Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Crown

I have no idea why, beneath an incredible mountain of possible stories to watch on film, I ended up watching The Crown on Netflix. I remember alerting a friend to it when it first came out because of the celebrated digital opening which showed fluid gold morphing into a crown. He ended up being hooked on the series. I was interested neither in the Queen, nor in the digital beauty.

There was one minuscule dialog last night (maybe Season One, Episode Four?) between still-young Queen Elizabeth and one of her mentors, the Queen Mother or Grandmother or Grand Aunt Queen (on that level I simply can't keep track), but in any case a very old woman on her literal deathbed.

Her words were to the effect that the miserable masses need royalty as, and to be, a moral guide and an aspirational model for humanity. The Queen herself could be allowed no personalty nor personality. Somehow, I/we, the audience, could relate to the pain/angst/resignation Elizabeth was portrayed to have felt. 

Now I am hardly qualified to be a writer, and certainly not a story or screenwriter. I remain too far apart from the world. Your enthusiasms are seldom mine. My experience of our collective lives is of horror and terror for the future we promise ourselves, and like many before me I am gladdened that I may not live to see the actual fact of it all.

Momentum carries newly discovered to be destructive patterns of behavior way beyond the edge of the cliff, and while our legs still churn, there is nothing beneath us. We simply cannot carry on as we have been.

And so I am mostly interested in how mankind will morph - must morph - into something quite different from what we are just now. It will not be mastered digitally, that's for certain.

Sometimes I feel quite alone in wondering what I wonder. I feel quite alone in my astonishment, on the one hand, at how rapidly mankind has overtaken the planet, and on the other at, how little we have or wish to be transformed by that evident set of facts. 

Now, instead of Queens, we have influencers. Instead of inward (moral) self-control, we have universal armed policing which, by killing so many of what we privileged still think of and feel as some kind of "other," cannot help but to inflame the issues we can't face. And then we blame the individual officers, without even looking at the big big picture within which they play bit parts. 

The "we" I refer to must, of course, include the shouting uninformed who bring the narrative alive.

And of course, "progress" is being and will be made in these and all other matters, to assuage those who believe in such things. I did and still do, though not, apparently, in the direction that is still most wanted by most of the world's (docile?) peoples.

We did once strive by way of universal education, including education in "civics," to make of ourselves a people. That is now as much by the wayside as is the possibility to afford actual restorative psychological counselling in an insurance structure which has managed to conjur medical-style "cures" from issues which likely require near life-time attention. The working classes are afforded Prozac and its analogs, while the wealthy are treated in Queenly fashion and in perpetuity for what are, in effect, the most petty possible complaints. 

It's all STEM now all the time, even though it remains the culture workers who have all the influence. The salesman still makes more than the engineer, last time I looked. STEM is yet another way to condescend to the great unwashed masses. Like handing out blankets to feel warm inside.

I suppose that, in some distant sense, the wealthy justify themselves as does the Queen (does one capitalize Queen? Seems vaguely profane), except that they get their cake and may eat it as well. No need to suppress personhood anymore, once you're wealthy. No need to model anything other or more than wealth and wealth alone. 

Off with their heads? No, hardly. They are no better (or worse) than the rest of us are. Just more "lucky" if that's what you mean by luck. It's not a sort of luck that I would wish for. There are limits to how much of me and mine I wish to spend my life's attention on.

I am far more interested in the meaning of the virus, say, toward humanity in our collective future. At this scale, there are no accidents. These reminders are more built in. Just as it seems built-in to us, collectively, to ignore all the warnings.

My thesis must be the very Antithesis of Francis Fukuyama's in his The End of History and the Last Man. He seems to have known nothing about the sciences of ecology and evolution. There will and can be no end to natural evolution. And certainly not just because we might be content if there would be. 

Of course Fukuyama's title was taken for its ironic truth right at the outset. He likely even meant it that way. Except for those within his approximate discipline who thought it a better career move to engage him, pro and/or contra, with earnest. 

I have no discipline. And so my talk is free.

If there is to be a humanity beyond the end, the from here and now so-called "last man" will look nothing like we do now. The Recognitions which Fukuyama found foundational, and which William Gaddis mocks so eternally, is but poor substitute for the love we truly crave. Just as earthly wealth shall always be poor substitute for what religionists seem to mean by God's grace.

Love is, of course, far less trivial to organize than an economy. We shall never be captains of Spaceship Earth; we simply can't master her controls, any more than we could master nature; to be redundant and non-sequitur about it.

We shall not master love. There is no calculus for it. Our Earth shall career and careen as she will, with or without us. Unless we learn to return her love. (Earth shall never be masculine, right?)

The Queen may set out to love her people, and sure she has been as good as it gets. A fine thing it is that this TV series was made so long before the Meghan and Harry show. It would hardly be believable otherwise. Yes, yes, long live the Queen who shall be panty raider King Charles before history Peters out. Johnson & Johnson on pause. We do so want our lives back, as though normal were ever a steady state. As the Queen Mother (whichever one hardly matters) did urge, fucking is no substitute for duty.

And so duty is already spent. Alas poor princesses all. 




Monday, April 12, 2021

Life is In-Between (God and Sub-Atomic Particles, (which are on the same ontological level))

Yes, well, so I've been getting by for many years now with no landline, and almost as long with cellular Internet. Finally, the frustration of the dongles and the wires - all things which can endure only so many pluggings and unpluggings - the frustration did me in, and I got an always-on Internet connection with WiFi. To go along with it, I bought a cheap Roku streaming device. My mind reels!

In some sense I'm cutting edge. I know practically nobody who even attempts what I do, but because of that it hardly ever works quite right. The data limit for the phone itself is different from its limit as a "personal hotspot," and so watching movies may be interfered with by all sorts of things. - calls, alerts, texts, but maybe also app deficiencies. Recovery isn't always graceful. And so I caved.

I was spending too much time fiddling and not enough time doing whatever it is that I was attempting to do. Except that truth be told, I've always enjoyed the fiddling more. So now I'm afraid that I've destroyed yet another pleasurable pastime. Well all the new house-buyers in my family, who spend money very differently than I do, will provide more fiddling than I can handle, I'm sure.

Check this out:


You might call it fiddling for family. Here's the one I made for my older daughter a few years ago:


The problem really is that not enough people do what I'd been doing for that little backwater of tech to be kept up to date. I"m not even sure why anybody would do it, unless, like me, they're mostly mobile. And cheap!

When I first visited China - I can't quite remember, it might have been Taiwan which came first - I remember the incredible tangle of wires from every tele-post. The entire arrangement (it was NOT arranged) bespoke do-it-yourselfism in the context of no regulation and no standards. Considering that it was both telephone and electricity, it was vaguely terrifying.  It was certainly all a tangle.

Later on, I was among the original inhabitants of a "foreign experts tower" on the campus of a university on the outskirts of Beijing back in, maybe, 1986. I remember the fuse closet in the hallway where wires poked out from concrete to screw-posts between which fusible wires were strung. Almost every code in the American book was broken by that building.

Hot water was available only during certain hours - unlike in Taiwan where we had to load the wood into the water heater ourselves when we wanted a hot shower. In this case we could watch workmen doing that to know when the water might get hot. 

Jump ahead, and only a couple of years ago in Shanghai, I encountered my first post-cable world of entertainment. In just the way that cellular bypassed the need for an organized set of wires and switches for telephone, so fiber optics bypassed the need for a cable infrastructure. Electricity seems pretty well organized in the bigger cities of China as well, by now.

It was confusing in a (low-class) hotel to understand how to pay for what was not free when I wasn't the account owner for the Internet TV. The WeChat I used wasn't quite integrated to China's micropayment system, since I was never there long enough to open a bank account, and bypass my American credit cards. Or to bypass credit cards entirely, the way most Chinese do.

But the interface struck me as way beyond what I thought we had here in the US. I could get all the local TV from all over China. I guess in China they want you to watch and don't wish to put omnipresent American paywalls in your way. I could also get plenty of free film - really only the new releases required any payment at all, and when they did it was modest. I just couldn't make my way through the tangle to do it.

