Against Superheroes, Chapter 22

Against SuperheroesAs I watched over the Nepalese countryside populated by small hilltop compounds, the irregular terraces of rice paddies reflected the clouds in their muddy mirrors. I had taken on a certain quality of stasis here, frozen above a jungle mountain in an envelope of mist.

I took to trying to mine my memories, to unravel these chains of semantic and temporal associations that reached back through the gray wall of my origins. It was maddeningly difficult, shifting through trapezoids of connections shot through with scientific and technical associations, and with the addition of the perspectives of the people who I had possessed, but I achieved some clarity with diligence and strain. When my mind wandered out to those rice paddies and the tiny shifting figures tending to them, or to the small vans that struggled along the high, sloppy roads, or when the focus moved to the dancing energies of the sky and moisture, I learned to return to this rummaging by counting slowly by threes or by prime numbers, up and down, the necessity of the mental acrobatics pushing the imagery back into a halo around the mathematical gears until they were finally erased, and I returned to the signals of my past.

There I was again, in graduate school, the poetic inflections of the Orphic hymns impressing me until I began writing my own inspired variations, like a composer copying and reordering works by Baroque masters. This theme of divinity, from the Vedas through to the Native American myths, from the Slavic translations to the Babylonian Baals, was always the encompassing and central element of the written and oral traditions.

And all these texts reflected a time when the human mind was only connected to one town, almost always to agriculture, subject to the whims of the seasons and the terror of sickness, and then often forced into violence by the more powerful or by passions that arose without control. The theme had played out for me as my knowledge expanded. I had tried to imagine their minds at work but I concluded that I was hopelessly analytical; they were so simple as to be incomprehensible, much like their mythologies. Yet they stuck with their stories, and retold them, and then transformed them again into derivative works.

Inanna descended into the underworld, her regal clothes lost as she floated past Earth and into the darkness below, until she was at last naked. From the great above into the great below, the seven gates of the underworld were unlocked for her as she found her sister, the Queen of the Dead, Ereshkigal. She was naked before a court of judges until she was killed by her sister. Her body was hung on a hook, crucified for the lords of the deep to observe. Then, days later, her hair swirled around her head like “leeks,” two demons took Inanna back up from the underworld but could only return her by an exchange. Inanna’s husband, Dumuzi, failed to mourn her and thus was given to the demons, but his sister offered to take his place. The seasons were born in their constant rotation through the underworld, half the year with Dumuzi in residence and the other half with Geshtinanna.

1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17…

And then we reinterpreted this, with the semantics playing about searching for semiotic purchase on angles and agendas. This was the rite of the priest and priestess, laid naked before the immensities of the gods, broken from the world and resurrected into a new relationship with the divine. Or in parallel with Persephone, abducted by Hades into the underworld, searched for from above by Demeter, until Hermes finally brought her back to the Earth. But having consumed of the pomegranate in Hades’s world, and grown to love Hades too, she would return in the winter months, only to rise back to vouchsafe the arrival of verdant spring.

There was the fruit of knowledge and the imprisoning of the mind, then in pseudo-epigraphy of the Ascension of Isaiah, and the productive association of the scene in Eden. All these entreaties and copies of one another. Superman ejected from a war in heavenly Krypton, sent to Earth to be raised as human. The power reluctantly embraced at first and then carried into the heroic conclusions. Isra and Mi’raj. The visions, the madness, the waves of belief stretched out like skin over a drum until tight and transformed from one thing into another altogether.

All of this great elevation of something other than the self, the everyday clatter of spoons against bowls, the dying of the cattle, the drunks and the fights.

Then we got into the dark spirits of the air, of animism, of sacredness and fear in a wafting of magics all around the people. This sensation that broke in was briefly trapped in apophenic illusory shadows, then drifted away like a half-remembered dream. The voices in the wind, the faces in the tree knots, the dragons in the clouds—they all arose from an impoverished sense of this infinite connectivity. I could see it now, and there was a reconciliation of the sameness I had with them and who I was. The silent walk near the stream broke the temporary summit of ordinary sensation until the voices rang in, shouted by these strange atomistic spirits.

I looked out at the hills again and there were those shadows across them, moving, like in Iceland so long ago, but only for a second, and then I saw the verdant hills alone and isolated, without that undulating spirit envelope.

