Monday, November 30, 2009

Cunning Linguists

Oh, I know what you are thinking. You think this is going to be a cleverly disguised double entendre filled screed about a certain subject (which, if you were Irish, and practiced at home alone, might be called "aer lingus"). Well, you are wrong! Although, the fact that you are wrong does not preclude discussion of this really fun little topic at some later date...

You know, as a science fiction, and science, and techno (non practicing) geek, I like to talk about certain things. And I've finally noticed that a common of interest of mine is origins. Why are things the way they are? We are told the activity of Science with a capital S does not cover Why questions, only How questions. But the answers to How questions usually rule out a lot of truly stupid Why questions. 

So, why do we speak the language we speak? Why English? Why English as it is spoken?

Well, there are any number of great books on linguistics out there, and I could just parrot them. But, best if you read them yourself, if interested. John McWhorter comes to mind immediately. His book "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English" is a worthy read, and actually contains a number of informed historical suppositions that I happen to agree with (and I leave it to you, gentle reader, to read the book to find out what they are).

Anthony Burgess, most famous as author of "A Clockwork Orange", provides informed entertainment in the books "Language Made Plain", and "A Mouthful of Air". One of those books, I can't remember which, includes a fucking wonderful treatment on the entomology and use of the word "fuck".

Then, of course, there is the legendary Joseph Greenberg, who through typology and genetic classification, almost single-handedly traces all of our language back to that most ancient Mother Tongue spoken, perhaps, some 9,000 - 10,000 years ago, but probably much, much more ancient. His is a truly heroic performance of drudgery and tedium, in tracing common word roots. Reading Greenberg is also an excellent cure for insomnia.

Genetic classification, did I say? Well, not classification, as in human genes, but as in common languages, and sometimes, by implication, common cultures. The interesting thing, though, and this may end up going on a tangent, is that there is practically no connection between language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and your actual genetic origins. Short example? A lot of people in America speak English and are called Americans. Some of them, around 15% of the population, are African-Americans. I doubt that many of them have much in the way of English ancestry. True, you would be hard-pressed to find individuals of purely African descent. But on the whole, it is safe to say that Americans descended from individuals of the Involuntary African Diaspora could in any way say "Oh, we're English", the same way some people of Pilgrim stock are wont to do.  

Anyway... Years ago, I participated in the National Geographic Genographic Project. I swabbed some tissue from my cheek, paid a hundred bucks, and had my DNA analyzed by them. They sent back a neat little info pack on my genetic history, and it also had a little map tracing the peregrinations of  my ancestors all the way back to our common origin in northeast Africa some 60,000-70,000 years ago. (Which makes me, technically, an African-American). 

The most recent branch of the human family that I belong to (going by genetic mutations) could be termed "Northern Barbarian" . Which is to say, that group of people who eventually settled in the Baltic area, including Northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. You know, Viking types.

Well, some of my distant cousins, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, eventually moved from the southern part of Denmark over to England, and took their language and culture with them.  The original paleolithic inhabitants of the British Isles, which is to say, Irish, Welsh, Scots, and, yup, the majority of English, did not speak English. They spoke something else (possibly Celtic, although the term did not exist prior to the late 1800s, and that's another story). And then, a bit later, some of my closer cousins from Scandinavia, stopped by England for an extended stay, and changed English a bit more - simplifying the grammar, and adding some new vocabulary (like the big C-bomb word is from us Norwegians, and you are welcome). So, you Pilgrims don't even speak your own language!

Of course, English is not my own either. Because we Viking types, in turn, are descendants of  the original paleolithic inhabitants who occupied Northern Europe once the glaciers departed a mere (mere!) 5,000 years ago. But English, being part of the Germanic and proto-Germanic language family, was brought into Europe along with the whole Neolithic cultural package of farming, domesticated animals, and rectangular-framed houses, by migrants from the Balkans, the Hungarian plain, and ultimately Anatolia (modern Turkey).  

In fact, none of "my" myths and legends (Norse mythology) is my own, or at least not most of it. The olde triumvirate of Odin, Loki, Thor, are fairly recent gods of an iron-working pastoral culture. (Thor, the blacksmith with his blackened face and red, fiery eyes, Odin, the crazy wind of the bellows god, and Loki, the mischievous fire god of the forge, in case you are wondering). 

Well, I've lost the thread now. What was I talking about? Origins. 

I guess all of us, in one form or another, have lost track of our origins. But, you have to admit, it's rather amazing that linguists and folklorists have, through patience and plodding, recreated as much as we have.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Electronic Remediation

I'm pretty sure, back in 1978 or so, that I almost became the first "death by cellphone" victim. A perfectly innocent pedestrian, minding my own business, not to mention the law, crossing an intersection with the light. Suddenly, an asshole appears, intent upon inattentive driving due to talking on the cellphone. The asshole had turned right on a red light, was holding one of those "bricks" in one hand, was losing control of the wheel with the other, and was, all the while, I swear, narrating to the other person on the line "Hang on a minute, I think I'm gonna hit this guy!"

