November 17, 2012 Comments Off on That the most dangerous thing in the world is a stupid woman
In the bizarre Petreus Affair the most powerful nation on earth lost two of her most powerful and talented leaders because two dumb bitches squabbled over popularity on an army base in Florida. “Oh, how dangerous can it be to screw her”, the Super Commanderl Petreus thought to himself before swinging into action, “she’s too dumb to be dangerous”. How wrong he was: clearly, a dumb woman is more dangerous than a whole squad of highly trained and dangerously armed assassins. Lesson? Stay away from the dumb.
November 4, 2012 Comments Off on The Queequeg Phenomenon
The Queequeg Phenomenon is described in Chapter 10 of Moby Dick. Here is the hero reflecting on his roommate’s invitation to join him in the worship of a heathen idol:
I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—THAT is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—THAT is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.
The Queequeg Phenomenon consists, on the one hand, of the inborn human expectation that people who wish to be our friends will worship our idols (our gods, our songsters, our political candidates, our moral principles, our pictures); and, on the other, the general human readiness to trade our likes and dislikes, more or less honestly, in exchange for the chance to make friends and influence people.
Is it obvious only to me that views tradeable for influence aren’t really views and that friends won through dissimulation cannot possibly be worth having?
November 3, 2012 Comments Off on Why I am neither
Neuroscience reveals brain differences between Republicans and Democrats
The results found more neural activity in areas believed to be linked with broad social connectedness in Democrats (friends, the world at-large) and more activity in areas linked with tight social connectedness in the Republicans (family, country).
A scan of my brain would reveal no activity in any areas related to social connectedness at all.
October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
Back in the days when I wrote about hotels for a living, the man I was eventually to marry sometimes joined me on my travels. And a curious thing would happen as we crossed the latest hip-hotel lobby: a thought would flash across my mind—”what a hideous lamp”, for instance—and a micro-second later he would say: “I love that lamp, I wonder where it’s from?” It could be a sofa, a painting, a fabric, a paint colour: whatever, I soon learnt to wait for the inverse echo of my reaction. It was the first inkling that we might not be totally compatible in the taste department.
Rebecca Willis is no dummy. It takes well demonstrated brains even to write for The Economist; presumably more better brains to reach the associate editorship of The More Intelligent Life (as the title clearly states). Yet, for what is probably the most important decision in her life – the choice of life partner – she was prepared to compromise her tastes: she went ahead and… married him.
It’s not clear from the article how she makes that work. Is her husband allowed to express his tastes at home, forcing Rebecca to live with wall colors she hates, night-lights and bathroom towels which make her go YUCK? Or have the two decided for the functional neutrality in the house, living permanently in some sort of hotel-lcum-trainstation-like off-white/stainless steel dullity which does nothing for the eye? Since neither decision means living in a home which does not provide the comfort of pleasure, can either decision truly be said to be intelligent life, let alone more intelligent?
As Rebecca observes, plenty of people make the same decision – opt for a life with a person whose tastes they do not share, with, presumably the same consequence: in other words, they do violence to their own tastes for the sake of a relationship. Personally, I could never ever do this: I feel too strongly about my tastes; their violation offends me too much and their satisfaction is too rewarding to countenance giving them up. I could never have my living room wall-papered in a way I did not care for: I spend too much time there. The wallpaper I do have gives me a sense of pleasure and contentment, it turns my living room into an oasis of pleasure in an otherwise pretty ugly world.
Yet, it would appear, other people do not think that way: they are perfectly willing to compromise their wallpaper (and aesthetic pleasure in general) for other values (Sex? Companionship? The increased purchasing power of double income?). Perhaps their tastes aren’t especially strong i.e. aesthetic appreciation does not actually give them any meaningful/detectable pleasure. This would explain why they can go on writing the sort of garbage they write about art – because if not entirely aesthetically blind they are, at a minimum, aesthetically dim-sighted. If so, here is the central reason why one cannot discuss art with some/most people. If they do not possess a strong aesthetic sense themselves, I can never explain to them what I mean anymore than a bat could explain to them echolocation.
