Overweening Generalist

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Books, Borges, and The Library of Babel

I recently read yet once again Borges's very short story, "The Library of Babel," mostly for its invocation of an ineffable infinitude. The first time I read this story it knocked me on my ass, and it haunted my daydreams. Imagine a library that contained every book ever written, every book that would ever be written, in every language, including a book that was your autobiography, a book that would vindicate our lives, that probably many books were written in code, and if you could just learn how to crack it, things would come together, yet no one has ever been able to decipher any codes; a book that was the key to all the other books, and a legend of a Librarian who knew this book...but almost all of the books are filled with gibberish, random letters thrown together, and presumably innumerable copies of Don Quixote, every one with one letter or punctuation mark different from the others...and there is no order...

I find that I think of this library quite often, and if enough time has passed between one reading of the piece (it seems more like a piece than a "story" to me), then my imagination has glommed onto one or two ideas in the piece at the expense of others, or I find, upon a new reading, that my memory, probably influenced by the vertiginous aspect of the piece, has invented something new that's not really in the piece, but seems plausibly aligned with its spirit.

                                     Escher, of course. I see Borges's Library here, too.

The Wikipedia article on Borges's piece links the original idea of the stupendously massive number of possibilities of books to 13th century philosopher-magician-mystic Ramon Llull's imaginary device, called now a "Lullian Circle" that could generate a near-infinity of possibilities. The metaphor of the library has proven absurdly fecund, and I've stopped keeping notes whenever this monstrous library is used by a contemporary writer to get a point across. I think some of us are enchanted-unto-haunted by the notion of infinity.

The Wiki article links to ideas from Kant, kabbalah, and Quine. The philosopher Daniel Dennett is mentioned also, with regard to DNA permutations and what was/is possible; if you read Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea and the "Library of Mendel" you get an insight into the dizzying possibilities of the mathematics of genetic mutation. Similarly, Robert Sapolsky used Borges in discussing the idea of biological convergence in The Trouble With Testosterone. In Richard Preston's book Panic In Level 4 there's a story - true! "non-fiction" - of two Russian brothers, the Chudnovskis, both mathematicians, whose driving ambition is to use as many computers as they can to carry out pi  to...just an absurd number of places, really. And Preston invokes Borges's idea: what if, somewhere in the vast depths of the seemingly random pi, there's suddenly a mathematically-proven explosion of non-randomness? Getting involved in infinity seems to attract the weird ones. Show of hands? (Or does infinity's clutches render one, over time, less sane?)

One of my favorite books to pick off the shelf in my quite-finite library is Randall Collins's The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, which runs to nearly 1100 pages. It's an astonishing work; get your hands on it, if only for half an hour someday. Collins writes about present-day intellectual life and says:

"The totality of knowledge today resembles Jorge Luis Borges's circular library, with endless volumes on endless shelves, and inhabitants searching for the master catalogue buried among them written in a code no one can understand. But we can also think of it as a magic place of adventurously winding corridors with treasures in every room. It suffers only from surfeit, since new and greater treasures are always to be found. Borges's image has the alienated tone characteristic of modern intellectuals, but the underlying problem is the inchoate democracy of it all, the lack of a master key." (pp.41-42)

Supposedly Gertrude Stein once said something like, "There ain't no answer. There never was an answer. There ain't never gonna be an answer. That's the answer." This lack of a key seems to me the key, the answer to the riddle of this particular sphinx. We will make and construct, like a teeming mass of bricoleurs, our knowledge. Has fantastical knowledge already appeared and been criminally neglected, for whatever reason? I suspect it has. We must expect such things, however sad.

A funny thing about Borges: it seems the sufis have been claiming him since the 1960s as one of their own. A well-stocked library will yield multiple titles that link him with sufis. Which I accept on the face if it. I've read a couple of those books. But then, I accept sufis indiscriminately. Philip K. Dick was said to have been reading Borges at the end of his life, according to PKD acolyte Gregg Rickman, in his Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words. Erik Davis, in my eyes one of our three best writers on contemporary esotericism, or as he calls it, "occulture," has argued that magical realism - commonly linked with names like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, had as its forerunners Borges and H.P. Lovecraft. (See Book of Lies, edited by Richard Metzger, p.139)

For fellow Robert Anton Wilson scholars, he named Borges as an influential "experimental modern" writer, along with Joyce and Faulkner, in an interview with Charles Platt in 1983 or so. In a letter to his friend Kurt Smith, RAW compares Borges to Wilde and Yeats. (!) In his book Chaos and Beyond, he mentions Borges as "avante garde" along with Joyce and William S. Burroughs. In an issue of his magazine Trajectories RAW lumps Borges in with a large cast of guerrilla ontologists, tricksters, postmodernists and others he calls "codologists."

Hakim Bey, AKA Peter Lamborn Wilson, definitely a sufi of some sort, writes in Immediatism, "Books? Books as media transmit only words - no sounds, sights, smells or feels, all of which are left up to the reader's imagination. Fine...But there's nothing 'democratic' about books. The author/publisher produces, you consume. Books appeal to 'imaginative' people, perhaps, but all their imaginal activity really amounts to passivity, sitting alone with a book, letting someone else tell the story. The magic of books has something sinister about it, as in Borges's Library. The Church's idea of a list of damnable books probably didn't go far enough - for in a sense, all books are damned. The eros of the text is a perversion -- albeit, nevertheless, one to which we are addicted, & in no hurry to kick."(pp.34-35)

This nails me pretty well, and links with a long line of drug-like-addled, Lotus-Eating book-readers, intoxicated by the text, at times finding what we so laffingly call "real life" a tad wanting, when it comes to the worlds in books, our habitations of, as Hamlet said when asked what he was reading, words, words, words...

Well, I had wanted to write about a number of things having to do with books - as my title says - and yet I've been carried away by Borges and his damned infinitude. In one of my all-time favorite books on reading, Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, he talks of his time spent reading aloud to blind Borges, and that reading aloud changes a text one has already read, but reading aloud to a guy like Borges, who chose the text, was another thing entirely. "Reading out loud to the blind old man was a curious experience because, even though I felt, with some effort, in control of the tone and pace of the reading, it was nevertheless Borges, the listener, who became the master of the text. I was the driver, but the landscape, the unfurling space, belonged to the one being driven, for whom there was no other responsibility than that of apprehending the country outside the windows. Borges chose the book, Borges stopped me or asked me to continue, Borges interrupted to comment, Borges allowed the words to come to him. I was invisible." (pp.18-19)

Manguel says while reading, he was constantly reminded of other texts to compare the current one with, or to note the similarity of emotions evoked by this text and that one. He quotes another Argentinian writer, Ezequiel Martinez Estrada, who says, "There are those who, while reading a book, recall, compare, conjure up emotions from other, previous readings. This is one of the most delicate forms of adultery." Manguel then notes that Borges did not believe in systematic bibliographies, and encouraged this sort of adulterous reading.

                                 Holland House, West London, after a Nazi bombing, 1940
                                 I've always loved this picture. Stout chaps, those! Stiff 
                                  upper lip and all that doncha know? Wot? Stoic as all hell!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Max Ernst: Une Semaine de Bonte'

Translated to English usually as A Week of Kindness, sometimes as A Week of Grace, Ernst's 1934 book Une Semaine de Bonte' (<-----the images are in a PDF linked there, highly recommended you glance through if you've never seen it!) is subtitled "A Surrealistic Novel in Collage" in my Dover edition, and it's one of the most wonderfully weird books I've ever read. Indeed, "reading" this book seems akin to the reading of Ezra Pound's ideograms, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, a William S. Burroughs cut-up novel such as Nova Express, studying Egyptian hieroglyphics, and you get my point. It's demanding.

