Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pop Hubbert's Pimple and Liberate Your Inner Alpha!!

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly ImprobableThe Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great book! The guy makes important points. But what a jerk. He thinks he has the right to call everyone else a jerk or a stuffed shirt or an empty suit, but who the hell does he think he is? He's a gamer and a huckster and just plain lucky but he wants you to believe he has that kind of outlier genius which the rest of us are not even supposed to believe in.

He says the world just is the way it is now and get used to it. We live in the state of Extremistan, where the BIG EVENTS which will shape our destiny are fundamentally unpredictable. This is better, he implies, than to live in the state of Mediocristan, led by the high preisthood of the fraudulent Academy which is just too stupid to stop imposing Platonic forms and retrospective narratives on the stuff of raw reality.

Well buddy, where the hell would we be if we hadn't started with those forms? Mathematical thinking has done a pretty good job of giving us a handle on the raw reality of nature. And show me a single aspect of reality which can be communicated without some narrative. Show me a truth which isn't metaphor, and I'll show you a fundamentalist dyslexic nutjob.

Lots of normal people think that that civilizing influence has been really really good. Lots of us would rather move away from a wolfish pack where only the alpha dog gets to mate or fly high or sell books, and we're not all that terrorized that we might be more like ant-clones, socially organized around survival of the hive.

You won't let someone pin you with your own personal narrative, growing up as you did in "Lebanon," that fictional state which only melted down after the Platonic Ideal of the Nation State got imposed on it. But then you want to claim that the state of Extremistan is the true state of nature, and nothing we can do about it but to hang loose, like a huckster, ready to pounce on any opportunity which comes our way.

Admit it, Taleb, you stole our money when you were a quant, and you deserve our anger for the supposed Black Swan of our recent meltdown. Funny you don't mention that one in your book, so backward looking are you in imposing your narrative on history that you miss what's staring you down. Were you afraid you'd get pinned with it?

Well, I stole your book, so there! I would have borrowed it, but the brave new world of Kindle doesn't allow for that and I hardly wanted to pay for another book which would expand a thought which could be stated in a single page. There are enough civilized people out there who see right through the administrative fiction of intellectual property, thank the gods.

There are enough people who understand that there is no choice but to impose narratives on our history. That the only choice is which not whether. There are enough people who understand that our collective choice is to smooth the bumps or die collectively in one last great Black Swan event.

Sorry you won't join the party. Jerk!

OK, sorry sorry. Got carried away there. Really, read this book. It's great. Just don't get too carried away with it or you'll start believing that there is an actual reality out there that you have nothing to do with. The metaphor of a-causal fractals is so much more real. Trust me on that.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Ghost Drive-by Along a Ghostly Walk

It’s been suggested that I might be good at leading ghost walks. Passive voice. I’m intrigued. I tag along for a walk right near my own neighborhood as conducted by a practiced expert. I want to witness what these walks are all about. He’s good at keeping it light, my guide, since the skin may crawl on its own without any guidance once the creepy facts are assembled. I’m skeptical of ghosts, naturally, and am trying to imagine how I could fit my own voice into this act. What could my role be? Pith helmet among the gullibles?

Early on, the walk stops at my friends’ former house, and so I’m on alert. I’d spent a lot of time there. I’d been involved in the start of a project to rebuild its carriage house. I’ll have evidence to contradict any stories that are told, which just makes me nervous for our host. Something about a brassiere factory, a fire and a bicycle museum, and a little girl ghost and I recognize what must be the son of my friends as the temporary pyromaniac the guide spoke of, but that just doesn’t ring true.

The very next day I head out with that same good lifelong friend to scour the junkyards – graveyards for cars – for seats which might fit the “kit-car” we’ve been working on, absurdly, for many months now. We’d sat alongside it on the Elmwood Avenue “cruise night” among the perfectly buffed and polished notables brought back to life from the grand old days of automobiles.

This “Bradley GT” cartoon fiberglass sports car on a VW Beetle chassis got attention just for its comic relief, but we hadn’t even had a chance to wash it, nevermind bringing it up to show quality. I’ll just bet the reason that it didn’t show up in the News’ spread of pictures from the show is that it turned up as a blurry aura when their photographer culled his shots.

I told my good friend I had a bone to pick with him, speaking of graveyards in his basements where another motor project hangs like a side of beef now. How come he’d never told me about the ghost? He knew that I was attending these workshops for folks who write about the so-called paranormal.

Well, matter of fact, he said, that house was indeed haunted. They didn’t move in as believers, but when a Pyrex dish jumped off its shelf and exploded on the floor of the walk-in pantry my friend’s wife’s Mom (I’m keeping my distance here) commented that the ghost didn’t like the pantry door being shut, and all the fun in the kitchen.

There was one of a pair of Christmas candles which simply wouldn’t stay in its base overnight, and it was placed, not tipped, onto its side come morning. There were ketchup bottles cleaned up from among the debris left by the troublesome tenant downstairs who’d had to be evicted, arranged neatly on the windowsill and then rearranged overnight to different places without any breakage. And then there was the plaster plaque propped in plain sight in the attic - where nothing had ever been seen before - of a man’s bust and the caption “R. Robert Wagner,” as best my friends still remember.

They called the ghost “Wagner,” and got along with it fine. Their infant son would talk to it, and track it with his eyes – not the pyromaniac from the ghost walk story who must have moved in afterwards according to the dateline we reconstructed. A church organist was murdered across the street while my friends’ house was being painted; right as the painters were eating lunch and looking toward that house. They were aware of nothing.

