Monthly Archives: January 2008

Witty gamers

The new trend among video gamers appear to be making video game reviews in the form of bile-overflowing, yet extremely witty films.

One of these reviewers goes by the supremely unfortunate moniker “Yahtzee”, who presents a new review each week under the title Zero Punctuation, which subtly hints that the main trademark of the reviews is a non-stop hilarious gabbing at whatever game he happens to review. A good example of his style can be found in his review of the latest installment in the Tomb Raider saga:

Another witty gamer is the Angry Video Game Nerd – formerly known as the Angry Nintendo Nerd (though he had to change his nom-de-plume in order to avoid unhappy interest from certain Italian plumbers). The nerd makes humorous, though at times rather long-winded, reviews of old Nintendo and Atari video games, showcasing just how primitive they were. But it is not so much the games themselves, as it is the Angry Nerd’s ability to look back upon the pop culture which fostered these games in the first place. The best example of that is probably his excellent review of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the Nintendo:

It gets even better when he goes on to describe his old indulgence with the pubescent amphibians even further by reminiscing the Turtles movie trilogy.

Philosophy vs. Philosophology

One question that philosophers have sought to answer since the beginning of time is: “What is philosophy, and how can I make a living doing it?”

Philosophy is a Greek word, which means “love of wisdom”. But philosophers, ever argumentative as they are, can’t agree what loving wisdom actually means, so they can only give tentative answers. But it is understood that it is Supremely Important Work. Some of the reasons for this can be found in Wikipedia’s definition of Philosophy:

Philosophy is the discipline concerned with the questions of how one should live (ethics); what sorts of things exist and what are their essential natures (metaphysics); what counts as genuine knowledge (epistemology); and what are the correct principles of reasoning (logic).

In short, philosophy is the on-going quest for meaning and understanding. Originally, philosophy was a popular pastime among the leisure class of the city states of ancient Greece. Indeed, it seems that it was primarily because they didn’t have to worry about making a living (having lots of slaves really help at that) that led them to philosophy. Since then, people generally have had to earn money in order to sustain themselves, and most philosophers do so by teaching and writing books on philosophy. And most of them do so in a university setting, since universities are the only places which offer full-time employment for dedicated philosophers, thereby professionalizing their “love of wisdom”.

But how do you teach philosophy? Is it the same as understanding what other philosophers have thought and said before you, or is it being able to do your own philosophizing? Or is it something in between? Some time ago, I read Robert Pirsig’s book Lila, in which he introduces the distinction between philosophy on the one hand, and what he calls ‘philosophology’ on the other:

He liked the word ‘philosophology.’ It was just right. It had a nice dull, cumbersome, superfluous, appearance that exactly fitted its subject matter, and he had been using it for some time now. Philosophology is to philosophy as musicology is to music, or as art history and art appreciation are to art, or as literary criticism is to creative writing. It’s a derivative, secondary field, a sometimes parasitic growth that likes to think it controls its host by analyzing and intellectualizing its host’s behaviour.

Literature people are sometimes puzzled by the hatred many creatice writers have for them. Art historians can’t understand the venom either. He supposed the same was true with musicologists but he didn’t know enough about them. But philosophologists don’t have this problem at all because the philosophers who would normally condemn them are a null-class. They don’t exist.

Philosophologists, calling themselves philosophers, are just about all there are.

You can imagine the ridiculousness if an art historian taking his students to museums, having them write a thesis on some historical or technical aspect of what they see there, and after a few years of this giving them degrees that say they are accomplished artists. They’ve never held a brush or a mallet and chisel in their hands. All they know is art history.

Yet, ridiculous as it sounds, this is exactly what happens in the philosophology that calls itself philosophy. Students aren’t expected to philosophize. Their instructors would hardly know what to say if they did. They’d probably compare the student’s writing to Mill or Kant or somebody like that, find the student’s work grossly inferior, and tell him to abandon it. As a student Phædrus [Pirsig’s alter ego in the book] had been warned that he would ‘come a cropper’ if he got too attached to any philosophical ideas of his own.

