Overweening Generalist

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Moist Panties": The Oddity of Word Aversion

Whilst reading a collection of articles on slang, trying to get a line on how it's created by in-groups in order to define themselves and give members a sense of belonging, and how created slang words make their way into mainstream culture, I happened upon the apparently mysterious linguistic topic of word aversion.

I'll get to moist panties in a sec, but I wonder what y'all make of sentences such as, "After a nourishing hot meal it was Tad's brainchild to make fudge, but feeling suddenly like he needed to vomit, he dropped the spoon, wiped his slacks, felt like puke, and threw his sweaty shirt into the crevice of his couch." Or: "The hardscrabble pugilist towed his luggage into his man-cave, his brow felt viscous and the scab began to ooze. He wondered if he'd ever win a bout again, and if this was the new normal."

Okay, I admit these sentences seem ripped from a Bulwer-Lytton Bad Writing contest, but I crammed in as many words as I could that people reported having a visceral reaction to...for seemingly no good reason at all. There are no "swear" words here. The words seem pedestrian, inoffensive.

U. of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman gives this definition for word aversion:

"A feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be overused or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting." 

I read this and, similar to the association Proust had with madeleines, I remembered a conversation with a friend in which he brought up how much he couldn't stand the word "ointment." Just the sound of it bothered him. He was otherwise of very sound mind.

So, I swerved and started reading on word aversion. It seems a lot of us have these words that really bug us, but scholars don't know why, or what percentage of the population has these aversions, or how old the phenomenon is, whether it's similar to disgust over sounds, smells or tastes, or if bilingual people - who have more of a sense of how arbitrary words and meanings are - are less prone to word aversion.


Sarah Fentem of The Atlantic really hates the word "panties." She goes on about why, and while I get where she's coming from, I happen to love the word "panties." Fentem seems to think it connotes patriarchy and making women's undergarments (the lower one) into a little girl thing. It's undignified, I guess. For me, it makes me slightly randy, and I don't think of women as anything less than men; au contraire: women might be better than us men. Or I find myself often thinking so...What's interesting is that Fentem seems to have a lot of company.

But the all-time gross-out word, or at least recently, in English, seems to be "moist." Which...I don't understand. Here's another word I think perfectly lovely. In reading on the aversion for "moist," I learn it migrated to us from the French in the 14th century, and meant "damp." The French got it from a Latin word that denoted that which is slimy, moldy, mushy, and possibly associated with disease.

I use "amazing" too much, and I'm not happy about it, but many others abuse it to the point where it almost disgusts me. "Your hair...is amazing!" No, it's not. Very few hairdos are truly "amazing," but let's not go down that road. I dislike the word "amazing" because of its overuse, so that doesn't qualify under Prof. Liberman's definition.

Others declare they detest the word "like" as a placeholder in everyday conversation, and I agree, but that doesn't qualify under the Liberman definition either. When college students are asked what words they dislike they often trot out pus, mucous, phlegm, vomit, puke, crud, scab and ooze, but the disgust issue seems to be baked on there. And besides, I really like all those words. They don't disgust me; I'm not aversive to them.

But why did other people cite brainchild, slacks, navel, squab, cornucopia, pugilist and goose pimple? This is where it gets interesting. Interesting-weird. To me, anyway...

I tried to compile a list, over the past two days, of words that seem to bug me, for no good reason. I came up with:

dust bunnies: I think I don't like this because I remember my mom picking up the term from TV she'd recently watched, and I guess maybe this lowbrow acquisition bothered my affected and wanna-be highbrow pretenses at the time. The aversion to the term has stuck for 30-odd years.

yummy: I almost feel apologetic for admitting this one. After all, it's an extremely common expression of joy over food, and lately: the good looks of someone else, and it seems that women will say it about hunky men far more than men about alluring women. I think maybe it seems too childish for me? As I said: I apologize to all of you, but Liberman does say it's an "irrational distaste."

FWB/friends with benefits: Gawd, I hated this from the get-go, as soon as I understood the acronym. Have your flings! Be far more..."French" folks! Enjoy your dalliances. But to couch your carnal sex-partner in terms from the workplace? "Benefits"? Now that I'm forced to write about it, I'd prefer "fuck pal" as it's so up-front and unapologetic, brazen even. The "benefits" connotes the Human Resources person down the hall, sick days, the rec room at work. Come to think of it, FWB doesn't disgust me. It pisses me off. I think of John Dewey's term for people who are so caught up in their work it's their whole goddamned life; they can't talk about anything else, even when off work. And it's BORING to listen to: who in the office said what when so-and-so showed up dressed like blah blah and then the thing that another person at work knows that the other person doesn't know they know and that some other co-worker might be gay, etc: Dewey's term: "occupational psychosis." Fuck FWB! And maybe FWB wouldn't count with Liberman, I'm not sure: my distaste seems rational to me, not "irrational."

foodie: I loathe this term, but I think I've unpacked it and it's about class and pretentiousness. I use it, but only within the context of jokes. I saw a sketch comedy bit where a guy with AIDS walks out on his date because she says in passing she's gluten-free and he says he's a foodie and that disgusts him. "Gluten-free is bullshit! I'm outta here!" I can imagine a few friends reading this and later bringing it up, because they use "foodie" all the time, and I try to hide my wincing. Hoo-boy...

upscale: I think I hate this word for roughly the same reason I hate foodie. It doesn't seem like panties or moist or crevice to me. I maybe think far too much about words...I will use "upscale" in an ironic or comic sense, too.

The American people...: A lifetime of having my Crap Detector on while politicians and other demagogues speak has me recoiling in a visceral rictus of hate for this term. It's a term that's supposed to instantly hypnotize its audience, and it only adds to my hatred of it because it seems like it works well enough for the assholes who use it.

convo: I see this in writing. People want to get together for drinks and some conversation. Only they write "convo," which strongly suggests to me they have nothing to say that could even possibly be of remote interest to me. I think this one fits Liberman's definition. I feel an irrationality in my distaste for this term.

And finally: I would like to murder and get away unpunished anytime a person says:

The F-bomb: The layers of ignorance and sheer idiocy this term connotes, for me? I can't even go into it here, now. Suffice: if you say that someone "dropped an F-bomb" I will want to drop you, hopefully with blood oozing out of your ears. FUCK seems like a perfectly lovely word to me. Jesus H. Muthafucking Christ on a pogo stick: GROW THE FUCK UP, AMERICA!

Another scholar, Jason Riggle of U. of Chicago, says word aversion seems highly specific in evoking a visceral reaction, but about feelings of disgust, not moral outrage or annoyance. The words that disgust people seem to conjur up an association of imagery or some scenario. I'm not sure any of my words work here from his perspective. And if so, it has been suggested that the people who aren't bothered by moist panties covered in crud in a crevice, who might need to put some ointment on that scab that's oozing pus? They're people who work with words and writing every day. I have since I was five years old.

Robert Anton Wilson was not word-aversive, and his first published book was a dictionary of slang and "forbidden words." He'd wanted to discuss how irrational semantic reactions to some words which acted like spells on listeners and readers, but the publishers cut out those parts. In the last decade or so of his life he wrote an essay about "fuck" and other words that we're supposed to be scandalized by...even "liberals" will seek to harm your career if you use these black magick words. RAW begins his essay, "Copulating Currency," with these lines:

James Joyce defined an artistic epiphany as any "vulgarity of language" which reveals the "whatness" or "radiance" of an event or of those structural systems which remain "grave and constant in human affairs." As biographer Richard Ellmann noted, the effect of these fragments on conversation, preserved in Joyce's novels, often appears "uncanny." I myself tend to find them a combination of the tragic and the hilarious. - see p.171, TSOG: The Thing That Ate The Constitution

The linguistic scholars who have yet to formally delve into word aversion have already banished Alfred Korzybski to the Region of Thud; he is declasse in the groves of academe. But he'd already come up with a robust theory that covers much of this ground: we have "semantic reactions" to words and they work throughout the nervous system (NB: the current linguistic professors' use of "visceral"), and, well, let's let Korzybski speak from 1933 to us, the time being bound:

Since "knowledge", then, is not the first order un-speakable objective level, whether an object, a feeling; structure and so relations, becomes the only possible content of "knowledge" and of meanings. On the lowest level of our analysis, when we explore the objective level (the unspeakable feelings in this case), we must try to define every "meaning" as a conscious feeling of actual, or assumed, or wished...relations which pertain to first-order objective entities [...] The meanings of meanings, in a given case, represent composite, affective, psycho-logical configurations of all relations pertaining to the case, coloured by past experiences, state of health, mood of the moment, and other contingencies.
-pp.22-23, Science and Sanity

Korzybski was the one who cautioned us: the word is not the thing; the word "water" will not make you wet. A later student of Korzybski paraphrased him: the menu is not the meal. We should try to constantly remind ourselves, via a "consciousness of abstracting" that we are throwing around abstract words and maybe we don't even know what we're talking about. Does the "National Debt" have a certain odor? What color is it? How much does it weigh? If we can't give good answers to these types of questions, we may be tossing around a high-order abstraction as if it were on the same level as the hammer on the table in front of you.

Natasha Fedotova of the U. of Pennsylvania found that the word "rat" can "contaminate" words next to it. I hope you have a good rat time tonight at the cafe with all your friends! (Wha?) Fedotova served perfectly delicious food on plates that said RAT on them; people tended to not want to eat.

Here's my kinda guy: blogger Ted McCagg. He got the idea to determine the best word ever. Not the most erudite or funniest or most whimsical: "the best." And all sorts of people got involved and he laid out a massive competition, like the college basketball "March Madness" style of brackets. He loves words like Wilson and Joyce did...and George Carlin, indeed. I too like kerfuffle, hornswoggle, gherkin and diphthong. I even like viscous and maggots.

And, of course, moist panties.

[Apologies to all who have been harmed by certain words in this blog!]

Monday, February 17, 2014

Qualia and Having a Nasty Cold Virus, Drinking Wine: What's It Like?

My colleague Eric Wagner recently wrote that reading primary sources rather than studying what other writers have to say about the primary sources was lately more enjoyable for him. While I read this, I had been trying not to notice that I seemed to have been "coming down" with a particularly virulent cold virus that others around me had been jousting with. (I used the quote marks in that last sentence for  fans of George Lakoff.)

This is not the flu; I have no fever. But it is a markedly aggressive HRV (human rhino virus) that has had normally hale and stout friends sneezing, hacking and croaking their speech for eight days, some even 17.

Eric's self-observation made me think of Robert Anton Wilson's line about reading primary sources to avoid the "standardization of error," which made me look up and read about Vilhjalmur Stefansson's life.

                                      If you feel not-sick while reading this, do you 
                                      remember vividly what it FEELS like to be like
                                      this guy?

As my throat got scratchier and my feeling of physical being worse and worse, I thought about our reactions to works - even people and ordinary objects - prior to contamination by others's opinions or learned "expertise."There's a long line of thinking that says Go First To The Source, forsaking all others. Both Eric and I have been influenced by Ezra Pound in this, although Ezra, much of the time, wants you to see for yourself, by thinking for yourself, that his - Ez's - esthetics were superior all along. He's funny in that way. One of Ez's students, Louis Zukofsky, wrote a book called A Test of Poetry, which seems like a better way to test your own esthetics without previous knowledge that "experts" agree that So-and-So is great, others less so, etc. In an earlier part of the Roaring Twentieth Century, I.A. Richards conducted similar tests about poetry; I did a gloss on him HERE. Wagner has a blog that's centered on his experience reading and thinking around Zukofsky.

What Pound, Richards and Zukofsky seem to want to engender in their readers is an axiology: a personal hierarchy of values about what's good and why and how works are alike in some way and not in others, etc.

I went to sleep reading about Heidegger's phenomenology, neuroscience ideas about Art, Kant's ding an sich ("the thing in itself"), and wasted into somnolence thinking how underrated phenomenology was...or that it seemed  that way to me.

I woke up feeling much worse. The virus had set up shop in me, clearly: I had observed friends with this same thing, hoping I wouldn't get it. My symptoms, as I understand them, arose due to my immune system's "war" (for Lakoff fans, again) against the virus, which only wants to hack into my own cells and use their resources to make more copies of themselves. The symptoms are a good thing, even though we feel like shit. It means we're probably winning. (Who's this "we"?)

As I felt worse and worse and dreaded the at-minimum seven day sentence of dealing with this virus, I began to realize something I'd noted many times before: being sick, for me, seems like an odd discrete mind-state. I don't think I've been sick for a couple of years, but here I am, knowing intellectually that I'm usually not in this state. The odd thing - for me - is this: I can't feel what it's like to not be sick when I'm sick, even though I spend most of my life, in effect, "practicing" the state of being not-sick. I can certainly remember the state of wellness, but it's as if I remember it by reading about it in a book.

I've talked to friends about this and it seems around half know what I'm talking about and roughly concur: a nasty cold or the flu is a discrete mental state, like being high on LSD or mourning the loss of a loved one. The other half either doesn't "see" it this way: they're still "themselves" but just temporarily feeling lousy. It's not discrete; it's more a matter of degree for them, which certainly seems legit to me. Others who haven't seemed to agree with my "discrete state" of sickness idea seemed to have either been bored with my line of thought, or that I was talking too much again about some bizarre idea.

So I dropped my thinking of esthetic perception and read all day on qualia, a topic in the philosophy of mind that generated much debate and heat, shed some light of various quality, and seems to go on and on and on.

Very very briefly and ridiculously inadequately: We both sit down to drink a glass of zinfandel and talk about rock, stocks, the Sox, or life's building-blocks. Apart from the language of wine-tasting (the gamut: oak cask, aged, berry, body, nose/bouquet, tannins, bitterness, fruitiness, etc), we're drinking wine poured from the same bottle. How do you like it?, I ask. It's very good, you say. Yea, I like it too. Nice color.

Here's the thing: those on the side of qualia's existence and importance say there's something ineffable about your experience drinking that wine, an explanatory gap. It's not like doing your income taxes. Drinking that zinfandel - your experience doing it - is not like feeling rushed and late for work. It's not like stubbing your toe after getting out of the shower. Each of these things is different from each other, even though they all involve you in the world, subject to gravity and made of atoms, possessed of articulate language, and a nervous system well experienced in myriad environments. It seems like each experience of the world cannot be completely reduced to physical processes; there's always something left-over, something ineffable and unique about our experience.

We do simulations of what it might be "like" to "be" someone famous, brilliant, beautiful, or widely hated. Some of us may have tremendous imaginations, but we cannot know, I cannot know, what it's like to be Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Or Cate Blanchett. Or Dan Dennett.

I began to think of having this nasty cold as a suite of qualia: the feeling of being literally phlegmatic due to a virus? We've all had the experience. But how do I know your experience is the same as mine? I can't. Oh, we can talk and nod: yep, I feel that way too; those words seem adequate enough. But they are only words.

A typical thought-experiment in philosophy: You meet some alien from another world who cannot feel physical pain, but It speaks your language well and is crazy-intelligent. You explain the physiology of nerve pathways and the spine, types of pain receptors, qualities of pain from a paper cut versus a kick to the shins, etc. The alien downloads into his freakish mind, from the Cloud of info available to us via Internet and books: everything available that has any sort of important bearing on the physiology of pain. And categorizes and memorizes all of it, so any question you ask it about pain, no matter how occult and abstruse? Our alien can answer you in a matter of seconds, with a long stream of data that seems meaningful in some way. Very soon It knows everything any human has ever discovered about pain, and could lecture at the best medical schools on it. Every human authority on pain in the world recognizes our alien ("It") as the Brain About Pain. And yet: It can't feel pain. This is qualia. The alien knows everything about pain except the actual experience of pain, and what sort of "knowledge" is that? 

"What's it like to experience_____?"

"What's it like to be_____?"

Now: qualia is usually discussed in terms of basic, simple experiences, like the wine example I gave. Departures from our mundane, "ordinary" feelings of "reality" - altered states of consciousness - seem to enter into the qualia discussions less often. But if they are not the same, then surely the ideas do overlap? Being very stoned on hashish while sitting intensely close to one of the great violinists in the world as she plays the Chaconne in D minor seems like both a very radical altered state and so filled with qualia as to be qualia-stupid: just model it: This is what it is for me to be radically stoned and sitting 4 feet from Victoria Mullova playing Bach...Yes? And how was it different from the way coffee smelled, from down the hall on Sunday morning while you were still in bed and just coming out of sleep? We realize one experience was otherworldly, but only you know what it was like for you to experience both events.

A very convincing idea in cognitive psychology that has to do with the question: Why do we "like" horror movies or tragedies and sad stories? Why are we drawn to news stories about horrible things that happen to people? A big part of the answer is: we use these stories to mentally rehearse worse-case scenarios for ourselves. Just in case. The fictional horrors and depressing stories are more "enjoyable" because, while we know they could be "real" in this case everyone's safe because they are not in fact real. We build circuitry in our brains about these stories, just in case we need to draw upon the "knowledge" there. David Hume said this type of thinking about the sufferings of others builds empathy towards others. The experience of the stories have qualia, if you're into that too. But maybe I'm muddling up the topic even more than I normally do...

Daniel Dennett defends the materialist view of the world by saying that qualia is a fancy word for something that is so ordinary we hardly ever think about it: the way the world seems to us. He has a very refined and nuanced refutation (or denigration) of qualia, and I refer The Reader to his book Consciousness Explained. Because most of the eminent adherents of qualia seem to talk about it as if it's aligned with the Hard Problem of nailing down what consciousness "is" and we don't have any way to scientifically answer this to most scientists' satisfaction, it's a metaphysical concept. Which is anathema to the materialist. I disagree with Dennett and Minsky and a few other qualia-denigrators/deniers of repute, but not for reasons that seem all that robust to me: I think it's a question of personality and temperament. I think the major reason I like and "believe" in qualia is because it's fun to do so. Others choose Batman or God. Go figure.

Now, I have thought a lot about very high order abstractions like god, justice (especially informal examples), terrorism, Being, and infinity. There are similar debates about these words too, and what they refer to, or why referring to them is to talk poppycock. It's all fascinating to me. I find I think about these ideas in as many rational ways as I can; I try to articulate the points of view of those who seem to disagree with me in order to better understand where they're coming from. And I note I always have strong emotional responses to each word, for different "reasons." With qualia, I'm okay with it: I find it pragmatically useful to assume it exists, because it's pleasurable to do so. I'm well aware of a host of very good arguments against it, that it's "mere metaphysics," and that it might be an accident of language or brain evolution; it could be the result of a kludge.

V.S. Ramachandran thinks qualia is probably related to brain development that differs us from chimps. We have Wernicke's Area. Parts of the parietal lobe became differentiated in function way back in our dim past. "Rama" thinks qualia has to do with the idea of "the self" and finding meaning and brain areas - it has a whole hell of a lot to do with the Big Problem of consciousness - so he thinks qualia is a metaphysical concept now, but with further neuroscience, it can become physical.

John Searle sees consciousness as explainable by biology too, "like digestion," and I once heard him say that "conscious states are qualia all the way down."

David Chalmers posits a "principle of organizational invariance" and says that hey, if you AI/roboticists can array computer chips in a way to map the neural circuitry of the brain, you'll get qualia, which is such a trippy idea I almost feel a cannabis contact-high writing this.

But I and many others see Chalmers, Searle, and Rama as serious characters. And aye, the Materialists are worthy opponents too.

Robert Anton Wilson, as far as I can recall, never used the word qualia, but he did think we experienced it, because of the array of life-experiences and memories we brought with us to any further experience. These memories and life experiences were totally unique to us. Right there: qualia. But add to this: our nervous systems are not identical, physically, so our sensoria cannot be 100% identical. We bring cultural references and a vast suite of tricks that our language can play in our experience too. Wilson was a longtime linguistic relativist. He said we also bring moods and expectations to experience, which seem highly variable and can shape our experience of something as simple as a glass of wine. For Wilson, we lived alone on the island of our own vastly idiosyncratic subjectivities, but due to language, gestures and time-binding, we can have intersubjective discourse, bugs and misunderstandings and all.

Indeed, have you ever been so preoccupied that you took your first sip and then were asked "How do you like it?" and you realized you didn't even tune in to the taste and note anything? That's a quale right there: singular for qualia. Either lie and say it's "a bit too jammy for my taste, but all in all it's quaffable and not plonk by any means, no," or admit it: you didn't even notice, because, "I just found out the IRS is going to audit me." So...there's qualia: your total feelings about finding out you're being audited by the IRS, but only your unique feelings about it. Everyone will agree it sucks, of course. But there's more!

For Further Reference
-John Searle's TED talk on consciousness: 15 minutes. The old Berkeley dude still has it, here.
-Wiki for qualia. I was going to make most of the post about Schrodinger, but the Idiot parts of my writing brain took over. Sorry!
-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is usually a first-rate place to dig into a topic in philosophy, and here they come through in spades.
-V.S. Ramachandran! It's worth 8 minutes of your day, probably.
-9 1/2 minutes: this guy does a very good job of giving us a basic idea about qualia
-Thomas Nagel's famous 1974 paper, "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?", which did a lot to make qualia into more of debated and then popular topic in the philosophy of mind. (Schrodinger's ideas should have done it in the late 1940s/early 1950s, but I think he was way ahead of his time.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Day We Fight Back

This one's gonna be short, as I short-circuited trying to whittle down commentary on this situation we're in.

I counted and I have amassed 472 articles on mass surveillance in my "personal" files...since May 2013, shortly before the Snowden Era went supernova.

Yes, I apparently am some sort of maniacal hoarder of information written by others about how others are maniacally hoarding information about..."us?" (But then the NSA can tap this blog, so it's come full-circle!)

Some 20th Century Prophets: Huxley, Aldous
                                                        Orwell, George
                                                           Kafka, Franz

With our topic in mind: Here's what I consider a particularly fascinating article. It's by a George Washington U. Law Prof named Daniel J. Solove, who later published an outstanding book on the subject, Nothing To Hide: The False Tradeoff Between Privacy and Security.

His book is eminently readable, but if you don't have the time, most of his thesis is in this article, which I'll try to convince you to read:

"Why Privacy Matters Even If You Have 'Nothing To Hide'"

Solove shows how the "if you've got nothing to hide, well..." argument is not only pervasive, but frames the concept of privacy so narrowly that privacy advocates spend a lot of time fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

Note the seven sample responses he received from commenters to the blog he contributes to, Concurring Opinions, about how to respond to "Well, I've got nothing to hide, so..."

I liked his example from Durrenmatt's play Traps: "A crime can always be found." We ought all to think about this more.

The extreme form of privacy and "Well, I've got nothing to hide, so..." cashes out to easy ones like, "Well, okay then: let me take pictures of you nude and give them to all of your neighbors." People will realize they take much of their ideas about privacy for granted.

I like how Solove extensionalizes the term "privacy" and shows that it is a complex term that's been unjustly narrowed by the "I'm not afraid of being wiretapped if it helps catch terrorists; I've got no secrets. I've done nothing wrong" types. He uses the Wittgensteinian term "family resemblances" but Korzybski would have said "extensionalization" of terms.

"Privacy" does not just mean "secrecy" or "hiding something that's wrong." What if a Peeping Tom looks at you through the window as you get out of the shower (author's admission: I actually enjoy this, but most people don't as I understand it): you haven't lost anything "secret" but your privacy seems to have been invaded, no?

If someone steals your diary and reveals your most personal secrets, this is an invasion of privacy and your own secrecy, but those secrets were not about doing anyone any harm. (Probably?) Solove says judges  and lawyers often overlook this semantic sense of "privacy" when they use to the term to defend the truncated ideas about dangerous secrets and "terror" (blood/death) that inform too many arguments about "privacy."

Blackmail and identity theft would also deserve consideration as "privacy" extensionalizations and they don't have to do with terror either.

I like how Solove sheds light on government surveillance  within the context of Orwell's 1984 and Kafka's The Trial. In the former, everyone knows they're being watched, so surveillance serves as a form of social control and inhibition. In a so-called free society, under the First Amendment (in Unistat), we have freedom of speech, assembly and the freedom of and from religion. In a surveillance state, these lawful activities can become inhibited so that the citizen's rights mean almost nothing, due to fear. In Kafka's novel, a bureaucracy with indeterminate purpose that can make decisions about your life detains you, but you can't find out why. This fosters hopelessness and powerlessness.

The stronger form of privacy argument, says Solove, is the "I'm willing to give up some of my privacy if it will save lives from a terrorist attack." I think Solove's unpacking of different types of mistaken and unjust dangers that could happen to anyone answers the "strong form" adequately. See for yourself...)

For me, the most interesting parts of Solove's argument about the damage of broad government surveillance are covered briefly in his short paragraphs about ideas all-too-often left out of the "privacy" discussion: aggregation, exclusion, "secondary use," and distortion.

Interestingly, something like the availability heuristic seems to inform our ideas about "privacy." When a horrific terrorist attack occurs, it's so vivid we can't think straight, and the enemies of individual rights and/or control freaks rush in to capitalize, as happened with the USA/Patriot Act. But Solove says the true dangers are in a "slow accretion of relatively minor acts," under confirmation bias, so we don't notice them, because they do not seem like significant emotional or legal issues to us, and he uses the analogy of environmental degradation: the oil tanker hits a glacier and ruins the ecosystem in some area of the world. That's bad, and very emotional. We notice it. We discuss it with colleagues and friends. But in actuality, most of the total damage done to the world's ecosystem is a daily, constant, mundane thing, and few of us can get worked up over it, much less "notice" it in significant way.

Finally: notice that the article was published in May of 2011, two years before the Snowden Era began. What was so striking about re-reading this article again recently - besides Solove's elegant arguments for a far more inclusive definition of "privacy" - was how utterly naive so much of it seems in light of what has been revealed by Snowden and others in just 31 months. Read the article and look at what seem to Solove as hypotheticals. It seems we now often find the reality to be far worse than even his hypotheticals. Solove seems to have thought he was positing fictional-but-possible scenarios; now we find out that while he was writing the article the reality was usually beyond/worse/more baroque than his imaginings...

Examples gratis:

"A Reason To Hang Him": How Mass Surveillance, Secret Courts, Confirmation Bias and the FBI Can Ruin Your Life."

"The NSA Has Probably Installed A Virus On Your Computer...And Everyone Else's"

NSA spied on porn habits in effort to discredit "radicalizers"

"Report Suggests NSA Engaged In Financial Manipulation, Changing Money In Bank Accounts"

"NSA's Elite Hacking Unit Intercepts Laptop Deliveries"

If you used the "secure" TOR webmail site, the FBI has your in-box

NSA Official: Mass Spying Has Foiled One (or fewer) Plots in Its Whole History

"111 Things We've Learned About the NSA"

We can be spied on via our webcams even when they're not on

"NYT: Snowden Docs Reveal NSA Has Radio Pathway Into Computers, To Spy Even When Device is Offline"

"New Algorithm Finds You, Even in Untagged Photos"

"NSA Uses Google's Tracking Cookies to Target and 'Exploit' Subjects"

"Snowden Docs: British Spies Used Sex and 'Dirty Tricks'"

"Snowden: The NSA is also Engaged in Industrial Espionage" (but there's so much of this now, Slate didn't notice this was olde news: From a few months previous:

"NSA and Canadian Spooks Illegally Spied on Diplomats at Canadian G-20 Summit"

"France's New Surveillance Law Creates a Police State"

"Spy Agencies Tap Data Streaming From Phone Apps"

"Data Broker Was Selling Lists of Rape Victims, Alcoholics and 'Erectile Dysfunction Sufferers'"

"NSA Harvested Contacts From Email Address Books"

"The Interest-Divergence Dilemma Between Tech Companies and the NSA"

"Death By Data: How Kafka's The Trial Prefigured the Nightmare of the Modern Surveillance State"

"NSA Award Winner Wants NSA Abolished"

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Religious Function of Intellectuals: A Jabber

I was talking to a friend last night and talking too much, as I often do.

