Monday, November 30, 2020

 

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of MindsFrom Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Consciousness Explained not too long after it was published way back when in 1991. Well, I read it a while after that, but time is so relative. I found the book very satisfying. This new one, not so much. There are too many discordances, which disturb my ear. Perhaps the two of us have grown distant.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t brilliant and important exposition here; there is. Indeed, I agree with almost all of what he has to say, even including the stuff about self-consciousness as illusion (I think he mistakenly leaves the self- part of self-consciousness off, though). We are of the same ilk.

But I am disappointed that Dennett has been almost entirely captivated by the computer as metaphor for machine-mind. He doesn’t seem aware that this brings Descartes back in via the back door, as it were. Dennett privileges ‘brain,’ where Descartes, at least, privileges ‘mind.’ Brain leads, rather haphazardly, to culture by way of the bottom-up work of memes. Meme’s are Richard Dawkins’ gene analogs.

Another ilk denizen, Benjamin Bratton, rehearses the rather obvious, but to me tired, trope that we will know intelligent life by what amounts to the artificiality of its structures. He’s more subtle than that, but in essence he means the unnatural stuff. Stuff derived from what Dennett calls the scientific image. The scientific image represents those affordances which are not part of the Darwinian game of life. Artificial engineering is top-down.

It may be that the thing I prize most about Dennett’s writing is that it begins to bridge the gap between the natural and the artificial. I believe that to be a chasm as dangerous as the gulf Descartes posited between mind and body. But, along with Bratton, Kim Stanley Robinson, and almost everyone else with half a brain, Dennett celebrates the artificial as the inevitable way onward.

As Mark Solms – and I’m sure others as well – has adequately demonstrated, the cognitive areas of the brain – serially or altogether – can be obliterated and yet consciousness remains for humans. It is only when the emotive areas more toward the stem are gone that consciousness goes as well. This evident fact makes it seem as though to associate consciousness with humans alone goes way too far “up” the tree of life. Surely reptiles are already conscious. I’m also sure that only humans are self-conscious. Memetically so, and in precisely the way that Dennett outlines.

Riccardo Manzotti agrees with me about the reptiles. Most decisions, and surely decisions related to survival and reproduction and therefore relevant to any discussion of Darwinian evolution, are made impulsively, which means emotively. Cognition is simply too slow. And yet neither Manzotti nor Dennett nor most other ‘consciousness’ researchers have much to say about emotion.

It would seem that this observation about how emotive impulse happens applies only to those creatures with a beating heart. Surely bacteria don’t have emotion. They play the game of survival on a much more elemental level. We shall see.

In any case, cognition is simply too slow for the important decisions. Well, that depends on what you mean by important. I mean life-or-death here, in the context of evolution. The real important decisions. The ones that grant purchase. Those are all cognitive, right?

I don’t mean that emotional response might not have access to settled cognitive understanding in mind when emotive centers take over decision-making, which they generally do, especially under duress. We can and will and do rationalize our success after the fact, as Dennett also urges us to understand, but we’d better have a pretty intuitive sense of how the world works if we hope to make it through life.

Manzotti – correctly, I believe – doesn’t locate consciousness in the brain. He locates it in what Dennett calls manifest reality, which is what we perceive all around us. Manzotti calls his theory ‘the spread mind.’ He calls manifest reality the real. That’s what we perceive, composed by what Dennett calls more broadly our human affordances. Our ontology. The things important to us.

It would be very hard to have an emotional response to what Dennett seems to believe is actually real. The stuff that is not manifest, but only available by means of the methodologies of science. He calls this the scientific image; it’s what’s required if we are to do top-down intelligent design. It’s what’s required for the really important decisions. The ones that take time.

Traces of manifest reality are not stored in the brain as memory (another term robbed of meaning by computer metaphors), but are rather, according to Manzotti, persistently present by way of the brain’s continual refreshing of actual perception. What we call memory is delayed perception, not its shadow. Dear Plato. We live in the light, in perpetual connection with the real. Present, past, and to a certain extent, future. We navigate.

What is present to the mind is always real. For me, this is demonstrated easily enough when I feel ‘memories’ flooding back as I revisit places and things which have been absent from me for a long time. Though my mind dims, I feel reasonably confident that I distinguish the real from the fantasy when I am in the presence of artifacts from my past. Details remain up for grabs, of course, especially in negotiation with members of my early cohort.

Interestingly, Dennett’s real real is largely a metaphorical real. We don’t see subatomic ‘particles’ and yet we know they are there. The word particle is just a metaphoric handle on something we will never experience directly by way of perception; we can experience such reality only by means of our mind and through our instruments, as mathematically reified. 

And yet those particles are surely real. Scientific understanding composes the means that we have for what Dennett calls top-down ‘intelligent design.’ And it is surely on the basis of that top-down designing that humanity is now far and away the dominant life-form on the planet. By Dennett’s measure some 98% of non-marine vertebrate biomass now is ours; mostly cattle. 

Sheep, I’d say. The human world is raveling, and I find Dennett to be refreshingly incisive about why, though he says nothing at all about this. Along with a few others, many of whom hold sway on the stages which form public opinion (surely it is not knowledge!), Dennett seems to celebrate this moment of tech ascendancy which gives the silliest of memes as much credence as the good stuff.

In really simple terms, the scientific image enables us to care for more than ourselves alone. Each increment in scientific understanding builds trust in a shared reality which can cross all the relativity of language and culture on manifest earth. The scientific image is not more real. It’s more universal. Is all.
Meanwhile, polling demonstrates that upwards of half our human population begs to differ.

Dennett calls out the idiots for believing in stuff that is manifestly not true. God. Creationism. Vitalism. Man as a special creature; this last even as he finds man just about that special by the end of his disquisition.

The ‘why’ (the ‘what for?’) is that much of what composes human comprehension is composed of memes, which are designed bottom-up the way that genes are. They have a life of their own, as it were, riding on our enthusiasms. Which is to say they are formed and informed emotively, though no self-respecting consciousness researcher would ever comment that way. Consciousness is serious. Emotion is not. And I’m the one who’s not celebrating tech. I guess that’s because I live by feel.

Not so very long ago, Albert Einstein made a shift among received physical knowledge which made all the difference for the twentieth century. His relativity equated mass with energy, and reality has been destabilized ever since.

There is a charming passage in Dennett’s book where he recalls being with students outdoors in the cold on a starry night, and learning to “see” the plane of the ecliptic across our solar system. The guide was an historian of science. The view apparently clicked once you did it right, in much the way that Einstein’s shift must have clicked for so many of us, as it surely did for me. I remember the very moment just as I remember Kennedy’s assassination in a younger moment.

It is time for the next important shift. Emotion is no epiphenomenon of humanity’s interactions. To suggest that emotion is limited that way is precisely how Descartes sneaks back in through the back door. He pulls Plato along by the hand. Mind is made special, even while Dennett correctly calls out consciousness as illusion. What he means, I think, is that comprehension is illusory when comprehension is by way of manifest affordances alone. 

But consciousness is very real. Just ask a lizard. Unconscious you die in the face of challenges.
Our comprehension is based on a reality at the remove of metaphor. Our consciousness is based on manifest reality, plain and simple. It makes us care about ourselves as an individual. Any creature which reproduces sexually does that. And the bacteria . . .?

We would not survive – we shall not survive – without effective engagement with our ‘affordances,’ as Dennett calls them, borrowing from gamer theory, perhaps. Gamers having borrowed it from psychology, and so forth. These are the things that we touch. The interfaces. We cannot touch what Dennett refers to as the non-illusory real world of things as they really are, though we might be able to understand them.

For some reason, Dennett is fond of kayaks as examples of bottom-up mindless design. You don’t have to understand how a kayak works in theoretic scientific detail to participate in making it better. In just the way that the thousands of workers on the Manhattan project didn’t understand what they wrought. The brains – the bosses – presumably did. Dennett calls out General Leslie Groves. Not Oppenheimer?? Groves is a barker. He orders, and not by reason alone. A mover of men. (Dennett also explains away the invisibility of women on our historical stages).

Surely now we design kayaks in the same way that we design superyachts. Top down! And yet they look the same as the received kayaks. I suppose it’s the plastic, Benjamin, which makes them better now. I’m guessing that Dennett is something of a paddler.

I am something of a dabbler myself. In consciousness, but also in computers and wooden boats and canoes more than kayaks, and physics and classical Chinese poetry, and, you know, science fiction with a little gamer theory thrown in. I’ve even been a dabbler in grad school, several times, with nothing to show for it. 

I am clearly no expert. I wear that as a badge of pride. I often see the forest for the trees. I made my shift way before 1991. This still leaves me alone and forlorn, and so my language often becomes reckless. Sorry. 

So here’s the shift, plain and simple. Let’s say some genetic mutation hits it. Dennett underplays the shifting ground for evolution – the environmental field for accident – and overplays fitness as though there could be progression up the tree of life without the challenges of environmental shiftiness. Fit requires ground. Hitting it means fitting in to the new world. And the world is always new.