Chinese webpages, TV interfaces, and lots more are way busier than most Americans could stand. So Roku looks spartan by comparison. It looks almost organized. Even though I read Chinese with pretty good fluency (mixing metaphors, I know) I've never quite learned to accommodate the clutter of Chinese mass-media websites. I suppose the brain is organized differently in an alphabetic zone as compared to a Chinese-character zone. 

I've never quite managed to leap that divide. My brain wiring was already too set in its ways when I started Chinese.

But here's the deal: we're always in between. 

There are things about which we must agree, if we are not to be defrauded nor to be frauds ourselves (can you tell that I’m - very slowly - trying to penetrate William Gaddis?). These are the things of science. And yet now, having thoroughly repudiated God as a silly projection, mostly used for the sake of earthly power, we are loathe to let science end where it must end; at the point where the subject leaks in among the objects.

Each of us must have our own point of view!

From many points of view, God is very real indeed, and one is less easily fooled of Him than of scientific overreach. Our trouble is that we make too much of individuality, as though point of view must be as personal as personality, and as though that is the only thing worth living for. Death be not proud. 

Redundant in Buffalo, for sure, death is, since we don't know how to stop eating chicken wings. Though we hardly wish to eat them alone. And there simply are no better ones anywhere else. This is not subject to scientific validation. 

Science let go of us, let us go, as long ago as the Atomic Bomb provided proof that we are willing to go only so far as power, which then goes right to our head and we think that the cosmos may be, finally, comprehended. We don't need no stinkin' god. We smell up the cosmos perfectly by ourselves.

I look at Roku's interface and it pretty much looks like any other interface for streaming. Except that there are so many categories; a problem somewhat obviated by a pretty good global search facility. 

But it looks primitive, in a way, by comparison with the one I saw in China. Over there, previews would show up anywhere and everywhere, and then when you choose something, characters might float across the screen while watching a video, to show reactions from people from all over the place,  watching at just the same time along with you. 

Is that the price of "free?" No, you could usually turn them off. What I considered a distraction was apparently welcome by most Chinese viewers. I guess it added to the excitement and drama of the viewing. But I'm not sure. There have never been that many people I could bother with my pesky questions about how to make sense of this and that. People everywhere lack the proper patience. 

But I do have to say that when it comes to what can be gotten on Roku for free, and what you're missing by not being willing to pay for it, the US looks more complex than that tangle of wires in China. I can sign on to Spectrum news without paying for Spectrum TV by virtue of my Internet account, but it's not available for free via Roku streaming. At a certain point I call well enough alone and give up. Or maybe I'll get some thirteen-year-old clever and fearless kid to climb the pole for me and add to the tangle.

I won't stand for being swindled, dammit!

Facebook will now add descriptors to its posts to distinguish "satire" from "earnest" I hear, along with other things. Just imagine the flames from people earnest about their beliefs which look like satire to the Facebook moderators!

So I interact with TV tech in a pretty satirical way. I don't wish to be caught short again the way I was when I came in from the cold of living aboard my sailboat and couldn't distinguish Saturday Night Live from televangelism. I honestly had no read of which was meant as comedy. My mind reeled.

Now I wait for cable and its incredible fees to be replaced by something more Chinese, but who knows? I may have my order inverted. Just because they leapfrogged our evolution away from telephone, cable, DVD distribution networks, and brick and mortar retail doesn't mean that we aren't the more advanced at any given moment in time.

I guess I'm meant to be anxious, in just the way that the ever-morphing viruses among us keep our enthusiasms curbed.

Somehow, on Quora mostly, I feel surrounded by apologists for China (I know, break-neck subject shift), who defend the Chinese take on Tibet or Xinjiang. Finally I read a long New Yorker article which has the ring of truth, and now I myself believe that there are atrocities going on in Xinjiang, no matter how clever watchers undermine what they call the propaganda of Western news. We, apparently, blow up sensation on the flimsiest of evidence.

The ring of truth to which I refer regards the article's treatment of systematic sycophancy in the apparatus which descends from power. Picture local and petty officials being afraid not to detain and inter individuals who *might* be considered suspect, on paper, from up above. 

And then, of course, I'm reminded how Dubya got us into an endless war in Iraq and then again in Afghanistan for equally flimsy reasons, but which ended in much more death and destruction than China has ever wrought on the Uighurs. This is the kind of thing which China throws back in our face. I suspect we deserve it.

Who, after all, is the dirtiest in assuming that others need to be more like us? In assuming, even, that they must want to be? In assuming that their religious beliefs are crazy while ours are not?

Of course official China doesn't do religion. Or do they? Don't we?

In the way of the virus, we're between what we'd thought would be the End of History and the Last Man - life as we'd come to like it - and our future release from viral lockdown. The stock market meanwhile surges. Too bad for all those whose lives have been destroyed.

We're stalled between the so-called standard model of (particle) physics and the next big paradigm shift. And we still think that shift will come from revelations generated by the CERN supeconducting supercollider, which is to say better descriptive explanations for ever more elusive still-so-called "particles." 

Those of us schooled only in Statistics for the Social Sciences cannot know what they do with eigenvalues at Google, say, nor do we have any way to validate our sense that they could do it differently and better were they not so addicted to their particular brand of golden goose: keyterm auction.

My nephew worked at CERN and showed me his graphical rendering of the data which achieves a scientific level of proof for the actual existence of this or that new "particle." (He works in finance now, of course) I forgot to ask how many logarithmic transforms were applied and why, and how many sigmas were achieved, though that is really a business term now.

I know that scientists cannot stop themselves, but I also suspect that they will not stop themselves, really just because their discoveries have been so very exciting, and often very useful. There is no shortage of problems to be solved. Funny thing is, post-bomb, post-discovery of global warming, most of the problems are social, and not amenable to scientific resolution unless by coercion. Unless we really do believe that we may - collectively? - become as gods. 

Given the nature of the so-called one-percent, we know that individuals can become as gods. Temporarily. Who even wants that? I know I know.

We never stop to recognize the religious roots for our terminology. Our assumption that there must be a law-bound cosmos and that those laws are natural laws, which is to say not created by "us", and that the cosmos is ultimately describable - that assumption is very religious indeed. It descends from Platonic archetypes which provided the framework for our unitary concept of God.

Chinese cultural forms are equally indelible, especially the notion that there is a right and singular form for a culture which shall remain continuously recognizable across some five thousand years. Of course, Taiwan must be a part of that. And of course the Uighurs should be flattered to be invited in. Just like the Iraqis should feel privileged to be offered our notions for governance.

Somehow it becomes always and all about a power structure. That's how good guys and bad guys are organized. And God help you if you offend someone whose mind has already been closed.

So here I am and shall remain, living in the bozone where I neither believe in religious truths, nor do I accept that scientific trueings are somehow cosmic, eternal, and apart from what we cook up in our very own (collective) minds. Wouldn't there otherwise be an end to progress someday? Wouldn't we have arrived? And what then, I ask you!

From my point of view, scientific trueings are about aligning our collective minds, which are only apparently separate and distinct according to a very cosmically local set of religious imperatives. Those religious imperatives morph easily into economic imperatives and so on. 

I mean, just try to tell someone who knows physics that the term "particle" is really metaphor. You'll probably get 'sure, sure, yes, of course,' in response. But then go a step further and insist that particles are no more real than ghosts or gods or other collective delusions, and you'll probably start pissing someone off.

We have a lot of apparatus to distinguish the crazies from the sane, but we draw the line at religion, which is somehow held sacrosanct, hoho, even or especially by our secular legal structures. But I'm calling it a fine distinction, if an important one. When religious zealots start carrying guns and taking over political structures, I get just as scared as the Chinese government does. At least the technorati only want everything for themselves. Those robbers of local wealth.

