Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Reading Like Mad

You know, I don't need to hear anything more about how feckless Donald Trump is. I need our schools to get back into the business of cultivating actual educated citizens. I need television to restaff news offices with thoughtful educated people, part of whose job would be to analytically educate the adult populous. I need local newspapers to be back. I need my country back. I'm sick of being entertained to death. Especially when I want the news!

I once did love America, and I hope I can again. The position of president is the position for an authentic leader. A leader in the process of actual leadership hardly needs to announce their authority. If they do their job, their authority will be self-evident. Just like our many truths.

I read as though I will finally understand something so fundamental that it will be communicable, and spread throughout the world just like a virus. At this late age (mine, not the world's) I actually still feel that it must be out there somewhere.

What a fool's game! I am far too old, just like our proposed and actual presidents are.

I tried reading Finnegans Wake once (or ten times) and I guess that there are people who like crossword puzzles. Now I'm trying to read William Gibson, who sometimes writes the same way Joyce does. I'm hoping for insights like the ones I've gotten from Thomas Pynchon (before he descended into Joycean purple) about how the world is constructed.

In the midst of the Plague, Apple released the new iPhone I've been counting on so that I could afford to replace my six-year-old handset which is so long in the tooth that I'm mostly waiting for it to move. It was a silly postponement on my part, given how much I pay for monthly service up against the cost of the phone.

The new phone is wonderful. The little touches that I find each day improve my experience, and especially the speed. This is all very pleasant. But mostly I'm struck by how very similar it is in all ways to the phone I've now retired. And this is supposed to be an age of innovation?!? Well, I do remember fondly back when a television "set" would last for 25 years. Innovation may be so much smoke and mirrors, up against the real world.

No matter how hard Joyce and Gibson are to read, it should be harder to read Chinese, but it's not. I see almost no reporting in our MSM over here about how and why China got back to work.
With almost zero COVID-19 in China anymore. I see almost no reporting on how China is eating our lunch in the realm of innovation.

I don't mean with cell phones, or even with 5G (which I can't imagine ever caring about - though I think that businesses probably can and should). I mean with their nationwide initiatives, with which the Chinese people are nearly all on board. Just as they did with cell phones, they will leapfrog past the legacy processes we're stuck with They never did have to wire up for phones.

China will never be held back by a creationism-like wacko theory about how and why it's wrong to involve government in economic decisions; in those things like transportation, healthcare, communication, power generation, and sustainability - and certainly education - where there is no elasticity to demand.

It's very hard not to conclude that we've been dead here for a very long time, and the corpse is already rotting. How else to explain the politics of Republican normal carrying on in the midst of what by any measure is a very real crisis. Even if most of the crisis can be attributed NOT to a virus, but to our out-of-control immune responses, it's still a crisis. People are still needlessly dying, and the economy is still needlessly shut down (look at China, please!).

The American immune response is contaminated and conditioned by racism and climate-change denial and evolution denial and belief in a cartoon God and brain-dead belief in some invisible hand all over the place. That invisible hand is prodding us to our extinction.

Bizarrely, the stock market hasn't collapsed. Well, of course not! First of all, it serves the rich, and second of all, it reflects our decades-long move away from bricks and mortar to something we lovingly call on-line. Meanwhile nobody's working and we talk cost to fix our system as though we can't print money, even while we're printing it hand over fist. And letting the states run dry.

In just the way that technology accelerates and amplifies all underlying trends - now certainly to include racism and xenophobia - it will amplify our deadly response to what China is up to in precisely the way that it amplified the effect of a few dozen terrorists who were able to bring down the Trade Towers. A mostly symbolic action turned deadly in earnest. Our systems had already gone haywire.

With all the reading that I do, I don't remember many details. Hell, I can't even remember if what I read was in Chinese or English much of the time. I hardly ever remember authors, which is probably why I never could be a sports fan, nor certainly a scholar.

But I do remember good stories. I remember important insights. I especially remember grand insights which change and rock my world. I don't think I can possibly forget what I learned by finally reading Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene during this plague. That's despite the fact that I quibble (in my previous post) with his dogmatism about cosmic processes which are not strictly-speaking material.

I am more excited by genuinely meaningful explanation about how things work than I am about nearly anything else. And given my propensity to forget, that makes a difference to me. I can't forget such knowledge once I learn it.

And I certainly won't try to deny it on the basis of ideology.

The thing that we Americans suffer most now is that we actually truly do believe that there's nothing that we need to do to keep our country alive. We seem to believe that America is immortal. We seem to think that we uniquely have some divine spark that other peoples lack.

We don't. We're all asleep at the switch and staring at our iPhones or at other screens up to and including Jumbo. We - all of us together - need to bring Lazarus back from the dead. There is no Jesus of the sort who will do that for us.

Monday, April 27, 2020

More on Richard Dawkins

I have rarely read anything as exciting as The Selfish Gene. Pathetic, right? But in this case, unlike reading a thrilling novel say, what I mean is that it explained so very much. I was thrilled for the scales to fall from my mind's eye. I wholeheartedly endorse his statement that if there is life elsewhere in the universe, it will involve replicators, mutations, and progressively more complex "robot hosts" to do those replicators' bidding. (I hope I don't do injury to the overall thesis with my shorthand)

The only other time that I have been so excited was reading Einstein's reconfigurations of physics on the basis of his relativity theory - first special and general relativity, and then came quantum theory. Whoopee! In that case, I was excited by Bell's theorem and what I felt to be the dissolving of any possibility to exclude the subject from objective science.

Of course, the subject may be an object of scientific research, as it is for Dawkins. But for me, quantum interpretations made subjectivity into a cosmic quality, and not one local to life alone, as we know it. Just meaning that nothing cosmically inheres without mind in the mix. For things to be measured, there has to be some one or some thing to do the measuring.

I believe that this is still a tad controversial in physics, but I'm suggesting that perception is a kind of measure, and that the "act" of perception "collapses" probability functions into actuality. For that interpretation to be correct, then perception must also be a universal act. In physical terms, "particles" perceive other particles, and bring them into being. Each such interaction entails a string of other interactions, all mediated by "particles" which are themselves clouds of probability.

I am certainly as much an atheist as Dawkins is, but I am in the habit of moving to the highest level of possible abstraction before I name my bogeys. My question about Dawkins is whether or not he's dogmatic. I consider dogmatism to be the more basic sin of what he calls the delusion of belief in God. While faith in God has to be as real as faith in gravity, belief might be a kind of conjecture. I'm suggesting that dogmatic belief is a more fundamental sin than belief in God.

Of course the non-existence of a literal God as that term is meant by religionists everywhere is patently obvious. But Dawkins' dogmatism about materialism is of the same stripe as those who are dogmatic that God must exist, if by "God," they mean something other from a metaphorical usage.

Dawkins spends a lot of time in his more recent book, The God Delusion, distinguishing between types of agnosticism. Type one is TAP, or Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, while type two PAP is Permanent Agnosticism in Principle.

He has no patience for those who might profess type two agnosticism about God. They are in a word, dogmatic in their beliefs, which are subject to no disproving. While one might be TAP regarding life elsewhere in the cosmos, he provides reasons more than ample enough for me to agree that we can never be PAP about God. Well, I probably have it backwards, but in essence Dawkins is saying that since God can never be proven to exist, he simply doesn't and can't exist.

But what if something which can be demonstrated to be true approaches what most people mean by "God," better than religion does? I think the weakest part of Dawkins argument is when he tries to grade agnosticism with seven shades from the extreme of "I just know that God exists" to "I just know he doesn't." All that Dawkins has a right to say, and perhaps even to be dogmatic about, is that there can be no material proof of God. That's pretty much by definition. But he doesn't rate himself at the extreme number 7 level of agnosticism, which would be certainty that God doesn't exist. That makes it seem as though he would agree with me.

I'm saying that dogma of any sort is one step beyond PAP since it moves from the specific to the general, and that Dawkins is beyond the pale dogmatic. I'm pretty certain that this is approximately the argument that Dawkins hears so often from religionists around the globe, and I can easily imagine why he has to shut it down. But I think he's over-reaching when he suggests or even insists that nothing can exist which won't ultimately be materially demonstrable.

I know, for instance, that I will absolutely never get his attention with my notion that something like his derided 'universal love' is actually not only part of the knowable cosmos, but still further that physics (and certainly its less abstracted cousin, genetics) is stuck in (ignorant) place, without admitting emotion among cosmic qualities.

I believe that Dawkins dogmatically places emotion on the side of the God delusion as an immaterial and therefore un-measurable (or is it vice versa?) quality which has no place in science, except as a quality of mind, perhaps.

Well, OK, so the mind and its qualities are proper objects for scientific investigation. But nothing analogous to Christian spirit is. I don't think Dawkins is trying to say that emotion isn't real. I'm saying it's real beyond the human or even the animal realm.

Dawkins misunderstands what Carl Jung meant by synchronicity. Jung didn't believe "that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang." He knew that they exploded. The mistake was to assign any meaning to it. That would be the limit of what Dawkins should be saying.

