Our Cognitive Toolbox for Working with Reality

by James Wallace Harris,

All too often we think we know but we don’t. Why do so many people argue with 100% certainty against others who feel equally convinced? Often wisdom tells us the more we know the more we don’t know. Does that mean the person who claims to know nothing knows the most? Why is this reality so hard to understand? Even eyewitnesses are often fooled. And why is it so important to know thyself?

Reality is complex, but is it unknowable? Humans believe they are the crown of creation because all animals are ignorant of their own existence. Is our sentience really a quantum leap over all other life forms on this planet? If we compared ourselves to an amoeba, ant, or cat, we can see that awareness of reality has slowly gotten more complex and each of those animals perceives a larger portion of reality. Does that mean we see everything in reality, or are we just as blind to a much larger reality?

I believe we’ve evolved a number of cognitive tools to analyze reality, but it’s important to know the effectiveness of each.

First-Hand Experience. Common thought claims we have five senses for perceiving reality, but we actually have many more. People often believe seeing and hearing things for themselves is a primary source of knowledge. However, our senses can deceive us. For example, the lady cop who shot a man in Texas because she thought he was a burglar in her apartment when she was in his apartment. Just pay attention to how often eye witness accounts fail. Or better yet, recall all the times your senses have fooled you.

Instinct and Intuition. Our genes and unconscious mind direct us to act without thinking. Many people prefer to go by gut reaction than thinking it through. But how often does gut reaction tell us to kill or take what we want?

Language. By breaking reality down into pieces and giving each part a name goes a long way into gaining useful insight. But language is imprecise and the parts of reality are many. People who know the different names for trees have a greater understanding than the person who only knows the word tree. Language has evolved tremendously giving us one of our best tools. Pay attention to how words help you to perceive how reality works, and observe how people with lesser or better language skills fare compared to you.

Word of Mouth. We learn from other people’s observations. When we were hunters and gatherers hearing from scouts describe where animals could be hunted was vital. On the other hand, if a seafarer told you about mermaids you ended up believing in an unreal being. Word of mouth is very unreliable. Remember the Kindergarten game of Telephone? Word of Mouth evolved into journalism, and we know how reliable that can be. Word of Mouth has always had a fake news problem. Gossip, innuendo, slander are also descendants of word of mouth.

Counting and Measuring. Simple arithmetic became a tool that lets us invent, build, grow crops, trade, and develop an economy. Counting and measuring evolved into mathematics.

Mysticism. Mystics are people who claim to acquire knowledge from a higher source. They became shamans and seers who influenced other people. They also speculated about how reality worked, inventing higher beings. Even today many people still give credence to mystical insight. However, mystical insight has produced an infinite variety of conflicting information. We have to assume its all suspect. Mysticism tries to be the first-person experience of the divine.

Religion. Religion is codified mystical insight that is retaught as the truth. Religion allowed us to create very complex social structures. However, its truth is suspect. If there are a thousand gods, most followers are atheists to 999 of them. Religion succeeds in creating artificial realities that may or may not interface well with actual reality. Religion spreads best through word of mouth.

Laws. Laws are an external tool to encourage consistent thinking. Religious laws attempt to force mystical insights onto a population. Secular laws attempt to get people to work together.

History. If you study the Old Testament you’ll see it’s more about a history of a people than spiritual instruction. We have always tried to remember the past to explain how we got here. Early histories were no better than word of mouth stories that could be highly inaccurate. And each succeeding generation of historians alters the histories. A good example is the New Testament. Whoever Jesus was, and whatever he taught, has been constantly changed by each new writer of the New Testament. It appears the historical Jesus advocated communal living and sharing that today would be called communistic. The historical Jesus was concerned about creating heaven on Earth. It was later writers that gave him superpowers and turned him into God. Studying the history of Christianity is an excellent way to understand how history constantly mutates. History is a worthy way of understanding reality but it has to be tempered by comparing multiple histories.

Philosophy. Where religion taught that knowledge came from God or other spiritual authorities, philosophy teaches us we can figure things out for ourselves. Using rhetoric, logic, and mathematics men and women observe reality and deduce what’s going on. This was a great paradigm shift away from religion. However, like the game Mastermind, it leads to a lot of false assumptions. Elaborate castles of logic can build imposing concepts but that often turns out to be illusions of great knowledge. Philosophy is a major tool for understanding reality but it also has major faults.

Ethics. Ethics, like laws, attempt to come to a consensus on what’s right and wrong. Ethics is based on philosophy. Although in recent years, some ethicists have tried to look for a scientific foundation.

Science. Science combines mathematics, statistics, observation, testing, and philosophy into a systematic way to evaluate reality. Science assumes if tested observations and measurements prove consistent by scientists from any nation or culture then they might be true. Science never assumes it finds the absolute truth, but just the current best guess based on all the existing data. Science is statistical. Some science is so refined that it works incredibly well with reality. Space probes visiting distant worlds validate hundreds of years of scientific endeavors.

