10 September 2011


The 19th of September is the third anniversary of the day when I began making daily entries in my metaphysics log book. I am almost all the way through my third notebook. I use the spiral bound college rule 150 sheets 9.5 inch X 6 inch style. On the pages of these notebooks I record:
  • every meditation
  • every prayer
  • every ceremony
  • every reading in the topics of metaphysics
  • every tarot card spread
  • a small number of other occasional related items
Almost. I am not obsessive about it. It is probably closer to 90% of my relevant activity that actually ends up getting written down.

This was my the-third-time-is-a-charm try at maintaining a diary of this sort. The first time was shortly after I read Aleister Crowley's Book 4 in 1997 or so where he lays out his system of metaphysics and his slogan "the method of science and the subject of religion". His prescription was identical to those of my freshman chemistry and physics lab teachers who said "if it isn't written down, it didn't happen". If I recall I got about a week into this project back in 1997 before my attention span fizzled out.

Then, I tried again in around 2005. This time I did not get past two pages. I know this for a fact as in 2009 I started up again with the same notebook and tore out the first two sheets so that now it only has 148 sheets in it. Now I am on page 143 of the third notebook so in this time I have steadily filled up 441 pages in 1086 days or around 2 pages every 5 days with my records of meditations, prayers, &c.

One thing has been remarkably constant since even before 1997. My central meditation activity is autogenic training, which I first discovered in the Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Davis, Eshelman, and McKay (an earlier edition of this book.) It is gratifying to me to look at the Amazon page and see that it has now has 68 five-star reviews. Back in 1997 I had some stress related medical problems and I went to a physician who gave me a photocopy of their chapter 5 and a little hand held thermometer. He told me after a few weeks the temperature measured between my thumb and forefinger would increase a couple degrees and that is how I could be sure the method was working. I went home from the doctor and opened up my copy of Davis and Eshelman and Mckay's book and confirmed my suspicion that he was telling me something I already knew. I had already experimented with the exact prescribed autogenic training technique, among other things in that book. After my first session my fingertip temperature climbed three degrees which was way faster than a few weeks so I skipped going back to that doctor ever again, and have continued to use this method as one of my main meditations.

One thing has changed drastically since the early days of my metaphysics activities. My gateway was Crowley, who I discovered via Jimmy Page. When I was a teenager and a rock music fan my nearly favorite band was Led Zeppelin, just like almost everybody else I knew. One day I heard a fascinating bit of gossip from the fellow in my peer group who seemed to know the most rock arcana and this was that Led Zeppelin was in hiatus because Plant and Page were fighting over Page's occult occupations. Plant had been in a nasty car accident and his young son had died from some freak medical ailment and he thought that Page was bringing bad juju upon the band. I went to the library and looked through every Page mention I could find until I found an article in Rolling Stone that linked him up with the Crowley character who I had never heard of before.

The Crowley books had a big influence upon me. In looking back I think it was the almost endless esoteric data and the stimulus it had on my imagination. It has been a long time since I have taken Crowley seriously, but it did attract me to activity which has been fun and interesting and rewarding that I might not have otherwise found any interest in. A couple years ago I was meeting with an esoteric group near here and the leader asked me how I first became interested. I told her it started with Led Zeppelin and Aleister Crowley and when I first began I wanted to do things like shoot lightning bolts out of my fingertips but I have calmed down a lot since then. That was a bit of an exaggeration but they all seemed to enjoy hearing that.

Back to the notebooks. I have (so far) three years of records for my own method of science on the subject of religion. Much of it is useless. Some of it may be of great value. I haven't spent much time combing through it yet. One thing I did a few months ago was count every single tarot card I have ever drawn in a spread. The one trump I have drawn almost twice as much as any other is the Hierophant. I mentioned this once to a friend of mine and they replied, "of course you are going to draw the Hierophant more than any other."

That statement seemed to make a lot more sense to her than it does to me.

30 August 2011

Descartes was never a dog owner

Craig's Spring Branch Blog has been in hiatus for a couple months while I was occupied with other stuff.

I stumbled onto an amazing web page yesterday: anotherpanacea. It is the weblog of Joshua Miller, a philosophy teacher at George Washington University. I have only read a couple of the entries so far, but the one that amazed me was plucked out of the ether for me doing a google search:

How to get a philosophical education for free.

This is a compilation of the best of the online courses, podcasts and so on which the kind Mr. Miller promises us will give us a close approximation of what his students get in exchange for paying GWU 50 000 dollars a year. And I got right to work this morning listening to the first lecture of John Searle's UCBerkeley course Philosophy of Mind.

There are 32 lectures, each 80 minutes in length from Searle's spring 2010 version of Philosophy 132, Philosophy of Mind. The first lecture was mostly Descartes. I am already familiar with most of this material. As a matter of fact, I took a class from John Searle many years ago in which the first week was Descartes. Nevertheless I took three pages of dense notes and I learned a number of interesting things.

  • They still use blue books for exams at Cal!
  • There is at least one lecture hall that still uses chalkboards!
  • There is a clan labeled mysterians--what they do is they promote the idea that human consciousness is so complex that explaining it will never be accomplished.
  • Beyond monism, dualism there is at least one guy (Eccles) who has promoted trialism. (Beyond the mind and the body the third part of the trialism is the culture, a la' Minsky's Society of Minds.)
But the most interesting parts to me were actually a couple of answers to student questions:

Where does the subconscious go? In the mind or in the body?
  • For Descartes there is no such thing as a subconscious mind. Mind == conscious thoughts and that is it.
Do animals have minds?
  • Absolutely not for Descartes. Animals do not have conscious thoughts and are entirely mechanical contraptions. Clearly, Descartes was not a dog owner.
Also it was pretty cool to see that Searle seems to be carrying his age very well. He sounded quick and lively and I am pretty sure it would have been even more fun to sit there in the class than it was to listen to the audio file on my computer. It will be interesting to see if I can maintain my current enthusiasm for 31 * 80 = 2480 more minutes 41 more hours. At the moment I think it will be worth it.

18 April 2011

How do you react?

On my last metaphysics post I discussed almost all of my ritual activity for the Spring Equinox. I omitted one item which is complex enough that it may take up a post of its own. On the 21st of March I did a special tarot reading, for that and for the 77 following days. It was the first time I ever did a tarot reading using the whole deck.

Tarot is a useful tool, but I do not usually take it very far. I have only performed a handful of readings for other people in real life. And I am unsophisticated at it, and new enough at it, that on the eleventh of September 2001 I did not even know that this card was in my deck, although I had used it a few dozen times already at that point. One thing which I still have not done is figure out how many shuffles are required to randomize a 78 card tarot deck with two possible orientations for each card. For a 52 card playing deck we have peer reviewed work in Combinatorics which gives the number of shuffles needed: seven. When I shuffle a tarot deck I shuffle it 49 times, with an inversion for around half of those. This is a number I arrived at experimentally when I first bought the deck and it took that many shuffles to convince myself that the factory order had finally been obliterated. More often than not, when somebody asks me to perform a reading for them, they lose interest in the exercise before I finish shuffling.

On the 21st of March I performed my scrupulous 49-times shuffle, read the first ten cards per normal; I then wrote down the first ten and the following 68 for the purpose of a 78 day regimen of studying one card per day, using that card to reflect upon that day, and refine my one-liner representation of the card that I use for readings. Most of my interpretations are based upon Rachel Pollack's book, which has many flaws but which contains mostly great information.

For today, day number 29 in the series, the card is the five cups. My one-liner summary for this card is: "How do you react?" This comes from a man who has nothing to do with tarot that I know of--college football coach Nick Saban. I have written before about my fascination with sports talk radio, but this is an indication of how deep this fascination goes. I do not even like college athletics. There are thousands of professional football and basketball games televised yearly with the most-skilled athletes--far too many to watch it all. It never ceases to amaze me that people have any time at all to attend to college players. In spite of never watching college football, I listened to Nick Saban's radio show when he was coaching at Louisiana State, because he told the most fascinating stories. This is why I love sports talk radio--it has great stories.

I can recall verbatim one time Saban discussing his coaching philosophy and he said:

"Everybody gets hurt. Everybody gets sick. Everybody makes mistakes. It makes all the difference in the world between winning and losing, success and failure: how do you react?"

It stuck with me enough that I penciled it into my Pollack tarot book right below the five cups. It is fully consistent with Pollack's explanation of the card's meaning, and it is one of the better one-liners I have now for all of the cards in the deck.