Yes, I have corrections for the ghost walk, as well as new information. The brassiere factory was in the carriage house not next door in the bike “museum”– my friends called it a sweat shop and when we started rebuilding this carriage house - which remains disheveled but undisturbed until this day - they found piles of advertising brochures hidden in its walls when they pulled them open. I have a vague memory of that.

The bicycle so-called museum might have been the home of a bicycle club, back when bicycles were the rage and they had six day races. They shoot horses, don’t they? We are so much more humane these days, our sweatshops are moved offshore and our champions wear armor. Our ghosts are mostly banished.

I learned on the walk that most ghost sightings are of young girls, and that the second most common are women in white. I learned of the sacred dimensions of certain kinds of architecture; dimensions which just simply look haunted to the rest of us not initiated in ghost lore.

My friends moved from that house to a larger one which used to be a brothel! But no ghosts there, although the place looked as though there should be. You know, hotels, brothels, theaters, nunneries, these are places where ghosts hold forth. Makes sense. But not everybody sees them, and I confirm that my friends aren’t all that excitable.

I imagine the spin that I would give if I were to lead the walks. That of course the imagination will lead us to look in certain places, and that these places by their lore, by their sightlines, by their feng-shui in relation to all around them will be the places where energies will coalesce and it will be difficult to distinguish the real from the merely imagined.

Now I don’t maintain that there is a stark distinction between the real and the maybe – looking forward, what separates our aspirations from reality is but a thin slice of will and determination. Plus so much luck and family conditioning and bodily endurance. Looking backwards in time then, when is the moment when a person becomes not one? If strong emotions are involved, and if there is influence beyond the skin’s boundary of real touch, can it all really hinge on a heartbeat? Do you really end where your skin does? Are boundaries ever clear, or are there only intervals and jumps? How small do things have to get before you hit quantum reality, Zeno?

So I spent the better part of yesterday buffing up that old kit car. There were some stains which simply would not come out, and others which would. Some rust is permanent and some is amenable to steel wool. They treated me to dinner out with the entire extended family, my friends did, as reward for the car’s transformation. But then I spirited home right after dinner along with the mother-in-law since I’m not indulging sprits these days, ahem, and they all wanted to head out for a night on the town.

Walking from theirs to my home alone along Elmwood a pristine white Bradley GT drove by, no kidding! (My daughter chides me for using feminine adjectives to describe the car over the phone as I was picking away at its blemishes) I called Pat and told him I could not have been more amazed had I seen a ghost. And hell, even if there is another of these cars in our vicinity, which I frankly doubt, why would it drive by me at just that moment?

Just keeping it light here. No need to make the skin crawl. So, yeah, I’ve never seen a ghost. That beauty in white was real, and I’m certain of it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Mother Jones

For a fun exercise, try to imagine Right Wing art. Can you? (No, I didn't say Right Wing Artists - that would be trivial)

Let's pretend for the moment that it is neither self-indulgent nor pitiful that I just made myself, alone, crêpes stuffed with stewed fresh peaches. My mother had pressed the peaches on me as medicine on her way out of town, because I don't eat enough fruit. Stuff that!

It would be self-indulgent were I to be seen at le Metro with enough money and charm and style for that. It might be pitiful were I to be depressed or lovelorn. As it is, they were, I assure you, far better than any you have ever eaten, nor did they cost a penny (The flour is ages old, I have no sugar but I do have ersatz maple syrup left over from my daughters' childhood. Perhaps the electricity will prove costly)

Now imagine a world in which museum pieces aren't all engendered in some time of flourish - economic and self-consciously cultural - where intellect stews and conforms and bursts forth with resplendance and beauty and brilliant power. Imagine that workers and trailer-trash actually were to have a chance, M&M style maybe, to take it to the top. Or how about a world without museums. How about that?

Imagine a world where Trotskyites don't spend all their energies debating doctrinal rectitude leaving such gaping lacunae in our Real World for Right Wing certainties hidden underneath their vague dark cloak that gets misnamed "conservatism". Where we really did understand what our government is capable to do to us and for us and where we might never doubt that the game is fixed and where our Dynastic leaders don't take their orders from some secret society and that they would never bring down towers for our own good and blame that on the least among us for some excuse to pulverize them. For us to do the dirty work and in our very own Name.

Sure, if you're taken in by Ayn Rand, you might think that realistic celebrations of powerful men can approach real artistry. You might find realist sculpture of the sort Tom Wolfe writes to be a fair imitation of art. You might prefer greatness celebrated or oversized egos taken down, but most people want art to get beyond pure demonstrations of talent to something approached by means of that talent, right? Whatever transcendence means I sure don't know, but it has something to do with the taste of fresh peaches, that much I know for certain.

Something already held in mind by the artist and then realized by her art places the artist in a superior position and so we might suppose that we don't have the talent even to think either; as well as lacking the talent to perform. School pretty effectively instills this lesson, no? I wonder whatever happened to actual education, without which we are not much more than apes?

The artist must be taken in by her own work and not in charge of it, right, and so even those museum pieces from our ages of glory are subversive at their roots. They challenge their age. It is as though a spirit were released and the artist its medium. And that spirit is never on the side of individual human greatness. Never. Unless sublimated  to Man as God, or beauty as truth or or or.

Most art - I'm pretty sure this is true - tends left wing once you move away from so-called realism. Think Ayn Rand's compatriot Tolstoy if you want art, and think the other Thomas Wolfe maybe if you want art and think white linens if you want your Southern Fried. The real always favors the powerful. Projections always favor the dreams of the downtrodden, for greater glory, for vindication, for something approaching beauty.

