Just yesterday I (re-)discovered the Kudos function on LinkedIn. As I am one of those people who give positive feedback way too seldom, here’s my new 30 days project: Use LinkedIn’s Kudos function once a day for 30 days.
I really enjoyed reading the book. On the emotional side I guess it’s the admiration that I developed for the narrator – already during the first few pages. On the intellectual side it’s the moral challenges the book threw at me.
Let’s start with the most obvious. The book deals with racial injustice in the US around 1930.
Now, I was raised in a society of racial indifference. And I mean this in the most positive way: I DO NOT CARE ABOUT RACE. To the point where I may not even notice if you are black or white, Muslim or Christian. I do not have any feelings attached to the classification of ethnic background. Interestingly, in practice, to some this is alienating and to some this is liberating. Alienating to those who want me to honor some societal code associated with race: For instance you can’t play the race card with me, because I don’t care. Liberating to those who deliver results and who I’ll support or promote without hesitation.
Taking this into account, the initial situation described in the book feels just wrong. It’s the state of the society in the 1930s, as some critics have claimed, that black people are depicted as too one dimensional in the book, and so much more. The situation described is wrong on all imaginable levels.
To quote from the book: “There’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
I instantly fell in love with Scout, the narrator of the story. If I ever have a daughter I hope I can foster in her some of the qualities found in Scout: Logic, righteousness, self-confidence, eloquence … I just don’t know if it is even fair or realistic to ask for these qualities in an 8-year old.
Let’s zoom out: One could argue that gender inequality and racial inequality fall into the same category of problems. Not for me. The difference is that I have personally witnessed gender inequality, while I was, from the very beginning, raised upholding racial equality. Gender inequality is woven far deeper into the fabric of the society that I grew up in. Nevertheless it’s wrong, but far more difficult for me to get a subjective grip on.
Enough said. I adore Scout.
Here comes the most challenging aspect. I understand that Atticus Fitch is generally accepted as the moral hero of the story. Two things that he said stick:
“Real courage is … when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The problem is that, while my stoic self admires these two principles, I still can’t resolve them properly within my general system of values.
— Attention, spoiler alert —
See, on the factual side of things the book ends in what can be described as close-to-worst-case scenario: jurisdiction fails, black guy’s dead and kids suffer from serious injuries. So what was achieved by upholding these morals?
To reflect on the statement about “real courage”:
Could it be that by accepting to be licked, both the outcome and the pain in the process to get there become self-fulfilling prophecies?
What is the point of suffering if you don’t get anything in return. At least one has to gain some sort of satisfaction from the result or the way there (e.g., learning).
To reflect on the statement about “walking in other people’s skin”:
I do get the idea, and in general it can be seen as good advice. Yet again, what is the point, if it does not offer a satisfying way out?
What if walking around in other people’s skin only shows you that there is no painless solution?
How much can and should one tone down their empathy to still get to a desired outcome (i.e., black guy cleared of all charges, real evil behind bars, kids saved)?
As an engineer I tend to focus on the outcome, the “what”. The “how” is equally important, especially as most of the big things simply can’t be achieved alone. However, I have a hunch that sometimes we need to cross the line, and accept that stoic morals won’t get us any further.
The real problem is that the rules and costs of crossing this line are not yet evident to me.
In my quest to declutter, I have identified a pile of stuff that I want to sell or give away. One of the items is a wristwatch in mint condition. It was part of a “best paper award” that I had gotten in 2012. I didn’t like the style, so it sat around, unboxed, in some drawer all those years.
The watch itself is nothing special: The online asking price is 132 EUR right now. I thought: Let’s try something new and give it away for free. So I listed it on an Austrian website for selling used goods as a “for free item”. What happened next is beyond my imagination.
1.) I got over 30 messages in the first 24 hours 2.) I tried to deal with them on a first-come-first-serve basis. 3.) Four (4!) attempts to hand over my watch have failed since then.
The first guy who I was in contact with, and who had agreed to pick it up at 8 pm, only told me at 7 pm, after I tried to reconfirm the pick-up, that he lives in Vienna and it’s too far for him to come. – Keep in mind the platform clearly tells you where an item is: Address, google maps, everything.
The second person just did not show up, no response.
