Monday, September 01, 2014

Circular Time, Julian Jaynes, Greg Cochran

Back to Circular Time again.  Briefly, most peoples in the world even now, and all of us to some degree, organise ourselves in cylces of hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years.  Christmas 1946 and Opening Day 1963 continue to have some connection to Opening Day and Christmas 2014, though nearly all the participants are different.  Primitive tribes have almost no experience of time going forward, except that people age. 
Those who work with Borderline Personality Disorders notice that they have some oddity in experiencing time. Part of this is the inability to delay gratification, so that everything is occurring either now or not-now, but there are other puzzles as well.  They are very aware of anniversaries, especially tragic ones, such as the death of a mother or a friend - or even a pet.  Holidays take on enormous negative value because of who is not there.  Most people do this, especially the first few years after a death, but the remembering of the exact date and the destabilising around an anniversary are characteristic of those with BPD. Additionally, they are bad at estimating time, often no better than children, as if that facility stopped developing very early. 
I wonder if there is something modern about experiencing time linearly that they don't have.  While it is possible to posit narratives of how they missed critical periods in their development because of their often-chaotic upbringings, some genetic factor ( or yes, sorry to be so fashionable, epigenetic factor about whether a particular bit gets turned on or not), seems a more compact answer.  There has been some evidence of heritability of the illness for decades, and other cognitive distortions also seem to be part of that problem. 

I have said (following I-forget-who, but the idea is not original to me) that the Jews and especially the Christians  were the first to add in a concept of time moving forward.  The world had a beginning, we are proceeding toward some end.  Folks blithely say that all cultures have their creation and origin myths, but I think that is suspect.  We cannot tell how important those were.  After Western Europeans, who considered the Genesis accounts important, arrived to speak with them they brought them out to be recorded.  The Europeans unconsciously assumed these would be of similar importance in other cultures.  I seriously doubt that.  Some go into considerable detail and tie the creation stories into current understandings and behavior, but not many.  Most just have a single folktale in several versions.  In their current cultures they stay mostly in seasonal, circular time. 
It may be that other Mediterranean cultures also developed an enhanced emphasis on the progression of time, and I in my nescience am simply not aware of it.  But Eastern religions from Zoroastrianism east to Shintoism have cyclic and seasonal time much more strongly than Greeks, Canaanites, or Romans, let alone Jews.  And that is, frankly, a lot, as all of those had a fair bit of agricultural focus.
I mentioned that I am rereading  Julian Jaynes The Origin of Consciousness In The Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  It is going slowly, partly because I grow lazy and stupid as I age, but also because I want to give a fair chance to ideas I dismissed so rapidly before.  I noted with amusement apropros this topic that Greg Cochran mentioned Jaynes theory in his 2006 Edge answer to "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?"  His take at that time was that it still sounded crazy, but just maybe there is something to it, because we do seem to be different from ancient peoples cognitively, and Jaynes offers some interesting evidence of a change 2000-3000 years ago.   (Note:  Breakdown suggests that areas of the brain turned off from language functions to go do other things, rather than claiming that some new thing got added in to the brain creating consciousness.)

Even if the change started in the Mediterranean, it blossomed most fully in Northern Europe over the last 1000+ years which ordinarily would make a genetic explanation dicey.  Both waves into Europe, farmers in the south and herders in the north, came much earlier.  However there is one interesting escape hatch. The linguist Theo Venneman believes that the Germanic languages have a Semitic superstrate.  Not many linguists think his evidence is all that solid, but neither do they outright reject it.  It looks possible.  Phoenicians, likely via their Carthaginian colony, are known to have traded as far as Great Britain for tin and copper before the times Jaynes highlights, and trading even farther up into the North Sea is considered likely.  If you are wondering how much amber did they really need in the Mediterranean that they would keep wandering up to Jutland to get it, know that the area also has very good flint and worked stone.

I know, I know, it is politically correct to say that those battle-axes were status-objects, not implements of war.
Anyway, even really useful genes are going to be difficult to spread widely from just a few traders. Yet over a thousand years, much more possible.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Visit; 1984 & Animal Farm; The Lesson & Rhinoceros

I was assigned "The Visit" by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt in college.  It was written in 1956, with the super-obvious themes of collective versus individual guilt, and the ability of regular folks to quickly find rationalisations for doing evil things.  FD was looking over his shoulder at the recent events in Germany and Austria, with hints of accusation at some Swiss sympathy and collaboration with Nazis.

