Thursday, June 29, 2006

View From the Flip Side

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan starts off from roughly the premise that follows. Think of the flower and the bee. The bee thinks that he's just out gathering nectar from the flowers to make delicious honey (Mmm...delicious honey). He's also getting pollen on his legs while he does this, and unknowingly carries it to the next flower he pillages for nectar (with which he will make delicious honey, mmm, honey). Thus is he an agent in the reproductive cycle of the flower--in some evolutionary sense of the idea, the flower has gotten the bee to spread its genetic material for it, ensuring its survival. Now think of the corn plant, from the same perspective: here is a plant that is so incredibly successful that it has an highly advanced and mechanized animal (man) clearing entire forests and putting down nitrogen fertilizers just so the plant can grow for another generation. Sure, it's so that we can eat the plant, but as far as the corn gene is concerned, an individual corn plant isn't the point, is it? Wolves seem sharper, fiercer, more free, and more resourceful than the common domesticated dog, but in America today there are 10,000 wolves and 50 million dogs. So which animal is "smarter" about figuring out the world and how to survive and prosper in it?

In this blog I spend a lot of time arguing that you and I are the assembled sum of our genetic material, environment, and timeliness of our births; that, e.g., the idea that you have some sort of distinct "you-ness" that is constant across time and space, that you could be born in some other time and place and still be you is fallacious. It's not that I don't believe that there aren't aspects of our selves that are outside of genetic makeup and context, more that I think these aspects are shared among all of humanity, possibly all of life. This is, more or less, the evolutionary view of existence, and it's only when you (and by "you" I mean "I") read a book like The Botany Of Desire do you realize how contrary to your everyday perspective on your own existence this view is.

I once argued (in such extreme passing that you almost certainly missed it) that our own consciousness, our unique human intelligence, is nothing more than the acquired sum of billions of years of evolutionary accidents/designs like the flower "figuring out" that it can use the bee to spread its genes. In other words, it's not that the billion-year process of evolution that looks like the work of an intelligent actor (thus causing people to think it must be God, for some definition of "God"), it's that what we think of as intelligence and/or consciousness is the connected sum of billions of these accidents/designs. The only difference is that we've evolved that connected sum into a brain that can perform new actions like this in hours or minutes or seconds instead of over the course of thousands or millions of years.

Go back to the flower and the bee: if you look at the world this way, your view on consciousness is essentially how much agency you give the flower in its "decision" to use the bee to transmit pollen. What you're using to read and understand this post or decide what to eat for dinner or blog about tomorrow is the result of some uncountable number of those evolutionary "decisions." Don't think about it that way for too long, though, because probably your connected sum of evolutionary happenstance will explode.

Next: There it was, your moment of zen
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Monday, June 26, 2006

The Auto-Metaphor

Surfing, the actual sport that occurs on water, with a board, may or may not be one of those things one doesn't really get until one does it. It consists of long periods of time sitting out in the water waiting, punctuated by extremely short periods of time of high excitement. Then there's the whole editorializing: catch the coming wave or let it go by? Plus the language. Dude. Whatever.

I'm right on the verge of becoming a freak about surfing. I've done it twice now, and this weekend's foray to the Oregon Coast with friends didn't even involve long-boarding (what you might think of as true surfing), I borrowed one of my friend Ryan's body boards. Still, as with the last time (in Florida, when I actually did long-board), in the days afterwards I keep thinking about it. Mmm...surfing. The instant when you've caught a wave and you're propelled forward on the wake is the kind of thing that makes you want to look around and see who's watching you, as if you were ten years old. It's like a moment of Zen that lasts for ten seconds instead of the Planck Time-length instants you usually get.

The thing about surfing is that it's the perfect metaphor for what it actually is: you're literally riding a wave. All the things surfing brings to mind--patience, devotion, balance, going with the flow--all of those things seems like they're metaphors for things in life that then come back and are themselves metaphors about surfing.

A lot of things happened the last couple of weeks that I've wanted to blog about--the last book read, the last tv show watched, the most recent trip(s) taken, the state of the latest musical foray into which Mark and I have ventured, how school is going, and so on. They've all seemed connected lately, a zone where everything is related to everything else, everything a metaphor for itself. Or, you know, whatever. Dude.

