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Jul
19th
Thu
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Elie Wiesel on Friendship

“And what is a friend? More than a father, more than a brother: a traveling companion, with him, you can conquer the impossible, even if you must lose it later. Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing. It is a friend that you communicate the awakening of a desire, the birth of a vision or a terror, the anguish of seeing the sun disappear or of finding that order and justice are no more. That’s what you can talk about with a friend. (…)

What is death, when you come down to it? The closing of a parenthesis, and nothing more? And what about life? In the mouth of a philosopher, these questions may have a false ring, but asked during adolescence or friendship, they have the power to change being: a look burns and ordinary gestures tend to transcend themselves.

What is a friend? Someone who for the first time makes you aware of your loneliness and his, and helps you to escape so you in turn can help him. Thanks to him who you can hold your tongue without shame and talk freely without risk. That’s it.” “
Elie Wiesel, Romanian-born Jewish-American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor (b. 1928), The Gates of the Forest: A Novel, Schocken, 1995.
Jul
14th
Sat
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It must be dreams that make us different, must be private cells inside a common skull.
Carol Ann Duffy, British poet and playwright, Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University, I Remember Me
Nov
8th
Tue
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We are interested in encounters between languages and the consequences of these encounters. (…)

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange those ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

Similarly, incorporeal works of art (poems, short stories etc.) have the potential to affect millions since unlike apples, they are unencumbered by the problem of scarcity (Lewis Hyde). The value of translation is that it unleashes from latency ideas and emotions to a vast sea of others who do not have access to the language in which these ideas and emotions reside.
Nov
4th
Fri
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Information, defined intuitively and informally, might be something like ‘uncertainty’s antidote.’ This turns out also to be the formal definition - the amount of information comes from the amount by which something reduces uncertainty. (…)

The higher the [information] entropy, the more information there is. It turns out to be a value capable of measuring a startling array of things - from the flip of a coin to a telephone call, to a Joyce novel, to a first date, to last words, to a Turing test. (…)

Entropy suggests that we gain the most insight on a question when we take it to the friend, colleague, or mentor of whose reaction and response we’re least certain. And it suggests, perhaps, reversing the equation, that if we want to gain the most insight into a person, we should ask the question of whose answer we’re least certain. (…)

Pleasantries are low entropy, biased so far that they stop being an earnest inquiry and become ritual. Ritual has its virtues, of course, and I don’t quibble with them in the slightest. But if we really want to start fathoming someone, we need to get them speaking in sentences we can’t finish.
Brian Christian, American author and poet, he holds a degree from Brown University in computer science and philosophy, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington, The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive, Doubleday, 2011
Nov
2nd
Wed
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A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exit in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points of actions, cross sections cut through actions, snapshots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one, things in motion, motion in things.
Ernest Fenollosa, American professor of philosophy and political economy at Tokyo Imperial University (1853-1908), Chapter: From The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry in Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics, University of California Press, 1983, p.21. (tnx commondense)
Sep
17th
Sat
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Our separation from each other is an optical illusion of consciousness.
Albert Einstein, German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, Nobel Prize laureate, (1879-1955), cited in Brent Marchant, Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, Conari Press, 2007, p.245.
Sep
13th
Tue
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Mamihlapinatapai is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word”. See also: ☞ Volunteer’s dilemma
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For more than five hundred years, the envoys of civilization sailed through storms and hacked through jungles, startling in turn one tribe after another of long-lost human cousins. For an instant, before the inevitable breaking of faith, the two groups would face each other, staring—as innocent, both of them, as children, and blameless as if the world had been born afresh.
Adam Goodheart, historian, journalist, and critic, The Lost Island of the Savages, The American Scholar, Autumn 2000
Sep
11th
Sun
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Willy Brandt on the Peace Policy

"War must not be a means to achieve political ends. Wars must be eliminated, not merely limited. No national interest can today be isolated from collective responsibility for peace. This fact must be recognized in all foreign relations. As a means of achieving European and worldwide security, therefore, foreign policy must aim to reduce tensions and promote communication beyond frontiers. (…)

How to prevent war is a question which is part of the European tradition - Europe has always had reason enough to ask it. (…)

Our ethical and social concepts have been shaped by two thousand years of Christianity. And this means that, in spite of many aberrations under the flag of bellum justum, “the just war”, attempts have been made over and over again to achieve peace in this world, too.

