Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: knowledge

Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part II

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I first picked up an ukulele in the summer of 2002, but in ten years I hadn’t gotten beyond a half-dozen chords and one melody. By the time I’d moved to Washington State, my two ukes had become nothing more than decorations, empty hints that I was a musician (like guys who “accidentally” carry guitar picks in their loose change). If you haven’t yet, go read that story in Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I.

Now, before I pick up my ukulele story in 2012, I first need backtrack a little to 2009, with my brief experience with another, inexpensive, “people’s instrument”. I’m talking about the tin whistle.

See, I like small, portable, entertainment. My favorite board games fit in a jacket pocket. I have packs of playing cards everywhere, in my bags, in drawers, even in my car. Now that I think of it, even back in college, when I was trying to learn the ukulele, I was also tried learning the harmonica. Harmonicas are legendary portable entertainment. The only problems were the breathing and all that tonguing. I could hardly keep my breath just being me, so playing wind instruments was just masochistic. Plus, I was trying to learn ukulele right? The harmonica quickly got lost in a drawer somewhere.

So, now it’s 2009, and I get the itch to learn an instrument again. I look at my ukes, but I think of my wrists, and I start shopping for alternatives. At the same time, I was also on a crazy personal mission to watch everything Star Trek, from beginning to end. Why you ask? Because I’ve been a self-claiming nerd for as long as I can remember, but when I really thought about it, I’d probably only seen a half-dozen episodes of The Next Generation as a child. So I set out to correct that.

Wait, what does this have to do with the tin whistle? Or learning the ukulele? Trekkies know the answer.

The Inner Light.

It’s one of the highest-rated Star Trek TNG episodes, and my absolute favorite. In it, Captain Picard, by virtue of a memory implant from an alien probe, experiences living an entire lifetime with a now extinct people. Most memorable is the titular song he learns to play on a little whistle. So now, sixty pounds lighter than I’d been in college, and with Captain Picard at my back, the idea of a wind instrument doesn’t terrify me anymore. I knew I’d found my new instrument.

Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle

Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle

I went online and bought myself a Clarke Tin Whistle, but much more importantly, I picked up The Clarke Tin Whistle Deluxe Edition by Bill Ochs. It was, by far, the best book on picking up a new instrument, any instrument, that I’d ever read. As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t have a musical background. And though I had a tall stack of ukulele books, most went straight into the grunt-work of learning an instrument, and just weren’t any fun. Frankly, I’d had enough of Mary and her damn little lamb.

But in Bill’s book, within a week, I had a half-dozen songs under my belt. Sure, Mary was in there, but so were others, longer, more interesting songs that sounded pretty even if I didn’t recognize them. Match that with the simplicity of playing the whistle itself, and I was having a blast. Presentation matters, especially for someone like me, with no musical background. And with the tin whistle, I had an extremely portable instrument that was fun to play, and with the book I felt like I was making real progress.

So why am I not writing about rekindling a lost six-hole love? Why did I put down that whistle?

Guilt mostly.

I felt like I should really be playing the uke. I mean I loved ukuleles. My grandmother had bought me one cause I said I was serious about learning it. I’d even bought an expensive one and dragged it around Africa with me. And so after a couple months, as I spent my time elsewhere, the little whistle went into the drawer along with the harmonica.

So why did it take another three years before I picked up the uke? Guess you’ll have to wait until Part III.

Update (02-APR-2013): Continue reading with Part III!


P.S. Though I set aside learning the whistle, I’d learned something else, something far more valuable. I’d learned that learning an instrument didn’t have to be all grunt work up front with all the fun at the end. That there was a logical progression to learning to play that didn’t need Mary and one chord over and over for hours. And in any area of study, it’s a powerful thing when you learn not just what you aim to learn, but the overall structure and progression for learning things of that category.

It just takes a good teacher. I learned my first programming language at age 8, but without any structure, any wisdom. I hadn’t internalized what it meant to program. It was through my high school computer science teacher that I got a grasp of how to learn a computer language. What to expect. What I needed to know to be able to use that language to solve the problems before me. That skill, learning how to learn a programming language, later became a cornerstone of my career as a software tester.

