"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Psycho-Excursions (Page 1 of 2)

Robots, Hives and Heroes

Robots

We are now able to engineer machines to perform feats that were, only a few short years ago, thought to be very distant possibilities in an imagined future. Self-driving vehicles, medical advances that outstrip the diagnostic abilities of the most able and experienced physicians, robots capable of accomplishing tasks of great complexity, are some examples. These futuristic achievements resulted from a breakthrough in how to program computers perform tasks.

Computers are programed using algorithms, which are simply formulas that define the organization and order for systematically performing operations needed to execute a task. These, of course, can be very complex, as the tasks become more complex, but are typically also rigid; once programed, the sequencing organization cannot be changed unless the programmers make modifications. The learning—the altering the organization based on feedback from the results —is done by the programmers.

All this changed with the advent of ‘machine intelligence’, where learning occurs within the machine itself. The algorithms responsible for machine learning are not completely rigid. They can self-modify, based on the results of its action. Exposure to many, many, situations, creates many, many different outcomes that provide feedback, generating iterative adjustments (learning) that refine and perfect the performance. Machines become experts, capable of discriminations and decisions that can surpass the best human experts.1

Brain

The human brain is the model for how machine learning is programmed. The brain is composed of billions of neurons knitted together in complex networks. Each neuron operates like an on-off switch; it is either ‘on’—firing an electrical impulse—or ‘off’. The firing occurs when the electrical potential between neurons reaches a critical value, generating a spark that jumps the gap between the neurons. This becomes a link in a neural pathway that is part of an incomprehensibly vast web of networks. The networks are constantly changing as circumstances change. Habits create established neural pathways that occur when confronted with familiar circumstances. Learning occurs when feedback from familiar situations is sufficiently different from expected, prompting alteration of the response, changing electrical potentials between neurons, and thus changing the neural networks.

Machine learning is composed of silicon, rather than neural on-off switches, and the networks are very simple, not infinitely complex, but in both, feedback changes the firing potentials between switches, which alters the networks, which alters the responses.2 Simple, individual components capable of only the most elementary and inflexible on-off responses, when combined into complex networks of coordinated action, give rise to a system capable of solving impossibly complex tasks, and self-correcting as is goes. Thus occurs a promethean leap from silicon and neurons to intelligence and mind.3

Hive

What is this? It is not a sand hill. It is a termite mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual termite can perform simple functions, certainly more complex that an on-off switch, but quite limited in flexibility and function. The biology of the termite (reflexes, nervous system, exoskeleton, etc.) constrain the scope and functioning of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompass the ability to communicate and cooperate with other termites. This is a critical component for survival, for like the on-off switches of computers and brains, individuals become part of networks of collaborative action, which gives rise to a hive mind.

This mind is capable intelligent actions and evidenced in the termite mound itself. The structure is among the largest of any constructed by non-human species and acts as a huge lung, allowing the entire colony to inhale oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide, house underground cultivated gardens and specialized chambers, and is under continual alteration to adjust to changes in weather and humidity to keep a constant livable environment for the inhabitants. Single individuals are incapable of learning and lacking in memory. A hive is capable of both, in very complex ways; foraging widely for food and bringing it back to the hive, adjusting to changes in the environment, developing creative solutions to the problems encountered.4 The hive is made possible by the biology of the individual to establish collaborative networks. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive.

Humans

What is this? It is not a metal and glass hill. It is a human mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual is certainly more complex than an on-off switch or a termite. Each possesses a mind capable of intelligent, creative actions and adaptive responses. Despite individual sophistication, however, they cannot survive independent of the hive.5 Biology (reflexes, nervous system, endoskeleton, etc.) constrains the scope and adaptability of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompasses the ability to communicate and cooperate with others. This is critical for survival, and like the on-off ‘switches’ of computers and brains, and the biology of termites, allows individuals to become part of networks of collaborative action that give rise to a hive mind. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive. One becomes the many. The many protect the one.

The Screw

The hive mind, that is, the collective capacity to understand and undertake projects that allow the human hive to adapt to demands and changing conditions that help insure the welfare of the collective, are beyond what any one of us could possibly conceive or execute. They also typically are hidden from view, in the background, as we attend to the foreground that preoccupies our daily lives. We drive to the market, unaware and unappreciative that every single act is made possible through the hive mind.6 What single individual could build a car from scratch; scratch here meaning, produce even a simple screw needed for the task? Indeed, the human hive-mind not only encompasses the hum and buzz of the living, but also resonates with the deeper register of the hum and buzz of the long past; those who learned to make metal from dirt, the physics of the screw, and the machine tools to make a screw, for example.

The Heroic Individual

We Americans are especially blind to the humming significance of the hive mind, as our model of the heroic individual pervades all aspects of our life, from economics, to politics, to psychotherapy. Certainly, individual initiative, determination, intelligence and adaptability are important attributes that can contribute to our individual accomplishments and fate. Often, however, the model also includes the assumption that the individual is pitted against the world—the collective “they”; that our fate is totally in our hands and we are solely responsible for our success or failure, and the collective is a barrier to achieving success.7

The Heroic Ones and the Many

Rescue

Crises that threaten the hive, such as pandemics, most forcefully reveal the limitations of the individual, however able, to survive on their own. Our collective welfare, and survival, and our individual welfare, and survival, are inseparable. And the most heroic individuals are those who are ready to sacrifice their welfare, even their lives, for the collective; health care workers, police and firefighters, to name but a few. We use the term ‘heroic’ only for those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We understand, at a primitive level, that individual sacrifice that only benefits ourselves is not heroic. It may be admirable, encompassing individual pluck and initiative, but it is not ‘heroic’. One becomes the many. The many protect the one. The heroic ones protect the many.

