Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Who is I?

You may wonder sometimes who is supposed to be saying the verses. Is it the Author, that strange but uninteresting person, or is it Christopher Robin, or some other boy or girl, or Nurse, or Hoo? If I had followed Mr. Wordsworth's plan I could have explained this each time; but as it is, you will have to decide for yourselves.

Padgett Powell's critically acclaimed new book The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is composed entirely of questions - a provocatively mysterious one being Who’s asking the questions? Seriously, that is a thought which could keep me up at night: in a work of fiction that is not written in the first person, who is the omniscient narrator?

In works of journalism and non fiction, we can often easily assume that the narrator and the author are one and the same; we can also easily accept that the thoughts in poetry belong to the poet. The water gets somewhat murky when one turns to narrative fiction, though. Is the narrator some kind of a god of the universe being described in the book? (It would not be irrelevant to note at this point that some of the earliest works of fiction written by humanity is literally considered the be the word of god.)

My friend Dylan would probably scoff - 'because fiction is an artifact, the narrator is simply the narrator', he would say, refusing to assign any greater ontological depth to it. I am not sure I agree completely, though. In fact, I would probably posit that the search for a self in the narrator lies at the heart of much of postmodern literary philosophy & techniques.

P.S. While we are on the subject, I was watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail the other day and it struck me again how this near-perfect gem can serve as a primer for those interested in the use of postmodernist techniques in popular culture.

P.P.S. In case you were wondering, Powell does have an answer to his own question - "Well let me use some of my rich French: C'est moi. Why be coy about it? That's me."

Sunday, May 02, 2010

What, Me Worry?

'Why do you worry so much about things that are not in your control?', my friend Dennis asked as I was complaining to him about the possibly insufficient 50-minute layover in Atlanta on my Argentina trip. My immediate, gut feeling response was (and is, and will be), 'That's precisely why I worry, because it is not in my control; if it was, then I wouldn't waste my time worrying and would try to fix what was bothering me instead.' He didn't quite agree, and we argued for the rest of the car ride; the scope of our discussion kept getting wider as we went back and forth until we had to stop because we had reached our destination.

But clearly we both felt we had more to say, as evidenced by this subsequent email exchange (Dennis' messages are in red, and my responses in blue).

You know, the whole conversation could have been skipped if you had just said what you said at the end at the beginning. My comment that started the whole thing was something like "You know, you worry way too much about things out of your control" (in response to you worrying about your flight). If you had just said, like you did at the end, "I'm the type of person that does worry too much, but I don't really intend to change that" The conversation goes down a different path.

Yeah, I agree. But I do think some other interesting points came up in the argument. For example, suppose a close friend or relative is really sick and in the hospital. I have done everything in my power to help them, but the situation is now completely out of my control. Speaking completely rationally, it would be totally wasteful to worry any more. But I think if I wasn't consumed with worry, that would make me a horrible person. If I said OK, I have done everything I could, now it's out of my control, so there is no sense in worrying about this any more, that would be terrible. Just like, if I was sick, I would want my loved ones to be worried about me even if the situation was out of their control.

I think this occasional choice of emotion over rationality is one of the things that makes us human. I think I was trying to argue against the point that all wasteful emotions should be eliminated. In this case - worrying about a sick loved one may be technically wasteful, but I don't think we want humans to be rational to that extent.

I would not consider that wasteful because there is always more research, there are things that one can always do. You may not be able to prevent death but can do things to assist your loved one, make them feel better. Again, worry in this instance, not completely wasteful because it affects your decision and course of action.

Maybe it's our definition of "wasteful". I am not suggesting getting rid of all emotion, nor do I expect everyone/anyone to be able to control all emotion. However, emotion that has no benefit on any scale, should be minimized or one should try to minimize them. The only caveat would be that the effort put forth to minimize them causes more strain than one would gain eliminating that useless worry.

I do agree that part of our argument stems from the difference in our interpretation of the word wasteful. However, going by your statement that 'there are things that one can always do', there would be almost nothing that could be considered truly wasteful.

For example, in my case, because I am worried that my 50-minute layover may not be enough time, I will take a number of steps: I will try to get a seat in the front of the plane (as suggested by you); I will make sure that my carry-on bag is not heavy or bulky; I will do some prior research to make sure that I am familiar with the airport and the gates so I know exactly where to go; I won't go to the restroom during the transit unless absolutely necessary; I won't stop to get any food or a snack even if I am hungry... etc. This list is important because I wouldn't have to take any of these steps if my layover was, say, 2 hours. So I am minimizing the risk of missing my connection as a direct result of my worry, and thus it has value to me. The word 'minimize' is key here - I could never completely eliminate the risk of missing the connection, so that effort would be futile.

