Tuesday, May 24, 2011

From There to Here

While listening to RadioLab's streaming audio productions, I came across a piece about a researcher who was studying how people's abilities to recollect memories are affected by them having made a conscious effort at writing down the details of their observations.

His initial results showed that test subjects who wrote down descriptions of things they'd just observed were over 30% less likely to recall the details at a later date, as compared to a control group who made no special effort at initially recording such minute detail.

These results were counter-intuitive to what one might expect, in that the writing down of detailed descriptions would be expected to promote one's recollection, rather than diminish it.

Equally unexpected was that subsequent attempts at exactly recreating the conditions of the experiment, using new test subjects, produced a continually diminishing difference between both groups, leading to the conclusion that, somehow, foreknowledge of previous test results by the experimenters was able to affect subsequent outcomes.

I became interested in this story for two reasons. First, that therein could potentially be proof that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle – observations of events at the quantum level affecting the outcome – operates at macro scales, able to influence the complex psychology between experimenter and test subject; and second, the possibility of the writing process affecting one's memory and recollection of detailed information over time.

I've often wondered, having watched many documentary films, at the effect the process of documentary film-making has on its subjects, whether any documentary work can ever be considered truly objective.

I am reminded of the street photography of Bruce Gilden, who employs a Leica film camera and off-camera flash to (essentially) assault his subjects, faces frozen aghast amidst startled reactions of horror. This is perhaps the most extreme example of the observer affecting the behavior of the observed, the resulting outcome being a document of the photographer encountering his prey in mid-grasp, the hunter vanquishing the hunted.

Could it be that clandestine observation – the working methods of both the street photographer and the state security apparatus – have the same unintended consequence? I am reminded of the aftermath of September 11, 2001, wherein arose an entirely new dimension of governmental surveillance, and also the phenomenon of increased public outcry against street photographers. Both phenomena continue unabated to this day.

Similar in concept to Kevin Kelly's Technium (technology becoming self-aware) is the notion that our self-introspective culture has itself become self-aware. What are the consequences of a self-aware culture? Does Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty still apply? And, if so then, how?

A further example, closer in experience to many readers of this blog, might be of value. I've noticed within the Typosphere – the aggregate of those who blog about manual typewriters – this tendency to focus the efforts of their writing on the process of typing, and typewriter collecting, rather than the historic usage mode of typewriters being that one's choice of writing tool was transparent to the process of writing. Could it be that technologies, once obsoleted, become rediscovered as self-referential cultural artifacts? If touch-screen devices become ubiquitous, will we apply the same nostalgic fascination that we currently exhibit with typewriters to early 1990's PC mice, for instance?

This leads to the subject of instant photography, what were once called Polaroids, but now, with the demise of Polaroid film (the Impossible Project's efforts at revival notwithstanding), we are left with the cultural remnants, vestigial artifacts, of the Polaroid aesthetic, such as the Hipstamatic app for the iPhone, and Fuji's Instax instant film cameras, which are often used in attempts at recreating what has now been enculturated as the Polaroid “look.” Polaroids were, in their prime, used by real estate agents, accident investigators and party-goers during get-togethers (and also, I suspect, for the creation of private pornography). Now, iPhone-generated Hipstamatic images, and Fuji Instax snaps, seem to be commonly used to recreate the visual aesthetic of a time past, when such instant prints were commonplace. The Polaroid “look” is now culturally self-referential; in actual practice, real estate agents, accident investigators and party-goers are more apt to use a digital camera, even though Fuji Instax cameras and film are readily available on Amazon and at Urban Outfitters (and, relatedly, electronic typewriters are still available at Staples stores).

I've noticed this phenomenon, on Rangefinder Forum and APUG, of diehard film users taking offense at young people (“hipsters”) with Holga film cameras. I suspect the reason for the offense is that these modern toy plastic cameras are culturally self-referential to a time when film photography was ubiquitous, implying that, in keeping film use alive, they simultaneously signify its demise, like driving a fully restored classic car brings both admiration for its classic design and a reminder that “they don't make 'em like that anymore.” In the economics of a flailing film industry, one would think diehard film users would welcome with open arms anyone willing to take up the cause and keep demand for such products alive.