Scholarship. We have made education into a major portion of our life. We spend our entire lives trying to figure things out. We study, we think, we make assumptions. Like philosophy, scholarship often builds vast models of speculation. Scholarship tends to endorse results from competing trends. However, scholarly theories can be deceptive and even dangerous.

The problem is we use all these tools to explain our version of reality. Unfortunately, most are unreliable or clash with other people’s version of reality. Science has proven to be the most consistent at explaining reality, but science doesn’t cover everything. For example, right and wrong. These two concepts are ancient, probably coming out of mysticism or an instinctive desire for justice. Both religion and philosophy have tried to perfect them, but our reality is completely indifferent to morality or ethics. We have invented many concepts that just don’t exist in reality.

This causes problems. Several million people might believe with absolute certainty in a particular concept and then try to impose that view on millions of others who are just as certain such a concept is invalid.

We live in a polarize society because we all embrace different ancient beliefs, most of which we can’t explain how they came about. We just accept them as true. Most people believe in God because it was something they learned as a little kid. They won’t let the idea of God go no matter how much other cognitive tools disprove God’s existence.

Donald Trump seems to base most of his knowledge from first-hand experience and word of mouth information. Twitter is the perfect tool for word of mouth. Trump is neither religious, philosophical, or scientific. But this isn’t an uncommon way of dealing with reality. Few people are philosophical or scientific. Too many people only want to trust first-hand experience and instinct, but we know how unreliable those cognitive tools are. People who rely heavily on first-person experience and word of mouth tend to disbelieve science.

There have been various disciplines that try to teach self-programming that jettisons cognitive bullshit. Zen Buddhism is one. Meditation can be used to seek mystical insight or to observe the working of our own being.

The reason I wrote this essay was to help me think clearer. I’ve been reading books on Greek philosophy, and early Christian history. They are teaching me what people 2,000-2,500 years ago thought. I can see those ancient people struggled to make sense of reality without science. I can also see the same struggles today in people. We just don’t think clearly. We’re too influenced by low-level cognitive tools that deceive us. We base our existence on illusions created by those most primal cognitive tools.

I keep hoping the human race will get its act together and create a sane society that coexists with reality, and not on insane illusions and delusions. I realize until everyone becomes a master of their various cognitive tools, and learn the limits and limitations of each, we can’t start working on that sane society. We can’t start learning what’s real until we learn how to perceive what’s not real.

JWH

 

 

Playing Fair in the Game of Life

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 15, 2019

Imagine a poker game with one person winning every pot. Eventually, all the players but that one winner will become tapped out unless someone else starts winning. This is a good analogy for wealth inequality.

The challenge to the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls is making rule changes to the game we all play. Warren and Sanders want to make drastic changes to the rules to quickly make our society fairer to all, but that scares both the conservatives and the older well-to-do liberals. Biden promises to just tweak the rules a bit which enrages the extreme liberals who want significant change sooner.

We’re all playing this game of economic life whether we realize it or not, even when we think we’re not participating. Our economy is a game that everyone plays and the rules are decided by politics, laws, and voting. We like to think we’re a democracy and we all decide how the game is played but that’s not true. The winners of the game keep altering the rules so they can keep winning.

What would society be like if the game was played fair? What if everyone had an equal say in making the rules of the game, how would society differ from how we play the game now? Would wealth start circulating amongst all the players? Or will the winners refuse to ever change the rules? Maybe losers don’t want to change the rules either. Maybe they hope to be winners someday? How many players have to be wiped out before they realize their true odds of becoming a winner?

Right now a majority of our citizens believe everyone should work to make a living, and if you fail you should suffer the consequences. If you doubt this read “The American Right: It’s Deep Story” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild had come up with a little story she tells people that’s a Rorschach test for conservative thinking. Read it to see how you react, then read her article for how she interprets your reaction.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. Others besides you seem like you – white, older, Christian, predominantly male. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone in line. Then, look! Suddenly you see people cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you seem to be being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they?

Many are black. Through federal affirmative action plans, they are given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunch programs. Others are cutting ahead too – uppity women seeking formerly all-male jobs, immigrants, refugees, and an expanding number of high-earning public sector workers, paid with your tax dollars. Where will it end?

As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re asked to feel sorry for them all. People complain: Racism, Discrimination, Sexism. You hear stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees. But at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy – especially if there are some among them who might bring harm.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it or asking for help, you’re proud to say. You believe in equal rights. But how about your own rights? Don’t they count too? It’s unfair.

Then you see a black president with the middle name Hussein, waving to the line cutters. He’s on their side, not yours. He’s their president, not yours. And isn’t he a line-cutter too? How could the son of a struggling single mother pay for Columbia and Harvard? Maybe something has gone on in secret. And aren’t the president and his liberal backers using your money to help themselves? You want to turn off the machine – the federal government – which he and liberals are using to push you back in line.

