Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book quotes: The Art of War

and here's some art of war of a different kind

Here are some quotes from the Art of War, reviewed a few days ago:

War is

A grave affair of state;
It is a place
Of life and death.
A road
To survival and extinction
A matter
To be pondered carefully


 
-

Follow the advantage
And master opportunity;
This is the dynamic

-

The Way of war is
a Way of Deception.

When able,
Feign inability;
When deploying troops,
Appear not to be.

When near,
Appear far.
When far,
Appear near.

Lure with bait;
Strike with chaos.


 -

Without a full understanding of
The harm
Caused by war,
It is impossible to understand
The most profitable way
Of conducting it



-

In War
Prize victory,
Not a protracted campaign

-

In War,
Better take
A state
Intact
Than destroy it.

-

Ultimate excellence lie
Not in winning
Every battle
But in defeating the enemy
Without ever fighting

-

The skilful warrior
Takes his stand
On invulnerable ground
He lets slip no chance
Of defeating his enemy

-

The Skilful Strategist
Cultivates
The Way

-

Set out after him
But arrive before him
This is to master
The crooked
And the straight

-

Without knowing the lie
Of hills and woods
Of cliffs and crags
Of marshes and fens
You cannot
March

-

The soldier's spirit
Is keenest
In the morning;
By noon
It has dulled;
By evening
He has begun
To think of home.

-

The Skilful Warrior
Does not rely on the enemy's not coming.
But on his own
Preparedness




-

Without using local guides,
You cannot
Exploit
The lie of the land.

-

A dead man
Cannot be
Bought back to life

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gotham vs Helvetica

Has anyone noticed how the 'Gotham' typeface is edging out 'Helvetica' in our cultural space (book covers, movie posters, etc). The typeface has much to commend it. It is clean like Helvetica but seems a little less congested i.e. there appears to be a touch more space between the characters.





I do feel terribly alone in such observations.

Book: Big Money by P.G.Wodehouse




I had forgotten that I had already read "Big Money" by P.G.Wodehouse, but this is no bad thing because it's a rollicking read. The story is a typical Wodehouse farce, with many great lines, some of which are copied down below.

-

'It charmed her to think her long-range estimate of this young man had not been at fault. She had classed him on sight as one who lived dangerously and dashingly, and she had been right.'

'In a hundred beds a hundred young man stopped drinking their tea in order to give that notice their undivided attention (re the marriage announcement of Ann Moon).'

'He intrigued her, this lean, slim young man with his keen face and fine shoulders. He had an air, she thought, of one who did things. He somehow suggested brave adventures. She could picture herself, for instance, trapped in a burning house and this young man leaping gallantly to the rescue. She could see herself assailed by thugs and this young man felling them with a series of single blows.'

'It was quite evident to him by now that he had happened upon the one number of the opposite sex who might have been constructed from his own specifications.'

'Like an enthusisatic but ill-advised sportsman in the jungles of India who has caught a tiger by the tail, he was feeling that he was alright so far, but that his next move would require a certain amount of careful thought.'

'I shall sell a few trinkets and obtain a bit of ready for necessary expenses...'

'That grandparent of yours must have a perfect mass of brain cells. I expect they run excursion trains up to see him.'

'In moments of mild peril the mind moves quickly.'

'Then, lighting a cigar, he gave hismelf up to meditation. The sunshine which so recently had bathed his world had vanished. There had been a total eclipse.'

And some nice Wodehousian lingo:
- 'The very sound of the word is balm.'
- 'Bitter lemon.''
- 'Restorative.'

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

School of Life: Literature

The School of Life recently launched a Youtube channel. It's already packed with loads of great videos, including this cool one on the value of literature:

Book:The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa




'The Book of Disquiet' by Fernando Pessoa, which I would describe a kind of literary precursor to movies like the Fight Club, The Machinist or even American Psycho,  is an intriguing and mysterious introspection in which an alienated and introverted clerk escapes into his rambling, deeply philosophical dreams. The clerk is totally lost in the depths of his thoughts, a situation compounded by a self-imposed isolation and lack of willingness to move forward and get on with things. Instead, the clerk is trying to seek resolutions in his ponderings, when perhaps there are none. The continuous circling of thoughts, absence of meaningful action, and endless longing for sleep is worrying and creates a sense of existential nausea and unease (that'll be the "Disquiet"). That said, even though the the book can be a bit of a slog that can leave the reader in a daze, it is also magical, haunting and poetic, and is worth the perseverance for its originality. Interestingly, the books fragmentary nature is partly down to the fact that the book was put together from scraps of Pessoa's scribblings, discovered in one of the author's trunks after his death.

