LWR #6

27 December – 2 January

Our brain on art. Noah Charney, Salon. rothko-620x412(image credit: Getty/Daniel Leal-Olivas, taken from the Salon article). Have you ever thought, standing in front of a modern or contemporary art piece, “I could have done it as well”? Have you ever felt like that was not “real” art, to be unable to understand its meaning, value and point altogether? I certainly did. If you did as well, than this article is for you. The author, referring to a book written by neuroscientist Eric Kandel, explains how our inability to appreciate abstract art comes from the fact that it requires a more complex and unusual mental effort. Old Medieval and Renaissance paintings, even though very enigmatic and full of symbols and hidden meanings, depict reality as we know it. The objects and the scenes represented are very similar to what we see around us, thus our brains can follow along well known patterns and draw meaning from the painting. In abstract art though, what we see is very different what we are used to, reality is fragmented, depleted of clear forms and borders, representing mainly concepts and ideas, rather than objects and characters. Though the actual meaning is thus more simple and primordial, our brain needs to do an extra effort, in order to get out of the usual schemes and analyze this new, unknown reality. I don’t know if I will actually make it to look at art in such a way, but I am certainly eager to try. And definitely curious to know more about Kandel and his contribution to art history.

Epictetus. Elif Batuman, The New Yorker. Few practical tips on how stoic philosophy can help us in our everyday life. Very similarly to Yogic philosophers, the stoice Epictetus teaches us that we shouldn’t worry about things that we cannot control and we should consider every negative situation as an opportunity to learn something and to get stronger.

The great A.I. awakening. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, The New York Times Magazine. 18ai-cover2-superjumbo-v4(image by Pablo Delcan, The New York Times Magazine). The story of how Google used machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve its Google Translate service. Long but worth it.

The marvelous Ed Withlock.  Jeré Longman, The New York Times. Meet Ed, the oldest man to have run a marathon in less than 4h (85 years old, Toronto 2016) and the only man above 70 to have run a marathon in less than 3h (73 years old, Toronto 2004).

“Asked why he kept running Withlock candidly said he enjoyed setting records and receiving attention. […] He does not experience a runner’s high, he said, and he does not run for his health. He finds training to be drudgery and even racing brings as much apprehension as joy.”


Loss and technology

Sometime ago I read and article on The Verge, about the story of Eugenia Kuyda, a Russian  developer and start-upper, who created a chat-bot of a deceased friend, Roman Mazurenko.

Roman and Eugenia were very close friends, they met in Moscow in 2008, lived together in San Francisco and collaborated in the creation of various startups and projects. They were both visionaries and very attracted by new technologies and they way they can interact with our life. Roman especially, was a charismatic and bright young men, full of ideas and enthusiasm.

Deeply touched by his death (Roman was hit by a car in Moscow, in 2015), Eugenia decided to create a bot of him, by using 3000 lines of Telegram messages that he had exchanged with her and other friends throughout his life. An algorithm identifies motives and patterns in Roman’s words, and uses them to create a sort of avatar with whom you can exchange messages and chat. The avatar is thus supposed to give you answers and talk the way Roman would have done.

A part from the actual quality of the avatar, and the differences and lacks with respect to the “real” Roman, which are of course huge and unbridgeable, friends and families found a certain degree of solace in the chat-bot and a little help in the mourning process.

This story gave me really a lot to think about. We all leave daily an enormous amount of information online, which will stay there forever, and even without invoking any apocalyptic scenario, the truth is that we do not know where this information will go and what it will be used for. I’ve never really gave much thought about the implications of this with respect to death and mourning. Till 15-20 years ago we had only few pictures (physical pictures, placed in a specific physical space) and maybe an audio or video tape (again stored in an actual object) keeping the trace of a missing loved one. Now we have infinite lines of text, pictures, videos, Facebook or Twitter statements, place visited and so on and so forth. How is this going to change the way we mourn our loved ones? Is it going to help us or is it going to make the process a never ending one? Are we going to get lost in all of this material and loose touch with reality? Can and will it be used to keep a person virtually alive? Can this online-virtual person actually give a correct (even though certainly approximate) representation of the living one?

I have the immense luck of never have experienced the sudden lost of someone close to me. So I know nothing about the feelings and the struggles associated with it. And it would be quite naive of me to even try to answer those questions. What I can say, is that I am a little scared of what will remain of me once i will be gone and what can be done with it, and I am also a little scared to get stuck and trapped in a labyrinth of text and pics, should i loose someone. The future possibilities (what can be built with all this material) are actually unpredictable.