You might find the exhibition of extraordinary talent by way of its purest de-contextualized notes of grace to be artistic. Purest voice of striking clarity can take the place of hard wrought gems mined from the deepest parts of us. Even in church, there can be good music.

But inevitably, most such stuff feels either Stalinistic or like some sort of flag waving country music show in some Big Box Church which glorifies production values. It might be entertaining, but it ain't art. Unless it steadfastly refuses any message at all, and then I guess it's just entertainment, maybe like a ball game, and nothing wrong with that! Just like pornography and for the same or opposite reason, you know it when you see it, art. Whatever it's purpose, it stirs you, but in a way to uplift and stray beyond the pornographic commons.

The production of The Furies of Mother Jones over at Subversive Theatre has all the trappings of that country music show in Church. Fine spirit, stirring music, a transparent message about workers' rights. Clear realism devoted toward a crystalline message.

It ain't art, right? It's more like didactic presentations of the sort they were limited to under Chairman Mao because the little people couldn't be trusted to see through the racier stuff to the right kind of message. Everyone becomes self indulgent if given the slightest chance, and hell the blocking of pornography makes a pretty good cover for covering dissent. There's nothing terribly subtle about this one. There's no meaning below the belt and there's no culture at the bottom of a coal mine.

No question this show presents a good time. It doesn't depict a good time, but somehow it manages to be fun and stirring and uplifting for its audience. It sharpens the context for all systemic abuses, and gives the hand clapping foot stomping onlooking participant a refined view of how it feels to be at the bottom of the social structure, where the compulsive bottom shopping of each of us resolves into outright destruction of those lives closest to the manufacture of whatever it is that fuels the desires others of those of us with enough wherewithal to buy our tickets.

Every single one of us, each time that we seek out the cheapest gas for our cars, or the pennies less on-line conduit for our gizmos, or refuse to pay the union rate on the excuse that they're all fat and lazy; each one of us participates in whatever it is the global corporate compartmentalized sociopathic powers-that-be have to do to get it to us. We are the destroyers of lives, not any them.

We know the government regulators are both overpowered and in cahoots. We know that, even as we refuse to pay them any more than we can make just getting by ourselves. Getting by now includes that big flat screen and a couple of cars not to mention a jetaway vacation and lots of eating out. These are our birthrights as is our sense of style, which includes the political rectitude to sympathize with and rhetorically support the blasted working class.

But so whom are we to trust? I mean who are we? Are we trustworthy? Will we do a damned thing to assure that there is not more destruction to meet our bottom feeding shopping habits? Will we really continue to regard our priests and civil servants as special cases of people who should and must and will by God be above the base-line habits of the rest of us? We fully intend to punish them to the fullest extent of their pretenses. When they fall short of their pledge to honor. The rest of us are only innocent bystanders, members of some audience.

So, yeah, I'm not really sure that this is art, Subversive. It is necessary, it gets my blood boiling and it satisfies my pride in lack of any style at all. But then I've always been a lousy consumer, failing almost ever to get the best deal. (I paid far more than my fair share for this show too, trust me on that.)

But there is a difference between the right-wing didactic stuff and the left wing. The one celebrates celebrity and success and looking good and rising high and mighty. The other celebrates the little guy, the miner under ground, or the sweatshop worker who's just a blip on the power-brokering radar of those captain of industry superstars who get all the credit for pushing history forward.

And as anyone watching the film Titanic, which must have been derived from O'Neill's Harry Ape (and so which one's real and which one's art???), as anyone in those audiences knows, it's in the boilerroom where the real fun can be had. Among the working folk.

Lots of the audience for this show wanted to ride up in the freight elevator which can take you up to the Manny Fried if you don't want to walk those two flights up to the third floor. Normally, this is preferred only by older or infirm audience members, but somehow there was advanced billing that this time the freight elevator was an echo from the show. It was replicated on the set, and the audience could experience in ironic mirroring what it must feel like to be lifted from gloomy darkness to enlightenment.

We are all of us trapped underground. Tea partiers think the goons are all in the government and that freedom is freedom from government interference, never crediting that corporate power has long since overwhelmed the power of our civil servants. Freedom from means freedom to be exploited so long as we continue to make no distinctions according to scale. So long as we regard corporations as legal persons with rights and freedoms just like those we're just dying to trade away.

So OK let's say this show is less art than politics. That's what Subversive Theatre is for, right? But you know the music in the show makes a mess of that assumption. It might not be mass market art or the kind of aristocratic beauty which still gets aspired to and longed for and even lusted after.

It's the kind of art they celebrate in Appalachia, where the workers once had real lives and real music and real family tradition and where performance is always live and never even expects to be on TV. And it's cheap. And it's hardly realistic, moving back and forth in historical time and realistically depicting the projected nightmares of betrayers who try to hide their own guilt from themselves. The rats patrol the dug-up graveyards. The workers sing like superstars.

So, yeah, let's call it art and have a party. The workers will prevail. The teapartiers will wake up. We will see the sunshine someday soon just like those miners down in Chile. And if you really want to help them, see this show and take it to heart. Indulge yourself.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Beloved Phone Had a (mini) Stroke (too)

Alright, I don't mean any of that literally. I have this Windows (r) mobile smartphone, along with maybe one or two others on the planet. I try to ignore all the press about why this phone is just an awful kludge, because, well, I rather like it. The operating system is "open" which simply means that the carrier can't really hobble it the way they can other smartphone OS's. It's a true operating system which will run anything designed to run on it.

