• The Book Thief

    The Book Thief is a story of street games children play, of neighbors, families, wives with caustic reputations, smoking husbands, proud mothers, fathers, and sons. Here and there, it is a story about death, of bombs and sirens, of people running for cover in shelters as they await for what--for death, for the air raid to stop? In the broad daylight and in camps, it is a story of countless nameless faceless...

  • Music and Sincerity

    The story tells of how beautiful art like music and poetry can come out of any given situation by people who love their art. And how through allowing the little artists in us express ourselves, happiness then becomes a little more within our reach.

  • I Know I'll Never Lose Affection

    It’s about how we would casually end up together for no reason at all but for some reason, there was always someone who had a guitar who played it well and there was always someone who knew how to sing well while the rest sang along. It is about the distinctively undoubtedly 100% Pinoy tambay lifestyle we experienced at some early point in our lives that ended too soon.

  • To the Faithful

    Rather a common dream and a continued struggle transform us in increments to become better individuals and a more learned citizenry. More often than not, the solution is just a matter of direction, of patience, of vigilance, of a continued dream and struggle to achieve a common good. This strong belief in the power of the human spirit to choose the moral path is where my faith in the Filipino lies.

  • Conversations with a Physicist over Dinner

    It seemed like it was the simplest, irreducible answer that satisfied the mind's innate yearning for meaning. It seemed verging on the divine too. But when I think about highly ordered systems like ourselves, always the same questions resurface: How does life arise from jostling molecules and how does mind arise from gray matter? How do thoughts, emotions and the sense of good and bad come out stardusts like you and me?

  • On the Road Looking for a Home (Part 5: Back in Munich)

    ...there are worlds to be gained by actively choosing to learn, to struggle, to be alone in an entirely new place whose language you don't even speak. You kind of develop your sense of self even more. You become aware of who you are and who you're not, what you can and cannot do. You realize the most important things to you that it becomes easier to throw away the things that don't matter. Then it all becomes ever simpler. You are at peace at night knowing that everything you ever needed and will need is really already with you. The rest is just noise.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Accidental Universe: A Review (Part 2)

Posted by Angel on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 3:03 AM with No comments
The Symmetrical Universe

This is a personal favorite among the 7 chapters of The Accidental Universe because the subject is close to home. Being exposed to the study of physical sciences for so many years, symmetry unfolded itself naturally in principles, equations, geometry, code, and form. But symmetry is not exclusive to the physical sciences. It's everywhere. It is math. It is art. It is architecture. It is poetry.

Since I was an undergraduate, I found elegance in symmetry. We are compelled to seek symmetry, formulate it and recreate it. But why? There seems to be an unspoken assurance to it. Somehow, symmetry is intuitive and simple but offers profound implications.

Here, Lightman begins with the story of "Higgs boson" and the synthesis of the forces of nature. He ties symmetry with natural selection, the "energy principle", geometry. I enjoyed the story of the perfectly hexagonal honeycombs which I would tell later on to my father-in-law who is fond of bees in his golf course. I realize that for the longest time, I had not relished a story with such childlike fascination as I was reading this chapter.


"Perhaps in asking why the pervasive symmetries in nature are found appealing to the human mind and imitated in our human-made constructions, we are making an erroneous distinction between our minds and the remainder of nature. Perhaps we are all the same stuff. After all, our minds are made of the same atoms and molecules as everything else in nature." 
"Viewed in this way, our human aesthetic is necessarily the aesthetic of nature. Viewed in this way, is nonsensical to ask why we find nature beautiful. Beauty and symmetry and minimum principles are not qualities we ascribe to the cosmos and then marvel at their perfection. They are simply what is, just like the particular arrangement of atoms that make up our minds. We are not observers on the outside looking in. We are on the inside too."

The Gargantuan Universe

Lightman tells that the history of human civilization is measured in terms of the scale of maps produced from an illustration of a plot of land in a clay tablet to distances probed by modern telescopes in deep space. Lightman attempts to paint a picture of the incredible vastness of the observable universe, which to humans seems emotionally remote, even detached. Lightman briefly becomes philosophic as he muses on man's apparent insignificance in the face of infinity.

