Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Death Toll

Rather glad now that we decided at the last minute against spending the Christmas break in Thailand. The death toll in Guatemala over the weekend was a comparatively paltry 27, largely the result of fireworks, firearms and other such festivities.

Over in San Pedro Sula in Honduras however, 28 passengers (predominantly women and children) perished last Thursday when a gang opened fire on their bus with machine guns. The perpretators then left a message for the authorities: "Donde está la seguridad?" (Where is the security?)

Nobody is yet sure who to blame for this act of terrorism, whose magnitude would have caused profound shock in this part of the world even in the days of the insurgency back in the 80s. The Honduran government has recently been taking some rather extreme measures against the local branches of LA gangs known as the maras (most notably La Mara Salvatrucha), and this attack may well have been a show of defiance by the mareros.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Tropical Reading

Over three quarters of the contents of our luggage will be stuff that V has collected over twelve months to give to people she knows (and people she doesn't know) in Guatemala. This will all have to be lugged across fairly diverse terrain, from limestone slab we land on next Monday, across scrub, marshland and savannah into the Petén rainforest and up into the Sierra Madre.

Our own clothes and other personal effects will mostly have to squeeze into the hand baggage. Part of the problem with travelling sartorially light in Central America is the above mentioned diversity - searing heat in lowland Yucatán, jungle humidity in Western Belize, chilly mountain evenings in Southern Guatemala. So having a place of our own at the end of the journey, with cupboards full of (previously abandonned) garments appropriate to December in Antigua is something of a bonus.

Anyway, in the interests of saving space I have decided to take just one (albeit fat) book along to read this time - Natasha's Dance, A cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. And to avoid the distress of discovering all too late that I'd rather talk to the chicken sitting next to me on the bus than have to pick it up again, I read the introduction this morning, and am reasonably confident that it will do the trick. Perhaps it's rather an odd choice for the tropics, but its self-consciously un-trendy approach to themes like identity are probably quite relevant to the region. (Ditto much idealised and occasionally revolting peasants.)

Figes insists that this little tome is an interpretation rather than a deconstruction of how, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, Russian artists and writers embarked on a quest for the inner national self expressed through the medium of refracted mythology. In his efforts to avoid any vulgar debunking, I expect Figes to emphasise just how slippery and self-consuming the concepts of authenticity and selfhood are, both from an individual and from a cultural perspective.

It was only on page three that I came across the first mention of the fact that Russian intellectuals of this period were "alienated", but I anticipate that there will be a few surprises before the last page is turned (or falls out - the usual fate of paperbacks that I expose to these climates.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bandit Country

We're off again next week to what my cousin amusingly calls Bandit Country. This is a usefully non-specific term, both geographically and politically, yet we were reminded earlier this week that Bandit Country has its own global network of embassies and consulates. (And vocab, as you will see.)

Although it clearly states on their website that Guatemalan nationals will not have to pay any consular fees when obtaining their red tourist cards at the Mexican Consulate in London, the fact that V had neglected to bring along her marriage certificate made her eligible to make a small contribution to the diplomatic corps of the Estados Unidos Mexicanos . (Mordida: bite, petty bribe usually paid to equally petty officials and policemen.)

The instructions didn't say anything about needing to be married and she was carrying proof of independent financial means - maybe that was what provoked these transactional urges.

In fairness the officials at the Guatemalan Embassy have never clamped their jaws around us in quite this manner, but over the years we've noticed how most of them appear to have had their diplomatic positions tossed at them by their owners. (Hueso: bone, position acquired through political clientism.) When you discover that these individuals are usually all card carrying members of the parties that did not win the general election, you learn something new and interesting about Bandit Country politics. (Talking of parties, they throw pretty good ones.)

(Requisitos: requirements.) "Requisitos son Requisitos" - requirements are requirements, the mantra of the boneyard which contains an ironic reference to absent symmetry: however hard you try you always have one less requisito than the person you are dealing with ultimately requires. This is the principle perk of the hueso, leading inevitably to mordidas.

The Bandit Country social contract states that everyone has to fleece everyone else , even when it is patently not in their rational best interests to do so. The Peace Corps should be sending over game theorists not anthropologists.

No nation has a fixed moral character (because remarkably few individuals do) but likemindedness emerges at a family, tribal or national level - which is why for example we can compare the queue-forming customs of the French and the British. Sure there must be the odd Frenchman that knows how to participate in the formation of an orderly queue, but these are bell-curved phenomenona.

Monday, December 06, 2004

About Schmidt

If this film finds you in the right sort of mood (wryly misanthropic) you will discover that Warren Schmidt, Jack Nicholson's embittered widower, is the perfect human vehicle for vicariously despising life and everyone else in it. He's easy to climb into because he's so empty.

This is a good film in part because the director had a hand in writing it - and he doesn't insult us with an unlikely group hug at the end. Nevertheless there's some clever, compassionate counterpoint going on which makes even the most dross-like of individuals appear warmly sympathetic, particularly in comparison with the lucid nullity that is Schmidt.