The thing is that many of us experience synchronicities which seem too powerful to be discarded as meaningless coincidence. Those of us swayed by the power of science, and therefore by materialism, push such matters aside. We assume that they are likely some sort of confirmation bias that will be explained away as our knowledge and understanding of material reality continues to develop and grow.

In Dawkins terms, ". . . chance is just a word expressing ignorance. It means 'determined by some as yet unknown, or unspecified, means.' (Chapter 12 page 282 in the Kindle version of The Selfish Gene) Of course he is wrong in this statement, though it would take some understanding of both quantum physics and chaos theory to know that. Some things are simply not determined. Causality is always mediated by probability until you get to a really macro level where the probability fades to infinitesimal as a factor .

Surely, in the long long run of accident which guides evolutionary "progress," there is no need to find anything like synchronicity in operation. Well, before conscious creatures graced the cosmos, who could know?

Evolution is all trial and error and eventually, through genetic mutation and the building of complex environments, individual life-forms find ever more stable configurations for the accurate replication and therefore near permanence of successful genes (using Dawkins excellent heuristic definition for genes not as molecularly definable "strings" but as non-demarcated strings of any length or combination which persist through replication).

I imagine that one way that synchronicity will be explained away would involve the relation between sub-conscious operations of the mind and conscious ones. "We" now understand consciousness to be seated in the affective (and most primitive) sectors of the brain, and we also understand that much of our brains' computation never makes it to consciousness. We know that exercising agency involves taking credit, or rationalizing, decisions made previously by the sub-conscious mind as it computes probabilities for success in modeled future actions.

Probability here just means probability for survival, for thriving, for reproduction, for return to homeostasis. Dawkins' great breakthrough reconfiguration of genetic theory was to locate at the level of the "selfish gene" what is important with regard to evolution. Our complex brain's computation is important only for so long as it enables what the gene "wants," which is to persist. Evolutionary processes operate only indirectly on the assemblage of the individual or the group, the species, whatever.

The most powerful part of Dawkins' explication - for me - is when he demonstrates how the assemblages which are useful for the genes can and do cross the bounds (the skin) of the individual or the group, to include even the environment, which is the ground for replicator persistence. His wonderful examples include beavers building dams.

Anyhow, there isn't room in our conscious mind for all the possibilities entailed in all the choices we might make. Most of our thinking is sub unconscious, from what I understand. Consciousness is like the tip of the iceberg of a mind, most of which is submerged in the unconscious.

Whoops, I slipped from sub-conscious to unconscious. There are important differences between the two. I wish I knew what they were, but I'm guessing that the one has more to do with what Freud studied as repressed unconscious, and what Jung studied as the transpersonal unconscious, while the other has more to do with practical cognition which might become conscious when it needs to. Perhaps, the sub-conscious is that which has not yet been made conscious, while the unconscious might ever be so. Not sure.

Our mind seems to require the framework of language to do any real conscious thinking. We think all the time about future possibilities and things we might want. I spent much of this week thinking about my new iPhone that was on its way, my aging into medicare, and how to navigate getting my medicine delivered before I run out during the shutdown.

These are all important things for me to think about consciously, since there are things that I must do in order to get to where I (think I) want to be. Those involve money and planning and actions I must take.

A thinker might think about more important things, like politics or scientific theories, or how to get the country to be less dysfunctional so that we may all live better lives. Good thinkers might also be good writers and try to persuade others to better understanding. I try to be a thinker but I think I'm still very trying. Sorry.

Anyhow, along the way to whatever conclusion one might be trying to reach, there are likely to be lots of nice (or not so nice) coincidences, some of which come, or seem to, directly from your mind, and some of which seem to come unbidden from the world around you. But of course the sub-conscious mind takes note of much more of our environment than the conscious mind ever could. So these synchronicities are likely just the mind preferring to take conscious note of what conforms to the structures one is working on therein. Or musing on. Or even forgetting about. So many scientific breakthroughs seem to come when the discoverer's mind is off-topic.

Even so, I still think (or maybe it's just wishful thinking) most people would agree that much, if not most, of what composes a life is a matter of happenstance. You might take note of particular things and not others, but I don't think you can just conjure any old thing into being. Doing that takes work. It takes time. It takes motor skills.

In my thinking, if I plan overmuch I will mostly guarantee that I will get the results I plan for. But I might also be putting blinders on which keep me from seeing things that would help to realize my "plan." My use of overmuch here regards planning that might (or which you hope or wish might) get you to new knowledge. Short of such overplanning, we can mostly plan our future activities in a fairly casual frame of mind.

You might have a hunch in which direction to go, but you will also happen upon "random" things (books? lectures? film? people?) along the way which might become essential to your work and which you might have missed had you been looking too hard with blinders on. Kind of like meeting your eventual spouse or partner. Focus too hard on that supermodel, and you might miss the one you could love right there in front of you.

Now Dawkins acknowledges that humankind might move away from evolution as evolution goes along in a state of nature. One of the most exciting parts of the book is toward the end where he coins the durable term "meme," to help us to understand how and why it might be that we have accelerated our impact on the earth so much. Evolution moves too slowly to enable the kind of explosive "success" that humanity has had - on behalf of our gene pools - in recent decades.

Human consciousness seems to be embodied by a more generalized form of life than other creatures.We seem able to thrive most anywhere, perhaps even abstracted into outer space for a while. Other creatures are and must be more specialized to their environmental niche. So, it seems likely that in the process of such accelerated adaptation to most any environment, we would become hyperconscious of memes all over the place if these might assist in our human "progress."

It seems that our emotions do the selection. We feel the right way to go, where feeling is radically non-metaphorical, since we're not feeling something else the way we do with our fingers and through our skin and by means of other sensory organs. When we feel emotions, those are what we feel. Directly.

I used to think that metaphor worked in the other direction; that the "literal" regards those things which we know directly like head and hands and feet, and which we extend by figure of speech to mean such things as head of school, or (invisible) hand of the marketplace or foot of the mountain. But in the case of feelings, there is nothing so direct as emotion. Emotion is radically non-metaphorical. It can't refer to anything else, even while it might be stimulated by a tough-to-model assemblage of many perceptions.

We emotionally choose from among the calculations of our brain and that is how we decide to act and how to act.

Attraction and repulsion are how we achieve what Solms (referenced in the link above) calls the "nirvana" of homeostasis. Our complex mnemonics helps us along to the right decisions. We carry a rather large time bubble in our minds.

Given that the affective part of our brain is also the part most widely shared by those creatures which we are closest to - it is the most "primitive" part of the brain - I see no reason at all to limit emotion as a human quality alone. That would be particularly and perhaps obviously true for the animal kingdom.

For me, at least, it is but a minor step to say that we can't even exclude emotion from the cosmos. Emotion is not a quality inherent in human mind (or animal mind) alone. It also defines the evolutionary moves which lead up to now.

Please note that I'm not talking about some kind of strange attractor (or maybe I am, if you want to talk chaos theory) or some kind of force which is guiding evolutionary change. I'm making a definition for what emotion is, is all. I would say nothing of the (cosmic) feeler of such (cosmic) emotion.

I am guessing that Dawkins is unwilling to hear of any such notion, and that is a shame. He is way more brilliant than I am, but more dogmatically sealed away (by blinders?) from any such realization. I'm not inferring any kind of God there as the cosmic feeler, nor certainly the cosmic designer. But I may be secretly hoping that the godists could be lured away from their particular flavors of delusion.

If that could be accomplished, then whole bunches of good things could follow. I call on scientists everywhere, please to keep an open mind. I would call on religionists even more strenuously to understand that science, properly understood, can be pose no threat to whatever they might mean by God. That would be so even though some scientists may believe that there is no limit to what humans will eventually understand about the workings of our cosmos.

Well, it's not our cosmos, and if there is a God, I doubt such a mind would be called out as such. As Kierkegaard said, you must doubt everything, including doubt. But to anthropomorphize God, metaphorically or otherwise, has to be some kind of abomination anywhere in the cosmos, wherever analogs of anthro reside.

Or in other words, I highly doubt that evolution is quite finished. We still have a lot to learn for sure, but it won't end with us understanding everything about the material world. The jury is still out about how well it's working for us to have pulled out from the rest of nature.

Oh, and by the way, I strenuously disagree with Dawkins' characterizations of the living hosts of replicators (genes) as robots. Robots can have no feelings. That would be by definition.

What's really too bad just now is that we are existing in a swamp of memes, some sustained by incredibly well written hosts. The swamp is so steaming that many of our species are reverting to a kind of recameralization, in reference to Julian Jayne's thesis that human consciousness arose upon the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. There is hardly any coherent signal within the noise - certainly not at the level of a proper social contract.

Just now our earth - the most generalized host for our selfish genes - is thrilled to have us off her back. The question remains about whether and how we will return her favor. (Dang, I could never use female pronouns for my boat, and now I'm using them for earth!!??? WTF! I just can't get myself to say 'them' for earth, and I certainly won't say 'him.' Whatever!

