Worlds of Terry Gilliam and M. C. Escher

MM_ZeroTheorem_OneSheet-660I recently had the chance to watch Terry Gilliam’s film, The Zero Theorem. I gather that some have called it the final piece of the Brazil trilogy (following Twelve Monkeys), and that makes some sense: in all three films, we find the same harrowing mix of Kafka with Orwell, the same conflicts among imagination, reason, love, and despair, and the same clear plastic raincoats. In this case, the main character is Qohen Leth, an “entity cruncher” who pedals furiously at a stationary bike while solving math problems, handing the solutions in tubular form through a slot to another set of hands. He petitions to work at home because he has been expecting a phone call that will reveal to him his purpose. His home is a burnt-out cathedral, complete with pigeons and rats. The most powerful image in his mind, to which he frequently returns, is a terrifying and beautiful black hole. He eventually is granted permission to wall himself inside his cathedral in order to work on Management’s big project: the Zero Theorem, which proves that all of existence sums to nothing.

Complications ensue, and Leth begins to care about other people, and the story ends with the sort of dreamy but nihilistic conclusion Gilliam fans can expect. I had thought that Leth was named after “Lethe,” the ancient Greek’s river of forgetfulness, but Wikipedia tells me that the screenwriter Paul Rushin was “was inspired by Ecclesiastes to write the film (the Hebrew title of which is קֹהֶלֶת, Qoheleth, meaning “Gatherer”, but traditionally translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher”), which he felt suggested such questions as “What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What’s the use?”” It’s a marvelous film, and I’m resolved to teach a class on Gilliam’s films and philosophy. We’ll see the films I’ve mentioned, but also The Fisher King and Baron von Munchhausen (this latter one being still my favorite of the Gilliam ouvre).


Coincidentally, I also came across today an interesting article by Steven Poole in the Guardian about M. C. Escher. The following passage helped me to see the common strain running through Escher’s paradoxical etchings and Gilliam’s worlds of cartoons:

Most dazzling, perhaps, is the celebrated Ascending and Descending (1960), with its two ranks of human figures trudging forever upwards and eternally downwards respectively on an impossible four-sided eternal staircase. It is the most recognisable of Escher’s “impossible objects” images, which were inspired by the British mathematician Roger Penrose and his father, the geneticist Lionel Penrose. Fascinated by House of Stairs, the Penroses published a paper in 1956 in the British Journal of Psychology entitled “Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion”. Receiving an offprint a few years later, Escher wrote to Lionel expressing his admiration for the “continuous flights of steps” in the paper, and enclosing a print of Ascending and Descending. (The paper also included the “tri-bar” or Penrose triangle, which is constructed impossibly from three 90-degree angles: in 1961 Escher built his never-ending Waterfall using three of them.)

The mathematical trickery in Ascending and Descending’s staircase is not the subject of the image. Escher was never a surrealist. But in this picture, it becomes clear that he was a kind of existentialist. He had long admired Dostoyevsky and Camus, and in a letter to a friend while he was working on Ascending and Descending he explained: “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. With similar questions on his lips, our own Albert Camus has just smashed into a tree in his friend’s car and killed himself. An absurd death, which had rather an effect on me. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”


This dreamscape of futility is perfected by the two figures who are not on the eternal staircase. One gazes up at his condemned fellows from a side terrace; one sits glumly on the lower stairs. “Two recalcitrant individuals refuse, for the time being, to take any part in this exercise,” Escher commented. “They have no use for it at all but no doubt sooner or later they will be brought to see the error of their nonconformity.”

Gilliam’s films are all about a figure who does not wish to be on the eternal staircase. But in The Zero Theorem, the depiction of the figure is as direct as a Zen master’s lesson: for here is a man who believes in a purpose, expects it to ring up at any moment, and yet whose day job proves there is no meaning.

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Wonderful photo of Prague

(Thanks to tumblr)


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Central Asia’s Golden Age

[S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age, Princeton, 2013]

I can’t even say what my hazy mental picture of medieval central Asia was before I read S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment. That’s how poorly represented it was in my mental geography – there was not even a little sign on a stick saying, “there’s a lot going on here you don’t know.” I suppose I would have stammered out something about horse archers, camels, and furry hats. Now, thanks to Starr’s book, I can say a bit more.

Original Illustration-1P289-ThumbnailLost Enlightenment covers a significant historical period of a region that now boasts several politically distinct ‘stans – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, all clustered between Iran and China. The “significant historical period” – really, a renaissance rivaling that other one several centuries later and to the west – ranged from about 750 to 1150. Philosophy, theology, logic, mathematics, optics, libraries, medicine, geography, and social sciences like history and anthropology – not to mention great poetry and music – all flourished during this period, driven by great intellectuals receiving state support at greater-than-Medici levels.

We really don’t know what all they discovered, since so much has been lost. One of the period’s greatest intellects, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (or just Ibn Sina, or Avicenna), hailing from modern-day Uzbekistan, wrote over 400 works – and of those only about half survive, and these exist mostly in fragmentary and unpublished form. Scholars have access to only about 13 of the 180 known treatises of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, who was Ibn Sina’s main man in Turkmenistan. So we are really looking only through a keyhole at a wide canvas of intellectual achievement. Given what we do see, it would not be out of the question for there to be, in some hidden corner of the canvas, some forgotten figure feeding punch cards into a steam-powered difference engine.