19, 23, 27, 29, 31, 37…

Arguments, considerations, the epistemology of belief. I assimilated it all as precious globes, each with an individual spark, but then they shone together, some lost, some merged like soap bubbles, their cross-sections in perfect shadow of their own arcs. All the old ones had been reduced into this fantasy of fixed aspects of ideas, broken away from the irrationality and the impish impiety that occupied the young minds of man. They acted according to the shadows that were projected onto them, but with the mystery of being elsewhere, above the firmament, outside the world, beneath the fields from which they lived. They traveled through these spaces, just touching the people with their emanations in the forms of spirits of the air, rattling storms, disease and health. But they were just indicators and symbology for me, trapped in the economics of priestly castes, or the power struggles of tribal leaders, made into the controlling idolatry of peasants and kings. The nurturing of these mythologies shored up, shorn off, and collided between the warriors and their neighbors.

I labored at this scholarship. I unfolded new theories like they were fresh sheets for a spring bed. Great men, identity theory, Marxism and neo-Marxism, evolutionary psychology, ecological anthropology, diffusion, and landscape dynamics. Each was tuned and applied to the ever-present problem of why people thought what they thought as reflected in these ancient artworks, in bowls and vessels, and in rooms and jewelry. A hook on a belt became an interpretative framework that rallied an interconnection between fragmentary speculations about artisans’ growing power here, or about the changing roles of priests there. The climbing form of the hero was a striving toward the heavens, challenging the gods and leading to his downfall. The shape of a temple was a concession to the powerful, allowing for private immersion in the sacred pools away from the commoner.

The mixing and retelling of myth was as much a trade in knowledge as the Silk Road was in goods. The ideas filtered and fluxed. Persian shaitans, whisperers at court, carried forward and then into Satan, then again into the Antichrist. Meanwhile, the Hellenists brought the underworld that became Hell, their unhappy subjects transforming Tartarus into something new. And then even the tribal messiah of worldly victory of the Chosen People became just a new mythology where victory was achieved in the afterlife.

A raptor was using my cloud architecture to its advantage, soaring on the periphery as the warm air was pulled up to sustain the moisture against the cold mass above me. The black kites did this daily, though they seemed to get no tactical advantage from the action. They seemed to just enjoy the effortless flight controlled minimally with tiny variations of their finger wings.

41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71…

But there were shadows of other things. What was a laser? I couldn’t tell you. I knew it was pure light, but I had no idea. I had no idea what Inanna was, either, but she was like a human but was revered as something more. But a laser was an alien artifact with meanings filled in by circumstances, by achievements and applications. Some hippie laser light shows, flashing about to Pink Floyd, but then just a menace to pilots. Maybe the things that did something inside a CD reader, or a DVD, but I was not sure. I never was. What was the meaning of these things that I didn’t really know? The semantic cloud was a precipitate, a suspension, a collection of correlations that gradually intersected upon the real target, known only to a few scientists and engineers, but still unfolding in meaning as their uses, their threats and opportunities, unroll and there was a new becoming.

Inanna must have been like that—like the wheel that moved carts and then ground grains, then was a Ferris wheel, then a spinning bearing in a jet engine. And these gods and heroes like mere powers and sensations in the dark woods, then reimagined into people and animals, then projected into accusations of moral exhortations, and then turned back into aliens and otherworldly beings. Each wave reinforcing and strengthening the connections that people felt for them. Like lasers and gamma ray observatories. All things that transcribed the words and actions we used to explain them.

There was a vague memory from a common room, a dormitory in Arizona, rife with cigarette and pot smoke, and dim lights enhanced by blackout foil on the windows. A red laser pointer, a prism, a lighter, a cat. The cat was chasing the bloom around the carpeted floor, claws digging into the nape of the rug to make predatory darts and flinches accompanied by a rip and tear. We laughed, young all, but I could see a pointillist dance in the purity of the crimson blossom when it stopped. Later I would guess it was the empty spaces between cones in my retinas, but there, high and engaged, it was just the sensorium of feelings and giddy gameplay. Me, my friends, that instinctual play of a young feline who would devolve to feral given two days of neglect, her rippling grabs of carpeting in pursuit of the effortlessly darting red enemy. That memory emerged and held, everyone’s faces in low-wattage incandescent glows, wan to brown, eyes shaded down into indirection.

The kite dipped and rose again, then went to ground after a rodent, mouse-like and unaware of the shadow closing from above.

73, 79, 83, 89, 93, 97, 101, 103, 107…

Wait, 93 was wrong.

