Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Death and Dualism

My stepmother Fran is in the hospital, close to death. My bio-parents died a long time ago, so she՚s pretty important to me.

I՚ve long had a sort of intellectualized view of death: that it should be no big deal, that it is an essential part of life so we might as well get used to it, that there is no sense fretting about something that is inevitable. This is not an entirely puerile stance. Too much obsession with death is pathological and we should focus our attention on the living. But still – the reality of death is the prototype of That Which Cannot be Intellectualized Away. It takes away something you love and when it is gone it is gone for good, and we are all share the same fate sooner or later. To be human is to live with that reality, to trivialize it is a false sort of sophistication.

I like to go on about embodiment, and sometimes fancy myself a preacher to the rationalists, who think they will conquer death through science, eg by freezing their heads or uploading their software to a better medium than flesh. I will get them to accept the reality of our messy, finite, creaturely existence, goes this fantasy. Well, I haven՚t exactly given up on that, but today I am aware of the downside of embodiment, of having a mind that is inextricably intertwined with a decaying body. Frankly, it sucks, and perhaps my sniffiness at their dreams of immortality is another form of false sophistication. By all means, let us figure out how to break the mind-body connection for good. Even a small hope of keeping us out the grinding maw of old age and death may be worth a shot.

Anybody who believes that you can decant the soul out of the body and put it in a different substrate is a mind/body dualist,  exactly as much as any religious person who believes in an afterlife. I՚m pretty sure that both are wrong in some fundamental way, but right now want to acknowledge whatever truth there is in such beliefs. There is something immaterial about our being, although if you just look at an isolated individual you can՚t see it. We are to some extent a set of roles, stories, relationships, shared experiences, all things which are implemented in our biological hardware but are not rigidly bound to any one body. All those parts live on after death, in a sort of symbolic half-life, embodied as memories in other minds. It՚s not much perhaps, but it՚s not nothing. Whether our immaterial part is soul or software, the purely mechanical view of the mind leaves it out, and the failure of the mechanical part of a person leaves behind whatever that other stuff is.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Geometry has Politics

So today our company moved to newer more spacious digs. When I joined a year ago they were housed in a storefront on Castro Street, and the building was kinda funky in both good and bad ways. The company is growing at an alarming rate, and growing up, so requires a more business-like environment.

I was happy to snag myself a cubicle, because the alternative was a desk in a big open-plan area with no isolation from the environment whatsoever. This type of work environment is of course extremely trendy at tech companies, for reasons that elude me. It virtually guarantees extra distractions to people trying to do work that requires focus and concentration. I guess it՚s supposed to promote communication or being more Borg-like or something like that, but I just can՚t see it.

Anyway, by pure coincidence I also happened today to listen to this episode of 99% Invisible, which is my current favorite podcast. It tells the story of “Austrian artist and designer Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (which translates to “Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters” in German)”.
The time has come for people to rebel against confinement in cubicle construction like prisoners or rabbits in cages, a confinement which is alien to human nature.
Hundertwasser is known for his Dr. Seuss-like structures that implement his principles, and are anything but cubicular.

The idea that geometries have politics, and that the straight line and right angle are tools of The Man, is not new. The geodesic dome builders of the 60s had the same meme and liked to go around quoting the line from Black Elk Speaks: “there can be no power in a square”. Of course he was wrong about that; the squares seem to be winning, at least in the medium term.

But it is kind of weird. Does the cultural split between left and right, or authoritarian and rebel, or whatever it is, really extend so far into what basic geometric primitives you prefer? Apparently so. But I realize that while it seems weird to my nerd-brain, such correlations are the basic raw materials for other fields like architecture and graphic design, where the job is to create artifacts that manipulate human feelings and the tools are largely geometrical. Why should I be surprised to find a tight interweaving of geometry with aesthetics and politics, since those two things are present in virtually everything?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Reading Recommendations for Rationalists

Here are a couple of somewhat congruent interactions between the deeply idealistic rationalist community and myself in the role of cynical old bastard.

(1) I was at a LessWrong event the other night where Ethan Dickinson spoke on social interactions and the problems that can arise and various ways of dealing with them. Here՚s the blurb:
Imagine a world where people cannot truly know each other. Miscommunication abounds. Well-intentioned remarks offend, while obvious truths are hidden or denied. Certain actions are deemed admirable by some, yet annoying or abhorrent by others. Entire communities enter into downward spirals of evaporative cooling, unproductive bickering, and bitter tribalized feuding.

