Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Sunday, January 10, 2021
Friday, January 8, 2021
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Out of deference to the man and to the awards, I give the book a solid five stars. As science fiction, it was pretty annoying. It cloys so close to the way that things actually are and likely will be that all of the inaccuracies in scale grate on me. He should have known that nothing like this can happen in the time frames given, especially as most of the plot regards politics as those play out in the new world on Mars and then reflect back home on earth.
His scale for politics is as compressed as are the timelines for equipping and populating Mars. His renown for this book rivals Elon Musk's wealth. Both are absurd, in one sense. In another they are very real. I mean deserved.
Of course Mars should be used as a spoiler, a foil for how humanity may transform. But in order to keep the work within the novelistic form, of course he must leave humans as we are; full of foible and prejudice and stupid ideas that we hold onto for dear life. Full of stupid enthusiasms for driving and flying and travel (guilty!).
It's an old book by now, and I should give it a break. It's been a long time since I immersed myself in science fiction, and maybe I've grown old as well. I remember being utterly immersed in new and fantastic realities, though the creatures there also couldn't escape their fundamental protagonist/antagonist identities. Only Ursula K. Le Guin ever tried, I believe, to get inside the skin of an evolved and transformed humanity. Horrors, but maybe Margaret Attwood as well. Is my problem with the masculine vision then? Probably so.
But still, the book by far deserves its acclaim. As to Elon, well, you have to afford him kudos as well for seeing through the new economy based on Surveillance Capitalism to one that still requires physical embodiments for purchase. The new economy assesses by enthusiasm for a kind of corporate vision, making bets on smoothness of execution. It still boggles my mind that vast General Motors, which was once the avatar of our economy ("As General Motors goes, so goes the nation") and which "owns" such sprawling physical and human infrastructure, should be worth so much less than Apple, or Tesla now, I guess including its spaceshot fantasies.
So Elon wants to go to Mars. He sometimes despairs of earth's future. And yet he has imagination enough here on earth only to build better cars. He's betting on our staying pretty much exactly the same people as well. Of course we have to go somewhere else if we want to change. We're incapable to transform the way we live here on earth. Nobody can imagine it.
At least Kim Stanley Robinson tries! He's moved back home from Mars, as far as I can tell, and there's integrity in that.
So in my memory, the best science fiction authors bet on a more spiritual transformation. What Kim Stanley Robinson continues to offer (I've only lately been turned on to him) is a polymath read of everything relating to what he writes about, which seems to include almost everything. Politics, religion, a perfectly wonkish vocabulary in the sciences and the dogged discipline to see his massive narratives through.
It would be hard not to recommend him. And yet my inspiration comes from other directions beyond power and bombs and technology generally. My imagination would change us by processes of enlightenment that these things have offered us. Our enthusiasms would have to turn more in the direction of lives lived differently, rather than only in other times and places which project the here and now.
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Wednesday, January 6, 2021
Monday, January 4, 2021
So Dad’s iCar became mine after he killed himself. We were no longer close, mostly my fault. I was living in the country. The only country left, really, after the meltdown. Pretty much like the New Jersey airport swamps that Dad used to tell me about, as far as I can tell, with desolate snow instead of water. Life was already pretty much dead for me where everyone else lived. I never learned how to promote myself the way you’re supposed to.
I did know how to live in the country. Dad taught me. He was a boy scout. He'd been in the Army. He always said that he’d live in the country if he didn’t have mouths to feed. So we used to camp, which really isn’t possible anymore. Because of the toxins. I live normally in the one place which doesn’t have them yet. That’s because they don’t last in the cold. The water flows the other way from where I live. I live in the last cold place on earth. Not the North Pole, but pretty close. There are still some trees there, though most of my firewood is deadfall. There are still some scrawny critters to eat. I stay fit.
Dad was well off. He practiced law, which had become pretty much the same as running a computer, though it still took some knack. Dad was pretty much happy all the time, and so of course I wondered why he’d killed himself. He acted happy anyhow.
I know how he killed himself. Nowadays, everyone always knows how everybody dies. There are only so many ways to go, and Dad took one of the most obvious routes. He went swimming. Dad had always loved to swim. He told me about the ‘good old days’ growing up on the Lake, when there were still fish in it. When you could see right down to the bottom at over 25 feet, he said.
Swimming now is a pretty quick death sentence. You don’t exactly drown. It’s just that the hypertoxins work their way in through your skin, and the faster you swim, the more they work their way in, and then you can’t swim back. Simple as that.
But I thought – no, really I knew, that there would be a clue of some sort in his iCar. First I had to talk my brother out of Dad’s iPhone for a day. We’d gotten the end-of-life codes when the will-vault was opened, and I found myself well-off for the first time in my life. But mostly I wanted access to Dad’s life records, and I wanted to see what it felt like to go for a ride in his car. Because that’s what Dad had done right before he killed himself.
Dad’s iCar was hardly brand new, but it was very comfortable. The inside was very very real fake leather. Lab grown, manufactured, same thing. There were no controls visible already. Everything was voice controlled, and the soundproofing was excellent. The windows would show you the outside if you wanted to see it, which hardly anybody ever did, mostly because it was all the same. Just moving.
There were plenty of entertainment choices while underway. You could immerse yourself in a film where the scenery was synchronized with the car's motion using the same approximate technology which cancels noise - although the ground ahead is a lot more difficult to read than noise is - and ran the active shock-absorbers, and so you would ride along inside the movie. Smoothly, unless it was supposed to be bumpy. Which is kind of funny, because you were the one moving now, and the movie held still to infinity, as it were, if you know what I mean. Seasickness had been an issue in the early days.