Anyhow, since Richard Dawkins is the only top scientist willing to risk a tad of cred by mentioning Julian Jaynes, I'm going to have to ease of on him for being so dogmatic. Who knows, maybe he'll even come around to the obvious conclusion that we're all co-creators of and in the cosmos. I understand that this "belief" correlates highly with education, IQ, liberalism and all those things which Dawkins credits so highly. Even scientists can go for it!

Friday, April 24, 2020

Oh For Chissakes, WTF is This NOW?

If I thought that I had some kind of exceptional mind, I suppose that I would regret the waste of my life. But I don't regret a thing, and I think my mind is just fine. I certainly do work harder than your average bear to keep it that way. I know I don't have a scholar's mind, so no regrets there either. The trouble is that I'm left out from all the interesting discussions.

Here's a typical day: I get an email from a highly distinguished teacher of AP Biology. Hell, he may be the original teacher of AP Biology. What I know for sure is that he was the longest tenured - at 35-some years - teacher at the school I briefly headed, where AP tests were pioneered.

Now, OK, I can blame his veering toward Trump as a consequence of living in Texas now, and of old age. I generally appreciate his humorous spam, and look askance at the ignorant stuff. So today, he sent me a link to a YouTube which "proves" that China planted the Coronavirus, and insinuates that it did so deliberately. A conspiracy theory, in short, not unlike Loose Change which insinuated that Dubya brought down the World Trade Towers. Those desks were manned for a long time at public gatherings. Often alongside the Scientologists, as I recall.

Like you, I'm sure, I've been annoyed by incessant ads on YouTube for "The Epoch Times," and like you I click past them as fast as I can. This time I took a look, and sure enough the Epoch Times is a Trump-supporting true fake news organization genetically related to the Falun Gong. You know, the ones who bring you the Shen Yun extravaganza and get you to think that it represents the true beauty of China.

I've never watched their show, though I have become alert to their ubiquitous flyers, often posted in store windows. I think I may even have been tricked or talked into distributing them myself, before I knew that they were connected to Falun Gong. I have a genuine affinity for China, and knew not what I was doing.

After the events of June 4, 1989, I was engaged in a rather full-throated way in commemorating the massacre stateside. In a way, by virtue of indemnifying a memorial with my School's bond, and by being front page in the News for suing the mayor for access to a public park for the memorial, I was at the center of the commemoration in Buffalo, NY.

Just as the CCP has moderated, I have moderated my views of what the truth is. I won't go into that here and now, but I will say that the thrust of the narrative in this new conspiracy film, which is directed squarely at the CCP, could as easily be turned against the bi-partisan unfettered capitalist regime in these United States. We have to be a little bit more precise now about who and where the enemies of democracy are.

The film is far less polished than Loose Change was. It's main device is to use an obviously fake "investigative journalist" who is a puppet for someone else's voice. In other words, I'm assuming that the film's credits lie. At the very end of the hour-long YouTube is some benign Falun Gong propaganda about compassion, or what I might call universal love.

It seems to me, perhaps tragically, that the Chinese government almost couldn't help but suppress the Falun Gong inside of China. They are jumpy about such movements for historical reasons, just as we are jumpy about communism, I suppose. To say that its methods and its message contradict anything the Falun Gong wants to say about compassion is beyond understatement.

Just now, we should all be rather more jumpy about authoritarianism in any form. In that regard, it becomes ironic that the Epoch Times should be supporting Trump. It all reminds me of Spy v. Spy in the old Mad Magazine.

In the old days of the Chinese Communist Party, under Mao, even they couldn't have believed their own propaganda about the West, and about the U. S. in particular. For a brief while after Deng provoked an opening up, China was in love with the U. S. and anyone from here.

In my own experience interacting with many Chinese travelling to the U. S. with educational delegations, that love quickly turned to envy and then a kind of contemptuous superiority during a time-frame which saw Xi Jinping gradually assume the mantle of Chairman, which implied "for life," and which later got written into the code, to the horror of the rest of the world.

In Trump's case, I don't think he has the guile to mount any direct attacks on China (he also lacks plenty of other prerequisites, that I won't go into here). I take Xi simply to be more benign, certainly than Trump is, and not so narcissistic. His very public initiatives have worked like a charm, and I doubt it would be in his interest to take on the U.S. directly just now, even given the opportunities we've been presenting him. Trump is truing the narrative of Chinese anti-American propaganda better than anyone inside the CCP could have dreamed. He is legitimizing them beyond anything even Xi could do himself.

So, I hew here once again to Occam's Razor. There's no need to ferret out conspiracy when so many more mundane explanations can be found. Sure the Chinese work to unsettle our political system, just like the Russians do, and just like Trump denies (since it mostly helps him). Sure, we work to unsettle theirs. But the overall world is settled on the way it wants the future to look, and Shanghai and New York are the Avatars. That future is only good for some of us, and we should be very concerned about that.

So, this Spy v. Spy stuff can only be a distraction from the work that really needs getting done. And that would be to build or to rebuild political systems which can be sustained on a sustainable earth. Neither China nor the U. S. are on a trajectory to do that. It's still not clear if the virus is helping or hurting, but the answer surely depends on what we make of it.

If the virus valorizes China's system at the same time that it exposes the weaknesses of ours, that's still not the end of the story. If China comes out on top - as I feel certain that it will, though for less nefarious reasons than those in this silly film present - that's not the end of the democracy we once did dream of. Not only is economic strength (or military strength, especially in the U.S. where each is proxy for the other) not always the measure of a healthy system - at least because it's both jumpy and may lead or lag what's right or wrong with the system - economic strength may be the measure of a weak system, especially when wealth is maldistributed and not sustainable.

My only point here is to watch out for which narrative you support. Steer clear of the Scientologists, the Falun Gong, the evangelicals, the Republicans, the CCP and any others who have hard-to-discern motives for getting you to believe what it is they're saying. For sure, steer clear of Trump and anyone who is stupid enough to support him. Not everyone who wants you to champion democracy is actually doing so themselves. They may think they are, but they're really championing a system which is working for them in the here and now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

My Review of The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins - (I have but a single droning meme)

I thought that I might be able to find something in this book about why there are viruses. It doesn't seem to make sense on the face of it for a replicator to kill its host. But in the end, the question is just like asking why disease exists. The greater field for life depends on it, maybe. Behold I have my answer. Everyone should read this book!

Having a ton of respect for Richard Dawkins as a scholar, I was distressed when he practically opens his newest (40th anniversary!) edition of the book by disclaiming that "there is no universal love." I felt rather crestfallen.

Symmetry | Free Full-Text | Symmetric Networks with Geometric ...
A Necker Cube and a duck/rabbit

But then as I read along, I find that he claims not to be, or to need to be, providing any new evidence for his arguments. He is, rather, flipping a schematic - his example is the necker cube, though there could be any number of others - that could be interpreted different ways. In essence, while it would seem that evolution describes the survival of the fittest at whatever level of aggregation - the family, the group, the species, the individual - it's really about the survival of the fittest gene.

He even defines "gene" in a way that breaks some simple taxonomic rules, such as using the "periods" at the end of genetic strings of molecules as demarcations for what defines a gene. He uses a much more useful definition, based solely on which "unit" gets inherited and propagated; which persists in the global gene pool. I like that!

But he does quickly gloss over any real definition for life. For him - a nearly angry materialist - it all comes down to genes seeking stability by taking advantage of stable 'robot hosts.' And even while he repeatedly and incessantly disowns the personifications about what gene's really want, the notion of what the direction for "wanting" means gets lost along the way.
Soap Bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. (In Chapter 2 "The Replicators)
Near the  outset he tosses away the line above, as though it's enough to demonstrate why genes like to persist. Both of those need to fitted into physical laws of entropy, perhaps in the way that there are backflows along the shores or in the whirlpools of rushing rivers. The overall tendency is inexorably downhill, while bubbles and life are relatively short-lived (pardon) backwaters, cosmically speaking. No more than matter wants entropy does anything want stability. Stability is just the condition for tangible existence in the first place.
Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (In Chapter 1 "Why are People?")
Well, I say why not just simply call the "motive" for this backwater life "love." As he makes clear elsewhere in the book, it is only a definition. Use it if it helps with sense. Universal love, if you like. I do. It does no harm at all to any of his conclusions, nor to the scientific method, anti-materialist though my flippant flip might sound.

"We can define a word how we like to our own purposes, provided we do so clearly and unambiguously," says Dawkins about his definition of genes. That's toward the end of his Chapter 3 where genes are referenced as "The Immortal Coils."

I will continue to search hard, but I don't see any contradiction between the Darwinian theory presented by Dawkins, and the supposition that the best "robot host" for selfish genes which want immortality might be a conscious host. I know this flies in the face of dogmatic denials of any direction for evolution, but if it fits the facts and satisfies Occam's Razor, then why not?

In my terms then, a conscious host would not be the robot that Dawkins seems to insist on, almost militantly, to my ears. He refers to Capek Carel, whose "robots" disturbingly had feelings. Carel was the "inventor" of the term as we now use it, but really the word "robot" already existed in Czech. It simply meant worker. And so now we are the worker bees for genes, the immortal coils.