The embrace of mutation is an expression of love. I mean expression in the sense that dogs express urine. It spreads. Call it cosmic love. Why not? The cumulative accidents of evolution clearly result in ever more complicated life. And so, it is no longer proper to call out random as meaningless, even though there can be no elan vital to distinguish the quick from the dead, as Dennett clearly demonstrates. Ah, but computers can’t do random, remember.

Emotion is as real as are those subatomic ‘particles.’ The trouble is that we don’t feel it the same way. It’s not perceptual, directly. Emotional affordances are rather subtle.

Just now we remain in the embrace of dead-ender understanding. Call it hate. Call it what it is. The tech titans whom Dennett can’t seem to help admiring exploit a loophole in property law (I checked with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who should know). Click to agree that you don’t own yourself. It would be illusion to think that you did.

There is conception in the cosmos before human mind thought itself up by its bootstraps. Conception is relation without the exchange of particles. No force. No impingement. Mind is present everywhere, as time shall reveal. Mind consists in conceptual apprehension. Understanding, if you will. Comprehension without a grip.

And time is the direction set by evolution, not by physics. Physics is agnostic about time. And yes Virginia, we still do participate in evolution, but not in ways that should cause you to be concerned about your sexual prowess. We do it by way of memes. Culture is how mankind came to dominate our planet, and we did that overnight once we had domestication of plants and animals both. Once we had words.

But we have stepped out from the life force. I agree with Dennett on nearly everything he has to say, and he has laid the table perfectly for a better argument. He just simply doesn’t have his terms quite right. 

To me it does seem evident that an individual human is far more complex than a galaxy could be without us. Mostly we are the ground – the environment – for all the creatures which populate our bodies. Some share our DNA. Most don’t. Person to person communication by way of language is far more interesting and complex than whatever it is Elon Musk wants to do about Mars. 

And yet we prefer to talk to our phones. Remember when we talked through them? Half of us seem to hate the other half. No surprise in that, if we’re talking bottoms up.

We carry around a massive proportion of all the genetic success stories from our extended being on earth. We are not severable from any of earth, far far into the distant past. And into our future, if we even have a future left. Once we bring all the other creatures under our dominion, as God meant us to do, we will have lost our mind. Perhaps we already have. Truth or illusion, Martha, truth or illusion? I should know, I’ve lost mine plenty of times.

As we troll the universe searching for intelligent life elsewhere, all we know to do is to look for the artificial regularities that we are so very proud of down here to earth. But what if these clever structures, these intelligent designs of ours, are the temporary structures. The ones that can’t last because they have always – universally now – presaged the demise of intelligent life. Hubris. Trumpism. Which side are you on, brother? Which side are you on?

Walk past an overdesigned building, especially in China, which hasn’t been maintained, and it will be indistinguishable from one in the process of being built. Except for the grass and the cracks which let the light come in.

As death crystallizes all around us, life will always look like life. Messy. Bloody. Shitty. Smelly. And rich and full and good. The bread also rises. Intelligent life has better things to do than to be lured in by nature’s gambit. Nature always wins. 

One of the most interesting and exciting parts of Dennett’s disquisition involves the deception that is required to preserve our individual selves; the secrets. I’m using ‘our’ in the broadest possible sense. Nature is indeed a trickster. 

Really, at the end of my read, I retain only the tiniest quibble with Dennett. That is that he falls prey to the illusion that anything at all can be originated in the mind. He retains, in other words, a distinction between discovery and invention, which is something I, for one, cannot do. Our mind does not do work on a replica of reality. It is part of reality, as Dennett urges us to understand. The trouble is that he gives mind a severable existence. Nature will trick us out of that. We are such easy marks. We are chumps.

Ah, but the man makes me very happy! I thank you, Daniel Dennett!


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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Is it Real, or is it AI Photoshop?

Yes, OK, so I'm watching Nicole Kidman on this HBO series which is a fairly formulaic murder mystery, though fun and gorgeous to watch. As an older man myself, relating more to Hugh Grant than to Nicole, I would rather like to know what she actually looks like. I do remember how stunningly gorgeous she was when she appeared on the scene, and for sure she's still beautiful. But even beyond my looking for signs of age, there's something just off, and still more off-putting. 

But then there was a timely report, in the New York Times, I think, about real-looking generated faces. The "AI" behind them was obvious enough, but really, may I have a personality with my being? I'm following on where I left off last time, more in the direction of AI scripted poetry, which my friend in the bread-line was already doing with classical Chinese sometime in the 80's. Now it's touted as something new. That's innovation for you!

Of course the various click-feeds are full of yachts and life-style scenarios generated in exotic places, with well-known faces, all over the globe and one is drawn. We might be drawn to Mars, Elon (now number two on the planet), if you were to generate something attractive about it. Let us talk with seductively generated screen projected AI women, maybe? Those of us who remain gender-retro.

My friend Benjamin just Tweeted a question asking something about whether the complexity of the non-living substrate on a planet had to be related to the advent of life. He called it a planetarity question or something like that. And where, dear Benjamin, is the divide between life and non-life? At the fingernails? Rocks are as much a part of me as the rest of creation.

Computers are rocks, for all the dynamism you may stuff them with. But these digital omnipaths are more cut off from life than the rest of the cosmos. That is by very definition. They still have to reach out and touch the real to get random. As though random were meaningless.

And so, of course, I prefer to commune with alien life while sitting still, so long as I can tell a written narrative from one produced for TV, or by Dan Brown and his massive teams. If more people had read Melville's The Confidence Man, and fewer had been watching "reality" TV, we wouldn't be in this mess. 

Well, that's hardly true. Sure we would. Anyhow, it is very pleasant to witness Joe Biden plodding along with fairly revolutionary moves. Much though I might have preferred someone younger, and to his left, it now is clear that he is likely the only one who could have beaten Trump. And I will love him forever for that.

There is real and there is Memorex (remember that one? from the dark ages when the music industry informed most of what would become IT?). There is writing and there is the Codex. Or wait, maybe I have it backwards. Maybe highly scripted is the good stuff. I know that the disappearance of handwriting is making a massive difference.

Seduce us all off-planet to relieve the burden. Hyper-fertile wanderings in the void. Eternal merriment, attracted by whatever is constructed to please our choosing. I don't buy any of it.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Desolation

I sit now in my new apartment, up high and very bright as the sun rises to my view. Worried at first that it would be too warm, now I worry that it might be chilly. The decor is mostly distributed and the boxes mostly gone. I don't understand how I put that many boxes into storage from the smallest U-Haul trailer available, pulled across the Adirondacks with a tiny Jetta wagon.

But then I am an idiot in any field where I'm not an expert, and I'm an expert nowhere. That has been a conscious choice. Of course, I'm also radically uncertain about what choice is and what consciousness is. I don't think that choice is the same thing as agency, and I have a strong feeling that agency goes along with consciousness and that, naturally, consciousness is not a specifically human attribute.

I guess that makes my world-view about as weird as a Trumpster's. They are right that we lefties confuse choice and agency though. We who have never faced down survival even for an instant. Choice is what you do while shopping. I'm not good at it.

The decor that I'm enjoying is accumulated donations and hand-me-downs, pretty much as though I were living in a consignment shop. In place of actual art, which could be gotten from actual acquaintances, I am surrounded by, well, actual art, but not edgy art. All from acquaintances, much of it Chinese. I wish I could find that gorgeous scroll that I filmed as it was painted. Where could I have put it? 

I would be in China now, if not for aging out of who they will accept and except for Trump spoiling our prospects there, and across the globe. I would feel comfortable going out and joining the teeming crowds on the street in China. Nothing would feel familiar and I would feel cramped in whatever housing I might afford. With views out the window not so comfortable as these, my hometown views.

But I would feel more comfortable than you would, and happy, and I would be rid of this sickening dread that our Republic has ended. The government in China would feel solid, even if not the government I would wish for. I have been wishing for America all my life.

Trump is hardly to blame. He is the manifest symptom of a certain brand of capitalism run amok. Where comfort was all we wanted and were finally granted. We stopped participating in community-forming conversations and spoke mostly about the world we knew from screens big and small. 

Those worlds have always been somehow more interesting than the one we inhabit. It was always a latent possibility that mobs would rule here in the US of A; that the ultimate Confidence Man would take office, because we'd long since given up on civic education. 

Ours was not supposed to be indoctrination, though it often was. We were to be allowed to form our own commitments to something that just made sense. Like More Light Presbyterian Sunday school just around the corner now (This was never my plan. I've never had a plan). Dad is buried there, his ashes placed in the memory garden, and somehow among my debris was the nap rug that Mom would have made for me on mandate for the church's preschool. I was hoping for a bathroom rug, but my kids won't let me use this one. I don't think it would survive a washing anyhow. 

We were always expected to make our own choice, and it was supposed to make sense as the right one. Now it would seem that we crave to be told by someone in television drag. God damn you Ronnie. You started it. Or was it JFK? 

I don't know why I don't have edgy in me, back to my artistic deficit again. I guess it's for the same reason that my clothes are drab, fusty, off, and tending to conventional. I always appreciate edgy, and admire those who live it. I lack a certain kind of confidence, I guess. I guess I prefer comfort and don't like being noticed. First things first, I put opaque drapes over bedroom and kitchen windows. 