Literature, musicology, art history, and philosophology thrive in academic institutions because they are easy to teach. You just Xerox something some philosopher has said and make the students discuss it, make them memorize it, and then flunk them at the end of the quarter if they forget it.

Actual painting, music composition and creative writing are almost impossible to teach and so they barely get in the academic door. True philosophy doesn’t get in at all. Philosophologists often have an interest in creating philosophy but, as philosophologists, they subordinate it, much as a literary scholar might subordinate his own interest in creative writing. Unless they are exceptional they don’t consider the creation of philosophy their real line of work.

As an author, Phædrus had been putting off the philosophology, partly because he didn’t like it, and partly to avoid putting a philosophological cart before the philosophical horse. Philosophologists not only start by putting the cart first; they usually forget the horse entirely. They say first you should read what all the great philosophers of history have said and then you should decide what you want to say.

The catch here is that by the time you’ve read all what the great philosophers of history have said you’ll be two hundred years old. A second catch is that these great philosophers are very persuasive people and if you read them innocently you may be carried away by what they say and never see what they missed.

Phædrus, in contrast, sometimes forgot the cart but was fascinated by the horse. He thought the best way to examine the contents of various philosophological carts is to first figure out what you believe and then to see what great philosophers agree with you. There will always be a few somewhere. These will be much more interesting to read since you can cheer what they say and boo their enemies, and when you see how their enemies attack them you can kibitz a little a take a real interest in whehter they were right or wrong.

With this technique you can approach someone like William James in a much different way than an ordinary philosophologist would. Since you’ve already done your creative thinking before you read James, you don’t just go along with him. You get all kinds of fresh new ideas by contrasting what he’s saying with what you already believe. You’re not limited by any dead-ends of his thought and can often see ways of going around him.

I find this distinction quite interesting, because I expect that a lot of people begin at university thinking that they want to learn to do something, rather than just learn about something. Philosophy being one example. Anthropology, it can be argued, is another – though at least there is some practical exercises involved.

By separating the act of philosophy from the academic comparative contemplation of acts of philosophy, Pirsig underlines that what most philosophers earn their money doing is the latter, and that the former is something that – if done at all – is still done at leisure, as a pastime. While reading William James, Pirsig is surprised to find that James himself does both:

James and a group of friends were on an outing somewhere and one of them chased a squirrel around a tree. The squirrel instinctively clung to the opposite side of the tree and moved so that at as the man circled the tree the squirrel also circled it on the opposite side.

After observing this, James and his friends engaged in a philosophical discussion of the question: did the man go around the squirrel or didn’t he? The group broke into two philosophical camps and Phædrus didn’t remember how the argument was resolved. What impressed him was James’ interest in the question. It showed that although James was no doubt an expert philosophologist (certainly he had to be to teach stuff at Harvard) he was also a philosopher in the creative sense.

A philosophologist would have been mildly contemptuous of such a discussion because it had no ‘importance,’ that is, no body of philosophical writings existed about it. But to a creative philosopher like James the question was like catnip.

It had the smell of what it is that draws real philosophers into philosophy. Did the man go around the squirrel or didn’t he? He was north, south, east and west of the squirrel, so he must have gone around it. Yet at no time had he ever gone to the back or to the side of the squirrel. That squirrel could say with absolute scientific certitude, “That man never got around me.”

Who is right? Is there more than one meaning of the word ‘around’? That’s a surprise! That’s like discovering more than one true system of geometry. How many meanings are there and which one is right?

It seems as though the squirrel is using the term ‘around’ in a way that is relative to itself but the man is using it in a way that is relative to an absolute point in space outside of the squirrel and himself.

But if we drop the squirrel’s relative point of view and we take the absolute fixed point of view, what are we letting ourselves in for? From a fixed point in space every human being on this planet goes around every other human being to the east or west of him once a day. The whole East river does a half-cartwheel over the Hudson each morning and another one under it each evening. Is this what we want to mean by ‘around’? If so, how useful is it? And if the squirrel’s relative point of view is false, how useless is it?

