[ita] Invito alle crittografie enigmistiche: prima parte

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Enigmistica: Arte, attività di comporre e risolvere enigmi, sciarade, anagrammi, rebus e altri giochi enigmistici.

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[Il secondo episodio è qui.]

Questo post è dedicato ad introdurre una delle branche più divertenti e sfidanti dell’enigmistica: le crittografie. So bene che ci sono svariate pagine web che ne parlano, anche ad un livello basilare (ad esempio: Wikipedia), ma qui voglio dargli un taglio allo stesso tempo più personale e più compatto. L’idea è di invogliare chi le ha sempre saltate leggendo La settimana enigmistica (ed a ragione! non sono spiegate da nessuna parte) a cimentarcisi.

La crittografia è, in generale, una frase celata dietro un insieme di lettere, che a sua volta può essere una frase di senso compiuto oppure no. Vediamo meglio con un esempio di un tipo di crittografie detta a frase.

Crittografia a frase (4 7 = 6 5)

GLI SCONTI 

Lilianaldo

Allora, Lilianaldo è lo pseudonimo dell’autore: possiamo ignorarlo nel risolvere la crittografia, ma come quando si cita un estratto di un libro, è corretto riportarlo. Per prima cosa, leggiamo Crittografia a frase, che specifica il tipo di gioco (presto sapremo anche cosa significa). GLI SCONTI è l’esposto. Nel caso delle crittografie a frase, ha un significato ben preciso in italiano, anche se spesso è volutamente ambiguo: si parla di sconti nei negozi? O di sconti di pena? O di tassi di sconto? O di altro ancora?

4 7 indica la prima lettura. Cioè dobbiamo descrivere l’esposto1 con una frase di due parole, la prima di 4 lettere e la seconda di 7. Mmm… potrebbe essere ad esempio CAPI RIMASTI: se è qualcosa è scontato, vuol dire che non è stato venduto. Oppure SONO RIBASSI; in effetti, è questo che sono gli sconti. O ancora, un po’ beffardamente, SOLO ROBETTA. O MENO CARCERE.

Tutte queste prime letture sono più o meno plausibili. Per capire quella corretta, dobbiamo andare alla seconda lettura, che è indicata dai numeri 6 5. Questa è ottenuta come segue: considerate le parole della prima lettura, senza gli spazi, quindi aggiungete uno spazio in modo da formare una parola da 6 ed una da 5 lettere. Dovrà dare una frase di senso compiuto, anche se solitamente di significato completamente diverso dalla prima lettura o dall’esposto. Le nostre tre prime letture diventano rispettivamente CAPIRI MASTI, SONORI BASSI, SOLORO BETTA e MENOCA RCERE. Solo la seconda ha senso compiuto, ed è infatti la soluzione. SONO RIBASSI = SONORI BASSI.

Vediamo un altro esempio, più subdolo.

Crittografia a frase (4 3 6 = 9 4)

FAI COLPO TRA GLI SPARTITI

Pipino il Breve

Qui possiamo aiutarci con un po’ di mestiere. Anzitutto, l’esposto indica un’azione: quindi probabilmente ci sarà un verbo nella prima lettura. La seconda parola è di 3 lettere, quindi è facile sia una preposizione o un articolo plurale. Possiamo dunque aspettarci una prima lettura del tipo verbo + articolo o preposizione + complemento. Per la soluzione, però, dobbiamo avere un approccio da enigmista, ed interpretare l’esposto in modo più complesso di come appare: RUBI (fai colpoCON (traDIVISI (gli spartiti), che in seconda lettura diventa RUBICONDI VISI. Ah-ah!

Vediamo ora un altro tipo di crittografie, le mnemoniche. E’ per me è il più elegante e complesso, perché per risolverle (o crearle) bisogna utilizzare sia capacità analitiche sia linguistiche. Iniziamo con

Crittografia mnemonica (5 2 8 8 10)

SCIPPO

Il Cinofilo

Di nuovo, l’esposto ha un significato in italiano, e qui si presta a poche ambiguità2. Per la prima lettura, dobbiamo quindi descrivere cosa è uno scippo. Ma attenzione, per la seconda lettura, non dovremo cambiare le parole!

La prima lettura può essere interpretata in modo completamente diverso dal suo significato originario di SCIPPO, ed acquisire un altro significato. Sarà questa la seconda lettura. Vediamo come con la soluzione: Colpo di sinistro passante incrociato. In effetti, lo scippo è un furto (colpo) fatto da un tizio (passante) non raccomandabile (sinistro) che camminava verso di noi (incrociato). Al tempo stesso, Colpo di sinistro passante incrociato può essere letto come parte di uno scambio del tennis! Notate che ogni parola (a parte la preposizione) cambia di significato dalla prima alla seconda lettura3.

Chiudo questo primo post (ce ne saranno degli altri dedicati agli altri tipi di crittografie) con quella che è forse la più bella crittografia mnemonica che io conosca.

Crittografia mnemonica (5 6 2 13)

CUCCHIAINO

Dedalo

Cos’è un cucchiaino? E’ un piccolo strumento fatto per raccogliere oggetti, cioè un mezzo minuto di raccoglimento. Qui non solo le parole cambiano significato nella seconda lettura, ma alcune addirittura ruolo nella frase. Mezzo da sostantivo diventa aggettivo, mentre minuto fa il percorso inverso!


