Tuesday, December 22, 2015

In the Shower, On the Edge

by Joel Marks
December 17, 2015
It came to me in a flash how extraordinarily limited is our hold on consciousness and hence that which most distinguishes us from inert matter. In the shower I used to invariably find myself in a quandary about whether I had already soaped up my body. This would happen when I had rinsed off and was considering whether to turn off the spigot; I would suddenly wonder, “Did I just wipe off the lather, or did I not put it on my body in the first place?”
Sounds like senility, doesn’t it? But I am not senile. I have various other self-checks on my memory to assure me that my memory remains as healthy as anybody’s my age (of 66, though this has been going on for years).
So one day I thought of a tactic. I would make a sign on the moisture misted glass shower door when I was about to lather up. I rather dramatically chose the sign of the Z, after my childhood memories of Zorro. (You see? My memory is intact!) Then when I am wondering whether to turn off the shower, I need only look to see if there is a Z on the door. (This tactic may have been inspired by a wonderful episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, which begins with the crew playing cards and then their whole ship exploding as it unexpectedly encounters a spacetime warp. This happens over and over until finally Lt. Cmdr. Data, I think, figures it out the instant before the explosion and leaves a clue for himself to discover on the next recycling so that he can prevent the explosion.) I have used this method with moderate success for a long time now. The problem is, sometimes I even forget to make the sign of the Z, so, knowing this, I am still left in the same quandary whenever I don’t see it.
Practical problems aside, though, this has put me to ponder our fragile hold on what life is all about. For I realize now that our much vaunted consciousness is but an exceedingly thin patina over the bulk of dark matter (if I may call it that – matter lacking the light of consciousness). In this it is much like the layer of life-giving atmosphere that blankets our planet – hardly a sliver of thickness relative to the globe. And as we move forward in time, it rolls up behind us like a red carpet after the visiting dignitary has passed by. I now absolutely marvel at the tenuousness of our conscious reality as I pay attention to my own awareness. There I am, lathering up my body in the shower, and I know that what I am experiencing will vanish irretrievably in just a few seconds!
Paying attention to it in this way does enable me to recall snippets … and this is my new and preferred method of recalling whether I have soaped up; because not only is it more reliable than the Z, but it also exercises, and therefore presumably strengthens, the very faculty whose preservation is so precious.
Nevertheless, the main message I take away from all this is that our conscious world is largely illusory in its seeming to be whole and comprehensive, for in fact it is quite fragmentary and fleeting. (I drew the same lesson from Dennett’s example in Consciousness Explained of an experimental joke played on him by a computer science colleague. Dennett was told he would be given a demonstration of how the mind or brain constructs whole images out of bits of images, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. He was asked to sit in front of a computer monitor, on which he observed a screensaver appear while the colleague was in another room setting up the display. A few minutes later the colleague came back and asked him how it had gone. How what had gone? It turned out that there was no screensaver on the monitor! A camera mounted on top of the monitor had been tracking Dennett’s gaze, and in response to the input from that camera, pieces of image had been projected on the screen only at those points where Dennett’s eyes happened to be looking. Thus, the “screensaver” was not only not on the screen, but also not in Dennett’s visual field. Instead Dennett only thought he was looking at a screensaver and/or thought he was experiencing a visual field filled with the image of a screensaver. The screensaver, both real and apparent, was an illusion.)

The Joke's on ...?

