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.