Monday, March 14, 2011

Wishful thinking

I've been suffering from insomnia of late, but I'm fighting back not with pills - no big luna moths latching onto my back - but with a lecture series called "The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida."

I'm only partway into the course - learning about Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Spinoza, Leibnez, Rousseau, those early guys of "modern" philosophical thought - but as soperifics they fit the bill for a sleepless guy like me. Don't get me wrong. These philosophers remain smarter than 99 percent of everybody in the world today - you could say they invented much of the world of today - but they each suffered a fatal flaw. Their ultimate goal was to prove intellectually, beyond doubt, the existence of a perfect God.

(As your neighborhood far-right-Christian will tell you, it is faith, not the intellect, that has to do the trick.)

Anyway, let's just take Descartes, of "I think, therefore I am" fame. Descartes decided to discover if anything could survive his doubt. He rejected all experience and feelings about the world, noting that it all could be concocted by an evil imp just to fool him. But the mere fact that the imp tried to fool him meant that he had to have a mind. (What else could the imp be trying to fool?) His problem, however, was that he mainly wanted to prove that the existence of God the same way, without relying on experience. So Descartes reasoned thus: The fact of his mind's existence implies its creation by an infinite, perfect being. There IS a perfect God! And because science is part of mind, and a perfect God could not be a deceiver, there must be a material world that the scientific method deals with. This "solution" to the mind-body problem has bedeviled philosophers for centuries.

Yikes! I'm supposed to stay awake through this drivel? Who says god isn't the imp? Who says our conception of perfect is anywhere near right? Who says that just as human scientists test lower animals in a deceptive maze, God doesn't do the same with us? In other words, Descartes, (and all the philosopher mentioned above) are doing little more than wishful thinking.

As I ponder such things, my head starts to droop, and with tsunamis and plagues slowly circling my mind and my body like so many imps, I fall asleep in my chair.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A magic hand

The other day I discovered (or rediscovered - how could I have missed such a simple visual illusion?) that I have a three hands.

Here's the trick: place your open hands, palms toward you, over your face. Keep your little and ring fingers pressed together on your forehead, but leave your palms apart just enough to make room for your nose. If you're doing it right, you can see past your nose about 45 degrees into a small part of the room to your left with your right eye open, the opposite with your left eye open. (This is how magicians who "blindfold" a subject trick the audience.)

But now open both eyes, and slowly move both hands directly away from the center of your face. There between your hands is a third, misshapen hand. It is skinny enough to look sort of like a foot. But, damn it, it shouldn't be there!

Well, of course it should. It's a normal way for your binocular vision system to handle such a situation.

But viewing my odd, ghostly third hand, I though of Oliver Sacks's new book, "The Mind's Eye." In it, Sacks offers a series of essays about how nornally talented people have coped with strange kinds of vision disrputions. Sacks has been hooking us for years with such tales - as in his "The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" - but this time he has a further surprise: Sacks himself suffers from a visual malady that makes him unable to recognize people he knows when they are out of their usual context.

Anyway, a reviewer of the book, Israel Rosenfield in the current Harper's magazine, thinks it opens a "deep and surprising" view of reading, perceiving, and understanding. He refers to a man with good vision - a writer and musician -who after a stroke could no longer read words or music, or even, at first, distinguish individual letters or multi-digit numbers. The man eventually learned to distinguish them (but not read his own writing) by sweeping his arm to trace out a letter. The reviewer called it reading by the act of writing ... or by movement.

Rosenfield notes that only animals - not plants - have brains. This is because animals move. Their world keeps changing, and they require a brain to keep track of this. He goes on to suggest that the stroke victim's very movement in tracing the shape of letters tuned into his brain's most basic reason for existence.

I imagine sitting before a group of young, wide-eyed children, showing them their very own third hands, and spinning a tale of its magic abilities. (Yes, I have such daydreams.) I'm not sure how this relates to Oliver Sacks, but it should.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The American way

Somewhere back in the golden days shortly before the boom dropped on the economy, my daughter was convinced she should buy a house. She was tired of paying rent. Never mind that she couldn't afford one - buying a house was an investment! her community could do nothing but grow!

She lived in the house for a few months, until the nasty monthly payments took their toll. Then she was out of her dream house, out of her dream, and out of a whole bunch of money. But the paperwork had been done. The mortgage was off to wherever such mortgages go. I didn't know and didn't much care where the that mortgage went. The episode was over.