"...we can conclude that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that exist in living form is something like ... one-millionth of one-billionth of 1 percent. If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to be only an afterthought. And if life emerged by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material were needed for each particle of life. Such findings cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe."


The Lawful Universe

Lightman writes about the deterministic universe contrasting against unpredictable human affairs. The laws of nature governing the physical universe freed humans from the capriciousness of gods during Lucretius' era, satisfying in Lightman's words, a deep emotional need for order and reason. But humans are part and parcel of the physical universe and therefore must be governed by the same laws. While that is so, human behavior is not something that can be calculated to analytically exact or to machine precision like electron spins. Interspersing science with philosophy, the chapter finally drives home the message of human's deep emotional need for freedom.

"I believe that it is bracing and vital to live in a world in which we do not know all the answers. I believe that we are inspired and goaded on by what we don't understand. And I hope that there will always be an edge between the known and the unknown, beyond which lies strangeness and unpredictability and life."

The Disembodied Universe

This last chapter seemed out of place. The rest of the chapters, except for The Spiritual Universe, make the universe the central character and humanity only secondary to the extent of its subjection and reaction to the former, to the extent of how humans grappled with a universe that is accidental, temporal, symmetric and gargantuan. This last chapter is about humans shaping their own personal universes. It is about humans of the information age living disembodied, digitized lives brought about by modern technology.


It's a different theme altogether, I think. A life of relentless media and communications grabbing our attention, disconnecting us from our actual physical surroundings calls for being more present in the moment, to live each transient and serendipitous fluttering of a butterfly's wings. But maybe that is the author's message. Around us is this invisible digital force made of bytes and packets that connects us in an instant but disconnects us in another way and somehow we must learn to live authentic lives, not in spite of, but all the more because of this.

Related reads:

  

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Accidental Universe: A Review (Part 1)

Posted by Angel on Monday, March 2, 2015 6:00 PM with No comments
I read the The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman last year and it was such an insightful read. It is helpful to read the book slowly, not because of scientific jargon as all the relevant science are explained thoroughly. But read the book slowly to let the thoughts simmer in your head and marvel at the universe and our place in it. A similar narrative, that is both instructive and introspective, but has more volume and science involved is the Fire in the Mind by George Johnson.

Throughout the book, Alan Lightman populates each chapter with various schools of thought supporting and contradicting discussions therein. As anyone familiar with Lightman's beautifully written Einstein's Dreams, after finishing the book, the reader is left with a feeling of awe over the richness of the accidental universe.


The Accidental Universe

Here, Lightman provides a very readable historical background of the universe. He examines the nature of the universe, touches on Alan Guth's inflationary Big Bang theory, and the idea of multiverse. He explores Intelligent Design, anthropic principle, fine tuning, dark energy, and string theory.

He builds up the narrative to ask the eternal compelling question about how the random jostling of molecules led to consciousness, that is on one end quantum fluctuations and on the other, life capable of asking questions like:
"...why do these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life? Does the universe care about life?"
The Temporary Universe

This chapter reminds me of the cosmological and psychological arrows of time. Lightman begins by telling the story of his daughter's wedding and how he yearns for the past when she was much younger. This brief encounter with nostalgia allowed him to humanize the second law of thermodynamics.

"Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. It is also called the arrow of time. Oblivious to our human yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, driving itself toward a condition of maximum disorder."

Here, Lightman, the theoretical physicist and writer, is not afraid to be wistful. He is vulnerable, and sentimental when he admits he is not immune to long for the immutable, for immortality despite nature's transient behavior. He verges on the spiritual and ends with a thoughtful note.

"Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporal duration?"


The Spiritual Universe

This chapter is more philosophical. Lightman allows the reader to get a glimpse of his group monthly meetings in MIT with scientists, actors, playwrights. He tells about the persistence of the topic of religion in these meetings despite starting the discussion with something totally random. He explained a working definition of God and quoted summaries of the religious beliefs of some devoutly religious scientists in his circle.

