Overweening Generalist

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Metaphors in Literature, Philosophy and Science: Divagations

"It's an instrument," Machine Gun Kelly said. "Play it." [1]

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Lately I've been studying ideas about influence, coercion, advertising, hypnosis, and ideas about "mind control," particularly what is usually called "conspiracy theory" ideation. I'll just leave it at that.

Well...no. Let me add one thing: I have come to a tentative conclusion about that last item: Yes, some conspiracy theories about "mind control" seem to have varying degrees of validity, if not soundness. Others seem batshit crazy to me. But for those C-theorists with more scholarly minds - or even those who have attained reading levels of a bright 15 year old - I think the richest depths to plumb are in the study of 1.) Rhetoric, and 2.) Metaphor. You wanna learn how to control minds? Find out everything you can about both of those areas. You won't be drilling in a dry hole.

                                Can Chinatown be a metaphor? Who for? Why?

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In a prescient essay from 1996, "Farewell To The Information Age," UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg quotes John Perry Barlow, Ted Nelson and Michael Benedikt about how digitization wipes everything clean and is totally revolutionary. Barlow said something to the effect, "We thought we were in the wine business but it turns out we're in the bottling business." Nunberg riffs off this - in 1996! - by writing, "We are breaking the banks and hoping still to have the river." (If I recall correctly Nunberg is quoting Paul Duguid.)

No divagation here. Make up your own!

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"You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you've got to get back on the freeway again." [2]

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"I am completely convinced that there is a wealth of information built into us, with miles of intuitive knowledge tucked away in the genetic material of every one of our cells. Something akin to a library containing uncountable reference volumes, but without any obvious route of entry. And, without some means of access, there is no way to even begin to guess at the extent and quality of what is there. The psychedelic drugs allow exploration of this interior world, and insights into its nature."
-Alexander Shulgin, PIHKAL p.xvi

Do you like to find out new things every day? The pleasure of learning a new thing gives you a bit of a dopamine buzz. Because you're learning. And possibly from books. Now: what if you already have the most marvelous stash of novelty-in-form-ation ensconced in your genes? Too bad you don't have a key to that library. Well, who is this Shulgin guy? Does he know of which he speaks? If he's right, what are some of the barriers to keep you/me from accessing the stupendously wondrous texts held within?

A friend of Ted Nelson - Jaron Lanier - thinks the idea that all it will take is another thirty or fifty years of Moore's Law and our computers/AI will outrun Nature? Probably wrong, even though widely accepted among his fellow Internet-inventors. And, because I love metaphors around books, Jaron says this:

"Wire and protocol-limited mid-twentieth-century computer science has dominated the cultural metaphors of both computation and living systems. For instance, Jorge Luis Borges described an imaginary library that would include all the books that ever were or might possibly be written. If you were lucky enough to live in a universe big enough to contain it (and we aren't), you'd need to invest the lives of endless generations of people, who would always wither away on starships trying to get to the right shelf. It would be far less work learning to write good books in the traditional way. Similarly, Richard Dawkins has proposed an infinite library of possible animals. He imagines the invisible and blind hand of evolution gradually browsing through this library, finding the optimal creature for each ecological niche. In both cases, the authors have been infected by the inadequate computer science metaphors of the twentieth century. While an alternative computer science is not yet formulated, it is at least possible to speculate about its likely qualities." - The Next Fifty Years (2002)

First off: are there any Borges experts out there? I wonder how much Borges was influenced by computer science in his marvelous "Library of Babel" versus notions of infinity he'd read about in kabbalah, Renaissance magicians, and sufism. Still, I guess Jaron's point holds regardless. And he's been trying to re-imagine a computer science for quite awhile now, given the quick advent and obvious problems of inequality and surveillance.

The codex-book as metaphor seems so potent to literate minds. When I read Borges's famous short story, then read Lanier's literal interpretation, I realize I visualize the Library of Babel as something along Chomsky's "discrete infinity." I mean, I don't want to board a starship, but I do hazily recall many days of spending timeless hours in the stacks of very large libraries or used book stores, finding endlessly marvelous things, actually looking at books written in Chinese - completely mysterious and yet wondrous - and the Babel branch is like that, only it goes on forever. The place closes at 10 PM, and I realize I never ate dinner. And now that you mention it, I don't see any EXIT signs anywhere. How long have I been in here? How do I get back to the register?

However, psychedelic drugs as accessing experiential book-like knowledge? I don't know. One often reads in visionary works the problem of our "clouded lenses" - flawed vision as metaphor. In Erik Davis's Nomad Codes there's a metaphor around psychedelic drugs as keys that can open doors previously kept locked. Earlier (c.1976), Dr. Leary gave us the metaphor of DNA as text: "The DNA code contains the entire life blueprint - the history of the past and the forecast of the future. The intelligent use of the brain is to imprint the DNA code." - Info-Psychology, p.59 As an exercize, unpack all the metaphors there!

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Speaking of kabbalah: Joseph Dan discusses the structural argument of the Zohar: "Historical events, the phases of human life, the rituals of the Jewish sabbath, and the festivals are all integrated into this vast picture. Everything is a metaphor for everything else." - Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, p.33

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"The history of consciousness is the history of words, " Joyce said immediately. "Shelley was justified in his bloody unbearable arrogance, when he wrote that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Those whose words make new metaphors that sink into the public consciousness, create new ways of knowing ourselves and others." [3]

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Along the above lines, one of my favorite passages in Lit about the poet's magickal imaginative powers to alter reality comes from a passage in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Theseus says the "poet's eye" works on "the forms unknown" and:

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name.

You've probably seen this quote used to bolster all sorts of arguments in contemporary thought. There seem to "be" things "out there" as yet undiscovered OR: people experience something but have no words to label these "things" in experience. The neologist, the meme-propagator, the master rhetorician, the re-framing metaphor user who alters minds: these all seem to fit Theseus's poet's magickal workings.

In a delightful book on the neuroscience of music, Daniel J. Levitin discusses our need to categorize from an evolutionary standpoint. "Categorization entails treating objects that are different as of the same kind. A red apple may look different from a green apple, but they are both still apples. My mother and father may look very different, but they are both caregivers, to be trusted in an emergency [...] Leonard Meyer notes that classification is essential to enable composers, performers, and listeners to internalize the norms governing musical relationships, and consequently, to comprehend the implications of patterns, and experience deviations from stylistic norms." Then Levitin quotes The Bard's lines from above. - This Is Your Brain On Music, p.147

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There may be one reader (I'm looking at YOU!) who has wondered, "Is this dude gonna address all the 'the brain is a computer' metaphors?" No. Because there's too much written about it. I swim in those waters. (Are you, by chance feeling hyper-aware of metaphors right now? Hyperaware of the so-called "tacit dimension"?) One of my favorite lines about "the brain is a computer" comes from some book I don't even remember reading, but it's in my notes. The brain is NOT a computer, but it is a Chinese restaurant: crowded, chaotic, lots of people running around, and yet stuff gets done. I apparently got this metaphor from Welcome To Your Brain, by Aamodt and Wang.

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George Lakoff admits his empirical research on metaphor (of which I am a major amateur reader) had been preceded by Ernst Cassirer, I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Benjamin Lee Whorf and a few others. The oldest thinker he names is Vico, who died in 1744. Lakoff argues strongly and convincingly that metaphor is not some fancy part of speech, as most of us were taught. It's deeply embedded in everything we say and do. I once wrote him that he never mentions Norman O. Brown, who said, "All that is, is metaphor." Lakoff wrote back and said NOB wasn't "empirical." Anyway, check out these lines from a guy who died in 1592 (if Vico was allowed, why not this guy?):

"To hear men talk of metonomies, metaphors and allegories, and other grammar words, would not one think that they signified some rare and exotic form of speaking? And yet they are phrases that are no better than the chatter of my chambermaid." - Montaigne "On the Vanity of Words"

Okay, maybe it's a stretch. Montaigne seems to not be arguing that metaphor is basic to our speech - as Vico did - but he seems to be rather unimpressed by the talk of metaphors. And yet, he's using metaphors in every sentence. If Montaigne were here to find this out, I suspect he'd find it all quite marvelous.