September 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
I wrote recently about my experience at the beach — the occasion on which I (re?)-discovered how badly we were made.
This only confirmed something I had known already from ornithology: bird atlases prefer to use artists renditions (drawings/paintings) than photos of the actual birds because the artist rendition can picture the idealized, perfect bird of its species (Plato!) while the actual photo will show an actual bird, which is more likely than not to be somehow different from the mean — i.e. not representing the “correct look”.
Think about what this means: whenever you take a photo of a specimen in nature you are more likely than not to be photographing a mutant — a reproductive “mistake”. These mistakes are a necessary part of nature, of course, without which (“mutation”) there can be no “selection” — i.e. no improvement, everything will be static, we will all look the same, and probably will be exterminated by the next common cold virus; but they are mistakes all the same.
Ergo, my observation at the beach was right on.
Now, here comes an article in The Economist:
“The latest study to this effect has just been published in Nature by Kari Stefansson and his colleagues at deCODE Genetics, a genetic-analysis company based in Reykjavik that was founded to take advantage of Iceland’s excellent medical records and its unique genealogical history. Recent immigrants apart, the relationship of almost everybody on the island to everybody else is known back as far as the first census, in 1703. In many cases it is known back to the first human settlement of the island, in 874.
Dr Stefansson’s study does not reach as far back as that. He and his colleagues examined 78 trios of father, mother and child who are all still alive. In some cases they looked at grandchildren as well. Their goal was to examine the number of new mutations—traits not found in the normal body cells of either parent—in children.
The average answer is about 63.
The average answer is about 63. That number, however, varies widely—and the main factor involved in this variation is the age of the father. Mothers transmitted an average of 14 mutations to their children, regardless of age. Fathers showed a much wider range: 20-year-olds passed on an average of 29 mutations; 30-year-olds (the average age of fatherhood in Dr Stefansson’s sample) passed on 49; and 40-year-olds passed 69.”
Think about it: there are at least 63 mistakes (on average) in the way your genome has attempted to reproduce those of your parents. Sixty-three!
And here is a further complication:
“According to Alexey Kondrashov of the University of Michigan, an expert on the matter who wrote an article in Nature to accompany Dr Stefansson’s study, about 10% of mutations are damaging.”
On average, each of us carries 6.3 damaging mutations — ways in which our genome has changed in reproduction for the worse; ways in which it differs from that of our parents to our detriment. I have 6.3 times as many faults as my father!
The ancient sages were right: each successive generation is worse than the one before!
September 12, 2012 § 4 Comments
The beach was supposed to be a change of air, a lifting of spirits. It very nearly was the opposite: what struck me most about seeing so many people all at once, all of them near-naked, was how badly they were all made: everyone, it seemed, had something seriously wrong with him: I don’t just mean the usual city flab and sag, but serious, fundamental, congenital design flaws: the legs too short, the torso too long, bad skin, cellulite, steatopygia, rounded shoulders, hunch, scoliosis, one arm longer than the other, eczema, an occasional extra thumb. And faces… faces seemed to come in two categories: people who looked like they stepped out of a cartoon (literally: if you disguised the photo as a line drawing using fancy software, anyone looking at it would declare it a malicious caricature); or at best — perfectly indifferent. I did not seen one decently made body (not beautiful, just not wrong) or one wholesome face the entire evening.
If the ubiquity of congenital flaws in our bodies is any indication of the ubiquity of congenital flaws in brain wiring, two thoughts come to mind: 1) that for most of us merely coping — merely surviving from day to day — is a struggle and — pretty much — the best we can hope for. And 2) never mind being able to aspire to, understand, appreciate, and critique high brow art: most of us simply don’t have the wherewithal to tackle it.
How very much art and literature therefore must be elite pursuits — or risk not being what they can be!
Mass education (50% of the population attending college!?) can therefore be seen as a disservice to art and literature, putting in very many people’s heads the preposterous expectation that they can “do” art and philosophy — e.g. that they can and should have opinion/comment on Monteverdi or Cervantes — and the very false ambition to actually do these things.