I'm still awaiting Dawkins' apology for why he feels that it's OK for humans to fight evolution, with such necessary techniques as birth control, the welfare state, and, oh let's just say literature. I'm waiting for him to celebrate or decry the speed with which humans have become dominant on the planet following the advent of agriculture, and then with writing.

Well, I didn't have to wait long. It's in his final chapter (of the original edition)where he invented memes.

Why is it OK for humans to step out from evolution, unless that's somehow what evolution was for; what evolution "wants" for us, to imitate Dawkins' usage? And in that case, first the Christian tale and now, hopefully, a new one is what is needed. Humanity beyond the 'red in tooth and claw' field for biological evolution. I agree with Dawkins that God is hardly necessary for this move. We need something far more, ahem, up to date.

It is no mistake - no meaningless coincidence - that Dawkins' book is almost precisely as "old" as the standard model for physics. Both are in desperate need of re-definition.

Here again, "universal love" does the trick. Inertial bodies which are no longer subject to forces for their relative motion, still move (as Galileo might have said). They move in a conceptual cosmos where intersection is entailed by emotion and not by force-mediated motion. All of evolution might just as well be "present" in the instant that is me. There is no physical limitation for emotional communion - no transit time for communication at a distance. Emotion, by definition now, is always simultaneous.

A simple shift which could make all the difference if we were but to want it. Is it a duck or a rabbit? Is it a chalice or two faces? Does it even make a difference? I just wish I could find a smiling face in the face of such illusion:

2 people facing each other or a vase | Optical illusions, Optical ...
Double Alfred Hitchcock, planted? The blood of Christ?
Well, I have been laboring for about the same time as both the physicists and the geneticists, though I am working on a much simpler problem. I have been trying to disprove my own re-shifting of the definitions. So, it's not exactly a theory in the scientific sense that I propose. I can't come up with anything that the redefinition enables us to do that we couldn't do before. In other words, it provides no new material knowledge. 

And that's the beauty of it, from my (very very limited - since I have no partners in this crime yet, so far as I can tell) point of view. There is no need to trash scientific knowledge or the scientific method. There may be plenty of reason to drop the scientific method in any search for meaning (whatever that might "mean." I think "the meaning of life" is one of those phrases like "the color of four" - even though some may feel that four has a color, it is still a nonsense phrase which is possibly grammatically, but makes no sense).

The most interesting insights for me from Dawkins' book are the ways that his genetic theories inform so much compelling fiction. He provides some fine explication of the plot lines we like the best; like when siblings step in for departed parents, or when fathers raise kids. Maybe he even illuminates the flourishing of non-binary gender.

But I am still offended when he seems to glory about the extent to which he's upset people. Right up front in his introduction to the 30th anniversary edition (I'm reading the 40th) he quotes a reader:
Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it . . . On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes . . . But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade . . . Never sure of my  spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper - trying to believe, but not quite being able to - I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
He goes on to re-quote other similar comments. I agree with him that there is something of progress in these and similar readers' enlightenment. As he says, you can't unsee what you have learned.

Indeed, the thrust of science is to disenchant our world.

I reject that. It is my presumption that the human remains the most complex assemblage in the known universe, and that still includes all the technological overlay on this planet. We haven't stepped out from the processes of evolution quite yet, although just now as I write, COVID 19 is providing plenty of evidence of how we are in danger of doing so. It's not the virus. It's not the shortfalls of science. It's our political system that's broken. We are in the throes of a deadly viral meme.

For sure, I don't believe that we have become quite human yet. There is a way forward into that, and for sure there is no way back to any peaceable kingdom. At the risk of repeating myself, I have to say that our trouble is that we really like things the way they are. We don't want to change. But this virus and the viruses to come are letting us know that we have to change. Our most pressing need just now is to create narratives for a future that we want. That future will be one perhaps broken free of selfish genes, but not of evolution.

Sure it's pretty obvious that soulless Republicans are more murderous than the most ruthless psychopath. But that doesn't mean that we should off them. A dose of their own medicine would do the trick, to the extent that they believe in Christ's love. They must be shown the Way.

I do believe that machines - those things which Dawkins thinks all creatures are, though by the end of the book it becomes increasingly difficult to know when he's speaking metaphorically and when he's just hoist by his own petard - are nonparticipants in universal love.

Here's a postulate: In the entire cosmos, now and future and ever past, there is no conceivable machine which can outrun life for its complexity. Corollary: We, the conscious species, are eternally unfinished. Our memes have hardly gotten started.

So I have but a single quibble with Dawkins in this aging book: the vessels for genes are precisely NOT machines. As he very succinctly points out, memes outrun genes. We are now in the throes of decidedly destructive selfish memes. Our survival strategy is as it ever has been, and it is the same as it ever has been for all of life, not just the human.

Universal Love.


Thursday, April 16, 2020

Grey Goo (or is it gray goo?) and Other Obscure Viral References

Goo may have only one spelling, but is it really even a word? Is it coincidence today that in my random (Pareto) walk across the vast reaches of writing on or via or with the Internet, I come across "grey goo" as a term deployed by over-confident writers in the urban centers, likely much younger than I am and (therefore?) much more confident?

The term is vaguely familiar, likely from science fiction as what may happen when nanotech pervades our world in the dystopian version of Kurzweil's geek rapture. But no, the term is from my former teacher of classical Chinese poetry, Stephen Owen, exalted member of the Harvard faculty for quite some time now. Exalted here means distinguished from any specific department as a sort of university-wide scholar.

I'm not sure. I make shit up when I can't or won't or just plain don't take the time to go looking. I am always impressed by the authors, thinkers, leftie philosophers known to young gamer/gaming/coding students of my acquaintance. I can only assume they read them.

I don't feel any stigma about making shit up. The alternative would be to not wonder at all; to stop from speculation. It's not as though anyone could possibly be aware of everything, though as I remember him, Stephen Owen comes pretty close.

He seems diffident, oddly. No big fan page, hard to find on the Interwebs. Easier in China. I'm pretty sure that he was and likely is a proud and even ruthless academic who clawed his way to the top. He wasn't always kind to women, like a lot of the professors I met at Yale just before the fall to co-education just before I got there. I shall love him always, no matter what they say about him.

He chiseled open my mind a bit. I often forgive brilliance its sins, and won't stop liking the films that
Stanley Weinstein brought into the world. No, wait, I mean Harvey. Stanley taught Buddhism. Fuck! Anyhow, nobody's perfect, as Tony Bennett - no it was Jamie Lee's dad - once said, dressed as a drag queen when the cowardly lion fell for him. No, I mean the cowardly lion said, driving his Chris-Craft, when Tony Curtis pulled off his wig to expose himself.

So grey goo is related to viruses. In sci-fi nanotech, these are self-replicating automata, which might be created for beneficent purposes, but which ultimately might overtake all of what we mean by 'true' life on the planet. The relation to what we mean by 'real' viruses is made clear in the essay linked above.

Steve Owen made some enemies, I guess, when he used the term gray goo in a recent work about The Making of Early Chinese Classical Poetry. I can't see clear to buy the book because it costs too much (for scholars only, puhleeeze). And just now I'm quarantined away from any library that would have me as a member. The book isn't available electronically, if you can believe it.

I know the reference from this review of it, which my friend with access quoted to me disparagingly when it came out. I trust that the term is there, since I don't have access to check the reference. Perhaps I can figure out how to get access since Jstor, the entity which was the proximate cause for Aaron Swarz' suicide, has made some kind of COVID-19 accomodation, though I wonder if that covers me, just like I wonder if I will ever get a stimulus check.

I feel confident that Owen was referring to a kind of swamp of words and phrases from which literature was built. Perhaps it is related to Dawkins' selfish meme soup, which would relate it to viruses. This makes quite a span for stringing reads together. I'm almost proud!

But there is no end to feeling an idiot now. Writing is mostly to beat a person down by means of chest-pounding, since even though the ones who get published (unless they're among the diminishing ranks of tenured professors) get paid Uber wages, you're just doing it for free. I am. I'm hoping not for immortality or acceptance into the ranks of world literary producers. I'm hoping to crystallize something like sense from out the grey goo of the Internet.

I mean, it's dirty work, but somebody's got to do it, right? Someone's got to turn all the gray goo into actual sense. No-one can keep track of all the nichey websites spreading trendy memes to some minuscule set of illuminati. Is there even any sense to reading classical Chinese now? Is there even a way to do it on the outside?

I placed my considerable personal library of Chinese classics into a storage shed (I gave away all the replaceable stuff in dead English). It's better than any library which would have me as a member has, but who even knows if it's all turned to dust now; to grey unreadable goo?

Humpty Trumpty sat on his wall,
Humpty Trumpty had a great fall,
All the king's horses and all the king's men,

Full stop! There are no kings here!

We'll have to start all over again.

After the fall:

Humpty Trumpty sat in his stall,
Humpty Trumpty had a great wall,
All of his forces and all of his men,
Couldn't make his shit be a person again.