Note

1. In altre crittografie mnemoniche, invece di descrivere l’esposto, bisogna scrivere una frase che è descritta dall’esposto (un po’ come nei cruciverba), o continuare la frase dell’esposto (mostrare una conseguenza). Ma quelli a descrizione d’esposto sono i più comuni.

2. In effetti, l’unico dubbio è se si tratti di un sostantivo o della prima persona singolare del verbo scippare.

3. Questo in generale è richiesto perché una mnemonica sia considerata accettabile, a meno di giochi particolarmente eleganti, dove alcune parole possono avere lo stesso significato.

Two suggestions by Rota and Feynman on how to do science and math

Giancarlo Rota (1932-1999) was an Italian-born, then naturalized American, mathematician and philosopher. As happens to outstanding thinkers, in his late years he was often invited to give a speech on more or less everything he wanted. At the Rotafest organized in his honour at MIT he spelled out a list of suggestions for scientists1:

A speaker should try to give his audience something they can take home. But what? I have been collecting some random bits of advice that I keep repeating to myself, do’s and don’ts of which I have been and will always be guilty. […] The advice we give others is the advice that we ourselves need.

There would be a lot to say on both the content of those suggestions and wheter the same pieces of advice that are valid for masters are also of great interest for all scientists. But for a change, let me cut this short and just present the two among them that I found the most interesting (one of which is in fact by the physicist Richard Feynman), leaving to the readers all extra-thinking.

5. Every mathematician has only a few tricks. A long time ago an older and well known number theorist made some disparaging remarks about Paul Erdös’ work. You admire Erdös contributions to mathematics as much as I do, and I felt annoyed when  the older mathematician flatly and definitively stated that all of Erdös work could be “reduced” to a few tricks which Erdös repeatedly relied on in his proofs. What the number theorist did not realize is that other mathematicians, even the very best, also rely on a few tricks which they use over and over. Take Hilbert. The second volume of Hilbert’s collected papers contains Hilbert’s papers in invariant theory. I have made a point of reading some of these papers with care. It is sad to note that some of Hilbert’s beautiful results have been completely forgotten.  But on reading the proofs of Hilbert’s striking and deep theorems in  invariant theory, it was surprising to verify that Hilbert’s proofs relied  on the same few tricks. Even Hilbert had only a few tricks!

7. Use the Feynman method. Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”


Notes

1. This and following citations are taken from: Ten lessons I wish I had been thaught (presented at MIT on April 20, 1996, on the occasion of the Rotafest), in Giancarlo Rota, Indiscrete Thoughts,  Modern Birkhäuser Classics (1997), pages 195–203.

Visiting the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne

The Collection de l’Art Brut is a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, of a very rare kind. It displays art that is not aware of being art – created by people at the margin of society or of the art world, mostly for they own pleasure or just for expressing themselves.

With the words of Jean Dubuffet, who invented the name Art Brut (the English version comes below):

Nous entendons par là [Art Brut] des ouvrages exécutés par des personnes indemnes de culture artistique […]. Nous y assistons à l’opération artistique toute pure, brute1, réinventée dans l’entier de toutes ses phases par son auteur, à partir seulement de ses propres impulsions. De l’art donc où se manifeste la seule fonction de l’invention, et non, celles, constantes dans l’art culturel, du caméléon et du singe2,3.

In English it reads:

We mean by that [Art Brut] works realized by people not affected by the artistic culture […]. With them, we can see the purest, rawest1 form of artistic creation, where all phases are reinvented from scratch by the author starting from him/her impulses. So this is a kind of art where only invention plays a role, and, differently from what usually happens in cultural art, there is no place for chameleons and monkeys2,3.

Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve -  L'éternelle infidèle

Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve
L’éternelle infidèle, entre 1927 et 1928
assemblage de coquillages divers
haut. : 42 cm
Photo : Claude Bornand.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Some of the authors are then just talented people who, within an ordinary life, cultivated their passion for creating, but in fact most share the salient points of their biography: uneducated to art, born or grown up in straitened circumstances, after a period in a mental hospital they came to art as a mean to get in touch with the others, or just to express themselves. As one of them –  Vojislav Jakic – said about his works:

This is no drawing or painting: this is sedimentation of pain.

Vojislav Jakic - Les effrayants insectes cornus (1970)

Vojislav Jakic
Les effrayants inscectes cornus…, ca 1970
stylo à bille et crayon de couleur sur papier
141,5 x 101,5 cm
Photo : Henri Germond.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Those similar personal backgrounds often imply some recurring features in their works: the obsession for filling the space – each empty room needs to be covered with details, that are everywhere and hence uninteresting or at least of different comprehension for the viewer. The canvas as a mean to explicitly express ideas with written words: many of them had physical or psychological inabilities to speak, hence they delegate their thoughts to the characters of their paintings or would even write around the pictures or in the empty room between objects. The repetition of the same subject, even within a single canvas: for instance, Madge Gill paints figures of the same woman, that constantly look at the viewer from slightly different poses, repeating her face multiple times over several slightly different canvas, often glued together in an hypnotic pastiche.