Of course, what I didn't know at the time was that the mortgage reached Wall Street, was tossed together with a bunch of other bum mortgages into a mysterious bond package and sold as a solid investment. (Rating agencies like Moody's and Standard and Poor's were apparently contemplating their navels.) And then, more magic: those packages were cut up and resold as derivatives, such as the misleadingly named "collaterized debt obligations." When the junk couldn't be repaid, the market bombed, Wall Street bankers and traders pocketed big money, and other americans paid for the losses, not to mention suffered the monster recession that followed.

Now the Republican House is bent on gutting a new (and weak) reform law. We can't afford it, is the GOP refrain, hiding behind the budget so they don't have to argue that nothing should restrain those rich traders from stealing.

My daughter is renting again. She lost her waitress job when the recession proved too much for her truck-stop employer to survive. I hope she'll ignore most of her rural Western neighbors and refuse to vote Republican in 2012.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Information overload

Newsweek's March 2 cover was dire indeed: A person whose head was encased in ice. The headline shouted: "Brain Freeze." The subhead: "How the deluge of information paralyzes our ability make good decisions."

The article - by Sharon Begley, one of the country's better science reporters - said that today, with Twitter and Facebook and countless apps fed into our smart phones, the flow of facts and opinions never stops. And trying to drink from that firehose of information has hamful cognitive effects. We weren't evolved to handle such a rush, and it shows in many ways. For instance, we tend to latch on to the latest news from among the mad rush of data, whether or not it is important. The brain's working memory can only hold so much.

This is a big deal. Begley is a big deal. Making good decisions is a big deal. So why am I grinning?

It probably dates back to an ancient newscase by Tom Brokaw in which he wrapped up a story about a new thing called a "cell phone" with a look at the camera that said, unmistakably, "Who the hell would want to carry a phone around in his pocket?" I remember that look well, because I was wearing it, too.

I've never had a cell phone, smart or otherwise. Apps don't seem to connect with my landline phone. Twitter? Facebook? Huh?

Maybe I'm just being an out-of-step snot. But it turns out I've known for years about information overload. As a writer of short-form text - newspaper editorials and now a blog - I know well the evils of too much data. Every topic groans with different aspects, political slants, trainloads of dross impossible to stuff into a short comment. The solution is what I think of as a clank. Based on what you know about the topic - rather a lot, one hopes - decide what you want to write. Then, clank!, down comes the door on everything else. Wait! There's breaking news! Clank.

And then, when you've written enough, you stop.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Both time I heard a gun advocate say on the news that we'd be better off if every law-abiding citizen carried a concealed weapon, I thought of Chris Dana.

The advocate let us into his dream world where he imagined pulling his weapon from beneath his coat and wasting bad guys. In his fantasy no one else is hurt, or even in danger. I see him blowing away the last smoke from his barrel and shoving his handgun back behind his belt.

I first heard of Chris Dana after a sudden, shocked silence had descended on our newspaper office. One of our ad reps, a middle-aged woman, had dropped her phone and run out of the building, sobbing that "Chris shot himself."

Dana, 23, was one of those National Guardsmen who returned from Iraq with invisible wounds. Ever since his arrival home in 2005, his family knew something was wrong. They tried to get him help, but there was little to be had. On March 4, 2007, Dana quit his job at Target, cleaned his car, shut himself in his room, pulled a blanket over his head, and shot himself dead with a .22 caliber rifle. Sometime later his Dad, Gary, found a letter from the Montana National Guard in a wastebasket, near a Wal Mart receipt for .22 shells. The letter announced Dana's dismissal from the Guard for skipping drills.

Since then, the Montana Guard has taken many steps to improve its handling of such cases. But today I read a Time magazine article featuring a returned Guardsman, Matthew Magdzas, also 23, of Superior, Wis., who shot not only himself with his 9-mm semiautomatic pistol but his wife, her near-term baby, his 13-month-old daughter, and his three dogs. The magazine said he was one of 113 Guard members to commit suicide in 2010, up 450 percent from 2004.

We'll never know if Dana or Magdzas ever daydreamed about being a hero, killing off bad guys with a cool, NRA nonchalance. But you can bet they came home knowing more about guns than that guy I heard on the national news.