I find it very interesting to see the diversity of notable scientists' religious convictions. Some scientists are expectedly inclined to believe in a Supreme Being that respects the laws of the physical universe, and therefore does not meddle in day-to-day affairs. Whereas, some scientists are perfectly comfortable in a Being performing miracles here and there, disrupting these same immutable laws.

I find myself agreeing very much to Lightman calling out Dawkins for nullifying religion and religious sensibilities. This has been my beef against most of the self-proclaimed atheists I encounter wherein some of my musing spilled over here. While I'm not an atheist like Lightman and know the terrors that took place in the name of religion, I acknowledge the full spectrum of consequences that religion brings which include consolation, grand works of art, great human feats shaped by an unwavering faith in religion, and to use Lightman's words personal transcendent experiences.

At this point, Lightman tells of his transcendent experience with a family of ospreys. He recognizes that science is not exempt from believing without proof on the central doctrine of science. Finally, he ends the chapter leaving the reader with an understanding of his religion and the underlying motivation, the need for distinction between the two realms of universes. But what I like best in this chapter is how he described faith beautifully.

"Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world."



Related reads:

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Reaction to My Feeds: "That Thing Called Tadhana" movie

Posted by Angel on Monday, February 23, 2015 3:07 AM with No comments
I caught the bug all the way in Munich.

It's been all over my feeds that I got curious about it. I have no way to watch it over here. In any case, what got me intrigued is the issue with people pirating the movie and even tagging the actress in social media, and her response.

I would draw the line here. If the film is still showing, it is distasteful to watch a downloaded copy of it, much less tag the actor/s to parade the deed. I don't know if there is an enduring cure to piracy but maybe the problem persists just because there's no better option. And in this particular case, maybe it's the whole local movie-going experience that could not cope with the changing times particularly having the same content available online.

Disclaimer:

I may have gone too far from movie curiosity and actors lashing out at pirates but someday I would like to see the movie experience redesigned. I think we are heading towards an era (if we're not already there) where access to (digital) content gets more and more instant and ubiquitous and thus ordinary. There's Netflix, there's iTunes, there's Hulu, there are DVDs, there's youtube among others. Wait it out a little bit and the movie appears in these, if not there are always torrents.

That should be enough motivation for the local cinema industry to think about how to offer better alternatives. Forget advertisements, that's the reason why people download or in a related way, why people subscribe to Netflix instead of cable. Provide alternatives that will make people toss their pyjamas to put something more appropriate in public because the viewing experience is far better there than watching at home (being lazy mindlessly taking screenshots only to brag in social media and tag the poor actors of the movie). Moviegoers will pay for this experience the way people save up for a coveted new release of iPhone.

What if movie experience in theaters could be improved to make people say it's worth queueing long lines, finding parking spaces in crowded parking areas and braving the traffic for? I have lived in Manila all my life and I would always forgo a 2-hour movie event/date if it means commuting hell afterwards.

But aren't movie theaters around long enough (a century?) to know what should work for the evolving film-goer? Besides providing Dolby surround sound system and 3D glasses, shouldn't they compete with providing the comfy experience of watching a movie in one's home theaters (whether that involves only a computer or the whole spectrum of fancy acoustic walls) in one's pyjamas munching on microwaved popcorns while snuggled up with loved ones.

Ultimately, I think it's the movie experience that they should sell. What if they can tailor the atmosphere so that it's more conducive to the movie's theme? Something that they won't get out of home theaters. How can moviegoers walk away with a feeling of satisfaction for the time and money they paid to see a movie? Can the industry rethink the way they issue film licenses for public viewing?

Or maybe it's another market altogether. Instead of the usual giant malls in the country housing cinemas that exclusively show the films, allow smaller movie theaters to operate, even ad-hoc ones. Limiting audience numbers give out a feel of exclusivity, plus shorter queues. Maybe it's a stretch but allow for reservations and design flexibility so seats can be rearranged accordingly to guests (as a group or couple). Because there must be a social component to the experience otherwise we would prefer watching it separately in our homes.