I mean really, why bother to be original when everyone else tries so hard? What would be the point. My friend, who is a signal/noise distinguishing synthetic aperture radar statistical genius, tried his hand at reading modern poetry and realized that T.S. Eliot's Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock is a poem a clef regarding a bout of diarrhea after drinking. I think he's right, though his lit professor threw him out of his office when he presented his read in a paper.

I disagree with my friend that the thesis about grey goo undermines poetry. I disagree that he's debased Eliot. I think he agrees with me on that. Reading-in the toilet doesn't wreck the poem.

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to jerk we go. . . (I mean no criticism of the link - it's just the longest webpage I've ever seen adn the only one returned by google to include both Stephen Owen and gray goo. Or is it grey. I can't remember). Here's the actual one. The links returned by Google depend entirely on the spelling of grey/gray. It's what's for dinner.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

U.S.A., Inc.

Remember when it was Japan, Inc.? I do.

I was delivering keg beer in the most kegged up region of the country, South of Buffalo. I started each day in Lackawanna. I was between jobs (yeah, right - I was just plain otherwise unemployed, in a long gap between university and my first teaching job) and my first stops were in bars already crowded by 7AM. Those folks were used to drinking after their shifts, and now they were holding a daily and interminable Irish wake. They were mourning lost jobs, after Bethlehem Steel closed their massive plant along the shores of Lake Erie. The drinkers then were my age now. They didn't seem unhappy. A nice retirement.

Some wag, well known to all the bar denizens, had climbed aloft the tallest blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel, and painted the Japanese flag there. He was a local hero. China wasn't on the map yet.

Back in university later on, I learned that Japan had an unfair advantage, with their government so intimately involved with business. In our country, it was only legitimate for the government to be involved in the military-industrial complex. We academics were about to mourn the loss of basic research funding which that complex had been so generously providing during the lucrative "cold" war.

Lately, we learn that China has adopted Shimomuran-Wernerian macroeconomics from their blood enemy, Japan. We had gotten started down the dangerous road of Reaganomics.

Today - mid-April 2020 - I watched the full Trump presser from yesterday, and to my (somewhat pleasant) surprise, it wasn't nearly so bad as the press had made it out to be. There was a near coherence to it; I mean apart from Trump's predictable and detestable and oughta-be-treasonous self-obsession. He was declaring the re-ascent of the version of capitalism which had been thriving before the plague.

The interminable part of his speech was taken up with a list of all his "buddies," so called by him, in so many words. All of the stock-market listed Big and Global corporations which have been the backbone of America's economic (and military, of course) might.

I confess that I am reluctant to pull my truly paltry funds from the minuscule 403-b retirement account that I've barely managed to scrape together. I'm talking less than three years of my highest salary, which was well short of $75K. I confess that I feel it my patriotic duty to help avoid a catastrophic run on the stock market, so I'm staying put.

Mostly, I don't even really believe that our current system of finance capitalism will survive this virus, and so I assume that we'll all be in the same boat together. I'm not about to rush the lifeboats together with those still dressed in their tuxedos.


So let's say that the MSM - the press - really does have it in for Trump. Let's say they still try, and somewhat shrilly, to awaken the country to the danger he represents. I'm OK with that, though I can see why the true believers on the other side might not be.

Trump acts as though there is no trouble other from the virus, and he would have us believe that it's the captains of capitalism who are saving us. That part is sheerest fantasy, as anyone who pays as much attention as the media does would be aware.

But, for the sake of the country, I am really hoping that Trump is right, and that Big Global Capital will save the day. And then I hope that the bums will get thrown out, and we can restart the job of fixing the social contract.

I am NOT OK with leaving aside the dispossessed. I know too many wealthy people to have any sense that they are public spirited. They consider their winnings to be deserved rather than granted by lady luck, as far as I can tell. Where does that leave all the "essential workers" that we cheer for now. Do they deserve their places too?

I know that I am among the supremely lucky. I also know that I've worked hard all my life. Where does that place me on the accountability roster? Hardly trying? Disengaged? Longing for certain direction?

Trump had the raw audacity to list the labor unions among his writ-large heros. There's hope in that. It would be nice if gig workers and grocery workers and postal workers could all be re-unionized to bring back the sorts of jobs which made Lackawanna strong, once upon a time. Strong and corrupt, I'm sure. There's plenty of fixing to do, all around. I once knew this union capo who disappeared into witness protection . . .

So, how do we find our middle ground again? I know the truth of Christianity with just as much certainty as I know that the religious doctrine has been distorted and corrupted by venal men. I know the power of capitalism with as much certainty as I know the value of responsible regulation.

If we fail to come together as a planet as a result of the trauma of this coronavirus - economic and political as well as healthwise - then our future here feels doomed.

U.S.A., Inc. runs with the structure of our feudal past. We have nobility now without the humanistic noblesse oblige the nobility once did have. We have serfs again, without even the means for subsistence.

Most painfully to me, our global research priorities seem all to have shifted away from basic research and into the realm of business. This is just when we require an alignment of minds capable of true leadership and of scientifically-based clear thinking, more than ever. Politics no longer renders up the best of us, and that is the fault of we the people, after all.

The virus may help us to mend fences person to person. It will do so to the extent that we come together in our local communities. It will do so to the extent that we come together in our cities and in our states. It will do so to the extent that we see through this current administration and vote for sanity. It will do so to the extent that we repopulate our public agencies with career-grade dedicated public servants, and shut all the revolving doors to riches therefrom.

None of this need be radical. But I think the Republicans need to grow a soul. They can't keep fighting for power. They have to start doing something with that power for the good of the people.

Where there is love between us, there I will be, said Jesus. I am informed by a fellow atheist, Slavoj Žižek. Atheist here means simply rejection of any human spin on God. Rejection therefore of holy text interpreted by priests and unholy ministers. Rejection of pure fantasy.

I reject also that science can ever find and then pave the Way to Truth. That's not its mission. Science can deal only with objective reality, which means with reality that can be measured. Love is subjective and beyond the realm of science. To deny that is to make a religion of science, as many of our best philosophers have pointed out.

We still lack any valid definition for the subject in science. We still wonder what consciousness is. We pretty much assume that emotions are a fairly unimportant and unimpressive sort of bonus to consciousness, located in what we so lovingly call our 'reptile brain.'

And yet our emotions determine which pre-conscious decisions to take credit for and make conscious. Our emotions guide our voting and investment decisions. Our emotions can get in the way of trusting one another. Our emotions can bring us together.

Of course, I would like to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus. but not for my own sake. I have lived a full life, if not such a rich one. I care for my two daughters, as they do for me, along with whole hosts of others. As a man of limited intelligence and leadership ability, there are limits to what I can do. So, I mostly sit tight and write. Badly, but earnestly.

I often remember when I learned of the moment of Einstein, which happened just a century ago, give or take a few years. He effected a shift in perspective - called relativity, and later to include quantum mechanics - which had global impact within a few short decades.

We made the mistake to preserve his brain, as though there were something different about it. He was the first public genius, and we made the mistake to nearly worship him, the way we would later nearly worship Elvis, say, or the Beatles. Those with outlandish hair, which now includes so many of our demented world leaders, just as it included Einstein.

I have been waiting patiently for someone else to make clear what was made clear to me so many years ago, just before I started delivering beer. I have preserved the transcript of what happened to me here on this very blog. I can't seem to find any way to say more clearly what I discovered then, in the very course of the writing. The chapters are arranged now in reverse order, last to first. The writing embarrasses me still, and it did provoke some anger in others.

In patience and in confidence, I have been reading as much as I can during the nearly forty years from the time I felt my little eureka. One would think that I could have grown better informed and more intelligent. I wish I had a scholar's mind, which could catalog and remember each reference, but I don't. I never could join any academic discipline which would have me as a member, though I did try.

At least I am now a better reader of modern Chinese, even while my classical and handwritten Chinese has slipped. I am better informed politically. But I haven't changed my mind so much, and now, of course, my mind is in decline. I repeat myself. I find, when I bother to look, that I'm repeating all my stories. I seem to have nothing more to say.

In brief, I made an important shift in my own perspective during the course of writing back in 1983, holed up in a tiny sailboat during the winter. Heated by peacoal. Chilblains on my feet. Likely out of my mind in some sense, though my actual writing kept those who would have had me committed - who were worried about me - from taking that action. I was acting erratic. I had lost all sense of time of day. I must have been figuratively waving my hands about.

Mine is a truly simple shift, and yet one that it has proven very difficult for anyone else to adopt, so far as I can see. I've been trying pretty hard. I've been looking pretty hard. I've been talking with as many as were willing, though they can only listen to the point where I start losing them. Sure, sure, you might be right, but I can't and I won't believe it. I must wait for the conventional wisdom to shift.

I wrack my brains for experimental results that could be delivered by this completion of physical relativity and quantum theory. The trouble is that the experimental results can come only in and from belief, which just turns the scientific method on its head.