Somehow the system does not convince them that they can do high energy particle physics — for which vast majority are just as qualified ( = not); but art and philosophy, yeah, we can do! [How exactly does that work?] But just imagine what useless pile of rubbish high energy particle physics would be if all those Joes who insist on participating in art and literature insisted on mucking about with boson theory instead? Why can only some people contribute meaningfully to the discussion of quantum mechanics but everyone feels entitled to tell us what they think about a painting by Del Piombo?
September 5, 2012 § 2 Comments
Her last letter to me ended with the usual exhortation for me to write. You do it so well, she said, it is all so interesting, you tell us all those things we ignoramuses don’t know. [Tricky words from a university professor, published novelist and someone rather famous — to someone entirely unknown and without credentials].
Ah, yes, well, thank you. I guess all those years of traveling and reading, of living an odd lifestyle in all sorts of odd places where other people who share my interests do not usually go, let alone live, have not been entirely in vain… why, given the gift of the lifestyle, of the experience, it would have been proof of utter imbecility of me if I did not make at least some observations… so perhaps I did figure out a thing or two which have not occurred to others, not because those others are dim, but because these things simply could not have occurred to them because there weren’t there, they haven’t see what I have seen. So perhaps I do have something to say, however insignificant it may be.
But I don’t seem able to explain it — no one seems to understand what I think I am trying to explain… or even notice that it is in any way important… or care. the fault must be entirely mine, of course — if a speaker isn’t getting through to a crowd, it isn’t the crowd’s fault — but the truth is that I am no longer worried about it… it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore if anyone does understand — or care.
I do write, of course — like you, I have been writing all my life. I have been writing as an aid in thinking — I don’t seem to understand what I think until I see what I write; I write as an aid in reaching that understanding which I think I have reached… but I have never cared to be published, to see my words in print. I have never been ambitious that way. It just doesn’t seem such a big deal to me to be a book shelf or to be mentioned in a newspaper book review. (I was once a fashion model; my mother kept all the magazines and calendars in which I featured, but I… did not. If anything, I was embarrassed by them).
It is true that at one point I did publish a successful blog and that when I did it, at the time, I did go out of my way to promote it. But I didn’t do it for fame or to shine or to exist (some people seem to exist only to the extent that they exist in other people’s minds, but I have always felt secure in the knowledge that I exist, even on five-day solitary hikes in the mountains): I did it because I imagined that the internet, then young, offered a way for like minds to meet, to find each other, to talk. In the end I am not sure that I succeeded in proving that: I am not sure I really found any “like” minds… I know I found plenty enough “unlike” minds. I have met others, too, who have been gentle and generous — like you — but, I repeat, even in those cases I don’t think I have met any “like” minds.
If anything, talking to people on that blog about art and literature I have discovered what I have discovered in all life, that I don’t really understand other people. A scientist-philosopher once published a huge hit of a paper in which he argued that we (“we, cognitive scientists”, that is) could never understand what it was like to be a bat on account of the animal’s unique sensory system (echolocation). Be that as it may, I find that I cannot imagine what it is like to be other people!
I have spent the last two years reading memoirs and letters of many prominent thinkers and I have discovered that their likes and dislikes, their desires and ambitions and fears were all very odd to me — a was the way they reasoned about them. I am sure the feeling is mutual and this disparity, this gulf, is one reason perhaps why I seem unable to explain my discoveries; and the conviction of the vastness of this gulf, now stronger then ever, is the main reason why I no longer try to explain. I mean… if by some miracle I managed to convince someone that the theory of art he has learned in art 101 and which everyone seems to accept and which fuels all the furious production and all the auction house bidding and all the museum building and going… if I convinced someone that there was something fundamentally wrong with that theory… that it was only a plausible-sounding falsehood… if a light lit up in their heads saying “aha”, would they really understand that which I am trying to say? Or would they understand something completely different and would I have any clue as to what they got out of the conversation?
And — why should I worry about that at all?