Offering better snack options other than popcorn and nachos could be a bit more involved especially if it's just a small cinema but still would be a plus. Or make the movie going experience more engaging. I am reminded of a museum in Oahu where short documentaries are shown in parallel with others in smaller rooms but the main shows have their own big special room.

Providing film goers more autonomy for which movie trailers to preview would be nice. This would be like having smaller walk-in stand-only rooms dedicated to trailers of upcoming movies based on genres instead of showing the whole mass of people the same set of 10-minute trailers of coming soon and next attractions. The moviegoer can select according to taste or skip the previews altogether and quietly wait at the big screen until showtime.

And if current movies are not palatable enough, what if the whole small cinema can be booked for on-demand public film showing, provided of course they get enough audience. So whlie at that, like conference rooms, make cinema dimensions resizable to accommodate different audience participation and scenarios. The problem with this though is efficient sound-proofing but maybe headphones are a small price to pay for the moment.

On another note, actors in pirated movies should not despair because if people really loved their movies and their performance, there's no stopping fans and enthusiasts buying DVDs of the actors' movies and future ones and/or watching it in the big screen. They will be talked about a lot in social media increasing the movie's popularity and fanbase and it will spread like wildfire just like how this news got to me. Case in point here.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A tribute to music back home

Posted by Angel on Saturday, January 31, 2015 10:39 PM with No comments
In our Munich wedding celebration last September, the present our families and friends gave to us was funds for a piano represented by a pretty heart-shaped red cardboard with a toy piano and the newly wedded couple dolls, brought to us by my brother-in-law and his family. Everybody thought it was sweet and very cute.



We looked through music stores around town and decided on a Yamaha Clavinova which I played right away after delivery. My experience tells me so because I had a Yamaha Clavinova in my home in Manila which was great. I sold it to a friend when I moved here. I'm not a professional musician obviously. I just had a history of learning and playing when I was a small girl. Over time, I stopped taking lessons and just played by ear.

I loved the recording capability the new Clavinova bought so I can hear again the things I played off of my head (in Tagalog, "kapa") without remaking it from the hazy memory of that moment when a burst of inspiration would send me off scurrying to do some elementary arrangement.



This recording was inspired by a nostalgia for OPM. It reminds me of quiet tropical nights in the province with kuliglig in the background and the soothing strumming of an acoustic guitar. The cover photo of the recording below was taken by my colleague where we had the Filipino-themed wedding. I called it Lullaby, well because it sounds like something you could sleep with on rainy nights.





Finally, because of the impending Manila wedding last month which gave me the excuse to look for strings quartet to hire to play for the event, I thought I'd improvise a heartfelt OPM song. Please excuse that it was not perfectly done. I had several pauses and whatnot.



I hope to remember how to play the things I used to play by ear and maybe, just maybe I can record them. Which brings me to experimenting with score sheets creation such as MuseScore. It's promising and the issue that I am dealing with is splitting the staff but that's a detail.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The road less traveled is an enchanting walk

Posted by Angel on Friday, January 30, 2015 11:00 PM with No comments
It's 11 on a Friday night and I'm supposed to be studying for exams. But I thought I'd take some time out to recall how it all started. After all it's a new month of a new year and it would be nice to do a lookback of the year (or so) that was.

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Over sixteen months ago, I would never have imagined my life now. It all started with discontent. But let me be clear that even then I knew I had everything to be grateful for so much that sometimes I ignored that there was a problem. Because despite everything, there was something else lacking, something essential. I guess that was the point when I asked myself, is this all there is to it? How vain could life be? In 2012, that got documented here in a very critical tone.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. - Henry David Thoreau 

My life revolved around my job as a corporate employee for 10 years. It was a fulfilling job. Very much so. Overall it was a good life running for many years until a certain point when it became good, but not very well lived. You see, there is a difference. Towards the last couple of years in my home country's financial district, my routine involved accumulating stuff, a compulsive gym schedule and living for the next well-deserved travel when time permits. Plus an eternity of inescapable pointless metropolis chatter. Is this the coveted empty lifestyle of the young urban professional?