A laser was some light thing that I could describe but couldn’t define perfectly. No one could. We relied on professionals for that and built our reality on those definitions when we needed to. A child heard the gods were all around us. They were the makers and the source of our goods and ills, and the child looked up at the sky and into the dark waters. They must be those things motivating the clouds or the turbid whirl of currents. But then, no. The semantics shifted and the gods were something else. They were the motivations within us, the desire of our enemies to hunt and kill our tribe. But that wasn’t right, either. The gods were in the fire of the hearth and somewhere up above a metal dome holding a sky sea in juxtaposition above us: they were down in the caves of the world in mazes and molten chthonic cathedrals. But yet, the gods were within us again and were a personal relationship with a redeemer or his master. The semantics changed and resolved with the quixotic implausibility of an absurdist drama.

I would eventually be found, I knew. It had been some months since I had escaped. Jessica had been interrogated. She might be off the team, compromised. She might be imprisoned or killed. There was a guilt in that. I had done my best. I told her to confess that I had come to her. But, then, they might have overlooked her. It was impossible to know without taking a risk. Between missions they would look for me and eventually I would be found. It might be that they had developed a scanner that could zero in on me like that laser. I didn’t know, but didn’t doubt that they could do it. Their technology was almost as profound as mine, just slower and more communal.

89, 97, 101, 103, 107, 109, 113, 127…

That kite, soaring.

They did come for me, too. I made a move. I went into China in the belief that Aesir would have to confront geo-political rivalries that would give them pause. The sensitivities and increasing technical sophistication of Beijing meant that they likely already knew something about Aesir, though it would likely be a pulsing oddity on their intelligence map for America. How were we doing the things that seemed to pull the world in our favor but that looked like accidents and natural phenomena?

I swooped down on an unoccupied border station near the Aksu River. The smell of pine and flowers merged with birdsong as I landed, providing a sense of naturalism and normality. I opened the locks on the station and lifted an old-style telephone receiver off the hook, then tried dialing Jessica’s number directly. I got an automated message in Chinese that I interpreted as requiring an additional nine and three to get an outside line. My Chinese was minimal, having only spent a few weeks hovering around the Kyrgyzstan border region, watching the locals coming and going, and occasional Chinese and Western tourists hiking the rugged mountains.

It rang and went to voice mail, Jessica’s familiar voice asking for a message. That human voice and the memory trail that surrounded it snapped me back to our time in England and to the women I had known, and I slipped to the bare concrete floor beside the steel counter. I dialed again and listened to her voice, but left no message. That flood of imagery pulled me again, and I found myself crying there and the transference of all the materials around me, of the vibrations of the mountains and the shifting expectations of the animals in the valley below, folded away from me like a buzzing in the head that gives way to sleep. I rested there for hours, then flew back up to a cloudy mountaintop and willed myself into a deep state of quiescence.

Time passed—weeks—and then there was an awakening. Brilliant sunlight seemed to be piercing through my man-made storm, cutting away at the clouds. I stirred and expanded my awareness toward the light and there was a shield that stopped me completely. They had arrived, I realized. I thought about fleeing but I knew that they would just find me again, so I evaporated all the clouds and saw Nemesis for the first time. He was a small, dark mote in a halo of light and fire less than a mile away. The fire boiled around like the chromosphere of the sun, orange networks of churning shadows flitting over the halo of energy. It shuddered and raced toward me.

I pulled a wave of ice and snow from the air and created a shield before me, the mass congealing into a hard wall more than thirty feet in thickness in just a few seconds, but Nemesis shaped his fireball into a spike and impaled the center of the mass. I still could not see into him and even his corona of energy was impenetrable to my mental probing. I flew downward and into a bright green lake snuggled between high peaks. I could move quickly under the water by maintaining a torpedo-like air bubble around me and boiling the water around it, creating an underwater jet that shot me across the clear bottom of the mountain lake. Minimal water plants hovered around me and I slowed, feeling the chill of a current and following it to its source in a canyon.

I flew up out of the water and behind a waterfall. There was a small, wet cave there, carved out by the endless action of the water splashing over a granite overhang forty feet up. I waited for hours but nothing happened. I reached out my mental faculties to sense the world around me, probing at the limit where the vibratory essences of matter become frayed and foggy, like looking through the haze of the waterfall. There was the mass, hovering still over the center of the lake. Nemesis was waiting.