At least, I thought it was super-obvious even as an 18-year-old in 1971 and my professors agreed.  There was a famous essay at the time which I have never since been able to track down, illustrating that French writers of the 50’s had strong themes of victimhood, German writers of guilt, Swiss writers of ambiguity, etc.  It was likely overdrawn, but examples were given and it was based on something.  Durrenmatt was also a member of Olten Gruppen, a pretty reliably anti-Nazi collection of writers, even if their opposition to communism was more spotty.

Apparently I missed the memo, as the wikipedia article and other current writing about the play and its adaptations don’t include reference to the first theme.  It has become more important to discuss the themes of money corrupting us all and justice for purchase – both legitimately present – plus women’s rights, prostitution as a metaphor, and dehumanisation, which are less prominent.  Note that the accusations which are commonly leveled against America are those which have remained.

Let me assure you that if one keeps listing the same dozen faults of societies as the ones we should be concerned about, neglecting to mention another dozen which apply to other societies, most of your better students will have the first set of faults become their mental furniture and be unable to think of the others unless someone mentions those to them.  And think it was their own conclusion.  Because…in a way it was, as some of the lesser students don’t pick this stuff up even when you tell them it will be on the exam.

Those will then go forward into the world knowing that they are smart and able to understand things that the proles don’t.

It reminded me of discussions as far back as my childhood years about how 1984 and Animal Farm were intended as cautionary tales about what could happen in America and the West under right-wing governments.  More than one person told me in meaningful tones in 1980 how significant and frighteningly ironic it was that we were in danger of electing Ronald Reagan to be president when 1984 rolled in. Heck, I may have residually thought so myself up until that time. Orwell, a disillusioned but continuing socialist, could not have been clearer that Ingsoc owed more to soviet socialism than national socialism. No matter. We know where the real dangers lie. McCarthy just has to be more dangerous than Hiss.

I have mentioned before that something similar is up in our current understanding of the plays of Ionesco. A director of “The Lesson” at William and Mary when I was there wanted the professor’s armband to be an American flag instead of a swastika, and in a 21st C production  “the homicidal professor dons a Republican National Committee armband”

A production of "Rhinoceros" in San Francisco - the straight characters were all reinterpreted as lesbians because...well, because SF is a very original place where they think of things like that.  "Phaedra" as a gay play, "Othello" as an African-American lesbian, "Hippolytus" as a play about forbidden love, or even the Bible redone as gay in Terrance McNally's "Corpus Christi," I'm sorry, I got distracted by the originality there.  Back to Rhinoceros in San Fran: "The rhinoceroses are dot-commers whose SUV's and cell phones signal the call of wild greed."

Pointing out the obvious is still useful, it seems

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Earthquakes And Volcanoes

Retriever notes that there may be serious trouble coming in Iceland. Hopefully just a little something.


Update:  A personal situation again comes into play.  Intelligent people, well-meaning in many ways, and not especially liberal.  Yet the style is there in criticising a public figure - insulting, condescending, mean in a way that they would not tolerate directed at other groups.  Yet no self-observation, because they are Good People, and while they would fess up to individual failings, accept without question that the road they are at least attempting to travel is the right one.  Not much to be said.


(In addition to my usual caveats about who I mean when I generalise about liberals and conservatives, include a generational one.  My estimations apply first to my own generation and the one before me.  Their applicability may wane in subsequent generations.)

I have mentioned before my belief that liberal ideas are more likely to be spread socially than by intellectual argument. This is a percentage deal, of course. It may be that most ideas are spread socially rather than by force of reason, and conservatives not much different. Nor libertarians, greens, Methodists, Unitarians, or vegetarians. Could be. My observation mostly came about because the insistence by those on the left I came from was quite emphatic that they were the thinkers and reasoners, in contrast to their troglodytic opponents; this I discovered was not true, not even close, and have observed repeatedly since. Social shaming is very big there. If one imagines online or social media discussions as a cocktail party, one sees the same type of persuasions in play: uncomfortable silences, we don't say that here, the best people assure us darling - the many social signals people give to tell you that you are going over like, well like a skunk at a lawn party. Like a turd in the punchbowl.

