Archive for the 'Ramblings' Category

Cinematic promenade

The shirts hanging on the wall look like children that have been beaten down to empty skin. This country is either veering leftwards or rightwards without being aware of it, or so I infer from the people passing outside my window. The monosyllabic agitated words piercing through the walls like a pencil tapping through taut paper make it clear that thanks to short-sighted immigration policies numerical superiority on this hallway has been lost to the Chinese. I remain reluctant to concede that my headache may have been an inside job. Persian rugs are becoming the only acceptable form of art to me, because you can walk all over them. I think I’m going to start wearing glasses and contacts at the same time–20/20 vision is mediocrity by definition. As long as you’re careful to keep your books facing the wall, you can read most of them in three words or less. Sometimes I think my eyes can wear down the things they most often look at, like a beaten path through the grass.

Out on a run I noticed they’ve started planting dwarf palms in the traffic islands in Medford. There are a lot of Brazilians up that way, they’re probably trying to make them feel more at home. I don’t know, maybe that’s why they’re ripping up so many of the sidewalks too. Later, I ran by the famous Gehry building at MIT, and realized its only real problem is that it doesn’t fit in with itself. Still, I like artists plagued by frequent collapses and declines–the most common sign of attempted flight. In my room, on the other hand, it’s all clean, bare white walls, since Massachusetts fire regulations only let you cover 10% of your walls. It’s like living inside the blank pages of a diary–but at least it’s not inhabiting someone else’s words.

A virgin discharge

I shot a gun for the first time two days ago. My friend’s girlfriend has a shotgun and he has a pistol, though I’m not sure whether they got them before or after meeting each other. Since with two guns and two people they had reached the point of mutually assured destruction, no doubt they brought me in as a proxy that could take bullets from both sides instead, like Vietnam. So they invited me to go “shooting.” Of course I was happy to join the ranks of those mountain men so rugged that they dared to turn a transitive verb into an intransitive. “To shoot.” “To go shooting.” This actually works for me, as I like to think of myself as a sort of existential shooter, defining myself by the action itself and not its object, which is to say I wasn’t even aiming at anything in particular, let alone hitting it. I was just in it for that cocky twitch of the wrist from the pistol’s recoil, that totally unearned sense of power which is a consolation for the massive humiliation that the human body suffers from the mere existence of guns.

The caveman brain of humans still tends to think of a fight as the sort of tiff or scrum where you have a chance of protecting yourself. It’s hard to accept emotionally the frightening asymmetry of the modern age, where any battle involving firearms means, as far as the human body is concerned, all offense and no defense. Still, maybe our helplessness to protect ourselves from our own inventions has paradoxically made the world a safer place in the end, has given pause to all those wishing to do each other in but fearful of suffering the same in retaliation, just like in a more extreme sense world peace has flourished in the shade of the mushroom cloud. In any case, that’s not the source of the satisfaction you experience when blasting away with a .22 on the side of a mountain. But even though like Zeus we were standing aloft raining down hot-blooded justice on random rocks and trees, he showed us the inferiority of our arsenal to his by promptly raining us out. If only every army commencing hostilities in some fetid drainage ditch like Belgium could be so easily dissuaded.

Tremors and flashbacks at the strand of nightmares

Generally I’d have to say that the age of 23 is like being on a foggy mountain peak, where suddenly you don’t even know anymore whether going forward leads up or down. I’ve started to suspect that even looking forward too eagerly might be somehow indecent, wasting the best years of life by enslaving yourself to a future that won’t, that probably can’t, be as good. Under such circumstances, although it wasn’t by my choice it was nonetheless a great reassurance as to the evolutionary trajectory of my life to go last night to a bar dedicated to a motley array of house, punk, karaoke and what I imagine to be various other musical preferences of the early hominids.

It was the kind of shitty music and dancing that could only appeal to people who have actually had holes eaten into their not overly capacious brains by taking too much ecstasy. As such, in combination with the fact that I’m home right now on vacation, it fished out all kinds of lurid memories of high school. I thought it might just be a subjective hallucination, that the place might not be any more objectively lashed to the year 1999 than the madeleine was to Proust’s childhood–and then they started playing a Limp Bizkit cover of Rage Against the Machine, courtesy of a DJ whose mustache looked like it could double as a scarlet letter of pedophilia.

