Overweening Generalist

Friday, May 24, 2013

Updates and Re-Takes on Some Old Posts

A. Abortion: Not long ago I blogged on some recent stories about abortion and women's access to do with their bodies what they think they need, and I touched on Savita Halappanavar's death in Ireland due to her inability to get a legal abortion. Very quickly I segued into one of my comfort zones, James Joyce. But let us note that the citizenry in Ireland are pushing things on this case, more than six months after Savita's death. Which is heartening.

But I tend to agree with the editor/reporter for Salon, Katie McDonough, who calls the recent gains "infinitesimally small," and that most women in Ireland will continue to have a very rough go of it indeed in future unwanted pregnancies. (Although, if I were a PAID editor at Salon I would hope to avoid pleonasms such as "infinitesimally small," but alas, I'm just some dipshit hack, so whaddyagonna do? But aye: the gap in status between Katie and me, as writers? Katie might say it was gargantuanly huge. And indeed, Katie would be right. Again.)

Gotta admire the brass ones on Taoiseach (President, basically) Enda Kenny, telling the Church's main man in Ireland that "my book is the Constitution." And, basically, threaten me with excommunication all you want, you bullying medievalists.

May wonders never cease, faith! (<-----please read that with your best Irish accent, even if you're Irish.)

Maybe the wild card here is New Pope Francis, who recently performed a quick miraculous exorcism, despite The Church's moving away from "demon possession" stuff in the last few decades. And then, in the same week (or so?), he pronounced that atheists can be good people and make it to heaven too. I am squarely for unorganized religion and consider the Catholic Church a major nuisance as an official entity, but if you're gonna be a highfalutin' carny huckster claiming a hotline to Gee Oh Dee, wearing a dress and traveling in a Popemobile, at least give us a good show. Pour it on.

And with his recent win, he's now infallible, so why not have fun with it? Gosh! Thanks, Francis! I bet the atheists are sleeping better and the faithful are a tad pissed, or at least flummoxed. Some of us look forward to your next Surprise, pontiff. (I will eat Werner Herzog's shoe if he says abortion is now okay, because women should be able to control their own reproduction...and hey: if you clicked on the "atheists" link from the Catholic website, did you get an automatic loud video of a violent Schwarzenegger film too? What's up with all that?)

B. Names: A full moon or two ago I spewed blog on Montaigne and names, and commented on Montaigne's assertion that it's up to a dad to give his children fine names. Then I went into the Zappa kids' names and etcetera. Now New Zealand - no doubt having read my blog - has outlawed 71 names that non-Zappa parents tried to give their kids.

If you take a gander at the list you may agree 100%. Or not. The overweening libertarian in me says the State has no right to say what the parents can or can't name their kids, but I admit you have to wonder about the seriousness and human decency of mom and/or dad (probably dad?) who sought to tag the kid with "Anal" or "Mafia No Fear" or a sole asterisk* and a simple period..

"Apple"seems fine to me, but not in an age in which it's the name of one of the most powerful corporations in the world. 40 years ago, a little girl whose hippie parents named her Apple B. Watson: it's sorta cute. Not anymore.  Why not "Exxon Jones"? If you're a slack-jawed yokel, maybe. But "Facebook" seems heinous to me.

History and the pace of change accelerating as it seems to, logarithmically, things could look quite different by the time the kid reaches school age. "Hey, what's a Facebook?," one kid asks Facebook Smith. "Some thing people used to waste their time on back in, like, 2013," Facebook responds.

I see that Sweden has taken similar steps, but I don't know about you: I want to party with a person (or what the hell: the parents) named "Brfxxccxxmnpccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb111116." I'm guessing the parents got wasted one night on something mind-manifesting, but then I think things maybe went sorta off when one said, "If we have this baby, I think the Ouija Board should pick the name, 'cuz it's a medium between us and the spirit world."


Besides, let the kid have that name on his birth certificate; it'll be good for endless laffs. And the kid would end up being called "Beearsix" for the first two letters and the last number. Then "Beer." Then "Bear." Then, for awhile, "Six." By the time he's 18? Bjorn, a fine Swedish name. On with it...

C. Hoarding: I really allowed my musings to flow back when I tried to write about hoarding and related ideas HERE. And not long ago I happened upon this article, which extended the ideas I'd crammed for just before I set to typing.

There were a few things new to me here. Psychology professor Randy Frost of Smith College, who has studied hoarding since at least 1993, put forth the intriguing idea that "giftedness in aesthetic appreciation of the physical world, rather than a pure illness" was one way we could look at this. And Andy Warhol was a famous hoarder, so that sorta bolsters Frost's claim.

Did you know about the Collyer Mansion?

Another thing that made me wonder: that 10% of Unistatians pay for storage units, and that 70% can't park their cars in the garage 'cuz there's too much stuff in there. Hoarding seems to have a genetic component, and maybe up to 5% - or 15 million - of Unistatians hoard, to some extent. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seems to help this OCD-ish behavior, which sounds promising to me. I also thought the ideas of Monika Eckfield of UCSF are interesting: there may be two broad types of hoarders: 1.) impulsive acquirers, which tend to be men, and 2.) worried keepers, which tend to be women.

Every time I read about hoarding I can't help it, I'm obsessively compulsed to think about Prof. George Carlin's ideas about our houses as being places for "our stuff." Boxes with lids on them. When you fly you look down and see all these little boxes with lids on them...places other people keep their shit. And did you ever notice that their stuff is "shit" and your shit is "stuff"? I'll link to the bit as I find it on YT today, but if you're looking at this and the video is not there, please contact me, okay? Here 'tis:

D. Deceit Ubiquitous. Danny Schechter wrote not long ago about "The News That Isn't: How We Are Fed False Stories Driven By Missing Information." He even linked "the news" to (fake) wrestling, which I also did when discussing the kayfabe and other ideas about deception and deceit that seem to be built into our biological beings. It's just so damned pervasive. "News" seems increasingly heat without light, ever-thinner narratives, and missing vital information amidst the scandalous and prurient morality plays. I think maybe we must work very hard in order to live up to the ballyhoo about, I dunno, how we're "the beauty of the world/the paragon of animals," as a melancholy Dane's poet once wrote.