I get excited about ideas and they begin to multiply exponentially in my mind as I'm trying to deliver sentences, the excitement combines with adrenaline and its popular accomplices, my pulse quickens, and I continue to speak, evermore quickly. I begin to question in my mind what I just said while I'm suddenly veering off on a tangent, my speech becomes quicker and, as a psychoanalyst might say, "pressured," and soon: a 93 idea pile-up occurs inside my mind.

I halt, take a breath and look upwards and to the right, suddenly.

"Whoa! Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?," my friend asks, no doubt half-exasperated at yet another of my spiels.

"A really nasty-sounding idea trainwreck just happened on the outskirts of Frontal-Lobe-ville," as I point to my noggin.

"I see."

I apologize and ask him to continue with his previous line of reasoning. On Unity and God, I think it was. Probably. Quantum mechanics and the Whorf Hypothesis were shoehorned in there, too, and I certainly appreciated the attempt, another of our forays, our essais. (Much of it is a blur the day after, so infused with ideas were we. I may has well have been speaking "in tongues" just before my Crash. What sort of madness is this?)

Moments later I cite a book's title in yet another ramble and he interrupts me and asks, "How many books do you think you've read in your life? Ten thousand? Fifteen thousand?"

This rapidly becomes uncomfortable, I'm not sure why, but I'll hazard this: I feel like a book-idiot more and more as I get older. Leary and Wilson cited this as a problem with "Third Circuit" types. NB: While I noted endogenous chemicals in my nervous system that act as stimulants - adrenaline, etc - I was also on two very rich pints of craft beer; the sort that's over 8% alcohol by volume, so I may have had a bit of 2nd circuit territoriality going on there, although I would swear I was just trying to be "interesting." Back to the Book Idiocy: I confessed aloud I thought I'd made myself stupid through too much reading. I'm drunk on books. As Philip Seymour Hoffman may have thought for a few moments last week before he died, "I wonder if I'm letting this heroin stuff get a little out of hand? Maybe I should dial it back a bit. Something about this seems a little crazy. Yea: tomorrow I'll start to move toward more integrity..."

There's a long history of quotes by famous writers about this. I fear I fit the sort of chap Milton's writing about here:

Who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and a judgment equal or superior
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep versed in books and shallow in himself.
-Paradise Regained 

(Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot? The OG quotes friggin' Milton now? Apparently: yes! Oy...)

Indeed, I enjoy re-rehearsing one of my many Favorite Bits when the opportunity presents itself (Oh! Such True Confessions of what a bore you're reading now!): that Gutenberg Man is strung out in the narcosis of books, deeply brainwashed into believing that 26 letters, arranged appropriately, seasoned with punctuations here and there, when properly trained, can be deciphered by the Reader, eyes moving in silence left to right, left to right, left to right, left to right - a tad overly Euclidean, eh? - left to right, left to right, silently, left to right, left to right, look up what time is it?, left to right, left to right, you may be doing this now as we "speak," left to right, left to right. Pause new paragraph...

That this (please move your head back the normal six inches and look at this page of text, characters in a white field)...that these symbols are supposed to map very accurately some sort of "reality"? The very idea! It's absurd.

[You read it here, first!]

Or so says the Book-Stupid Dude.

What's with the "religious function of intellectuals," you ask, wondering why I repeatedly, insipidly bury the lede? Just this: it may be some sort of lifelong Lotus-Eating narcosis book-trip I've been on, but it occurs to me there may be a religious function to it all, and I am not exactly a religious character in any conventional sense. As Isaiah Berlin defined the character of the intellectual (or one aspect of It), "Intellectuals are people who want ideas to be as interesting as possible."

I get high off ideas. Even bad ones. Like quarter-baked conspiracy theories, or imagining phrenology in its heyday. Or some mind-bending thinker's model of the major and minor parts of social reality, as it boils down to the phenomenology of face-to-face social interaction rituals up to what constitutes the Superstructure. And when I choose to believe it, I'm aware I'm choosing to "believe" this model, knowing it's only a model, knowing I chose to believe it, making it ironic, knowing I will entertain quite different competing models manana, knowing that I know all of this seems all-too-true because of...wait for it...: books.

The multitude of books is making us ignorant. - Voltaire

I read this Voltaire quote while amongst my books of quotes; there are too many apt ones for my purposes here, so why not Voltaire? It's legit: I'm not only quoting him to seem "smart" (although I hope you don't take the "book stupid" stuff too seriously!); for I have read Candide. Twice. I've read Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary piecemeal many times over. I read the Voltaire quote after a consultation in Edward Shils's The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays. Shils - contra M. Chomsky - sees intellectuals as a priestly class, and he oughtta know with his drenched-in-Max-Weber extrapolations. Shils - one of the most accomplished intellectuals of the 20th c. who didn't have a PhD and never wrote a Fat Book - saw his class as providing ideas about the sacred to the highly educated who are Modernists, and so can't take God all that seriously. Where Chomsky has chosen to concentrate on members of his fellow intellectuals who act as legitimators of State power - "mandarins" or "the commissar class" - Shils saw his fellow intellectuals as legitimators of the rational, bureaucratic state and other forms of Authority...but they don't like it. They sorta pretend to like it, because it's a good job (or was), but with all of their book knowledge they were steeped in Utopian visions, always thwarted by their bosses the oligarchs.