The dance floor resembled the scene I envision after the end of Batman Begins, when they release the insanity-inducing poison gas over the whole city. In the other room, by the bar, they had a stage where what I can only hope, for the sake of the honor of Colorado’s womankind, were actually a couple of overweight transvestites were singing pop songs not so much in a single key as on a single note, and since in front there was a sign saying “No customers beyond this point,” I was briefly terrified by the prospect that this was the hired act. The place cunningly outflanked and outschemed any attempt to caricature it: just as I had finished estimating how many girls in the bar had been roofied in the last 20 minutes and was sizing up the probability of the clientèle joining a fascist youth group at some point I saw on the wall several pictures of Hitler’s head attached to the bodies of fat naked women. My view was that the bodies were probably new and the heads were art left over from the last tenants of the building. Such is southern downtown Denver. When I fly east back to school the time change will feel like more than just a couple of hours forwards.

Backing up to youth

I’ve never really understood why at stoplights the flashing hand on the walk sign goes longer than the yellow light. You would think that since people on foot go about 1/10 the speed of cars and therefore need less time to slow down and stop it would be the other way around. Maybe the traffic engineers are simply reflecting the stages along life’s way: you know, first you crawl, then you walk, then you drive. At every stage you gain speed and at every stage time seems to go by more quickly. I suppose relativistic speed would be like the minds of old people driving: outside everything is flying around at high speeds, but inside the gears are moving by rope and pulley. Maybe this correspondence explains a strange phenomenon in China: a popular form of exercise seems to be walking backwards, but only among women over 40. Since this also happens to be the group that is most sensitive about age on the face of the earth, I figure maybe it’s like when people put their cars in reverse to roll back the odometer.

Leaving the scavengers

Studying literature at a place like Harvard makes a contradictory impression: on the one hand, everyone is secretly proud of themselves for fighting their way to the top of the little academic mound they’ve chosen as their target, even if they would never be so vulgar as to say so and even if for reasons about which they’re honestly unclear; at the same time, there’s something unmistakably secondary about the role of someone that earns a living from commenting on literature. The old notion of critics’ materials being books and writers’ materials being life is too simplistic by half, but holds an underlying truth; even when writers are pillaging each other’s works shamelessly they generally take care to conceal the theft, or at least that concealment is often intrinsic to the nature of literature. And even when they hardly bother, like T.S. Eliot, the work still somehow transcends this fact; for critics this almost never works. You might claim that the values of our culture are all backwards for demoting the value of the interpreter and the commentator in favor of the “originator” and the declaimer, assuming this even halfway-accurately describes the relationship between critic and writer, but at any rate that’s the way it is, and personally I can’t accept the back-seat role even if it means job security from now to senility, and if that means exiling myself from academia at the exact moment that everyone around me seems to have signed themselves over to it then so be it.

It’s a funny thing, though, this cultural mythology of the writer as some sort of primal creating agent. At the height of the Romantic vogue in the 19th century, when every writer who could afford a black frock-coat and a couple of inappropriate affairs was proclaiming themselves to be a totally unique, individual creative mind, untrammeled by social convention or cultural influence, damned if the images and poses of themselves that they promoted didn’t all seem to look alike: same long hair blowing in the wind, same waterfalls or cliffs to brood over, same rhapsodizing about birds and flowers.

Maybe the same goes for women. For all the talk down the ages about love is a totally singular, unique affinity between souls, I have to say quite honestly I’ve never yet had a girlfriend or other love-interest that didn’t leave me still dreaming of finding one more beautiful or kind-hearted or interesting. You might say I just haven’t met “the One” yet, but then again evangelical Christians say the same thing to us infidels about God. Maybe the one will lead me to the other, as in The Divine Comedy. Or maybe this whole idea of total exclusivity in love is partly to blame, as in the Chinese equivalent for “the grass is always greener on the other side,” which goes (or so at any rate I’ve heard): “everyone else’s wife is more beautiful.” And really, how do you think it would affect your relationship with your best friend if you knew that having them as a friend automatically precluded having any other friends? Well, that’s life. The problem with aspiration as a condition is that, like a sign pointing up, it’s always relative. Once you’ve climbed some height there’s always more.