I derived perverse delight from writing that particular piece on biology and deceit, but it didn't seem to impress anyone. Then, a few weeks later, I noticed that piece was getting tons of hits every day, suddenly. I traced the surprising interest back via the rather primitive statistical info that Blogger gives us: some investor's website had linked to it. They saw it as a piece about markets, I'm guessing, after reading their website for awhile. Anyway, it's nice to be appreciated by somebody, even if you get the feeling some of those somebodies would kick their own grandmother down a flight of stairs if it would improve their returns for just that one Wednesday.

"Check this Overweening Generalist dude out: He says it's all fixed...how do we get in on the ground floor?"

And Danny Schechter? He's on my team. That weirdo is on my wavelength.

E. Can Rape Jokes Be Funny? Molly Knefel of Salon thinks not. <yawn goshwhattasurprise> My spill on the topic was HERE. If you're new to this, please read the links in my post and realize I'm not saying rape is funny; I'm merely saying that we ought to be able to laugh at anything. In this territory, I yield all gravitas and hilaritas to Paul Krassner, who has written and ruminated and agonized and rationalized and vacillated and...he's really the go-to person on this thorny topic. But since I wrote on it, the conversation seems to have opened up. And no joking: I consider this a coincidence. We need to talk about this, hopefully with civility. HERE's a podcast link to Slate folk talking about Salon folk's take on a "double standard" regarding rape jokes, and then Sady Doyle on Sam Morrill's "unfunny rape jokes." Just skip ahead to the good stuff, but I implore you to read my blogpost on this topic, especially the end, where, if you are 100% sure that it's impossible for a rape joke to be funny, give the Carlin bit a read and then tell me in the comments that I'm still wrong.

Appreciate it!

F. Generalists: A topic of intellectual flavor that has recurred throughout the lifespan of Overweening Generalist, not long ago I tried to elucidate...something about "generalists." NB that in the first paragraph I write about "generalists" in the field of insurance, or information technologies, and a couple other areas. I failed to mention the field of crime, and had a good time trying to tease out the meanings in this overly technical study. The writers here noted "a large group of suspects who can be described as generalists." Also, I didn't know how influential Gottfredson and Hirschi's General Theory of Crime was, but I'll check it out, literally.

Skip down to the "Conclusions" for the meat of it, and here is my favorite passage:

In parallel, we observe a non-trivial pattern of specialization across time and gender. In general, women are implicated in types of crimes classified in fewer clusters, and tend to be more specialized than men. We also find that older persons are the most specialized suspects. This can be due to three different or combined factors: (i) suspects tend to specialize over time; (ii) there is a group of specialized individuals who remain in crime, while the generalists distance themselves from criminal activity; and (iii) there is a cohort effect such that the younger generation tends to consist of generalists while the older generation consists of specialists.

And while there are nuances, the social scientists considered violent crimes, drug-related crimes, thefts, burglaries, fraud, financial crime, environmental violations and sex crimes, traffic violations, and organized robbery. Can you imagine the "generalist" who had committed at least one of each of those types of crimes? A true generalist. We might not "approve" of his actions, but let us at least give a grudging tip 'o the hat to his dedication to seeing the Big Picture in crime. A life-long, in-depth study of crime is what these older generalist-criminals have accomplished - the ones who never stopped generalist studies and never started to specialize - and they're almost like cultural anthropologists, with lots of knowledge about Urban Studies too. But sociopathic. Sort of. (Hey, no: we don't want people like this within miles of where we live, but they are interesting from a distance, eh?)

Think of the bragging he (and if you read the study, it's probably a "he") can get away with in prison! You wanna improve on organized robbery? You come to me. I done that stuff. You think you know your violent crimes and financial shenanigans? I bet you don't know as much as I do. Pull up a chair and sit at the right hand of the master of fraud and armed robbery with intent to commit aggravated mayhem with a side of meth dealing. Traffic violations? Sex crimes? Identity theft? Dealing guns illegally? Bank robbery? Fencing stolen cars parts? Being a hit man for hire? Friends: I'm here for ya. I've done it all, man! 

I like to think other criminals look up to this guy and refer to his generalism as "Goin' Around The World." 

I like to think the guys in The Big House call my idealized generalist "The Professor." Or hell, perhaps best yet: The Generalist. But then I have a very active imagination, if warped. Next!

G. Rushkoff: I wrote about his most recent book on the the shock of The Present, HERE. And I found out I'd missed his short stint as guest on Colbert

Interestingly coincidental?: As I started to do this blog-update thing, I made a short list of some topics to update, and I ended up leaving six updates out, lest this go on far too long. But then I picked up William Gibson's Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of essays and speeches by a writer I admire tremendously. And in May of 2010, he gave a talk in New York that sounds like a paraphrase of Rushkoff's recent claims:

"People my age are products of the culture of capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that. If you're fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don't know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one's own culture." (p.44)
DAY-um! I went on ad nauseum yet again. But then when don't I? Lo siento, mi amigos...

                                         a very young William Gibson

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Smattering on Odd Musical Instruments

Taxonomies of Instruments: Two Models
Standard "music appreciation" in Unistat seems still squarely in the strings/woodwinds/brass/percussion taxa; a few years ago I read a book by Bozhidar Abrashev, a Bulgarian composer/musicologist. I forget the title, but he was relaying a taxonomy of musical instruments that attempted to account for all instruments used worldwide and throughout history:

  • Aerophones: these are any instrument in which the sound is produced by vibrating air, and flutes are a good example.
  • Membranophones: sounds are obtained by a vibrating stretched membrane, like drums or the kazoo.
  • Idiophones: any instrument that vibrates, due to the material it's made of, like glass, wood, or ceramics. A vibraphone works like this.
  • Chordophones: the Big Boys: violin, piano, guitar...instruments that produce their sound via vibrating strings. 
In the strings/woodwinds/brass/percussion dealio, I remember what I thought was the Big Trick Question: what class does the piano fit in? A: percussion. Why? Because in Unistat "Music Appreciation" classes any instrument that uses a mallet or hammer was percussion, and pianos are teeming with little hammers inside.