"DRIVE YOUR CAR!" "DROP THE FUCKING PHONE!" "ASSHOLE!" I screamed at him, and stepped back out of harm's way. But he was soon gone. On his way to menace countless others. I can only hope he hit a fucking tree at some point. And also that he left no progeny.

Of course, that's all pointless now, isn't it? It's a well-trodden and deeply rutted path of behavior now. Driving while electronically distracted. In fact, there are all sorts of devices that allow us to electronically mediate our way through reality now. (I once saw a woman who, along with the Ipod earphones, was also wearing silly heads-up-display virtual sunglasses and was wearing a surgical mask to avoid, what? imaginary germs I guess, since the mask clearly would not stop viruses like swine flue). "Pretty much close to having all her holes plugged up soon", I commented to myself. And why not? Judging by her pissy demeanor, she no doubt needed 'em all well plugged up.

And now, we can avoid all of the distastefully laborious chores in our lives that make reality so wearily real, and fob those duties off onto other electronic devices. What with the merger of the PC and the cellphone, those little plastic cases with speakers and LCD windows in 'em are becoming practically indispensable.

GPS? SPS! (Social Positioning System) ala Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube, what have you.

I had a dream. In the not so distant future, very good looking people walk around carrying their brains in little plastic cases. 

These beautiful people all seem to be quite bright, and maybe just a little daft, as they spend a lot of time talking to themselves, and pointing at and manipulating things that are not there. And they all seem to possess somewhat smallish heads and jaws, at least to a beetle-browed, lantern-jawed, trog holdout like me, who can remember names and dates and do arithmetic in my head. But at least they still have opposable thumbs.

Ah, but snatch those little plastic cases away from them, and watch the air go out of their tires. Why, they do only incrementally better navigating through the world than chimpanzees.

This is not to say chimpanzees are dumb. They are not. But my evolutionary hypothesis is, in this case, "Use it or lose it".

I guess we shall see. Maybe HG Wells had it right about human evolution. Maybe in the future, there will be the toy makers and the toy users. The producers and the consumers. The Morlocks and the Eloi.

Anyone got a good recipe for Eloi?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Singularity Will Not Be Televised

I googled "Singularity", and received 1,180,000 results in .11 seconds. 

The first result entry was from wikipedia. The second result was from Ray Kurzweil's site. Actually, I should google "technological singularity" to weed out the off-topic subjects, which I do now...

Ah, that's better. I received 106,000 results in .34 seconds. Again, wikipedia is number one. The second site is a philosophical treatment on how to survive a Vingean singularity... by Vernor Vinge. The third result is a google books sample of Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near". 

Actually, there is something futuristically ironic about what I just done did, as more than likely, Google will be the superhuman intelligence that ushers in the Singularity. (I very much doubt that wikipedia will be the instrument of change - not with the near reactionary fervor of its editors). 

Okay, just what the heck is the Singularity? Well, science fiction authors have given it treatment in one form or another long before it was ever called the Singularity. Usually, the narrative goes something like: 
  1. group of scientists cobble together very large computer brain, and turn it on
  2. said computer brain becomes self-aware, or behaves as if it is (see Turing test)
  3. a) computer brain is many times smarter than the smartest human alive, or b) figures out a physical architecture and software package that is many times smarter than the smartest human alive, and implements it
  4. through the magic of storytelling, the computer brain can make changes to the world through a material instrumentality, because a) by just being so goddamn smart, it attains godlike, or Godlike powers, or b) the group of scientists was dumb enough to connect it to nuclear arsenals or automated facilities, or just does its bidding, or c) the brain figures out how to secretly mail order all the parts it needs to make a giant robot, or some type of gadget that allows it to attain godlike, or Godlike powers, or some such plot driver, and then
  5. the computer brain determines that: a) humanity is a threat to it, or a threat to the planet, or b) humanity is just too damn stupid to be in charge of things, or c) humanity is just too damn stupid, period and therefore:
  6. moving from worst- to best-case scenario... a) humanity is wiped out, or b) computer brain heads out for Parts Unknown, humanity gets left behind literally and figuratively, or c) big brain alters humanity to be less stupid, or at least, much, much nicer.
In short, it is almost a theological scenario where, positing that a superintelligence (God) exists, then It is either malevolent, or indifferent, or beneficent.   