What emerges is that the word ‘around’, which seems like one of the most clear and absolute and fixed terms in the universe suddenly turns out to be relative and subjective. What is ‘around’ depends on who you are and what you’re thinking about at the time you use it. The more you tug at it the more things start to unravel. One such philosophic tugger was Albert Einstein, who concluded that all time and space are relative to the observer.

We are always in a position of that squirrel. Man is always the measure of all things, even in matters of space and dimension. Persons like James and Einstein, immersed in the spirit of philosophy, do not see things like squirrels circling trees as necessarily trivial, because solving puzzles like that are what they’re in philosophy and science for. Real science and real philosophy are not guided by preconceptions of what subjects are important to consider.

When I read this, I didn’t realize that there are professional philosophers seeking to teach ‘philosophy’ rather than ‘philosophology.’ They argue that it is only once you have found your own philosophical standpoint, rooted in your own personal experiences that you’ll be able to read and argue with the philosophy of others. And they seek to help their students find their own philosophical standpoints encouraging the students’ curiosity and facilitating their philosophical inquiry to allow them to find their own way to love wisdom.

The first philosopher to do so was Socrates, and it is his method which forms the basis of the practical philosophical exercises which these professional philosophers use. This modern form of the Socratic Dialogue was (re)invented by the German philosopher Leonard Nelson, who – much like Pirsig – found that there is a central distinction between what is traditionally meant with the word “philosophy” and the actual activity of philosophizing. It is not a matter of talking about philosophy, it is a matter of doing (performing?) philosophy. You need to experience philosophy in order to be able to understand it.

Nelson argued that the central aspect of philosophy is regressive abstraction – the thinking act of working upwards from your own personal experiences to a general philosophical knowledge – much like William James’ squirrel anecdote above. Thereby relating personal and concrete experiences to the overall ideas and concepts being discussed, without referring to outside authorities – academic or otherwise.

And like Socrates, Nelson argued that the best circumstances under which to perform such regressive abstraction was in the open discussion with other interested people. He founded the Philosophisch-Politische Akademie in 1922 as a forum to host such Socratic discussion. Banned by the Nazis, the PPA was re-founded by Nelson’s pupil Gustav Heckmann in 1949. It has since inspired philosophers in Germany, England, the Netherlands and Denmark where I have come across it in the form of Danish philosopher Finn Thorbjørn Hansen‘s book “Den sokratiske dialoggruppe”.

Along the way, it has matured from Nelson’s neo-Kantian influence, to contain both phenomenological and therapeutic qualities. As Dutch philosopher Dries Boele puts it:

Wisdom is impossible without consulting one’s experience. If philosophy can be considered as an effort to make us feel at home in life, then the socratic dialogue looks for an understanding that is needed for that – not in the construction of an all-embracing metaphysical order in which man has his task (such as Hegel’s system), but in the investigation of experiences by which we sharpen our power of discernment and are able to live attentively in the present.

A good description of the creative and maturing experience of a Socratic dialogue is offered by the leader of a Danish folk high school, who took part in one of Finn Thorbjørn Hansen’s first dialogue groups in Denmark:

Participation in a Socratic dialogue group can best be described as a piece of music. Slowly, through the telling of personal examples relating to the main question, the participants tune in their instruments for a shared investigation. They become a single organism – like the orchestra: a flowing collaboration. A Socratic dialogue contains more music and painting than analytical ability and politics. It is a shared process of creation. And just as you don’t have to be a professional musician to enjoy and experience the world of music – similarly you do not have to have a degree in philosophy to enjoy and experience the world of philosophy. You don’t have to play a perfect tune in order to experience the “eros”, the wonder, which characterizes the good Socratic dialogue.

Hansen supports this characterization of the dialogue and of the philosophical inquiry in general by quoting Wittgenstein, who said: “I believe that I have summed up my approach to philosophy when I said: philosophy is something one should only compose – like poetry.”
To this Hansen solely adds, “philosophy, then, is – at its best – a poetic effort.”

