The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Monday, September 29, 2008
Public Policy ... Science ... Society ...

Here’s an interesting image that I came up with the help of good old Photoshop. The top image is a close-up of a leaf; your basic plant life, with its veins and cells. The bottom image is the same image after some color transformation and contrast modification. Note how it looks a lot like a map of a modern suburban development, with main roadways and side streets and cul-de-sacs. The modern philosophy is to get away from the classic boxy grid of straight-line streets and let the roadways “cooperate” with the natural terrain.

What’s the point? Why, the point comes from chaos theory, from the classic insights derived from fractals. Fractals are those crazy drawings which look pretty much the same no matter how far you zoom in on them. The overall patterns keep repeating themselves whether you are looking at the whole, or at a tiny magnified piece of the whole. Despite the change of scale, some things stay the same. So, we see that an aerial view of a suburban development, and a microscope view of a tree leaf (which may well have come from that suburban development), show patterns that repeat themselves.

Very interesting! I’m not sure just how far you could continue this trend; at the extreme micro end, everything blurs into quantum fuzziness; and at the extreme macro end, it’s clumps and “filaments” of galaxies and vast regions of space with no “normal matter” at all (although there’s still zero-point energy and dark energy, perhaps also dark matter). Perhaps, however, there is still some sort of pattern, a more abstract pattern that is harder (or impossible) to visualize, that holds at all magnifications levels throughout the universe.

I hope that some super-bright physicists and mathematicians are working on that.

Speaking of green, here’s an interesting article from our friends “across the pond” about the recreational travel habits of those who are most concerned about global warming and its environmental effects.

It’s about a recent research study showing that people who make the most intentional effort to “live green” (by recycling, buying a Prius or riding a bike to the store, cutting or eliminating meat consumption, using mini-fluorescent light bulbs, etc.) are most likely to take frequent long-distance flights. And their carbon share from those airline flights well exceeds the savings they achieve by their other life-style changes.

Obviously, green-living is still mostly a pass time for the affluent. And the affluent are more likely to require airline travel in their careers. But they are also more likely to fly for vacation purposes. Just a few long-distance flights can swamp out the yearly benefits of living green at home. This supports the allegations of hypocrisy and ultimate futility that are lodged against Al Gore and those who imitate his manner of showing concern about global warming.

My take on all of this: It’s still a good thing for people to become more aware and more concerned about global warming, and the more “little things” that are done, the better. But yes, a person cannot rest on his or her environmental laurels after ridding their homes of incandescent light bulbs and non-hybrid vehicles. Global warming is a huge monster of an issue, and most people are not fully aware of just how big the problem is and how damaging our western lifestyles are. (And how catastrophic it will be if the masses in the developing world adopt our lifestyles, as they are increasingly doing in China and India). As this study shows, even the people who have become concerned aren’t being completely honest about their overall “carbon footprint”, and what sacrifices might be required to reduce it to “sustainable” levels.

I have heard Al Gore’s response to this criticism; he makes up for all the CO2 created by his huge house, his big cars and his frequent jet-setting by giving lavish donations to activist organizations that buy carbon-credits in the market (thus increasing the number and scale of carbon-offset projects like forest restoration and power plant modernization). I think that’s good; I make similar donations, but on a much smaller scale (sorry, but my income and net worth don’t match Mr. Gore’s). But the bigger problem remains: if humankind is going  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:19 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Personal Reflections ... Technology ...

I spent most of the past weekend in “geek mode”, as I just bought another computer (one of those ubiquitous HP/Compaq DC5000’s coming off five-year leases, which can be had with XP Pro for under $200). Well, I wanted to swap hard drives with an old Dell Dimension L with Windows 98 that I still keep running, mostly for sentimental purposes (the DC5000 comes with a 40 G Seagate drive, whereas I had an 80G Maxtor in the Dell). And of course I didn’t want to have to reload all the applications and the operating systems. My one “ace card” here is that I have Norton Ghost installed on both of these computers. But the handicap is that I don’t have a CD burner or any other convenient way to get a Ghost image out of the Dimension L. That was one handicap, anyway. I also had to repartition the drives, and forgot how to boot to DOS and use G disk. Then I also forgot how to take the hard drive out of the Dimension L (finally found where the screws are), and I had to search to find the hard drive in the HP (small form factor, everything is scrunched in).

