Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ode to the Comfort and Stability of Routine

A man with black top hat escaping the waters

Routine is often maligned and assigned with a number of negative epithets and labels, such as boring, repetitive, or it may be simply seen and designated as a waste of time and energy. Many people shun the admittedly duller aspects of routine and try to escape their quotidian life by going on vacation, by changing jobs and schedules, or by outright moving abroad for a couple of months or even years.

But I believe many overlook the intrinsic value of routine. In fact, to begin with most of us have various routine expectations for the day. We usually expect to get to work and see the front door or gate open and to meet and greet our coworkers or clients at our respective workplace.

When we arrive and there is no one there, that usually will make us feel anxious and may fill our heads with wild speculations, such as perhaps having missed the latest daylight saving time adjustment, or getting our holidays mixed up, or worse, finding out that the company, unbeknownst to us, has gone bankrupt overnight.

Routine can suddenly be broken in other negative ways. We may wake up with the flu unable to do much (except lying in bed and drinking hot tea) for the duration of the day. When we feel so terrible, we would much prefer to go to work and have routine return with a vengeance. Or we may get stuck, in an elevator, traffic, or public transport (have your pick).

Recently, I had a very unexpected turn against my own routine, one that bound my hands and feet and made it impossible for me to get anything done at work. As a teacher I have come to understand the value of my voice; as pretty much anything, we do not realize these things until we end up losing them.

So after my massive voice loss, I could not make myself heard. This came again as a surprise and shock and I am still trying to recover the voice I had (rest assured it is back for the most part at least). In the meantime, I see people speaking and laughing at full volume, which they take for granted of course, while I continue to feel envious of those who can speak loud and clear. I cannot wait for my routine to kick in again with my regular voice levels.

When the hands of routine are running the show, everything is as expected. People are where they are supposed to be and they are doing what they are supposed to be doing while the whole day is seen as a normal day. Sure, there will be occasional unexpected glitches, a locked door here or there to which we lack a key, a photocopier that jams or a computer that does not turn on or spouts unintelligible code. Those events break the routine, and more often than not, they increase our stress levels.

We can conclude that routine is the opposite of the unexpected, to have voice versus not having one or to wake up with a very hoarse voice. To me routine comes rather naturally; it is the normal state of things. My body, like the machine it is (no disrespect meant here) thrives on routine: I wake up at the same time in the morning (alas even on weekends!), have the same breakfast (I sometimes switch up my coffee brands), and I take the same bus in the morning, which means I more often than not run into familiar faces (bus driver, passengers, panhandlers, newspaper distributors, Jehovah's witnesses).

I do not talk to them (I used to but have lost interest in it especially in the mornings and it is not due to or related with my voice loss) but I welcome their presence and worry if I do not see them in their usual spot at the usual time (there is an elderly homeless person I have not seen for a while and this worries me). I like it that my work schedule has found its steady rhythm and that the curriculum is generally the same (occasional tweaks and adjustments aside).

When I arrive at my workplace (half an hour early), I know exactly what to do. I greet the secretary (when she is at her desk) and chat with my boss (when he is at my campus), make my photocopies for the day and head to the classroom.

The photocopier tends to jam in the mornings, but that has happened so often by now that I know the remedy and am very quick at fixing it (similar to a pit-stop I can generally handle the minor issues under thirty seconds!). My life, all in all, could follow a similar pace, at least in terms of routine, to Kant's who liked to follow a very tight schedule. But that's pretty much as far as the analogy goes.

I know that some hate routine because it bores them. Those people often may end up choosing jobs that defy routine, such as medical staff in the ER department, police officers or fire fighters. For those jobs, the unexpected is their call for action, whereas routine is equated with idleness. But even they expect their equipment to work, be it medical equipment at the hospital or the fire hose or gun to quell sudden bursts of emergencies.

So it is not routine itself, but our perception and reaction to it that is negative. Routine has many good and often not perceived qualities. The occasional challenge is welcome and fruitful, but if it becomes a constant then that can be rather stressful. Routine can be the comfort and stability that we crave sometimes. For example, we usually go to our favorite restaurant and order our favorite dishes because we do not want to be disappointed by taking risks.