So, in my in-between state, I wait patiently for both government and science to get it right. I look forward to days post-pandemic, when I can be close to strangers again. And I look forward to an economy which isn't so tilted to those who already have all the wealth. The trick is to learn to be content in this in-between state, which is all we are destined ever to have.

Did you know that more people have started to play the game "Among Us" than have contracted the virus? How many cancelled books does that mean? It takes so much more energy to read William Gaddis, say, than to watch a movie made from a Philip Roth book (he believed that reading novels would be dead before the novel would be. Ha!) but only one of them will teach you what you need to know about fraud. I mean Orson Welles ain't bad, but, well, he hung with the likes of William Randolph, right?

Maybe I need religion for that to happen - for me to be content in my in-between state. But the trouble is that science is the better procedure to get us all together. It's infuriating to me that so many people think that they can just blithely disregard established scientific principles. Especially when they do it in the name of religion, but even more when they do it so clearly and blatantly in the name of raw power. 

So, let's say we are in a lifeboat, and let's say it's called spaceship earth, like Bucky used to call it, and let’s say we learn to agree that we will and can never know enough to fully describe the cosmos we hurtle through. All we can do is to enjoy the ride and spend at least enough time and effort to keep the ride going. 

When people in power claim better understanding than the scientific community, I feel like we're headed in a direction toward the corruption we project onto China, or onto Russia. Just a feeling, you know. And yet I feel worse when religionists want to be in charge. I mean, Pence was a lot more terrifying even than Trump, especially if one were to imagine a long-haul with that sort of duo in charge.

But I do hold back about ultimate truths. When scientists of any discipline claim truths beyond science's purview, they lose me entirely. Sub-atomic particles are not the end of any story. In that discipline, we've long since jumped the shark, by virtue of a kind of religious certainty that truth is objective and not a process for mind-alignment. We already have enough teasers to make that clear.

I personally find a cosmos where we are as much the makers as the product to be far more exciting than one where some abstract set of principles or beings abides in-charge in perpetuity. Sure, it's a lot more nerve wracking to be in charge. But hey, I'd rather get rid of cars altogether than to "own" a self-driving car. I'm really weird that way.

Well, OK, maybe I wouldn't mind being able to hail a car from my smartphone, which also told me relative time and cost for public transit. I'm just not sure that the planet can abide private cars, no matter the power source.

Wouldn't it be funny if the real purpose of science were to create a kind of hive mind without any queens? Wouldn't it be funny if the truths that we choose to guide us were as quirky - at cosmic scale - as we each think ourselves to be, addicted as we are to personality.

Wouldn't it be funny if I were actually correct when I did discover lo those many years ago now, that emotion is a cosmic force. It's obvious but still scientifically unthinkable. I think that's dumb. And God is love, full stop. No need for projection at all.

Where I was at, way back then, living on my old wooden sailboat (read all about it!) was tangling with the paradoxes in "modern" physics. Religion deals with paradoxes. Why can't science? Well, science deals with paradoxes by steam rolling them with practical solutions. Just so long as the science works locally here and now, we're fine!

After the bomb, it's true that we did still progress. We couldn't have GPS without accounting for the same theoretical structures which gave us the bomb - relativity theory, time dilation and all that. Now we dream of quantum computing, which will perfect privacy, among other things, as though computation will set us free! 

Computation is not subject to pesky human emotions and parochial point of view. And that's where the trouble begins. I mean I'm really sorry for the life that Alan Turing was forced to live. But that doesn't make universal machines the right response. That imitation game - the digital resolution - cuts us off from cosmos as the outset. That's what on/off means.

Full Stop.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Words Make us Crazy, Especially When They're Written

I read with horror and amazement about this finance cowboy who makes and loses money for Christ. I peek at a Facebook posts of a bible-talking medical doctor railing against the vaccine. I don't care about the money lost, and I don't care about the freedom of speech of Bible-thumpeters either. I do care about the con. The human mind seems to have a hidden tap for crazy. It seems related to Jesus and the whole 'in the beginning was the Word' thing. 

I make the claim that love is a cosmic force, here and there in my writing. I have always been amazed at the historical power of Jesus Christ, the story if not the Man. I have left a tap open in my own mind, just in case God may be real and I mistaken (in my pride at making sense of words?). 

I grow old in a way to make my writing even worse than it already is, and was and has-been. My excuse: I'm not trying to write professionally. I'm trying to conjure some sort of truth from words. I'm trying to true them, across as much reading as I can bear. I'm trying to make the same profound sense that, say, the Dao De Jing makes. Words have proliferated so that this becomes near impossible. That's my excuse. 

I have no intention to force my words on anyone.

I start my fifth paragraph with "I" and still I wish to disappear from my writing in just the way that simple-living Hwang's fortune dissolves, taking down a bunch of banks with him (don't worry, they don't sink, they just flounder for a moment). A Bible thumper has always made a convincing con.

Watching that horned Q-Anon nut-job lead a gang of vandals (he was dressed as a Vandal in the literal sense, right?) in a kind of bizarre prayer session in the Senate chamber should have clued us all in. There is something scrambled in the collective mind of a country as devoted as we still seem to be to a literal read of the literary and curated, very highly produced Bible, as the Word of God. 

How, I ask you, can love be turned into so much hate? So much child abuse? So much practice of indulgence in the forbidden fruit? Not of sex which is practiced so lovingly outside any Church (although much more exciting inside), but of patriarchal abuse of women, children and men. Forgive me father, for I have forced myself on someone again. I shall not want.

We call this out every chance we get now, really just because it's safe to do so. Yes, Andrew Cuomo, your license has been revoked. You should become a preacher. They're pausing the prosecution of any more priests here in Buffalo so that the Church's bankruptcy may proceed more smoothly. Praise God?

How have Christians come to hate border-crossers? How have Christians come to hate gays? How have Christians come to be so contrarian about nearly everything that's sensible? 

That's the same question as how can the mind become so crazed while still being able to navigate a life? What magic formulary of word-doctoring has made that even possible? In Korean?!? 

I guess we all need something to hold onto. We can't make sense of the world, we don't know who to trust, and so we accept as truth whatever gets Trumpeted loudly and with the most self-assurance and in the right cadence, and it must shake the very foundations of rational mind, just like Gideon brought down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev. 

Yes I did march around the Pentagon, but we weren't being exactly serious about bringing down literal walls. It would take a word-crazed one-time pilot to do that. My word-crazed cousin was at ground zero. It was personal.

Now we're building walls? Even as we dismantle the very bedrock of democracy in the name of Republican power? Which claims God for itself? 

This is nuts.

I sure do hope that someone has taken off our distributor cap when China invades Taiwan right after their Winter Olympics. This virus is as nothing against the plague of wanton words which destroy our very minds. The masks worn internally now by all the Bible misinterpreters are far more flameproof than the ones they throw on their toxic fires they fan for what? Freedom? Give me a freaking break already. 

The truth will set you free. 

Your truths are imprisoning you, Christian soldiers. You have erected walls inside your own minds and you shall be damned for a veritable eternity within these walls of your own making.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Review: The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly ProsperousThe WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I believe, but cannot be certain, that this book represents something entirely new in science. It is an investigation of our shared reality which includes the living, thinking, observing subject as a determiner of reality, and not just subject to it.

I may have that backward. We are subject to evolution. What I mean is that our definition of reality now must include humanity as an object. There is no objective reality without us. Language fails me. Dang!

Sure, this author is not a practitioner in the "hard" sciences, but is rather more some new combination of anthropologist, sociologist and metareporter of academic writing. That writing includes history and archeology and psychological experimentation.

At various points in my life, I have invested money, time and angst in talk therapy. I think it has helped. But I can't, for the life of me, remember why I did it. I don't remember being unhappy or desperate. Perhaps I needed help through various transitions. Talk therapy is a very WEIRD thing, I know.

I write perfectly useless reviews. I know a competent review when I read one. I leave those to people competent to write them. I'm more interested to note how it is that reading a book has changed me, and then I sometimes go on to urge my (newly revised, yet still somewhat tortured) thinking on whoever might read my review.