The narrative structure adjusted itself according to how you were moving. You could tune that, in case you wanted the car's motion to adjust, and not optimize for speed of arrival. Everything adjusted automagically however you wanted it to; meaning you did a dance with the other cars. It could look weird from the sidelines.
The main narrative kept to its script, so to speak, but subtle changes made it more personal, and therefore more exciting in a way. Most of the movies now make sure that you feel as though you are the actual protagonist. You sit still while moving and the movie moves your narrative along. Talk about projection!
Projection happened naturally enough, since there wasn’t very much that you could do IRL that put you in the protagonist’s seat. Real life was buttoned down and safe, so in your car you could imagine you were actually in control of something, even though it was mostly scripted in advance.
Most movies were actually produced for iCars now, because there was nothing better than full first-person immersion to get your blood going. You didn’t actually have to travel, and really nobody had much reason to travel except to visit friends, maybe at a restaurant. Or maybe you’d share a multi-player movie where you’d try to wrest the plot from your friends.
If you were well off, you pretty much could live in your car in its pod in your house. If you weren’t so well off, you’d either hail a car or maybe hail a bus if you were really poor. Most likely with your iPhone which was always on your body if you wanted to live. The entertainment wasn’t really so good on the bus, unless you count the people as entertaining. Most of them would be wearing goggles, though. Goggles were cheap.
None of that was the life for me.
I knew that Dad had equipped his car with a state-of-the-art sailing package. That was what he’d loved to do when he was young. He would sail on the Lake. He would tell me over and over when I was little about how many times he should have died on that Lake.
The one I remember the best was when he was out in the middle of the night and drinking beer with his best friend. The lights were all off because he almost never had enough battery left to start the engine back up when he got becalmed. He had a hand crank, but you still needed some battery for ignition. No magneto. He says he looked up one night late, at the bow of a Lake freighter bearing down on his little wooden sailboat. Talk about scary! He would have been invisible to radar, he said. Especially in the steep chop, as he called it, on that shallow lake.
Luckily there was wind. The beer bottles went overboard as he pulled the tiller hard in to just barely fly off the ship’s port bow, helped along by its bow wave. They laughed. He laughed every time he told the story. It knew it was probably exaggerated. Everything always is, when it gets turned into a story.
Of course, Dad would have preferred to drive his car, but that was perfectly illegal anymore. Sailing wasn’t illegal. There was just no place to do it, and so there weren’t any small boats. No canoes. No kayaks. Any body of water had become a repository for the hypertoxin. And that wasn’t going away for another hundred years or more. If ever.
My own life wasn’t so great. None of my old friends could understand why I wanted to live the way that I do. I don’t have any new friends. I really had no way to explain it to them. Creature comfort just didn’t matter to me. What mattered – what still matters – is that I remain alive, which means that I have some connection to a life that’s bigger than I am. There’s just simply nothing interesting about life in civilization anymore. It's dead.
Fact is I don’t really actually like to live the way I live. It’s just the only choice I have. It’s not really that I don’t know how to promote myself. I refuse to promote myself, and still I’m well-off, pretty much because of white privilege. Not much I can do about that. Dad died, and I could really use the money. The caribou are dying off, and so I have to start eating lab food like everyone else. Short trips to civilization are all that I can take, but you've gotta do what you've gotta do.
Anyhow, I knew that Dad had installed a sailing package in his car. I knew that he would sometimes get drunk and pretend that he was sailing. I tried it once about ten years ago, and it was pretty cool. It really did feel like sailing. The motions were right, and the wave action was right. The car was standing still in live-action mode. The ground-anticipating shocks had become motive shocks; same difference. The sails responded perfectly to the wind, which might be turned up and gusty. You would have to hike out from the edge of your seat when sailing on your ear, for instance. You had to haul on actual ropes, and it was pretty good exercise, really, even though the lines weren’t always in perfect alignment with the image. Push-button electric winch sailing never really caught on with the small, elite audience for the iSail iBoat.
You know one thing people didn’t really think about when they first started moving reality onto a screen is that you can’t really perceive something if you don’t conceive it first. I know that seems basic, but it’s really quite profound. At the one extreme there are all those subatomic, so-called particles. At the other, there is the virtual experience of something you’ve never done IRL. In a way, it’s like if you’ve never had sex with an actual woman, you can’t feel sex with a fake one. Scratch an itch. Those changes happened slowly over time, but they’ve had a real impact on our population. You can’t just go from horse to horseless carriage overnight. You have to learn to see it.
In the car now there was no wind. No real discomfort. Not that there couldn’t have been, but really most people didn’t want to experience the actual pain of it when they went climbing up Mt. Everest, say. It would have meant legal trouble anyhow, as Dad would know. You can’t design something that inflicts real pain, even if the pain is administered by the user themself. Not legally, anyhow.
And the law was as hard to skirt as it was to fake your death if you wanted, say, to start a new life. Which plenty of people did. But it never changed anything. Ever. We’re all kind of doomed, in a way, to be the person we are, if you know what I mean.
I’d say that’s a good thing. I mean, if you could change your life, then you could kill yourself over and over and I know that I’m already immortal anyhow. There isn’t going to be another one of me, which is a kind of immortality, even though I’ll be long forgotten. Given that I am an instance of the most complex being in the known cosmos, I’ll take it. That’s plenty of influence for me, promoted or no.
