Sunday, March 24, 2013

I Am Epicurus - Fulda

E@L's friend The Bludger was having trouble with his Internet connection (his flat-mate had done something). The solution was at hand with the typical geek response to such issues: Turn everything OFF, wait for the electrons to sort themselves out and turn it all ON again. This, unsurprisingly to an experienced geek like The Bludger, worked perfectly and connectivity was restored.

Now E@L is in an hotel room in Penang.

(He was by the pool this afternoon. It'll do.)

He wants to watch the next few episodes of House Of Lies (soft corn-porn, Don Cheadle back in Boogie Nights, but definitely without the insecurity) so he took the DV > HDMI adapter and connected one end of the HMDI cable here and the other to the input of the room's TV. He expected the TV to take that digital video signals now streaming down the copper wires at the speed of electricity, to read its encoded Descartian matrix and to paste it, pixel by pixel across the LCD panel to show pretty much the same thing as the laptop was displaying, or an extended desktop to the right of it. The laptop recognized the TV (according to the Graphics page) but there was still nothing on the TV screen.

He was not as much of a geek, but still he tried The Bludger's methodology. E@L turned everything OFF and then ON. But this time, because it was E@L and not The Bludger, such an otherwise reliable maneouver failed. Nothing seemed to help him: plugging, replugging, shaking, fiddling (with the HDMI cable! You people!). He even started to play the video on the laptop and then sneak it across to the extended screen, which should be the TV. Maybe, he thought it will burst from nothingness into wonderful existence. Of course not.

Now listen: the SOUND of House of Lies ("ooh, aah! oh baby!") was coming from the TV, but no matter what he did, the TV would not display the video image.

Sigh. Why?


Why do electronic/gadgety things screw up? Obviously people other than E@L have this problem. I recall someone, was it Benny Profane in V, having all sorts of issues with inanimate objects, which E@L does as well; dropped screws rolling into the most inaccessible places, toast and the butter-side, etc... ("...inanimate objects and he could not live in peace." Thomas Pynchon. V. (Kindle Locations 517-518). HarperCollins)

Why must semi-sentient things like electronic gadgets, computers, modems, TVs, etc..., things that are designed to behave according to the long established laws of physics, things the rely on the atomic forces like electricity and magnetism, why do they work perfectly well one minute and then go berserk the next? Why do attached parts not talk to other from the word Go? This is a deep and fundamental problem that has bedevilled those of us who get hit all the time by these vagaries of electrons and the unreliability of atoms in general. As I explained in my reply to his FB whinge:

Postventative maintenance, like turning a recalcitrant something OFF and then ON, may sometimes reset the local atomic structure of the universe in the vicinity of the electronic device(s) that is(are) not behaving according to Maxwell's suggestions or Faraday's guidelines, but Murphy's Law instead. There is nothing you can do beforehand, no PREventative attention that will ensure your laptop will talk to the projector. But you know the chances of it NOT talking to the projector correlate inversely to the product of the importance of the presentation, the importance of and the number of people in the audience.

Ah Jesus, why don't things work properly all the time? The wires are connected, the silicon chips are constructed correctly, the coal is being burned to heat the water to pressurized steam to drive the turbines to spin the magnets to induct the electrical potential to get it to the plug, which is turned ON at the outlet, and everything is fucking in its place... yet all is not right with the piece of shit gadget. The TV is blank. The Internet cannot be reached.

Jesus, electrons go in straight lines right? Just fucking GO, you negatively charged arseholes!



The answer lies in the ancient Greek philosophy of Epicureanism. Yep, it's a Greek thing. Like defaulting on loans, buggering young lads, moving to Melbourne and cooking fish'a da chips. (Fish and chip shop were operated by chubby, surly Greek men with three day old five o'clock shadows and hairy fingers in Melbourne. The also ran the produce markets - great trouble ensued... Look it up.)

OK E@L, describe in simple sentences what you know of Epicureanism.

Let me tell about Epicureanism...


E@L purchased an intriguing book a while ago, and in his usual manner, set it aside. He only started reading it seriously after he listened to a recent podcast on Epicureanism on In Our Time with the awesomely well-read Melvyn Bragg last week.

Poggio Bracciolini was a particularly neat writer. Sr Mary Briga at St Margaret's would have given him heaven knows how many Holy Cards and gold stars - E@L recalls getting "the cuts" for something like getting more India ink on his shirt than on the page, that or being in a fight. He and a few other scribes practically invented readable script in transcribed books, something like modern italics. For this skill, and his sins (he had 14 children with his mistress), Poggio became enmeshed in the shifting gears of political/religious machinations which eventually saw him swing through the cogs to rise to a top job as a personal secretary (man it use to pay to be a neat writer) to Pope John XXIII . Now this is a classic case of "Choice of Pope - FAIL." See (as it were) The Great Schism which is where... oh, look it up.