Perhaps that is true of all good intellectual endeavours?

Selling myself

When January comes, the blogosphere is awash with self-reflection: “What did the past year bring? What does the new year promise? How do I plan to do things differently from now on? How will things develop in the continuing story that is me, me, me?”

And much like everybody else, I have been reflecting on many of those issues. But (probably) unlike most others, I’ve been thinking about these things more or less continually since I graduated back in August. Having achieved the goal which I have been working towards for seven years, this autumn has been remarkably different from earlier years. Especially since I no longer have reading lists, exams, and clear ideas about what I’m supposed to be learning.

Since mid-November, I’ve been wanting to write about the “courses” that I’ve been taking this now-past “semester.” Not only to sum up what I’ve been doing this autumn, but also to give myself an idea of what I have learned (or sought to teach myself). I ended up with the following:

? Selling Myself
? Project Management
? Design Anthropology and User-driven innovation
? Design for Democracy

The main course (har har) is my on-going project of learning to sell myself (or rather, my labour) on the job market. The other three courses extend from that. The Project Management course was the only a proper course with exam, essay and reading list. And it gave me some useful tools and an understanding of how projects are handled within larger organisations, as well as an idea of the dynamics of corporate culture. The other two have been defined in a slightly more hazy fashion, as I’ve been trying to position myself to get a job within these fields.

The goal with all of this has been and still is to get a job that has some relevance and depth to my education. But since anthropologists are not the most sought-after human resource on the market, I have been learning a lot about how to sell myself as an anthropologist with relevant and useful skills and knowledge. Following my work with interaction design at the IT University of Copenhagen, and my focus on userdriven innovation in the Ubuntu community, I’ve sought to position myself as a design anthropologist. I’ve been talking to friends already employed or with academic experience within the field, and sought to soak up some of their ideas and experiences, and following their advice, I’ve made a neat portfolio explaining what I’ve worked with and what design anthropology is, which I’ve been sending out with my unsolicited applications.

The job application is a new genre for me, so it has taken some time to get used to. Human Resource people often refer to the cover letter as a “sales letter” for yourself, while the résumé or CV is a more factual “declaration of contents” – i.e. what credentials do you actually have? A fun way of presenting this would be to design a job application as a box of cereal – with fancy graphics and glorious promises of well-being and nutritious insight on the front, fun details for reading while eating on the back, and the raw facts of grades and job experiences tucked away on the side.

But I have yet to go so far in my attempt to win the attention of prospective employers. Instead, I’ve been trying to compile a list of advice about the do’s and don’ts of writing job applications, and about what qualifications, interests and traits of personality which it is relevant to focus, as well as how best to do so:

  • Show it, don’t tell it! Show who you are, not just what you can do. You need to “break through with who you are”
  • Describe yourself: How charmingly social, intellectual, creative, innovative, analytical and cross-disciplinary you are.
  • Describe your skills – with support in the activities listed in your CV.
  • Describe what kind of work would you like to do. Support this through references to your résumé.
  • Visualize yourself in a work situation at the prospective company: How would you fit into their current organization? What kind of work is it that you can do that others cannot?
  • Position yourself! Write about your own ambitions and ideas and how these ambitions can benefit yourself and your prospective employer both!
  • Look ahead! Don’t write about what you’ve done so far, but about where you want to go.
  • Make sure that every formal detail of the job application is in order. Take that extra bit of time to hint a bit of perfectionism and greater-than-average interest.
  • It feels kind of strange writing my “tips on writing a job application” when I still haven’t landed a job myself, but it goes to show that these are very general and not all that easy to fulfill anyway. Besides, writing an unsolicited job application is one thing, writing an application for a specific job ad is something rather different, as you aren’t so much defining your own project as you are matching your ambitions and ideas with the needs of an organisation with pre-defined ideas of what they need. This matching is an interesting challenge, since I get imagine myself in lots of different roles, doing lots of different work, and working out how I can go about shaping them to make them my own.