Ah, but I shall soon put a loaf of bread in the oven. There is no bread to buy in stores that is worth eating. In China, where bread is not popular, the noodles, the dumplings are reliable, although they try their damnedest to replace Mom and Pop with corporate fast-food on the US model. With US money, as far as I can tell. The Age of Ambition. It's a trust thing. Germs in food when the government is not on it.

And I'm back to shopping once every three weeks. Yesterday at 6AM when I had the store to myself. Paranoid now because I'd forgotten to buy parchment paper, and doubted my ability to make bread right without it. I dashed in to the store again, but there were lines, and my throat is sore this morning. Likely because of the apartment heat. 

I discover that I'm newly incompetent, reverting to a circumstance I can't remember. I was competent in my trailer, and here I still duck in fear that the smoke alarm will go needlessly off at my cooking. The way it does in my tiny house. I have neighbors not to disturb now.

It chilled again last night after a near summery yesterday for my stair climbs. I am free now from gluten free, but also forgot to buy a pizza pan. Whatever happened to those basics? How much did I toss when I couldn't lift the tongue of the trailer? I will buy cast iron this time. Next I dare to venture out. Our polity is that destroyed.

The science fiction I will write about our future will be no fiction. The Tesla trucks and moon shots are already a joke. The MC rather charmingly full of himself, since at least he doesn't pretend to be an actor, nor even Steve Jobs. There are too many of us craving comfort and the market will supply it fine. The collapse will be for loss of will, and for agency concentrated in too few of us. The rest overtaken by frustrated ambition. Turned against one another, all over again.

Choice is what you make in the store. During leisure time after digesting what you've learned in school. Agency is about survival. Reptiles do it. There''s something in there about trust which determines the distinction. Choice requires a degree of comfort.

I am at that age when I can't remember where I saw something or where I read it, or where I put it, or what my room layout was at the last place. I can't distinguish between memories of some dream state or what I might have watched on TV. This will increasingly be the state of each of us. Call it Alzheimer's, call it what you will, it's the natural end of a mediated experience of life. 

We live on Mars already, though Werner Herzog might call the attempt to go there obscene. We have sex with onscreen obscenity. It's how we experience life. Elon Musk uses the word 'consciousness' for what it is we must preserve that he seems to presume only humans have. But reptiles were already conscious. Herzog is right that we would be locusts on the cosmos once we despoil our home and decamp elsewhere.

If by humanity we mean only that kind of clever comfort preservation that technology is so good at improving, then we are already dead and gone. The masses who will die when the machine completes its falling apart will be a redundancy. Will have been. They - we - had not been living anymore in the first place.

When yesterday - was it the day before? - I finally finished unboxing all my Chinese books, I did feel of sound mind. So much can change in a day. I went to bed too early and awakened hung over by the pain and exhaustion of moving. My daughter came by and we wore masks and opened the windows - there was a breeze and we felt safe from one another - to give me some final pointers on the picture and furniture placements. It was a completion and a start to my new life. No matter how much is left to do, I feel settled enough. I was too tired even to accept her offer of a stuffed pepper, preferring not to go down and out, and therefore preferring to eat a frozen pizza. Like taking drugs, based on how I feel this morning.

Yes, my science fiction of our future will be underpopulated and engaged in human activity, like those Chinese poets that I felt certain only yesterday that I would finally master. My little library exceeds the offerings of most university collections that I've checked out. This time, when I unboxed my collection for the upteenth time, I felt that I could finally read them and catalogue them properly on the shelf.

Was it my time in the salt-mines of translation, or was it the sheer repetition of the unboxing, or some combination of both? Could I possibly be settled enough now? Would I sit? Will I also unbox my notebooks from graduate school? Where would it get me, as though I weren't preparing for this for my whole life? I no longer have to work for the man. Or was it always for my ex? The man works for me, until the banks collapse. A small stipend for sure. Lower even than what I lived on in graduate school. I've never left that lifestyle, really. I never did graduate.

Like me, those Chinese ancients who complained of exile and destitution were elites. The Chinese knew how not to overproduce elites,  and still to honor the farmers and peasants above the businessmen (I blew my final read this side of the paywall for this link. Paywalls are being raised everywhere now, and screw the People who don't deserve elite knowledge). The library is closed. I'm reading Daniel C. Dennett's new book on electronic loan. He's wrong about consciousness, apparently, but nobody else is reading Manzotti. Hardly. I'm so surprised and disappointed to find, so far, that Dennett has retreated inside the head.

None of us can break free of our Western Platonic world of ideas, although I finally found a cogent definition for ideas - for the word "idea" - behind a paywall that lets me in just once. I struggle through the read, because it represents the dismal science, economics, where as a social scientist of education, I am by definition deficient. An amateur. An idea is that aspect of a design which can be monetized. Q.E.D.

There were so many fewer words written back when in China. And here in the West. Each one carried so much more weight. And yet those poets were in chains. They chafed. And they prevailed - they persisted through the ages - if and as they outwitted their superiors, who were never their betters. Legions of emperors will be forgotten before we forget Du Fu. Though I do have Chairman Mao's calligraphy in a place of honor. "Study Marxism and Leninism." It's beautiful. 

There were few enough words that classical Chinese became an easy candidate for computer analysis. As if the computers could find something elusive to the generations which preserved those words. It was worth reading them nevermore. I learned about that in the bread-line during the first international conference on Redology, the esoteric discipline of studying The Story of the Stone; The Dream of the Red Chamber. I was there, rubbing shoulders with the luminaries. I proved to myself that I was there when I unearthed the conference report among my excavations for this move. Trust me.

We were modern and now we are postmodern, which only means that we don't believe in anything anymore. Only power and fighting the man. That is no way to expand out into the cosmos. That is no way forward. The words were once the promise of a future. In the beginning. Now they are Sound and Fury, signifying nothing all over again.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Reality Hits

A damaging wind storm is heading my way. I'm camping at its epicenter, waiting for my new apartment to open up. That means that I will move from the boonies back into the urban eye of COVID-19. Tomorrow is showtime. 

Showtime, the TV network, will air a revealing documentary on the Ronald Reagan presidency. We have yet to come to terms with Reagan's surreality. Or JFK's, for that matter. I hope that we soon will.

By now, Television has pivoted to Internet images. I am of the first generation to grow up with TV, although we were restricted from watching it at my home. I did watch enough on our little Black and White TV to understand that it presented a kind of idealized world. Perhaps I was provided some inoculation.

I've been shouting into the wind about Reagan for most of my life. But people liked the way they felt with him as our TV president. If they were white and suburban and "middle class," which, of course, we all were. It's hard to imagine that was not Reagan's core.

He'd been a union man until he became General Electric's shill. Somehow he was groomed to be the image of a new Republican ideology which has only hardened over time. Front man for wealth making, no matter the ravages along the way. Shill of the rich and powerful. Ascribed identity for our country, our home. 

It was unions that ushered in reality TV. When the writers struck, the producers simply said among themselves, 'we don't need no stinkin' writers!' The people themselves will write their own scripts when put in front of a camera. If we select them carefully, and then edit the result carefully, the masses will buy it. We did. 

Sure, I have a TV in my tiny house. I feel as though I need it for reality check along my travels. Trailers don't lend themselves to city living, so I've mostly toured Trumplandia, with respites, occasionally, in National Parks; playgrounds for cosmopolitans with money and education, to some extent.

Mostly I use the TV to stream movies, which make for nice diversion when the weather's not nice and my eyes won't stay still for reading or writing (mostly translation work, which is another story altogether).

Anhow, that lifestyle is coming to an end, as it must. I want to re-establish a home, as my kids establish theirs. Truth be told, as I told you here before, I'm camping now to be out of mandatory quarantine for my son-in-law whose house I'd been living in while repairing all its many deficits. 

My body remains sore from that, and so I imagine I won't be up for the mobile life for all that much longer. I like being around family, even though I will likely no longer be able to visit Mom in the memory care unit. Because of the COVID reality surge.

But anyhow, I've had - and continue to have - plenty of occasion for lively discussion with people who, according to my belief, inhabit fantasy lands with eyes wide shut toward what's actually going on all around them. We all create our internal narrative with ourselves as the protagonist, pulling in all the descriptions from abroad which feel right.

I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys having their version of reality challenged. I keep trying to broaden my own. I must be among a minority who enjoys that. No brag, just fact. Ha!

The Internet was supposed (by all right thinking people at its inception, though some of us saw dot com for what it was. We'd started when the Internet was mostly academic. Now it's for real!) to remedy the mass-mediated sleep walk into lala land. By now we are split - the Internet has literally split us - among realities, none of which are entirely coherent. Since there's no way to digest all that's available, we have to pick and choose.

Or, rather, we have to let the keepers of our preferences choose for us. It can be very hard to see how that's any improvement on what preceded reality TV. The lala land of Ronald Reagan, which a majority of us once did internalize. We felt like one nation, very much under God. Now we don't.

The course of my own personal history feels like one long political slide into the swamp. Can you even imagine that Dubya seems a statesman in retrospect? I can't say that I've been all that aware, but I suppose that I did interact with people who were. I'm astonished at my own ignorance back in the day, so I can't take credit for being in better touch with actual reality than many of the people I interact with seem to be. I'm not on solid ground, still. 