                                          Max Ernst: Oedipus Rex, 1922. 

The entire "novel" consists of pre-existing images in wood-engraved illustrations that Ernst tweaked with technical virtuosity; the resulting images, which are framed in sections with a putative theme of the seven days of the week ("Seven Deadly Elements": mud, water, fire, blood, blackness, sight, and possibly falling women?), and other bizarre framing devices, such as characters with heads from Easter Island statues (Thursday and blackness), and a bevy of men with bird's heads, which I find particularly disturbing. Ernst liked bird-men, and even called his bird-man alter ego "Loplop," and "he" appears throughout Ernst's work, and even merges with the work of other surrealist's work, such as Andre Breton's.
                                            One of my favorite images from the book

The only writing part of the text consists of the framing devices, and quotes from proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry, Dadaists (Thursday features this quote from Jean Arp: "The stones are full of entrails. Bravo. Bravo."), and surrealists.

This "novel" of collages was concocted in about three week's time, in Italy, where Ernst stayed with friends, lugging a suitcase overflowing with images he'd cut out/collected from mail order catalogs, popular French novels of the late 19th and early 20th century, and some of Gustav Dore's work. Ernst takes a pre-existing engraved illustration and inserts other images in a cut-and-paste method, in which, during the printing process the visual demarcations of cut-paste are virtually eliminated, yielding a look of fantastic technique and profoundly bizarre imagery. The challenge to the reader - and it's quite a challenge - is to "read" each image, juxtaposed with the ones from the same "day," and attempt to make "sense" of it. (Or is this precisely what you aren't supposed to/cannot do or try?)

                                                   What the...?

Every time I leaf through Une Semaine de Bonte' I become overwhelmed by each image. But that's me. Your results may differ. But that may be a seminal point here: every reader brings to the text themselves and interaction with the images. In a way that seems fundamentally different to the opaque texts featuring WORDS I mentioned above (Pound, Joyce, Burroughs), making sense of a single image seems challenge enough; "reading"/making sense of just one "week" of images seems well-nigh impossible, and perhaps that's the main reason no one that I've ever seen or read about, has ever produced a complete critical analysis of the text. A hardcore Freudian named Deiter Wyss produced (I've not read it) a detailed  and heavily Freudian-jargoned analysis of the first day of the book (mud and the Lion of Belfort). And that's it. The book is that weird and unheimlich.

The surrealists were outraged and outrageous, especially about the state of politics. In order to hold a mirror up to what they saw, they drew upon free-association and dreams and Freud, erotic imagery at times lurid, scenes of violence, anti-clericalism, and anything that would be seen as that which must be "repressed" by the superego: crimes of passion, torture, executions and suicide, and depictions of the emotional aspects of class warfare between rich and poor. As Ernst conceived and assembled his anti-rationalist collage phantasmagorical "anti-novel" in Italy, the Nazis in his native country had condemned all of his work, which no doubt influenced the must-be-seen-to-be-believed disturbing imagery of Une Semaine de Bonte'. 

Because each page-image in the text is probably met by an individual nervous system trying to decode a metaphor from one's fixed stock of (largely unconscious) metaphors, trying to "make sense" of the text, readings seem to inevitably be pixillating; Ernst's virtuosity in juxtaposition, coupled with an implementation of the surrealist program, make each pictatorial "metaphor" so complex and uncertain - a function of mathematically ultra-dense information that verges on "noise" in the nervous system - that any one reading would seem to be as individualistic as the reader her-him-self.

Obviously, another way to "read" the text is by just letting the images wash over you; don't even try to decipher what may lie hidden beneath. I've gone this route too. It leads to odder-than-usual dreams later during sleep.

Speaking for myself and my own readings of Ernst's novel of collage, the main reason I dip into it and attempt the "read" it is because it reliably induces an altered state of mind. It's a cost-free (once the book's bought) buzz. It breaks mental set, gets me out of my "self" and opens me back into that sense of wonderful weirdness and the sheer marvelous of...something lurking outside ordinary "reality." I think this is all the real religion we need. There seems a strong sense in which no one can truly "know" Une Semaine de Bonte'. This kind of thing seems to make some people outraged or feel threatened by the disturbingly uncanny weirdness; some seem to feel vertigo and they don't like it. My nervous system is exhilarated by this uncanniness. I like not being able to "figure it all out." I like the repeated attempt. I like the buzz.

Alfred Jarry, the Dadaists (one said what they were doing was a reaction to the news that people were being bombed from airplanes) and the surrealists were in the avant about questioning technological rationalism in the West. All this wonderful new technology, and yet: an up-tick in mass warfare and killing, and poverty among riches. An artist's protest: use anti-rationality to try and make people feel-then-think in a new way.

Has the jury returned with their verdict on how successful the surrealists and their popular accomplices were?

Brief Scattered Notes on Max Ernst (1891-1976)
He had an authoritarian father, strict religion as a kid. Where have we seen this story before? Ernst was a self-taught painter, and around age 18 visited insane asylums and became interested in artwork by the mentally ill. While ground zero for Dada was in Zurich, Ernst opened a chapter in Cologne. He went to Paris in 1922 and collaborated with anarcho-surrealist/then communist/then libertarian socialist poet Paul Eluard, and lived in a menage a trois with Eluard and his wife. Eluard started to get spooked by this arrangement and took off to Monaco, then Saigon. The three reconciled. Ernst was married a bunch of times, captured by the Nazis twice. The first time Eluard helped him get away, the second time Ernst was helped by Peggy Guggenheim,  who helped him get to Unistat, and whose own biography is almost too marvelous to believe. Ernst was married to Guggenheim from 1942-46. Ernst and Man-Ray got married in a double ceremony in Beverly Hills in 1946, to Dorothea Tanning and Juliet Browner, respectively.

Friends, collaborators and accomplices of Ernst include Miro, Diaghilev, Breton, Giacometti, and Klee. Ernst appeared in Bunuel's 1930 film L'Age d'Or.

How do I sum up my experience "reading" Une Semaine de Bonte'? I think I'll quote one of the inspirations for the Surrealists, "Lautreamont" (died: 1870), who once wrote, "As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing-machine with an umbrella on an operating table."

This video contains a recording of Ernst, from the 1960s, talking about the artist's response to outrageous politics, etc: It's less than 45 seconds:

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Quasi-Brief Foray Into Intelligence Increase

Propelled by some net-friends and Wilson and Leary's "SMI2LE" acronym (for their futuristic vision of Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension), I covered some of the latest on space migration HERE. When it came to tackling intelligence, I rapidly realized I'd been plopped into a dense thicket of Amazonian foliage, vines and tendrils ensnaring me, a thick canopy of green blotting out the sky, save for some filtered sunlight here and there, no compass, no radio...I couldn't even define "intelligence" to my satisfaction. I have run across some fairly good stabs at defining It, but nothing stood out as clearly the "best" definition. It seems intelligence is one of those things we "know" when we encounter it - in others or in our ourselves - but have a rather rough time of capturing it in all its glory and detail.

I suspect, when I feel this way, that I had made a bad assumption. Intelligence seems such a wonderfully grand thing that I'm a bit relieved we can't pin it down. 

We have tried to look at what intelligence is not, and we rapidly spiral down to the contemplation of stupidity. This gets us somewhere, but it seems to fall short. In a late 1970s essay by Robert Anton Wilson, called "The Abolition of Stupidity," (see The Illuminati Papers), RAW writes, "Voltaire, of course, may have been exaggerating when he said that the only way to understand the mathematical concept of infinity is to contemplate the extent of human stupidity; but the situation is almost that bad." Later on in that same book, in an essay titled "Stupidynamics," we come upon one of my many collected definitions of intelligence: "High intelligence is the ability to receive, integrate and transmit new signals rapidly. (This follows from Wiener's Cybernetics, especially his classic definition, 'To live well is to live with adequate information,' and from Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication.)"