Strangers in Their Own LandTo go deeper into what Hochschild is revealing with her “Deep Story” test, read her book Strangers in Their Own Land. She finds that conservatives identify with this story. In past decades I’ve known many conservatives that have told me variations of this story. But their resentments and prejudices keep us from making society fair. What I find ironic is many of the people who resonate with Hochschild’s Deep Story claim to be Christians, but isn’t her story an anti-Gospel?

We don’t have to examine the whole economic system to see how it’s unfair. Just look at companies like Amazon and Uber as samples. A few people in each company make billions while most workers barely make a living, yet each company would collapse without the low-paid participants in their shared game. Why do thousands of employees have to work their asses off so one guy gets rich enough to have his own space program? Why do Uber drivers put in all the millage but don’t get their fair share of the fares? Why is Trump so desperate to keep his tax returns secret? Is it because he doesn’t want us suckers to know he’s rich without paying his fair share of taxes?

What if labor got a fairer share of the rewards of our economic game? Somehow we’ve decided the owners of a company deserve more money than the people who punch the clock. Is that how we really want to play the game? Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to make the game fairer by taxing the winners and use the government to redistribute the winnings. This is one way, but is it the only way, or the best way?

If you don’t understand the long history of capital v. labor I highly recommend reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. Before the industrial revolution wealth was mostly in owning land, and the landowners used slaves, serfs, peasants, and tenant farmers to make themselves wealthy. When industrialization came along those with capital shifted to owning businesses and letting labor do all the work to make them wealthy.

The reason why capital has always been at war with labor is capital didn’t want to share the rewards of the game. They have always fought unions because of greed. They have always embraced automation because of greed. If they could completely eliminate labor they would. Just see how hard Uber wants to develop self-driving cars, or Amazon to add robotic book pickers. If we extrapolate these trends into the future we’ll have a game with very few winners owning a lot of robots and mostly jobless losers.

Our present economic system is rigged to produce fewer winners. We think because unemployment is low most people are still in the game. But is that really true? The economy doesn’t have a finite pot of money, wealth is always being created. But it appears the 1% are acquiring all the old wealth and new wealth at an increasing speed. Liberals have a history of creating safety nets to keep players in the game. Conservatives even begrudge this level of wealth redistribution. If Warren or Sanders is going to win in 2020 they need to convince a vast majority of players there’s a genuine need to redefine the rules to keep the game from collapsing.

Capital needs consumers with money to spend. That means labor must stay in the game. That’s why we’re hearing talk of guaranteed incomes. If the rich aren’t willing to share their wealth now I doubt they will in this future scheme. This means the present game will end when the very few have corned all the chips and the economy falls apart.

Capital is against universal healthcare because they profit from limited healthcare. Republicans and conservatives are passionately fighting any changes to the game. They see any proposal to redistribute wealth as an attack on the existing game rules that favor them winning. Is there a way to change the game to be fairer to everyone that doesn’t involve redistributing the wealth?

Can the 99% create their own wealth without interfering with the 1%? I recently read an article that said the lower 50% has already been drained by the 1% and now they are working to drain the other 49% percent. Wealth transfer to the wealthier even effects millionaires. For Bill Gates to have $100,000,000,000 means 100,000 people aren’t millionaires. And for every 1,000 billionaires, we don’t have a 1,000,000 millionaires.

How can Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have their own space programs? How many underpaid workers does that take to build that science-fictional dream? Is the game really fair when some winners in society can afford to play NASA and millions of losers are without homes? Even if we rationalize losers don’t deserve anything because they don’t work, does anyone in our rich society deserve to have so little? Bezos and Musk cannot have their space programs without the whole society supporting them.

Isn’t what we want is a fair society that rewards hard work but is passionate toward those who can’t compete? Don’t we also want a society that is ecologically friendly and sustainable? How do we change the rules to get that if the greedy want to keep playing the existing game?

The game requires everyone to play, even when they don’t work or vote. I’m sure conservatives would love to ship off all the unemployable to another country. A certain percentage of the active economy generates wealth by taking care of people who can’t. If they didn’t exist, these caretakers would be out of a job too. We’d have to exile them. But then that would put more people out of work. See the snowball growing? All activity in the economy goes into generating the total wealth of the economy. And yes, building private space programs do create jobs, but how much more economic activity would our economy have if average workers were paid more?

I’m not saying billionaires shouldn’t have their rewards, but couldn’t the rewards of a successful company be spread around fairly? Why do the owners and shareholders get all the profits? Because labor has always been the target of cost reduction. It’s so ingrained that it’s a religion with business. But if the wealthy don’t want to have their taxes raised they should consider raising the wages of their employees so society won’t have to raise taxes on the rich to help the poor.