As a society, all of this is still very much a taboo. we do not speak about death and loss. But it is really important to think about it, especially how technology is shaping it, because all of this is already happening and changing our life and the way we process our feelings. And will keep changing in ways we cannot foresee. I do not know if Eugenia’s experiment is good or not, but I do know that we have to think and talk about it, because if for now it is a single episode, it could soon become a commodity without us even realizing it.

I am totally for technology and progress, but I am quite concerned about the way we accept and dive into everything so acritically and recklessly. We should learn to approach technology in a more mindful way, not diffident, but simply keeping our eyes open to what things are doing and will do to our emotional and psychological selves.

LWsR #5

13-26 December

I cannot believe this year is already coming to an end!! On the personal level, I certainly cannot complain. I got my PhD, run 2 marathons, found a new job, explored my creative side (writing, drawing ecc.) and all together been.. well, pretty happy!

Though, my personal life is not that central in the grand scheme of things, and if we look at 2016 on a worldwide scale, we cannot be as positive. Syria, Istanbul, Berlin, Nice, Haiti, Amatrice, Zika, Bowie, Prince …..so on and so forth. 2016 has been a pretty shitty year! The first item of my list is dedicated to this point.

However, life is beautiful. And even in front of all this ugliness (or better, because of all this ugliness) we must always keep it in mind. Art, science, culture and, most of all, the company of all our loved ones, are the perfect cure for this.

John Oliver’s end of the season episode (final song). Love this guy and all the things he says and does.  screenshot-2016-12-28-09-52-53The image  is a snapshot from the youtube video.

Mental time travel. Time travel has been one of mankind’s fascinations since the invention of the printed word, as various movies and books testify. Despite actual travel through time is not possible, we do posses a tool that enables us to achieve a form of it: our mind. Through memories and imagination we can travel to the past and to the future. Considering how our brain works though, it is by using bits of our memories, and most of all the imperfect and incomplete ones, that we are able to project ourselves in the future, so that loss of memory lead to a loss of imagination, and in general to the loss of our innate ability to travel in time.

Opposition to Galileo was scientific. We tend to think about Galileo as the scientist opposing to the religious establishment. While this is partially true, we need not to forget that the establishment was not a purely religious, but rather a scientific one. The main opponent of Galileo’s theory was Locher, a Ptolemaic, who was a big enthusiast of the telescope and used it to demonstrate his theories. Thus the battle was within science. It is quite important to keep it in mind nowadays, where the anti-establishment theorists (anti-vaccine, chemical trails ecc.) challenge scientific beliefs without standing upon any scientific ground.

Lenny interview with Elizabeth Alexander. A black art love story. gallery-1481822499-marion-kadi-elizabeth Image by Marion Kadi from Lennyletter.com. I am definitely going to read this book.

LWR #4

5-12 December

Venus with Biceps. M. Popova’s review of a stunning book dedicated to muscular women. The authors (David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky) collected pictures, images, posters and illustrations of athletes, circus artists and strong women from a time spam of about 200 years. The images and their contextualization testify the socio-cultural perception of strong women and the ambivalence created by the admiration for power and strength together with the fear and reject of a non-standard female representation. Muscularity and strength, usually seen as male prerogatives, coexist with femininity and beauty, challenging standards still widespread today. Though not a big fan of bodybuilding myself, I find not only extremely fascinating to see how this mages have evolved throughout the years, but also timely and imperative in a cultural context that still tend to portray women as quiet and weak. Even though the “strong is the new beautiful” is slowly making its way into pop-culture and media, there is still a long way to go, and the book is definitely food for thought with respect to this !

The silencing of writers in Turkey. Elif Shafak, The New Yorker. How are writers reacting to Erdogan’s repression and censorship?

There seem to me to be four basic responses among Turkish writers to the loss of intellectual and artistic freedom. First, there is depoliticization—voluntary self-censorship. […] Then there is the path of over-intellectualization—a change in style rather than in subject. […] There are also those who will find themselves catapulted into a new public role for which they had not been prepared, having to fight against power, injustice, inequality, oppression. […] The last and fourth path is satire, a sharp, black humor. What better response to the situation than to make fun of authority, and to make fun of a society that so fears its baba—and also to make fun of ourselves, the writers and artists, who are trying to survive by selling our souls a little bit more every day?

The Power of Will. The Boston Globe. Will was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma (a form of cancer) when he was 5 months old. Thanks to the determination of his family (and the families of other children) and a brave and dedicated pediatric oncology Doctor, a potential cure for the disease is discovered and brought through trials, saving the life of Will and the one of tenths of other children. A battle that spaced from the private family sphere, to the market and governmental institutions, a moving example of how  brilliant minds, vision, hope, hard work and, mostly, strong will ,can truly bring change in the world we live in.