The Swerve tells of how our medieval manuscript hunter (said Poggio) discovered a particularly precious text, serendipitously, while looking through the lonely, wind-swept, hilltop (setting the scene here) monasteries of medieval Europe, searching in their libraries for precious texts, proactively.

As the Renaissance just getting under-way, rich people, in particular because they had money and therefore time, and who considered themselves Humanists, became fascinated with the ancient world of Greece and Rome (well, many did, but not all could afford to do anything about it). Those ruins and jewels that the workers kept finding as they dug up the fields, those carved pillars and decorated and inscribed walls they had previously used for integration into their own buildings, such as retaining walls, and second-hand marble floors..., these were now Works Of Art, and Precious Treasures to be, you know, treasured.

Not only these statues and jewels, also the writings of the old philosophers, dramatists, critics, grammarians, historians, and accountants were fascinating to them. These texts offered a personal glimpse of a world not hidebound (as it were - leather-bound, like books, ha ha) by the strict Stoic/Platonic/weird/Religious ethos that had prevailed since the Dark Ages had commenced almost a thousand years before.

The Dark Ages offered only suffering in this world - self-flagellation was encouraged - and, after death, either even more heinous punishment or the faint hope of the glory sitting next to God. Just sitting. Boring! These rich people were not all that keen on the pain and suffering part, thank you very much, and were happy to hear of culture were you could relax, check out the amazing art, take a load off, chill and not suffer for eternity. While they followed the high-church in external demonstrations of faith, going to church, etc..., the Humanists were as close to modern atheists as you could get in those times. The fires of the hell did not worry them so much as the fires of their impending auto-da-fe. (See Nolan: Giordano Bruno The,) The confusion in the church - three popes for heaven's sake - didn't help.

Poggio must had been moderately well off himself after his escape from Pope John XXIII's ill-fated entourage in Constance (where he was deposed) and he was now free to get around Europe on the hunt for those forgotten manuscripts in the libraries of those monasteries. For most itinerant scholars and teachers at that time, wages were shite and they were continually on the look out for "patrons" to offer the ready, people we nowadays call Venture Capitalists. Poggio also had the advantage of being able offer those much-desired and ergo expensive texts to his rich Humanist, text-hungry patrons.

When he pulled a certain dusty codex (an early type book, more likely to have previously been copied and survived than a scroll) from its shelf, he saw that he had in his hands a long poem, written by a name he would have recognized. Then his heart must have skipped. Here was a jewel, he quickly realized. Not exactly Aristotle on Laughter (c.f The Name Of The Rose), but the complete (almost) and intact manuscript of a long poem which detailed the philosophy of Epicurus, and the author was Titus Lucretius Carus (Lucretius to you, folks) and the book called De Rerum Natura.

On. The. Nature. Of. Things.

E@L has had the recent translation (above) of De Rerum Natrua already in his library for a year or three. He had read up to halfway through Book II, until somehow he became distract... Oh look, every second woman in this hotel (Holiday Inn resort in Penang) is completely covered by their black or near black burkahs. How ridiculous in this heat!

That (the book, not the burkah) is the reason he grabbed The Swerve (not a really brilliant title, is it?) when he saw it in Singapore's awesome Kinokuniya (Khino-khun-ya) bookstore.


Epicureanism started with the philosophy of Democritus, and it was 200 years later, that along came Epicurus himself to refine and popularise the core of Democritus. is ideas came down to us through many short quotations in other writers, critics and supporters (the great orator Cicero was one of the top critics) and in fragments from the damaged scrolls found under the ash of Herculaneum post the great eructation, sorry, eruption of Vesuvius. But mostly, certainly most elegantly, from that poem of Lucretius.

What are Epicureanism's main features? Glad you asked. E@L will endeavour to explain what he sort of gets. (There may be other things, and these things may be better catalogued and explained elsewhere, such as in The Swerve, in the podcast, in Wikipedia.)

a: Increase pleasure and decrease pain. (Not to excess though, that's Hedonism or Sybaritism. Unhealthy, unnecessary.) How hard can that concept be to grasp?

b: There is nothing after death, nothing to fear of damnation in the after-life. Chill.

c: There are no gods (are least there may as well not be, as they are obviously non-interventionist). Relax.

d: We are not the centre of the universe, which is infinitely large and it stands to reason, there must be many worlds like the Earth in it. It's not your fault the world was created. There is no pressure. You don't matter. Take a load off.

e: Nothing cannot come from nothing. Everything must have been somewhere else previously. Like Expats and beer.

f: If there is a god that ever did anything, it was Venus. She set the whole reproduction thing going and made it so damn nice to fuck. So lets fuck! (The end of Book IV** - you'll wet yourself laughing. Or get an erection.)

