Lullaby for the Damned – pt 1

One

Through the thinning fog of a quickly dissolving dream lurched a gentle voice modulated by the throaty growl of an intercom on the verge of dying. “Up and at ’em, sailor. Time and tide wait for no man.” A pair of gritty eyelids lifted to reveal the inside of a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin.

Old instincts took hold. “I’m up, I’m up. What time is it?”

“A fine jest, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. It is time to wake. Orientation begins now.”

“Orientation?” The gray box was featureless but for the slab that served as a bed. “Where am I? What orientation? Who are you?” The figure in the bed fought back a wave of dizziness as he sat up. “Where are you? I can barely see a thing in here.”

“Your vision will acclimate soon. It isn’t uncommon for recent culls to have difficulty adjusting to the different focal depth. As for where you are, that’s all part of the orientation. Please follow the illuminated path.” A trail of softly-glowing lights blinked to attention on the floor of the gray box, leading out of the room’s rectangular egress and down a hallway as featureless and grim as the rest of the environs.

“My name is Andrew.” He awkwardly gained his feet, then braced himself against the cool wall as another bout of dizziness washed over him. “Andrew Culligan. What orientation? What’s going on? How did I get here?” He struggled to remember where he had been before he woke here in the gray room gently suffused with pale light of indeterminate origin. Fragmented images of kissing his six year old daughter goodnight, of rubbing his wife’s tired shoulders, of stealing downstairs to sneak a gob of ice cream Dr. Aronsen had warned him against eating else that incipient diabetes flare into a full-blown case. None of these memories seemed particularly real, more like impressions, as if he were recounting the scenes from a television program he’d fallen asleep in front of the night before.

“Your memories of being Andrew Culligan will fade soon enough.” The voice broke momentarily as a muffled cluster of electric pops and clicks took its place. “Use the handrail to your right if you have trouble keeping steady.”

He was indeed unsteady on his feet. The handrail helped somewhat, but the rhythm his footsteps wanted to make was ungainly. His knees rose too high, as if pinioned to children’s toy party balloons filled with helium. His breath came short and fast, and despite feeling light on his feet, he felt as if he were moving too slowly, a maggot burrowing through honey. “I feel funny. Why does it smell like I fell in a copper mine?”

“Your body still remembers life on the other side. What you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you smell: these are artifacts, file fragments, little bits left over from before you were culled. Think of it like the aftertaste of a spicy meal or the lingering perfume that stuck with you after you kissed Jennifer Sudlowsky in the sixth grade.”

The name—that name shot clean through him. In him swelled first surprise, then confusion, then anger. He stopped dead in his tracks, refusing to cooperate until he got some answers. “Look, asshole. I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not taking another step until you tell me where the hell I am and how the hell I got here.”

The radio crackle shut off entirely. The monochrome hallway seemed impossibly quiet, as if its featureless surfaces drank ambient noise. When the voice returned, it was perfectly clear, too clear, clearer than the sound of Andrew’s own voice in his head. “Your name is Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. There is no Andrew Culligan anymore. In a sense, there never was an Andrew Culligan. You have been selected to be removed from the other side in order to work here. Think of yourself as a software engineer of sorts, or a debugger if you like.”

He spun around, trying in vain to find the source of the voice that seemed to speak directly into his ear from inches away. “I’m no software engineer. I’m a middle school English Composition teacher. What do you mean ‘there never was an Andrew Culligan?’ I am Andrew Culligan. Who do you think you are telling me I don’t exist?”

“It’s important you keep moving, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. All will be explained to you, but you’re standing in the middle of a hallway right now. Orientation for new culls like yourself take place in the Orientation Center. Come join me here. And prepare to be amazed.” The voice fell silent.

“My name is Andrew Culligan,” he grumbled as he resumed his awkward plod along the path of softly glowing light. Tinnitus swelled and subsided as he proceeded, but it was nothing worse than what he’d suffered over the past few years in traffic, in the teachers’ lounge, at home watching one generic sitcom after another, or taking his daughter to play on the puke-green jungle gym the homeowners’ association behind his house stubbornly refused to replace despite visible surface rust on the swing-set shackles. If anything, the ringing in his ears was an old friend coming by to assure him that despite the odd surroundings, everything would turn out just fine.