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A.) I recall Joseph Campbell talk about a lecture he gave on gods, goddesses, heroes, etc. And a young man rose up and said these things didn't exist; they're lies. Campbell replied they were metaphors. After a slightly rancorous exchange, Campbell suddenly realized the young man didn't know what a metaphor was. Campbell told him it's when you say something IS something else. 

B.) Alfred Korzybski argued that humans suffer for taking literally what he called "The Is of Identity" and "The Is of Predication." If I say, "Cate Blanchet is the greatest actress alive now," (And I might if you were here, just for fun, but for now that would be missing the point entirely) I'm predicating/identifying/making the same "Best Actress In The World" and "Cate Blanchet." But who knows how to logically prove my assessment? And even if I could prove - an impossibility, in my metaphysics - that Cate "really is" equal to the term "best actress in the world," Cate's so much more than that. I'm hypnotizing myself or you or both of us by leaving out Cate as a mother, Aussie, masturbator, gardner, philanthropist, a person with a rich private memory, as prankster, etc, etc, etc, etc. 


How do we square A with B? And what about font size?


1. From the Hemingway-inspired short story by William S. Burroughs, "Where He Was Going," from Tornado Alley

2. Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

3. Masks of the Illuminati, Robert Anton Wilson

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Drug Report: "Morality" Pills

Going through some odd drug articles I stopped and re-read two from 2012, both addressing the idea of improving ourselves morally via neuropharmacology.

The first one was by Peter Singer (who in 2014 was the Swiss think tank Gottlieb Duttweller Institute's 3rd most important thinker in the world), and Agata Sagan, an independent researcher living in Warsaw, last I checked. She is very concerned about victims of repression and the idea of affective altruism. (See the article here, so you know I'm on the level.)

They address public acts of massive indifference to human suffering and why some people risk their lives to save strangers from things like burning buildings. The 1970s studies by Milgram and Zimbardo get mentioned, as do the seminary student experiments: on the way to give a sermon on the Good Samaritan, if the student was feeling rushed for time, they didn't stop to help a person lying on the ground, moaning. Demonstrations of empathy in rats? Yes. Then it gets good.

Singer and Sagan think we're getting to know about the brain to such a critical point that we might come up with a pill that will make us act with the better angels of our inner beings. We'd care more about others with this posited drug. We might not even have "free will" - they actually say this at the end of the piece - but we do need to think about the ethics of such a posited wonder drug: do we give violent criminals a chance to take it before locking them up? Do we - presumably the Police State apparatus now ready to lock in to pedal-to-the-metal Delirium Mode - monitor "pre-crime"? Do we go all out Gitmo-Dick Cheney-Clockwork Orange with those who some law and order types deem "potentially dangerous"? Would we implant a time-release device in the brains of psychopaths (like Dick Cheney?) to keep them from burning down the village for kicks? And if this miracle drug were good enough, would we still need religion?

Okay, here's the thing with great thinkers like Singer and Sagan: they're often far too straight. I mean, haven't they heard of Ecstasy? When the cops in Murrka found out about it, they made it a Schedule I drug (no known effective use, no known legitimate positive use, no research allowed without kissing our ass first). This despite a welter of scientific gnostics like Alexander Shulgin, Thomas and June Riedlinger, and Dave Nichols, testifying to its human benefit. The DEA's Administrative Law judge, Francis Young, agreed that it wasn't all that dangerous and in a 90 page decision, recommended Schedule III for MDMA/Ecstasy/Adam/E, etc. The DEA itself said "Fuck that shit: we're shutting it down: Schedule I." So much for sanity...

In my worst moments I fantasize about registered supporters of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump being forced to take an Ecstasy suppository, but then I'm just weird. Poetry made me that way. Blame it on, uhh...poetry. Yea.

To quote the great scholar of drugs, Dale Pendell, on this issue of outlawing Ecstasy due to bad information and scare tactics:

The clear message from the Drug Warriors is that they are not interested in peace, citizenship, or even tolerance. - PharmakoDynamis, p.216

Side Note: Israel and Palestine issues make me meshugenah and majnoon, respectively. It looks like there's no hope for a two-state solution, and the Israelis keep building the settlements. There seems enough people on both sides who want peace, but all it takes is some small percentage of bad actors. Or...what happened in Ireland between the Protestants in No. Ireland and the IRA? From Dale Pendell: "Ecstasy clubs in Northern Ireland were the first venue where Protestant and Catholic youths danced together. When footballers in England began taking ecstasy, violence plummeted. Everywhere it has gone ecstasy has been a catalyst for peace."

And no one was forcing it on 'em. Just let nature take its course. But first: get it out of the hands of the cops, and into the hands of researchers.

With the cannabis wars turning to the side of human decency (finally!), some of us might start reading up and getting in gear to re-legalize MDMA.



Now, also in 2012, I read this article from J. Hughes, the Executive Director for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Not nearly the luminary that Singer the Utilitarian is, but this article from later the same year seems more down-to-earth. Hughes - a bioethicist and sociologist - knows how oxytocin and testosterone and dopamine and serotonin work in studies having to do with antisocial behavior, crime, empathy, and religious ideation. It's a tad longer than Singer-Sagan, but well worth the read.

My favorite part was when he took on Jonathan Haidt's sociobiological intuitive morality ideas. Haidt claims to have been a liberal but now he's not, because of his research, which yield five human instinctual moral behaviors:

1. Don't hurt people
2. Don't cheat
3. Defer to authority
4. Favor your family/tribe over the Others
5. Stay sacred, avoid that which spiritually pollutes

I read Haidt's book The Righteous Mind and he's way up there on my list of the most overrated thinkers today. PBS did a documentary of Edward O. Wilson not long ago, and they repeatedly used Haidt to sing EOW's greatness, which I found nauseating. I think of Haidt as the real-life proponent of the mind behind the situation in Shirley Jackson's great and horrifying short story, "The Lottery." Haidt says fear unites us. Built into Haidt's bullshit evolutionary psychology of "morality" is this: well of course I don't like what he's saying; that's because I'm a liberal and liberals are blind to the last three of those five listed above. Not blind. We just don't place those values very highly at all. So: damn straight we seem "blind" to the natural goodness of racism, nationalism, deference to authority figures simply because of their authority, and we think homosexuals deserve equal rights, and women should be able to control their own bodies. If that's blindness so be it. I'm not having any of Haidt's crap.

(I've blogged on Haidt before, for instance HERE and HERE.)

And neither is J. Hughes, who sees "defer to authority" as anathema to progressive thought. Favoring your family/tribe can be re-worded as "racism, nationalism and nepotism are true, good and natural!" I take the avoidance of "spiritual pollution" to be akin to having a stick up your ass over other people's weird (and therefore "wrong") sexual proclivities.

For Hughes, any drug (or practice) that would improve our abilities to feel empathy/see ourselves in others and let go of the need to control others: liberal and voluntary. Why? Because the liberal approach to moral enhancement seems inherently minimal compared to the Haidt-people. Think of a politically powerful group who adhered quite strictly to Haidt's five above: do you think they'd endorse anything like Ecstasy?

That's a trick question, of course: we've obviously had those people in power, for a long time. Especially in the DEA. And look at how great we're doing!