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Pandemic Exposure

Crises expose. Some crises are personal; a traumatic event, life-threatening illness, death of a loved one. Some are communal; war, economic collapse, pandemic. Crises rupture our everyday life, upending what we have taken for granted, rendering what we thought essential as trivial, forcing us to confront stark realities about our life—and the impending end of our life.

Crises cloud our vision, as anxiety and dread about our future, our fate, our survival disorient and overwhelm. The rupture of crises also expose, perhaps for the first time, the hidden undergirding that gives our life structure and stability. It can be a clarifying moment, if we open our eyes, allowing us to understand and appreciate what we otherwise failed to see.

The pandemic affords us this opportunity. What is important? Basic needs: food, shelter, health and safety. We discover that those who are essential for providing these are not sports ‘heroes’, media celebrities, or hedge fund managers. The heroes are nurses, health care workers, doctors and hospital cleaning people; truckers, delivery people, mail carriers and supermarket employees; police, firefighters, utility workers and trash collectors. They risk their lives for the greater good, and have performed these tasks, every day, before the pandemic—and with few exceptions, have been invisible, unappreciated, and underpaid.

The previously simple act of driving to the market to buy supper is now a considered act of anticipation (when is the best time?), hope (have they run out of…?) and consternation (will I be able to feed myself and my family?). It is also an act made possible by a dense network of rules, regulations, policies, and fiscal commitments by the government. The extent of this is so enormous that only a small set of examples are needed to make the point.

Get in your car. There is standard, mandatory equipment, critical for travel, such as breaks, headlights and taillights, windshields, wipers, etc., etc. Driving requires everyone to follow an array of rules and regulations, otherwise commerce and travel would be nearly impossible; stay on the righthand side of the road, ‘stop’ on red, ‘go’ on green, etc., etc. All drivers are required to be licensed to guarantee universal understanding and competence. Once we begin our drive, the hidden governmental structures making possible the roads we travel also fill volumes—and we have not even arrived at the market, which possesses its own vast edifice of governmental structures and supports. A simple drive to the market, so critical for sustenance and now a conscious focus of concern, is supported and made possible by the “deep state”. And this is only a single, simple act. Almost everything we do in our modern life would be impossible without government, which enables complex collaboration, commerce and exchange among over 300 million citizens. The past 40 years has been marked by the rise of a powerful political movement that has marched to the slogan, “Government is not the answer, it is the problem”. One of the aims of this movement have been to dismantle programs that arose during the New Deal, such as Social Security, and subsequent programs, such as Medicare. “Wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary resources given to the undeserving” is chanted under this banner. It has been more than 75 years since the Great Depression and World War II, when we were confronted with a global crisis like the pandemic1.

Individual initiative, drive, and intelligence, as well as corporate profit-making and market forces are powerless to effectively confront the challenges posed in these times of crises. Government is not only the answer, it is the only answer. Massive marshaling of resources, creation and coordination of agencies to address a single aim, and new agencies and regulations for banking, commerce, fiscal markets, and corporate conduct are needed, as is deficit spending and government programs to provide food, shelter, health and safety.

The pandemic, like previous global crises, requires massive government intervention, unprecedented deficit spending, and a new “rulebook”, which is in the process of being written as we go. Very few of either political party object, and there is near universal agreement of the necessity to multiply the size of national debt. And who is at the head of the line, hat in hand, demanding a governmental handout? Captains of industry, CEO’s of investment firms, small businesses owners, and other ardent proponents of “Government is the Problem”.

Crises expose.

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Genitals of the Universe

TRIGGER WARNING!

This post contains explicit sexual images and material.

The intent of this post is to pander to prurient interests and alert to the pan-sexual nature of life. While prurient, this post also introduces an admittedly crude reclassification of the familiar. To de-nude, if you will, our usual nomenclature. But offered in Latin, for scientific purposes.

Shame and Embarrassment

Freud was right.1 We spend enormous mental energy denying, repressing, and sublimating our primal preoccupation with sex. Sex inhabits us, pervades us, surrounds us; it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the decorative patterns we desire, the gifts we give. We engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to transfigure the explicit erotic and sexual nature of our activities, while also joyously continuing our active, enthusiastic participation.

We are a curious animal; singular in our shame about the act of procreation, idiosyncratic in our embarrassment about our genitals. Ironically, we also use our shame and embarrassment to heighten sexual attraction and desire. Mass nudity, ubiquitous undress, bores. But put patches over our genitals, design alluring coverings, pouches, and peek-but-not-boo adornments, we then create “private parts”. The mundane is transformed to the mysterious and highlighted as off-limits. And, thus, is eroticized.

Genitals of the Universe

B. Kilban

The depictions above are the imaginative work of B. Kilban, a noted cartoonist for Playboy magazine in its heyday. The cartoon is funny because it draws attention to the bizarre, weird, and ludicrous shape of human genitals. Oh, what devilish humor doth random mutation possess! And no wonder the embarrassment—for that species possessing a bit of self-awareness.