Sure, Verizon had to open up the GPS and forgo lots of fake-out income from their pay to be told where to turn service. They also have to allow me to install software which makes a hotspot of my phone, but in return they get my undying love. But the main reason I bought this phone was that it was the only thing on the market which had this rather incredible AMOLED display, and I wanted to try its input method, which allows me to trace whole words over the QWERTY (virtual) keyboard, instead of either that old Graffiti or handwriting recognition trick of translating gestures to letters. I get whole words with my gestures! I'm OK with thumbs on an actual keyboard, but this one promised better speed, and I'd say it delivers. (If anyone's actually interested, it's a Samsung Omnia II)

Very lately, it has become utterly unreliable. But, being a techie, instead of assuming it had crashed when it froze, I would let it sit and sure enough, things would gradually come back to life. A glance at the memory (in the machine) and some honesty about my heavy usage gave me a gut sense that the file system had become impossibly fragmented against almost no more margins for memory overhead. I'd installed too much stuff and used it too heavily.

I'm a bit surprised that they put so little memory into this thing (not for storage, of which there's plenty, but for the OS and Apps). I'm also surprised that Microsoft decided to force the automatic closure of open programs at some threshold for memory use. That just cramps my style! I know why they did it, since it certainly enhances the generic non-techie user experience by keeping the phone more alacritous and light in response to touch and use. But, I more or less preferred the crankiness of my previous model. Still, by and large, this one worked welll until it didn't.

My guts told me that I could make my evident need to refresh the software (by zapping the phone back to factory specs) much more satisfying if I had the excuse of a new bug-fixed software image to download. Sure enough, there it was, and how the hell had I missed it!? Well, for sure, there wasn't anything wrong with the phone until  my heavy usage and app testing made the phone cranky. I hadn't bothered to look for updates because I didn't need any.

I'm not really all that pumped up by apps, by the way. There's no shake-a-restaurant slot machine, nor am I interested in social networking or podcast apps or all the other things they pack this thing with. But I do find the Opera browser (the new one, not the one burned into the image, which was never updated, damn!) as useful as any out there, and I loaded on Chinese fonts and the router thingie and Google Maps, of course. These are my essentials, and I guess they cramp the phone.

I decided a while ago that I would not become attached to any particular hardware - apart from its physical touch and feel, maybe - and that I would have all my important work in the cloud. That's so that I can work on any piece of hardware anywhere, regardless of the state of mine. It's so that I don't have to worry about things breaking, or getting stolen or crashing or becoming infested. Each of these things has befallen any particular piece of  hardware I've ever owned.

I've never been interested in "customizing" my stuff much. I aim for usability, and consider my computer a tool. Default user interface, default ringtone, I'm about as interested in other from that as I am in stylish clothes. Or, maybe I'm just afraid of attachment.

I think the distinction between hardware and software is nearly meaningless anymore, and it's nowhere more clear - than when your phone does what mine's been doing. The look and feel was as though there was a hardware flaw. It would hang and fail to reboot, but sure enough my hard earned seat-of-the-pants sense that it was the software was proven when the shiny new and updated software image brought the phone back to like-new performance!

Except, well, coincidentally at the same time as all this other stuff was happening, a section of the touch screen had lost its touch. You figured it would have to happen eventually since Windows mobile suffers from a resistive (think "press") touch screen up against Apple's incredibly responsive capacitative screen - which simply means that it detects the electrical potential of your skin's touch seemingly instantly. So, the stylus makes no "impression" at the upper left corner, which means I can't select and correct words which are wrongly predicted by my "Swyping" (c). More critically, I couldn't get past the "align screen" hurdle when my renewed phone restarted.

I'd already discovered that when hoping that the realignment would resolve the evident loss of touch, but I was then able to crash out of the endless loop. But now there was no way around it, and like a crazy person I kept doing the same thing over and over expecting different results until, ahah!, I found the exact off-put spot where a touch would be referred as if to the place where the X was drawn. Phew! The screen now is perpetually misaligned, which is easily enough proven by the drawing program which follows the stylus with a trace, but the phone is still pretty usable.

The real problem was that this hardware issue was an obvious canard in the way of my proper diagnosis hardware I'm happy enough that my learned "instincts" prevailed. Sad that the phone is less than perfect. Well, so am I, evidently from recent health issues but I remain serviceable as well.

I could turn the phone in under my extended warranty, but then, #1 I'd have to go through all this rejiggering yet another time, and #2 I think they'd only supply me with a "refurbished" phone, which is pretty much like buying a car without the Carfax (r) history. Someone else's handling.

But the whole point of today's post, if you read far enough for me to get around to it, is the important distinction between tools as means and tools as objects, and how poised we all now are forced to be between the attractions of the shiny and new and the comfortable familiarity of worn-smooth chestnuts. Working on my friend's computer, he was complaining that just as he gets used to running Quicken (r), e.g., and knowing where to find things, they foist a newer and better version on him when he didn't want or need one.

So attachments of any sort are asking for trouble. And it can only get worse if you spend lots of time customizing the software look and feel. Sure, you can save an entire "image" of what you like, but then when it crashes - certainly as is the case with my phone - you're going to want to go out on the 'net and get the updated stuff anyhow, so what's the point? Not to mention the danger of enshrining infestations for resurrection when you restore the image to a new piece of hardware.

You know, I love my tools - I tend to treat them as objects in and of themselves. But more often, I learn to abstract my usage so that I can, somewhat indifferently, use a handsaw or a power saw, say. Frankly, I  don't find much difference between them in performance, but I do find lots of difference in the quiet or noisy state of my mind. Ditto with using a Mac or a PC. No real difference to me. Or whatever kind of pointing device is on offer. Or keyboard.