Monday, January 25, 2016

An Octad of Items For Your Delectation

Q: Is the OG stoned while writing this post?
is X
is not

Random articles I stumbled upon that interested me, with brief (you hope!) comments. - OG

1. When fire alarms go off, or you're stuck in a burning building, or even in the WTC just after they were hit by planes, many people don't do anything. They second-guess what's going on. They rationalize. Some apparently think they'll do something to get away from danger, but let me finish this phone call first, or oops, let me go back into the burning building to save my photos. They don't want any unknown changes in their lives. This is well-documented. Stephen Grosz, a psychoanalyst, notes clients who come to him with obvious problems. They want to change. The decision to make the change seems like a no-brainer to us, reading this. But they don't want to make any changes. How do we account for this?

Comment: as I read this brief article, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people who neglected to get out of harm's way, and all I could think of was "Gads, I've seen so many false alarms and I've felt foolish a few times when I overreacted to what purported to be danger signals, I bet this is really not a big deal." But staying in a burning restaurant and burning to death because you thought you should pay the check first? Approach/avoidance cross-signals and Really Bad Outcomes...

2. Sorry for this article's length, but I couldn't stop reading it when I began. New School University cultural critic and PhD in American Studies, Mark Greif, writes one of the best cultural sociological pieces on the role of police in a Constitutional democracy that I've ever read. Tackling the topic due to increased visibility of police violence and numerous cries for reform, Greif notes that the role of police is "impossible," that when they graduate from the academy they swear to uphold the Constitution, though every cop knows this isn't what they do. Indeed, legal and political thought is "above their pay grade." Because a theory for the existence of police is fairly informal, reform will be difficult. Greif ironically mentions the great sociologist of police, Egon Bittner, who wrote that "criminal law enforcement is something that most of them do with a frequency located somewhere between virtually never and very rarely," and yet police departments award a Bittner to cops who've stayed on the force for 15 years.

This is an amazing piece, and despite quotes and references from and to Foucault, Adam Smith, Ben Franklin, Erving Goffman, Mary Douglas, Hobbes, Locke and the formidable police ethnographer Peter K. Manning, the piece flows. What hooked me in was the first section, about how police touch you. The varieties of touch. Women can be touched by police in public and the subtlest shift in touch can go from "professional and neutral" to "sexual and humiliating." There's a catalog of touching, and Greif states, "The purpose of touching by police if to make people touchable." And it can go all the way up to being punched and kicked while an arrestee is already on the ground.

Police in ambiguous situations add violence, and Greif argues this is a way to "test" the "good" citizens in the public to see to what degree they will support this violence. A problem is that the police really don't know who the "good" citizens are. Another problem: do you think your neighbors support escalating police violence? How many object, but withhold their voices for fear of retribution by the police? One thing is clear, and Greif points this out: police know black and poor people look wrong in white and rich neighborhoods; they know white and rich people in black and poor neighborhoods look suspect. So they investigate. "This, to their minds, is parity. They don't recognize their role in making up the boundaries of these neighborhoods in the first place, or why not all neighborhoods are functionally the same."

Comment: if you're concerned with police violence, read this.

3. In Russia, a 53 year old former professor who favored poetry stabbed to death his 67 year old friend, who said the only real literature is prose. Both were drunk.

Comment: Who knows what got lost in the translation here, but neither guy had ever read Korzybski, that seems for goddamned sure to me. In other words, in my own evaluations of poetry and prose, both seem like what is commonly called "literature" to me, and both forms can say profound things; at the moment I write this, I consider both forms as complementary, and if I encounter a drunk who gets belligerent and wants to argue that either poetry or prose "is" better than the other, I will very likely leave the presence of such a learned moron.

4. At Stanford's "Cracking The Neural Code Program" they've developed ingenious ways to isolate the circuitry for social behavior in the brain, of mice. Using optogenetics (read the article), when the circuit was buzzed the mouse interacted with a new mouse. (By sniffing. I do this too at parties but have found it necessary to develop stealth methods, know what I mean? Also at parties I frequently search for the cheese, but that's not my social behavior circuit working and merely my mouse-circuit.) By inhibiting the circuit, the mouse doesn't care for mingling at all. Of course dopamine is involved in this new knowledge of social circuitry, and I'm impressed not only by the Stanford people's techniques, but by the fact that they didn't buzz a circuit and note which neurochemicals rose up. That's what most pharmacological research does. This is on a very complex circuit, with branches into the ventral tagmental area and the nucleus accumbens. Just the trick of finding the social circuit(s) seems impressive. Buzz the circuit and put an inanimate object in the environment and the mice don't care: it's a social circuit. These researchers think this knowledge may spin off into helping humans with autism, social anxiety, depression, and maybe even schizophrenia. And let's hope it does help. I just hope these researchers aren't yankin' our chains, or chainettes.

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                                I take this to be Mamakind with a vaporizer                

5. Here's a review of Sex Pot: The Marijuana Lover's Guide to Gettin' It On, from 2011. Written by Skunk mag's legendary Mamakind, a bisexual and polyamorous stoner who was so compelling to one reader that he developed her imagined "pussytoke": a way to get stoned through what I visualize as a dildo crossed with a pipe. It is described as gourd-like. Anyway...yes. Pot and sex: one of the alchemist's better-kept open secrets to illumination. I like reading books on pot. I like reading books on sex. I've been known to put a book down, walk nine feet, and have stoned sex. And yet I've only thumbed this baby in public.

Comment: I think I grokked it fully standing in a place that sells tie-dyes and does piercings. In Sebastapol, if I recall correctly.

6. Prof. of Analytical Philosophy at Geneva, Kevin Mulligan, reviewed A.W. Moore's book The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics. Mulligan likes it. It's about "meta-metaphysics," or trying to make general sense of the metaphysical thought of 20 eminent philosophers, all male, all English, French, or German. And Spinoza. The review was head buzz enough for me. Moore looks at Transcendent things. He tries to tease out the meta-metaphysics of Novelty: can we make sense of things in entirely new ways? Or are we "limited to looking for the sense that things already make?" I think making sense of things in entirely new ways is one of the great joys and jobs of the visionary, but what do I know?

Also scrutinized for its meta-metaphysical aspects: Creativity. Can we make things make sense in a creative way without hauling in wrong vs. right? Wittgenstein is a big deal for Moore. So's Guattari, as you see by Mulligan's remarks.

Very early in my reading of this review, I thought of William James's lecture on pragmatism in which he says (I paraphrase from memory) if you're reading Hegel or Spinoza or any of these Wiggy Thinkers and can't help but think, "What sort of person writes an entire, fat and very learned book on such topics?" And James says you're not wrong to think this. I love that riff. Anyway...

Okay, so there "is" propositional knowledge: of facts and truth. Non-propositional knowledge is what we get from art, or listening to music: we get knowledge, but it's not stated in the Art. And Moore wants his meta-metaphysics to be more like Art than Theory. What a relief! What appears to be the most important role of metaphysics, to Moore, is giving us "radically new concepts by which to live." This strikes me as having a strong family resemblance to Harold Bloom's notion of what the Strong Poet does. I wonder if neologisms qualify as quanta in this instance for Moore?

Comment: I doubt I'll read this book, simply because there's not enough time in my life. A more personal reason: knowledge and "reality" are, in my favorite models - pragmatism, the sociology of knowledge, symbolic interactionism, and the diffuse thought radiating from Robert Anton Wilson's writings - one in the same. Social knowledge is constantly creating "reality" and vice-versa. The various metaphysical issues are ones that function either as artistic objects for contemplation, or as tools for living. While I applaud the attempt (and I may surprise myself and end up reading such a thing as A.W. Moore produced here; stranger things have happened) to hunt for a simpler overview of metaphysics, I really do seem to have a full plate of reading to do already. The plate piles with books into the ionosphere, and Air Traffic Control and the Federal Aviation Administration is constantly on my ass over this.

7. A woman attended a lecture on out-of-body (OBE) experiences at the U. of Ottawa, then told the lecturers that she can do all that voluntarily, and seemed surprised that not everyone does it. They did an MRI on her and found that the visual cortex deactivated, and instead she had "activated the left side of several areas associated with kinesthetic imagery." These areas do mental representations of body movement. The woman often did it before sleep. She was aware she was still in her body, but says she could see herself "rotating in the air above her body" and other similar extravaganzas. The woman never told anyone because she thought everyone did it. She should've brought it up at parties! (Or maybe her social circuitry isn't working on all cylinders?)

The cool thing: maybe there are more people who can do this than we thought. Also, it may be learned during a "window" of time during adolescence. I think I've done it in middle-age - maybe 20 minutes ago, in fact - but I had extra-botanical help, so who knows if it counts. Also: because the woman said there was no feeling of "awe" or marvel when she did it, it wasn't classified as a classic OBE, but instead was deemed a mere ECE, or Extra-Corporeal Experience.

Comment: I'm jealous, frankly. Of course I'd want the whole nine in an OBE, but I sense an ECE would still be a kick. (Insert your anal probe joke in this space; go ahead and write on your computer screen right now, but only in crayon using cursive, please: _____________________________.)

8. I'm guessing a lot of you who've stuck it out here have already heard the one about the two Kazakhstan scientists who have looked at the human genetic code and think they have detected the hazy signals that our designers stamped their designer label into our genes, if we can only decipher it. Oh, they're onto it. If you play with models of the genetic code you see all sorts of cool things, like the use of zero and other mathematical concepts. What they are looking for will be statistically significant patterns in our code with "intelligent-like features" (ehhhh?) that are inconsistent with any naturally known process. Sounds like that book The Bible Code to me. Or using pretzel logic to find a cryptogram in Shakespeare that ends up reading, "I'm Sir Francis Bacon, and I approve of these plays."

So yea: here's yet another panspermia scenario of our origins. Which I'm open to. The proof will be in the pudding code though. The Kazakhs say this code, once deciphered will prove all those dummies who thought SETI and use of radio-telescopes to pick up non-random patterns from within the white noise wrong: it's in all our cells! It's the SETI of molecular biology! And I've heard there's a lot of white noise in there, too, but it's gooey.

No, but wouldn't this be mindblowing if they pulled it off? And a real coup for Kazakhstan, not to mention. Golly! They (the Kazakhs, not our designers from millions but probably multi-billions of years ago) say this "stamp" will have math-semantic info (talk about time-binding!) and be unmistakably OTHER, and be "the most durable construct known" and it's utterly outside neo-Darwinian models. I'm not even at a party and I sniff Intelligent Design, don't you?

On the other hand, let's cut these guys some slack. How much more unheimlich is this compared to The Matrix trilogy? Or, serious philosopher Nick Bostrom's idea that there's a better than 50% chance that we're all living in a simulation? We live in a hologram? And I have a dippy blog there? Whoa!

Okay, okay, but Who or What designed the designer(s)?

At this point I whip out of its fine-tooled corinthian-leather sheath my Occam's Razor and see that once upon a time, one fine infinite day, Cosmic Mommy and Cosmic Daddy loved each other very very very much...

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stranger Than We Can Imagine, by John Higgs: A Review

A magisterial "alternative" Tale of the Tribe-like history of the 20th century, and something that was desperately needed. Higgs has produced a book that somehow manages to function as a page-turner and to speak to three different classes of readers:

1. Those quite well-read folks over 30 who perhaps need to view the century they were born in from such an "alternative" angle Higgs provides.

2. Those of us over 30 who have tended to assemble a narrative of the 20th century from the occasional history book, TV, radio, newspapers, and now Internet. Like water to fish, we all lived in a world where individualism was one of the primary values. Higgs shows us how vital the movement toward individualism was in that chaotic century, and how we must learn to see how the downside of individualism as a primary value has led us homo saps into the quandary we're in now. This is a real eye-opener for many of us.

3. Those born after 1990, who probably feel "how odd" that people lived in a world without massive digital connectivity. Higgs shows them how uncanny, how weird, how what we found out about ourselves in the 20th century was indeed "stranger than we can imagine," and Higgs reminds us where he got this phrase. After a brief discussion about HG Wells and how, around 1900, Wells was able to predict many seemingly amazing things that did indeed come true, proving Wells as one of the great forecasters of all time, "But there was a lot Wells wasn't able to predict: relativity, nuclear weapons, quantum mechanics, microchips, postmodernism and so forth. These were not so much unforeseen as unforeseeable. His predications had much in common with the expectations of the scientific world, in that he extrapolated from what was then known. In the words commonly assigned to the English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, the universe would prove to be not just stranger than we imagine, but, 'stranger than we can imagine.'" While I read this book, I thought of young, smart artistically-minded people I know, and how I wanted to press this book into their hands and say, "You will really love this one. Trust me on this."



Stranger Than We Can Imagine is written from the standpoint of the generalist intellectual who is not beholden to a larger institution, and I see Higgs as a good example of the type of intellectual Karl Mannheim wrote about in his Ideology and Utopia, still the ur-text in the sociology of knowledge. Mannheim wrote of a "relatively classless stratum" of "free-floating"thinkers who, because they were not beholden to institutions, probably had the most valid overview of social life and current ideas. Higgs's erudition is quite great and yet he wears it lightly, and I found the book difficult to put down once I started it. Whether he's discussing Einstein and how artists contemporary with him who couldn't understand Einstein's math yet were still projecting a worldview that demanded a relativistic /multi-perspectivalist view, or a stirring encapsulation of the horrible irony of the space race (Jack Parsons, Werner von Braun and Sergei Korolev were visionaries who ended up beholden to nations who demanded their research be used to develop killingry, or hi-tech nuclear missiles)...there are no dull moments in this book.

There are chapters on chaos mathematics (Higgs makes it understandable to the most math-phobic among us), the advent of "teenagers" (a word that wasn't coined until 1940!), feminism and the rise of "free sex" with its misunderstandings and missed opportunities, post-Hiroshima nihilism and existentialism, how quantum mechanics showed that uncertainty is baked into the human condition, and the function of Freud's metaphor of the "Id" as it relates to fascism, advertising, individualism and alienation. The author manages to thread together all of these disparate ideas, which I find marvelous.

Higgs's work is vital in a world filled with paramilitary death squads answering to corporations, nuclear weapons, and banks/corporations that behave like psychopathic individuals and are in many cases more powerful than many countries and not subject to criminal law to boot. In a world of ISIS and the prospect of someone like Donald Trump as leader of the free world, we citizens in 2016, bombarded by information about our comparatively "little worlds," need broad overviews of How We Got Here. In a very substantive sense, this book can function as a map that will help us avert catastrophe. Higgs cites climate change and that the 21st century appears to be the penultimate century "in terms of Western civilisation." Id est, it's curtains for humanity in the 22nd c. But: "That's certainly the position if we look at current trends and project forward. We can be sure, though, that there will be unpredictable events and discoveries ahead, and that may give us hope."

Most of the books I've read on 20th century history address relativity, cubism, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, cultural anthropology, quantum mechanics, postmodernism (which Higgs compares to New Age thought in a provocative section), neuroscience and perception, and the "linguistic turn" in philosophy as a world that found itself foundation-less. Or, as Stephen Dedalus thinks in Joyce's 1922 Ulysses, we can never be certain about our big ideas, because they are "ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void." Higgs uses the metaphor of the omphalos. Is the ultimate Source for our normative claims the Church? Our "selves"? Our money? Our country and our ways? Logic? Rationality and science? All of these were severely undermined during the Roaring 20th century, some moreso than others.