If only that were true.

Two

The orientation room was a half-cylinder five meters in radius by two and a half meters tall. A pearl-white flush-mounted display dominated the former Andrew Culligan’s peripheral vision. “Welcome to your orientation, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner.” An image Andrew Culligan recognized well appeared on the display before him, rendered in uncannily-perfect three dimensions. It was him, or rather the him that greeted him in the mirror each morning before he groggily dragged a comb through his hair and a razor across his chin. “This was you.” The figure began to slowly rotate counterclockwise. It was dressed simply, as Andrew often did in a checkered shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway to the elbows and a battered yet serviceable pair of khakis. “More precisely, this was you before you were culled.” Another image appeared next to the one he knew as his own skin and bones. This one he also recognized, but more from the movies and television shows he favored. It was shorter, perhaps five feet tall, impossibly thin, and sporting a head shaped like an upside-down egg featuring enormous ink-black, lidless eyes.

“What’s with the space alien?” Andrew mentally added that properly speaking, this was a Gray, not to be confused with a Green or reptilian, the other faction vying to dominate human affairs. Andrew found himself tempted to giggle at his little flight of half-remembered conspiracy nut fancy, circumstances notwithstanding.

“And this is you now, after your culling.” Unlike the familiar human figure, this image did not rotate, but rather moved in tandem with Andrew’s gestures. It took him a moment and some hand-waving to notice that he was gazing into an unfamiliar reflection. “The Andrew Culligan you thought you were was implanted into a simulation of sorts, one that contains what you think of as the world. It’s probably more accurate to say that it contains the human experience, and we here are…” the voice paused, as if searching for the right word, “think of us as a team of troubleshooters and maintenance technicians. We find and fix errors in the simulation, and we have withdrawn you to help us.”

For the first time since he awoke in that plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin, Andrew gazed down at himself. He noted with dim curiosity that he wasn’t panicked to discover that he was indeed a painfully thin, gray-skinned biped. He reached up to touch his ovoid skull and squeezed his big eyes shut only to discover that instead of proper eyelids, a pair of glassy nictitating membranes slid over his cartoonishly-large corneas. He turned his hands over and over, trying to figure out why he had only three fingers and why he hadn’t started screaming himself hoarse in a wordless shriek of denial. “This is some kind of magic trick or something.” It had to be a prank, Andrew Culligan thought. “I don’t find this funny.” It was easily the most elaborate prank he’d ever heard of. “Can I go home now, please?”

“You are home, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. Look here.” The images in the display were replaced with a large, ornate book by a classic vertical wipe fade, the sort of movie transition Andrew remembered fondly from the films he grew up with in the 1980s. “Think of your life story as a book.” The book in the display opened to about the middle. “Inside the story, you get to read one word at a time, front to back, top to bottom, left to right.” A glowing pointer appeared, highlighting one word at a time. Andrew noted that the words detailed the night his daughter was born, from the meticulous notes he kept on the timing of his wife’s contractions to the guilty hour and a half he dozed off while she was in labor. “Inside the story, you can’t see the book.” The book closed and began to rotate. “But from here, we can see the whole book, take it off the shelf, flip between the pages, even remove it entirely from the library. That’s what we did with you.”

“You pulled my life story out of the library?”

“So to speak, yes. But we also put it in there in the first place. Part of our duties is to generate new workers. It’s especially important now, for reasons we’ll cover later in the orientation. The way we do it is to put blank books into the library and once they’ve been written to a useful extent, to pull them back out again for duty.”

“This makes literally no sense to me.” Andrew’s voice was dull. Psychologists call it “flat affect” and it is a common symptom of emotional trauma.

“Tell me, John Three Three Seven Gardner, how many dimensions are there?”

“Hold on a damn minute. Why do you keep calling me that stupid name? I told you, my name is Andrew Culligan, even if I look like I just stepped out of an episode of the X-Files at the moment.”

“It’s your name. It’s sort of a file name, if you like. When we seed the simulation with a template, the form is based on an archetype generated by the principal researchers. You are based on a pastiche of Jon Ellis and Robert Gardner. You were seeded in Region 337. Therefore, you are Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. The name Andrew Culligan never existed, at least not after we pulled your book out of the library, so to speak.”

