Saturday, February 03, 2018

Past: Always Changing

The future is unknown, but then, so is the past.  The story keeps changing, as several revelations and studies announced this week suggest.  First there's the cosmic story, the so-called Standard Model of the universe (which basically means the theory that works mathematically as well as in terms of observations) which may have gotten shaken up by findings in one new study.

Then there's the standard but often revised story of early humans and their migrations, shaken up (perhaps) by discoveries of what appear to be sophisticated stone tools in India that could point to an earlier migration from Africa than previously known, or to a higher skill level of some known or unknown humanoid species.

Finally there's the discovery of a previously unknown but very large Mayan city obscured by trees and buried underground in the Guatamala jungle that blows away previous estimates of population and development, necessitating a whole new story for the region.  The thousands of hidden structures over a wide but interconnected area (by elevated "highways"!) include this huge pyramid, illustrated above.  We make inferences about the present and future based on what we think we know about the past.  When that changes, it all changes, at least a little.

The Passing Show: Joe Kennedy

 Bill Clinton, who as a teenager shook hands with President Kennedy, was inspired by JFK to pursue a political career.  Barack Obama, too young to have met either John or Robert Kennedy (both assassinated in the 1960s), nevertheless was inspired by them.  The sudden support of JFK's daughter Caroline and then the rest of the Kennedys provided Senator Obama's campaign for the 2008 presidential nomination with a huge boost.  A special friendship developed between President Obama and Senator Ted Kennedy, ending only with Kennedy's death.

So in turn, when Representative Joe Kennedy gave the official Democratic rejoinder to the anti-president's state of the union address, he made a speech before an audience in a Massachusetts auto assembly plant that echoed Obama themes and language to an almost eerie extent.

Joe Kennedy is the grandson of Robert Kennedy, a US Attorney-General and Senator from New York who was fatally shot minutes after winning the final big primary of 1968 in California, preparing to go to the August convention with the most delegates won for President.

Joe's father, Joseph P. Kennedy II, served in the US House of Representatives for about a decade, from the late 80s to the late 90s.  He was actually the third Joe Kennedy in his family line.  The first Joseph Kennedy was the family patriarch who built a fortune and served as US Ambassador to England for FDR.  He was grooming his eldest son, Joseph Jr., to run for President, the first Irish Catholic to do so.  But Joseph Jr. was killed in combat in World War II, and eventually his younger brother, John F. Kennedy, ran for President in 1960 and won.

So this Joe Kennedy is political and American royalty, and like the young royals of the UK, he is informal and unassuming.  He doesn't seem to have a trace of the famous Kennedy accent, a unique combination of Boston and New York.

His speech was widely applauded, though some on Twitter etc. fixated on what appeared to be flecks of chapstick on a corner of his mouth.   He clearly has a political future if he wants one--the previous generation of Kennedys for one reason or another withdrew from political life after a time.

Joe Kennedy is an heir to Kennedy concerns (he served in the Peace Corps) but is also tech savvy (graduate of Stanford) and serves on the House technology committee, as well as foreign relations and energy committees.  But he will be only 40 in 2020, and hasn't generated the buzz needed to be a serious presidential candidate so far.

Yet Democrats know they need some younger prospects, and the time is getting short.  Immediately after this November's congressional elections, the media will focus on presidential possibilities.  Right now the Dems don't have clear choices.

Senator Bernie Sanders also gave a rebuttal to the state of the union, which was much more specific in response to the actual speech.  (Joe Kennedy's sounded as if it was written much earlier.)  But Sanders will be 79 in 2020.  Another likely candidate is Joe Biden who will be 78.  Even Elizabeth Warren, not talked about so much these days, will be 71.  (It was in a Harvard class taught by Warren that Joe Kennedy met the woman he would marry.)

There are a number of other names that insiders and media mention as potential presidential candidates next time, especially of women and Latino men, but none has emerged with the kind of support that Barack Obama had by the time he declared for the presidential primaries in February 2007.  He'd been talked about since his 2004 Democratic Convention speech. So there's still time but it's getting short.