The deepest structure of Higgs's argument about what just happened to all of us in the 20th century, and where we might be going seems of the utmost importance in our understanding of our prospects as a species. With the demise of at least 30 centuries of rigid hierarchical institutions that governed every aspect of our lives falling apart at the start of the 20th century, individualism reigned. But an overweening individualist ethos turned out to cause more problems than it was worth. What arose at the end of the century was something to combat it: massively networked sociality and constant feedback and accountability, and those who grew up in this digital world seem to intuitively understand game theory: the zero-sum games we're running (especially with banks/corporations and politics) are no longer sustainable: the generation born after 1990 implicitly understands that we must all come together, under no hierarchy, to solve problems, then disperse back to our own lives. The only semblance of omphalos we have is the articulation of our own values and the idea that all of us are in this together. This younger generation - certainly younger than me - may be the best card history has dealt us. Let's hope Higgs is right, 'cuz if he isn't, we probably are living in the penultimate century for human Being.

It has shimmering prose, luminous details, and a rhythm I can dance to. Oh yea: it could also help save our species, and I'm only about 1/3 joking. You can't afford NOT to read it. 23 stars out of a possible 20.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Robert Anton Wilson's "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon": Fugitive Notes

Prelim
I've been reading with plentious enjoyment John Higgs's recent alternative history of the Roaring 20th Century, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, and it's obvious that Robert Anton Wilson influenced Higgs, almost throughout, although RAW is mentioned only in the bibliography, with Robert Shea and their Illuminatus! Trilogy.

I'll review Higgs's book in good time, but it's gotten me thinking about the semantic unconscious and what drove us into the vast unintelligible weirdness of the 20th c, and I kept thinking about attempts to quantify acceleration of information in history. I've run across a number of fascinating models, but my favorite one remains RAW's model, which he dubbed "The Jumping Jesus Phenomenon" in one of his choicer ludic moods.

For the uninitiated, check out these links; all others feel free to skip down:
"The Jumping Jesus Phenomenon by Robert Anton Wilson Updated by Bob Pauley" (the gist, pithy)

A short excerpt from RAW on this topic, first paragraph HERE, from his book Right Where You Are Sitting Now.

Here's a YouTube clip on Jumping J and The Singularity (you get to see RAW here). It will take 2 1/2 minutes of your sweet accelerating time. I'm pretty sure it's an excerpt from a 2006 Belgian documentary called Technocalyps.


             A Ray Kurzweil graph showing how Everything will lead to the Singularity by 2045
                      and then everything will be just ducky.


Influences
RAW states in the YouTube video that he first got turned onto the idea when reading Alfred Korzybski. (There seems to be far more about this idea in Korzybski's 1921 book Manhood of Humanity than in his 1933 magnum opus, Science and Sanity.) Other influences were Buckminster Fuller, Henry and Brooks Adams, Adrian Berry, Claude Shannon, Theodore Gordon, Carl Oglesby, Timothy Leary, Unistatian writer/biographer John Keats (died: 2000 CE), and many others. Wilson had one of the great capacious, compendious and generalist minds of the 20th c, so his model of acceleration of information in history must be considered something of a "meta" model. When he noticed later thinkers and ideas that seemed isomorphic to his model, he noted these and at times incorporated new ideas, and in the last 15 years of his life sounded sanguine about Ray Kurzweil's models of acceleration, just to give one example. He also - in both his books and articles - frequently cited his immediate influences for a given idea.

It seems likely that, while RAW had been fascinated by the idea of info-acceleration and its effect on societies and human nervous systems, it was the reading of a 1979 book - RAW was 47 in the year 1979, if you're keeping score at home - on another of his enduring preoccupations, the prospects for human immortality, titled Conquest of Death, by Alvin Silverstein, that first got the Jumping J jumpin'. (See pp.134-141) Silverstein had found a 1973 study by economist Georges Anderla, for the OECD, that attempted to quantify knowledge acceleration in history.

Here's a slice of Silverstein:

Let us assume that by the year A.D. 1 we had accumulated an arbitrary single unit of knowledge. Fifteen hundred years later (A.D. 1500) the sum total of human scientific and technological knowledge had about doubled. At about this point the scientific revolution had begun, welding the natural curiosity of humanity to disciplined scientific techniques and quickening the pace of progress. It required only 250 years (through the age of Newton and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century) for the store of data to double once more, to four units. With the rise of new secular academic institutions, science had a "workbench." The next doubling took only 150 years: by the year 1900 humanity had eight units in its "knowledge bank." (pp. 135-136)

The article Silverstein had drawn from was from an OECD publication called Information In 1985, though Anderla's paper was written in 1973. Silverstein uses "units;" RAW uses "Jesuses" after the scientist-derived nomenclature practice of naming a unit of measurement after one of their own. Since Anderla's arbitrary single unit begins very near the time of the person named Jesus the Christ was born, RAW thought it would be ironic, hip and catchy to re-name the unit a "Jesus."

It's a MODEL
Note in the Silverstein quote: it's technological and scientific knowledge, presumably because that's easier to quantify than a conception from my favorite model in the sociology of knowledge, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's thesis that "the sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for 'knowledge' in society." (The Social Construction of Reality, p.14-15)

Also: presumably there's a much more unwieldy problem lurking here: the difference between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. In "The Neurogeography of Conspiracy" in Right Where You Are Sitting Now RAW includes a footnote on one of these elements:

No statement is made or intended about wisdom, which is private, not public, and somewhat more mysterious. (p.90)

In reading Wilson's numerous takes on his Jumping J Phenom we see the idea linked to vast historical migrations of world centers of wealth. When there's lots of wealth there's lots of ideas/data/new techniques/mathematical progress/information/knowledge. Because this meta-conceptualization is a map made by a human (RAW) from reading ideas about this topic from others, it's an intensely social project. Further, because Wilson is not a Platonist, human nervous systems make these models of models of models. Hence, the migration of wealth over the globe over the longue duree was called a "neurogeography" of wealth migration. Indeed: to remind us that (presumably) ALL of our studies are human and not given by the gods, even mathematics might be thought of as "neuromathematics."All of our maps and models of "reality" must first filter through the nervous systems of Beings like ourselves who live on this planet, in a gravity well, orbiting a Type G main-sequence star. There might be other intelligent Beings elsewhere with different systems for mapping "reality." Hilariously, RAW pointed out that, in reminding ourselves of this, we must think of the discipline of neuroscience as neuro-neuroscience. Was he fucking with us? Probably...

Being a generalist dunderhead, I can't begin to offer the distinct features that delineate data from information. Or info from knowledge. The more intrepid New York intellectual Daniel Bell, in his The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), gives us:

1. data or information describing the empirical world
2. information: organizing the data into meaningful systems such as statistical analysis
3. knowledge: use of information to make judgements.

Which...alright. Not bad.

Some of the best writing I've seen on this clusterfuck of ill-defined terms comes from David Weinberger. See his Everything Is Miscellaneous on the radical pace and change in the way knowledge is structured these days/daze, due to the digital supernova we're all experiencing right where we are sitting now. (See esp. pp. 100-106, op cit). For some golden passages about today's world and knowledge to the social construction of meaning, see the same book, pp. 199-230. But I digress...

In James Kaklios's The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics he compares the quantification of energy doubling versus information doubling: it did not occur at the same pace, because energy storage must obey the properties of atoms. "If energy storage also obeyed Moore's Law, experiencing a doubling of capacity every two years, then a battery that could hold its charge for only a single hour in 1970 would, in 2010, last for more than a century." (Anyone heard of a battery in the works that promises to last 100 years? I wouldn't be surprised if we get one of those in the next few years.)

