Archive for May, 2009

Lessons From Popular Culture

Posted in Useful Aphorisms on May, 2009 by melendwyr

[Peter Griffin]: “I read about this in a book once.”

[Brian Griffin]: “Are you sure it was a book, Peter? Are you sure it wasn’t…. nothing?”

A surprising number of positions people hold are based on nothing.

Straight From the Source

Posted in GIGO on May, 2009 by melendwyr

Extending the See-Saw Metaphor from before:

Our evaluation of additional evidence is always conditioned by our previous beliefs and knowledge; our ideas about what the world is are the glass full of subtle colors and astigmatisms through which we perceive new experiences.

When the new data contradicts things we believe we already know, we often reject the data as flawed. But that rules out the possibility of recognizing a false belief and updating it. It’s a natural human tendency to protect our beliefs simply because they’re ours and we hold them. Staying with the familiar is easy and comforting, but doing so traps us in a rut of our own creation, forever going over the same ground.

If we refuse to give our preconceptions more weight than our perceptions, though, we’re faced with a problem. Given two incompatible statements, how do we choose between them? We can try to keep both in our minds as contingencies until we learn more, but that just postpones the issue. Without criteria for judging which statement to accept and which to reject, it leads to a infinite iteration that provides no conclusion.

The simple truth, and one which most of us would acknowledge as self-evident if we took the time to think about it, is that some data is more ontologically fundamental than others. I don’t like that phrase, but it’s the best one I can find to fit the meaning. We can use our understanding of reality to interpret and possibly dispose of evidence contrary to it, but ultimately our model is just a model. The evidence arises from the thing we’re trying to understand, while our understanding comes from a middleman.

This basic point is often not put into practice, though. It’s so easy to disregard reality and pay attention only to the model of it in our heads – what sounds like an absurdity is how most people get through their lives.

Leaving the Nest

Posted in Reviews, Things You Should Read on May, 2009 by melendwyr

The webcomic Erfworld, formerly hosted by The Giant In The Playground, has officially split off to become its own site.

This is good news for its creators, Rob Balder and Jamie Noguchi, who will hopefully get a lot of traffic and publicity, and good news for The Giant, who has plenty of publicity already from The Order of the Stick and will now have a reduced server load (hopefully).

If you’re not already familiar with the comics, and you’re a fan of traditional roleplaying games, you should check them out. OotS and Erfworld are often hilarious, dark, and thought-provoking by turns. Erfworld in particular has some interesting themes not often broached in gaming humor.

Mixed Progress

Posted in Doom, Gardening on May, 2009 by melendwyr

Well, some of the sowed seeds at my Community Garden plot – the ones I thought had died – have finally come up. A mulch of picked weeds seems to have helped keep the ground moist.

So my heirlooms, including the Native American Yellow Scallop Squash and the Bleu de Solaize leeks, survived.

On the darker side of things, my other garden plot was totally destroyed. My shallots, the rescued garlics, both plots of peas, the foundling ground cherries, a beebalm I’d received as a gift, both second-year sage plants, the bunching onion that resurrected itself from a compost pile to become a two-and-a-half foot wide bundle of leaf tubes and flowers, the native nodding onions – all gone. And I no longer have seeds for many of them, because I’d invested my entire stock in the plot.

It was claimed that the garden was “full of weeds”, a condition apparently associated with plants not growing in strict rows. Except the shallots and garlic, which were planted in rows.

The only thing preserved? The weedy catnip which grows prolifically around here, and which I’d left only because I have some friends with cats. He claimed he thought it was lemon balm.

And the garden fence? Cut apart with wire cutters to make a trelis.

One day I’m going to have to figure out what it is that both makes people claim they’re terrified of me, and act as though I’m entirely inconsequential and not important. How can you disregard someone you think is that much of a threat? After stealing from them for decades?

Zack and Miri Make a Wonderful Movie

Posted in Reviews on May, 2009 by melendwyr

There have been a number of movies lately that, while associating sexuality and comedy, have done so in a fairly tasteful and thoughtful way, rather than being exploitative or merely tawdry. It’s the difference between Forgetting Sarah Marshall and American Pie; I enjoyed both movies, but the former is far, far more emotionally and intellectually mature, while the latter… isn’t.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is one of the funniest moves I’ve watched in years. It’s more ribald than raunchy, (with the exception of one joke; you’ll know it when you see it), and despite including a hilarious examination of the plot and acting styles (or lack thereof) in porn, has what is the most touching and tender love scene I’ve come across in cinema. Kevin Smith outdoes himself, and became the first and only director to get the MPAA to overturn their initial ruling on a film’s rating without accepting cuts three times in a row.

