Monday, April 23, 2012

The art of letter writing

After Stefan Zweig had fled the Nazis, he established himself in Petrópolis in Brazil. Once he complained against his friend Jules Romain that weeks passed by that he didn’t receive any mail. Gradually Zweig had received less and less mail, which was, so Romain, a way the world told him that he wasn’t important any longer.
In those days letter writing was an important way of communicating and the letters you received said something about your personal network and your importance. You could talk with someone if you met him or her in person. Or maybe you could call him or her, but most people didn’t yet have telephones in those days. When talking or calling was not possible or when you didn’t want to do it for some reason, you wrote a letter. I have no statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if till not so long ago letter writing was the most important form of communication that was not from face to face. It had been for ages so. Letters were used for personal communication or for expressing ideas; or for both, of course. Therefore they often give a good view of the time that they were written. The letters written by the Roman philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero are well-known and still worth to be read, for instance. Letters were such an important way of expression that they had developed also into a special literary genre. Epistolary novels are a case in point.
But nothing is eternal and so the art of letter writing is gradually disappearing. People write fewer and fewer letters. Does this mean that people are less in touch with each other and become more isolated? Just the opposite. Today, maybe Zweig wouldn’t have felt himself so isolated and meaningless in Petrópolis that he committed suicide. New ways of “networking” and keeping contact have come into being. First, letters were more and more replaced by phone calls, and then, it’s superfluous to tell it, we got the Internet with its possibilities to send e-mails and with its social network sites. I can write a lot here about this new way of communication and how it has changed the world, but others can do it (and have already done it) better than I can. Yet, for me receiving an e-mail is not the same as receiving a hand-written letter with a stamp. By saying that, I am a bit a hypocrite. For not only do I write more e-mails than I have written old style letters (“snail mail”) ever before, but I write my “snail mail” only exceptionally by hand. Usually I do it with my computer (and people who know me can assure you that I am still a fervent snail-mailer). But, okay, time doesn’t stop and one has to take the best of both sides.
I value a lot the arrival of e-mail and social network sites (and I have “friends” there, too), so you cannot excuse me of not keeping up with the changes, but like Stefan Zweig I receive fewer and fewer letters, and I miss it a bit. The difference is, of course, that Zweig got nothing instead, while I make full use of the new possibilities of the Internet. But receiving a paper letter with a stamp that falls through your letterbox on the doormat is different from getting an electronic version in your e-mail box. It’s a matter of feeling, but then I must say: for me it feels so. It’s true, snail mail contacts were often flimsy, but many Internet contacts are flimsier to a greater extent. And will e-mails ever be valued that way that they will lead to a new literary genre? A kind of digital epistolary novels? Maybe, although nothing like that is known to me so far (I admit, it can be my failing). Yet a first step in that direction has been taken. For what has been just published in the Netherlands? The Philosophy Twitter Canon: the thought of 43 important philosophers comprised in the 140 characters of a tweet for each thinker. Brilliant briefness or superficiality? There is no way back in time.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Running with my mind? No: watch TV!

Regular readers of my blogs will not have failed to notice that I have just published a book entitled Running with my mind (in Dutch). I took the title of the book from one of my blogs that I wrote about a year ago. There I discussed a study by Yue and Cole that showed that you can train your muscles with your mind: Simply think that you train them and they’ll become stronger. What a handy way of improving and maintaining my physical condition, I thought then, especially when the rain is pouring down or when I don’t have much time to go outdoors. I was so impressed by what you can do with your mind – not only performing purely mental activities but also physical activities – that I borrowed the title of this blog for my book. But now I wonder whether it was a good choice. For I had just sent my book to the publisher, when I read a newspaper report with the title “Not dancer does dance”. The essence of the little article was: People who do not dance themselves but who regularly visit dance performances have increased muscle activity while watching. Which muscles become active depends on the type of dance you are used to see. So regular visitors of Indian dance performances have especially a higher activity of the muscles in their hands while ballet watchers have more activity in their arms. Apparently, so the article, you do not need to be an active dancer for having this experience; you only need to be an experienced dance watcher.
Having read this, I thought: Well, when you activate your muscles, so when you move them, it cannot be so that you only move them and that’s it. There’ll certainly be a training effect. Moreover, it is unlikely that this effect will be restricted to Indian dance and ballet watchers. The effect will probably also occur when you regularly watch other physical activities like football matches, cycle races or athletics meetings. People even say that I tend to move my head from left to right and back when I follow a skating race on TV. When I am watching a sport on TV or live that I practise myself, too, I often have the idea that my body is also in the race. But if it is true that there is a training effect in your muscles when you simply watch your favourite sport, why then yet train your muscles by imitating the movement of the muscles in your mind, when the rain is pouring down and you do not want to go outside, or when you want to save time? There’s a much simpler solution: turn your TV on on a sports sender or take a DVD with your favourite sport. Sit down in your chair and watch. Then you do two things at the same time: both watching the race or match that you wanted to see this afternoon anyway and making yourself physically fitter. Yes, at the same time!
When I chose the title for my book, I took it because for me running with your mind was symbolic for the mind’s multi-sidedness. But since I have read this little article, I wonder whether it was a good choice, for that the mind gives you the possibility to run with it is actually quite a superfluous property. We can do without it. Just loll on the sofa, take a beer, and tune in. Your mind can stay passive, certainly when you compare it with what you have to do when you are running with it.