I think it is important to mention that this does not seem to increase as one moves farther left, nor grow fainter as one approaches the center.  If anything, it is the less strident, kindly people who care about strangers and social injustice who do it more than the extremists.

On the right, being declarative is more the norm, and I think this does increase the farther right one goes. Go far enough out the trail, and you find people who make confident assertions about more and more opinions.  There are people on the left who do this too, just as there are conservatives who will treat your unfortunate opinion as more of a faux pas than a falsehood.  I know exceptions both personally and by what I read around of these methods of persuasion.

But it leads to further theory:  do people gravitate to their politics because the culture or method appeal to them, or suit their abilities.  I pick up social signals well and that was a lot of my stock in trade when I was a man of the left.  Did I abandon the left because I was unwilling (or constitutionally unable) to make my arguments that way, being a more blunt and declarative person? Was any of my move rightward - or outward, upward, anyway - attributable to rejection of that style?

It's the lack of self-observation that gets me - the failure to see that insult has been given when it was clearly the only possible point of the comment; followed by thin-skinned being insulted oneself when the obvious is pointed out. I never seemed to get over that discovery in the 1980's.  Yet I have to admit, that's not a logical argument for political premises either.

My son pointed out that country music seems to have degenerated over the last ten years into too many songs that are just lists of things the singer claims to like about America. They tick off the boxes and plant (another) flag in the ground declaring that this is who we are, dammit! It's pretty consistent right-wing fodder at this point, and not our best stuff.  Those are tiresome to the point of head-banging sure, rather like a politician who works in all the hot-button categories he can at a campaign stop. (I heard Al Gore do that really well in 1988.)

Yet the cultural left has its lists as well, just delivered differently, letting you know that they like NPR, working in the arts or humanities and supporting public funding, having people who look very different in the same picture, public health, international understanding - those are just harder to put into a song.

And further - it has been remarked by many that there is a high-school cool kid condescension from the Maureen Dowds, the Frank Riches, the TV talking heads, the Clintons and the like.  I wonder if this is part of the pattern.  Wer these the kids who caught the social nuances, down to the most subtle, of the bright kids and coolest teachers, and gravitated to their culture because it was one they could succeed in?  Was this reinforced by the similar styles of academics, especially in the social sciences and the arts, creating a powerful identification that just naturally extended to their political and social fashions? I will have to relook at the Jonathan Haidt summary data to see if there's anything there.

You kids who went to Christian schools, there may be muddied waters or even reversals on this. There is also a possible conservative counterpart, which I have only dimly worked out to this point.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Real Casey, The Real Servant

19th C ballplayer Dan Casey claimed to be the Casey about whom Ernest L. Thayer wrote his famous poem, "Casey at the Bat." Casey was given a parade honoring him as the famed "Casey," was featured on a national radio broadcast, and participated in a "re-enactment" of "Casey at the Bat" when he was age 78. The poem's author denied that his work was based on any real player, and several sources have called Casey's claim into doubt. Casey had a career batting average of .162 and one home run.
Well, there's a reason for suspicion he might not be Mighty Casey right there.
In February 1943, a columnist in The Sporting News described Casey's claim to be Thayer's inspiration as a "myth" and wrote: "Thayer ... always declared he had no particular player in mind as his hero. But despite this evidence, original 'Caseys' continue to appear, including Daniel, who was the most persistent and told the story so often he unquestionably came to believe it (italics mine)
It remains me of Mark Twain's short biography of General Washington's Negro Body-Servant, a man who died repeatedly before and throughout Twain's lifetime. Mr. Clemens eventually concluded:
P.S. -- I see by the papers that this infamous old fraud has just died again, in Arkansas. This makes six times that he is known to have died, and always in a new place. The death of Washington's body-servant has ceased to be a novelty; it's charm is gone; the people are tired of it; let it cease.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Old Compromise

James and T99 both mentioned that urbanites desire and perhaps require more enforced government intervention, which i knew but wasn't thinking about when I wrote.

