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Saturday, February 16, 2008 -- 7:41 am

I once heard someone comment about Bach that he didn't seem to waste a lot of time, and they say that based on his encyclopedic knowledge of the music of his day, which must have taken some concentration, his prolific body of work, and the various other demands placed on him of performances and supporting a large family. I'm no Bach, in any respect, but I find it interesting that many people, hearing of my various hobbies, often ask me "How do you find the time for all that?" And I find myself answering that my schedule is rather cramped, but that I fit most of it in while doing other necessary things. So I listen to language CDs while getting dressed for work or doing housework, and I get a lot of my reading done on the subway. As for the rest, part of the reason I've made these activities my hobbies is that I find them enjoyable and relaxing -- much more so than watching televised drivel.

Television and the internet do seem to soak up a lot of people's unspent time, and I don't deny that I lose a lot of time to vacuous surfing that has no specific goal other than generalized entertainment. I also know there are plenty of people who absorb themselves in, say, spectator sports, trash novels, tabloids, and video games. It leads me to wonder whether other societies, past and present, have had similar habits of squandering their leisure time, or were more productive during their off hours. Some simply won't compare, of course. If you're working 16 hour days in a 19th-century factory choking on coal dust, you may simply dream of bathing and sleeping. And if you live under a totalitarian regime that has a penchant for pursuing thought-crimes, there are obvious disincentives to applying yourself to more worthwhile pastimes. As I've commented before, revolutionaries tend to enroll intellectuals in the earlier rather than the later purges.

But at the same time, I suspect that there are societies that respect serious hobbies a little more than ours does. I remember reading a news story a few years back about a man who was arrested for engaging in what police officers characterized as "suspicious activity." The judge threw out the charges on the grounds that the man, an attorney, was an amateur entomologist in his spare time and had been engaged in capturing a certain kind of beetle for study at the moment of his arrest. Along the same lines, there seems to be an ingrained assumption (that I've complained about before, and so won't repeat in detail) that you only have meaningful knowledge about something you do for a living. So my copious reading on, say, linguistics, botany, anthropology, or history aren't presumed to count for anything. Part of the problem with this is what psychologists term the discounting principle, which is to say that if you know that someone is paid for a certain activity, you presume that they enjoy it less than you would if you were told they were doing it for free. So our cultural attitude towards knowledge is not only that you don't know anything unless you're paid for it, but that you know things at all only because you have to, and otherwise you'd just as soon not.

I will confess, at the risk of being pilloried, that that isn't quite my sentiment. Rather than approaching learning like a wage-earner, I seem to approach it like an aspiring magician, where every book promises to reveal secrets about the way things work that can instantly be applied in some hazily imagined thaumaturgy. Hence the urge to acquire books and download data faster than I can absorb them -- the next volume might be the one that completes the puzzle and makes everything crystallize into some glorious whole. Unrealistic? Perhaps, but there are worse psychiatric conditions. Other people seem, from outward appearances, either to dismiss unfamiliar knowledge as irrelevant, as too difficult to acquire, as not worth the effort, or something that can be safely delegated to others without another care. But surely, I wonder, you would want to know the secrets of the universe yourself, rather than simply retain the services of someone else who does? But I guess others just don't see it that way, and would rather watch television.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008 -- 11:22 pm

Montaigne wrote an essay at some point about our tendency to assume that an argument means the end of a relationship, when for the other person it's simply a transient emotion. I paraphrase from memory, of course, something I read seven years ago during very difficult circumstances, so I might have it wrong. And while I'm sure there was more to what Montaigne wrote than I just represented, the notion suggests that the story itself is incomplete. Obviously the other person isn't losing sleep over the consequences of the argument -- they think nothing of it, if they remember it at all. And I would be curious to see whether we got sorted into these two classes of people based on temperament or based on some kind of situational factor, such as the insecurity we have about the strength of the relationship, or our emotional stake in it.

Nor is that the end of the story, either, because there is a middle ground. After a particularly vehement argument, sometimes people decide to cool down and let time pass, precisely because they're unsure whether the relationship is irreparably damaged. But they also don't want to lose face by admitting their own culpability or overreaction. I've seen at least two different methods of rapprochement in such cases. In one, a person gruffly announces "what's past is past" without specifically acknowledging or denying any responsibility, and hopes to move on. In the other, a person tentatively resumes discussion as if to pretend that nothing had ever happened. Both tactics are, I suppose, a form of denial, but not necessarily in a bad way -- after all, there's a reason the argument came to an end, and in most cases I'm sure there's nothing constructive left to be said on either side. And you aren't really pretending that the argument didn't happen, just because no one dares to talk about it. In some cases, the fact of having the argument was the point -- to impress upon the other person that you felt strongly about the issue. (Sometimes reasonable people need to do this, so they don't get pushed around quite so much.) In other, perhaps hopeless cases, people are evasive and uncommunicative unless their back is against the wall, and an argument is the only way to actually exchange meaningful information. In either situation the argument is a form of corporal punishment for the speaking person, which has its own essential recovery period. But punishment, by its very nature, implies reconciliation on somebody's terms. You punish a friend, a citizen, a child, a pet. But you don't punish mosquitos, you obliterate them.

Sunday, February 10, 2008 -- 9:05 am

It seems to be a recurring pattern in the world that when we trace a thing back to its time and place of origin, we find rich variation that somehow hasn't survived the ravages of history and displacement. The apple, native to Kazakhstan, and cacao, native to the Amazon, are generally known only by a few varieties, but in their places of origin there are apparently still numerous undiscovered varieties; I've also read that the gene pool of ethnic groups native to subsaharan African, including the pygmies, khoisan, and others, is far more diverse than is found in the world's other, essentially emigre, populations. Likewise, studying a foreign language at home does nothing to prepare you for the bewildering variety of dialects (and slang) that await you in the country of origin -- try finding a textbook on varieties of Chinese other than Mandarin or Cantonese, or a non-standard German or Arabic dialect. The same is true for food, for anyone who has compared a meal in an Indian restaurant with various regional specialties. And the same is naturally true in other areas as well. One need only look at the proliferation of so-called heresies (Arian, Pelagian, etc.) and gnostic texts in the early centuries of Christianity, most of which were quelled by political and military pressure or, say, the proliferation of operating systems and VCR technologies that all perished except for a handful of survivors.

Of course, there are contrary pressures as well, where geographic and temporal distance promote adaptation and diversification in language, genes, and customs. But those, so far, seem already to have been fairly well explained by principles of inherent mutability and natural selection. I'd like to know, as well, whether any attempt has been made to explain the selective process that decides which lucky representive in a varied field gets to travel abroad as the representative of its kind. I doubt there's any universal quality that explains both the triumph of Catholicism over Arianism and the selection of one particular Theobroma species to be lifted out of Amazonian obscurity and propagated across Central America, but there may be a cluster of factors, each of which might contribute weight in some or most situations. Ease of propagation, for example, might be a contributing factor in both cases, as might the entirely contingent private preferences of whoever fell into a position to decide the matter, and the dark arts of advertising, branding, and marketing that often cause inferior products to dominate the market while superior ones languish and their creators go bankrupt. And once in a while there might be realistic estimates of inherent worth, so that the classics that survive from antiquity are disproportionately of high quality as literary and intellectual works, because works that weren't as good simply weren't worth copying out by hand and so perished. Presumably there are studies assessing the factors contributing to the success of different items in the market, but either they've so far been unsuccessful in identifying the relevant criteria, or their recommendations have been ignored, because it seems that the launch of a product, whether it's a software tool, a television show, or a candidate for office, seems to be a roll of the dice.