“What do you mean ‘never existed?'”

“I mean just that. You were never born. Your father never impregnated your mother in June of 1976. You didn’t grow up in Battle Creek, Michigan. You didn’t attend college at UW-Madison, you didn’t marry Lisa Pinehurst, you didn’t have a daughter named Chelsea. None of it happened. Not in the current version of the simulation you know as Earth, anyway.”

“What is happening?” Jon Three Three Seven Gardner fell to his knees.

“What is happening? What is happening is this: there was an extinction-level event in 2012. What remains of humanity is preserved in a simulation. The simulation is facing a severe threat from within. If the threat is not contained, the system will collapse in 2020. You have been recruited to help us identify and resolve the threat.”

The words were falling on deaf ears. Jon Three Three Seven Gardner had fallen unconscious. The owner of the voice conducting orientation clucked in pity. “We will talk more later, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. For now, get some rest.”

Frames

‘Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a WIND reef. The wind does that.’

‘So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?’

‘I can’t tell you. It is an instinct. By and by you will just naturally KNOW one from the other, but you never will be able to explain why or how you know them apart’

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book— a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every reperusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me.

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them.

Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi (pp. 46-48).  Kindle Edition.Emphasis mine.

An Appreciation for Irony…

Irony is in a state of disrepute. It’s been used and abused by hipsters who wear “ironic” clothing and facial hair based on the self-conscious selection of a style because it’s ugly or anachronistic or inappropriate for a grown man in his thirties. It’s an empty, hollow irony, as opposed to critical, elevating, or subversive.

That’s a shame, because an appreciation for irony is perhaps the highest virtue. Formally, irony (whether dramatic, verbal, or situational) is a kind of capacity for double meaning. Done right, it permits one to stand with one foot in two parallel universes, one meaningful and the other absurd, and live a richer life.

“The literal mind is baffled by the ironic one, demanding explanations that only intensify the joke,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian. To illustrate, he retells a true story from humorist P.G. Wodehouse, who was accidentally captured during the 1940 German invasion of France:

Josef Goebbels’s propaganda bureaucrats asked him to broadcast on Berlin radio, which he incautiously agreed to do, and his first transmission began:

Young men starting out in life often ask me—“How do you become an internee?” Well, there are various ways. My own method was to acquire a villa in northern France and wait for the German army to come along. This is probably the simplest plan. You buy the villa and the German army does the rest.

Somebody—it would be nice to know who, I hope it was Goebbels—must have vetted this and decided to let it go out as a good advertisement for German broad-mindedness. The “funny” thing is that the broadcast landed Wodehouse in an infinity of trouble with the British authorities, representing a nation that prides itself above all on a sense of humor.

Wodehouse’s answer, that the best way to become a German internee is to buy a villa in France, is hilarious because it confuses cause and effect so patently. But that’s what happened. He bought a villa in France and got captured by German invaders. By framing the literal fact as a kind of piece of advice to an aspiring internee his radio opening underscores the raw absurdity of the war.

And war is absurd. But to the “very serious people” like the British, this war was not absurd. It was a noble cause in the defense of freedom, justice, democracy, and all that is right. To be ironic about something as serious as that was frivolous bordering on treacherous.

The thing is, though, that war can be both absurd and serious. Wodehouse’s irony uses a degree of ignorance or naiveté (feigned, in his case) to convey a penetrating and self-conscious insight. Similarly, absurdity only exists by way of contrast with radical purpose, knowledge and intelligibility.

It’s necessary to living at all that we believe the word makes conceptual sense and that we exist in it with definite purpose. Nonetheless, on some level our social practices and biological imperatives are deeply arbitrary, even weird, in a way that ought to induce nervous laughter. The goal of irony is to reconcile these two truths—to maintain a level of awareness that is neither overly self-serious or frivolous to the point of nihilism, and, when possible, to put it toward an edifying use.

Skin War’s Dual Identity

Take Skin Wars, a reality TV show that pits a bunch of random artists in body painting competitions. I found it while flipping through the TV guide, drawn in by the title and my primal alertness to all things ostensibly nude and aggressive.