As popular culture becomes more self-aware, I suspect we will see the circle of technology spiraling ever-faster, the lead time between new technology and obsolescence ever shortening, until technology is born pre-obsoleted, and thus already self-referential, able to evoke a sense of the cutting-edge new while simultaneously reflecting attributes of a romantic past that never was – another tool for marketers to exploit. For instance, I can imagine an app for the iPad, called “iPad,” that would simulate, on the iPad's screen, the actions of an iPad, the mere act of finger-swipe and touch-screen gesture existing for no other reason than to evoke the iPad's fictitious pedigree (as of this writing, the devices have only been on the market a little over one year).

Getting back to that RadioLab piece, as a self-referential culture documents itself in ever-tightening spirals of minutiae, does it lose the very memory of itself? What happens when the spiral collapses in upon itself completely? Do we collectively forget, en masse, how we got from there to here?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

So, How's Your Garden?

I was sitting in a favorite spot in my yard, under a green tree in the cool, morning air, thinking about life, with Neo keyboard upon my lap, thinking about my Dad who passed away several years ago, how he resides now only in our memories, thinking about how the entirety of our perception is like those fleeting memories that give us a glimpse into the past that was, but now isn't. I realize that the ways in which we come to think of ourselves are defined by our personal history - our memories - and the context provided by having been born into an otherwise external culture. We are in large measure defined by what we think of ourselves - our self-image - and our life's experiences - how external forces have molded and shaped us.

Sitting under that shady tree in the cool, spring morning air revealed to me this hidden gem of truth: there is no external reality. All of our experiences, sensations, thoughts and feelings are derived from, or filtered through, an internal system comprised of biological sensors (hearing, vision, smell, taste and feeling) inextricably wired into our cerebral cortex, fleeting sensations recorded upon the imperfect medium of our memories.

Furthermore, how we process these inputs, what we make of the world around us, the thoughts we form and assumptions we derive, are based upon previous patterns of thought, subroutines we've programmed into our firmware through repetitious thinking patterns. Though there may exist in theory some indirect evidence that an external physical reality exists independently of our physical sensations, our only direct evidence of external reality is entirely subjective, a mere inference, being continually filtered through a system of mediation provided by our self-programmed biological neural network. We may, in the abstract, infer an external, independent reality, but we cannot experience it as such, for our experiences are entirely subjective.

In contrast to the subjective nature of our internal perception, take for example a semiconductor memory array, a grid of transistors etched onto a silicon substrate, and program into them some new field of information: what is required is that old data first be erased, before new data or a revised programmed instruction can be written, and yet the entire procedure can be completed within the span of a few brief fractions of a second.

Contrast this with the case of our own internal neural network, where the process of reprogramming is not nearly as neat or expedient as reflashing a transistor array; nor does total erasure precede the reprogramming, for the two are ongoing processes. Our network of neurons and synapses can only be rewired through repetitious firings of select and specific circuits, over and over again, until new neural pathways are connected and old ones broken. Our internal rewiring process is grown, organically, through repetition, like the fibrous roots of some plant, slowly threading themselves into the soil beneath, which is the hidden source of the plant's nutrition and health, over a lengthy span of time. Constant repetition becomes habitual behavior until the resulting response is no longer consciously derived, but becomes a hard-wired response, a biological subroutine.

We are what we think; we become that which we cogitate over, just as an athlete slowly hard-wires some physical movement, through the repetition of constant training, into biologically-grown muscle memory, so too are our fears and phobias, over-reactions and outbursts, fits of anger and rage, doubts and uncertainties the result of self-programming, grown into hard-wired response through repetitious behavior.

There becomes a point at which we are conscious of the need, within our own psyche, for reprogramming; that our programmed responses - subroutines - have become self-destructive, not conducive to the furtherance of a joy-filled, peaceful life.

It is a difficult and painful thing to examine one's self under the harsh, cold light of that which, down deep, we know to be a truly objective standard of reality, and to find ourselves wanting. Although certain spiritual traditions may offer such standards of objective truth, given the subjective nature of our internal reality, achieving even for a brief moment a mental state predominated by objective clarity is a difficult challenge, yet one that is an absolutely necessary prerequisite for real and lasting change. To know thyself is the most difficult challenge, and also the most disappointing when finally achieved.

Once the necessary process of a deep and honest self-assessment is underway, there is a state reached where it becomes imperative that we tear down the old patterns of behavior, while building up new ones, reprogramming our internal wiring, our pet subroutines that we've nurtured so carefully over the years, through newly devised thought habits and purposeful responses. This need for change grows within us until we cannot but obey its call, our dissatisfaction with our self being overwhelming.

