19 May 2009

Stoicism, Christianity, and Mother Goose

I read the Handbook of Epictetus. It's very brief, just a few pages really. I'll quote a few paragraphs that should make it clear what Stoicism is about. (I'm quoting a recent translation by Nicholas P. White which I really like. The translations I found on the Web seem stilted, or florid, by comparison; though Higginson isn't bad. Of course you can try the original Greek.)

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. (1.)

You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours. (14.)

If you are fond of a jug, say “I am fond of a jug!” For then when it is broken you will not be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset. (3.)

Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well. (8.)

The best of it is extremely well said, but the content is troublesome. If the sample above does not convince you that you should prepare yourself to be unperturbed when your wife and children die, then the rest won't either. Still, given that you're reading this, something of Stoicism is very likely in you. It's in Western culture.

I guess none of the quotes I picked addresses the evident problem of whether a Stoic may act, or whether he must be distant and docile at all times. The Handbook doesn't seem to offer a head-on answer. Modern Christianity's interpretation of Stoicism does, though.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Reinhold Niebuhr, around 1944.

The wisdom, that is, to know what is up to us and what is not up to us. It is exactly this wisdom that is on offer in Epictetus: nothing is up to us except how we see things and how we comport ourselves. I think I like the modern Christian philosophy, demanding as it is of courage and wisdom, better. But then, I tend to like messy, perilous things in principle even when they are not so enjoyable in practice.

The Wikipedia article on the serenity prayer offers this lovely postscript. I have no idea why this rhyme is not a widely-known classic.

The philosopher W.W. Bartley juxtaposes Niebuhr's prayer with a Mother Goose rhyme (1695) expressing a similar sentiment, but without comment:

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

18 May 2009


Once I wrote two lines of what would have been an awesome sonnet.

Shall I compare you to my friend Matt Jones?
You are more lovely and not half so drunk.

In San Francisco, while everyone else was napping, I managed to sneak out to City Lights Books. There I stumbled on Sonnets by Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, translated by Mike Stocks. Translated. Imagine translating sonnets. I opened it up and read one, and it was pretty good, so I bought the book.

I emerged unconvinced that translating sonnets is possible or sane. I don't know what I expected. The translations are real sonnets that rhyme and scan, an amazing technical achievement already, and they have a nice spontaneous feel. Not everything works. Many lines, inevitably, are awkward. The English slang Stocks uses is so different from what I grew up with as to sound inauthentic (a real shame).

Oh but what a pleasure to be introduced to Belli. He wrote these sonnets in Rome in the 1830s. If half of them are as true to life as they feel, it was a city alive with outrageous characters, illicit sex, and poor anger management. The best ones are little candid character sketches, slightly or heavily satirical, of harried mothers, old men, annoyed girlfriends, corrupt priests, and so on. There's one from a furious stutterer. Reading them is like eating cupcakes while falling in love.

I'll post one of the translations that I like, with the warning that this one is atypically clean.

A Very Roman Pastime
The treat that us lot liked the most when small,
the biggest thrill, the real McCoy, the biz,
was finding new-built homes and palaces
and using lumps of coal to trash the walls.
So here we'd doodle numbers, little sums,
and Gordon knots and those of Sollymom,
and there some Lotto stuff; and then move on
to filthy words and pricks and twats and bums.
Or else we'd take a stone or nail or stick
to gouge the plaster out, and draw a pic
so deep we'd hit the bricks and stuff below.
Those were the days all right, my God. Although,
that said, I like to dabble still, it's true...
and when I see a nice white wall, I do.

At the moment, a few more translations are posted on the book's web site.

09 May 2009

Recently I learned...

  • Your browser uses the public suffix list to determine whether two web sites may share cookies. This is not very robust but better than the previous strategy.

  • If you take a long strip of paper, fold it in half as many times as you can, and unfold it, it'll make an approximation of the fractal shape called the Heighway dragon.

  • If you take two fractions, say 1/2 and 1/3, and add the numerators and denominators, you get the mediant, in this case 2/5. I don't know much about the mediant, but it is linked to Ford circles in a way I don't really understand, and I'm told mediants give a startling way of approximating the value of continued fractions.

  • glibc's qsort only does an actual quicksort as a last resort. If there's enough memory, it does a merge sort.

    This is old news, and I kind of figured it was the case, but I never looked at the source code before.

And I was reminded that complex numbers are key to quantum mechanics, something I missed when I was writing about complex numbers a year or two ago.

We've been unpacking books that have been in boxes for a year and a half. It's like meeting old friends. I read the epic of Gilgamesh, the book of Joshua, and Six Easy Pieces. I love small books.

Learning in games vs. applications

I was talking to one usability expert and he was describing how they measure task completion. Did the user press the buttons in the right order? Their ideal app resulted in new users completing tasks 100% of the time. This isn’t exploratory learning. You need to be able to fail and explore the possibility space of a particular tool. Through repeated failure and success, users build up robust skills that can be applied successfully in a wide variety of situations.

Danc, Mixing Games and Applications (PDF)


Well, maybe that's just what you'd expect a game designer to say about application design. Amusing slides anyway. The blog is Lost Garden.