Lately, Elon Musk justifies his absurd wealth (to Bernie Sanders!) by saying that he's amassing resources to spread something like the bright beacon of consciousness beyond earth. As though he knows what's good for all of us. He clearly believes that being the richest man in the world justifies his laying claim to be the most intelligent. He could use some therapy.

Well, after our four years of horror under Trump, maybe some of us among the science-following half of the planet will miss our easy calling out of the opposition as idiots. It was ever so much fun! But the trouble is not that they're all idiots. The trouble is that they're not. Intelligent and well-read people seem actually to believe patent absurdities. So much for the beacon of consciousness, especially if by consciousness we mean to say something like intelligence.

What we mean by intelligence is a very local thing. That's one big message from this book. It's a very timely book, not least because human intelligence now feels so meaningless against the idiot winds which set our course (through what canal?).

Same argument: We didn't get to where we Westerners are in the history of the planet because we're somehow more intelligent and better organized; more advanced. We lucked out. One of the burdens of this book is to disabuse anyone of the notion that our futures were ever designed by us. They evolved, and evolution is a process of accidental change aggregating in ways to move us in some direction for thriving.

We may as well be locusts on the planet! Hey, let's populate the cosmos!

News flash: you may think you're not an idiot and that you're on the right side of history, but you're just as subject to the directions money takes for you as the rest of us are. Click bait (selfish meme competition, I suppose) distorts us all.

Can you even imagine someone claiming the right to outsized influence based not on money, but on love? What an absurdity! And yet that very same legitimate claim would belong to Jesus Christ. Intelligence is as over-rated as wealth is if you ask me. Or if you ask Joseph Henrich.

Let's focus on Christ. Henrichs does in this book, or rather, he focuses on the Church. Still, it would be difficult to find any other individual, real or concocted (the way that Trump was), who has had more influence on human life on the planet than Christ has.

Henrichs is interested in the accident of Christian institutions, and how consequential those have been for Western social evolution.

I read (present tense) this book between Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett's The Upswing, and what I might consider its sequel, a book called Mutualism, by Sara Horowitz. Those are books which implicitly assume a kind of steady state to what it means to be human, and which present a hopeful and even optimistic read of how we might improve our condition. Both are powerful books by brilliant authors.

By contrast, this book ventures into understanding humanity as a species undergoing constant change, by way of cultural evolution. Surprisingly, Henrich maintains that the accidents of cultural evolution have also impacted certain aspects of our physiology. Especially our brains, post-literacy. Our WEIRD experience, our self-conception, and our ways of living and of understanding are simply not the same as they once were, and as they still are almost everywhere else.

This evolutionary process is not subject to amelioration. It just happens. The author, Joseph Henrich, developed his thesis across an adventuresome life, driven, apparently, by intense curiosity about how other peoples live, but also, I lately find, by interest in what? Aerospace Engineering!?!

His book regards what it is that makes us in the Western traditions so unusual. (So special?) He documents a set of accidents through history which changed humanity in ways leading up to the industrial and then the scientific revolutions. These revolutions have occurred only among what would become WEIRD people. "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic."

I spent much of my formative education at Yale pondering the 'why' of the industrial revolution occurring in Europe and not in China. That was after re-calibrating from engineering through physics to Chinese literature. Mine has not been a settled life.

We called this the Needham question, or at least I did. Still on my bookshelves now, despite seemingly endless moves across geography and career, I have the near complete print-set of Needham's opus, Science and Civilization in China.

I remember how nervous I was transporting the pirated volumes back from Taiwan, as though the customs agents would open my books. I wanted to study with urbane Nathan Sivin, Needham's colleague, who sometimes paid glancing visits to our Ivy-League classical Chinese poetry club.

So yes, this book is especially important to me. It has answered, to my satisfaction, one of the most important questions in my life.

I am definitely weird.

I live now in a world not changed, in many ways, from the one where I grew up. But, by my read, our stuck social schematic is now in the approximate condition of a skyscraper after the shrug of the demolition charges set to take it down, but before gravity destroys its appearance of integrity.

We live in the end-times of the era of The Spectacle. We are spectators of our very own lives. What a hoot! Really, we should demark our times as the era of the screen. Think about it. Literacy is so yesterday! Update your book, man!

I remember with a clarity as though I'd seen the face of Jesus when I learned to write my name. It was that electrically exciting. I was using a red ballpoint pen ("atomic age" puns with ballpoint in Chinese usage) on a brown paper shopping bag.

That was about when Dad was building a fallout shelter in our basement along the shores of seemingly still-alive Lake Erie.

My prosocial optimism had been wrecked by the time I hit college. A minor thesis of Henrich's book is that such optimism is essential. He calls it "positive-sum thinking." Such thinking is essential to inventiveness and the cultivation of our collective "brain," which is a very Western thing.

Some of the book's thought-streams question the inevitability of science as we practice it, and even the universality of the scientific principles we live by. Was scientific understanding going to come in any case, if the laws revealed are Platonic/cosmic universals? Or is this all some Western aberration? Something to evolve beyond, even?

Whatever the case, the book's author is implicitly asking his reader to step outside our own tradition, to see it as an outsider might. That is in itself the most WEIRD thing to do. It's what science does.

And from the outside it looks very much like WEIRDness is curdling in at least three dimensions.

The first might be our patent laws, which only just barely stopped at allowing the patenting of genes. Those laws, from their origins, enshrine the gold-rush notion of the genius inventor who should be rewarded for specific innovations, largely by being the first to create an embodiment of something that would soon be produced in any case, according to this book's thesis (and according to me). It once did encourage a lust for discovery. What's left is lust for lucre.

Patent and copyright converge in the digital age, and what we now do amounts to slow death to what Henrich calls our collective social "brain." He calls it a brain even as he debases what a brain can do on its own.

Even a social brain requires some context.

The second dimension would probably be our precious individualism, based as it is on the ascription of internal traits as that which constitutes our very specific individual personality. I am happy to read him debunking all the personality type tests, on which I am nothing but a chameleon (matching whatever happens to be my current ever-shifting occupation), and sarcastically wishing us individuals "good luck" in finding our authentic self. You go, man!

Patent law and practice (now in the digital age) no longer serves the people now that patent portfolios - traded on the open (closed?) market - make a perfect proxy for predatory size of firm.

The third would have to be religion, which is credited in this book (the Christian tradition through the Catholic Church and its family definitions, and later and more locally importantly, through the various iterations of Protestantism) as the inventor [sick] of WEIRD.

By now, our religions have returned to primitive form in stark opposition to what is meant by WEIRD in this book. However enlightenment might be defined, it certainly has nothing to do with the belief structure of most evangelical sects, credited though Protestantism might be with the stimulation of mass literacy at their Lutheran origins.

Now I have to ask; what would happen if instead of stepping outside our collective mind, we were to embrace it more tightly? What if we jump right back into the scientific soup and ask such really important questions as 'why has love meant so much cosmically?' Why are religions so full of hate anymore?

Asking those questions would be to separate knowledge of what we still call "supernatural" phenomena from received authority structures, to re-incorporate them into what we call (scientific) "reality." That should, after all, be the final maneuver in the legacy of WEIRD.

No one has the right to tell me that God is a delusion! No one has the right to say that Henrich is not a scientist.

I mean simply that we allow subjectivity back in to science, in a very careful way. It already came in by way of quantum theory, and now by way of the softer sciences. We are just resisting the inevitable. By any meaning, evolution - cultural or genetic - is built on a series of accidents. accidents are both inevitable and random. But random seems to add up to life, weirdly.

Science works along that razor's edge where non-random natural law allows prediction. Genetic replication follows natural laws. Random defines life. which distinguishes itself, from a distance, as different from the dead structures around it.

Those dead structures are the context for our collective, social, "brain."

