Wednesday, January 30, 2013

barrel of monkeys theory

monkey in front of Angkor Wat (Endless Loop)

Angkor Wat. What the hell? How did anyone manage to mobilise such a massive portion of the resources of a civilization toward creating these monuments? Magnificence is sufficient to justify the existence of these works, but is not enough to explain them. To maintain the colossal construction, planning, coordination and effort over several decades, there must have been a practical reality sustaining the dedication, faith and pride.
Barrel of Monkeys
I have a theory. It's called the Barrel of Monkeys Theory of Happiness. The objective of a game of Barrel of Monkeys is to create the longest chain of monkeys. Pick up one monkey by an arm, hook the other arm through a second monkey's arm, continue making a chain... Your turn is over when a monkey is dropped. To succeed at Barrel of Monkeys, you must maintain a certain amount of tension in the chain. Without tension, the monkeys fall apart.

without tension, the monkeys fall apart
Tension as I will use it here to talk about life, means essentially the same thing as purpose, only with emphasis on the unsatisfied, ongoing, incomplete aspect of purpose; tension as unfulfilled need, drive. Religions give this kind of tension, as do competitive sports, street gangs, and addictive drugs.

Without tension we get unhappy and restless. Tension gives coherence to events and circumstances in the same way it holds the monkey chain together. Without tension, life degenerates into "blooming buzzing confusion". This is the Barrel of Monkeys Theory of Happiness:
Without tension, life falls apart.
The theory scales. It applies to nations as much as individuals. A sovereign ruler concerned with keeping her dominion united and subjects content should ensure there is sufficient unifying tension among the people. A command from a god to create a magnificent temple can do this. Or a space race. Usually, though, it's a call to war.



If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Saturday, January 12, 2013

bad trade

don't do it

Pornography is bad for you, son. There's nothing at all wrong with sex (although it can get complicated), but pornography is bad. Masturbation is fine. Fantasy is fine. Pornography is bad. Don't do it. Let's just leave it at that, OK? If I catch you looking at pornography I'll... tell your mother ...I'll blog about it.

Substances and behaviors can be innate, habit forming, addictive, or habituating. The drives to sleep, eat, and sex, are innate; part of the human condition, and in my opinion, to be celebrated. Repeated behaviours like buckling you seatbelt, brushing your teeth, or cracking your knuckles can become habits; good or bad. Certain substances, like nicotine in cigarettes or morphine in heroin are addictive; they create a physical craving for more which often cannot be controlled. Addictive substances are usually also habituating; your body gradually requires more of the substance to reach the same level of satisfaction. This is why many drugs are so harmful: they generate uncontrollable cravings for ever more quantities, eventually taking over your life.

Pornography is not a drug. But it is habituating. It's a combination of an innate drive for sexual arousal and a habituating stimulus. Habituation of sexual arousal works differently than habituation of drugs. With drugs, we want more; with arousal, we want different. Compare it to habituation of another innate drive: hunger. We must eat, and we will eat, but we enjoy to eat tasty new things. Tasty new things are a sensual treat. But a constant diet of the same treat, no matter how tasty, leads not to enjoyment, but boredom and worse: dissatisfaction and sadness because you have lost one of life's great pleasures. This loss of pleasure happens because of the lack of newness, of interesting unexpectedness in your diet.

Now, imagine an app that let you experience the tastes of eating without actually consuming any food. Imagine it really was pleasurable to taste ice cream or chocolate, or chilis or poisonous blowfish or chargrilled panda steak with this app. Would you use it? The danger would be that you would become so habituated to exotic simulated tastes that you lost your ability to enjoy real foods. As your pleasure in real dinners disappeared, you would also lose a great part of your enjoyment of dinner parties with real people. You would have lost your ability to enjoy some of life's great pleasures. You traded them for an fake. Bad trade.

And it's the same deal with pornography. When you look at pornography the effects of habituation dulls your senses, reducing your ability to enjoy real sexual experience.

As you look at pornography over time, you will need to look at different types of pornography in order to reach the same levels of arousal.  To maintain your interest, you will find yourself always searching for something new. And eventually, this leads to pornography in which women are treated as unfeeling objects, or slaves, or humiliated victims, or animals, or any variety of unrealistic or immoral scenes. And you will become habituated to these scenes, and you will lose some of your ability to enjoy real sex, and generally, you will die inside.

Bad trade, my son.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Saturday, January 5, 2013

this is not a post


Exceptions are the rule. They are the barber who shaves everyone in the village who does not shave himself; the spy who declares he never speaks the truth; the science of probability.

Much great art seems to be about exceptions, in the sense that great art often embodies a paradox. I'm thinking of Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe". The painting clearly depicts a pipe, but it's greatness lies in the fact that the truth that it is in fact a painting and not a pipe is put in our face. The painting of the pipe would not by itself be impressive art. The combination of the painting and the caption make it great.

A beautifully rendered landscape is great to the extent that it captures a truth while not being the truth. We can appreciate the true beauty of a landscape without having the experience of art, but the painting gives us more, because ..."ce n'est pa une landscape".

Psychologists have found we have two modes of thinking: a fast intuitive mode, and a slower, more methodical rational mode. We tend to prefer the first. Neuroscientists have found two distinctive neural systems: an inarticulate, holistic system that attends to relationships among individual entities, and an articulate, precision system used for manipulation. The first system deals with love, the second system science. It boils down to two opposing ways of being in the world, a fundamental conflict which has been variously termed:

Exception v Rule
Absolute v Relative
Specific v General
Emotion v Rationality
Faith v Logic
Religion v Science
Silent v Articulate
Action v Talk
Me
v
You

In another post, I've talked about this dichotomy in terms of High Context and Low Context knowledge.