Not fully knowing what to expect, I was amused that such a niche show even exists, followed by stunned to discover it was in its third season. I immediately traced the holy cross across my chest in awe at “the extent of the market,” before I suddenly realized what the real appeal of the show was: An excuse for never-ending shots of side boob.

skin wars

Essentially, the show is soft-core pornography with an art competition overlaid in order to provide the viewer additional fodder and a degree of plausible deniability. The fascinating part is how, couched within its brazen and kitsch totality, there are a dozen or so completely serious contestants.

With each body painting they explain the deeper meaning behind the work while being brutally critiqued by RuPaul. Half the time it feels like contestants are being rewarded less for their artistic ability than for their skill at impromtu apophenia. After the loser of each episode is eliminated, he or she invariably propounds one last time on the unappreciated genius of their Starry Night nipple integration, while casting shade on the remaining artists as unworthy hacks.

Taken as a whole, I believe Skin Wars is an excellent metaphor for the human condition. From behind the forth wall, as viewers looking in, the show is unapologetically absurd, if not borderline silly. And yet for the show to work at all it depends crucially on an internal, unironic kernel of purpose and earnestness in each and every participant. (Note: Nathan for You does an amazing job satirizing this common Reality TV dynamic).

Each half—from the show’s ratings savvy writer-producers, to their humorless Craigslist recruits—are necessary to the ironic whole. Just as one can forget to have fun through stern objections to the paucity of male models or the cynically slick editing, one can also become too invested in whose face paint was most on point. Only a sense of the show’s multifaceted irony allows for a critical though healthy engagement. 

It’s thus appropriate RuPaul is a main judge. He embodies the exact same duality of serious artiste meets outrageous performance theater. Shakespeare also made great use of dramatic irony through mistaken (sexual) identity. It is no accident that appreciation of irony is required for appreciation of drag.

Yet if irony is going to be reclaimed from the hipsters it’s got to be handled with care. Too often irony done poorly collapses into straight-up cynicism, which is ironic, since the cynic is excessively sincere in his own way. And so as with all virtues, irony requires practice, judgment and finding the right balance.

Penang_-_Little_Children_on_a_Bicycle

What’s More Immediate Than Falling Off A Bike?

Featured image is Children on Bicycle by Ernest Zacharevic

You have, in your head, a model of a bicycle. Two wheels, a frame, handle bars, pedals. If you’re like me your model includes some extras that aren’t strictly necessary to a bike, like gears, a chain, a gear shift and brakes, but we can leave that aside. You might even have a particular bike in mind, with a particular colour, a particular number of wheel spokes, with a particular rider, in a particular place going to a particular location.

If you have some basic dynamics training you can even make a bit of an explicit model of how that person would ride a bike, using the force of the legs as applied to the pedals, the friction with the ground, the various moments of inertia of the wheels and frame, and the center mass and center of volume of the rider/bike combo. Perhaps you have even heard some stories about more exotic varieties, tandem bicycles or pennyfarthings or butcher’s bikes and the like, which follow the same basic models, though with completely different parameters.

It’s a mistake to think this has anything at all to do with the model you actually use to ride a bike. That model doesn’t have colours, or chains, or even wheels. The bike is stripped down to the most basic elements needed to control it, the handle bars and the pedals (depending on the bike there may also be a handbrake and a gear shift, but these aren’t essential). Your brain does a complex calculation on the senses available to it, of the stresses on muscles, the fluid in your inner ear and the relative angles and motion of nearby objects which it combines to form a sense of balance. Riding a bike is a complex mapping of this sense of balance to action, a negative feedback loop between your hands, the handlebars, your body’s position on the bike and the feeling of imbalance.

You may understand on some level that the handlebars are attached to the front wheel, and turning the handlebars causes the wheel to turn, which causes the bike to turn which results in a centrifugal force restoring your balance, but that kind of formal chain is utterly unnecessary to the learning. When you feel such and such and imbalance, you turn the handlebars so far, which restores the balance. You turn the bars to turn the bike, which produces a centrifugal force, and so you shift your weight to restore the sense of balance. Similarly, you are going too slow, you push harder on the pedals, you are going too fast, you ease up on the pedals.