Next: A metaphor for surfing!
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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Writing Begets Writing

    Come in to the V.U. on a cold Fall night,
    Blending with the crowd in my trench coat and a tie.
    Everyone will dance and we will rock and roll all night long.
    The Fellows are opening for Jon and Ken,
    Helping us to reach a state of teenage Zen,
    As cool as anything that I knew; I knew I was wrong

    And you always wanting everyone you know to be okay.
    Be okay.

    Follow you at night we go across Red Square,
    It's one in the morning and there's no one else there.
    Kneeling in the fountain, I hear your whispers in the dark.
    The viewing of the sky in telephoto lens
    Gave me the illusion we could still be friends.
    Now we've shaken hands, agreed to always drift apart.

    But I loved you so, even though you would already leave me,
    When you took a stand next to
    The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars For Bounty.

Next: Context!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Quick-Hitter Wednesday

  • The Gadflies have lately returned from a trip to Yosemite National Park with the Gadfly in-laws. I hope to have pictures of the purple mountains' majesty Flickr'ed soon. Once upon a time this was supposed to be a nature journal, so you'd think I could come up with something, you know, insightful about the nature of being based on this trip, but I can't think of anything. We did some great hikes, experienced the train-wreck (or rather, bus-wreck) that is the Yosemite shuttle system, and got eaten by three trillion mosquitoes. Good times.

  • Whilst I was there, I picked up The Botany Of Desire from the pile of books that's found in every rental cabin and bed and breakfast from Here to Somewhere Very Far From Here. The awesomeness of this book cannot be understated, and soon I shall blog about it.

  • To this article I can only say: Yes. Duh.

Next: Content!

Monday, June 12, 2006


Blink is Malcolm (The Tipping Point) Gladwell's most recent book, a monograph about making snap decisions based on nothing but immediate impressions. So far, the thesis of this book seems to be: sometimes snap decisions are good. Sometimes snap decisions are bad. To be fair, Gladwell is also interested in what happens in the brain in the first two seconds it's confronted with a situation that make it come to an immediate conclusion. To be fairer, Malcolm Gladwell is a much more interesting, much better writer than I. Anyway, some random thoughts on the subject:
  • One of the first examples in this book made me think that the whole premise was crap. It's this: in a psych experiment, students are shown video of a professor teaching a class and then asked to fill out a teacher evaluation based just on that one class. They do, and the evaluations turn out to be remarkably consistent with evaluations completed by students who actually took a class with that professor. In the next iteration, students are shown the video for ten minutes and then asked to evaluate; the results are the same. In the next iteration, students are shown two seconds of a video and asked to evaluate the teacher; the evaluations are still consistent with those filled out by students who took a class from the professor. Ergo, you can tell whether you like a professor, whether that professor is a "good" professor, based on very little observation.

    Right now, at least two of my readers are screaming at their computer monitors, because they know another fact that's pertinent: teacher evaluations tend to correlate more with a teacher's age, gender, and general demographics rather than, say, actual effectiveness as a teacher. Here's what you can tell from watching an hour, or ten minutes, or two seconds of a video of a teacher: age, gender, and general demographics. So maybe what we really learned here is that people tend to decide how they feel about somebody within the first two seconds of seeing or meeting them and then never change their minds.

  • Second experiment. You're in a room with some furniture (tables, desks, chairs), an electrical extension cord, a pair of pliers, a yardstick, and some other detritus. There are two ropes hanging from the ceiling. The ropes are close enough and long enough that one could tie the ends together, but far enough away from each other that you can't hold on to the end of one and pull it to where the other one is. The task: tie the two ends of the ropes together. There are four ways to do this, so the researchers claim. If you want to play along at home, stop here and give it a quick ponder (Theme from "Jeopardy" plays. Thumbs are twiddled. Time elapses). Here are the first three: tie one rope to an item of furniture, move that piece of furniture towards the other rope, grab the other rope and bring it to where the furniture is. Make your arms longer, either with the yardstick or possibly a chair, so that you can reach the second rope. Finally, you could tie the extension cord to one rope to make it longer, so that it will reach the other rope.

