The Bodleian Library is Oxford’s copyright library and it recently opened up a new underground area connecting the Rad Cam and the Old Bod. Down there there is a “personal development collection” someone has donated and the books are loanable, unlike all the other books in the library which must remain within the building.
I wanted one of these books, The Mindful Way Through Depression, which is a book about mindfulness and which I am told by the person who told me about it that it’s not at all about depression and the title is just a selling point, and that it’s a book everyone can get something out of.
So I headed down and the librarian who helped me was very excited, saying that this is the first ever loan since the new room only opened last night, and he said that this book (which he had read) was a great one to be starting with. And with that I became the first ever person to have a book loaned to them by the Bodleian Library in all the hundreds of years it has existed. Much congratulations from the librarians.
Despite the fact that the freshers’ bop will be ongoing, freshers’ week finishes at midnight tonight and it’ll have been my third. I’m living back in college, two years worth of older friends have now left, and aside from a few fourth years I’m one of the eldest and supposedly wisest here. It’s been a really fun week. I was pretty involved in running stuff as a JCR committee member, but compared to last year it felt like there was less to do and the freshers seemed to take care of themselves. This could be seen on the first afternoon where they were all over the grass in the hot sun, and also how non-clubbing events got cancelled because there was no-one there. Now this means that either all the freshers go clubbing a lot, which is perhaps a little sad due to a lack of variety, or the non-clubbers were hiding away in their rooms, which would be really bad but not really our responsibility, or alternatively they were doing their own thing which would be cool. Regardless this felt hands-off in the same way.
I’ve been gripped with a particular worry this week, though, which has led to an interesting situation: I’ve been using social activities to distract myself from thinking because when alone and thinking I’m ending up sad, and it’s a relief to meet new people and chatter away to those I already know. This is not something I have ever done before, and there’s a lot of things to say about it in itself. Firstly it reflects how when in Oxford I always want to be doing: either doing social activities, working or reading or something but I never want to just be floating. This is the most amazing thing and I love it. Secondly I’ve observed a new relationship to people in my own year group: we’re just a tiny bit closer, all of us collectively, since we’re up here at the top. This is nice. We’re all back in college and maybe we’re all just desperate to get as much out of the final year as possible, so we’re being more friendly, or realising that actually our own year is cool now we’ve built up lots of little bits of knowledge about them. I mean I will never have the super-tight, moderately cliquey friendships most people have some of their own year. I’m not talking about that: the weaker friendships have strengthened between all of us I think.
The worry then has been what I can best describe as worrying about my popularity. Not something I have ever ever worried about before and something that I initially thought it doesn’t make sense to worry about because it’s not necessarily a good thing, and regardless it can’t be aimed for: if you set out to “be popular” you probably won’t achieve your goal and will probably realise you were going in the wrong direction anyway. But after talking to someone about this I’ve realised it’s basically to do with having two years’ worth of friends leave and being concerned about being lonely this year. And this is fine. When I actually did try to do some work earlier this week (a goal long since abandoned until term starts tomorrow), this worrying was really getting in my way. ‘Intrusive thoughts’, I think it’s called: one feels like this needs worrying about now because something needs to be done but of course there is nothing to be done.
This reminded me of a book that that counsellor I was seeing last year recommended to me on mindfulness, The Mindful Way Through Depression. It’s not really about depression, and the title is just a selling point as unfortunately it’s categorised as a self-help book rather than a psychology textbook and they want to make it sell. While some parts read like a self-help book, it’s massively more academic in its outlook and approach. I searched it up and the university finally has a copy so I took it out and I’ve started reading, and it’s feeling too good to be true in all honesty: the diagnosis is basically exactly what I go through (albeit my experience is much, much milder, as the book uses people who are depressed as its examples). Paragraph after paragraph I’m either agreeing, or hearing echoes of both the counsellor and my philosophy tutor on his bench, and agreeing with them now that what they’ve said has been made more concrete for me. And then I start linking other problems in my life into all this. The book is convincing me that its (secular) meditative techniques will sort out my life for me. So my well-worn scepticism kicks in, as it should, and I’m trying to remain critical. But it does fill me with a great deal of hope. When I understand more about what’s going on in the book I’ll try and put it down in my own terms on here. Tutor says “welcome to humanity Sean”, saying that the reason it fits to closely is that everyone does this stuff.
One example of this, though, is my changed attitude (already) to the above worry: if I’ve written that paragraph four days ago, it’d be very different. I’m accepting of the worry, rather than merely infuriated. This is important.