Madge Gill - untitled, undated

Madge Gill
sans titre (detail), s.d.
encre sur calicot
213 x 86,5 cm
Photo : Jean Genoud SA.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Sylvain Fusco

Sylvain Fusco
Moire, 1938
pastel sur papier
62,5 x 47,5 cm
Photographe non identifié
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Willem van Genk - Tube Station (1970)

Willem Van Genk
Tube Station, 1970
collage et peinture sur bois
75 x 124 cm
Photo : Claude Bornand
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

And originality is of course central, declined in many aspects: from the themes, to the choice of materials, with shells that become ears and lips and journal paper that is used to shape three-dimensional objects. To the canvas, often obtained by gluing more pieces together as the painting expands, as to form non-convex, strangely shaped pictures.

Charles Steffen is the star of the current exhibition. He did study art, but he had to stop after just one year because of psychiatric problems. After that, he spent 11 years in a mental hospital. He often paints images of nudes that are supposed to represent men and women, but actually look like wrinkled baby monsters of hybrid sex that lie somewhere between living beings and plants, and that look around with a grotesque gaze. Their details are carefully drawn as if Steffens was depicting something that was really appearing in front of him, and they are surrounded by inscriptions that explain their genesis and place them in the context of a fantastic world. I found the evolution of the sunflower especially imaginative (see below for the picture). It starts as a proto-human being with a single eye, and slowly, from top to bottom, it transforms itself. Its head becomes a flower, its hands twist into the stem, roots exit from its legs, and a sunflower is born.

Charles Steffen -  Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into a Sunflower (1994)

Charles Steffen
Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into a Sunflower, 1994
mine de plomb et crayon de couleur sur papier
90,9 x 122,5 cm
Photo : Atelier de numérisation – Ville de Lausanne
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Charle-s Steffen - One of two Seated Nudes (1992)

Charles Steffen
One of two Seated Nudes, 1992
mine de plomb et crayon de couleur sur papier kraft
138 x 92 .6 cm
Photo : Atelier de numérisation – Ville de Lausanne
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

If you are looking for an aesthetic guiding thread through the exhibition, you will be disappointed. Most authors are represented just by a bunch of pieces (up to 5), and there is no link between one and another, or any of them and any artistic current, since none of those authors shared a past with mainstream art.

But some of them had in fact a future, influencing modern well-known artists (see eg here), as well as imposing their charm on popular culture (the Vivian Girls, named after some recurring characters in Henry Darger‘s work, is an indie American band, and the name of the English-German band Art Brut speaks by itself). For even though the images are often cryptic, the emotions behind them are clearly visible: the obsessions, the search for oneself, the fantastic worlds they created are not mediated by any artistic theory, hence they appear vividly to the eye of the spectator. This creates art that constantly swings between being disturbing, romantic, and grotesque, but is nevertheless direct and powerful.


Notes

1. I think the best English translation of brut is raw. A somewhat related, but more general concept, is that of Outsider art.

2. Jean Dubuffet, L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, 1949.

3. I personally think that the idea that pure and innovative art only comes from people outside the artistic community is a cliche itself. But that’s another story.

Chuquicamata, Chile

Have a look at the following pics taken in the city of Chuquicamata, Chile.

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IMG_0753 IMG_0762 IMG_0765

What stands out? There is nobody around. Chuquicamata is an inhabited town or, equally (but more charmingly) said, it is a Ghost town. A stadium, playgrounds, schools, offices, even a theater, but nobody there to use them. Trees dry and die out, roads get dustier, buildings crumble, and the only ones who can witness this are touristic guides.

Chuquicamata, often called just Chuqui, lies in the northern part of Chile, in the middle of the Atacama desert, a stripe of land between the Pacific Earth and the Andes known for being the driest area on Earth, as well as the ideal setting for professional and backyard astronomy. Getting to Chuqui is not easy: first you have first to reach the close (alive) town of Calama, that you can do with a 24 hours bus trip from Santiago, or by making your way somehow from the south of Bolivia or Perù, or again from Santiago with a flight that lands in a middle-of-nowhere tiny airport. From Calama then you have to reach Chuqui with a trip organized by the mining company (write to VISITAS@codelco.cl), since free access is not permitted.

chuqui_map

Ghost towns usually witnessed economic or political failures, or natural catastrophes: an economic boost that died out, earthquakes, a volcano eruption. The Atacama desert hosts many of those: Humberstone, Santa Laura, Chacabuco are only some of the leftovers of the Nitratine (a mineral used in fertilizers and other chemical compounds) business, that rocked Chile at the beginning of the 20th century and declined in the ’50s. Chuqui instead is proudly shown by the Chilean government to testify its economic growth and its role in international economics. For Chuqui is also the name of the nearby huge copper mine – the biggest open one in the world in fact, nearly 1 km deep – where as many as 16,000 people have their job and 443,000 tons of copper are produced per year. The mountains that you see surrounding the city in the previous pictures are made of production scraps. Copper feeds Chilean economy (its exportation represents one third of the government income) and international (especially China’s) hunger for (not only) wires and electrical components. The status of copper as Chile’s Red Gold is witnessed by the renown Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral in Santiago, which is completely covered with it.

By the way, (part of) the open pit looks like this. The dots you see are huge trucks.