Kilban’s genitals of the universe bring into relief awareness of the fantastical shape of our own genitals. But we need not speculate about extraterrestrial sex organs to gain this appreciation, for the riotous forms of terrestrial genitalia, and the sexual activity that abound among those with whom we share the planet, are beyond our wildest imaginings—should we care to notice. Indeed, these cartoon genitals are but pale, simple sketches when compared to what occurs in our midst. We do not notice because we use “formal wear” in our language, which serves to cloak our participation in the bumptious debauchery of life. To fully appreciate this debauchery, we must disrobe the “formal wear”; hence this post. Many beautiful, strange, outrageously bizarre forms of genitalia, and the manner of their use, flourish, but space limitations require parsimony.

De-nuding and Disrobing

LABIA MAJORA FLOS.2 (Conventionally called ‘flower petals’) (Often accompanied by an alluring fragrance to enhance sexual contact). There are a number of varieties including:

Labia Majora Flos Laetus.3

Example of Labia Majora Flos Laetus
Conventionally called ‘Sun Flower’

Labia Majora Flos Immanemque.4

Example of Labia Majora Flos Immanemque
Conventionally called ‘Daylily’
What better way to say ‘I love you?’ or ‘Be My Valentine?’ then by giving the gift of these alluring sexual genitalia?5

Labia Majora Flos Periculo.6

Example of Labia Majora Flos Periculo
Conventionally called ‘Fishook Cactus flower’ 7

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OVUM MATURESCERE.8 (Conventionally called ‘fruit’).

Example of Ovum Maturescere.
Conventionally called ‘apple’
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Varieties include:

Ovum Suci9 (conventionally called ‘fruit juice’)

Example of Ovum Suci
Conventionally called ‘orange juice’

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Ovum Induravitque10 (conventionally called ‘nuts’).

Example of Ovum Induravitque
Conventionally called ‘walnuts’

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MAMMALIUM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM.11 (Conventionally called ‘dairy products’).

Example of MAMMALIUM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM
Conventionally called ‘cows milk’
Example of MAMMALIUM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM
Conventionally called ‘ice cream’
“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”

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AVEM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM12

Example of AVEM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM
Conventionally called ‘eggs’

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SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS.13

SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS Particle
Conventionally called ‘pollen’
(Macro image)

Each day, the newspaper publishes the pollen count, giving the values for pollen levels in the air of the various plants and trees that can cause respiratory and allergic difficulties. These, of course, are sperm clouds that we inhale with every breath.

SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS14 (Conventionally called tree seeds). A cousin to SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS, these are the reproductive missives that float through the air, helicopter from the sky, and rain down from tree branches.

Example of SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS
Conventionally called ‘Maplewood seeds’

SEXUS INTERSPECIES.15 We are appalled, and alarmed, at the thought of humans having sex with other animals; bestiality is the common word used, and it is a crime in most localities. However, cross-species sex is a fundamental strategy for the propagation of life. The proverbial birds and bees, along with butterflies, ants, beetles, bats and flies, engage in interspecies sexual commerce that enables much of flowering life to reproduce.

Example of SEXUS INTERSPECIES
Hummingbirds and flowers
“Oral Sex”
Example of SEXUS INTERSPECIES
Butterfly and flower
“Getting it on”

Next Time

Next time you buy flowers for a loved one, or to beautify your house or garden, or take time to nestle your nose in the petals to ‘smell the roses’; next time you pick a floral pattern to wear or decorate; next time you go to the grocery store and squeeze the grapefruit for the juiciest, fondle the apples for the ripest, or sip your morning orange juice; next time you savor your berries and nuts; next time you quaff your milk, nibble your buttered toast, or indulge yourself with ice cream; next time you devour your omelette, or delight in your cookies, cake, brownies, or pie; next time you sneeze, wheeze, cough or your nose runs; next time you admire a hummingbird licking nectar from a flower, a butterfly slowly undulating its beautiful wings on a bloom, or bees humming from blossom to blossom—AWAKE! We are intimates in the throbbing, surging urgency of life on this planet, seeking to thrust itself into the future.

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Songs From The Crib

Долпхин

What in the world is this?

If you have recognized that this might be a word written in a foreign language, you have made a huge cognitive leap; recognizing that bizarre shapes can stand for letters that, in turn, stand for sounds that, when combined, can create the sound of a word that, when spoken, has a shared meaning with others.1 We forget just how strange, magical and shocking written language is. Or how difficult to learn.

Literacy is not natural, does not come unbidden like spoken language; it is a cultural invention, not a biological imperative. It is a tool, not unlike the wheel, that aids mental rather than manual labor. Like all tools, it extends human action in ways that take us beyond our biological capacities. It becomes an extension of ourselves, deeply altering ourselves and our community.

Literacy is the key for entry into the hallways of our highly complex, highly technological culture. It requires many, many years of hard labor, sitting in a chair, stationary, in deep concentration for hours at a time—another unnatural imposition on a body that is biologically primed for movement, action and activity, especially so during the critical years for gaining the foundations of literacy; from 4 to 10 years of age. We frequently overlook this topsy-turvy upending of biology, as school has replaced the natural world as the environment requiring adaptive responses; survival in today’s world means survival in an environment scribed in print.

The reach of literacy in our lives is so pervasive and profound that to be illiterate is to be bereft of significance; to be consigned to a life of ridicule, hardship and a dead-end future. Publish or perish, describes life in academia, where failure to have an authorial presence in the scholarly community is to cease to exist as a meaningful entity within that community. This phrase can be altered to Read or die, to encompass the significance of literacy in the broader culture.

