The Happiness Cure

I keep waiting for “positive psychology’s” 15 minutes of fame to elapse. Although sympathetic to the origins of the whole thing (why expect the study of psychopathology to reveal insights into normal function?), the whole “happiness 101” thing left me a little cold. But it goes on and on, kind of like Cats did, equally mystifying in its popularity.

Apparently I’m not the only nay sayer. Courtesy of Powell’s Books news, I learned about “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman, who apparently takes a dim, if droll, look, at the whole positive psych movement.


From the publisher’s blurb:

And [Burkeman says] that there is an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty — the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid. Thought-provoking, counterintuitive, and ultimately uplifting, The Antidote is the intelligent persons guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.

I have always wanted a self-help book that might have been written by Samuel Beckett. Prayer answered? Full report after I’ve finished it. In the meantime, here’s the first paragraph:

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Commonplace Book: Impressionism and Couture at the Met

NYTimes fine art critic Roberta Smith kind of flipped her wig Friday about the new “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” show at the Met. (And it sounds like it justifies every bit of praise she showered on it.)

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A nicely-crafted bit from her review:

The show tells its tale through a dazzling surround of visual culture high and low, small and large, flat and round. I recommend not missing a thing: not a pleat, ruche or lace parasol; not a painted background, glove or slipper toe; not a photograph or magazine; not a corset, fan or black choker, whether depicted or actual. Such attention reveals frequent similarities of garments (and poses) in the magazines, photographs, paintings and costumed mannequins. A result is an intense, almost hallucinatory swirl in which art and artifact continually change places, and a basic wisdom is demonstrated: any well-selected thing can illuminate any other.

Such a well-managed example of one of the hardest things in writing, (oddly not much taught) handling a list with elegance, detail and rhythm. And that last line, “any well-selected thing can illuminate any other,” Tumblr’s motto perhaps?

More seriously, whoever at the Met or Art Institute of Chicago is encouraging all these brilliantly curated fashion and art shows, and managing to get them funded, bravo! They are like the best engrossing arts documentaries, making you look at something in a completely new way.

Reasonable Words: Emmanuelle Riva

The 84-year-old Oscar-nominated actress in an interview. A few choice bits:

Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 1.05.49 PMQ: What was it like creating that intimacy with Jean-Louis Trintignant?

A: I’d met him in Rome many years ago when we were young, but I don’t know him well. This is the heart of our work. We meet other people we don’t know, and immediately we are in complete intimacy. I didn’t do anything. I just was there, and him also.

Q: And how do you feel about coming to the Oscars?

A: I am very calm in the face of all of this. I am 85 years old. I am not going to flop about like a fish. What makes me nervous is these hours on the plane. Frankly, it seems like a hell of a journey to me. It’s so long. But I will do things to the end. I will fall in someone’s arms if I need to.

This adventure, this gift, in the last stage of my life – it’s not easy to measure up – but it’s the exact moment in my life when I could do it. Before would have been too early. Later might have been too late. But it’s a great treasure to participate in this film.

The Data Beat

Found a web gizmo (I’m sure there are many more) that does personal data visualization (a flavor of the quantified self stuff). It’s called Datum and I found out about it via Nicely done design and some real thought went into the UX. Report on how it works to follow.

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If the 1971 classic, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” were to be updated again, it would have to be “Our Data, Ourselves.”

Beautiful Song: Gluck Transcription

Have been trawling the web for good pianists, in the hope to solve my long running technical annoyances in trying to play (a not very hard!) Chopin Nocturne (C-sharp minor, Op. Post). Not much practical help watching the greats for a duffer like me, I’m afraid, but certainly is enjoyable, as hopping through the wormhole of YouTube took me to a lot of wonderful piano playing.

As a result, here are a couple of treasures from that nosing around: two pianists playing a transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.” First, the great Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes.

Novaes could play a melody in a way that made it a living sinuous thing, winding in and out of the other musical material in a 3-D way.  (I first discovered her ability to put this spin on melody via a really old cassette recording of the Chopin Nocturnes of hers I had. I got it at a drug store in Urbana-Champaign, IL, in 1989. Didn’t recognize her name, and the VOX label looked pretty sketchy. But it was only a quarter, I think.) It floored me–one of those cases where you hear something unexpected and you just have to listen over and over and over again, changed how I thought about what the piano could do. It actually could sing, that wasn’t just a piece of piano teacher rhetoric. I recall making the friend I was staying with drive me around in his Honda to listen to it in the car, as he didn’t have a cassette player at home and I wanted to hear it on something other than my Walkman. (For you kinder, that was an ancient predecessor to the i-thingie).

The next take on this is a young pianist, Yuja Wang.