IMG_0778

In a country where mining is so important to have a ministry of its own (Ministerio de Minería) it is not surprising that the operations at Chuqui are run by a state-owned company, named Codelco. It was founded in 1955 when Chile started the process of nationalization of copper, and took complete control over the mine during the Salvador Allende government in 1973. This control was left untouched even by Pinochet, despite its pro-foreign companies views. But the mine has not always been under Chilean control. After centuries of unprofessional mining, the Guggenheim family (from US) smelled the business and founded the Chile Exploration Company (Chilex) in 1912 to professional extract the copper from Chuqui.

The nearby town of Chuquicamata started to systematically grow around that time to host miners, engineers, visiting businessmen, and everyone who came looking for a well paid job: nowadays, a truck driver working in the mine can earn 6,000 $ a month. In 2002, Chuqui counted about 20,000 inhabitants. So, what turned it into a ghost town? Two main reasons: first, as the request for copper was increasing, the mine was getting bigger and it needed more room to expand. Second, the high incidence of diseases among the inhabitants, mostly due to the massive presence of arsenic and sulfur in the air. In his book Desert Memories, Ariel Dorfman reports the story (legend?) of a miner from Chuqui that died while being in vacation in Madrid: he had so much arsenic in his blood that his wife was suspected of having poisoned him and arrested by the local police.

So between 2002 and 2008 people from Chuqui were relocated in the nearby Calama, after exhausting negotiations – being copper the vital ganglion of Chilean economy, trade unions of miners have a huge power. But working in the mine in Chuqui still means jeopardizing your health, and people who take a job there know that a high salary comes with a low life expectancy (I could not find explicit statistics on this, but informed people told me many miners do not get into their fifties). Even for just visiting the mine for one hour or so, you must wear long sleeves and trousers, and closed shoes.

IMG_0748

This risky lifestyle is shared by many miners in South America, from those extracting rare earths in Potosi, Bolivia, to the ones from Peru. But the governments and the miners seem to accept to pay this price: the latter to maintain a good lifestyle, the former to keep propelling South America’s economic growth.

To learn more about Chuqui, you can read Ariel Dorfman’s already mentioned Desert Memories (chapter Mountains of fire), or look here or here. And you may have forgotten about it, but you probably have already heard about Chuqui, see the video below. 

A game about Wikipedia (and, by the way, not every artist praises compulsive file sharing)

You don’t have to be a corporate manager of a music firm, or a big shot in a Hollywood blockbuster company to be against limitless file sharing. Indeed, you could be a technologist, a pioneer of many cutting edge technologies including virtual reality, or a musician. Jaron Lanier is all of them, and his book You are not a gadget is a provocative manifesto against many of the clichés of Web 2.0: that the “wisdom of crowd” (i.e. the belief that the collective opinion of many informed people is more effective that those of a small number of experts) could produce really innovative ideas, that limitless file sharing will help the evolution of art and science and at the same time allow artists and scientists to make a living out of their work, and many more.

But that’s not what I’m talking about in this post — this book has so many facets (some of them leading to questionable opinions, especially on modern music) that it would take a long post to make a decent summary of it, let alone to comment it properly. So, I recommend you to read the book (more about it here) in order to hear an interesting voice whatever your opinion on Web 2.0 is. Instead, I write here about something (lighter) that I learned from Lanier’s work. It’s a game about (against?) Wikipedia.

Let me start by saying: I love Wikipedia. It is my first source on anything I don’t know at all and want to get an idea about – even though, when I want to go deeper, I search somewhere else in the web or in books. I’m glad it’s there, and I wish it a long life.

But the kind of information Wikipedia is specialized in is what modernists named pop culture, and traditionalists would not call culture at all. According to Wikipedia itself, pop culture is

the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are preferred by an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society.

So Wikipedia delves deep into the temper of Lost characters, devoting 3577 words to the post about life and destiny of Kate Austen, and not quite as much into Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov, who deserves 1/10 of the words1 (Lanier criticizes Wikipedia for more important aspects, but again see the book for that2). It was not me who noticed this at first, and not even Lanier, and probably not even a San Francisco guy named Jon Hendren, who nevertheless popularized a game based on that: Wiki-groaning, which even earned a paragraph on Wall Street Journal.

The game is as follows: pick two Wikipedia entries that have similar names (perfect matches are rare, but striking: try John Locke), but clearly different importance, one from a “classical” subject (literature, science, history, etc.), the other being a pop culture fetish. Compare the number of words and the quality of the posts. Then giggle, think some standard thoughts on the decay of modern culture3, share this all with your friends, and get back to do something more useful.

Here’s an appetizer of what you would find4:

Amygdala (section of the brain of primary importance for emotions and memory): 2150 words.
vs.
Padmé Amidala (Star Wars character): 5282 words.

Quantum (physical concept): 622 words.
vs.
Quantum of Solace (James Bond movie): 7922 words.

Anderson (car from the early 1900s, considered the most successful product in south US car industry): 326 words, 1 picture.
vs.
Thomas A. Anderson (fictional character from The Matrix series, better known by his alias Neo): 3727 words, 1 picture.
vs.
Pamela Anderson (actress, former playmate): 3848 words, 6 pictures.

Prime Number (mathematical object): 7841 words.
vs.
Optimus Prime (Transformer character): 26546 words.

Leon Cooper (physicist, Nobel laureate): 450 words.
vs.
Mini Cooper (posh car): 9371 words.

and my favourite one:

Donatello (Italian Renaissance painter): 1614 words.
vs.
Donatello (teenage mutant ninja turtle): 2809 words.