What if the core of Christian belief is actually, even scientifically, quite true? You know, God is love, and drop the Name already! I'm big on name-dropping! What else do the accidents of evolution - cultural or genetic - add up to? We WEIRD people are all about romantic love, especially as we see ourselves on-screen, though we may be known by our science and our industry. Could love be a cosmic force?

Hell, many of us who consider ourselves sane call all the religious people loonies, even while we - some of us - express certainty that we will someday encounter life elsewhere in the cosmos. Which is to deny that we already have, and that it has nothing to do with UFOs.

If I were religious, I would consider the store of energy contained in fossil fuels to be a gift from God. In those same terms, I would consider humanity as a whole to have sinned by our squandering of that gifted oil to no apparent end beyond, well, the end as caused by our despoiling of the only home we can ever have. Short of breaking light-speed barriers, as though that might be done within the life-span of ours or any other culture.

Who are the loonies in this equation?

And so, what has technology done for us or to us? Has it made economics back into a zero-sum game again? As in, why do many of us feel that Google and Facebook are stealing our wealth along with any stability to a shared reality - rather than to expand the realm for innovation as they promised? Theirs would seem to be a sharing infrastructure which isn't sharing when it comes to their monopoly access and now control of what it is that we might share. They steal our emotional and our cognitive meaning both.

And anyhow it isn't at all clear that whatever we do on our smartphones is on a continuum with the reading habits which once changed the world. We seem only to amplify what we already think that we know. And we are quite literally drowning in words that have almost an urgency about grabbing and keeping our attention. This is no longer the shared "brain" that Henrich says that we in the West lucked into. This is reversion to a kind of beehive mind, where the wealthy are the queens.

I suspect that most readers will prefer the executive summary of this book, which can be had by way of numerous reviews and introductions in the MSM. The arguments presented in the book quickly become tedious for those not steeped already in the torture chambers of statistical reasoning applied to sociology and psychology (and to politics, of course). Games devised to mimic actual human behavior, and then broad (broad!) conclusions drawn.

In the big picture, we no longer seem to believe in human progress. Our "positive-sum thinking" has reversed itself. It would be hard to know if this is because of the wreckage caused by our technologies as we deploy them, or simply that they feel so disruptive of religious comfort words.

Where is the love?

Structures that once kept us looking forward, now have us holding on to what we feel that we've lost.

I sweated more when I brought banned books with me into China than I did returning with pirated books, but still . . .

We must take control of accident! Listen to me. Otherwise, we are doomed!

Drink up please, it's time.

Yours, in Irony. Irony too is a WEIRD invention. Has to do with God.

View all my reviews

Clarity in Retrospect; the Proper Way to Fight the Pandemic

Buckminster Fuller may be a distant relative. He was, in any case, a kind of soul-mate. Among other things, he saved many many lives by influencing the design of highways to take human weaknesses as drivers into account. Banking curves and designing proper turning radiuses to match braking propensities and more that I can't remember. His designs met drivers as we are and not as we should be.

Against this pandemic, we, collectively on the planet, don't seem to be able to move beyond our moral imperative that a life - any life - is more important than the collective wellbeing of us all. And so we seem to have decided that we must inoculate the most vulnerable first.

The elderly and the infirm are the least mobile and therefore the least likely to spread the virus. We are the easiest to contain. Many of us no longer need to leave the house to work. 

We should have inoculated the bad drivers first, and the ones with crappy rides. Start with the poorly paid essential workers, then the irresponsible and irrepressible young adults who will engage in risky behavior no matter what you think they ought to do.

Leave the rich and powerful for last, since they have plenty of options. Or let them have the vaccine at such exorbitant cost that it would subvent the cost for the rest of us. There aren't enough of them to change the overall picture, so they should be out of the picture except as subsidizers. Thank you Dolly!

By leaving our pathetic morality out of the equation, we could have stabilized the population as a whole much more quickly. I'm calling our morality pathetic just because look what we're doing to the planet.

I have been as careful and as isolated as anyone has, and I still caught the virus. I still don't know and can't quite imagine how, since I shopped only every three weeks at six in the morning when I had the store to myself, always wore a mask, and live alone with no socializing at all. I hardly ever left the building!

Given that upwards of half my apartment building, into which I moved mid-pandemic, caught the virus, the most likely thing is that the building became the vector, as it were. I'm calculating by using Occam's razor - the probability that such a population of sick people could occur randomly in such a cluster feels low. But any of us could have contaminated the building.

My own story is, of course, sanitized. Guilty! The very act of moving makes me suspect, right? I wasn't always wearing a mask as I was moving in. I absolve myself by timeline, but does that make me any better morally? Any less guilty? Not!

There is simply no perch for leadership to have made decisions at the level that they needed to be made. The media made all the decisions, and even Doctor Fauci was its subject as much as he might claim dispassionate science. 

We can argue all we want about which is the real fake news, but the fact is that it's all trying to grab our clicks for money anymore. Our reality is hardly formed by science. Part of that trouble is that we've misconstrued science as a search for truth. It's not. It's about truing beliefs, so that we can all agree about the important stuff. 

Perhaps China has a right to boast now. Or perhaps we're just plainly stupid, socially. We can't make a decision to save our lives. Please let's not have an autocrat as our solution! Thank goodness the autocrat that we tried was a nincompoop who simply didn't try.

Just imagine someone in power disclaiming his private beliefs as more true than science. What a nightmare! Oh.

There must be hoards of educated epidemiologists who would agree with me. They must be in hiding, since they don't want to be called out as murderers or worse. But the fact is that someone or some body has to decide whom to sacrifice in the interests of the whole. Not personally whom, the way that certain people in power protect their families. I'm not naming names, but the science of this doesn't allow for personal prediction. It's only the group that matters.

We need at least some guardrails to keep it real. We need to give speeding tickets to all those mask-averse Trumpsters, and set the cost for settlement as getting a vaccine. Invasion of privacy? So is carrying a loaded firearm in public. I have the right to calculate my own risk, but not when I'm in traffic.

Get real. You can't control accident. The virus is predictable only in the aggregate. Along with plenty of other seniors, I will gladly go to the back of any line in favor of my childrens' lives. Hello!? My children may not agree with me, but they're way too young to know better.

They'll do just fine without me. I raised them that way! Yeah right, like I can take credit. Thank goodness they're both their own people, and don't listen to any man telling them what to do.

I only wish that they would obey the speed limits as well as they comply with COVID decency.

And I'm the one who gets speeding tickets! There is no justice.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Notes While Reading *The WEIRDest People in the World*

I write perfectly useless reviews. I know a competent review when I read one. I leave those to people competent to write them. I'm more interested to note how it is that reading a book has changed me, and then I sometimes go on to urge my (revised, and somewhat tortured) thinking on whoever might read my review. Not very polite, probably. But post Internet, who cares? Right?

Lately, Elon Musk justifies his absurd wealth by saying that he's amassing resources to spread something like the bright beacon of consciousness beyond earth. Far far beyond earth. As though he knows what's good for all of us. He clearly believes that being the richest man in the world justifies his laying claim to be the most intelligent and therefore the one who gets to decide for the rest of us.

Well, after our four years of horror under Trump, maybe some of us among the saner half of the planet will miss our easy calling out of the opposition as idiots. It was ever so much fun! The trouble isn't that they're all idiots. The trouble is that they're not. Intelligent and well-read people seem actually to believe patent absurdities. So much for the beacon of consciousness, especially if by consciousness we mean to say something like intelligence.

Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the bozos who own more wealth than the rest of us combined are on the same track; that we should pay attention to them because of how much wealth they've amassed. I know people personally who've been enabled in their rudeness in the very same way!

News flash: being wealthy is no indication of intelligence. To say that it is is an insult to rocket scientists everywhere.

Now what if it's the very same money which has been determining the thought processes of that other half? It's hardly a stretch to say that it is. The self interest of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and certainly Facebook and Google (do they have selves?) and how about Hannity, can apparently generate an entire alternate reality, full of the same smug apologists (who write better reviews than I do) who rectify (that's a tiny interjection of Chinese, right there) the real world wherein I live .