Wang’s way with the melody is also restrained yet powerful; she’s able to pull back to a whisper (in contrast to a lot of young pianists who don’t actually play the “piano-forte,” but rather the “forte-forte” or maybe the “forte-fortissimo”). And her seemingly stress-free finger technique is just astonishing.

I never heard Novaes in person. But I have heard Wang live twice; once in Boston and once in DC. Worth hearing if you are a piano lover.

A bit about Gluck and that extraordinary melody: Gluck was an  18th century German composer, born in the era of Bach and Handel, but dying when Beethoven was a teenager. His operas (on the mythical subjects typical of his era) aimed to reform the repetitive and artificial formats then used, but, ironically, he was regarded as pretty old-fashioned in the 19th century (except by Berlioz).

That said, his melodies never went out of fashion and many arrangements were made for amateur or professional use. Now fully staged performances of his operas are no longer rare (although not exactly staples either). There was an Orfeo ed Euridice at New England Conservatory I caught last year. Radiant and antique in one moment, with flashes of desperate Verdi-like fire the next. It definitely was not a museum piece.

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Reasonable Ideas: “By Hand”

One of my (many, many) unfulfilled video series ideas is to do something on the explosion of interest in activities you do by hand (no computer, electronic media, or digital element involved). The elaborate tableau-like (and mesmerizing) analog photography of the Parke-Harrisons is an example (as are many other photographers in the “new antique photography” movement.)

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A Parke-Harrison work (everything is built by hand and staged for the picture). (Although their more recent work looks like they have moved on to digital techniques.)

Knitting, many aspects of food and cooking, and in some ways the whole search for authenticity in certain kinds of music fit into this “by hand” category for me. (At some point I’ll get around to writing about my–somewhat shaky–thesis about the advent of the CD as the trigger for the spread of the early music movement in classical music, a study in ironies that one. Early music was emphatically about bringing back ways of playing and listening that were not of the 20th century, but in fact only reached musicians and listeners through CDs, which by definition could never be an authentic acoustic experience.)

Wall of Type at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum

Printing and type, in particular, affords a lot of opportunities for thinking about “by hand” pre-digital work, and I just learned that the era of wooden type is preserved in a museum in WI, the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum. A piece in Design Observer tipped me off, and it includes the droll fact that Matthew Carter (genius type designer of Verdana and thus probably somebody whose work you will be using today) designed a type face for the Hamilton, Van Lanen Carter Latin, expressly to be made out of wood. I hardly need to add that, of course, you can also buy a digital version of Carter Latin.

Unreasonable Sources: All Singing, All Dancing Principia

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A taste of Principia Mathematica. “The Producers,” it ain’t. I think this is the “finale” where 1+1 turns out to equal 2, but can’t really be sure.

There have been some unlikely sources for musicals: The Book of Mormon springs to mind, also the Leo Frank  trial. Yet, both of these shows garnered Tony Awards, and in the case of Mormon, sold out houses. Stephen King’s “Carrie,” not so much. Although it has an afterlife as a proud member of many “worst musical ever written” lists. And in fairness, although Stephen King’s first novel, turned into Brian DiPalma’s memorable film, wouldn’t seem to immediately inspire song and dance routines, nor would Sweeney Todd, on many “best of” lists, including mine.
Now an enterprising team has taken on a logico-philosophical tome, yes, Principia Mathematica – THE MUSICAL.

For those, who unlike me, didn’t go through a Bertrand Russell phase, some brief background. Establishing the logical foundations of mathematics has–on and off–been a quest of philosophers of a technical bent for many years. Geometry invites this question quite naturally with its emphasis on deduction and proof. (Seeing the 11’o’clock number, yet? Sets, costumes?) Unfortunately, looking at geometry through the lens of rigorous logic turned up troubling inconsistencies that in fact led to entirely new, mutually contradictory, but logically consistent mathematical ways of thinking.

Undaunted by the mixed results on showing the logical foundations of geometry, although they perhaps should have been, the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead decided to take on the the task of establishing the logical foundation of the basis of mathematics: arithmetic. Finding a symbolic way to show that everything in it can be derived from logical principles and proved to be valid. In three massive volumes, all completely unreadable with the possible exception of the intro, although even it’s hardly a walk in the park, they laboriously hacked through the proofs only to arrive at paradoxes that could not be wished away. (And don’t seem to matter much as a practical concern.)

And now it’s a show, from an article about it in “The Aperiodical“:

Anyway, the third and final volume of the book was published 100 years ago this year, and in celebration, as the title of this post has completely given away, theatre company The Conway Collective is putting on a musical written by Tyrone Landau and based on the book.

