|w e b l o g s
zaa zaa furi
zen calm ink
idea of the day
wood s lot
c o n n e c t
teller (he's still alive!)
w e b r i n g
Thursday, July 29, 2004
a dumb stoner comedy (email this)
dancing with elder bob (email this)
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Wednesday, July 28, 2004
great story of racial harmony (via dashes :)
my dog the nihilist (via gulfstream!)
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Monday, July 26, 2004
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Sunday, July 25, 2004
the history of quantum theory
100 years of the quantum
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Friday, July 23, 2004
probe, ABC, 7 mar 1988 - 29 june 1988
A series too literate for television, thanks to co-creator Isaac Asimov (who was active in both Science Fiction Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and Mensa). Austin James, from a base of operations called "the batcave", was a scientific genius -- a cross between Isaac Asimov himself, Science Officer Spock, and Sherlock Holmes.
automan, ABC, 15 dec 1983 - 2 apr 1984
Each episode's plot was based on an actual scientific fact or theory. Austin and secretary/sidekick Mickey (the Dr. Watson to Austin's Sherlock Holmes) would solve each crime by analysis of clues in the laboratory part of the warehouse/batcave. Police arrested the perpetrator every time, invariably surprising the criminal who thought that he was too clever for the cops to nab.
If you enjoyed this show, I strongly recommend that you buy any of the mystery novels of Isaac Asimov. He told me, in the blueroom at NBC before we did the NBC-TV Today Show together, that "Murder at the A.B.A." was his personal favorite -- it deals with a murder at a convention, and has wicked insights into science fiction fandom, literary agents, book deals, and the like.
Isaac Asimov [see the Ultimate Mystery/Detective Web Guide] also wrote a series of "Black Widow" mystery stories, about crimes solved by a waiter at a weekly restaurant gathering of authors.
A nerdy police computer specialist works on programming computer games in his spare time. One of his creations, a superhero named "Automan", somehow jumped out of the computer into reality, launching the nebbish protagonist into fighting crime at the highest levels.
Automan could walk through walls, and could make almost any computer do him favors, and could temporarily combine with Walter Nebicher into a schizoid human/superhero. Lights dimmed when Automan walked past -- because he drained energy from circuits nearby. When the city's electrical consumption went up at dawn, Automan faded away.
The two were followed everywhere by Cursor, an animated, well, cursor, who could outline, animate, and create useful solid objects such as cars.
Walter's boss, the crochety Captain Boyd, hated computers and software-hip people, so he could not be told about Automan. Neither could Walter's mentor, Lieutenant Curtis, who used Walters inexplicable successes to advance his own agenda.
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Thursday, July 22, 2004
a mesh of polygons
Desbrun says that the data output from current 3-D scanners consists of a mesh of connected triangles and has many more triangles than is necessary to represent the shape. The data is redundant and costly to further process. "Even if a region is completely flat," Desbrun says, "it may be scanned into a bunch of uneven triangles, adding unnecessary complexity."
the shapes of space
Desbrun explains that his accomplishment was to simplify such a mesh, by combining as many of the little triangles as possible into larger elements without compromising the actual shape. Nearly flat regions are efficiently represented by one large, flat mesh element while curved regions require more mesh elements.
Computer scientists have struggled with the problem of finding an optimal mix of large and small elements for years. In 1998, theoreticians proved that the problem was "NP hard" — that no general solution exists that can be solved by a computer in finite length of time. They did find work-arounds: fast methods to simplify meshes, which were unable to guarantee accuracy, and accurate techniques, which were too slow.
The Desbrun team's novel approach comes from the seemingly unrelated field of machine learning using a technique invented in 1959 called "Lloyd Clustering" named after its inventor Stuart Lloyd. Desbrun's algorithm uses it to automatically segment an object into a group of non-overlapping connected regions – an instant draft alternative to the too-numerous triangles of the original scan.
Then the method provides a fast and accurate way to test these alternative larger regions – called proxies – for their fit to the object, and successively optimize them in a small number of iterations. The process also allows direct manipulation of the results for special purposes by the user – making it a very convenient tool for digital artists in animation studios. The user can select particular areas of a 3-D representation to make them either less or more detailed, or to emphasize them.
