Like A Dog In The Rain

Recently I went for my morning walk on a blustery, rainy day.  As I was walking along, struggling with my umbrella in the gusts and grumbling about the cold, crummy weather, I saw a raincoat-clad woman with a dog.  The woman also looked peevish about the rain and wind.

4149865894_7a5fd51c5a_oThe dog, however, was undisturbed.  It clearly recognized that, as a four-legged creature without clothes, rain slickers, or opposable thumbs capable of gripping an umbrella handle who was subject to the walking schedule and whims of its human companion, there really wasn’t much it could do about being out in the rain and the wind at that moment.  It obviously needed to get out, walk, and answer the call of nature.  And so, it just went about its business, as usual, without concern about the fact that it was getting soaked.

I was struck by the dog’s placid expression and its contrast with the stormy looks on my face and the face of the dog’s owner.  There were no snarls or bared teeth — by the dog, at least.  The dog, who was powerless to do anything about its situation, was imperturbable, while the humans who had total control were letting the bad weather bother them.

It was a very zen-like moment, and it made me realize that, in the right situations, there is value in following the dog’s example:  don’t worry about what you can’t change, accept your circumstances, go about your business, and when you get back to that safe, dry, warm place . . . shake it all off.

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Questioning Your Very Existence

Philosophers, from Aristotle and Plato, through to Kant, Descartes, and Leibniz, and down to the present day, have wrestled with crucial questions of being and existence.

Just imagine how profound the philosophical debates might have been if Aristotle, say, tried to use one of those automatic faucets in an airport restroom and found that, no matter how much hand waving and cursing he did, the photovoltaic cells would not register his presence and start the water flowing?

It gives rise to troubling existential issues. Can I be said to truly exist if the automatic faucet doesn’t acknowledge my being?

Living In A Sim Universe

Here’s a bizarre thought for a Tuesday:  what if the world that we know is really just one gigantic, thorough, technologically adept computer simulation that encompasses everything we see, hear, know, and touch?  Believe it or not, scientists and philosophers are actually considering this concept in earnest these days.

In part, this is just another of those weird mind exercises and “proofs” that made philosophy class a tiresome exercise back in college, but it’s also being spurred by the advances in computer gaming technology that are making massive, realistic simulations seem increasingly plausible.  If you’ve seen the latest versions of some “reality” games, you know that things have changed completely in the 40 years since “Pong” — and the pace of improvement in computer simulation capability seems to be accelerating.

Is it so unbelievable that, in 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years, humans could create a simulated world that covers every last detail of life, from the feel of a wooden floor under your feet to the taste of coffee on your tongue to the laws of physics that control the natural world around us?  After all, we perceive the world entirely through electrical stimulation of parts of our brains — so why couldn’t our perceiving minds be wired into an advanced computer game?  Maybe what we call “sleep” is really the downtime when gamemasters load new simulated situations into the programming.

If we are just the imaginings of futuristic disembodied brains in vats, or the product of some hyper-realistic supercomputer existing centuries from now, would we know it?  Some of the scientists and futurists and philosophers quoted in the article linked above think we might search for back doors, programming glitches, or gaming options that could allow us to briefly do superhuman stunts — like Ms. Pac-Man gobbling an energy dot so that she can consume the ghosts that relentlessly chase her.  That seems unlikely to me.  If the goal is to create a truly realistic world that you could immerse yourself in, gizmos that create superpowers would be contrary to the whole goal.  Maybe what we consider to be “normal” is exotic and interesting enough for the jaded game players of the future.

So what if everything around us, from this computer keyboard I’m tapping to the great Mozart piece I’m listening to, is part of an elaborate game?  I would never be able to distinguish the difference, anyway.  In any case, I’m thinking:  Hey, this is a good game!

The Mystics Among Us

Kish and I really enjoyed watching True Detective on HBO — more on it later, I think — but one aspect of the show that I really enjoyed was Rustin Cohle. Matthews McConaughey was fabulous in depicting Cohle as one of the mystics among us.

My guess is that you’ve known some of these mystics, just as I have. They’re offbeat characters. What’s more, they know they’re offbeat, and they don’t care. They usually work at jobs that leave them plenty of time to explore the world and their varied interests. They’re freed from all standard societal constraints, and are open to just about anything. And yet, there lurks a certain skepticism beneath the oddball veneer, too. They’re willing to consider just about any religion or philosophical construct, but they’ll do so thoughtfully and after some very careful consideration.

The mystics think seriously, and at length, about things like the possibility of life after death and the concept of the soul. They might accept part of Buddhism, or animism, or Taoist beliefs, incorporate it into their worldview, and reject the rest. They usually read avidly, and their choices are wide-ranging. They’re not afraid to tackle some of the tough scientific or philosophical texts, and often they’ll want to talk to you about it.

Some people don’t like to hear their thoughts, as was the case, initially, with Woody Harrelson’s terrific Martin Hart on True Detective. The rush of ideas and the connections between them are just too jarring. But if you can get beyond the initial jangle, the conversations with these mystics can be fascinating. I remember being entertained for a beer-soaked evening, listening raptly to one of these modern-day mystics during the summer I worked in Lake George, New York. I don’t remember, now, exactly what we discussed, but I do remember coming away with the distinct understanding that there is more than one way to look at the world. It was an important and very useful realization.