Our second source of strength is humanism and classical philosophy. Immanuel Kant postulated his idea of a constitutional confederation of states in words that pose a very distinct question to today’s generations: Man, he said, will one day be faced with the choice of either uniting under a true law of nations or destroying with a few blows the civilization he has built up over thousands of years: then, necessity will compel him to do what he ought better to have done long ago of his own free reason.1 (…)

Peace policy is a sober task. I, too, try with the means at my command to pave the way for the prevalence of reason in my own country and in the world: that reason which demands that we seek peace because the absence of peace has come to mean extreme lack of reason.

War is no longer the ultima ratio but rather the ultima irratio. Even if this is still not a generally held view, I personally understand a policy for peace as a genuine Realpolitik of this epoch. (…)

Under the threat of mankind’s self-destruction, co-existence has become a question of the very existence of man. Co-existence became not one of several acceptable possibilities but the only chance of survival. (…)”

Willy Brandt, German politician, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, (1913-1992), Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1971
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Martin Luther King on the Quest for Peace and Justice

"We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. (…)

Mankind’s survival is dependent upon man’s ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war; the solution of these problems is in turn dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony. Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested story plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: "A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together."

This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together - black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other. (…)

We must now give an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies. (…)”

Martin Luther King Jr., American clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, (1929-1968), Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1964
Sep
10th
Sat
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It seems to me that you can almost define civilization by saying it’s people who are not willing to hurt other people because the other people are different.
Gene Wolfe, American science fiction and fantasy writer
Sep
9th
Fri
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Zygmunt Bauman: Europe’s task consists of passing on to all the art of everyone learning from everyone

“Europe’s exceptional virtues, it is diversity, the wealth of variety, that he places above all others. Abundance of diversity is deemed by him as the most precious treasure which Europe managed to save from the conflagrations of the past, to offer to the world today.

To live with Another, live as Another for Another, is the fundamental task of man - both on the highest and the lowest level… therein perhaps dwells that specific advantage of Europe, which could and had to learn the art of living with others. (…) It is impossible to underestimate the weight of this task, or the determination with which Europe should undertake it, if (to echo Gadamer once more) the condition sine qua non, necessary for the solution of life problems of the contemporary world, is friendship and “cheerful solidarity”. (…) 

For the ancient Greeks, the word “friend”, according to Gadamer, described the ”totality of social life”. Friends are people capable and desirous of an amiable mutual relationship unconcerned by the differences between them, and keen to help one another on account of those differences; capable and willing to act with kindliness and generosity without letting go of their distinctness - at the same time taking care that that distinctness should not create a distance between them, or turn them against one another. (…)

All of us Europeans (…) are perfectly suited to become friends in the sense given to friendship by Ancient Greeks, the fore-fathers of Europe: not by sacrificing that which is dear to our hearts, but by offering it to neighbours near and far, just as they offer us, as generously, that which is dear to their hearts.

Gadamer pointed out that the path to understanding leads through a “fusion of horizons”. If that which each human agglomeration regards as truth, is the basis of their collective experience, then the horizons surrounding their field of vision are also the boundaries of collective truths. (…)

So much inaccessible human wisdom hides in the experiences written in foreign dialect. One of the most significant, though by no means the only component of this hidden wisdom. (…) How much wisdom we would have all gained, how would our co-existence have benefited, had part of Union’s funds been devoted to the translation of members’ writings… Personally I am convinced that it would have been perhaps the best investment into the future of Europe and the success of its mission.”
Zygmunt Bauman, Polish sociologist, Professor of sociology at the University of Leeds, Culture in Modern Liquid Times, 2011 (Translated by Lydia Bauman). More in ☞ Lapidarium notes
Sep
6th
Tue
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The most important part about tomorrow is not the technology or the automation, but that man is going to come into entirely new relationships with his fellow men. He will retain much more in his everyday life of what we term the naïveté and idealism of the child. I think the way to see what tomorrow is going to look like is just to look at our children.
R. Buckminster Fuller, American engineer, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, futurist and second president of Mensa International (1895-1983) cited in Jason Silva, Connecting All The Dots, Dec 10, 2010
Jul
26th
Tue
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Christian Keysers on The Empathic Brain