This is the dystopian mindscape we find ourselves in when we fall prey to the biases and heuristics surrounding mental modeling and communication. What are these flaws in our understanding of each other? Is there a realistic path of self-improvement that can lead us to become better predictors and communicators? Can individual-level skills be parlayed into community-wide improvement?
My very immediate reaction to the first sentence was, wait, what other kind of world is there? Maybe the failure of imagination is mine, but I cannot imagine a world where we “truly know each other”, or even truly know ourselves for that matter. One thing you can say for humans, they are complex, and even for the people we know very well, there are always untapped depths.

But let՚s assume that we don՚t take “truly” overly literally. In fact, delete that sentence and I can՚t find anything objectionable at all. Still, I am not sure the idea of accurate representation of other people is the right model for human communication, any more than accurate physical cosmology is the right model for religion. Religion is about participating in ritual community; the truth of the words of a prayer have very little to do with it. And ordinary human communication also has a ritual quality to it, it is about expressing emotions; satisfying needs; finding, signalling, and reinforcing political/tribal realities; passing moral judgement; or simply enacting social roles. People interacting are only incidentally building more accurate models of each other; there is usually something else going on, and that something else has to be recognized and acknowledged.

My reading recommendation: All of Erving Goffman՚s work on strategic social interaction. Start with “On Cooling the Mark Out” and for more, see books like Interaction Ritual and Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

(2) Here՚s Scott Alexander making a typically lengthy and tightly-written fret about the fact that people use all sorts of irrational techniques to reinforce their beliefs, that tribalism is both a cause and a consequence of all sorts of questionable kinds of reasoning, and that lot of what should be rational debate is actually just mindless cheerleading for your side or hatred of the other side.
I hate to argue with him because he is so accurate in his diagnoses and so high-minded in his solutions. But essentially he wants human nature to change, for everybody to put down their emotion-based alliances and think objectively, which in cases like these mean among other things being able to empathetically take the viewpoint of an opponent.

As in the first case, this seems like a great idea but in some respects it misses the point of political speech, which is not primarily about reasoned debate and more about forming coalitions of power.

My reading recommendation: All of Bruno Latour՚s work on the politics of knowledge, starting with Science in Action. Also his bit on Socrates and Callicles in the more recent Pandora՚s Hope.

(3) Both rationalists that I am riffing off of are disturbed by the negative effects of emotion and power in human affairs. Rationality is seen as a corrective, a way of thinking (and being) that is at least in part insulated from such destructive forces. As a goal, that seems hard to argue with. But it may be that emotion and power are too fundamental to human behavior to be papered over by the rather thin layer of rationality available to us.
One could make an argument that these authors are actually more in tune with a certain kind of rationalism than positing a more naive sort of default agreeability. After all, there is no a priori reason why one agent in a conversation or other social relation should have the same goals as any other agent. Presumably they are out for themselves, and if they can find common cause, that՚s wonderful, but it՚s an achievement that has to be accounted for. And in all likelihood not as stable an achievement as we might like. So a properly rich rationalism would treat human interaction as more goal-oriented than accuracy-oriented.

The authors I am recommending have something in common: they both, in quite different ways, try to deal with the reality that humans are power- and status-seeking creatures well before they are truth- and comity-seeking. And whatever success they have at the latter is built using the machinery developed for the former. Latour and Goffmann both have developed a rich set of methods for describing the relationship between power and knowledge: Goffman applies the vocabulary of drama to ordinary life, and Latour merrily dispenses with normal ontological distinctions so he can describe power alliances between people, ideas, machinery, and nature. Conflict is an essential part of their world-pictures: people and other things have their own interests, the world is a chaos of competing interests, not a well-behaved unity.

This point of view may seem superficially cynical. But the depth of these authors՚ intellectual humanism elevates their work above mere cynicism. It is clear that despite seeing the often dirty and ugly machinery that underlies cognition and society, they still retain fondness for humans and their complex processes. And my argument for reading them is not based on either cynicism or idealism, but realism. They add a layer of depth to our understanding of human social processes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Emacs hack: yank URL from Chrome (on Mac)

Damn is this going to be useful:

(defun yank-chrome-url ()
 "Yank current URL from Chrome"
  (require 'apples-mode)
  (apples-do-applescript "tell application \"Google Chrome\"
 get URL of active tab of first window
end tell"
    #'(lambda (url status script)
        ;; comes back with quotes which we strip off
        (insert (subseq url 1 (1- (length url)))))))

I suppose I should have separate blogs for stupid hacks and Deep Contemplations of the Nature of Things, but who has the time to manage multiple web presences?