I lump in energy doubling to screw with our already muddled minds, and 'cuz I get a heady buzz off this stuff. The great anthropologist Leslie White had attempted to quantify social evolution via a measurement of the energy through-put of a particular society.

We could model all this as Jumping Jesus vs. White's Law vs. Moore's Law, but that would be simplifying things far too much, in my estimation. Even Jumpin'J AND White's Law AND Moore's Law seems too simple.

By which I also mean too complex. At this level, logic breaks down for me. Pardonnez-moi, mais il me semble ĂȘtre plein de merde.

Moore's Law
In 1965 Gordon Moore of Intel, said the number of transistors would double every 18 months to two years, and therefore nothing will stay the same, that no technology will be safe from a successor, that computing costs would fall while computing power would increase exponentially. The idea of a personal computer was hatched in the 1960s, but was as yet unfeasible. Yet Moore's Law was like the governing religion in Silicon Valley/San Francisco/Berkeley; it was widely assumed that this rate of exponential growth applied not only to technology, but business, education, and even culture. Of course, Wilson loved this idea (not as a religion though). The visionaries of the sixties knew they only needed to wait a few years and the personal computer would arrive.

I had been trying to keep up with Moore's Law for years. Just when it looked like it would slow down, somebody figured out something, and it kept going. Then, for the last few years, it looked like it had slowed from its exponential pace. Then, last month I read this article. Ok: a marriage of electrons and photons to fit 20 million transistors and 850 photonic components (whatever that means) onto a single 3x6 millimeter chip? Greater bandwidth for less power. "Ultrafast low-power data crunching." And it's quickly scalable for commercial production. It's clear from the article that it's going to be good for the environment (barring the Law of Unforeseen Consequences). But I wondered how this related to Moore's Law. Was Moore's Law even a "thing" anymore? So I emailed the lead researcher at Berkeley about this. Here's Dr. Vladimir Marko Stojanovic's response:


Moore's law has definitely slowed down. Even Intel postponed their 7nm process this year to next year - something that hasn't happened the last fifty years.
Also, the process nodes below 45nm are not really any faster and hardly denser, just more energy-efficient due to mobile demand.

Then Stojanovic wrote a sentence that was way over my head, but asserted this new breakthrough goes "beyond Moore's Law." I guess I'll take him at this word. Hey, why not? Stranger than we can imagine?

Stranger Than We Can Imagine
According to RAW's Jumping Jesus model, we had accumulated 8 Jesuses by 1900, right around the time Higgs's book is concerned with. Higgs covers the 20th century, in which information doubled again by 1950 to 16 Jesuses, by 1960 to 32 Js, by 1967 to 64, by 1973 128 Js...and then things get out of hand. I'm not sure anyone understands it.

It could be that once we got to 8 Js, human society begins to produce knowledges it had no idea what to do with. Or at least: it had a very difficult time trying to come to grips with this hot mess of items like the Id, genocide, chaos mathematics (which plays a big part in forecasting futures), quantum mechanics and relativity, climate change, postmodernism, psychedelic drugs, and existentialism. Well, clearly we have not come to grips with any of these Ideas yet, eh?

A Few Quotes

The "investigative"poet/chronicler/counterculture historian and Egyptologist Ed Sanders said in 2000CE that our era is "data retentive." (post-Snowden: who can possibly say Sanders was wrong?)

The UC Berkeley information theorist Peter Lyman, who wrote How Much Information? and who died in 2007, said, "It's clear we're all drowning in a sea of information."

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
-T.S. Eliot, "The Rock"

Eric Schmidt said that from the dawn of civilization until 2003, humans had produced five exabytes of data. He said that we now produce that every two days, and it's accelerating. I don't know his source(s). I have no grasp of an "exobyte." I'm not really even sure how this was measured or what it could mean, but Schmidt seemed excited by this. I gleaned it from This Will Make You Smarter, ed. by John Brockman, p.305 Of course, cultural evolution, being Lamarckian, occured pre-Jesus. Who knows when time-binding began? (My guess was on a Tuesday, probably rainy, may as well stay in the cave all day and...write something?) Vico says, "The Greek philosophers accelerated the natural course of their nation's development." (paragraph #158, New Science)

"The ignorance of how to use new knowledge stockpiles exponentially." - Marshall McLuhan

"I suspect or intuit that this ever-accelerating info-techno-sociological rev-and-ev-olution follows the laws of organic systems and continually reorganizes on higher and higher levels of coherence, until something kills it." - Robert Anton Wilson brainmachines.com Manifesto

"Along the way to knowledge,
Many things are accumulated.
Along the way to widsom,
Many things are discarded."
-Lao-Tzu

In a 2004 interview, RAW makes it clear how crazy it is to try to be a generalist these days of accelerated info. This interview is included in the book True Mutations: Interviews On The Edge of Science, Technology and Consciousness, by R. U. Sirius:

NF: Is there anything specific that you can think of that you feel has been superceded?
RAW: I can’t think about it right now. You can’t be a generalist in this world. So many things I’ve written about have changed by now I don’t know how out-of-date I am. I just know I must be out-of-date.


                                            art/graphic design by Bobby Campbell

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Ethnomusicology and Universality in Music

A Note on Recent Reading Methods
While I only read about 70 books cover-to-cover last calendar year, I've been doing lots of slow, intensive reading and re-reading of texts that my nervous system perceives as extremely dense, endlessly fascinating, and challenging to my self-miseducation. Scholars of reading like David Hall and Rolf Engelsing have confirmed and drawn out something I'd assumed: around 1750 or so, "intensive" reading - in which a reader reads a book or books over and over - gave way to our modern "extensive" way of reading a book, rather quickly, then moving on to the next thing. I know certain 20th century writers - Robert Frost comes to mind - were known for reading the same 20 books over and over. I think many of us do both types of reading. Some of the books I've been reading "in" without any real goal of "finishing," over the past year are: The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. by Sloane; How We Think, by Fauconnier and Turner; A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari, and George Lakoff's Philosophy In The Flesh. Each of these represent a boundless rich intellectual environment and they all intersect with each other...because I make them intersect.

One of the main themes of How We Think is that the highwater marks of 20th century thought were all formalist in assumption. Incredible formalist works were produced in cybernetics, linguistics, math, and psychology, but they all ran dry when they bumped up against meaning. In art there's no problem with formalist work, because it has no assumptions about finding some ultimate key to unlock the final secrets of the universe: Schoenberg's stuff is perhaps the ultimate in formal thought in music, and if you dig serialism, cool. If formalist thinking in color and shape is your thing in painting, rush to the Kandinsky exhibit post-haste! Schoenberg and Kandinsky (or Elliot Carter, Paul Klee and James Joyce) produced work that did not call for formal proofs from the rest of the community in order that research may build from there.

Currently I see the formalist works of Godel, Chomsky (in linguistics), Minsky and the pre-1980s AI giants, and all modes of structuralism as odd, wonderful intellectual works of art. They all ran aground and could not - will not - account for the way human nervous systems make meaning. Are they formally elegant works? I think so. But what I'm trying to do to my mind by immersing myself in the works cited supra is to get it out of the 20th and into the 21st c. I think it would be easier if I were 23, but I am not 23. Still, it's fun. And I'm not sure there is as clean a break between formalist modes of meaning and embodied ones. But the break seems fairly sharp. Hence, the re-re-reading of those dense texts and a few others like them.

                                          a Javanese gamelan

Ted Gioia and Universality In Music
Which reminds me: every now and then I read some article about "human universals" in some domain, and I remain piqued, even though I associate the search for universals with the 20th c. and hence formalist assumptions about "reality."