But here to my left I talk with people who declare supporters of Trump racists before even talking with them. I understand the sentiment, but it's not what I've experienced. Sure many are, and it's not hard to discern that in the way some talk about personal grievances. But again, to my political left, are plenty of racist union folks.

As many folks have remarked, the political center has been hollowed out, so I can't exactly claim to be there. If there were a center, it would be more real than either extreme, I'm pretty sure.

In my expressed politics, I lean hard left. But reality tempers my belief that those goals can be soon nor certainly easily achieved. Tempered by reality, I want to believe in achievable goals, and not just those achievable by "natural disaster." That seems to be the only realistic scenario just now, writing from the eye of every storm. 

That means that I have to believe that there is a narrative which can bring us together. As the name for my blog indicates, I am a believer in the foundational power of narrative. It's how we define ourselves, pulling in whatever version of reality suits us. It's what politics is made of, and it's surely how religion compels belief.

My own faith is that there is - imminently - a scientific narrative which can and will embrace and overcome the corrupted Jesus narrative which seems to prevail now on the right. That new narrative will describe the limits to materialistic science. It will embrace emotion as part of reality, and not just as part of human subjectivity. It will end the illusion that complete understanding is ever possible. 

In very simple terms, that's because our human understanding will always include the creative fictions which we will always require to keep on keeping on. Understanding our own creation is not the same as understanding what gets called God's creation, and never will be. I believe that to be foundational, even though I would quibble with most God language.

I've tried here over the years to explain the particulars of my belief. I doubt that I've done a very good job, but it's about all I've got. My mind grows frail, and I doubt that I can do this any better. I'm not signing off. I'm just calling out a moment which feels very very fraught. 

I am begging people to pause and to consider that they might not be entirely right in their beliefs; about reality and about each other. 

Love is a pause of sorts. A suspension of disbelief. I hope and I pray that we can pull it off.

Well, I'm camping now in my new apartment. The heat is fine and the windows sound as the tree outside my third floor view dances in the wind. As though it had its own motivation. My landlord tells me that a previous tenant climbed the tree these three stories to climb in through the terrace. He'd forgotten his key.

I suppose I will slowly furnish to fill in the expanse of the polished oak floor. The camper's safely put to sleep. I have hope for the future today!

Saturday, November 14, 2020

What's Next?

In the midst of a pandemic - which had started to feel normal until it began to surge beyond even the initial terror-inducing phase - we await a transition of power in Washington. Those transitions have always felt normal before. If Obama felt devastated, he retained his grace in dealing with Trump. At the outset. Now what??

In unrelated news, I remember watching Trumpsters yell from the back on an auditorium, when asked if those without health insurance should just be allowed to die . . . "YES!" Some shouted. Was I watching on TV? I don't remember.

It seemed insane, although you knew whoever yelled it was expressing a not-unsound belief that life is full of dangers, and that each of us must face them and take care about them. I suppose, in a sense, the person was suggesting that to imagine a paternal (or maternal) state is not only a dangerous fantasy, but a kind of refusal to grow up. But how could they or anyone want a grown up child in the White House?

These are - or seem to be - the same people who rehearse their personal experiences with somehow deficient black people as proof that their racism has a rational basis. As though the ones dying from lack of health insurance aren't disproportionately black and poor, and as though some sort of personal agency could have rescued them. 

I just simply don't and can't and won't understand how people can cheer on police who put their own lives before those they are sworn to protect. It won't do to blame bad apples when the issue seems to have become systemic. Still, I wish we had spoken about reimagining policing rather than about defunding it. 

Guns and power are about all that anyone has left when confidence in public institutions wanes. Wouldn't it truly be ideal if policemen didn't need to carry guns? The way it was in London with the bobbies when I tended bar there. Or as it is now still in China, where those carrying guns are rarely seen, and when they are, you know that those are the extremely well-trained police.

So, it's not the nanny state, it's the invisible regime which ensures a "playing field" that's far from level. Could the tinpot catastrophe of a narcissistic psychopath succeeding in grabbing power actually be the playing out of that invisible regime? I suspect that more than a few Trumpsters may believe that to be the case. Where I hear bizarre and solipsistic parroting of self-serving "conspiracy theories," I guess they hear someone willing to say things as they are.

During my very unsettled morning today (now day before yesterday), while I was mucking with my iPhone, I came across a couple of news items which put me in this frame of mind. 

One was a local calling of attention to a family which had lost several members to a somewhat rare heart condition, which can cause death even at a very young age. The other was recounting some recent fire science which takes note of the importance of wildfires during the process of the evolution of life on earth. 

To me, all of these things are related, including the iPhone. Part of the family tragedy involved the irony that the medical doctor father had insisted that each of his boys have their cardiac condition assessed prior to participation in school sports. That was because of a heart condition he had. He was afraid they might have been inherited his condition. 

It turned out that other members of the family, including the Mom, suffered a different condition. The assessment looking for the first couldn't have caught the second. Of course the family is joining awareness-raising organizations and activities, to be certain that their tragedy won't be so often repeated.

Ditto the wildfires, I guess. We must do a better job of understanding how our recent panic and paranoia about fire has, in fact, endangered us. "Recent" here means the past hundred-some years, while housing has sprawled and wilderness has taken on a new meaning. We did formerly, apparently, intuit an understanding of fire which was better aligned with "nature." Well, we were just not so overwhelming as a force on the planet as we've since become.

And you know Apple's iOS infrastructure is an amazing thing. As do so many others, I'm sure, I have an iPhone so that I don't have to fuss with it. But the complexity Apple must face to manage that array of hardware and apps, not to mention languages and user-styles, feels mind boggling. The trick they've accomplished is to create something as monolithic as it is, and to capture as much of the world as they have.

The complexity of Samsung's infrastructure is of a different sort, I suppose, and perhaps they keep things calm by not trying to update all the time. Well, yesterday I uncovered a glitch to my phone's handling of photo updates. I use a competing software from Microsoft for cost reasons, so no real surprise. But I do have this ex-techie itch, and sometimes I get led down the rabbit hole of trying to problem-solve. I never learn!

I have a pretty darned good professional record as an IT problem solver. But here the issue is that search mostly provides documentation premised on an earlier version of iOS. Those who write solutions clearly don't have any insider expertise, and I suspect even the true insiders don't have a user's understanding of the stuff they design. They have an insiders' understanding, and most likely have down-the-hall style access to someone truly in-the-know. Precious little bubbles out in ways that are reliable.

I must be a little bit addicted to not letting go, looking for the hit when I get something right. Still, I have no urge to publish my results, since I have no confidence that my solution is any more complete than the many whose incompleteness I ferreted out on the way to what worked for me. Who knows how my situation differed from theirs? I may think that I've uncovered a few more variables than they did (I do, of course), but I must be blind to just as many more. 

I can't even imagine claiming to understand the iPhone, even as I seem able to fix issues on mine and other peoples' phones. Some of the time.

So my very much alive and all-consuming question is; what's the next move for humanity when we grow beyond our current psychotic pride in our collective ability to problem-solve. I mean, we're not going to enable immortality. Eradicating disease would be like making time run backward, and we're not going to do that either. I haven't seen anything which gets called "artificial intelligence" which is anything like intelligent. It's all more of a PR hack, based on a misguided notion about what intelligence really is. 

As though, regardless of modality, we will ever or should ever be rid of the graceless complaint that life is unfair. Or the still more graceless complaint expressed by the Trumpsters that those who know and understand more than they themselves do (on whatever specific topic) are just elitist whiners.

I think that Camus had it right, overall, when he wrote The Plague. The plague is in us when we cower from living.  I'm slogging ever so slowly through that book. It was indeed written for a different time. When readers could be more attentive, and school stood for something more like education and less like workforce development.

Was there ever such a time? I doubt it. As a kid I remember wondering what it must have felt like to be a great genius whose genius was never known before the genius was dead. Was there anything intrinsically rewarding to have made some great discovery? 

Well now I know. I'd say that there is. I'd go still further and make the claim that if you require your rewards while living then you're not fully alive. Wow and yikes, that makes me sound like a religionist! But I'd say that the nameless God is what comes next. The scientific recognition that there is more than material to existence. That there is no end to understanding. That the only response to the injustice of life is to live it better, which means to fight the injustice created by mankind. 

Why is that so hard, I wonder. Why? I don't think we want our doctors to question whether they should attempt to bring comfort to the sick.

I guess it's like asking why some people like having power over other people. I've been what might be called a "boss." As the head of a small school, I was told by an expert that my position entailed among the most absolute forms of power over my very defined realm. 

It's true that I was directly responsible for every aspect of running the school, and it's also true that I took direct responsibility for what went wrong. That also could mean strong actions directed against wrongdoers. 

But it never did feel as though I had any real power. Mostly, I was subject to the school's needs. If I did have authority, it would have been because I exercised it judiciously, and didn't interfere where I wasn't the most expert. Of course not everyone would have agreed with that assessment. But power as such was never an ambition of mine. 

And so I am hardly ready to let go of the dream of democracy. What comes next is to unwind the false promises of those who get rich off our believing them. This will be a long arduous business, and much of it must be accomplished over the next scant four years.

We will need to use the power of the challenges we face collectively. The pandemic. Global warming. Population sprawl. Energy consumption. These are the things that we are now collectively subject to. These things are neither our adversary nor problems to solve. They are the conditions for our continued thriving, which means that we will have to change our ways. Living more simply does not mean to live poorly. Wealth in the here and now can only highlight how we all must identically die.

I pray for grace. Cosmic grace. The sort that Jesus embodied. Sure, though I would hardly call myself a Christian. Perhaps some day, when earthly power is gone from those institutions. I would welcome a religion not so centered on mankind. Not so centered on a rank for grace. 

I will welcome the day when individuals do feel agency again, and not so subject to the powers that be, which want us all to feel so subjected. So helpless. So meaningless beyond the trivial agency of casting a vote. Agency be not proud.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Resolving My Internal Divide

I know I just said that I don't want my blogging to be about me. But I have had some time to do some introspection and I feel obligated to say that I look a lot like the country. Meaning that I am very conflicted internally. 

For instance, as a participant in the economy, I feel often compelled by the prices and the variety that I find on Amazon. I don't often travel to a local store beyond the daily fare. And when I do, it's hard to find the helpful people I need to make the trip satisfying.

Sure, there's a range. Ace Hardware, which is a national chain, seems reliably to have someone happy and eager to answer my questions. Home Depot far less so. On Amazon, I have to do still more work on my own, and yet I buy stuff there. The work I do online doesn't match up to the driving and calling (can one even do that anymore?) and searching in confusing aisles where I often miss what is right in front of my face.

I use Google as well, somewhat hating myself for doing so. But there is a certain kind of convenience in return for their surveillance of and now apparent ownership of my purchasing decisions. Just like at least half the country is still having a hard time knowing who to trust, I have a hard time knowing if I've gotten to the bottom of what would be the "right" choice for my purchase. 

Did Google just wear me down? Of course, I don't mean Google, I mean the ads they throw in front of me, in ways obvious and devious. 

Quitting Facebook has been easier, since I've never been prone to performative emotion. OK, so I do peek now and then, but I haven't 'liked' anything in perhaps forever. 

This all may define my limit for consumption. I may be a less eager consumer than you are, but it would be virtually impossible not to be a consumer at all in this economy. 

I have taken an Uber ride now and then, but am glad that I don't really need to now. For me, that's the same kind of glad when I don't cross the path of a panhandler. I just don't need or want the extra angst. 

I'm precisely as divided as California, which voted to allow the continued exploitation of gig workers. Is that a celebration of the technology which is such a large part of the California economy? Or is it a recognition that the people like the economy and convenience of not having to own a car affordably?

In some sense, I am also feeling like the CEO of some big business who feels that they don't have a choice but to remove all jobs to China. Or to Vietnam. The choice seems to be going out of business, and so the fabric of the local community would be frayed in any case.

Nevermind wondering how we mend our divides nationally, what if we internalize Red State/Blue State in our singular person? 

Could there be hope in that? 

Don't get me wrong, I do think Google is evil, and for that matter that most digital technology is evil. That doesn't mean I don't like it. I think drugs are evil too - enough so that I don't care to find out how much I might like them. I have a hard enough time with alcohol, and that's been around since approximately the beginning.

I know that I would resent being condescended to. I can almost get why Trump supporters appreciate him when they talk about how he somehow talks the way they do. Though for me, his is the same kind of performative reality I see in and on Facebook, and surely what gets broadcast on TV.

The wonky reporters on the mainstream media, groomed for good looks like they all are, seem far more genuine than the performers on Fox. But then I surely belong to the intellectual elite, so I'm not really a good judge. Anyhow, Fox i way mainstream. That's what's so scary.

I just simply want to know how to heal my internal divide. I honestly don't know why becoming vegetarian, moving off the grid, or liberating my internal Rainbow Person would feel like a cop out to me. I feel that deeply invested in life as we're living it on the planet, and not at all willing to see it all go to hell.

So the question becomes how do we resist what feels so inevitable. How could I even possibly love Google, Amazon, or god forbid, even Facebook? I'm not sure I can, honestly. I'm more certain than ever that I would welcome judicious regulation of giga tech. I just think anything that big and powerful explodes the inherent contradictions embodied by our American brand of rampant free-market capitalism.

For sure we need a market economy, just not one so religiously capitalistic. 

When big tech came along it was addressing one kind of mistrust. The mistrust that we were paying the right price when the various middle-people took such a big cut. So travel agents, local lumber stores, department stores and so forth were all put out of business on the premise that we could be our own middleman.

What a flim-flam that turned out to be! Big tech has become nothing much different from the penny shaving that savvy computer operators did when banking first went all Fortran. That, however was relatively easier to fix. The crime was blatant. Now we are all implicated, each and every one of us. 

It is my actual and genuine belief that if we were only to learn to trust one another we could carry on famously. Yes, 'all we need is love,' as the refrain goes. But wanting something doesn't make it so and so we would seem to need something more  

It is hardly insignificant that "science" isn't even trusted anymore. I really don't think that's because of the idiocy of those who don't trust it. More likely it's because they're smart enough - those idiots! - to see right through what gets called out as science as still more soap opera on TV. Scientists sell out as fast as anybody else. Let's start with advertising more generally if we want to reestablish trust. 

My Dad, an attorney, was heartbroken when lawyers started to advertise on TV. By the time that medicine was advertised I guess we'd all been worn to a nubbin, and forgot why we once cared so much.

Maybe we should start with the lowest hanging fruit; all those click-to-agree illegalities. I wonder why nobody has tested them. I guess because you always feel as though you're getting something for nothing, Even when you're paying lots of good money to Microsoft just to rent their software. The perpetual upgrades are what's free. 

But isn't a lot of trust lost right there? Shouldn't we know precisely how money is being made off our behaviors? Sure, I know, China doesn't abide by copyright, and so Microsoft really had no choice but to move to a subscription model. Sound familiar? Shipping jobs off to China, capturing the China market. 

Google got some cred when it refused to do search in China under China's terms. Now they couldn't make any claim for decency with a straight face. Or if their face were straight, that would be all the proof we need that the tiger's changed its stripes.

The terms for trust have been bought off. Nothing about Biden's election changes that. There's so much work left to do. But I'm reasonably convinced lots of that work is stuff we would actually agree on. 

I'm certain we're not about to end fracking soon, but at least we could know what the actual dangers are. Of course that would mean overturning Dick Cheney's legal cloaking of Halliburton's secret recipe which he got written into law. 

The loss of public funding for scientific research is not all bad. After all, most of it was the military industrial complex slush fund descended from the cold war. Now the universities are being bought off in much more insidious and dangerous ways. Back when I was studying comparative education, we called it the transformation to the "service university."

Well, "motivated" research isn't science. And the current high-tech improvements to our lives don't always look like improvements. Not with the socio-economic scales so unconscionably out of whack. 

We don't need to turn back the clock and go all primitive, but we do at least need an economy and a society where everyone can be fully employed without selling out their soul to the company line. Rewards for honesty and decency would be nice, in place of so many rewards for the bottom line. 

There are signs that industry is moving in the right direction now that integrity in customer service is punished badly when it's flubbed. I mean what happened to Volkswagen, say. But integrity has to move into health insurance, beyond whether or not we trust our government with that. Health insurance has to be at least as reliable as a car. And cars are pretty darned reliable these days.

They're also pretty darned destructive. So why can't we make public transportation that reliable? I don't just mean the 737 max, I mean the entire infrastructure. It should be as reliable as a smartphone, and use union drivers. Or if it has to be robots, then the riders have to share the benefits in comfort and punctuality.

There's just so darned much low-hanging fruit to be worked on. So I should keep my pie-in-the-sky dreams to myself while we all dig in on the hard work of fixing what's obviously wrong to whatever side you identify with.

I actually do trust that, over time, the big stuff will be fixed as well, once it becomes obvious that it needs to be fixed. Trust will have assured that it will, the big stuff. But we have to learn to trust in the meantime, and we can only do that by working together to fix the stuff we already know is broken. 

Finally, my internal divide is defined by religion. I don't think the choice is between belief and disbelief. For me, reading Richard Dawkins is what others might call a religious experience. His is adequate proof for the existence of God, even though he means it not to be. 

Of course I don't like to put a Name to God. The trouble with religion is that it anthropomorphizes a deity. Of course then we are required to have an immortal soul to distinguish us from the rest of life. What if we were to believe in science and what-gets-called God both? I do. In that sense I don't feel this internal contradiction that the country is suffering. 

I pray that we move beyond this moment. I pray that the Republicans grow a grinchy heart. 

Now let's get to work!

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Why I Don't Blog

Wait, that's a silly statement, 'why I don't blog.' Isn't that what I'm doing right now? 

People often comment how "cute" my rig is; my tiny house on wheels. Sometimes they apologize for calling a guy's house cute. Well, yes it's mostly women who like it. And then when they learn how many times I've crisscrossed the country I tend to hear "you should blog!" 

But the trouble is I don't want to always be experiencing what I'm doing while having in mind the thought of writing about it. Perhaps that just makes me too lazy to be a writer. But, for example, the day before yesterday I decided to try the mountain bike trails here. 

I'd tentatively felt them out on foot when there was snow on the ground, and pretty much assumed that bikers would leave the trails alone; that they'd grown mushy. But they didn't and so I made a tentative start along the long, and what I would find to be twisty and root-filled trail which circumnavigates the park. 

Now I cut my teeth on mountain bike trails in Oregon, which might be among the best anywhere, including some really challenging climbs and slalom-style descents with genuine serious consequence for screwing up. You might say that I started with some contempt for the trails here in Western New York. 

About halfway along my seven mile ride, I realized that I would have to text my discovery to my friends and family back West. I started to compose the text in my head. I crashed. Well, not really - I'm probably stretching a point, but I was no longer in the moment of just enjoying the ride. 

About three quarters of the way along, after riding over fallen stumps helpfully equipped with log ramps by the local mountain mike club, and through rivers and up steep hills and mostly riding standing up because there are so many roots, and those roots want to grab your wheels and push them in a direction you weren't intending to go . . . I realized that I was way over my head. Too late to go back.

Then I was thinking about the trouble with thinking about what I was going to tell people about my ride, and that was when I fell. I'd grown confident enough with plank bridges, some a single plank's width, and stones arrayed to cross deeper streams and I was heading blithely across a somewhat more challenging and certainly narrower set of creek crossing stones. 

The front tire slipped off the final stone, and I found myself mostly in the water with my shoe (not a proper biking shoe) wedged between two stones such that I couldn't move it. My weight was pushing in the wrong direction, and the bike was awkwardly arranged both beneath and on top of me. It could have gone way south, but I managed to extricate myself. I departed the stream quite a bit more wobbly than I went into it. 

My legs ache still, partly from the fall, but mostly from the strain of the ride, even though I was on an e-bike. Mine has no rear suspension, so my legs were absorbing all the shocks.

I was thinking about writing friends and family, aware of the burden that would put on them. I mean everyone else  I knew out West has an easy rapport, and their texts follow a certain slant of humor. I never quite made it inside that slant, so mine are awkward, and elicit what I imagine to be twisted eyebrows and a reticence to respond. 

At least If I were blogging about all my experiences, I wouldn't be making any demands on any readers. Read it if you like. But I would be putting myself and my personality and my personal responses front and center. 

One of my two daughters is really good at doing that. She's very politic about how to present herself so that nobody has to agree or disagree or even like her. She's entertaining. The other daughter is more like me, I suppose, and doesn't like to put herself out there.

So what am I doing here? 

There was a fellow that I really liked, and who I thought  liked me, in my former work. I gave him the desk I had on my way out when my own job dissolved, and we went out for beers a few times. But most recently when I invited him out, he was very firm that he "didn't like me" but rather than he "liked my ideas."

Now sure, that was somewhat painful to hear, but isn't it what I'm aiming for here? I have little enough confidence in my likeability, with plenty of evidence in both directions, but I don't even believe that there are such things as "ideas." Among all that I write about, that might be the actual theme of my writing. 

Once people get to know me, I'm pretty confident in saying that they generally like me. But I don't get close to very many people, and when I do, I often find myself angry with them. I spend way too much time justifying the anger to myself, which must be somewhat related to what I would do as a blogger if I were always composing my next post based on my present experiences. I would be ruminating on the wrong thing.

Ultimately the anger dissipates, and mostly that's when I realize my role in the anger and why that particular person triggers it. Like it's almost inevitable. I do trigger anger in others for sure, but I also do pretty much always own up to it. I may trigger anger purposefully or not, but I know I'm owed it. 

I feel very close to those people I am close to. In each case, we are beyond anger. There is literally nothing each of us could do to trigger that abiding anger that I often nurse. Sure we can get really angry at one another, but it's in the moment and fierce and doesn't challenge the relation. 

So yes, I think that for me to say that I am writing "ideas" would be a lazy way to describe what I'm about. For me, the world "idea" descends from dangerous Platonic notions that there are disembodied and universal forms which we humans set about slowly to discover. Like a human soul, these "ideas" are permanent and eternal. 

I mean I think I have a personality, and I think most who know me would describe me as fairly unique. I find the string of experiences that I live through utterly fascinating, and often amazing. So, in some sense there may something 'eternal' about me, in that nobody else is just me. 

That doesn't distinguish me from other humans, but I don't think humans are distinguished all that much from other creatures. If we are, it is by our stories. I am not a very good story teller, except maybe sometimes around a fire.

I don't know what or how I could add to my experiences by documenting them. Writing that lasts is often separable from the personality of the writer, and often enough the writer is no-one you would really like to get to know. 

I have a really hard time seeing myself as a writer; especially as one whose works might endure. That thing that I do hope will endure would most commonly be called my ideas. I'm not sure I have a better word for them. 

As I noted the other day, I'm not really creative. If and when I do write poetry, I have no illusion or expectation that it will read as profound to anyone else, even while it sometimes will to me. Profound here meaning I really like it and want to look at it again sometime. 

So what I write about is more like a scientific principle. I want it to hold up through rigorous testing. That wouldn't make my writing eternal, though it might make what I try to write about a stepping stone toward something better than our current understanding. 

As you might imagine, I'm no great believer in progress. Sure I'm politically progressive, but that doesn't make me a utopian. I'm more a believer in evolutionary principles and think that if and when and as we direct our 'progress' we can only be fighting evolution. Evolution comes as close as I can imagine to a description of the workings of what others might call "God's" mind. 

That's how and why I might describe some of Richard Dawkins' writings as providing me a religious experience, which is, in turn, why I place irony so high on any hierarchy of potentially eternal figures.

So I just realized that a little thing I found and wanted to keep - to put aside - has now gone missing. I can't remember what I did with it. I remember putting it somewhere I would see it, and I remember seeing it, and I thought I must have put it somewhere more likely, but more likely I meant to and didn't and now it's missing. 

It's not like I'm missing something I paid good money for. It's a found object - trash - without value, but I want it. I know that it will be useful at some point in my future. I'm usually right about that. I look around me and am amazed at how much use I've made of little tidbits that I've found and hoarded. 

So while there may be great stories among my travels, those aren't what I want to hoard. They must have changed me. Such little things compose what is indelible in my mind. Sometimes slights, sometimes near accident, often what others might call miracles. I want those to be meaningful. 

I've called this my private notebook in the sky. Hiding in plain sight, almost nobody reads it (those that do are probably bots). I get precisely zero comments which attempt to be interactive, except in a phishing kind of way. Sometimes I trick myself into being flattered by what seems an honest comment.

Mostly I just keep trying for clarity. I know it doesn't seem that way, but I am very trying. I know. I am trying hardly. 

Yes indeed that's about as funny as I get. But I do really care. I really do. 

I found it! On the ground just where I’d moved the chair on which I’d placed it. I know you’d want to know. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Creativity on the Most Nerve-wracking Days of our Lives

I am not creative. Trump is not creative. Biden is not creative. I guess that David Sedaris is. I have friends who are, and they earn no more attention than I do. The kind of attention merited by the economy has little to nothing to do with creativity.

Of course I'm wanting to distinguish creativity proper from entertainment, simple. These are different kinds of delights. Does creativity always have to be so rarified. Making contact only with those who share some sort of enlightened vision?

I want music. I have the facility for music, and the connectivity to have any kind any time. I rarely listen to it. It's a distraction these days, and I've only ever truly enjoyed music among modest crowds. Alone, I just can't get into it. I'm not a walk down the street with ear buds kind of guy. There's always too much going on, which must be why I am always on the move.

Why would I ever want to lock myself inside my own diminutive world. As I am doing now, in a late-open campground while the space I had been living in is quarantined. Who's in quarantine? What did I do wrong? What kind of fool am I?

I watched my last unwatched Star Wars movie last night. Ron Howard directed it; the backstory about Solo. It was clumsy and frustrating to watch, because while I have fast and unlimited LTE on my phone, the cheap TV I use swaps between 720 and 1380P and the movies don't play at 720, which means restarting the TV. This happens if I pause and the phone also sleeps.

I only recently realized that I might prevent the frame freeze, which requires restarting the streaming app, by putting the phone in sleep mode to disable all alerts. Some apps freeze, some don't, and it's often hard to tell if these issues are by design or by oversight. Plenty of streaming apps disable connecting an external screen, and some disable one way but not another. 

This goes way beyond troubleshooting. Plus it's hard to tell if I'm getting slower, or the world is getting more convoluted. It's exhausting. Takes all my energy that should be going into political activism, which is hardly possible out here in the country. Though the park doubles as the local polling place. The COVID-closed 'casino' (that's the term around here for indoor gathering spots in gorgeous parks) must have been reopened for the election. The campsite dumpster was full of political signage, day after.

I am so slow. Like I only recently figured out how to windproof the awning for my trailer. I am loathe to pull it down because, especially with the snow and now the rain, the sheltered space outside my door is nice. These things take me a while to figure out. I,ve crisscrossed the country at least four times with this rig, and each time it got windy I would fret. Eventually I'd have to remove the awning and lose my front porch.

No longer! I have braved 35 mile an hour gusts, according to the iPhone weather.

That doesn't make me creative. Just a pretty good problem-solver. Problem solving doesn't plug into the economy any better than creativity does. Apparently. And I hate working around and among creative sorts. I'm never included in the cool stuff. I feel like an administrative drone.

The kind of entertainment I get from Star Wars is reliable and likely highly valued in this economy. It's also hard to find music which doesn't simply match that endorphin hit. I can only find that kind of music live. Then it doesn't feel like an endorphin hit. So, where's the line between drug and real? 

The creative hits I feel seem to involve beauty, whatever beauty is. Some kind of double-take surprise. It's likely not unrelated to catching sight of a beautiful person, whatever that might mean to you. Right on that edge between the endorphin hit of sexuality and something more toward creative beauty.

There are far far more intelligent people than I am, and still more who are more creative. So why would I even try to capture anyone's attention? What could I possibly have to say that would inspire a double-take? Why bother? 

I keep trying to read Camus' Plague, and I keep putting it down. It drones so. Yes, we all will die, yes we all face death each and every day, and yes we wish to live somewhat more carefree on a daily basis. I miss the possibility for live music, for restaurant conviviality, for gatherings in homes. Death is just too present now, and we don't want to spoil our chance to skip this over so that we may savor something that we might have taken too much for granted before the plague. 

There are women I have known and loved who hover still at some distance about my life. I never did get that balance right. What resentment was it, from either side, which caused those connections to grow distant? I live alone in tiny house, and that feels like liberty somehow. There are no social pressures. There is no one else around to tiptoe past. 

I still nurse some resentment for how my ex impoverished me while our daughters grew, and yet we get along better now than we ever did. That resentment never makes it front and center. I am glad for her newish husband and their finally perfect house (the one I rebuilt is sold, no credit to me). I poise myself always at a distance, though I am made happy by every contact from my daughters.

Why do I care who wins the election? My life nears its end in any case, and there is less than no hope that we will reform and reformulate our economy in ways to recreate the common good. I don't really even know how to fight for that any more. As do we all, I await a miracle.

As Žižek says, as Jameson said, and more recently as Mark Fisher said even better, "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism."

Am I that blind to the miracles in evidence all around me? Why do I see only death and decay? Is the world - nature - angry with us? The tide of human overwhelm feels so relentless. Trump is so disorderly and chaotic, and so evidently not what we should mean by human. How is this even a contest? Is my constant anger just an inheritance from Dad? Why was he always angry. Was it projected disappointment in himself?

I am mild mannered and accepting of all sorts of people. Even people who I'm close to who might go along with Trumpism. Why then do I get so angry at those who are really close to me? It must be that the actual chance to change a mind is related somehow to the relative degree of frustration when change is resisted.

I can be convinced. I change my mind a lot. I have to assume that other people can as well, and that I'm therefore just simply not convincing enough. If I care too much then it turns to anger, and I start picking up and picking on whatever it is that seems wrong in someone else's treatment of me. How dare you?!?

Is that just what anger is? Dad was a tyrant, sanctioned as that in those good old days. Trump is a tyrant wannabe, no longer sanctioned, and his only requirement, like Dad perhaps, is to be adored. Well, except Dad was willing to stick to his guns even if not adored. Maybe so is Trump. But the one was principled.

I guess its because Trump obeys no set of rules, and then to me the rules all feel like they benefit someone else. Some good life that I can't have. That I want. Or the good life that I feel sometimes is robbed from me by rules I just don't understand. Trump must channel that childish selfish part of us all, which just wants to be free for who we are and how we feel. The big endorphin hit in the sky, I guess. It feels so destructive, though I do actually understand what must be the thrill of surrounding a Biden bus among other celebrants of insouciant revolt, ready to dare and be dared. Chariots of fire.

Must we always be called out for doing a double take on some woman's ass? If one has daughters, one must. There is difference there from dancing. From threat to innocent attraction. What we indulge in our private moments of reading about it, versus what we may indulge in public.

These things aren't what matters. Sure I would love it if I were among the people who can afford ski condos and look forward to family gatherings replete with copious music, food, and drink. I could blame my ex that I'm not among them, but then she doesn't have the use I have of Mom's beachside house (well, I don't either now that the Canadian border is closed). I offer it to her anyhow, whenever I can.

My anger must be displaced. I have nothing to complain about. But displaced from where?

That sort of life that I might sometimes envy is just not what I'm into. I'm glad to pay it a visit every once in a while, but It's all never quite worked out for me.

Aren't I really describing what divides our country?  I mean if my ex and I can get along, then so can the red and the blue states. 

Let's assume that we share the same love of country. We love freedom, even as we differ in the particulars about what freedom means. The blue states seem to value more the freedom of the press while the red states seem to value the right to bear arms. But that's just me talking true Blue, and hardly fair. I'm fine with guns. I'm not fine with so many random shooting deaths. Surely we can find someplace in the middle where we might agree.

If only we could trust one another.

Religion has to be fitted in here somehow. Beyond guns, there remain the litmus tests of abortion, patriarchal order, recreational tastes (somehow I always contrast jet skiing with wind surfing, snowmobiles with snow skiing, mountain biking with motorbiking, and my favorite, sailing with powerboating) and something like parochialism which is diluted by urban living.

We are that close. We care. That's why we're so angry.

We thought that if we could fix the mistake of Trump's election we could get things back to 'normal.' But normal is the problem. The biggest possible mistake would be to gloat over Trump's defeat. We have to work to redefine a new and more inclusive 'normal.' 

Sure, I enjoy hearing what Biden has to say. It sounds nice to me. But we apparently need to broaden the discussion by really listening to what those who don't like him have to say. For sure it was a tactical error to put so much "diversity" front and center for the Democrats. As a whole, the country clearly wasn't ready for that. Even though as a whole, we are that.

The country isn't ready to end our addiction to oil. The country wants to hang on to what was always just beyond our grasp. Else what's a meta for? As the religionists often want to ask, "what do we stand for?"

This all has been inevitable tragedy more than some sort of going wrong. We have to stop blaming each other. It was who ran. It was who got the support. On either "side." 

Or at least I retain somehow my belief that there wasn't some party strategist behind the selection process. Was there? Can we trust anyone? It is clearly not "the people" who have the power.

The divide is tragic, then. Nobody is to blame. The proof is that record turnout didn't apparently change much. The divide feels branded in the soul of our nation.

Even those who have given up on the electoral process weren't wrong. Both "sides" were and are champions of capitalism as practiced in the United States, and it will take a long haul to transform that ideological fixation. Neither an election nor the electoral process can do it. 

So, is democracy dead? Did it ever live? 

We may be about to find out.

COVID 19, meanwhile unites us as one body. That can only be an ironic uniting. We share the quality of host to this virus which can't thrive without us. Meanwhile, some would charge blindly into that night, keeping up their congregating, which is surely a more important sort of togetherness than to share a quality as host to disease. Defy the common sense of masks and distance, and at least we can die as one.

Winnow out the old and weak, as though that is how evolution works? The old don't count, and the weak don't reproduce as widely. Winnow out the poor, as though our wealth were built on nothing? Half of us refuse even to let the experts get to work. The experts are the ones they don't trust.

Meanwhile, online businesses are thriving, and pull their wares back "in-house" when they can't achieve sufficient volume retail. Sacrifice the storefronts along with the bars and restaurants and we will accept all forms of delivery. Delivery from what? One thing is clear: that while California may vote reliably Democrat, they don't mind enslaving contract workers to Big Tech. 

Big Tech - so much bigger than Big Box - is reliably Blue. California must feel internally divided, just as each one of us individually must. Just as workers inside Google do. And Amazon. And Facebook. They all thought that they would be joining something exciting and cutting edge and new. They found that they were only drones, whose voices are as meaningless as those of any other robot. Worker. Slave. Their individual narrative can never achieve the quality of a novel. What's in a name?

In translating a Chinese story into English, I once used the name - as the Chinese author did - of the Muslim God as part of one of the character's name, and was excoriated in the comments for that. I knew the readers were all young, and must have been more woke than I am. I read into their comments the same thing I hear from my daughter when I say something politically incorrect. I didn't feel threated by religion, though perhaps I should have?

We don't even know who to hate now, really, do we? Who to be angry with? If my God has no Name, does that make me some kind of enemy?

I sure do hope not. But at least I'll never be accused of creative license. At least I can make no creative error. I can only be tasteless and vulgar. And so can you!

So finally, here's my expression of hope. There will be a bipartisan coming together on the wrong of Big Tech. Facebook and Google and Amazon will be seen for the evil that they represent. We will learn to understand that the either/or on/off of digital divides from life. 

Mind is never either/or. Religion wants us to be. Digital is the manifestation of that very dangerous impulse on the most diminutive possible level. Logic cannot solve our problems. Dogma is dangerous. Love is never a bad thing. The root of all creativity.


Monday, November 2, 2020

Yet Another Ghost Story

I have a folder on all my computers called "The Great American Novel." The great novel is meant to be American. But - literally now - I can't write my novel until the novel is dead. A novel is what Jill Lepore calls a narrative, 

"— caught between the medieval and the modern—and placed, at its center, an individual plotting a course through life, making sense of the mysteries around him."

Well for sure my life has read like a novel. But nobody, apparently, wants to read my life. Anyhow, Lepore documents a transition into a different kind of truth telling. Detective work and procedural justice were and are, of course, coterminous with the novel. In her- to me - breakthrough work of 2005 called New York Burning, she documents how upwards of 80 black slaves were publicly hanged or burned at the stake because of the creative fiction of their conspiracy.

Slaves weren't thought to have agency. They couldn't bear witness. Of course they were not and could not be authors of their own lives.

This is an amazing work, not just as a history, but as a documentary about how history gets written, and therefore, how literature and history are one. Lepore is a literary critic as much as an historian.

The question arises, front and center for me, what sort of similar transition are we undergoing at this very moment? In history? I have absented myself from the city during this election. My reasons were fickle and real. I am waiting for the apartment I'll rent to open up, and I've been living meanwhile in my daughter and son-in-law's new house. He has to quarantine due to travel. I wonder if and how he'll vote.

There really wasn't sense to be there during the mandated 14 days of travellers' quarantine mandated in New York, and so I've taken most of what I own with me. There is some drama, and not just the nervousness all of us who have any sense must feel about whether there can be a repeat of 2016. A repeat of the Y2K disaster which got GW Bush selected.

There is also a winter weather advisory. I should be set since I stocked up on food for last night's ghost story around the fire gathering for Halloween. It was truly a blast, if really a little too cold. No one wanted to be inside though, what with the plague and all. 

Someday soon I will finish Camus' book, as well as Defoe's. They make the same sort of background terror which the sound effects made last night around the campground. Most, if not all, are clearing out today. That will leave me alone with all the gunshot noises hereabouts. Are they practicing? For what? Isn't it expensive to go through so much ammo. Maybe there's a gun club nearby.

OK, I can relax somewhat. There is indeed a shooting range just over the ridge. I sure do hope that Trump is wrong to predict bedlam. Insanity. But I may be in the safest spot!

About ghosts: I've always said that ghosts are real, but that I will never see one. They're as real as just about anything else. We constantly perceive things that are proven unreal pending the next scientific correction, don't' we, after all? 

But the reality hasn't changed. Just our perception of it, right? Well, maybe not so fast. We're in the realm now where things that we can't possibly perceive are declared real. These are pure 'mental' constructs; abstractions. Sure, I'm talking about quarks and bosons, but also things like merit or race, or jetpacks over LAX which would once have been declared UFOs.

Now I'm no complete stranger to ghosts. I've translated ancient Chinese tales of the supernatural and fantastic which were written as factual. I once participated in a ghost writers circle. Of course I felt the odd man out, since I wasn't so taken by astrology, or the brands of spiritualism practiced at nearby Lily Dale. I once tried to get a reading there, but they can see my type coming a mile away. I wanted to believe. I really did. 

I did also train for the Buffalo ghost walk. Certain of the tales told along the way comported nearly perfectly with my friends' stories about the house they were rehabbing. And there was no known connection between my guide and them. Well, except for whatever vague history of the house might have made the rounds.

The felt reality of a phantom limb might be the best metaphor for ghosts. It's one that my new favorite consciousness theorist has used. Riccardo Manzotti has moved beyond mind/body subject/object dualisms. In so doing, he has also rid us of pesky and unproductive fantasies about how much can be created "in the mind" apart from physical, perceptual connections to the real. 

These fantasies are clearly (to me at least) descended from the concept of a soul as something humans magically have, but animals (and formerly at least, black slaves) magically don't. It may well be that the proportion of our population which believes in ghosts is about the same as that which believes in holy ghosts. I know from personal acquaintance that these are often not the same people, or at least that many ghost believers veer far away from traditionally organized religion.

So it would seem an easy stretch for me to claim that the epistemic shift that we are now undergoing has something to do with this razor's edge between which is fantasy and which is real. The balance may well be precisely as precarious as that between the Democrats and the Republicans. 

As Michael Sandel has pointed out in his Tyranny of Merit, both parties share more beliefs where it counts than they would have us believe. Certainly both are believers in meritocracy. And, if you follow Sandel, our current brand of meritocracy as best expressed by President Obama, is precisely what's gone wrong with the common good. We are increasingly divided between those who fantasize that their outsized weath is their due, based on superior meritose, and the losers, and especially those easily identified and even self-identified as belonging to a class of losers, who must introject their own particular lack of merit. 

Blacks are finally awakening to this reality, and not because Ivy League professors schooled them. Ghosts are white. Dead already, and I do mean morally dead, which is the only dead that counts. Otherwise, just like phantom limbs, they just keep coming back.

I've watched the building shrug. I know it will come down. The charges have been set off. So what will be constructed in its place?

Easily, it will have to be a structure which doesn't so much favor the finance industry. It will have to be LEED certified, and of course I mean this all metaphorically. No-one who sends jobs overseas because they have no choice because everyone else is doing it will get to blame the Chinese for the destruction of our own communities and of our commonwealth.

This is why we have government. Our government must have a say in where the boundaries stand between life and deadly overwhelm. Economy must be defined in ways far larger than meritocratic capitalism allows. I see the ghost of my brothers and sisters as we were in the dreams of our founders. But mostly I see the ghosts of the already dead and gone regime. They yammer meaninglessly on TV. No longer real, as time will prove. 

Well, so of course the ghosts I now experience are experienced by everyone. We are all lock-synched in time and imagery. It won't be a trivial task to convince you that ghosts are real, when the real is real for everyone all at once. I mean, we once did have a truly personal real, which was the real of individual survival. Where ghosts may have helped. Loved ones did die so often, for reasons moral or not. 

But now there is no love lost, and we delegate our reality formation to the digital overlords, no matter which side of what polemic we come down upon. We don't consider ourselves locally competent to challenge the ones with a license to make shit up. No wonder our government is peopled with those just as afraid of death as we are, but in a better position to make shit up and be believed.

The wind now howls and I can't know if I have battened down sufficiently. Always I make small improvements to my tiny house. Before those dawn on me I am trapped in the insufficiencies of my rig. Yesterday it was a coat hook which I'd carried around and previously tested for a different purpose. Today it was another set of stiffer lines to hold the awning in check. So far so good, but the winter storm will come at night when I may be sleeping. A rare pleasure that I do so cherish.

The rain is mixing now with snow. I don't think I'm afraid of ghosts, nor afraid of death. I am afraid of not sleeping. I don't wish to be awakened or to be kept awake by noise and my nervousness about its meaning. The only other camper now drives a pickup truck with Trump flag erected with expertise, and probable care. I think I might know what that feels like, but I would have to project myself back to the days of chariots and horses.

Of course the novel is dead. There is no more personal struggle as Lepore called that out. We are legion and we have all become some form of artifice. Ours is an artificial intelligence. The robots who replaced the slaves for our living wages have been internalized. 

And so what will remain to write about? Will it be poetry again. Is there hope in that, or is there only more stratification away from actual workers with actual lives?

I am at the edge of connectivity. It is a cobbler's job to watch a movie, or to keep a moving image of the Bills on TV. I was afraid of having no connectivity at all, and having to return to civilization not knowing what was happening on the city streets. Will they be overrun by pickup trucks and guns? Will there be anyone in charge? 

Charge! I've got that covered by solar panels in case the grid dies.

I would have evidence of the life which has passed. I know that these woods and these browsing deer, so near now, are no longer real. They are all partakers of preserves where it might still be easy to turn back time in the mind and not to play close enough attention to where the power is. Chariots are less than even mosquitoes against Blackhawks, or whatever now stands poised to churn our air. 

How interesting, to me at least, that our aircraft last so very long. Certainly up against more consumer-grade products. Certainly up against digital. Wouldn't aircraft be where high tech gets to show its stuff? Like the grounded 737 Max which tried to replace the old warhorse, say?

I, too, am but a ghost of my former self. I fade. No longer much of an object for love, though I do still make up a decent story off the cuff, around the fire. Will we really have to start over that way? It is hardly comfortable. The wood can never last. The smoke stings still, and yet there was love.

No, there is a difference between a phantom limb and a real one, though the phantom feels just as real. Just like the ghost of your departed spouse who must appear where once they were before, object of your love, Or murder victims resurrected by the house they once did occupy. They become part of its perceptual aura, perhaps. 

Will it be some relief that no winner may be known tomorrow? Will that give the nation time to sort out what is real? The president will have been elected. We just won't know which one. Both so faded. Who is it that we channel? Which school-time image? I have such a hard time imagining that Benjamin Franklin might not always have been a very nice fellow.

The rhetoric is hackneyed. It reflects no personal struggle to 'make sense of [any] mysteries.' There is no more novel to be written, once we are more subject to our fellow man than to any agency of our own.

My prayer is that the nation I still do love has not already been ghosted. That it will be palpably back sometime soon. And that it will have finally moved beyond the pettiness of race, and merit, and wealth as a differentiator. 

Not all the wealthy are job creators. Most are probably job destroyers now. We must relearn how, properly, to discriminate. Job creators care about community. They value all members. They keep money out of politics. And they don't try to own your purchasing decisions.

Do you see the ghost? Are you spooked? Or do you feel the love? The hurt? The injustice?