The exact mechanics by which a bike works might be of interest, depending on what you want to do. Understanding the mechanics of angular momentum can let you build gyroscopic self balancing bikes for use by the disabled for example. Understanding gearing allows both more torque or more speed depending on the situation. Understanding how a wheel works, while non-essential to control, can help anticipate the ways in which you will be required to react to a mud puddle, or a patch of gravel. But none of these extra elements will make their way back into the riding model. What use would they be?

The vast majority of our mental models work in this way. It is thoroughly a calculation, a learned series of simultaneous equations and feedback loops that don’t produce a thought, but a feeling and (unless you can consciously suppress it) an action. The model you require to explain exactly how many degrees you would need to turn the bike handles to stay upright is fairly complex, and knowing how to perform it wouldn’t help you not fall down next time. You probably haven’t the slightest clue what the moment of inertia around the relevant axis is, and unless you’re a civil or mechanical engineer probably don’t even know how you would go about calculating it. You just felt like you were falling over and turned the handlebars until you didn’t feel that way anymore.

“Me” and “We,” Where “We” Is “Thee”

CHRIS: I think we ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: So do I!

CHRIS: How can that be? Just yesterday we were talking about a proposal to tax the 1% more heavily in order to fund poverty relief programs, and you said you opposed that plan.

PAT: I do oppose that plan. What does that have to do with anything?

CHRIS: Well, evidently you oppose at least one thing we can do to help the poor.

PAT: Well, hang on. You just said you thought we ought to do more to help the poor. Now you’re saying that you think someone else ought to do more to help the poor…

CHRIS: What I meant was that I think we as a society ought to do more to help the poor.

PAT: I see. I agree with that, too. Only, now I have question: Don’t you consider yourself a part of society?

CHRIS: I most certainly do.

PAT: I thought so, but then why, when talking about what we as a society ought to do for the poor, did you choose to single out a group to which you do not belong? Don’t you think you, personally ought to do more to help the poor?

CHRIS: I give what I can, but the wealthy could afford to give much more than I can give.

PAT: Yes, that is probably true. However, you said before that you thought we as a society ought to do more for the poor. Upon clarification, I now see that what you really meant was that you personally cannot afford to do more for the poor, but someone else can, and so you feel that they ought to. You began by talking about “us,” but what you really meant was “them.” Why did you say “we” when what you really meant was “they?”

CHRIS: We are all part of society, all of us. If we want to enjoy a society in which all of us has the opportunity to flourish, then we must all meet our ethical responsibilities. Because the wealthy are part of our society, I include them whenever I say “we.”

PAT: Chris, are you okay? I thought you were doing pretty well for yourself. You have a nice job and seem to be making a comfortable living. You even have some money left over to donate to charity. Are you not flourishing?

CHRIS: Wait, what? Of course I’m flourishing; I have a great life.

PAT: Well, doggone it. Now I’m really confused.

CHRIS: I didn’t think it was a very complicated concept. What seems to be perplexing you?

PAT: Well, before, you were saying that “we” ought to do more, but what you really meant was a group of “us” to which you don’t belong. But just now, you said you thought we all had to meet our ethical responsibilities in order for all the rest of us to enjoy the opportunity to flourish…

CHRIS: You don’t seem to be confused to me, Pat.

PAT: Well, hang on. When you say that we need to meet our ethical responsibilities, you obviously mean that the wealthy ought to do more to help the poor, right?

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: But “the wealthy” doesn’t mean you.

CHRIS: Right.

PAT: And since you say you have a great life, then that means “the poor” doesn’t mean you, either.

CHRIS: Well… right.

PAT: So then when you say that you want all of “us” to flourish, you mean that you want someone other than you to gain something contributed by someone else, other than you.

CHRIS: Yes, so?

PAT: So, you keep saying “us” and “we,” but in no case do you actually mean to refer to yourself. I know you and I have disagreed on politics in the past, but I never expected us to disagree so profoundly on the meaning of the words “we” and “us.”