I’d already wrecked my relations with my Dad, so his suicide wasn’t exactly killing me, if you know what I mean. I mean I didn’t feel any different than I had before he died. There hadn’t been anything for me to miss for a very long time. Dad had told all his stories. There weren’t any new ones. We'd long since become cranky with one another.
Now there is still some controversy about this. It’s pretty much an invasion of privacy, but if the will left behind says it’s OK, you can play out, as I was about to do, say your Dad’s life after he’s gone. You can relive what he lived and watch what he watched. You can sail in the same conditions that he did and it will pretty much feel the same as it felt to him.
I suspect suicide will soon exclude any such provisions in a will. It should, right? I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but truth be told Dad was working on precisely that body of law to prevent a life-grant that survives a suicide. He thought it was creepy and sick, but he wasn’t expecting to commit suicide, so he didn’t include the language in his own will. So Dad’s iPhone combined with his iCar pretty much gave me a way to inhabit Dad if I wanted to. And I did just simply because I felt like I had to know. Who knows why?
Well, he is my dad and I had loved him once. Shouldn’t that be enough?
So I went sailing. Yikes! Dad had been ramping up the amperage until he was sailing in a gale-force wind. What a wild ride! Exhilarating really and more exercise than I’ve ever gotten virtually. You could talk like you were talking with God and so you could tell the wind to blow harder and it did. You could say that you wanted more power than your sails could handle and they would tear out, and then you’d have to deal with bringing them in by hand, although most people tilted before that could happen. I was pretty strong, though. Even Dad didn’t have enough spare change to get the kind of equipment to take you that far over the edge.
Who really needed it anyhow? There are limits to what it’s worth accomplishing virtually. The machine never quite dances as a real partner would. You get off it gets boring, well, except, like eating, it’s a renewable pleasure, right? No real sailor would ever stop sailing because they’ve already been there done that too many times. With your wife maybe, but not with the sea. When there was a sea you could actually sail on. Back in the day.
What were you doing, Dad, right before you offed yourself? I wanted to see. I wanted to experience it. And then it happened. I suddenly wanted to kill myself in the worst way, and so I shut it down. I knew what was happening, and unlike Dad, I hadn’t ever experienced the real thing, which is what saved me.
You get to this point where you just say ‘bring it on, old man, fucking bring it on.’ You get to some combination of pissed off and exhilarated and as much as you want it to end it won’t end and you know it could get a lot worse, so you just say, out loud or to yourself or to the very cosmos, ‘just bring it on!’
I knew that Dad just wanted it to be real, and that it was real, but that here was no real danger and therefore no real excitement. Nobody goes out sailing wanting to die. You check your equipment, you keep things in good repair because you never know when the weather will turn on you when you’re too far out to make it back in before all hell breaks loose.
And when hell does break lose, according to my Dad, then you’re too busy taking care of business to be scared. You’re just in the weather, or dealing with the snapped bowsprit or hauling in the torn sail, or taking apart the engine, trying to get it started. If you live to tell it, those are the things you live for.
It’s not like you really want to kill yourself. I guess it’s like jumping off Everest. You just want to know what it feels like. You can’t know what it feels like to jump off Everest, since that’s against the law for obvious reasons. Not the jumping. You can do that all over the place. But the feeling, since the feeling only comes with the actual fear of death as the ground approaches. That would be like making a snuff film. Really gross. Not cool.
But with sailing you can get actually closer. You can get to where you really do feel scared. The trouble is that it just reminds you that you aren’t really going to die, and there’s nothing you really have to do to stop from dying. I guess Dad just stopped wanting to live if he couldn’t do that. Plus, I imagine he was sick and tired of swimming in swimming pools. Virtually, I mean, since it would be unconscionable to waste that much good water on swimming in a full pool. There was water and it felt like swimming, but you’d never do it if you didn’t have ocean-reality goggles on. I mean who wants to exercise for the sake of exercise. You can get a hard body over correspondence if that’s what you’re after.
I guess what I’m saying is that you should be glad you don’t live when I’m living. Things will be better for you by the time you read this. How do I know? Well, here in the real-world things have gotten really hairy. We’re not going to make it is what I’m saying. So, if you’re reading this you can’t possibly be living the way that we all are now.
OK, signing off. I don’t really need to see how things end. I’m going sailing off to eternity. So long. I’ll drop a line into the cloud along my way in case somebody gets it.
Saturday, January 2, 2021
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sometimes I might say that I know something about China. Most of the time not. I started by studying the classical language and was (therefore) really peeved when the simplified characters now used on the mainland complicated my life. I've travelled there, and have even gotten somewhat deeply into the life, though mostly on a formal level. That level is harder to get beyond in China, I think.
Plus, I'm a reticent person generally, and not so eager to appropriate Chinese culture into myself. My interest was, rather, always cosmological; as in, their approach is different. I have been very satisfied by what I've learned over the years, though I have energy only for surfaces when it comes to a more in-depth study. I have a hard enough time to keep up with my reading in English. So much of our life here has stopped making sense to me.
I met Nancy Pine when I attended a presentation she did about her comparative research with early education in China and in the U.S. That presentation, as I recall, led to my collaboration with the team Nancy led for the Museum of Teaching and Learning, based in Fullerton, CA. I was working for the University there, arranging the curricula for academics from China who wanted to understand education in America; who wanted to get ahead.
I am not nearly so hard a worker as Nancy is, and despite my on and off again study of comparative education at the graduate level, I don't hold a candle compared to the light that Nancy is able to shine.