"Yeah, okay. Well, so what?" you say "Isn't this all just some geek adolescent fantasy?"Well, Ray  Kurzweill doesn't think so. People called transhumanists don't. Many philosophers like Nick Bostrom don't. You repeat "Like I said, isn't this all just some geek adolescent fantasy?" Well,... yeah, probably.

But if it isn't, then all bets are off. At least that is what Vernor Vinge says. Vinge is a science fiction author who coined the term "Singularity", or at least made it popular among geeks. Vinge's conundrum is a story-telling one. How can you write about an era of super technology and super intelligence, when things have advanced so far and fast that many things will be beyond human imagination? Isn't that like expecting gerbils to write about nuclear fission? Well, yes, but then it becomes a challenge to writers, and many have accepted it.

Me? I think you can write about the Singularity, simply because we've seen it all before in the history of life on earth. It's all Biology. Want to write about nanotech? Nanotech's been done to death, baby. It is a four billion year old (at least) technology, which occurs every damn day using cellular machinery. Want to know post-Singularity strategies of life and living? Look at all the creepy things bacteria and viruses do. Look at the consortia and cooperatives that unicellular life engages in - not to mention multicellular life.

Is there a place for humans in a post-Singularity world? Is there room for story-telling? I think so. Again look to a history of Life on Earth. There are plenty of creatures that manage to get along without wiping each other out. This particular malevolent fantasy we engage may make for good drama, but it is not very realistic. 

I don't think the future is going to be the immortal heaven that Kurzweil hopes for. In fact, I think that fantasy rather infantile. But I do think there is room for us in it. Certainly room enough for lots of good storytelling.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Artist Statement

I've been in a weird mood for most the day - a little cantankerous, edgy, irritated, and a little anxious. Reason being I've procrastinated on writing a new, shortened artist statement for the RAM (Rockford Art Museum) Midwestern Biennial, and now its due. So, finally, after putzing around all day and avoiding this task, and getting more and more irritable, I finally hunkered down in my office and wrote it. After about four drafts, I'm in a much better mood. A lot calmer, and the blood pressure is down. Here goes, for whomever it is besides Ellen that reads my shit:

"If I wrote a manifesto, it would be one sentence. The sentence would be “CONCEPT IS NOT ENOUGH”.

My primary intent, my ambition, is for you to feel something when you look at my work. I don’t consider myself an orthodox surrealist, but I do use the tools of the trade - incongruent combinations, unexpected associations, and the suggestion of symbols or scenes – in an attempt to convey an emotion, to evoke a mood or an atmosphere.

Any ideas conveyed along with that emotional experience are fine. Ideas alone, without a shared connection, are barren and empty things, a mere transfer of information. I feel emotion is underrated in our society, and in contemporary art. When someone asks me what a work of mine means, my response is what does a melody mean?

I primarily make figurative work, because this is an obvious and effective means of conveying emotions – through gesture, posture, body language. I work in bronze, wood, cast glass, welded and fabricated iron."

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's got a beat, and you can dance to it.

I was originally going to write about one hypothesis of mine, but, as usual, I got sidetracked in my research and will now write two thoughts, and plug a few books.

First, (but actually last), I just sent an email off to Professor Bernd Heinrich. (Professor Heinrich is at the University of Vermont, and wrote a book called "Mind of the Raven", which I enjoyed very much). Here's the text:

"Dear Professor Heinrich,

I read your fascinating book "Mind of the Raven", and noted that you expressed puzzlement as to how ravens identified each other as individuals when you could discern no visual, auditory, or olfactory clues through human senses. I read that birds have four and sometimes five types of cone cells and can see in the ultraviolet as well. I'm wondering if anyone has developed a camera that can see as birds do, and if so, have they looked at ravens to see if their feathers have a unique or distinctive plumage in these wavelengths (or combination of wavelengths) we cannot see?

Just a thought.

Take care,

John Kurman"

Well, that is the second hypothesis I had which I had no intention of writing about today: that birds, or corvids at least, can distinguish each other as individuals by distinctive colorations of their feathers in wavelengths that humans cannot see. This hypothesis is easily disproved by looking at birds in those wavelengths. So, I figured I'd write to Professor Hienrich in case no one had thought of this (though it seems simpleminded enough that someone should have). 

My original intention was to plug a book called "Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen" by Christopher McDougall. I read this book as soon as my local library purchased it, towards the middle of summer. Not being one to follow popular culture, I only recently became aware that it was a bestseller. I'm plugging the book anyway. 

So imagine my delight, when, in checking the spelling for McDougall's name on Amazon, I find that Amazon's search results included a book by Hienrich called "Why We Run: A Natural History". I haven't read this book. According to the reviews, this is his book "Racing the Antelope" retitled and repackaged. I haven't read this book either, but I think I will. I'm assuming Heinrich explores a theme which was examined in McDougall's book - that we as a species evolved to run long distances, perhaps for the purpose of endurance hunting. I, for one, think the evidence is good for this, therefore I'll buy into this hypothesis for now.