Mirror neurons in an individual’s brain fire both when the individual grasps a peanut and when she sees another do the same. (…) Our brain mirrors the state of other people. Understanding what they feel then becomes understanding what you now feel in their stead. Neuroscience has discovered empathy. (…)

I think that the most exciting progress in my field is the discovery that the brain does not just mirror the emotions of others. We share the actions, sensations and emotions of the people around us. So if you see me grasp a cool glass of water, you share my intention to grasp the glass, what it feels like to grasp the glass, the cool sensation in my fingers and my satisfaction as I feel my thirst being quenched. This is richer than what the term ‘affective empathy’ suggests, and incorporates goals and sensations that traditional psychology had thought to be the result of much more cognitive processes. (…)

You transform what others feel into representations of what you would feel in their stead; ‘where’ becomes ‘how’ you understand others. When you study mentalizing, and find regions that are not involved in your own experiences, it is hard to know what actually happens within these regions. ‘Where’ remains where. (…)

Where neuroscience is interesting, is by showing us the limits of our natural empathy, and helping us devise ethics that are compatible with how our brain works. For instance, our work shows that we feel what goes on in others by projecting what we would feel in their stead. In this context, ethics that suggest ‘treat others as they would like to be treated’ are harder to follow than ethics that suggest ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’. (…)

Q: Are we ‘homo empathicus’ as much as we are self-interested, individualistic creatures?

As westerners in particular, we were brought up to centre our thinking on individuals – individual rights, individual achievements. (…)

But if you call the state of your brain your identity (and I would), what our research shows, is that much of it is actually what happens in the mind of other people. My personality is the result of my social environment. Even ‘my’ ideas are the result of all the ideas and skills of my forefathers, internalized in my brain through mirror-like phenomena. Also, whenever I take a decision to do something, mirror systems will let me share the pain and joy I make others feel. The fate of others colours my own feelings and thus my decisions. I is actually we. Neuroscience has put ‘we’ back into the brain. That is not a guarantee (…) that some of my actions are not egoistic and selfish, but it shows that egoism and selfishness are not the only forces that direct our brain. We are social animals to a degree most didn’t suspect only a decade ago.”

Christian Keysers, neuroscientist, Professor for the Social Brain at the University Groningen in the Netherlands, Roman Krznaric on The Empathic Brain, The School of Life, July 26, 2011 (Illustration source)
Jul
3rd
Sun
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Nicholas Ostler on The Last Lingua Franca

Lingua-francas are the languages of wider communication, such as enable vast empires to have a common administration, and also allow international contacts. (…)

Q: How much longer do you think English has as a global language?

It will continue to be used until there is a workable alternative, and not a moment longer. It appears that language technology will soon provide that alternative, allowing speakers to go on using every mother-tongue, and yet be understood by speakers of any other language. (…)

Q: Will Chinese or another language take its place?

Probably not. All languages that might compete (except French, whose global days have probably passed) are regionally focused, hence limited as to global utility; and I do not anticipate a new round of global colonization, say from China, India or Indonesia. Technology will probably make a single replacement unnecessary anyway. (…)

Everyone will increasingly use their own languages, and the world - given the necessary information technology - will understand. But it may increasingly be incumbent on English-speakers to find ways of penetrating statements that are made in foreign languages without an English translation (much as the world’s diplomatic establishments used to do routinely). Foreigners will increasingly adopt a “take it or leave it” attitude to English-speakers, leaving them to sink or (make the effort to) swim.” “
Nicholas Ostler,  British scholar and author. Ostler studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he received degrees in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics. He later studied under Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his Ph.D. in linguistics and Sanskrit,  Nicholas Ostler on The Last Lingua Franca. English Until the Return of Babel