Monday, April 09, 2012

A new book: Thank you very much my dear readers !

Once the window-cleaner, who came to fill his bucket from the tap in my kitchen, asked me: “What are you doing?”, wanting to know what kind of job I had or something like that. Since I don’t have a steady job, I said: “I have written a book”. It was true, for I had just finished my PhD thesis and it had been published by a big publishing house. “Why then do you live here?”, the window-cleaner asked. I didn’t understand, so he explained what he meant. It became clear to me that he thought that when you publish a book, it brings you a lot of money, so you can buy a big expensive house, instead of the simple one where I live. Writing a book seemed to be same to him as writing a million seller. At that moment I was too baffled to give a good answer to such naivety. Now, fifteen years later, my PhD thesis still hasn’t sold more than about 200 copies.
Recently I had to think again of this story. For again I have written a book and it is a special one, for I owe it to you, my dear readers! About five years ago, I started to write these blogs, and as I have told before, I did it for myself. But, unexpectedly, I was praised for it, and I got a prize. Time went on and I continued to be praised by you, and I received and still receive many positive reactions. Then I got an idea: make a book of these blogs. And so I did. Of course, I didn’t put all my blogs in it. Such a book would be too thick, and some blogs are really not worth to be published anew. Therefore I made a selection of about ninety blogs that I considered good enough for a republication and that had a more or less a common theme. But my blogs were in English, and I am a Dutchman. Moreover, from the reactions I got, I knew that I have hardly any Dutch readers. So, I decided to translate the blogs into my native language, hoping to open up a new field of readers. Then I sent the manuscript to a publishing house, which accepted my idea. I found an intriguing title for my book (in fact, the title of one of the blogs) and I made an attractive  photo for the cover that fits the title. And now, since a few days, the book is off the press.
Although most of you, my dear readers, cannot read this book in Dutch – but you have been so lucky to be able to read the originals already since many years – you are the pillars of my book. You are those who have stimulated me to start and finish my book project, and therefore I want to thank you: Thank you a lot my dear readers for your stimulating reactions.
Will this book make me financially rich? I think it will not. However, I do not care. Even if in the end it will come out that the book has cost me more money than I’ll have earned with it, it has given me a richer mind: My writing has filled my mind with many interesting ideas, consciously and unconsciously, and now I know, for instance, that the mind is a many-sided and almost universal instrument. You can do a lot with it, and it makes you who you are. You can even run with it, as I discovered, a fact that for me symbolizes the mind’s multipurposiveness most.
Henk bij de Weg, Running with my mind. Who am I? What do I do? Zoetermeer: Free Musketeers, 2012 (in Dutch: see the picture and link in the left column here on this page).

Monday, April 02, 2012

Learning Italian by listening to operas

During the years I learned twelve languages. I must admit that I forgot some because I stopped investing time in them for keeping them up. Staying fluent in more than five or six languages is quite an effort, when one hasn’t a natural way to practice them, and when one doesn’t have a special talent for languages. I haven’t such a talent, so learning a language is hard work for me and keeping them up, too. Happily I found ways for daily practice for some languages, like reading or writing for my work, watching foreign news programs (which I find very interesting, for it tells you a lot about other countries), writing letters to people all over the world, and so on.
Once I met a Russian journalist on the Internet who asked me to write an article about how I learned all those languages. Actually learning twelve languages is not really extreme in view of the number of languages that some other people have mastered, but for her it was. Happily, I could write the article in English, for my Russian is not that good that I can use it for more than informal letters and for reading; then the journalist translated it for me (here it is:; sorry for those readers who cannot read Russian). In the article I described my language history and I gave also some tips for learning, like those I just mentioned implicitly. But recently I realized that I forgot one tip. As said, I learned twelve languages through the years, but unknowingly I learned also a thirteenth one: Italian. How did I do it? Simply by following another passion: listening to opera music and going to opera performances. Of course, preferably Italian operas (although I must say that Russian and French etc. operas give me also some practice in these languages). That’s not so difficult for isn’t opera Italian in the first place? And so I learned many Italian words: Andiamo (let’s go; how often do the singers say “andiamo”, when they are going to leave from the scene!); ragazzo and – of course – ragazza (boy, respectively girl); piangi (cry! weep!). And you can even learn to count by listening to opera music. For who doesn’t know how many sweethearts Don Giovanni had in Spain? Exactly: mille tre (1003). And since the Italian grammar is not really difficult, thanks to my love (amore) for music (musica) I can make myself a bit understood in Italian, too. Tutte le strade portano a Roma (all roads lead to Rome).
P.S. A little practice in Italian: