Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Reading the Obscure - Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Annus Horribilis Finis

I sit now opposite a cicada painting. I'd watched my friend's mother produce it at his house south of Buffalo maybe 30-some years ago. The literary inscription to the side of the painting calls out the place and the season, but no-one down in history will be able to place it. The Chinese words for "Boston" and "New York" juxtaposed will just confuse anyone. The one a small town the other the State. The character for "summer" might be the painter's literary name. Obscure referents. My Chinese recedes.

My friend had shown me the computers which came along with the grant he'd gotten to demonstrate their diagnostic power. His Mom was visiting. My friend was both a medical doctor and a computer whiz. As I recall, there were three machines, collectively; I'm certain, with less computing power than my iPhone now has, but impressive for their time. Each the size of a washing machine, and custom made. There wasn't anything off the shelf quite good enough. His demonstration proved itself, but implementation was derailed by lawyers. I think that stuff has been gotten past by now. My friend has passed on.

He explained how well-known his mom was in Hong Kong, especially for her ability to paint these - what are they - cicadas maybe? The inscription calls them that, but they're not quite like the ones I'm used to. They share the qi of the leaves whose twig they also hang from, as does the calligraphy. Distinguished by source of motive power. Cicadas can flutter themselves.

What I now own is an instance, I would say, of a practice that had been perfected over the course of a long study. I suppose the value, in money, of any particular instance must relate to how true the painter's qi flowed, at the particular time that the painting was accomplished. This instance was good enough for her to sign her name and lend it her chops. 

I treasure it, though it is getting beaten up for falling off the wall so often. This time by chill from lake effect snow and wind. I don't know how many times I may replace it still on perhaps another new wall somewhere else. A mild concern. I like the painting.

There are very accomplished people I run into all the time who seem to have no notion of the inner workings of anything. Plumbing, electric, automobiles, whatever, and how they all interrelate. The workings of capitalism or the market. They don't picture, as I do, the scramble writers for what passes as the media now must undertake to true their terminology against the quirky usages that have evolved once we started writing "on" and "for" the Internet.

I don't understand how it might feel to live inside, as it were, a mind like that. How could a person be so incurious, and yet still there are always limits to what we may be able to understand. A person can only wear themselves out trying for completion. I feel worn.

I told the other day about my childish bullseyes and how these might relate to my drifting off before the turning point of accomplishment in any particular discipline. Heck, I was living in a retirement community as a grad student most recently. Because it was the only place I could afford. Than, as a petty administrator at a college, I lived among students for the same reason. I guess the people who skate along the surface have it all over me. They know how to live in this world which is all and only about surfaces and levers to make things happen.

Each morning I check my iPhone to see if and how the battery management circuitry is helping to preserve my battery and I still don't know how to game it so that it won't outguess me and leave me with an overcharged and hot battery every morning. I'll have to give up on that one. It would be too hard, and the benefit too small. But I do wish that they just used a transparent algorithm that I could tweak myself. At least Apple doesn't go so far as to call it artificial intelligence. It's just simply opaque is all. Obscure.

To my right is the nearly finished re-caned chair that I got early in my marriage when my grandmother died or maybe when my parents moved. The chair had belonged to my great-grandmother, or maybe even before her, and I had recaned it quite perfectly - I think any dealer would assume a competent furniture-restorer had done it. 

But I'd also rebuilt the fireplace in our house next to which the chair sat (just sold the other day, the fireplace still looking great as I pointed out with pride to my daughter, although defiled by a gas insert now - I have been helping my ex move into her beautiful new place) . How very clearly I remember a log slipping from my grip to puncture the cane seat. The chair was preserved as such in my ex's attic for thirty some years, just as it had been in a different attic for so many years, and now I have it back. The chair must not want to be sat on!

I ran out of cane before I could complete it this time. And the cane was brittle - it had probably sat on a shelf in some Amazonian warehouse for too long. Nobody canes chairs anymore, I suppose. and the cane was a quarter millimeter too wide, as I discovered too late. 

I am not so good at mastering new things at my advanced age. I retain no memory of how I accomplished the caning the first time, but this time it looks rough and amateuristic. But it will have to do. The seat is strong enough, and the chair has retained the restoration that I did before.

My rote rehearsal of the way toward replicating this primordial pattern for gently cradling butts and bodies while allowing the air to circulate was really quite the opposite to how my friend's mom painted the cicadas. 

You can't be a DIY Chinese brush artist. You just can't. With persistence, a fresh mind, and generalized practiced skill with hands, you can be a professional-grade chair caner DIY, no problem. Just follow the instructions.

China is only about surfaces. Over time. There is no notion of a secret life "inside." and the core of a person, the heart of a person, doesn't distinguish between emotive and intellectual self. What's writ is on the surface, motive as much from without as from within.

My newly caned (nearly) chair now sits by the very same desk the News photographer used to depict the new Chinese teacher come-to-town. I don't change much. I repeat my rote recitations interminably.

When my ex and I bought it, we called the desk a Larkin Desk, not really knowing what that meant. Come to find out that the Larkin Soap Company, known globally for the Frank Lloyd Wright designed office building that Buffalo, in her unfathomable wisdom, tore down. That building just about determined the future of office space. It was first with air conditioning. Cubicles in an open floor plan. And who even knew that Buffalo could be an oppressively hot place to live and work?

These desks were the sort of culmination of Larkin's successful conversion to a catalog store, which involved premiums for purchasing cases of soap. Elbert Hubbard was a salesman there! I guess soap must have been relatively expensive in those days. Anyhow, wealth was generated and so Larkin, I guess, was prototype for on-line sales and IKEA-style furniture designed to be fitted into square boxes, assembled with simple nails by the recipient. Deskilling and all that.

There is a student from the above-mentioned (in the article) school for gifted children that I once headed who has been blocked from the alumni group because he won't stop ranting about the wrongs done him over the course of his life. I don't know the fellow. Apparently, he's quite personable in person. In writing, he rants like I do, or rather I rant like he does. "You just don't understand, and I will drone on interminably to try and make you understand."

We call such people mentally ill. I have known many. Honest, if I could do this better I would. It's not as though I'm so presumptuous as to claim recompense for my rants. I don't even have a complaint. 

We don't call religious fanatics mentally ill. Shouldn't we? Many of the schizophrenics I know go on and on about Jesus this and Jesus that. I guess they need something to hold onto. Rote recitations handed down or from the Bible. Hail Mary, mother of God.

Shouldn't Trump be discharged from his office now by reason of mental incompetence? Generalized dereliction of duty? Shouldn't anyone who takes the word of ranters on the Internet and on the screen be declared mentally incompetent? Well, they are declared such every day, but it hardly makes a difference. For sure, Trump would not last long in any organization anywhere which had a bottom line that wasn't criminal. 

I think that if we are able to plumb the inner workings of things, we have an obligation of sorts to do so. Willful blindness is the only true evil that I know, apart from the helpless sociopathic or psychopathic kind. And willful blindness is what those ranters exhibit. It's not a symptom of mental illness. The mentally ill truly do believe what they believe. The see it, they feel it, they know it and they rant about it. I guess it's all they have to give them comfort.

Now as you know, I am not enamored of much about our current mode of living on the planet. I am a fan of simple hand tools, and am horrified by what digitally fueled globalization is bringing down upon us. Almost no-one really understands the inner workings of that stuff. Not in the whole.

I do believe that life was lived as well with only woodstoves and handpumps. Heck, I've lived that way myself and miss it. (Bizarrely, I just recovered the old coal stove from my sailboat. It was among my few things in the garage-attic loft that my ex didn't decide she wanted.) 

The woodstove made a lot of sense back in its day. It could heat so much better than a fireplace. But it came along with steam engines and then all hell let loose when we learned to contain petro-fueled explosions in the internal combustion engine.

I don't care so much about getting around anymore. I'm going to try my ebike on the snowy roads to see how it goes in winter. I have to work this all out before the car finally dies. They don't make stick shift anymore, and I really don't want a backup camera and a touch screen. Mostly because I would feel so helpless when it all breaks. Maybe trolleys will come back by the time I need them, or maybe I'll be hailing self-driving Ubers with my smartphone. I hope it's the former.

Now you're going to think that I'm anti-progress, and against technology. Sometimes I think that too, but I assure you I'm not. Instead, I think that both scientific progress and technology got hijacked by the rather raw exuberance of our economy. Digital tech in particular just pumps up capitalism until nobody even seems to notice that the planet is being wrecked. We just conjure schemes for life off-planet and carry on.

We're still drunk on the raw power of Einstein's relativity, even while we remain wisely charry about deploying nuclear energy full-scale. Fact is we don't really want to change our paradigm, simply because it works too well for those who benefit from it. We are addicted to oil. Alcohol will do in a pinch.

Like the cicadas on those drooping tree limbs, we mimic, we are, we internalize, the qi that is all around us. We are become machines ourselves. We have internalized them, and even our thinking is by rote. I pray that the reigning memes pull love along with them. I pray they move in the direction of new life. We have run our course with this one. 

We live still inside an understanding of money that has each of us behaving as rational actors. And yet everyone knows that we are tugged around by our hormones. Driving a car is surely a mindful and rational act. I guess it's the reigning model for why humans are the apex critter. We're the only ones who can drive. We make good decisions, most of the time, based on the information we get perceptually. We can drive even without all of our senses engaged. It's our rational brains that do the trick. 

We are so obsessed by our understanding of cognition (!!) as something that goes on inside our heads and inside our brains that when Daniel C. Dennett builds his model for consciousness, he has to coin a term he calls 'semantic information' to define the incoming stuff on the basis of which we survive. He seems to be convinced that the only materialist understanding possible is that, say, the workings of a self-driving car move in the direction of how the brain works, and that shall reveal how the mind works. I rather doubt it.

To me, 'semantic information' tortures the obvious in just the way that self-driving cars do. Sure, riding a subway turns us into drones, and driving cars is fun. So let's make the cars drive themselves - it would surely be safer that way - and then we can have our fun watching our screens as we get transported in comfort. To a place identical to the one where we started. That's why I came back to Buffalo. It's always the same.

The trouble with any computational model for cognition is that it doesn't and can't deal with the problem of the conscious NOW that is required for us to stay alive on the highways. Computers don't need a now. They just need to assemble incoming information quickly enough to control all the servo mechanisms which keep the car going safely in the right sequence and with the right timing. No free will decision-making required or allowed. The car is entirely subject to its environment. 

Humans drive by feel. We know when it doesn't feel right, and then we start paying more attention. But driving is so automatic we can generally even text while doing it, even though to do so is a deadly mistake.

We humans must make much more complex decisions than machine-thinking ever does. Like buying stuff. Weighing price against desire. Evaluating the cost to shop against the fun of shopping against the convenience of having stuff delivered to our doors against, now, the likelihood of catching the contagion.

Probably all of us know that horrible retrospective moment when we know that we screwed up. We cut ourselves while chopping vegetables, we drop a glass. Or we fail to be sufficiently paranoid while driving. That's the worst.

In evolutionary terms, cognition really isn't fast enough. Accident happens. At best we decide emotionally in a precognitive sense. At best our emotional response is conditioned by good training and by cognitive pre-arrangement about contingencies which might arise. We know from neurological experiment that our mind has already decided before we consciously take ownership of the decision. Somehow that evident fact feels like a threat to our free will.

But why, if it's still me who does the deciding? Why do we privilege cognition so much? Why not emotion? I guess that's how we've been trained. 

The other day my daughter and I directly witnessed a young woman run a stop light and explode the car of an older woman driving slowly through the green light in front of us. The explosion was by design of newer safer cars, and both drivers got out of their cars. Our response was to keep moving after a small crowd had already gathered. It was an unfamiliar neighborhood, and there were now plenty of other witnesses and helpers.

I consider this a stain on my character. I should have stopped unthinkingly. I shouldn't have been so concerned about our personal safety, and my daughter was looking to me for guidance. I told her to keep going if she didn't want to become entangled in an endless process. I might like to say that I was concerned for my daughter's safety. Really, it was my own reticence. I don't like to get involved.

I suspect that this is mostly a genetic thing. But it also feels as though I could and should do something about it. And so I do this, OK? I've spent most of my adult life wracking my brain for something like a scientific experiment to demonstrate some actionable practical result of the brave new worldview that came to me in a flash while writing one winter aboard my old wooden sailboat.

Well, now I think I've found it, my experiment. The closest I'd come previously was when I came across the work on precognition of a Cornell professor, Daryl J. Bem. He called his paper, appropriately enough, "Feeling the Future." I was pretty convinced, although I was also cowed by Bayesian statisticians.

As I recall, he presented pornography to young men with a clicker. They chose the porn instead of the other choice before they saw it to some statistically significant degree. Now of course, and obviously using porn makes crude sense, as it might relate to evolutionary passing down of successful genes. Sexual feelings would have to be right up there in importance.

I don't understand Bayesian statistics well enough to be very convincing, but I think in general they are calibrated to deny anything like psi. Isn't that what "the priors" are all about? In my response, I wondered whether the choice of a genuine random versus a pseudo-random computer seed could make a difference, since it has always been my position that accident is not always random, and that by definition of digital (on/off) computers are - by definition now - cut off from the continuum of reality. In particular they are cut off from life, in the cosmos. I obviously don't think that computers can be alive, and therefore I don't really wonder or worry that they might become "conscious" in the way we mostly use that term.

Anyhow, I think Bem's experiment is quite sufficient for my purposes. What it lacks is some acceptable theory which might explain the data. It is my claim that the mind is defined as much by emotion as by cognition, and I subscribe to Riccardo Manzotti's "Spread Mind" approach to understanding consciousness. 

He locates mind's perceptual informing 'out there' among perceptual objects, and not "in" the brain as a storage and sorting mechanism for perceived/received information. This is a very important distinction. The mind is spread among what it has perceived. Manzotti is as much a materialist as Dennett is. Perhaps more so.

What nobody will do (yet) is to locate emotion as also outside the brain and body. It would be like re-introducing arranged marriage and down with romance, or something like that. I think that I maintain that the beauty part of sexual reproduction is on the physical side of the equation, while on the emotional side is something much closer to godhead. 

Yes, I know, you think I'm veering toward religion, and sometimes I think that too. But I assure you that sky-god patriarchal religious fantasies and structures are far more repellant to me than even rampant capitalism on the steroids of digital tech. 

Or maybe they're the same thing. Unlike my hero Richard Dawkins, I don't, however, throw out the baby with the bathwater. I simply prefer not to give a Name to the godhead, which is as real to me as are the many many otherwise inexplicable coincidences I experience. And in part, yes, I do find that prayer works. Not to a sky god in particular, although I guess that must work for those who do see ghosts. Just a prayerful approach to everything, including caning a chair (the jury remains out on that one).

So how could we improve on Bem's experiment, to make it more convincing? Manzotti offers at least a few thought experiments as corrective to more traditional theories of consciousness. I think we need something still more powerful than that. Although even Einstein devised his theories on the basis of previously existing theory and prior experimental evidence. It wasn't until later that actual proof arrived, most powerfully in the form of a really big bomb. Those in the know understood the importance of his breakthrough because it made better sense of the evidence than had been made before.

Anyhow, if emotion and conception can also be located outside the brain in just the way that Manzotti locates perceptual 'information,' then we should be able to devise an experiment to test that. As I suggested when I wrote to Dennett way back when, even if you assume that cognition happens inside the head, it would be tough to define simultaneity for 'the now' in such a way that you don't implicitly locate some sort of center of cognition in a way to reify homunculus, or the Disney-type driver of consciousness; ghost within the machine. Nerve transmission just simply isn't all that fast. Perceptions arrive from different times and places.

My proposal was to posit narration as the structure which creates both the "me" and the "now." Narration stings together all the variously timed and distant perceptions relating to the behavior we decide to own. It puts them in a sensible order. 

If I'm correct that most critical decisions, for reasons of alacrity really, are decided emotionally, then there ought to be conceptual structures which can be documented to be either timeless (like the pattern of my caned chair, and as Plato imagined reason happened) or (and here's the nubbin of the problem) which come together prior to cognition in a way that conditions cognition in just the way that Bem claims to have shown.

So what would "feeling the future" look like in a more convincing experiment? I'm looking for more of a macro proof here. Something still more statistically irrefutable than what Bem demonstrated. Maybe something a little bit easier to replicate and test than those eyes in the back of the head which seem to indicate that someone is watching you. I mean we aren't going to be able to test that until we have a credible theoretical framework for why perception can't happen without conception. And then it might even be trivial to observe that, of course those arcane structures in which we are embedded include the direction of our fellow humans' gaze.

It is surely trivial to accept that we may be emotionally moved by things that have happened in the past. Likewise, we understand that we are moved by our wants into the future. Indeed that's how our free will operates. We choose to go after what it is that we want and away from what it is we don't. This, I maintain, is the very meaning of time.

Just like we know the horrible feeling of having made a big boo boo after it's too late, we also know the throes of indecision when making a consequential decision. A love decision, maybe, or a house decision, or even a car. Delusion steps in when we believe that we made a fully rational decision. 

That would be do deny all the accidents of why this one here and why now. You can't choose to live everywhere and everywhen all at once, although plenty of wealthy people I know believe that they are exercising choice of residence on the palate of the entire planet. The really rich ones play multiple choice, perhaps also in love interest. Well, I'd say apparently so.

I felt that awful feeling when I dropped the log onto the seat of the caned chair I was so proud of refinishing. And now I pay for the accident. I remember parts of the origin story, but not the critical part, about how to do the caning well and efficiently and without so damned much frustration. 

I'm nearly done, but you know, the curve is backward. The first critical strands go in criss-cross very quickly. And then you have to start weaving, and by now I realize that I must pause at each in/out. Still, I break strands. The fault is mine for not sensing the crease. Did I cause it, or was it a flaw in the natural cane? So many times I get the twist wong, and if you don't hit it right you have to back out and weave it again. I'm almost done. I hope. 

Is part of what I felt  when I dropped the log those thirty-some years ago this pain I'm feeling now? Was it vain to avoid it for so long? Are my current good relations with my ex also part of the fulfillment of how hard I fell in love even longer ago? 

Bem's experiment can't really clarify whether his psi demonstration, so called, was the subjects conditioning the future, or the future, which is presumably set if I understand where Bem was coming from, leaking into the present. I think only better theory and further experimentation could tease out the difference.

As I continue caning this chair, I still do feel the minor accidents, where I stress the cane by twisting it, or where I find that I hadn't pull it taught and have to weave through a kink. Accidents are clear in the middle of the seat - it would be a gross mistake to allow a twist or to get the weave wrong. But toward the perimeter there are choices to make. You might not know if you made a mistake, in choice of hole, say, or how you wove the final space, until it's really to late to go back over it.  It's a round seat, and the holes are pretty randomly spaced. Clearly, few measurements were taken back in the day. It was drilled mostly by eye. Certainly by hand.

Will I pay for these little mistakes in how soon it will be that someone's butt cracks through the seat? Does it matter, given that any cane will grow brittle over time and the seat will break? It's only my pride that tries toward perfection; the enemy of the good. Nothing lasts forever. Periodic renewal is the stuff of life. Never plastic, Benjamin.

Of course we know that we are conditioned by the future. We make adjustments when we see or feel it coming. Of course we also condition it by our choices, whether these are informed by literal or figurative feel. 

And which, really, is which? When I feel something emotionally, there is no hint of signal/noise. No information transmitted. The feeling is as direct as can be conceived. I have it, and that's all!

Feeling something perceptually requires some feeling around and sussing out what's really out there. If words are memes, then language is far more clever than any one of us can know. That's for certain. Why else would there be so many puns and double-entendres beyond our comprehension to reduce? And if ideas are memes, then I sure can't come up with one all by my stoney lonesome. The ideas have to come to me.

Writing is so much harder than caning chairs. I do declare!

Some Chinese consult the I-Ching. Plenty everywhere consult astrological charts. Many pray. Satisfaction with one's choices may seem to be a character trait, or good luck, or a personality trait or a confidence in whatever consultative methods one uses. So, for our experiment, the thing to do would be to manipulate a range of double-blinded conceptual variables such that someone makes decisions on false premises, as it were, which is to say based on structures the subject couldn't possibly have known of in advance.

You think you're buying a BMW but you end up with one of those Chinese knock-offs which look identical, but aren't nearly as good inside. Or you marry a sociopath. Or elect one. Fooled by beauty, you allow your fantasies too much play. 

The sort of experiment I propose has actually been made easier for us by history, in that nobody really seems to believe in anything anymore. Well, it also has to be said that in the past when we did believe in things and trust people, we were far more easily fooled. By tricksters, by magicians, by Confidence Men (always men, it seems). But now we have strict and double-blinded scientific methodology. We don't have to trust the scientist. We trust the juried peer-review. It's still a confidence game, but a much better one.

I suppose in a way, I'm loading the dice, since we all know, don't we, that only stupid people are fooled by con artists, so we have to avoid those kinds of experiments, where it's a matter of outsmarting the con-man or just refusing to play. 

I still remember the day that granddaddy got me to "open my mouth and close my eyes and I'm gonna give you a big surprise." I was a really picky eater, and didn't like much of anything beyond buttered noodles and wonder bread. He stuffed in a spoonful of mashed potatoes, which I had always refused to eat, and I trusted him so implicitly that I tasted apple sauce, which I really liked. We all had a good laugh. It might have even been the day that my appetite opened up, although I can't remember that part. I only know that it would be hard to call me picky now, and it has been for as long as I can remember anymore.

I'm perseverating here, trying to come up with something. Something that's not "and behind door number three . . ."  

How about the hundredth monkey test! The idea there is that there are these monkeys distributed among islands with no means of commerce or communication among them. If you teach some critical number of monkeys a new trick - I think washing food is the classic example - then spontaneously, all the monkeys, even though they are out of touch with the educated monkeys, seem to learn the same trick.

I mean it could be like the horse who does math, where the humans gathering the intel are actually signalling what it is they want to detect. Double blind would mean that the intel gatherers are out of the loop of what to look for. And the idea of teaching is that it wasn't something spontaneous which resulted from something changed in "the atmosphere;" the environment.

Again, in my earlier writing, I speculated that my own sense of meaningful coincidence could easily be my mind playing tricks with me. That I had subconsciously gathered information which, in turn, informed subconscious choices about where to look and what to look for. The result was my conscious amazement at how unlikely the exciting result truly was. Subjectively, I never credit that rationalization, though I know it's hard to substantiate the instances.

We are all familiar with processes of innovation where a once invisible solution to a vexing problem becomes obvious over time. We tend to credit "inventors" where it would be far more reasonable to credit some collective upgrade through usage. Nobody goes from steam engine to transistor without a lot of stuff in between.

So instead of having individual clickers the way that Bem did, what we need are bunches of people who get taught something obscure and then other bunches of people who are asked to sort out from among the same set of objects the first group was using, something that felt useful. The control group would be doing the same thing while the other group was being taught, but before the test group started. Numbers of co-conspirators would be incremented.

I will never be funded for this experiment. That's even though lots of money is spent on globalized prayer, to prove the existence of God or something. There is no justice in the world. Well, there I go ranting about injustice done to me. Nah. I'm worried about you!

The question is this: Let's say someone offers to complete my chair caning. I mean, how many times can I make it through the incredibly painstaking process of weaving a row only to have the strand break before I finish? How many times can I back out? 