We met again in China where we delved more deeply into the pros and cons of language learning. As it does for children growing up, learning to read and write also destroys other routes toward understanding the world. Nancy maintains that she can see things that would go unnoticed were she struggling to keep up with the words. She proves herself correct in that observation!
And so how wonderfully ironic, that she connects with a man - an unassuming man with large ambitions that he can't seem to help - who felt compelled to master English. He started from the remote farm-town backwaters of China to which Chairman Mao and his colleagues retreated and regrouped before re-inventing China. No, before renewing China. Invention is a Western thing.
I have read quite a few scholarly works on modern China by now, and yet nowhere did I find a more clear understanding than by reading this book. That is even after many long conversations with the author herself. This is a book, then, which validates the work that goes into such a massive project. There is more to be gained by reading it than can be gotten in almost any other way. I doubt that you (or I!) could ever be taken in so deeply by life as it is actually lived. By schooling as it actually works.
Quite frankly, I think that this work should replace many of the analytical texts used in schools and colleges. It shows clearly how easily moves toward democracy are thwarted, but also how much one determined individual can do to make a change. But mainly it grants the reader a true and reliable sense of how life is lived in China. Even if there is more depth elsewhere - which I rather doubt - there is no better clarity.
An Wei is a man with far more integrity than he ever had ambition. He hardly tortures himself the way that the rest of us might, when he has to choose between staying back in his primitive home-town, and scaling the heights that he had glimpsed as translator for so many American stars. Staying back means primitive life, yet he gets to be the one to introduce computers, cell-towers, democracy even - to erase, however briefly, the ordinary people's frustrations which come from being far away from any center and forgotten.
Honestly, I wept through some of it. Not for the tragedy, really, so much as for the frustration and scant consolation and still more for the man's forbearance and determination. There is cosmology here for me. Humanity in place is cosmic; connected to eternity.
If you are at all interested to know China beyond headlines and angry certainties; if you are interested to know how life goes on, and renewal stutters along; if you are simply in need of a really graceful read, then I would highly recommend this book.
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Wednesday, December 30, 2020
Annus Horribilis Finis
I sit now opposite a cicada painting. I'd watched my friend's mother produce it at his house south of Buffalo maybe 30-some years ago. The literary inscription to the side of the painting calls out the place and the season, but no-one down in history will be able to place it. The Chinese words for "Boston" and "New York" juxtaposed will just confuse anyone. The one a small town the other the State. The character for "summer" might be the painter's literary name. Obscure referents. My Chinese recedes.
My friend had shown me the computers which came along with the grant he'd gotten to demonstrate their diagnostic power. His Mom was visiting. My friend was both a medical doctor and a computer whiz. As I recall, there were three machines, collectively; I'm certain, with less computing power than my iPhone now has, but impressive for their time. Each the size of a washing machine, and custom made. There wasn't anything off the shelf quite good enough. His demonstration proved itself, but implementation was derailed by lawyers. I think that stuff has been gotten past by now. My friend has passed on.
He explained how well-known his mom was in Hong Kong, especially for her ability to paint these - what are they - cicadas maybe? The inscription calls them that, but they're not quite like the ones I'm used to. They share the qi of the leaves whose twig they also hang from, as does the calligraphy. Distinguished by source of motive power. Cicadas can flutter themselves.
What I now own is an instance, I would say, of a practice that had been perfected over the course of a long study. I suppose the value, in money, of any particular instance must relate to how true the painter's qi flowed, at the particular time that the painting was accomplished. This instance was good enough for her to sign her name and lend it her chops.
I treasure it, though it is getting beaten up for falling off the wall so often. This time by chill from lake effect snow and wind. I don't know how many times I may replace it still on perhaps another new wall somewhere else. A mild concern. I like the painting.
There are very accomplished people I run into all the time who seem to have no notion of the inner workings of anything. Plumbing, electric, automobiles, whatever, and how they all interrelate. The workings of capitalism or the market. They don't picture, as I do, the scramble writers for what passes as the media now must undertake to true their terminology against the quirky usages that have evolved once we started writing "on" and "for" the Internet.
I don't understand how it might feel to live inside, as it were, a mind like that. How could a person be so incurious, and yet still there are always limits to what we may be able to understand. A person can only wear themselves out trying for completion. I feel worn.
I told the other day about my childish bullseyes and how these might relate to my drifting off before the turning point of accomplishment in any particular discipline. Heck, I was living in a retirement community as a grad student most recently. Because it was the only place I could afford. Than, as a petty administrator at a college, I lived among students for the same reason. I guess the people who skate along the surface have it all over me. They know how to live in this world which is all and only about surfaces and levers to make things happen.
Each morning I check my iPhone to see if and how the battery management circuitry is helping to preserve my battery and I still don't know how to game it so that it won't outguess me and leave me with an overcharged and hot battery every morning. I'll have to give up on that one. It would be too hard, and the benefit too small. But I do wish that they just used a transparent algorithm that I could tweak myself. At least Apple doesn't go so far as to call it artificial intelligence. It's just simply opaque is all. Obscure.
To my right is the nearly finished re-caned chair that I got early in my marriage when my grandmother died or maybe when my parents moved. The chair had belonged to my great-grandmother, or maybe even before her, and I had recaned it quite perfectly - I think any dealer would assume a competent furniture-restorer had done it.
But I'd also rebuilt the fireplace in our house next to which the chair sat (just sold the other day, the fireplace still looking great as I pointed out with pride to my daughter, although defiled by a gas insert now - I have been helping my ex move into her beautiful new place) . How very clearly I remember a log slipping from my grip to puncture the cane seat. The chair was preserved as such in my ex's attic for thirty some years, just as it had been in a different attic for so many years, and now I have it back. The chair must not want to be sat on!