I realized I needed to probe his powers—not just run away—if I was going to be able to confront him and, ultimately, Aesir. I wondered briefly if I could arrange a truce, but my ability to trust them was largely gone since they had imprisoned me for a second time. There was also the likelihood that Nemesis would be needed for other missions and that I could run and wait him out. I ultimately abandoned these thoughts. I still needed to probe his capabilities and understand mine. I had manipulated thoughts and weather, but also heavier materials when close enough. I also felt like I could see time and shift it, and that my powers ultimately derived from those imperceptible opportunities that lurked between moments.

I flew up rapidly and tried to pull as many boulders out of the wash of the cataract as I could. A dozen rose with me, ranging in size from a small car to a dishwasher. I had never tried this before but it was only straining me in coordinating their motions. A piece fell off one boulder as it shivered and cracked, and I couldn’t catch it in time. As it hit the water below I saw Nemesis in his distant ring of fire. He rocketed toward me and I began rotating the boulders around me, testing my coordination. He once again narrowed his fire into a sharp spike as he approached, and I expanded my ring of stones, then hurled them simultaneously at him in a converging cone. He deviated his flame toward the largest of the rocks, hitting it with scorching ferocity that pushed back against my will. I tried to propel it forward, but it immediately reached a stasis point between his fire and my efforts. My other weapons did not pause, however, and I watched him snap out of his position as one of the rocks grazed him, then another. He relented against the largest rock, then, and it surged forward.

Nemesis pulled his fire back, and I could feel the limits of the sphere around him. He was using it as a shield by boiling the air with such ferocity that the remaining rocks deflected from the surface. Still, he appeared weakened and smaller. I pulled the rocks back around me and felt stronger. He retreated until he was a small circle of orange. More bits of my stones crumbed and dropped into the lake below. Minutes passed and then he came at me again. His fire was a flat disk around him, like the rings around the planet Saturn. It was pulsing to blue at the leading edge. I raised my rocks up above the plane of his ring and swung them at him, but he began spinning his ring, knocking the rocks away and bursting several of the smaller ones when pockets of moisture trapped inside them vented into cracks and shattered them into sharp pieces. I was left with only three, and he continued forward.

I hardened myself against contact as I had done before, forcing myself to drop control of my remaining rocks. The blue fire, when it hit me, was strange. It was not pain, but was like a tremor racing over the surface of my skin. The artifact began throbbing, and I felt my hair shatter despite my protective armoring, then burn in a brief flash of green. I closed my eyes and focused on protection and stillness, but the tremor was growing in intensity, moving into my bones and center. I wasn’t sure I could withstand much more, so I tried to mentally reach around the wave of energy, seeking holes in his armor, like I had done before in response to the field generator at Aesir.

This time this effort must have only lasted a few brief moments, I surmised in retrospect, but it was alarmingly long from the inside. I finally found a hint of purchase, a distortion in his protective field. His head was a steel ball, likely protected by a micro-shield, but its extension over his torso and into his arms and legs diminished with distance.

I grabbed his foot and flung him straight down into the lake with sufficient force that lake water splashed around me two hundred feet above, followed by a wave of steam as his fire powers were quenched. I rose up higher and gathered a swaddling of storms around me. A blossom of churning water spread out over the center of the lake. It continued for a minute and then a pink glow began to solidify in the center of the storm, turning deeper red as the massive boiling bubbles rose up out of the lake. And then another spike of fire shot up with new ferocity and speed. I dodged but it followed me, tracking like a homing missile as it sliced through the clouds, dissipating my cocoon of rain into hot fog.

I was hit again and again, thrown upward and stunned. I could see just orange and white as tiny bubbles crowded across my eyes. I closed them and reassembled my powers as I shot up over the mountain range in a parabolic trajectory at the tip of his fiery spike. I could feel the tendrils of heat split and move around to grasp me, then, and he began to throw me down toward the mountainside. I reached out again toward Nemesis, feeling along the spout of flame, but he was too far away. And in that action, I wasted precious moments and smashed into the rock and earth of the peak. A few scraggly pines evaporated in the vortex of heat around me and then, as I slid beneath the ground, propelled by the tentacle of fire, the heat vanished and was replaced with still solidity.

I seemed intact but dazed. He had used distance to protect himself and, likely, would not expose his full profile to me again, knowing that I could get at his extremities. I had to find another way and he would then find a counter to my efforts. I cycled through the options I had while feigning immobility. I could sense that I was about fifteen feet into the mountain wall. The fiery impact had set the mountainside ablaze, with low, dry brush carrying the fire up a nearby ravine. If I were right, he would keep his distance and observe for a while, fearful of getting too close. He couldn’t confirm my destruction, however, without a body or visual identification. A body was probably the requested result, however. Aesir suspected I was immortal and extremely durable, so they had to have another plan than just beating me up with fire.