I think it comes down to trust. Just about now, I'd be loathe to allow anyone to take over. After all the work I've done! Damned if I'm going to let you wreck it! What if someone finished it behind my back and then surprised me with a nice-looking finish?

Here are the important questions; the ones that never get asked: What if someone is wrecking your apartment? What do you say? "Hey, that's mine!" Or how about, "Hey, that's not mine! (I have to take care of it!)?"

Do you consider oil a gift from the cosmos? A gift that has powered the incredible cognitive revolution of humanity. Or do you consider only that mankind was so starved for security and mobility and overall so-called "progress" that we have every right to gobble it ravenously without a thought for the consequence, nor especially for what it was left in trust for. 

That's just simply not part of our vocabulary. 

And yet we keep our discoveries to ourselves by pride of being number one. We say that we believe that scientific discoveries are inevitable, in just the sense that we are uncovering the universal truths of nature. And so how can we claim them for ourselves? I mean we can rationalize it all in terms of research costs. But it's a rationalization and not the truth!

Yes indeed I do hope that we all follow the lead of young Aaron Schwartz. Scientific work should always be public; there should be no paywalls but to buy amusement. We shouldn't have to purchase knowledge fer chrissakes!

Really, our gluttony for oil was created in wartime. So was our digital technology. Radio, radar, jet propulsion, flight. We should ask ourselves who and what are we out for!?!?

So my thought experiment is being done over and over and over, and yet all of our effort remains directed toward private gain at the expense of the whole. We really have to change this. First, we have to want to change this.

Do we? I know I do. Now, I have to go unweave a row. I think I have only three to go. I may yet throw the chair over the balcony though, I swear! A lot.

Sunday, December 20, 2020


It feels random. Not something I chose. furnished largely by hand-me-offs and chance discoveries. And yet I do love my new apartment, underheated though it is on a chill and snowed Buffalo morning, here where suicide was once redundant.

I no longer take credit for any of my choices, though I am happy if someone else seems to find them attractive, if they even were my choices to begin with. My daughter is good at scouring the Internet for buys, and she's the one who found me this place. I've always known that I am not best known by myself. Even in the mirror, when I glance, I find myself strange.

The fact is, I never did settle. I've lived on a boat, in a trailer, in borrowed space and in crappy hotels for long periods at a time. I've lived, as an old man, where students can afford, and as a not yet retired but older grad student on a fellowship, in an old-folks home, because it was cheaper, somehow, in SoCal than anything else - and all of that quite comfortably - in the one place sharing a wall with a live-streamer who couldn't understand why he didn't keep me up at night, and in the other a newly wed couple my age who did. In person, I thought the live streamer had about the best sense of humor I've ever encountered. I hope he's doing well. I never got to know the couple.

But that's not really what I mean. It's more like how, as a kid, the first and really only time I bowled, I scored a perfect score. The first time I handled a bow and arrow, I hit three bulls eyes. The first time I shot a .22 rifle I did the same, and kept the plywood target I'd made in my bedroom for most of my youth. The thing was, I could never repeat these feats, true though they were. I'm like the lessons in Zen and the Art of Archery written backwards. And sure I was able to solve Rubik's cube reliably, shortly after I first tried. I doubt that I could do it now. I know I never tried again after giving mine away.

I've tried and departed from more careers than you might even imagine. More academic disciplines. And I'm always off to a strong start, soon mastering even the arcane stuff, like network engineering, before I peter out. 

Nothing was ever compelling enough to consume a life, or maybe I just simply never achieved a comfort level to linger. I've always had claims upon my income. They wear a person down when they don't feel quite legit. Why bother kind of thing, when you're always taking time off from the real deal to pay the bills. More likely, I just get bored, or invent a grievance. Though I swear I never did do that. The grievances were very real.  

Upon graduating high-school, no joke, I had my highest net worth of my life until my Dad died and left us a little something. It was simpler back then. The cash economy hadn't yet been completed, and one could afford to live on a living wage. Minimum wage as a bike mechanic was more than enough to fill up a savings account. My high-school earnings lasted me through college, even after Dad cut me off for dropping out a few too many times. 

See what I mean? Unsettled.

And still I'm at least as content gazing over my life as I am looking around my new digs. I am just a tad ashamed of myself for attempting to scale great heights of intellectual accomplishment. I should have left that stuff to the disciplinary experts, though I hardly ever find those types to be more intelligent or aware than your ordinary Joe. 

I do wish, however, that now that I am finally settled (I say finally because I simply don't have the energy I once did) that I would find the ability to set a task before myself and see it through to completion. I don't mean like completing a house restoration or a boat rebuild. Been there, done that, and it's an easy thing to keep that motivation going. I mean more like a dissertation or a novel or something sprawling which requires more than a daily inventory of tasks and materials to complete.

This is my prayer then, to the cosmos, that I will find that resolve. By random happenstance, I just did read this tiny antique leather-bound book that has trailed with me now for a long time, across many dislocations and disbursements of all possessions. I can't remember how it came to me, and I apologize to whomever it was that gifted it to me, though I may have bought it. G.B. Shaw "On Going to Church." It's a hoot, and the proximate cause for today's epistle to the void.

I think I thought the book was pretty. I've left a good nine tenths of my books behind at various points, which I thought so important to have stacked about me in my youth. I smoke a pipe when I tended bar in London at age 18. Balkan Sobranie. What a pretentious prick I must have been. I can't even bear to look at myself then, now. 

Fact is, that's what keeps me from my big project. I cringe after the fact all the time. I wonder where I was coming from and what I was doing and why. I can't even understand what I write myself on those rare occasions when I can bear to read it. And I hardly know where the tipping point is between the amazement of learning new things and the raw fact of having forgotten what I once did know. 

And yet I’m happy for the carillon sounding from the steeple of my old church just behind me now. They reflect off the buildings in front of me. I doubt I’ll venture inside, GB, though you never know. It’s in process of reconstruction all over again.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Review: The Ministry for the Future

The Ministry for the FutureThe Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First Person.

At the outset, I had a hard time keeping track of the characters. Eventually, I realized that even the photon was a character. Much of the book is written in first-person. At points it's almost a collection of different personal stories. Still there is much humanity here, and characters to follow. There is a sympathetic stand-in for Earth, Frank, who barely lives while everyone else cooks in the 'great heat wave' zone of India. There are also familiar tropes from the author; sky ships, wild corridors. But as a novel it peters out. In a good way.

The vision is that we, as we are, discover the political and scientific and geoengineering principles for living the good life. The life that college professors already live, as they are the exemplar here for responsible sufficiency of a sort that could be available to everyone on the planet. Trumpster bikers need not apply (I say that as a biker, if not a Trumpster).

Asymmetrical warfare is applied here for the common good. By black ops driven by desperation. Untraceable drone murder and incapacitation to still the market in earth's destruction. Imagine Al Gore as a terrorist. Ah, though he lives the good life now. That being the problem. Ideas alone won't save us. The insecurity of the wealthy is what destroys us by this book. The craving for evermore when the solution would be to allow everyone security in the now.

Robinson imagines hopeful futures in the face of our collective inability to imagine solutions. In this book, improbably, the solutions represent a triumph of the body politic, globally. For any reader now, such triumph has become harder than ever to imagine.

Just now in the face of political chaos and the dissolution of even basic values here in the real world, the private sector has become our hero. Producing a vaccine, providing the shipping logistics, creating a brilliant, private, safe and secure tracking regime, even though nobody uses it. This is what pushes Robinson's new book into the region of science-fiction/fantasy. His salvation for 'the only planet we have' turns on enlightened private, but collective, enterprise and wealth generally being brought to heel. Of course he's right. A co-op model for our future.

How can there even be such a polymath? I pause to wonder. Kim Stanley Robinson has the nerve to enact what he knows and his knowledge makes it all believable. I find only the tiniest of error, here and there. Solar panels driving super-tankers, for example. That math won't work.

I do wish I had a way past the New York Review of Books paywall so that I could see what Bill McKibben has to say, although I suspect his title says it all. "It's Not Science Fiction."