One of Ibn Sina’s countrymen, Abu Abdallah Muhammed al-Kwarazmi (780-850), constructed precise instruments for determining latitude, and solved problems of spherical astronomy using a device that employed sine quadrants (not that I really know what that means). Along the way, he also invented algebra, and lent his name to those powerful abstract entities we now call algorithms. A later thinker, Ulughbeg (1394-1449), son of Tamerlane (or Timur), calculated the length of the sidereal year more accurately than Copernicus did, and correctly calculated the exact degree of Earth’s tilt. Abu al-Rahman al-Khazani wrote a book in the early 12th century that has been called “the most comprehensive work on weighing in the Middle Ages, from any cultural area.” (It was entitled Book of the Balance of Wisdom.) All of these brilliant thinkers were building on efforts of brilliant predecessors – which means there was a sophisticated network of preserving and sharing knowledge throughout the region. And of course, through it all, there is a rich population of philosophers and theologians wrestling with the tensions between natural knowledge and revealed faith, making all the moves to be repeated centuries later in early modern Europe. This includes Abu Hamid Muhammed al-Ghazali’s anti-rationalist work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which made its way through the knowledge network westward to Spain and Morocco, and prompted Abu Muhammad ibn Rushd’s rationalist reply, The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

A set of brothers in the 9th century – Jafar, Ahmad, and Hasan ibn Musa – turned their minds to constructing ingenious mechanical devices, resulting in Ahmad’s book, naturally enough entitled The Book of Ingenious Devices:

This neglected but astonishing document bears comparison with Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks for the bold and intricate devices it describes. Here were pioneered one- and two-way pneumatic valves, automata that responded to feedback, and a host of ingenious devices that demonstrate a wildly imaginative yet disciplined and practical engineering mind. Ahmad’s mechanical flute, driven by steam, has been hailed as the first programmable machine, a title that is contested by the brothers’ own hydro-powered organ, which was programmed through interchangeable cylinders. In both devices Ahmad showed the same inventiveness that led a millennium later to the Jacquard loom, player piano, and eventually the punch card-programmed computer. The brothers also invented the clamshell excavator, a bellows to clear air from mines and wells, a gas mask for use when the bellows failed, and hurricane lamps, self-feeding lamps, and self-trimming lamps. (146)

Many of these central Asian thinkers ended up in Baghdad, home of the renowned House of Wisdom, which has been said to be the single greatest center of research in the world, from the time of the fall of the Library at Alexandria to (perhaps) the formation of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.

Why did this golden age come to an end? Well, as the saying goes, it’s complicated. In part, it was politics and religion: politicians found an unlearned Islamic fundamentalism to be politically expedient, and Islamic fundamentalists found political tyrannies to be religiously expedient. In part, the pointed and violent battles among competing visions of what true piety requires chilled the free expression of ideas. In part, a focus on gunpowder and siege machinery displaced the focus on more theoretical realms. And in part, it didn’t come to an end, or at least not to a final stop: scholars and artists continued to explore, invent, and create under every ruler, and still at impressive levels, though not as impressive as in earlier times. But over time, as conditions for inquiry became less favorable or at times impossible, scholars migrated to the west, carrying with them all the texts they could carry, and the timing was right. The west gradually was brought up to speed with algebra, competent astronomy, rich commentaries on Aristotle, and a complete set of Plato’s works – or as many as we’ll ever have, anyway. By the 17th century, the west could begin to continue the work that had been done in the east in the 12th century.

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Online education as the silver bullet

A recent story on Utah Public Radio reports that the Utah System of Higher Education is projecting an increase of 50,000 additional college students in Utah over the next ten years. That’s huge. And the immediately attractive response – “More online education!” – is not the way to go.

Let me be straight: for the most part, online education stinks. Sometimes, when you need specific training for a narrow subject – like how to build a website, or fill out a tax return – it’s just fine. But when it comes to broader or more complicated subjects and problems, online education is the wrong medium. It’s like doing surgery over the telephone.

People who reach for it as a cheap way to handle tens of thousands of students have a mistaken model of higher education. They adhere to “the bucket model”: student has empty bucket – comes to knowledge resource – gets bucket filled. But most things worth learning, of course, are far more complicated than this. What are the various ways of framing this problem? How might each frame limit the solutions we’re likely to see? What is a new way of looking at it? How do you weigh out the advantages and disadvantages of the possible solutions? These are the sorts of questions we want our future leaders to be raising, since the problems they are going to face will not be getting any easier.

These are the sorts of questions we find across all departments and majors in a university, and there are two ways of handling them online. First, and most usual, they can be simply ignored, and everyone can just pretend that some real education has taken place. Second, a truly dedicated online instructor can provide online chats, inventive exercises, and detailed assignments that get at these questions – but then the “efficiency” that made online instruction attractive in the first place goes right out the window. Such a high-quality online course will not serve any more students than a face-to-face course would – and, arguably, it would just be easier to sit the students in a room and get the thing done.

