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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Synaptic overload

I have always loved to read, averaging 2-3 books a week for decades (even back during my prior road rat musician life), plus all of my periodicals (and online surfing, since the 'net came along). For all of its frustrations, my experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has been mitigated a good bit by my voracious reading Jones.

Today, though, I'm mired in a bit of cognitive overload, given my recent pace, e.g., 

The foregoing go to my abiding interest in so-called "Deliberation Science," in particular as it bears on what I view as our manifold "Exigent Priorities." I've cited lots of other topically relevant titles in prior posts.
Then there's other, broader stuff. to wit,
In addition to the cogency, a humorous riot, this one.
Like all creatures on Earth, our bodies are carefully tuned to ensure our continued survival. But it would be a pointless waste of ego to think that they make us capable of experiencing reality as it really is. We are each locked into our own umwelt, profoundly limited by our senses, constrained by our biology, shackled by the inescapable bounds of our evolutionary history. We’re hopelessly tethered to what we can uncover while stuck on (or perhaps near) this planet, a speck of dust in the vastness of the cosmos. We see only the merest sliver of reality. We’re peering at the universe through a keyhole.

Yet thanks to science and math, and insatiable curiosity, we know that there is so much more than we see, and hear, and smell, and touch, or can even imagine. Our brains come pre-installed with a whole battery of glitches and errors, which means we have to fight our prejudices, preconceptions and biases. But we also come pre-installed with the burning desire to do so. The very fact that we can recognize that our perception is limited and skewed, and human, is precisely what gives us the ability to unskew our faulty intuitions and go beyond those limits.

This is our glorious purpose. We can see the totality of the electromagnetic spectrum, from X-rays to the Hawking Radiation leaking out of otherwise invisible black holes. We may not be able to reliably perceive time, but we do know that we can’t, and correct for that by building clocks that don’t lose so much as a second throughout the entire duration of the universe. We may not have the olfactory sensitivity of dogs, but we can tell you with exquisite accuracy—because astrophysicists have identified the presence of ethyl formate in the heart of our galaxy—that the Milky Way smells like rum and raspberries.

Look how far we have come. We’ve exceeded our programming and reached way beyond our grasp, into the depths of our cells, the crevices of our minds, the structure of atoms and the fabric of the universe. In the last few thousand years we have developed science, the only tool capable of seeing the world as it really is rather than as we perceive it to be. It is not without flaw, but only science can ever take us beyond our biological limits from the subjective to a genuinely objective view. Science is now—and will always be—the only way to compose the ultimate guide to everything.

Rutherford, Adam; Fry, Hannah. The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged): Adventures in Math and Science (pp. 275-276). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

How about these peeps?
Most of human history is irreparably lost to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for at least 200,000 years, but for most of that time we have next to no idea what was happening. In northern Spain, for instance, at the cave of Altamira, paintings and engravings were created over a period of at least 10,000 years, between around 25,000 and 15,000 BC. Presumably, a lot of dramatic events occurred during this period. We have no way of knowing what most of them were.

This is of little consequence to most people, since most people rarely think about the broad sweep of human history anyway. They don’t have much reason to. Insofar as the question comes up at all, it’s usually when reflecting on why the world seems to be in such a mess and why human beings so often treat each other badly – the reasons for war, greed, exploitation, systematic indifference to others’ suffering. Were we always like that, or did something, at some point, go terribly wrong?

It is basically a theological debate. Essentially the question is: are humans innately good or innately evil? But if you think about it, the question, framed in these terms, makes very little sense. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are purely human concepts. It would never occur to anyone to argue about whether a fish, or a tree, were good or evil, because ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are concepts humans made up in order to compare ourselves with one another. It follows that arguing about whether humans are fundamentally good or evil makes about as much sense as arguing about whether humans are fundamentally fat or thin.

Nonetheless, on those occasions when people do reflect on the lessons of prehistory, they almost invariably come back to questions of this kind. We are all familiar with the Christian answer: people once lived in a state of innocence, yet were tainted by original sin. We desired to be godlike and have been punished for it; now we live in a fallen state while hoping for future redemption. Today, the popular version of this story is typically some updated variation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, which he wrote in 1754. Once upon a time, the story goes, we were hunter-gatherers, living in a prolonged state of childlike innocence, in tiny bands. These bands were egalitarian; they could be for the very reason that they were so small. It was only after the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, and then still more the rise of cities, that this happy condition came to an end, ushering in ‘civilization’ and ‘the state’ – which also meant the appearance of written literature, science and philosophy, but at the same time, almost everything bad in human life: patriarchy, standing armies, mass executions and annoying bureaucrats demanding that we spend much of our lives filling in forms.