Just as an athlete works specific muscle groups in specific patterns of force and motion, over and over, until conscious effort is no longer required to achieve the necessary skill, so too must we exercise specific, repetitious patterns of thought and response in order to reprogram the muscle-memory of our psyche.

My experience is that these two processes - self-assessment and reprogramming - are not sequential steps, proceeding in serial order, but instead are two foundational life principles that are required to be in constant use in order for internal growth to proceed throughout the duration of one's lifetime. The reality is that, just like sex leads to pregnancy because our reproductive systems are optimized for that function - regardless of intention - our minds are optimized for a state of constant reprogramming, however unintentional that may be, or however unconscious we may be of the process as it unfolds, the result being that the end-state of our personality is a culmination of that constant yet invisibly ongoing reprogramming process, the net cumulative effect of our past thought-life.

Neurological reprogramming is not merely an ongoing biological phenomenon or intentional self-improvement effort, but can also be initiated externally for ulterior purposes, unbeknownst to us. Those involved in the healing arts and other spiritual practices are not the only ones who possess knowledge of the potential for reprogramming that is constantly at work within us, for the principles of influence and persuasion - the foundations of manipulation and propaganda - invoke a working knowledge of these very same principles that are the key to molding our perceptions. This necessitates critical thinking on our part, being careful to guard the gates of our mind as we navigate the intellectual minefields of popular culture, always seeking to understand the underlying truths and hidden motivations behind that which seems, on the surface, to be objective fact. In response to the tactics of propagandists to manipulate masses of people into preprogrammed responses, our responsibility is constant vigilance to guard our thought-life, our belief systems, against infection. History proves over and over this to be true, the power of the few to sway influence over the many, to propagandize en masse through the process of reprogramming an otherwise rational and educated public.

We are the husbands of our own fields, the tenders of our own gardens, the harvest of a peace-filled life being the result of an intentional life's pursuit toward an idealized end state that, while impossible to achieve in this life, is a goal worthy of striving for, the consequence of not striving being otherwise self-depravity, self-delusion and self-deception - spiritual death. It becomes mandatory that we be in a constant state of awareness toward our ongoing thought-life as a self-reinforcing feedback system, and to purposefully manage that feedback for our future benefit, to fertilize and cultivate, prune and nurture, the inner gardens of our soul.

So, how's your garden today?

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo.)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mother's Day Surprise

Joe's Mothers Day Surprise

Self portrait, taken with the Wanderlust Pinwide pinhole adapter disc on the Lumix G1 micro-four-thirds format mirrorless interchangeable camera system. Bogen tripod. Self-timer mode.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

From Playhouse to Mancave: A Tiny House Grows Up

The White Shed - a work in progress

I've been inspired by the tiny house movement. Not that I desire to live in a house any smaller than I do, mind you (just for the record, it's 1450 sq. ft., of which my dear wife constantly reminds me; but heck, it's paid for) but that I have this play house-cum-shed in my backyard, which I built for my grandson several years ago, and now I've decided to remodel it into more of a mancave, of sorts.

The problem with tiny houses is junk; where do you put all your junk?. As a species, we tend to collect stuff, to a greater or lessor degree, like packrats. In fact, I have this theory (that I just invented) that there's rodent DNA somewhere deep inside our chromosomes.

I like to look at architecture magazines that sport well made-up interiors, with furnishings not so much liveable as museum-like, as if to say "look but don't touch". I admire the integrated sense of design, the elegance, of such spaces. But they're idealizations, architectural pornography. No one's house really looks like that. Even though we pretend, like the last minute frantic straightening-up that we do just prior to company arriving, putting on airs. I figure, if visitors really are family or friends, they'd understand why my house is a bit more dirty or cluttered or otherwise unkempt than the ideally decorated magazine interior. Real life is messy; why shouldn't one's home reflect the messiness that is reality?

But there's another side to this business of orderliness in one's life, and it has to do with the mental state that a well-ordered interior space can induce. It's no mere coincidence that many of us like to do our most creative or introspective thinking in places like our favorite coffee shop, for example, rather than sitting at home and drinking coffee every bit as good. And I don't think the difference is totally about being in public, the noise of other's conversations. Most of us who set foot inside a coffee shop alone do so, not to people watch but, to do the kinds of work (or play) that we could just as easily do at home, if our home environment were more conducive to such creativity.

