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Outsider art (aka “art brut“) is an interesting concept: An “artist” performs art without any intention to be awarded recognition or even without telling any other person about his works.

Often this is done by “mentally ill” patients (… although it’s always interesting to think about who/what is normal anyways, whether this is necessarily positive, and who has the right to declare others to be “mentally ill” …). E.g., a person might draw hundreds and hundreds of abstract “faces” of Japanese metro trains. Or another person might lead a “normal” life, draw hundreds of paintings, and these are only discovered after his death.

This level of obsession leads to an unusual intensity of the piece of art, especially if you know a bit about the history of a given “artist”.

To get a quick glimpse at this art, you can run a Google image search. But it is far more interesting to actually go to the musée de la Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne. They currently have an exhibition about Japanese outsider art and they have lots of videos showing the life and the work of each artist.

On my own, it probably would have taken me at least a few more months to discover this museum, but fortunately I had visitors from the hospitality club, which I could accompany to this museum. It is honestly always an honor and a pleasure to welcome such visitors to my place.

I don’t have a very sensitive sense of smell, but I don’t suffer from anosmia.

In fact, today I encountered one of those rare moments where I remembered a smell which I had last smelt over 10 years ago. I still don’t know what exactly it was, and I’m very bad at describing sensual impressions of any kind, but I do remember that the last time I smelled it was in England (in Bognor Regis) when I went there as an exchange student over Easter. Today I smelled the same smell when I was running along the lake. So maybe it is some kind of spring+water smell, but which only occurs very locally, as it was only discernible for about 20 meters.

Apart from the smell, the thought process in my mind was interesting. Searching for something to connect this smell to. A very odd mix of a feeling of familiarity and confusion.

Often, when you meet new people at parties, the first few minutes of conversations are fairly standard, especially when you come from a similar background. What do you study, what do you do, where did you grow up, what are your hobbies, …

But, somehow, none of the answers to these questions tells you a lot about a person, and they are very rarely inspiring. Even the hobbies are quite arbitrary as one can do most hobbies for a variety of reasons. What’s worse, I tend to forget the answers if not during the course of an evening, then certainly over the next couple of days. The underlying belief that one can get to know people through superficial facts always reminds me of the following quotation from “Le petit prince“:

Les grandes personnes aiment les chiffres. Quand vous leur parlez d’un nouvel ami, elles ne vous questionnent jamais sur l’essentiel. Elles ne vous disent jamais: “Quel est le son de sa voix? Quels sont les jeux qu’il préfère? Est-ce qu’il collectionne les papillons?” Elles vous demandent: “Quel âge a-t-il? Combien a-t-il de frères? Combien pèse-t-il? Combien gagne son père?” Alors seulement elles croient le connaître. Si vous dites aux grandes personnes: “J’ai vu une belle maison en briques roses, avec des géraniums aux fenêtres et des colombes sur le toit…” elles ne parviennent pas à s’imaginer cette maison. Il faut leur dire: “J’ai vu une maison de cent mille francs.” Alors elles s’écrient: “Comme c’est joli!”

So last weekend I decided to ask newly met people different questions. In particular: “What’s your favorite sound?”

I still remember all the answers I got and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them, ranging from the sound of pouring a wine from a bottle to the purring sound of a cat. I also believe that these answers let me get to people better in 30 seconds than many other standard questions in 30 minutes.

Do you have other good ideas for questions like this? Questions should be non-offensive, not too intrusive, require at least a few seconds of honest thinking and be a pure matter of personal opinion. Hmm, maybe I should even ask people this meta-question: “With which question do you think one can get to know people in an instance?” 🙂

One person almost “scared” me when she replied to the question “What are your passions?” by saying in a somewhat sad voice that she had honestly not thought about this for a long time.

Does a glass bottle have a consciousness? – Of course not.

Does a leaf in the wind have a consciousness? – Of course not.

Does a tree have a consciousness? – Of course not.

Does a bee have a consciousness? – Probably not.

Does a cow have a consciousness? A dog? A monkey? – Hmmm.

Does a computer program which passes the Turing test, i.e., with which you can “talk” just like with any human (so that it will even be able to explain its “feelings” to you) have a consciousness? – Well, people are more inclined to agree that it is “intelligent”, but more hesitant to admit it has a consciousness.

What would an alien from another planet have to do to convince you that it has a consciousness? It might look very different and might even “think” differently. But does that mean it cannot have a consciousness?

When does a person, who is 100% paralyzed, lose his consciousness? Suppose there is no reaction whatsoever to the things in the outside world, does that mean there is no consciousness? What if some brain activity could be measured? What if this activity was lower than “normal”? What would this person need to “do” to prove to you that he still has a consciousness?

Can a machine be “hungry”? What about a simple robot, which moves about in a room and, when its batteries are low, tries to find a power socket. Is it hungry?

I also find the ethical implications interesting. Killing animals is usually considered ok, or at least not a crime (at least if they taste good). Would killing be aliens be considered ok as well? Does consciousness matter for this question?

[If you also find these kind of questions fascinating, check out “The Emperor’s New Mind“.]

If you live abroad for some time then people are occasionally asking “Which language do you dream in?“. But that’s a secondary issue. They should ask “Which dance do your dream in?”.

For me the answer used to be “Salsa.”, but last night I had my first tango dream. I wonder when I’ll have my first multi-dansual dream.

Humans are horrible at “simple arithmetic”. Compared to a computer we just really, really suck when it comes to adding or multiplying large numbers.

But when it comes to understanding language we kick the computer’s ass.