As I mulled the definition problem, I found I gravitated towards ideas that had to do with making social life better, and thinking in wider and wider systems. It's easy to say intelligence ought to further the prospects of continuing human life in its cities, ecosystems and general environment, in perpetuity. A sort of species-wide Darwin test.

I really like a definition I copped from Andrea Kuszewski, in an article that originally appeared in Scientific American last year, but which I found at the page for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Ms. Kuszewski writes: 

"Intelligence isn't just about how many levels of math courses you've taken, how fast you can solve an algorithm, or how many vocabulary words you know that are over six characters. It's about being able to approach a new problem, recognize its important components, and solve it - then take that knowledge gained and put towards solving the next, more complex problem. It's about innovation and imagination, and about being able to put that to use to make the world a better place. This is the kind of intelligence that is valuable, and this is the the type of intelligence we should be striving for and encouraging." Her entire piece is a must-read. When I read her piece I confess I felt sorta dull. When I took in her five Big Things (Seeking Novelty, Challenging Yourself, Thinking Creatively, Doing Things the Hard Way, and Networking) and their links, I thought, "Jeez, I really have my work cut out for me..."

I have found so much Good Stuff in my researches into trying to find the State of the Art of "intelligence" I can only mention a few. One could make Intelligence Increase the topic for a blog and do nothing but write about that for a year and never get close to exhausting the topic. I'm sure there are people who have done that, indeed. But this overwhelming feeling both curls back upon itself and points back at the topic itself and - check it for yourself - people interested in getting smarter seem to very quickly want to get smarter in their own games, the ones they're already pretty good at. Note Ms. Kuszewski on "Challenge Yourself": once you get good at one game, abandon it for another. 

On a wider level, while relatively few inhabitants of the planet ardently seek to get off the planet and there seems a fascinating backlash against longevity/immortality, almost everyone seems to want to be smarter. Or they profess that. (What happened to so many of them?) Which I find curious.
                                                Howard Gardner: there are multiple 
                                                types of intelligence. I love his history of
                                                cognitive science, called 
                                                The Mind's New Science, even if it's a 
                                                tad dated by now.

I like Professor Howard Gardner's ideas about many different types of intelligence, and how much of it seems innate, then nurtured. The IQ tests mask cultural assumptions made by overly geeky types who seek to measure everything. Linguistic, logical-mathematical, and spatial abilities RAWK, don't get me wrong. But Gardner says bodily kinesthetic intelligence has commonly been overlooked. Geniuses here might be Baryshnikov, the gold medal winners in gymnastics, Michael Jordan, Gretzky...

Then there is musical intelligence. You know it when you hear it. I have learned that to cite certain examples of musical intelligence is a set-up for inadvertently pissing off your interlocutors: you will leave out some Genius they love, and music gives us great spiritual satisfaction in an often cruel universe. It's like dissing God. Not gonna go there. Fill in your favorite musical geniuses. You have your reasons and I promise you, they're good enough for me. 

Gardner was/is also part of a larger movement in recognizing Emotional Intelligence, and this topic seems to have just gotten hotter and hotter every year since around 1975. In the hardcore neurosciences, it's now a slam-dunk to assert that an adequately operating limbic system/emotional brain is essential in making rational choices, personally and socially. How do we know this? Short answer: there are plenty of IQ-smart people with limbic deficits, and they can't implement their logical-mathematical skills to the point where they can run a full, well-lived, reasonably "happy" life. The neurological literature is filled with extreme cases. If your hippocampus was damaged, you can't make long-term memories. One of the best books I've read on this topic is Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error.

Memory. Hmmm...I've just finished reading a rousing great, unfathomably wonderful book by a young hotshot journalist named Joshua Foer. It seems he fell in with a bunch of "mental athletes" who compete against each other in what seem like impossible, astonishing feats of memory. I will take the time to plug Foer's book from 2011, Moonwalking With Einstein. (see 3 minute video at the end of this post, too) Foer, in a sort of gonzo-style journalism, decides to become one of these mental athletes, and trains hard, and becomes, in one year, one of the top memorizers (or mnemonists) in Unistat. 

But it's the creativity behind the tricks these guys use to memorize a recently shuffled pack of cards in two minutes, or memorize a previously unpublished poem of many pages, pages of random words (record: 280 in fifteen minutes!), lists of binary digits, lists of historical dates, names, faces...

Think about what memory means to you. It sort of goes a long way in identifying who you "are," doesn't it? 

But then again: if you look at really good Jeopardy! players (one reader of this blog won $10,000 on the show); they have fantastically good semantic intelligence. This can be described as knowing free-floating pieces of knowledge, ideas that are out of space/time. As Foer puts it, knowing that "breakfast is the first meal of the day" is semantic memory; knowing you had eggs for breakfast yesterday seems to be processed in the nervous system differently, and is called episodic memory. Then there is procedural or non-declarative memory: even people who have damaged limbic systems and can't make long-term memories can still knit you a sweater, ride a bike, climb the stairs, etc. This is all incredibly mysterious, but we're learning. And I'm getting away from my subject.

One thing that rivets me regarding improving memory: when I looked at literature spanning roughly 1967 to 2005, there was no end of literature on drugs that would be coming that would markedly improve our memories. And some of you who have tried some of these drugs? Please feel free to weigh in in the comments section. I'd love to hear from you. 

                                           A rendering of Cicero. Photo by Maro Prins

But Foer and his colleagues used tricks that were from drawn originally from a book written between 86-82 BCE: Rhetorica Ad Herennium, but if you want to read it go to Amazon (or better yet, your local public library?) and look for Cicero's little red Loeb Classical Library edition, which contains Latin/English. This was the first book to go over the "memory palace" idea, which lasted until Gutenberg, then slowly died out. Before our modern era, memory training was a basic aspect of ethics, character building, having a worldly mind, attaining virtue. After the mass-production of books - epigenetic memories - memory faded. Why expend the effort to remember when you know where to find it outside your own nervous system? It's got a Library of Congress number, a Dewey number, you can Google it, etc. 

As Foer says, after mass printing really got going, "memory techniques that had once been a staple of classical and medieval culture got wrapped up with the occult and esoteric Hermetic traditions of the Renaissance, and by the nineteenth century they had been relegated to carnival sideshows and tacky self-help books..." 

You're thinking, "I love Giordano Bruno and all that, but gimme the new memory drugs!" I hear ya. 

But please consider a look at Foer's book. It's wonderfully entertaining, and he shows you how it's done. I found it seductive. And it has a good bibliography. 

I have no space/time here to cover the scientifically proven benefits of yoga, meditation, aerobic exercise, or the magickal art of writing for transformation. On to drugs.

Okay: this topic too seems far too extensive, so I'm going to limit it to what I've read about ADHD drugs being used "off-label" by college students, and to the ever-increasingly almost too-good-to-be-true testimonials about Modafinil/Provigil. 

Possibly 1 in 10 college students use Adderal or Ritalin as "mental steroids" (see "Cognitive Enhancers Are Not 'Cheating'") in order to perform better on tests and writing assignments. Which is interesting, but the side effects are obvious to anyone who reads up on this stuff, and we wonder why Provigil isn't made more widely available. Read Johann Hari's tale of what Provigil did/does for him. He ends the piece on a probably prudent conservative bend about the drug, but other articles mention people who study this stuff, use it themselves, and don't seem all that afraid of the long-term effects. 