The Biology Of Conscience

Scientists at Oxford have made a fascinating discovery about the human brain. They have identified an area called the lateral frontal pole that focuses on considering alternative courses of action and comparing them to what we’ve actually done. Even more intriguing, their work shows that there is no similar area in the brains of monkeys.

The study used MRI scanning techniques to map neural pathways within the brain and determine which areas are connected to the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with language and cognitive flexibility. The studies allowed the scientists to identify the location and function of the lateral frontal pole, a bundle of neurons described as the size and shape of a Brussels sprout.

What really makes us human? One essential characteristic is comparing what we actually did to what we could have done — and then pondering endlessly about what we should have done. The concept of choice, and the identification, evaluation, and comparison of choices by the lateral frontal pole, lies at the root of many of the higher attributes of humans, because the concept of choice and causation leads inevitably to the concept of right and wrong. Philosophy, morals, ethics, and religious beliefs all argue about which choices are right and which are wrong and what considerations should go into how we make those choices. Should we pursue individual pleasure? Should we always try to act in furtherance of the greatest societal good?

These notions are all wrapped up in what we broadly call a conscience — which apparently lurks in the lateral frontal pole. It’s what makes us feel guilty and second-guess ourselves. It’s why Scrooge dreamed of Marley’s ghost. And it’s fascinating that monkeys, which have brains that are generally similar to the human brain, lack the section of the brain that engages in such activity. They apparently can steal a piece of fruit, happily gobble it down, and sleep soundly that night without a second thought or pang of guilt.

The next time you toss and turn at night, unable to sleep because you wonder whether you did the right thing, you can be sure the neurons in your lateral frontal pole are firing and churning away. We’ve got choice, and the lateral frontal pole ensures that we must live with the consequences.

Asteroid 2012 DA14, Epicureans, and Jolie Holland

Well, Asteroid 2012 DA14 missed us.  Having briefly titillated us with the possibility that it would smash into Earth and approximate the effects of a world-wide disaster movie, Asteroid 2012 DA14 passed harmlessly by and vanished into space, going back to the anonymity that its boring name presaged.

Still, Asteroid 2012 DA14 had its impact — even if not a physical one.  If people are concerned about the possibility that, at any moment, a hurtling space rock will pulverize our planet, why not just live for the moment?  Why not adopt the Epicurean philosophy, and eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die?  (Of course, if we don’t die, we’ll have to deal with the consequences of our dissolute behavior, but let’s not think about that right now.)

Jolie Holland aptly captures such an approach with her terrific song Enjoy Yourself.  With asteroids and meteors raining down upon us, how could anyone not like a song with the refrain “enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”?

The Tao Of Hotel Room Ironing

You awaken in a strange, darkened room, perhaps to the shrill jangling of the unfamiliar alarm of a clock-radio that you don’t know how to turn off.  You stumble to the bathroom, hoping that you do not crash into furniture that is not where you expect it to be.  Moments later, as you check your iPhone or Blackberry, you become dimly aware that you need to get ready for the morning meeting.  This necessarily means your shirt must be ironed, because it is impossible to pack a man’s dress shirt in a suitcase without the shirt become wrinkled, and wearing a wrinkled shirt to your meeting would be . . . unseemly.

You must use the iron and ironing board squirreled away in the hotel room’s closet.  You fumble with the ironing board, lifting it from the hooks that allow it to hang suspended against the closet wall.  You open it and hear that high-pitched screeeel of metal on metal, a sound that is made only by the act of setting up a hotel room ironing board.  Perversely, you are comforted by the annoying, yet familiar, noise.  You retrieve the iron from its slide-in storage rack and plug it in, perhaps struggling with either the miles of cord found in half of American hotel irons or the balky, push button/feed out/scroll back cords found in the other half.  As you slowly, clumsily perform these simple tasks, you realize that the morning fog is beginning to lift from your slumbering brain.

You check the temperature of the iron, and the sizzle of hot metal against your wet index finger feels good.  You place your shirt on the ironing board, dragging it so that the collar and shoulder of the shirt are hard against the squared end of the ironing board.  You iron the plain fabric of the back of the shirt first, your ironing strokes becoming more assured as you progress.  You move the shirt around the board as you go along.  By now, the cranial synapses are engaged.  Be careful you don’t plunk the pointed end of the iron into the row of buttons with too much force!  Snap that sleeve and smooth it to make sure that the act of ironing the top fabric doesn’t leave unwanted creases on the bottom side!  You’ve done this hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times before.

And then you are finished.  You confidently snap the shirt as you remove it from the ironing board and place it back on its hanger.  It looks fine.  You unplug the iron, and as it cools you close up the ironing board, anticipating that sound yet again, and lift it back onto its inner-closet hooks.  Finally, the iron is snapped back into its closet holder.

You have successfully completed the morning’s first chore.  The hotel room shower beckons.