It also strikes me that the pure Obama message of inclusion and change is probably not going to be enough.  That positive message is ultimately unifying, but already we can see how degraded our politics and our country has become due to the current administration.  That's going to have to be acknowledged somehow.  The right balance that at least acknowledges if not expresses anger and pain suffered by many these days is tricky.  It's going to take somebody special--as Barack Obama was--to heal these wounds and move the country forward.  Not to mention winning the primaries and the general election.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Past: First Memories

My first memories come from that hazy time when I was two or three years old.  I can date those memories that much only because they happened in an apartment where I lived for the first three or so years of my life, before moving into the "foundation" that became the basement of the house I grew up in after that.

But why do I have these particular memories?  Why don't I have more?  And are they actually my memories?

Douwe Draaisma addresses these questions in his book Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older.  He does so (here and throughout this book) by recounting and synthesizing various studies done over the years, as well as comparing observations and conclusions with literary and historical sources.  All of this is fascinating reading, but here I'm mostly sticking to the answers.

What do we remember from these early years? It may depend on how old you are when asked what you remember: retention seems to decline over the years.  But the average age of the first memory is about three years old.

Why that memory?  It tends to be associated with strong emotions.  One study found is it usually fear, while another found that feelings of elation or surprise were more frequent.  My first memory combines elation and surprise, which must include a little fear: it is of arriving on the landing outside our third (and top) floor apartment, on my father's shoulders.

Like mine, it is usually a visual memory.  But that's a little deceptive.  For it seems that the reason we don't have more memories from these early years--where our minds are very active, and we're experiencing lots of things for the first time--has to do with language.

Researchers believe all memories still exist somewhere in the brain.  The problem is accessing them.  In order to make access possible, we sort memories into categories.  Though we don't necessarily do this consciously, it requires a level of language, and an ability to deal with abstractions (like categories) that we don't have in our earliest years.  In fact, memories may not form without the ability to describe them in language (even if that's the daily babble of toddlers in their beds or cribs, talking to themselves in their own terms about what they've recently experienced.)

But depositing memories into categories also works against remembering specific events if they are repeated.  The first trip to the zoo becomes conflated with the second and third trips until all specific memories of the zoo recede and seemingly disappear.

Another reason that we seldom have memories from the first year may be that we lack the consciousness of self--the "I"--to form autobiographical memories.  Forming the "I" implies the "you," and so first memories may also include recognition of a parent as someone not "I."  (Dr. D. notes first memories by writers Nabokov and Edith Wharton that supports this idea.)

But how real are those first memories?  Some first memories can be checked with others who were there, and it sometimes turns out they remember it differently.  And sometimes there is even objective evidence that shows it isn't quite true to what happened--it happened here when you remember it as there.

Or it didn't happen at all.  Maybe my father didn't ride me on his shoulders that time (it wasn't something he did a lot.) But it's still a memory.

This is where the relationship of memories and the language to describe them becomes more complicated and perhaps troublesome.  One person remembered an attempt to kidnap him out of his stroller, when it turned out that it had never happened--it was a story he was told, a lie by his nanny that she later admitted.  Yet he had pictured it happening.

A lot of memories--including first memories, and maybe especially those--turn out to be stories we've heard, perhaps combined with some incoherent impressions we seem to remember.  That may be what happened with another of my early "memories" that might even be the first: I remember playing quietly under the bed.

I focused on this memory--re-remembered it--when I heard the story, told by both my mother and her sister, though each told it to me separately, many years apart--of the afternoon when I was a baby that I disappeared from that same apartment.

They had been talking when one of them noticed they could no longer hear me and I wasn't in sight.  They called me and searched the apartment without finding me. My aunt noticed that a window was slightly open.  My mother told me she thought about Lindbergh baby kidnapping (though that had happened more than a decade earlier, it evidently made an impression.)  They were both frightened.