Can you even imagine someone claiming the right to outsized influence based not on money, but on love? What an absurdity! And yet that very same legitimate claim would belong to Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, even Mother Theresa, if you don't mind that she was a mass murderer, the way that my renegade but super intelligent Catholic friend designates RBG. Intelligence is as over-rated as wealth is, if you ask me.

Let's focus on Christ. Joseph Henrichs does in this book. I don't think he would ever dare to claim that Christ deserves all the attention he's gotten across two millenia, but it would be difficult to find any other individual, real or concocted (the way that Trump was) who has had more influence on human life on the planet.

I say he wouldn't dare to claim that because he would be ejected from his fine position at Harvard, another moneyed source for authority (Just imagine how few corporate entities could afford a billion dollar fine for sex abuse. And Harvard has better endowment than USC!). You can't quite be a scholar and a religionist, unless you're at a divinity school. Henrichs is more interested in the accident of Christianity, and how consequential that has been for Western social evolution.

I read (present tense) this book between Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett's The Upswing, and what I might consider its sequel, a book called Mutualism, by Sara Horowitz. Those are books which implicitly assume a kind of steady state to what it means to be human, and which present a hopeful and even optimistic read of how we might improve our condition. Both are powerful books by brilliant authors.

In particular, Putnam's book brackets my life, and Horowitz's brackets my experience and my ambition. I've crossed paths with each of them in various ways across my life.

By contrast, this book ventures into understanding humanity as a species undergoing constant change, by way of cultural evolution. Surprisingly, there's even a role for genetic evolution in our recent history, since he maintains that the accidents of cultural evolution have impacted certain aspects of our physiology. Especially our brains (not really genetic change in that case), post-literacy. Our experience, our self-conception, and our ways of living and of understanding are simply not the same as they once were, and as they perhaps still are almost everywhere else. 

This evolutionary process is not subject to amelioration. It just happens. The author, Joseph Henrich, developed his thesis across an adventuresome life, driven, apparently, by intense curiosity about how other peoples live, but also, I lately find, by interest in what? Aerospace Engineering!?!

His book regards what it is that makes us in the Western traditions so unusual. (So special?) His overall thesis regards a set of accidents of history which changed humanity in ways leading up to the industrial and then the scientific revolutions. These revolutions could have occurred only among what would become WEIRD people. "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic."

I am definitely weird. I live now in a world not changed, in many ways, from the one where I grew up. But global warming then was not yet part of our vocabulary, and driving cars had not yet reached the point of saturation to turn a pleasant outing into an exercise in frustration, and sometimes in rage. But the outlines remain the same - it's the same schematic, as I lately reaffirm by criss-crossing these United States and Canada many many (many!!) times by RV.

By my read, our social schematic is in the approximate condition of a skyscraper after the shrug of the demolition charges set to take it down, but before gravity destroys its appearance of integrity. No worries, it has seemed that way to me since about the time that Reagan was elected. I'm sure we have a moment or two remaining to us.

It feels now as though we only just barely color within the lines. This is while I often feel what amounts to a desperation not to let go of the TV life (not in myself for sure - I've already lived that life) that all us white people have envisioned for ourselves. 

And then came the Huxtables. Dang! Me too, me too! We live in the era of The Spectacle. We are spectators of our very own lives. What a hoot! Really, we should demark our times as the era of the screen. Think about it. Literacy is so yesterday! Update your book, man!

One iconic memory from my own preliterate childhood was Dad tossing my silver spray-painted cardboard robot Halloween costume over the cliff and into the roil of Lake Erie at the bottom of the fossil-filled shale at the edge of our back yard. My clever costume with compartment for candy and puffs of flour exiting an inverted funnel on its head was just one piece among frequent disposals into the vast beyond.

Lake Erie's death scarred my childhood, framed to the East by a second sunset as the Bethlehem Steel Plant dumped what we called slag into the lake, and of course to the West by God's increasingly reddening sunset. Our streets were paved by slag, likely held together by PCB-containing tar. 

The rounded pebbles would catch at the runners on the sleds we dragged behind a Bethlehem Steel junior-executive's long tail-finned convertible. We called those pebbles ‘cinders.’ They looked like globs of congealed volcanic lava, as though we understood what lava was. All we knew was that it looked like what must have come from the slag pouring from the steel plant.

Then came the frenzy of one uncle piloting "flying boxcars" overhead, while his brother would head off to Vietnam. Blond and blue-eyed West Pointers both. We watched the Bell Aerosystems research hovercraft destined to despoil Vietnam pass along our beach in the camouflaging dusk. An open secret. 

Dad built a fallout shelter in our basement. Another early memory of hefting "cinder blocks" onto a plank down which they would slide for Dad to mortar into place. Preliterate me worried that the fallout would come in horizontally and that our position high on a cliff would leave us exposed. Dad explained how radiation went in a straight line to explain why we needed only a baffle and not a door. Why there was no concrete roof.

That fallout shelter later became our pantry for all its stored canned goods, and then my photographic darkroom. We all still managed to have fun, even imagining camping out on the four-decker bunks. No wonder I like to live in small spaces!

I remember with a clarity as though I'd seen the face of Jesus when I learned to write my name. It was that electrically exciting. I was using a red ballpoint pen ("atomic age" puns with ballpoint in Chinese usage) on a brown paper shopping bag.

My prosocial optimism had been wrecked by the time I hit college, obviously. A minor thesis of Henrich's book is that such optimism is essential. He calls it "positive-sum thinking" and such thinking is essential to inventiveness and the cultivation of our collective "brain." I guess positive-sum thinking is essential to cultural evolution in our WEIRD direction.

I spent much of my formative education at Yale pondering the 'why' of the industrial revolution occurring in Europe and not in China. That was after re-calibrating from engineering through physics to Chinese literature. Mine has not been a settled life.

We called this the Needham question, or at least I did. Still on my bookshelves now, despite seemingly endless moves across geography and career, I have the near complete print-set of Needham's opus. I remember how nervous I was transporting the pirated volumes back from Taiwan, as though the customs agents would open my books. I wanted to study with urbane Nathan Sivin, Needham's colleague, as it was, who sometimes paid glancing visits to our Ivy-League classical Chinese poetry club.

Well beyond answering that question, which this book certainly does, and which by my memory occupied many fine minds in those not-so-distant days, this new book presents a thesis which brings together and perhaps even concludes many many streams of thought. The thesis is vastly ambitious, and the book - The WEIRDest People in the World - provides evidence both scientific and anthropological/sociological to be convincing in the thesis' (theses? There are at least 95 of them) proof.

Some of the book's thought-streams question the inevitability of science as we practice it, and even the universality of the scientific principles we live by. Where are our choices, really? Was scientific understanding going to come in any case, if the laws revealed are Platonic/cosmic universals, or is this all some Western aberration? Something to evolve beyond, even?

Whatever the case, Joseph Henrich, the book's author, is implicitly asking his reader to step outside his own tradition, to see it as an outsider might. That is in itself a very WEIRD thing to do. It's what science does.

I'm still waiting for him to attempt an interpretation for why we seem now to be disintegrating all those institutions that we celebrate. Are we somehow becoming less "WEIRD?" American exceptionalism by ironic twist?

Surely the likes of Yale Law grad Josh Hawley prove that our collective tendency to be Wealthy Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic - the WEIRD of the title - can make no claims on our individual disposition to act a lout

My own sense of what's happening is that our WEIRDness is curdling in at least three dimensions, and more likely 95. 

The first would be our patent laws, which only just barely stopped at allowing the patenting of genes (partially thanks to a student in the first class I ever taught - claiming serendipity here, not credit!). Those laws, from their origins, enshrine the notion of the genius inventor who should be rewarded for specific innovations, often largely by being the first to create an embodiment of something that would soon be produced in any case, according to this book's thesis (and according to me). 