This could so easily have been depressing, but the pathos is protectively-coated with bathos - Schmidt's candidly adult letters to his 'foster son' Ndugu in Africa form a chain of chuckles from the beginning to the end, where the Director deftly achieves a sudden handbreak turn of mood.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Communications Bandwidth

It's a while since I've read it, but Tor Nørretranders' The User Illusion has greatly influenced my thinking about communications.

If you're on of those people that fret about the amount of deception involved in human communications (and the number of deceivers involved in the practice of communications), Nørretranders will probably compound your anxieties with his tale of how nothing can really get in or out of our heads without some sort of basic level of deceit.

The problem begins as one of bandwidth limitation: "a million times more bits enter our heads than consciousness perceives." Indeed, our conscious experience hardly contains any information at all, which means that we can't actually tell each other about most of what we experience. (Not even if we never stopped talking.)

"The eye send at least ten million bits to the brain every second. The skin sends a million bits a second, the ear one hundred thousand, our smell sensors a further one hundred thousand bits a second, our taste buds perhaps a thousand bits a second. All in all, over eleven million bits a second from the world to our sensory mechanisms. "

Nørretranders calls the information that never makes it into the spotlight of awareness Exformation and concludes that "the least interesting aspect of conversation is what is actually said."

As far as I recall he also suggests that dumb people are responsible for a kind of information entropy - because they are not able to process microstates into macrostates - in other words, they don't unconsciously construct chunks of useful order out of their total experience.

Meanwhile bright people may not be at their smartest when they are most awake and aware:

"Many scientists and creative thinkers have noted that the mind's best work is sometimes done without conscious direction, during receptive states of reverie, idle meditation, dreaming, or transition between sleep and wakefulness."

Symbols are an excellent way to extract more information from exformation: "Symbols are smart. They help us remember masses of information, even though we can keep only seven things in our minds at once. Symbols are Trojan horses by which we sumggle bits into our consciousness."

Nørretranders suggests that there is a physiological side to our indirect experiences of exformation - more blood circulates in the brain when we converse for instance, than when we merely report. (It might be interesting to compare brain activity in on and offline readers of leading publications.)

The importance of the full range of perception to the way we think and behave is echoed by Dylan Evans in Emotion: The Science of Sentiment, a great little introduction to the topic for the general reader.

Evans describes how there's more to subliminal communication than sneaky advertisements that creep into our perceptual gaps. In general we tend to prefer things we have seen, even if we can't remember having seen them. The spotlight might never have fallen on many aspects of our experience, but we nevertheless perceived them below the threshold of consciousness and that creates a bias that we can't later explain. Evans refers to this as the "mere exposure effect".

Our preferences are also determined by both our background moods and foreground emotions. Regretably happy people are suckers for bad arguments. But then happiness is apparently the one mood with the power to expand the focus of our attention, to broaden our bandwidth.

Nørretranders described this shifting focus thus: "Consciousness is like a spothlight that emphasizes the face of one actor dramatically, while all the other persons, props, and sets on the vast stage are lost in the deepest darkness. The spotlight can move, certainly, but it takes a long time for all the faces in the chorus to be revealed, one after the other, in the darkness."

Happiness not only widens that beam, it and other emotional states also help determine what is available for recall at any particular moment.

It follows that Culture (including our political intractions) will always be warped by the full sensory bitstream, and not just the dial-up experience of human awareness, and that Emotion and Reason are looped together at both conscious and unconscious levels.

Those that insist on separating rationality and sentiment are prone to misunderstand the psychological dynamics of argument and preference. Every communication has an intellectual, emotional and exformational context. The medium itself has a role to play in each of these. In particular it will help determine the contribution of symbols in squeezing more useful information through the narrow band of consciousness.

We have to relinquish the idea that exclusively rational beings (like Vulcans) would actually be cleverer, more effective agents than us. For starters a lack of fear is hardly an adaptive trait. To further illustrate this point, Dylan Evans references Antonio Damasio's story of the brain-damaged patient that couldn't make "quick and dirty" emotional decisions. Faced with the task of deciding which day to make an appointment with his psychologist he drew up a matrix of pros and cons for each possible date. (Actually, I know a few care in the community types with quite similar habits!)

Emotions are like bluffs we make to ourselves, Consciousness a post-rationalisation of something that happened half a second earlier. Dissimulation and disinformation start at home.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Unbearable Parrotness of Being

V's sister Silvia has (or had) a small collection of parrots living in her garden. (She split with her husband earlier this year and we're not sure who got custody of the feathered family members.) The least domesticated but somehow most human of these goes by the name of Gringo (a red-headed Amazon). Gringo is a no-prisoners sort of parrot. Only V's 18-year-old niece Clara Lucia is trusted implicitly, as they have grown up together. Everyone else keeps their fingers out of his cage. That he alone of all the household parrots spends most of his day behind bars is partly a consequence of this unpredictable sociability, but also apparently a matter of his own preference.