    These solutions are kind of hard to think of if you're not in the room; e.g. it's not clear just reading about it that the yardstick will be long enough to reach the second rope while you're holding the first. There's a fourth solution, which nearly no one actually doing this experiment thought of initially: tie the pair of pliers to the end of one rope making a pendulum, and start it swinging so that you can grab it while holding the other rope. The trick of the experiment was this: when, as invariably happened, the experimentees couldn't figure out the pendulum solution, a researcher would go into the room to open a window or some such thing, and in so doing would "accidentally" brush one of the ropes and make it start swinging. After this happened, the subjects would immediately figure out the fourth solution. However, when asked what made them think of it, every person had a different story ("It just came to me," or "I thought of how I used to swing from ropes in gym class"), and nobody seemed to recognize that it was the researcher bumping the rope.

    Gladwell takes this as evidence of what he calls "the locked door," wherein you don't have conscious access to the unconscious inspiration that happens in your brain. It's not that the experimentees were lying, it's that they simply didn't have access to the information that would tell them they were inspired to make a pendulum, so they had to make something up.

    I take this as evidence of my favorite OaO chaotic bugaboo, The Post-Hoc Narrative Interpretation of Otherwise Unparseable Happenstance (must come up with a shorter name for that). Every one of those subjects believed, I'm sure, that the explanation they gave was in fact the actual cause of their inspiration (that is, he or she wasn't even aware he or she made it up), because we're well practiced in generating little narrative translations for the chemical signals that go off in our brain. What's unique to me about this experiment is not that its subjects made up a story to explain a thought they couldn't otherwise explain, because that's happening all the time, every instant of every day, every thought you have (c.f. my last post). What's unique about it is that there's an actual tangible source for the key inspiration--as Gladwell would say, we have a window through the locked door. In fact, I'd be willing to argue with Gladwell/you/anyone who cared that you can't actually make a case for the researcher brushing the rope being any more of a cause for the inspiration than whatever the subject him or herself came up with post-hoc. But that's probably a topic for another post.

Next: Pre Post-Hoc Narrative!
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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Enlightenment Wednesday

Tuesday nights are band practice nights (where "band practice" = "Mark and me playing extended jams to a click track, recording it on computer and attempting to meld a song out of it."), making Wednesday the day when I've got a couple of new mixes to listen to, ponder, and deconstruct while I'm sitting at work.

I don't know if it's this precise process (trying to criticize my own musical work) that made me aware of it, but somewhere along the line I realized that the workings of my brain are like a giant David Foster Wallace novel of which I am generally only dimly cognizant. It goes something like this:
  • Brain has thought
  • Thought is translated into English
  • Translation is compared to original thought, and possibly retranslated
  • Various other metaphors for original thought are constructed
  • This happens, like, 20 more times whilst at the same time, the footnoting and reanalyzing of the original thought begins
  • All of these thoughts must be translated, checked for translation accuracy, metaphorized, repeated, analyzed, footnoted, etc. etc.
  • Repeat ad infinitum
The other thing I realized is that this David Foster Wallace novel is extremely self-critical In the particular arena of mention above, the critical analysis has lately come to the conclusion that I can't play the guitar for shit. A typical exchange goes like this
  • Thought evoked by listening to a bit of one of the rough mixes of last night's practice
  • Translation: "I screwed up in that bit."
  • Query: "How bad a screw up was it?"
  • Analysis: "Your finger fell off the string and it killed the note right in the middle of the phrase."
  • Metaphor: "Your guitar playing here mirrors your inability to produce anything of artistic value ever. Every time you venture towards something good you try to get too fancy and you kill it."
  • Protestation: "But this is just a jam session. You're improvising here. Everyone makes mistakes in this context."
  • Critique: "That's not the point and you know it. Your mistakes should be beautiful things, too. But they're not. Your playing is utterly without spirit."
  • Rejoinder: "That's only because you're listening to yourself. All you can hear is the mechanics of it. You'll never be able to hear your own music as just music."
  • Critique: " It just sucks."
  • etc., etc.
Yes, my own internal monologue refers to me in the second person. I'm not saying it's not weird. Most of the time this goes by and I'm not really aware of it. Only when I'm paying attention to it is it that literal. Anyway, if I've read and understood the writings of the Buddhists and the Taoists, the state enlightenment, vis à vis what I've got going on now, should be something like this:
  • Thought
  • Other thought
  • A third thought
  • ...
What's always bugged me about that is that, well, it doesn't seem like enough. I mean, it would be great for my state of mental well-being if I could shed all of the meta-commentary that surrounds everything that goes through my head, but it doesn't seem like it would turn me into the Buddha. Somewhere in the music of this last Tuesday night, though, I had a little moment of Zen where I realized that, in fact, that is all there is to enlightenment. Being that it's the Tao and as soon as you put the Tao into words, it's not the Tao any longer, I can't really explain the insight. I think it's something about shutting off the commentary track and just enjoying the movie. Maybe, if I don't think about it for a little while, I'll come up with a better koan for it.