Now I wonder how much re-wiring we could do in our brain if we developed a language built on arithmetic. As I see it, the main reason why we are so good at dealing with language is that we need it to communicate, and that we use it so much in our life. When we are little babies our parents always talk to us, but they don’t compute square roots for us.

What if our language was such that to build a simple sentence you would have to add or multiply numbers. Maybe to ask for the direction to the train station you would have to compute the approximate square root of 1,592. What if we were constantly exposed to arithmetic. How much better would the average person be at multiplying two 4-digit numbers in their head?

Maybe for most purposes and approximation would be good enough, just as there is no “correct” or “wrong” understanding of most sentences. The “understanding” ultimately consists of the associations and the feelings the phrase generates in you. This is also not a “true” or “false” issue. But if the approximation you compute is too far off, then you’d be misunderstood and you would not be asking for the way to the train station, but you’d be explaining that your hovercraft is full of eels. (If you want to know how to say “My hovercraft is full of eels.” in 99 languages, then check out this site.)

I guess pretty much everybody would agree that Germany and Switzerland are both independent countries.

Many people would also agree that the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) is an independent country.

Only few people consider Transnistria as an independent country.

It still remains to be seen who will recognize Kosovo as a country.

[Btw: here‘s a list of unrecognized countries.]

But regardless of any particular incident or concrete example, it’s interesting to try to come up with a definition of a “country”.

If I declare my office as a separate country of which I’m the democratically elected leader, does this change anything? If all of Lausanne declared itself independent of Switzerland and they founded a new country, would this “count” as a country? What if they even had the support of the rest of Switzerland but other nations would still refuse to accept it? What if the richest region of a current country declared itself independent, would this be different than from a scenario where it was the poorest region which wanted to break away? What if the people in a certain region have historically been mistreated by the ruling powers, does this make their claim for independence more justified?

The current definition of a country seems to be rather circular: X is a country, if it is recognized by “enough” important other countries.

So if I could get both George W. Bush (or soon Barack Hussein Obama) and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (or soon Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev) to recognize the status of my office among its equal brothers of countries, then this would give a significant boost to my campaign for independence.

Anyways, all the best to the Kosovo and the whole region. Hopefully, once they are all members of the European Union these national issues will start to matter less.

Oh, and if you want to do me a favor, please add my office (BC 132) to the list of unrecognized countries on the Wikipedia.

That in its own would not seem troubling at first, as the man was just playing his oud as part of an exhibition on Moroccan culture, and not giving a speech.

What troubled me was that I could not really tell whether he was improvising all the time or whether he was playing a classical melody and my ear was just not accustomed to hearing and understanding Moroccan music. What he was playing sounded a bit like this song here (which I found on this site), but without an discernible pauses and with a smaller variety concerning the pitch. But was he playing the exact same sequence of sounds he was playing 30 seconds earlier? I couldn’t tell. So I asked him.

He said that he was actually improvising on classical harmonies (and he played the “scales” for me, which didn’t sound anything like do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do at all). He then went on to play some classical melodies which did sound more “melody” like, but I still could not have repeated (by whistling/humming) anything he was playing. He then said that “usually” there would be a singer and probably a taarja player (see the images here). I would have liked to discuss more but then one of the organizers shooed me away, as the guy was supposed to play his oud and not give lessons about music theory.

Even with a bit of explanation, it is still really, really difficult for me to “understand” this music. Just to quote a bit from the Wikipedia article:

“Morocco is home to Andalusian classical music that is found throughout North Africa. It probably evolved under the Moors in Cordoba, and the Persian-born musician Ziryab is usually credited with its invention. Ziryab invented the nuba, a suite which forms the basis of al-âla, the primary form of Andalusian classical music today, along with Gharnati and Malhun.

There used to be twenty-four nuba linked to each hour of the day, but only four nuba have survived in their entirety, and seven in fragmentary form. An entire nuba can last six or seven hours and are divided into five parts called mizan, each with a corresponding rhythm. The rhythms occur in the following order in a complete nuba:

  1. basît (6/4)
  2. qaum wa nusf (8/4)
  3. darj (4/4)
  4. btâyhi (8/4)
  5. quddâm (3/4 or 6/8)

Each mizan begins with instrumental preludes called either tuashia, m’shaliya or bughya, followed by as many as twenty songs (sana’a) in the entire mizan.”

It’s both fascinating and sad how non-universal music is.


Somewhat unrelated: I knew what an aqueduct was, but I had never heard of a “qanat” (or Khettara) before.

Having a bad day? Then maybe this song will cheer your up:

Ren & Stimpy’s “Happy, happy, joy, joy”

What? Still wearing frown? Well, nothing the Happy Tree Friends couldn’t cure. Just search on youtube for any of their 3 minute cartoons.

Of course, some argue that it’s best not to worry about being happy, as the less you try consciously, the more you might succeed. Philip Hamerton writes in his “The Quest of Happiness”:

“The doubt has often been expressed whether it is of any use to concern ourselves about happiness at all. The less we think about it, the less we consciously aim at it, the more probable it is, according to this view, that we shall attain enough of it for our needs. If this is really the case, happiness must be strangely different from all other objects of human desire. Suppose that the object in view is wealth, or learning, or reputation – does it seem probable, in the nature of things, that a fortune will be made the most surely by the man who never calculates, that scholarship will be attained by an idler who never reads, or that fame will be the reward of the infertile and unproductive intellect? The truth is that those who affirm the uselessness of the pursuit of happiness are generally engaged in following it themselves, but indirectly; and I may be permitted to observe that the directness or indirectness of the road that is taken does not alter the nature or the end.”

Anyways, if you can read German then a sure way to be happy is to look at these images (which are Uli Stein cartoons, not to be confused with Uli Stein).


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