Saturday, January 27, 2018

Shepard for the Day.15

continuing: child's life in primordial hunter-gatherer times, when we became human..

_Cape_Dorset_"Angry Bear" inuitcom
"The child is free.  He is not asked to work.  At first he can climb and splash and dig and explore the infinite riches about him.  In time he increasingly wants to make things and to understand that which he cannot touch or change, to wonder about that which is unseen.  His world is full of stories told, hearing of a recent hunt, tales of renowned events, and epics with layers of meaning.

Voices last only for their moments of sound, but they originate in life.  The child learns that all life tells something and that all sound---from the frog calling to the sea surf--issues from a being kindred and significant to himself, telling some tale, giving some clue, mimicking some rhythm that he should know.  There is no end to what is to be learned."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Thursday, January 25, 2018

R.I.P. Ursula LeGuin

I'm not entirely sure why I take the death of Ursula LeGuin in such a personal way. I have no right to--I attended a reading she gave at a Portland bookstore some 20 years ago, but other than that, I didn't know her.

I haven't even read many of her books, though I remain enormously impressed with one of them, Always Coming Home.  It's so unique I can't get past it to her other created worlds.  It's not one of her best known, though it is singled out in the emotional tribute by writer John Scalzi that appeared in the LA Times.  He notes the immediate and heartfelt response of so many in the literary world and especially the science fiction and fantasy universe who did know her:

"On and on and on goes this immediate and real-time outpouring of grief and remembrance of a woman who gave us Earthsea, "The Left Hand of Darkness" and the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," which is as much a parable for our time as anything that anyone has written, or likely will.

She was a supporting column of the genre, on equal footing and bearing equal weight to Verne or Wells or Heinlein or Bradbury. Losing her is like losing one of the great sequoias. As the unceasing flow of testimonials gives witness, nearly every lover and creator of science fiction and fantasy can give you a story of how Le Guin, through her words or presence, has illuminated their lives."

I responded so strongly to Always Coming Home as a vision of a far future that is a complex return to a humanity living in close relationship to the Earth, with a strong relationship to Indigenous and particularly Native American culture.  As well as being a woman writer in an historically and predominantly male sci-fi culture, what distinguishes her is a background in anthropology.  This goes back to her father, Alfred Kroeber, who wrote several works on California Indians, and her mother Theodora Quinn Kroeber, who wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, a classic about the last member of his tribe.  This is a crucial perspective for the future.  I probably also felt an aspirational kinship because she was from California, at a time when I was making it my home.

Probably the personal quality of my response is also due to large extent because I've been reading her latest book, No Time To Spare, which is a collection of short pieces she wrote as blog posts.  Though she applies her keen intelligence to literary and political matters, much of the book is personal, about her life and her attitudes toward life, specifically her thoughts on aging.  In that way it is intimate, and in some ways it's like I've been in conversation with her, off and on, since I bought the book at a bookstore in Menlo Park on Christmas Eve.  A Christmas gift for myself.

The title essay took to task a familiar sounding questionnaire from her alma mater of Harvard for her sixtieth reunion.  They wanted to know what she did in her spare time. Something she shares with another great woman when she was in her 80s, Jane Jacobs, is that she won't let a stupid question or sloppy statement just go by.  She found this one pointless.  "What do retired people have but 'spare time'?"

It's all spare time--except that none of it is: "I still don't know what spare time is because all my time is occupied.  It always has been and it is now.  It's occupied by living."

Maybe that's also part of it.  She was so vibrantly alive.  Selfishly, she was a source of hope.

I've read some of her other nonfiction--her essays collected in The Language of the Night (1979), the essays and speeches collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989.)  There have been other collections and nonfiction books since, in addition to a wealth of fiction and poetry.

Her now famous National Book Awards six minute speech in 2014 accepting a lifetime achievement award (which I posted here) was a two-part poem.  The second part warned against trends in publishing that shifted autonomy and power from writers and editors to the sales department.  By accepting this, writers are giving away their most precious asset--their freedom.

The first part was acknowledging that writers in fantasy and science fiction are finally being accepted in the literary world, which I hope is true.  Back in the 1970s she was already making the case for why this is necessary, also in a speech accepting a National Book Award (in childrens lit): "Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art.  At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence."

I suppose I wasn't completely unprepared for news of her death.  Her blog was ongoing but when I checked it online, she hadn't posted in months.  She was 88, my mother's generation (or anyway, the generation of her younger brother, my uncle.)