The world premiere of the musical is taking place on 20th February, at Conway Hall in London, and the event description notes that

The evening is scored for singers, dancers, musicians and philosophers.

(There’s your problem right there. I know a lot of philosophers. One is my best friend. They are often good cooks and know wine. Musical comedy types: not so much.)

I know about this mostly useless history because I was a philosophy and math geek in college, and found this logical quest to get everything settled kind of poignant. It really seemed in that era you could know everything, and use logical proof to settle many human questions (not just in math). It didn’t work of course. Russell and Whitehead couldn’t resolve the paradoxes, and a little while later, Gödel, showed that this kind of resolution is impossible anyway. There are things you can know (at least in the mathematical sense) but cannot prove. (He proved this logically, which is a little mind-boggling).

So, all this has you panting in anticipation of the musical I’m sure. (I thought about writing a play…even started it, but didn’t really get anywhere.) But a musical? A symbolic logic chorus line? A tense scene about the validity of inductive methods in math? The “paradox dancers” sequin and feather boa kick line being parallel and intersecting at the same time. Songs like, “I’m gonna wash that set theoretic predicate calculus logical error right out of my proof!” “The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Euclidian Plain.”  (And I’m sure many, many more and far funnier bits of undergrad ridiculousness are possible.) Good luck to them.

Poetic Words: Lawrence Raab

From Poetry Daily, a narrative, dream-touched poem by Lawrence Raab (part of a longer work). I love the way it slips in and out of relating the dream in a gentle, but precise, blur.


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John Ruskin, who, as yet, has not had any walk-ons in my dreams.

A Cup of Water Turns into a Rose (excerpt)



On the radio a choir was singing
“I want to be a crocus”
in a mournful British accent.

One of the three men who wasn’t me
expressed disapproval. He seemed to know
the composer’s work, may in fact have had

some personal connection, which couldn’t
have been a happy one. I followed them
into another room where soon enough

I understood their conversation
wasn’t meant to include me, and so,
feeling like an intruder, as seems often

the case at the end of a dream, I woke up.


There’d been a long unwinding narrative,
perfectly coherent until all of it was lost

when the music began and I noticed
the radio—shiny and black, with huge dials,
like nothing I’d ever owned, maybe

something out of the Second World War,
or a movie about it: anxious men bent forward
around what now had turned into the forbidden

short-wave equipment—static that opened up
to a voice declaring in code the time of a landing
on some important beach nearby. Within hours

everybody’s lives would change,
and the excitement on their faces
was illuminated by the glowing of the dial.


I’d seen other versions of that story,
and could predict who wouldn’t survive,
cradled in the arms of his best friend—

the selfless bravery of his dying,
the precise way he’d close his eyes
after his choked but eloquent final words.

Had he made a last request—a sweetheart
back home who needed to be told,
a father who’d never understood?

Was a letter involved, a medal, a ring?
No doubt such deaths occurred, such tokens
were passed from hand to hand.


As seems often the case these days
I woke up troubled by the purposeless
weight on my chest. I knew that later

that morning a few pills would help,
a walk with the dogs, a way to choose
what I could expect to accomplish, a way

to calculate the lengthening of the day,
to see it moving toward dusk, then evening.
But now the birds were beginning

their chorus, and the folds of sleep
unhanded me. No, Doctor, I don’t
want to die, if that’s what you’re asking.

I’d just rather not wake up.


For it might be at first thought, wrote John Ruskin,
whom I must admit I’ve hardly read,
that the whole kingdom of imagination

was one of deception also. Not so. Let’s admire
that brave stab at brevity—Not so—even if
it’s followed by a colon, and the reader’s

certainty that Ruskin will never choose
a single word when two or three present themselves.
Therefore the imagination is a summoning

of things absent or impossible. And the force
of it lies in the knowledge of their actual absence
or impossibility at the moment

of their apparent presence … We invent
and observe what does not exist,
and at that moment we are pleased to see

what we have made, and how it cannot be real.


Their code was never broken. The invasion
would succeed, but not without cost. Later
the father bows his head, and turns away,

the girl tries hard not to cry—an expression
of resignation, then of pride, crossing her face.
She’ll refold the letter and show it to no one.

“Do you think that’s from They Were Expendable,”
I ask a man who looks like he might know.
“It’s not,” he replies. We’re standing on a road

among tall white pines, and a pleasant breeze
has found us there, so I say, “It helps—
nature—at times, though it doesn’t mean to.”

“At times,” he says, “the impossible
looks like it’s on our side
until it isn’t.” He shakes his head.

“I knew Ruskin—he was a jerk.” I nod,
as if I’d known him too, and felt the same.

[ … ]


Lawrence Raab

A Cup of Water Turns into a Rose

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