Smart Drugs seem to be finally arriving, folks. And one thing that interests me relates to the marijuana legalization story (and cannabis has been shown to have some enhancing effects, too, but I would digress too much if I went on that route): some of these stories emphasize what Leary once called "cognitive liberty" (see The Economist, here: "minimizing harm" and "maximizing the freedom to choose"); this argument has not worked for cannabis. So far the "we may need to go laissez faire in order to help the economy improve" argument hasn't worked in California, where cannabis is the number one cash crop. But this "economy" argument is being used for cognitive enhancers, and of course, I agree. Here's one example. The optimism I find refreshing.

Wikipedia's article on Nootropics (AKA "smart drugs") is HERE.
Erowid has trip reports, other articles, etc, on smart drugs HERE
The Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute's site is HERE.

For the philosophically inclined, check out the quiet battles going on regarding technologically enhanced cognition, whether via computers and/or drugs, and "extended cognition." Being a bookish dude, I see the "Google is making us stupid"- like arguments. I am for some reason continually astounded by how many people I come into contact with who seem to think because they've got Siri, GPS, a MacBook Pro, and a smart phone...that they're "smart." Especially after reading about memory. What an illusion! Many of the people running around with these gadgets are preposterous dullards, without seemingly any sense of history or ideas, or wit. They are well-dressed, well-equipped apes. With bad manners. And they drive recklessly. 

On the other hand: extended cognition isn't some viral theme that will fade by the first day of summer, and many who are decked out with all these fantastic gadgets know how to use them appropriately. I've seen young people who were astonishingly witty, inventive...intelligent....using this stuff. I cannot tar everyone unfairly, just because I'm not enamored of a GPS or Siri/Internet/email in your pocket. (See Kuszewski's article above on "doing things the hard way.")

This is one socio-philosophical debate that isn't going anywhere. "Extended Cognition." It seems a close cousin to Richard Dawkins' "extended phenotype."

There was so much more I wanted to touch on regarding Intelligence Increase in 2012, but I may as well end with something so marvelous - and potentially a harrowing paranoia-inducer because it can be done at a distance, with the subject not knowing! - that you'll have something to debate about over drugs and friends this and other weekends: Are we getting close to instant "Matrix"- style learning?

Here's Joshua Foer, talking about his book on memory. It's a little over 3 minutes.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Of the Quantification of Beauty, Part 3

Before I do my usual and write far too much (let's face it: you have better things to do), make sure you come back to the top of this post (which means right where you're reading now), and find out, via some pretty well-established neurobiological data, what your own "Sex I.D." profile is, by doing a series of tests that will last around 20-30 minutes. I've seen a lot of this kind of stuff in my research, but this one is the best. It's HERE. At the bottom, click on "Take the Sex I.D. Test" I'll show you my androgynous results if you're interested...

                                 Miss Venezuela/Miss World 2011: Ivian Sarcos: get a load 
                                                of that "symmetry"!

Sexual Dimorphism and Facial Symmetry
In my previous riffings on beauty and the attempt to quantify it, we found that a certain symmetry seems to hold. But what is "sexual dimorphism"? Basically: males looking "masculine" and females looking "feminine." For example: a guy with a pronounced brow and square jaw with his arm around the waist of a female with big eyes and full lips. This is a noticeably sexually dimorphic couple. But why are these phenotypic characters attractive? Well, it's a hot topic, and Anthony Little and colleagues think they might have the answer. Do the attractive features you see in another indicate 1.) their genetic quality? 2.) fertility? or maybe it's 3.) visual experience simply; seeing someone hot is simply that: it's not about some "occult" or hidden or unconscious signals from the genotype?

Turns out - according to Little and his team - that it's #1 and #2 above. Symmetry and sexual dimorphism  seem linked, too. There seems to be a biological mechanism that links them, not only across cultures, but in primates. Facial symmetry and sexual dimorphism do indeed seem to be markers for health. Another study about females along these lines is HERE. Note this last one has a twist: female facial femininity may be linked to some aspects of disease resistance but not others. There's a test at Little's site and I took it, but it seemed like the silent videos of young people talking, where you rate them on a scale of attractiveness from 1 to 7, loaded far too slowly. His test stuff is HERE.

What about checking out bodies? For going on four years now, 3-D imaging of entire bodies - to more precisely assess symmetries and asymmetries - have been studied at places like Brunel University in London. They developed what they call "body masculinity," which means, roughly and as I understand it: if you're a female you tend to prefer males of greater height, wider shoulders, smaller breasts, and shorter legs; where males look for someone shorter, not wide shoulders, larger breasts (duh?), and longer legs. The researchers there are saying that we may not notice asymmetries, so nature has also plugged in some extra "hints" for us: curvy waist lines, broad shoulders, smooth dance moves, etc.

If you've read Plato, for example, you might be saying to yourself, "What's the big deal with all this hoo-ha about symmetry and beauty and and all that? Plato was writing about it in the 4th century BCE." Yes. But it wasn't a precise "science," as it supposedly is now.

By the way, the bigtime Chinese philosopher Mencius also thought we had an innate feeling for symmetry and beauty. See HERE.

A Dissenting View
Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian says that symmetry and perfection can be disturbing. Yea, but just look at his tiny mug shot next to his column. (Or look at mine, on the right side of this page.) Of course he'd say that, you may be thinking, 'cuz he's no George Clooney/Daniel Craig/nameyourfavoritehunkhere. Right, but I also see his point. Let me elaborate a bit.

I have known women who had big noses and for some reason I found them attractive. I knew a Dutch woman in college who was over 6 feet 2 inches: taller than me, and she had small breasts but she was sort of big-boned and clunky. And I thought she was hot. I could go on with my personal stuff here - a gal with a prominent mole that somehow seemed to improve an average face - but I'll stop. I think I asked myself, "Am I really attracted to these features, or have I picked up a fairly strong vibe that she'd be open to a roll in the hay with me, so I seem to find her flaws 'attractive,' or am I truly attracted to these 'flaws'?"

I don't know, but it seems a good bet that - and this is based on research too - her seeming "open-ness" made me find her flaws engaging.

I like how Burkeman brings up the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, or the beauty in imperfection. But then there's a trick there: we have to decide to not analyze too much if something seems  faux wabi-sabi or not. And as he says, far too many things are (faux) these days.

I've noticed something "disturbing" about my seeming inability to give a beautiful female (stand-up, sketch, sitcom) comic performer the "room" they deserve, as comediennes. I don't like it, it's unfair to Olivia Munn, Aisha Tyler, Laura San Giacomo and a few others. If I find them gorgeous enough, those circuits in my brain seem to inhibit the "hey, that's funny" circuits. It's weird. Every time I see Aisha Tyler, I say to myself, "Now, forget she's that gorgeous. She's funny too. She's hilarious, witty, snide..."
And I fail. Time for another pic, so may as well be Aisha:

The Unit of Measurement of Beauty
It's the Helen. One millihelen is enough to launch a ship; let the math follow from there. I read most of the Wikipedia article I linked to two sentences ago; I didn't see Robert Anton Wilson mentioned; I thought maybe he had coined the "Helen" as a unit of measurement for beauty, but I couldn't confirm. He did make the "Spelvin" the unit of measurement of "sincerity in sexual pleasure," from Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy.

Fashion Models and Barbie
Regardless all this positivistic measurement and biology, there seems at least some aspect of culture that has some gravitational effects on all...this. Let's look at fashion models and how they've changed since 1992. According to this article from Plus Model/Utne Reader, the average fashion model weighed 8% less than the average woman in 1992; today she weighs 23% less. Today's models very often meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa. WHO is choosing these models? Is this overweening skinniness being foisted upon the public? Do we really like that look best? Or is the fashion-model business sort of like the Art World: insular and to be admired from outside for their "show"?