My relationship to my tools is also moving up into some cloud, then, and I don't mind if I use yours or mine, so long as they're sharp. It's the thing I'm working on which is my object - outside of myself - and giving feedback, through the tool, to guide my next moves. Same while writing, carving dragons, repairing boats (I have trouble with song and dance, where the feedback loop seems broken).

Computers as universal machines confuse all these relations. The economy in which they're embedded creates a vicious feedback loop where we all feel stupid all the time. New is perversely cheaper, and polishing the old to keep the familiar is rewarded only by frustration. I actually feel quite nauseous when a machine I'm working on or with behaves in ways I can't control. I think most people do. Machines aren't supposed to do our work for us. They're supposed to enhance our own control and reach and impact.

Certainly, they shouldn't be mistaken for thinking machines, the way that Google now cements in our relationship with them with their new "psychic" powers to return results before you're finished typing. Why bother to think when everyone else is doing it for you, rendering up their probability factors to Google's teraflops of computational energy.

But most people swallow the stress involved, since throwing the damned things out the window gets expensive. Just like a new power tool, it can be impossible to resist the seductive attraction of such multiplication of your power; muscle power in the one case, brain power in the other. But subtly the thing which was meant to be a tool for your accomplishment of your own goals, has become yet another piece of proof that you don't know what you're doing without its help.

Anyhow, the feedback loop is broken, and you might as well stop thinking for yourself.

It's funny how the processes of our digitally mediated economy so nicely mirror what's happened in education. Well, not funny exactly, but perverse for sure. Most of the schools attended by most of the students do an extremely good job of reminding students, comparatively, about what they're no good at. You might think that school would be a place to build self-esteem and dignity, but for most of the country's youth, it does precisely the opposite.

It is, at root, an elitist institution, premised on training a priesthood. A thinking class now, and the machines have seen to it that there is no more handiwork available for a living wage. Unless, maybe, you're a bona-fide artist. But the rest of the stuff is no-wage DIY assembling build-by-numbers stuff designed on some computer somewhere to be shippable from China. When the jobs moved there, it wasn't the jobs which got taken away, it was dignity, and school can't repair that. Not everyone wants to work with words or in their head or to systematize their understandings.

Surely anybody can see now that the system of education replicates the stratified social structure more than it offers mobility through it, and that spells death to our Republic as envisioned by its founders. We no longer educate citizens essential to the functioning of our "democracy." We engender consumers, even consumers of education and no wonder that the electorate can be controlled with as much precision as a Madison Ave. (so formerly called) advertising campaign. No wonder that the elite now feel no more compulsion than to perfect their own consumption in the direction of Marie Antoinette. What's an Ivy education for, after all?

OK, it's a stretch from cellphones as instances of digital "tools" to technology as a tool of a system which wants to right itself in the direction of masses of frightened huddled minions. I know the Luddites tried this and yadda yadda, it's all good, right? Technology will liberate the people by offering truth to power every time. Except when it exacerbates the trend toward consolidation of power among intellectual and cultural elites.

Education must inhere in the dignity between a human being and her tools. Education now has completed the capitalist mandate of alienation of all workers from the means of their production. And even our mind won't count unless it's been sanctioned by the bona-fides of consumerist education. We've been alienated from our own minds, for chirssakes!

It genuinely doesn't have to be this way. We could learn to crave new-and-shiny less, and value old and wooden and worn that much more. We could rejigger things to where we're happier paying a fair amount to someone whose artisanal work we value, rather than less for some piece of quasi-functional amusement equipment down at the nearest bottom dropout store.

What I really hate is when my wealthy friends chase pennies saved on their new electronic gear. They buy it in the Big Box or on the Internet and then disparage the riff-raff who won't help themselves but wander with hand out along our pretty streets. I just hate that, but who knows, maybe that's because I've got my own hand out.

Well, I blew a ton of time trying to find this one setting which I remember finding late in the game with this phone. Some stupid preference that made me feel better about it. I can find no documentation of whether this was a bug removed by the update I just installed, or a memory lapse about where and how I'd found it in the first place. But hey, it gave me something to do, and it sure beats video games!! Now where was that setting, and would it be easier to look in my head or on the phone or on the Internet, or am I all alone with this stupid issue . . .

Monday, September 6, 2010

It's a Wonderful (Digital) Life (Style)

OK, so I'm going to come right out and say it. Stuff that everyone knows but is afraid to sound stupid saying. There's something evil about digital.

I don't kow if I mean that literally or figuratively, but then there's another binary distinction for you. I heard on the radio that those two words are prime examples of this new category for words, contranyms, (no way I was going to remember that word without looking it up!!) which are often used in a manner opposite to their, well, literally proper usage.

So, like, there was literally the world's largest fireworks display last night, except well how could I know, but they called it that! Anyhow, everyone understands or should understand that there's a distinction between a machine and a living thing. But when you pursue a formal distinciton, it's damned hard to pin one down. You get all bogged down in that art vs. nature stuff. Articficial vs. natural.  Created versus evolved.

The funny thing is - if you think it's funny now - that evil in practice has all shifted sides too. The evil ones now are the religionists, the ones who really really need to believe in digital, binary reality. As in men are men and women are women and the Word is literal and abortion is murder and the border is absolute between your country and mine and life and death and good touch and bad touch and all the rest.

Anti-creationists, without irony, try to "reverse engineer" the brain even while they insist that the brain was never engineered in the first place, because that would be just plain ridiculous even to contemplate. But the assumption is that the brain is, at it's root, a machine because what the hell did you think it was? Magic?