Since I read Abrashev I've thought both models complement each other. I later learned that the Aero/Membrano/Idio/Chordo model/taxonomy was invented in 1914 by Erich von Hornbrostel and Curt Sachs. It's probably only one of them "coincidences" that one guy has "horn" in his name and the other guy is a homophone for the Sax.

Someone else tried to add Electrophones to the Sachs/Hornbrostel model, I forget who. These instruments would be any that used "juice" to get sound: anything amplified, anything plugged-in to the wall. So, the guitar goes from Segovia's chordophone to Hendrix's electrophone. I remember reading the argument for adding this class. It sounded good: what is a Moog synthesizer, anyway? How about a Theremin? But then the writer added that any instrument that had been recorded in a studio had become an electrophone, and I took the next off-ramp. How did it help to think of Bach's flute stuff as being played by electrophones?

My Take on De-Extinction
I've been reading a bunch of stuff on synthetic biologists and cloning and bringing back animal species that had gone extinct. It's called "De-Extinction." I find it thrilling, marvelous stuff, and I think "they" will be able to do it, but it's such an amazing idea that I want to see a lot of it before I'm convinced. Will there be chimeras, monsters, hybrids? Probably. But then I found out a similar process of de-extinction had been going on with ancient musical instruments. Some archaeologists dig up something that looks like it may have been used for music, and then art historians, computer scientists, anthropologists, musicologists (of course!), historians, engineers, and experts in the area of physics called acoustics all get involved and network around the world, trying to figure out how these things were played, and especially how they sounded. They even networked a bunch of computers to help solve this problem. (This seems like a wonderful puzzle for academics and a chance for much interdisciplinary work. And grant-money. See HERE and HERE.) We now "know" how the epigonion (an ancient harp) sounded, how the salpinx (ancient trumpet) sounded, how the barbiton (like a 2000 year old bass guitar) sounded, how the aulos (archaic oboe) sounded. And the syrinx, too (an old pan-pipe).

This all seemed almost as marvelous as resurrecting extinct animals, but when I found out that they ended up simulating the sounds of these old instruments through MIDI, so that the guitarist or keyboard player can flick the switch for epigonion or salpinx, I worried a bit. First off: there's enough doubt that the simulation, as run through our ultra-modern gadgets, wouldn't become "interpreted" somewhere down the line as being a lot like what we already know about sounds. Then I wondered about the problem of understanding tuning and scales. The Greek modes as Plato understood them are not the same as the way modern players understand those modes. And modern well-tempered tuning only came in during Bach's time. How much would get washed out in those areas?

What I thought was an even bigger problem was the aspect of physicality of playing. If you're a player, you have a strong feeling for the way your whole body plays the instrument. And the way an instrument is made very strongly influences the way it's played. By obtaining a very complex algorithm-model for the way the instrument probably sounded, then feeding that into our electronics so that the keyboardist can play those sounds with a piano-player's body? (Or, more precisely?: A piano-player's nervous-system's sort of orientation in the culturally-sanctioned "ways" plus physical parameters of the musical instrument itself-as-it-interfaces-with-a-Western-trained musician who has deep grooves burned into neural circuits in her brain that have much to do with the practicing of millions of idiomatic iterations which qualify as distinctive features to her particular instrument?) I had my doubts. I think Jean-Pierre Rampal's (flute virtuoso) physical approach to his instrument was different than Charlie Haden's (jazz bass virtuoso); and I think Ivo Pogorelich's (piano virtuoso) was different than Vilayat Khan's (sitar virtuoso) approach. Viktoria Mullova (violinist extraordinaire) had a different physical approach to her axe than John Coltrane (tenor and soprano sax wizard). They're all different personalities playing music at the highest level, aye; but the 20,000+ hours of practice and performance on their particular axes, with those instruments' own programed-in physical demands, peculiar to that instrument alone? That seems a vastly underrated aspect of what Derrida may have called differance. 

Imagine you're an insanely wealthy person and you hire each of the paragraph-above-mentioned virtuosos (or their living equivalents) to come to your birthday party and play you their own version of "Happy Birthday." The melody and rhythm's the same; the effect and expression are another thing: they have to do with the instrument, what's possible on it, and its interaction with that unique human nervous system playing for you, as you grin like you're tripping on Ecstasy in some gold sequined jump suit that you wore on your helicopter ride, cake dotting the corners of your mouth, your butler near at hand, Viktoria Mullova standing in your massive kitchen, where the acoustics are quite good, surprisingly.

<Ahem!> Back to my take on the route to de-extinction of ancient instruments. Your take may differ. Check out this video of the Lost Sounds Orchestra "playing" these ancient instruments, together with modern sounds. It sounds to my aural reality labyrinth like the stuff you hear when you go into a "New Age" bookstore, looking to stock up on incense, or candles, or maybe some book on modern pagans. I found it disappointing, but then I wondered: how much "weirder" can some old instrument made of wood, bone, bamboo reeds and animal skin sound, to me? Was I expecting too much from the de-extinction of these ancient instruments? Probably?

Some Modern Odd Instruments 
Quartz Harmonica
Gerhard Finkenbeiner's glass (quartz) harmonicas seem pretty cool. Zeitler's lookin' all Ben Franklin-y 'cuz Ben was very much interested in an older version of this instrument, before Finkenbeiner innovated:

Player Pianos, Airplane Propellers, Electric Bells and Much More!
George Antheil's Ballet Mecanique: friend and collaborator with Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Ezra Pound, this is Antheil's most famous piece. He later came back to America and ended up in Hollywood writing film scores that were oh-so-tame compared to this! When it was premiered, multimedia-style, in Germany in 1924, it caused a Rite of Spring-like riot:

You all know this one, but I still think it's soooo cool. Here's Theremin himself playing his Thang:

If you haven't seen the documentary about Theremin's life, strongly consider it. It's heartbreaking, filled with intrigue, and TRUE!