It’s the same thing with natural languages. When I learned French in high school, I didn’t really remember a thing later. Like most Americans, I had a scatter-shot of language education, especially grammar. Not that important if you’re a native speaker, as long as you’re surrounded by people who speak correctly, you’ll pick it up naturally. But for a foreign language, especially in my case, where immersion wasn’t possible or even encouraged, I was just parroting most of the time. I had no roadmap for turning my thoughts into words. But in college, I learned how to break a language down, to know what things I needed to learn, so that I could function in an immersive environment. By the time I was learning Swahili in Tanzania, I was driving my teacher crazy because I kept wanting to jump ahead of my classmates. I could see the bigger picture, and so knew ahead what I types of things I was going to need to know. But after ten weeks of training, when I was thrown in the deep end of completely on-my-own immersion, and I swam just fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I ended up teaching computer science in Swahili. No way would I have been able to do that, if I didn’t understand how to learn programming, and how to learn a natural language. And computer science is hard enough to teach in your own language!

Taoism and the role of human institutions

Every human institution can be broken down into two parts: its inward, primary essence and its outward, secondary accouterments. Learning to distinguish between these primary and secondary things is an important skill for Taoists.

In our society, the essence of any institution is much more important than the physical trappings that surround it. Chuangtse says:

The primary things should stand at the top and secondary things stand at the bottom.

The text gives several examples of institutions and their secondary things, such as the mourning of the dead:

Weeping and mourning and the wearing of hemp clothes and hemp hemming and the gradations in the length of mourning are secondary things in the expression of sorrow.

Though reflecting the ancient Chinese culture of the text’s origin, we can make clear parallels to the modern Western institution of mourning. Here, the wearing of black clothes, the funeral, the wake, all of these things are secondary when mourning the dead: the important, primary thing is the expression of sorrow.

On the other end of the spectrum, an example can be made of the institution of marriage. On one level we have two people committing their love to a stronger relationship, and the joining of two families. On another we have the costumes, the rings, the cake, the registry, the party, the dancing, and the ceremony. Which of the two groups is more important?

The difference is the thing and its representation. Love and commitment are the primary essence of marriage; the rings, which only represent that love and commitment, are secondary accouterments. Accouterments that aren’t instinctual:

These … secondary things require the employment of the mind and conscious planning before they can be carried out.

There is a broader Taoist thread against such materialism, something I mentioned in passing when I asserted that Taoists value direct experience over formal education. While the primary things are often emotional, experiential, and culturally agnostic (like love), the secondary things are often material, learned, and culturally specific (like the exchange of rings).

The secondary things don’t come to us naturally; such traditions are passed down from generation to generation by education, often in the form of stories. Can anyone deny the influence of fairy tales and childhood stories on our expectations of wedding ceremonies? On the whole institution of marriage?

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that our traditions, these seemingly unessential secondary things, are altogether bad. They don’t need to be discarded, just not put at the forefront of our minds:

The ancients had this body of the unessential knowledge, but they did not put it first…

This “unessential knowledge” helps define a culture, and is a part of all human societies. Problems only arise when those secondary things are held with higher importance than the primary essences which they represent.

We know this to be true, in mourning, love, and even telling stories: that when we follow traditions for traditions’ sake, and only “go through the motions”, we risk losing what’s really important.

A marriage without a strong sense of love and commitment won’t last, no matter how lavish and perfect the ceremony. Without true sorrow, going to a funeral and wearing black and acting somber is just that: acting.

We see this often in religious ceremony, and we all know people who only go through the motions. Remember, the moral values of a religion are more important than the details of their ceremonies; the meaning behind the teachings more important than the teachings themselves.

We need the secondary things because they’re an easy shorthand for us to express ourselves, and to teach our values to our children. They’re loose outlines and reminders of what’s really important in our lives. Taoism can’t and doesn’t require the elimination of such accouterments; it only asks that people understand that they are in fact secondary, and to not elevate their importance beyond the essential things which they represent.

An earlier draft of this article was originally published February 01, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.


The Taoist knack for living

A Taoist constantly strives to achieve the state where they can do the best thing in the best way at the best time, without conscious effort.

From Diary of a Daoist Hermit:

As Graham characterizes him, Zhuangzi (Chaungtse) believed that human beings are at their best when “heaven” lives through them, or, when people “merge with the Dao”. This is not some sort of cosmic daze, but rather when people develop an appropriate form of intuitive spontaneity that allows them to do the right thing in the right way at the right time—without having to think about it. He uses the analogy of a skilled tradesman who has developed the “knack” of his craft and suggests that a sage has a similar “knack” for living.