I recently read Jill Lepore's New York Burning, in which she brilliantly documents the birth of the novel at a time in our pre-revolutionary history when there were as yet no rules for evidence, no principles of detection toward proper prosecution. Things we now assume have always been obvious. She documents the horrors in New York when a fiction - that blacks where plotting to burn New York - was taken as truth. The grisly features of this real-world counter-plot are those of the Inquisition, where inner horrors are turned outward. Guilt prosecuted against the enslaved other.

By now all of our realities have been conditioned by the novel, made into movies and projected onto a funhouse version of Plato's shadow play. Our fear of death is terror at loss of character. Protagonist demise. We still outer the other, even while the other is ourself. Our selfie self.

Perhaps Robinson is actually not writing fiction, and is instead writing a future history when our post-enlightenment humanity bears actual fruit. When reason prevails, and goodness. I was brought to tears in many places during my read. Everything I have always wanted started to seem possible.

But I do still suspect that there is a post-novel history yet to be written, for after our current first-person obsession subsides. (I started reading Robert Putnam's new book) Robinson celebrates collective agency, and the reinvention of the commons as our only home; our living planet. While his characters recede, they are still what moves the story forward.

His is an engineered resolution. I do believe that he and Benjamin H. Bratton are good friends. I hope that they are both correct in their assessment of the way out from our very human predicament. I hope that science fiction is not mere escapism. So much of it has stimulated a direction for actual science. We so desperately need imagination.

But I do also hope that we can move beyond childish obsession with immortality. With gods that project fantasies of earthly power, and a kind of Disney love which dissolves after the storybook wedding.

It would seem that no author can imagine anything beyond the happy ending of humanity as it is prevailing into relative eternity. Well, except for Ursula K. Leguin. She could. Still, character and characters are what we like to project into any of our infinities, or else we might stop turning the pages.

There is a very vague suggestion in this story of the need for a new religion. But any coherent definition for religion, as meant in Western languages, calls it out as insecure masculinity creating mystical patriarchal authority structures, projecting themselves onto a manly God.

Religion would be what is destroying the planet, not what can rescue it. Rescue is effected by nature, as it ever has been, world without end. Amen. It would seem that we must retreat rather than to take over.

The book does describe a kind of retreat. Conscious homeostasis for a species. It beats the goad of wealth. The economy here is turned upside down by the precarious introduction of block-chained carbon currency. A literal turning of doing well into doing good.

I still await the sequel, when science itself exceeds the scientific method, because we will have discovered that God is Love, and that Love is not only romance. That's hardly a novel thought. What's novel is the end of any possibility to model man as a rational animal. Robinson makes quick work taking down neoliberalism, but then it sneaks back in by way of the good life preserved after all.

The recent Atlantic issue calls out Facebook as a doomsday machine, focusing on the occluded nature of how ideologies are now propagated and propagandized. Creating a danger worse than Hitler. (Sorry about that Godwin slip, but it was right there in the Atlantic.) With Hitler, everyone was getting the same garbage ideology, and you could call them all deluded in the same ways. Now we have really intelligent seeming people actually believing crazy stuff. Who knows where it comes from and why it is so compelling?

In just the way that survival choices in the wild happen too quickly for cognition, so they now do for humans as our planful takeover of our planet reaches its apotheosis. Robinson's Brave New (perpetual) World is cognitively generated. That right there is purest fantasy.

But I shall be ever grateful for the imagination to depict such fantastic futures. We need something better than certainty that we will blow it. And his vision is fine and sound. His politics are true, and it's quite clear by the end of this novel that he's a true believer in a gentler kind of love. The ultimate ascendancy of decency.

Meanwhile, we still seek for the Grand Universal Theorem while the earth burns. We have yet to admit that there is no cognitive completion. We have to get out of our own way is all. Not everything can be reduced to physics. Not everything can be computed.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 13, 2020

What is a Meme? Trump is a Meme

First a couple of memories. One was my encounter with Bevis and Butthead. I was introduced to it by right-winger friends of mine, probably tending toward Libertarian, whose behavior and humor was kind of Buttheaded. I was taken aback, thinking maybe that I'd been all wrong about right-wingers. That they really do have a sense of humor. Maybe even edgy senses of humor.

Another friend, more of a Leftie, introduced me to the Simpsons. I thought it rather odd that the Simpsons showed up on Fox TV. Seemed against their brand. 

This all reveals my prejudices, and sure maybe Trump was elected as a kind of joke, the way that someone got a dog into Yale back in my day.

The most cogent theory I've seen about why so many people voted for Trump regards the evident fact that so many people were and remain sick and tired of being called out for behaviors which feel normal to them. They call it political correctness, but for sure it has become political now. Hillary sure blew it with her deplorables comment.

I used to drive out to the tip of Cape Cod quite frequently, out to its historically leftie tip. My extended family has a place there. We never stopped at the tourist tchotchke places, but then more recently when travelling with my daughters, we did. That was still decades ago.

I discovered that there was a mounting issue; that Chinese knockoffs of rather standardized craft works were undercutting the local artisans. 

Well, those local artisans had made their work into memes, and perhaps had even copyrighted them, but Chinese remain and always have been rather disrespectful of intellectual property. As far as I can tell from being in China recently, their reforms have mostly taken the form of happy announcement that what they are selling and what you are buying are fakes. 

Maybe there are penalties for being dishonest about it, or at least when selling to a Westerner. But there don't seem to be penalties for producing fakes. Indeed that's really what powers the Chinese economy. Their so-called meme-manufacturing depends on it. That was highlighted most prominently when hoverboards became a thing. Maybe there was a brand name on them by the time they got to the U.S., but they were hardly ever manufactured in one specific shop, or by one specific (accountable) entity.

Production could be ramped up almost instantly against demand because it was a bottom-up process. Newer small cities in China tend to form around some kind of manufacturing theme. That can mean that lots of manufacturers produce the component parts which designers might use to put together something that is hot within the theme. Or more likely, there is not specific designer and the thing gets iterated, bottom up, by a series of 'innovators.'

All that matters is that someone on the purchasing end really wants this new meme. (I nearly killed myself on my nephews hoverboard, being evidently too heavy or clumsy. It was as fun as flying a drone for me to watch him gracefully zip around though. Well, I've never flown a drone, but you get the idea.)

Anyhow, suddenly you couldn't take these hoverboards on airplanes because their batteries might explode. No quality control. Except later on, the decidedly mainstream Samsung had the same problem. They are not a meme manufacturer, though who knows? They may tend that way more than Apple does, but then you can buy seemingly bit-identical iPhones most anywhere in China for a lot less than the "real" ones. Do they fall off the back of the quality control truck? Are they meme-manufactured based on reverse engineered schematics? Some combination of both?

Then the airplane manufacturer's own batteries exploded once the new 777 (767? I don't remember) jetliner was certified. The fix looked really ad-hoc klutzy to me. Like something I might do.

The first real recognizable meme product was the pet rock. Now interestingly, these things were not all identical, though their packaging was. They were natural artifacts, of the sort that anyone could pick up anywhere. They had no intrinsic value, which was the point. 

As my good buddy who let me help him swap the reels in the drive-in movie place where he was the projectionist would comment back in my relative youth, when you buy cereal the packaging is worth more than the contents. It sure is true that if you try to buy packaging alone, it does always cost more than similar packaging with stuff in it. Anyhow, the cost of cereal has skyrocketed to right the craziness (???).

Lots of pet rocks were sold, probably on the same model that Hallmark sells a couple of vapid pages for prices similar to the cost of a book. Nobody expected the Pet Rock (c) to last and it didn't.

Meme's are a lot more complicated than genes. Or maybe they're just more evident in the macro world. Like the difference between macro and micro economics. Ha! As though economics can be related to hard science!