But it was a blow I'm not over.  After all, I'm still reading her book.  I had intended to start a series of quotes from it here.  Maybe I'll start with this one, from a piece about a holiday visit that involved young children.

"What it made me think about above all is how incredibly much we learn between our birthday and last day--from where the horses live to the origin of the stars.  How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn.  Billionaires, all of us."

May she rest in peace.  Her work lives on, and on and on.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Shepard for the Day.14

"The child goes out from camp with adults to forage and with playmates to imitate foraging.  The adults show no anxiety in their hunting, only patience; one waits and watches and listens.

Sometimes the best is not to be found, but there is always something.  The world is all clues.  There is no end to the subtlety and delicacy of the clues.  The signs that reveal are always there. One has only to learn the art of reading them."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness
p 10

The Two Memories

Um, on this memory series I forgot something, that comes before "first memories."  It's the two memories in psychology.

As Draaisma tells the tale, in 1879 or so a 57 year old man of science called Francis Galton took a walk through the Pall Mall in London, an area of fashionable shops and men's clubs.  He noticed that whatever he observed there seemed to inspire specific memories from his past.  He began to note what these associations were.

Eventually he designed and carried out an experiment: Galton wrote down a number of common words ("carriage," "abbey," "afternoon") and then read them one by one, noting what memories came from them.  He did this systematically, a number of times.  In the end he had a list of associated memories--many of them repeated--and noted from which parts of his life they came, and where.  (A disproportionate number were from childhood, and most from his native England, although Galton was well traveled.)

At about the same time in Germany, Hermann Ebbinghaus was an unemployed philosopher looking for a thesis topic.  He designed an experiment: he prepared a set of randomly assembled syllables by inserting a vowel between two consonants (bif, nol) and wrote each down on a card.  He then read the cards quickly until he had memorized the contents.  Then he waited--for 20 minutes, a day, a month--and repeated the process, noting how much time it took for him to re-learn the cards.

His major conclusion was that: the longer the interval between the learning and re-learning sessions, the longer it took to relearn the material.  In other words, he discovered cramming.

Both experiments were breakthroughs in the study of memory, but after awhile, only one of them was remembered.  And for the next century, the Ebbinghaus experiment was the basis for the approach to memory taken by psychology.  Galton's was forgotten.

The reasons have to do with what happened to psychology.  Psychologists, a philosophy teacher once told me, have a bad case of physics envy.  In order to be a science like physics, psychology became obsessed with measurement and laboratory experiment.

The Ebbinghaus experiment didn't depend on somebody's memory of their past.  It could be replicated by anyone, and it was, for many years.  Special instruments were invented for it, and eventually it involved two technicians working the apparatus and a test subject.

It probably also helped that Ebbinghaus had a catchy and, well, memorable name for the result of his memory statistics.  When plotted on a graph they became "the forgetting curve."  Who could forget that?

The fate of these two experiments was the fate of psychology, which became the study of stuff that can be measured under laboratory conditions.  Besides making the study of the human mind mind-bogglingly boring, it was deceptively limited.  It fell in love with its toys, but as Dr. D. points out, "any craftsman will tell you that your tools largely determine the use to which you can put them." (p.9.)  It also created the temptation of making claims larger than your evidence warranted, and psychology still loses out to that temptation a lot of the time.

But the major distinction between the experiments is that Ebbinghaus' was essentially about the mechanics of memory, useful for research into learning.  But Galton's was about actual memories--aspects of the past that may be many years old, and weren't deliberately "memorized," but re-surface in some form.

These are now called "autobiographical memories," and it took until the 1970s before this subject--much more fascinating and potentially revealing for people not in the position of laboratory mice--got some attention in more or less mainstream psychology.

The content of memories themselves was of interest to psychoanalysis and the psychology of Freud and Jung, all of which contemporary psychology would like to forget.  But the study of autobiographical memory itself is about what we remember, why we remember it (and what we forget) and when and how we remember it.

In discussing neuroscience and Buddhist meditation here recently, I noted this tension between the objective and the subjective: westerners have studied the mind objectively (most recently, with brain scans) while Buddhists have centuries of carefully observing the workings of their minds and creating systems to explain their findings.  So the West considered the Buddhists quaint, primitive and unscientific.  That's changed among some--but not for everyone.

Something of the same conflict has blocked the study of autobiographical memory. There is a necessary subjective element (one's memories are unique), and yet that's a source of their fascination.  Do you remember what I remember?  Why do I remember this and forget that?  And so on.

Autobiographical memory is the subject of Draaisma's books.  And so next time (really) we begin with first memories in childhood.