But machines, at root, if they work properly, don't do random except for flaws in them, and you generally don't want to build-in such flaws. Digital reality allows perfect machines to be built, but the trouble is that in order to work - building in some fault tolerance, which is nowise the same thing as flaws - they really have to work perfectly, as in, no random. Ever.

On or off is on or off and someone outside the machine has to make that decision (you can make fuzzy machines which use fuzzy logic more like my logic, but that's a digression without all that much interest here, trust me). Now, sure, lots of people understand that at the most basic reaches of "modern" (is it now "post-modern?" Are we there yet?) physics, there is no on or off up or down this or that until the probability function for propositional but not quite actual reality gets collapsed by an act of touch. Lot of people understand this.

But some of those very same people actually believe and have probably even concocted elaborate proofs to demonstrate that this makes no nevermind about the whole machine versus life thing.

Which is just nuts unless you want to include conjectural reality among the living. What will or might or would have happened were the probability function to collapse. Were to have collapsed. What has ever been and yet to come.

There is no conjecture with well-oiled machines. You set them in motion and they go where they were designed to go. (Unless they're as complex as the CERN supercollider and then you just hope and pray)

Some enterprising souls, much much smarter than I will ever be (I'm on the decline, don't worry) try to build in this quantum stuff to the state of the brain, to put it in touch as it were with the fundaments of the cosmos so that we can partake holographically and at a Star Trekkie kind of distance from those things with which we demonstrably interact to introduce a dose of random to the buggy machine inside our heads.

OK, cool, but that's a pretty roundabout way to resurrect the ol' ghost in the machine (which is a misuse of allusion, by the way). I don't want to digress too much, but I just love the way that old-world economists still think that business is about profit and loss in the here and now. The inside-the-tent corporate economists who so overpower the ones on our side have such fun seeding the MSM with snippets like "Amazon loses money on each Kindle book sale" while Amazon keeps building power in the form of market share which represents future earnings after the rest of the world has been wiped out which is a manner of incorporating conjectural reality with the stuff we think of as real, and in ways which might as well be equated with seeing actual ghosts, except that when it works, it's foolproof, like Walmart coming in and undermining by capital over-power any and all local business and you call that losing money? Loss leading?

I call it virtual reality, but I said I didn't want to digress. And I don't. But obviously if you own the future you control the cosmos and money hardly matters. Money is all here and now, and the funny thing is (or is it actually the proper use of the term "ironic"???) that this all puts the scientists qua scientists on the side of the religionists on the good v. evil continuum. Which I for one find rather funny.

Still, I'm not wanting to trash either of them. They're a lot smarter than I ever was (or ever shall be, but I've already exposed that about myself). Truly. I couldn't hold a candle to the least of them, and I'm including the well-educated religionsists. I'm not just talking scientists here. No, I'm not kidding. I don't want any of them, qua humans, to stop anything that they're doing.

I would, however, like to stop the machine. So, back to that.

It's not really necessary, you see, to find some fabulous and incredibly complex quantum machinery by which to link the stuff of our corporeal machine with the stuff with which we're out of (ahem, "literal") touch. Touch is mediated by particles and limited by the universal constant represented as the speed of light.

But prior to touch, as it were, there is emotional connection. Connection in the mind. Conceptual relations among actual things which have yet actually to touch. That's not terribly complicated and has the distinct advantage, written about, to be expressible in pretty natural language. No math. No complicated constructs only comprehensible by uber mathemeticians on the edge of utter insanity in their thinking. Percept/concept motion/emotion, touch/feeling, (perception/conception). Trivial,. really.

I know, touchy feely and the words all shift shape literal to figurative, conjectural to actual because your feeling is my reality or vice versa since we don't, technically speaking, any of us occupy the same time and space. Well, we couldn't actually unless you were right inside my skin and I don't want much of a crowd in here.

But it is true that on the quantum level there is no shortage of actual perceptual touch to collapse those (im)probability functions into actual actuality, but it's all each to other and not yet to me the one who wants to know. Still, they do conspire upward, as it were until, I actually can tell, in aggregate, what I"m about to like and what I'm going to run from. Even before I actually confront it, in the case of telegraphed signals like a boxer might make.

Oh worra worra, I have to go ride a float in the Labor Day parade alongside Mother Jones, and thus I'll have no time to finish this off. But you can do that for yourself if you try. You don't have to try very hard. It's not like Fermat's theorem or anything, where I write in the margins and then don't leave my proof behind. It's all in the words and they're all in black and white. Binary. But not evil  . . . .

Friday, September 3, 2010

Poised Between Hope and Terror

The paradox of these modern times is that it's hard not to buy into the promise of technology. Something better just around the corner, except what if you don't make it around the corner? You feel cheated, almost, and it's hard not to fall into the dreamy expectation that if you just hang on long enough you might be able to live forever . . .

Greetings reader! Your recently less-than-faithful correspondent has been laid low yet again by a mysterious "stroke" of what would seem incredibly bad luck. I've landed in some kind of ER 4 times now across maybe two and a half years, and each time seems medically unrelated to the others. But I have to tell you, it's messing with my poise and equanimity (who coined that phrase anyhow?).

First there was what ended up being called mania with psychosis. In layman's terms, I climbed into my own overheated narrative, and managed to replace the one everyone else inhabits (my memory of the event remains intact, if as strange even to me as some of my own writing when I revisit it).