This all made for two clumsy days of trial-and-error work. I do have a third computer (yes, another Dimension L, that one with Win2K) with a CD burner and a slow USB wire device to exchange files with the W98 Dell. So I was able to get a spanned image of the C drive over to the Win2K box, and then burned those spans to disk. But guess what? That doesn’t work, you can’t copy an image spanned to a folder onto individual disks and expect it to install correctly. So I had to partition the 40 G hard drive going into the W98, then make a Ghost image of the spanned Ghost images and put that directly to spanned disks, install that image on the extended partition (D drive) and then Ghost those spanned files over to the primary partition (C drive). Yikes! But it all finally worked; both the HP and the old Dell still had their respective “minds” (operating systems and software applications), despite swapping their “brains” (hard drives).

I must admit that without the Internet and Google, I probably couldn’t have done this. The net is a great place to go with a computer crisis. The chances that someone before you has had the same problem is pretty good. I had to look up a number of things over the weekend, and usually got some good pointers on what to do next. I will say, though, that sometimes you really have to sift through a lot of chaff in order to get to the answer. Here are two examples. When using G disk (an old-fashioned unfriendly DOS format), I was getting some discouraging responses to my command inputs, despite copying them from the Norton handbook. One cryptic response was “TOO MANY PARAMETERS”. Another was “UNKNOWN SWITCH”.

Yow, sounds very threatening! But in the end, the problems and the fixes were very simple. As to parameters, the problem was simply that you were to identify the disk with a number (usually “1”), and not “Disk 1” or such. If you spelled out “disk”, this amounted to adding “too many parameters” to the expected disk identification. Similar problem and solution for “unknown switch”es: I left out a blank space at a critical point, and the G disk program refused to recognize the “switch” (command).

Here is the discussion that finally settled this for me:

The first five or six commentators seem just as confused as the guy who was having the “parameter” and “unrecognized switch” problems. FINALLY, the last guy knew that it was just a matter of mis-typing the command.

Another issue involved converting the extended drive on the DC5000 over from FAT32 to NTFS format, as to match the format on the C drive which the XP programming installation forced. (NTFS is supposed to be a better format than FAT32, so I had no objection to it). I did the Google research and learned the XP command to convert an extended drive (i.e., anything on your hard disk that’s not the C drive), and punched it in. And saw an unfriendly response: Format not available for this volume. WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA ???? Well, I copied the response and punched it into Google, and read the following technical discussions:

If you check these out, you will have to cut through a variety of guesses and theories until someone finally spots the error: my error, and the people who wrote in to these web sites, simply misspelled “NTFS” as “NTSF”. DUHHHHH!!!!! Thus chastened, I went back, typed in the proper spelling, and the D drive converted over to NTFS without problem.

It was that kind of weekend. Clumsy, humbling, frustrating, way behind schedule; but in the end, the machines were still humming. It was that kind of weekend; for some of us, it’s just that kind of life.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:21 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, September 19, 2008
Economics/Business ... Science ...

Chaos theory has been in the public eye for about 10 or 15 years now; James Gleick’s book about the development of chaos theory (Chaos: Making a New Science) was first published in 1988. You still don’t hear people at NFL tailgate parties discussing the finer points of strange attractors, period doubling, fractals or sensitivity to initial conditions; but these concepts have escaped the confines of mathematical textbooks and are regularly discussed in popular periodicals and “books for the layman” on scientific topics. In a nutshell, chaos theory seeks to find patterns in the midst of midst of messy, “real world” phenomenon, things that seem to vary without rhyme or reason. E.g. the day-to-day ups and downs of the stock market and the presidential election polls.