Check out the lower half of this article. I find it amusing, but I found almost everything by the late William R. Corliss, amusing. Died in 2011. He was one of the great compilers of information that was representing something against-the-grain, anomalistic, or enlightening in some way. I marvel at a Corliss book. To me, he's right there with Charles Fort. Anyway: Barbie. We have, as a species, selected for these beautiful attributes, and at one long, long time ago, our ancestors were pug-fugly. Ken and Barbie are exteriorizations of our collective yearn for oodles of symmetry and sexual dimorphism. Or something like that. But because of symmetry and sexual choice (mostly by women), we have Barbie (and Ken) as ideals. (There may have been a tricky logical fallacy in there somewhere, so watch out!) And sombunall postmodernist/Culture Studies professors would say Barbie and Ken are about the White Male power structure, but all our symmetry studies say: no...

Because "it's hot in here" only because we have a sense of what "it's cold in here" might be like, I must discuss ugly people - or the non-beautiful, or those with "appearance deficits" - in order to leave this all properly aligned in some way.

Next time. Now go back uptop and do that BBC "Sex I.D. Test" thingy.

Here's Aisha Tyler doing stand-up for 50 seconds, in time for Valentine's Day:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dreaming Large: Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension: Part One: Space

Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary called these three things together "SMi2LE." They were both enthusiastic science fiction readers (and writers, one far better than the other), and both were also voracious readers of science "fact" about space exploration, humans getting smarter, and living increasingly longer and more vital lives. Despite their PhDs in Psychology, they were both terrific generalists, and while both were too optimistic about their forecasts, they inspired many a young dreamy intellectual to pursue neurobiology, organic chemistry, quantum mechanics, microbiology and genomics, etc.

For this post, I'll limit my spew to space migration. Soon: some ideas on Intelligence Increase, then Life Extension. The Frankfurt School thinkers criticized modern capitalist societies for techne without telos. Leary and Wilson's visions - and many other similar visions by Dreamers - seem to answer the Frankfurters. (For my telos I'd first choose solving world hunger, overpopulation, the renewable energy thing, and a few other small items like that...which makes me sympathize with the Dreamers who saw the stars as our ultimate destination...Jared Diamond reminds us that, throughout history, technology has always meant power, which solves problems, but also creates new problems. And what kind of life would we have without problems? Consider that your zen koan of the day if you didn't already have one with breakfast.)

I've been actuated to write this blog post by my blog colleague Oz Fritz, who shares many of my influences, and knows more about kabbalah and Crowley than I do... See his recent, trippy SMi2LE stuff HERE.

"The future exists first in imagination, then in will, then in reality." - Barbara Marx Hubbard

After 1972, science fiction writers began to sober up. NASA was seen as a jobs program, with vision problems and in-fighting as to whether we spend billions on unmanned space telescopes that could do real, hard science; or to pursue unmanned and then manned trips to Mars. Venus was not as exciting, which I'll get to shortly. Sure, Mars has its drawbacks: it has 1/100th of Earth's atmosphere, which means you're bombarded with radiation, which causes cancers and that's only the beginning. You can build radiation shields, but they're prohibitively expensive. Mars is always freezing, there's (probably) no life, no organic chemistry, canals, or temperate zones. The surface area is basically rust.

But Venus makes Mars look like Central Park on a warm spring day: when we look at it from Earth it's the next brightest astronomical body after the moon, but that's opaque, reflecting clouds of sulfuric acid, not a lot of fun. Below that, it has a very dense atmosphere, in stark contrast to Mars. But the problem: imagine our global warming problem times, oh, I'll just say 10,000. Maybe a million. It's extremely dense carbon dioxide. Talk about a smoggy day! It has no carbon cycle, so the nightlife suffers catastrophically. The day life too. Hell: life. A "runaway greenhouse effect" probably caused it all, and it's just a tough break for us: we need hospitable planets: not too hot, not too cold, an atmosphere with oxygen, some weather, plate tectonics...is that too much to ask? Oh yea: A decent day on Venus is about 450 degrees Celsius, or about 900 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to melt your copy of Paul McCartney and Wings' Venus and Mars.

Turns out getting humans to Mars to live or at least "hang out" is far more difficult than science fictionists had thought. The last Apollo guys were subject to solar flares and cosmic rays for about 12 days. A trip to Mars and back would run 18-30 months, or between 550-900 days. And the weightlessness is murder on your bone density. Micro-gravity causes us to lose as much density in one month as we would normally on Earth in a year. So: your bones age times 12. Your bones support your muscles, and we all see the implications there. Further: your tissues deteriorate under the radiation. Cancers are more frequent, and your brain gets damaged. Any pharmaceutical drugs are spoiled.

                                     Sulfur-rich rocks on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL/Cornell

"But haven't you heard of terra-forming Mars?," you ask. Oh yea. But it turns out that's a far more difficult problem than we'd thought. Just think about fixing Earth's climate problems. I still think there's gotta be some way to do it, though.

Peter Diamandis says there's "no question" we'll soon genetically engineer single-celled bacteria or even algae that can withstand the Martian conditions, and a $1million X Prize is at stake for the first team to do it.

Gregory Stock thinks the technical hurdles needed to overcome the Martian landscape for humans are too much, and that any technology put toward the effort would be better used on Earth, and he is a strong advocate of fearless, ambitious genetic engineering. Stock thinks the exploration of "inner space" would be more rewarding at this time, and I think if Leary and Wilson were here they'd sit up and take notice of that notion.

Robert Zubrin thinks Stock has it all wrong: the hazards of an inhabited Mars trip have been vastly overstated; he thinks we must go because the frontier is where invention happens. He's a visionary, he's Mars uber-alles. I think he sounds sorta nuts, but what do I know? I'm sitting in my little boxy book-lined room typing away on a tiny computer.

In the latest ish of Reason magazine, Tim Cavanaugh thinks we can get to Mars, but - and this is "trippy" in at least two senses of the word - we need to genetically modify humans on Earth first. Yep. Modify them so they'll be ready to handle the trip to Mars and...whatever they'll do there. It almost certainly has no mineral wealth to help pay back the costs. But it's the frontier, man! Imagine telling a bunch of venture capitalists that they'll need to help fund the engineering of humanoid "freaks" (although wouldn't you steer clear of that language?) to minimize the potential problems for the trip. "Here's the corker - and stick with me here guys, this is brilliant - we manufacture the Martians here on Earth first!"

Maybe I just lack imagination.

You can read about the oh-so-human problems and logistics of space travel - including, rather famously, what to do when you have to poo - in Mary Roach's hilarious and very well-researched Packing For Mars.

Who Was Chesley Bonestell?
A space artist who fired the imaginations of a million young space geeks before we'd ever gotten there. Check out the ingenium on Bonestell! He teamed up - in a matter of speaking - with Werner Von Braun, who wrote imagination-catching articles on space stations, space flight, space travel, etc. He was one of the MVNs (most valuable nazis) Unistat got over the Russians in the immediate aftermath of WWII. And it turns out he was almost uncanny in his predictions about how things would go in space, up to this point. But check out books from your library about Bonestell's artwork, or check out one of the pages devoted to him, like this one.

                                        A Bonestell landscape: the stuff of dreams

Micro-Gravity and DNA
Instead of actually going into space, it turns out we can simulate very low gravity conditions on Earth, using magnets. When fruit flies were levitated for x number of days versus control groups, 500 or so genes were affected, including ones that regulated body temperature, the immune response, and stress levels. See this article from Wired. So: space trips would seem to already by changing astronauts into "freaks" (I'm sure there's a better word), or...Something Else. The fruit flies had trouble reproducing and developed slowly. This is turning out to be a Hard Problem, eh?