Sonically, the theremin seems to want to be "violinistic," but I also think it sounds like a second cousin to the musical saw. (Maybe the first exhilarating and weird buzz I ever had seeing someone play an odd instrument beautifully was some guy on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, circa 1972. As I remember it, the guy played "Genie With Light Brown Hair," and it was transcendent.) How much the theremin differs from the violin as a way to physically play the instrument! The theremin is never touched; the violin seems quite the opposite to me, being intensely touchy-feely in its nature.

Olfactory Organ
Purely theoretical. Now we're getting Out There. You can't make stuff like this up. When I stumbled across this article, I thought it was a put-on, but it appears to be a "real" idea that the editors at the magazine Science and Invention took seriously, in 1922. Driven by the 1857 book by French perfumer-extraordinaire Septimus Piesse, The Art of Perfumery. Synthaesthetic in aim, the idea was that people would dress up and go to a concert hall, but instead of hearing an organist play pleasant sounds, they would watch (and sniff?) as the organist played odors or scents. Piesse was fond of using musical metaphors for scents, and it looks like the geeks at Science and Invention got carried away. Read the article for yourself (it's short) and the jokes write themselves! I will trot out a favorite word, for this special occasion: cockamamie!

Philodendron, Schefflera, Snake Plant and humans doing algorithms
Listen to the music here. Read how it was derived. Plants composing/playing music with the help of human interpreters. It reminds me of much of Brian Eno's ambient recording oeuvre, and other ambient music.

                                           Philodendron giganteum

This one does seem like a Rube Goldberg-ish way to make noise, but I still think it's cool. Would I sit and listen to it for the better part of an hour? Well, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea listened to a record of whales singing while stoned (Shea and Wilson were stoned, not the whales), so I think I could, with the right amount of weed. A "bum workout," indeed:

This one seems to have, roughly, the ontological status of the Olfactory Organ. I first read about it in a book on Athanasius Kircher, and John Glassie's recent, excellent bio of Kircher, goes over it. Supposedly a bunch of cats were placed in separate boxes and arranged chromatically according to the pitch of their meows, their tails stretched out so that a keyboardist would "play" the cats by hitting a key on a keyboard, and a nail would come down on a cat's tail and cause it to yell out. Now, I'm a cat lover and this just seems heinous, not to mention fiendishly hellish to listen to, were anyone to actually make one and play it. The idea has been attributed to Kircher, but it seems doubtful he actually made one of these. The effect was supposed to be "funny." Today, the ASPCA and PETA would be all over the asses of any asses who tried this shit. HERE's an article on it.

Player-Piano (Pushed to Insane Limits!)
I had not realized how seriously some people took the player-piano, but then I read a piece about a modern composer named Conlon Nancarrow, who had studied under Nicolas Slonimsky, Roger Sessions, and Walter Piston. He was known for composing music so demonically difficult for player-piano that no single human could play the piece, no matter how much they practiced. His stuff now seems to prefigure composing for computers. If you check You Tube, you'll find all sorts of amazing things by Nancarrow. A lot of it strikes me as Cecil Taylor on some LSD cut with lots of speed.

The player-piano included here is not so much an "odd musical instrument" but more a very radical approach to a established instrument.

Taking a page (<---HA!) from Nancarrow, get a muthafreakin' load of this piece, "Circus Galop" (sp?), by Marc-Andre Hamelin, who composed it to stress-test MIDI equipment. At times there are 21 notes being played, so no single human could pull this off. I can't help but think that, were Charles Ives around to witness this, he would have approved. I saved the best for last, and it truly is INSANE! Enjoy:

P.S: I realize I've left out Harry Partch and his found-in-the-desert industrial waste instruments, but you probably know all about that schtuff anyway.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Neurotheology: Awe V. Closure

"He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed."- Einstein
The person who makes statements that she "belongs to the universe," or that he "is but one of the creatures of Earth" are probably the sorts of folk who are more prone to awe. And it is my opinion, as of the above date, that some sense of awe surrounding the wonder of our existence...is the only prerequisite for the healthier senses of what I'll call "religion." Note: no Church required. No Holy Book needed. No Father-God-Sky-Daddy Who Judges needed. It's not necessary for an earthly spiritual "expert" to tell us what It All Means. Sombunall people can have the Holy Man, the Book(s), the Church, etc, and still have awe. But I'm guessing that most of those who need one or all three of those do not encounter the ineffable AWESOME very often at all. 
There's some interesting research on awe. What it seems to boil down to: a sense of personal smallness combined with some sort of connection to something Vast. Something - whether the size of the multiverse, the oddity of Space/Time, the improbability of one's own existence (for one: all of your direct relatives had to have avoided death before conceiving a child...and this presumably goes all the way back to the Primordial Ooze and the first molecular replicators! on a Goldilocks planet no less...), the unfathomable complexity of all living things, or some uncanny sense experienced in an instant of the infinitude of social interactions and thoughts in people's heads all around the planet, at any given moment, the totality of emotions and visualizations, the possibilities...
What prevents awe? There's some compelling data surrounding the need for closure. For whatever sociobiological reason, a significant number of our brothers and sisters have a low tolerance for confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty. Those feeling are difficult to endure. So they seek "closure" on whatever issue or question is at hand. These can be questions philosophical in nature, political, personal, and moral. It seems difficult to tell whether this need for closure is unconscious or conscious, but it's probably a bit of both, with unconsciousness getting the upper hand.
This grasping at closure seems an epistemic "bug" that may prevent our species from existing for another 200 years on this rocky, watery, life-teeming planet. 
Some of the dynamics of closure-seeking:
  1. information weighted before closure seems pressured 
  2. the information assessed will tend to fit the unconscious biases
  3. the information assessed was chosen in the first place in order to easily make the cognitive manipulations in order to achieve certainty
  4. certainty was needed, quickly, because ambiguity was very unpleasant, so the information chose to be assessed would help to ease the sense of uncertainty quickly
Cognitive psychologists have developed the NFCS (Need For Closure Scale), based on a series of responses to questions. Those who have a high need for closure prefer order and rules and predictability (this mathematically correlates with a low level of novelty seeking and information flow-through); they are decisive; they dislike uncertainty; they tend towards dogmatism and authoritarianism; and they have a high desire for structure in their lives. One study, according to my barely readable handwriting from notes I took in some library who knows when, associated people with a high need for closure with "truncated perceptions of possible behavioral choices" and "unstable moods."
Those who score low on the NFCS were creative, fluid with ideas and ideation, embraced complexity, and were impulsive.
Let us pause to consider how wildly implausible our existence is. I mean: we could've been born as someone else. Mathematically, there seems virtually an infinitude of possibilities: we might not have been born; the homo sapiens might have never really got going as a successful species; an errant nemesis asteroid could've wiped us out just as Things Were Getting Good, say around the time of Galileo? Or your mom's parents decided to not move to the town where she met your dad: your maternal grandma and grandpa suddenly got a better job offer in another town. Some flu in your great great great great great great grandparent, aged 12, turned into an infection that proved fatal. Etc, etc, etc.
Finally, it seems that, if anything, Buckminster Fuller's line that "scenario universe is non-simultaneously apprehended" seems understated. Just about all of the truly interesting questions are freighted with uncertainty, and the more appropriate responses to them run more towards awe and tolerance for ambiguity. We may have our "positions" on issues, and we may even be able to articulate our stances well, but if we cultivated more of the religion of Awe, we might not take ourselves and our positions so seriously. We might embrace uncertainty a bit more. We might conceptualize systems as much more "open" than closed. All of us tend to grasp for "answers" under stress. We need to be aware of this, and cultivate coolness and chill. I think most of us desire some structures in our lives, but we need be aware how psychologically hampering those structures can be, how those structures we once settled for now suddenly seem to fit like straitjackets, and foreclose on our creativity. 
"Today I saw a red and yellow sunset and thought how insignificant I am! Of course, I thought that yesterday too, and it rained." - Woody Allen, "Sketches From The Allen Notebooks"
Some sources:
"Why We Need Answers: The Theory of Cognitive Closure"