The trouble is people who have gained seldom want to give back. Of sure, they become famous philanthropists, but that’s not really giving, is it? It’s just another expression of being a winner.

I don’t know why I keep writing these essays. Striving to describe how things work does not change anything. I’ve been reading about Plato lately. He had lots of insights into how things work. And over the centuries society has changed. That’s hopeful. Everyone has way more than what everyone once had. Besides more material wealth, we have more peace and personal health than our ancestors.

Yet there is still so much poverty and sickness in our world today. Can’t we change the rules of the game to help them? Aren’t there more billionaires today because there are more workers getting ahead? Wouldn’t universal healthcare stimulate the overall economy? Would giving the homeless homes stimulate the economy? Doesn’t raising the living standards for the 99%, create more wealth for the 1% to chase?

I see the 2020 election as a referendum. It’s not really about Trump, he’s only the face of greed. Voting for Trump is a vote for maintaining the plutocracy. Voting for a democrat will be a vote to change the rules.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 3, 2019

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know is Malcolm Gladwell’s sixth book. I’m a big fan ever since his first book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell is an explainer, but he’s not straight forward in how he explains things. He enlightens by having the reader go step-by-step through the data he’s gathered to reach the same conclusion he has carefully discovered himself. He doesn’t just try to tell us the answer. Gladwell sees the world multidimensionally, so simple explanations won’t do.

In Talking to Strangers Gladwell wants us to understand what happened to Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over for not using her turn signal when changing lanes, ended up being arrested, and committing suicide while in jail. The story was in all the news in the summer of 2015, and there was even an HBO documentary about the incidence. Gladwell became quite angry by the event and feels the media has failed to explain what happened and why.

It’s such a complicated story that Gladwell doesn’t even get to Bland’s story until page 313, but when he does, it all comes together perfectly.

Many people feel society is coming apart. That politics is disintegrating our culture. That everyone is on a short fuse, overly sensitive, and too easy to take offense. That there is little honesty in the world, and too many people want to carry guns. Our society is being overrun by mistrust and resentment. I am reminded of an experiment I heard about in school back in the 1960s. It involved cramming rats into a cage to simulate overpopulation. The stress of being forced to interact made them go mad and attack each other. Gladwell doesn’t mention this, but I was reminded of it constantly as I read his book.

Gladwell says we don’t know how to talk to strangers. He then goes on using various famous historical and news events to explain how miscommunication created extreme problems, often resulting in lethal consequences. His examples are quite fascinating. The first goes all the way back to Hernán Cortés meeting the Aztec ruler Montezuma, an extreme case of strangers meeting. Then he deals with Cuban spies and the CIA. This chapter is a mind-blower because Gladwell presents several historical cases where the CIA were completely fooled by double-agents. This is impressive because we assume CIA agents are highly trained at observing and understanding people.

After covering the CIA’s failure to detect traitors, Gladwell goes into detail about how Neville Chamberlain totally misread Adolph Hitler. These are fascinating cases of how we misread strangers, but they are so varied that you have to wonder what they mean to Sandra Bland’s case. Gladwell reminds us occasionally that Bland is his real goal, but he also tells us we’re not ready yet. He was right. You really want to stick close to Gladwell’s examples and explanations, because they do pay off big.

The problem is most people default to the truth, which is Gladwell’s way of saying we tend to believe other people are telling the truth. After reading his studies you feel like you should distrust everyone. Gladwell then gives cases of people who are always wary, and this is actually a worse way to live. To complicate matters, he gives several cases, such as Amanda Knox’s and Bernie Madoff’s where people act contrary to how they should act, which makes them even harder to read. I’ve seen a lot of news stories and documentaries about both of these cases and they don’t get to the details and insights that Gladwell does. I get the feeling that Gladwell wrote Talking to Strangers to show us how we’re all thinking too simplistically.

I’m not going to reiterate all of Gladwell’s arguments and cases. Besides not being able to tell when people are lying, and for many reasons, Gladwell gets to two other important insights. Coupling and location. He uses Sylvia Plath’s suicide and various studies on crime reduction methods to explain them. This is where Gladwell’s insights get more subtle. We want problems explained with one answer. Gladwell teaches us that sometimes a problem requires multiple datasets to understand what’s really going on. All too often we jump to what we think is the obvious conclusion when were missing whole areas of evidence. Evidence that sometimes appears to have no connection to the case.

Talking to Strangers is not a book you want to read casually, although it is very easy and entertaining to read. In essence, Gladwell is being a Zen master trying to explain the sound of one hand clapping. His examples bring us to the point where we have to have our own “I see!” moment. He can’t tell us. When Gladwell finally gets down to explaining what happened with Sandra Bland you should come to the conclusion that our present-day problems can’t be explained with the kind of logic we ordinary use with our friends or the kind of thinking we hear from pundits on TV. We’re too quick to lap up easy answers.