Patent and copyright merge in the digital age, and what we now do amounts to slow death to what Henrich calls our collective social "brain." He calls it a brain even as he debases what a brain can do on its own. I am, as you know, gentle reader, an adherent of The Spread Mind thesis, and don't credit brains as much as Henrich apparently does. My brain isn't really all that distinguished from the social brain in which it's embedded.

The second dimension would probably be our precious individualism, based as it is on the ascription of internal traits as that which constitutes our very specific individual personality. I am happy to read him debunking all the personality type tests, on which I am nothing but a chameleon (matching whatever happens to be my current ever-shifting occupation), and sarcastically wishing us individuals "good luck" in finding our authentic self. You go, man!

At about the time that we are celebrating gender transitions, the borders that we cross may all be the same borders. Patent law and practice (now in the digital age) no longer serves the people as patent portfolios - traded on the open market - make a perfect proxy for predatory size of firm (they're all predatory, by definition as we practice so-called capitalism).

The third would have to be religion, which is credited in this book (the Christian tradition through the Catholic Church, and later and more locally importantly, through the various iterations of Protestantism) as the inventor [sick] of WEIRD. 

But by now, our religions have returned to primitive form in stark opposition to what is meant by WEIRD in this book. As with patents, the reading of any book as providing just one literal Way can only be counterproductive to enlightenment. However enlightenment might be defined, it certainly has nothing to do with the belief structure of most evangelical sects, credited though they might be with the stimulation of mass literacy at their Lutheran origins. 

Now I have to ask; what would happen if instead of stepping outside our collective mind, we embrace it more tightly? What if we jump right back into the scientific soup and ask such really important questions as 'why has love meant so much cosmically?' That would be to separate knowledge of what we still call "supernatural" phenomena from received authority structures, though to re-incorporate them into what we call "reality." That should, after all, be the final maneuver in the legacy of WEIRD. No one has the right to tell me that God is a delusion!

I mean simply that we allow subjectivity back in to science, in a very careful way. By any meaning, evolution - cultural or genetic - is built on a series of accidents. Joseph Henrich implicitly denies meaning to the Christian religions. They are, rather, the accidental form which the universalising of ancestral objects of worship (was that inevitable?) took. 

But what if the core of Christian belief is actually, even scientifically, quite true? You know, God is love, and drop the Name already! I'm big on name-dropping! What else do the accidents of evolution - cultural or genetic - add up to? We WEIRD people are all about romantic love, especially as we see ourselves on-screen, though we may be known by our science and our industry. Could love be a cosmic force?

Hell, many of us who consider ourselves sane call all the religious people loonies, even while we - some of us - express certainty that we will someday encounter life elsewhere in the cosmos. Which is to deny that we already have, and that it has nothing to do with UFOs.

If I were religious, I would consider the store of energy contained in fossil fuels to be a gift from God. In those same terms, I would consider humanity as a whole to have sinned by our squandering of that gifted oil to no apparent end beyond, well, the end as caused by our despoiling of the only home we can ever have. Short of breaking light-speed barriers, as though that might be done within the life-span of ours or any other culture. Who are the loonies in this equation?

And so what has technology done to us? Has it made economics back into a zero-sum game again? As in, why do many of us feel that Google and Facebook are stealing our wealth rather than to expand the realm for innovation? Theirs would seem to be a sharing infrastructure which isn't sharing when it comes to their monopoly access and now control of what it is that we might share. They are justified only if primacy of genius remains a root value. And only if genius is always a good and not something that 'stable-genius' Trump or even Hitler bequeathed to our planet (damned Godwin!).

And anyhow it isn't at all clear that whatever we do on our smartphones is on a continuum with the reading habits which once changed the world. We seem only to amplify what we already think that we know. And we are quite literally drowning in words that have almost an urgency about grabbing and keeping our attention. This is no longer the shared "brain" that Henrich says that we in the West lucked into. This is reversion to a kind of beehive mind, where the wealthy are the queens.

Indeed I suspect that most readers will prefer the executive summary of this book, which can be had by way of numerous reviews and introductions in the MSM. The arguments presented here quickly become tedious for those not steeped already in the torture chambers of statistical reasoning applied to sociology and psychology (and to politics, of course). Games devised to mimic actual human behavior, and then broad (broad!) conclusions drawn.

In the big picture, we no longer seem to believe in human progress. It would be hard to know if this is because of the wreckage caused by our technologies as we deploy them, or simply that they feel so disruptive of religious comfort words. I would say that, more likely, it has to do with our economic structures and the cynicism those build as the accelerations of technology in the realm of primacy rewards and gold-shaving wealth-building leaves most of us feeling plainly swindled. 

Where is the love? 

He teases us that maybe we’re too disposed to particles in physics by analytical reductionism, and personality traits same. But there remains something of the rah rah we're Western we’re the lucky ones. The author runs a lab, and has tenure at Harvard with the ridiculously high citation "score" of 84 or something.

I sweated more when I brought banned books with me into China than I did returning with pirated books, but still . . . That was after I thought I'd been marked for very publicly sponsoring a commemorative event a year after the massacres in and around Tiananmen square, June 4, 1989. China's customs officers were no more literate than ours.

Yes, it is our civic duty to sneak around paywalls every chance we get, and to steal books from wherever we can find them, and especially to sneak them across borders. It is our civic duty to turn our backs on every sort of social media. We otherwise will have squandered all that we have been granted in celebration of our public emotions. 

Of course this is me talking, spinning off my read of Henrich's fine book. He is too smart to stray into much speculation about how parochial our abstract reasoning may have become. 

He mocks our cataloguing of [subatomic] particles ever so mildly, right along with our search for some authentic self (built of personality traits as measured by psychologists enamored of type testing). He nods to our current political dysfunction, and by implication the crumbing of the Big D in the WEIRD of his title, which would be (would have been?) democracy with a little D.

As are most of us, Heinrich is embedded in the world he might be criticizing. He knows, as I don't, how to stick to his topic. His bibliography, in which I recognize only a few names, makes a stretch beyond even what Steven Owen has read. But that's the academic scientific game. I, too, have been amazed at the length and scope of my own list of citations when I have been an academic writing academic papers. That's the game. 

It's not the game of life, though. Academic thinking rectifies our shared belief structures until the economic activities in the actual game of life overwhelm shared belief structures, which is to say that trust is overwhelmed and undermined, and then all the academics are only howling in the idiot winds.

Along comes a paradigm shift, suggests Thomas Kuhn, and scientific understanding steps up its game, just as it did to bring along the A-bomb. Was that a gift of God? We've been stalled in the overall paradigms of the Standard Model of Particle Physics now for as long as I can remember. Well, long only given the acceleration of change, which has become our main shared belief.

Plus ca change!  

Evolution is driven by love, or what's a meta for? All of those accidents of evolution end up with a creature capable of love, and now we fully intend to throw that all away in favor of intelligence as our defining feature, even while we hang on to such idiotic ideas as that we can improve things on and for the planet and our fellow man by taking control of accident. Think about it.

As I have and will doubtless continue to detail right here in this web-space, the very particles described in the standard model of physics dispose themselves not only by describable and measurable forces, but also in conceptual ways where the only force is emotive. Wanting is not a physical process.

Anyhow, read this incredibly important book with an open mind. I hope you'll be as blown away as I have been.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Is There Time Enough?

I drank my third of, was it?, $150 of fine wine. I drank it together with friends and really bad Chinese food. As usual, I didn't sleep but this time awakened to piss that smelled as bad as that old cat piss smell that I discovered in the bathroom in my new apartment when I put a heater in that corner. What did I eat? What did I drink?

I am disturbed this morning that the precisely described repair kit for the perfectly balanced (and therefore rare and irreplaceable) moka pot which I depend on for my morning coffee each day arrived other than as described. The pot had cost less than the repair kit. The repair kit was precisely what I needed and wanted, but it was too big. Damn!