But I bet human ingenuity will figure it out. But what will Earth look like then? Will you or I still be here then?

Space Tourism
It's already happening. Listen to some interviews HERE. Charles Simonyi's been "up" twice. The tickets are really expensive, so it helps if you've invented a program that Microsoft sells billions of copies of. For now.

It'll get a lot cheaper if the science fiction-y character Elon Musk is right. Musk, born in South Africa, dropped out of Stanford's grad school, invented Pay Pal (Musk's worth estimated at $670 million), then Tesla Motors, and Space X, which seeks to lower the cost of dollar-per-pound for flight from $1000/lb to $100/lb. The Unistat government's costs to get stuff - including humans - up to the Space Station was $10,000/lb. Musk and his team have lowered that to $3000, then $2000, and now $1000. When Boeing and Lockheed merged, saying the merger would save the US government money, Musk scoffed, saying "When has a monopoly ever lowered costs?" Musk is brash, brazen, and...some sorta genius, as is - it seems - everyone I've mentioned in this blogspew.

Since NASA's Space Shuttle was decommissioned last year, it seems clear the future of space tourism is in private, corporate, commercial hands from here on out. And that may be the best thing that could've happened to our dreams of space travel, if only for cost reasons.

Musk has competition: Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson), which will launch from a large area in New Mexico. They want to charge you $200,000 (a $20,000 deposit please) to get out to the Karman line - the line roughly 62 miles "up" that separates Earth's atmosphere from outer space - and you'll get four minutes or so of weightless-play. The ticket costs will further more space exploration. Like space hotels.

Oh yea: the very wealthy space tourists are "biological cargo" according to some in the trade. And the Russians don't like the term "space tourists." They prefer "private cosmonauts." I understand.

Other competition for Musk: the aforementioned Boeing/Lockheed's United Launch Alliance; and XCOR, founder: Jeff Gleason. Another recent Reason article that covers these guys and their doings is HERE.

Here's David Pakman talking about "The Psychology of Space Exploration and Space Travel." It's 5 and a half minutes:

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Drug Report For January 2012 (Late Edition)

Okay, so I'm late. What are ya gonna do, fire me? I'm a volunteer here, and besides...what's that? Why am I late? I was too stoned to make it here on time. I ain't gonna lie to ya. You know how it is; it warps your sense of time. You're like on a meditation, a real strong one. You're free from the "mind-forged manacles" that Blake talked about. Yea, I don't need cannabis to get there, but it helps. I like what one Rastafarian said once:

"Man basically is God but this insight can come to man only with the use of the herb. When you use the herb, you experience yourself as God. With the use of the herb you can exist in this dismal state of reality that now exists in Jamaica...When you are a God you deal or relate to people like a God. In this way you let your light shine, and when each of us lets his light shine we are creating a God-like culture." - from The Rastafarians: Sources of Cultural Dissonance, by Leonard Barrett, p.108, found in Erik Davis's Nomad Codes, p. 245 (I venture to guess about 75% of fans of Robert Anton Wilson would LOVE Erik Davis's book, but it's your call.)

Only I'm not that hard-core about it. And Berkeley isn't Jamaica, no matter how bad our economy is now. Leonard Barrett's book came out in 1977. A crapload has happened since then. That seems like 200 years ago to me, even though the calendar says 35 years ago. But: if we were free to be godlike in the way this Rasta-Man asserts, here in 2012 Unistat, would our culture improve? I tend to think yes. Which brings me to Obama and pot laws, crazy-making stuff.

Brief Note on Cannabis and Its Grey Status in Most States
Before the Barackstar got elected he said, famously, that "Of course I inhaled. That was the point." And he supposedly told Attorney General Eric Holder that pot laws, medical marijuana, and what the states do would be a low priority. And he seems to have lied. Some of you are way all over this story, or set of stories. I don't want to recap the Obama Admin's shift from early 2008 to now, but it's pretty ridiculous on all counts, if you ask me. I don't see what their argument is. I don't think they have a decent justification for cracking down in states where people have voted to legalized or decriminalize medical pot. This is a huge can of worms for me, and won't go into the minutiae, and believe me, I could if I wanted to...
                                                             Jack Herer strain of cannabis. 

So: in talking to my friends about WTF and the current state of cannabis affairs vis a vis The Feds, I find that cannabis hero the late Jack Herer (who has a strain of wicked bud named after him), author of the underground classic The Emperor Wears No Clothes, has had a big influence on the conspiracy theory that Dupont, Monsanto, and Big Biz thinks legal pot would cut into their interests. That's the short story; you've probably heard it and maybe think it's about right. But not long ago I wrote to Dr. Dale Gieringer (PhD, Stanford) of NORML, asking why he thought cannabis was still illegal.

Here's my Q and his A:

Dear Dr. G-

Would you please direct me to your writings that address the deepest reasons why pot is still illegal? I recognize you as one of the deepest thinkers on the subject and would greatly appreciate any and all recommendations for reading on this particular topic.

[Dr.G responds]:
My views on the subject are expressed in the conclusion of my article, " Forgotten Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California" http://www.canorml.org/background/caloriginsmjproh.pdf
(page 32f).
The blame for the marijuana laws rests squarely on the drug cops and the law enforcement bureaucrats who created them.  They wrote the laws, they enforce them, they have built their careers on the notion that they are necessary to protect the public from making bad drug decisions, and they are the major force lobbying legislators and Congress to keep the drug war rolling.
Okay, this makes sense to me. I'm not saying the Big Biz model is wrong; it's probably influential. And I think in 1937, when Johnny Law first really cracked down hard on pot, the Big Biz model was probably stronger then. But the cops need to justify themselves. It's SNAFU to the nth. 

The question is: how and when will we finally extricate ourselves from this monstrous idiocy? 

Sugar Demonization
Okay, before you've had your 22 teaspoons of sugar for the day, swallow this one: Recently researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have determined that sugar is practically like tobacco and alcohol, maybe even heroin - I'm putting non-sugary words in their mouth - but get a load of this article.

One of the lead researchers acknowledges that everyone will cry "Nanny state!" but that they're trying to get rid of the nanny state here, because the FDA has every sugar you can name on its GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe). The food industry can put as much sugar into anything they want; I guess I see the argument. If I squint. 

Chronic epidemic diseases are heavily linked to sugar, which is so addictive, the researchers say, that sugar needs to be regulated and taxed, with age limits on who can buy it and where and when it can be advertised. They say we're all so strung out on sugar that public education campaigns are hopeless: public policy must be used with "brute force."

Echoes of the tobacco lobbyist's arguments from the food and beverage folk were predictable. But I think they do have a good point when they say, yep, we put a lot of sugar in the stuff you buy 'cuz the Unistatians love that stuff, BUT: the real problem is that people are more sedentary these days. "Inactive lifestyles," is what they charge.

I also find the anti-sugar researchers' point persuasive that, 20% of obese people have a normal metabolism and no ill health effects, while 40% of "normal weight" people have metabolic problems from sugar use, leading to heart disease and diabetes, both of which take a huge toll on health care costs. Sugar is the difference here. Not plain "obesity." Interesting...