I waited several more minutes and then began swirling clouds around the mountain until a rain deluge quenched the fire. I turned in my dirt grave and pressed the walls away from me, feeling the earthworms and insects move with the earthen walls.

I still could not sense Nemesis out around the mountain. I began driving hot air from below, near the ground, up into the rain mass. I separated the clouds into competing groups and started sliding them up and across one another, building a range of electrical potential in the masses. And then, with millisecond suddenness, I shot out of the hole and pulled lightning from the clouds until I had created a swirling ball of energy that looked like a neon swarm of eels darting in a frenzy.

Nemesis was across the lake, almost a mile away. He was surrounded again by fire but appeared to be waiting. I sensed something else, too. An aircraft was further behind him, circling slowly and using some kind of vectored thrust to maintain a slow, hovering path. The plane was dark and there were long, black tendrils like antennas drifting below it in the jet wash. They had a more comprehensive plan, I realized, but I didn’t feel prepared for it. I shot up, propelling myself into the upper atmosphere. I would escape for now. I had been to the edge of space before when at the Oasis. I had found it beautiful but eerie, with the lifting of the constant pressure of air and moisture creating a quiet that I never had among the voluble minds and Brownian molecules of the world.

I could see night moving toward the coast of China from here and flew north through Russia. I looked back and there was nothing, no point of flame following me through the faint remnants of air. Soon I was over the arctic sea, the icepack glistening beneath hovering drapes of northern lights. It reminded me of Iceland. I landed on an iceberg drifting in the cold ocean and settled my thoughts again.

1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17…

Desire and Other Matters

From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons
From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons

“What matters?” is a surprisingly interesting question. I think about it constantly since it weighs-in whenever plotting future choices, though often I seem to be more autopilot than consequentialist in these conceptions. It is an essential first consideration when trying to value one option versus another. I can narrow the question a bit to “what ideas matter?” This immediately externalizes the broad reality of actions that meaningfully improve lives, like helping others, but still leaves a solid core of concepts that are valued more abstractly. Does the traditional Western liberal tradition really matter? Do social theories? Are less intellectually-embellished virtues like consistency and trust more relevant and applicable than notions like, well, consequentialism?

Maybe it amounts to how to value certain intellectual systems against others?

Some are obviously more true than others. So “dowsing belief systems” are less effective in a certain sense than “planetary science belief systems.” Yet there are a broader range of issues at work.

But there are some areas of the liberal arts that have a vexing relationship with the modern mind. Take linguistics. The field ranges from catalogers of disappearing languages to theorists concerned with how to structure syntactic trees. Among the latter are the linguists who have followed Noam Chomsky’s paradigm that explains language using a hierarchy of formal syntactic systems, all of which feature recursion as a central feature. What is interesting is that there have been very few impacts of this theory. It is very simple at its surface: languages are all alike and involve phrasal groups that embed in deep hierarchies. The specific ways in which the phrases and their relative embeddings take place may differ among languages, but they are alike in this abstract way.

And likewise we have to ask what the impact is of scholarship like René Girard’s theory of mimesis. The theory has a Victorian feel about it: a Freudian/Jungian essential psychological tendency girds all that we know, experience, and see. Violence is the triangulation of wanton desire as we try to mimic one another. That triangulation was suppressed—sublimated, if you will—by sacrifice that refocused the urge to violence on the sacrificial object. It would be unusual for such a theory to rise above the speculative scholarship that only queasily embraces empiricism without some prodding.

But maybe it is enough that ideas are influential at some level. So we have Ayn Rand, liberally called-out by American economic conservatives, at least until they are reminded of Rand’s staunch atheism. And we have Peter Thiel, from PayPal mafia to recent Gawker lawsuits, justifying his Facebook angel round based on Girard’s theory of mimesis. So we are all slaves of our desires to like, indirectly, a bunch of crap on the internet. But at least it is theoretically sound.

Theories of Leisure, Past and Future

img_0028I am at leisure. Specifically—and many may not regard this as leisure—I just ran 17.71 miles in Yosemite Valley. I dropped the car along the road near the 41 junction and then just started running. I went south for a while, then circled back to Bridalveil Falls (lightly flowing), then up to the Glacier Point loop, then back down to El Capitan, then up to Yosemite Falls (not flowing). Lunch was at the Village and then I tracked down the car again.