13 April 2011

Hypnagogic and hypnopompic

Dreams have been covered here, and I really don't have much more to say about them. They can be fascinating, but I am not of the school that makes them a royal road to the unconscious. I am not sure the idea of an unconscious mind is very useful. In the current set of metaphors, I prefer the notion of reptilian brain functions to the unconscious mind. Most dream discussions are beastly dull.

One observation which seems trivial is relation between dream experience and waking mood. A pleasant dream experience is flying. Sometimes it is chaotic, tangled in high wires or crashes on landings; sometimes it is perfect, free and controlled and with beautiful vistas. In my experience, perfectly controlled beautiful vista flying dreams are strongly correlated with elevated mood for the following few hours of waking consciousness.

Another experience, again trivial, is love objects in dreams. Jung coined the term anima to describe an inner personality of the opposite sex; I prefer to describe the anima as a love-object type of woman. The attractive women who I do not recognize in my dreams are all of one physical type. My shorthand for this is: anima-woman. The real world equivalent to this would be that all of the public relationship figures for some prominent men seem to be of one physical type--all the Bill Clinton women (except for his wife) have the big salon hair and heavy makeup; all the Tiger Woods women have long straight blond hair, &c.

One time I participated in a Jungian T group where the group leader was nearly a perfect instance of my own anima-woman. Fortunately I had the sense not to mention this to her. I am fairly sure (probability~.7) she has heard that enough to be sick and tired of it, and more sure (probability~.9) that her response to such a comment would be akin to: "Ack! Stay away from me you creep."

This can be a little disturbing when a real-life person of little importance sneaks into my dream world in the anima-woman role. This happened to me recently. The woman is not unattractive, but I have not had any personal interaction with her. When she showed up in my dream the attraction was intense. This was not disturbing at all; to the contrary it was a pleasant dream. The disturbance came into the waking world when it took some effort to banish the anima-woman from repeatedly creeping into my conscious thought.

The kicker was the hypnopompic material that came right after, the stuff that came into my half-world and mostly conscious mind. I conceived what I thought to be a novel theory of clinical depression and treatment and a conversation with my doctor where I explained it all and enlightened him. It is simple enough to explain in a paragraph or two.

Human mood varies--we have good days and bad days. For the sake of discussion, evaluate all of human mood with one number, scale 1 to 10.

10: the first time you fell in love, winning the World Series, sex with a nine-thousand-dollar prostitute.
1: what would be the most painless and sure-fire way to commit suicide?

Natural fluctuation is between 3 and 8. If your mood is at 3 for too long an interval and too often, you complain to the doctor and he prescribes a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor, which solves the problem for a lot of people.

Here is where my hypnopompic theory and imagined discussion with my doctor comes in. I told him what the SSRI does is not just block off the lower state, but compresses the range from 4 to 7 and blocks out the potential for high states as well, which may not be a desired outcome at all. I used diagrams in my explanation, with graphs of mood versus time which resembled Neumann Functions. In my hynopompic state, this all made perfect sense and my diagrams were beautiful. When I got up I immediately made notes and drew graphs and it all made a lot less sense to me than it did in my hypnopompic state.

08 April 2011

What does not kill me makes me stronger I

"What does not kill me makes me stronger."
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows, #8, tr. R. Hollingdale.

I have a love and hate relationship with Nietzsche, and the hatred portion is neatly summarized by the above aphorism. Today is a milestone day on the calendar year. It happened to be the day when the heat in my apartment got high enough (88 degrees Fahrenheit at 4:00 P.M.) that I had to surrender and finally turn on my air conditioning for the first time this year. This isn't killing me but it is surely not making me stronger. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell had more of a hate and hater relationship toward Nietzsche. It is amusing to read his Nietzsche chapter in his History of Western Philosophy; over-educated British guys can display a knack for truly creative name-calling.

Before I get to the negative, first I will accentuate the positive. The best thing about the Nietzsche books is their style. The prose is light and easy to read fast and make sense out of. This is not to say that second and closer readings do not reveal deeper layers. They often do. The quip in my title is not an example of this.

His readings and interpretations of the ancients are great. Informative. Innovative. Almost every time he writes about the Greeks it stimulates me and I often wonder how he could come up with this stuff. Nietzsche represents an archetype--the archetype of the tortured genius struggling alone producing beautiful work that nobody appreciates. Those of us who have spent much time struggling alone to produce work which we considered worthy and few others appreciated might feel a personal connection to this character. I certainly did when I was younger. I was so under the spell of this archetype, that when I studied creative work systematically in the form of 's Creativity, I was surprised at his finding that for almost all top creators and innovators, their most important time is spent in discussion and consultation with fellow workers. This is certainly not how the process seemed to work for Friedrich Nietzsche, and this is not how the process has mostly worked for me.

Nietzsche is extraordinarily popular, and he gets people reading Philosophy who would otherwise be intimidated by the density of the typical work in the field. He is often the very first Philosopher that people read because of his accessibility. He is certainly the very first Philospher that I spent a long time reading. He is a gateway. My experience is that most of his readers have a diametrically opposite experience to that of Bertrand Russell--love and more love without dilution. This has made it very difficult for me develop my own reading with any discussion or consultation. Things go fine as long as I am positive and then I say something negative and my fellow readers usually draw the conclusion I am an idiot.

I remember one discussion I had on USENET long ago which I can no longer locate. I was writing about this idea I got out of Deleuze--that Nietzsche was approximately equal to all of the best parts of Sigmund Freud with none of the worst parts. This fellow I was discussing this with first went ballistic about how I didn't know what I was talking about. Then, right after that, he posted chapter and verses from Deleuze's book which were the exact thing I was drawing my memory from, and they said almost exactly what I was saying. That was really bizarre, but it was kind of typical of how my discussions of Nietzsche go with people who have also read a bunch of the books.

My main complaint about the Nietzsche books is this:I believe the man went mad before he stopped writing. It isn't like one day he was perfectly lucid and literate and writing, and then the next day he went mad and the writing stopped. I think the later books, like Twilight of the Idols, contain madman ravings. As a philosophical statement, "what does not kill me makes me stronger" seems vulgar to me.

There are precursors to this in the earlier work on the subject of modern (to him) Europe. He was living in a culture filled with human failing, as do we all. He does not seem to get that the wonderful classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were also quite full of human failing. I have more faith in progress than is evident in the Nietzsche work.

And now I have a segue so abrupt I must defer it to a part II which I will post in twenty days.

03 April 2011

The movie was not as good as the book

In my preparations for Easter I watched (almost all) three movie versions of the story:
King of Kings,
The Last Temptation of Christ,
and Passion of the Christ.
The comparison and contrast was fascinating, and after I looked up a few things which I found noteworthy.

The oldest of the three, King of Kings, is from 1961 and parts of it did not age well. The thing which sticks out the most is the sensibility of the movie; at no time while I was sitting there was I unaware that this was a presentation from 1960 Hollywood. The movie did not suck me into its false reality with suspension of my disbelief. The one thing which distinguishes it is the music. The score is by Miklos Rozsa, one of the best ever film score composers. I have this CD (not too bad) and in the liner notes they have comments by Rozsa. He did Ben Hur and King of Kings right after, and he comments that Ben Hur was the Jesus story without any of his speaking parts, and then Jesus' speaking parts are immediately picked up in King of Kings. King of Kings is, so to speak, one of the many supplemental discs for Ben Hur. The cover photograph on that CD illustrates one of my problems with the movie. It shows a still from the movie with King Herod and the queen and they are wearing really goofy costumes.

Omitting Ben Hur from my program may have been a blunder. I had always thought that Jesus was a minor character in this movie, but in looking at the program notes for the DVD they have a picture of the jacket from the original novel where it says in a plain English sub-title: a novel of The Christ. Easter isn't for a couple more weeks and so I may remedy this, but it is a very long movie. The thing I remember most from my last viewing is that Charlton Heston's abdomen closeups were as impressive as anything they have ever gotten out of Brad Pitt. That guy spent a lot of time in the gym.

The best of these three movies, for me, was The Last Temptation of Christ. No Rozsa score, but the Peter Gabriel score is not chopped liver. The thing which I really appreciated was the depth of seemingly all, even the most minor characters. The relationships between Judas and Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Jesus were all believable (for the two hours I was sitting there watching it) and very interesting. I do not know what Palestine in the zeroth century was really like, but the setting provided for this story was clearly like nothing I am familiar with from my everyday life. The contrast between this and the familiarity of King of Kings is large.