The opposite of all this was Stoicism advocated by the dour, proto-Calvinist, Zeno. Then Plato and Socrates. The world is ordered and pre-ordained; there are other, supernatural, things we cannot understand; death is something terrible; we are tossed on the sea of fate. Take it on the chin and try to be virtuous against the odds. Life is shit, deal. Sex is a duty, not a recreational pastime. Religion in a nutshell, right? But the key item in Epicureanism is...

g: The atomic theory. Indivisible small parts of the universe form which all things are constructed. A concept that goes back at least to Democritus. We are all made of the same things. Seed of things. Everywhere there are atoms, or if not, the void. Because if there was no void, atoms would not have anywhere to go, right?

Previously, they thought everything was made of a mixture the four "elements"

Democritus said fuck that patent bullshit. It's atoms!

Key point 1: As literally everything is made of atoms, the soul too must be made of atoms. And as things cannot be created or destroyed, atoms must move from one manifestation to another - today a person, tomorrow a tree - same atoms. As Joni Mitchell would say a millennium or two later, "We are starsdust, we are golden." When we die, the atoms of our souls dissipate. Puuufffff. No afterlife. No ghosts. No Heaven, no Hell. (Complete annihilation, yay!) Priests are full of it. It is safe to ignore their rantings and ravings.

Key point 2: This means that a wafer bread remains a wafer bread unless there is physical change, such as digestion, or toasting and a slathering of Vegemite. Bread cannot be The Body of Christ because the atoms haven't changed. It's still bread. Uh-oh. Catholicism is not going to like that.

Aside: There has a been a recent discovery of some court documents that appear to say that the real, suppressed, reason for Galileo's trial was actually his advocation of atomism (ergo, the above mentioned impossibility of trans-substantiation) and not only, perhaps not even principally, the heliocentric solar system of Copernicus. Lucretius also speaks about the uniform speed of falling objects, independent of their weight. Was Galileo an Epicurean*? Hello!!

But atoms you see, move. Makes sense: we move, everything is in motion. However. Democritus's atom concept had a flaw. Democritus said the atoms travel in straight lines. This meant that in a billiard ball scheme of the universe, those straight lines could be traced back to a first cause, and all the world stemmed from that. This implies that everything was preordained, predestined, from that first billiard ball bump. Didn't the Stoics and ensuing predestinators love this! They saw it, correctly, as a contradiction.

(This vid doesn't talk so much about atomism or predestination, but it's funny.)

The initial theory of Democritus implies (he didn't use this example) that if you plug an HDMI cable into a computer, the video image will appear on the TV that the other end is plugged into; that the modem will connect you to the Web; that the projector will present the powerful points of your stunning PowerPoint presentation.

But this is not the way of the world, obviously. So Epicurus said to the Stoics - "You didn't let Democritus finish!" It can't be that way, because, look around you, it just isn't. Things are different, even things that are almost the same.

Atoms, you see, do not travel in straight lines, for if they moved in straight lines, they would not bump together and if they did not bump together they would no be able to clump together and create complex structures like chocolate souffle, or the smell of crushed ants, or people. There is this random thing, patently because the world is essentially random (E@L deserves to be rich, but he is not, only moderately well-off) and because things, while many are alike, are different (scaly fish, herds of cattle, pack of wild beasts).

Philosophical Implication: We can choose to do this; we can choose to do that. The Stoics were wrong, as were the religions of the Dark Ages. There is no predestination. We can strive towards Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness! (Thomas Jackson was a self-proclaimed Epicurian - "... As you say of yourself, I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us."

This random movement, let's call it a swerve or a wiggle accounts for these variations in form. Sometimes atoms swerve, just a little bit, for no apparent reason. (Negative and positive charges on the atomic particles hadn't quite been discovered at this time. Weak force, strong force, gravity force, mesons, yousons, Hogg's Bisons, etc... still to come. Still.) That's why things exist. That's why we cannot predicate what will happen next, that's why we may as well make do what we can to enjoy life, because we are here briefly, and just one time. (How's that for a rationalisation!)

The Swerve (sorta) in Thompson's and Rutherford's atomic models.