At least in this part of the world, you worked in the city or town most of the year, but you had a primitive place out in the boonies where you went for two weeks plus weekends in the summer, or camped in the wilderness, or some other back-to-nature arrangement where you could pee into the stream if you wanted to.

That seems like a plan for everyone to get along - except that the boonies have filled up in places, unless you want to head even farther out.  But that takes time that we are no longer willing to spend - we want to hit the ground running and get to the cottage by 7:30pm Friday and not leave until after supper on Sunday.  As the boonies crowd up, they start needing the same sort of forced cooperation of more densely populated areas.

Canada's pretty empty.  They've got an incredible amount of fresh water, too. How do we get there fast?

Similarly, when I first went to Romania in 1998, one could build a new house for $6000.  We never snapped for it and it's much more expensive now, but for a certain type of getaway rural Transylvania isn't bad.  I hear people retire to places in Mexico and Costa Rica for the same reason.  I'm figuring you can be left alone pretty well there.

Hicks In The Sticks

Junior High youth group did a talent show occasional years, and I was MC in 7th grade for "Hicks In The Sticks," which I imagine was the title of many a cobbled together series of corny skits in the 50's and 60's.  I also got to sing the following song.

There is a longer version, with lyrics they would not have allowed a young man to sing at a church back in the day, though no one would bat an eyelash now.

In the sidebar at Youtube you can find a whole collection of old-timey Western Swing music, including a few by the Light Crust Doughboys (Zeke, Cecil, Snub, Parker Willson the Announcer, Abner, Bashful, Junior, and about a dozen other guys named Pappy, Doc, or CJ over the years), originally a Bob Wills band out of Texas that reconstituted in the 1990's. There's a reason they used to call it Country & Western music until gradually shortening it to just Country in the 1980's - Western music was more popular all over, not just in Texas and Oklahoma. I blame John Denver for the change.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Native Violence

hbdchick links an article from Science 2.0, The Most Violent Era In America Was Before Europeans Arrived. That's a bit of an overdramatisation.  The article focuses on enormous violence in a single region: southwest Colorado and the Puebla Indians.
Writing in the journal American Antiquity, Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler and colleagues document how nearly 90 percent of human remains from that period had trauma from blows to either their heads or parts of their arms. "If we're identifying that much trauma, many were dying a violent death," said Kohler. The study also offers new clues to the mysterious depopulation of the northern Southwest, from a population of about 40,000 people in the mid-1200s to 0 in 30 years.
Still, it is a counternarrative to the expected one that there was very little conflict until natives learned it from the Europeans. Peoples is peoples, and they don't seem to nicen up until A) they stop marrying their cousins, and/or B) start engaging in specialised trade, from which many benefit.  From the landing of the Puritans until King Philip's War in 1673, the Newenglanders had conflict but little warfare, in contrast to both the Europeans back home or the native tribes just inland from the coast.  Perhaps death, disease, and starvation held them together, as well as a desire for each others' goods.

Marshall Applewhite

The wikipedia article-of-the-day sometime last week was Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven's Gate cult that all committed suicide almost twenty years ago when the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet convinced them that it was time for them to go up to the spaceship and get new bodies.  Something like that.

Looks pretty much schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type to me, at least from a distance.  Actually pretty much just from his photograph one might take that as a working guess.
Poor sexual control, omnisexual, check.
Grandiosity, check.
Performing arts, check. (Sorry. Includes me, too, y'know.)
Fluidity of beliefs, changing repeatedly, check.
Charm based on intensity that is a bit much for many folks, check.
Lack of insight or willingness to consider alternatives, check.

Here's an interesting bit about psychotic prophets.  A large part of their prophecy revolves around - them being the prophet. That's all.  Believing in them.  One of my patients today assured me quite angrily that I would be kneeling in front of him someday. He is furious at his wife for being "in rebellion" for fearing that all his money-and-fame schemes won't work, when the Bible clearly teaches not to fear. Believing in him is really the only teaching of this prophet.

It's interesting because that's where God starts out in Genesis, and where Jesus starts out when he starts his ministry.  Consider that Lot gets just about nothing right except somehow clinging to this one God YHWH. Yet that is good enough, at least in that stage of the covenant.