The nature of Awe

The Authoritarians

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hermes Will Always Return: Kircher and Vico

God of orators, poets, thieves, witty chatterers, inventors, an intermediary for humans in their dealings with other gods and goddesses, and a trickster himself: this is Hermes, probably a later version of Thoth, but once we get into origins here, it's a hermetic thing: that is to say: tricky and possibly unreliable. But Hermes - also the messenger, the god of email and letters and phone calls - who will help you ease into the afterlife, who straddles and then erases boundaries and protects travelers into unknown lands? He will always be with us.

The great American seer and weirdo extraordinaire Edgar Cayce asserted that Hermes built Atlantis and the Egyptian pyramids. More than anything else here, I note Cayce's ingenium.

Hermes is well-known to our Islamic brothers and sisters too, only he's Idries (or Idris) to them. Ibn Arabi, most Estimable, wrote that Idries traveled to incredibly large cities outside of Earth, and these cities had vastly superior technology. When a muslim invented something, he may have subsumed something from the atmosphere brought there by Idries.

Hermes is mentioned in the Qur'an, 19:56-57: "mention, in the Book, Idris, that he was truthful, a prophet. We took him up to a high place." Indeed, it was thought that Idris traveled from Egypt to outer space and heaven, to the same place Adam was, and this was where the Black Stone originated. Adam was 380 years older than Idris. The Prophet Mohammed was descended from Idris. Mohammed also traveled to outer space. (It's difficult when I read this stuff to not think of our postmodern comic book superheroes as existing in a long line of archetypal figures such as Hermes...and Mohammed? Ahh...but The Prophet...this is surely a different story, peace be upon him...)

For the Arabs: three Hermes-figures. One that was a civilizing hero who wrote in hieroglyphics. Then there was one that was initiated by Pythagoras. A third taught alchemy. There were some sufis who thought they were all the same guy...

Idris seems to be identified in The Bible as Enoch. See Genesis 5: 18-24. Supposedly the consonants in "Enoch" spell out the Hebrew "initiator" or "opener of the third eye." Supposedly? Hermes the boundary dissolver and messenger god somehow gets into the Old Testament? Hey, I guess it's in the job description.

Cicero noticed there seemed to be at least five different Hermes, mostly Greeks and Romans, around the time of Julius Caesar, but this incredible genius everyone talked about, "Hermes Trismegistus," seemed to be a different cat.

"Hermes Trismegistus" made an enormous splash in Western thought, especially when 15th CE philosopher/mage Marsilio Ficino was given a patronage/cool gig under the Medicis. "Hermes Thrice-Blessed" was probably a contemporary of Moses, but Hermes went from physics and math to the primo level of telling us, armed with the most righteous wisdom the attributes of God, about demons, how souls transform and travel. You know, the meaty stuff. Orpheus followed Hermes, then Philolaus, who was the teacher of...Plato? Wait...what about Socrates? Nevermind for now: we have quite a succession now, eh? Of course Plato's ideas heavily influenced Jesus and Christianity. Indeed, Jesus was a Mage himself, in that grand succession starting with Hermes. This succession of wisdom-givers was  ultimately seductive to the many minds who desire intellectual harmony.

To say the least.

I think the idea that there was a prisca theologia, or "one true theology" that has become garbled in different religions over time, a series of books that held a skeleton key that would unite all religions and show how they were all saying the same thing, originating in God, down to Moses and Hermes, down to Plato and Jesus...must have seemed like it had not only unparalleled delights for the intellect, but could possibly stem the tides of blood from religious wars.

                                                 Hermes Thrice-Blessed, imitating 
                                                  Kobe Bryant?

The Corpus Hermeticum was written by Hermes Trismegistus, roughly at the time of Moses. And it had...EVERYTHING in it! For Hermes Thrice-Great had handed down the secrets of magick to humans: astrology, alchemy, the whole nine. His works were a thrilling wind, blowing many-a-mind.