Now, then, I am at leisure. The barman has set me up with a martini. I have a Fresno Fig flatbread on the way: goat cheese, bacon, arugula, and the critical figs. I am showered all the way down to between my toes. The late afternoon light is filtering through a mild haze onto the muddy belly of the lake. There must be bass out there somewhere. Let the bass live. Let them be at leisure.

A must-read on this topic is Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article, The Free-Time Paradox in America. I don’t agree with the thesis, though. It’s not really a paradox. It’s just an unknown. You should read Derek’s original, but I will comment briefly on some of his points. He argues that John Maynard Keynes forecast a reduction in work requirements by the 21st Century. Mechanization would take the drudgery out of most things and we would get to 15 hour work weeks with the management of our leisure time an increasing burden on us.

The present didn’t work out that way.

Instead, educated high-earners work ever harder. The only leisure class is the non-college-educated male youth who don’t work much these days but instead play video games (75% of their spare time) and are happier than when more of them worked. Derek rolls up several theories about why this might be the case. First, maybe it’s because the industry jobs disappeared and young men don’t like to work in retail and health care. Second, perhaps it’s because the wealthy workers are trying to keep up with the Joneses, though not exactly in the way that the Thorstein Veblen imagined it. Instead of conspicuous consumption, it is conspicuous activity. Finally, maybe it’s because work and leisure have blurred too much; entertaining ourselves on our smartphones is just too close to responding to an email from work.

I agree partly with the suggestion that economic productivity can be a very high level of creative action that is implicit in some of Derek’s commentary. Is there really much difference between landscape design and watercolor painting? Both require an understanding of materials and methods that result in an aesthetic outcome, though the former has more of a pragmatic impact than the latter. Is this a significant deviation from past economic efforts? Perhaps. The modern startup doesn’t have the dark satanic mills of the past, and is based, generally, on technological advances that are intellectually interesting. Sometimes this was the case historically, but not consistently.

Ultimately, what constitutes leisure activities rather than productive activities is inherently blurry. I suppose the golfing set might claim otherwise, but I do work-related thinking while running, and may intertwine writing efforts with other actions without harm to either of them. Leisure is fungible.

The future of leisure is similarly fungible. We can guess that virtual gaming will be even more compelling than existing gaming options, pulling young men and others even further away from engagement with the traditional economic sphere. Yet, even here there are opportunities: toolkits for virtual world design, the designs themselves, monetizing the experiences in compelling ways. Even my Yosemite experience can be virtualized. Fly drones around, mapping and imagining every square inch in ultra-4K resolution. Yes, drones are currently illegal in National Parks, but they could be used by licensed content producers, I’m guessing. Then everyone could fly, run, hike, walk, boat, and swim this little, leisurely experience.

I am at leisure.

Subtly Motivating Reasoning

larson-sheepContinuing on with the general theme of motivated reasoning, there are some rather interesting results reported in New Republic, here. Specifically, Ian Anson from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, found that political partisans reinforced their perspectives on the state of the U.S. economy more strongly when they were given “just the facts” rather than a strong partisan statement combined with the facts. Even when the partisan statements aligned with their own partisan perspectives, the effect held.

The author concludes that people, in constructing their views of the causal drivers of the economy, believe that they are unbiased in their understanding of the underlying mechanisms. The barefaced partisan statements interrupt that construction process, perhaps, or at least distract from it. Dr. Anson points out that subtly manufacturing consent therefore makes for better partisan fellow travelers.

There are a number of theories concerning how meanings must get incorporated into our semantic systems, and whether the idea of meaning itself is as good or worse than simply discussing reference. More, we can rate or gauge the uncertainty we must have concerning complex systems. They seem to form a hierarchy, with actors in our daily lives and the motivations of those we have long histories with in the mostly-predictable camp. Next we may have good knowledge about a field or area of interest that we have been trained in. When this framework has a scientific basis, we also rate our knowledge as largely reliable, but we also know the limits of that knowledge. It is in predictive futures and large-scale policy that we become subject to the difficulty of integrating complex signals into a cohesive framework. The partisans supply factoids and surround them with causal reasoning. We weigh those against alternatives and hold them as tentative. But then we have to exist in a political life, as well, and it’s not enough to just proclaim our man or woman or party as great and worthy of our vote and love, we must also justify that consideration.