He calls it “the knack” or “intuitive spontaneity”, I sometimes call it “skilled unawareness”, but they’re all one and the same. How impressive it is to watch experts in every field, so “in tune” with their expertise that their actions seem to flow effortlessly. It’s a phenomenon much akin to a professional athlete’s “muscle memory”, and how it unconsciously guides their physical movements.

Taoism demonstrates this “knack” in the text Chuangtse:

A good craftsman draws lines and circles without the help of compasses and squares. His fingers are so sensitively attuned to his material that he does not depend on the direction of his mind.

And in Taoism, as suggested by the opening quote, a sage is one who applies such skill to the art of living.

In order to achieve this state of being, Taoism suggests experience over education. The 48th chapter of the Taoist text Tao Te Ching starts:

The student of knowledge (aims at) learning day by day;
The student of Tao (aims at) losing day by day.

The Tao can be inadequately defined as the “way of the universe”. Loosely put, the Taoist abandons education and wrote learning for experiencing the universe first-hand. Then, seeing the results of their actions, they develop a deep wisdom of how the world works, which, with time and practice, blossoms into “the knack” of the sages. Just as an athlete practices and practices their sport until their body moves the right way instinctively, the Taoist sage experiences the universe again and again until their own instincts guide them to do the right thing, no matter the situation.

Now the similar Bushido precept of “treating matters of great concern lightly” suggests the alternative approach, as a student of knowledge. Bushido promotes a lifetime of endless study, devouring new knowledge day by day. In following Bushido, one plans ahead for as many obstacles as possible, in order that when the time comes, one can treat those obstacles lightly and meet them head on. This is much in the way of governments who prepare response plans for emergencies that may never come. It’s all about preparation for the unknown.

Whichever the path though, the end goal is the same: to be able to handle anything that comes your way.

Oddly enough, both paths acknowledge a strange side-effect of achieving this state of being: one often appears to be an idiot. For Taoists, this is because non-sages often see a sage’s behavior as opposite of how things are “supposed” to be done. This is poetically obscured in chapter 45 of Tao Te Ching:

The highest perfection is like imperfection

In Bushido, this appearance of idiocy happens because even a sufficiently prepared follower is encouraged to believe that their skills are never sufficient. In recognizing the limits of their knowledge, followers of Bushido consider themselves to be idiots. The Bushido text Hagakure says:

In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing.

I believe that this concept of “the knack” can be found beyond eastern thought. When I first wrote this article, I spent hours pouring over my books and notes on Existentialism. I’m sure with enough time, I’d find a Existentialist parallel to “the knack”.

In the meantime, I present two options: Taoism with its path of constant experiences, or Bushido with its path of continual study. Both help us better respond to the world around us, and enable us to, in the words of the opening quote, do the right thing in the right way at the right time.

Call it skilled unawareness, intuitive spontaneity, treating matters of great concern lightly, or simply “the knack”. My question is, which path appeals most to you?

An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 26, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.


Taoism suggests experience over education

The following passage from the Chuangtse is one of my favorites:

A boat may be hidden in a creek, or concealed in a bog, which is generally considered safe. But at midnight a strong man may come and carry it away on his back. Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them. But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape. For this is the great law of things.

The Chuangtse is a key Taoist text, and a literal reading of this passage provides a level of understanding that coincides with the larger Taoist thread against materialism and the cleverness that a materialistic society values.

There is however, a deeper level of understanding present, one concerning the nature of knowledge and understanding itself. First, a problem is proposed:

Those dull of understanding do not perceive that however you conceal small things in larger ones, there will always be a chance of losing them.

Beyond just material objects, this also applies to knowledge and in particular knowledge that affects how we should act. Almost all belief systems proscribe a set of behavioral rules or suggestions for their adherents to follow. These suggestions provide the practical application of a belief system’s ethical and moral values.

As a species we’re addicted to telling stories and so ancient sages figured out pretty quickly that stories are powerful methods for teaching and spreading knowledge. In belief systems the world over, we have innumerable instances of stories meant to teach us how we’re supposed to behave. In the words of the above passage, we have knowledge (small things) encoded (concealed) within stories (large things).

So what’s the problem?

Cultures change. Language changes. Stories become translated and reinterpreted. Sometimes the author just wasn’t clear enough to begin with. When we depend on stories to protect our knowledge, we risk losing the original knowledge within the details of the stories themselves. When the stories are brought in and out of context with other stories in a belief system, we risk further degradation of the original signal.