From the point of view of most students, the appeal of online education is that you can take it at your own pace – that is, you can cram it all into a week or two of binge quiz-taking, and it’s far easier than taking the class “for real.” (This I hear from the students themselves.) So long as the farce awards university credit, it’s a win/win for everyone: the student gets more (credit) for less (work), and the university gets more (tuition) for less (expense). But ask yourself whether university education comes by way of binge quiz-taking, and the ruse reveals itself.

There’s no cheap, technological “silver bullet” to accommodate 50,000 more students. Universities need to build classrooms, hire faculty, and do it right.

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Oh, look, there’s my navel

Photo on 6-6-15 at 1.50 PMI spent yesterday and some of today trolling through old Huenemanniac blogposts, sorting them into new categories and wondering whether there may be a way to assemble them into a vanity-bound collection of musings – perhaps “The Huenemanniad.” The most forceful realization I had while strolling down memory lane is that I have indeed had a wonderful life. I have had so much fun with family and friends, and so many delightful adventures through books, media, and lectures. And, as vain as it may sound, I’m very pleased with my own intellectual take on things. I have managed to put the key human virtues – kindness, amusement, honesty, wonder, and the power of art – at the heart of what I have been thinking, reading, and writing. If I am truly an episodic with regard to personal identity – believing, in other words, that there is no stable and enduring self, but strings of different selves in succession – then I am happy to inherit this particular stream of ideas and enthusiasms as one I am inheriting from previous selves. Small wonder, this: for I’m really only saying that I’m the sort of person to like the stuff that people like me like.

Back in 2009, I was wrestling with some professional identity issues, realizing that my grad student dream of – what, exactly? I can’t remember – was not going to come true, and that I would have to make do with being an eccentric character pursuing my own interests. I have to say, that’s worked pretty well for me. I now have my shed, or rather the Canyon Road Institute for Humanistic Studies, which has become my intellectual home. I stand now at my desk, fashioned from a 1912 optician’s stand, look out the windows upon a small backyard garden, listening to birds and music going wherever my interests lead. Luckily, I’ve found a few venues willing to publish my nattering, and a few handfuls of readers who encourage me and help to keep me honest. THANK YOU. Having a responsive audience, especially one so kind, gives me all the ammunition I need to fight off the worry that I’ve descended too far into solipsistic graphomania. (Or gramophonemania.)

Anyway, it’s been fun to look back. But too much self-examination (let alone self-congratulation) makes the mind as empty as two smudgy mirrors facing one another. So: onward to new distractions!

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How not to be afraid of death

Set aside any belief in an afterlife, even the vaguely hopeful “I’ll return to the energy of the universe” sort of view. The realization that your run of life is finite is troubling. At first, when we begin to think about the full extent of our lives, we tend to think of that extent as a short stretch of time found within a very broad scope of time: I exist for several decades within – what? – billions and billions of years. It’s a tiny blip, hardly anything at all. And, automatically, we associate the very short episode called “our lives” with more ordinary episodes, like seeing a movie on a Sunday afternoon. In that case, we enjoy the movie, and after that, we drive home. But then a second realization hits: after this life, there will be no driving home. There will not be anything for us – no recalling of favorite moments, no do-overs, not even a moment of nostalgia. Nothing. That life we just had will be all we ever are, forever. The pit of existential despair opens before us, and boy howdy, does it ever stink.

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David Hume – the “Assassin’s Assessor”

Edinburgh’s “Poker Club” began meeting in 1762. Each week, fifty or so gentlemen would congregate in a tavern for a long afternoon followed by dinner and argue events of the day ranging from politics to morals and culture – matters like national characters, standards of taste, what makes for a good theatrical tragedy, whether all Scots should be taught orthodox English, and so on. Many of the topics were taken from essays Hume had published. The membership was a gallery of stars from the Scottish Enlightenment – including Adam Smith, Lord Kames, Lord Monboddo, Adam Ferguson, Allan Ramsay, and William Robertson.

The club never played the card game known as “poker.” The name of the group reflected the group’s central purpose, which was to “stir up” discussion of Scotland being able to raise up its own militia in the face of England’s order never to do so. As a club, it had various officers and functionaries. One office was the “Assassin,” whose job it was to levy fines on anyone who was supposed to lead discussion on a particular topic, but failed to show up, and failed to present a legitimate excuse. The club’s Assassin was Andrew Crosby, who was put in the delicate position of weighing excuses and issuing verdicts without spoiling the general bonhomie of the society. So David Hume, roundly known for his “uniform good nature and easy manners,” was permanently slotted for the position of “Assassin’s Assessor,” and he counseled the Assassin in his judgments. The thought was that if you were guilty in Davy’s eyes, then, by God, you were guilty, and there could be no further court of appeal.

It seemed to work pretty well. The group swelled to 130 members at one point, but by 1783 the club cut back to monthly meetings, as attendance was trailing off, and it closed forever in 1784.

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