Oral and Literate Cultures

One of the consequences of literacy, and the intense, prolonged training it requires, is that music and dance have been relegated to extracurricular, after school activities. The placement of these activities embodies the transformation from oral to literate cultures. The segment occupied by literacy in the long arc of human history is quite brief. The first written language appeared only 5500 years ago, and of the 3000 languages that have been identified, 78 have had writing.2

Unlike literate cultures, music and dance are the foundational axis of life in oral cultures—the predominate form of culture for most of human history. Lacking writing, these cultures use song and dance to remember, recount, recreate history, and preserve tradition; to celebrate important ceremonial events, evoke the presence of gods and spirits, conduct rites of passage, and enact rituals of religious significance. Music and dance are the repository of culture, which is inscribed, not in a book, but in the body.

The environment of literate culture overlooks the primal power of music and dance in human life, and can lead to the conclusion that these are “after school” activities; auxiliary endeavors, with little importance or evolutionary significance. Indeed, this is the conclusion of some noted cognitive neuroscientists.3 But music and dance make their appearance, developmentally, long before school starts, providing essential scaffolding for the emergence of speech, language and the attainment of literacy.

Songs From the Crib

Music and dance begin in the crib. Human neonates are the most helpless beings born into this world and, from the first moments of life, are beholden to others for the most basic needs; to be fed, clothed, moved, sheltered, protected and soothed. These urgent needs, requiring immediate care and attention, are expressed in urgent ways that are clear and unambiguous; through vocalizations, bodily movements and gestures.

Neonates are exquisitely perceptually attuned to the presence and response of others. They make remarkable discriminations in human speech sounds (e.g., distinguishing ‘p’ from ‘b’), orient toward the human voice (especially female voices), and can identify the voice of their mothers. Neonates are primed to orient toward the human face, can discriminate and imitate facial features of another, and are capable of expressing recognizable emotions through vocalizations, most notably crying, and through facial and bodily gestures. These abilities are quickly elaborated as infants become capable of nuanced, complex, extended communications.

Attunement is mutual. It should not be surprising that adults of a species are especially sensitive and responsive to the signals and cries of their newborns. Adults, without training or experience, understand the meaning of infant cries, distinguishing hunger cries form cries of pain, and also discriminating cries of healthy infants from those at risk for various developmental difficulties.

Not only are adults attuned to infants expressions, they also sensitively adjust their communications in ways that maximize infants attention and involvement. Adults exaggerate and pace their vocalizations creating rhythmic, periodic, tonally heightened expressions. These exaggerated expressions, called motherese, are non-conscious engagements automatically used by adults and children across cultures. Similarly, exaggerated facial and body expressions serve to heighten the salience of communicated meaning.

The resulting communicative exchanges are ballets of sound, movement, gesture and posture. Infants’ communications, such as a cry or smile, possess their own unique body/sound signature that are distinctive, obvious and unmistakable. And powerful. They compel a response—a response that is distinctive, obvious and unmistakable.4

Music and dance, grounded in our bodies from birth, possess the power to sway, to enchant, to entrance, to overwhelm.5 Oral cultures are the natural outgrowths of these biologically given forms of human communication. Although literate cultures relegate music and dance to “after school” status, we are, to the core, creatures of song and dance.

If you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it…6 7

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The Time of Our Life

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    St. Augustine

We typically segment time into three clearly demarked, independent parts. Past: over, done, gone. Present: now, ephemeral, ever-evaporating. Future: yet to be, a horizon beyond the rim of the present. This makes much intuitive sense, and presumes an objective river of time that carries us along in its current, a stream parceled into a regular metronome of moments, pacing off seconds, minutes, hours… We thus can situate ourselves within the surge of time: it is now January 1, 2020, at 10:31.09 AM. Which, of course, is immediately consigned to the past as the present rushes into the future. The flux of time is thus given some measure of order, stability and control.

Physics of Time

This ordering, however intuitively obvious and useful, does not snare time. Modern physics offers a very detailed understanding of the remarkable and bizarre features of time as a physical phenomenon. In the smallest of durations, in the quantum zone inhabited by subatomic and virtual particles, time becomes unmeasurable and merges with mass and energy. What does this even mean? When considering cosmic time of vast dimensions, time and space are welded, and in the proximity of entities of unimaginably huge masses, a time horizon appears beyond which time disappears down a black (rabbit) hole. And everything, including time, began with the Big Bang1. No metronome of regular moments here.

Psychology of Time

The physics of time does not exhaust time’s possibilities. Psychological time, our personal experience of it, is as powerful, meaningful and complex. Here, too, time manifests itself in multiple guises. Our experience of duration is intimately entangled with our encounter with the world. Searing, inescapable pain creates an eternity of seconds. Joy and surprise can halt time.  Boredom, pleasure, play—indeed, the entire range of our emotional life—all have their unique temporality.

Furthermore, while segmenting time into independent zones of ‘past, present, future’ helps order and understand our experience of time, these zones also interpenetrate, mutually influencing each other.

Future present tense: My goals, expectations, wishes, desires, hopes and fears, and how I thrust myself into the future—all these focus and structure my attention in the present. What captures my interests, what priorities I give to my immediate efforts are shaped by the gravitational pull of the future. Change my goals, aspirations and expectations, I change my life as lived in the present.