    And it is often a lot easier to imagine myself in projects or jobs defined by other people, rather than having to define my own job from scratch. Several people have suggested that I apply for a Ph.D, but I don’t really feel ready for a return to academia, nor do I have a project that I consider sufficiently well-defined to build a Ph.D application on. Actually, I was going to apply for Ph.D in Public Sector Innovation at the new Mind Lab innovation unit initiated by the Danish government, which promised to give me practical hands-on project experience as well as the actual research work. That was one of the main reasons behind the “Design for Democracy” course mentioned above. But in the end, I didn’t go through with it, as I didn’t feel that I have the “academic maturity” required for such a position.

    Maybe it was a bad decision, I don’t know. I’m still deeply interested in the matters of design of services and policy, and how qualitative research and user-involvement can improve such decision-making processes. And I feel that my background with open source governance and sociality over the Internet has given my some excellent insights to use in that regard. But what I want to do at the moment is not research. It is practical hands-on, making-things-happen ethnography (if there is such a thing).

    A Visit to the Uffizi

    Last year, I went to Italy, and had the opportunity to visit the Uffizi museum in Florence. Since then, I’ve been meaning to highlight some of the best paintings I saw there for others to enjoy and comment upon. I’ve dug out some pictures of said paintings, and though they have only a fraction of the beauty (and none of the aura) of the original, they still give a decent idea of the wondrous detail and emotion which hides in each of them.

    I continue to be amazed at the way the artists have used the eyes and glances of the people in each painting to give an immense sense of depth and drama. Confining entire stories to a single bat of an eye, forever captured on the canvas. Move the cursor over each image to get the title and artist – playful guessing at both before doing so is recommended.

    Botticelli's Madonna the Magnificent

    Leonardo's Adorazione dei Magi

    Botticelli's Young Man with Medallion

    I love this one. He looks so much like a gangsta rapper flaunting his gold. Compare.

    Daniele Ricciarelli da Volterra: Killing of the Innocent

    Rosso Fiorentino's Angelino Musicante

    Tiziano's Sick Man

    Le scaphandre et le papillon

    I suspect you think that this is an awfully pompous title for a blog post, or a film, or a book. And in a way it is. It is French, and means “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. And it is the title of both a book and a film. And their subject matter are neither pompous nor awful.

    Both tell the story of the French bon vivant and editor of ELLE magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at age 43 suffers a massive stroke, and upon waking from his coma finds himself suffering from “Locked-in syndrome“: Locked in his completely paralyzed body, with all of his senses and mental capacities intact, he can only communicate by blinking his left eye. By having an assistant read the letters of the French alphabet aloud in order of frequency of use, he can blink whenever she reaches the letter which he wants to use in a word or a sentence. Ever so slowly, he can let his surroundings, his family and friends, as well as his doctors and nurses know how his life is now.

    letters

    It is in this state that he dictates the book, which he calls “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in reference to his complete isolation in this vacuum of easy communication, which he fills with his still-sprawling imagination, dreaming of all the things he has lost or never had.

    listening

    I saw the film yesterday, and it is amazing. By giving the viewer Bauby’s perspective, we too are a dumb and unable to take part in the happenings in front of us. For a while, we share his pain and gain a vivid perspective of life within the diving bell. It’s wondrous.

    But even, so Bauby managed to tell his tale, though he died within days of its publication. It reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges‘ short story “The Secret Miracle“, in which Jaromir Hladík, a Jewish scholar and playwright, while standing in front of the firing squad just before his execution, is granted one year of time by God to finish the play he never dared complete. But that year of time is relative. It is basically time frozen for year, where nothing apart from Hladík’s conscious mind is in motion. Unable to write his work down, Hladík is forced to recite and refine the play in his mind, line by line.

    When he finally finishes the play, reciting it in full before adding his epithet, physical time resumes and the bullets rip. The secret miracle unobserved and his play unheard.

    At least in that way, Fate was kinder to Jean-Dominique Bauby.