I speculate now that it may be possible to wage war against partisan bias by employing the exact methods described as effective by Dr. Anson. Specifically, if in any given presentation of economic data there was one fact presented that appeared to undermine the partisan position otherwise described by the data, would it lead to a general weakening of the mental model in the reader’s head? For instance, compare the following two paragraphs:

The unemployment rate has decreased from a peak of 10% in 2009 to 4.7% in June of 2016. This rate doesn’t reflect the broader, U-6, rate of nearly 10% that includes the underemployed and others who are not seeking work. Wages have been down or stagnant over the same period.


The unemployment rate has decreased from a peak of 10% in 2009 to 4.7% in June of 2016. This rate doesn’t reflect the broader, U-6, rate of nearly 10% that includes the underemployed and others who are not seeking work. Wages have been down or stagnant over the same period even while consumer confidence and spending has risen to an 11-month high.

The second paragraph adds an accurate but upbeat and contradictory signal to the more subtle gloom of the first paragraph. Of course, partisan hacks will naturally avoid doing this kind of thing. Marketers and salespeople don’t let the negative signals creep in if they can avoid it, but I would guess that a subtle contradiction embedded in the signal would disrupt the conspiracy theorists and the bullshit artists alike.

Startup Next

I’m thrilled to announce my new startup, Like Human. The company is focused on making significant new advances to the state of the art in cognitive computing and artificial intelligence. We will remain a bit stealthy for another six months or so and then will open up shop for early adopters.

I’m also pleased to share with you Like Human’s logo that goes by the name Logo McLogoface, or LM for short. LM combines imagery from nuclear warning signs, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I think you will agree about Mr. McLogoface’s agreeability:


You can follow developments at @likehumancom on Twitter, and I will make a few announcements here as well.

Euhemerus and the Bullshit Artist

trump-minotaurSailing down through the Middle East, past the monuments of Egypt and the wild African coast, and then on into the Indian Ocean, past Arabia Felix, Euhemerus came upon an island. Maybe he came upon it. Maybe he sailed. He was perhaps—yes, perhaps; who can say?—sailing for Cassander in deconstructing the memory of Alexander the Great. And that island, Panchaea, held a temple of Zeus with a written history of the deeds of men who became the Greek gods.

They were elevated, they became fixed in the freckled amber of ancient history, their deeds escalated into myths and legends. And, likewise, the ancient tribes of the Levant brought their El and Yah-Wah, and Asherah and Baal, and then the Zoroastrians influenced the diaspora in refuge in Babylon, until they returned and had found dualism, elemental good and evil, and then reimagined their origins pantheon down through monolatry and into monotheism. These great men and women were reimagined into something transcendent and, ultimately, barely understandable.

Even the rational Yankee in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court realizes almost immediately why he would soon rule over the medieval world as he is declared a wild dragon when presented to the court. He waits for someone to point out that he doesn’t resemble a dragon, but the medieval mind does not seem to question the reasonableness of the mythic claims, even in the presence of evidence.

So it goes with the human mind.

And even today we have Fareed Zakaria justifying his use of the term “bullshit artist” for Donald Trump. Trump’s logorrhea is punctuated by so many incomprehensible and contradictory statements that it becomes a mythic whirlwind. He lets slip, now and again, that his method is deliberate:

DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

Bullshit artist is the modern way of saying what Euhemerus was trying to say in his fictional “Sacred History.” Yet we keep getting entranced by these coordinated maelstroms of utter crap, from World Net Daily to Infowars to Fox News to Rush Limbaugh. Only the old Steven Colbert could contend with it through his own bullshit mythical inversion. Mockery seems the right approach, but it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the conspiratorial mind.

Motivation, Boredom, and Problem Solving

shatteredIn the New York Times Stone column, James Blachowicz of Loyola challenges the assumption that the scientific method is uniquely distinguishable from other ways of thinking and problem solving we regularly employ. In his example, he lays out how writing poetry involves some kind of alignment of words that conform to the requirements of the poem. Whether actively aware of the process or not, the poet is solving constraint satisfaction problems concerning formal requirements like meter and structure, linguistic problems like parts-of-speech and grammar, semantic problems concerning meaning, and pragmatic problems like referential extension and symbolism. Scientists do the same kinds of things in fitting a theory to data. And, in Blachowicz’s analysis, there is no special distinction between scientific method and other creative methods like the composition of poetry.