I ran out of cane before I could complete it this time. And the cane was brittle - it had probably sat on a shelf in some Amazonian warehouse for too long. Nobody canes chairs anymore, I suppose. and the cane was a quarter millimeter too wide, as I discovered too late.
I am not so good at mastering new things at my advanced age. I retain no memory of how I accomplished the caning the first time, but this time it looks rough and amateuristic. But it will have to do. The seat is strong enough, and the chair has retained the restoration that I did before.
My rote rehearsal of the way toward replicating this primordial pattern for gently cradling butts and bodies while allowing the air to circulate was really quite the opposite to how my friend's mom painted the cicadas.
You can't be a DIY Chinese brush artist. You just can't. With persistence, a fresh mind, and generalized practiced skill with hands, you can be a professional-grade chair caner DIY, no problem. Just follow the instructions.
China is only about surfaces. Over time. There is no notion of a secret life "inside." and the core of a person, the heart of a person, doesn't distinguish between emotive and intellectual self. What's writ is on the surface, motive as much from without as from within.
My newly caned (nearly) chair now sits by the very same desk the News photographer used to depict the new Chinese teacher come-to-town. I don't change much. I repeat my rote recitations interminably.
When my ex and I bought it, we called the desk a Larkin Desk, not really knowing what that meant. Come to find out that the Larkin Soap Company, known globally for the Frank Lloyd Wright designed office building that Buffalo, in her unfathomable wisdom, tore down. That building just about determined the future of office space. It was first with air conditioning. Cubicles in an open floor plan. And who even knew that Buffalo could be an oppressively hot place to live and work?
These desks were the sort of culmination of Larkin's successful conversion to a catalog store, which involved premiums for purchasing cases of soap. Elbert Hubbard was a salesman there! I guess soap must have been relatively expensive in those days. Anyhow, wealth was generated and so Larkin, I guess, was prototype for on-line sales and IKEA-style furniture designed to be fitted into square boxes, assembled with simple nails by the recipient. Deskilling and all that.
There is a student from the above-mentioned (in the article) school for gifted children that I once headed who has been blocked from the alumni group because he won't stop ranting about the wrongs done him over the course of his life. I don't know the fellow. Apparently, he's quite personable in person. In writing, he rants like I do, or rather I rant like he does. "You just don't understand, and I will drone on interminably to try and make you understand."
We call such people mentally ill. I have known many. Honest, if I could do this better I would. It's not as though I'm so presumptuous as to claim recompense for my rants. I don't even have a complaint.
We don't call religious fanatics mentally ill. Shouldn't we? Many of the schizophrenics I know go on and on about Jesus this and Jesus that. I guess they need something to hold onto. Rote recitations handed down or from the Bible. Hail Mary, mother of God.
Shouldn't Trump be discharged from his office now by reason of mental incompetence? Generalized dereliction of duty? Shouldn't anyone who takes the word of ranters on the Internet and on the screen be declared mentally incompetent? Well, they are declared such every day, but it hardly makes a difference. For sure, Trump would not last long in any organization anywhere which had a bottom line that wasn't criminal.
I think that if we are able to plumb the inner workings of things, we have an obligation of sorts to do so. Willful blindness is the only true evil that I know, apart from the helpless sociopathic or psychopathic kind. And willful blindness is what those ranters exhibit. It's not a symptom of mental illness. The mentally ill truly do believe what they believe. The see it, they feel it, they know it and they rant about it. I guess it's all they have to give them comfort.
Now as you know, I am not enamored of much about our current mode of living on the planet. I am a fan of simple hand tools, and am horrified by what digitally fueled globalization is bringing down upon us. Almost no-one really understands the inner workings of that stuff. Not in the whole.
I do believe that life was lived as well with only woodstoves and handpumps. Heck, I've lived that way myself and miss it. (Bizarrely, I just recovered the old coal stove from my sailboat. It was among my few things in the garage-attic loft that my ex didn't decide she wanted.)
The woodstove made a lot of sense back in its day. It could heat so much better than a fireplace. But it came along with steam engines and then all hell let loose when we learned to contain petro-fueled explosions in the internal combustion engine.
I don't care so much about getting around anymore. I'm going to try my ebike on the snowy roads to see how it goes in winter. I have to work this all out before the car finally dies. They don't make stick shift anymore, and I really don't want a backup camera and a touch screen. Mostly because I would feel so helpless when it all breaks. Maybe trolleys will come back by the time I need them, or maybe I'll be hailing self-driving Ubers with my smartphone. I hope it's the former.
Now you're going to think that I'm anti-progress, and against technology. Sometimes I think that too, but I assure you I'm not. Instead, I think that both scientific progress and technology got hijacked by the rather raw exuberance of our economy. Digital tech in particular just pumps up capitalism until nobody even seems to notice that the planet is being wrecked. We just conjure schemes for life off-planet and carry on.
We're still drunk on the raw power of Einstein's relativity, even while we remain wisely charry about deploying nuclear energy full-scale. Fact is we don't really want to change our paradigm, simply because it works too well for those who benefit from it. We are addicted to oil. Alcohol will do in a pinch.
Like the cicadas on those drooping tree limbs, we mimic, we are, we internalize, the qi that is all around us. We are become machines ourselves. We have internalized them, and even our thinking is by rote. I pray that the reigning memes pull love along with them. I pray they move in the direction of new life. We have run our course with this one.