In following posts, I'll scribble down some of my favourite passages from this one-of-a-kind quest in to the desolate nowhere land that is the boundary of the interior of the individual.

***1/2
"That is what I believe, this afternoon. Tomorrow morning it will be different, because tomorrow morning I will be different. What kind of believer will I be tomorrow? I don't know, because to know that I would already have to be there. Tomorrow or today not even the eternal God I believe in now will know, because today I'm me and tomorrow he perhaps may never have existed."
"Happy the man who demands no more from life than what life spontaneously gives him and guides himself with the instinct of cats who seek the sun where there is sun and, when there is no sun, find what warmth they can.  ....Happy the man who renounces everything and from whom, therefore, nothing can added or subtracted. "

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book: The Art of War by Sun Tzu



I really wasn't expecting to enjoy the Art of War - a classic text on war strategy that is favoured amongst corporate executive types - but enjoy it I did. The Art of War is is beautifully written, translated in a highly poetic style that encourages contemplation. There is clearly an element of time rusting this book to gold; if you were to replace the referenced military hardware at the time (horses, cross-bows etc), with jet fighters and tanks, it would lose much of its charm, even though the underlying strategic message would be unchanged. The text is not faultless by any means, as the translator, who has performed an excellent job, points out in an interview:

'But I also find much in the book that is frankly unacceptable! It proposes what is to me an insidiously calculating approach to human relations, one which is directly contrary to many of the fundamental humanistic values that I uphold. All the talk is of manipulation, of using every situation to one's advantage. '
 

'So, when we read this material, by all means we should take in its insights; but I feel quite strongly that we need to keep a critical perspective. I am against any sort of uncritical reading.'

I'm in full agreement with the translator and yet there is still enough good stuff in this little text to warrant a four star rating.

****

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book: The Essays by Francis Bacon


As a fan of Montaigne's essays, I thought the scribbling of the great Francis Bacon would also make for good reading. Alas, I was sorely mistaken. Bacon's essays are all about reason and rhetoric, and his writing is not easy to read. Also, unlike Montaigne, Bacon is not for lofty philosophy or for making intriguing observational insights into human behaviour.

This book provided little more than novelty value, although there were several gems for the picking (see below).

**

Quotes:

- On Death: Men fear death as children fear to go in to the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.

- On Death: Consider how long you have been doing the same things, the desire to die may be felt not only by the brave man or by the wretch, but also by the man wearied with ennui (adapted from Seneca).

- On Revenge: Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man's nature runs to it, the more ought law to weed it out.

- On Revenge: Wise men have enough to do with what is present and to come.

- Of Parents and Children: 'choose what is best, and habit will make it pleasant and easy (saying).

- Of Great Place: 'It is a strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others and to lose power over a man's self. The rising into place is laborious, and by pains men come to greater pains; and it is sometimes base, and by indignities men come to dignities. ...Certainly great persons had need to borrow other men's opinions to think themselves happy for if they judge by their own feelings they cannot find it: but if they think with themselves what other men think of them...then they are happy, as it were by report, when perhaps they find the contrary within.

- Of Delays: There is surely no greater wisdom than to time well to time the beginnings and onset of things.

- Of Delays: The ripeness or unripeness of the occasion must be well weighed..'

- Of Wisdom for a Man's Self:  ...be so true to thyself as thou be not false to others.

- Of Friendship: But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

- Of Regiment (Governance) of Health: To be free-minded and cheerfully disposed at hours of meat and of sleep and of exercise, is one of the best precepts of long lasting (prolonging life). As for the passions and studies of the mind, avoid envy, anxious fears, anger fretting inwards, subtle knotty inquisitions, joys and exhilarations in excess, sadness not communicated. Entertain hopes, mirth rather than joy, variety of delights rather than surfeit of them, wonder and admiration (and therefore novelties), studies that fill the mind with splendid and illustrious objects (as histories, fables, and contemplations of nature).

- Of Suspicion: Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds; they ever fly by twilight.

- Of Discourse: It is good, in discourse and speech of conversation, to vary and intermingle speech of the present occasion with arguments, tales with reasons, asking of questions with telling of opinions, and jest with earnest: for it is a dull thing to tire, and, as we say now, to jade, any thing too far. As for jest, there be certain things which ought to be privileged from it; namely, religion, matters of state, great persons, any man’s present business of importance, and any case that deserveth pity.
- Of Discourse: He that questioneth much shall learn much, and content much; but especially if he apply his questions to the skill of the persons whom he asketh; for he shall give them occasion to please themselves in speaking, and himself shall continually gather knowledge. But let his questions not be troublesome; for that is fit for a poser.

