Monthly Archives: March 2010

Post 601 on 8.5

Actually it’s 8 1/2, Fellini’s 1963 film about a director who’s not sure how to proceed, juggling a wife and mistress, producers and writers, and all the others who want a piece of his time.  I very much enjoyed the DVD of the film, watching it once with the commentary and then again without.  I think I had only seen it once before, and I suspect the first viewing is in fact pretty confusing; only a closer study makes sense of the pieces.  Here’s what Roger Ebert has to say about the film.

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Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

This morning I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 novel Middlesex, and I’d say it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years.  Just a pleasure to read a chapter at a time, no rush.  It’s pretty long at 530 pages hardcover, and is a great family epic as told by a hermaphrodite character born in 1960 who reaches a crisis point at age 14.  But much of the book is about the character’s grandparents and parents and their life in Detroit.  Highly recommended!

Here’s a bit from a Powell’s interview done in 2002 with Eugenides:

At the same time, it’s a family story and more of an epic. I needed the third-person. I tried to give a sense that Cal, in writing his story, is perhaps inventing his past as much as recalling it. He might make claims that he has a genetic memory or that he knows things, but there are a lot of tip-offs to the reader that he’s making it up. He needed to tell the whole story to explain his incredible life to himself. He knew a lot about his grandparents — and perhaps he feels he’s been endowed with abilities to go into people’s heads who are long dead — but, to a certain extent, he’s making it up. It took me a long time to let myself do that.

I think it's Spring!

Some recent views around Portland…

Views from Seattle

Made a quick visit to Seattle via train, here are some views as I toured around…

Lethem on P.K. Dick & more

Found this interview at H+ between Erik Davis and novelist Jonathan Lethem, mostly on P.K. Dick but I found this Q/A on ‘the singularity’ interesting:

ED: For proponents of the Singularity, we are on the verge of massive technological transformations that involve some version of artificial or machine intelligence. Dick had a very particular take on intelligent machines, like Joe Chip‘s conapt or suitcase psychiatrists. While these devices are clearly fantastic and absurd, they also express some real insight and concerns about the cultural consequences of machine intelligence. Does Dick‘s take seem relevant now, thirty years later? What would he say to our contemporary gadget fetishism and addiction to information machines?

JL: My best guess about such matters is that each technological transformation, up to and perhaps including the Singularity, is going to work itself out vis-à-vis “the human” according to the deep principles of all media. Defined in its largest sense, as including things like cinema, theory, drugs, computing, moving type, music, etcetera, media is utterly consciousness-transforming in ways we can no longer competently examine, given how deeply they‘ve pervaded and altered the collective and individual consciousness that would be the only possible method for making that judgment. And yet -— we still feel so utterly human to ourselves, and the proof is in the anthropomorphic homeliness that pervades the ostensibly exalted “media” in return. We humanize them, shame them, colonize and debunk them with our persistent modes of sex and neurosis and community and commerce. We turn them into advertisements for ourselves, rather than opportunities for shedding ourselves. At least so far.

In the groove!

Follow this link to see some neat shots of vinyl records, up close!

Mind-in-Mind blog

Just to let folks know that I’ve started another blog, called ‘Mind in Mind’, to focus on the mind and brain books and musings that I write about now and then.  I’ve copied some of the posts from here to there to get it started, and will try to keep that material out of Mediated, for the most part.  We’ll see how it goes!

Thirty Years Ago

Yes, thirty years ago this evening I went to see the Clash playing at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, with friends Jack Vitha and Matt Oates.  This set list is what I could remember after the show, and I got most of them.

Funny enough, a couple years back at a street vendor’s booth in Utrecht, the Netherlands, I found a CD bootleg recording of this very show.

The Mind and the Brain

I’ve been reading a number of things lately about the mind (our subjective experience) and the brain, and how they inter-relate.  Some scientists seem perfectly comfortable with simply stating that the mind can be equated to brain-states, and this may be true (I don’t think we really know, though the scientific position rejects the dualistic approach that posits the mind as something more or different from the brain).  But even so, certainly my experience of mind is not an experience of brain-states, it is about concepts like attention, memory, feeling, etc.  I am particularly interested in scientific study of how intentional mind-states have impact on the brain (and thus have known physical effects), even if we don’t really understand what ‘attention’ actually is.