But that's not what my hypothesis is about. Given (assume as true) that we are long-distance running apes, then I think I have a good explanation for our musical gifts and facility at rhythm. It involves the idea that our musical and rhythmic talents are a pre-adaptation. 

What's a pre-adaptation? It is when an animal possesses a structure or behavior that becomes exploited or useful in an entirely different manner at some later stage in evolutionary time. The classic example is feathers. We all know (or should) that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. And we all know (or should) that some dinosaurs, perhaps more than most, had feathers. (There are many fossil discoveries which show dinosaurs had  feathers. Don't take my word for it).  Feathers are very useful for flight in birds. But birds did not evolve feathers to fly. Feathers were there before birds, and the inherited property of having feathers from their dino-ancestors came in handy for flight. That's pre-adaptation.

I think we got music from running. I think the ability to efficiently run in time, in step, as an individual or in a group, was a pre-adaptation for rhythm. From rhythm, you get a beat, and once you got a beat, you are more than halfway there to jammin'. That's my idea.  

Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Am I Doing This?

Aren't there enough people expressing their opinions on the Internet? Do we really need another voice added to this raucous chorus? Well, I guess so, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this. Admittedly, there is a conceit that people would like to read this shit.

But one thing I've noticed, ever since this blogging stuff started, was that pretty much every blog I read was boring. I mean really bland and boring. And it wasn't just the blogs. It seems that on almost every bulletin board and message board site I've visited and contributed to, I noticed I was more entertained by reading my own contributions than those of most others. This is not to say I'm particularly entertaining or amusing. It's just that you, you boring motherfucker, are not.

So there you go. And since I'm already offending, I might as well get my politics out of the way. I would like to avoid discussion of politics. When it comes to politics, there are tons of bloggers who are much more informed, involved, and amusing than I am. Here's a site I found that pretty much reflects my views and is much, much funnier shit to read than what I can crank out:

But if you really must know, according to the magazine poll tests, I am in the company with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, which makes me, in the eyes of many, a Socialist bastard and completely-fucked-in-the-brain goo-goo-eyed sappy wobblehead. I, in turn, consider politically (read socially) conservative types as obstructionist assholes who would rather we all go back to the "good old days" of living in caves and wallowing in our own waste products, rather than move forward into a potentially more promising - and scarier - future.

So, I'm a progressive. I'd rather look to the future with clear eyes, than be blindsided by a dishonest and demented vision of the past, which I consider the socially restricted types to have a major problem with. I mean, if you are going to be a traditionalist, at least be honest about your own history, warts and all! And how completely fucked up are you conservative types, if you can't retain power in a country like the US of A that is, with a history of relatively stable and limited government, traditionally conservative? What a crop of fuckups!


I would rather talk about science, since, category-wise, politics and economics are a subset of biology, which in turn is a subset of chemistry, and thus physics, and so on. I would very much like to blame everything fucked up politically on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and perhaps one day shall do so.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thinkism and Doism

I can't take credit for the terms - but I like them. I came across the terms on a website devoted to the Singularity (which I suppose I'll have to talk about sometime). A more common and possibly better phrase of the two methods would be Theory and Practice.  

Now, the reason I bring this up is my last post kind of covered this. Imagining how something would be as opposed to actually doing it. And it is interesting how theoretical speculation - no matter how well informed - seems to fall far short of the mark as opposed to practice. Experience really does make all the difference. The unknown becomes known.

Take glassblowing in space. It presupposes that people already actually know how to live in space. The experience of actually living in space turned out to be completely the opposite of what people expected. Take, for example, human health. It was assumed by doctors and biologists that life in orbit would be quite beneficial. Without the stresses and strains afflicted by living in gravity, they supposed that the human body would have an easy time of it. That life out there might actually be life prolonging. Well, it turned out not to be the case. Without gravity, bones and muscles deteriorated at an alarming rate. So much so that even just a few days in orbit turned people into old men and women. Weakened hearts, arteries, bones, were what occurred, contrary to theory.

Or take another example. Futurism. As in the study and projection of conjectures into the future. Generally, futurists will use current situations, technology, knowledge and push those into the future, commonly called trendism. It is almost invariably wrong. No one expects the unexpected. Or as my brother put it once, "Not a single Futurist ever predicted a blue pill that would give you a stiffy".

The way I look at it, philosophy is Thinkism. Science is Doism. Or, within the realm of physics, theoreticians are Thinkists, experimentalists are Doists. I suppose Thinkists have their place in the world, limited though it may be. But I guess I am firmly in the camp of the Doists.

Although it is fun to speculate. And informed speculation even funner.