It's possible to look at much art in these terms, as evoking the basic contradiction in the ineffably, indescribably unique nature of every living moment, and the need for us to generalize experience into crude categories to even think about it. Man v. Nature is the struggle of an individual against the laws of the universe. Romeo and Juliet is the the attraction of opposites. Movies are about one man's struggle against the odds.

Once I start looking, I find the conflict of the Exception and the Rule everywhere. An evening's TV shows me Dan Draper firing his friend and colleague, the admirable Laine, on ethical principle, rather than making an exception and forgiving him out of love. Terry Pratchett's Hogwatch concludes with the observation that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the like are necessary to train children to believe in little lies, so they will believe in Truth, Justice, Morality and the like when they are older. Because science and logic just don't get you there on their on own. Faith and Reason are contradictory, parallel, and omnipresent.

In life and in art, exceptions are the rule.


If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Friday, January 4, 2013

game of throwns


I read that our brains work by projection. We experience anticipated sensations. This enables us to react faster than our neurons can transmit electrochemical signals to our extremities, a requirement when we need to do things such as catch a ball. We intuitively calculate the trajectory and experience the feeling of the ball hitting our palm before the actual nerve impulses from our hand arrive at the brain. Unless the ball doesn't hit our palm as anticipated, in which case the contradictory nerve impulses from our hand cancel the experienced anticipated impulses. But in the normal course of events, when we catch the ball as usual, then the experienced sensation is very slightly ahead of the nerve impulses generated by the actual event, and a product of what might be called projection, however faithful to the actual nerve impulses.

This is part of the explanation of the phenomenon of phantom limbs, where people continue to experience amputated limbs as if they were still there. In the absence of contradictory nerve impulses (from the missing limb) there is no cancellation of the projected experience. Thus, some people feel their lost arm waving at a friend they see on the street, experience itches that cannot be scratched, or cramps that cannot be eased.

Projected experience is not just the plight of those with amputated limbs. We live slightly ahead of ourselves, shaping reality before it immerses us. We wake up happy and the world is good to us. We wake up grumpy and the world is inhospitable. Even though we know the world would be better if we changed our attitude …we find we can't. We 'find' ourselves in a mood. Mood locates, or orients, ourselves in the world, and our position determines what of the world is disclosed. In revealing our throwness, moods reveal a trajectory -- a direction and velocity, an angle and impetus, a bias and conviction.

We are all projectiles.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

domestic violins

I was angry at her for being angry at me. How could anyone be angry at me? Do I not make every effort? Do I not consider others before myself? Am I not proactive, self-actualized, and uncomplaining? Are not the everyday indignities, humiliations, and injustices that afflict me the equal or worse of those afflicting others in comparable situations, that is, those of similar health, education, income and nationality? And among these peers, are not my expectations indeed more modest, my outlook more inclusive? The outrage!
She was angry at me for being distant. But this distance is only a reflex of self-protection, defense against unappreciative, angry loved ones. Of course I withdraw! Because I have learned the futility of trying to explain myself. I have learned the futility of arguing. I have abandoned aspirations of being understood. Fighting is pointless. Instead I am silent. I seek only peace; solace I find in my own quiet thoughts, and on the internet on my smartphone.
But I can engage. Yes, I can try to influence the situation. Yes, I can express myself; I can say what I think. I am angry, that's what I think. I am angry about the unwarranted hostility I must suffer. And I don't like how she says she feels unfulfilled. As if to say a relationship with me was unfulfilling!  It's a direct attack. And I don't like the way she talks about my family.
She refuses to discuss her attitude about my family! How can we move forward when she won't talk? We haven't spoken for a day and a night.
She sends me a message: "how about when you come home tonight we forgive one another and move on?" A good idea. I wish I had thought of it. I guess that's why I love her.
...despite everything.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

falling into the looking glass

We came out fighting. Our first intercourse of the New Year was triggered by my spending too much time on the phone. There is something to that. I do have the phone out a lot. It's taken as a rejection of present company, and I can see that it's rude. But I do try to be discrete. For me, the small screen is more a chance to read, to catch up on the world around me, and to keep in touch. It feels like an advance. The phone lets me put idle moments to productive use.

But I guess I overstepped. I slipped into overuse, letting the phone obtrude into my family life. I fell into the looking glass. The phone is just so available ... it's easy to overuse.

Would the reaction have been so strong if it wasn't a phone? What if I was reading a book all the time? Because mostly that's what I'm doing on the phone, reading. Maybe I'm that 1950s cliche husband with his face in the newspaper all the time ..."yes dear". I also use the phone for podcasts. I've always been a radio person. I like to listen in the shower, or as I do chores and duties around the house. I never really pay full attention to the outside world when I'm reading or listening to the radio. So maybe it's not the phone. Maybe it's a middle age man thing.

Not that I appreciate my kids plugged into their phones all the time, eyes or ears. It's like they have something better to do and I'm not invited, which of course is normal for teenagers. I don't blame them. But it's galling that they do the better thing to which I'm not invited in my direct sight. For this, I do blame them. The big offense might be the visibility of it. Maybe I need a shed where I can go to fix things and read and listen to the radio.

I tell my kids that too much time on the small screen is unhealthy. The environment of a small screen is necessarily limited compared to the richer stimulus environment of outdoors or real human interaction. Time spent on the small screen is time taken away from the richer stimulus environment of reality. Do they want to be house cats or lions? Budgies? Or Eagles!?

They don't care. The nature metaphor isn't persuading them. They don't know what I'm talking about.

So I'm going to cut back on the phone when I'm at home. And I'm going to force those kids to cut back too.