The other night when I’d finished reading a section and had these sorts of thoughts, I got some serenity, and everything was fine, indeed, everything was great (so I e-mailed the friend I always e-mail when I’m like that). Then I thought: is this my life now, bouncing between being okay (for example last few weeks at home doing philosophy, playing StarCraft and avoiding Maths), being massively existentially critical, and occasionally getting at the serenity that’s all I really want? This is probably good enough for now. But I’m not sure it’s something I want to spend the rest of my life doing. Maybe it’s just required as a philosophy-type.
One thing that made me think that my own year group and I were getting closer was one of them successfully attempting to drag me out to a club on Wednesday; they wouldn’t have tried and I wouldn’t have gone in the past, I suspect. This was in fact the first time I’ve been to a club in Oxford, having been once to one in Sheffield. I had a good time, and also observed something interesting about the people in my year for whom this is the part of their lives they enjoy the most. There were a number of people in my year I’ve never had a non-functional conversation with who came alive with friendliness and warmth out there, not because I was there for once but just because that is their place; when not there, when walking around college where I’m cheery and happy and whatever, they’re really not. Obviously this is an over-exaggeration of the difference. But I felt really sorry for them, and how limited in their enjoyments they seemed to be. Fun requires alcohol, apparently, or at least loud music. Those things can be fun but there are so many things in day to day life in an Oxford college that are a lot of fun too, and it’s a great shame they outwardly seem to be missing out on those.
Shortly time for the freshers’ bop which I am looking forward to because I’ll be seeing a few fourth year friends who haven’t really been around much this week. Unfortunately DJ Quorum (me) won’t be doing a set, despite several requests, but hopefully I’ll be able to do one later in term and enjoy Ali’s 80s dance music instead. The theme is ‘under the sea’ but while I like seeing everyone in fancy dress I hate making a costume so I’ve managed to come up with the minimal-effort ‘seaweed’, which will consist of strips of crepe paper stapled all over my clothes.
Freshers’ bop last night ended up very badly organised. First DJ was relying on Spotify (I mean come on) which went down, so she moved to using YouTube to play songs. Stay classy, Balliol. At this point I went and got my laptop from the library and played out some tunes for half an hour or so, which was v amusing as I have no mixing software on my laptop atm. So it involved mpd, mplayer and at one point while everyone was drunkenly dancing around I was standing there reading the mplayer man page to find out how to change the volume to try and ‘mix’ two tracks together. Unfortunately my ALSA is set up badly so both mpd and mplayer were on the same volume meter, making this impossible. So pro.
Anyway while I was playing these random tracks I realised that I wanted to be able to change the speed, fiddle with the treble/mid/bass and generally mess around with the sound to fit what was going on. I realised then just how hard it is to DJ in the sense of choosing tracks and modifying them, rather than technical skills like beat-matching. So I can learn a bit and have fun doing so without committing myself to massive skills I’ll probably have no use for once I leave Balliol (and don’t really have much interest in).
Many new posts dated back into the past fortnight or so have just
appeared because my blog has been broken for that time. Rather, the
method I use to publish it through Emacs was broken, because TRAMP
doesn’t like one or more of the following
set completion-ignore-case on set completion-prefix-display-length 2 Control-j: menu-complete Control-k: menu-complete-backward set show-all-if-ambiguous on set show-all-if-unmodified on set completion-map-case on
which I first discussed here. Many thanks to Michael Albinus on the TRAMP mailing list for help diagnosing this.
The full-strength doctrine carries not only the implication that non-empirical knowledge can exist but also, unfortunately, that empirical knowledge cannot exist. This latter thesis could be sugar-coated with the plea that since Plato is willing to admit what we call ‘empirical knowledge’ under the name of ‘true belief’, nothing is changed except the name. … In refusing the term ‘knowledge’ to propositions of ordinary experience and of the observational sciences Plato is downgrading quite deliberately those truth-seeking and truth-grounding procedures which cannot be assimilated to deductive reasoning and cannot yield formal certainty; and this has enormous implications, theoretical, and also practical ones, as can be seen in the exclusion of disciplines like medicine, biology, and history from the curriculum of higher learning in the Republic. —G. Vlastos, ‘Anamnesis in the Meno’ in Plato’s Meno in Focus (ed. J.M. Day) (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 101–2
Fire alarm this morning, I was in the shower, so had to walk across two quads to the assembly point in just a towel, ouch my feet.