Future past tense: This same tug of future’s influence extends into the past. How I construct and understand my past is shaped by what I expect, hope, fear. The past, while over, does not sit inertly in my life. What facts do I remember? What meaning and value do I attribute to them? What is forgotten? Our memory is not a photographic plate impassively recording events as they scroll by. It is an active process, influenced by attention, expectations and under constant reconstruction and renovation.

Past present future tense: The past reaches into the present and shapes our anticipations of the future. What we have experienced organizes how we act and respond in the present and guides our expectations for the future. Our experiences in childhood, our prior traumas, trials and triumphs, our relationships of significance with others and much else in the past have enduring influence on our present and future. Habit and memory are powerful ways the past grips the present and reaches into the future.2

Present past future tense: The grip of the past and the pull of the future meet in the present; it is a temporal vortex not only influenced by past and future, but exerts its own power, “on the fly”, on the past (testing, reinforcing, revising, altering and creating new habits and memory) as well as the future (testing, abandoning, revising, renewing and forging new expectations and anticipations).

The very foundation, structure and texture of our lives turn on these dynamic temporal relationships. This is underscored when we try to understand, manage and change our lives. Temporality is the central focus of all therapy, or any agent of personal change, regardless of its form, offering us different ways to understand our past, comport in the present, and anticipate the future. We change the past by changing our present and future. We change our future by changing our present and past. And so on. They are all dynamically connected. The most final and dramatic way to escape when the weight and pain of these temporal dynamics becomes unbearable is to end time; to commit suicide.

Being and Non-Being

Death, and the decision to choose death through suicide, underscores that we are not just in time, not just an object sailing along in the river of time, but composed of time; a song. We can experience ourselves as a biological entity, as a ‘human being’, a noun, but we also are ‘be-ings’, verbs, gerunds of temporality and tense whose plight is shadowed by non-being, death. We are embodied time; a paradox, a befuddlement, an enigma.

We may understand some of the ways time manifests itself that St. Augustine did not. The vexation of time, however, remains, for it is integral to the unfathomable mystery that is our being.

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    

Songs of Habit Amidst Chaos

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Habit and Time

The biosphere is a teeming, humming, buzzing, riot of life in every earthly nook and cranny; collaborating with one another, competing with one another, eating one another. Each species, each individual, must rely on habits to establish a measure of stability, enabling them to extract the necessary sustenance for survival. Habit forestalls chaos.

All life, in its many forms, from bacteria to insects, fungi to mammals, are beholden to habit, which is as elemental to life as DNA. A primal characteristic of all life is movement and endurance within time. All, also, share a common fate—the end of movement and endurance in time; death.

Habits are fundamental strategies of temporal beings that must anticipate the future. Habits occur when a situation at Time 2 is perceived as similar to a situation at Time 1, evoking the same response at Time 2 that was  adaptive at Time 1. The perceived reoccurrence of familiar events “stops time”, allowing us to steady ourselves in the face of an uncertain future. Habits create routines, establishing an order in time with expected, reoccurring beats. Indeed, survival depends on establishing a vital regularity within the assaultive, chaotic flux of events, circumstances, and contingencies that threaten the delicate, wavering, spider-thread of life.

Habits of Differing Time Scales

Habit is defined as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance1. Typically, we think of habit as behavioral routines that derive from individuals learning about their environment; that habit operates within an individual, not the species, at the behavioral, not biological level.

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This definition need not only apply to an individual organism. Consider reflexes. From the perspective of the individual, reflexes are invariant, unchanging; no habits are acquired. Breathing, pupil dilation, digestion, heartbeat, these arise automatically, without conscious prompting, effort, or control. However, from an evolutionary perspective, which encompasses the arc of the emergence of life forms and their adaptation, reflexes are, as the definition states, “patterns acquired by physiological exposure that results in increased facility of performance”. From an evolutionary time scale, then, species’ morphology and the attendant neurophysiological organization and functioning, and even DNA, can also be considered habits.  What appears to be the static, immutable biological givens of of an individual’s existence—the bones, pulsing blood and breathing—are dynamic properties of an evolving process within an evolutionary temporal frame. We are a composite of the individual habits we acquire over our life and species’ habits conferred to us by our primordial ancestors.

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Culture adds yet another layer of habits. Communally organized daily routines and seasonal rituals organize our bodies to the collective rhythms of our culture. Time is regulated; our calendar and clocks are standardized, establishing a rigid temporal grid that individuals must adopt and internalize if they are to participate in essential communal activities. The year rolls over to the next one on January 1; daylight savings time sets the clock ahead, then it is later set back; school schedules, meal times, business hours, the reoccurring weekday-weekend sequence, and many other micro-cultural regularities pervade our lives. Public holidays, such as Thanksgiving and July 4th, with their attendant rituals, mark time within the broader seasonal round.

Songs

Our bodies are composed of layers of habits, each contributing its own rhythms; the beating, breathing, surging biorhythms that compress eons of prior life, the habits we acquire to adapt to our unique personal challenges and circumstances, and the cultural rituals and routines required for communal life. This complex, multilayered cadence of habits comprises the music that is our song, our lives.