We live still inside an understanding of money that has each of us behaving as rational actors. And yet everyone knows that we are tugged around by our hormones. Driving a car is surely a mindful and rational act. I guess it's the reigning model for why humans are the apex critter. We're the only ones who can drive. We make good decisions, most of the time, based on the information we get perceptually. We can drive even without all of our senses engaged. It's our rational brains that do the trick.
We are so obsessed by our understanding of cognition (!!) as something that goes on inside our heads and inside our brains that when Daniel C. Dennett builds his model for consciousness, he has to coin a term he calls 'semantic information' to define the incoming stuff on the basis of which we survive. He seems to be convinced that the only materialist understanding possible is that, say, the workings of a self-driving car move in the direction of how the brain works, and that shall reveal how the mind works. I rather doubt it.
To me, 'semantic information' tortures the obvious in just the way that self-driving cars do. Sure, riding a subway turns us into drones, and driving cars is fun. So let's make the cars drive themselves - it would surely be safer that way - and then we can have our fun watching our screens as we get transported in comfort. To a place identical to the one where we started. That's why I came back to Buffalo. It's always the same.
The trouble with any computational model for cognition is that it doesn't and can't deal with the problem of the conscious NOW that is required for us to stay alive on the highways. Computers don't need a now. They just need to assemble incoming information quickly enough to control all the servo mechanisms which keep the car going safely in the right sequence and with the right timing. No free will decision-making required or allowed. The car is entirely subject to its environment.
Humans drive by feel. We know when it doesn't feel right, and then we start paying more attention. But driving is so automatic we can generally even text while doing it, even though to do so is a deadly mistake.
We humans must make much more complex decisions than machine-thinking ever does. Like buying stuff. Weighing price against desire. Evaluating the cost to shop against the fun of shopping against the convenience of having stuff delivered to our doors against, now, the likelihood of catching the contagion.
Probably all of us know that horrible retrospective moment when we know that we screwed up. We cut ourselves while chopping vegetables, we drop a glass. Or we fail to be sufficiently paranoid while driving. That's the worst.
In evolutionary terms, cognition really isn't fast enough. Accident happens. At best we decide emotionally in a precognitive sense. At best our emotional response is conditioned by good training and by cognitive pre-arrangement about contingencies which might arise. We know from neurological experiment that our mind has already decided before we consciously take ownership of the decision. Somehow that evident fact feels like a threat to our free will.
But why, if it's still me who does the deciding? Why do we privilege cognition so much? Why not emotion? I guess that's how we've been trained.
The other day my daughter and I directly witnessed a young woman run a stop light and explode the car of an older woman driving slowly through the green light in front of us. The explosion was by design of newer safer cars, and both drivers got out of their cars. Our response was to keep moving after a small crowd had already gathered. It was an unfamiliar neighborhood, and there were now plenty of other witnesses and helpers.
I consider this a stain on my character. I should have stopped unthinkingly. I shouldn't have been so concerned about our personal safety, and my daughter was looking to me for guidance. I told her to keep going if she didn't want to become entangled in an endless process. I might like to say that I was concerned for my daughter's safety. Really, it was my own reticence. I don't like to get involved.
I suspect that this is mostly a genetic thing. But it also feels as though I could and should do something about it. And so I do this, OK? I've spent most of my adult life wracking my brain for something like a scientific experiment to demonstrate some actionable practical result of the brave new worldview that came to me in a flash while writing one winter aboard my old wooden sailboat.
Well, now I think I've found it, my experiment. The closest I'd come previously was when I came across the work on precognition of a Cornell professor, Daryl J. Bem. He called his paper, appropriately enough, "Feeling the Future." I was pretty convinced, although I was also cowed by Bayesian statisticians.
As I recall, he presented pornography to young men with a clicker. They chose the porn instead of the other choice before they saw it to some statistically significant degree. Now of course, and obviously using porn makes crude sense, as it might relate to evolutionary passing down of successful genes. Sexual feelings would have to be right up there in importance.
I don't understand Bayesian statistics well enough to be very convincing, but I think in general they are calibrated to deny anything like psi. Isn't that what "the priors" are all about? In my response, I wondered whether the choice of a genuine random versus a pseudo-random computer seed could make a difference, since it has always been my position that accident is not always random, and that by definition of digital (on/off) computers are - by definition now - cut off from the continuum of reality. In particular they are cut off from life, in the cosmos. I obviously don't think that computers can be alive, and therefore I don't really wonder or worry that they might become "conscious" in the way we mostly use that term.
Anyhow, I think Bem's experiment is quite sufficient for my purposes. What it lacks is some acceptable theory which might explain the data. It is my claim that the mind is defined as much by emotion as by cognition, and I subscribe to Riccardo Manzotti's "Spread Mind" approach to understanding consciousness.
He locates mind's perceptual informing 'out there' among perceptual objects, and not "in" the brain as a storage and sorting mechanism for perceived/received information. This is a very important distinction. The mind is spread among what it has perceived. Manzotti is as much a materialist as Dennett is. Perhaps more so.
What nobody will do (yet) is to locate emotion as also outside the brain and body. It would be like re-introducing arranged marriage and down with romance, or something like that. I think that I maintain that the beauty part of sexual reproduction is on the physical side of the equation, while on the emotional side is something much closer to godhead.
Yes, I know, you think I'm veering toward religion, and sometimes I think that too. But I assure you that sky-god patriarchal religious fantasies and structures are far more repellant to me than even rampant capitalism on the steroids of digital tech.