Who’s ever had 95 good theses all at once?

A man with one new idea can start a creed, a cult, an ideology. A man with a hundred, a thousand, starts nothing. He might perhaps awake a dormant mind, but if he does the triumph will simultaneously mark the limit of his own influence, for this is the opposite of conversion, the opposite of creating a following.

One says, “I believe this, this and this to be true,” and always with a certain dishonesty. The will to overcome with one’s beliefs lies at the root of all such talk.

What happens when the simplicity of one’s goals and the complexity of the means adopted to achieve them becomes too great? Is it too much to kill the dragon to spend a night with the maiden? To write an encyclopedia in order to obtain a mention in one?

In 4th grade the flower first introduced me to the circularity of existence. The color, the shape, its efficient decadence, all to lure the bee and create another flower. Must there not be more? The attempt to impart meaning through evolutionary reasoning failed entirely for me. It is no reason for something to exist to extend itself. If anything, two copies needs even more justification than one. And for a species, perhaps an infinite. A flower may be beautiful, but in responding so and planting more are we not not simply made tools in this futile enterprise? This was no more effective in resolving an abstruse subject in my mind than when I was five and asked the Catholic parents of a friend of mine who had gotten chicken pox why this seemed to happen to us all at that age (I hadn’t yet heard of chicken pox parties). “Because God is testing us,” said the mother. “Yes, but why do we get chicken pox?”

Behavioral scientists like to perform experiments like giving chimpanzees and ravens a little stick or some blades of grass and making them try to fish an apple out of a bucket or pull a lure off a clothesline. It’s supposed to show their tool-making and problem-solving to be quite high for animals but still considerably subhuman. But I wonder how well the people you see hanging around outside 7-11 or Wal-Mart would do with a little stick and a few blades of grass. Without the accumulated collective knowledge that resides in the more advanced tools that let us avoid such predicaments in general. And how would they do if they had never heard tell of any previous possibly relevant situation? I don’t deny that a real cognitive gap between the species seems to exist, but I wonder how much the facility of language magnifies it to the point of blinding us to its real magnitude, such that in accomplishing the little tasks of daily life we like to see ourselves as capable individual problem-solvers when in fact a horde, an army, the collected mass of past humanity provides a precedent, a mode of operations for almost all of them.

From the availability heuristic to Cayley’s Theorem in 74 steps

Via Daring Fireball, the other day I came across this review of The Black Swan, where one of the commenters linked to the Wikipedia article on the availability heuristic. A couple of hours later, when I came up for air, I’d somehow ended up reading about the Yoneda lemma and Cayley’s Theorem. Here’s a visual representation of how I got from one to the other:

Click the image for the full size version, in which all the nodes are linked to the corresponding Wikipedia article. The same is true of the PDF version. The order in which I read roughly corresponds to the vertical position.

I also rather like this alternative view, with corresponding PDF version.

Incidentally, if you enjoy this sort of thing and you use a Mac, you might like Pathway.

The joy of not giving a damn

Various academic institutions and government ministries in America and Britain have recently begun dedicating specific groups and centers to the study and propagation of happiness. The cynical might question whether that means by implication that that quest does not lie at the root of the government and university’s other pursuits, and the even more cynical mean even surmise that the degree to which a person or society proclaims its commitment to pursuing happiness generally lies in inverse relation to their own happiness and reasonable chances of attaining it. The most deeply cynical would likely conclude (and already have, in some cases) that a government-sponsored or -affiliated program to directly increase peoples’ happiness without even the usual tired proxies of “anti-poverty initiatives” or simply sweeping the trouble-makers and discontented off to the dungeons, will probably take the form of some massive leveraging of the population into a state of pharmaceutical dependency to the point where their eyes will turn red and they’ll clamor for Prozac like the old junkies in “Naked Lunch” of whom “you expect any moment a great blob of protoplasm will flop right out and surround the junk.”

On the other hand, this type of program, if you can call it that, represents for a lot of academics and government ministers, coming on the heels of the comprehensive écrasement of their own preferred infâme, the degraded reality of a shitty little collectivist fantasy, something of a cheap escape from an ideological dead-end. Having seen that the only people willing to devote themselves to an advanced state of North Korean progressiveness are North Koreans, many seem to have concluded that the problem isn’t just with the institutions, there’s just something wrong with people themselves. Some sort of campaign directed at unhappiness itself at the psychological and physiological levels gives them a way forward out of all of that–the triumph of Freud over Marx.

Not that I’m opposed to the idea that much of what we thought was external in terms of causing happiness or unhappiness is actually internal, or even some sort of coordinated central response to that idea, particularly if it doesn’t involve massive expropriations of property or the commencement of hostile operations against various domestic and foreign “enemies.” But it’s not as scientific as all that, because happiness is just a word, like “good,” and any attempt to delimit its terrain precisely will probably be just as unsuccessful as G.E. Moore’s attempt a century ago to wall the concept of “good” in an ethical sense off from any particular qualities possessed by things which are considered good.

The problem with happiness is not that it’s an elusive concept but that it’s a manifold one; people in using it mean a million different things by it, since it’s basically an all-purpose word for a positive or desirable state of being. The Chinese character for “happiness” (well, one of them) includes the the radical that denotes clothing, as well as those for a roof, a dwelling-place and a cultivated field, the implication being that the one is equivalent to the possession of the others. Which is not probably something that many members of our wealthy society evidently so much in need of guidance in attaining happiness could probably accept without reservation, though if it were true it would make the famous (or notorious) substitution of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence for Locke’s formula “of life, liberty and property” as the fundamental individual rights more interesting and less vacuous.

Nor, as much as this idea sells itself in the trappings of biology, and sometimes even with real biological research behind it, should one forget that natural selection, the fundamental concept driving most of biological science today, in its evaluative criteria doesn’t have anything to do intrinsically with happiness as such. Remember that what makes a being evolutionarily successful is not dying as readily as its fellow beings and being more reproductively fecund. While for most people being alive and mating is probably fairly essential to happiness, this makes no difference for the purposes of evolutionary theory, since survival and reproduction are important not as possible means but as ends in and of themselves. Which doesn’t prove anything by itself, except maybe that evolution isn’t about ultimate ends or goals, much less providing a Purpose in Life. It’s more just an observation about life, and fundamentally a pretty obvious one at that: those that are best at surviving (in a multi-generational sense) in the greatest numbers will tend to take over. Anyone that thinks this gives their life a direction probably shouldn’t be trusted or even touched by those around them, as they’re likely to be traitorous, careerist little bastards who don’t realize or don’t care that survival is no more inherently glorious than a half-drowned rat clinging to a a piece of driftwood. Give me the romantically self-destructive any day.

And I am now Jesus, as Bill Hicks would say.

Random thought of the day

Tight ends from the University of Colorado seem to be disproportionately represented on NFL rosters. Currently, former Colorado tight ends Tom Ashworth, Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, Joe Klopfenstein, Matt Lepsis Note that Ashworth and Lepsis play offensive tackle in the NFL. and Quinn Sypniewski play in the NFL. While none is a star, Slight qualification: though he’s no Walter Jones, Lepsis is one of the better left tackles in the league. If offensive linemen had the same visibility as quarterbacks or running backs, he would arguably be a quasi-star of the likes of a Marc Bulger or Rudi Johnson. they’ve all (aside from Klopfenstein and Sypniewski, who are rookies) had solid NFL careers. In other words (giving Klopfenstein and Sypniewski the benefit of the doubt), for most of the last 15 years Colorado has lined up a future productive NFL player at tight end. If the trend holds, watch out for Riar Geer in an NFL uniform in a few years.

Given that he was around for at least part of all six players’ college days (and presumably involved in the recruitment of all but Fauria), it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that former Colorado tight ends coach Jon Embree (himself a former Colorado tight end who played in the NFL), is currently plying his trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. Coincidentally or not, Tony Gonzalez seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance of late.

The transgressive order of subversive associative rhetoric in the ambiguous matrix of co-optive power arrangements

Some thoughts on a day that is so overcast and smoggy in Tianjin that it’s difficult to see the TV tower two miles away:

  1. I don’t know or care a great deal about traditional Chinese medicine, but it is interesting to see what role it plays in its home culture. It doesn’t seem to really be an object of cult fetish or ideological allegiance like in the States: most people I’ve asked about it use both Chinese and Western medicine rather than philosophisizing about which one is superior, and invariably give the same almost rote answer about the differences between the two. Western medicine is seen as a quick fix to most problems, but associated with often nasty side effects, whereas Chinese medicine is seen as slowly fixing problems without deletrious side effects. I’m rather skeptical of the claims made about most tribal medicines, and suspicious of the presence of a placebo effect, especially in the West, where the people that use them often see them as infallible miracle cures, but this response seems too widespread to attribute it simply to superstition. If I might possibly hazard an ignorant speculation, I would guess that it may have something to do with different views of the bodily system, namely that in Chinese medicine health seems to be largely regarded as an interplay of different parts of the body, and hence medicine is focused on improving the functioning and interaction of the organic systems, but may not quickly or directly address the immediate problem, whereas Western medicine seems more fixated on the role of pathogens and negative aspects of the environment, so that health or sickness result from a war between the host body and intruders. Medicine is hence often a matter of destroying those invaders, which not surprisingly also not infrequently injures the body. As for whether there are any parallels to the social and political Weltanshauung of China vs. the West, I leave to someone else to say.

  2. I agree with Stephan Prothero that sin (along with theology and sectarianism) seems to have become greatly downgraded in contemporary American religion (a subject which I believe Alan Wolfe, another professor of religion in the Boston area, deals with at much greater length in The Transformation of American Religion, though I haven’t yet read it). I’m not so sure as Prothero that this is such a bad thing, but then again I’m not a Christian. The idea that one’s actions are always morally under the purvew of some sleepless all-powerful mind is I admit a useful one, though I would hope that one’s own conscience would be sufficient for that. The concept of sin may regulate the actions of individuals beyond the reach of the law, but it also seems to me to arise from the need to rationalize suffering, and in an age where suffering (at least of the immediate physical kind) is at an all-time low, that is not nearly as compelling of a motive as in byegone eras. Whether it is still better to have a notion of sin and a vengeful God is disputable, but I live in China right now, where the very existence of religion for the greater mass of the population is itself debateable, and you can well believe that here, pace Dostoyevsky, certainly not everything is permitted.

  3. Far be it from me to discourage the rehabilitation of humanism in philosophy, but Michel Foucault in his early “anti-humanistic” phase (discussed here) has a point in holding that the very liberal notions of human and social rights, according to a common theory the very foundation of “freedom,” could themselves exert a severely constraining force on individuals in a society, and thus in another sense entail a great loss of freedom, although I agree that the “maw of biopower [the co-opting societal norms and controls] as described by Foucault seems so inescapable and totalizing that one is at a loss as to how one might combat it. After all, how can we ensure that a given instance of transgression is not merely a ruse on the part of biopower to further ensnare us?” But it’s true that the forms of constraint imposed by an ever-expanding conception of individual or group “rights” is often a manifestation of horizontal power or a network of power rather than purely a function of simple hierarchical domination. And I have felt for a long time that it all depends on how one defines freedom. There are at least two different fundamental types when speaking in a socio-political context: the freedom to not be imposed upon by others and the freedom to do what one wants to do regardless of the wishes of anyone else. Many restrictions upon the field of action open to us have been imposed in our society in the name of freeing its members from being imposed upon by others. This brutal dilemma almost inevitably ensues when one views people as passive objects of the workings of their environment, rather than upholding a social morality where individuals voluntarily restrict their own actions in accord with righteous conduct.

p.s. I’m planning to apply for grad. school in comparative literature, so the post title is my attempt to practice up on academic-humanities-paper-title-writing.