Dear Editor:
I've figured it out. Donald Trump's campaign is a joke! I mean, we've always known it was a joke, but now I think it may have been intended as a joke all along.
We've seen this before. There was Borat, that is, Sacha Baron Cohen, who traveled America to interact with the natives in all their (our) wackiness. He fed on gullibility, exactly as Trump is doing, getting people to reveal not only their silliness but their darker sides.
Then there was Guy Grand, the protagonist of Terry Southern's wickedly funny novel, The Magic Christian. Grand is wealthy beyond belief and spends his time perpetrating outrageous spoofs on the unsuspecting public. Sound familiar?
Donald Trump has skyrocketed to the lead in the Republican race for the nomination for President of the United States by uttering empty policy pronouncements and vacuous assurances, making hallucinatory factual assertions, putting forward outrageous proposals, hurling insults, making faces, and all around acting like a boor and a demagogue. Even his opponents, such as myself, have been suckered into becoming scornful and indignant.
But now I realize this could only be the most colossal political practical joke ever played on our shores. Donald Trump must be in cahoots with the Onion or the Harvard Lampoon or Mad Magazine on the spoof scoop of the century!
Now that I’ve figured this out, I'm almost tempted to hope he wins the nomination and the Presidency. His inaugural address could begin, "My fellow Americans, I was just kidding!" And then he might roll out a totally enlightened, liberal, compassionate plan of action for the nation, having won his office by the only practicable means, namely, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Does the end justify the means? In this dream of mine, I guess it would.
Unless, that is, President Trump decides to continue playing his joke on us for his whole term in office. After all, wouldn't it be an even grander feat to fool us into reelecting him on the basis of incoherent and/or awful policies actually enacted? Well, no, not really; that was already done by President George W. Bush. So the originality would have worn out by the time President Trump was elected the first time.
So here's to Trump's Presidency! Either that, or a Tony.
Insincerely yours,
Joel Marks
December 2015

Cowboys

Dear Editor:
Perhaps the most obscene aspect of the San Bernardino massacre was seeing the pictures of the assault rifles that were used by the perpetrators. For these, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, had been obtained perfectly legally.
            It hardly matters to me whether the purchaser was an intended terrorist or a plain-old law-abiding citizen. Why are such weapons legally available to almost anyone in the United States? What do they have to do with hunting? What do they have to do with sport? What do they have to do with self-defense?
            Do we really expect to see men and women carrying such weapons to work in case some disturbed or fanatical person invades the premises? And would they be sufficiently trained so that their efforts at defense wouldn’t wreak more collateral damage than the intended damage of the malefactor?
            Meanwhile, I would think a far more effective long-term strategy for dealing with terrorists and other malcontents is opening our arms in friendship rather than shutting down our borders to immigrants or arming ourselves to the teeth against the minuscule percentage who might still wish us ill.
We do after all have a huge professional contingent of FBI and police and others whose job it is to deal with the outliers. And to all appearances they have performed superbly in keeping us safe since 9/11.
If perfect safety were sought, none of us would ever get into an automobile. And maybe none of us would if each automobile fatality were given the kind of nonstop publicity every mass shooting receives. I think the only way I have preserved my own sanity is by simply not having a television and otherwise limiting my media exposure to circumscribed episodes of responsibly reported news.
We would also save vastly more lives if we funneled some of the resources currently directed against terrorism into enforcing highway safety. Consider also some statistics. “A study of 626 shootings in or around a residence in three U.S. cities revealed that, for every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings … (Kellermann et al, 1998). … Individuals in possession of a gun at the time of an assault are 4.46 times more likely to be shot in the assault than persons not in possession (Branas et al, 2009).” The U.S. has by far the largest rate of accidental childhood deaths by firearm of developed countries. (http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNSTAT.html)
I have therefore reached a novel conclusion about what is really motivating the American public to become universally armed. It is not safety we seek. This is the home of the brave, isn’t it? It can’t be they we are so scared that we need a gun to go to the mall. Anyway, that pretext was exploded when a modest proposal to keep people on the no-fly list from obtaining weapons went dead on arrival in Congress.
So what we really want is not security for our family, but a shoot-out with the bad guys! This is the American way. We, or a large proportion of us, have chosen to forgo peaceful policies and compassionate values that would also serve the instrumental purpose of preventing most acts of violence by evil-doers, in favor of a modus operandi that preserves the fundamental right to have gun fights.
We have made the world safe for mass violence.
Respectfully submitted,
Joel Marks
December 2015