Self-respect vs Self-esteem

I recently read a passage from Joan Didion’s essay “On self-respect”:

“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”

The type of self-respect she talks about (or the lack of thereof) really resonated with me. The idea of pleasing other peoples and living shaping myself to others people’s needs is something I have been battling with for a long time, and came to realize only in recent years how exhausting and disrupting this habit is for myself, and my relationships as well.

I have always been thinking that the trait I lacked, or in general, the trait people needed to cultivate and aspire to, was self-esteem. I have never really thought about self-respect, about the true meaning of it, and in general the differences between the two. So after reading this passage, and somehow awakening to the necessity of reconsidering the aim of my quest, I googled around, and found that self-esteem and self-respect are indeed two very different and distinct concepts, and that yes, the answer might be to cultivate the latter, rather than the former.

Within the jungle of articles that populated my google search, nuanced by different terminologies and point of views, the one I find more close to my opinion, is the definition given by Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University:

“Self-respect is not contingent on success because there are always failures to contend with. Neither is it a result of comparing ourselves with others because there is always someone better… People with self-respect are less prone to blame, guilt, regret, lies, secrets and stress.”

“To esteem anything is to evaluate it positively and hold it in high regard, but evaluation gets us into trouble because while we sometimes win, we also sometimes lose. To respect something, on the other hand, is to accept it.”

Basically, self-esteem is a concept connected with the praise of our own achievements and good qualities (some people associate it with pride) mostly in relation with the external world and other people, while self-respect is connected with knowing and accepting ourselves, regardless of how positive our attributes and accomplishment are.

Even though I do not necessary agree with the definition of self-esteem as something filled with pride, narcissism and shallowness, I can clearly see how more complete and good-doing is the self-respect path. It totally exclude the judgments and evaluations that can bring so much pain and trouble, and simply focus on self exploration, on listening and accepting.

….I don’t know, but after reading Didion’s passage, I somehow felt liberated. Self-esteem sounds like such a huge and unattainable concept, while self-respect leaves space for errors, for darkness, for plainness. It’s so much more human.

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”


Image from “The Reconstructionists“, by Lisa Congdon.

The Reconstructionists

Even though I somehow  managed to miss it for about three years, this gem is definitely worth the 2 weeks of TWIL that I skipped.


The reconstructionists is a project by curator and Brain picking founder Maria Popova and illustrator Lisa Congdon, born to celebrate remarkable women across art and science,

“who have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture and live our lives as individuals of any gender”

Every Monday throughout 2013 they published an illustrated portrait+hand lettered quote of one of such brilliant women, followed by a short essay describing her life and work.

The combination of beautiful, colorful drawings with wise and thoughtful words make this entire website an inestimable source of pleasure and inspiration. I encourage you to get lost and marvel through it, maybe with a warm cup of coffee. One of the best ways to spend a cold autumn evening.


15-21 November

Excerpts from Philosophers’ Love Letters, The New Yorker.  A wise, fun and tender collection of citations, exerted from love letters written by various philosophers, from Socrates to Nietszche. Here some of my favourites:

“I can no longer stand the cruel, indifferent silence of the universe. Like, just a response would be nice.” – Albert Camus 

“I must admit, your support for women’s rights is quite arousing. It’s that look in your eyes when you argue that women should be educated. It’s the way your arms tense up when you tell others that we should not be traded as property. It’s that smile. (It’s just nice that you have most of your teeth, honestly.)” – Mary Wollstonecraft

“I hardly know anything about you! Have you always been a midwife? Would you pursue virtue over material wealth? How many siblings do you have? I am ignorant of many things, but I do understand something about the art of love: it’s just asking a lot of questions until the other person is too tired to go on.” – Socrates

The quotes are illustrated by Hallie Bateman, and are part of the collection “Love Voltaire Us Apart: A Philosopher’s Guide to Relationships” by Julia Edeman, which I am definitely going to buy !!!

Post-race recovery yoga. A warm up + restorative poses sequence to help you with the post-race soreness and let you start training for the next race asap !

The Lenny interview to Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is a British-Jamaican writer. She is the author of 5 novels – of which I read Withe Teeth, NW and the Autograph man. While I didn’t really like the latter, I loved the other two and I am now looking forward to read her new one Swing times, together with On beauty.  In the interview she talks about identity, creativity and the interconnection between relationships, motherhood and creativity.

What makes a magnet ? Visualizing the magnetic field. This short video enunciates some of the principles of magnetism and magnetic materials while showing a series of dancing magnets, allowing us to visualize how  a magnetic field actually looks like. Interesting and very entertaining 🙂