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We are songs of life, sung, for our ever-brief moment, within the roar of flux and chaos. Our plight is most heartrendingly expressed in music:

Music is like the inclusive testimony of a visitor to a wondrous world. As it plays you have everything. When it stops, you are left with nothing. Which is exactly like life itself.2

An inclusive testimony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBVkYGLEUpg

Truth and Trust

Compelling memories of something I am sure happened to me—there was little doubt because the recollections were so vivid and detailed—have proven to be wrong. My memories inaccurately conferred a reality to my experience that was false. I know my memory was faulty because others, who were privy to relevant information, informed me I was wrong. The reason for these errors was that, while I may have vividly recalled the particulars of an experience, I failed to remember the context of it; whether somebody told me it, I thought it, or I dreamed it. We can ascertain the veracity of our recollections by consulting independent sources to confirm if, in fact, it really occurred, and if it occurred as we remember it.

It is a bit disconcerting how convincing our sense of truth can be, how real it seems, and how wrong we can be. Trusting our experience, exclusively, can lead us astray. Ascertaining truth requires additional, independent corroboration. Of course, this is not always possible, and of course, we need not doubt every memory. But the possibility of these misattributions alerts us to the need, when circumstances arise, to trust other sources to confirm the reality of a situation.

The relation between truth and trust runs much deeper than the veracity of our personal memories. It is the foundation of virtually everything. Is the earth flat? A surprising number believe that it is, indeed, flat. Why? Because they do not trust the sources of the information that support this truth. They rely on direct, personal experience, which reveals that the earth is obviously flat, as anyone reasonable person who has observed the sunrise or sunset over the straight-edged horizon can attest. 

Why should we believe otherwise? Most of us do so because a large body of scientific knowledge, astute deductions, and many practical activities (i.e., oceanic shipping, air travel, etc.) proves otherwise. We trust other sources of truth outside our own immediate experience. But what if we don’t trust them? After all, most of us are not scientists and would be hard pressed to provide the facts proving the earth “round”. Even if we could, the argument would rely on secondhand information; facts that we, ourselves, have not directly collected but derived from trusted sources.

Is global warming occurring? Doubts arise when the supporting sources for this conclusion, scientific evidence, are challenged or dismissed. Many believe that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by liberal elites. If the sources are not believed, then these doubts are not eliminated by simply providing more facts. If a single individual, with little cultural authority, disbelieves, they may be considered misinformed, misguided, or perhaps, delusional. If disbelief is voiced by someone with cultural authority, like the President, or groups with access to cultural power, like the Koch brothers, Mobile Oil, or Arch Coal, then the source of the facts becomes the focus of dispute and the argument turns, not of facts, but on, “Who do you trust?”. And “Who do you trust?” turns, not on facts, but who we believe will protect us, understands us, shares our values and our moral universe.1 2

When not only critical scientific findings are challenged, but the foundational sources of a culture’s authority, embodied in fundamental institutions—-those governing order and law (Department of Justice and Federal courts), managing our fiscal integrity and security (Federal Reserve and Security and Exchange Commission), protecting our collective security (FBI and CIA), insuring food and water safety (Agriculture Department and Environmental Protection Agency), and providing disaster warning and assistance (National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency)—-then we face a deep, ruinous crisis of faith.3 When these sources are challenged by a leader with the cultural power to hold sway, then the leader can become the oracle of truth and the savior of a nation in tumultuous times.

If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.

Puzzlement, and condescension, often occurs over how an entire culture, especially a highly educated one like the Germans, can come under the sway of a despot; be swept into in a collective delusional frenzy of madness and violence resulting in an epic, world-wide catastrophe. How can this possibly happen?  We Americans, champions our own exceptionalism, are experiencing how.

Freud was Right!

Sigmund Freud

Freud was Wrong!

No, Freud was not right! Many basic tenets of Freud’s theory have been completely disproved. To name several: Psychosexual stages. The Oedipal complex. Belief that repressed memories from the first year of life can be unearthed. Sexual fantasy about intercourse with a parent is responsible for hysteria.  Even more damning, his methods and procedures cannot be called scientific, his evidence lacks scientific credibility, and what is offered as evidence was sometimes fudged, if not outright fabricated. Not surprisingly, Freud is absented from contemporary psychological pedagogy, theory and research. Claiming, “Freud is right!” is akin to shouting, “Long live the king!”; historical curiosities, both.

Key features of Freud’s theory, in addition to being wrong, are repugnant to modern sensibilities. Misogynist perspectives are integral to the theory and to the man. To name but a few of the more egregious: Penis envy. The moral inferiority of woman. Only psychosexually mature women can achieve vaginal orgasm, while orgasm by clitoral stimulation is evidence of stunted development. “Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.1

Cash Value

And yet…and yet…Freud’s influence is pervasive, profound and enduring. This may appear misguided and misinformed given the systematic disproval and pervasive disregard of his work. But his influence is deep, personal and subterranean—dare I say unconscious— insinuating itself into our daily thoughts, beliefs, decisions and conduct.

William James coined the term Cash Value to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words?”2. Freud’s work is freighted with immense metaphorical— and literal— cash value.

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Freud. His mother was Freud’s sister and his father was Freud’s wife’s brother. Born in 1891, and brought to the United States with his family in the first year of his life, Bernays injected his uncle’s insights into the very marrow and bloodstream of American culture, altering its pulse and functioning—along with the rest of the world. He did so using the unique means and methods of American culture to achieve its most valued end: Cash. Life magazine named Bernays one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.