The Subaru dealer that I'd already decided to like twice now, put in the headlight bulb wrong twice. I paid the price of nearly a bottle of the fine wine my rich friend bought just to avoid the tortuous process of fitting in a new bulb myself. Wrong means no light, but I'm not about to take it back there again after two strikes. And I still doubt that I could ever spend over $50 on any bottle of wine.

I wander inside the discount houses sometimes looking for things not there which are only available on Amazon. Our retail infrastructure is a shambles and the number of boarded up restaurants and bars is distressing. 

Perhaps my malaise is the result of my recent vaccination, for which I feel so lucky. Are things looking up? It cost me nothing, so far as I can tell.

I have demurred for my entire life in making firm commitments to anything in particular, which is surely the greatest sin that there is. Maybe not so bad as the sin of the Republicans, committed as they are to nihilistic nobodaddy, but I am definitely nearing my end before I've even started.

What good has economiseriing ever done me? I should have committed and I should be living the good life.

But at least I know how to fix the system. If someone in authority makes claims about things that they are no authority on, then they should be ipso facto disqualified from office. Done. Fixed. That's all it would take. It's how we operate in all realms except the political and the religious. Done and done.

These thoughts are provoked by random contact with a former colleague and near friend who filled his life with commitment, even to the extent of reading his poetry at St. Marks in the Bowery, where I once had the bizarre chance to witness Patti Smith recite a tone poem in cowboy boots spray painted silver before anyone did such things. No brag, just fact.

My colleague put me in mind of our mutual teacher Stephen Owen, who is at least the most brilliant mind that I have ever encountered. His life's work now has built to the extent of rational impossibility. As in life could never be long enough to be that productive. The trick is to define and limit your scope, but he sure did choose a large scope.

I am in awe, as I ever have been, and I am afraid for his life as he grows older. (Because I want his recognition, oh ambiguous English?) So I gather together what few of his incredibly expensive, because, I suppose, so seldom read, books from my collection. One newly purchased for the cost of a Subaru headlight replacement, seriously! One borrowed from my fine wine affording friend, several from my own shelves which have also gained in value. Can I read them now? Have they aged well? Have I?

I would, of course, like to think that I have deferred my life's work for all the right reasons. My project is, after all, so huge that I knew all along that I could not allow myself to be sidetracked along ways that led to a different end. But now I find mind's degeneration, if not from drink, then surely from age. Frommage, wine, minds, all age differently depending on what goes in. I have some yoghurt fermenting. Bread rising. I fart a lot.

(My favorite memory of any Chinese lit class was one sidetracked on the 'pneumatic theory of Chinese poetics')

Now indulging a non-nomadic life, I blow up like my bread in the oven. It's gross.

I believe that Stephen Owen and I share a pedigree of sorts. His father, as I recall, was a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins. Owen was better briefed on the life of the mind. He had a running start.

I had only my various girlfriends' parents and a towering uncle in his field of electrical engineering as example. So my own background is more compressed. I wanted to study physics, but discovered early on that to squeeze out emotion from the cosmos for the sake of objectivity could only be a destructive project. A viral load of subatomic grey-goo, ultimately signifying nothing.

So, of course, I went over to Chinese poetics, which among other things is at least as concerned about the emotive valence of cosmos as physics is professionally disinterested.

So what is is that I have always intended to do with my life, be it ever so brief? 

Why start a new religion, of course. What else could be worthy of so many promising ways forgone? Byways, highways, pathways I might have taken. I have felt myself a lazy lout. And yet. 

I do continue to fill in so much of the ignorance of my long departed youth when I might very well have blown it all for the sake of a startup if startups had been a thing. Then my life could have been as meaningless as Zuck's life is. No, worse. As destructive. I have only ever destroyed small matters. I have been indiscreet, is all. Why consign oneself to meaninglessness? For the sake of money? Why dost thou forsake me, money, honey?

But it was not fear so much as ambition which has held me back. Go big or stay home, as we say here in my little home in Buffalo roam to which I have returned in splendid defeat. Dreaming of grandchildren. I still live off my whiteness. Duh, doughboy.

The cosmos has always been invested with emotion. That's what we mean by "God" in our fumbling English. In China they still have actual poetics which do religion one better at least. Do they? Now they have a bigger navy. Ahoy!

God is, of course, more an author than a creator, which would have to mean that He Himself was authored somehow else, and anon. There are no spaceships nor time travel to take us there. What we may discover by our physics is just about that parochial. Limited but to this small corner of cosmic all.

Asking whether there remains world enough and time for myself is identical to asking it for the planet. Looking at those store shelves and at the highways and at the mayhem in our capitals makes it clear that we are already too late. The memes have engulfed the mind. 

We are collectively far later than I am with at least as much time in my fullness now as I had before I thought I knew something at my beginnings. By the age of 27 or 28. My younger daughter just turned thirty. How may I honor her?

God is not, of course, engendered and to make God so - to make God a "him" or a "her" is abomination full stop. Authored authorial autonomous author? Nobodaddy by any other Name.

Let’s be real. I don’t have time or life enough even to give thoughtful reads to Stephen Owen’s published production. I made that bed decades ago. But I shall try. I'm very trying, Ouch.

And now my apartment is furnished by the bits and pieces of my life as though I planned it that way across the years. Saving this and discarding that. The things I miss disturb me less than that infernal headlight or the cost of another book I might well not read. 

So, onward, then, onward. As a different former colleague (we were both already old) said when we both were gawking at a blond driving a red corvette, “ you ain’t dead yet!”

(I am no more politically incorrect than Owen is; he married a much younger woman, or so my Chinese informant tells me. It was big news in China.)

Did I say start a religion? Bah! We already have a good one in Christ. Too bad that in this world overrun by destroyers, nano and mega, ready to be deployed in an instant and to replicate faster than even a Trump meme, we have destroyed Christ in the Name of Christ.

I mean aren't you as amazed that I am that the Christians have become the fascist racist haters? Isn't that a bit of a stretch?

The message is simple. Honor the least of us. Clawing your way to the top shall destroy your eternity. He couldn't possibly remember it, but I was pulled aside once after class by Stephen Owen back when we weren't so far apart in age (ha!) if already in stature. I had been indiscreet, I guess, in providing a revision to his read of a poem. I had good evidence. He needed to tell me that 'it would never happen again.' 

Of course I doubted very much that it would, nor certainly could, ever happen again. And I am certain that he didn't mean it as a threat. A useful observation for my benefit, to keep me humble. I suppose that's what Andrew Cuomo meant when he complimented those young women. So he thought, when really he simply couldn't help himself. The sin he committed and can't apologize for was to treat colleagues as something other than colleagues because they were nubile women. String him up!

No, Christ has been overrun by viral memes which turn him into a deadly avatar for hate. While we celebrate the viral startup upstarts still, as though they ever had merit.

You know, after my recent re-read of Thomas F. Torrance' Space, Time and Incarnation, I have become Christian again. I always knew I would. I've kept a life-long bet with God that involved a lot of swearing and challenging and still more outright denial. 

I have made a cursory study of physics and Chinese poetics and sociology and plenty more. I have repaired things better than my betters, and in the end all the rational pursuit amnog knowers in the known cosmos works in denial of Christ's basic message of love. More basic even than subatomic, so-called, particles.

The Christians are the worst. They deny Him in His Name. My Christ is nothing if not ironic. You cannot know me by your ways. You cannot find me by your rocketry. You can only destroy yourself along the way. Otherworldy and everpresent all the same is  life elsewhere.

Other life in the cosmos is always present. 

So yeah, I watched the final installment of the HBO series called "Succession" last night. Brilliant! The old man cons his son into being as ruthless as he was. The son destroys the father and thereby ensures his empire's persistence beyond even his own death. I'd thought it might be allusive of, say, Rupert Murdoch, or the Bush Dynasty. But no, it's about papal lineage or Falwells or Robertses or any other power mongering structures. Supreme court injustices.

No wait! There's the Oprah interview. God save the Queen bee

Be I ever so humble, it would never have been enough. And yet I persist, in all humility, as though I had something to say. How rude!