One of the most recent “chaos concepts” to free itself from the ivory tower is called “self-organized criticality”. Self-organized criticality is hard to explain at first; the best way to wrap your mind around it is through the classic example of a sand pile having a steady flow of sand particles falling from a tank or conveyor belt above. The pile of sand gets taller and taller as the sand particles pile up; but not in a steady fashion. Every now and then there are “little avalanches”, when the pile suddenly flattens out a bit. The side angle of the sandpile gets too steep and the internal friction holding the grains of sand together suddenly gives way in a shock wave, causing a lot of grains to lose their grip and run down towards the ground all at once. But the sand keeps on pouring down from the top, and a new sand cone starts building up again, its sidewalls getting steeper and steeper until another avalanche takes place.

The interesting thing is that these avalanches do not occur with any regularity. Sometimes the sand builds way up and a big avalanche takes place. Sometimes a number of little avalanches happen before the new cone tower can get too high. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to how this works. But scientists have been studying and recording these avalanche patterns, and have found some interesting things. Conceptually, the falling sand is “self-organizing” itself into a “state” (i.e., the sand pile) that is “critical”, i.e. a state where things can suddenly change. Those sudden changes (i.e., the sand slides / mini-avalanches) seem to occur randomly because they are highly dependent on initial conditions; if a few grains of sand fall a little more to the left or right, it can make a big difference as to whether a tall pile and a big avalanche follows, or a short pile with small, frequent sand-slides takes place. This is much like the famous “butterfly effect” (e.g., a butterfly flapping a certain way over Beijing can trigger a hurricane a month later); i.e., sensitivity to initial conditions.

A further refinement to the sandpile example is needed in order to better understand the concept, so that you can apply it to other “shifty” things that happen in our world. So far I have led you to imagine a sand pile on a wide, flat surface, like a big parking lot. But now let’s imagine that the sandpile is on a plate, maybe three or four feet wide. The plate is up on stilts, so that when the sand avalanches happen, the sand falls off the plate and away from the pile. What’s interesting about this is that over longer periods of time, the arrangement assumes a “steady state”. Sand pours in steadily from the top, piles up, and then starts sliding off the plate every so often. When you average it out after an hour or so, just about as much sand is pouring into the sandpile as is leaving it over the edges of the plate. But there are still big differences between the mostly steady, constant rate at which sand pours down onto the pile, and the intermittent way that sand pours off the edges the pile. You can go 20 or 30 seconds, maybe a minute, and no sand leaves the pile; then the avalanche happens and a lot of sand leaves all at once. Over time, there are many little slides happening frequently and a handful of bigger slides that require some build-up. But every now and then there’s a “mother of all slides” that follows a long period without any slides. That’s the pattern that the chaos scientists have documented in their studies of “self-organized criticality”.

So how does this apply to the bigger world that we humans live in? Well, the most obvious example that I can think of is the current state of the US economy, with all the big financial institution failures and disruptions of late. Since the 1930’s, our financial system has been fairly stable. There have been a lot of little “slides”, e.g. periods of credit tightening when bank profits were down and risks were higher. And there have been a handful of “medium slides”, e.g. the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s, the Russian insolvency in the 1990s and the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies in the early 2000’s. But over the past 6 or 7 years, things have seemed absolutely peachy in finance. Interest rates were low, and money was available everywhere. All you needed to get a mortgage was a pulse. Credit cards were being handed out like candy. Everyone thought that the old days of periodic credit tightenings were gone and forgotten.

Well, guess what. The sand was still piling up. We just happened to be in one of those “big slide” preludes, where nothing bad happens for a relatively long time (i.e., no metaphorical avalanches). The finance people then start writing articles and books about how things have changed fundamentally, how the worries of the past can now be forgotten, how growth rates and wealth accumulation has no more limit! Real estate, the stock market, currency trading, whatever, are heading for the moon! No more downturns!

Until it happens. And then it happens BIG. Well, luckily our own economic “sandpile” does in fact have somebody watching over it. The US Federal Reserve and Treasury are trying to keep things from running down too quickly. And the government will impose some regulations that will try to keep the “sand pile” from building up too high in the future; some limits on credit expansion may slow the economy up in the short run, but avoid the “big avalanches” and the damage that they cause in the long run.