In its more extreme form, those who travel abroad may avoid the local food and find solace in known and trusted, albeit unhealthy, fast food chains. It is not so much because of ignorance but simply because in a strange and unfamiliar place, it feels soothing and comforting to spot a known logo.

In fact, most of our lives comes down to routine tasks. We pay bills, check our emails, post on facebook, do our shopping and the laundry. The list of chores and daily actions and habits is endless. And after decades and decades of it, one day, it is our time to retire.

Many look forward to that day, but when it comes they become desperate. What is one supposed to do, especially if one has lived a long life of steady routine, of working to earn a living. How can one suddenly turn a switch and start enjoying a carefree and idle life?

And what would happen after a while, when the new lifestyle becomes just another case of a different type of routine? Best to treat routine as a friend (whom we occasionally and respectfully avoid so they do not become bothersome) or as a life-long companion and not as our sworn enemy or nemesis.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Aristotle vs Galileo: Review of Galileo's Dialogue by Maurice Finocchiaro

Cover of Maurice Finocchiaro book on Galileo and Aristotle
For two thousand years, Aristotle's worldview held sway for Western civilization. Aristotle believed that the Earth was geostatic (unmoving) and geocentric (the focal and central point of the universe). As to whether the earth was flat or round, this was something that was actually beyond debate in those times.

In fact, only the uneducated and primitive people believed the earth to be flat. This issue about the shape of the earth had already been settled by philosophers and scientists, and they did not think the earth to be flat. It may come as a surprise that certain people would insist otherwise despite evidence to the contrary, but we do not need to look too far today, i.e. intelligent design to find similar strains of foolishness floating around.

The whole Copernican controversy was more about the earth's location, whether it had a geocentric or heliocentric position, and its behavior, whether it was static or moving. As mentioned, the Aristotelian worldview of the earth as motionless and geocentric stood firm for two thousand years until the heliocentric Copernican revolution toppled it over.

According to the Aristotelian worldview and philosophy, there are fundamental pairs of physical opposites of hot and cold, humid and dry in the universe. These pairs are then combined to create the four elements, where earth consists of cold and dry; water is a mixture of cold and humid; air a combination of hot and humid, while fire was thought to be made of hot and dry.

Depending on its materials, each element would have a specific given and natural direction. For example, earth and water would generally move straight downwards, while air and fire would move straight upwards. This underscores the reasoning behind and concept of natural motion. Bodies tend to move toward their natural and proper resting place. And, in fact, motion is the opposite of rest since once bodies have found their place, they will not budge unless moved by others, that is an external agent.

So we can see Aristotle believed that earth and water have weight (gravity) and are hence “heavy bodies.” The natural state of bodies is that they remain at rest. Hence in such a worldview a rotating earth did not make much sense.

Moreover, it is important to note that bodies on earth do no emit light much unlike the stars that are in the heavenly spheres. Even fire does not emit its own light but only does so when it is escaping from the lower regions to find its own proper place upwards, that is in the heavenly spheres.

While the heavy bodies tend to be at rest on our planet, air and water have levity and are light bodies; these light bodies are helped to travel via the fifth (and most mysterious) element called aether, which was supposed to be luminous, this being one of its most significant properties or characteristics.

Now nothing moves on its own as all bodies prefer to reach the natural end state of motion, which is its opposite, namely rest. They would remain so because that is their internal state. Once they have found this state, they can be moved only externally, that is by an external agent, which can be a person, for example, picking up a pebble from the beach and throwing it, or the wind that is blowing the leaves about.

So if the heavenly spheres are rotating around the center of universe, they must be started by some mover, in fact, the sublimely mysterious unmoved mover. This motion is referred to as primum mobile, meaning simply the first body in motion. It is these constantly moving spheres that carry planets and stars with them in continuous circular motion.

Where the earth's natural state is bodies at rest, the important characteristic of the heavens is motion. (In fact, in the heavenly sphere, there are both fixed and wandering stars. Only seven of these stars were considered to be wandering and hence they were called planets, which means, yes, wandering star.)

Not bad, Aristotle, but in comes Copernicus to shake things up a little and to put things upside down. Copernicus proposed a heliocentric model and that the earth was not static but moving. In fact, the ideas of Copernicus were not new but had already been proposed by ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras and others; what Copernicus did was merely reinterpret the available information.

