Paweł Kuczyński

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After almost a year away from this blog, I come back to share some amazing pieces of satire by the Polish artist Paweł Kuczyński. Enjoy!

For more of his work, click here. And a big thank you to Lukas Rybensen for correcting (quite obnoxiously =P) the way I spelt Mr Pawel’s name.

Javier Adúriz

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Javier Adúriz

(April 16th, 1948 – April 21st, 2011)

There are certain people who define a turning point in our lives. People who change the way we see the world, who help us discover new ways of thinking. Javier Adúriz was one of those people. I was fortunate enough to have him as Literature professor for the last two years of high school. He introduced me to Jorge Luis Borges, Enrique Banchs, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Homer, William Shakespeare, Sophocles, Henrik Ibsen, Roberto Cossa… but most importantly, he taught me to appreciate beauty. His passion for Literature was contagious, and the love with which he prepared his lessons made every single one of them memorable.

To him, I could only say “Thank you”, with all my heart. He will never be forgotten.

For those of you who understand Spanish, here are some of his works:

“Esto es así”

“Más allá del amor no hay nada”

“La literatura no tiene moral” (Fragmentos de una conferencia pronunciada en el taller Macedonio Fernández)

Entrevista a Javier Adúriz

On education and creativity

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Dedicated to Ignacio, who inspired this post over a six-hour long conversation and a Gancia Batido.

The first thing that I want to do is issue a warning: I AM A COMPLETE IGNORANT REGARDING CREATIVITY AND EDUCATION. Therefore, instead of forcing a bunch of clueless ramblings on you, I will tackle both issues through Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?”

Allow me to take a little detour. A few months ago I stumbled upon a paper by Paul Lockhart entitled “A Mathematician’s Lament”. In it, he provides a beautiful definition of Math:

“To do Mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture; intuition and inspiration; to be in a state of confusion – not because it makes no sense to you, but because you gave it sense and you still don’t understand what your creation is up to; to have a breathtaking idea; to be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty; to be alive, damn it.”

What Lockhart laments is that what is being taught under that name in schools is just an empty carcass, consisting only in “the accurate yet mindless manipulation of facts.” The problem seems to be rooted in a cultural perception, by which the creative nature of Mathematics is dismissed in the face of its evidently useful applications. As a consequence, teaching has been degraded to the imparting of systematized data that doesn’t hold its ground on account of its mathematical relevance, but on the ease with which it can be incorporated into standardized tests. Anything outside the standard is considered wrong, thus creating a set of values that equates success with the ability to follow directions.

So, going back to Sir Ken Robinson’s question: Do schools kill creativity? I think that Lockhart is quite clear when he says: “There is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest on a subject than to make it a mandatory part of school curriculum. Include it as a major component of standardized testing and you virtually guarantee that the education establishment will suck the life out of it.”

As the link between Robinson’s talk and Lockhart’s paper has by now become obvious, I’d like to contrast and compare some of their ideas. In order to avoid making this post overly confusing, I’ll structure the exposition around two of Robinson’s arguments: (a) There’s a universal hierarchy of subjects that defines relevance as useful for work, and (b) Intelligence is measured by academic ability.

Sir Ken points out that traveling around the world he was struck by the realization that schools share a very similar curriculum “everywhere on Earth.” There’s a universal hierarchy of subjects, where “the most useful subjects for work are at the top.” Namely, Mathematics and Languages, then the Humanities, and at the bottom the Arts. Consequently, any talent a person might posses outside this given paradigm is not considered as such, and is probably repressed in order to favor what’s been established as “useful”.

I find this argument interesting, and I could agree with the fact that in the unpredictable world we live in (and the even more unforeseeable future children will grow up to face) it’s absurd to base our education system on a frail notion of what will be useful in say, twenty years. However, I think that it implies the perception of Mathematics as a tool that Lockhart so vigorously opposes. In other words, what Sir Ken criticizes is the existence of said hierarchy, but seems to be OK with the idea that practical applications are what Math is all about. And yet, as we’ve seen from Lockhart, there is so much more to it than that! In his own words: “Music can lead armies into battle, but that’s not why people write symphonies. Michelangelo decorated a ceiling, but I’m sure he had loftier things on his mind.” As a matter of fact, Lockhart concludes that Math would be better off being shunned by school curriculum in the way the Arts are, because then “at least some people might have a chance to discover something beautiful on their own.”

To sum up, even though I agree with Robinson on the idea that a more diverse curriculum would be beneficial, I think that there’s a more pressing problem: what we choose to teach of the subjects we do teach. Education should open our minds to deeper dimensions of beauty, not insert us in the labor market. I think that Lockhart brings this point home showing that there is no more relevant reason why Mathematics is important than the fact that it’s “a meaningful human experience.” And the same can be said about any subject we decide to invest our time studying. There is a beauty in knowledge that is enough in itself. There is a happiness that comes from thinking about the world, from whichever angle one might choose, that needs no further justification.