But for now, there is still too much sand on the economic plate. Some of it has to go; the metaphoric translation is that our economy is in for a slowdown, our average wealth levels are not going to keep increasing. They may even decrease for a while. Eventually our economy can, and hopefully will, get back to sustainable growth. But for now, it’s a question of spreading out the pain and disruption over time, and doing it fairly (i.e., since a lot of the clean-up cost is going to be paid for by the taxpayer, and it was mostly rich taxpayers who were guiding the financial system into uncharted territory in search of huge profits, it seems fair that the rich bear most of the new tax burden).

But overall, the poor are going to remain poor and the rich are going to remain rich. And the economic sand pile will still have its random build-ups and set-backs over the years. That’s the price we pay for an admittedly vigorous and highly productive capitalist system. Arguably, a greater portion of the populace is at least somewhat better off in our system than under a planned, highly-controlled socialism-based economy. Let’s hope, anyway.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:27 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Friday, September 12, 2008
Politics ... Society ...

Human beings are herd animals, subject to herd instincts. It’s hard to be a human being and not to start imitating the other humans around you, especially the stronger and more attractive humans. This applies to choice of clothes, choice of mannerisms, and choice of words. At some point these choices pick up social momentum and become fashions. Fashions come and go, to be replaced for no good reason after a few weeks or months by another catchy song or witty phrase or tie width.

A recent fashion in the realm of words is the term “double down”. The expression comes from blackjack, a casino card game. In blackjack, you usually get three cards from the dealer, and the sum point value of those cards determines if you win or lose your bet. After you have gotten two of the three cards, you have the option of “doubling down”, or doubling your bet, based on your revised estimates of winning after knowing what your first two cards are. In other words, doubling down means that you put more at stake.

Within the past two months, this term has become popular in the political arena. You see it or hear it quite frequently from political commentators, especially with regard to the presidential campaign. It’s become what’s known as a “meme”. Here are some examples:

“Does he double down on experience?” (William Kristol, cited in Politico)

“Applying the same double-down formula to Obama, three likely contenders emerge.” (Newsweek)

“Instead of backing down, Obama asked his foreign-policy team to double down.” (American Prospect)

“Okay, so he’s double down here on his own gaffe” (Rush Limbaugh)

“it seems likely that they will want a running mate who enables him to double down on that quality” (NY Times, “The Caucus”)

“That exhausted ‘double-down’ metaphor’s like the signature line of his Presidency.” (comment about G.W. Bush on DailyKos).

“the President wanted to double down and continue an open-ended policy” (Obama, Fox News interview)

“I don’t think the American people can afford to double-down on the failed health care policies of the Bush Administration.” (Obama)

“He wants to continue the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans then double down and give tax cuts to oil companies.” (Obama)

“yet John McCain actually wants to double down on the failed policies that have done so little to help ordinary Americans” (Obama again – hmmm, are we detecting a trend here?)

Yep, it looks as if Barack Obama is the culprit; not long ago he started using this phrase to attack his opponents. It soon became “cool”; everyone else started complementing Obama by parroting him. Obama has had an incredibly powerful effect on his supporters and even his admiring non-supporters; so many people think so much of him that he’s triggered off a language fad. Gee, not even Bill Clinton could do that! Whatever happens to Obama this November, we won’t soon forget him.

But even though more of his cards are now face-up on the table, it remains to be seen whether America will double down with Obama, or pull its bet on him. Stay tuned.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:41 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Psychology ...

It’s pretty easy to see why John McCain wants to be President. He comes from a military family of great achievement. His father and grandfather were Navy Admirals, and had prominent places in history (e.g., his grandfather was there on the USS Iowa in 1945 when the Japanese surrender took place). McCain’s life has been an admixture of rebellion against family tradition and trying to go it one better. So it’s not surprising that he’s a maverick who wants to be commander-in-chief. He wants to earn his place in the family history book, but do it his own way. At bottom he’s a loyalist; in terms of basic values, he’s a conformist. And yet, McCain needs to mix it with rebellion so as to put his own signature on things. He’s a fighter (recall that he was once an amateur boxer) who wants to win; he not only wants to match his father and grandfather, he wants to beat them. And this election is his last shot at it.