Then there is The Passion of the Christ. The beginning of the movie was great. They have the dialog in Aramaic with English sub-titles, which I thought was an interesting way to do it. I could not watch the movie to the end, however. When the Roman guards beat Jesus during his trial, it is just too gross. It is like those scenes at the end of Rocky where the beating is way more than a human could withstand, and still maintain conscious brain function. I watched Rocky all the way to the end, so I can stomach a lot. Passion is at least five times worse than that, perhaps much more. When the bloody gore got to the five Rockies level, I shut the DVD player off.

29 March 2011

Heard from passing renegades Geronimo is dead

On Monday March 21 I performed a ritual to celebrate the Spring Equinox and to invoke aspects of Mars into my living room. I used a recipe very similar to what I did for the three previous holidays, solstices and equinox. (Example here.)

The personality I chose to personify the energy of Mars was Jack LaLanne, the California fitness guru who recently passed on. This was a little different than the personalities I had chosen for the previous rituals, which were real people from my life who most closely personified the planetary / divine aspects. For Mars I had a perfect candidate person, but he is not so remote from my real life as the other three. This person is only twenty years older than I; he only lives a few hundred miles from me at this time; there is a chance I will be seeing him again on this earth, so my only connection to him is not in my own head. Instead of using his character for a ritual, it would probably be a better idea to get in touch with him and personally thank him for being such a positive influence on me. (Martin Seligman calls this a gratitude exercise and recommends it very highly as a mechanism for promoting good mental health.)

Before, I spoke metaphorically of invoking Mary Poppins, or invoking Abraham Lincoln. For this ritual I literally invoked Jack LaLanne. I used the ritual formula from Phil Hine's Prime Chaos.

Three parts:

In the first, the deeds of the figure are given, spoken in the third person. In the second, the qualities of the figure are given, spoken in the second person. In the third, the powers of the figure are given, spoken in the first person.

My ritual preparations began a few days ahead when I looked at the fourmilab sky chart and located where Mars is right now. It is between Venus and the Sun early in the morning. For four consecutive days I got outside before sunrise to look at Mars. For four consecutive days all I saw was complete cloud cover. At least I made the attempt. I did see an amazing "great moon" full moon on Friday night, so I had to make do with that.

This was only a small disappointment. Mars energy is abundant in my world right now, and I do not feel any need to get any kind of a special boost from the Universe. This is in direct contrast to my previous Jupiter and Venus and Saturn rituals, where I really could use a boost and I went all out. On the previous occasions I fasted all day until after the ritual right after sunset. Last Monday I ate three half meals instead of fasting. In other ways, this was a ritual that I invested far less effort into than the other three.

I read aloud the Teth / Strength / 19th pathworking from the Ciceros' book. This is based upon the three guys in the furnace and Daniel in the lion's den from the book of Daniel. It includes the Canticle of Praise, Daniel 3:26ff. I looked up the passage in the King James Bible and it ain't in there! This was new to me as I did not realize the canon-apocrypha-Protestant-Catholic dispute extended to inside the book of Daniel. I also have a Catholic bible and looked it up and it is right there where it was cited to be. This is the prayer the three guys in the furnace say when they are just hanging there, not burning. I have no idea why the Protestants crossed it out.

In addition to this, I also performed a few other assorted prayers and meditations. Prior to doing the Jack LaLanne part, I dressed in nothing but a pair of red running shorts and a rhodolite ring. I constructed a small altar with a candle, a drawing I made based upon the Mantegna Tarocchi Mercurio, and a drawing I made based upon the Coleman-Smith-Rider-Waite Strength card. I used Mercury because this seemed the best place to fold it in, and I don't have much interest in setting aside a ritual day for a planet which is normally obscured in my zip code by human emitted light. Before the invocation I played David Bowie "Heroes". And after the invocation I played Elton John "Indian Sunset", and then I played the whole Bowie CD and the whole Elton John CD. My living room was illuminated by the candle and a red light bulb.

Unlike for the other rituals, I can post the exact script:

"He is Francois Henri LaLanne, inventor of American fitness center industry, doer of record 1033 pushups in 23 minutes at age 42, KGO TV star, owner of honors too numerous to enumerate. You are Francois Henri LaLanne, first fitness superhero, zesty lover of life and joie de vivre, enthusiastic optimist. I am Jack LaLanne, strong and vigorous and appealing!"

24 March 2011

How To Treat Stage Fright

Prior to experiencing my "miracle" cure for my stage fright, I suffered a severe case of it for many years. Stage fright is a common phobia, and some surveys place public speaking up with snakes and spiders as amongst the most common fears anybody suffers. In the course of my struggles I looked in many places for the answer. I diligently studied what appears to remain the authoritative book covering the topic. In this post I am going to summarize the conventional prescriptions, and offer a novel treatment which I learned about while attending a T group.

The wikipedia page on stage fright as it looks on the 24th of March 2011 looks good to me. The experts say prepare and rehearse. This is so trivial it may be of no help. It seems obvious if you are standing up in front of a group of people unprepared you should be fearful.

The jumping jacks and the deep breathing they suggest are good enough I suppose for mild cases that are going to pass anyway and these are activities which can accelerate eventuality coming to be. I actually tried all this stuff and found it to be useless.

They have a pill for it! I had read this in the New York Times a few years ago, but I was surprised to see all the documentation. Beta blockers will suppress the symptoms of social phobia so you can take the pill before you go on stage and it will all be a little easier. Apparently the drugs they were doing in the Last Waltz are just about the worst thing you can take for stage fright.

The trick I learned in my T group is this: shiver. Just relax your shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and give yourself a good long shiver. This is our most natural physical response to the emotional sense of fear and resisting it apparently makes it worse. If you give into the impulse and let yourself shiver as much as you feel like or even force yourself to shiver a little bit more than you feel like, this will disempower the hold your fear holds over you. The T group leader offered it as part of a litany:

"if you are sad, cry; if you are angry, shout; if you are happy, laugh; if you are afraid, shiver."

Sounds a little bit Zen and I would advise counting to ten before shouting when angry, but otherwise I think it works pretty good. My own experience with shivering before going onstage is that this is the only remedy I have ever found helpful for my own (previously) severe stage fright.

19 March 2011

Morris and Kuhn and Wittgentsein

From 6 March to 10 March, Errol Morris (documentary film director of Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, and others) published a five part sequence on the New York Times opinionator blog about Thomas Kuhn and many related topics. (Link.) It sucked up my attention for a good couple of hours and got me to thinking about many problems which may not be solvable.

The biggest issue is an ideal which is often termed absolute knowledge, but which most of us amateur philosophers just call: Reality. Kuhn famously wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that we ought to be skeptical whether any such thing will ever exist. The most relevant quotation:

"Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal?" (p 170 in the second editition, U. Chicago Press, 1970).

Since I am only an amateur philosopher about 25% of the time, and my day job is as a physicist, it is impossible for me to run counter to the norms of my entire tribe and not say this question is ridiculous. Of course it helps. That is exactly what we do. We have a lot of things wrong; but it is less and less over time. Progress is unequivocal and together we proceed toward an ultimate "one, full, objective true account of nature" like an asymptote approaches its bounding line.

Kuhn is not here to defend himself, so to be honest I will point out here that it is a little abusive to pull a sentence out of its 200 pages of context and mock the author. Kuhn was highly educated in the science subjects which he wrote about, and there is definitely some subtle point in that book which may justify a close reading. I have not yet found it, but then again I have not yet read it very closely. I only read it one time for a class. One of the conclusions I have drawn from scanning the pages over the last few days is that I will put Kuhn's book on my short stack of books to be read closely and urgently. He has much material in there on Newton and Galileo and Dalton and these are very interesting topics, and the little I have read in the last few days looks great. I will be interested to see what I can make of this popular book.

Morris was a (failed) graduate student of Kuhn's, so his opinionator blog sequence was quite personal. He included a number of nuggets which added up to a fabulous stew pot full of stuff. Here are the highlights from my notes:

On the big question, Kuhn's from above on Reality, Morris doesn't tell us much. He replies with the cliche if you don't believe in reality go jump out a tenth floor window.

There are a couple of great personal anecdotes. The "theme" anecdote about Kuhn throwing an ashtray full of cigarette butts at Morris's head is entertaining. A much better one is the story about how he was arrested at a Vietnam protest and climbed out of the fourth-floor holding cell window and never got booked. He went back to the microfiche of the Princeton campus newspaper to find his name listed amongst the arrested students to document the gratifying fact he was on the right side during the war.

He has some fascinating information on the Pythagoreans:

1.) We know virtually nothing factual about the Pythagoreans. Our best single source is Iamblichus, who lived 800 years after. Whether Pythagorus was a scholar or more of a religious cult leader or something in between is not known.