This is what Lucretius says about Epicirus's swerve:

Lightning crosses the skies from the rain clouds and its bolts
constantly strike downwards from their heights to the earth below.
And yet it cannot be altogether that simple, for atoms
as they are carried down from the void by their own weight
do not proceed in an absolutely unswerving line
but apparently must wiggle, swerving sometimes from their course
and changing their direction - for if they fell like raindrops
through the emptiness of space there would be no collisions,
no blows that they could exchange with one another, and therefore
no occasion for nature to produce more complex structures.


But this swerve of the atoms falling in the void, these slight variations in direction, not only do they disprove the existence of god and demonstrate the vast superiority of reason over superstition, they also stop the image from E@L's laptop getting to his TV.

They stop The Bludger's modems from letting him get to his favorite pron websites (and maybe his TV - I am not a perticularly interested where he plugs his HDMI).

Blame The Swerve. Blame...


In associated news, at the Pub Quiz last week, a question came up about European war history and most/all of the people in the crowd were stumped. But we had within our motley crew a war-game fanatic, Big-T, a guy who likes to paint little soldiers and tanks and guns and re-fight this battle or that war-campaign. He is therefore something of an expert on the historical aspects blowing people up for fun and, more important, mostly, profit.

The question the quiz-master posed was something to do with the most likely site of a Russian tank invasion against NATO during the Cold War.


Not even a heartbeat from Big-T - "The Fulda Gap".

E@L has, naturlich, studied plenty of the various lumps and bumps (and gaps) of the human body in his past career of a person who stands next to a doctor during embarrassing examinations, though in the utmost of a professional manner, and he has only ever fantasized about the Fulda Gap. This particularly endearing anatomical quirk, which I believes is near the saxafragia-mitosa gland... then E@L realized his error! No E@L, it's not the ... It's...

Big-T was talking (softly, so the other teams wouldn't hear) of a geographical feature on the Rhone, a gap (duh!) which would be the where the Russian tanks would come... oh, look it up.



Back to Lucretius...

Meanwhile, E@L's continued to read The Swerve, and followed with fascination as our good (and ugly) Poggio traveled through Europe in search of new (as in old, lost, forgotten) texts, unremembered, uncopied but as yet undiscarded , until he pulled a certain dusty codex (a book) from its shelf and saw the name of the author of a long poem he would have at most vaguely recognized it, Lucretius.

Guess what part of Germany Poggio was in?

He was in the Monastery of...



Swear to Epicurus - E@L had never heard of the place in his entire life, and now he had learned TWO new important facts about Fulda in the space of three days.***

Monday; never heard of it. Tuesday; pub quiz. Wednesday; The Swerve. Thursday; E@L is fucking expert!


* Galileo might have developed his proof of the uniform pull of gravity from Lucretius. Without friction, heavy objects fall just as fast as light objects - which is described by Lucretius beautifully in Book II - "Now if anyone supposes that heavier elements fall faster than lighter ones through the void ... he departs from logical thinking." Not counting resistance from things like water and air, he continues. I paraphrase.

** Get this, in David Slavitt's modern translation:

The erotic gymnastics of hookers are of no use here [in getting your wife pregnant]
for the whore's purpose is in giving the most pleasure while running
the least risk of getting herself knocked up. Blow jobs
and taking it up the ass are good for the working girls
in the brothels. Either way, they don't have to worry much
about the bother of having a child, and they drive men
crazy in ways our wives don't need to know about.

(Could have been written by Bruce.)

*** It was mentioned in the podcast, but that went over E@L's head.


Unknown said...

I got lost in that epic monologue. But I do have a theory to put to you.
Electronics fails until you can prove that there is nothing wrong with it. Whereupon it will work again.
If for example I check all the connections and fittings and electron flows I will "prove" that there is nothing wrong. Many years of doing this type of work means that the electronics knows that I cannot be bluffed. Thus when I turn everything off and start again I have beaten the electronics into submission and they will work as intended.
This will not work for you however as the electronics knows that you are bluffing and you are not entirely convinced that you have fixed the problem. Until that day when you can prove that things will work they will continue to play mind games with you.
Also on most laptops there is a key combination to activate the second monitor.
Then if that fails there is the second line of defence for IT people when rebooting fails.
"You need a driver update".

expat@large said...

You think it was hard to read? You should have tried writing it - fuck! Nearly killed me. Have decided not to be an "essayist".

The TV monitor was detected by the computer, it was set an extension of the desktop; as far as my laptop was concerned, the TV was there and working. It even identified the brand and model. The TV, when prompted, displayed the resolution set by it from the laptop.

Same settings worked fine on the TV in BKK the following week.

SMW (spooky mystic weird)

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