The extra materials on the two DVD edition should be sought out – the deleted scenes make the extra disc worthwhile by themselves, and all of the additional content is just gravy.

Inhibition and the Mind

Posted in GIGO on May, 2009 by melendwyr

Babies have a curious set of reflexes: lightly brush their palms, or the soles of their feet, and they will immediately grasp whatever caused the contact. In the case of feet, it’s more of an attempt than a successful grasping; human feet, while far more flexible and manipulative than most creatures’, are no longer the virtual hands possessed by our tree-dwelling ancestors and relatives.

These and a few other basic responses are commonly called the “primitive, or infantile, reflexes“, and are unusual for a variety of reasons. For one thing, they’re not permanent. As babies age, the reflexes disappear.

But they’re not gone. Unlike many other reflexes, they don’t originate in the peripheral nerves, but the central nervous system. The reflex patterns don’t cease to exist, and they don’t cease to act. They’re eventually inhibited by more sophisticated parts of the brain associated with the frontal cortex. We know that the reflexes don’t cease to exist because there are conditions that cause them to reappear in adults; most of them involve major brain damage, particularly to the frontal areas, and are used to diagnose the severity of injury in cases of head trauma.. People with cerebral palsy frequently possess the responses as well, although they can often learn to control and prevent the reflexes consciously.

These points illustrate a very important basic principle: the mind is made out of ‘layers’ of modules and functions, starting with the most rudimentary, basic, and primitive, and moving to the most complex and subtle. At no point do the lower levels cease to exist or to produce output; we can act in complex ways only because the more basic reactions are held back and prevented from exerting control.

As various factors reduce the efficiency and health of our nervous systems, it’s the most complex that fail first. The more basic, the more hardwired, and the less emulated the system, the less vulnerable it is to widespread damage or malfunctioning.

But all inhibition can fail. The more powerful the activity of the lower processes, the less likely it will be that the frontal lobes will be able to control them. Faced with more than it can handle, the angel brain can be overwhelmed, letting the more basic modules to influence behavior and thinking.

This is the primary reason why IQ isn’t adequate to access someone’s intellectual capacity, a topic I will address further in another post.

Self-Identity and Libertarian Politics

Posted in GIGO, Politics and Society on May, 2009 by melendwyr

There is at least one thing upon which both Libertarians and I agree, and which people in general don’t quite seem to get, and that’s the nature of the self.

Several years ago, I was reading a history of psychosurgery in which the origins and initial reaction to the prefrontal lobotomy were discussed. (That’s another topic and will be addressed another day.) One anecdote in particular caught my attention – a woman who was exceptionally proud of her curly bangs was frightened that they’d be cut off to facilitate the surgery. The doctor reassured her they’d be left untouched. Of course, they were not. But by then she no longer cared.

What struck me was that this woman identified with her curls – saw them as important and intrinsically part of her self – more than she did her brain, the removal of a large part of which wasn’t nearly as important to her. And once she lost the ability to handle complex abstract thought, she lost that identification. She lost her selfness.

I later read of a peculiar (and unrelated) incident in which a movie showing the serious injury and attempted surgical repair of a person’s hands was observed to cause distress among artists and craftsmen much more frequently and severely than in the general audience. In some cases, people fainted dead away. Experiments based on this chance observation suggested that even the idea of injury to parts of the body closely involved with activities and roles that people cared about deeply could cause distress much greater than mere empathy with the suffering of others could. It wasn’t just that they were affected by blood or the sight of surgery in general – but reacting to certain, specific losses and injuries was deeply traumatic.

Genuine love has famously been defined as caring more for someone else’s well-being than you do for your own. I don’t think that’s quite true, though. We can consider ourselves to be far more than the bodies in which we reside – even disregarding them completely. Objects, other people, organizations, abstract states, even ideas can become part of our self-defined identities. In the case of love, such as the love of a parent for a child for example, the well-being of the child can be of higher priority than the continued life of the parent – not because the parent is selfless, or self-less, but because a lesser part of the self is lost to preserve the greater part.

This understanding is key to the recognition that altruism, as the concept is commonly understood, does not exist. No one ever acts selflessly. We merely prioritize and choose between different parts of the self, sometimes sacrificing the lesser to preserve the greater.