2.) The Pythagorean Theorem was common knowledge to mathematicians in the Sumerian Civilization hundreds of years before Pythagorus.

3.) A (probably) legendary figure is Hippasus of Metapontum. Legend has it that he proved the irrationality of the square root of two and was executed by the Pythagoreans to punish him for this sacrilege.

As good as all this information is, I was puzzled as to how this detracted from Kuhn's thesis.

This is the first instance I have seen where the name Wittgenstein and the term "Gestalt flip" were located in the same paragraph. Wittgenstein wrote about the duck-rabbit in Philosophical Investigations before it was commonly called a Gestalt-flip.

An old and favorite puzzle of mine. Morris makes much of the Kripke argument about naming with the example of the goldfish and he even shows a picture of a goldfish. Now the puzzle is this: goldfish are at the very least orange and often red; they are never yellow and they are certainly never golden. Why do they call them goldfish? I first asked my mom this when I was around seven years old and neither she nor anyone else has ever been able to answer this question for me.

There is a feature about progress which makes it ambiguous at times, and I cannot put my finger on it, but I can give a real life example of what I am writing about. Perhaps this is related to Kuhn's thesis; if I take anything like this from my careful reading of his book I will be much more sympathetic to his argument. I have a colleague who has an advanced degree in Astrophysics. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the S-P orbital transition spectral line in the sodium atom as it shows up on earth instruments arriving here from all over the universe of space and time. A very bright guy. Based on a number of casual (and admittedly sneaky) conversations I have managed to learn that he can look up in a clear sky and identify the Big Dipper and Orion and just about nothing else.

If you had a time travel machine and could assemble a dozen Sumerian priest-astronomers and put them together with a dozen modern members of the Astronomy faculties of Cambridge and Stanford and MIT, under a clear night sky, who do you think knows more facts they could list out in a ninety minute examination period about what is up there? I would bet a lot of money on those guys from Sumer.

Lastly, I have some data which might be useful to some. Kuhn's book is now $13.00 list price from the University of Chicago Press. My copy which I purchased in 1980 was three dollars. Roughly two price doublings in 30 years; you can put that in your spreadsheet if you are keeping a personal Consumer Price Indicator inflation index rate.

14 March 2011

Angle of safety

In February 2009 on the 100th anniversary of Wallace Stegner's birthday, Timothy Egan wrote a thoughtful tribute to Stegner on the New York Times Op-Ed page. He did not get any facts wrong, but he did not put his emphasis where I would have, although I have only read five of Stegner's books and only three of these were novels.

Stegner's greatest accomplishment was his versatility: first an award winning novelist; second a teacher with award winning novelist pupils (Kesey, McMurtry, &c); third a writer of terrific non-fiction with expertise in history and biography and ecology; and fourth an innovator in environmental politics. My own appreciation for Stegner is centered on two non-fiction books which were essential for my own education:

Beyond the hundredth meridian, and

Where the bluebird sings to the lemonade springs.

Egan complained that Stegner is under-appreciated, that even at his home at Stanford University nobody reads him any longer. This complaint is wrong, and perhaps even meaningless. The man's books are in print and his most-read novels have hundreds of five-star reviews on the Amazon web page. There is one lesson in Stegner's books which is not generally appreciated in my experience. That lesson is the environment in the western United States is very fragile and its organic evolution has left it incapable of supporting the number of people living on it. Many people in the eastern United States who have never spent much time in the west do not appreciate this fairly simple fact, regardless of what they have read or heard. If you have not spent enough time there, you may not be capable of appreciating it.

The hundredth meridian in Stegner's book refers to an approximate boundary across the Great Plains of the United States. To the east of this (curved) boundary rainfall will support agriculture, and to the west agriculture requires irrigation because the rain is too sparse. If you look at the google satellite map of the United States, the east is green and the west is brown; the line of demarcation is approximately 100 degrees west in longitude, the hundredth meridian.

The central character in the book is John Wesley Powell, a legendary giant of a man. Powell lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and in spite of this handicap he commanded the first (white man) expedition to navigate the length of the Colorado River. In the vernacular, the man was a little nuts. He was also the first man to raise the issue of water allocation in the settlement of the western United States.

Near Moab, Utah, at the visitor's center to Canyonlands National Park they show a movie about Powell's expedition, and they have a replica of Powell's boats. The technology of rapid running water vessels has come a long way since the 1860's, and people now do this trip for fun. People also suffer accidental death doing these trips for fun with modern vessels. Some of Powell's men were killed by Indians, which is one hazard the current adventurer (and their life insurance underwriter) probably does not have to account for.

In around 1993 I learned firsthand about the fragility of the land in the west. There is a spectacular overlook of the canyons of Canyonlands at Dead Horse Point, at the confluence of the Green River and the Colorado River. As you look away from the river confluence, you can still observe the tracks of seismic survey lines placed by oil exploration companies. Canyonlands was chartered in 1964, at which time seismic surveys were no longer permitted. Now a seismic survey line is a pretty benign environmental impact, but in Canyonlands you can see the remains of one for at least thirty years. On the gulf coast that is going to be invisible after a single growing season. East of the hundredth meridian, the environment is very forgiving. This is the sense in which living east of the hundredth meridian can blind one to the fragility of the environment, and this is the lesson which Stegner worked so hard to provide in his books.

The other thing about life in the West which Stegner expressed better than any I have seen is the human element of opportunism which is so prevalent. In American History class in high school they told us all about "Go west, young man", but they did not tell us this story with any of the detail and passion with which Stegner tells it. His father moved Stegner's family all over the western United States and Canada pursuing an assortment of half-brained schemes and investment scams. Stegner told the story of his father's life in a brutal New York Times Sunday Magazine story which I can no longer link to. The ending was unforgettable.

"He died friendless and penniless of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a fleabag hotel hundreds of miles from his last permanent address, after a lifetime of creating more environmental damage than he could undo if he had a second lifetime to devote to the task."

I have no doubt mangled that quote a little transcribing it from my memory, but that is the gist. I am saddened a little that such a great writer as Stegner did not more fully absorb Emily Dickinson's lesson to tell it slant.

09 March 2011

Kundalini rising

The physiological process involved in the rising of the Kundalini (natural nervous or even supernatural psychic energy) in devoted and persevering yogis has never been explained any place where I could understand it; it is a mystery. If you have the patience to examine any of the citations on that wikipedia page, perhaps it will make more sense to you. To me the single best resource is The Serpent Power by Arthur Avalon. This book was first published in 1919 when neurology was still a comparatively primitive science. Although it is the single best resource, it is not a good resource. One might describe it as the least terrible resource.

I have used this analogy on my blog once before, but it is so central to my current investigations that I am going to repeat it here. My amateur opinion is that the human nervous system remains an undiscovered country. I believe that our current maps of the human nervous system are little better than the 16th century maps of North America which had major rivers running from Lake Michigan to San Francisco Bay. Perhaps the Kundalini has no more factual basis than the Seven Cities of Gold which a few of the Spanish Conquistadors died searching for. Bernard De Voto has a delightful passage in one of his books describing Coronodo's disappointment at finding nothing but adobe huts when arriving at his furthest destination in what is now New Mexico.

Instead of data, I offer anecdotes. My basic daily meditation regimen (described here) is a series of relaxation auto-suggestions focused upon my own anatomy. One of the most interesting effects of this meditation is seemingly spontaneous activation of reflex movements, such as the extensor digitorum reflex. Some hypnosis manuals consider the extensor digitorum refllex as the sine qua non of the state of hypnosis--a subject is considered hypnotized if and only if such an ideo motor response can be observed.

Many years ago I suffered a back injury playing tennis and was treated by doctors. It was confusing to me, and they were all more confident in the success of my treatment outcome than I was. I expressed some skepticism regarding the diagnosis and one of them said to me:

"Look. I have just given you a complete basic neurological examination. Your function is perfectly fine; in fact, considering your age, it is most excellent. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your spine. Do you want some Prozac?"

In this complete basic neurological examination he did test my extensor digitorum reflex. My experience in doing years of my self-hypnosis meditation leads me to believe that their catalog of reflexes is woefully incomplete. In my neurology textbook the word hypnosis is missing from the index. My psychology textbook is little better. (I have the 5th edition from 2000 so maybe this has improved.) There are five or six references to hypnosis. Gleitman says it is not understood, and he (they) speculates that perhaps the brain is secreting endorphins or similar poorly understood neurotransmitters and this is responsible for the phenomena that we observe in hypnotized subjects. There are also a couple of vague references to the placebo effect. Placebo is another word which is missing from the index in the neurology textbook.