Which brings me to Ted Gioia's piece on universality in music from last October. He sees lots of new neuroscience as pointing to music as universal, but says musicologists seem to feel threatened by the idea. Historically, ethnomusicologists have always strived to show how each peoples' music was different from others. There were fears about ethnocentrism and Western hegemony, ideas about technology and "race" and complexity and who was "advanced" and who wasn't, etc. I still see their point; but Gioia's impetus was his own research for his books on music. It's a wonderful article and you really ought to read it. I think he brings up some very rousing issues: examples of musical similarities in emotional types of music that share striking similarities with peoples so far-flung that it's difficult to account for except by universality; Witzel's recent work in 50,000 year old monomyths that seem virtually worldwide - how come almost everyone has a Flood Myth, a creation-destruction myth, an Orpheus, a trickster?; how, against anthropologists of music, there have always been great systematizers and taxonomists who tabulated and cross-collated data in an attempt to obtain a universalist Grand Schema; how the current work in historical genetics in search of the African "Eve" is a universalist idea; how Jung's collective unconscious might have a resurgence with new neuroscientific/math techniques (even though I think Gioia's reading of synchronicity as merely a re-naming of "coincidence"- a Begging the Q - isn't nuanced enough); and I particularly like how he laid out six "Possible Explanations of Human Universals, which are:


  1. Diffusion: transfer of social practices from one group to another (Gioia ain't buying)
  2. Common Origin: when social groups separate and migrate, they retain their practices (sorta maybe-ish, not really)
  3. Shared Biology/Brain Structure: humans share physiology and basic neurological tendencies (this is Gioia's main squeeze here)
  4. Shared Archteypes  (Ted G seems to think this too woo-woo, but I see it the way Joseph Campbell saw myth: Jung and others like Frobenius and Eliade pretty much see archetypal templates as metaphorical biology)
  5. Similar Contextual Situations (Both Gioia and I like this idea. Ever since I first started reading cultural anthropology, the idea that hunter-gatherers would have different modes of thought than pastoral-herding peoples made sense to me. Ideas about universality get a bit dicey here, but it's a good kind of dicey. This guy said it better.)
  6. Coincidence: which Gioia thinks is functionally the same as Jung/Pauli synchronicity.


Gioia thinks ethnomusicologists should work with brain researchers on this project, and I agree. Let's see what can be figured out! This exhortation to get the musicologists with the cognitive scientists seems to hermetically traverse boundaries, which we're all for. Why not use techniques once reserved for Naturwissenschaften to impinge on Geisteswissenschaften? Wot?

At the same time, the phenomenology of listening to "world music," for me, will not be changed much no matter how much is "proved" about the universality of music. When I listen to Tuvan throat singers, Balinese "monkey music," some Greek wiz on the Bouzouki, koto virtuosos, Zakir Hussein playing with anyone, any of the Alan Lomax recordings, jazz, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, Hank Williams, Eno, Laswell, Kronos Quartet, or Celtic music: it takes me somewhere else. I want - and will inevitably find - an exoticism that alters my sense perceptions. Your personal "reality" and imagination will always be some remainder in the Total Equation, eh?

Ted G says a great many of us are interested in ideas about universality in music, and he cites Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia and Daniel J. Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music. Hey, I loved both books. Here's Levitin, after citing Chomsky's idea of our innate capacity to learn any of the world's languages, due to genetic endowment and merely hearing the language during childhood:

"Similarly, I believe that we all have an innate capacity to learn any of the world's musics, although they, too, differ in substantive ways from one another. The brain undergoes a period of rapid neural development after birth, continuing for the first years of life. During this time, new neural connections are forming more rapidly than at any other time in our lives, and during our midchildhood years, the brain starts to prune these connections, retaining only the most important and most often used ones. This becomes the basis for our understanding music, and ultimately the basis for what we like in music, what music moves us, and how it moves us. This is not to say that we can't learn to appreciate new music as adults, but basic structural elements are incorporated into the very wiring of our brains when we listen to music early in our lives." (p.109)(This idea may answer some of the Qs I posed back in this blogspew?)

Now: is this part and parcel the same argument Ted Gioia makes? Or does it modify it? Does anyone think the implications here modify Ted G's idea about universality to the point a qualitative difference arises? Does this idea I've selected from Levitin have nothing to do with what Gioia's tryna get at? I'm not sure...Ted G says in his article that the "modern age of research on brainwaves and music can be dated back to the 1960s," citing Neher's "Auditory Driving Observed With Scalp Electrodes In Normal Subjects." Well, it may not have been "brainwaves" but Seashore's work in The Psychology of Music dates to 1938 and attempts to chart enormous amounts of data about the human nervous system and perception of music. It's not massively cross-cultural, but we can assume - because of #3 on Ted's chart: "Shared Biology/Brain Structure," that it has at least some relevance.

Finally:
Robert Crumb: Some Sort of Wonderful Musicologist Too
Get a load of Public Radio International's Marco Werman visiting Crumb, the giant of counterculch comic book artists in his house in Southern France, in 2004. I knew from the documentary Crumb that Robert was a tremendous collector of old 78s, but this interview yields proof of Crumb's cantankerous erudition and reverence for roots music that would put the most serious hipster to shame. Crumb asserts that when we listen to some of his very rare recordings, we "time travel" to some "lost world" and I couldn't agree more. Listen to the quote at 2:45 in the second sound bar, when he talks about the "effort"it takes to listen to some of this non-Western, alien, wonderful music. Note Crumb's delineation between the ethnomusicologist's strategy of going into some remote village and asking, "Who knows the old songs?" and the Music Business people, who ask, "Who are the best players around?"

What kills me - and maybe you too, if you listen to Crumb - is that he sounds dubious that anyone will want his massive collection when he dies. He says the idea that some university will want it is mistaken: he found Alan Lomax's recordings untended, falling apart. He was even allowed to take some home, as a gift, apparently. Jeez.

                                          above artwork by the brilliant Bobby Campbell

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Books: Notes on My Better Reading Experiences in 2015

Readers: I have not been doing the OG much over the past year, my previous post being on July 23. The reasons available to my conscious mind are numerous. Do a search for "why I quit blogging" and one of the most-cited reasons is depression. I think I've had some of that, but I guess I internally framed it in other ways: frustration/anger/hopelessness. How does someone make money writing? Where are we going in Unistat, politically? To quote the old Stones song "19th Nervous Breakdown,": "Nothing I do don't seem to work/It only seems to make matters worse. Oh pleeeeeeeze."

But I hang in there. I teach guitar and music theory and love my students and most of 'em love me. I love doing it. I did it a lot in my 20s. Boy, have things changed with the digital world vis a vis music teaching!

Over the last six weeks or so, I realized: well, about five people read this blog (the numbers that Blogger gives you for hourly/daily/weekly/monthly/yearly readership seem infinitely corruptible; never for one second did I believe 683 people had actually read anything from my blog in one day), and when I did write I almost always wrote a "tl/dr" post. Apparently? Anyway, I realized, there was a therapeutic aspect to posting an article/essay/rant/whatever. Even if one person "out there" liked it and never commented, I guess I'm now cool with it. (I imagine that one Ideal Reader of the OG, btw.)

Moreover, I recall one of the writing gurus - fergit which 'um - titled a book Writing To Learn. And I bet it was Zinsser, but I'm too lazy to look it up and it's immaterial anyway: it was a way to learn. That sealed it: I stopped going on. I will go on. I...

So yea: books I read in 2015 that I really really RILLY liked...