The "theory" is simple. I did remove, in my thinking and in my writing, the bounds of consciousness. I've since found plenty of evidence for this as a fact, in the research of Daniel Dennet, Mark Solms, as well as in Chinese poetics. We simply can't be conscious as individuals without partaking of shared consciousness as humans. That part is hardly controversial. Language - and especially the tool of written  language - has empowered our ascent as apex predator on the planet.

But I am talking (writing!) cosmic consciousness. Conceptually, mind pervades the cosmos, and certainly predates humanity. We partake in cosmic consciousness by random processes. We may access these by means of such tools as the I Ching, if we like. We may pray, if we do that properly. Mostly, we participate in evolution, and its fundamentally random processes.

A move that should have been against scientific law was made among Western scientists when they assigned the absence of any possible meaning to random. Random can be made meaningful only by statistical methods, which form the core now for causality down to the tiniest inferentially measurable phenomena. There is ultimately no distinction between such measures and literary metaphor. It is as though we see through our statistically generated constructs the way that we see through a microscope.

What if we are blinded by our certainty instead?

If mind is cosmic, then so is emotion. Way back when, in 1983 - practically the dark ages when the only portable keyboard that could be had used heat-sensitive paper from a fax machine, and laptop computers were barely real - I realized that emotion was also cosmic, and everything changed for me. Well, not enough to prevent a mostly normal life, during much of which I pushed my personal craziness to the very back of my mind. I was too busy.

Along with everyone else, I'm not too busy now. I'm not an essential worker in any way shape or form.

Even while the communication which makes emotion possible obeys physical limits at the speed of light, emotion is always simultaneously felt. It requires an object, just like science does. And the object must reciprocate, according to laws so very similar to those obsolete laws of Newton. Newton was a religious mystic, who was so certain that only humans could feel that he would vivisect dogs. And we blame the Chinese for eating them?

Objects in the cosmos can move, I surmised, without physical forces acting between them. I called that e-motion. A kind of inertia, where objects could be moving toward or away without any force between them. I think that e-thingies were already abroad in the language by then, descended from electrons and electricity. I-thingies not so much, yet.

I was positing definitional changes. Gravitational forces exist at the limits of scientific detection. Of course gravity is detectable, and we should all know that we've just recently detected gravitational waves.

It's the gravitational messenger particle - the boson called the graviton - which has proven so elusive (my vocabulary may be just off, and I may be speaking metaphorically without even knowing it). By this point "particle" can only be metaphor. It is a statistical construct, whose any form requires detection. The subject is implicated, unless you, as a scientist or as a proponent of the scientific method, are still holding out for absolute objectivity.

I have to confess that I too am holding out for graviton detection. I once drove to Colorado and back with a Ph.D. physics candidate (since acquired) to attend a Quantum Electrodynamics conference in Boulder (where I encountered the wonders of chaos theory for the first meaningful time) and we couldn't make any meaningful connection, my friend and I, on what might be elusive about the graviton.

I was talking space-time curvature, and the impossibility to detect when the detector was implicated. He was talking very large annihilations of mass very far away which could render gravitons detectable. He was religious. I wasn't. No contact. I was so frustrated I drove the entire way back since it was my car dammit. I went into a sleep coma some few miles from home. I don't think the two of us communicated after that.

We don't yet have any real understanding about what life is, in its essence. We certainly don't know how it might have arisen out of nothing by random forces alone. We do seem to know that viruses are not quite alive, though they depend on living things to reproduce. They ride on human life the same way that capitalism does, according to my leftie friends.

We do know a fair amount about evolution as the mechanism for life's advances, even while we resist any notion that there is purpose or even direction to the results of that mechanism. Teleological explanations do not make science. We suppose that they make religion. Well, actually, man makes both and any and all, and we are radically limited in and by our language.

So if mind is cosmic and emotion is cosmic and if these are not so much forces as conceptual apprehensions, then all life from all time might be present in what and who we are at every moment and for all time. If evolution has a direction, it is composed of love. Consider the alternative.

The nearest body which might support life is as far from us at the physical limits of communion as our personal emotions can reach through our personal histories. If there are others in our cosmos we won't know them in time. We might feel them, and we might feel their love. Or we might be blinded by our very human hubris. This is the thing that always causes the gods to repudiate us.

The nice thing about my shift in perspective is that it doesn't harm the laws of science, any more than Einstein's shift harmed the known workings of the Newtonian laws of physics. Einstein's shift only limited the scope for the applicability of those laws. I would do the same for the scientific method overall. I can see no harm in that. I can see a lot of potential good.

But, so far, that's just me. I think it's an opening of my eyes rather than some kind of willful blindness as might be engendered by some unexamined belief. I wish that I could find some company. But this is the basis of my unbounded hope, and that's really all that it is.

I know that I am not alone.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Žižek Panics

Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the WorldPandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World by Slavoj Žižek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is more of a pamphlet, really, than a book. But if you want to get a handle on what this pandemic means, this is the best that there is. Žižek is brilliant, as usual, but much more readable than he sometimes is.

I don't guess he's terribly widely read. I wonder how it is that he has developed such a fine voice in English. He is not shy about exposing his awkward spoken voice. In writing, I am quite sure that I have no voice. I wonder if that is in relation to my native laziness. Native laziness is deadly now.

Well, if I can't be so brilliant as Žižek is, at least I can quibble. I think he's wrong that the Chinese don't trust their government. The bulk of the Chinese population surely does, even while they too might quibble with the published numbers.

If the intellectual and cosmopolitan Chinese don't trust their government - and plenty of them have good reason not to - and if they aren't entirely self-serving, which plenty of them certainly are - even they must find the arc of Chinese history turning inevitably toward democracy. There is plenty of recent history to show this.

Chinese leadership is just glad that we fulfil all their propagandistic fantasies about the U.S. - us. Even the propagators of Chinese propaganda never quite believed what they were wanting their people to believe. But the propaganda is working now inside of China, even while no one expected it to become so true.

Second quibble, I can't tell what he means when he says:

. . . we should resist the temptation to treat the ongoing epidemic as something that has a deeper meaning: the cruel but just punishment of humanity for the ruthless exploitation of other forms of life on earth. If we search for such a hidden message, we remain premodern: we treat our universe as a partner in communication.

I take Bruno Latour's word for it, that 'we have never been modern.' That makes postmodern a sham as well, though I feel less certain on that score. But I can't tell if Žižek is being ironic, or if he's just focused on the word "punishment."

His call for a new communism is surely meant more as salvation than retribution. But it's still "premodern" of us to think that we deserve to survive at all. Who but the universe would be our partner in that communication? The proof of the communication being in its conclusion.

Anyhow (whatever?) there is more sense here than in a zillion other words. You go Žižek!

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

On Being an Author

I tend to write on manic impulse. I guess that's obvious. By happenstance, I have avoided or eschewed any disciplinary home for my writing. I sometimes even focus on the negatives to becoming embedded in the discourse of some particular discipline. I'm a 'whole picture' kind of guy, no matter how much more precise the read might be through some particular lense. It's partly a matter of whether you see yourself as inside or outside some kind of fractal wall.

I also don't believe that one's position on the inside or outside of any particular container determines anything about subject versus object. Our subjective self must also be the object of our investigation if we are to be an author.

Whole picture doesn't mean super-accuracy, just as expert disciplined writing can turn out to be quite wrong. I read things and can almost never find a place to hang the specifics for future reference. I don't think my mind can handle that kind of detail when any author is trying to outline their big picture. Still, when I sometimes re-read things that I once did read, I can find them familiar. Even stuff I wrote myself. So it has become a part of me, perhaps beneath my conscious and constructed self.

I can get pretty far into reading writing that is quite arcane, though I rarely feel the comfort of being a native there. Even reading Chinese, I know I can read at a higher level than a native youngster, or less-educated adult who's native. I think the same might be true of physics or sociology or journalism or many other scientific or layperson disciplines.

I often use the analogy (analogy never a proper argument makes, so sorry) of holographic media, where chopping up the media leaves an "accurate" image intact, though not a precise one. And the image proliferates, as it were, in the breaking up.

I have formed a sort of conviction than human minds are rather more like holographic media than computational engines. Indeed, I would go so far as to insist that nothing digital can analogize actual lived life, and might even constitute a sort of evil (if you're into that sort of language).

Crossing over into evil is never a function of usage. After all, digital technology can be a great tool, and like all tools - including written language - can be very useful. Evil enters in when there is an unwarranted belief structure which surrounds anything based on manic rapture alone. I have myself certainly been enraptured by computers and especially by networks.

I can be and have been more technical with that assertion about the digital, but I'm declaring it here as a conviction, or even a belief. Horrors.

Someplace, somehow, some long time ago, I inserted a tagline in or to this blog: 'author of my own life, dammit.' When I notice it, I feel embarrassed. I generally cringe at contemporary usage of the term "authentic," which I sometimes associate with the drone-like wearing of blue jeans, and all the worker, cowboy, hottie associations blue jeans have gathered.