Our homes, they serve a multitude of purposes, yet we only have so many rooms, only so much space. So we are forced, through necessity, to make compromises. Also, the nature of relationship is based on compromise, ceding our own desires for the greater good of the commonwealth. Thus, we end up living in environments that are compromises from some idealized state, cluttered with the messiness of our imperfect lives.

What we need is a retreat, a place to which we can retire, get away, an environment where we can recenter ourselves, find our inner self, active our creative core (choose your metaphor). In my case, I've decided that I need a mancave.

The future mancave started life as an economically-built playhouse. Wood frame, plywood-sheathed floor deck resting on concrete supports, simple 2x2 framed walls sheathed in outdoor grade finished sheet rock panels, roof covered in steel panelling - it was all designed as a compromise between necessity and cost. I had installed two fold-down plywood bunks on either wall where, half shed, half tent, we enjoyed many pleasant summer nights' slumber.

But then the grandson got a bit older, lost interest, and the playhouse began to collect castoff toys and other overflow from the main house, as if it were in the midst of some dark transmutation from one species into another.

Meanwhile, I had been enjoying periodic visits to various websites dedicated to the tiny house movement, like Derek "Deek" Diedricksen's "Tiny Yellow House" video series and blog, and began to look at the now abandoned playhouse in the backyard in a new light. Finally the "ah-ha" moment came when I realized the shed was in a mere chrysalis phase, awaiting transformation into a humble thing of beauty, waiting for me to pick up hammer and saw and begin the remodel process. It's a faith-based initiative, this remodel, faith being the evidence of things unseen. Rather than have the plans entirely laid out in advance, I do a little bit, then stop and think, and think some more, then start again, one tiny step at a time, a slow-motion transformation, cocoon-like.

Years ago (about a decade, now) I was assigned to a nine-month-long, work-related relocation to the Portland, Oregon suburb of Hillsboro. There, I discovered the McMenamin's chain of brew pubs, a local business that repurposed older properties while still maintaining some of their original charm and style. There was the Kennedy School, in east Portland, the site of a former public school, where in the former Detention Room could be found the whiskey bar (which gave rise to the phrase "I'm in detention"). However, the location I visited most often was the Road House near Orinco Station, the site of a former farmhouse and barn complex. The main farmhouse had been converted into a restaurant, while the octagonal barn was now a dance hall. And adjacent to the barn, under a stand of pines, was a tiny little out building, formerly a milking shed, that had been converted into The White Shed, a whiskey and cigar bar. It sported a tiny bar in one corner, barely big enough for a few shelves of whiskey bottles, a few tables, and a wood stove, stoked by the bartender on those cold, rainy, winter nights. But everyone liked going to the White Shed because, being small in size, it offered that rare element in public spaces: true intimacy, the opportunity to rub elbows, chat and mix it up.

There's got to be some metric, a way of measuring the intangible comfort of such tiny spaces that seem out of proportion to their physical dimensions, as if you could take a measure of the space's effectiveness at inducing a happy feeling (call it "Fh"), divide it by the volume of the space (call it "Vs", which equals LxWxH) and arrive at a calculation of the Happiness Density (call it "Dh"), how much happiness is found in each unit of volume of said space. We could express it as a formula: Dh=Fh/Vs. The units of Happiness Density could be expressed in smiles per unit volume, perhaps.

With such a measurement system available, imagine how we could analyze various public and private spaces. What would be our conclusions? For instance, large "big-box" retail buildings would have a very low Happiness Density, while places like The White Shed would be high up on the scale, near the top. A dainty bed-and-breakfast room, or mountain cabin, would rank right up there with the best, while a room in a chain hotel would disappoint. We could begin to explain, in more scientific-sounding terminology, why some spaces seem to comfort us, while others we shun.

My hope for The White Shed (yes, that's going to be the name of my new mancave, plus it's white) is to instill a high Happiness Density, make it a place to retreat toward, to hang out within, to write or type. And, there will be a fold-down table that the grandson can use, should he be taken with the itch to retreat to his own Happy Place, too.

No, it's not finished yet, my mancave, just a work in progress. As are we all.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo.)