One of the strong points of Copernican theory was that his explanation was simpler, more elegant and more systematic because instead of having the heavenly spheres with thousands of stars moving about, there is only one body moving, namely the earth.

This heliocentric theory was approached like any body in motion, that is, with resistance and opposition. This resistance occurred due to biblical objections. The Protestants who had a more literal approach and interpretation of the Scripture tended to object the most and strongest.

When it came to the Catholics, they referred, when in doubt, to the Church Fathers for guidance and illumination. And it turned out that pretty much all of these noteworthy fathers put Aristotle on a pedestal and believed that the geostatic system was the correct one to be espoused, while anything that was otherwise ought to be officially declared as heretical. That also became the Church's official position until rather recently when the Church in 1992 accepted that Galileo was right after all, more than 350 years later!

So after Copernicus the grounds were set for Galileo to enter the scene. Galileo following his father's footsteps used the experimental approach for his findings and discoveries. In fact, one of his greatest and most revolutionary deeds of the times was to point the telescope upwards to watch the skies. His new and improved lenses made leaps and bounds in astronomy and added precision since his observations ended up being much more reliable than naked-eye observations.

But alas, Galileo was not given free reign in his discoveries. He was considered a heretic by the Inquisition who deemed his proposed theories on the earth's motion as false and as a dangerous threat to Catholicism as a whole. Galileo had lost his general support in the Vatican and was threatened with torture on the basis of “vehement suspicion of heresy.” However, he managed to escape a lengthy prison sentence and it all lead to house arrest instead.

Why was the Church so obsessed with the earth's position and motion and so opposed to the new science? One of the reasons apart from scriptural authority was that the world was seen as a perfect embodiment created by God, or rather His unique masterpiece. This led to a view of teleological anthropocentrism, which means that the whole universe exists merely for the sake and benefit of humankind.

This is also related to Aristotle's view regarding heavenly bodies, which are closer to God and are perfect in themselves because they do not change and hence are eternal like its Creator. On the other hand, the earth is far from perfect. We find that the earth changes and that life and things down here are corrupt and dirty; they die and decompose and thus have transitory existence.

It is through pure mathematics that we can reveal God's works since mathematics as opposed to the sciences gives us the same objective certainty that God has. There is no - or much less resistance to - doubt, whereas in other fields we must be aware of our senses, which can, according to Plato, deceive us in various ways.

Yet it is important to note that Galileo is not using one method but rather relies on logic (apart from physics naturally) in his arguments, logic not in the sense of a theory of reasoning but which also includes theories of knowledge, as method as well as science. He combines his observations of moving ships and gunshots (all of which went beyond my own head and my limited reasoning capacities) with detailed logical analysis.

As a result, his Dialogue becomes a synthesis of astronomy, physics, and epistemology. It is, in fact, a fascinating work and it is presented in detail and with clearly presented arguments and reasons in The Routledge Guidebook to Galileo's Dialogue written and expounded expertly by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, albeit the book is at times too complicated and complex for this scientifically and logically untrained mind of mine. 

My only caveat is that those who would like to read this guidebook to better understand Galileo's work and theory be better equipped with some physics and mounds of logic, and thus they will reap even more benefits than I was able to unearth for myself.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Dancing Chicken: A Movie Review of Herzog's Stroszek

Colorful chicken bag with his chicks

(Redundant preamble: Although spoilers abound, this is one of those rare movies where it makes almost no difference if you know what happens in it or not. It needs to be seen and experienced. And my spoilers will hopefully not spoil the movie, but have the opposite effect of enticing you to watch it! If you want to get to the dancing chicken first, please disregard all the scribbles, scroll down and click on the video far below. I will not be offended because it is the chicken that really counts here and is the meat of the matter!)

In the past, I had always been somewhat weary when approaching the films of Werner Herzog. His generally acclaimed movies are good but nothing seriously outstanding. It was the documentary Grizzly Man that first raised my eyebrows and the director's standing with me, but it was really Woyzeck (1979) that blew me away.

Now the similar sounding title of Stroszek (1977) – our intents and purposes here - is intentional. Herzog who had previously worked with Bruno S. in the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had initially wanted him to play Woyzeck as well. Yet since it did not work out since Herzog backed out of his promise, that particular role was given to Klaus Kinski instead (a wise choice indeed). So to compensate for it, Herzog decided to make another movie and wrote the script for Stroszek in merely four days.