The second contention I’m going to deal with is that intelligence is mostly defined as academic ability. Sir Ken brilliantly points out that “the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized.”

Again, I agree with him, but Lockhart pushes the argument even further, because not only does he question our view of intelligence, he casts doubt on the concept of academic ability itself.

What I gather from Robinson is that academic ability means being good at academic subjects, but intelligence is much broader because it’s diverse. So the problem would be that both concepts are equated when they clearly shouldn’t. Lockhart, on the other hand, claims that the reduction of Mathematics to “a set of facts to be memorized and procedures to be followed” brings about two devastating consequences: First, that creative people with the potential to become gifted mathematicians never develop their capacities because their natural interest is buried under the load of standardized data and tests; and second, that those whom we consider to be academic successes in school are those who can follow directions and more easily adapt to standards. Therefore, some people will never know how talented they are because their creativity was smothered at a young age, while others will discover as grown ups that the talent they always thought they possessed isn’t really there. Honestly, I don’t know which is worse.

In the end, defining intelligence as academic ability is not only wrong because it arbitrarily narrows the concept down, but also because our idea of academic ability should be held up for revision. According to Lockhart, students “are being trained to ape arguments, not to intend them.” Are we sure that that’s the kind of approach to knowledge that we want to keep rewarding?

Finally, I’d like to end this post with a personal observation. Juan Carlos De Pablo, my Introduction to Economics professor, defines himself as “serious but never solemn.” I love that. And I think that the same can be said about Robinson and Lockhart: they don’t need to strike a solemn pose in order to talk about serious issues. I find that refreshing after attending conferences that looked a bit too much like Mass. So, that’s another thing I think children should be taught in school: solemn does not mean serious, and poses can never take the place of content.

Back, at random

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I know that what I’m about to say is neither new nor revolutionary. Utterly uninteresting would be a quite accurate description, as a matter of fact. But when the realization of this insignificant detail dawned on me today, my heart skipped a few beats. So, without further ado, my triviality in all its splendour: It’s been over a month since I last posted here!

Devastating, the speed of time, isn’t it? “The river, the image of your life and my life, that lazily rushes by”, wrote Borges in Rubaíyát (the original is in Spanish: “el río la huidiza imagen de tu vida y de mi vida que lentamente se nos va de prisa”). I must admit, though, that a lot of things have been going on in my world lately, and that would partially explain why the tick of the clock has accelerated so much in my perception. Hence, I’ll go over some of them in this post, as a way of putting my ideas in a certain order and letting you, my few but faithful readers, in on what’s occupying my mind, time and energy.

I arrived in Buenos Aires on July 10th, and things were looking up for me. I celebrated my birthday, got a call from Armando Ribas (yes, the same guy from this post) telling me he had a job offer, met some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time… Most of all, I was enjoying the fact that I was back home and that my holidays had begun. Unfortunately, the “homecoming bliss” didn’t last for long. On July 15th my grandmother had a cerebrovascular accident. Hospitalization, the intensive care unit, her memory loss. As usual, my family relied on me to “rise up to the occasion” and “be strong for everyone”. I couldn’t. The feeling of letting everyone down and the knowledge that the situation was escaping my grasp were too much to handle. And then I got an email from my brother, inviting me to visit him in Texas for two weeks. Three days later, I landed on Fort Worth International Airport.

Maybe it’s because my brother isn’t exactly what one would define as “outgoing”, or because it was summer and everyone had gone to cities near the beach, but the thing is that Plano turned out to be very boring. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that it was the place that inspired Badfinger’s “No matter what”: “Nothing to say, nothing to see, nothing to do”. Ironically, that “nothingness” was what I needed to reconnect with my brother. Moreover, it provided the perfect context for me to devote myself to one of my greatest pleasures: reading. I took with me Conrad Hilton’s autobiography, “Be my guest” (about which I’ll be posting later on), and then bought four Terry Pratchett Discworld novels (“Thief of time”, “Interesting times”, “Carpe Jugulum” and “Making money”) and “A conflict of visions: Ideological origins of political struggles” by Thomas Sowell. As if this was not enough, my brother gave me an e-book reader.

As a consequence of all this reading, lots of ideas started to sprout in my brain. The one that has already become a reality is my tumblr account. It was inspired by a sentence I read in “Thief of time”: “Against one perfect moment, the centuries beat in vain.” I just loved the idea that perfection can be reduced to a moment in time. It could only last for a few seconds, but that evanescence doesn’t make it any less perfect. Ephemeral as it may be compared to the centuries gone before it and the centuries to come after, its relevance by far surpasses their span. Thus, “Lausen” (as my tumblr was creatively named) is a place where I post daily what I think makes a perfect moment: something I read, a song I heard, a conversation with a friend, a comic strip, a video, etc. The only way in which I participate in the content there is by choosing what I post, but otherwise, don’t expect any personal reflection. Furthermore, the language used depends upon what made my “perfect moment” on a given day, so you’ll find material in both English and Spanish.