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Lambda the ultimate incantation

I endorse this:
Thus, I believe it is possible...to understand programming languages as the latest instance of a dream and set of technologies developed by mystics, alchemists, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. These languages do not just represent things, they also do things in the world. They are both symbolic and material in form. They are central to the disenchantment of the world and, simultaneously, the substrate for a "reenchantment of the world." They are, to sacrilegiously misappropriate the lexicon of the Catholic Church, "the word incarnate." Programming languages melt the boundaries between science and religion because they are an unholy union of the two.
-- Warren Sack, The Software Arts (forthcoming)

(for more on this project, see here).

Computation is the intersection of quite a few different things: science and religion, mathematics and language, engineering and psychology, and more. I don't know that these unions are exactly unholy, but let's just say they tend to have relationship problems.

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Sacred and the Rational

At Burning Man, the Temple of Grace was something like the sacral center to the whole chaotic affair, an oasis of silence and tranquility amidst the noise, a place of meditation, where people went to commemorate and mourn the dead.

I made quite a few visits there, but my first was in the company of some friends, including the one who diagnosed irony in my dancing. He՚s a big-time rationalist, and I had an urge to start an argument/discussion with him there, to grill him on what the rationalist idea of the sacred was, how these two things were supposed to co-exist in his worldview. I did not do this, because that very urge seemed to go against the mood of the place, it would have been an attempt to generate heat and words in a place of calm and quiet. He (I assume) makes his own peace between reason and sacrality, and why should I trouble that peace at that moment? Quieting mental chatter, internal and external, also seems to go hand-in-hand with the sacred.

But I couldn՚t help mull over the opposition in my own mind, and am apparaently still doing so. Reason wants to break down and analyze and measure everything, the sacred exists outside all of that. The sacred is definitionally beyond reason, beyond all forms of contaminating human inquisition. It is that which demands the highest respect, and in that sense is the same for all religions and rituals. You don՚t have to believe in any particular god or creed to recognize it, and if you aren՚t a jerk you respect other people՚s sense of the sacred even when you disagree with their beliefs. It is that which can՚t be argued with. My own tendency to argue with everything gets put on hold (partially and temporarily) in its presence.

It is almost Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and I am going to go be part of that (with the usual doubt and reluctance that apparently doesn՚t matter all that much). Ritual tunes up your relationship with the sacred. It is apparently something I need to do; probably something most people need to do.

Given our multicultural society there is not much that is held universally sacred. The minimal sacred object is personhood, the inner core of every person that deserves respect no matter how wrong, assholic, or fucked up they happen to be. That may not be enough, there is something about the sacred that demands public ritual. But it՚s better than nothing.

Previous Yom Kippur-related posts also seem to touch on this notion of that which is beyond language and reason. Hm. I am getting almost tediously repetitive. Maybe I need to call it a ritual.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Trip Report

So I went to Burning Man for the first time, and it was quite as amazing and overwhelming as I had hoped. I don՚t think I՚m going to go into details here. But I have to note that the fundamental thing about this event, which everybody knows but is not often made explicit, is that the whole thing is conceived, designed, built, and populated by people who are tripping balls most of the time (with exceptions). Black Rock City thus mirrors one of the more interesting phenomena of drug use: that a mind (or city) can be completely fucked up and yet still manage to perform most of the necessary operations to sustain daily life. I can՚t quite explain how this works, but in both cases it seems to say something about the robustness of the system architecture, for lack of a better term. A normal computer, by contrast, can՚t tolerate even a single component going wrong.

So having BM in an extremely hostile desert environment is something of a feature. Normal routines of survival are broken down, creating the necessity and opportunity of inventing other ones, that are more improvisational and more distributed. people or things getting fucked up are an occasion to fix them. There are always paths forward, generally not the ones you intended five minutes ago.

Here՚s the calling card I designed for myself beforehand (which, like me, may be a little too intellectual-jokey for the scene):

In that vein, my favorite moment (not the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, but the one that seemed most attuned to my own personal idiosyncrasies) was when I was out riding around with some friends, and we came to a small public square with a large purple phallic sculpture, climbable of course. So I climbed up and poked my head out and started dancing around, yelling look at me, I՚m a sperm. My friend shouted at me (from 30՚ away at least) to “stop dancing ironically, dance for real”. I have no idea what that meant, yet I successfully complied.

On the other hand, the heat, the nonstop electro-rave-whatever music that made it impossible to sleep, and the undertones of hippie self-satisfaction would occasionally combine to make me hate the place. I was hanging out with some much younger people and trying to follow their party schedule did a number on my aging body that՚s going to take a while to recover from. I think it was worth it.

I had multiple camera failures so have no pictures of my own, but on the other hand there is the upside that I didn't spend the whole time viewing things through a lens. A couple of good photo sets here and here. But (and I apologize to my readers for saying this) none of that captures the actuality of being there.