Discontent ensues. Did I just buy into that performance review? Do I want to have a family someday? There were times when it became paralyzing, I wouldn't get out of bed. Skipping work, I couldn't do anything except think and starve myself. I would get over this after a few days. But then it resurfaces. It was like this with each year getting more intense than the last. What is this pervading busyness about? What is this endless pursuit for?

Lee Stringer wrote in his essay “Fading to Gray”:

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.

I thought I'd set out to do something meaningful not for anyone but for myself. Devoid of society's expectation and that pressure to climb through the questionable ladder of success, secretly, I planned on going on a one-year break, perhaps a sabbatical to volunteer. I thought about getting lost in travels to gain perspective. I applied for studies abroad for personal growth. I brainstormed on possible "soulful" startups I could do to create a difference. I searched for people and met them in ad-hoc lectures.

Then Munich called.

Still, I carried all the questions. Over time, I discovered even more and tried to answer them. It wasn't easy. Most of the time, I had to accept that there were no answers and that I just had to navigate through the confusion as gracefully as I can. In my wanderings, I came across the words of Rilke and found solace in them:

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Truth is answering to Munich was the best and preferred option there was. It was a year or so in the making. Back then, I built some kind of structured decision-making tool to get me through this uncertain phase and documented here. I was amazed at how effective the exercise was. It forced me to examine my motivations. I made weighted scores of alternative paths and addressed possible false assumptions and biases.

In the end, I'm grateful I went through the trouble of serious scrutiny, of allowing to be truly honest with myself. And as I did it, I was acutely aware of the privilege to have existentialist questions to guide me when in other parts of the world, people couldn't care less about options because they have to attend to the business of basic survival. Now, I am living what I had set out to do in paper. And over a year into it, that gnawing discontent had been waning.

How about we get back the time we lost? From countless hours we sat in meetings and conferences? From hours wasted in traffic? From long queues to the cashier to pay for the stuff we accumulate? How about we stop rushing and live now deliberately? And love like we never did before?

Then there were all the additional wonderful things that this opportunity offered me such as, well, unexpectedly getting married (and still happy about it--this has always been a private joke between us and friends asking about us). It was again, a kind of silent gratitude, an affirmation to life.

Of course it came with a price. And tradeoffs. All that was familiar and comfortable is gone which gives way to settling into a new kind of familiarity and comfort. Much is unsaid and people who did it can attest that uprooting oneself from one's country and settling down in an entirely new culture with an entirely new language and an entirely new climate 6 thousand miles away from what has long been considered home is not a smooth cruise.

But for all the trouble and anxiety it caused, I would do this all over again if I had to. After all, leaving everything behind taught me to deal with uncertainty. It was liberating to somehow get away from social constructs I grew up with. And perhaps not surprisingly, it showed me that it is still allowed to live with much, much less--ornaments, titles, noise and whatnot that I was happier for it. But it is an evolving practice to live quietly and simply in every sense of the word, to subscribe to universal economy, to say only what we have to, to own only what we need, to do only what is necessary in a given time.

Alan Lightman in The Accidental Universe wrote:
Beauty and symmetry and minimum principles are not qualities we ascribe to the cosmos and then marvel at in their perfection. They are simply what is... Symmetry is also economy. Symmetry is simplicity. Symmetry is elegance.

And what if from the beginning, I had instead ignored the recurrent discontent? It seemed easier to stay with the status quo, to sink even more snugly in the comfort zone. It is understandable. After all, what's there to change when it already is a good life? The truth is it it doesn't hurt if you try to make it better, and to define better in your own terms. At hindsight, longstanding recurrent discontent to me enables us to what Lee Stringer said it best: attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.

I took the road less traveled and it is an enchanting walk.

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Photos taken from Nymphenburg castle grounds
Credits to brainpickings.org, which I read many articles from, for some of the quotes