For Plato an important, perhaps man’s most important, intellectual task was to distinguish appearance from reality. It is a task required not only of the contemplative philosopher or scientist but, even more, of the man of action, in particular the administrator or ruler, who has to find his bearings in the world of appearance and who must know what is the case, what can be done, and what ought to be done. To achieve order, theoretical or practical, in the world of appearances, which is always changing, we must know the reality, which never changes. Only in so far as we know that, can we understand and dominate the world of appearance around us. (S. Körner, The Philosophy of Mathematics: An Introductory Essay (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1960), p. 14)
It’s the end of 1st week and the freshers are shaking with exhaustion and I’m figuring out how with a kind of kind curiosity how I’m going to do this term. My plan to work 9–6 each day is proving to be untenable because I actually need to work 9am–10pm in order to get everything done. This realisation deflated me and has left me doing rather less than either of these timings, unsurprisingly, and so things are beginning to mount up. An example of this is how on Wednesday evening I had spent the entire week thus far working on philosophy, not turning to Maths and following up lectures, so despite having until 2pm Thursday to hand the essay in I just said, I’m just going to stay here until this is done because that’s the least bad option. So I stayed in the library until 2(am), unusual for me but it worked out the best.
This doesn’t panic or upset me too much anymore. I feel like I’ve come to an acceptance that this degree can only be done sensibly with perfect organisation and motivation to follow through, as I’ve discussed before, and given that no-one can manage that, one is forced into stupid things like staying up to write essays. I’m just okay with it, I’m used to it at last, which is really nice. A bunch of English freshers were up in the library too; starting young I see. They were in their pajamas and it was amusing to see them all troop into the library at one point while a bunch of third years dressed up to go clubbing walked in the opposite direction.
Keeping busy with all this has drastically improved my mood. It’s a cliche but there is less time to think/ruminate. And I can enjoy the work when I actually do it, which I do when in Oxford rather than at home. There is still the issue of concentration though, and I would like to return to reading about what I wrote about in my last post to see if I can use mindfulness to improve my focus. An example of this is that yesterday I started reading some parts of Kant’s First Critique for Philosophy of Maths. Reading Kant is hard and I decided that I would rely on secondary texts and make notes from them rather than attempt to finetooth-comb Kant because there just isn’t time for that—this is another thing that has come with me being more okay with Oxford study, in that I’m way more realistic about what it is worth spending time doing—but unlike other Math/Phils I did actually read Kant, even if I wasn’t doing so with a super-careful eye.
Actually studying Kant, even if it’s just for one isolated essay, instead of just going to lots of lectures about him, excites me a great deal. It’s a simplified picture but in both ethics and epistemology/metaphysics Kant digs his heels in and attempts to answer the worldview of the Humeans and the Millians, whose thinking dominates modern outlooks. Naturalistic reduction of worthwhile human enquiry to the scientific and of if-you’re-really-honest ethics to making society one which most people are pretty happy with is how we tend to want to look at things and I feel the pull myself, but as always things are not this simple: the magic of Maths cannot be explained away in empirical terms, and utilitarian ethics are way too simple. Kant presents the first response in what is probably the second most influential philosophical work of all time, second only to Plato’s Republic. We have a priori non-analytic knowledge about the world. And, morality makes the same kind of demand on us practical rational problem solving does. Or so he wishes to claim. Figuring out whether this can work is really worth doing, if extremely difficult.
The romantic story is also pretty decent: Hume was famous for being very “good with the ladies”; Kant never left his hometown and his virginity. Science is popular and successful and glorious, and speculative philosophy and pure Maths are uncool and unwanted and dry.
You’ve got to follow the story, the people, if you’re going to really understand the ideas, for philosophy is just the study of worldviews and people, not logical symbols, hold worldviews—whatever the analytic philosophers say.
Oh and the term “transcendental aesthetic”, a major idea of Kant’s, is up there with “propositional calculus” and “algebraic geometry” as being an incredibly cool name for an intellectual subject.
So, yeah, I’d quite like to be able to actually sit down and read things.
Something unrelated now is that as of this moment, for the next week, I’m taking an Internet detox. Since I don’t use social media this isn’t a big of a deal for me as it might be for some people, but I definitely want to wake myself up out of browsing. It’s stopping me from (non-academic) reading, it’s stopping me from sleeping, it’s stopping me from working. So I’m going to limit myself to e-mail and my RSS feeds, and I’m going to confine this to two hours a day tops—this is for cases when there is lots to read but it will probably take a lot less time than this. Obviously I will still use the Internet to make sure my servers are still up and to back up my files, but I have decided to cut out StarCraft, which is in the process of wrapping up a season anyway and since I’m looking forward to being placed higher than bronze at the beginning of the next one, I’m happy to step back. Exception is playing StarCraft with IRL friends, ofc. And I’m allowed to write blog posts because that doesn’t require opening up a web browser; web browsing is the basic thing here. A detox is a good way to figure out what parts of something all-consuming you actually value, and that’s my aim.
Time to head back the library and read some more Kant.