So, going by the 'there are things that one can always do' thought process, I am truly at a loss to think of any situation at all where worrying would not lead to at least coming up with some steps that would minimize the risk of an undesirable outcome.

Of course, if your point is that 'Simply worrying about anything without actually making any effort or taking any steps to try and solve the problem & minimize the risk is wasteful', then I am completely in agreement. However, it is still true that there will always be people who tend to over-worry and will do so even when they realize that it is counter-productive - and for whom the effort to stop worrying will actually cause more strain.

Update: Nothing went wrong with the trip. My flight from SFO to ATL was late, but I still had just enough time to get on the plane to EZE; my passport was almost stolen on a very crowded Subte (underground train) in Buenos Aires; and US airport security didn't allow me to bring back a small bottle of coconut milk I had bought in Argentina. But other than that, everything was quite hunky dory.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ask & Tell

I am not a morning person. Regardless of how early I may go to bed, few things hurt more than having to get up in the morning. (If I have an early morning engagement, it's often easier for me to stay up all night rather than having to go through the strain of a premature awakening.) When my alarm goes off, I usually stumble out of bed, turn it off, turn the radio on, and fall back into the arms of sweet slumber once again. Except a few weeks ago, when this story (about a possible reversal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy) on Morning Edition made me almost hysterical with laughter, to the point where it was no longer possible to stay asleep any more.

Tom BOWMAN (Pentagon correspondent): We also expect [Secretary Gates] to say that discharges of gay service members have dropped quite a bit in President Obama's first year in office, as much as 30 percent.

Renee MONTAGNE (host): And why is that?

BOWMAN: Well, we really don't know for sure. What we do know, of course, is the president has said - both as a candidate and as commander-in-chief - he wants to do away with this policy. And that may have had an effect within the military, sort of a ripple effect.

I have to say, though, that I am not entirely happy with the 'ripple effect' explanation. Maybe we can blame the reduced discharges on global warming?

Complete Transcript of the story.

And now for something completely different: in case you feel that the juvenile nature of this post could not go any farther, here is a comment I heard at a recent IT managers' meeting: We need to change our procedure so we always take a dump first.

Finally (I promise, this is the last one), another sexually ambiguous statement overheard at work: I am so excited - I am going to ride my horse bareback today!

OK, I swear this is truly the last one - a recent exchange witnessed at the friendly neighborhood home and auto insurance shop. My friend, to his insurance agent: So, you have all my paperwork, correct? Do I need to stop by and see you any more? Insurance agent: Only if you want me to service you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An I for an I

We kind of joke around here, ‘What is it like to be John Wray?’

I wish I was rich and famous; I wish I was intelligent and attractive; I wish I was witty and charming; these are, I would imagine, fairly common things to wish for, as, I would also suspect, would be: I wish I was a/an <insert your favorite literary or scientific award here> prize winner; I wish I directed the <most successful/best reviewed> movie of all time; I wish I was the <monarch/head of state> of a country of my choice. So far so good, except for the fact that I have just started feeling somewhat more inadequate than usual because I am none of the above, but we are approaching a slippery slope and things can get pretty complicated rather fast.

What is it like to truly be someone else? What would it really mean, for example, if I wished that I was Douglas Hofstadter? Humans are discrete beings with their individual discrete consciousness; we are not the Borg, or, at least, do not seem to be aware of it if we are. Actually, come to think of it, Hofstadter may not completely agree with me here, because his vision of consciousness includes the idea that each human "I" is distributed over numerous brains, rather than being limited to precisely one; however, since he has also been known to constantly stress the concrete while avoiding the abstract, he may not find a further analysis (of what my wish to be DH truly implies) to be absolutely without any merit. Do I simply want to look like him or maybe assume parts of his personality traits and achievements that I feel I lack? Because anything beyond that gets rather tricky: if I were to truly become him, would the me-that-had-wanted-this even know it or care any more? Would only the part of me that wanted this somehow be left intact (possibly to approve of and revel in this transformation), and the rest would be all him? (But in that case either the pre- or the post-metamorphosis me, I don't think it quite matters which at this point, could still split hairs and say that I had not completely become him.) And what of Hofstadter himself - if I became him, what would become of him? Maybe all we have to do is to convince him to want to be me (I understand that this would require a whole lot of convincing, but let's assume it momentarily for the sake of argument and in the interest of scientific advancement and intellectual discourse), and then we could all be happy without having to change anything at all.