Like a man with a strong back, belief systems can hijack behavioral suggestions by bogging us down with the details of the stories that contain them.

Most belief systems are founded on the principle that their behavioral suggestions flow from their particular conception of the nature of the universe. Christian behavioral suggestions for example, flow from God because Christians conceive of the universe as the creation of God.

Such a conception however, can lead to an education problem. Even without the benefit of stories, the more knowledge a belief system has, the more it is necessary for a system of education to spread that knowledge. Encoding that knowledge in stories may make the teaching easier, but there’s still a lot to learn.

It’s really a problem of derivation. If the end goal is knowing how to behave properly for the right reasons, the question becomes: How many of the stories do I need to know in order to act right? For most belief systems, that means learning a whole lot of stories.

So what about Taoism? Taoism proposes a solution to the story trap:

But if you entrust that which belongs to the universe to the whole universe, from it there will be no escape.

Don’t trust stories for their knowledge; you’re practically guaranteed to not understand them completely as the author intended. Instead, put your trust in observing and experiencing the universe directly. The ancient sages came up with some great ideas on what behavior leads to a positive society, and they didn’t get it from stories, they got it from observing how societies operate, asking questions, and performing experiments. In the end, it’s all very scientific.

Of course as human beings, even the sages like to tell stories, and as they’re generally trying to help others, they encoded their knowledge into those stories. The difference is, whereas most belief systems ultimately say: “This is the truth, believe it,” Taoists instead say: “This is what we observed to be true, but don’t take our word for it, observe the universe for yourself.”

In fact many Taoist stories actually make fun of people who insist on studying the writings of sages, rather than gaining first-hand experience themselves. Even more exult the inability of teachers to pass on their wisdom to their students, and how frustratingly we want to teach others what we’ve learned.

Taoism concludes that observation and direct experience are preferable to education. They provide their own list of observations on how people should act in order to create a positive society, but they also follow that list with the empowering offer for us to experience the world and derive the list for ourselves.

I discovered Taoism through the writings of Lin Yutang. If you’re interested in Taoism I highly recommend his The Wisdom of Laotse.

An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.


Bushido, education focused on self-reliance, and treating matters of great concern lightly

This quote, taken from Hagakure, often puzzled me when I first read the text in 2002:

After reading books and the like, it is best to burn them or throw them away.

Compiled by Tsuramoto Tashiro at the dawn of the 18th century, Hagakure is a collection of commentaries on Bushido from his conversations with the then retired samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo.

The text covers many topics concerning the way of the warrior, many of which I identify and agree with. Particularly with regards to education, Hagakure addresses the constant need for an individual to learn:

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.

Do not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, “This is not enough.”

After reading such lines, and many more like them, it is easy to be confused as to the meaning of the first quote. Surely, someone who promoted constant and never ending education would not advocate the burning of books!

The key to understanding this paradox, I find, is in the following quote:

Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.

which is explained as follows:

Thinking about things previously and then handling them lightly when the time comes is what this is all about. To face an event and solve it lightly is difficult if you are not resolved beforehand, and there will always be uncertainty in hitting your mark.

So then, in order to handle a given situation, we must have been previously resolved to handle that situation. To be resolved, we must know what to do before the situation ever arises.

Since there are a multitude of possible situations that we may encounter in our lives, we must then strive constantly to become more skillful and more knowledgeable in as many areas as possible.

However, skills and knowledge are most useful to us when we are free of the need to consult references. That is, in order to treat a “matter of great concern” lightly, we must be confident that we can act immediately, without the benefit of books to consult.

Taken from this perspective, the suggestion to burn books after reading them is designed to help us internalize the material and be better prepared for using the knowledge that we’ve obtained. Even if the burning is not taken literally, reading a book with the expectation that you won’t have access to it later can be a powerful motivational tool for remembering the material.

So, the suggestion is to read as if you won’t have the text with you when you need the skills and knowledge that it contains. This promotes self-reliance in knowledge, from which stems the confidence to treat matters of great concern lightly.

When we are confident in our knowledge and our skills, we can be resolved to handle anything. But remember, we must be both confident and yet unsatisfied with our current level of skills. Overconfidence breeds intellectual stagnation, which can undermine our self-reliance.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bushido you should read William Scott Wilson’s translation of Hagakure.

This article was originally published January 23, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here with some slight modifications.