Blood and Volts: Edison, Tesla and the Electric Chair, by Th. Metzger (1996)
Metzger's essays first showed on my radar in supplements to the yearly Loompanics catalog. As far as I can tell, he has yet to collect those in a book. He's taught college in upstate NY for awhile and I consider him one of the greats in the so-called "marginals milieu." He writes fiction too. (Check out Big Gurl. ) B&V is a gripping, well-researched and in-your-face look at the early uses of electricity in capital punishment. There are scenes that feel like Wm. S. Burroughs at his most depraved. These were liberals who wanted a more "humane" way to kill people. Because killing is just plain wrong, we're gonna kill ya, in the name of The People. Recent news stories of the "kinder" method of lethal injection and the specific, horrific ways it doesn't work the way rationalists thought it would might prepare you for Metzger's descriptions of the experiences (if you can call them that) of the earliest electric chair recipients. We also get vivid pictures of Edison and Tesla: their personalities and attitudes towards science, business, ethics and fame. Most readers of a blog like this probably already know: the two geniuses couldn't possibly be more different. I love how Metzger depicts late 19th.early 20th century American society and its excited misunderstandings of an emergent electrical world.

Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal, by Tom Shroder (2014)
Journalistic, and among a sudden welter of books and articles in major publications about how psychedelics are slowly re-emerging after perhaps the most egregious moral panics of the 20th c. When I took this one home from the library and did a quick thumbing for index, structure, bibliography, style, etc: I was excited to note that a major section of the book was about Rick Doblin and his long strange trip trying to get psychedelic drugs back in the hands of researchers and scientists. And that part of the book delivered, for me: Doblin is one of the names that should be better known among those who consider themselves among what may be termed the psychedelic cognoscenti. But the interwoven story of the Iraq war vet with PTSD, and his treatment: utterly gripping. The descriptions of what this young guy went through gave me a bit of quasi-PTSD, and the only thing that would've alleviated it would be his ability to deal with life effectively after treatment, with a psychedelic drug, under knowledgeable, loving medical care. It worked!

Overall, the gradual acceptance that psychedelic drugs may have profound therapeutic effects seems to me one of the happiest of historical turns for our years, early 21st century. Know Thyself. Set and Setting. Sacrament. The Numinous and healing. A 2011 study revealed that one major psilocybin trip could make a person open-minded to new viewpoints and experiences for life. Let us weigh the pros and cons and the in-betweens?

Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, by Scott Timberg (2015)
I first became aware of Timberg many years ago when I read a feature piece he published in the LA Times, about a ridiculously erudite classical music clerk at Tower Records in West Hollywood, California. This book seems to have grown out of that piece and several others like it: the old business model for writing and performing music, poetry, doing architecture, cultural criticism - most of the creative arts - has changed so radically with the digital revolution that we're suddenly in a winner-take-all situation that seems unsustainable. And how some record store and bookstore clerks had been minor cultural heroes themselves, with tiny cult followings, simply because they knew so much and were tremendous sources for people who are into Their Thing. These clerks and weirdo-experts go away too, when it's all Amazon from here on out. Timberg is wonderful in fleshing out the etiology of all this, and has some compelling suggestions for how we get out of it. This book was written, seemingly, with almost all my friends I've ever had in mind. I do wish Timberg had suggested the Universal Basic Income idea, but you can't have everything...or rather: if you're trying to make a living doing creative work in the Arts, you can barely have anything. This book seems vital for those who have disposable incomes but who are only transiently aware that real people are behind their joyful cultural consumptions. The problem is: if these people thumb the book in a kiosk somewhere, it's likely to look like too much of a bummer, and they won't read it. It seems written for the very class who are suffering under the current dispensation. Timberg loves independent music, writers, weirdo painters, visionary builders. He really knows...more than you do about all these people and how they sought to contribute to culture. The book seems to function as: hey, thanks for reading, and I'm here to tell you I hear you. Maybe things will get better. It's very well-informed, empathetic, but  a bit of a reality sandwich for many of us. Still: I couldn't put it down.

Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science, by Alice Dreger (2015)
This might seem like a weird riff, but right off I'm going to assert readers of Robert Anton Wilson will probably love this book, which I think will prove to be influential in the sociology of science. Especially if those RAW readers liked his The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science. (<---of course I'd say this, but one of the great underappreciated books in the sociology of science) Only Dreger is not taking on CSICOP, but liberal academics who attack other scientific researchers for coming up with data, information, journal articles and books that offend - in the widest sense - Political Correctness. I've long been fascinated by the late 1960s-now fallout around the cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who famously studied and wrote an ethnography about the Yanomamo. From there: sociobiology/evolutionary psychology and the raucous campus backlashes from feminists, charges and counter-charges, how knowledges are constituted, the political ramifications of knowledge, the molten topic of what's "human nature," etc. And this is but one tendril in Dreger's story. For me, it's easy to see why the Right attacks science it doesn't like; what I want is a more balanced view: how do liberals react to science they don't like? The stories here are sobering. If you're fascinated by intersex folk and the political in-fighting among transsexuals, between those who brook no dissent from the line that "I was born in the wrong body" and those who changed sexes because they thought it would be exciting and sexy (I'm simplifying), here is a story for you. Or: what if your data shows that rape is not - according to feminist dogma - always and only an act of violence, that there's a sexual attractiveness component to rape? And that this data could be placed within the framework of evolutionary psychology? Even if you're a male feminist/liberal and know your data will cause great anger, do you deserve death threats? To get fired? All of the stories Dreger covers seem to violate this basic sequence: First: do good science and trust in your methods and data and your scientific peers. Second: we hope social justice will occur. If you get these two backwards, you may be in for a world of hurt. A captivating read for me, and Dreger combines her (rough) academic life with a journalistic flair. She's fearless, frank and I love her. Maybe some day I'll meet her.

Eminent Hipsters, by Donald Fagen (2013)
The brainiest and wittiest rock star book I've ever read. One half of Steely Dan, this is a short work in which the latter half Fagen describes in great detail what it's like to do the rock star tour when you're around the age of 60. The road, the dealings with different concert attaches, the poor sleep, whether to sleep on the bus on in your room, etc. And Fagen is cantankerous, if highly literate and funny. You understand why young rock stars trash hotel rooms, overdose, turn in bad performances, and act like ridiculous assholes: constant touring is rough on the nervous system; it tends to drive people nuts. And here's 60 year old Fagen doing it, making the best of it. There are short essays about taking LSD at Bard College, reading science fiction and Korzybski and the Beats, growing up in post-war suburbia, slowly developing musical chops and an esthetic. I hadn't ever heard of the Boswell Sisters, but Fagen sold me. Chevy Chase once played drums in a proto-Steely Dan? Yep. Fagen is, one of my musical gods: I love his composing and piano playing, not to mention that any studio guitarist who played on a Steely Dan record has...unworldly chops. To this day I go ga-ga over any lead break in any SD record. (Jimmy Page said his favorite solo of all time was  "Reelin' In The Years," which was by Elliot Randall; if I were forced to pick one it would be Larry Carlton's first solo in "Kid Charlemagne" which is about Owsley. Carlton's second solo in that song is merely great.) One last tidbit in this capsule quasi-review that kept me thinking for a long time: I have long had a very deep love-hate relationship with television, and Fagen's take on much of his audience addresses this when he uses the term "TV Babies" over and over when sizing up his audience:

"Incidentally, by 'TV Babies' I mean people who were born after, say, 1960, when television truly became the robot caretaker of American children and therefore the principle architect of their souls. I've actually borrowed the term from the film Drugstore Cowboy, in which Matt Dillon, playing a drug addict and dealer, uses it to refer to a younger generation of particularly stupid and vicious dealers who seemed to have no soul at all." (pp.98-99) This seems a pungent articulation for the loyal opposition, if you like what TV has done to you and balk at the idea that it was the "principle architect" of your "soul."

Ahem. Well. I see I've done it again: I meant to write about another 15-20 books, but the word spewage is probably too much for the Busy Person, so I shall quit for the day.

                                          artwork by Bobby Campbell