Thursday, June 23, 2005

Things Unknown To Science

At the day job, I am researching arcane and subtle printing errors, the sort that happens when people throw millions of different PDF files made on hundreds of kinds of software at NSF, who must do sick PDFy thigns to them, convert them all to PostScript and throw them all at various looming, cavernous, vaguely reptillian printers reminiscent of set design from The Matrix (particularly the way the completed proposals have to be told to sort of slide out of the printer, gates opening to let them through, on eeriely swooshing hydraulic beds). Indeed, the NSF print room might be Ground Zero for the Matrix, where the AIs first break loose into the physical world.

Anyway, what this means is I have to print lots of proposals and look at just what is wrong with them. For instance, some of the proposals have all the letters "b" and "u" bolded. Others have left one otherwise unremarkable page out of a long document. (You see why I feel like these may be the first intimations of the Singularity? Surely these are fumbling attempts to tell us something....)

The most amusing part of this not always perfectly amusing task is that I am skimming a representative sample of all the science done in America, and often cannot help reading a paragraph or two.

Today I learned this:

V8 juice is commonly used as a mating medium for C. neoformans, but it is still unknown what ingredients in this medium induce the mating and filamentation.

There's something beautiful about that... postmodern symbiosis. You find it where you can, C. neoformans. You find it where you can.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

That Dog, the Self

The comments on the previous post are getting sufficiently interesting that I feel I should summarize them here before expanding on them any further....

Matt asked about the ""Bishop Berkeley/Shankara/Red King" worldview, and I said a bunch of stuff (you can go look at the comments) which comes down to this: I operate from three contrasting positions. That we live in a wholly materialist/causative/rationalist/empirically investigable cosmos, and that we live in a dream of Mind, seem like equally parsimonious hypotheses, irreducible to one another and irreconcilable but on some level isomorphic; between these, as a kind of Hegelian synthesis, and as a matter of practice rather than theory, is the conversation with the Divine -- which for me is usually in the context of monotheistic religious devotionalism.

David Moles argued that, in practice, the idealist and materialist worldviews come to the same thing; I'm not so sure. There's the question of culture (do we simply not have the cultural tools to be rigorous about the idealist hypothesis?) and the question of their emotional valence: for me they feel different.

To which Dave replies:

One might argue from a Buddhist perspective that attachment to a concrete external universe and attachment to a dream are equally attachments -- and, hence, equally misleading.

Which is very true, and it's funny he should say that --

As I was musing on the bus to work this morning about what to add here with regard to the triad posed above -- idealist and materialist cosmologies and devotional practice -- it occurred to me that in a materialist universe, "God" is no more and no less and illusion than "you" are -- if you smack me upside the head, and my house is simultaneously struck by lightning, to attribute either event to the willful action of a metaphysical Self is equally fanciful.

And while this is easy for materialists to embrace in theory, it's difficult in practice. While it's perhaps possible nowadays to find people whose worldview doesn't implicitly rely on a God-in-whatever-clothing, it's difficult to find anyone who actually doesn't believe in the myth of the Self. And if they're myths -- that is, under the materialist hypothesis -- I find the myth of God a useful corrective for the myth of Self.

As Farid Ud-Din Attar says:

The Self's squint-eyed and cannot guide you well
part dog, part parasite, part infidel.
When you are praised your Self swells up with pride
(Aware that praise is quite unjustified);
There's no hope for the Self -- the dog grows fatter
The more it hears men fawn, deceive and flatter.
What is your childhood but a negligence,
A time of carelessness and ignorance?
What is your youth but madness, strife and danger,
Knowledge that in this world you are a stranger?
What is your age but torpid helplessness,
The flesh and spirit sapped by long distress?
Such slaves the Self owns! What a catalogue!
How many rush to worship this foul dog!
[And though a hundred thousand corpses lie
around you, your fool Self thinks it won't die!]"

-- (from The Conference of the Birds, lines 1970-87, tr. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, except for the last couplet which I redid my way)

Re: Negative Capability -- it's something I have always wished to cultivate, and I think I find it easier in philosophy than in fiction. Mary Anne made a comment like this at Wiscon -- that I present things elegantly wrapped up in stories which I view as complex and open-ended in conversation. And this is one of the things the Dark Cabal takes my g-g-g-generation to task for, in contradistinction to the inarguably more artistically mature Kelly Link.

I've been thinking about the Dark Cabalists' post and taking it to heart: I'm working on it. I'll say that here to save myself the trouble of registering a Blogger account to say it there (maybe they'll see the Trackback).

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Thursday, June 9, 2005

I am reduced to this.

For a while now I have been wanting to write a post about religious liberalism:

  • importance thereof to intellectual history and the American polity;
  • recent decline thereof;
  • difficulties inherent in a society polarized between mutually antagonistic and aggressively evangelizing secularists and fundamentalists;
  • nature thereof, as a positive and coherent philosophy, rather than the vague and muddy, or cowardly, compromise it is usually portrayed as.

I have still not managed to do so.

Instead, you get this blog meme quiz thingie (via Chris):

You scored as Cultural Creative. Cultural Creatives are probably the newest group to enter this realm. You are a modern thinker who tends to shy away from organized religion but still feels as if there is something greater than ourselves. You are very spiritual, even if you are not religious. Life has a meaning outside of the rational.

Cultural Creative
















What is Your World View? (updated)
created with

Of course, the text there is all wrong (I don't shy away from organized religion in the least, for instance, and I suspect the idea that my position is something new "in this realm" (which realm?) of being an expression of the current bizarre invisibility of the religious-liberal tradition that founded this country), but the questions of the quiz feel like they are groping towards the right framing for the conversation that I want to have.

I guess I can add this bit of this conversation:

My personal best guess about the nature of the soul is this: there are two mutually inconsistent and exclusive and equally accurate frames in which to view the universe (like one of those drawings where by focusing your eyes differently you can see the young woman or the old lady, or a cube extending outwards or inwards from the sheet of paper).

In one, the world is the movie that I am watching, "I" being the soul, which is not related to the physical Ben Rosenbaum other than in Ben Rosenbaum being the peephole through which it watches.

In the other, the world is a closed system of material causes (whether or not the operations of those causes devolve strictly into regular laws) and my "soul" is an emergent property of the operation of my material components.

It's a category error, a fallacy, to describe one of these views as the reality for which the other is a metaphor; the metaphorical relationship is mutual.

...and I might add that I think efficacious and deliberate action can as well proceed from the first model, as from the second.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Another Kid Story

We are all in the car.

Esther and I are hotly debating some point or other -- bringing all our prodigious powers of analysis, empathy, and rhetoric to bear on some crucial point, like whether to look on craigslist for babysitters again, or whose job it is to call the landlady about the mold under our floorboards.

Noah is gazing contentedly out the window, watching the passing trees, occasionally consulting the book in his lap on the matter of hippos going beserk.

Aviva leans forward, studying us carefully, her brow furrowed. After a long while, she interrupts.

"I have good news and bad news for you guys," she says. "The bad news is, you're fighting. The good news is, you're talking about something interesting."

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Update on Fictionwise

Ah, I knew it was too good to be true. Apparently the whole thing about Fictionwise paying me for free reader downloads of my award-nominated stories was a computer or clerical error. So it turns out I have made $33.40 from Fictionwise, instead of some hundreds.


But, you know, that's still 3458 people who've downloaded "Embracing-the-New" and 2517 people who've downloaded "Biographical Notes...", which is lovely, so it's not like I'm complaining. I wouldn't have expected them to pay authors for free downloads, really.

It did seem like a great racket, though. :-)

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