Anyhow, Trump is certainly a meme. He was packaged by so-called 'reality TV' as a good decider, so that became many peoples' meme. Meanwhile, we on the left have suffered four years of really painful trauma as the media can't help itself from pushing the Great Meme in Charge in a different direction. Not everyone was fond of pet rocks. Not everyone would have found it charming or even amusing to get one for Christmas. It might have felt like that storied lump of coal, which at least contained some heat value. 

Meme's goal, like the goals of genes, is to replicate. Well, you know they don't have goals. I guess you might call it their nature. Whether China is better at promoting meme innovation or the West is is the contest of the ages just now. Magically balanced for the moment, just the way the pro and anti Trumpsters remain, and maybe even as the genders are.  

With the genders, it's about sex and genes and the magic of evolution. More or less. What if it's the same with memes? The sex ratio isn't magic. It's how evolution works. But I've always thought that the two party system was rigged by 'the system.' What if the system is also nature?

More importantly, how do we get off this dangerous razor's edge (they used to call me Larry Darrow in college. It was a meme at the time - looking for oneself; something that in fact I've never indulged in, though I was surely different from my much more goal directed peers). 

I think we've all just about figured out that rational argumentation changes nothing. Except for maybe our blood pressure, in the wrong direction.

I received a tiny bit of note once as a young Chinese teacher, with a short article I wrote to be published for a conference I attended. I remember the conference mostly for sitting next to the son of the guy who "invented" (according to him) Alcoholics Anonymous on the bus ride back. I remember a train ride for a similar reason, when I sat next to a madam Quakenbush, family of the eponymous nutcracker; a business also mostly destroyed by Chinese knock-offs, as far as I can tell.

Anyhow, my article was about how learning Chinese and about Chinese civilization and culture was like gaining binocular vision; your understanding of the world would be one-dimensional without it. I still hold by that.

But the eyes have to get it together, unlike the wandering eyes of lizards. The bicameral mind of man, but I'll have to avoid that digression for now.

I had a bad winter in about 2009-2010 (I think it was). During a stroll in very subzero weather here in Buffalo with my sister, I felt as though a plug had been pulled and crumpled to the ground. I thought it must have had something to do with the bracingly frigid air hitting my lungs. I sat on someone's stoop until I felt a rush of wellbeing, and got up to continue the walk. But I had to crawl up the steps to my apartment and crumpled again on the floor. 

It was Christmas eve. The second time I'd nearly died on Christmas eve and spent it in the hospital. Frankly, I felt relieved. Off the hook. I'll bet a lot of people would. But I also have mild PTSD (sorry, very politically incorrect to make such an analogy, but it seems to fit here) on Christmas eve. I can't help it.

My nurse-practitioner sister - thank goodness she was there - asked if I needed an ambulance. Sure did. It turned out to be a pulmonary embolism, and I well remember the shrinking tunnel vision on the endless ride to the hospital. That reminded me of the time I drowned and felt my entire life present to my mind in an instant. Thankfully didn't get that far this time, although maybe it's something that can happen only once.

A few weeks later, something apparently unrelated happened. Not unrelated to me, but to my doctors (to me, Christmas eve is significant - to them it's random). Doing laundry, I lost my vision. That had happened once or twice as a child (when I sat embarrassed at the dinner table waiting for it to come back, keeping my eyes down) and again as a young adult (when a doctor friend of my wife was excited to witness a migraine in process) so I wasn't terribly alarmed.

But I couldn't see the numbers on my cellphone to call 911. My vision came back enough to take a walk to the ER I realized that my entire field of vision on my right was gone. Not in my right eye, but as in I had to turn around nearly backward to see if traffic was coming from my right to cross the street, and even still I crossed slowly waving my arms.

I still had depth perception. I still had binocular vision. Once again, the doctor was excited to see a classic revelation of what a TIA could do. He knew the locus of the clot with near absolute precision. Textbook.

I'm rather glad I've never achieved more than a modicum of note for my thoughts. I sure wouldn't want to be a one-word meme, the way that Trump and Elon and Zuck and Jobs and Bezos and even Bill surely are now. I wonder what it feels like to be a meme. I mostly doubt that these are even humans in any sense that I could understand. The replicator has overtaken the self, which seems to be what we all crave most of the time. 

Well, they aren't the meme, these single-named behemoths. The meme is something like what a super-successful startup entrepreneur has to look and act like. What a drag, man! That's what I'm glad I'm not. It would feel like a straightjacket on my soul. Look at the contortions Elon has to go through to seem human. As though he weren't a money machine.

As far as being President, I think it should be clear to anyone that Reagan set the bar. A vacant actor, but he made us all feel good. Obama, too, contributed to the meme that became Trump. Now the big O just seems a little too full of himself. Like, 'nobody can say I'm a nobody' and so I'll be and look relaxed in my skin. JFK for sure. Even Nixon, though his actual humanity dragged him down.

There's a balance left and right, see, male and female. Both sides working the memes, er I mean the memes working both sides. And you thought it was some natural balance between progressive and conservative? Silly you. Just like me, you want to blame Trump on the failure of public education. The failure of parenthood. The failure of the family. The failure of community. The failure of religion. 

When it's actually not a failure of anything. It's just the success of memes acting as memes do, as is their nature, which means riding on top of emotionally driven minds for the sake of, well, nature. We're evolving!

Now Daniel Dennett seems pleased with and by the promise of  'top-down design,' which means human design, which means artificial design. That's the bone I have to pick with him, since I find the divide between natural and artificial to be as dangerous (and as artificial!) as the divide between mind and body.

In ancient China - and to a certain extent in modern China still - there was a balance between the cultivated worldliness of Confucianism, and Daoism, the self-so retreat from the contrived world of cultivated pageantry and poetry into the world as it would be if we humans were to flow with it instead of swimming against it. Somehow it was all more civilized than our conservative/progressive divide. Well, the one percent is always rather civilized now isn't it?

Trump is hardly civilized. 

Anyhow it's the finance industry driven by digital tech that's created the soup we live in now. Civilization be damned.

So at what point do the culture-building memes that Dennett (and I!) celebrate turn sour? When do they move off in a destructive direction?

I want to offer a couple of clues. First one is, of course, the advent of artificial intelligence. My beef with Dennett is really about computing as a useful metaphor for mind. Meme production has stepped out from engagement with the continuum of life. It's running on automatic, just the way that chemical processes do in the vacant and dead parts of our cosmos. 

Consider how recently it was that we were all excited and engaged in the quest to get to outer space. Sure it was all corrupt to its core, built on cold-war narratives, and a misled populace. But it was a collective effort, like warfare once was, that promised something better than the destructive orgies of warfare. You know, those destructive orgies from which we've gotten all our new and high technology!

But now, and I mean this very morning, conquering space is a private affair. We don't have to be consulted. Indeed, following Reagan and his successors and assigns, we think private enterprise is doing it better. But we're not all watching. We're hardly paying attention. It's Elon's thing. Bezos' thing. We trust that they will make their profits off our government and that those will cost us less than NASA once did.

Who's the "us?" We haven't been consulted. We aren't going to be consulted. We're consumers. Thanks Ralph, you destroyer of worlds (Corvair was my first love) and of elections. I loved you well.

Now Facebook is being called out for its monopolistic practices. It's about time. And yet everyone I know, left, right and center still wants to fuel the meme generation there. As though distantly connected acquaintances want to share your joy and grief as you build your brand. Is performative emotion even emotion at all? I ask in the same spirit that I ask if Trump is (even) human. I mean of course it is and of course he is, but where does it all lead?

I can be mildly excited about self-driving cars when I imagine being able to call one more easily than I can retrieve my own car for less money than it costs to own that car. But where does it all lead to? What will that economy even look like? More stratified than this one, for certain. The price for using a car will be like the price for cereal.

Can the planet ever afford all of us continuing to get around in personal pods? I guess it can, if you're optimistic about the triumph of sustainable energy. About tech in general. My iPhone claims Artificial Intelligence to manage my battery. Well, if it were intelligence, I could tell it what I want it to do, but Siri can't. I would prefer a good old fashioned algorithm that I could understand in the first place. I'm not about to adjust my life to fit their notion of intelligence.