In a somewhat unrelated note, what if I had multiple personalities, and one of them wished that it was one of the other ones - how would that work out? Would it be happy that it already was, or miserable that it could never be?

Note: The figure accompanying this post is a slightly modified version of a parquet deformation called "I at the Center" created by David Oleson at Carnegie-Mellon in 1964. It is one of Hofstadter's favorites, and the following is what he has to say about it in Metamagical Themas, his 1985 collection of essays originally written for the Scientific American. At the very center of a mesh is an I - an ego; touching it are other things - other I's - very much like the central I, but not quite the same and not quite as simple; then as one goes further and further out, the variety of I's multiplies. To me this symbolizes a web of human interconnections. Each of us is at the very center of our personal web, and each of us thinks, "I am the most normal, sensible, comprehensible individual." And our identity - our "shape" in personality space - springs largely from the way we are embedded in that network - which is to say, from the identities (shapes) of the people we are closest to. This means that we help to define others' identities even as they help to define our own.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

When We Were Very Young

Twitter beats love, reports NPR. 'When did twitter take over the Universe?' asks the Baltimore Sun, and the Huffington Post inquires if twitter is more addictive than facebook. Even though some skeptics question whether anyone is listening, everyone, apparently, is tweeting.

Which should not surprise me at all, since this is exactly what the venerable seer and prophet A. A. Milne had predicted more than 85 years ago in his inspired poem Corner-of-the-Street.

xxxDown by the corner of the street,
xxxxWhere the three roads meet,
xxxxxxAnd the feet
Of the people as they pass go "Tweet-tweet-tweet--"
Who comes tripping round the corner of the street?
xxxOne pair of shoes which are Nurse's;
xxxOne pair of slippers which are Percy's...
xxxxxxTweet! Tweet! Tweet!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rooster-Licking Parent-Fornicator!

Is it scary that I find this to be almost equally revolting as well as appealing, both oddly repulsive and compelling at the same time? Sometimes an uploaded digital image says so much more than just a thousand words & is so pure that it doesn't require any annotation - and, in any case, I am too busy rolling on the floor hysterically laughing my ass off right now to even attempt any further commentary.

A moderate amount of research reveals that a chicken flavored version is also available (see the complete line here), apparently for the discerning consumer who would appreciate the delicate difference in taste. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess at this point that I had at one time contemplated - not entirely in jest - a scratch and sniff product line that would market, shall we say, the various personal odors of celebrities.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Feeding Blue

In 2001, the philosopher Roger-Pol Droit published his book Astonish Yourself! (subtitled 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life), which is based on the premise that philosophical insight is achieved when one looks at everyday actions - which are usually taken for granted - from a slightly different perspective. The simple exercises in this book, while at once playful and profound, irreverent and wise, have the potential to challenge and shake many of our preconceived notions about the meaning of words, the stability of the outside world, and even our sense of identity. The idea, through these mostly simple everyday adventures, is to provoke tiny moments of awareness that produce astonishment and encourage us to explore further.

Take this quirky example (#13) - Drink While Urinating: just have a large glass of water at hand and start drinking when you begin to urinate (trying, as far as possible, to drink the water straight down without pausing). The sensation is quite bizarre, as Droit points out: The water you evacuate seems to be synchronized with that entering your mouth. In a few seconds you will feel directly wired, from throat to urethra, from stomach to bladder - a physiology that is impossible but that you inuit, directly and unquestionably, to be real.

One of the most intriguing experiments, for me, is #64: Look for a Blue Food. I had never realized that while there is a phenomenal amount of blue on earth (which even looks blue as seen from space) and food exists in all colors, there is nothing blue to eat in nature. Droit calls this a very straightforward and yet a very considerable mystery, and there is a suggestion that we may have even evolved to find blue food repulsive; it is as if we can't digest the sky, the ocean, or the planet itself.

Which makes the following fact even more interesting than it already is: according to a study published July 27, 2009, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a derivative of the common food coloring Blue Number One (found in M&M's and Gatorade) was found to reverse paralysis in rats and, unlike existing treatments, there was no toxic clinical side effect other than a somewhat adorable blue skin and eyes. The substance may someday be the first major intervention available for people with spinal cord trauma, said study co-author Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. (But until then, she suggested that patients with spinal cord injuries might want to drink blue Gatorade.)

And you know what else? The rats in the experiment also enjoyed improved bladder control - which would not only be a big deal for humans with spinal cord injuries, but would also be rather helpful should one desire to try out the first experiment described in this post!

Article in National Geographic