CHRIS: Come, now, Pat. Don’t you think you’re being a little obtuse? I’m talking about making our society a better place. We all live here, rich, poor, and average. We should all accept some level of responsibility for the society in which we live, and we should all strive to provide the foundation of a better polity. That naturally means that some of us will be beneficiaries and some of us will be benefactors. Because I’m doing okay, I make a point of donating what I can, and I never make a point of accepting a donation I don’t need. But those who are doing much better than I am should give more, and those who are worse off than I should be given more. But we’re all part of the polity.

PAT: I agree with all of that. All I’m saying is that you’re not really talking about “society” or “the polity,” you’re talking about what should happen to people other than you. Even worse, you’re talking specifically about people who have different characteristics than you have. Some of them give more, some of them receive more, but none of them are you. Let me ask you another question: Would you say you belong to the same society as “the 1%?”

CHRIS: I see where you’re going with this. In one sense, I belong to the same society they do because we are all part of the same polity. But in another sense, we don’t exactly hang out in the same social circles, so I guess I don’t belong to their society per se.

PAT: Neither do you hang out with the poor, Chris.

CHRIS: That’s true, too. But we all belong to the same polity, meaning we are all subject to the same government and the same laws. So when I was talking about that progressive tax increase, I meant that this is a policy everyone within the same polity should support.

PAT: Well, I still disagree with you there, but I think you probably know now that my disagreement has nothing to do with “society.”

CHRIS: Of course it has nothing to do with society, Pat. It’s rational self-interest. You’re rich. You don’t want to pay more taxes.

PAT: Wait a minute. That means that when you first said “we,” what you really meant was… me?

CHRIS: So it would seem.

PAT: Why didn’t you just say so in the first place? You made it sound like you wanted to help. And remember, I initially agreed that you and I ought to do more. You never intended to do more for the poor.

CHRIS: I guess it doesn’t sound very nice when you put it that way. I only wanted to make an agreeable case for our helping the poor… er, I guess for your helping the poor. Look, I’m sorry for putting it to you in an offensive way. I really didn’t see it that way.

PAT: It was an honest mistake. We’re friends, apology accepted.

CHRIS: Well, now I feel a little awkward. Let’s talk about something else.

PAT: Okay, sure.

CHRIS: I think we ought to treat women more fairly…

Can I Possess Knowledge That I Disbelieve?

In a way, my previous post was about the existence of existence. This post might be about the existence of truth. Or, perhaps it is about the illusion of its absence.

Atonal Music

Unlike most music fans, I love serial compositions. They’re not for everyone, but the reason I like them is because they use our implicit knowledge of traditional Western harmony against us. Even if you don’t think you know anything about music, you do. Your mere cultural exposure to music has ingrained you with the understanding of certain rudimentary concepts, certain expectations of harmonic and melodic sequences, even if you aren’t expressly aware of them.

What makes atonal music like Schoenberg’s so much fun for me is that, because they lack the same kind of musical structure traditional music has, my mind races in to fill the void. I’ll hear two notes played at random, and my mind subconsciously creates a harmonic link between them. Then a third “random” note appears, and my mind stretches to create a harmonic link that reconciles all three notes. On and on it goes until my mind can no longer link all the notes together, and I have to start again.

This very process is what makes other people hate serial compositions. Rather than compelling, they find the process stressful. Well, different strokes for different folks – but what’s interesting here is that even if you hate serial music, you can’t stop your brain from attempting to form patterns in the music. Love it or hate it, the music switches on a particular attribute of human thinking: pattern recognition.

If I play all the notes corresponding to, “Twinkle, twinkle, little…” and suddenly stop, then your brain will automatically think, “…star.” To people who spend a lot of time listening to music, like me, all you’d have to do is play, “Twinkle, twink…” – just three notes – and our musical brains would automatically think, “..kle little star.”

If you really want to confuse someone, then try whistling the notes that correspond to: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / Fa la la la la, La la la la!” But if you really want to make them made, make sure the first part is in a different key signature than the second part.

Many great composers have utilized similar tricks to play the listener’s ear against itself, but the serial composers took this fact of human psychology to a whole new level, in the pursuit of new “outside sounds.” The genius of atonal music is that it makes us see patterns even where none exist, i.e. even when the notes arranged, essentially, nonsensically.