One of them soon found me asleep under the bed.  I had crawled under there, played awhile and fallen asleep.  Was my memory from that day? Or was it a perspective I dimly recall from several adventures under the bed?  I think the second alternative is more likely.

We may feel pieces of memories that get located by repetition (I seem to remember how my mother sang to me when I was a baby, but I also saw her sing to my younger sisters) or by familiar objects etc., as well as by stories.

For example, I don't remember the actual moment this photo was taken of me at 2 yrs. old, on the phone at my grandparents' house. But I remember the phone and the phone table and where they were because they were there for years.  And I seem to remember that sweater with the ducks, but do I?  I don't recall the colors (I want to guess blue-gray with yellow ducks.)  Maybe I just remember photographs like this one.

I wonder if these vague impressions plus stories we hear later account for both the richness and mystery of our childhood memories.  I see my curly blond locks that I don't recall, but I remember my mother's story of crying when they were cut off at the barber shop.

Of course once we tell the story of the first memory (or formulate it in our heads), what we basically remember is our story, as the actual memory recedes. That may account for the odd fact that we often see ourselves in the memory (as one researcher found), rather than seeing the scene from our point of view at the time. The story of the memory is what gets fixed in our heads.  It's called autobiographical memory, and autobiographies are stories, after all.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About the Future?

"Today has meaning only if it stands between yesterday and tomorrow.”
C.G. Jung

"Send your love/into the future
Send you love/into the distant dawn"

The subject of the future begins with what you bring to it. Your curiosity is likely fueled by feelings of fear or hope. Often by both.

In confronting the future, cynicism won’t get you very far. But a sense of irony and appreciation of paradox are helpful, if not mandatory.

The concern of the young for their future may be most natural and most vivid. But even the old, without much of a future of their own, can care deeply about the future, as legacy, but also selflessly.

So what is it? What do we talk about when we talk about the future?

“There is no such thing as the future: what there is instead is an almost infinite range of possible futures.”
Frederic Pohl

The future is a very big place. It’s everything that hasn’t happened yet, to everybody who is alive and will ever live, and more. Because we don’t know what actually will happen, the future from our perspective is everything that could happen, from the next nanosecond to the end of time. Everywhere.

Most senses of “the future” we normally consider are narrower than this, but this expanse of possibilities is the true context that sooner or later insists on itself.

So what do we talk about when we talk about the future? The future extends forward in time, and it expands outward from our individual selves.

There is the personal future, the one we think and dream about and plan for in our youth. Then there are the personal futures of partners, children and grandchildren.

Naturally these futures occur in a context: job markets, education options, culture and society, national and international economic conditions, war and peace, and so on. If at 20 years old we consider our personal future until retirement, we’re looking perhaps 50 years out. What will the future be like on the way to a half century ahead? The time span for children and grandchildren is longer—say 70 or 80 years from birth.

For a couple of centuries now, our society has experienced historically rapid change, including in all these areas that directly affect personal futures. For example, the specific occupations of both my grandfathers no longer exist, at least in the same way. My father started out selling and servicing sewing machines, out of a retail store that was part of a national chain specializing in them.  All that faded away before he was 45. One might even say that my working life as a freelance writer has largely disappeared, at least in its specifics. I was also an editor for alternative weekly newspapers, mostly new when I started in the 1970s, and vanishing fast in the early 21st century.

Many such changes were and are driven in large part by technology, but the past has proven that technologies can have immense and widespread social, cultural, economic and environmental effects. So as technologies continue to develop, we naturally wonder, what will the future be in a century or two? This is “the future” that intrigues, fascinates and frightens.

So the sense of “the future” in common parlance is somewhat open-ended but probably starts 50 years ahead and may extend for several centuries. I’m guessing that this is “the future” most people are curious about enough to read this far.