The trouble is most people will never understand what Gladwell is teaching. Most of us will continue to act on instinct using very limited instinctive thinking. Humans can’t handle the truth. This is my conclusion, not Gladwell’s. We think we know when we don’t. In fact, too many people are absolutely certain of their conclusions because their own explanations feel so right. We all live in the film Rashomon, each thinking we see the truth, but can’t understand the multiplex view we’d get from watching our lives from an outside vantage point.

Talking to Strangers, like other Gladwell books, are ones we should reread periodically. It’s so easy to fall back into simplex thinking. One of my favorite novels is Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a science fiction novel about a farm boy from a backward planet traveling to other worlds and cultures. Before he leaves a wise person tells him that there are three kinds of thinking: simplex, complex, and multiplex. What this kid learns is most people are stuck in simplex and maybe complex thinking, and very few achieve multiplex thought. The story is about the kid evolving through the three stages of thinking.

Talking to Strangers is Gladwell’s attempt to get us to think in multiplexity.

JWH

 

Why Isn’t Everything Beautiful?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 8, 2019

I’m reading The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Violet Moller where she describes how books were important in seven beautiful cities in the ancient world. Over and over again Moller describes how a conquerer builds a city, embraces books and libraries, and founds a new civilization. They raise magnificent buildings and evolve a culture. Then someone else comes around and sacks the city.

It occurred to me that if humanity had preserved everything great we built the world would be beautiful all over. Moller describes the founding of Baghdad and it sounded magnificent. But all I can think about is how ugly that city is when I see it on the news. How many civilizations have built countless gorgeous edifices that have disappeared in time? Which is worse, war or entropy? People and decay eventually ruin everything beautiful?

The Biggest Little Farm

Last week we watched The Biggest Little Farm on Amazon about a couple who transformed an ugly drought-brown farm into something amazingly green and beautiful. Humans have the ability to go walk out into a desert and create what you see below.

beautiful house in desert

But soon or later we do this:

Syrian city

It takes so much effort to transform chaos into order you’d think we do everything possible to protect what we create. Moller writes about all the books and libraries that have been destroyed before the invention of the printing press. I know it’s hard to build something that lasts because everything eventually wears out, decays, falls apart, or is bombed, burned, or torn to pieces. But I think we could make things last far longer if we tried. What if the hanging gardens of Babylon still existed? Or all the larger works of the Mayans and Aztecs?

Just think how beautiful the world would be if we had spent all the money we spent on wars into preserving the best of our cultures. Sure there are lots of incredibly beautiful places that exist now, but what percentage of everything are they, and how long will they last? Imagine every city an entire work of art.

Quite often on television, I see documentaries about grand buildings that existed within my parents and grandparents lifetimes. Historical societies struggle to preserve as many as they can, but all too often we bulldoze aged building to make way for new ones. Sure it is natural for us to get tired of some buildings, but do we always have to? The other day I saw a story about an entertainment complex for teenagers in the 1940s where it had a roller skating rink, an immense pool, and a pavilion for music and dancing. Photos showed something very elegant, and to my modern eye very nostalgically attractive. I wished it still existed so I could go hear big band music live. Photos taken just before it was destroyed show it dilapidated and sad looking. Why did we let it fade away? I guess not everyone wants to hang onto the past.

When I drive through most commercial districts today everything looks utilitarian and tawdry. Depending on the wealth of the locale, the designs run from crappy decaying to hip conformity to city council standards. I can drive for miles on certain big city thoroughfares and see a repeating array of chain stores and restaurants. It feels like the cycling background in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Wasn’t it more beautiful in the old days where every business building was unique?

I can remember over sixty years of changes. I can’t count the number of buildings I once knew that no longer exist. You’d think we’d construct every structure to last and to be the most beautiful it could be by the current architectural fashion. There’s a magazine I love to look at, Atomic Ranch, that reveres the mid-century ranch house. That’s an era I thought was beautiful. Sure, it’s not Athens or Alexandria, but the look is very appealing to me. I wonder if a mid-century modern neighborhood could be preserved for a thousand years.

It’s odd how ideas come to us. I was reading a book and I wondered why it isn’t beautiful everywhere we looked. Our species certainly has built enough beautiful objects to cover the earth. Why haven’t we preserved them?

Mid-century modern ranch

Of course, I’m one answer. We’ve let our house rundown. Suan and I have never been into yard work, decorating or housework. We care more about our hobbies and television. It takes a lot of money and effort to maintain something beautiful. Some of my neighbors work hard to make their yards and interiors look beautiful, on the outside and inside. What’s funny is some of them only make the effort on the outside, or just the inside. I’ve always envied my friends who make their personal environment beautiful. Take this as a thank you.