Gringo isn't afraid of people, whatever their size or gestural state, but if there is one thing that makes him take a few steps backward on his perch...it's a shoe.

Somewhere in his birdy amygdala there's something footwear-shaped that triggers this response, an amalgam of fright, flight and fight. Gringo greets a backpacker's sandal the way an Inca might have greeted a total eclipse of the sun (or a certain acquaintance of mine might greet his daughter's new boyfriend, if the latter turned out to be the bearer of some non-European ancestry).

There's clearly something involuntary in the way he assumes the posture - which begs the question: is it just an empty reflex? How much of this behaviour is a signal to the outside world and how much is it an expression of an inner state? Perhaps the crucial question about animal emotion is not so much "do they have them?", because they clearly do from a behavioural point of view, but "how do they feel their emotions, subjectively?" How, for example, does it feel to be a parrot contemplating a shoe? How does my father's Jack Russell feel when it watches me eating a mince pie?

The question is also relevant to people that believe that everyone else is a zombie.

We can already make machines that can display and even recognise human emotions, yet we haven't the foggiest idea how to make one that feels them, and even if we did, we wouldn't be able to tell if it had anything like the sort of subjective consciousness we have. (Us non-zombies that is.)

In his book The Feeling Of What Happens cognitive pyschologist Antonio Damasio proposed that consciousness originates in our sentimental apparatus as "a state of feeling". As opposed to states of knowing, states of feeling emerge from the more antiquated parts of the vertebrate brain, suggesting perhaps that sentience is a spectrum of different sensations - not something that absolutely distinguishes every human from every other being in Nature.

Meanwhile, I'm not ashamed to anthropomorphise my green friend Gringo. When the skies open above Antigua in the late summer afternoons he sits and soaks up the downpour in his rusty old cage, and sings. He warbles together phrases from tunes he must have overheard, interspersed with his own notes, plaintively improvised. It's a performance that's touching like nothing else I've ever heard; and I can't believe that only one of us is feeling it.

Wooly Sweaters

I find fierce ontological discussions about the essence of things rather trying these days. Down through the ages philosophers have been aggressively polarised - but I would have thought that our present understanding of information systems is such that thinkers in both camps should now be able to own up that this is probably an unwinnable debate.

Once you accept that there is no fundamental difference between reality and virtual reality (it comes down to the issue of energy and processing power) you can reach the following conclusion. Our cosmos could be some sort of projection emanating from a higher, empyrean reality, or it could actually be "turtles all the way down" as the lady said - the virtuality of existence is endlessly repeated, and uncompromised by any ultimate essence. But how could you ever prove which of these assumptions is true? (There may be a third way, in which both these statements are partially or simultaneously true, but I'm not ready to write that one up yet!)

There's another obvious problem. Our minds are synchronised with this world, which means that unless underlying reality is as it is depicted in The Matrix (basically the same but with scruffy jumpers) we are not going to be able to get our heads around it. Human perception, thought and language are all geared up for the specific material arrangements of this particular existence. Something akin to hardware and software incompatibility would prevent us connecting up to anything else.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Meet the Half-Empties and and the Half-Fulls

Nietzsche sired two distinct dynasties of anti-metaphysical thought. The European clan hopped on the Marxism Express only to end up stuck in the inescapable departure lounge of Postmodernism. Long delays are anticipated; Duty Free anyone?

Their American cousins on the other hand had no need to go anywhere as they were convinced that they had already arrived. The future was a part of their present, the past somebody else's problem. These pragmatists argue that certainty should be replaced with imagination and knowledge with hope. Obviously, it's much easier to do this when you already think you live in the future. "The vista, not the endpoint, matters", asserts Richard Rorty, American Pragmatism's tribal elder, but it helps the endpoint is actually part of the vista.

Rorty and his relatives aspire to manage reality rather than represent it. In serving transitory purposes with a "hopeful, melioristic, experimental frame of mind" they hope to fashion a society that is rather like Denmark. But the really scary part is that they seem to think that the United States of America is Denmark!

Rorty's Darwinian spin on the world historical significance of the USA is quite explicit: America is the "next evolutionary stage" after Europe. You'll have gathered I'm not all that convinced. Jean Baudrillard's description of America (from the dirtiest, smokiest corner of the departure lounge) as "the last primitive society of the future" seems rather more apt.

I'm not even sure about the validity of the project from a neutral perspective. Hope and imagination are more dissimilar than certainty and knowledge. Hopes can be satisfied, imaginations can't.

Even if we aim to build a world where the majority of humans are content there's going to have to be more on the table than just comfort. Experience of a whole range of emotional states, subjectively, vicariously and imaginatively is part of being human.

Capitalism probably continues to thrive, not because it fosters an egalitarian, participatory political system, but because it continues to develop the technologies of sensation. It long ceased to be a mode of production and is rapidly transforming itself from a mode of consumption into a mode of stimulation.