As to what goes on inside John McCain’s head, that’s about all there is to it.

Now as to Barack Obama — oh boy, that’s a whole different thing and a whole ‘nuther level of complexity. The title of Obama’s first autobiography, “Dreams From My Father”, suggests that he too has been strongly influenced by the paternal side of his family. But in reality, Obama is a “mother’s boy”. You have to understand Barack’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in order to understand Barack.

Ms. Dunham is a very interesting specimen. She grew up in the handful of years between the “beatniks” of the mid-to-late 1950s and the hippie generation of the late 1960s. Being non-conformist and anti-establishment wasn’t fashionable when she was in high school and college. But, thanks to two teachers at a well-regarded high school on Mercer Island (near Seattle), she was exposed to atheism, Sarte, Communism, Kierkegaard, existentialism, feminism, and other high-octane intellectual stuff. After that, she could never become just another suburban middle-class housewife, charged with watching afternoon soap operas and maintaining the social fabric as America defended its freedom against the Soviet menace. Ann Dunham was destined to become a citizen of the world.

With Wikipedia and some good Chicago Tribune articles available at your fingertips, you don’t need me to retell Ms. Dunham’s story. But let me summarize what her key values appear to be, so that we may understand what she passed on to Barack. She believed in education and intelligence, eventually obtaining a doctorate in anthropology. She believed in helping the poor, not on the basis of charity (think Cindy McCain’s adoption of a baby from Bangladesh via Mother Teresa), but on the basis of empowerment and social change. She believed in transcending national barriers and embracing people in very different social circumstances; likewise, she believed in questioning social norms such as religion and nationalism and capitalism. But although she questioned authority, she clearly did not believe in using violence to tear down existing power structures; she was willing to work with forces such as the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and with a big bank in Indonesia (as to set up microloan programs to support village-based enterprises in Java, e.g. basket making).

Dunham was not bound by basic American family values. Between Barack’s 5th grade year and high school graduation, she drifted in and out of his life, pursuing anthropology studies and field work while her mother (a bank vice-president) took care of Barack and paid his tuition at a private academy. In a sense, Barack “returned the favor” when Dunham was dying of cancer in 1995, not taking the time from his busy schedule as a lawyer and politician in Chicago to be with her as she was dying in Hawaii. Obama does say in one of his books that he now regrets this very much. (Let me admit that a whole lot of families in America don’t live up to the standards of “being there for you” that I am implying here; but the ideal remains, nonetheless.)

In a recent article in The New Republic, John Judis discusses Obama’s experience as a community-based outreach director in Chicago’s South Side in his years between college and law school. Judis quotes Jerry Kellman, the guy who hired Obama to work for a coalition of justice-minded Roman Catholic parishes, to the effect that Obama eventually lost heart in community work. Obama thus decided to go to law school so that he could do more to challenge discrimination and combat poverty. Obama told Kellerman that he believed that being an elected official, or being influential with elected officials, was the better way to bring forth “a better world”, i.e. to realize the dream that Ann Dunham had given to him. Working directly with and amidst “the anawim” (the poor), as his mother had, was not enough.

So, the new Obama formula was to apply his super-fine mind and good looks to study law and enter politics, as a means to an end; that end having a lot to do with the dreams of his mother. I suspect that Obama’s life and his political career is an on-going inner discussion with the ghost of his mother, and goes something like this: Mom, you left me to pursue your dream of saving the world. But now I’m gonna show you that your method, however well intentioned, was wrong. You should have given your time to me, as I truly know how to save the world. I’m the one with the brains, the good looks and the golden tongue. I’m now going to prove that to you by becoming President and leading our nation and our world into a better, more just way of being.