The Darkness that Sells

Dark forces surge through us, compelling us to think, act and scheme to satisfy our primal impulses, all outside the bright lights of consciousness. Reason is a weak voice, easily overwhelmed by our desires, or employed, along with various other means, as a defense to protect us from awareness of the real, base motives that drive our thoughts and actions. This is Freud’s foundational vision of the human psyche. It is unflattering, if not repugnant, and not widely embraced. But it is a vision with inestimable cash value; one exploited by Bernays.

Edward Bernays made his fortune, fame and lasting influence by convincing people to buy things they don’t need, selling harmful products parading as health and beauty, rousing individuals to eagerly embrace slogans, and compelling them to surrender their individuality to the passions of the herd. He is considered to be the progenitor of public relations and is called “The Father of Spin”. He published a seminal book, Propaganda, that became Joseph Goebbels’ guidebook for his many Nazi propaganda campaigns, including developing the Fuhrer cult and orchestrating the genocide against the Jews.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda Poster: “He is Responsible for the War”
US Holocaust Memorial and Museum

Bernays became a highly sought, and extravagantly paid consultant to a number of leading businesses. His many successes include helping the American Tobacco Company to sell cigarettes to women, advertising them as glamorous “torches of freedom”; and aiding the United Fruit Company to sell bananas, and after the newly elected president of Guatemala threatened the business interests of United Fruit, Bernays persuaded the CIA and the US government—through rumors, innuendos, and manipulation of the press about a growing Communist menace—to overthrow the his government.

After World War II, Bernays rebranded ‘propaganda’, calling it ‘public relations’, giving it a more favorable spin. However labeled, his intent remained the same:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Bernays; Propaganda

We are more firmly in the grip of the subversive forces of marketing, ‘public relations’ and propaganda than ever. Social media, and the entire electronic universe within which we are submerged, that invades the inner most regions of our mind, are shrewdly engineered using Freud/Bernays-inspired principles to compel our attention, impel us to embrace unexamined and unwarranted conclusions, and propel us to act passionately in ways that exploit our unconscious desires—and, also, meet the explicit aims of the social engineers.3

This is a worldwide phenomenon. We are a mob. Or mobs. Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking, “liking”, chattering, texting, Instagraming, Photo-shopping, rumoring, instigating, provoking, inciting, lying, messaging, massaging, insisting, imploring; “truths” swirling in clouds blanketing the globe, marketed, managed and mined for profit—political, economic or otherwise.

The Darkness that Lurks

We, at least many of us in the US and the West, have lived in relative peace and prosperity for the last 75 years. This, a long quiescence, after nearly a half century of paroxysms of savagery, slaughter, mayhem and madness that consumed nearly the entire human race. A period that has been tamed and denuded of its horror; disconnected from us, neatly archived as World War I, WWII and the Great Depression. But archiving does not eliminate, or even diminish, the impulses that lurk in the human heart that gave rise to this bloody history. The political, economic and international structures that helped establish and maintain this quiescence, as well as the beliefs, routines and practices that buttressed public life and private affairs, are being torn down; tossed overboard. They may presage a growing whirlwind and coming storm of civilizations and their discontents.4

Freud was right…beware.

Hatred

See how efficient it is,
how it keeps itself in shape–
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.

It is not like other feelings.
At both once older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons that give it life.
When it sleeps, it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another—
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another—
whatever helps it get a running start.
Just also works well at the onset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings, listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?
When has compassion ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hard working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let’s face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You cannot deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast—between explosions and dead
quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
its leitmotif—the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it is blind. Blind?
It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

Wislawa Szymborska5

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Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box Morality

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, these are giants of moral virtue, courage and commitment. They devoted their lives, sacrificed their lives, for the cause of justice and the greater good. When we think of living an exemplar moral life, it is these lives that we look to because of their engagement of big issues that affect big changes in a multitude of lives. They overshadow our small, insignificant lives, lived in the alleyways of common life.

An equally long shadow is cast from the methods typically used to understand the nature and development of morality. The study of moral development has, for decades, used moral dilemmas to determine one’s moral stage of development. For example, the question is posed, “If you were poor and your parent had a life-threatening illness that required a drug that you could not afford, would it be acceptable to steal it?” Analysis of the reasoning involved in the answer is used to determine individuals’ “moral stage”. Philosophical inquiries into the basis and origins of morality and ethics typically pose similar moral dilemmas to expose underlying moral reasoning and values. These approaches assume that morality is exposed in events of great significance, and that reason and logic are the gateways to identifying and codify the rules of ethics.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box

I call the beliefs that morality is manifest only in the lives of great personages or in life-altering situations “Big Box” morality. It is presumed that from the flat, quotidian landscape of life, morality arises and is made manifest in singular lives and in life-defining moments. It is here where moral character is revealed. And this presumption is misguided. These singular lives and defining events, while important, are merely more pronounced features of the rich, dense moral landscape that comprise all our lives. Morality and ethics are not Big Box items. Nor are they derived from reason or deducible from logic. They are conditions of being, like breathing, where our every action is inescapably a moral one. We are, fundamentally, constitutionally, inescapably, moral.1 Not “Big Box”, but mom and pop morality.

mom & pop

I place my mother with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale in my moral pantheon of individuals I admire.  My mother, of course, is not Big Box. She, instead, underscores the absolutely essential contributions of the unheralded moms and pops. The moms and pops are all of us, not just parents, not just adults. Our lives are embedded within the moral matrix of family, friends, and communities, great and small, whose accumulated commitments form us, nurture us, bind us at the nuclear level. Moms and pops are the hands that reach from the past into the present, that constitute, stabilize, and guide us through life, and reach, though us, into the future. This occurs, not at moments of acute crisis, but at the at the everyday, ground floor of human action, care, giving and exchange.