We can easily see how this extends to ideas like musical composition and, indeed, extends with even more constraints that range from formal through to possibly the neuropsychology of sound. I say “possibly” because there remains uncertainty on how much nurture versus nature is involved in the brain’s reaction to sounds and music.

In terms of a computational model of this creative process, if we presume that there is an objective function that governs possible fits to the given problem constraints, then we can clearly optimize towards a maximum fit. For many of the constraints there are, however, discrete parameterizations (which part of speech? which word?) that are not like curve fitting to scientific data. In fairness, discrete parameters occur there, too, especially in meta-analyses of broad theoretical possibilities (Quantum loop gravity vs. string theory? What will we tell the children?) The discrete parameterizations blow up the search space with their combinatorics, demonstrating on the one hand why we are so damned amazing, and on the other hand why a controlled randomization method like evolutionary epistemology’s blind search and selective retention gives us potential traction in the face of this curse of dimensionality. The blind search is likely weakened for active human engagement, though. Certainly the poet or the scientist would agree; they are using learned skills, maybe some intellectual talent of unknown origin, and experience on how to traverse the wells of improbability in finding the best fit for the problem. This certainly resembles pre-training in deep learning, though on a much more pervasive scale, including feedback from categorical model optimization into the generative basis model.

But does this extend outwards to other ways in which we form ideas? We certainly know that motivated reasoning is involved in key aspects of our belief formation, which plays strongly into how we solve these constraint problems. We tend to actively look for confirmations and avoid disconfirmations of fit. We positively bias recency of information, or repeated exposures, and tend to only reconsider in much slower cycles.

Also, as the constraints of certain problem domains become, in turn, extensions that can result in change—where there is a dynamic interplay between belief and success—the fixity of the search space itself is no longer guaranteed. Broad human goals like the search for meaning are an example of that. In come complex human factors, like how boredom correlates with motivation and ideological extremism (overview, here, journal article, here).

This latter data point concerning boredom crosses from mere bias that might preclude certain parts of a search space into motivation that focuses it, and that optimizes for novelty seeking and other behaviors.

Soul Optimization

Against SuperheroesI just did a victory lap around wooden columns in my kitchen and demanded high-fives all around: Against Superheroes is done. Well, technically it just topped the first hurdle.  Core writing is complete at 100,801 words. I will now do two editorial passes and then send it to my editor for clean-up. Finally, I’ll get some feedback from my wife before sending it out for independent review.

I try to write according to a daily schedule but I have historically been an inconsistent worker. I track everything using a spreadsheet and it doesn’t look pretty:


Note the long gaps. The gaps are problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that I have to go back and read everything again to return to form. The gaps arrive with excuses, then get amplified by more excuses, then get massaged into to-do lists, and then always get resolved by unknown forces. Maybe they are unknowable.

The one consistency that I have found is that I always start strong and finish strong, bursts of enthusiasm for the project arriving with runner’s high on the trail, or while waiting in traffic. The plot thickets open to luxuriant fields. When I’m in the gap periods I distract myself too easily, finding the deep research topics an easy way to justify an additional pause of days, then weeks, sometimes months.

I guess I should resolve to find my triggers and work to overcome these tendencies, but I’m not certain that it matters. There is no rush, and those exuberant starts and ends are perhaps enough of a reward that no deeper optimization of my soul is needed.

Quantum Field Is-Oughts

teleologySean Carroll’s Oxford lecture on Poetic Naturalism is worth watching (below). In many ways it just reiterates several common themes. First, it reinforces the is-ought barrier between values and observations about the natural world. It does so with particular depth, though, by identifying how coarse-grained theories at different levels of explanation can be equally compatible with quantum field theory. Second, and related, he shows how entropy is an emergent property of atomic theory and the interactions of quantum fields (that we think of as particles much of the time) and, importantly, that we can project the same notion of boundary conditions that result in entropy into the future resulting in a kind of effective teleology. That is, there can be some boundary conditions for the evolution of large-scale particle systems that form into configurations that we can label purposeful or purposeful-like. I still like the term “teleonomy” to describe this alternative notion, but the language largely doesn’t matter except as an educational and distinguishing tool against the semantic embeddings of old scholastic monks.

Finally, the poetry aspect resolves in value theories of the world. Many are compatible with descriptive theories, and our resolution of them is through opinion, reason, communications, and, yes, violence and war. There is no monopoly of policy theories, religious claims, or idealizations that hold sway. Instead we have interests and collective movements, and the above, all working together to define our moral frontiers.