There are two characteristics that are part and parcel of almost any Herzog movie. Apart from a stark realism that permeates pretty much all of his films, he is most interested in extreme characters who find themselves in even more extreme situations. Whether it is Fitzcarraldo lifting a ship up a mountain in Peru or the “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell living with grizzlies in the back-lands of Alaska and suffering a gruesome death for it, it is the extraordinary that attracts the German director.

Bruno S. was one such person. An abandoned and abused child of a prostitute, this man who was generally deemed insane (but not by Herzog nor his standards) has gone through hell and then some. In fact, the first half of the movie set in Germany mirrors facts and events from Bruno's personal life.

His acting is fully natural because he is basically reenacting parts of his own life. In that sense, it has the feel of a documentary and to add to this, Herzog not only gave all the characters the same given names as their respective actors, but he even chose seasoned criminals to play the criminals who harass poor Bruno.

The first half of the movie is brilliant film-making indeed. It takes Herzog merely minutes to create sympathy for the main characters, mostly Bruno of course but also the accompanying prostitute Eva and the old man Scheitz. Something that James L. Brooks does not achieve in its entirety when it comes to the highly overrated Terms of Endearment (1983), for example.

We see this interesting and odd trio's daily life and their desires and dreams for escape. The generous and kind old man has little to look forward to except a possible trip to the US to visit his American nephew. Bruno has just been released from prison and a caring but stern prison ward gave him a long lecture on the vicissitudes of alcohol. Stay away from bars and if you find yourself there only buy coffee, Bruno is told. It is the drink that has brought him there, and the prison guard wishes him well and does not wish to ever see him on those prison grounds again.

So when Bruno leaves the prison with nobody waiting for him where does he go first? Straight to the adjacent bar to order a beer. When Eva asks him where he has been all this time, he responds with his deadpan yet naive face that he had been “on vacation.”

To protect Eva from her pimps, Bruno puts himself selflessly into danger. He makes money by playing his accordion and singing songs in back alleys. After a humiliating visit by the criminals who make fun of him and threaten him, Bruno finds some comfort with a doctor friend who cannot give him advice per se but who shows him premature babies gripping onto his fingers or, more symbolically, the desperate grip on life by the underprivileged. Life must go one even if one does not get a head start.

Enough is enough, so this unlikely trio Bruno, Eva and the old man Scheitz decide to leave for the new continent that promises riches and happiness, in short, the elusive quest for the often sought-after American Dream. So far I was very moved by the characters as each of them (minus the criminals of course) were compassionate and complex beings.

Yet when they end up in the States, not only does the landscape change but so do the people. The Americans are portrayed as simple farm folk, as kind but mainly driven by sex and lust for money. Most of the second half deals with having and not having money, including a banker who means well but ends up taking or repossessing all of their possessions. For me the movie lost some of its emotional drive because very little happens thereafter.

Since the trio finds it hard to adapt to the new lifestyle, they are driven into deep and irretrievable debt. So much so that Eva, the only of the three who speaks English, picks up prostitution again and leaves with a couple of shady truckers further up north to Vancouver. The old man becomes increasingly paranoid of all Americans and both he and Bruno decide to rob money at gunpoint so that they can get by and be able to buy daily necessities.

When they are about to make those purchases, the old man gets arrested so we have Bruno left with a shotgun and a frozen turkey under his arm. The truck breaks down (after circling inexplicably around the shotgun and turkey, don't ask) in a no-good town (sorry Cherokee, North Carolina). And it all culminates and ends with a rabbit riding a fire truck, a chicken playing the piano and, most importantly, the dancing chicken.

Ah, the dancing chicken! Now apparently Herzog's crew was unanimously and unequivocally offended by it, and they did not want to have any part of it. Hence they abstained and Herzog had to shoot the scene himself, which he, by the way, considers some of his most poignant film-making. Even he is not entirely sure what the dancing chicken stands for, but he claims it could be seen as a metaphor for life that somebody somewhere is putting in coins, and we all dance to those tunes just like that chicken.

It is silly, surreal, poignant and unforgettable all in one! And I want to share it with you because what better way to finish up a year and start a brand-new one than with this clip. Enjoy this bit dear reader and all the best for the holidays and a happy new year to you!