Have fun!


Notes

1. Even though Jane Austen wins over Kate by roughly 2000 words.
2. Here is something else about Wikipedia Lanier points out in the book: the hitchhiker’s guide of Douglas Adams’s celebrated series is an encyclopedia on everything that can be useful to know when travelling around the universe. It can be instantaneously updated by anyone who has a copy by just typing on a keyboard. Basically, Douglas Adams predicted Wikipedia.
3. Let me remark that pop culture in general is not evil. Many amazing things came out of that. Just to mention one: several great short stories by David Foster Wallace have their roots deep into pop culture, see e.g. the collection The girl with curious hair. What one criticizes here is the exaggerate shift towards pop culture.
4. If you happen to know the pop culture fetishes mentioned here, but not their “classical counterparts”, then this is a clear symptom of the fact that the kind of culture most media propose us is, in fact, very pop.
(This was my contribution to the “standard thoughts on the decay of modern culture” mentioned above).
 

Bell towers

In the last two years, I have been spending almost every long weekend (Friday evening to Monday morning) in a small town in Italy, staying in a comfortable flat facing the main square and a typical village church. Next to the church there is a bell tower, which is supposed to beat time during the day. I would not be able to say whether the bells were really ringing every hour, but I seem to remember they were not. For sure, there was no bell ringing between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am (probably a consequence of the message Basta con le campane! – which means Enough with the bells! – which I saw hand painted on a side wall of the church). There was a long loud ring every day around 7:45 am, and at some other time during the day, with intensifications on Sundays, but I was not able to deduce a specific pattern.

In the last four days, I have been staying in a small German village, roughly the same size of the Italian above. My (uncomfortable, this time) flat again faces the main church and its bell tower. Its bells not only ring every hour, but every quarter of the hour, according to the following system: each 15 minutes account for a dong. So if you hear dong dong dong it means it is 45 minutes after some hour, which is not specified. When the clocks strikes an exact hour, you hear 4 dongs, and then as many dangs (a tone slightly different from the one before) as the number of hours, from 1 to 12, without distinguishing between am and pm (which is perfectly reasonable, you should be able to tell yourself). So if you hear dong dong dong dong dang dang dang dang dang dang dang it means that it’s 7 o’clock, either am or pm. And yes, the bells continue with the same procedure all night long. The system is consistent and robust (if you cannot distinguish the dongs from the dangs, you just have to count), even if maybe a little redundant (for instance, you could agree that 12:00 count as no dang, and spare the bells and everybody 24 dangs a day). Ah, and there is no message painted on the walls of the church.

A European in New York City

Manhattan skyline from above, below, from the sea, from New Jersey. The cabs: yellow on the outside, white, black, indian and hispanic on the inside. The barber shops that increase in number with the poverty of the area. The buildings, shining on front, ugly and crumbling on the back. The works, always in progress. The jobless, the drunkards, the junkies. The junk left stinking on the streets and in the subway. The brick houses of Greenwich village. The small houses of Brooklyn. The Brooklyn bridge: why is it famous?

The sports bar full of people uninterested in sports. The hate for Boston Red Sox, but they play basketball, right? The Home runs at the Yankee Stadium. The Home runs in Central Park. Squirrels running in Central Park. People running in Central Park. People running everywhere in the city. The Italian restaurants run by Turkish.The Turkish restaurants run by Turkish. Yet another Dim Sum, yet another Starbucks. Tipping to someone who earns twice your salary. People in Wall Street that earn ten times your salary. The lone protester in Wall Street.

The gazillions of events, everywhere. The smells and sights and sounds of Harlem on a weekend afternoon. Malcom X and Bob Marley painted on the walls of Harlem. Pino Daniele playing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The lofts in Tribeca. The useless shops of Times square. The sophisticatedly useless shops of Soho. The sophisticated and witty plays in Broadway. Artists playing with Fashion and Art and continuously reinventing them, sometimes with terrible outcomes. The museum of Natural Science where you can touch fossils. The Christian Science Reading Room. The Madonna shrines in private gardens. The Gospels. The Jazz.

The crowd. Those working in shops and big food chains, of three kinds: the Rookies, that enthusiastically cheer you; the Depressed, that won’t even talk to you; the Friendly Resigned to their job. Those from the Bronx who speak like Al Pacino in Scarface or De Niro in Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?”. Those who spend their holiday in mid-Manhattan. Those who spend their life in Harlem. Those who repeat you that “no other place has the same energy of NYC”. Those who think they have something to say about NYC and make a post out of it.

Why do we do Science? Galileo’s answer, according to Brecht

Why do we do Science? The following is an extract from Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo), roughly from the 1940s. Galileo Galilei, after having discovered the Satellites of Jupiter, was forced to silence by an Inquisition decree, since his findings were against the official position of the Church. Here Galileo speaks with a young pupil, both a monk and a scientist, who believes that the decree is false but nevertheless has to be followed, since it aims at preserving the equilibrium in the life of the common people. Galileo’s answer is a condemnation of the raison d’État and a passionate apology of science, as both an instrument to improve people’s life conditions, and a compelling temptation to human curiosity. Apart from that, the whole extract is an excellent piece of play.

