09 January 2015

The Symbol of Our Labor

Hidden wisdom and mysterious revelations.

The peril of our new way of life was not lest we should fail in becoming real-life farmers, but that we should probably cease to be anything else. While our enterprise lay all in theory, we had pleased ourselves with delectable visions of the spiritualization of labor. It was to be our form of prayer and ceremonial of worship.

Each stroke of the hoe was to uncover some aromatic root of wisdom, heretofore hidden from the sun. Pausing in the field, to let the wind exhale the moisture from our foreheads, we were to look upward, and catch glimpses into the far-off soul of truth. In this point of view, matters did not turn out quite so well as we anticipated.

It is very true that, sometimes, gazing casually around me, out of the midst of my toil, I used to discern a richer picturesqueness in the visible scene of earth and sky. There was, at such moments, a novelty, an unwonted aspect, on the face of Nature, as if she had been taken by surprise and seen at unawares, with no opportunity to put off her real look, and assume the mask with which she mysteriously hides herself from mortals. But this was all.

The clods of earth, which we so constantly belabored and turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, were fast becoming cloddish. Our labor symbolized nothing, and left us mentally sluggish in the dusk of the evening.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance

Painting; Van Gogh,  The Sower

02 January 2015

Pascal's Wager

When is a game worth the candle?

Fermat and Pascal founded the essential rules that govern all games of chance. T[he rules] can be used by gamblers to define perfect playing and betting strategies. Furthermore, these laws of probability have found applications in a whole series of situations, ranging from speculating in the stock market to estimating the probability of a nuclear accident.

A mathematical formula leads to infinity.

Pascal was even convinced that that he could use his theories to justify a belief in God. He stated that "the excitement that a gambler feels when making a bet is equal to the amount he might win times the probability of winning it." He then argued that the possible prize of eternal happiness has an infinite value and that the probability of entering heaven by leading a virtuous life, no matter how small is certainly finite. Therefore, according to Pascal's definition, religion was a game of infinite excitement and one worth playing, because multiplying and infinite prize by a finite probability results in infinity.

— Simon Singh, Fermat's Enigma

Painting: Caravaggio: The Cardsharps 

26 August 2014

Literary License

For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers—at first, occasional ones.

It began with the daily press opening to its readers space for “letters to the editor.” And today there is hardly a gainfully employed [individual] who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case.

At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship. In [many instances] work itself is given a voice. To present it verbally is part of a man’s ability to perform the work. Literary license is now founded on polytechnic rather than specialized training and thus becomes common property.

All this can easily be applied to the film, where transitions that in literature took centuries have come about in a decade. . . .

— Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

Painting: Mir Sayyid Ali, Mughal, A Young Scribe, c. 1550, watercolor and gold on paper