This probably sounds critical of Kandel et al, but I do not intend that. The book is 1414 pages long and endlessly rewarding. When medical students study neurology, that is one of the books that they use. The subject is so large that they have to leave things out. Evidence-based medicine leaves out hypnosis because it seems impossible to collect reliable evidence. I once had a neurologist tell me, "I know nothing about hypnosis". Perhaps that was a dishonest conversation stopper to avoid a conversation he wanted to avoid, but if his teachers followed the Kandel book they left hypnosis out. This also is a mystery.

I own Gray's Anatomy, and the Anatomy Coloring Book in addition to Kandel; they contain more accessible information on the human nervous system. The best single document for me is done by an artist, however, not a doctor. It is Sacred Mirrors by Alex Gray. His representation of the human nervous system seems to be at exactly the right level of detail for my purposes, and the beauty of his presentation permits me to really appreciate the wonders of human anatomy. Some of his pictures are physically inaccurate. He has a beautiful picture of the psychic energy centers in the body. There is no scientific evidence for any such thing.

04 March 2011

The Kitchen Table

The kitchen table is an exercise which I learned from a woman who is the most skilled hypnotist I have ever seen close up. It is simple and takes very little time, but it does require a dedicated group of people. It is from the Gestalt Psychotherapy field, and very similar in dynamics to the Two Chair Exercise, which I previously went over. The working premise for its effect is that stress and neurosis are often sourced in things which happened long ago when we were less resourceful, and that exploring these event origins with the full array of resources which we now possess will permit us to process them in a healthier manner.

In the kitchen table the subject of the exercise revisits a typical meal in the home of their youth. It is one variant of a role playing exercise, and the role the subject plays is their self, at home, when young. The exercise also requires other players to play the roles of the significant others in the youthful home of the subject--his parents, siblings, &c. The subject specifies the cast in the preparation for the exercise. The subject also specifies a line or two or three for each of the other characters. They can be mundane, but they need to be appropriate to the characters. For example:

"That dress looks pretty".

"I wanted that piece of chicken."

"Do we really have to go to Uncle Drew's?"

The lines do not need to be memorized or professionally acted or voiced. You can even fit a guy in for mom in a pinch. All that is required is that the various characters speak only their lines, and it hardly matters if they speak them especially well. Then the characters sit around a table, just like it is time for a meal long ago and far away in the subject's past. They start speaking slow, distinct, and one at a time. Gradually they speak louder, faster, and overlapping one another. The physiology of what happens can be very strange, but I believe there is an avalanche in the subject's audio processing system; there is just far too much information entering their ears for them to keep up with. Although as the exercise begins they are consciously attempting to follow it all, soon they are overwhelmed by the sound stimulus. The result is (almost invariably) a profound hypnotic trance state.

I once took a poetry workshop with my poet-mentor Dave Brinks in New Orleans, where we did something quite similar as a writing experiment. He had two portable stereos set up on opposite ends of the room. On one he had Coltraine jazz, and on the other he had Bach Brandenberg Concerto. The poets sat in the middle and wrote poetry. Gradually as we wrote, he cranked up the volume on both the Coltraine box and on the Bach box. After about forty minutes, we took turns reading our stuff and giving feedback to one another. That was a worthy writing exercise similar in process. The results could hardly be compared to the kitchen table in the Gestalt psychotherapy room, which are more like abracadabra, presto, and SHAZAM!

27 February 2011

Six degrees of crispy bacon

On the wikipedia page for Social Network Theory they have Stanley Milgram and his six degrees separation (apparently he did not use that term) story. He did use the term small world. There are a couple entries for Milgram in my Social Network Analysis textbook, but nothing like the amount of emphasis they use there.

The current larger size of the world may be swamping the small world thing into irrelevance. The last couple times I experienced it ("oh, so you know . . ."), it got me absolutely nowhere. When I go to my professional society annual meeting there are 25 000 people there and I am at absolute maximum two degrees of separation from any one of them and the response I get from 99% of the people there is interstate highway etiquette. OK that is an exaggeration but it is not by much. I know one guy who is known by all 25 000 as he wrote the canonical textbook in the field. I wonder what he experiences when he walks through that meeting hall. Does he feel like Elvis? The last time I saw him at one of those meetings he looked bored.

The Social Network Analysis textbook is an outlier in my library. I have forgotten why I bought it. The other day I searched my Amazon purchase history and found what I bought it with and on what day. Then I went digging through my journals to figure out what I was spending my time on when I decided I wanted to own a Social Network textbook. This was twenty minutes of digging and I was still clueless when I finished. When you catch a clear view of something you do not understand, that is where you dig for gold, even though usually you find nothing. Most gold prospecters are poor. I was reminded by this of the day when I declared myself a victor in the quest to become an educated person.

When I was younger I poured myself into an avalanche of materials, feeling that some day I would know enough to not feel perpetually ignorant, and after that day my life would be fine even though then it was a mostly soulless grind. The object of my feelings that day was one Walter Benjamin, a literary critic of some note who died in World War II. I had seen his name as some sort of keystone in a number of different contexts and his book Illuminations was in that ever growing stack of books which I had to finish in order to view myself as an educated person.

One day I finally got to that book and perhaps it was my mood, but around page fifty I decided the book was crap. But not just that. There was also a reverse avalanche of cynicism as I had seen at least a dozen respectable scholars (and no way to tell at that point who they were) whose judgment I had to question for speaking so highly of the crap. So I decided there, then, I had read all that I required of myself to read to consider myself as educated. I remember the room, the sunlight coming in the window, what was in refrigerator; it was summer; Clinton was president; I was listening to lots of folk music; the woman I was dating and I seemed to have a great thing going for a while.

It was a sensation of freedom. I can remember nothing about college graduation, except I was looking forward to what I thought was a great job offer across the country.

I tossed Illuminations in the dumpster, but I may go back to it again some day. I have since learned that Benjamin was close friends with Gershem Scholem, whose books I have come to adore. What would be strange is, if I pick the book back up with a fresh brain and a generous attitude and find it is still crap to me. Maybe the fellow had some nervous tic in his writing style which is annoying to me personally.

22 February 2011

Memory Relentless

I have a memory of an interview on National Public Radio from a few years back with Maurice Sendak. In the interview he expressed a depressing view of his own life and his memories of it. The gist of this (my own memory is fuzzy enough that this is not verbatim) was that he found his memories to be relentless; that he would associate from one thing to another and it was inevitable that he would eventually arrive at something painful, too painful to escape from to a next painless association.That is not exactly what he said, but I can clearly recall his use of the word "relentless".

One of the stories which he told of his early life was unforgettable. His family was first or second generation in the United States; they were Jews who had immigrated from Poland. All of their family that stayed behind were wiped out by the Germans in the war. This was a horrible experience to be related to, but it contaminated their American life. He said his mother would not allow him to forget it for a day. If he was late to the dinner table, his mother would tell him, "your cousin Benjamin would love to be able to come to the dinner table on time, but he can't because the Nazis killed him."

Now Sendak was born in 1928. Unless they had some special inside information (possible but not likely) Maurice was 17 years old in 1945 when the full horror of what happened in Poland during the war finally became common knowledge. When I heard this story on the radio, I thought "my God what a horrible thing to say to a child." This was the tone in which he presented it. I was surprised when I looked at the dates because, although that is a horrible thing to say to a child, a seventeen-year-old is not a child; and I wonder if he was not exaggerating for effect and even perhaps he might have made the whole thing up.

The other strange thing in the interview was he said he was in psychoanalysis for 25 years and he had never been happy until just recently. It was a rather sad presentation for such an apparently successful writer and man. Perhaps those of us with less relentless memories are very fortunate.

17 February 2011

The Walden Pond Isolation Maneuver

Last August 28 I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Saint Thomas, "Religion, Mental Health, and the Search for Meaning: Bridging the Gaps" (previously described here and here). There was one sentence in the conference which has stuck with me for over five months. The speaker was a Catholic priest and he was describing a typical metaphysics problem for one of his church members. This typical church member is exhausted by the never-ending hypocrisy of the faithful and withdraws. The priest encounters the exhaustion when he calls upon people who have been missing and wants to call them back, just like the shepherd fetching his lost sheep in the parable in the bible. The priest maintains that everybody in the church, without exception, is also exhausted by the never-ending hypocrisy; they resolve to endure it, as the least unacceptable alternative. I remember this part verbatim:

"Withdrawing yourself to Walden Pond is not an option."