But before that, two related notes not in the Draaisma book.  The first recorded experiment in autobiographical memory was hardly Sir Francis Galton's only claim to fame.  He was basically a statistician but applied his skills to many areas.  He was the model of the Victorian polymath--an inventor and tropical explorer, a geographer as well as contributing to statistics (he developed 'regression to the mean'), psychology, sociology and anthropology. Among his claims to fame were the first weather map and other contributions to what became the science of meteorology.

He was also Charles Darwin's half-cousin who came up with the phrase "nature versus nurture."  And unfortunately he was an early advocate of eugenics, another word he coined.

As for the Pall Mall, it also involves the coining of words.  In Galton's time it had been a urban space for more than a century, but in the 17th century it was an open green where a popular game was played.  The game was also called pall mall, described as a combination of golf (the fairways) and croquet, as it was played with a mall-et.

The mallet was also called a 'maul,' which remains the name of a kind of hammer, a meaning that predates the verb sense of tearing up as well as pounding.

The word 'mall' as in shopping mall comes from the Pall Mall and other green open spaces, often shaded by trees.  So the actual mall in a shopping mall is not the shops but the open area they surround, where people walk.

The title of my book The Malling of America (still available from your online bookseller, like this one) suggests a pun: the mauling of America.  Both meanings of mall and maul come from the same place and the same game of pall mall.  I claim bonus points.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Why Not Norway?

Instead of those shithole (or perhaps shithouse) countries, why isn't the US getting more immigrants from Norway? asked the anti-president.  Enquiring minds want to know.

Well, here's a couple of tip-offs.  Norway recently announced its goal of making all of the country's short haul airplane flights on all-electric non-greenhouse gas polluting aircraft by 2040.  Air travel is one of the largest such polluters.  Norway is one of the world's leaders in addressing the climate crisis with such transportation technologies.

So naturally, Norwegians would regard a country that officially doubts the reality of the climate crisis as perhaps a primitive place to visit, but why would you want to live there.  Or even stay very long.

Though inspired by the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Norway's democracy and justice system are acknowledged to be superior.  It pays particular attention to preventing and prosecuting corruption.

Norway is in first place on the UN Human Development Index, for superior levels of education, health and standard of living.  The US is tenth.  Norway has one of the highest levels of productivity in the world, and low unemployment.  It has a superior banking system and bounced back from the global Great Recession faster than anyone else.  It welcomes immigration.

The government pension fund is the largest such fund in the world, and bans investments for ethical reasons, such as nuclear weapons. Norway is the first country to ban cutting of trees to preserve its remaining forests.

It was the first country in the world to support LGBT rights by law.  It has a beautiful natural environment with spectacular features, vibrant film and television and strong literary and musical cultures.

Healthcare is free.  Public education is virtually free.  Among the Nordic countries, Norway's people have the most confidence in "their country's pension system, equal availability of welfare services for everyone, public health care, and unemployment support."

So pronounced are these differences that last year Norway was named the world's happiest country:
"It surged from fourth place in last year’s UN assessment all the way to the top spot, according to the World Happiness Report 2017. Other top countries on the list included Nordic neighbours Denmark and Iceland, as well as nearby Switzerland.

“All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance,” the summary explained.

Rounding out the top 10 were Finland, in fifth place, the Netherlands (6), Canada (7), New Zealand (8), and Australia and Sweden tied for 9th.

The UN report noted: The USA is a story of reduced happiness. In 2007 the USA ranked 3rd among the OECD countries; in 2016 it came 19th. The reasons are declining social support and increased corruption (see Chapter 7) and it is these same factors that explain why the Nordic countries do so much better."

Okay, forget Norway--what about neighboring Denmark, with all their pale faces?

Probably not.  Denmark also "is not far behind or tied in most categories" in citizen confidence in their social system. The BBC finds that "Denmark inches out its neighbours (and blows away the rest of the world) with near-perfect scores on the ‘Basic Human Needs’ ranking in the 2017 Social Progress Index, which includes meeting the nutritional and medical needs of its citizens and giving access to basic knowledge and communication."

"These benefits are offered to more than just native-born residents. 'The general health and social system is well-developed and accessible to anyone living in Denmark, and as a student you can get financial assistance and free language classes.'"

Levels of satisfaction suggest that citizens accept that high taxes support a well-run government and a better society. So yeah, maybe the weather isn't to everybody's liking, and there are problems to deal with, but why leave a pretty sweet society for this trainwreck of a country?

Answer: Mostly they don't.