The 22 teaspoons of sugar per day (Hey! How about taking those 22 teaspoons as soon as you get up in the morning, then go cold turkey the rest of the day! On second thought: don't.) comes from the anti-sugar researchers, who I think are probably right about sugar as an addictive drug that leads to all kinds of problems. But I have a very hard time seeing anything done about this. If some cute kids shanghai me outside the Quik-E-Mart and ask me to score some sugar for them, I probably will. And you just know they'll be stealing it if a Good Guy like me doesn't come along. And then the cop/law/prison/parole complex will get the Sugar Fiends to further justify their bloated salaries. A 17 year old gets 8-10 for committing an armed sugar holdup. Said he and his friends just "wanted to party." And a DA with a stick up his ass the size of a Louisville Slugger sends the kid to the Big House. Fat slob prison guards with egregious pensions will be laughing and eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups right in front of the Sugar Fiend Inmates, their chocolately saliva dribbling down their sequence of chins, their revolver handles getting sticky. Gawd, we're one fucked-up society.

                                        O! Those evil powdery substances! Why can't we control?

Will it get that bad? At this point, regarding the demonization of sombunall drugs, I'll believe anything.

If anyone has the taste for more on this sugar mania, I'll throw two articles at you, HERE and HERE. Both of those articles make the compelling point that sugar substitutes are even more dangerous than sugar itself. 

This sugar issue leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I do think we all ought to eat less, period, and certainly eat less sugar, and exercise more. But I'm not for the State getting heavily into trying to make us do "the right thing." 

Regarding my first bit on pot, coupled with the second drug deal, sugar, I'm reminded of the observation that Professor Carlin once made: you can always tell when the really good pot has hit the town you live in, because when you go to the grocery store, the cookie aisle is littered with half-opened packages, crumbs and whole cookies all over the floor, etc.

Drugs In The Water and...Air Supply?
Well, you've decided to exercise some self-control and, in lieu of smoking pot (well, waking and baking) and eating sugary foods, you've started doing yoga every day, and you're cycling. Good for you. You're clean! Isn't it great? 

Now, if only you didn't have to drink water or breathe air. (Wot?)

It's all-too-easy to find articles on what's in our tap water: antibiotics like Keflex, antidepressants like Prozac, cholesterol-lowering drugs like Lipitor, pain killers and tranquilizers like Vicodin and Valium, birth control pills, seizure and chemotherapy drugs, farm animal steroids and hormones, and all kinds of industrial cosmetics, solvents, and detergents. Yum! I got a contact high just writing this paragraph. Not a good kind of contact high, either. 

No one - certainly not the EPA, which the Republicans want to gut - knows what the trace effects of this incredible drug cocktail have on us. The Germans seem out in front on this. I think we ought to really look into the effects of this. We do know that there are more drugs in the tap water near retirement communities...for reasons I don't think I have to go into.

How does this happen? Well, all the wonderful stuff we ingest doesn't metabolize completely in our bodies; some of it we excrete, it goes to the sewage treatment plant, and is not removed by the system, and...lah dee da...it ends up in your glass of water you're using to wash down your Ibupofen or birth control.

Glass half full?: Next time you're feeling lousy, do the cheap thing and drink a very big glass of tap water! Sure, you don't know what you're getting or how much, but you just might get something good.


We do know that aquatic life suffers the most from our drug habits: marine biologists have noticed small ocean, river, and lake life evince both male and female aspects they didn't have 20 years ago. Earthworms and plankton have definitely been affected. Some male fish, affected by hormones, have become "feminized." 

Hey! Maybe there's a way to get the Republicans worked up: if you gut the EPA, we're all gonna turn GAY! Now where's your John Wayne/Ronnie Ray-Gun rugged Murrrkin masculinity? But I digress, as is my wont...

Some sources say your carbon-activated filter gets rid of some of the drugs, but not all. A New York Times article says don't get your hopes up. Boiling water won't help. Bottled water? Please. 25% of it comes straight from the tap, and the companies that sell the stuff admit they ain't testing for drugs..

Bottom line: until we know more, don't flush your expired meds down the toilet. For now, let 'em go to the landfill, where they'll leach into the water supply from there, but at least it's localized. 

Couple more sources for this item: HERE and HERE. Have fun! Oh and not that you asked, but it's impossible to know if your foreign-made pharmaceuticals were safe to begin with.

Tap Water: suddenly it sounds like a good name for a heavy metal band.

Now the air: Some of us worry about ozone, smog, particulate matter, and pollen. Now let's worry about drugs! (Or not.It's up to you.) How do you find out where people are smoking a lot of pot or cocaine? Well, it's time-consuming and expensive and you're not quite sure how accurate your findings are, but you look at police reports, do public surveys and ask people to fill out anonymous questionnaires. Until now.

Researchers in Italy have found a much cheaper and probably far more accurate way to find out this information: test the air. Yep, our instruments are getting that good. So far, they don't think the trace amounts of cocaine or pot are of any concern to residents, but I'm going to go way out on a limb and predict they find an "unusually high" amount of cannabis in the ambient air in San Francisco, the Silicon Valley, Amsterdam, and Vancouver.

So what have we learned? That if you hold your breath forever and don't drink any tap water, you'll be "clean"! 

I'll try to make it on time next month...or is it this month?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Paranoia: A Few Items

Today I was mindstreaming through Webstuff, and every now and then, if you're like me, you approach your computer with some intent: you want to verify a quote, see if you can get a good deal on a used whatsis, return that email you've "been meaning to get to," find out who so-and-so is, check your Facebook while not facing your checkbook, und so weiter. And you find three hours have gone by and somehow you'd read a number of things you probably could not have guessed you'd encounter before you sat down and entered the hive-mind of the Web. Terence McKenna once said that a god is "somebody who knows more than you do about whatever you're dealing with." Sounds like Google to me, but maybe I'm feeling paranoid.

Dr. Olney
Amid this extended yoga of info-flow and effortless, painless lost time, I encountered the story of Dr. Richard K. Olney. He died very recently of ALS/Lou Gehrig's Disease. You know: the Thing Stephen Hawking has. It eats up your nerves that serve your muscles. Your mind stays intact, but your overall deterioration just gets worse and worse until the muscles that keep your lungs going give out.

The thing is: Dr. Olney was one of the world's experts on ALS. And then he got it. Here's an interview with him from 2005, after he diagnosed himself.

Well, the Statistician in me says, "Yea, well, it's creepy but statistically quite plausible, blah blah blah." And while I know that's probably correct, I think a lot - if not most - of us are wired to irrationally respond to the emotional aspect of fear of a dread disease, the emotional and intellectual concentration on that disease as it manifests in fellow humans for many years, and then contracting the disease itself. There's not a scintilla of evidence that ALS is contagious. But our paralogical thinking styles can lead us to entertain ideas about being "intimate" with something very dangerous, which in time devours us.

This reminds me of a well-known phenomena regarding medical students: they are in a sort of intellectual boot camp for years, chronically sleep-deprived, and very intimate with blood, trauma, screaming, violent patients, cadavers and death. And all sorts of hideous, heinous diseases they are forced to read about in their textbooks. And even the staunchest ones are subject to self-diagnosing with a dramatically fatal, if rare disease. They'll have been up for 27 straight hours going to lectures and lab assignments then studying for three tests the next day, glance in the mirror, notice their skin looks splotchy, and immediately diagnose Bokonowski's Disease (I just made that up...I think), rather than think, "I need about nine hour's sleep."

If you get a vicious headache and think, "I have a brain tumor," you probably have a headache that will go away soon. You're stressed out. A tumor? Where do you get that? Catastrophize much?

A "zebra" in medical student lore, is a product of this. When you hear hoofbeats outside your window, we know it makes sense to assume we're hearing a horse. Why would it be a zebra? Because zebras are more dramatic, and when you're stressed out, you "hear zebras" too. And assume tumors, which do exist and do happen to people, but it's not likely you've got one. (Some of us will readily admit this rational thought comes easier at some times rather than others...which sorta feeds into my point.)