Next, a pulmonary embolism last Christmas Eve which I experienced pretty much like I was a denizen of some Dune dystopia and someone pulled my plug. Then, following a fun evening with close friends involving too much strong drink too quickly, I was diagnosed with dehydration, even though the reason I redirected my morning walk to the ER was that it felt, internally, precisely like my PE on Christmas Eve.

Then, just now, they say I suffered a Trans Ischemic Attack or TIA/mini-stroke. Jeepers! It's as if I don't belong among the living.

As a kind of capper to these events, the only other time that I've visited the ER was another Christmas Eve, this one in 1990, when I had my appendix taken out. Now before the medical doctors among you (can there be "among" onesies??) attempt an armchair diagnosis, let me warn you that I swim against that tide.

We could try these for starters: Alcohol is an underlying constant, but not in my life and not in the same way to each episode. Alcohol might be related to stress or certainly to having fun (I lost my mind upon return from an extremely uncharacteristic bout of good times on someone else's nickel, since I never could have afforded it on my own), so it might be a good proxy for some other issue. Digging deeper, then . . . .

I have genetic factors, one which increases my propensity to clot - a fine discovery gracias nearly dying - and one which, very apparently, gives me a prodigious capacity for drink. I have a lifetime's scars from self-indulgence of various sorts, including smoking as a younger man, bartending and bar frequenting, and in general finding dissolution to be conducive to good interlocution, social bonding and general intellectual stimulation.

I've spent years cruising or day tripping on my sailboat, where beer was the hydration of choice. Talk about perverse. My theory is that you get a beer gut - of which I remain the proud owner, pathetically enough - to provide the function of a camel's hump, since the alcohol in the beer is basically fighting your body's need for water. Some alchemical re-adjustment gets accomplished to separate the water from the alcohol. (Don't fret, I'm not about to attempt to defend that theory) So, this anti-dehydration factory on my gut is now implicated as yet another "risk factor".

And hey, I'm getting old and there's lots of stuff I just shouldn't be doing any more.

Just now I spoke with my severely mentally ill cousin, who confided to me as I now do to you, that he will be glad when the Lord retrieves him from his hellish life. He doesn't consider himself unhappy or suffering unduly, but he does regard life as less than pleasant, and a good deal of that derives from his sense that mentally ill individuals remain judged for their illness. And that judgement comes most painfully from family.

So, before you judge me, consider that I am probably more moderate of habit than you are. I do very little to excess other than to challenge accepted wisdom. This does indeed sometimes lead me to take certain kinds of risks - social, mental, financial, emotional - which you might not be inclined to take. But by and large I lead a sober and low-key life. Well, apart from my perverse insistence that it's worth the risk to not capitulate.

I'm not drawn to sexual adventures, extreme sports, drugs, debauchery, challenging the law or the Man in any very direct way. You might say I'm plenty boring, although I'd give you a run for your money on that diagnosis. Even those bygone days when I would ride my motorcycle a bit too fast were tempered by a pretty darned reliable agility and judgment. I rode paranoid, which is, more literally, how my cousin lives. It kept me alive. Our Father . . . Hail Mary . . .  I believe in God . . .

But those darned slings and arrows have challenged me quite a few times - especially lately. There was the time Mom tells me that she slammed the door on the doctor making a house call (imagine!!!) when I had scarlet fever. There was a near drowning - amazing that there has been only one considering the time I've spent underwater. There have been the usual near misses on the highways. Sailing mishaps. And then, of course, these ER visits. I feel like I'm leaving out a bunch of stuff, but suffice to say I feel pretty darned lucky to be alive. Not that I deserve any favorable judgement upon any guidance I gave my fate. As if.

You know, when you're in the hospital you are surrounded by an army of devoted and diligent professionals who are struggling mightily to diagnose what happened to you. They desperately want to be able to repair it. But it is also sadly true that the system we rely on is broken.

Each person on the hospital team, when taken aside, will subtly try to earn your confidence by mild expressions of their cynicism toward the system they represent. "The doctors are all in cahoots with the drug companies, and that's why they prescribe the brand names instead of the generic I use myself." "This damned hospital does every test [billable service] in the book [are you a doctor?]/ it's the damned lawyers who force us to practice defensive medicine and do every test in the book." Overall, there is an assumption that the system must be working for someone, but not for me and you, wink wink, nod nod.

Medical diagnosis relies on research, most of which is at its base correlational. Research traces pre-conditions to outcomes. Drugs are developed by massive hi-tech shotguns to ferret out which compounds stick, and then to backfill, without theory, until you have a hit. Research can demonstrate which factors are correlated to which outcomes, and thus I find that I am more likely than most to suffer blood clots by my genetic predisposition. Four to eight times more likely. Yikes!!

But hang on now, I still might live among the vast majority of individuals who never have and never will suffer blood clots, since the vast majority of those with this clotting factor never get them (either!). This statistical fallacy is commonly exposed by those versed in Bayesian statistics. It relates to, but is not identical with, the more commonly understood misinterpretation of correlation with causation. Causation requires a theory. It's no stretch to say that a bullet to the brain killed the person, and similarly that a clot to the brain caused a stroke, but it's quite a stretch to find what caused the clot. All you can do is to mitigate risk and, perhaps, catch the outfall before it hits the mat.

"When I consider the miracle of being alive against the improbability of just me . . . [blah blah blah]" Indeed, the probability of just you being alive is precisely ONE since you are, demonstrably, alive. Where's the miracle in that? The probability of my suffering a life threatening blood clot is precisely one as well, since I've already been there, done that. The alarm goes off and I want to know the probability of number two. I know I'm at greater risk than you are.

