In-Flight Notes II

Packing to go down to Atlanta for Thanksgiving.

 

I.

Soon, I’m gonna finally reduce my writing frequency here as I start new projects. The norm might return to 2 posts/week.

I’m going to launch a second blog on this site specifically for logging project development/production, coming soon. The kinds of stuff I’m working on: some game development, maybe a podcast (on game studies) with some old friends, possibly an online magazine, and some quieter/more serious stuff.

This week, I’m starting Essences and Surfaces and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Next week I’m reading more on John Boyd. After that, I’m starting to clear a little space to read/write about game studies, which I suspect will align well with the kinds of stuff I write about here, anyway.

 

II.

I shot the bull about animal cognition a few weeks ago.

Octopus movement: (via Daniel Estrada on Google+)

In one of the most intriguing early results, Levy tracked individual suckers across consecutive video frames, and reported a lack of any mathematical relationship between the lengths of the octopuses’ arms, their velocities and their accelerations. Instead of the rhythmic alternations of limb movements that most other animals use, octopuses seem to marshal eight largely independent appendages.

Neuroscientist Binyamin Hochner, the project’s principal investigator, says the results suggest that the octopus brain sends out high-level, goal-oriented commands, but leaves the details of movement execution to neurons in each of the arms — which together contain about two-thirds of the animal’s 500 million neurons.

The Genius of Dogs (via John Hagel on Facebook)

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.

  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

 

III.

This is a topic I have an aesthetic aversion to (not a disagreement, just a discomfort), but this essay was grounded and accessible: Distress of the Privileged (via Jordan Peacock). “Supremacy” is a great phrasing, and one I’ll use in the future when this kind of stuff comes up.

As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

If you are one of the newly-visible others, this all sounds whiny compared to the problems you face every day. It’s tempting to blast through such privileged resistance with anger and insult.

Tempting, but also, I think, a mistake. The privileged are still privileged enough to foment a counter-revolution, if their frustrated sense of entitlement hardens.

So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

 

IV.

Pope Francis, though.

Pope Francis is once again shaking things up in the Catholic Church. On Tuesday, he issued his first “apostolic exhortation,” declaring a new enemy for the Catholic Church: modern capitalism. “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

He couldn’t be much clearer. The pope has taken a firm political stance against right-leaning, pro-free market economic policies, and his condemnation appears to be largely pointed at Europe and the United States. His explicit reference to “trickle-down” economic policies—the hallmark of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their political successors—is just the beginning: Throughout 224 pages on the future of the Church, he condemns income inequality, “the culture of prosperity,” and “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

Taken in the context of the last half-century of Roman Catholicism, this is a radical move. Fifty years ago, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, Church leaders quietly declared a very different economic enemy: communism. But Pope Francis’s communitarian, populist message shows just how far the Church has shifted in five decades—and how thoroughly capitalism has displaced communism as a monolithic political philosophy.

 

V.

I scraped some quotes I’ve posted elsewhere over the year. Sorry if you consider this to be a lazy post. I have a job, you know. Obligations and such. And it’s Thanksgiving week.

 

Misc.

“A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.” –Neal Stephenson

“I wanna be so important that everybody either understand me, or are terrified of admitting that they don’t.” –Peter Sagal, in interview with Marc Maron

 

On Magic

Daniel Dennett (reading a passage from Lee Seigel’s Net of Magic)

“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

Alan Moore:

There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”.  I believe this is completely literal.  I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic.  Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.  The very language about magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events.  A grimmoir for example, the book of spells is simply a fancy way of saying grammar.  Indeed, to cast a spell, is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness.   And I believe that this is why an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world that you are likely to see to a Shaman.

I believe that all culture must have arisen from cult.  Originally, all of the faucets of our culture, whether they be in the arts or sciences were the province of the Shaman.  The fact that in present times, this magical power has degenerated to the level of cheap entertainment and manipulation, is, I think a tragedy.  At the moment the people who are using Shamanism and magic to shape our culture are advertisers.   Rather than try to wake people up, their Shamanism is used as an opiate to tranquilize people, to make people more manipulable.  Their magic box of television, and by their magic words, their jingles can cause everyone in the country to be thinking the same words and have the same banal thoughts all at exactly the same moment.

In all of magic there is an incredibly large linguistic component.  The Bardic tradition of magic would place a bard as being much higher and more fearsome than a magician.  A magician might curse you.  That might make your hands lay funny or you might have a child born with a club foot.  If a Bard were to place not a curse upon you, but a satire, then that could destroy you.  If it was a clever satire, it might not just destroy you in the eyes of your associates; it would destroy you in the eyes of your family.  It would destroy you in your own eyes.  And if it was a finely worded and clever satire that might survive and be remembered for decades, even centuries.  Then years after you were dead people still might be reading it and laughing at you and your wretchedness and your absurdity.  Writers and people who had command of words were respected and feared as people who manipulated magic.  In latter times I think that artists and writers have allowed themselves to be sold down the river.  They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment.  They’re not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being; that can change a society.  They are seen as simple entertainment; things with which we can fill 20 minutes, half an hour, while we’re waiting to die.  It’s not the job of the artist to give the audience what the audience wants.  If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn’t be the audience.  They would be the artists.  It is the job of artists to give the audience what they need.

 

Science Fiction

William Gibson:

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense.Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

Paul Krugman:

Actually, this reminds me of an essay I read a long time ago about Soviet science fiction. The author — if anyone remembers where this came from — noted that most science fiction is about one of two thoughts: “if only”, or “if this goes on”. Both were subversive, from the Soviet point of view: the first implied that things could be better, the second that there was something wrong with the way things are. So stories had to be written about “if only this goes on”, extolling the wonders of being wonderful Soviets.And now that’s happening in America.

Charlie Stross:

The first unquestioned assumption is the post-18th century Enlightenment concept of progress. This, if anything, is the ideological bedrock underlying “ideas” [Science Fiction] — that Things Can Get Better. Historically, almost all civilisations prior to the Enlightenment ran on the mythology of a distant golden age in the past, which bequeathed us a bunch of moral precepts and firm knowledge about how the world works which we poor degenerates living in the debased relics of a higher civilisation should turn to for guidance. The very concept that we are actually discovering how the universe works, and improving our lives, was a revolutionary rupture with the past — and one that took a long time to sprout any kind of literary or artistic shoots.