Before I go any further let me just share the album I’m currently going mad about, Rustie’s ‘Glass Swords’, which is I am told ‘post-dubstep’. To me it’s a dubstep swaggering beat overlaid with liquidy melodies. I particularly like Ultra Thizz, Death Mountain and After Light which have been running through my head these past few days. Check it out.
Third year is sweet, and bittersweet when I note this: being a third year is so much better than being a second year, but as soon as I remember this I then remember that I’ve only got one year of ordinary degree left. There are two main reasons for third year being so good. Firstly I’m living in college again which is so great. There’s the library, the bar, the JCR, lots of friends, Hall, and a place to sleep and I don’t really need much more. My room is a split set which means separate study and bedroom so there’s an actual sitting area, so I’ve had people over for work, StarCraft and just to chat, which is great. I have a lecture every day so I do actually leave college most days but if I didn’t have that, I’d probably stay within the quadrangles.
Secondly I’ve finally ‘got’ the process of doing my degree. When I have too much work e.g. an essay with an imminent deadline it’s a case of “yeah, got an essay, going to be up late” rather than “oh my goodness can’t cope so much work going to have to stay up arggggh”. I know I can do it basically. I’m not so strong on Maths but still, I’m far calmer about it all because I know how it works. This is something older friends have echoed when we’ve discussed the ridiculous fact that I’m as old as they were when I first met them as a fresher.
An example of this came Monday night. Stayed up until 2am doing Maths (well, 12:30ish for my maths before I decided I was too tired, then another good while helping a friend), but at around midnight I was like, let’s play StarCraft, so we did, then we went back to Maths, totally casually.
I’m finding that my organisational setup in Org-mode is mostly redundant nowadays in term time, because all I really do is my work, and I know what that is, aside from Maths deadlines being all over the place which I leave Org-mode to keep track of. I have some JCR duties and some other minor things to be done but they don’t take up very much time really. This means that I get out of the habit of using Org-mode to run things and thus I forget the things it is actually telling me to do, such as JCR stuff or whatever. I will try to find the time to simplify it a bit to make it more useful.
The fact I’m now not doing much extra-curricular stuff, like most third years, makes me wonder what I did for first and second year: did I work hard enough, and if I didn’t, do I actually have anything to show for it? I mean it’s not like I’m going to say “I didn’t work but went out drinking a lot so it was worth it”, like some might. Then again, my work ethic in first year was ten times better than what it’s been since. This is the influence of my peers. I wish I’d worked harder. I could have got so much more out of the maths side of my degree. But then again, I don’t care that much about maths, so is this valuable? It’s not so long as I was busily doing something else, and I’m not so sure that that time was well-spent now.
Speaking of the changing years, I’m increasingly comfortable with the fact that my friends aren’t in my year group because I’ve realised that I’ve been lucky to land in between several groups of interesting people to spend time with. I used to wish that I was in the year above, that I’d been a year older, but actually then I’d miss out on my friends that are younger than me. All the same I was incredibly nostalgic in the bar the other night when a group of people who were third years when I arrived were there after their graduation. I’ve barely been in the bar this term and being there with them reminded me of when I had a clique of my own back in first year and even into last year when several of them were still around for various reasons. I should write about all the different groups I know at some point.
On Sunday we had a memorial service for Vince, Balliol’s night porter who died just before term began from cancer; it was a pretty quick process and he wasn’t in hospital for long. The service was in Balliol’s chapel and was very well done; religion is good at this sort of thing and fortunately there wasn’t too much talk of god and zero talk about heaven/any kind of afterlife. Hearing about someone who really was a very notable member of the Balliol community—I won’t go into details of that here as you had to know him I suspect—really does inspire one to actually live life properly. You know, to get up and to get on with things and to remain cheerful cos it’s basically all alright.
As well as his fellow lodge staff and lots of students (and only about three or four fellows which surprised me), Vince’s family were present, pretty tearful as you might imagine, and the class divide struck me powerfully. Vince was pretty badly overweight and so was basically every member of his family. While the Balliollites wore suits (even me) and smart dresses the family just had shirts and perhaps slightly more formal tops. The children had more vacant expressions, less turned on and aware—I guess this is probably not actually true, but the appearance was there. This has obviously got nothing to do with wealth or privilege or who you were born to because while we have some rich students here, most are really not. It’s just a case of education, right, that we got lucky with our teachers and schools? Waking people up. Why can’t we solve this? Certainly won’t with the Tories in power I guess. And of course I don’t for a moment suggest there is something better about us wearing suits and looking more intellectually awake. It was good to be brought together with the family to remember Vince, whatever else. But the divide, even if only on a visual level, was still there.
So being occupied with my work, even if I’m not really doing enough, stops be from being sad. This is good. It sort of puts sorting out my attitudes on hold, though, which is less good as they do need sorting eventually.