Next: The Sound of One Hand Clapping!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Truths, Convenient and Otherwise

Sorry about the gap there. I suppose a week and a half isn't all that interminable a lag in the grand scheme of things, but the point of blogging is to keep up, post something every day, blah blah blah. After a month of non-stop school and work, though, I needed a week of doing nothing. Anyway, nobody really complained that I wasn't blogging, which is...probably...a bad...sign.

So, yeah, that Al Gore movie. Go see it. It's not as overtly political, extremist, or unbalanced as one might expect (and by "one" I mean "I"). It's pretty straightforward without being boring, and it has a handful of really breathtaking images--or rather, pairs of images (then and now pictures of glaciers of the world, and the breakup of the Larsen B ice shelf, e.g.). If you're not convinced yet, it also functions as a movie-length ad for Mac laptops. Just throwing that out there for any interested readers.

You read this blog so you know that climate and weather, being one of those systems that is subject to incredibly small variances in temperature, pressure, cow flatulence, cosmic rays and muons from space, solar flares, and so on, is an agglomeration about which it is impossible to make discrete inferences. You simply cannot say that storm 'X' or drought 'Y' was caused by Global Warming (actually, you read this blog so you know that it's my contention that you can't even make inferences about discrete coin flips. So, you know, whatever). This was, for me, the strength of this movie--it looks at the very long, continuous, much more inference-able view.

Over the course of the last several million years the earth has gone through a relatively predictable course of ice ages and subsequent warmings. It's only in the last 50 years or so that we started measuring atmospheric CO2 levels, such that fifty (and thirty, and twenty) years ago, the popular scientific view was that we were headed back into another ice age. Then came weather balloon studies, and then they started drilling cores in the polar ice caps and doing some detective work. What they discovered was that there seemed to be a very clear historical connection between CO2 levels in the air and mean atmospheric temperature of the earth. This is the first graph presented in the movie and it's an incredibly powerful metric, showing both what carbon dioxide levels have been doing over the past 650,000 years and what they've been doing in the last fifty. Gore points at the height at the last ice age and follows it to where we are now and says, "The spread of this graph is, in the city of Chicago, the difference between a very nice day and having a mile of ice over your head."

Where we are now is in one of the temperate periods--the difference this time is that instead of heading back down into the next ice age, as we did all the times before, both CO2 levels and temperatures are heading upwards ever faster. And where we are now, as it turns out, is also this odd little quirk of the Earth's history. As has been pointed out many places, the human species has had the brain capacity it has now for the past 50,000-odd years, but it's only in the last 5,000 or so that civilizations arose. It's Odds Are One for the history of humanity--it happened to be that big-brained homo-sapiens landed in a climate where you could stop hunting and gathering and start farming and domesticating (other people are just calling that "luck" these days, but I hear that if you invent a hermeneutic principle that describes the same thing using bigger words, people will give you a book contract). Having gotten to this point, and seemingly having a vested interest in, you know, sticking around, it seems that not only do we not want it to get markedly warmer, we kind of need to maintain the same conditions that we've grown up in. That ice age we might otherwise head into isn't going to be much fun either. If by some miracle we actually don't heat the earth up beyond its carrying capacity, our next problem will be figuring out long term climatological geostasis. Well, not your or my problem. But somebody's problem.

Next: Knee-jerk critiques of more texts!
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