I guess I wonder if we'll all forget how to read and write, in just the way that I've lost my ability to write Chinese. Because writing in Chinese requires motor memory, which means it requires that you actually do it continually. Blasting (scrolling mostly) through the meme laden emotional roller coaster (scroller coaster?) news feeds and twitter feeds and social media feeds, addictive as it all is, isn't the same as reading a book. No matter how facile we are with the language. Heck, I can do that in Chinese with one hand tied behind my back, and I still have trouble opening up and reading all those classics now replaced on my shelves. Now that I'm living in place rather than on the road.

See what I mean?

Probably not. I'm just a killjoy crank, for sure. This science fiction dude I read sometimes, because he's such a good story teller, Douglas Richards, speculates that perhaps the better species didn't prevail when homo-sapiens won out over the neanderthalers. Our genes are blended, as newly discovered. The winning and losing takes place at a far lower level than whatever an election can demonstrate.

And so, you know, I remain hopeful. A new set of parties will arise. The corruption at the core of our democracy is being brought, gradually, to light. By definition, nature always prevails in the end. That's what nature means. I do retain extravagant hope that culture - the good stuff about the human species - can thrive as a part of nature, and not apart from it.

Now back to reading Kim Stanley Robinson, a good guy champion of technology if ever there was one. Though I inhabit an entirely different world than he does. He'll learn.

The Selfish Meme

Surely the title of this post violates some kind of copyright somewhere. I don't mean to steal it, but it just came to me and I have no attribution for it. Well, the title of Dawkins' book called out the Selfish Gene, and in it he coined the term "meme" defined as the unit for cultural evolution by analogy to the gene, which he also defines in a rather fluid, functionalist manner; steering away from primitive physically defined taxonomy. As though physical boundaries would ever magically match the real ones.

A gene is a replicator unit that persists, regardless of how many ACGT pairings are involved. It's like a word that way, as I seem to remember Dawkins suggesting. Of variable length and complexity of phonemes; syllables; whatever.

I just reviewed (posted here) Dennett's summative work on consciousness, disparaging his all-too-ready acceptance of the computer as metaphor for his dogmatically materialist conception of mind. I think I'm probably as much of a materialist as he is, though I doubt our current meaning for that term can cover the cosmos. It certainly can't quite touch a definition for mind. 

I try not to be dogmatic, though I'm sure I mostly fail. My brand of dogma engages the fact of emotion at a cosmic, elemental level. The level of protons of photons of gluons and quarks. What do these words mean, and why do they take hold? 

Most often I lack the energy to read the hard stuff. There is always something sweeter, more digestible, ready to hand. I would love to make my writing that enticing. Most often I lack the energy. Dennett is easy enough to read, though.

Much of Dennett's summation dwells on words as memes. I think here again he makes an error; one that Dawkins did not make. Whatever a meme is, it might compose multiple words, and should likely be distinguished from anything totally language-dependent. Maybe something closer to "idea," well, except that the term idea is meaningless to me. It reifies thought, as though thought could be stored and catalogued. 

To be more accurate, I can use the term 'idea' as well as you can, but I may be more attuned to how folk usage of the term can lead to consequential misconceptions. For instance, it's common to think of an idea as being 'in the head,' which really means in the brain. It's also common to think that creativity starts there, in the head, and with an idea, which then might be expressed - squeezed out - in ways that others might catch and even understand.

Plato, silly man, used the term, or a similar term, to describe something - a structure? A design schematic? - eternal and even primordial, which can be discovered by deductive reasoning alone. Squares, circles and other such stuff, but also things relating to truth and beauty. These eternal 'ideas' relate to 'ideals' as in God's creation, or something like that. Creativity, thus, relates God to man. An originator.

Right there is my beef with Dennett. He seems, by my read, to reify ideas all over again in his definition for top-down intelligent design. And it's right there that Descartes and his mind/body duality sneaks right back in through the back door. That's despite how much time Dennett spends dubunking Descartes and his Cartesian theater, which is really Plato's cave and on and on. As though there were a real real beyond what we think we know as real. As though there could be a watcher apart from the screen.

A while ago, I spent some time on a realistic challenge to Google's search model. We were attempting to deploy something like Dawkins' usage for meme - without yet having that term ready to hand - to create an infinitely dimensional space where orthogonal intersections would allow the searcher to - independent of language and largely independent of words - find the locus within a few clicks where the search object either was or wasn't. (Null searches that are reliably null are just as useful, if not more so, than successful searches). Word-based searches can't come up with reliably empty locuses. Words from natural languages are just simply inherently ambiguous. Google now makes 'helpful' suggestions about how to get better results when a search comes up vacant. 'Try to use the exact words which might be in what you are looking for." Something like that. If that's not broken, I don't know what is.

Of course the project was impossibly naive. There can be no competition to Google in its ability to replicate the entire Internet, by virtue of near monopoly power, and in particular to replicate it as quickly as it does. Their keyterm auction algorithms are their golden goose, and so long as Google's search results are unapproachable in the overall satisfaction among users for their production, including especially the speed of their production, it remains a fools game to challenge them. The kids seem happy with Google. Or they recently did.

But Google search has been broken from the beginning. Just try getting beyond the popular words, to the expression you are looking for without knowing the exact phrasing of the answer that might be there. Google's game has long been to make money, though that might now have a hitch in it, since their own workers don't necessarily like the amoral money grubbing model any more.

If we were to have an actual government again, it would reasonably exercise eminent domain over search and social networking to bring ownership of ourselves back to the people. (Now I find out that Kim Stanley Robinson proposes this old notion of mine in his new "novel." Dang! I don't think he did the math right about how valuable our individual personal information is, though. He's looking at the wrong sort of theft.) The reason a good government would do that is because the danger of wildly replicating memes is far too great. Without any trueing, wildly replicating memes demonstrably destroy democracy, among other things like scientific understanding, trust in any authority, trust in your fellow man and so forth.

Anyhow, I'm hardly happy with my review of Dennett's book, and this morning I'm struck that we both missed the obvious. That the Internet is functioning as a great accelerator for certain kinds of meme shuffling. It remains to be seen if this will be destructive of consciousness as we mean that term. My prejudice is that it already has been. My goal is to go a little deeper than the click-bait theories about how the Internet ultimately gave us the travesty of Trumpism (or 'I want to find the hope in Trumpism,' which might be the same thing). 

I, on the other very arrogant hand, do have a better definition for mind than Dennett's, but let's defer that for a moment, shall we? I haven't been very successful communicating my own definition, so I'd like to come at it the long way 'round this time.

For now, as shorthand, I'll say that mind rides along on physical structures (I can't and won't isolate the brain, for reasons I hope you shall soon see) as that set of mechanisms which host some set of memes. To be strict with the analogy to genes, I would have to say that the memes, in fact, form mind. That would be a step closer to origination than to say that memes 'inform' mind, as though mind were separate from its forming.

As is the case with genes, these memes draw from and extend throughout all of cosmic history, in particular gathering strength once life takes hold in the cosmos. Of course I would make the claim that life had already taken hold at the instant of that Big Bang in whose thrall we all remain. But once again, I'm getting ahead of myself (I wonder if I shall ever catch up). 

To this point, I'm only quibbling with Daniel Dennett. He agrees that mind is built on memes. Dennett doesn't start with words as memes. In his usage, words are a type of meme. I would say that's wrong; that words only facilitate meme formation when a certain type of communication happens. Or in other words when something like what most people still mean by an "idea" forms in another mind in a way reliably identical to what was in the mind of the "originator" of the idea - more properly the originator of the communication. The sender. Of course, I don't much believe in original ideas - inventions - either, so I still have a lot of 'splainin to do.

Interestingly, when Dennett defines "information," he does so in a way that makes information far more similar to Dawkins' memes that his usage of words would be. He points out that the same information could be had by different parties without any direct communication or sharing. But information itself, like the gene, might be embodied in a variety of forms.