The fantastic philologist Isaac Casaubon, just before he died in 1614, showed via rigorous textual analysis, that the books attributed to "Hermes Trismegistus" were written no later than the 2nd or 3rd century CE! Possibly some of the Corpus was written in the first century after Jesus. But it's one thing to have awesome philological and overall scholarly chops and quite another to be given a sufficient hearing in the face of so many intellectuals awestruck with the heady, buzzlike effects of reading in the Corpus Hermeticum.

Casaubon suggested that these books were written by various Greek-educated NeoPlatonists and maybe a few Epicureans. They combined ideas from the great buffet of religious ideas floating around the Roman Empire circa 120-300 CE. It seems probable that the ideas in the Corpus were also hot in Hellenic Egypt, but are nowheres near as old as Moses and definitely much later than Alexander's death. Ideas borrowed from Zoroastrianism, even Kabbalah. If you prepared your mind well enough you could turn base metals into gold, find the Philosopher's Stone and the key to immortality, develop superhuman talents, and other desiderata.

Much of this is known already to readers of the scholar Frances Yates, so I apologize if I bored you.

Kircher (1602-1680) and Hermes
One of my favorite intellectuals in history is Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit who was interested in everything, and if you clicked on the link you noticed Paula Findlen's subtitle, "The Last Man Who Knew Everything." He was most highly esteemed as a scholar, producing countless books, some over 1000 pages long and gorgeously illustrated. In his time he was also the butt of many jokes, as those who followed the new ways of thinking spearheaded by Galileo and Descartes, thought Kircher a crank, and Kircher was even "punked" for his delusions that he could read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Kircher is operating in 17th century Rome, while throughout Europe new-fangled epistemological bombs were exploding every few years. Kircher, within his own lifetime, went from being "current" to declasse, so fast were ideas changing about how to assess the veracity of claims of "truth" or "knowledge" or "science." Casaubon's debunking of the antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum when Kircher was circa 12 years old, was available; even though his superiors at times frowned on Kircher's intricate, elaborated details of how "magic" worked according to Hermes - Kircher always issued disclaimers that this was not the true catholic religion, so beware of this evil stuff - he certainly seemed wildly enthralled by what Hermes had to say.

                                                   Athanasius Kircher, whose name
                                                    means "eternal church." 

Kircher is, to me, a marvelous and hilarious figure, immensely learned and yet silly, and finally a general biography for the lay reader has come out: A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, by John Glassie. What a marvelous book. Glassie has Kircher nailed in a way that I had suspected from my readings of him by more specialized scholars such as the aforementioned Findlen, Ingrid D. Rowland's marvelous work The Ecstatic Journey: Athanasius Kircher in Baroque Rome, incredible books such as John Edward Fletcher's A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, 'Germanus Incredibilis', Joscelyn Godwin's 2009 Athanasius Kircher's Theater of the World (which, if I came into a surprise inheritance, would be one of the first books I'd buy; for now: keep re-checking it out from the library), and the book emanating from Stanford University's extensive Kircher archives, The Great Art of Knowing: The Baroque Encyclopedia of Athanasius Kircher.

Rowland's book gives more than enough goods about Kircher's researches and how he held many ideas that went against Church doctrine, and so had to find ways to put his ideas in codes. But he was wrong about most things. Which: never matter: that's the sociology of knowledge: most of his ideas were "right" or interesting enough to galvanize minds. Kircher was self-aggrandizing while claiming to be extraordinarily humble; the stories he tells about how he evaded threats in his youth (with the help of his Faith and prayers to Mary, etc) seem heavily influenced by Homer and other Hero tales.

                                          Kircher's museum. In reality it was nowheres
                                          near this spacious...which hints at the man 
                                          himself: be careful when you read Kircher!

With Kircher you get something like Aristotle mixed with High Weirdness Crank, a forerunner to Flann O'Brien's de Selby character as filtered through the mind of Robert Anton Wilson. (Just have a look at Kircher's learned and wildly baroque ideas about geology and how mountains are filled with water, the role of volcanoes, how water enters the inner Earth near Sweden and comes back out near the South Pole, etc...)

Despite his weirdness and ego, he was truly learned and had the most fantastic imagination, and I'm glad Glassie's book is getting good reviews. More people who love the history of this period, or even the sociology of knowledge or the history of ideas, should find Kircher a delight. Despite the learned flights of imagination presented as "science," for the glory of the Church and Rome and humanity, he's an amazing thinker, fecund beyond belief. Even the ideas that turned out to be wrong - most of them - are so imaginative, speculative and marvelous in vision that the students of metaphor have a field day every time they pick up Kircher.

Anyway, as for Hermes: Kircher loved those books. If he'd heard they'd been debunked, he didn't care. One of Kircher's best-sellers explained China to Europeans for the first time. Kircher had never been to China (or Egypt), but that never stopped him from writing 1000 pages about it. One of the things we learn is that the Chinese knew Hermes too, but they called him "Confucius."

At the same time, I believe Kircher was earnest. He thought the heliocentric model was correct. And he knew about Galileo's troubles with the Authorities (Kircher's bosses). Kircher did not understand the "new" scientific method of doubt, testing, getting someone else to see if they can replicate your experiments, etc. But Kircher also knew what happened to another Wild Thinker, Bruno. Kircher wrote to a friend that he was a Copernican, but "We must always maintain that the white I see, I shall believe to be black...if the hierarchical Church so stipulates." (Glassie, p.101) Because Kircher lived under this aspect of "You must not see what the Church would not like you to see," I can never be completely sure what Kircher really thought about some of the ideas he promulgated.

Here's an interview Glassie gave to NPR about his Kircher book.

I first encountered Kircher in the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and I confess I thought it was all a put-on. I thought David Wilson had made up Kircher, just as he made up the Cameroonian Stink Ant.

Vico and Hermes
Vico was born in 1668 and says the idea that all the world's wisdom came out of Egypt fit into his proto-anthropological idea of "the conceit of nations." Vico was overweening in his awareness, via his astounding breadth of reading, of what we would call today "ethnocentrism." He knew of Casaubon's finding and honored it. In discussing the effect of Roman scholars' belief in Egyptian ancient wisdom as ultimate source (on how Hermes influenced Diodorus Siculus and even Plato), Vico writes, "In sum, all these observations about the vanity of the ancient Egyptians' profound wisdom are confirmed by the case of the forgery Pimander, which was long palmed off as Hermetic doctrine. For Isaac Casaubon exposed the work as containing no doctrine older than the Platonists, whose language it borrows." - New Science, number 47.

Vico goes on to make a classic philosophically anthropological thought: "The Egyptians' mistaken belief in their own great antiquity sprang from the indeterminacy of the human mind, a property which often causes people to exaggerate immeasurably the magnitude of the unknown."

And yet Vico draws heavily from what he ascribes as an Egyptian idea of historical cycles, see section 432 of New Science. Also...the it turns out the Egyptians had quite the antiquity, so Vico was sorta wrong. But he's right about the "indeterminacy of the human mind," isn't he? This is Vico: right even when he's wrong. (And sometimes just plain wrong. But always: edifying and fun to read.)

Back to Vico's reading of Hermes: the first nations were founded by a severe poetry that became the Laws of the Ruling Class, or "heroes." The first bards sang out these laws. Much later they were written down. Thus it is with all nations, anywhen. But Hermes supposedly handed down writing, and then the laws were known. For Vico's origins of knowledge and poetic archetypes, this gets things backwards. As he writes, "How were dynasties founded within Egypt before the arrival of Hermes Trismegistus? As if letters were essential to laws! As if Spartan laws weren't legal when a law of Lycurgus himself prohibited the knowledge of letters!" (#66-67)

So how does Vico negotiate "Hermes Trismegistus"? He cites a "golden passage" from Iamblichus in which it is asserted that every invention necessary for civil life is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. "Thus, Hermes could not have been an individual rich in esoteric wisdom who was later consecrated as a god. Instead, he must have been a poetic archetype of the earliest Egyptian sages who, being wise in vernacular wisdom, founded first the families and then the peoples who eventually made up the great nation." (#68)

And yet Vico, living in Naples, still had his own problems with the Catholic Church. But for that sometime later.

Vico's peculiar form of rationality notwithstanding, the trickster and god of messages survives. And people still believe in the influence of planets on their personal fortunes; people still use magical thinking...even well-educated and "rational" people. The Hermes archetype lives on within us.

I assert that Hermes resides in this entire blogpost; Authorities may justly kill him off, but he never dies. That's not the way the Gods and Goddesses roll, folks. Where do poets and inventors get their ideas?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Rushkoff's Presentism and Further Musings on Time

Prof. George Carlin was performing on The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour - a TV show - in 1976. He told the audience about Time as a concept. He said that there is no "present" that we can say to be truly living in because just as we identify it...ZOINK!...it's gone. We've moved on to the next moment. "There's no present. Everything is in the near future, or the recent past." - copped from Sullivan's delightful biography of Carlin, 7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin. The gnomish intellectuality of Carlin's POV on "presentism" notwithstanding, I do enjoy the para-Zen-like musing as a potent little philosophical riff, akin to Led Zeppelin's very simple but powerful, "Whole Lotta Love."

Both Carlin and Zep are "basic" but they rock-steady...On to my bit.

Douglas Rushkoff has produced yet another marvelous book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Because most of the libraries in my area don't yet have it, or if they do the waiting list is too long, and also because I don't have any money, I once again stood (sometimes sat) in a bookstore and did a very fast read of the whole thing, over about two hours. I will re-read it when it's less the molten hot commodity and I have more time to devote to it. Speaking of time/Time...

                                           Douglas Rushkoff

Rushkoff says that, within our collective historical consciousness, our technologies have landed us in "the future." Now, and for the foreseeable future, which is now. So let's start to feel freed up from thinking of book-like narratives of seeing a beginning, rising action, falling action, climax, denouement (or variations of that), because terrorism, child starvation and global warming don't have these narrative structures to them. They're not like: dictators in Europe out of hand, killing people, Hitler invades Poland, death, more stuff pushes the action, death, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, death, death, death, Victory in Europe day, death, slaughter, carpet bombing, lives stunted forever, Hitler and Eva off themselves in a bunker, death and then another dollop of mass death, "discovery" of the Death Camps, Hiroshima, death, ticker-tape parade. That sorta stuff. (In my reading outside idiot-making "school" I developed a  habit of imposing complex, intertwingling narratives-without-end...both because I find these conceptions of "history" more true-to-phenomenological "facts" although not "identical" to them, and because I simply find it far more instructive and interesting to conceive of historical narrative this way. Ya got a bettuh whaddyacall..."method"? Do me a solid and let's hear it.)

There's so much going on with our gadgets now that we're not managing time in the way that will make us more happy; we're too caught up in the modes of Industrial (and corporation's) Time and this really ought to stop. It starts with you: maintain eye contact when you're with someone you really want or need to be communicating with. Ignore the cell phone when it vibrates. The email, your text messages, scrolling for Facebook "friends" can wait. Rushkoff's one of My Guys, obviously.

Franz Boas, trained as a physicist but he then invented Modern Cultural Anthropology, traveled to live among the Inuit. Extensive immersion-within-the-field studies were essential in this new discipline, which sought to distance itself from the old anthropology: reading the latest dispatches from missionaries, spies, or pirates and making armchair proclamations about..."the" Pygmies/French/Laplanders/Maori/Turks/Yanomano, etc. Boas wrote later about "culture shock." It's something that must have been experienced countless times before by missionaries and pirates; but Boas was a true intellectual and very reflective. The utter newness of the ways "eskimos" lived, what they thought and took-for-granted as "reality" disoriented Boas; it was all too much.  His mind was blown by the experience. Culture shock became a to-be-expected in the training of cultural anthropologists.

I had the Experience when I spent three weeks in Tokyo/Kyoto/Osaka/Kathmandu. But Boas stuck it out. His students - people like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict and Alfred Kroeber and Edward Sapir and Zora Neal Hurston and many others developed an empirical view of "culture," and altered the idea of the Platonic One True Reality. A major aspect of cultural relativity is the observation that different peoples seem to experience Time very differently than Western Industrialized Humans, or anyone else under 24/7 electric lights/effective "grid", clocks everywhere, mass transit, schedule, schedule, schedule, metropolises, and mass communications.

Sociologist Alvin Toffler was a huge deal with he came out with his book Future Shock in 1970. This sort of shock was defined as "too much change happening in too short of a period of time," or something like that. It led to disorientation (and there was no Internet! no Twitter or Facebook or...blogs) and anxiety. It reminded me of Aldous Huxley's idea of the consciousness or nervous system on psychedelic drugs: it's as if "normal consciousness" was a garden hose with a kink in it, so the water only flows out in dribs and drabs, but on a psychedelic, the hose is unkinked and the amount of...information, perception, ideas, emotions...is overwhelming. It feels like a firehose in your brain, when what you're used to is...a dribble here and there. It can be - it will be - overwhelming. Your comfy old-sneakers whelm will be overtaken. But you knew that.

Another Net guru, Clay Shirky, coined the term "filter failure" as a sort of update on "future shock." This implies that we were all trained to acknowledge that some sort of mental "filter" or way of practicing a....mental hygiene? was part of our educations. (Was it yours?) Rushkoff, one of those that Richard Rorty would have labeled a Strong Poet, has minted some of his own terms here, the two that stick out most clearly being "digiphrenia" and "fractalnoia." On Rushkoff's blog he posted some of his favorite early reviews and media interviews, which probably flesh a lot of this out better than I've done here...

                                        George W.S. Trow

It's firehoses for everyone now, seemingly, and you don't even need LSD. Everyone is On, all the time, now, 24/7. Twittering, blogging, texting, chatting, On Demand. So where in the narrative arc of life or some current news story are we? We don't know. (I think George W. S. Trow had some amazing things to say about our lack of context - he loathed what TV had done to our sense of history, and see his short - so it won't eat up your TV-time - book Within The Context Of No Context.) And yet gadzillions of bits of information about what's "going on" is readily available. The Boston Marathon was bombed. There's a story! Now: to find out. Notice how the story plays out into the "future" (what will Unistat do with Tsarnaev?) and the "past" (was Tamerlane under the guidance of plotting, malevolent terrorist elders?). When will we "know" that this story has a climax and denouement? Answer: we will impose some sort of "ending" ourselves.

What, then, about our very real problems, like starvation and global warming? Here the story has even less of a discernible narrative arc. It looks like we can ameliorate, manage, divert, defer...the idea of the 19th century novel and our sense of historical events has broken down, aided by our extremely sophisticated communication gadgets. In his previous book, Program Or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments For The Digital Age (which is short and doesn't demand too much of your...time), Rushkoff urged us to be in our own real time, to not always be plugged in and "on," to live our lives without the imperatives of our digital gadgets, which are programmed by others, the code hidden from you. Are your gadgets using you to do what some corporations want? Or are you using your gadgets in accordance with your consciously-negotiated and present and personal values? His recent book seems to take on a far grander theme: how our sense of Time is and has been affected by technology.

The section on chronobiology was particularly interesting, and when I have more time alone, at home, to delve in it, I think I'll skip back to those bits first.

Another area of his thought I wish to study further: I confess I don't feel I've grokked in its fulness the riffs on money and capitalism and the dated Industrial Age and how we can get out of this mess. Rushkoff says we live in a "steady state real time economy" now. Maybe I'm brainwashed by the Corporations or Control, but I need tutoring on that one. He certainly seems to think he's on to something. Must...obtain...book...

One thing: why do we plan for the "future" when the banks will just steal all out retirement money anyway and any corporation we work for could not possibly care less about us? (This reminds me of the fiery, sharp, acid, and hilarious Lee Camp, reacting to the possible positive aspects of the recent news story that CEO pay has increased  1000 times since 1950 over what the worker makes. See HERE.)

At any "rate" (HA!), Time marches on and we're all wired with lots of information, to put it mildly. Do we know how to make sense of it all? We certainly have ample opportunities to panic, react with fear, paranoia, and to propagate more erroneous and just plain pernicious info outselves. Also: notice how we must always be "catching up" on the latest whatever. We've fallen behind. (Really? What are our lives about? Completing multiple "jobs" that we uncomfortably saddle ourselves with, seemingly of our own "free will"?)

Is this the "new normal"? I don't know, but I do know that the next person who says, "Well what I heard was that..." about a very recent news story will make me want to slug them in the mouth...but I won't. The OG don't swing that way. He all about Peace 'n shit. But do try to cite a source?

Rushkoff says we can make meanings of our lives filled with information by using a very powerful human tool: pattern recognition. And yet: he seems to buy the idea that we're in a post-narrative age; I tend to go along with this golden postmodern trope, but note there are enough Nuts who are angry that the rest of us won't swallow what they and only they possess: the Ultimate One True Truth. Rather, I see a radical breakdown of thousands-year-old hardcore narrative tropes. Most people are not hardcore ideologues who have one consistent POV. And Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes in his Bed Of Procrustes that people who think that intelligence is about noticing patterns that are relevant are wrong; in a complex world "intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant."

Finally, I got the idea that We have some semantic issues. I already thought that - hell I ALWAYS think that - but Rushkoff hammered more of it home. I was reminded of the great old anthropologist Weston LaBarre's term "group archosis," which he defined as "Nonsense and misinformation so ancient and pervasive as to be seemingly inextricable from our thinking." (found on p.53 of Robert Edgerton's book Sick Societies

Similarly, the world systems-theorist Immanuel Wallerstein dropped the term "unthinking" on me while I was reading his Uncertainties of Knowledge, p.104. Opposed to rethinking, unthinking as a word emphasizes that there are very deep-seated notions that, even though physical sciences have shown them to be inadequate, these notions nevertheless stay with us and lead us epistemologically astray.

Some Previous Blogspews on "Time"
History and Perception of Time: Labeling and Control
Historical Consciousness and Deep Time: A Ramble
Still Caught In Time
Five Brief Riffs On The Oddity of Time
Keeping Up To Date On Time Travel