- Of Ambition: So ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased, when things go backward; which is the worst property in a servant of a prince, or state. Therefore it is good for princes, if they use ambitious men, to handle it, so as they be still progressive and not retrograde..

- Of Studies: Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

- Counsels for the Prince: Is there any such happiness as for a man's mind to be raised above the confusions of things, where he may have the prospects of the order of nature and the error of men?

General words and language that tickled my fancy:

- 'base', 'crafty cowards', 'folly', 'revenges', 'superficies', 'imposture', 'contrariwise', 'confutations'.
- 'upon his removes from one places to another'
- 'he must have some entrance into the language before he goeth'
- 'thus he may abridge his travel with much profit.'

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book: 101 Essential Tips Everyday Meditation by Dorling Kindersley

A few notes from this little book, which is fairly 'meh':

* Don't try to meditate if you are busy or overstimulated (e.g. with caffeine).
* To aid relaxation, breathe slowly and deeply and say to yourself, 'I am relaxed, the muscles of my head and neck are relaxed. I am relaxed, the muscles of my shoulders are relaxed. I am relaxed ...chest, etc. I am relaxed. My mind is calm, my mind is relaxed. I am alert. My mind is awake.'
* Be patient with yourself.
* When visualising, use all your senses (sight, smell, touch, sound, taste).
* The untrained mind is like a 'chattering monkey'.
* See each thought coming and passing through like a cloud.
* Mindfulness - nothing is too insignificant to observe.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Film: Happy (2011)


Happy (2011) is a nice little documentary about happiness. It doesn't dig particularly deep but is broad reaching and uplifting in its simplicity.

A few points jotted down whilst watching:

- Profile of a poor rickshaw driver in India: He works in all conditions under the hot sun, and if it rains he gets wet. His house is a spare structure, with plastic tarp on one side, and the rain blows in during the monsoon. Sometimes he only has rice and salt to eat. He is poor but he is happy. In fact, he is as happy as the average American. He looks forward to seeing his children when he gets home, and his neighbours are good people. The people make him happy.
- Modern science suggests about 50% of our happiness is genetic and we deviate around a set range. Only about 10% of our happiness comes from differences in circumstances (e.g. money, property, popularity, etc). The other 40% comes from intentional behaviour such as expressing gratitude, doing something kind, getting into a flow activity, playing and connecting with the community.
- Vary what you do, maybe with a lot of change or just a bit. Variety is the spice of life.
- Having close supportive friends and family is important.
- People overestimate and underestimate the impact of +/-ve events. In general people do really well when things go bad (reversion to the baseline to a large extent).
- We are wealthier than we were fifty years ago (more cars, larger houses) but we do not appear to be happier. We adapt to our level of material goods. The hedonic treadmill is one of the enemies of happiness. Going from living under a bridge to a house is a big change (poverty to basic living), but going from from £50k to £100k has a lesser impact on happiness.
- Dopamine is the neurotransmitter for happiness. As you age, you are losing dopamine synapses. We get the best dopamine releases during physical activity (sports, bring in nature). Also get from being in the zone (aka 'flow'), when you are lost in an activity and have left yourself behind.
- The three main examples of extrinsic goals are money, image and status (external to you). In contrast, we also have intrinsic goals, which are inherently satisfying in and of themselves and relate to internal needs e.g. personal growth, relationships, desire to help and cooperate (these also release dopamine in the right circumstances).
- The internal and external goals can be in opposition to each other.
- Happiness can help you achieve your other goals and you are also nicer to be around.
- Bushmen of the Kalahari - "it doesn't matter what we're doing. Just being together makes us happy."
- Dalia Lama - says compassion is in our blood, from the beginning and across our whole life.
- We can generate love, compassion, care and kindness with meditation and practice. Caring about something bigger than yourself - transcending your own life, can improves happiness e.g. acts of kindness, reducing the burden of others.
- The formula is not the same for everyone. The building blocks of happiness: play, new experiences, friends and family, connectedness doing things that are meaningful, appreciating what we have - these can all be free.

Stephen Fry - Humanism talks (happiness, death and science)

Here are three three-minute talks from the Humanist Association, in which the sage Stephen Fry discusses happiness, death and science, from a humanist perspective. I particularly like how the science lecture animation finishes up, with reason, evidence and experimentation on one side, and ghosts and goblins on the other.






Film: Birdman

This is one I'm looking forward to:


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Books: A Tale of Tub by Jonathan Swift, and Urne Burial by Sir Thomas Browne

 

Both of these books belong to the Penguin Great Ideas collection - judged by the powers at Penguin as books that have changed the world, shaping who we are as a civilisation - so I thought they might make for gripping reading. As it turned out, they books had me confounded and baffled in equal measure and they were rejected after the first sorties. Sometimes this is just how it is.