You’d think with seven billion people everything on this planet would look clean and tidy, if not aesthetically elegant. Maybe it’s too easy to find beauty on our flat-screen televisions.

What’s also fascinating to contemplate is how beauty pops up in nature through random nonintelligent design. Of course, the concept of beauty is something that might only exist in our species. Does any other animal stop to admire the rose? Maybe beauty only resides in human civilizations because of anti-entropic efforts. We’re all at war with entropy, and only some of us use our limited energies to create beauty.

Rose

I’ve read that color doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s something our brains adds. I’d hate to think this is true. I wonder what the other animals and insects see.

JWH

Quantifying My Cognitive Decline

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 5, 2019

I subscribe to a service called Grammarly which checks my spelling and grammar as I write. Grammarly sends me a weekly report on how I’m doing. Two years ago it would tell me I was more accurate than 65-70% of their users, referring to grammar and spelling. I doubt even when I was young it would have been much higher. In recent months that number has fallen to 35-40%. And I can feel it. I have to proof my posts countless times and I still find errors after I’ve published. I’m appalled by how bad my writing has become. If I published my first drafts readers would think they were following Charlie Gordon into his descent phase from the book Flowers for Algernon.

I consider this good quantitative data on my cognitive decline. Grammarly does give me some good news. I’m generally more productive than 98-99% of their users, and my vocabulary is larger than 98-99% of their users. The first is explained by being retired and writing for two blogs. The second reflects long term memory. I can tell it’s my short term memory that’s failing.

I still don’t see this as an early sign of dementia, but I might be deluding myself. I think it’s just an aspect of normal aging. We’re used to seeing our bodies getting old because of all the visible physical changes. We’re not used to mental changes because they are less observable to ourselves and the people around us. Unless we talk or act differently, other people don’t see the changes. And we don’t feel the changes unless we try to do something and fail.

I have been noticing the number of times people ask me why I’m not talking. I tell them I’m just listening to them. Or say I’m thinking. But I believe it’s because it takes more effort to put thoughts into words, and when I do talk I can’t remember words, or I verbally trip when saying sentences. My cognitive problems are the most obvious when writing. If I’m just playing with the cats, watching television, or listening to music I feel fine. I believe we ignore our mental aging by doing less and saying less. Of course, many people also ignore signs of physical aging — that’s why so many foolish oldsters fall off ladders.

The real question is: Can we exercise the mind like we exercise the body? It appears we can slow physical decline by being more active. Is that also true for mental activity? My first reaction when I realized I was making more spelling and grammar errors was to quit writing. But I quickly decided that was the wrong approach. I believe writing exercises the mind. Instead of quitting I should work harder. However, I might need crutches. I thought about pilots who use preflight checklists, or how surgeons now use checklists to avoid making surgical mistakes.

I already pay Grammarly to keep an eye on me, but it’s far from perfect. In fact, when I see errors after I published it means Grammarly and I both missed them. I usually proofread my posts four or five times before I hit the published button. Often the most glaring mistakes are last-minute rephrasing where I don’t proof the whole sentence, or whole paragraph again. But other mistakes come from reading too fast and assuming I’m seeing what I read.

I believe my essays give the illusion that my mind is working just fine. Y’all don’t see how many broke things I fix. I use the internet to cheat. It really is my auxiliary memory. And I have unlimited do-overs. Most importantly, I can take all the time I need to say what I want.

I’ve always been a good typist. It’s been the most useful skill I learned in high school. What I typed used to be what I thought. Thoughts came out of my fingers. That’s no longer true. Now my fingers give me sound-alike words, leave out words, type words twice, and even throw in extra words. Quite often I end up typing just the opposite of what I was thinking. While typing this paragraph I created 8-10 alternate words to what I was thinking. Just that could explain the halving of my accuracy score in Grammarly.

[When proofing the above paragraph I had a new insight. What if my typing is as accurate as ever, and I’m merely typing jumbled thoughts when I once transcribed clear ones?]

Writing isn’t the only way I’m seeing increased cognitive problems. The other day I wrote “Untying a Knotted Plot” about my difficulty of understanding a short story. I had to read it four times. Admittedly, it is a complicated story. The author even wrote a couple of comments to help me. That essay was extremely difficult to compose. I struggled with trying to comprehend the story and write about it clearly. Every time I typed the author’s name I looked at the magazine to verify the spelling. I still got it wrong three out of eight times. I proofed the hell out of that piece because errors seem to be popping like popcorn. I felt like I was playing a very desperate game of Whack-a-Mole.

There’s another reason to keep writing. I want to document my own decline. Like the researchers in Flowers for Algernon, they tell Charlie to keep a journal. I’m going to be my own researcher and subject. I think it’s useful to be aware of my diminishing abilities. Aging is natural, and I accept it. I’m willing to work to squeeze all I can from my dwindling resources. What’s vital is being aware of what’s happening. The real problem to fear is becoming unconscious to who we are. Like Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The reason why Flowers for Algernon was such a magnificent story is that we’re all Charlie Gordon. We all start out dumb, get smart, and then get dumb again. Charlie just did it very fast, and that felt tragic. We do it slowly and try to ignore it’s happening. That’s also tragic.