Information leads to sense. Words make sense. Ideas can be communicated. My premise is that what defines an idea is its emotional valence. The person on the other end has to care about it.Want it. Need it even. Memes ride on enthusiasms. Think money. Think sex. Think what it is we do when we "read" the texts swirling on the Internet. Social media. Tweets. News. Shock. Awe. 

Several people have noted that when boats arrived in the Americas, the indigenous peoples literally couldn't see them, because they were so far off from what was real to them. I'm truly sorry that I don't have an attribution for this, but I've come across it lots of times in lots of places. Google it! I think it's an observation often made these days about UFOs. That they're real, but that, by and large, we can't see them.

Some people see ghosts. Lots and lots of people. Some people see Trump as a great leader. Some people think that it would be a kind of ultimate evil were the government to mandate vaccines on the basis of legal sanctions. Perhaps they imagine end-of-the-world scenarios, where sterilization is an as-yet-undiscovered side effect. Children of Men. Perhaps they're blind to the wanton destruction already happening by loss of trust.

I did recently find a solid definition for "idea." Simply put, it's the protected part of "intellectual property" in a capitalist "knowledge economy." This might be similar to an attribution Dennett makes to someone named McKay, that "information in general is that which justifies representational activity." That, in turn relates to a different attribution to someone called Luciano Floridi that "economic information is whatever is worth some work", which reminds me of Unger's definition. Dennett then proposes his own working definition for what he calls 'semantic information' as "design worth getting." Not bad. Now embedded in that sentence right there are a lot of problematical assumptions, which I may be too lazy to upack just now. But at least we are moving toward a workable definition for what an idea might be.

Internet search is all about money. Things (words, pictures, objects, concepts, even 'ideas') have become memes, and these memes have proper names that are trademarked and copyrighted and which might refer to actual things which are patented. That's why people like me might be so frustrated by Google. What I'm looking for is almost always buried beneath what everyone else is looking for, which generally has something to do with money, honey. On one side or the other of the search algorithm. 

Now I'm not saying that Google is not an honest broker. They know better than to allow search results to be paid for directly. Well, of course they're paid for, by way of auction, but they know that user confidence would plummet if they were to cook the search so that the highest bidder always came out on top. The bidders are making bets on what searchers are looking for when they search on certain words, or combinations of words. They're betting its worth paying for their ads to come out on top. Google is not as stupid as VW with their finger on the pollution readings. Sort of. I like VW cars, so there you go. It makes me sad that I'm stuck with Subaru. "Love" more cynical even that Google's old motto.

Even before Google got in the game, people were talking about an information explosion, and even a knowledge explosion. I thought those were perfectly ridiculous notions, but now I'm not so sure. Dennett makes a useful distinction between top-down design of the sort that human engineers might do, say, and bottom-up of the sort that happens by way of natural evolution.

My burden is to highlight what knowledge is on a deeper and to me more satisfying level than the glib term "knowledge explosion" can mean. I guess I have typically supposed that the information content of the world has always been rather constant. That may not be true if the evolution of life can be construed as an increase in information "content." But it still seems to me that information is all about what binds us and therefore less something that grows apart from us. Or in other words, it's less of an explosion than it is a consolidation of many minds to create a rather more collective design function, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and well beyond what any individual could accomplish. I quibble with knowledge as an individual possession, preferring that it always be called out in the collective.

So knowledge - individual knowledge - is a partaking in a more collective knowledge which must be, in the end, trued against something worthy to be called reality. Truing means it has to work, I guess. What a carpenter does with a straightedge ruler.

So we live in an age of consummate irony. Virtually everyone is obsessed with the selfie self, and fear of death is really fear of disappearance of something like personality. We transpose our animal fear of death into a fear of losing our Narcissus image of our self. This is the illusion that Dennett should be calling out - not consciousness, which is a very real quality shared by all the animals.

Richard Rorty's ironism comes closer to how knowledge is formed than could anything relating to artificial intelligence, computing and what-you-will. The irony is that as we become more individualistic, we do that in direct response (reaction) to the fact of a more hive-like mind in which we participate. We seek "authenticity" to the point of mutilating our bodies if we weren't born with the right one - the one that is the essential me - as though we could invent our very selves. Can you tell that I despise and eschew the term 'authenticity' even more than I do "idea?" Well, they're certainly related, those two terms are.

(Don't get me wrong, I celebrate transgendered people. It's just that I focus on the fiction of any gender binary more than I do on idealization of the body. Beauty, in the end, is a most powerful cliche. But still cliche for its power. And as though there could be anything interesting about the naked body. We're all the same without clothes on, more or less.)

Memes would enable bottom-up development of mind, I suppose, which isn't quite the same as evolution. Or maybe it could be if one understands these matters in relation to entropy, the way that information theory goes, or as life goes against the normal grain. Just as we think we're taking control, we're losing it. All of our fixes represent the triumph of Moloch. Nobodaddy. Consciousness economicus.

Now those of us who read lots of books, and who even enjoy the arduous business of thinking tend to the left of Trumpsters, I should think. We would tend to rationalize God away, say, although not always. We might even suppose that only the great unwashed masses of people who voted for Trump allow their minds to be taken in by memes, while we actually know things.

There may be some truth to that, but I rather suspect that our minds are as fully in thrall to memes as anyone's. We can be perfectly dogmatic about what we know, and damn the evidence. Academic polemical argumentation can be just as lively as a monster truck rally. 

It used to be patently obvious to me that there is no more information in the cosmos than there ever was. But that would be true only if humans (and any other critters in the cosmos with rational agency connected to their consciousness) are really not adding anything cosmically with our top-down design thinking. I still think we're probably not.

But at least I have a definition for mind. It's a social construct that can't be had by oneself alone. In essence, that's why you'll never be able to upload your mind and experience yourself virtually. Mind is not only in-formed by perception, mind is inseparable from perception. Perception relates to what Dennett calls the affordances of manifest ontology. Manifest ontology is not the same as the scientific image, which can apparently exist in mind alone in conjunction with theories and instrumentation.

What makes the scientific image more real is that it enables ever more powerful top-down design. Which really only means that the scientific image is ever more culture and language independent. Ever more universal. It has to be trueable everywhere in the cosmos.

Just now, I declare, the mind is being hijacked by the viruses of money. Apart from nature, we mostly thrive on the basis of money. It defines and guides our enthusiasms, and these, in turn, determine which replicators - memes - persist. Once money is separable from value, which it is as soon as money is separable from labor and material, it takes on a life of is own, apparently. It becomes, in essence, a deadly virus, turning all memes against us for its own spread.

How can money be separable from "value?" Money *is* value. So here again we have to make a distinction between the real and the artificial. The "real" value of anything on the market is nearly impossible to know now, no matter how much Bill Gates might not think so.

Mind is composed of and by conception, which is the holding of ideas in relation to one another. Ideas aren't acted on by forces and so can't be directly perceived. But they are formed, ideas are, by perception, and especially by the sorts of perception which enable us to read and write. Conceptions inform what we commonly think of as our will, which in turn defines agency.

I maintain that concepts are as real as percepts and that emotion exists in the place of the forces of physical reality as that which defines the relative movement of concepts. The accident of some replicator's persistence is as much emotional reality as it is the physical survival of the gene. 

So I do believe that we still require a way to distinguish the living from the deadly. I myself would make the dividing line that between digital and living models. That's because digital is divided from real in the sense that genetically derived organisms are not. While the signal to noise ratio can be improved to the point of zero noise with digital, fidelity to actual reality will always involve an absolute break. I am connected to you in ways that cannot be digitally replicated. It's an emotive and lived and living connection.

I am tired. I will have to return to this. Making sense of and with words is hard hard work. But I can tell you this much now, having nearly forgotten my promise at the beginning to come back around to mind. Mind is mostly composed on emotion, much as all survival is. There has to be an emotional valence to "ideas." Otherwise, no matter how much sense they make, they just fall dead. In the long run.

God, indeed, is love. It's what makes meaning.