Urne burial (1658) is described as a 'profund consideration of the inevitability of death...the most fascinating and poignant of all reflections upon the vanity of mankind's lust for immortality.' This sounded like it could be fascinating but with typical paragraphs like the one that follows, I had to throw in the towel pretty sharpish:

"Civilians make sepulture but of the Law of Nations, others doe naturally found it and discover it also in animals. They that are so thick skinned as still to credit the story of the Phœnix, may say something for animall burning; More serious conjectures finde some examples of sepulture in Elephants, Cranes, the Sepulchrall Cells of Pismires and practice of Bees; which civill society carrieth out their dead, and hath exequies, if not interrments."

I seem almost alone in my lowly rating of Urne Burial. The Goodreads website gives it over four stars, with many praising the literary genius of Browne. I say almost alone because there is one reviewer who writes, 'weird, why did I read this?'. I'm on your page dude, I'm on your page.

I really wanted to enjoy A Tale of Tub by Jonathan Swift. As a fan of satires such as Candide by Voltaire, I though A Tale of Tub would be right up my street. Alas, it was not to be and the text proved overly ponderous and challenging, and the main story, about three characters representing three divides in Christianity, held little interest for this reader.

On the upside, I loved this entertaining quote: '...whereas wisdom is a fox, who after long hunting, will at last cost you the pains to dig out. It is a cheese which, by how much the richer, has the thicker, the homelier, and the coarser coat, and whereof to a judicious palate the maggots are the best. It is a sack-posset, wherein the deeper you go you will find it the sweeter. Wisdom is a hen whose cackling we must value and consider, because it is attended with an egg. But then, lastly, it is a nut, which, unless you choose with judgment, may cost you a tooth, and pay you with nothing but a worm.'

Also: 'But, finding the state has no farther occasion for me and my ink, I retire willingly to draw it out into speculations more becoming a philosopher; having, to my unspeakable comfort, passed a long life with a conscience void of offence.'


"It is a fatal miscarriage so ill to order affair as to pass for a fool in one company when in another your might be treated as a philosopher.''

Book: Expensive Habits by Peter Mayle


Expensive Habits by Peter Mayle could have made for good reading, if only the author had adopted a more humble, observational perspective. focusing on luxury products and services with interesting histories e.g. tailoring, cigars, shoes (£750 for a pair of the finest), and malts. Alas, Mayle devotes chapters to limousines, private flights, second homes abroad, lawyers, and the luxury item that is the mistress! Pretty vile stuff, especially as you can't tell when he is joking or being serious. At least it was a quick read.
 
**

On a related note: After reading this book, I read a piece by John Kay which reminds us of the upward drift in living standards over time and makes the point that even though Nathan Rothschild was the richest man in the world in 1836, he died of an illness which could have been cured by 'an antibiotic costing a few pence' today. The economist Tim Harford also noted recently that while much fuss has been made of inequality within countries, whether you are rich or poor on the global scale depends very much on which country you happen to be born in. Both observations are good checks to any feeling of envy one may have over their direct neighbour.

These articles remind us to take the longer and wider perspective when looking at relative properity.

Monday, November 17, 2014

School of Life: Lao Tzu and Taosim

This video explainer of Taoism is infintely better than the book I reviewed yesterday, and it's only a few minutes long.

A wise xkcd comic


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Book: The Greek Myths by Robin Waterfield and Kethryn Waterfield


I haven't lost myself in a book in a while, but it happened with Greek Myths by Robin and Katheryn Waterfield. At less than 300 pages long, the Waterfields have done well to cram in so many of the Greek myths while keeping the tales grippingly entertaining. The first third of the book proved a bit of a slog , which is probably my fault for trying to read the book just before going to the sleep - it's hard to keep track of who's who when the brain is on the verge of dozing off! As things progressed (and as I added some day-time reading sessions) the stories became much more involved, with a rich interplay between gods and humans. I haven't finished the book yet but had to blog about it as it has just moved in to five star territory. A more detailed post will follow once the book is complete.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Poem: Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.

I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Poem: The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Poem: This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Poem: Swineherd by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

When all this is over, said the swineherd,
I mean to retire, where
Nobody will have heard about my special skills
And conversation is mainly about the weather.
I intend to learn how to make coffee, as least as well
As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen
And polish the brass fenders every day.
 I want to lie awake at night
Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug
And the water lying soft in the cistern.
I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines
And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks,
Where it gets dark early in summer
And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.