Young Monk: Mr. Galilei, I couldn’t sleep for three nights. I did not know how to reconcile the decree, that I read, with the satellites of Jupiter, that I saw. Hence, today I decided to come to you after saying Mass.

Galileo: What for? To tell me that Jupiter has no satellites?

Young Monk: No. That I succeeded in understanding the wiseness of the decree. It showed me the reason why research without boundaries is dangerous for humanity, thus I decided to quit astronomy. But I thought it was appropriate to explain you some reasons why even an astronomer could prevent himself from working on that theory. […]

Let me tell you about myself. I grew up in the countryside, son of peasants. They are simple people. They know everything about olive trees, but little about everything else. When I look at the phases of Venus, I see my parents in front of me, sitting with my sister next to the fireplace, eating their humble dinner. I can see the beam above their heads, that the smoke has turned black, and I can see their old workers hands, and their small spoons. They’re not happy, but even in their unhappiness there is a secret order, marked by cyclic events: the cleaning of the floor in the house, the seasons in the fields,  the tax collection. Adversities come upon them with regularity. The back of my father did not become crooked at once, but year after year by working in the fields, and the birth labours that turned my mother into an asexual being also came at regular intervals. They take the strength to climb a stony path despite being soaked with sweat, to give birth to children, and even to eat, from the feeling of Continuity and Necessity that is given to them by the land that each year becomes green again, by their small church and the readings of the Bible, which they listen to each Sunday. It is reassuring to them that the eye of God lies upon them, inquiring and almost anxious. That the theater of the world is built around them, so that each actor can properly play his role, whether big or small. What would they say, if I told them they just lie on a heap of rocks, that continuously rotates into the empty space like any other planet, just one among many, and not even so important! Then what would all their patience, their misery be for? And the Holy Scriptures – that declare as necessary all their sweat, their patience, their hunger, their submission, what are they good for, if they are discovered to be full of errors? I can see their gaze becoming gloomy, their spoon falling on the fireplace, I can see how they would feel betrayed and cheated. They would say: “So, there is no eye lying upon us, we alone have to take care of ourselves, ignorant, old and worn as we are? No one gave as a role to play, but the one to be miserable in this tiny planet, that is not even autonomous? There is no meaning for our misery, hunger is just not eating, and not a test of strength. Fatigue is just bending your back and carrying weights, not a credit.” Do you now understand why I see in the decree of the Holy Congregation an act of motherly charity, of  great goodness?

Galileo:  Goodness! Maybe you mean that, since there ‘s nothing left, the wine has been drunk and their lips are dry, all they are left with is kissing the soutane? But why is there nothing left? Why is the order of this nation just the order of an empty chest, and the only thing that is necessary is to work oneself to death? Between hills flourishing with grapes and luxuriant cornfields! Your peasants are paying for the wars that are conducted by the representatives of the mild Jesus in Spain and Germany. Do you know why is the Earth in the center of the Universe? So that the Chair of Peter could be! That’s what all is about! You are right, this has nothing to do with planets, it has to do with peasants. And please don’t come and tell me about the beauty of natural phenomena like oldness! Do you know how does the oyster produce the pearl?  Wounded by the presence of an external body which puts in danger its life, for instance a grain of sand, the oyster covers it with mother-of-pearl.  It almost dies during the process. The pearl can go the hell, I care more about the health of the oyster. Virtues do not only arise in misery, my dear. If your people were healthy and prosperous, they could develop the virtues of health and prosperity. But now the exhausting work in the fields just generates the virtues of exhaustingness, and I refuse it. My dear friend, my new water pumps can do more wonders than their absurd, superhuman work.  […]

But we cannot develop machines for pumping the water from rivers, if we cannot study the biggest machine that lies in front of us: the celestial bodies. The sum of the angles of a triangle cannot change according to the wishes of the Papal Court. And I cannot compute the trajectories of the flying bodies, so that also the flight of witches on broomsticks are explained.

Young Monk: And don’t you believe that the truth, if it is actually truth, will impose itself, even without us?

Galileo: No, no, no. The truth will impose itself, only if we will. The victory of the reason can only be the victory of those who reason. It sounds like if to you, the peasants are just like the musk on their huts! How can someone think that the sum of the angles of a triangle could be in conflict with their interests? But if they do not move up and learn to think, even the best irrigation system cannot help them. For God’s sake, I can see the divine patience of your people, but where is their divine fury?

Young Monk: They are tired.

Galileo (passing a manuscript to him): Son, aren’t you a physicist? Here are written the reason why the oceans have high and low tides. But you are not allowed to read it, do you understand me? Ah, you are already reading it? So, are you also a physicist? (The Young Monk is absorbed in the manuscript) An apple from the tree of  knowledge! He immediately bites it. He will be condemned forever, but he couldn’t help but bite it. Sometimes I think that I would be happy to be buried in a prison 20 meters under, where I could see no light, if I could know what light really is. And the worst is that what I know, I have to tell the others. Like a lover, or a drunkard, like a betrayer. It is a real vice, and it will ruin me. How much time will I resist speaking to walls, that’s the real question.

Young Monk (pointing at a line in the manuscript): There is a sentence I cannot understand.

Galileo: I will explain it to you, I will explain it to you.

On April, 25th, La7 is broadcasting the monologue ITIS Galileo by Marco Paolini in prime time. If you understand Italian, don’t miss it.

