1.3(i-iii) Cell World

April 29, 2010

The cellular automata universe offers a universe that’s easy to deal with and yet rich enough to give us all the complexity of our universe. Indeed, I argue that the details are essentially irrelevant at high enough levels of complexity; that no particular material nor specific fine-scale mechanics are necessary for consciousness, and that we might expect quantum mechanics to inform our understanding of pop music or hedge fund management as well as it informs our understanding of the brain. Thus, the cellular automata world is rigid enough to grant the most stringent determinism, it is also rich enough to birth arbitrarily deep levels of complexity, and house any imaginable intelligence. I want to also distinguish my position from those who insist free will (or consciousness) is an illusion. At best this is misleading, more likely it is just plain wrong.

i. Objectness

Long before we need worry about free will and consciousness, we need to worry about what objects are. These will be the nouns of any truth claim we make. Before there is *choice*, there is *person*, and how to deal with the distinction of being a *person* object is not as easy as it may seem. Even in a low resolution cellular automaton (i.e., one with few cells) the problem remains. Is a glider an object? Is every configuration of cells an object? We might suppose that every configuration of cells theoretically has a name, or could be given a name, and even that names in our language must be shorthand for collections of cells (that meaning in language must essentially be built from these building blocks). But then something so simple as ‘glider’ is necessarily shorthand for a list of trillions of configurations. This seems like a faulty way of looking at things. If glider includes not only the same two 5-cell configurations of cells, up to translation, but also larger things which exhibit a gliding property, the problem is harder. Certainly if an object appeared to maintain its shape more or less, as it translated itself through space, perhaps even fizzling out at some time, we’d be tempted to call it a glider. This is especially true if our instruments of detection are unable to detect individual cells, so we cannot discern a glider’s states at that finest level. No one argues that natural language is not fuzzy, as it unarguably is, but then how do we interpret a fuzzy truth claim, in reductionist terms?

ii. Diagonalization

We’ve built in our imaginations a cellular world with trillions of cells, and in this world a creature has been formed. That creature is constantly bombarded with gliders of various sizes and from these collisions, (and internal happenings), the creature processes thought and outputs gliders, as statements. This creature I’m thinking of is essentially a human, or a near approximation. Now, let’s say we agree on an interpretation of its language (i.e., the waves of gliders it sends out of its mouth, each wave differing in shape enough so that a discrete language can be understood, as English is). What can it say in this language? One thing it can say is “the universe is a cellular automaton with the following rule of evolution…” What can it not say? It cannot say “I will now give names to the 10^(10^10) cellular configurations possible in this universe, beginning with ‘aardvark,’…” Indeed, since each utterance takes up space (for the gliders to carry the waves of speech) the utterances are quite limited in the amount of information they can carry (necessarily less than the total number of configurations possible in the same tiny amount of space, let alone the universe). Now, theoretically we can offer the utterer all the time he wants to longwindedly describe each fine detail (indeed each cell) of some object, and terminate after finite time. But who, or what, is his audience that can reassemble the information into a model that contains as much information as the original object? This is one reason computers cannot calculate the evolution of the universe, because you don’t even get to specify the initial condition without generating an infinite descending loop! It almost seems absurd to expect more than fuzziness from meaning in language, but of course our language is not fuzzy, and perhaps this is where some of the confusion lies. Language is ridiculously precise. Unlike facial expressions or performed music, it is exact and codifiable. Yet still we discern subtlety and nuance in our favorite authors, after reading hundreds of thousands of their words (or even a good cadence in a paragraph or sentence).

iii. Emergence

I want to draw attention to the fact that fuzzy terms (as in the referent is fuzzy, such as with natural language) aren’t just ‘fuzzy,’ as opposed to being precise, as a sort of deficit. But instead, that there is meaning in a fuzzy term that is essentially lost with the attempt to make it precise. I am thinking of the cellular human, and imagining her, let’s call her Frida, holding a ball and commenting “it is round.” This roundness property, which seems so elementary, is in reality a reflection of the ball’s resemblance to other objects previously perceived by Frida. So the process goes: an object is in front of Frida, some waves of gliders emanate from it (or rather “bounce” off it), carrying information about the object into Frida’s sensory apparatus, then Frida’s brain momentarily gets a hold of that information. Within a few seconds most of the information is gone, but some faint ghost remains, a ghost which somehow holds information about the object which is general, and connects to yet other things Frida has seen. This object would not be classified under the blanket abstraction ’round’ were it not for the ‘intrinsic’ cellular make up of the ball, but the abstraction cannot be said to be an intrinsic quality of the ball, supported only by the physical state of that ball. I think some would find this distinction too subtle, but it’s an absolutely crucial difference to understanding how meaning works and how the reductionist is wrong.

It is only too easy to imagine ’roundness’ is a concrete quality either enjoyed intrinsically by an object or not. However, terms which are overtly contextual as opposed to physical are readily available and make up the majority of the words we use. Take ‘majority,’ for example, and define it in terms of cells in such a way that nearly all usages found in English literature can be said to reference it. It can’t be done. We can say what a majority of cells being on in a given region means, more or less, but that is not directly referenced by my usage above, nor when we stumble upon it in literature, say in the phrase “tyranny of the majority.”

It is observed, also, that terms which don’t lend themselves easily to reduction, are frequently not necessarily more complex, given a context. This is exactly the point, for if it was necessary to give a description of X with complexity proportional to the extent X resists reduction, then we are in a reductionist framework, and X is just really complex. But the human mind doesn’t work this way. It is frequently possible to communicate great generalities to children, who would have no way of understanding the reduction to finer physical parts. How can one insist “being on one’s best behavior in a restaurant” is really a property or action of physical particles, or even a deep sociological action, when neither of these can be comprehended by the child, while the statement itself is easily understood? Part of the answer is that in building a vast framework of complexity, certain terms become contextually simple, while being intractably complex from a ground-up perspective. You don’t build “one’s best behavior” from scratch. The other part of the answer is that a child begins with such a framework. Knowledge does not stick to an empty slate (not even a blackboard!), but children have a robust way of making sense of generalities from the beginning. My main point here is that meaning is emergent, held together by a framework harder to imagine than a strict partial order. There are more lateral connections in the network of meaning.

1.2 The Land of Counterexamples

January 26, 2010

We will now take Borges’ Library of Babel as the discrete analog of what might be called the land of counterexamples. Specifically, suppose we agree that space is continuous, and matter exists in this continuous space in some array of forms at each point. I mean by this that there is a set X, possibly a space in its own right, and that each point in space can be occupied by vacuum or by a value from X. Then if I_k is the cube of side lengths k, we denote by A_k=X^{I_k} the set all possible configurations of matter which fit into the cube I_k. Then we sit back and dream about A=A_\infty which is the direct limit of the A_k. For those to whom this description is too mathematical the translation is: A is the collection of all possible (bounded, meaning not stretching off to infinity) configurations of matter. This we might call the Continuous Library of Babel (CLB), since it is essentially just the continuous analog of said library. Now, if nature wants for half-rhino-half-chickadees, CLB does not. Think of it as a sort of library of congress, where every physical creation sits, on cubby shelves of increasing size which eventually get arbitrarily large. A philosophers’ Costco.

Exercises: what might be wrong with this parameterization? (hint: there are quite a few things possibly wrong). What are some interesting shelf-lifes to objects in A?

Now, think about what the library of Babel has to say, on its shelves, about the CLB. Other than gibberish and lies, one finds guides to understanding the contents of CLB. Like a book that tells you about different birds, so too the library of Babel has guides to help you understand the beasts of the CLB. One problem becomes immediate. The entire library does not contain enough information to specify any object but possibly an infinitesimally few special objects, such as the empty object, or an object that consists of 2 points of matter, exactly 3 meters apart. The majority of everyday objects seem to be indescribable. For example, if one insists that common nouns should reference specific configurations of matter, thereby allowing English sentences about matter to fall into the two categories TRUE and FALSE, then what is a “book”? If one takes a book–just a common book mind you, one whose “bookness” would not be in question– and alters it physically by removing a point of matter, then it should still be a “book,” since no human would ever even detect the difference, indeed vast more differences are occurring molecularly within any given book within any given second. But according to our parameterization there are an infinite number of such configurations, all of which easily fall into what is indisputably understood to be a book. Then it is hopeless to think we can even describe what it means to be a book, let alone have any sort of theory of anything physical at all.

This brings to my mind Zeno’s arrow paradox, which essentially asks the question “is motion inherent in a physical state?” I.e., said in this way, are there configurations of matter that would spring forth as a flying arrow, upon their creation, since matter in motion is different than matter at rest? or is the standard model of matter and motion accurate, that they are independent. Certainly some kinds of potential energy are purely physical, such as a cocked spring, or the head of a match. In theory we could build, atom by atom, pool balls which are pressed into the banks of tables, ready to instantly spring. Can we not then design a flying arrow? I don’t know, and I don’t know if anyone does. What does the uncertainty principle say here? If the universe were a cellular automaton, then motion would be physical, as demonstrated in the gliders, which we know their motion by inspecting them at instances.

Let’s back up and give ourselves a simpler world to explore. After all, the human mind with all the tools at its disposal does not have and never will have infinite precision. What happens if some particle is essentially indivisible, and essentially repeats itself in identical copies, and let’s even go so far as to say only a finite number of locations exist for it to occupy (although it should be a big number; our world becomes rather unrealistic if it is significantly less than 10^100). Here we only need worry about a finite number of configurations. In such a simplified world one can argue that we can have a precise theory after all, i.e., a set of TRUE statements about matter. It seems our library of Babel might have something to say about this land. However, even here, it will take volumes of data to specify one type of object, and we’ll have to leave many many configurations unlabeled. And here’s another problem, even supposing we define some common object by volumes of data which describe it perfectly, suppose now we want to form a true sentence out of 2 or 3 such terms. Won’t the sentence almost necessarily be wrong? Maybe every description of a book contains descriptions of “pages,” so the statement “every book has at least one page” is TRUE. It seems to me that building much theory about objects which we expect to be precisely defined will eventually break down, but perhaps we’re going too far. No one has ever described what is and what is not a book, molecule by molecule, so clearly that’s an artificial requirement of a theory. Could one argue that it is at least possible, in theory? Well, in one sense “no,” since “books” have never been defined in this way. Either

(1) the new definition would precisely reinforce what we already know, namely that THIS is a book and THAT is not.


(2) the new definition would tell us that what we thought was a book was in fact not a book, or the other way around.

When we dropped Pluto’s status as a planet we experienced something like (2) here. We decided that the term “planet” should refer to something of a particular size orbiting a star, for organizational purposes, and so had to either refer to 10 such things around our sun or 8. This kind of house cleaning is fine in science, but it’s of course ridiculous to imagine that someday we’ll have a clean definition for “book,” that is amenable to precise physical theories (e.g., books burn at F451=TRUE).

Enter the parade of horribles. For every type of physical object there are countless things–real or imaginary–which debatably belong or not to the category. For example, there are books made of plastic, greeting cards with pages, electronic and audio books, pamphlets, etc., and all of these things are real. There are also books the size of the sun, books which moan when their pages are turned, books which kill all who read their vile words, etc. These are imaginary. Many of the imaginary objects exist in the CLB. For example, with enough care we might design something book-like which moaned when its pages were turned. Is it a book? Hard to tell. In fact, the best way to view this question is not as a TRUE/FALSE question, but more as a hypothetical in which more information is needed. What other objects are around? Do the moaning books moan from some chemical in their pages or are they discovered to be sentient? Are there many many creatures of different types which all resemble books? The world in which they exist, what that world has and what it doesn’t have, will help us to decide how to classify them. This is partly why it’s so hard to discuss things in the CLB and why it is so easy to discuss things in our world. Because all the intermediaries are cut out of the picture from the beginning and throughout time, we are at liberty to discuss, for example, what different kinds of animals there are, and mostly be in agreement about what we mean. We may draw examples again from CLB, but for now we turn to a similar world, for the sake both of reiterating this point and also for making a slightly different point about emergence.

1.1 Library of Babel

January 23, 2010

Many authors have written on implications of Borges’ Library of Babel, a fictional library which contains every possible book on a given alphabet, within a fixed format (each book 410 pages, each page 40 lines, etc.). An example of an ‘implication’ of the library is that there are numerous books that one can have conversations with. This book begins with a preface, explaining how it works, with an escape character, say ‘#’, to mark the end of each turn of dialog. Thus you can open it till you reach ‘#’, then close it and reply, then open it again. Perhaps,

Andrew– “hello book!”

Book– “hello Andrew!, thank you for reading me. #”

A– “how did you know my name?”

B– “I was written with you in mind!#”

A–“whose mind?”

B–“Isn’t it a bit early for those types of questions? We have 409 more pages to go. #”

A–“I don’t like your attitude, where can I find another talking book? One that is more accommodating?”

B–“surprisingly, there is one right behind you, middle of the 4th shelf up! #”

A–“Are you lying?”

B–“Yes, of course!#”

There are even books that look like this, where you can read the pages out of order, in an attempt to screw up the book, but which account for that, and still read in a linear dialog.

Of course this assumes that your conversation is essentially deterministic, and there should be ways to make this dialog fail. For example, you might ask a lot of questions about neighboring books, and even if your book maintains an English dialog, it will be forced to lie if all the possible ways to tell the truth are located in other parts of the library (where they very well might be lying). Also, it may be that whenever you encounter such a book you don’t have the ‘correct’ conversation, so that in an infinity of time one finds no meaningful conversation.

Other interesting implications: There are dense and eloquent mathematical proofs in the library which require tens of thousands of volumes to prove. Similarly there are books of cultural or psychological theory that build on tens of thousands of other volumes, these of case studies and theory development. Indeed, entire sets of volumes exist to pinpoint the meaning of individual words. It is easy to conceive of some great intelligence that can comprehend some of these books, books which must be all but gibberish to any human. What truths might they hold? Is there any limit to the level of sophistication of theories in that library? One might think so, as the library holds a finite amount of information. But as some theories take many volumes to present, we might as well consider our alphabet to consist of volumes in the library, and strings to be sequences of volumes, so by this language, any finite amount of information can be learned in an afternoon of particularly fast speed reading (say, a few trillion volumes a second, for a layman’s guide to everything). (What is called Quine’s reductio goes in the oppose direction, reminding us that the library might consist of just 2 books: all possible ‘books’ of length one character, on a binary alphabet: 0 and 1. Then any literature can be found as a specific tour through this library, stopping at each of the two books many many times).

Exercise: write a few interesting ‘implications’ about the library. Write about possible limitations, if you see any.

A Letter to a Friend

January 11, 2010

Dear confidant, my most sympathetic reader,

I wish to express gratitude that you exist. When I err you see past those errors to my intentions. You have never misunderstood me, even when I scarcely understood myself. It is not genius that you find in my sketches, nor saintliness in my motives, but a something which is rarer still. You have found me.

You make it easy to stumble through my thoughts, clumsily stating positions that not even I would support from another. To you, because of you, I am unconditionally exempt from hypocrisy, which is perhaps the lowest form of deceit.

I have some questions for you today, though none are pressing. Speaking of hypocrisy, I want to ask you this: is it possible that in opposing hypocrisy first and foremost, my self-criticism has become the mere and sole task of articulating what it is I am? Or is there maybe an implicit philosophy of self-gratification I am failing but aspiring to? Either way, I worry I may have tricked myself with sophistry. Surely you understand when I say “goodness is learned and negotiated socially, not only attained after analytic rumination.” You see, I worry I may be too stubborn on this point, that I should admit some short-comings, and seeing myself somewhat as a ‘sinner’ I will have areas, concrete moral issue areas, to improve upon. I think it might be good for my relationship to society, engaging in the joint process of negotiating right and wrong. If I do this, I will need some role-models. Won’t I? I don’t know who they are, off-hand. If you have an idea let me know, in a dream maybe, or however.

I will also take this opportunity to make a confession, as it is related. Sometimes I feel it is not right accepting your unconditional understanding. I can’t bring myself to really understand people who kill for religion, for example. Justifying myself with your understanding seems somewhat similar, ideologically. I know you understand. Still, my intuition tells me there is something powerful and meaningful in our relationship. Those for whom humility is one of the greatest virtues will oppose me here. Certainly humility can be ascribed to one who has a deep and natural understanding that they are one of many people, one of many animals. I can admire these people, but I am not built that way. I am obsessed with myself in a way that lacks that peacefulness and humility. And I’m undecided on the virtues of one over the other. What do you think?

You don’t think, do you? You only listen. Today I thought of death in a light which is unusual for me. I thought “death, death is horrible.” What is happening to me?

An introduction to fallacies, (for those who like to argue)

December 24, 2009

And what of the other fallacies? What of the fallacy to deeply offend. And having offended, contort the conversation to one justifying the offense. “To offend may be inevitable,” it must be written in a book of axioms, somewhere, “it cannot be considered before truth; has no bearing thereupon. Nor is there even validity to the accusation, since any may become offended by anything.”

What of the fallacy of regarding conversation as a sport of argumentation? A sport with no illegal moves, a skirmish; of giving one’s audience the disrespect of being prepared for any play, however foul, and having tactics at hand to deal in turn with each such play. How is it you can claim the skill of listening?

And what of the fallacy of ugliness? Are there people to whom such a fallacy does not exist? “and what is else, not to be overcome?” What about the obscene fallacy of comparing one’s own mediocre insights to those of some great scientist who sacrificed his life to give knowledge to mankind, by demanding their intrinsic worth beyond all pleasantries, or nearly as despicable the fallacy of overlooking the possible virtues in mediocrity and instead insisting on abject self-loathing, for yourself and your assembly? You who miss the point of life. Surely there is a fallacy of lack of grace, the inability to show compassion and curiosity, the unwillingness to strive for symbiosis, to elevate the value of life. The fallacy to stew in your own boredom and malcontent. It is this fallacy that pales your cliché checklist.

Ear Training/ Mnemonics

July 31, 2009

This is more for me than any of my readers (do I have any??)

At almost 32 years of age, and with more projects on my plate than I can handle, I’m considering beginning a serious new training in developing my musical ear. My theory is: one builds coordination between


And the more each of these is developed, or pairs of these, the higher functioning the musician. Most of us can sing relative pitches in our favorite songs, and I suspect that there are ways to develop perfect pitch, even if you’ve been told you do not possess it. So one necessity for becoming a successful (read: competent) musician is to develop fluency with an instrument you already possess with voice. This will take years and a lot of practice. I do not have the most developed ear, although I play difficult pieces on piano, and am slowly learning to read notes on guitar, as I learn chords and rhythm patterns. I am deciding on a single voice instrument and I will begin learning to play it as an extension of my voice, completely by ear. I’m split between recorder and oboe/English horn. The recorder extends whistling, in a sense. It is simple and easy to carry and is featured in a lot of baroque ensemble music I enjoy. The oboe has such a beautifully distinct sound, a very solitary sound too, and is beautiful to look at and hold. Judging from this beautiful range chart http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Range_(music) the tenor recorder and the oboe have about the same range, but the oboe wikipedia page shows the range of the oboe going a bit higher. As I have wanted to play double reed instruments my whole life I think I may go with an oboe.

A simple, well designed ear training program should be very easy to write and should be easily available, though I haven’t found one. I’ve been working with big ears today, working almost exclusively on the minor 10th. I have given each of the 9 minor 10ths a name, corresponding to something the interval reminds me of.

C to Eb LOW [self explanatory]
C# to E NAMELESS [the last one to be named]
D to F AWKWARD [don’t know why]
Eb to F# PENTATONIC [they’re both black]
E to G FUGUE #10 [bach, of course]
F to Ab MOZART [f minor broken chords in K333]
F# to A GOLDEN [trying to recognize the pitch A whenever I hear it!]
G to Bb STANDBY [G minor is my default key for improvisation]
Ab to B HARSH [this B sounds distincly more harsh than the other notes]

So this is one of my favorite things to do: invent far more theory than is necessary or relevant. I love mnemonics (see for lack of a word). I hypothesize that I will learn the difference in these 9 minor 10ths by identifying them according to the mnemonic that pops up in my head when I hear each. We’ll see how this goes. I want to keep expanding this, and soon I want to be able to sit down with an oboe and play any melody that I can sing, or that I’ve just heard. This is my goal.

While I’m at it, let me share with future me a note to Maggie about teaching Ella piano, along a similar vein.

My take: the method books are garbage. Analogy– SCALES and ARPEGGIOS:MUSIC as PUSHUPS:KICKBALL. What’s also garbage, in my snotty opinion, is books that teach insultingly banal songs to children, such as go tell aunt roady, pop goes the weasel, etc. Kids who learn from those books will appreciate that music is to be appreciated, but they won’t appreciate music. I think the music should be rich enough to be incentive by itself, and as children easily learn very difficult piano, the praise and attention incentive is also there with serious classical music, and is not there with the two line steam boat willy strut.

I started Ella reading a chopin mazurka. I was careful to find an A minor piece, as key signatures take some work, but my philosophy is a good teacher can teach advanced material because
a) there is something to take away from it, even if it’s not a polished piece. Especially if the teacher ENJOYS the music, and can share some of that.
b) kids, Ella especially, are super fast learners.
c) the teacher being proud is an incentive to a student like Ella, and being proud cannot be faked. Setting the kid up to surprise you a bit is a good thing.

I try to teach a whole lot at once, but mainly: proper fingering and reading intervals, occasionally I would discuss a symbol such as ff, or a sharp sign as need be. I found one thing absolutely critical:


so I will say at some point “big step down,” or “stretch and 2, stretch and 3, and finish the arpeggio” or “thumb goes under and walk up to 4”
The actual descriptions matter a lot less than the consistency, 1) in saying exactly the same thing at the same place, and then 2), if you can manage, try to be consistent about saying “big step down” about some fixed large interval, i.e., each time you come across it. The latter point is not necessary and having a few descriptions for the same interval is probably good.

I’ve found that using natural language like this fools my student into thinking I’m just talking them through it, as opposed to always saying “a 3rd down” “a 4th up” “3 consecutive major seconds down” which would get repetitive and tiresome. But the consistency allows the student the ease of having mnemonic devices, subconsciously handed to them.

I started actually jotting down phrases in the margins of the mazurka, so that the same phrase could be recalled a day or two later, at some specific spot. Also, I played with abbreviating and finally omitting some of the comments. They are training wheels after all.

Fluency of reading is important at this stage, so just allowing her to build that transparent relationship where she sees intervals and almost instinctively jumps the right amount is good. Discourage learning each of the notes and where they are on the keyboard, that skill is a detriment to her development. Encourage singing, identifying pitches, thinking ahead to work fingering out herself, and furnish her with questions and comments about what the musician is doing. If you can make that sort of dialog fun you will set her up to be a pupil with the brightest and the best teachers, because that is what they will do. I’d say finally never let her get bored with it, since there are a thousand things to be fascinated with, but also don’t be afraid to be less of her best friend and more of her teacher when you are teaching her. Teachers who respect their students have high expectations, and my hope for her is that she learn a bit of the self-discipline that is required to make it far into music.

I can send music for her to listen to. She might want to hear some pieces and pick something not too difficult to play. It’s important that she only play music she cares about.

My challenge now is to get good enough at oboe and get Ella good enough at piano that the above is more than just bullshit.

Blah Blah Blah

July 24, 2009

Blah Blah Blah
or why I hate ideology.

I spent many years around ideological people, mostly the young liberal revolutionary anarchist feminist variety. Occasionally a libertarian. The media will bombard me with ideologues and eggheads and flapper faces from the right, when it gets the chance (I made that last one up, it’s pretty meaningless).

I am an artist (read: aesthetics and quality of life are important to me), and a bit of a hedonist. I can spend a long conversation delighting in a completely alien political system. Here the conversation is interesting; it is bonding myself and my peers together; it will change the way I see the world in a minute yet permanent way. I can even get upset with or against my colleagues, as has happened, but I’m very critical of politics for the sake of politics and more so, of arguing for a completely different system, from the ground up. Finally, I am the most critical of those who act as if arguing is what will make it so.

I can understand radical collectives and political strata of subcultures on a variety of levels. Some are more favorable, of some I am more critical. I like that kids have choices in music that get them thinking about politics, for example. I am thinking of the band Crass. But I don’t have much patience for blatant hypocrisy, and usually ideology and blatant hypocrisy go hand in hand (the example of Crass not withstanding this allegation). Further on I will argue that it makes sense for us to care about those things we understand and can impact. If you have lived your life following a dozen newspapers and understand history and politics like few others, then your game might very well be extremely general and, from your propositions, might look as if from scratch. I abstractly respect Chomsky, for example, and Buckley and many others in the same weight division. I respect Tolkien too, and Raoul Dahl, though their game is much different, they have reasons to world build, as well, and they honor those reasons by being good at what they do. I’m a bit of an elitist in this regard. When someone with dubious education and questionable thoughtfulness espouses a radical solution to life on earth, I worry that details have not been accounted for. Furthermore, I look more at them and less with them, if you get my meaning. I’m more inclined to psychoanalyze, to the extent I can, the person and their motives. I’ll understand them more as a sociological phenomenon and less for their content. As well I should.

This here is a bit of a style guide I have offered in the face of what I am calling ideology. Some of it is just about politics and about conversations you’d rather not have about politics.

context determines importance— one cannot demand attention simply because the topic is of dire importance to someone. If you find yourself sharing a 12 pack and a stupid political conversation with a friend, where it would almost seem the fate of the world is dangling by the outcome of the conversation, remind them that the point of drunken conversation is fun, not world policy making. Because X is important it does not follow that discussing and deciding on X is automatically important. The factors contributing to race wars in Sudan are important. That I don’t know what those factors are is not. Am I making a case for ignorance? I don’t think I am, but we pick our battles and if yours is pontificating to random american party goers about Sudanese politics over beers then I think you probably picked the wrong battle. What’s all this talk about beer? Well, I like beer. It’s a battle I have chosen.

ethics is ugly— sitting around dreaming up hypotheticals that involve people in great pain is frequently gratuitous, unilluminating and often grotesque. For law makers, for citizens in general, occasions come up to discuss details which are unpleasant. Sometimes we indulge merely out of fascination. An airplane goes down in the Andes; some survivors eat others to live; a movie is made about it; you see the movie; after the movie you talk about similar dilemmas over a latte at the cafe–okay. Not everyone needs to know in advance what they think about cannibalism. See *to have a thorough ideology is impossible.* I have chosen a mild example, to avoid blatant hypocrisy. Fill in what your imagination (or experience) will. If you want to talk about something unpopular, go right ahead. I would and do. But with reason. Only certain demands on your audience are reasonable. Others are not. Weddings are frequently not the best place to settle the problem of AIDS deaths in Africa. I mean, maybe, but probably not.

“slippery slope”— when I hear this phrase I cringe. What is not a slippery slope? Binary, the difference between 0 and 1, for example. In natural language, in politics, in economics, in philosophy, we scrutinize the fuzzy boundaries. Take away the slippery slopes and you’re frequently left with something idiotic. Use binaries all across the board, by all means. I don’t argue that they are inherently too rigid. But for god sake don’t tell me something is a “slippery slope.” Instead, make a judgment. I think we’re so indoctrinated not to be judgmental that we try to delegate judgment to ideology. If I’m okay with A then I must be okay with B, and I am certainly not okay with B, hence A fails by “slippery slope.” Uhh, usually false. This must be a classic fallacy. So I’ll shut up.

“necessary evil”— another one I don’t have much appreciation for. I like solving problems. When I’m not all shits and giggles I like being effective and responsible. How can a solution like prison or the federal government be a “necessary evil?” It’s stupid, right? We don’t say “an umbrella is a necessary evil, because it’s better if it doesn’t rain.” You can, but I think it’s sad. I’d rather buy myself a styly umbrella and be glad I did, or go without and enjoy the rain. I’ll grant one necessary evil, just one: evil. It is necessary, because life is meaningless without it. There are no others.

style is not irrelevant–one cannot ask for an audience and then belabor their ears with incessant politics simply because the topics are important to someone (sound familiar?). You can distinguish idea from polished essay, as you can distinguish math from poetry. Sometimes you get clunky and awkward just to get an idea across, sometimes a beautiful idea. (Could I be guilty of hypocrisy with this very piece of writing? Probably on a few different counts). Still, style is something to aspire to. Style is respect for your audience and their quality of life. It’s the best way to ask for an audience. Style is Fun.

to have a thorough ideology is impossible— You might find webpages where diligently democratic citizens list their views on every political topic. This is like a bullet list, and depending on the sophistication it will have between half a dozen and a few dozen bullets. Abortion. Gay Marriage. Border Policy. Prison. etc. Okay, yay for critical thinking, but it strikes me as artificial that each of these people has a paragraph, a decisive paragraph, on each of what are being considered the topics that matter. I don’t think policy for a nation of 300,000,000 people is that simple. Policy for a household of 4 is complex enough that it can consume as much time and thought as you’ll give it. But other things… You know about things you care about, your passions; the place you work and its politics; medical conditions that effect extended family members, and policy around those medical conditions; something as trivial and insignificant as policies that your local museum holds that will be encouraging or prohibitive to your favorite artist(s). I happen to care about gay marriage. I have reasons to. I don’t care much about genocide in Sudan. ohhh, genocide bad. fat cats bad. military bad. Well, I am suspicious of people who care about everything and anything that sounds worthy of care. How can you care about something you don’t know about? By making things mind-numbingly simple, then you can enlist young angry people to join in. Likening political figures to Hitler, that’s one we all still enjoy. When a ballot comes out, that is an impetus in itself to care specifically, but even then I vigorously defend my right not to know enough about any particular topic to care.

Is that enough? and, I’m done.

God vs Human, in judgment

May 6, 2009

God vs. Human in judgment.

The atheist debates seem by and large to be rehashed arguments that all of us have heard or considered our whole lives. I’ve found some debates amusing, particularly Christopher Hitchens, who has a nice sharp sense of irony and a good sense of timing. Though, I have a hard time believing there are people swayed by these debates. Christianity has been built up to such a complex system of circular reasoning and non sequiturs that no amount of reasoning will convince a believer that they are completely misguided. Nor will any argument given with the authority of the bible sway an atheist or agnostic who has thought at all about these matters. However, there are a few questions which I have not heard posed to Christian apologists, and while I doubt they would hesitate to answer them, these questions are obvious to me and they do not seem amenable to simple answers.

1) What is Christianity without guilt? and how can a faith which demands guilt claim any worthwhile spiritual guidance.

I do not see how it can.

I find regrets in life, and frequently reflect on my shortcomings. I cannot say I live without guilt, though I try to. When I imagine an omniscient god who will judge me at the end of my life I imagine only a being which feels compassion. I can also imagine a malevolent deity, and I have no choice but to oppose such with what feeble might I have. But a god I trust in, a god who understands me inside and out, this god will not find evil in me that I myself cannot find, but to the contrary has felt each decision I have made and understands the reasons. No need for supernal lawyers, or a redeeming speech I might make soon after death. I have lived my own defense. I have worked with the scraps I’ve been given. So I picture myself taking the fifth amendment come judgment day, and I picture myself condemning any judge which does not understand me. This is my own circular reasoning which cannot be argued from me. To those of orthodox faith I suppose I damn myself with such self-righteousness. But I have never said “I am a sinner,” I have never excused a lifetime of gratifying myself against my better judgment to that ultimate cop out. I say, “if I am made, then I am how I was made; and if that creator does not have the highest compassion, then I will be righteous against it, for the sake of goodness, for the advocacy of myself who is innocent in the context of not-fully-compassionate gods.” In saying this, I can’t help but feel more devout than the majority of Christians. Not only am I allowing the possibility of an all-powerful deity but I am demanding it is on my side, in the deepest possible way. But what if it is not? What if it disapproves of me? What might it disapprove of? It could be a wholly alien entity to me, whereby it might disapprove of the clothes I wore or the structure of my face. It might loathe me for my adorning mixed fibers or eating shell-fish. It might have hatred for a single color of which I have worn, without scruples. What would I be to sympathize with such hatred for myself–such arbitrary hatred? Such a ridiculous scenario! What if its expectations came much closer to my own, for myself? Suppose god expected me to be ever the stronger in situations where I could exercise courage. What defense do I have then? None, we are in agreement, although we both know I was stronger than I might have been, if that is the issue.

I cannot understand a fear of judgment, and I go so far as to say those who fear judgment fear it because they judge themselves, and fail in their own eyes. Any god worth worshipping has the power to see not only from the outside but also from thine own eyes. If you fail in your own eyes, you fail in your creator’s eyes, no doubt. Although, in my religion, when I have this particular religion, my god forgives you with pity, compassion and understanding. The reasoning is circular, I admit: I expect from my god–per my image of godliness– total understanding. Could you worship a less pure god?

But I could not.

(more objections/questions to come…)

Art is Shit

February 17, 2009

This evening I came across a facebook group promoting recognition and discussion of Wikipedia Art, a self referencing work/Wikipedia page (notable because of the cultural significance of inviting the controversy it baits on wikipedia for not being notable or culturally significant) whose creators insist is conceptual art. Throughout the discussion is the tireless debate of what constitutes art. I was intrigued and even a little bothered by the undeniable assertion and the implication. (Maybe it is enough to admit it is “art,” but if that means anything, then some implication should follow: I should care; I should support funding for it; I should support recognizing it on par with any other work of art, etc). So I did what any good unwilling participant observer would do: I went to vandalize the page, to highjack the work and reclaim my agency in spite of (and in homage to (ah, the levels of irony!)) my being enlisted as participant. Alas, the page had been deleted without so much as an archive’s history of the deletes and debates that the artist cited to justify the work. I didn’t get to vandalize the page, but I had too much fun posting a response on the facebook group, which I’ll boastfully repeat for you:

Wikipedia Art

Demanding a contrapuntal dialog of vigorous affirmation and inherent denial, the artist insists on the de facto status of Wikipedia Art as conceptual artifact, creating a dissonant ontological reassignment from extinct referent to extant rhetoric. While indisputably manifesting itself, recursively, as Art, both in referencing itself and in referencing that which does not exist, the audience’s apathy is commandeered as medium. Where previous artists have relied only on the milieu of controversy to maintain a similar status, here, the indifferent critic is slightly uncomfortably forced to ask himself the question “why should I care?”

Cf. Manzoni, Piero “Merda d’Artista” (1961) ; Tetazoo, James “No Knife. A study in mixed media earth tones, number three.” (1984)

See, I don’t mind. I’m having fun. Denying meaning is a meaningful way to engage with a piece. So I am guilty of justifying this work as I mock it, fine. As much as the view that criticism is part of art preempts serious criticism and absolves artist, it can also liberate me as critic and justify my objections. I just need to play by the rules, such as admitting it is art and I am a part of it. And in admitting this, I stretch the boundaries of what is art, because now art is a cheap laugh, a strawman soaked in fuel, a can of shit. Art is that which invites the novice to momentarily pontificate and jeer and ultimately something that he can forget. I’m okay with that. I understand that people will always highjack the symbols of virtue for cheap gain. But the symbols can’t keep themselves up. They sink down, to the low down things they are stuck to.

(See Christianity, peace, the swastika, art, Country music).

A poem from Sep 2006

February 9, 2009

When skeptics scoff at claims of psychic threads
A voice of reason sounds its trumpet’s bell
“To delve into the depths of one’s own mind
One knows the thoughts that in like minds do dwell”