I almost agree with him. Since I am currently quite withdrawn to my equivalent of Walden Pond I cannot totally agree with him. Perhaps I would insert the word sustainable in between an and option.

The first time I read Walden was in school for a class and I did not enjoy it at all. I did the boy scouts camping and wilderness thing intermittently, but going to the woods to sit was not really one of my ambitions. Perhaps climbing to the top of Mount Everest or surfing the Banzai Pipeline would be worth doing, but the idea of enjoying a transcendent moment listening to the rain falling on the roof of my cabin in the woods was not something I could yet understand.

Thoreu's book is now one of my all-time favorites, and it is an inspiration to one of my major current projects. Here is an excerpt from his book which I am in the process of reproducing for my own situation at this very moment:
Boards.......................... $ 8.03+, mostly shanty boards.

Refuse shingles for roof sides... 4.00
Laths............................ 1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass.................... 2.43
One thousand old brick........... 4.00
Two casks of lime................ 2.40 That was high.
Hair............................. 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron................. 0.15
Nails............................ 3.90
Hinges and screws................ 0.14
Latch............................ 0.10
Chalk............................ 0.01
Transportation................... 1.40 I carried a good part
on my back.
In all............... $28.12+

(modified only so very very very slightly.)

This is Thoreau's expense record for construction of his cabin in the woods. I am living in an urban apartment and everything I require for shelter is accounted for in my monthly rent check, but with this small modification I am going through the exact same thing, restricting my expenses mostly to necessities and accounting for every single penny.

The benefit (as Thoreau so eloquently described) is the creation of a clearing in time and space to observe and think about the universe. Here is one small example. Last November when the first cold front blew in from the north the oak trees by my apartment started dropping acorns. This had a strong effect on the neighborhood squirrels. These rare precious tidbits were there for them in a windfall. Their behavior was energized as if they had sprouted wings and they began to fly around like cartoon squirrels, as if they had never once seen an acorn before in their life. The thing which really struck me though, is that surely this happens every November. And even though this surely happens every November, I had not seen it the three previous Novembers (when I was off to my office job every morning) that I lived here. It was only in my new reclusive mode that my mind had the time and space for me to see it and appreciate it.

Now I understand where the priest was coming from. Since he is evaluated by his superiors by how many people are in his pews and how much cash comes into his collection plates, he could hardly advise anything different. If you look in his textbook though, you see that Jesus went out to the desert and you find that Moses went up on the mountain and Elijah went out to the desert. Escaping from the routine of life's cares is an essential part of the tradition, which includes that those men all eventually returned. If the universe zaps me like that I will definitely return. I just might return anyway.

12 February 2011

Mismeasures of psychometry

My title is modified from Stephen Jay Gould's. My post is going to be a lot shorter than his book. He wrote it to debunk the intelligence test industry, and then he revised it a few years later and re-published into the midst of the Bell Curve controversy. My topic is only remotely related: I am going to write about personality tests, not intelligence tests.

It appears to me that the gold standard on the world wide web is Myers-Briggs. It has been awhile since I have read that wikipedia article on Myers-Briggs and it has grown enormously since the last time. It now is roughly one-fifth as long as the most popular book on the topic, Please Understand Me by David Keirsey. My two biggest criticisms of the test are covered in the article as it currently stands: 1.) some of the measures are unrepeatable, in that subjects will score as different particular personality types on subsequent tests; and 2.) it is completely self-reporting, with the inevitable distortion that causes. In the words of the current wikipedia article, "If respondents fear they have something to lose, they may answer as they assume they should." I have taken a number of versions of the test, variously scoring as INTP, INTJ, ISTP, ISTJ. I will give them the "I" and the "T", but my own opinion is the N-S and P-J axes are not universal, and personally meaningless.

My freshman psychology textbook is Gleitman. I have the fifth edition from 2000. Myers-Briggs is not in it. They have 75 pages devoted to the topic of personality, and several pages devoted to the topic of personality testing. The preferred instrument is the five factor scale, pioneered by W. T. Norman (Toward an adequate taxonomy of personality attributes, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, V. 66, pp 574-583). Since three of their factors are explicitly social--agreeableness, conscientiousness, and (absence of) neuroticism--this test is even more subject to the distortions of incentives to erroneous or deceptive answers in the test subject's self-report. One of the most profound mysteries may be how Myers-Briggs seems to rule the web and Gleitman, et al. do not see fit to even mention it.

The issue there may be that Myers-Briggs originates in Jungian psychology, and the great doctor Carl Jung is conspicuously and totally absent from the Gleitman textbook. Carl Jung was not exactly a real scientist you see, having been seduced by the Black Tide of Occultism.

The oddest personality test I ever experienced was in a company training class on "Creative Problem Solving". This was a one-week class where I and twenty of my peers were exposed to such company-sanctioned activities as "brainstorming". Part of the class was a personality assessment test. The testers claimed they could sort for: right-brain versus left-brain, and top-brain (cortex) versus bottom-brain (limbic). They had a composite display of the whole class on one plot. I suffered the ghastly embarrassment of the teacher telling all my classmates that I was the only right-brained person in the room. The other thing I remember from that test is my perfect career match was supposedly physician or metal sculptor. There is absolutely no way that a statistically significant number of well-adjusted metal sculptors have ever taken their test.

My favorite personality tests are the ones on the OKCupid web site. My results indicated such arcane features of my testing self as:

I am an INTP (d'oh!)
I am an Enneagram type 5.
I am partial to Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
My philosophy is akin to William James.
The Looney Tune character I most resemble is Wile E. Coyote.
The Romantic poet I most resemble is William Blake.
The major arcana I most resemble is the Hermit.
The Shakespeare character I most resemble is Richard III.

OK I am going to stop with that one because it is way off. Prospero, maybe; no way Richard III. Murdering my two young nephews to legitimize my kingly succession is just not me. As much fun as the OKCupid tests were, I only took about twenty of them. I know one woman (she is a World of Warcraft player) who has taken like three hundred OKCupid tests. Alright, one last one:

The Arthurian character I most resemble is the Lady of the Lake. This dear readers is scientific proof that there are worse personality testing instruments than Myers-Briggs.

07 February 2011

Jerry Kramer on Vince Lombardi on Aristotle

Attending to the annual Super Bowl spectacle can be a tough workout for the attention span. The highlight this week was listening to the sports talk radio show and they were interviewing Jerry Kramer and the dude quotes Vince Lombardi quoting Aristotle!

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Which is great stuff, except Aristotle never said that. It is a misattribution as they describe it on the wikiquote page. That was not Aristotle, but Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle. The other sound bit which Kramer enjoyed telling us was that "we can achieve excellence by pursuing perfection." This was sourced as a Lombardi original. Looking up the Aristotle quotation I was reminded of that great Yogi Berra title: I Really Didn't Say Everything I said. We have a bunch of crosstalk in the library between proverbs and thinkers and I have a few of my own; somehow they got stashed into my memory and I cannot document them, but I have this conviction that certain great truths derived from certain other great thinkers. I have one I am sure belongs to Faulkner but I cannot place it, and another that I would bet came from Gandhi but I cannot tie that one down either.

The word for one of those is agrapha (or singular agraphon), Greek, not written. It makes a lot more sense for Gandi than it does for Faulkner. Faulkner was paid to write things down--you would think every memorable thing he ever came up with got written down someplace. The word for the Faulkner thing might be unindexed or not-hashed--it is there in the 70 000 or so pages of his complete works but nobody else ever took note of it, and if I want to find it again I will have to sit down and go through the 70 000 pages one by one with my fingers crossed and hoping.

The other thing which Kramer botched was his date of Aristotle. He said it came from 5000 years ago. His intentions were OK. Except that he spent most of the interview talking about how he isn't in the Hall of Fame. And this was THE HIGHLIGHT of Super Bowl week in the media I was exposed to.

The New York Times informed me: 1.) neurologists are rooting for the Packers because they are more concerned about the concussion issue than the Steelers; 2.) neither the Packers nor the Steelers have cheerleaders, which is odd for a game in Cowboys' stadium in a state where parents "all want their boys to be quarterback and their girls to be head cheerleader" (This was presented as an actual quotation from an actual resident of Texas chosen by the New York Times to speak for all the millions who live here.); 3.) there is a suburb of Dallas spending 60 million to build a high school football stadium; 4.) the stunning observation that some women are attracted to these hyper masculine behemoths. (Links: 1, 2, 3, 4).

The Packers were favored. Since the Steelers apparently think concussed players ought to walk it off and get back into action, I wonder if the bettors were reading the same press I was reading. I would naively guess the playing field would favor the recklessly abandoned.