2.5 days in Tokyo

[This is the last of a series of three posts on Japan. An introductory one can be found here. A second one on Kyoto and Takayama is here.]

He who has the lucky chance of travelling around the world, knows how much major cities may differ from the “average” country. But I never found so much difference between a city and the rest of a nation as between Tokyo and the remainder of Japan. With 13 million inhabitants just in the city itself distributed in an area as big as 200 Manhattan (or 10 Rome), Tokyo is a massive cluster where skyscrapers and huge malls replace two-level houses and regular shops you see all around Japan. Widespread tunnels run below the street level, connecting adjacent underground stations or just conquering more room for shops. The only trace of tradition is represented by the few wooden temples and shrines, whose size, gardens and colors clash with the cement, glass, and grey of the buildings ten times taller and hundreds years younger that surround them.

Tokyo is crazy as only massive, larger-than-life cities can be, but in a very special way I never saw outside Japan. First of all, the importance given to exteriority – especially to clothes – is astonishing. In central areas, fashion boutiques are everywhere and huge, and you see a lot of people really suited up1. Others, who maybe cannot afford expensive clothes, go buy themselves costumes of their manga heroes in (again, huge!) shops that sell everything related to comics, from 250$ fake plastic swords to 50cm hand painted dolls (like those you find in this video). And they do go around dressed like that on weekends. Second, the amount of people you see everywhere downtown: go at 6 pm in a working day in the “busiest crossing” on Earth, just in front of the Shibuya Station. A huge number of people will be walking around in every direction. This may not be so peculiar – you may have seen so many somewhere else. But then choose any direction, and keep walking for 20 minutes. Throughout your walk, you will see the same incredible amount of people coming and going2. Third, the widespread passion for lights, neon signs, and over the top continuous noises: try entering a Pachinko (sort of gambling pinball) parlor.

Hence, after the first walks, I was disappointed with Tokyo. I thought: is this all ? The largest metropolitan area of the world, producing a GDP of $1.5 trillion (almost as much as that of the whole Italy!), host to 51 of the top 500 word companies, heir to an empire and a culture thousands of years old, just to have 6-floors Prada stores and a bunch of guys going around dressed like their favourite superheros3? Then, I understood that was my approach to the city to be wrong. And my approach is usually the following: I decide where I want to go beforehand, but then wander around, getting to know the city as I got lost in it. From time to time I peek at the map to be sure I am more or less going where I’m willing to. You just can’t do that in Tokyo. First of all, it is too big, and many areas are quite, sort to say, focused: if you end up, say, in Akihabara, you’ll keep seeing manga-related shops and nothing else. Moreover, most street names are in Japanese, and you may well be completely lost before you find a map with english names on it.

But Tokyo is not just a big cultural shock, there are in fact things to see there. Some of this you may find by chance: many peculiar, old-style labyrinthic small areas, which survived gentrification, between yet another huge mall and the train rails. Others are everywhere: Tokyo is exceptional for those who love skyscrapers and technology: a marvellous, free of charge view of the city from above can be enjoyed from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices. Most places worth a visit, you have to know in advance. Let me mention a couple. As a side effect of their interest in exteriority, Japanese are really into visual arts. The Tokyo metropolitan Museum of photography has excellent exhibitions: among others, I really enjoyed the Diorama maps by Sohei Nishino, that takes pictures of the people and building from different parts of a city, and then glues them together as to form a highly personal map of the city. I also liked another exhibition on the role of images in science (which, much to my surprise, included a collection of pictures from books related to the Copernican Revolution). Again related to visual arts, special mentions are due to the Mori Art Museum (multimedial arts) and the Leica Ginza Salon (photography). Tokyo also has a big Fish Market. As lively as a market can be, its informal and relaxed atmosphere clashes with the aloof attitude of the rest of the city. You could get high quality sushi at a good price, and spend some time walking around, looking at trading going on.

Also, nightlife is really crowded. Despite the big city-attitude of people, there are so many clubs, and restaurant, and events you just can’t get bored. Some areas are too flashy and noisy to be enjoyable, while others are lively and pleasant. Roppongi is especially famous for having a relaxed international evening atmosphere.

Hence, the bad name Tokyo has among travellers often comes from the fact that it is a city where people live, more than a city for tourists. Because of that, its beauty is not everywhere: it is often overshadowed by attractions built for a frantic lifestyle most people (including me) do not appreciate. Nevertheless search well, and you will be rewarded.


Notes

1. I believe that this importance is somehow the outcome of the mixture of traditional japanese values, where wealth was extremely important, and the sudden discovery of western culture soon after World War II. In fact, immediately after the war ended, the US army settled in Tokyo and basically called the shots for 7 years. Japan, that had never been occupied before by any foreign army, abruptly absorbed American culture, where image was becoming more and more important (this is clearly explained in several Yukio Mishima‘s essays).
2. While doing this in Shibuya, I tried an experiment: I counted how many seconds I had to wait before seeing another foreigner. (But you can’t do it in a foreigners-friendly area like Roppongi, else it is too easy.) It took me 4 minutes, and I was literally looking at a dozen people per sec. This proves you that despite the Armani clothes people wear, the neon signs advertising the latest Hollywood movie or the Nirvana cover bands strumming in pubs, Japan is still a country almost 100% lived by, and hence tought for, Japanese people.
3. After visiting the Manga Museum in Kyoto (see this post) I became much more tolerant with manga- and anime-related culture. But I still find no point in being 30 years old and regularly going around dressed up like Doraemon or Kenshiro.

