Interesting conversations amidst Dissipation

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.

I thrive best on solitude. If I have had a companion only one day in a week, unless it were one or two I could name, I find that the value of the week to me has been seriously affected. It dissipates my days, and often it takes me another week to get over it.

–Thoreau

I agree wholeheartedly and unabashedly with Thoreau. My life thus far has been of trying to fulfill my obligations towards Man and Society, and managing the resulting Dissipations that wash over and assail me after.

For me, reservist training are usually dry, methodical and entirely dissipating affairs. Men in green are strange creatures; it seems that once you put on camouflage uniforms, your IQ drop 30 points, you lose half of your vocabulary, and you restrict yourself to neanderthalian colloquialism and philistine issues of the day.

But occasionally, you may lay down that facade and have a couple of decent and interesting conversations with other sapiens.

This time, I met a fellow alumni who though not of the same cohort, was also a product of a specialized education programme, and who is now working in policy-making in the education ministry. And we had a very interesting conversation on Jean Piaget‘s educational and child developmental psychology. As well as quite a spirited discussion on Hans Eysenck‘s take on the famous (too famous? too entrenched?) Spearman’s g factor, on tests of general intelligence ability. Piaget’s The Psychology of Intelligence and Eysenck’s The Structure and Measure of Intelligence, are of course titles which have been fixtures on my book shelves ever since I first read and used them in my General Paper class discussion on Tabula Rasa, Nature vs Nuture and Eugenics, so many years ago. And of course, on that same shelf from years ago, are Galton, Arthur Jensen, Charles Murray, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lynn, and definitely not in the least, James Flynn.

[Can’t help but mention here on how ironic it is that Charles Spearman’s construction of the Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient and of Factor Analysis, now the main tools of the trade of so many disciplines and especially in quantitative-based trading, was initially meant to provide for a rational, mathematical/statistical evidence-based justification and useful numeral unit for the original Binet tests.
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{Coincidentally, these ideas and themes were referenced and in my mind when I commented on a DailySpecs post here, regarding overpopulation, evolution and eugenics. My comment was interjected wholly tongue-in-cheek and framed in a divergence/convergence lens using H G Well’s The Time Machine. I really should do more to put together a post regarding this deliciously taboo theme.
}

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Another and rather more delightful conversation I had was with an oil trader from a bulge-bracket investment bank. These last few years of market turmoil, especially with crude going from 30 to 140, back down to 30 and then back up to 100, had been very very good to him. Between working hard in front of the trading screens, and wisely investing his spoils by picking up choice property in prime city locations, and less wisely adding to his collection of fast cars (I still think that driving into a military camp in a brand-new all-white Porsche 911 is in bad taste), he has apparently been doing some exotic adventure travelling.

While talking about our obvious common interest in the markets, we discovered that we share another interest and almost-obsession with history, overlapping especially in the classical antiquity history of Mesopotamia and Central Asia. And coincidentally, the one area in geography and the one spot in time which lit both our fires, was the ancient kingdom of Bactria, especially the ‘later’ years of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 to 125 BC, largely located in present day Afghanistan), when they were squarely and solidly in the centre of the the overland trade route between China in the east and the Mediterranean countries in the west, profiting immensely from their facilitative and middleman role to become the richest kingdom sitting astride the ‘center of world trade’ (centuries before other regions and cities like Samarkand were to assume the position), and leading eventually to the mesmerizing myth of the Bactrian Gold.

We both enthused and agreed that after the discovery of Qin Shih Huang’s Terracotta Army (and even more tantalizing, the as-yet-unopened main tomb) in 1974, and of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, the 3rd most significant archaeological find of the 20th century has to be Viktor Sarianidi’s discovery of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex and of course, the Bactrian gold hoard found within it.

Bactrian_gold_princess's_crown


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Viktor_Sarianidi_opens_vault__bactrian_gold

And my oil trader comrade-in-arms, while on garden leave before joining his present firm, managed to score a visa and apparently visited Afghanistan with the specific intention of touring the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex and seeing pieces of the Bactrian Gold hoard up close. And of course, since he was already there, he took in the Bamiyan Buddhas and Xuanzang’s travel route as well.

bamiyan_buddha

[Well, as least some good came out of the US invasion of Afghanistan.]

I was green with envy. And shall be updating my travel plans accordingly.

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Ending here with some more words from Thoreau:

You think that I am impoverishing myself by withdrawing from men, but in my solitude I have woven for myself a silken web or chrysalis, and, nymph-like, shall ere long burst forth a more perfect creature, fitted for a higher society.

I do not know if I am singular when I say that I believe there is no man with whom I can associate who will not, comparatively speaking, spoil my afternoon.

–Thoreau

In case Thoreau comes across as a little too high-sounding and aloof, here are rejoinders from the self-deprecating Lin YuTang:

If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.

A man who has to be punctually at a certain place at five o’clock has the whole afternoon from one to five ruined for him already.

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.

–Lin YuTang

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