Our daily life is a moral one, and it is only the moral currency we have earned in our life’s journey that matters:

Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last. … A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?. 2

Tribute and Remembrance

Mom

I offer this tribute to my mother and, by association, to all the moms and pops, whether parents, adults, or children, who form the collective web of moral regard that binds us together.

When my mother died we found this Bible verse, Psalm 86:11, on prominent display on her desk:

Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle in all the events of life—in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted.

Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so that I may be the only one to suffer from them.

Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so see it that it may mellow me, not harden, not embitter me.

That it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing.

May no one be less good from having come within my influence.

No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow-traveler in our journey toward eternal life.

Teach me O Lord, your way.

This is how she lived her life.

She died 5 years ago, on Good Friday, April 19, 2014.

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Field Notes: Mets

Mets is the moniker, the nickname, for the Metropolitans; a 4-letter word, a curse for the baseball team sharing the same city as the Yankees. The Mets are the yang to the Yankees yin. The Yankees are baseball royalty, aristocracy, old money. The Mets are baseball peasantry, commoners, Bernie-Madoff-bankrupt nouveau riche.1

Clowns and Costumes

Mr. Mets
New York Post

The Yankees eschew clown-mascots. The Mets’ mascot is Mr. Mets, addressed as Mr., presumably, because it dignifies the mascot; a mascot most famous for giving the finger to his fans. With a smile, of course. He was not fired for this, of course. It is noteworthy that his actions were provoked by merciless taunting from…Met fans,2 who insulted Mr. Mets’ mother (the Mascot’s mother!! And the actor in the mascot suit took personal offense?!). The press noted that Mr. Mets was not, technically, giving the middle finger, as he only has 4 fingers.

Banker Pinstripes

The Yankees wear banker pinstripes. No garish colors, or any color, here. No gaudy script across the chest to announce who they are. Just the simple Yankee logo, known worldwide; no further identification necessary. The Mets are bedecked with the colors, blue and orange, of the two teams, the Dodgers and Giants, that fled New York for greener fields of green, and whose departure left festering scabs of disappointment, loss and despair on their New York fans. The Mets keep fresh the scabs of disappointment, loss and despair in the colors that garb them, their play on the field, and the ineptitude of their boardroom. The Yankees are admired. Fans aspire to be Yankees. No such distance separates fans and team for the Mets. The Mets are us—failure, foibles, follies and all. Fans love the Mets.

Colors of Despair

Morality and Baseball

I love baseball, and love it for many, many reasons. One is because it is a morality play, where good and evil engage in mortal combat. There is a clear winner, a clear loser, and the outcome uncluttered by ambiguity. However, what makes baseball (and other sports) maddening, and despairing, is that good does not always triumph. No guarantees of victory by the righteous are issued in the sphere of baseball; it is not a Panglossian “Best of All Possible Worlds”. Indeed not, as the unrivaled success of that most evil of empires, the Yankees, attests.

Yankees’ out of Uniform

Anthropological Fieldwork

Since I have retired, I have undertaken an odyssey to visit all the baseball parks. My compulsion is not simply to see the parks, but to embark on anthropological journeys into exotic subcultures, each with their own unique architecture, food, attire, rituals, rites, heroes, history, emblems, songs and settings. And fans.

The Mets fans are fierce and tribal. Foreigners, especially National League East coasters from the competing divisional tribes, are greeted as invaders, and met with intimidation, jeering, taunting, vociferous challenges to their parental origins and legitimacy, and symbolic—and not so symbolic— threats. Warriors, asserting territorial sovereignty and protecting the sacred turf of home.

I visited the Mets stadium in the midst of a pennant race, at a game pitting the first place Washington Nationals against the beloved second place Mets. At stake was first place, and it was August, when standings and games get serious. I traveled to the stadium on the 7 train, crowed with boisterous, noisy Mets fans dressed in team shirts, hats, and the jerseys of beloved heroes. One of the most popular heroes is a current player, Noah Syndergaard, who dressed himself up as Thor, cape and all, and tweeted a picture of himself doing power swats.

Noah Syndergaard aka Thor
@noahsyndergaard

When I exited the 7 train, I walked a gauntlet of alcohol addled young men, shouting, dancing, posturing, posing, joking, and laughing; greeting the arriving throng with beer-can salutes and profanity laced exhortations. It was immediately clear: “You are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”! Or St. Louis.

The highlight (or lowlight) of my visit occurred before the game even began. A physically disabled boy was given the honor of throwing out the ceremonial “first pitch”. He was positioned about 30 feet from home with the Mets catcher poised behind the plate to receive his toss. The child gave a mighty effort and the ball bounced several times before reaching the catcher. Immediately, instinctually, reflexively, in herd-unison, the stadium erupted in a loud chorus… of boos!

I was dumbfounded and paralyzed between laughing hysterically at the absolute absurdity of what had just happened, and horror at what had just happened. As an experienced field researcher, I can offer this advice to any intrepid traveler who may plan to risk a visit to this most volatile tribe: Don’t wear pinstripes. Never volunteer to throw out the first pitch.

Baseball, Oh Beloved Baseball…

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