Then there's that term authority. Just now in these United States, there is no trustworthy authority. Not in the media, not in the government, not anywhere because none of us feels like we are in the right position to know enough with enough certainty. And we mostly feel that those who are in such a position can't be trusted. Not even the New Yawk Fucking times, according to the assholes now controlling our narrative.

Or in other words, everything's become politicized. Authors everywhere are wondering what they're allowed to say and in that process bobbling any authority they might have had. Maybe they're wondering what they need to say if they want to get anyone to pay attention. Even scientists move into CEO slots and become less trustworthy thereby.

No, this is not some sort of apology for my craving of obscurity, although there is that, based mostly on a kind of shy trending toward terrified. I would love to write in a way that people wanted to read. Or in other words, I would love to be a novelist, or maybe a screenwriter.

I am often uncertain about what makes fiction a less reliable guide to what is true; and on the obverse (sorry, I've never been trained in logic, so I likely have the wrong term) what makes truth so much stranger than fiction.

There is this term in discourse - deus ex machina - which gets used and abused in ways to make it mean opposite ends in an oscillating pairing. It seems generally to be used to indicate a foul play by an author, like a plot insertion made purely to keep the plot's momentum going. It is a contrived plot device.

Many religionists form such a conception of God; that He is the Author of the cosmos and the authority who will save us, just like a lazy author deploying deus ex machina in his thriller.

But really the term refers to the (mechanical) device in Greek drama whereby the god/ghost is removed from the stage. It's a god removal machine, just like digital technology, I suppose. (There is no yes/no either or in nature). But even the Britannica, which refers to the Greek, talks about the crane which introduced the god on stage; a god insertion device.

The soul is often referred to as a kind of ghost in the machine of our physical body, decried by philosophers all; but a word that's hard to avoid in English. We conceive of the soul as noumenon, in distinction to the phenomena which are the proper objects for scientific study.

Just like counting angels by pinheads,, people have worried the matter of whether animals have souls. Definitely not, in Christian terms, even though sentient lifeforms are almost certainly conscious and have feelings - emotions - just like we do.

Our consciousness is enhanced by words; by language. People who are concerned with the "real" to the point of obsession - people like Noam Chomsky and Benjamin H. Bratton - don't seem to find much to value in the truths of creative fiction.

I admire Chomsky and Bratton - especially Bratton just now, as he refuses to see anything evil in the tools and instrumentation which has co-evolved with humans to the point where we are an existential threat to the living planet. He cautions against trying to go backward, and to unwind all of our technologies. He focuses on how we should be using it. He is right!

But I do value creative fiction, and I wish that I could write it. In the place of precise scholarly referents for my reading history, I would like to bring in my experience building and fixing things, and the insights of people I've known from all walks of life. Name dropping is fun, but it's not the famous people I've learned the most from.

Even though "social distancing" seems built into my DNA - my life plan - I seem able to get along with a wide variety of people and to enjoy them very much. It doesn't seem to bother me so much when people take an intuitive dislike to me; even when they turn from like to dislike. I don't really like myself all that much, much of the time. Even though I maintain good relations with several exes, it's clear that I have some trouble with long-term intimacy. Tant pis and quel dommage!

So, I'm joking about the usage of deus ex machina. I have to accept the conventional usage. I'm not quite so adept at truth telling as my heros are.

Still, it seems that we have generated a kind of god removal machine on the planet now. I'm talking about the whole hot mess of humans as we now live. At the head of the pack, as far as I can tell, are still the true believers in God the Author. God the Authority.That seems to still be de rigueur if you want to get elected. That's really too bad.

A god removal machine can't be a bad thing. It returns the narrative to something real. Educated audiences can only be disappointed when the author takes the cop out of this clunky literary device. It feels lazy, which is just the way I feel about myself as an author. Why, I said that about myself just the other day!

From the perspective of its explanatory value, one of the very best theses I've ever read was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. For me, reading that was more exciting than reading any novel. I've had that experience with more than a few fiction and non-fiction books. I feel that my mind is changing when that happens, and that things come into focus.

Some of the time when I have that nearly euphoric feeling - I have to let myself down when I discover that what I've just read is "fake." I think I felt that way about Carlos Castaneda and his writing about the Yaqui warrior Don Juan. I guess I just wanted too badly to believe. I was less taken in by the Celestine Prophecy. And while Dan Brown's novels can make a fun read, I'm not sure I see much truth value there, beyond the Hollywood industrial-grade thrill.


I guess I'll never make it as an author. I still think that Julian Jaynes and Noam Chomsky and Benjamin H. Bratton are way less wrong than most people, and certainly way less wrong than me.

The trouble is that none of those three (and many other fine thinkers and writers) will write a better world into being. Hardly anybody bothers to read them. Their dazzling brilliance never rises to something that would sweep the world the way Star Wars does, or did. Censorship is never so brilliant as in a capitalist democracy.

Not even Faulkner. Not even Hemingway. Certainly not James Joyce or Quentin Tarantino, who are the soulless Paganini's of their media. Sublime, yes, but not in that way.

The Bible once did grip the world. Making that kind of fiction into Truth is getting really old now. Science was exciting until it got overrun by rampant unregulated capitalism. We need a better guiding narrative. In simple terms, that has been my life's work. I am just grandiose enough to keep trying, while humble enough to think that my prospects for success are about equal to my prospects to become president. I'm not really sure I want either "successes." Well, I'm nearly certain that I don't.

I just wish that someone would take over the burden. I keep looking and reading and listening and all I hear are crickets.

So, I'll keep trying. It isn't hurting anyone, and it makes a kind of sanity therapy for me.

Jaynes can't be completely correct, but in his terms, human consciousness now feels like it is "recameralizing." We are reverting to our pre-Biblical nature, with a feckless alpha male in charge, just because he channels the voices we wish were telling us what to do. And he has that hair-as-crown thing going on. It's all so weird.

I have to work to make my own consciousness story go beyond words; beyond language. Consciousness is a channeling of more than words. Consciousness channels a pervasive love-filled life-force that encompasses all of evolution. We are each a chip from a hologram that stretches across the medium of the cosmos.

I suspect, but can't be certain, that oracles like the I Ching or the Tarot or just the random of lived life where I am my own author are way more important than the choices we'd like to take credit for when they work out. I am no Paganini with my words. I am too earnest. I have poor command of even the English language.

Like Michelangelo using a chisel to find what's latent in a block of marble, a good writer doesn't start with some idea he wants to express. At least that's my conviction. The page has to be talking back. I mostly write to the void, and that's a problem. But that's because, though I like to play guitar and sing, I would rather die than to do that in front of an audience.

I guess artists can hear themselves, read themselves, do it in public and somehow know that it's good. That's a kind of proprioception that I apparently don't have and probably can't get. So I doubt I'll ever be able to be an artist. Well, except in the reductive sense that I am the author of my own life, and so far I've found it really interesting.

If that makes me a narcissist then I really do deserve to be president. The bar is that low, and honestly I can't even imagine how dull the life of a boor like Trump could even possibly be. No regrets here!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

What is Truth?

I assume that I am a lazy person. Even though given the very best opportunities, I have never taken proper advantage of those, either to become prosperous or to dive deeply into some academic field (those two being obviously related for me, since just becoming prosperous would be as meaningless as spending my life computer gaming, say. That's just me - I'm not making any judgement about you!).

I console myself with how much work I've put into literacy with Chinese. Nothing lazy about that, except that I didn't ever pursue it as my life's work.

Well actually, I think I've worked objectively harder than more prosperous folks I know, but that would be another story. I've just had too damned many lines of work is all. Chronologically: paperboy, house painting and repair, lawn and pool care, bike-mechanics, retail sales and store management, ski-mechanics and sales, bartending in London, more bike-mechanics and sales, more house repair, wooden boat restoration, beer delivery, Chinese teaching, private school headmaster, grad assistant supervisor of student teachers, university project manager, local area network administrator, computer tech support, WAN and local network architect, IT manager, HIPAA security officer, database programmer, curriculum developer on university team to host visiting Chinese academic delegations, project manager for college campus in China, translator. . . That's not to list the work I could have had but didn't take. Three different attempted but never finished PhD's. Moving from engineering to physics to Chinese literature across three droppings out from undergraduate college at Yale.

When you combine my weird work history with how many times I've criss-crossed the country, and how long I've dwelled in various urban, exurban, rich and poor places, I guess I'm qualified to be president, but not much else. Truth be told, I'd be way over-qualified by current standards. Especially given the Yale diploma, which seems to be the best predictor, regardless of what or how well you studied. But then, I was never so ambitious as my classmates, most of whom wanted to shoot to the top in any way possible, as far as I could tell. Most of them seem to have made it.

In my reading, my reach always exceeds my grasp. I guess I am a committed generalist, and here my excuse is that, in a Kuhnian sense, the paradigm has clearly been getting shifty during my lifetime. So, it is my conviction that not only is there a reason to remain a generalist, there is almost an imperative. No particular disciplinary field will break through paradigms which have been the basis for sustenance in that field. That's the deal, says Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolution.