The difference is that Genesis gives way to Exodus, and a whole lot of learning to understand just what is important to this God; and Jesus moves pretty quickly to deeper lessons. Yet perhaps mere identification is the only start we can make.

One Cheer More

Update:  However, If I Were King...

Folks of a libertarian bent are fond of rhetoric claiming to dislike just about everything about government. Certainly, the ultimate extension of libertarianism would be some form of anarchy, though that comes in several flavors. More commonly, there is a fondness for quoting one political thinker or another about a sharply limited role for government – defending the borders, issuing a currency, and some sort of system for resolving disputes.

Yet almost no one actually means this. People like roads - including Interstates which were constitutionally controversial when they came on the scene – and have little objection to police and fire departments in principle, however badly they think things are managed. I doubt you could get much of a percentage on a referendum to stop funding public schools, even if you had a fully-ready, more efficient alternative advertised. People who say “no cheers for government” actually mean “one cheer for government.”

That plays out similarly at the other end of the spectrum. No one wants to get caught looking so uncynical and easily-duped as to say “three cheers for government,” so folks retain their self-respect by saying “two cheers for government.” There are elaborate rituals and disclaimers that go with this, sighing ruefully that yes, yes, government and bureaucracy do complicate matters and sometimes make things worse; that the people who go into government are not our best sorts; that most of all, government usually only partly delivers on its proposed goods and is very expensive. Alas, alack, and well-a-day. But what else shall we do? We must have these things, and we can improve the government problems by having more Accountability, which is of course just more government.

Thus, I don’t think we should be fooled. Two Cheers For Government is really just one of those moustache and glasses disguises over Three Cheers For Government.
There is cheer-deflation going on, with everyone pretending to dislike government more than they actually do. The upshot is that the people claiming 2 cheers get to think of themselves as calm, reasoned, and measured, even if they actually are extremists. I would say that they get to paint their opposition as extremists, but as the zero-cheer folks seem to actually be embracing it, it’s hard to blame it entirely on others. Still, there are attempts from the 3 Cheers people (Stop. That’s not fair. I’m only a 2 Cheers person. This is my real nose, glasses, and moustache.) to make lists from time-to-time of how much everyone likes government stuff, as if there actually were movements afoot to board up town hall, knocking down a man that’s at least mostly straw. Boarding up Washington DC, maybe.

Without the deflation, however, it would be clearer who was arguing for what among the 1, 2, and 3 Cheer contingents. I like clarity.

People’s reasons for looking to government are often na├»ve, starry-eyed, and refusing to engage reality, but they aren’t entirely crazy. Guaranteeing various civil rights usually comes up, not unfairly. It may indeed have eventually but more slowly occurred that blacks got fully voting and other rights in the 60’s, as the state-by-state trend was clearly in that direction, and courts were consistently ruling against legislatures. (Thurgood Marshall believed for that reason all the protests were unnecessary and put people at risk, for example.) Schools might have gradually integrated, or at least the states could have done the gradual mandating instead of the feds. Yet it does seem in retrospect that the federal solution was efficient. Lots of unfortunate downstream effects from things like affirmative action did indeed occur, and ignoring those is not being fully upright and realistic. But the simple fact is that the less-dramatic strategies had not in fact yet worked.

People might have eventually worn seatbelts – but they weren’t. It’s a slippery slope that leads to limiting soda cup sizes in restaurants, but really, requiring people to wear seatbelts in order to use community thoroughfares doesn’t bother me.

It irritates me greatly when people make arguments for a new government service or regulation that they should know aren’t true, but ignore because they want what they want and they are willing to say anything. (“What? People still use the emergency rooms unnecessarily just as much even when they’ve got health insurance? That can’t be true. And we never said it would save money…oh, we did? No, that’s not possible. You must just want poor people to be sick so that you can have more money to pollute the environment with your pickup truck... The new job training and scholarship programs are actually costing us about $250K per $25K job? Well, at least they have jobs and are contributing back to the economy, right?”) Irritates is actually not a strong enough word. But I’m a one-and-a-half cheers for government guy.

Sans plastic nose.