                          Edward Shils, most important to me because he, with Louis Wirth,
                          translated Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, which appeared
                          in English in 1936.

I like what Alvin Gouldner wrote about Shils, that he was "exceptionally emphatic in stressing the alienative disposition of intellectuals which he derives from their special culture. He sees his culture as differing from the others - the 'laity' he calls them - for they are not limited to the at-hand immediacies of everyday life. Intellectuals are more concerned than the 'laity' with the remote, with ultimate values, being disposed to go beyond direct, first-hand experience with the concrete and to live in a 'wider universe.' They are also more rule, value, pattern-oriented, or have more theoreticity than others who are more person-oriented, more situationally-sensitive, and more responsive to differences in contexts."
-p.32, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class

Now: how better to describe the role of the modern intellectual class as a sort of secular priesthood than that?

I recently caught the 2013 documentary, Hawking, directed by Stephen Finnigan. At around the 60-65 minute mark Hawking talks about the totally surprising Guinness-book success of his A Brief History of Time. It sold over 10 million copies. This seems like a very good example of a religious work to have around the household of steeped-in-rationality educated classes. A totem, a talisman, a book. A book that was probably mostly incomprehensible to most of its owners, but that wasn't the point: it's filled with our sorts of awesome mystery, not your Bronze Age-to-first century of the Common Era stuff that now functions as a prop for plutocrats.

Hey, I gave it a pretty good shot, but yea: I own it. (I know, I know: the recent black hole thing. Feel free to weigh in in the comments.)

                                    Here's a half-selfie half-"shelfie" of D. Hofstadter!

Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach seemed to serve a similar function with younger, cooler intellectuals for the first ten years after it came out. You go to a party, everyone's smart, you (meaning I) steal away to peruse their bookshelves: Yep, there's GEB. It's my Tribe! But: why did I feel like I needed to confirm that? Anyway...GEB: Another book I've read mostly piecemeal and over and over. I read in it. I once read it cover-to-cover, with faith that it's okay to not know what's going on now, because...that's what these books do. The mere grapple will re-wire the circuitry and you'll come out smarter and with more ideas to talk about, so it's gotta be worth all this...impenetrability. I can always come back to that last part once I've put in some effort to understand Peano arithmetic...Oh! and look now! He's back to the dialogues like Bertrand Russell on acid trying to outdo Lewis Carroll, the iteration of fractal forms in Escher and Bach, and...wow! Intellectual rapture?

And isn't that the point? Wow?

We will take our religion in its most fine forms, abstruse, elegant, always filled with wonderment, especially the parts that we don't...quite... "get." And then: let's talk about this sacred object of wonder: the Truth. Yes, let us talk.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Stamp Out Sizeism": On the Unfortunate Human Outlier and the Rest of Us

I just looked in to see who won Unistat's Big Gladiatorial Game of the Year - a secular holiday in Unistat - and was surprised at the result, which was not normal. Not even close. I had seen during the two weeks of festivities hyping the game that it was "the best offense versus the best defense," and Experts usually said it was a toss-up; it would be a good, close game. This morning I heard on the radio while showering that the great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of a heroin overdose, so I checked the Huffington Post when I got out but their overblown headline was about the Super Bowl: "A Matchup For the Ages" or something like that. Yea, yea...maybe. One team beat the other team 43-8.

A terrible game. Not within any Expert's Bell Curve-y prognostications.

Robert Anton Wilson's fictional character "Markoff Chaney" features prominently in his novels, Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy and his counterculture "underground" classic, Illuminatus!, co-written with his friend Robert Shea. In a 1996 interview Wilson said that Chaney was about 99% his creation, and in an earlier interview he explained that Chaney was "at war with the concept of the normal." 

                                actor David Rappaport, who played Chaney
                                in the 10-hour, staged version of

"Mr. Chaney, you see, was a midget, but he was no relative of the famous Chaneys of Hollywood. People did keep making jokes about that. It was bad enough to be, by the standards of the stupid gigantic and stupid majority, a freak; how much worse to be so named as to remind those big oversized clods of cinema's two most-famous portrayers of monstro-freaks. By the time the midget was fifteen, he had built up a detestation for ordinary mankind that dwarfed (he hated the word) the relative misanthropies of Paul of Tarsus, Clement of Alexandria, Swift of Dublin." - The Universe Next Door, found on p.35 of the SCT, omnibus edition. 

Chaney wanted revenge on the "normal" sized people. He was paranoid (wouldn't you be?), and very intelligent, and had a brilliant if devious creative streak that had him constantly pulling pranks on the Normals. Wilson fans love Chaney's signs and memos, which are numerous throughout RAW's work. Being adept at electronics, Chaney fixed the street lights so that when they turned red they read WALK, when green they flashed DON'T WALK. He made out fake stationery headings for fake organizations, wrote puzzling messages on public restroom walls, and tried to meddle in any scientist's research which attempted to measure the "normal." 

Some Chaney graffiti:
"Off the Landlords"
"Help Prevent Von Neumann's Catastrophe!"
"Arm the Unemployed"
"For a good blow job call 555-1717 and ask for Father James Flanagan"
"Free Our Four-Legged Brothers and Sisters"
"Entropy Requires No Maintenance"
"Stamp Out Sizeism"

What can the amateur psychoanalyst make of the person behind such messages? The graffiti artist seems to me to be a militant Leftist (landlord and unemployed riffs); scientifically literate (entropy and Von Neumann), and has a beef with the Roman Catholic Church. (What could the line about "sizeism" mean?)