JWH

 

What Would Have Made Me Want To Study as a Schoolkid?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 23, 2019

I considered my K-12 education a 13-year prison sentence. I did my mediocre best getting mostly Cs and Bs, with rare As and Ds. My good grades didn’t reflect my ability but showed what I was actually interested in. I had a lot of great teachers that tried hard to get me to learn, but I didn’t cooperate. I wish to apologize to all of them now, especially my 12th-grade math teacher. I just didn’t want to pay attention, study, or do homework. Life was full of fun diversions and I found no incentive to make the most of my school years.

I regret that now and it’s really pointless to worry about it now, but it is an interesting problem to think about solving. How do you get kids to want to study? A certain percentage of children respond well to traditional classroom learning, but most don’t. When I’m shopping in used bookstores I look at K-12 textbooks and I’m horrified by how much crap they want to stuff in a young person’s head.

Part of the problem is society wants kids to acquire proficiency in a specific set of subjects before they’re 18. Then they up the ante by a couple of magnitudes for higher education. Before you can start life you have to be programmed with 400,000 facts. We’re told we need that many factoids to succeed in life but I doubt many believe it. I always considered it cruel and unusual punishment. I never knew what crime I committed to deserve such torture.

And it’s not like I didn’t enjoy learning as a child. I was a bookworm from the 4th-grade on, reading several hundred books while serving my K-12 time. I just didn’t want to read the books teachers wanted me to read.

I don’t know if I was a typical child. But I’d guess most kids didn’t like the system either. I’ve often thought about what if I could have designed my own pedagogy. It’s a fun thing to fantasize about. Try it and post a comment. I have come to some conclusions for me only, not a general system.

  1. The most important thing I should have been taught as a kid is about the world of work and how I’d spend forty years doing something that I could either like or dislike. I needed to learn as early as possible if I didn’t find my right vocation I’d spend those years in quiet desperation at best and crushing resentment at worse.
  2. I needed to have been shown by experience that there are many kinds of tasks and work environments. After high school, it took me several jobs to realize I preferred working inside rather than outside. I eventually learned I rather work with machines than people, but I liked an environment with well-educated people, and tasks that produced something useful to humanity rather than the bottom line. And I didn’t need to be the boss. I’m pretty sure I could have learned all of that in grade school.
  3. I learned too late in life that I loved science and technology. Again, I can imagine ways to get kids to learn subjects they like while they are still in grade school. It might require spending some classroom time in real work environments.
  4. What I sorely missed was a real incentive to study. I was told an education led to a good job but I never knew what a good job meant. I think study incentives need to be more immediate. I think the goal of being freed from classes would have been the incentive that would have worked for me. In other words, tell me the week’s goal. If I can finish by Thursday I could have Friday off. If I could finish in four weeks of a six weeks period, I could have two weeks off. If I could finish the year in March, I could have a long summer. Or even, if I could finish at 14 I could bum around for a few years before college. That would have inspired me to study harder. (I know that K-12 schools also serve as babysitters, so being freed from classes might mean more library days, or sports, or clubs, or other school activities. Although I wanted to be out on the streets or at home.)
  5. For such a finish-early system to work we’d need to carefully define and quantify what needs to be learned. Right now schools are one-size-fits-all. Not every kid wants to learn everything every other kid learns. Society needs to decide what subjects form a basic education, and what should be electives. We should find creative ways to test everything. Educators have gone nuts with cultural literacy.
  6. Society is discovering all kinds of learning and teaching methods. They didn’t have personal computers when I was little. But I think if they did I would have learned best in the classroom and taking quizzes at night on the computer for homework. If testing had been more like computer games and trivia contests they would have been fun. Competing for high scores would have pushed me, but grades never did in the least. If every subject had a rating like in chess, that would have been fun.

I’m curious if anything could have motivated me to study as a kid. It’s too bad we don’t have time machines. It would be a fun challenge to go back in time and see if could motivate my younger self.

Uh, maybe that’s an idea for a science fiction novel.

JWH

 

 

 

Freak Out! – 51 Years Ahead of Its Time

Is there a word that means the opposite of nostalgia? Here’s a case of remembering something I didn’t like from the past. To further compound the problem, it’s a work of art that satirized what I did love back then.

I wish I could boast that I first discovered Freak Out! from The Mothers of Invention in June of 1966 when it was first released, but I didn’t buy it until 1968. And even then when I played it on my console stereo in my 11th-grade bedroom I kept saying to myself, “WTF?” Of course, back then we didn’t talk in acronyms. I didn’t hate it, but it was too weird-as-shit to like. I eventually got rid of that LP when I sold my record collection to pay for a travel adventure after my dad died in May 1970.