I entertained myself by timing the extravaganza. The kickoff was at 5:34 and the final second ticked off at 9:06 (CST). The box score showed there were 119 plays. If you generously chalk up six seconds per play, that means there was twelve minutes of action in a three hour, thirty-two minute period; the other three hours and twenty minutes were advertising, show business, ceremonies, and talking heads telling us how great all of this was. I suppose I could have just tuned it all out when Jerry Kramer started his spiel about his Hall of Fame campaign.

02 February 2011

Vengeance on a Dumb Brute

In the current wikipedia article on Melville they have that business about the mental constitution of the man. I have seen a lot of odd things about Melville and particularly about his novel, Moby Dick. I am not obsessed with Ahab, but I am interested. Sometimes I can believe I am the only reader who understands what exactly is going on in this novel. (That is not a bad criterion for a an effective piece of art--it leaves much of the audience feeling that they have a special understanding of the artist's point.) There is something about a working voyage on the deep sea in danger and isolation and boredom which can drive men mad.

There is one sentence in particular which I don't think I will ever forget. They are talking about the whale and Queequeg (the cannibal) offers:

"And he have one, two, three-oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain," cried Queequeg disjointedly, "all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him-him-" faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle-"like him-him-"

Well it is not exactly a sentence as somebody else finishes what Queequeg seems powerless to get to the period at the end of. This character who is not a native English speaker emits one of the greatest phrases of all: all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him-him-.

The first time I read Moby Dick it was for a class. That was not much fun. On later readings with nothing at stake I developed a love for Melville's language. The story is OK, but the color and richness in Melville's language are what make the book great. If you have had a hard time with it before and are interested in trying again, my Joyce trick has worked for me for this book as well.

Another thing which I did not appreciate in my first reading of Moby Dick is that Ahab has a black magic ritual in that quarter deck chapter:

"Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow-Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death! The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. Starbuck paled, and turned, and shivered."

Ahab pours grog into the hollow connector ends of the harpooners' weapon points and they drink libation and swear a blood oath for Ahab's vengeance upon the dumb brute. Ahab's destruction is nothing more than a representation of evil invocations returning back to their source. The law of karma. The points are of course screwed onto the harpoon shafts, all twiske-tee be-twisk.

Ahab's ravings are not the speech of a self-actualized Maslow man. This is the feature of the language of Moby Dick which can be the hardest on the reader. Melville is creating a character who is mad, and madness is never easy to follow. Melville himself had sailed with whalers, and if you have ever spent time working on the deep ocean you may know exactly what he was writing about.

On Christmas Day the New York Times published a long story about the last hours of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which was destroyed in a blowout and explosion and fire last April in the Gulf of Mexico; eleven of the crewmen on the rig died that day. The thing in the article which disturbed me most was the following sentence:

"In a few hours, the drilling crew’s 21-day hitch would be done."

I have done a handful of 14 day tours offshore, and one 21 day tour. The last day of my one 21 day tour was the longest day of my life, and the last hour of that day was the longest hour. After fourteen days my brain turned to mush. I was on seismic survey ships instead of drilling rigs but the environment is similar: heavy equipment, high pressure hydraulics, diesel engines with thousands of horsepower, flammable fluids and welding equipment. On the back deck of a seismic ship, as on a drill ship, there are a thousand different ways to die.

You are in close quarters with a bunch of other guys (mostly) but the isolation is severe when you are a thousand miles from a 911 emergency operator. If the sun is out and there are no clouds, there is a view which is spooky as Ahab's black magic curse of the whale--there is nothing in any direction but blue, blue sky above, blue water below, any direction you turn there is nothing but a uniform blank blue field in your vision. One time I was staring at it and six white storks came out of the blue and flew right over the ship. It was maybe only ten minutes from when they appeared to when they disappeared in the other direction, but that also was like an interval of forever.

28 January 2011

Theory and practice of meditation IV

This is an appendix to what was intended as a triplet of posts on the Theory and Practice of Meditation: I, II, III. The first was my own theory of what meditation is, how to do it in general, and why it might work; the second was a recipe of my primary meditation technique; the third was a recipe of my alternate regular meditation technique. I have tried many others, and I will describe in this post some of the features of these alternate techniques to illustrate the spectrum of available possibilities. None of these techniques is revolutionary, but some are quite far from the mainstream available from practitioners in most American zip codes.

1. A tarot tree of life meditation.

This is very similar to the style described in III, where I visualize pool ball size numbered spheres in a Kabbalah tree of life configuration. For spheres, I substitute tarot trumps. This was my most common meditation for a couple of years. I used (for nodes 1-10): Hermit, Judgment, Temperance, Strength, Magician, Fool, High Priestess, Chariot, Star, and Devil. I still have a poster board in my den with the tree and these ten images on it, but I have not used this meditation in almost a year.

2. My rock 'em sock 'em tree of life meditation.

This one also is very similar to the style described in III, and I believe it is my own invention. The objects of visualization are National Football League jerseys in the color of the sephiroth with the number of the breath on the jersey, exactly as a professional football player would wear. For example, sephiroth five is traditionally red, so for breath 5, 15, 25, 35, etc, I visualize a red San Francisco 49'ers jersey with this number. When I was a child I was a devoted fan of televised NFL games so it is very easy for me to close my eyes and see these images. This is a principle which may have many other applications. If you have difficulty visualizing, it may be helpful to visualize something that you imagined often as a child, when your powers of imagination had not yet been dulled by participating in the demanding and often cruel realities of life.

3. Zen.

I was a member of a Zen temple for almost a year. Zen meditation the way we did it also was breath based, with a priority on postural rigor and staring at nothing but a blank wall and thinking about nothing but breath. Sessions were long and supervised. The supervisor came around and whacked everybody two times on the top of their trapezius muscles, left and right, with a stick. (The last part was technically optional but very few people opted out.)

4. My golf course meditation and memory theater.

When I first moved to New Orleans I played golf all the time, on one course, 18 holes and par of 72. This is another breath based meditation. For each breath I visualize one of the 72 regulation strokes on that golf course. The first breath is the first tee shot on the first hole, and I then just move sequentially through 72 imagined regulation shots, ending with a final putt on the 18th hole for the 72nd breath. I have also done a number of experiments using this as a memory theater for a method of loci memorization regimen. This is a technique of memorization which is older than history--some of the oldest recorded feats of memorization are based upon this technique, where one associates each unique item in a list of memory targets to a unique physical location in space. I can get up to 72 items linked to unique locations on this golf course in my memory. This is how I memorized the 72 word name of God in Hebrew, the Shemhamphorasch.

5. Shemhamphorasch meditation.

This is another breath based meditation. Each of the 72 breaths corresponds to one of the 72 word names of God. According to modern Kabbalah researchers such as Gershem Scholem and Aryeh Kaplan, meditation upon the Shemhamphorasch was one of the most valued meditation techniques of the medieval Kabbalists by which they attained their deepest and most ecstatic states. I haven't found it of any such special value, but I was quite gratified when I had succeeded in memorizing the 72 triplets of Hebrew letters.

6. Transcendental meditation.

This was the first technique I learned. I learned it long ago when I was a freshman in college after paying $60 to the local Maharishi Yogi franchise. It was the only meditation technique I knew for many years when I would meditate for a few months, quit meditating for a couple years, meditate again for a few months, quit again over and over. It involves concentrating on an inner spoken mantra. They did not teach me anything about breath control for $60, although they might have gotten to that quickly if I had bought one of the following courses they were eager to sell me. I still occasionally do Transcendental meditation, but when I do it now I make an inner spoken mantra one time for one breath; this works much better than not anchoring it to the breath for me.

7. Time regression meditation.

This one can be a little bit bizarre. It is described in Aleister Crowley's Magick Without Tears, and he explains it in the context of accessing our previous incarnations. I do not go that far. What you do is start in the present, that would be 2011. Then you breathe slow and, for each breath, you visualize something in your past--a home, a job, a lover, whatever--that you can get a decent internal visual representation on, one breath and one image for each year. I never go back before my birth year, and I usually stop around puberty.

One thing which can be accessed by this method is feelings toward faith or family or country, which may have been pure and innocent long ago. For example, if you once had a very strong faith in God which has since waned, you can do this meditation and anchor your psyche back to that time and say an old prayer that you have not said in many years. I find this can have very interesting effects. That girl who broke your heart when you were 22? This is a way that you can again experience those feelings you had for her before that happened if you are so inclined.

None of these are techniques which I regularly do or which I consider important, but I thought I would put them down here just to give a little more variety and to provide suggestions for others to invent and explore for themselves.

One last thing. There was a buzz this week (at Hacker News and at the New York Times) about recent lab results showing neurological changes in meditators eight weeks after starting from scratch. I am very skeptical about this work. Brain maps are as confusing as anything; sometimes I think our current map of human brain function is about as accurate as those 17th century maps of North America that had a large river running from Lake Michigan to San Francisco Bay. The latest reported result directly contradicts my own experience, which is that the first twelve weeks or so of a new meditation regimen produces little to no effect. I do not think a person can dabble in meditating, as one can dabble in wine-tasting or table tennis or horseback riding. The canonical brain imaging studies of meditators at the University of Wisconsin used subjects who had already logged 10 000 hours of practice. My own results from meditation at week thirteen or week fourteen were nothing like the results that I obtained last week.

23 January 2011

The Gloria tapes

In 1965 a patient ("Gloria") participated in a teaching film with three world-renowned psychotherapists: Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, and Fritz Perls. She was a young divorced mother and volunteered her problems with parenting and dating to the scrutiny of these three fellows and their three psychotherapy techniques: Client-centered Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy, and Gestalt Therapy. The film Three Approaches to Psychotherapy has been shown to thousands of psychology students. I don't know what the copyright status is, but last week I watched all three of the thirty minute experiments on youtube.

The lesson is intended at the most superficial level, as nobody expects anything transformational to be possible in one thirty-minute session. Nevertheless, the film is informative. I have all of these fellows in my library and have studied them off and on for many years. This was the first time I had seen any of them in action and it was really great to have them working with one common patient.

Rogers is the one who I have had the least regard for. He is best known for a method of working with patients, not for any specific ideology of mental function or malfunction. He said the most important factor in a successful patient outcome is the nature of the relationship formed between patient and therapist. An oft-quoted quip is that it is "the relationship that heals." And his recipe for the therapist to form this healing relationship is to treat the patient with unconditional positive regard. The patient may suffer from guilt; the patient may judge their self harshly, but for the therapy to work the therapist would best consider their task to defuse all guilt and all negative self-judgment present in the patient's thought and action.

Considering where psychotherapy as an art was when Rogers began his work in the middle of the twentieth century, I can sort of see how this could have been a refreshing and useful tack. In 2011 this looks to be less useful to me. This is an attitude which may have been a big component in the self-esteem fashion that was so prevalent in the generation after Rogers. Optimism and Up With People and all that certainly has a place, but if the patient is so great, then what are they hiring a psychotherapist for? Rogers' method has a logical contradiction at its heart. These are ideas I had before watching the Gloria tapes, and there was nothing in Rogers' interview with Gloria which changed my mind.

Ellis is really the star of these tapes, and mainstream psychotherapy today in the United States really is the product of Ellis (on the psychology side) and his peer Aaron Beck (on the psychiatry side). Beck used almost exactly the same ideas, and he referred to his technique as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I am sure the doctors of Psychology and Psychiatry have all their arcane small differences, but in my limited understanding Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy are identical. If I woke up with a mental health problem tomorrow requiring professional help, I would look for one of these guys.

In the Gloria tape Ellis does his straight Rational Emotive Therapy schtick, but it looks to me like it is a little much for her. He is trying to ram a lot of information into his thirty minute allotment, and he is talking fast, and I had a hard time following it all. Since I have read his books and knew all this stuff, I can only imagine what it must have been like for the poor patient trying to keep up with the guy. At a couple of points in the tape, it is obvious that he is a little stressed at why this seems to be taking so long; that is poor practical psychotherapy despite the sound theoretical underpinnings. In the session summary after, Ellis states that he was sorry that he tried to do so much and that it probably would have been more helpful to Gloria if he had tried to do less.

This is exactly the dimension in which Perls managed to work effectively in spite of the thirty minute limitation and in spite of his having an inferior therapy theory. Although Gestalt Psychotherapy was once one of the most promising techniques, it has largely fallen into disfavor amongst professionals. I do not know why that is, because my experiences with it have included a number of important personal discoveries for myself about myself. (See here for example.) One distinct disadvantage it has is the quality of the written source material. Beck and Ellis wrote fabulous books, and I have yet to find one excellent book on Gestalt therapy.

(The best Beck book. The best Ellis book.)

With Gloria, Perls sticks to very simple questions and observations. The only thing which I can distinctly recall from all three of the tapes is an observation that Perls makes. Gloria says she is afraid, and Fritz says to her: "you say you feel afraid, and yet you are smiling. Do you know why that is? People who are afraid usually do not smile."

Yet it just so happens to be true that people who are afraid (especially women who are afraid) often do smile. Do you know why that is? I would love to know why that is. I am pretty sure Fritz was aware that women who are afraid often do, inexplicably, smile. If Gloria left her interview with Fritz and thought long and hard about that excellent question, I would bet she got a great deal out of that thirty minute interview.

18 January 2011

Meditations on first philosophy

Meditations on first philosophy is the title of the first book ever written in contemporary western Philosophy, according to the university course I took. It was written by Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, who began with the premise that he wanted to find true factual indubitable knowledge and that the way to find this was to begin by doubting everything, and retaining only what could be defended by rigorous logic. So by these meditations he reasoned to such respected elements as "I think, therefore I am." This short book continues to be relied on hundreds of years later and modern (especially French) philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault and Derrida all explicitly acknowledge the importance of Descartes' achievement.

I am occupied with a similar project. This was not entirely a conscious choice or any sort of Cartesian magnum opus. In the past five years I have slowly realized that almost nothing I think or do is too trivial to closely examine, and I am now of the attitude that I am willing to examine anything and everything, taking absolutely nothing for granted.

The first major recent instance changed my note taking practice. This happened in 2005 and was entirely accidental. I found myself in a seminar that did not absorb my entire attention, and to entertain myself I experimented with notation methods. It is no understatement to say that I learned how to take notes all over again as if for the first time in my life, which is a little odd considering I was over forty years old at the time. By the end of the seminar, I still was not engaged in it very attentively, but everybody else in the seminar felt they had to have a copy of my notes. One of my fellow attendees referred to them as the Golden notes. I later learned that a similar system was employed by Michel Foucault, which he referred to as hypomnemata.

The second big event concerned my vocabulary. In 2006 I thought I had almost as much vocabulary as I was ever going to need, that this was a basic skill like tying one's shoes or riding a bicycle that you learn once and don't worry about it after. In retrospect, that was obviously a silly attitude, but it was not until I took a vocabulary test which I thought I had aced and found out I had not aced it that I realized this. Details are here.

It was the third of my discoveries which shook me to Cartesian doubting level. This was months in the making, and thanks to my hypomnemata I have exact records of its genesis and development. On the 31 March 2010 I became self-employed, and one of the first tasks I embarked upon was an overhaul of my diet and workout practices. I took advantage of the freedom to ignore the clock, eat when hungry, and sleep when tired. Things seemed great in the beginning and actually for several months when I noticed that I had lost quite a few pounds. I bought a scale and weighed myself and was surprised at how little I weighed. It was actually a little bit alarming.

This was in late September. I began weighing myself daily. Within a couple of weeks I concluded that eating when hungry was not consistent with the level of working out I was doing, that I had to eat breakfast immediately upon waking and continue to feed myself as soon as possible in order to maintain weight. After a couple of months (and gaining weight very slowly) I did the numbers. It was a revelation. Here are the constraints:

Eight hours sleep per night.
Three meals per day.
Ninety minutes workout per day.
Five hours to fully digest dinner before laying down to sleep.

To my amazement this sums up (including to the minute how much time is required to prepare and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner) to 24 hours within 2%; i. e. there is virtually no slack time in my schedule at all. After six months and nine days of thinking I was indulging myself in complete freedom, on the 10th of November 2010 I discovered that the simple mechanics of running my organism in its proper operational fashion requires rigid adherence to a fixed daily schedule. Up at 6:00 A. M. every single day without fail. Directly to the kitchen to ingest my breakfast. After four hours digestion, directly into workout with no delay. After workout, directly to the kitchen to prepare and consume lunch. After four hours digestion, directly to the kitchen to prepare and consume dinner. Five hours after dinner, directly to bed to sleep for eight hours. I am self-employed and I have no boss.

Ha! My body is the most rigid task master I have ever known. A fact which I could have, should have known my entire life but it took me six months of being unemployed or self-employed (however you prefer to frame it) to figure it out. And so now I am wondering what else is ripe for making over, and I am inclined to consider anything--speaking, reading, walking, standing, sitting, listening. Even breathing.


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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.