The third day of August found me back in Buenos Aires, with my energies renewed. As soon as I got home, I set up a meeting with Mr Ribas to see what his offer was all about. It turns out that he is running a publication on Argentinean Economics, and he wants me to write a few articles for it. Even more, he gave me two extremely wide subjects to write about, and asked me to do what I please with them. I don’t have to tell you that I felt like a kid in a candy store, and that I jumped at the opportunity to work in such an exciting project with him. I had to get the scheme of work for my first paper ready by yesterday, and my boss seemed to be very pleased with what I did. My second deadline is tomorrow, so I’ll be typing against the clock today. But I’m very happy and highly motivated, so I don’t mind the effort. Plus, as my insomnia seems to be here to stay, it will give me something to do while everyone else sleeps.

There’s another project that I had been working on for about a year and that I had to drop when I went to Barcelona, due to a lack of time to pursue it properly. But now that I’m back, I took it up again: I’m proofreading a novel! Robert Girandola, an amazing artist, scientist and now writer, whom I love very much, has honoured me with the task of commenting on his first novel. This activity has brought nothing but inspiration, happiness and beauty to my world. There is nothing surprising about this, though, because that’s what Robert has meant to me since the day I met him, almost two years ago.

As to my own writing, apart from the articles that I have to submit to Ribas, I’m working on a paper dealing with the theory of capital. I find that it’s a whole world in Economic theory that got tossed aside, but that has a lot of areas crying for further development. The authors that I’m analyzing at the moment are Karl Marx, David Ricardo, Eugen Böhm-Bawerk, Knut Wicksell, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig Lachmann. Most probably I’ll be posting about them, because writing about what I’m thinking helps me understand my ideas better. If anyone out there has any material to add, please feel free to comment, send an email or tweet it to me. I’ll be more than grateful!

Some more random activities:

  • I want to revive my first blog, The Forgotten Man (which, despite its name, I write in Spanish), but I want to give a different spin to it. The posts there were born out of frustration and anger towards a political reality that I thought would never change. Today, I don’t know if I’m more mature, but I do approach these issues differently. I want that blog to provide a constructive view, even though I still disagree with the way politics are handled in Argentina.
  • Another past love that I’m picking up again is music: I found my old guitar scores and I’m practicing everyday, in order to get my technique back. Up until now, I’ve been able to make the bouree from Bach’s Suite No. 1 for lute almost recognizable. It’s not much, I know, but this is a process that requires one baby step at a time. Or at least, that’s what I want to believe :P
  • Finally, my interest in hotels has not waned, so I’m also evaluating some offers I got for the summer in the coast, and getting in contact with international consulting groups that have offices in Argentina, to see what opportunities may arise.

And this is basically it. Adding to these projects the fact that I have a social life, completes the picture of why time flew by without me posting anything. But I don’t want to leave another long gap between posts, so I’ll try to write something at least every two weeks.

One last thing: Congratulations on making it this far! I promise to keep it shorter next time. And thanks for reading ;)

Two English Poems

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Two English Poems
Jorge Luis Borges

I

The useless dawn finds me in a deserted streetcorner; I
have outlived the night.
Nights are proud waves: darkblue topheavy waves laden
with all hues of deep spoil, laden with things unlikely
and desirable.
Nights have a habit of mysterious gifts and refusals, of
things half given away, half withheld, of joys with a
dark hemisphere. Nights act that way, I tell you.
The surge, that night, left me the customary shreds and
odd ends: some hated friends to chat with, music for
dreams, and the smoking of bitter ashes. The things
my hungry heart has no use for.
The big wave brought you.
Words, any words, your laughter; and you so lazily and
incessantly beautiful. We talked and you have forgotten the words.
The shattering dawn finds me in a deserted street of my
city.
Your profile turned away, the sounds that go to make your name, the lilt of your
laughter; these are illustrious
toys you have left me.
I turn them over in the dawn, I lose them, I find them; I tell them to the few stray dogs
and to the few stray
stars of the dawn.
Your dark rich life…
I must get at you, somehow: I put away those illustrious
toys you have left me, I want your hidden look, your
real smile -that lonely, mocking smile your cool mirror
knows.

II

What can I hold you with?
I offer you lean streets, desperate sunsets, the moon of
the jagged suburbs.
I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked long
and long at the lonely moon.
I offer you my ancestors, my dead men, the ghosts that
living men have honoured in bronze: my father’s father
killed in the frontier of Buenos Aires, two bullets
through his lungs, bearded an dead, wrapped by his
soldiers in the hide of a cow; my mother’s grandfather
-just twentyfour- heading a charge of three hundred
men in Peru, now ghosts on vanished horses.
I offer you whatever insight my books may hold,
whatever manliness or humour my life.
I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never been loyal.
I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow
-the central heart that deals not in words, traffics
not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by
adversities.
I offer you the memory of a yellow rose seen at sunset,
years before you were born.
I offer you explanations of yourself, theories about yourself,
authentic and surprising news of yourself.
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of
my heart; I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty,
with danger, with defeat.