The third person did not respond when I tried to arrange time and date for a pick-up for 48 hours (the platform reported my messages as “read”).
The fourth person finally asked me to bring the watch to a specific location.
I am blown away by how much effort, how much time I spent on this endeavor! I have a feeling that as soon as something is “for free” people perceive it as “has no value”. Especially online it’s easy to hit the “I want it” button on things that are 0 EUR. But then, when these people have to actually do something to get that “worthless” piece, they are not prepared to do their part. Lesson learned: If you want to explore the abyss of human nature try giving something away for free online. Otherwise don’t do it.
Here’s how the story ended: I agreed to send the watch to one of the many people who had contacted me. I paid for the postage (5 EUR) and asked him to do something good for someone in his neighborhood. I think that way I sparked a little niceness in the world and did not have to spend any more of my precious time dealing with people who did not value a 0 EUR item.
From time to time I need to do some decluttering. I guess everybody does. Usually, it’s easy for me to decide between the things that I won’t need anymore and the ones that I want to keep. I know myself to be both fast and rigorous about these decisions.
Today I stumbled across a box that broke my flow: my old MiniDisc collection and a Minidisc player. I know that all the money invested in the technology is lost (2 portable units, 1 Minidisc deck, one car stereo that had Minidisc, tons of Minidiscs, …) and I also know that I won’t use it any time soon, neither for recording nor for listening. Still, I seem unable to part with it.
It’s not even the Minidisc player that powered most of my teen years – that was a Sony MZ R50 and later a Sony MZ R90, which in terms of esthetics I only loved half as much as the R50. The discs, however, are the “originals”. I used to print labels for all of them with images that I scanned from the original CD. Most of them are blurry by now, as I only had an inkjet printer. I am humbled by how much time I must have spent on my Minidisc collection.
I guess I am going to allow myself to keep the Minidisc box around for another while and thus postpone the decision to throw it out. Yep, that’s living on the edge.
I thought about going to a Jazz Jam Session tonight, but then I ended up just jamming with myself and Ableton Live. Tonight’s tune is called “Summer Rain – Our Reckless Behavior”. It’s constructed around the idea that “Our reckless behavior will destroy it for us all”. Click here to download the sheet music.
This is an apology to all the people who have sent me an e-mail over the course of the past 5 months and have not received the response they expected in time. I was swamped at work, with my PhD project, IEEE activities and other challenges in my private life. But now I am on top of things again. I’ve reached “Inbox Zero”.
With it comes the “Mind like Water” state and I am now ready again for your e-mails. Let’s see how long it lasts ;)
To me Fred Hersch’s version of “Both Sides Now” is profoundly beautiful and touching. It clearly stands out compared to the millions of stimuli that I get on a day to day basis. When I say stimuli I mean everything ranging from music, photography, writing, management presentations, engineering solutions, mathematical equations to coffee table discussions. In my quest to understanding “Life, the Universe & Everything” I can’t resist to ask: “Why?”.
To tell you the truth, I don’t think I have a way to test my answers (hypotheses) in a “true-or-false” manner. However my intuition at the moment tells me this:
Technique. You have to be in control of your fingers to be one of the top piano players in the world. Interestingly I don’t think you have to be in total control, as in all points in the four dimensional “what finger, what key, what intensity, what time” space. You just have to cover a big-enough, interesting-enough subspace, which is a challenge already.
References. “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell is considered a master piece in its own right. Not only has it proven to capture people’s minds, but for those who know it already, it will most likely trigger positive emotions instantaneously. Similarly Fred Hersch’s interpretation is firmly rooted in the tradition of Jazz, which provides another huge set of references.
Story Telling. From the first note to the last Fred Hersch takes you on a journey that is logical from one note/one phrase to the next and that is holistically consistent in a way that it captures your imagination throughout the piece.
Personality. Both what he plays and how he plays it screams “Fred Hersch”. Even if you would transcribe his music and have it played by some random, classically trained pianist, it would probably lack some important characteristics.
For lack of scientific methods, I can’t be sure that this list is correct or exhaustive. But what I can say is that I find all of these qualities in Fred Hersch’s “Both Sides Now” and that I should certainly make sure they are in the random coffee table discussion to make it just as beautiful and touching.