Of course, this is a very crude simplification, but it really does seem to be the foundational story that rises to the surface whenever anyone, from industrial psychologists to revolutionary theorists, says something like ‘but of course human beings spent most of their evolutionary history living in groups of ten or twenty people,’ or ‘agriculture was perhaps humanity’s worst mistake.’ And as we’ll see, many popular writers make the argument quite explicitly. The problem is that anyone seeking an alternative to this rather depressing view of history will quickly find that the only one on offer is actually even worse: if not Rousseau, then Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes’s Leviathan, published in 1651, is in many ways the founding text of modern political theory. It held that, humans being the selfish creatures they are, life in an original State of Nature was in no sense innocent; it must instead have been ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – basically, a state of war, with everybody fighting against everybody else. Insofar as there has been any progress from this benighted state of affairs, a Hobbesian would argue, it has been largely due to exactly those repressive mechanisms that Rousseau was complaining about: governments, courts, bureaucracies, police. This view of things has been around for a very long time as well. There’s a reason why, in English, the words ‘politics’ ‘polite’ and ‘police’ all sound the same – they’re all derived from the Greek word polis, or city, the Latin equivalent of which is civitas, which also gives us ‘civility,’ ‘civic’ and a certain modern understanding of ‘civilization’.

Human society, in this view, is founded on the collective repression of our baser instincts, which becomes all the more necessary when humans are living in large numbers in the same place. The modern-day Hobbesian, then, would argue that, yes, we did live most of our evolutionary history in tiny bands, who could get along mainly because they shared a common interest in the survival of their offspring (‘parental investment’, as evolutionary biologists call it). But even these were in no sense founded on equality. There was always, in this version, some ‘alpha-male’ leader. Hierarchy and domination, and cynical self-interest, have always been the basis of human society. It’s just that, collectively, we have learned it’s to our advantage to prioritize our long-term interests over our short-term instincts; or, better, to create laws that force us to confine our worst impulses to socially useful areas like the economy, while forbidding them everywhere else.

As the reader can probably detect from our tone, we don’t much like the choice between these two alternatives...

Graeber, David. The Dawn of Everything (pp. 1-3). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
I sorely miss the late David Graeber.

In the week between December 31, 2020, and January 6, 2021, my family suffered two impossible traumas: the shattering death by suicide of my beloved twenty-five-year-old son, Tommy, and the violent mob insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that left several people dead, more than 140 Capitol and Metropolitan Police officers wounded and injured, hundreds of people (including several in our family) fleeing for their lives, and the nation shaken to its core. Although Tommy’s death and the January 6 insurrection were cosmically distinct and independent events, they were thoroughly intertwined in my experience and my psyche. I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to disentangle and understand them to restore coherence to the world they ravaged. Each of these traumas was itself the product of an underlying crisis. Tommy’s death by suicide followed a merciless advance of mental illness that seized and ultimately controlled the dazzling mind and pure heart of this brilliant and empathetic young man. Like millions of other young Americans, he grew despondent during the COVID-19 pandemic, which left him vulnerable to the darkest impulses created by his illness. Similarly, before the attempted coup of January 6 destroyed our fundamental expectations about the peaceful transfer of power in America, the norms of our constitutional democracy had already been overrun by years of political propaganda, social media disinformation, racist violence, conspiracy theorizing, and authoritarian demagoguery.

Raskin, Jamie (2022-01-03T22:58:59.000). Unthinkable . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
At once a heart-wrenching and infuriating read.

My sister bought me the "We Have Been Harmonized" book for my birthday.
The China we once knew no longer exists. The China that was with us for forty years—the China of “reform and opening up”—is making way for something new. It’s time for us to start paying attention. Something is happening in China that the world has never seen before. A new country and a new regime are being born. And it’s also time for us to take a look at ourselves. Are we ready? Because one thing is becoming increasingly clear: over the coming decades, the greatest challenge for our democracies and for Europe won’t be Russia, it will be China. Within its borders, China is working to create the perfect surveillance state, and its engineers of the soul are again trying to craft the “new man” of whom Lenin, Stalin, and Mao once dreamed. And this China wants to shape the rest of the world in its own image.

Strittmatter, Kai (2020-08-31T23:58:59.000). We Have Been Harmonized. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Lots more. I stay overbooked.
I will have plenty to say about Todd's cool book. For now, I'll just toss this out there.

Teaching kids "the art of insubordination?" LOL, I have to confess, my first reaction here was "Jonah and Charlotte!"—the Byrde family kids in the gloriously preposterous Netflix series "Ozark." Who wrote that screenplay? Aaron Sorkin's long-lost brother Jethro? No one is that consistently quick and sharp with the lip.

Rx for synaptic overload, yeah, I'm re-watching it.

Off to drop the mid-day dose of sucky Sinemet. Ugh. 
“It’s almost a given today that the welfare of unknown peoples like the Uyghurs in far-off places like Xinjiang province is none of our business. As a result, the mind stops seeking and absorbing news of them, and so, in a sense, they cease to exist. Their nonexistence stems from and reinforces the profound self-absorption into which Americans have sunk in the past decade. The recent Joe Rogan–Neil Young–Spotify outrage ginned up far more passion and interest than the fact that Russia is poised to extinguish the independent state of Ukraine.”—George Packer
More to come...

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