Traditional Japan: Kyoto and Takayama

edited on Feb 10th, 2012

 

[This is the second of a series of three posts on Japan. An introductory one can be found here. A third one on Tokyo is here.]

A Shinto shrine in Takayama

Beware, reader: 70% of a traveller’s tale tells what’s inside the speaker, and just 30% accounts for what he really saw outside. Also, for a gaijin (foreigner) is quite hard to get a neat idea of Japan in a handful of days, lost as he is between jet lag, neon signs, monks, awesome nature, tempura, and bullet trains. But I’ll try my best, starting from the first two cities I saw there.

When you arrive in Kyoto, you hardly believe it is the cradle of Japan’s religion. The huge brand new train station is the one you would expect to find in Tokyo, and the clumsy suburbs around it makes you think of some Yakuza movie settled in Osaka. 

But in fact, it is: Kyoto is for Japanese religion what Rome is for Catholicism. To a Western, it is the greatest possible encounter with classical Japan: it is the former capital of a country that holds tradition and formality in the highest esteem, and rituals are far more preserved and relevant in here than in Tokyo. And still, the first things you see of it are its modern sides: as you move away from the station, you will meet a downtown bustling with life and surrounded by skyscrapers, then the tiny roads and flashy neon signs of the night district of Gion, till you end right in front of the wide open spaces of the sacred area of Higashiyama. Here you can find uncountable Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines (for most Japanese are both Buddhist and Shintoists). Monks and believers come and go, paying no attention to tourists, and you will find yourself trying to decode their rituals and absorb the peacefulness and sacredness of the place. Often those religious buildings are gathered in big complexes, together with Zen gardens. Now, Zen gardens are better explained through pictures (never seen one ? try this), but if one is required to define them, I would say they are gardens where empty spaces and objects exchange their usual role – the former are more important than the latter, and really shape the garden (if you find this definition obscure and meaningless, try some Zen quotation, such as “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”). Even though a huge number of those temples and gardens are located all around the city, even in the most modern areas, Higashiyama has some quite impressive ones, together with paved roads between stone-made private houses, parks, and a relaxed atmosphere. This is something one cannot miss in Kyoto.

I also enjoyed the Manga museum – which is actually more of a library than a real museum: I am not into Manga at all, but it was interesting to understand the huge influence they have on Japanese culture. Everywhere in the city you will find people of all ages and social status lost in their comics, which mostly deal with love or fantasy story. At first, I was surprised by the deep attention their readers pay to them, compared to the seemingly childish style of the drawings – with overemphasized expressions and kitsch pictures. But now I think this exaggeration is part of Japan culture, and it takes a while for a Western to get used to that.  For instance, I found a similar exaggerated style in Japanese tv shows.

Takayama is a medium size city (< 100.000 inhabitants) in central Honsu, which is the area between Kyoto and Tokyo. It lies up in the mountains, surrounded by higher mountains, and covered with snow. I came here because I wanted to see some not-so-big and not-so-touristic town in Japan (and I succeeded only partly, for I was told that quite some western come here and it is a touristic place in fact) and nature. The downtown is a bunch of small roads, with traditional wooden houses and shops selling ceramics handmade in the countryside. It is touristic in a good way, meaning that you find goods tourists buy (pottery, souvenir, etc.) but no plastic crap and “I love Takayama” shirt. All around those shops, life is quiet but present: children going to school in shorts (despite the cold!) , fish market crowded with old ladies, and nobody paying attention to the new gaijin that came to town. I especially enjoyed climbing up the hills which surround the city, and enjoy the view of the snow-covered valley from there. Also, the road from Takayama to Tokyo passes between gorges and peeks, next to woods and half-frozen lakes, and if you happen to get stuck in a snowstorm (as I was) but comfortably sitting in a warm bus (as I was), you really enjoy the trip.

Let me conclude this post with a couple of tips for a traveller in Japan: experience the Onsen (traditional baths), better if in the countryside, in a very cold, snowy day, and with a nice view. Japanese food is awesome. I only knew sushi and sashimi, while it is much more various: noodles, many kinds of meat, vegetables, etc. You get never bored, and rarely disappointed. Try as much of it as you can: prices are quite good when compared to Europe.

Learn some basic food words and at least once get out of the tourist paths: go to some restaurant that has no English menu or plastic food sample (yes, they use them, a lot!) in the window. If you’re unlucky, you will make yourself understood somehow, and have dinner as always. But if you are lucky, some other customer will help you out with the menu, even if in a broken english. He won’t miss the chance to chat with a gaijin and you will spend a nice dinner (this happened to me more than once). In fact, I found Japanese people particularly nice. As heritage of a rigid social system, they are very formal and (even too) helpful at work, and restrained by a deep shyness which seems to be as common as sake there. But once the ice is broken, they become quite informal and reveal all their genuine curiosity for western culture and habits, making the conversation quite enjoyable. To us, Japan is a remote land, whose tradition and culture charm us, partly because we do not fully understand them. To many of the people I met there, the rest of the world is what Japan is to us.