OK, so I’m not a professional shrink. What I’ve said above is straight out of the Pop Psychology 101 textbook. But goodness — what if there is some truth to it? What if Obama is elected (the betting odds are still in his favor right now, by about 60-40), and finds out that he’s just another cog in the wheels of history, that there’s not really all that much he can do to fulfill his mother’s visions? What happens when he discovers that “the system” has turned him into a different man? When he realizes that he really isn’t going to change things very much?

Sure, it’s a big ego rush to be President, to engrave your name in history, to realize that you will be remembered hundreds and maybe thousands of years from now. It’s got to be an incredible feeling knowing that your decisions and actions will effect the lives of billions of people. But in the end, being President does not offer much chance to change the basic values and presumptions of American and western society (ask Jimmy Carter about that!). A President should try to make the best decisions possible on foreign policy, budgets, military strategy, the enforcement of existing laws and the enactment by Congress of new laws, in response to changing and challenging conditions. But if the majority of Americans decide that it’s better to protect their opportunity to acquire SUV’s and live in McMansions than to decrease the poverty rate and increase educational achievement in minority populations, then the President is going to have to go along with it.

(Yea, I realize that McCain is also preaching to us, in his sermons on “national service”. But I think he’s more likely to get respect for that, given his 5+ years in a Vietnam POW camp.)

And thus my biggest fear regarding Barack Obama as President: what happens if he becomes disillusioned with the Presidency as a means for social change, just as he did with community organizing? What happens to America when the guy at the top no longer puts his heart
into the job?

Or even worse, what happens if Obama buys into the apostasy that other macro-reformers in history have fallen for: i.e., “if I can gain even more power and force change on the people, they will come to see that I am right, despite their initial resistance to my far-sighted dreams”? I realize that this seems extremely unlikely from mild-mannered Barack Obama. But history does give various examples of seemingly well-intentioned “revolutions” that turned into cynical power-grabs (e.g., the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia). Thankfully, Ann Dunham did not believe in power mongering and did not teach Barack Obama to think like that. But Obama’s reported fascination with gaining power to bring about change, and his possible need to reconcile the lack of maternal attention during the second decade of his life, does make me wonder.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:51 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Society ...

I was watching the GOP Convention last night, waiting for the grand oration from Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (the “hand grenade in the cultural war”). A little after 9 PM, I noticed a mousy-looking woman in her mid-fifties take the stand and present a mediocre speech. She wasn’t too bad or too good at it; definitely partisan, but hardly inflammatory. This woman turned out to be the Republican Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle. The commentator noted that Lingle was in her second term as governor, and had previously served as the mayor of a small town in Hawaii.

So, I wondered – how come Lingle wasn’t picked by McCain for the VP job? (Or even considered!) She’s had more time on the job than Palin, and has maintained a good track record out there in Barack Obama’s home state (i.e., low unemployment rate, budget surplus, high popularity rate). She’s also more cosmopolitan: Lingle grew up in St. Louis, went to high school and college in California, then moved to Hawaii. Her views on abortion are moderate – generally pro-choice, but against partial birth abortion and favoring notification restrictions. She’s also currently unmarried, twice divorced, without children, Jewish, and consults with a rabbi once a week. In effect, she is “Liberman light”. But she’s also a bona fide Republican. McCain would have had to twist a lot of arms had he selected Lingle; he would have made the Christian Right unhappy. And Lingle isn’t all that glitzy or telegenic. But McCain would have attracted a lot of moderates and independents, would have had a better shot with former Hilary supporters. He also may have avoided this damn red state vs. blue state firestorm that Sarah Palin has set off.

Instead, unfortunately, McCain decided to both play it safe (with the GOP conservatives) and at the same time play it cocky (picking someone with lots of political and personal baggage and limited leadership experience). And now, any hope or pretense that this election would “bring us together” and “heal the wounds” of an increasingly bi-cultured America has gone by the wayside. Welcome to Civil War II, thanks to a political bomb dropped by a gutsy attack-plane pilot.