Does education as an "input" increase economic productivity because some sort of intelligence is engendered, because individuals are socialized to the system in which they will produce, or because it provides an efficient sorting mechanism according to which wheat can be distinguished from which chaff or according to which roles can be assigned???

I studied these issues for a while, and it's deuced difficult to tease out causation. Fact is that educational expenses as "input" are themselves of dubious value unless you cook the statistics by making the "proper" assumptions going in. Education, like mass literacy, comes along as epiphenomena according to stage of economic development. It's as obvious an outcome as Jerry Seinfeld driving a Porsche, and it sure wasn't the Porsche that made him rich.

Most famously, recently, the commonly and sometimes militantly demanded mammogram was debunked as offering very little to the overall wellbeing of women in America. That's because the overwhelming majority of positives belong to the falsies (sorry) since there are so many more people without breast cancer than with.

I'm oversimplifying for sure, but in the case of blood clots, it should be pretty clear that while I may have to be more careful than you about, say, sitting for endless hours in a car or on a plane, that's not quite the same as to say that the sitting caused the clot. Or the drinking or the stress or the hormonal fluctuations due to over-excitement of the frontal lobes.

(OK, so the sitting probably "caused" the clot, but how many times have I sat for that long without one?)

Misunderstandings of statistics are incredibly useful to sellers of drugs or medical procedures. Why else would the whole world be taking anti-cholesterol drugs? The older we get the longer the list of drugs which are meant to lower our odds of ending up in the ER or cold on a gurney. But they don't exactly address the root cause, nor can they. You can't win if you don't buy a lottery ticket, but buying one is hardly prevention against being accurately deemed a damned fool for doing so.

In the final - sorry - analysis, assigning a cause is identical to assigning blame. Some of us blame people for being black or ugly or gay or credit them for being saintly or intelligent or beautiful, but "congratulations" for your good luck is not exactly how most of us want to be remembered. In the end.

This blame the victim thing is highly functional for our economy, if by that you might mean growth and overall wealth, regardless of its distribution. If something you did or didn't do is the cause of your "condition" then you will pretty much accept those slings and arrows and pay against them. If we can get everyone to both feel good and pay at the same time, then the economy grows and we can rationalize the good of the drug company getting filthy rich. Its principals, I mean.

But consider how the game is rigged. There are plenty of vicious feedback loops built into all our systems. Breast exams are highly lucrative, but I am certain that not a single soul on either side of the transaction is feeling gypped. It seems you feel gypped only if you can't get one. You get the exam, you feel cleared. You give it, you feel virtuous. But you're - da both of ya - just kidding yourself if you think it was a good idea.

It might be a good idea to get a mammogram if you're about to have a procedure which will kill you depending on if you have breast cancer or not. But then you'd be likely to go beyond the mammogram to approach something more like certainty.

What if the procedure you're about to do is the "nothing" procedure to assume that you don't have breast cancer??? Well, that is the least harmful in terms of causation. Cost/benefit analyses really do have to be done against the gaming of our knowledge of statistics by the healthcare industrial complex. Is there a procedure a doctor wouldn't do if there existed a possibility that he could be sued if he omitted it?

These things could be redressed. Pay the patient a portion of the omitted procedure, right? Create a marketplace in body parts, say. Don't make him sign away "rights." Just have him sign away the right to sue based on the omission of that particular procedure.

But how the hell do you educate the patient enough to be able to make the choice? I don't really think you can, you know, and so he's left - I'm left - with the need to trust my doctor. Except that I don't have any "my doctor" anymore in the hospital. I have a team. And the team is, each one, at odds with the whole. Neurologists don't need no stinkin' hematologist to second-guess their recommendations, but I might. Was yesterday's hospitalist the Man, or is it today's? Which one is proxy for my Man on the outside?

And how the hell do we reconcile the fact of our helplessness in the face of those slings and arrows against the implicit or explicit hope held out by our doctors that we might be able do dodge them? How much is the hope worth? And what about the terror during the process of receiving treatments?

* * *

OK, sorry. Too much. I go on and on. There was a nun next to me in the ER and she had come a lot closer to death than I was getting. She had been puking up blood which had been leaking into her stomach, and somehow the result of being brought back into balance was that she would fart like an old nag.

What a relief! For me, I mean, to have a cause for mirth and a proper context for our collective exposure. I almost wish I had her faith in God. But never her patriarchal God of subjugation. You know, just that last Word at the point where all meaning fails. Where finally outrageous fortune takes you home to meaningless sound and fury.

These fates then, how do they do? Wisdom from psychologists reminds us that we may not control the behaviors of those we encounter. We have influence only over our own response. Prepare prepare and respond with poise and equanimity, I guess. Your body will act before you do, although I'd challenge you to find the you in that one.

You can't pay attention to everything and so miraculous coincidence could be something prior to your consciousness sorting and sifting among the miracles you can stand to notice. The ones you see, by definition, have found their probability of ONE. What can you do but smile at them?

We are not so limited as we think by our skin, by other boundaries. Some are terrorized now by the evident fact that we have stripped the earth of all her easy pickings. That our future will be grim once the oil runs out and we have no way to get to the ellusive stuff to power our electromagnetic ways. That knowledge will not matter, that know-how will crest onto the shore of nothing to build with.

And yet we must remain abstracted, eating genetically modified farmed fish, for example, no different from the fatted calf who never could survive in the wild without us. Or can we remain embedded and enriched thereby? Our minds cannot be reverse engineered any more than they were engineered in the first place, you silly anti-creationists you. Context is innered and love is outered. That's all there is an ever shall be. Unless you know how to engender a decontextualized dot. Well, I do, but I've gone on for long enough . . . . .