Or maybe they're the same thing. Unlike my hero Richard Dawkins, I don't, however, throw out the baby with the bathwater. I simply prefer not to give a Name to the godhead, which is as real to me as are the many many otherwise inexplicable coincidences I experience. And in part, yes, I do find that prayer works. Not to a sky god in particular, although I guess that must work for those who do see ghosts. Just a prayerful approach to everything, including caning a chair (the jury remains out on that one).
So how could we improve on Bem's experiment, to make it more convincing? Manzotti offers at least a few thought experiments as corrective to more traditional theories of consciousness. I think we need something still more powerful than that. Although even Einstein devised his theories on the basis of previously existing theory and prior experimental evidence. It wasn't until later that actual proof arrived, most powerfully in the form of a really big bomb. Those in the know understood the importance of his breakthrough because it made better sense of the evidence than had been made before.
Anyhow, if emotion and conception can also be located outside the brain in just the way that Manzotti locates perceptual 'information,' then we should be able to devise an experiment to test that. As I suggested when I wrote to Dennett way back when, even if you assume that cognition happens inside the head, it would be tough to define simultaneity for 'the now' in such a way that you don't implicitly locate some sort of center of cognition in a way to reify homunculus, or the Disney-type driver of consciousness; ghost within the machine. Nerve transmission just simply isn't all that fast. Perceptions arrive from different times and places.
My proposal was to posit narration as the structure which creates both the "me" and the "now." Narration stings together all the variously timed and distant perceptions relating to the behavior we decide to own. It puts them in a sensible order.
If I'm correct that most critical decisions, for reasons of alacrity really, are decided emotionally, then there ought to be conceptual structures which can be documented to be either timeless (like the pattern of my caned chair, and as Plato imagined reason happened) or (and here's the nubbin of the problem) which come together prior to cognition in a way that conditions cognition in just the way that Bem claims to have shown.
So what would "feeling the future" look like in a more convincing experiment? I'm looking for more of a macro proof here. Something still more statistically irrefutable than what Bem demonstrated. Maybe something a little bit easier to replicate and test than those eyes in the back of the head which seem to indicate that someone is watching you. I mean we aren't going to be able to test that until we have a credible theoretical framework for why perception can't happen without conception. And then it might even be trivial to observe that, of course those arcane structures in which we are embedded include the direction of our fellow humans' gaze.
It is surely trivial to accept that we may be emotionally moved by things that have happened in the past. Likewise, we understand that we are moved by our wants into the future. Indeed that's how our free will operates. We choose to go after what it is that we want and away from what it is we don't. This, I maintain, is the very meaning of time.
Just like we know the horrible feeling of having made a big boo boo after it's too late, we also know the throes of indecision when making a consequential decision. A love decision, maybe, or a house decision, or even a car. Delusion steps in when we believe that we made a fully rational decision.
That would be do deny all the accidents of why this one here and why now. You can't choose to live everywhere and everywhen all at once, although plenty of wealthy people I know believe that they are exercising choice of residence on the palate of the entire planet. The really rich ones play multiple choice, perhaps also in love interest. Well, I'd say apparently so.
I felt that awful feeling when I dropped the log onto the seat of the caned chair I was so proud of refinishing. And now I pay for the accident. I remember parts of the origin story, but not the critical part, about how to do the caning well and efficiently and without so damned much frustration.
I'm nearly done, but you know, the curve is backward. The first critical strands go in criss-cross very quickly. And then you have to start weaving, and by now I realize that I must pause at each in/out. Still, I break strands. The fault is mine for not sensing the crease. Did I cause it, or was it a flaw in the natural cane? So many times I get the twist wong, and if you don't hit it right you have to back out and weave it again. I'm almost done. I hope.
Is part of what I felt when I dropped the log those thirty-some years ago this pain I'm feeling now? Was it vain to avoid it for so long? Are my current good relations with my ex also part of the fulfillment of how hard I fell in love even longer ago?
Bem's experiment can't really clarify whether his psi demonstration, so called, was the subjects conditioning the future, or the future, which is presumably set if I understand where Bem was coming from, leaking into the present. I think only better theory and further experimentation could tease out the difference.
As I continue caning this chair, I still do feel the minor accidents, where I stress the cane by twisting it, or where I find that I hadn't pull it taught and have to weave through a kink. Accidents are clear in the middle of the seat - it would be a gross mistake to allow a twist or to get the weave wrong. But toward the perimeter there are choices to make. You might not know if you made a mistake, in choice of hole, say, or how you wove the final space, until it's really to late to go back over it. It's a round seat, and the holes are pretty randomly spaced. Clearly, few measurements were taken back in the day. It was drilled mostly by eye. Certainly by hand.
Will I pay for these little mistakes in how soon it will be that someone's butt cracks through the seat? Does it matter, given that any cane will grow brittle over time and the seat will break? It's only my pride that tries toward perfection; the enemy of the good. Nothing lasts forever. Periodic renewal is the stuff of life. Never plastic, Benjamin.
Of course we know that we are conditioned by the future. We make adjustments when we see or feel it coming. Of course we also condition it by our choices, whether these are informed by literal or figurative feel.
And which, really, is which? When I feel something emotionally, there is no hint of signal/noise. No information transmitted. The feeling is as direct as can be conceived. I have it, and that's all!