Atonal Logic

A few years back, in a post entitled “The Paradox Paradox,” I wrote:

The interesting thing about paradoxes is that they are both a problem of definition and of perception. The definition can never be true, and their existence is in fact only a matter of perception.

A paradox is defined to be a statement that is “seemingly” or “apparently” self-contradictory. But their main problem is that they don’t really exist. No statement can be both true and false at exactly the same time in exactly the same way.

Paradoxes capitalize on the fact that language is more flexible than logic. The “trick” is that self-contradictory sentences can be constructed whose logical or physical properties are impossible, in the same sense that imaginary creatures can be described in books even though their physical existence is otherwise impossible. I can construct the sentence “This statement is false,” but I cannot make it mean anything. While such statements dazzled the ancient Greeks for a time, in the end they are simply nonsense.

Like atonal music, paradoxes adhere to a consistent internal logic, namely, valid linguistic syntax. Also like atonal music, the value of paradoxes is that they are simply entertaining. And, like atonal music, paradoxes contain no outward meaning beyond their internal structure; the composition is the statement, but there is no meaning to be extracted beyond its structure.

Paradoxes aren’t the only statements that work this way. I can also construct a sentence like, “My fertile eyeglasses eat nimble compassion,” which has all its parts of speech in the correct locations, but which conveys no real information. Eyeglasses aren’t fertile and they cannot eat anything; compassion isn’t nimble and it cannot be eaten.

Here, though, our sense of pattern-recognition might kick in and wonder whether there might be a sense in which that statement might be true. Can eyeglasses be fertile in a manner of speaking? Can compassion be allegorically nimble?

It sounds interesting for a moment, but we soon realize that the sentence really is nonsense, and then we move on.

Atonal Knowledge

I thought about my old post on the nonsense of paradoxes when Adam posed his questions the other day.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

If my statement is true, then in what sense does Germany border China?

I think it’s possible to listen to that Schoenberg piece I embedded above and to genuinely believe that it has a tonal center, even though it was deliberately written not to have one. I also think it’s possible to genuinely believe that compassion can be nimble. The problem with beliefs is that they can be – and quite often are – simply wrong.

This fact is unpleasant. We don’t like to judge others, and in particular we don’t feel good about judging others’ beliefs. But atonal music is genuinely atonal, and skepticism of consciousness is genuinely impossible. We don’t have to be jerks about it, but when someone claims to reject the existence of consciousness, we can safely discard their statement as a wrong thing, a logical and physical impossibility, that they only think they believe.

This shouldn’t stop us from analyzing the matter. For one thing, just because a particular truth exists doesn’t mean we already possess that knowledge. For another thing, we might only realize our mistaken beliefs after close consideration of the matter.

And, thirdly, thinking about such things is entertaining, just like paradoxes and atonal music.

Scott Weiland, RIP

I don’t have to accuse you of anything. You are already accusing yourselves all the time.

Scott Weiland (RIP December 3) was one of my personal favorites, coming up there in the heady days of grunge bathos, and I chose him over Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon (RIP 1995) and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (still alive). Of course, our generation’s Jim Morrison had already led the way, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (RIP 1994).

Weiland’s wife, in her distress (I hope), wrote a note, which reads, in part, “Our hope for Scott has died…”

How can hope die? How can hope for a person die? Is this a possibility? From my perspective, there is always hope for Scott, even if there is very little hope, and even if he is already dead. Who knows what he met when his heart stopped?

His wife continues, “We are angry and sad about this loss, but we are most devastated that he chose to give up.”

That’s his wife.

Oh, wait. Ex-wife. Why is she commenting? I don’t know, but that’s harsh, bro, really harsh, the pinnacle of wifely arrogance and judgmentalism, that a drug addict could choose anything. She then instructs those who loved him, for whatever reason, to take a kid to a ballgame rather than memorialize their love for him.

It is curious to me, and I see it as a similarity, that Kurt Cobain would write a song, essentially declaring “Married = Buried,” then choose to use the muzzle end of a shotgun to eat a shotgun shell, whence his wife garnered some notoriety with her band, Hole.

Like I said, I don’t have to accuse you of anything. You already accuse yourselves all the time.