What are the precursors to Markoff Chaney? 

Wilson says the character was inspired by his studies of mathematical information theory in which the Markov Chain plays a large part as a function. He thought a character with that name might be some sort of monster, like the characters played by Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. in Hollywood horror films. 

When I first read Wilson's books Chaney reminded me of Tyl Eulenspiegel an impudent trickster in European folklore, who constantly pranks and may be traced to an actual historical highway robber from 1339, but who knows? The character seems archetypal anyway. 

The Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek's most famous novel, The Good Soldier Schweik, also seemed like a worldwide cultural precursor to Markoff Chaney. From the Introduction to a novel On the Edge of Reason, by the early 20th century Croatian master Miroslav Krleza, Jeremy Catto writes, "The individual's struggle against the madness of authority was a theme of the dying Hapsburg Empire. For Kafka, it had been played out in a nightmare of red tape, where monsters in morning coats or official uniforms trapped their prey in a tangle of paper. Jaroslav Hasek in a lighter mood would confront the same unreasoning authority with his comic hero Schweik, who would dodge the demands with a mad logic of his own. Release and escape from dominance inspired the authentically Viennese science of psychology in the hands of Sigmund Freud." (p.9)

A generalized approach along the lines of Hasek's character seems to have influenced a basic flavor of many novels in English in the second half of the 20th century, black comedies in which the Individual is caught in a web of Bureaucratic SNAFU and absurdity, in which a counter-absurdity seems the only "logical" response. How many of you thought of Catch-22 immediately after reading about Schweik?

[In Unistat, one wonders about the deeper motives of Ray Palmer...After an accident, he was left a four-foot tall hunchback who may have had quite an outsized influence on our perceptions of aliens from another planet visiting us, UFOs, etc. He was a HUGE influence on science fiction.]

Jack Napier is a real-life prankster who alters billboards in a way similar to Markoff Chaney's pranks. But Napier says he was influenced by another science fiction writer, John Brunner, in Brunner's novel Stand on Zanzibar. Says Napier: "It featured a character who, whenever he spotted an officialese sign, would change it to say something absurd, like, 'While in the bathroom, please keep your left hand inside your pants pocket - The Management.'" (Pranks! vol 2, p.97) 

RAW's Chaney also signed some of his absurd signs as being from "The Management," but instead he abbreviated it to "The Mgt," which RAW said could also mean "The Midget." (Many RAWphiles write nutty things to each other, signing off as "The Mgt.")

In the 19th century, the mathematics of Karl Friedrich Gauss - one of the truly great mathematicians ever - seems to have been misused. Gauss invented the Bell Curve to illustrate a theoretical point about statistics. Some took the Bell Curve as a way to make claims about the structure of reality. In the famous book A Mathematician's Apology, G.H. Hardy writes:

"The 'real' mathematics of the 'real' mathematicians, the mathematics of Fermat and Euler and Gauss and Abel and Riemann, is almost wholly 'useless' (and this is as true of 'applied' as of 'pure' mathematics)." But Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), a perhaps overly enthusiastic leveler who wrote an opera and poetry, was a mathematician and a sociologist/criminologist - he was a wild polymath-generalist, really! -  thought he had found Bell Curves everywhere, and that they did map to "reality" and this meant he could make world-shaking grandiose claims about "normality" or "the average" which was "good." Quetelet even invented (he would probably say he "discovered" l'homme moyen, or "the average man." The average was normal and was harmonic and good; those Damned Things that were outliers were obviously the non-normal. In the European 19th century: social unrest everywhere and socialist thinkers galore. If there was an average weight, height, baby birth size, chest width...there should be an average in wealth. Those found outside the Bell Curve of income and wealth...not normal. Not good. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, and if we want to make normative claims about fairness - and we do - we will use whatever we have. Does it mean that our numbers constantly reduce down to some Pythagorean golden mean-like idea of Justice? Can we ground our claims there? It seems many of us will. 

Markoff Chaney's bete noir in non-fiction/human history is Quetelet and his brood of followers. 

What is taken for "knowledge" is always contestable. Markoff Chaney is right! Stamp out sizeism! There are no normal sunsets! No one is "average" looking. That's math not "reality"! We have opinions and ideas about justice, morality, and beauty. Let me put one of my own forth: It's indecent to have 85 people who have as much money as 3.5 billion of the world's population. Why? Well...look at my stat! (And aye: look at the suffering. Is this who we are?) 

I consider the second inchoate "argument" my more legitimate claim and would "ground" my moral argument there, not on a Platonic idea of Justice derived from Bell Curves. I'd argue from basic human dignity and a problem with a Stark Cold Invisible Mangled Hand in capitalism.

What about those smaller of stature? What about their perception of the world? The world looks different if you're three and a half feet tall, and you get in an elevator: everything looks like a crotch. Conversely, tall people, in study after study, have been shown to be more content with their lives, they go further in their educations, make more money, have better jobs, and in general: they're socially dominant. And this might have people who are shorter feeling...paranoid? Chaney sure was. A recent study had women who reported feeling paranoid at some point during the past 30 days experience a Virtual Reality simulation of riding in the London Underground. The women went through the simulation twice, but the second time the VR people tweaked the perceptions of the women, making them virtually ten inches shorter. The women didn't notice this, but did report more feelings of inferiority and paranoia when they were on the shorter "rides" in VR.

Speaking of the London Underground, prankish signs, and Markoff Chaney, see THESE.