I will note one interesting thing about Sarah Palin – she always wears glasses. In an era when most of the beautiful people wear contacts, this seems rather quaint. Perhaps it is isn’t such an issue amidst the glitteratzi up in Alaska. And some speculate that she’s trying to emulate Tina Fey. Certain of Palin’s “fashion eyewear” selections are a bit gauche. But as someone who has worn glasses since age 11 and who has never owned a pair of contacts, I do appreciate the fact that a major political party is finally running a presidential ticket that includes a fellow “four-eyes-er”. (However, Lingle also wears glasses!)

Here’s another interesting sidenote to the Palin saga, specifically regarding the “Troopergate” investigation into her firing of Alaska’s public safety director Walt Monegan. Recall that the question here is whether Palin abused her discretion by pressuring and then canning Monegan in retaliation for his not firing a state trooper involved in an unhappy marriage and messy divorce with Palin’s sister. One of the allegations of misconduct brought against the trooper was that he illegally shot and killed a moose (no permit, out of season, whatever). To we East Coast people, that doesn’t sound like anything worse than putting a glass bottle into the plastics recycling bin. I mean, Alaska is mostly wilderness, not like our over-crowded cities and suburbs. So what’s the big deal about shooting a moose out in the boondocks? There must be plenty of them.

Well, I’m sure that a wildlife expert could tell me exactly why moose hunting regulations ARE important. But an interesting sidenote to the Troopergate incident was raised by a Native Alaskan (Eskimo) in a comment found on the Anchorage Daily News web site. The comment was submitted in July, before Palin hit the national scene. The writer, “nagayukabraham”, said that if a fellow Native been caught shooting a moose illegally, he or she would be dragged into court, fined, and have their guns confiscated and hunting privileges taken away. He concluded that there are “different sets of laws, one for those that know better and do it anyway, and one for those that are just trying to feed their families.” I doubt that Sarah Palin was taking Native sentiment into account in her efforts against the wayward trooper, but this still shows just how complicated the web of human (and moose) social relationships is. Life isn’t simple anywhere; not even out there in Northern Exposure-land.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:37 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
Monday, September 1, 2008
Brain / Mind ...

Given my interest in brain science and the human mind, I’ve been pondering something about sight perception. One of the more interesting things that brain research and experimental psychology has discovered is that the “mind”, i.e. our conscious awareness, does not directly perceive the nerve signals coming in from our eyes. Sometimes it is tempting for a layman (like myself) to image consciousness as a little person in a room watching a big screen TV with surround sound. The screen would supposedly project a picture of what the eyes see. But the signals that the eyes send us are blinky and flickering, like the frames of a movie film run slowly (given that the neurons need a moment to recharge between firings). This “reality picture” should also be pixelated; it is not continuous, as there are only so many nerves in the back of the eyes. It would be like looking very closely at a picture in a newspaper (or TV screen), and discovering that it’s made up of little dots on a white background (or black background, for TV).

Well, there is no little person with a big-screen TV in our heads. But it does make me think: if we were to perceive the signals from our eyes more-or-less directly, why don’t we notice the flickering or the pixels, i.e. the many dots? You could say that it’s like the way that we ignore the dots or the flickering on a TV screen; the dots are so small and the refresh rate is fast enough to exceed some perception threshold. Well OK, but that’s begging the question. Just why do our minds convert the dots and changing images into a continuous picture?

HOWEVER. Neuroscience shows that we do NOT base our perceptions on the signals coming in from the eyes. Those signals go through a series of “brain maps”, little parts of the brain that abstract something from the incoming signal (through the miracle of parallel distributed data processing). As such, we partake of a series of “mental conclusions” – e.g., shaped like a box, brown, smooth surfaces, white stripe across top surface, resting on table top, etc. As part of this “abstraction” mechanism, we smooth out our perceptions. As such, the flickers and dots from our senses are changed by a conceptualization process, into smooth lines and continuous color patches and such. What our consciousness sees is largely a conceptual creation by the brain.

So, we are aware of a conclusion that a ball is moving through the air at some rate relative to other things in our “visual awareness frame”; we are not seeing and a flickering, pixelated image of that ball (as with the hypothetical homunculus in the little surround-sound brain theater). When something changes in the major themes and trends encapsulated in our sensory data (e.g. brown rabbit now moving southwest instead of northeast, relative speed of rabbit slow but accelerating), then our “awareness” of it changes.

But — despite all this neuroscientific enlightenment, I am still stumped by a paradox. Even if there isn’t a pixel-dot problem and even if there isn’t a flickering problem to conscious perception, due to the amazing things that connectionist data processing systems can do — the question remains, just what takes all of these smoothed-out trends and information conclusions and turns them into the “vivid subjective experience” of our conscious minds? You would think that they would be merely abstract information at this point; information extremely valuable in making behavioral decisions, but seemingly not meant to “paint us a picture”. More like the printed output from a computer program.

Why do we even need to “see paintings”, i.e. have subjective visual experiences? And what would motion blindness be (a brain defect where people only see flickering images, whereby a car coming down the street looks like a movie going too slow)? Is it a failure of the parallelism devices in the brain to completely process and smooth-out the inputs through the information abstraction methods, and thus causing the “subjective conclusion output” to be closer to raw flickering data?

I would guess — and this is merely a SWAG (stupid wild ass guess) — that whatever in the brain sets up “conscious awareness” somehow mixes the raw, flickering nerve “dots” from the eyes with the processed conceptual conclusions (blue, round, moving, shiny, etc.) needed for behavioral decisions. Somehow, both levels of information (actually, many levels of information, given all the different visual processing steps that the brain imposes on sense data) are taken into consideration by whatever it is that triggers conscious awareness. If this merger of visual information levels weren’t happening, we’d only see blinking dots; or we wouldn’t experience anything other than a series of ongoing realizations regarding external realities near our bodies (like an output list that is continually updated as eye signals stream into the visual data processing centers). Mysteriously, however, a central mechanism that causes and utilizes this final blending cannot be identified in the brain. Consciousness seemingly emanates or emerges from the brain as a whole. Maybe even the body as a whole. Maybe even the universe as a whole?

OK, back to ground level. We do know that conscious awareness is NOT needed for a human to respond to what they see. Think about sleepwalking, when a person can walk, avoid obstacles and even drive a car, but not be conscious of what he or she is doing. Obviously the eyes are working just fine in helping the sleepwalking person to do whatever they are doing (similar case for “absence automisms”). Consider also the various experiments in “blindsight”, the ability of a person who is blind because of defects in the visual processing modules in the cortex to yet be unconsciously aware of things that their eyes still see. (Again, remember these are people whose eyes still work, but are blind because their cortex doesn’t process the information; there is obviously an alternate pathway from the eye nerves to the sub-conscious motor decision centers in the brain, one that skips the areas involved in conscious experience).

This paradox (blinking dot pictures versus smooth but abstract descriptions) says to me that consciousness is something more than the electrochemical processes in the brain. It says to me that mental dualism is alive and well, despite the ill repute that Descartes has gained in modern times. But Descartes was wrong about one thing; it’s not because you think that you are; it’s because you see in smooth, continuous ways that your existence is something more than chemistry and force interactions. Better said, the mystery of subjective experience is tied in with “awareness of being”. It reflects the fact that we are set up by nature to know ourselves, and to ultimately know the value of being. (At least on our better, wiser days).

Perhaps in the end, everything is one (i.e., the ultimate nature of the universe is monistic); but that “one” will encompass more than what we now know through science. Hopefully science will catch up someday with what we know about “being” directly through subjective experience. But until then, it’s up to the gurus and artists and dreamers, and the more daring and speculative philosophers, to keep us from denying the most important thing about human life — i.e., our ability to perceive and appreciate the gift of being and being-awareness.

Political PS: A tip of the hat to Barack Obama for his response to the news that McCain’s VP candidate, Sarah Palin, has a pregnant teenage daughter. Obama said that Palin’s family situation shouldn’t be politicized, and reminds us that his own mother was 18 when he was born. Well, I rather doubt that the Democratic forces will let the whole thing pass without getting some digs in, but Obama’s statement was classy. It was a nice, humane moment in what has otherwise been a depressing mud fight.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:37 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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