Feeling something perceptually requires some feeling around and sussing out what's really out there. If words are memes, then language is far more clever than any one of us can know. That's for certain. Why else would there be so many puns and double-entendres beyond our comprehension to reduce? And if ideas are memes, then I sure can't come up with one all by my stoney lonesome. The ideas have to come to me.
Writing is so much harder than caning chairs. I do declare!
Some Chinese consult the I-Ching. Plenty everywhere consult astrological charts. Many pray. Satisfaction with one's choices may seem to be a character trait, or good luck, or a personality trait or a confidence in whatever consultative methods one uses. So, for our experiment, the thing to do would be to manipulate a range of double-blinded conceptual variables such that someone makes decisions on false premises, as it were, which is to say based on structures the subject couldn't possibly have known of in advance.
You think you're buying a BMW but you end up with one of those Chinese knock-offs which look identical, but aren't nearly as good inside. Or you marry a sociopath. Or elect one. Fooled by beauty, you allow your fantasies too much play.
The sort of experiment I propose has actually been made easier for us by history, in that nobody really seems to believe in anything anymore. Well, it also has to be said that in the past when we did believe in things and trust people, we were far more easily fooled. By tricksters, by magicians, by Confidence Men (always men, it seems). But now we have strict and double-blinded scientific methodology. We don't have to trust the scientist. We trust the juried peer-review. It's still a confidence game, but a much better one.
I suppose in a way, I'm loading the dice, since we all know, don't we, that only stupid people are fooled by con artists, so we have to avoid those kinds of experiments, where it's a matter of outsmarting the con-man or just refusing to play.
I still remember the day that granddaddy got me to "open my mouth and close my eyes and I'm gonna give you a big surprise." I was a really picky eater, and didn't like much of anything beyond buttered noodles and wonder bread. He stuffed in a spoonful of mashed potatoes, which I had always refused to eat, and I trusted him so implicitly that I tasted apple sauce, which I really liked. We all had a good laugh. It might have even been the day that my appetite opened up, although I can't remember that part. I only know that it would be hard to call me picky now, and it has been for as long as I can remember anymore.
I'm perseverating here, trying to come up with something. Something that's not "and behind door number three . . ."
How about the hundredth monkey test! The idea there is that there are these monkeys distributed among islands with no means of commerce or communication among them. If you teach some critical number of monkeys a new trick - I think washing food is the classic example - then spontaneously, all the monkeys, even though they are out of touch with the educated monkeys, seem to learn the same trick.
I mean it could be like the horse who does math, where the humans gathering the intel are actually signalling what it is they want to detect. Double blind would mean that the intel gatherers are out of the loop of what to look for. And the idea of teaching is that it wasn't something spontaneous which resulted from something changed in "the atmosphere;" the environment.
Again, in my earlier writing, I speculated that my own sense of meaningful coincidence could easily be my mind playing tricks with me. That I had subconsciously gathered information which, in turn, informed subconscious choices about where to look and what to look for. The result was my conscious amazement at how unlikely the exciting result truly was. Subjectively, I never credit that rationalization, though I know it's hard to substantiate the instances.
We are all familiar with processes of innovation where a once invisible solution to a vexing problem becomes obvious over time. We tend to credit "inventors" where it would be far more reasonable to credit some collective upgrade through usage. Nobody goes from steam engine to transistor without a lot of stuff in between.
So instead of having individual clickers the way that Bem did, what we need are bunches of people who get taught something obscure and then other bunches of people who are asked to sort out from among the same set of objects the first group was using, something that felt useful. The control group would be doing the same thing while the other group was being taught, but before the test group started. Numbers of co-conspirators would be incremented.
I will never be funded for this experiment. That's even though lots of money is spent on globalized prayer, to prove the existence of God or something. There is no justice in the world. Well, there I go ranting about injustice done to me. Nah. I'm worried about you!
The question is this: Let's say someone offers to complete my chair caning. I mean, how many times can I make it through the incredibly painstaking process of weaving a row only to have the strand break before I finish? How many times can I back out?
I think it comes down to trust. Just about now, I'd be loathe to allow anyone to take over. After all the work I've done! Damned if I'm going to let you wreck it! What if someone finished it behind my back and then surprised me with a nice-looking finish?
Here are the important questions; the ones that never get asked: What if someone is wrecking your apartment? What do you say? "Hey, that's mine!" Or how about, "Hey, that's not mine! (I have to take care of it!)?"
Do you consider oil a gift from the cosmos? A gift that has powered the incredible cognitive revolution of humanity. Or do you consider only that mankind was so starved for security and mobility and overall so-called "progress" that we have every right to gobble it ravenously without a thought for the consequence, nor especially for what it was left in trust for.
That's just simply not part of our vocabulary.
And yet we keep our discoveries to ourselves by pride of being number one. We say that we believe that scientific discoveries are inevitable, in just the sense that we are uncovering the universal truths of nature. And so how can we claim them for ourselves? I mean we can rationalize it all in terms of research costs. But it's a rationalization and not the truth!
Yes indeed I do hope that we all follow the lead of young Aaron Schwartz. Scientific work should always be public; there should be no paywalls but to buy amusement. We shouldn't have to purchase knowledge fer chrissakes!
Really, our gluttony for oil was created in wartime. So was our digital technology. Radio, radar, jet propulsion, flight. We should ask ourselves who and what are we out for!?!?
So my thought experiment is being done over and over and over, and yet all of our effort remains directed toward private gain at the expense of the whole. We really have to change this. First, we have to want to change this.
Do we? I know I do. Now, I have to go unweave a row. I think I have only three to go. I may yet throw the chair over the balcony though, I swear! A lot.