Here’s some material from a book I’ve been reading called Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley which reports on some recent neuroscience findings (it’s in fact a summary of findings that were presented to the Buddhist community  including the Dalai Lama in a series of workshops).  Many of the findings are with regard to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to various stimuli.  But this one stuck out in my mind (page 158):

Attention is also, as it happens, indispensable for neuroplasticity. Nowhere was that shown more dramatically than in one of Mike Merzenich’s experiments with monkeys. The scientists rigged up a device that tapped the animals’ fingers one hundred minutes a day every day for six weeks.  At the same time as this bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys listened to sounds over headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught, pay attention to what you feel on your fingers, such as when the rhythm changes, we’ll reward you with a sip of juice; don’t pay attention to the sounds. Other monkeys were taught, pay attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes, you’ll get juice. At the end of six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys’ brains. Let me underline that every monkey, whether trained to pay attention to what it was hearing or what it was feeling on its fingers, had the exact same physical experience – sounds coming in through headphones plus taps on its fingers. The only thing that made one monkey different from another was what it paid attention to.

Usually, when a particular spot on the skin suddenly begins receiving unusual amounts of stimulation, its representation in the somatosensory cortex expands. That was what Mike Merzenich discovered in his monkeys. But when the monkeys paid attention to what they heard rather than to what they felt, there was no change in the somatosensory cortex – no expension of the region that handles input from the finger feeling the flutter.

It goes on to state that the stimuli that was attended to produced more brain resources going to that stimuli, and not to the one that was ignored.  So in some sense it appears that ‘attention’ can be a part of what shapes our brain, and that since we can direct our attention, there may be ways to consciously direct the development of brain resources.

Now in some ways this finding seems completely obvious.  Clearly when we’re in school, we tend to learn those things which we pay attention to… if you attend a foreign language class and don’t pay attention, you may pick up a few words, but will not learn much.  This just confirms that there’s an actual physical result from the conscious attention.  The interesting questions to me are what techniques can be used to direct attention in the most effective way to achieve one’s goals and desires.

Also it seems to me that as more brain resources are trained on particular tasks, the task moves from one that requires conscious attention to being more of a background, autonomous process, allowing the conscious attention to move to other areas.

Inflation?

From John Mauldin’s last newsletter, in a section titled “So Where’s the Inflation?”:

The actual amount of bank loans is falling each and every quarter, with no signs of a bottom. Consumers are reducing their debt and leverage. Bank loans are being written off at staggering rates. Over 700 banks (I think that is the figure I saw) are officially on watch by the FDIC, with more banks being closed each week.

There is at least $300-400 billion in losses on commercial real estate waiting to be written down. Housing foreclosures are rising and hundreds of billions have yet to be written off. As more families fall into unemployment or underemployment, there will be more writedowns. Is it any wonder that banks are having to shore up their balance sheets and make fewer loans?

With capacity utilization just off all-time lows, why should we expect businesses to borrow to increase capacity? Inventory levels are much lower than two years ago. Businesses no longer need to finance as much inventory. They simply need less.

Dennis Gartman writes:

“Effectively the Fed had become a cash machine rather than a monetary expansion machine. At the end of last year, the multiplier had actually fallen to less than 1.0 and the trend remains downward. If anyone had told us five years ago that the money multiplier would be down to 1.0 we would have laughed. The laugh, however, would have been upon us, for it is there and it is still falling. Hard it shall be to sponsor strong economic growth when no one really wants to take a loan or when few banks want to make a loan. The ‘game’ of banking has been turned upon its head, and the strength of the economy suffers while inflationary pressures (at least for now) remain virtually non-existent.”

Bottom line is that there’s plenty of evidence that we’ve already had a lot of the inflation everyone’s worried about (it was just called a Housing Bubble, or rising tuition, or rising medical costs, not inflation).  Right now money is disappearing (loans being paid off or written off), and I think the Treasury and Fed are trying desperately to keep outright deflation from taking over.

This NYT article “Preparing for the next bubble” also had this interesting bit at the end:

So rather than trying to predict the number and type of bubbles, it may make more sense to look inward when trying to predict the future. Bob Goldman, a financial planner in Sausalito, Calif., said that clients often looked at him blankly when he asked them what it was they imagined for themselves in the future. Sometimes, they need to go home and figure out what sort of life it is that they’re saving for — and how much (or little) it might cost.

“People come in and talk about how we all know that inflation is going to explode next year,” Mr. Goldman said. “Well, we don’t all know that. We don’t know anything. But we can know something about our own lives, and there is a person we can talk to about that. A person in the mirror.”

It does strike me as strange that so many people seem to have such certainty about the economic future, when in fact no one really knows!  But it is indeed fascinating to ponder…