There are ways we narrow down the possibilities of those futures. In fact we have an accepted if unspoken standard for how the future comes to be. We’ll examine this key criterion a little later.

But even with limitations, there are lots of possible futures. Sometimes people are keenly interested in the future, even to the point that it’s real to them. And sometimes, they seem to ignore it.

As the 21st century speeds towards its third decade, it’s said that people don’t talk about the future because it’s already here or soon will be: the Internet, smartphones, social media, drones, robots, Virtual Reality, 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, as well as the technologies of medicine (including genetic manipulation and cloning) and so on.

Some argue that today’s information technologies and their effects— social networks, constant information, shrinking attention spans—have created such an overwhelming and ever-changing present that the future even as an idea is disappearing, if not entirely obsolete.

Or it’s said that people don’t talk about the future because there isn’t likely to be one worth talking about, or contemplating at all. Or because there’s no way to predict it, so why bother? Or because all prior talk of the future turned out to be nonsense. Where are the flying cars?

It’s even been suggested that thinking about the future is unnatural for humans, who care mostly if not only about the present.

But now as in all times, people do think, feel and talk about the future. The future is basic to how humans think, and may be in large measure why we think.

Clark's Nutcracker hides up to 30.000 seeds for
the winter, and locates them months later, even
under snow.  Photo by jrtrimble via Birdshare.
We know of animals that act in the present to create better conditions for their future survival, from ants to apes, and certain birds that hide seeds in summer to be retrieved and eaten in winter.

 Though it’s always perilous to speculate on early humans, it’s reasonable to assume that they observed the means of their survival (habits of prey, location of plants in particular seasons, etc.) and planned ahead based on those observations, and on the accumulated memories of their group. They thought about the future all the time.

Late 19th century philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley thought so.“Life being a process of decay and of continual repair and a struggle throughout against dangers," he wrote, "our thoughts, if we are to live, must mainly go the way of anticipation.”

“We register our perceptions and experiences with an eye to our future actions,” adds contemporary historian of psychology Douwe Draaisma in interpreting Bradley. “What happened in the past only matters inasmuch as it enables us to anticipate what lies in store for us.”

Being able to anticipate consciously, and to communicate information and ideas that helped people to anticipate better, were major advantage for humans, and may well have driven the development of language and culture as well as the development of the human brain.

The future early humans contemplated was likely limited in time and space, and probably dealt with anticipating seasonal and cyclical changes, signs of a changing environment as well as where prey animals and needed plants were most likely to be. But thinking about the future, far from being some exotic exercise of a few, may well be the most natural kind of thinking we do.

first in a series

Monday, January 29, 2018

Shepard for the Day.17

Shepard explains that this kind of childhood development evolved in the first eons of human existence as an adaptation to those environments: "small-group, leisured, foraging life-ways with natural surroundings.  For us now, that world no longer exists."

But how we so differently adapt to our world runs counter to our biological evolution, "as it works much too slowly to make adjustments in our species in these ten millennia since the archaic foraging cultures began to be destroyed by their hostile, aggressive, better-organized, civilized neighbors."

"Programmed [in those earlier times] for the slow development toward a special kind of sagacity, we live in a world where that humility and tender sense of human limitation is no longer rewarded.  Yet we suffer for the want of that vanished world, a deep grief we learn to misconstrue."

Paul Shepard
Nature and Madness

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Shepard for the Day.16

Final description of a child's life in primordial hunter-gatherer times, when we became human..

Wiyot sisters participating in the
Flower Dance, a coming of age
ceremony recently revived
"At the end of  childhood he comes to some of the most thrilling days of his life.  The transition he faces will be experienced by body and ritual in concert.  The childhood of journeying in a known world, scrutinizing and mimicking natural forms, and always listening has prepared him for a whole new octave in his being. The clock of his body permits it to be done, and the elders of his life will see that he is initiated.  It is a commencement into a world foreshadowed by childhood: home, good, unimaginably rich, sometimes painful with reason, scrutable with care."