife was at work, so I had to go to the other side of town to borrow her keys. Because I was already in my jogging suit, I thought why not go out for a run anyway. I never learn.

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Source: Wikipedia

When I normally go for a run, I have no particular place to go. I just go out, pick a direction and run. There is a wonderful pointlessness to it all. That’s part of the charm of running. There’s no big plan, no real objective, nothing to achieve. The French philosopher Guillaume le Blanc writes about the pointlessness of running in his book Courir (2012). The pointlessness, repetitiveness and meaninglessness of running are as obvious to him as they are to everyone else. However, le Blanc notes that we hang on to life with meaningless and repetitive gestures. They keep us going. The futility of running is a wonderful thing, like all futile things. It is awful to lose it, even momentarily.

A strange horror washes over you when you suddenly have to be at a certain place at a certain time while running. Gone is the carelessness of the exercise, the wonderful aimlessness of the run. There is a starting point, checkpoints and a goal: a beginning, a middle and an end. There is structure and a narrative instead of freedom. The Greeks descend upon you with their philosophies. All of the sudden the rain on your face is a nuisance, stepping in a puddle makes you angry and you consider the possibility of failure.

I hope I never forget my keys ever again.

A Quiet Place

We watched Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders yesterday. I had never seen it before, and frankly did not care for it too much, but the trapeze artist Marion (played by Solveig Dommartin) got me thinking about the time when I read a lot of French literature: Camus, Cioran, Blanchot and continental philosophy. I also read authors like Beckett, a lot of Wittgenstein and sometimes went back to Kafka. In the film, Marion goes through a crisis. The way she speaks about her condition reminded me of an old fantasy I’ve had since childhood.

The fantasy goes more or less like this. I find a small door in the wall, open it and find myself in a blank space. I explore the space and find it completely silent, empty and vast. When I return through the door, I find that time has stood still. I quickly figure out I am able to enter or exit the space as I wish and do whatever I want for as long as I want while I’m there. The emptiness and silence of the space is mine to use as I please. Because I was a bookish child, I thought of this fantasy space as a place where I could read and think in peace.

I have a similar feeling when I read the authors I just mentioned. The volume of the world is turned down and there is room for thought. Because I have studied literature a lot, I should probably know whether there is a term for this feeling or not. There might be, but none comes to mind right now. “The void” may be one, but it sounds much too melodramatic. I’ve tried to write about silence before: silence in films, silence and language, the unsayable and about many other things around the subject. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to say what I want to say.

Recently, I’ve thought about social media and the noisiness of modern media in general. It seems to lock the door to that quiet place or fill its silence with unnecessary babbling. We are supposed to respond to the babbling and try to form informed reactions to all this noise. I’d like to say that most of it is meaningless, but that wouldn’t be accurate. It’s too meaningful. There’s no room for thought when you are force-fed meaningful content from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. We are supposed to be creative as well and generate content for modern media ourselves, but it seems like all you can do are collages made of that very noise. Is this being creative? Or is it just more noise?

There are other kinds of creativity that do not thrive in this cacophony. They begin with isolating yourself from the world as best you can and then creating the world anew. You will be channelling what you see around you in some sense, of course, but in a way that is not detached from the way you see the world yourself. It’s a Romantic notion of creativity, but I like it. Unapologetically and unironically. Many of the existential, modernist and minimalist authors I so enjoy we’re actually lamenting the death of this type of creativity. In the Wenders film, Nick Cave becomes the symbol of what I’m talking about. When he showed up last night, I knew everything was going to be alright, left the room, took a shower and went to bed. I never finished watching the film.

Notes to Self: Don’t Waste Your Time Online

Your life is short. Time is valuable. Produce something. Write, make music, draw, paint, anything. Imagine things and make them come true. You will feel great once you are done, even if it’s junk. Put what you think worthy online. Make stuff accessible and find proper channels. (Facebook is not a proper channel for anything but Facebook posts.) Do these things for fun as well. Do them as much as you like, but remember to rest. Your side hustles are not going to become your main hustle.

Find someplace quiet. Don’t be afraid of sitting still. Read a book, any book. Read without purpose, and read with purpose if you must. You subscribe to the New York Times for news. Read the New York Times. You subscribe to the London Review of Books. Read the London Review of Books. You subscribe to Spotify. Listen to music and podcasts from Spotify. Pick a film and watch it from beginning to end. Don’t watch it on YouTube or your computer. Watch a DVD. Go to the movies. Go to a museum.

You have a gym membership. Go to the gym. A gym with heavy metal blasting in your ears can sometimes be your quiet place. Go for a run. Organize your closet. Do a bit of housework. Brush up on your languages. These things may seem like chores, but it’s really time set aside for thought and reflection. The best ideas may come to you when you’re not paying attention and doing something else. Do these other things so that you can do the things that really matter. You don’t necessarily have to do any of this, but if you have prepared for them and set aside the time to do them, why not to do them?

To Facebook or Not to Facebook

As the dirty little secrets of Facebook’s business model keep coming, I find myself in the midst of my weekly struggle over whether or not I should leave Facebook. I left Facebook a few years ago, only to return a few years later. Now I think I may have made a mistake. But I go back and forth, as I said, on an almost weekly basis. There are two main reasons for this back and forth.
First, I find that Facebook is exhausting. The way I use social media is draining, although it’s mostly good fun. It’s almost like having a second or third job on top of your regular duties. It’s somewhere between work and play, and quite often it feels more like work. The funny thing is that Facebook was made for people like me: socially awkward loners who nevertheless like to stay in touch with others. Like many introverts, I find social occasions exhausting. Computerized interaction is easier, but on the other hand I’m able to go on more intense binges when the interaction is computer-assisted. This leads to social exhaustion not unlike the one I feel after a cocktail party. This problem is easily fixed just by using Facebook less.Facebook_on_Nasdaq

Secondly, we keep hearing awful things about the way Facebook handles its customers’ data. I think by now everyone has accepted that the customers’ data is Facebook’s actual product. It’s sold to advertisers and third parties for a profit. You are a product for Facebook. many of us seem to be okay with this, because we get a nice little toy to play with in exchange for our data. Others, myself included, feel slightly violated. It’s nothing serious, I’m sure, but I do feel it gnawing at me every day. It’s disturbing. It’s like living in a soft dystopian nightmare with funny animal videos. I can block it out most of the time, but it’s there. This too, can be exhausting. Unlike social exhaustion, however, I don’t really know how to deal with it.
Not too long ago, a philosopher wrote an article for the New York Times where he asked whether it is our duty to leave Facebook or not. He came to the conclusion that unless Facebook is doing harm willfully, he would not think it necessary to leave. I wonder if his opinion has changed after hearing the latest news. I’m pretty sure people who work at Facebook are not bad people, but their network is so vast that they cannot have full control of it in any meaningful way. That’s kind of the point of the entire enterprise, too: to provide a platform where the users create the content. Hence the philosopher’s question.
I predict that Facebook will soon be subjected to all kinds of new regulations, both self-imposed and external, and it will become entangled in these rules and restrictions. We will applaud the regulations at first, then find them too restricting and confusing, and finally move on to the next toy. Once we know how Facebook’s algorithm works and the rules are set, we will grow bored of it. We are all curious monkeys and while our curiosity often leads to trouble, in this case it may be our saving grace as well.