I know how self-serving that sounds, and actually is, of course.

But we're in a period of what Kuhn called normal science, if I remember correctly, as far as gaining knowledge goes. It's not that we think we know everything we need to know. It's more that we think we have all the structures in place to keep knowing more.

I hit my own early brick wall with physics, and gleaned some insights from Chinese. I don't write well enough - I'm probably also just too lazy or stubborn to learn how - but I don't write well enough to have gotten anywhere with what I felt I realized in a marathon moment of Eureka back in 1983.

Anyhow, the flourishing world order we thought might last forever as the end to history is now on pause (writing in the time of the plague) is certainly not the place to look for resolution.

I'm trying to read Chomsky again. He feels so freaking brilliant. He speaks and writes clearly, but he's not always so easy for a layperson to follow. Exposing his generative grammar narrative, I learn that there is a line of criticism of his approach, to the effect that no-one has located the "black box" where grammar is genetically housed, in any structure of the brain. I'm probably out-of-date on that.

A set of analogies Chomsky uses relates to the function of the hand or of the heart. He opposes functional descriptions (the hand is for grasping, the heart is for pumping blood) as being like collecting butterfly specimens; potentially very engaging and interesting, but not science. They don't explain anything, and there are no hypotheses to use as the basis for empirical testing to reveal deeper explanatory structures.

So he rejects 'language is for communication' because that adds nothing to understanding the psychology of language, and its empirical basis in, presumably, the human brain.

Language it isn't only for communication. It can be like petting, for instance, or other matters of social construction. A structural functional description of language doesn't add to our understanding of how the brain works language.

To say that the hand is for grasping doesn't help in understanding human nature and how it arose. One would have to develop hypotheses for how the hand evolved, or how it actually works according to as yet invisible structures that we don't understand yet.

It certainly doesn't do any good to say that hands were developed for the purpose of using tools, any more than it helps to say that language developed for the purpose of communication. These things come about as the result of evolutionary change, and cannot be the cause of it. Teleology is rigorously excluded in the scientific method. Chomsky has plenty of good criticism of Marxism on that basis.

Chomsky doesn't seem to think his linguistic theories are finished - his work is just a kind of early inchoate set of conjectures which will have to await more fulsome treatment in the future. He implicitly seems to believe in progress. Galileo observed anomalies in the heavens well before any theory of inertia and gravitational action-at-a-distance might explain those. We will someday understand how language works.

The book I'm reading is a translation back to English from a recording that was published in French. The original recording (including the original English) was lost, so it's a two-way back and forth from which sense would normally be lost as well (and surely lost if it were machine translation). But Chomsky has vetted and edited and the writing seems coherent.

But the book's coherence might still make an ironic commentary about bedrock truth. Does that kind of truth improve by the process of translation? Well, perhaps it actually does.

This irony is itself remedied by Chomsky's insistence on the necessity for "ideal forms" in the pursuit of understanding. One needs a model trimmed to its essentials in order to test it against reality. The scientific method doesn't and can't deal with the totality of anything.

If an hypothesis is sound nothing need be lost in translation. Indeed, the hypothesis will be improved by the highlighting of some parochial assumptions. I guess I'm suggesting that scientific knowledge is precisely that which doesn't get lost in translation. Science needs to be true in any language, before it can be said to be true.

As a social critic and political commentator, Chomsky is also very concerned with truth. He is the fanatic who digs up the details to expose the lies in the public-facing 'official' narratives deployed by the power structure to prop itself up. This feels like extremely important work.

Those lies are pernicious in the same way that fake science is. That is even though Chomsky himself seems to disavow any organic connection between his professional work as a linguist and philosopher, and his political commentary. Lies about history are likely precisely the sort of conjecture which don't and wouldn't survive translation. Their validation would be far too subjective, almost by definition.

In a naive sense - way before I knew of the Sapir-Whorf theory - I "decided" (there was not much "choice" at the outset, though it may have determined my decision to persist. Isn't that how choice works anyhow?) to study Chinese because of some variation of that theory. The idea is that the morphology of specific languages affects or even determines what is deemed to be reality for those within those language communities.

At least in the case of reading and writing Chinese, there is some evidence of energizing of different parts of the brain, with a different hemispheric distribution. Those differences would seem to indicate some difference in the way our thoughts are formed and informed by differing kinds of literacy.

This particular Chomsky book seems to belie any strict separation between Chomsky's professional work and his social commentary. That's why I chose it. His core belief structure seems to exhibit a fanatically rigid supposition that it is both possible and worthwhile to get at the truth about what is real. And who could disagree with that? In language or abroad in the world. I find that he is the primary opponent to Sapir-Whorf. Duh!

Just now, it seems that nearly all the narratives that once did evince shared belief are being deconstructed. Cracks are showing in the America which once showed its strength through military and economic might. It may even become clear that when capitalism is allowed to take over every single corner of productivity, and regulatory government is systematically dismantled, there is no-one and nothing left to care for the public good. It may also be that we simply fall apart.

When the public good is no longer cared for, the social construct will have been abrogated. When that abrogation is discovered, it will already too late. But, at the moment, it's not too late to repair the breach. The revolution has hardly gotten a start.

I would like to argue that recent history has made clear that truth is less important than a believable narrative. This is not to denigrate the importance of truth, but rather to focus less on the details that have been gotten wrong, if there remains an overall believable shape with is believable as the essential truth. Even though parts of it are made-up, like a pretty person's face.

As Chomsky both says in his critique of American democracy as a perfect front for fascism, and as the less-than-widely read reach of his commentary also shows, the exposure of truth hardly ever seems to change the narrative. If anything, it may accelerate the denial of reality when it's too hard to look at.

I am intensely grateful for Chomsky's fanatical digging for the truths and especially for the falsehoods within America's collective historical narrative.

But there are reasons the warts-and-all take on ourselves is so often ignored and rejected. It's just not how we wish to see ourselves. There is probably a genetically programmed black-box for that in our makeup as well. It is at least a sign of respect to any interlocutor to put on our best face. To do some grooming. To keep our language clean. To want to be wanted and accepted.

I feel pretty certain that no specific "organ" will be discovered as the "black box" of generative grammar. That's because the somatic basis for a universal grammar is already so obvious. The brain is the necessary background instrumental condition for the verbal throwing that arms do, and the noun/thing's condition of being thrown. The critics are looking in the wrong place for the structure of grammar. Perhaps, so is Chomsky. Subject is subject, object is object, and verb is verb. That's how our bodies construe the world. We don't even need to speculate so far as the brain. We did a lot of talking before words were ever uttered.

The hand is for grasping, the vocal cords and the shaping of the mouth for speaking, the heart for pumping blood. The brain manipulates each of these in different ways. Many people think that the mind is mediated by language. As Chomsky says, plunk a pre-verbal human in New York and he will become a New Yorker. That would presumably happen across time too, if that were possible. There is no genetic or morphological difference between primitive and modern man. The differences all relate to language. To money. To credit. To books. To machines. It's hardly our genetics which has made us human. It's what we did with all that endowment, that was never programmed in.

I have taken dogmatic positions on many subjects. I hate the capitalists, I hate the vectorialists, it's obvious that we absolutely must have single-payer healthcare. That sort of lazy thinking.

Then along comes this fellow who I discover on Twitter. Twitter is one of the evil social networking sites that I try so hard to stay clear of, because they veer so close to surveillance capitalism. Because they so often don't mind pandering to liars in the interest of profit. Because the platforms care nothing for the public good, but still have so much influence on it. They disavow themselves of any responsibility as publishers. They don't consider it their responsibility to vet for truth value. That makes them even worse than Fox News, but then there was this:
Peter Kolchinsky has written what promises to be a very cogent book about what's wrong with American healthcare when it comes to drug pricing. Presumably the argument could be generalized to healthcare overall.

Kolchinsky isn't pushing for single-payer. He's pushing to fix what's wrong. In conversation, I'm not really so dogmatic. I like to focus on the low-hanging fruit to get things started. I don't see much value in engaging in big polarizing wars. I hope that many legislators or their staffs will read this book.

So as I try to moderate my hatred of social media and as I try to moderate my loathing of Trump, because I certainly don't loathe those who follow either, I shall try to moderate my other dogmas as well. Trump was created by the same media master minds who are now humanizing Andrew Cuomo. A little healthy skepticism is always on order.

We can't regain our shared narrative until we find our way to trusted news media. We really need to regulate Fox news out of business. That was once-upon-a-time possible in our not-too-distant past before the massive deregulation championed by Reagan. Yes, indeed, make America great again. Bring back the labor unions, the local newspapers, the carefully considered regulation of media, the living wage. . . Bring back the social contract.

COVID-19 may be helping us along. The cracks will let in the light. Leonard Cohen couldn't endure the current regime, but he gave voice to our better angels. Well, he was Canadian. So many of our actors and entertainers are.

Anthem, by L. Cohen

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see
I can't run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
A thundercloud
And they're going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
You can add up the parts
You won't have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring (ring the bells that still can ring)
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in
That's how the light gets in