In 1973 and 1974 I went to see Frank Zappa perform live, I believe for the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(‘) tours. By then I liked his music because of all the jazz influences but still thought the songs were uncomfortably weird. To be honest, I mostly went to these two concerts because my friend John Williamson was a big Zappa fan.

Over the years I’ve bought a Zappa album here and there but seldom got into them. I do love “Watermelon in Easter Hay” which is on my Spotify all-time-favorite-songs playlist.

For some strange reason, I started playing Freak Out! a couple weeks ago and haven’t stopped. I guess the album was 51 years ahead of its time — at least for me. I mentioned this to a connoisseur of 1955-1975 music I know and he reacted rather badly. I replied, at least you have to admit this music is very creative. Randy said Zappa had no talent whatsoever. That shocked me. Sure in 1968 I might have accepted that criticism, but not in 2019.

This afternoon when I played Freak Out! while eating lunch my wife pleaded with her eyes for me to stop. (She tries very hard to let me have so sonic freedom around the house, but I stopped after I realized how much I was torturing her.)

In the summer of 1966, I was transitioning from the 9th grade to the 10th, and moving from Miami to Charleston, Mississippi. There’s a good reason for not discovering Frank Zappa in the rural deep south. But by 1968 I had returned to Miami and read about this legendary album. But like I said it was too weird for me. I didn’t understand then it was making fun of everything that made me happy. I was wanting to be a hippy when Frank was skewering the whole counter-culture movement along with the clean-cut youth culture. Somehow Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention saw through all the crap that I admired.

I didn’t know enough to dig their combination of creative music and absurdist lyrics. I didn’t know what the avant-garde was back then. And to be confessional again, I still don’t.  I just don’t care much for satire or humor in music. However, something has changed, and the gestalt of most of the songs have begun to work on me. I actually crave to hear them.

Why at 67 has this silly nonsense become something deeply real?

Freak Out - Inside

Like I said, it would be cool to brag that I’ve been into The Mothers of Invention since they premiered, but even though I only bought the album two years late, I’m over a half-a-century getting to like this album. The group did have an auspicious beginning, being the first group to have a double LP for their first album and to produce one of the first concept albums. Supposedly, even The Beatles paid musical tribute to it on their Sgt. Peppers album.

It’s very hard to understand how strange an album like Freak Out! was compared to the other albums of 1966. Playing it along with Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Sounds of Silence, Fresh Cream, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Fifth Dimension, Buffalo Springfield, Blues Breakers, Sunshine Superman, or even The Monkees,  you can feel its both a part of a larger musical transformation and a reaction to it.

Everyone remembers “For What’s It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield about the Sunset Strip curfew riots, just look at how often it’s been used on a soundtrack. It was recorded on December 5, 1966. But why don’t people remember Frank Zappa’s song “Trouble Every Day” written in 1965 about the Watts riots?

“Trouble Every Day” is far angrier but also captures the soundtrack of the mid-60s like “For What It’s Worth” but it’s never been used to accent a movie that I can tell. I love “For What It’s Worth” but it was a protest song about young hippies not getting to party while “Trouble Every Day” was about a major race riot. “Trouble Every Day” criticizes far more and with more exciting music. In comparison, the new folk-rock sound of “For What It’s Worth” feels kind of wimpy today.

“Freak Out!” had all types of songs that anticipated future trends. Just listen to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder.” Doesn’t that sound like Sha Na Na, a group that didn’t form until 1969? Zappa was making fun of a nostalgic movement that hadn’t even begun. Listening to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” in 2019 seems even more relevant. On Facebook so many people my age post photos and music clips of Do-Wop nostalgia. One of my friends even said her retirement life was recreating her high school days.

I love “How Could I Be Such A Fool?” but it makes me wonder just how honest we all were about our teenage loves. The music of this tune presses some button in me and I often put it on repeat play. Why was Frank Zappa so cynical when so young?

And isn’t “I’m Not Satisfied” a great teenage angst anthem at least as good as “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle?

Why wasn’t it a hit single in 1966? It certainly reminds me of my 15-year-old emotional life in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966.

Zappa rerecorded several of the Freak Out! songs in 1968 as Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, to parody in even more creative musicality the 1950s rock era. I get the feeling that Zappa both loved this music, but also realized it came from a shallow culture.

So what is the word that describes anti-nostalgia? Maybe the word needs to convey both wistful fondness while recognizing what we love so much was essentially childish and unenlightened. And maybe the word should also mean demystifying nostalgia.

The 1960s was a weird time. It was both exciting and frightening. It was creative and brutal. Online I find so much nostalgia for that era, but few people remember the viciousness only the unthinking carelessness that was so fun.

JWH