Thoughts Upon Reading Murakami’s Latest Novel

A novel, like any work of art, is a self-contained yet indirect, incomplete statement that doesn’t require validation with the external world. The novel is nothing if it doesn’t ring true with us on some level, and yet the novel need not be truthful at all. The overall experience of a novel, when reduced in scale and power, feels quite similar to one’s experience of, say, a heart-to-heart meeting with a friend who, perhaps, needs to get something off his chest, who needs to sort out the recent troubling experiences of his life. After all, Willa Cather supposedly said, “What was any art but a mold to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” These are the same elements we discuss during intimate conversations, whether or not these conversations are founded on truth. Some people consider these elements to be “soul food.” Indeed, the same observations are true for any art form. One can even make art about making art, self-referentially and possibly ad infinitum.

The video game designer, Jonathan Blow, used to write short stories but found that he could better convey verifiable truth through the video game medium. He became more interested in logical systems that are internally consistent than in writing, because writing could be false; a piece of writing is not necessarily a system, but a video game must obey certain laws.

The result was Braid, a critically-acclaimed, almost canonical puzzle adventure video game devoid of “filler” or dead time (which, in the world of video games, could mean wasting time just wandering around the game world in search of, say, enough tokens to be able to move on to the next stage, or some other such activity in which the mind is not fully engaged and stimulated). He took some of the best elements of puzzle adventure games, heightened them tremendously, added some novel mechanics, and wove it all into a puzzle adventure game with minimal filler.

I played Braid from beginning to end and happily solved all of the brilliant puzzles (that sometimes referenced prior classic video games), but, in the end, found it interesting primarily as a gigantic, brilliantly designed, internally consistent puzzle. It wasn’t very different, say, from a clever mathematical exposition. Braid is an admirable work of mathematical artistry; it’s a technical masterpiece. In this sense, it truly is a work of art, and one that makes good use of the unique strengths of the video game medium.

Blow has argued that many people have not understood the work, that it has a higher artistic meaning conveyed by the video game medium that has been lost on them. Some have interpreted Braid as an allegory about the atom bomb.  Others have interpreted it as the progressive alienation of one who relentlessly pursues knowledge.  Ironically, Braid then reduces to art no different from the artistry of a novel, film, piece of music, or painting.  In other words, Braid’s overall artistic statement may be false–like a novel, it might express no truth, or have no validity, external to itself.

In the end, any work of art is in the same genus as the internally relevant, yet possibly externally irrelevant, fever dream.

Your thoughts?

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Don’t Jog Along Busy Streets

Since living near Rice University for the past year and a half, I’m always amazed at being practically the only person who runs through campus instead of around. There’s a very popular running trail around campus that approximates a 5K, but it adjoins busy streets (even busier during rush hour). Most people who jog around campus have GPS-enabled smartphones and can use apps to run off-trail while monitoring distance and pacing, so the known distance of the trail is not a good reason to run along it. This might not have been the case when I was in medical school at Baylor College of Medicine (near Rice University) in the late 2000s; running around campus might have been justifiable then, if only to keep track of pace, but I didn’t run along the streets then, either.

When I visit other cities, I see the same phenomenon: people running along busy streets, especially during rush hour (both in the morning and in the afternoon). What are these people thinking, if they are thinking at all? Perhaps they hope that their jogging session adds more of a health benefit than the intense exposure to air pollution takes away.

Here are a few of the major reasons to avoid running along busy streets:
1. Air pollution dilutes exponentially with greater distance from the source.
2. The scenery away from a busy street is usually nicer than the scenery along a busy street (especially the case if you run through a college campus instead of around).
3. Exposure to air pollution can cause bronchospasm, pulmonary damage, and other adverse effects, including a likely increased risk of lung cancer.
4. It’s usually a quieter and less stressful experience to run away from a busy street than along a busy street.

Why do people run around Rice instead of through? Do they not want to stray from the beaten path, so to speak? Do they wishfully hope that the air pollution will not affect them? Do they run along the designated running trail because everyone else does so? If so, then does this sort of pack behavior say anything more about them in general?

Meditate for Clarity

The mindful are to average people what the sober are to drunks.

I regret not meditating for at least the past year and a half. Meditation clears up my consciousness. It dispels residual clouds of thought, straightens any twisted impressions, and lets me see the forest clearly in spite of the trees. Whenever I get back into meditation, as I did recently, I’m embarrassed for at least a few days because I realize how far I’ve been from the clarity I’m approaching.

When I don’t meditate, my mind becomes sticky. It sticks to thought sequences, automatic colorings of particular situations, beliefs about the future or the past, etc. It attaches itself to any of various activities (guitar, music, reading, Facebook, etc.).  It’s not free.  It’s not fresh.

I’m not alone, either. Anyone can benefit from a regular meditation practice. Meditation improves mindfulness and has many other potential benefits, such as emotional resilience, increased compassion, decreased pain sensitivity, improved multitasking, faster cognition, enhanced creativity, increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, etc.

I first encountered meditation in college through the personal website of a half-German, half-Iranian electrical engineer who wrote about how zazen–Zen meditation–helped him make peace with his traumatic memories from the Lebanese Civil War (he was raised in Beirut). That website no longer exists, as far as I know.

In my undergraduate graphics algorithms class, whenever I hit a major roadblock while programming a solution to a graphics problem, I would stop everything and meditate in the zazen style. It worked every time (a fact that surprises me, in retrospect): I would see a solution–often an elegant one–that I hadn’t thought of while banging my head, so to speak, against the problem.

Meditation will not solve all of our problems, but it will make things clearer. It will push away the thoughts and viewpoints that are cluttering up our minds and preventing us from having a clearer outlook onto life.  And clarity is the first–and most important–step to figuring out anything.

Update 1/11/15: Check out this excellent article, by Jeffrey B. Rubin, on the “McMindfulness craze.”  I agree with Rubin that meditation is no panacea.  In my experience, mindfulness meditation mainly just improves attention management.  This is a massive benefit, though, because attention is critically important for so many things.