In his paper, Perelman added a new term to the Ricci flow equation. The modified equation did not eliminate the troubles with singularities, but it enabled Perelman to carry the analysis much further. With the dumbbell singularities be showed that "surgery" could be performed: Snip the thin tube on each side of the incipient pinch and seal off the open tube on each dumbbell ball with a spherical cap. Then the Ricci flow could be continued with the surgically altered manifold until the next pinch, for which the same procedure could be applied. He also showed that cigar singularities could not occur. In this way, any 3-manifold could be reduced to a collection of pieces, each having a uniform geometry.
When the Ricci flow and the surgery are applied to all possible 3-manifolds, any manifold that is as "simple" as a 3-sphere (technically, that has the same homotopy as a 3-sphere) necessarily ends up with the same uniform geometry as a 3-sphere. That result means that topologically, the manifold in question is a 3-sphere. Rephrasing that, the 3-sphere is unique.
Beyond proving Poincare's conjecture, Perelman's research is important for the innovative techniques of analysis it has introduced. Already mathematicians are posting papers that build on his work or apply his techniques to other problems. In addition, the mathematics has curious connections to physics. The Ricci flow used by Hamilton and Perelman is related to something called the renormalization group, which specifies how interactions change in strength depending on the energy of a collision. For example, at low energies the electromagnetic interaction has a strength characterized by the number 0.0073 (about 1/137). If two electrons collide head-on at nearly the speed of light, however, the strength is closer to 0.0078.
Increasing the collision energy is equivalent to studying the force at a shorter distance scale. The renormalization group is therefore like a microscope with a magnification that can be turned up or down to examine a process at finer or coarser detail. Similarly, the Ricci flow is like a microscope for looking at a manifold of chosen magnification. Bumps and hollows visible at one magnification disappear at another. Physicists expect that on a scale of about 10-35 meter, or the Planck length, the space in which we live will look very different—like a "foam" with many loops and handles and other topological structures. The mathematics that describes how the physical forces change is very similar to that which describes the geometrization of a manifold.
Another connection to physics is that the equations of general relativity, which describe the workings of gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe, are closely related to the Ricci flow equation. Furthermore, the term that Perelman added to the basic flow used by Hamilton arises in string theory, which is a quantum theory of gravity. It remains to be seen if his technique will reveal interesting new information about general relativity or string theory. If that is the case, Perelman will have taught us not only about the shapes of abstract 3-spaces but also the shape of the particular space in which we live.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2004
atomic physics and causal law (heisenberg, 1958)
"When dealing with collisions of high-energy elementary particles we must consider the space-time structure of special relativity theory. This space-time structure was not very important in the quantum theory of the atomic shell, since in it the electrons move relatively slowly. Now, however, we are dealing with elementary particles which move almost with the velocity of light, and whose behaviour can therefore only be described with the help of relativity theory. Fifty years ago Einstein discovered that the structure of space and time was not quite as simple as we imagine it to be in everyday life. If we describe all those events as past of which, at least in principle, we can obtain some knowledge, and as future all those events on which, at least in principle, we can still have some influence, then according to our naïve conception we believe that between these two types of events there is but one infinitely short moment which we call the present. This was just the conception on which Newton had based his mechanics. Since Einstein's discovery in 1905, we know that between what I just called 'future' and 'past' there exists an interval whose extension in time depends on the distance in space between an event and its observer. Thus, the present is not limited to an infinitely short moment in time.
"Relativity theory assumes that in principle no effect can be propagated faster than the velocity of light. Now this trend in relativity theory leads to difficulties in connection with the uncertainty relations of quantum theory. According to relativity theory the only effects possible are in that part of space-time limited by the so-called light-cone, i.e., those points in space-time which can be reached by a lightwave emanating from the effective point. This region of space-time is thus—and this must be stressed—very strictly limited. On the other hand, we have found that in quantum theory a clear determination of position—in other words, a sharp delimitation of space—presupposes an infinite uncertainty of velocity and thus also of momentum and energy. This state of affairs has as its practical consequence the fact that in attempting to arrive at a mathematical formulation of the interactions of the elementary particles, we shall always encounter infinite values for energy and momentum, preventing a satisfactory mathematical statement."
questions that plague physics (krauss, aug. 2004)
"SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: What are the top questions bedeviling physicists today?"
"LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Three that I find fascinating are: What is the nature of dark energy? How can we reconcile black hole evaporation with quantum mechanics? And, finally, do extra dimensions exist? They are all connected. But someone is going to have to come up with a totally new and remarkable idea. And it's hard to predict when that is going to happen. In 1904 you couldn't have predicted that Albert Einstein would come up with a remarkable idea in 1905.
"I think the resolution to these problems is likely to be theoretical and not experimental. This is because direct experimental signatures that might point us in the right theoretical directions in these areas probably lie beyond the realm of current experiments. I'd also bet that the solution to these problems is not going to resemble anything being done now, including string theory."
"SA: Is string theory the physics equivalent of The God That Failed, as some people used to say about communist ideology?"
"LK: Not exactly. But I do think its time may be past. String theory and the other modish physical theory, loop quantum gravity, both stem from one basic idea: that there's a mathematical problem with general relativity.
"The idea is that when you try to examine physical phenomena on ever smaller scales, gravity acts worse and worse. Eventually, you get infinities. And almost all research to find a quantum theory of gravity is trying to understand these infinities. What string theory and what loop quantum gravity do is go around this by not going smaller than a certain distance scale, because if you do, things will behave differently. Both of these theories are based on the idea that you can't go down to zero in a point particle, and that's one way to get rid of mathematical infinities."
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Monday, July 19, 2004
where i disagree
"Early in Fabric you quote Camus's book The Myth of Sisyphus: 'There is only one philosophical question, and that is suicide.' With this Camus seems to relegate questions of physics secondary to questions of how one lives one's life. But you disagree with Camus. Why?"
"Well, it's not that I fully disagree with him. I fully agree with him that there is no more important question than whether life is worth living. Where I disagree is that I think you can't assess life, you can't truly assess what it is to be part of this universe, if you don't really know what this universe is. That's why I think it's important to answer questions like how the universe came to be, what it's made of, how it evolved, what forces are at work, and what things we may be missing by virtue of relying too heavily on our everyday senses. I think those kinds of issues need to be resolved before you can even assess what it is to be part of this world."
a neat trick
"Where so much indie music solipsistically places the Self at the center of a revolving cosmos, Brock again bends perspectives on 'The World at Large'-- the proper opening song of Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News -- within the vast universe, a grain of sand that, if anything, hampers the gigantic gears in which it grinds, but more likely has no effect at all.
"'The World at Large' is a collage of guitar, whistles, timpani, piano, Rhodes and mellotron that spreads over the listening surface like ice crystals coalescing in a time-lapsed film. The song reflects the more wistful side of Modest Mouse (think 'Heart Cooks Brain'), and though nothing's overt, one gets the impression that the track was spurred by a trauma that he has the good sense not to sing about directly. Instead, he engages once again with what Saul Bellow called 'the mystery of being.' 'Ice age, heat wave, can't complain. If the world's at large why should I remain?' Brock asks, immediately pulling the lens out wide and shrinking himself to a tiny figurant on a blasted, void landscape. It's a neat trick, for when shrinking the self, pain shrinks as well; by enlarging the universe, the trials and travails of one's life become inconsequential, almost laughable. 'In the grand scheme of things,' as they say. The moth who beats himself against the light must think it's a pretty important endeavor, at the time."
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Saturday, July 17, 2004
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Friday, July 16, 2004
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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
enclosed a bit of time
Lord Byron said that "the great object of life is sensation — to feel that we exist, even though in pain." That's the raw end of it. But, at a more reflective level, what keeps us going, gives us courage, makes us aim high for ourselves and our children is the feeling that as human selves we have something very special to preserve.
None of this would have happened if it weren't for those sensory circuits in the brain developing their special self-resonance — a development that was pushed along by natural selection for metaphysics. As I once put it (imitating a famous passage of Rousseau): "The first animal who, having enclosed a bit of the world's substance within his skin, said 'This is me' was perhaps the true founder of individualized life. But it was the first animal who, having enclosed a bit of time within his brain, said 'This is my present' who was the true founder of subjective being."
hardcasting myself into my life
sometimes, and i dunno if this will sound terribly odd or even make sense.... but sometimes i wonder if i am ready to commit to the rest of my life...if i am ready to admit that my life is taking shape around me, and that the future isn't so much something to be shaped at a later date, but rather something that is shaping and solidifying right now.
maybe i am hardcasting myself into my life. at this point i am forced to realize that this life i am living, these days that i pass at work or at home, drunk or hungover, happy or frustrated, ... these days are my life, this one life that i have. and do i really like the life i have chosen? and is there really ever any going back?
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Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Emotions, in my experience aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness," "joy," or "regret." ... I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster." Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy." ... I'd like to have a word for "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants" as well as for "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever.
It is not merely a writer's conceit to think that the human world is made of words and to remember that no two words in all the world's languages are alike. Of all the arts and sciences made by man, none equals a language, for only a language in its living entirety can describe a unique and irreplaceable world. I saw this once, in the forest of southern Mexico, when a butterfly settled beside me. The color of it was a blue unlike any I had ever seen, hue and intensity beyond naming, a test for the possibilities of metaphor....There are nine different words in Maya for the color blue in the comprehensive Porrua Spanish-Maya Dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving beyond doubt that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.
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Sunday, July 11, 2004
I liked Hilgard's Divided Consciousness so much I based a novel (Dreamer) on the research.
Divided Consciousness is the only psychology book you will read that will give you chills. It is *that* good. In fact, I use it as a test for books on "quantum consciousness" and the like. If the index doesn't include Hilgard or "hidden observer" then I don't buy the book. Here's why: E.I. Hilgard discovered what may be one of the most important aspects of human consciousness--the hidden observer phenomenon. It appears only during deep hypnosis--at +50 or +60 level--where time and space are perceived (by the subject) as one. Hilgard thought the hidden observer performed an executive function for the mind--essentially organizing the various personalities according to task (suppose you're driving down the road, listening to the radio, thinking about work and a deer jumps into the highway ahead of you--who is it that causes you to put your foot on the brake?)
Several psychologists have discussed "multiminds" in books, but the hard fact is, the hidden observer phenomenon has never really been studied thoroughly. It's like talking about the company organization without ever mentioning the CEO--or IT group.
Nor has the hidden observer been studied vis a vis any other psychological phenomenon. Read this book and you'll want to send it to researchers like Rupert Sheldrake, or Brenda Dunne at the Princeton Anomalies(PEAR)Lab.
The hidden observer may even explain an annoying near-death study phenomena--the fact that the life review is occasionally seen from a third person point of view. In other words, if you're on the stage acting out your life, who's the guy in the audience with the camera?
There really has been only one researcher, Finnish psychologist Reima Kampmann, who has explored the hidden observer phenomenon. *Supposedly* he asked a sample of subjects under hypnosis just who the hidden observer really was--the replies were uniformly this: "I am soul." There are hundreds of books on the subject of consciousness, but "Divided Consciousness" is the one you should read first. It will change the way you think.
I had a rather peculiar home life and developed into an extremely self concious, introverted, self loathing kid. My mother was chronically depressed, my dad worked enough so that I only saw him on weekends, I found out later that my siblings and I were intentionally kept seperated from our extended family because of emotional rifts between my (Ma & Pa) and their siblings. I had an incredibly difficult time interacting with my peers, was gifted (enough to eventually score 2200 on the GREs without studying) but on the fast road to flunking out of high school.
And then after some experimental tries, I dosed on 7.5 hits of gel tab and sat around a playground at 1am. I climbed up the slide, sat on the top, and intended to slide down it. As I sat at the top, I looked up at the stars and was immediately struck by the oddness of my situation. I was legally insane, sitting on a slide on a cloudless moonlit night, and staring straight up at the stars.
And then I was hit with the question: "What am I like?" It just kept going through my head over and over until the syllables didn't even sound like English. The phrase was just some gibberish that inquired about the most fundamental core of my whole identity. "What am I like?"
Then I felt like the star above me was perfectly in line with my spine, that the universe was locked onto me and turning around me. (This has always been my way of relating to Achilleus - the one Man in history with the audacity, confidence, blackened heart, and glory to defy the gods. This is mostly tangential, hence the parenthesis, but at the time Achilleus was my most idolized literay figure and therefore this had great coincidential significance.)
I sat like this for probably 15 minutes. "What am I like?" Fuck it, at my core, I am everybody else.
I did not slide down that slide. While I was up there, the act of sliding down really took on a monumental significance to me, but I can't really define it. I climbed back down the ladder.
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Saturday, July 10, 2004
mind others (via SDB!)
I have a book called "No Way: The nature of the Impossible" which contains a large number of individual articles talking about what kinds of things are not possible in various fields, like physics, economics, biology. One of the articles is about the impossibility of being a perfect parent; it's one of the best.
tense present (via metafilter :)
The last article takes on impossibility in philosophy with special attention to the problem of solipsism. It's not new work, but it's more a summary of important work. It turns out that Wittgenstein, among others, managed to thoroughly demolish the solipsist dilemma by referral to language.
Very briefly, and probably with mistakes, the argument goes like this: The solipsist is asking the question "Prove to me that you exist" using language. But language is a means of communicating information, and its existence proves that communication exists. Communication can only exist between two minds, and therefore the act of asking the question already proves what the answer is, for if I didn't exist for you to ask the question of then the language you are using would also not exist. (Side trips like "You might be a dream" are also dealt with. Likewise, since language preexisted computers, "You might be a computer" is unimportant.) The argument proves that other minds exist, not that I in particular have one. But the solipsist question really isn't "Prove that you exist" as much as "Prove that anyone exists" and by asking the question the answer is already known.
Even the article only hits the high points, albeit in far greater depth, but from that it becomes clear that this issue has in fact been dealt with by the body philosophic, and that when analyzed closely the solipsist position falls apart in a welter of contradictory assumptions. For instance, "How can I know that you're not a dream?" presupposes that it's possible to tell the difference, and if we can tell the difference than the question is already answered. The question rhetorically implies that we can't tell the difference, but if that were the case then the word "dream" couldn't exist since we wouldn't have anything to describe with such a word. Since the word "dream" exists, as proved by its use in the question, then there must be something we can identify with that word, and if we can identify it then the question is answered. Again, don't hold me to this; my understanding of the argument might be wrong.
The book is fascinating and I recommend it highly; the article about Computer Science spends a lot of time talking about Alan Turing's "stopping problem" and how a lot of things can be demonstrated to be impossible by anything congruent to a Turing machine if they can be shown to be congruent to the stopping problem. (Automatic removal of dead code is a "stopping problem", for instance, and thus can't be automated because there's no general solution which runs in finite time.)
I've always been fascinated by the impossible. Russell and Heisenberg and Turing are my biggest heroes for proving that there are things I can't do.
(23) This proposition is in fact true, as is interpolatively demonstrated below, and although the demonstration is extremely persuasive it is also, as you can see from the size of this FN, lengthy and involved and rather, umm, dense, so that again you'd probably be better off simply granting the truth of the proposition and forging on with the main text.
INTERPOLATIVE DEMONSTRATION OF THE FACT THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PRIVATE LANGUAGE
It's sometimes tempting to imagine that there can be such a things as Private Language. Many of us are prone to lay-philosophising about the weird privacy of our own mental states, for example, and from the fact that when my knee hurts only I can feel it, it's tempting to conclude that for me the word pain has a very subjective internal meaning that only I can truly understand. This line of thinking is sort of like the adolescent pot-smoker's terror that his own inner experience is both private and unverifiable, a syndrome that is techinically known as Cannabalic Solipsism. Eating ChipsAhoy! and staring very intently at the television's network PGA event, for instance, the adolescent potsmoker is struck by ghastly possibility that, e.g., what he sees as the color green and what other people call "the color green" may in fact not be the same color experiences at all The fact that both he and someone else call Pebble Beach's fairways green and a stoplight's GO signal green appears to guarantee only that there is a similar consistency in their color experience of fairways and GO lights, not that the actual subjective quality of those color experiences is the same; it could be that what the ad. pot-smoker experiences as green everyone else actually experiences as blue, and what we "mean" by the Word blue is what he "means" by green, etc., etc., until the Whole line of thinking gets so vexed and exhausting that the a.p.-s, ends up slumped crumb-strewn and paralyzed in his chair.
The point here is that the idea of a Private Language, like Private Colors and most of the other solipsistic conceits with which this particular reviewer has at various times been afflicted, is both deluded and demonstrably false.
In the case of Private Language, the delusion is usually based on the belief that a word such as pain has the meaning it does because it is somehow "connected" to a feeling in my knee. But as Mr. L. Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations proved in the 1950s, words actually have the meanings they do because of certain males and verification tests that are imposed on us from outside our own subjectivities, viz., by the community in which we have to get along and communicate with other people. Wittgenstein's argument, which is admittedly very complex and gnomic and opaque, basically centers on the fact that a word like pain means what it does for me because of the way the community I'm part of has tacitly agreed to use pain.
If you're thinking that all this foetus not only abstract but also pretty irrelevant to the Usage Wars or to anything you have any real interest in at all, you are very much mistaken. If words' meanings depend on transpersonal rules and these rules on community consensus, language is not only conceptually non-Private but also irreducibly public, political, and ideological. This means that questions about our national consensus on grammar and usage arc actually bound up with every last social issue that millennial America's about--class, race, gender, morality, tolerance, pluralism, cohesion, equality, fairness, money: You name it.
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Thursday, July 8, 2004
"It's very strange, because I recognize the standard psychedelic open-mindedness that lets me find patterns in my perceptions that my brain would ordinarily gloss over for my convenience, but these patterns are being presented with a disconcerting message that these patterns, and pattern-matching, are all there is to life."
"Why must the future promise utopia to have meaning? 'Trivial' goals in fact make human life better over time. Besides, the whole point of ending starvation or curing cancer is to give more people a chance to enjoy more everyday pleasures."
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Wednesday, July 7, 2004
an arms race between liars and skeptics, where each hominid is both, and each
"Lying requires you to be able to construct a mental model of the thoughts of the person you are lying to. I think a purely self-aware, but not other-aware, creature wouldn't be able to lie as such, because it wouldn't be aware of the difference between what it knows and what others know."
a multi-level ontological allegory of the power of the "other" to rule the self
"You are an experiment by the creator of the Universe. You are the only creature in the entire Universe who has free will. You are the only one who has to figure out what to do next - and why. Everybody else is a robot, a machine."
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Monday, July 5, 2004
up, up, and...
the atom project
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Sunday, July 4, 2004
there's a story about this one (and guitulele!)
understanding dynamics in nonperturbative quantum gravity (and mond :)
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Friday, July 2, 2004
self worth living
Here's something to think about. Suppose you were to be turned into a sensationless "zombie": someone who is in every respect exactly like a normal human being except for not having phenomenal consciousness (and all that follows from it) — someone for whom the subjective present never lights up. Would life be worth living any more?
Early on in my career I got involved in another remarkable case study, that threw unexpected, and tragic light on just this question. A 27-year-old woman came to London from abroad in 1972 to have an operation to remove cataracts from her eyes. She'd been blind since the age of three. The doctor who operated on her had promised her that there was a good chance of being able to see normally again. I met her several months after the operation and found her in a state of great despair. She was convinced the operation was a complete failure; she couldn't see any better than she could before.
Unfortunately, it seemed all too likely that, as the result of years of lack of use, her visual cortex had in fact atrophied, so that she was in effect in much the same condition as my monkey, Helen. And yet, if this were the case, perhaps not all was lost. Perhaps she would be capable of learning to see again as Helen had.
I decided to try some of the same things with her. I took her out into in St. James's Park and around London. We walked through the gardens while I described the sights and held her hand. And soon enough it became clear that she did indeed have a capacity for vision that she wasn't aware of. She could point to a pigeon on the grass, she could reach for a flower, she could step up when she came to a curb.
It seemed that, after all, the operation had not been a total failure: her eyes were working again, to a degree. But was this what she was hoping for? No, it only proved the more traumatic. For the awful truth, she let on, was that her vision — just as in blindsight (and very likely it was a kind of blindsight) — still lacked any qualitative dimension. She'd been living for 20 years with the idea of how marvelous it would be if only she could see like other people. She had heard so many accounts, stories, poetry, about the wonders of vision. Yet now here she was, with part of her dream come true, and now she simply couldn't feel it. She was desperately disappointed, almost suicidal. In the end she dealt bravely with her situation by putting on her dark glasses again, taking up her white cane and going back to her former status of being blind.
oblivion genius overload
Because Wallace's writing often conveys the sense of someone trying to bail out a sinking language by working at higher and higher speeds, with bigger and bigger verbal buckets, it's no surprise that many of his stories take as their subject the limits of words themselves. Take ''Good Old Neon,'' the most personal and approachable of the stories in the new book. It centers, like much of Wallace's work, on a philosophical conundrum: the question of whether human beings can be said to possess authentic selves or whether, like ''David Wallace,'' the story's narrator, we are really just a bunch of shabby fakes cut off from our own and others' essential beings by the inadequacy of language.
The story relates a high-achieving young man's quest to get to the bottom of his unhappiness by means of religion, hypnosis, psychotherapy and various other spiritual technologies that ultimately fail to work. Convinced he's been a ''fraud'' since childhood, and not a very nice one, he strains his mental faculties, and ours, by describing the intricate dissimulations that have allowed him to fool society into believing he's a special guy -- decent, moral and intelligent. For example, he tell us how as a young boy he confessed ''in a sort of clumsy, implausible way'' to breaking a valuable glass bowl, thereby causing his parents to suspect he's covering up for his stepsister, whom they then punish for maintaining her innocence.
The guilt and anxiety build over the years, and when the various healers he consults aren't able to console him and, even worse, end up persuading him that his sense of hollowness is actually pretty typical of his peer group, the narrator swallows a fistful of antihistamines and drives at top speed in his sports car toward a bridge abutment. He dies, it seems, but he also gets his wish, because in the moment before he crashes he escapes the suffocating grasp of human signs and symbols and touches the realm of unbounded consciousness:
''Think for a second -- what if all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life turned out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward, after what you think of as you has died, because what if afterward now each moment itself is an infinite sea or span or passage of time in which to express it or convey it, and you don't even need organized English, you can as they say open the door and be in anyone else's room in all your own multiform forms and ideas and facets?''
That modest request to ''think for a second'' is either facetious, rhetorical, or Wallace's way of flattering his readers by attributing to them mental processing speeds that approach what one suspects is his own writing speed. Wallace is a hard guy to keep up with, but it's nice to know he feels we can. It's also a clever, gracious way of inducing us to try.
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Thursday, July 1, 2004
John Kusch: “When I was 13, I decided to become a fake poet.... When I was 27, I decided to become a fake writer. When I was 32, I decided to become a fake personal assistant.... I was tired of dressing Fake Business Casual, of lowering my fake gaze in the boardroom while dropping off copies during a fake meeting, of waiting until the fake members had their pick before being allowed to have a leftover cookie.... So I got a job working nights in a jail, alphabetizing things that nobody else can be bothered to alphabetize, where I will be left alone, where I can be a real nobody in a real nowhere, under the radar screen that I am beginning to suspect is fake, too”
re: the language gene, etc, maybe the important distinction is between categorical and concrete language - the chimps may have mastered concrete language but that's not the important part of human linguistic capability. People with aphasia who lose their abilities with categorical language have been described as losing their humanity; they're concerned merely with completing tasks or responding to commands and fail to recognize patterns or understand interconnections. They don't have ideas.
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