It used to be labeled hypochondria, but seems now to be referred to as - at least with regards medical students - nosophobia. But if you're not a medical student, sorry, you're a hypochondriac. Welcome to the club! Now, before you sit down, please go wash your hands...

I wonder about our information-drenched culture and its propensity to heighten our...perceptions. And hear zebras. But zebras do exist...

Whatever we hear: RIP, Dr. Olney. Tough break.

Out-Manchurian Candidating The Manchurian Candidate
What a fantastic, phantasmagorically paranoid film John Frankenheimer made of Richard Condon's 1959 Cold War paranoia book; I liked the book, too. But I read it only after I'd seen Frankenheimer's film about seven times. I think I even saw the remake before I read Condon.
                                           Philip K. Dick, native of Berkeley, California

There's another 1959 work of fiction that isn't as famous, but to me, it's more fantastically paranoid than Condon. It's by Philip K. Dick, and it's called Time Out of Joint. Here's the basic plot, so if you plan to read it, skip ahead, or rather, SPOILER ALERT!:

A guy in 1950s suburban Unistat drinks beer and, oddly, seems to support himself by being a very adept player at a puzzle-game that the local newspaper runs, called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?" He starts to receive unlisted programs on his ham radio. He finds a telephone book that has numbers that aren't normal, aren't supposed to "be." He begins to freak out in suburbia, in an already paranoid Cold War era of bomb shelters in people's back yards, etc. The main character, last name Gumm, begins to believe he's living in some sort of fake world. This is pretty weird, spooky stuff, but I haven't even gotten to the best parts: it turns out it's really 1996, and Earth is at war with someone who has colonized the moon. (Newt Gingrich, trying to realize his first phase of Galactic Triumph, channelling Philip K. Dick? Now who's paranoid?)

The Earthians know Gumm has for some reason the uncanny ability to predict the next hostile bombing by the moon colonists, and he's become sympathetic to the moon colonists while still living on Earth. So the military-industrial complex creates a fake environment and drugs him and provides him with the newspaper puzzles in order to obtain the knowledge about the next bombings.

Let that scenario sink in before we move on.

Freudian Riff on Paranoia
Freud seemed, to lil' ol' me, to overintellectualize paranoia - which is funny in itself to me, because I see the hyperextended thought processes in a really good paranoid narrative as being a byproduct of something akin to too much analysis - but anyhoo: Freud's explanatory schema for paranoia, short version, goes something like this: somebody becomes fixated on something. Then aspects of the fixation are seen as somehow threatening, so the fixation becomes repressed. It stews in the unconscious, bringing out the juices of emotion there, but remains repressed. Then some sort of rupture occurs, and the emotions are reconstructed as an external perception and projected onto some object or event. "What was abolished internally returns from without." I forget if Freud was using cocaine at the time of this insight/formulation, or if he was maybe a bit overly spooked by Daniel Paul Schreber. What am I? A Freud expert? Let's move on...

Robert Sapolsky Anecdote
I've learned a lot from Prof. Sapolsky of Stanford, and in his book The Trouble With Testosterone there's a joke about diagnosing the paranoid schizophreniac. It goes like this:

Doctor (to patient): What do apples, bananas, and oranges have in common?

Patient: They're all wired for sound.

It's funny, aye. But if you've had a loved one who was a paranoid schizo, it's far, far too familiar. I had a brother who was a victim of this disease. The only thing I can think of that could be worse would be seeing your loved one dwindle away to Alzheimer's.

As a result of studying Sapolsky and a few others in his field, I've come to see almost all diseases on a continuum. I'm pretty weird, but somehow my other brother and I did not become full-blown like our brother did. Why? I really don't know. But it's safe to say: even if your genes are almost the "same," it's genes PLUS environment PLUS accidents/chance.

When we're talking paranoia, let's always be aware it's on a continuum. When I caught myself today thinking about Dr. Olney somehow "contracting" ALS from his thought-environment, I quickly dismissed the idea. Because I can, and with justifiable "reasons" that the majority of the more thoughtful and assumed "normal" population would accept. (Still...does that warrant justification? Oops!...) There are others who can't. They might not be able to shake the notion that Olney caught ALS via thought-beams emanating from the patients...Oy and ugh and sigh.

Fruitful Use of Paranoia: Hamlet, J.S. Mill, and Chomsky

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

In Randy Allen Harris's terrific work on late 20th century linguistics, The Linguistics Wars, Harris writes about how Noam Chomsky seems to use paranoia fruitfully, and something along the lines of what John Stuart Mill meant when he said, "Both teachers and learners go to sleep at the post, when there is no enemy in the field." Harris surmises that "isolation and embattlement" have been psychological motivation for Chomsky's work as a linguist. When previous brilliant students have broken with him, he's held his ground, but used some of their ideas.

The gist of the Hamlet analogy with Chomsky is that he's so creative as a thinker you can substitute Chomsky for Hamletlanguage or mind for cloud, and a rapidly changing core of bright and dedicated linguists for Polonius. 

And Noam's linguistic models have changed into weasels and whales. But, as Harris argues, this is how science tends to go. Aristotle and Ptolemy said the Earth was the center of the cosmos, and their followers agreed. Copernicus said Earth revolved around the sun, and his followers agreed. Why?

Robert Anton Wilson and Paranoia
In an interview with Michael Taft early in the 21st century, Wilson said that this childhood polio was behind the realization that all of his fictional characters have: that the universe is out to get them; they must find a way out of this horrifying mental state. As Wilson himself did.

This was a man who, as a Mad Scientist doing psychological experimentation on himself from roughly the period 1962-1976 to see how plastic and malleable the mind, his mind, was, had plenty of acquaintance with paranoia. At the end of the experiment his daughter was brutally murdered, and Wilson's experiments had nothing to do with the random act of violence. But, for him, it would, it seems, be very easy to fall prey to a debilitating, spiraling paranoia because of all the non-Aristotelian "logical" things that happened to him in his 14 year self-experiment.. He didn't. And I think the reasons why he didn't had to do with part of the 14 year mind change self-experiment, which always contained what he'd learned diligently studying logic, scientific experimentation and skepticism, philosophy, psychology, General Semantics and linguistics, and various forms of yoga and psychotherapies. He could do very deep Thelemic magick and psychedelic drugs, and write thick novels and read for many hours alone Finnegans Wake and Pound's Cantos and still keep it together.

A good place to start for a RAW neophyte interested in paranoia and how if manifests and how to deal with it would be Cosmic Trigger Vol 1

Of paranoia: he basically saw it as "a losing script." The paranoid will perceive phenomena in a confirmatory biased way madly; this cycle feeds upon itself and is no way to be happy, to put it mildly. Further, he used mythology to model paranoia as a Chapel Perilous in which one must be armed with inner tools - especially an educated skepticism or wide-ranging agnosticism - in which to make it outside the walls.

CAVEAT LECTOR (let the Reader beware): If you want to experiment with this, read as many conspiracy theories as you can for six months. Steep yourself in the deepest and most interesting - and possibly plausible? - conspiracy ideas and just keep reading, listening to conspiracy talk, reading more...you WILL become paranoid. It's highly likely you'll find yourself in your own Chapel Perilous. It is highly advised that the reader be well-practiced in breathing techniques, literary deconstruction, and some form of linguistics. But far better: an agnosticism towards just about everything.

            This is one of the last known photos of the mysterious Thomas Pynchon, born in 1937.

Pynchon's "Proverbs For Paranoids"
Here's a list, from Gravity's Rainbow. My favorite has always been, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers."