Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pharaoh's Tombs, Movie Theaters, and Consciousness

The ancient Egyptians would pile a dead pharaoh's personal belongings into his tomb, just in case he might need them. Hey, they're his things! They're important! Of course, cracking open these rooms centuries later, we see the truth. It's just a bunch of inert junk. The ancient Egyptians seem adorable, with their juvenile fascination with mere stuff. We moderns seem to know better. Not everyone's gotten the memo, but, still, it's hardly an advanced insight these days to recognize that our stuff isn't ours. It's just....stuff!

Meanwhile, cognitive scientists, perennially on the brink of understanding consciousness and creating artificial intelligence, continue to feed their computers rules and facts. Stuff! Soon it'll happen! Boom...intelligence!

Any time you hear the term "artificial intelligence", someone's lying. We're no closer than we were in 1950, and it's just not going to happen (sorry, Ray Kurzweil). They're still focusing on the stuff, and stuff - physical or mental - is just....stuff. Stuff has nothing to do with consciousness. And consciousness is what we are.

You are the watcher; the intelligence peering out of your eyes. You are not your house or car or bath towels, or your thoughts, memories, or mental narration. Those are all, at some level, objects, and consciousness is the perceiver of objects, not the objects themselves. To misunderstand this is to be as naive as ancient Egyptians. In 3500 years we've learned a fantastic great deal about things, but remain confused about the intelligent awareness which contains those things.


The most human characteristic of all is one seldom discussed. It's so intrinsic, so all-consuming that few of us even notice it. We identify. Stare at raindrops dripping down a window for long enough, and you'll have constructed mental mythologies for families of droplets, and find yourself mourning noble generations past. If we indulge ourselves only a little, we can easily work up deep emotions over the progress of beads of water down a window.

I challenge you to watch a movie while registering for even five minutes that you're in a movie theater. Our inability to maintain perspective - i.e. a persistent awareness of where we actually are (and who we actually are) in the presence of, say, lights flickering across a screen - would leave an alien race convinced that human beings are completely unhinged.

We love music and films and poetry and stories and gossip - and we watch raindrops, cheering their progress - because we live to identify with stories about mental and physical stuff. We literally can't resist it.

This obsession with identification is what makes the consciousness at our core the universe's preeminent storyteller. The universe itself is our trademarked creation.

The truth, once again, is not such an advanced insight: stuff isn't ours; isn't us. So we're not the heroes of any story, including the stories we've chosen to make our own. We assign importance to the things we perceive, and we identify with it, because that's what consciousness does. It's fun! But if a story turns overly tragic or traumatic, just remember where and who you actually are. It all happens around you, not to you. Your bedrock consciousness has been peering out from your eyes all along; the stories have never touched it, the things have no actual relationship with it. Beyond the compulsive identification with things, it all simply is.


Save yourself years of therapy, meditation and/or hard-won wisdom by simply mulling over this indisputable truth: if someone wonderful just kissed you, your entire town seems fantastic. And if someone wonderful just left you, your entire town seems ghastly. Yet you must concede that the town's the same. Only your perspective changes.

Only your perspective changes. Perspective is always entirely elective. See also this and this.


Interesting parallel discussion on Facebook, FYI.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Earphones That Tune Themselves to Your Hearing

My hearing has gotten so bad that I need to watch TV with the subtitles on, so I finally had my ears tested. It seems I've lost 50% of my high-frequency hearing, surely due to many years spent standing in front of blaring trumpeters and screaming guitar amps. This is a price musicians pay, sort of like punchy aging boxers.

The audiologist recommended a hearing aid at $7200/pair (minus whatever my health insurance pays), with practical effectiveness unknown. It would primarily help for conversation, rather than for music or TV viewing. At least it's small and subtle; not an ear-filling beige monstrosity.

I've been musing about fiddling with equalizers to try to boost my missing frequencies with music and TV, when out of nowhere I read about a brand new, revolutionary product called Even. These are earbuds that adjust themselves to fill in gaps (i.e. boost frequencies you have trouble with). They're being marketed as a mainstream consumer gadget rather than for people like me, because hearing aids are a highly regulated market (so the company has to tread very carefully in their claims). But I imagine this might be a great quick and dirty solution for listening to music from my iPhone, and for hooking up to the audio output of my TV. I can't wait to try them. My decline has been too gradual to notice, so I'm excited to hear what I've been missing.

If your hearing's even just a little dodgy, this might be something to try. A major bonus is that you can listen softer, because you no longer need to boost the entire volume to hear the missing parts. This will help keep your hearing healthy longer!

Read Walt Mossberg's review, and order from their web site for a $99 introductory price. There's a 30-day money back return policy.

Downside: the next model of iPhone will probably eliminate the standard headphone plug (which these, of course, use), forcing all earphones to use the lightning plug. But that would be a good thing for Even, because 1. their headphones need recharging (else they conk out after nine hours), and the lightning port, unlike the headphone plug, is able to charge, and 2. lightning plug allows for much, much better sound. So if Enter works for me, I'll happily buy another set if they design a lightning version (they say they will; see their FAQ).

Monday, June 27, 2016

How to Help Clinton Win

I know several people - especially Bernie supporters - who are trying to figure out how they can help the Clinton campaign, in order to stave off a Trump presidency.

I'd strongly suggest against volunteering, contributing to, or otherwise joining up with her campaign. Clinton's been around for a while; people's opinions are fixed. Your support will only project Clinton's voice more prominently/widely, and that won't change many minds. It's not what's needed.

There's very little Clinton and her campaign can and will do to increase the odds of victory. All she can do is screw it up, which is why I won't send them a dime. What will help elect Clinton is if modern, articulate, and creative people work to expose Trump in fresh ways (e.g. not hollering "Donald Trump is a racist!" or any other self-evident statement which assumes your listener shares your values and aesthetics, in which case there's no reason to be hollering in the first place).

It's got to be done grassroots, ad-hoc, de-centralized, and one-on-one, addressing good people attracted to Trump due to foggy thinking or misdirected frustration. Also: urge people to register to vote, especially in states like New York which are normally so predictably partisan that majority voters get lazy. Remind everyone - again and again! - of the shock non-voting Brits felt the morning after that referendum.

If you see Hillary Clinton on television telling people what a pill Donald Trump is, and feel like she's really moving the needle and kickin' ass, then disregard my words. By all means, send her some money so she can "get her voice out there."

But if you agree that she and her campaign are far too tin-eared for this task (she's struggled in two consecutive elections which launched with sharp leads against weak-seeming opponents), then reject her stale juggernaut and do it yourself, in fresh ways that actually speak to people. Even if you're lousy at it, you're better than she is.

Autonomous Cars in Urban Spaces

Last week the Times rehashed the hoary topic of autonomous vehicle morality in an article titled "Should Your Driverless Car Hit a Pedestrian to Save Your Life?". Obviously, these issues will be determined by legislation, not by scientists at auto companies. As with every transformational technology, a scheme of compromises will be worked out. This is something human beings are good at. It's more interesting to speculate on the fallout. And here's what I don't get:

Urban intersections create uneasy standoffs between brazen pedestrians and possibly homicidal motorists. The threat of grievous bodily harm is the only thing keeping pedestrians off streets during vehicular right-of-way. If any idiot jumping into slow-moving traffic has the power to stop everything, how will idiots not be constantly jumping into slow-moving traffic to stop everything? Worse, wouldn't every yahoo have the power to cause monstrous pile-on collisions, by forcing the front-running car to jam on its breaks? Wouldn't pushing something in front of you (e.g. an empty baby carriage) make you The God of All Traffic at no personal risk?

The only reason cars can move at all in urban spaces is pedestrian fear and uncertainty - i.e. they're never sure a given driver will stop for them. Removing this uncertainty tilts the balance of power, resulting in traffic paralysis at best and multiple crashes at worst (as the robots exercise all due caution in protecting life and limb).


Driverless Cars (i.e. Trusting Those Cold, Dodgy Algorithms): My initial luddite ravings from early 2015

One Cool Prospect With Autonomous Cars: Utopian musings from earlier this year (plus a couple excellent links).

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Why Fruits and Veggies Are So Crazy Cheap in Chinatown

Great recent Wall Street Journal article: "Why Fruits and Veggies Are So Crazy Cheap in Chinatown" (if that link doesn't show you the full article, try the first search result here). It's about a book titled "From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown's Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace", by Valerie Imbruce, and it's a fascinating story, a must-read.

If this spurs you to do some shopping, consider buying "A Cook's Guide to Chinese Vegetables" by Martha Dahlen, which you can buy in e-format so it's always handy, either from Amazon Kindle or Apple iBooks (which has it for a dollar cheaper, plus it seems to be a more recent edition).

As for actual where-to-shop tips, Here's a swell annotated list of Chinatown markets by a Chinese woman who lives in the nabe (here are her other lists, many of which are great, though all pretty old). And in the WSJ article, Ms. Imbruce recommends "the 40-foot sidewalk fruit stand on Mulberry Street just south of Canal Street, and the vegetable stores on Mott between Grand and Hester streets." The article notes that "some of the best bargains can be found on day-old produce, at the sidewalk stands on Forsyth Street in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. Here, $8 buys a 20-pound box of mangos."

Empathizing With Pro-Gun People

I'm re-running this posting from 2012. It aims to explain why people who favor gun safety resist backing gun safety legislation

Over the past few weeks, I've noticed a lot of people saying stuff like this:
I don't like guns, and I would never own one. It's not my culture. But I have nothing against hunters and others who use firearms responsibly, and I don't want to see their guns taken away. I respect the second amendment, but I want sanity. I don't want weapons sold without background checks, I don't want assault weaponry available, and I don't want to see private citizens building huge arsenals.
I've written something similar, myself (check out, by the way, the story of how the Australians accomplished all these things).

This tack is helpful. Because for people whose culture does involve the responsible ownership and use of firearms, whenever they hear people from other cultures talking about gun control, they sense a trap - an attempt to engage a process leading to no more guns for anyone anywhere ever. And, of course, that's not paranoia. There is a core of extreme anti-gun sentiment, and, like the anti-smoking movement, and many other "anti-" movements, the favored strategy is gradual erosion. If gun owners don't aggressively oppose all regulation, they fear they'll eventually need to kiss goodbye yet another aspect of their traditional way of life, upended by sanctimonious people in faraway places with different values and customs.

I believe many - though certainly not all - gun owners agree with the rest of us about assault weapons, background checks, and crazy arsenals. So why aren't they saying so? They're silent because they've been backed into a defensive posture. Any concession might aid those hoping to completely revoke their right.

If you're a liberal who has trouble relating to this, consider your position on abortion (assuming you're pro-choice). You would likely acknowledge, privately, that abortion is much more than a mere run-of-the-mill medical procedure. But you'd never concede that publicly, because you consider the right of access to abortions critical, and there are sanctimonious people in faraway places with different values and customs who want to revoke that right.

All things being equal, you might be open to sane regulation discouraging irresponsible folks from blithely considering abortion to be just another tool in their contraception arsenal, and to ensure it's used only as a last resort, and with responsibility, thoughtfulness, and respect. That's the sort of responsible behavior most pro-choice advocates work to protect.

But all things aren't equal. If abortion proponents conceded any of that, they'd be aiding those hoping to completely revoke their right. As with gun rights proponents, political pressure makes public posturing more extreme than private perspective, and makes reasonable people appear to support appalling behavior. And so the many sensible people on both sides, who actually share common ground, choose an extremist line. Such is life in a starkly binary political climate.

I'm not saying it's a perfect analogy. But it doesn't need to be. There's enough symmetry there to feel empathy with the other side, and to understand why they - and we - seem crazy.

Of course, there are also gun advocates who favor arming society to the teeth. Rather than restricting guns, they'd allow them to flow like candy, and we'll fix school violence by arming teachers (read some wittily pragmatic thoughts from a teacher friend of mine). I've not yet found a way to empathize with that perspective.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nativism

Immigrants flood into your area. The culture of the place where you've always lived, and where your forebears lived, suddenly and wrenchingly changes. How would that feel?

I'd be happy. New restaurants, new music, new people. An energized economy, cheap labor, fresh blood. Bring it! But, realistically, I'm an edge case, born into the world's most extreme melting pot, as opposed to a place with a deep sense of cultural identity I can't personally relate to.

What if we keep turning the dial, ratcheting up the immigration and cultural change (ala Europe in the past decade). Question: is there a point at which it's no longer racist to complain?

Cosmopolitan, educated people are highly sensitized to nativist sentiment. We're certain it stems from dark, ugly places. And a lot of it - likely most of it - certainly does*! But, having grown up culture-less in suburban shopping malls, my cultural stakes can't compare. So I'm forced to concede that my sense of moral superiority may be at least somewhat misplaced.

* - I think the important line is crossed when anti-immigration sentiment spills into anti-immigrant sentiment. So I'll make an effort, in future, to more carefully distinguish between the two.


This post is one of a series of attempts to sympathize with positions I ordinarily have trouble relating to.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Book That Will Get You Through This Year

The same British friend I mentioned in my previous posting reminded me about the classic book "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam Paperback," by Barbara W. Tuchman. It describes the supremely self-destructive, irrational jags (aka unforced errors) societies always seem to take. It's not a wryly aloof catalog of horrors, but more of an attempt to understand...or at least to learn to calmly spot and endure them without constantly rubbing eyes in disbelief.

Our world, never terribly wise, is in a spasm of particularly virulent idiocy right now*. If you read one book this year, let it be this one (you can find it second-hand for 1¢ plus shipping in all the usual places).

I'm not suggesting The March of Folly so you can be more insightful, or more eruditely informed. It's not so you can hear some egghead's theories about humanity. It's that you'll need this for your psychological well being. If you don't read it, this annus horribilis of Trump/Brexit will make your wheels stressfully spin day after day, as as you flail for rational explanation; for solid ground to stand upon. The book gives you context, sweet context, so you can wearily absorb the latest and get on with it.

These periods have happened before, and will happen again. It's something humans sometimes do, much as cats vomit hair or chimpanzees rip faces off. It's a nervous tic in the macro, a bad that must be expected along with human good.

I read The March of Folly during the debt ceiling freezes, in much the same way that elderly church ladies look to the Bible for consolation and wisdom.


* - I date this current spasm to the Cheney administration's invasion of Iraq. Even aside from the $2 trillion cost and 500K+ Iraqi dead, nearly every American foreign policy problem either stems from or was exacerbated by that debacle. And the neo-cons who perpetrated it have been forming Trump's foreign policy inner circle, even though he's excoriated that war.

Bonus Indignation: Three Brexit links from interesting angles: "The downfall of David Cameron: a European tragedy", "The improbable revolutionaries (England’s vote for Brexit exposes the anarchic streak in an otherwise pragmatic people)", and "Why Brexit is grim news for the world economy".

My feeling? Forget for a moment the moronic self-infliction of this calamity. There are ways to mitigate it. Just because there is not at the moment a precedent for a European country to efficiently work and trade with EU from outside doesn't mean ways won't be found. It's to everyone's advantage to find such ways. I think it's a mistake to assume EU is a static thing that can't/won't alter its structure and gravitational field in response to this event. Ten years from now, the relationship may have been tacitly reinstated under a different name, as the boring bureaucrats on all sides - who attend to unsexy details - quietly work to normalize. They’ll hit hard political limits on banner issues such as immigration, but those are a small slice.

Left

I just sent this to a friend in England:

Well, you guys have done your stupid ass thing. In November, we'll probably elect Trump. 

It's moments like these when you can almost sense the retrospective gaze of myriad future historians, viewing us with puzzled fascination as pre-modern beings. 

Message in a bottle to the future: Same as it ever was.  


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Angel on a Bike

I absentmindedly walked into a bike lane in Manhattan, forcing a biker to swerve around me. I recoiled in horrified shame, yelling "I'm so sorry! I'm an idiot! Are you okay?"

Over his shoulder, he roared, "You fucking asshole, why don't you look where you're going?"

I quickly realized that this person was an angel, perhaps even a sort of messiah. If he'd gamely nodded at me in weary resignation, I'd have felt awful all day. But his reaction absolved me of all guilt. I felt light as a feather.

The unwillingness to accept sincere apologies is a hallmark of lousy character, but it also affords the highest possible absolution. The biker had taken me utterly off the hook, leaving me completely unburdened.


At his own expense, to boot. He'd taken on my guilt, my burden, my sin, my karma.

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