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Monthly Archives: April 2004

‘You tell em Jack’

Spotted by/at

George Bush, 21st September, 2001: ?Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists?

Jack Straw, March 15th, 2004: ?the truth about these fanatics is that unless you are 100% with the terrorists, you are seen to be 100% against them.?

Something to be clever about

Richard Dawkins, writing for The Edge, says

In a 1968 book review of THE DOUBLE HELIX, anthologised in PLUTO’S REPUBLIC, the distinguished biologist Sir Peter Medawar wrote that if a
young man as talented as Jim Watson had been born British, especially in
the Cambridge of his and Crick’s time, he would have been steered towards
literary studies:

“It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English Schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of quite outstanding ability ?much more brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful than most young scientists; right up in the Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever ABOUT.”

More on neural plasticity

Via, a list of ‘cool scientific papers’:

Jennifer Linden (neuroscientist) wrote:
Here are my paper suggestions. It’s been years since I read these papers, but I still remember them — the experiment is truly beautiful. The background: Normally, each eye innervates a single tectum in the frog, with no competition between the eyes. The experiment: What happens when you implant a third eye in a frog, so that two eyes are forced to innervate the same tectum? The result: ocular dominance stripes, in an animal which normally doesn’t have them. A beautifully clean demonstration that ocular dominance stripes arise from competition between the two eyes, rather than from some kind of pre-established pattern of innervation.

Constantine-Paton, M. and Law, M.I., “Eye-specific termination bands in tecta of three-eyed frogs”, Science 202 : 639-641 (1978)

Law, M.I. and Constantine-Paton, M., “Anatomy and physiology of experimentally produced striped tecta”, Journal of Neuroscience 1 : 741-759 (1981)

Quotes #21 and #22

Taking about the transition from naive ignorance to profound ignorance in the pub last night, this quote came up :

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

– Ch’ing-y?an

The quote reminded me of a Chinese poem which touches upon the same distinction

Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.
When I had not been there, no rest from the pain of longing!
I went there and returned…. It was nothing special:
Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.

Both are in Alan Watts’ book The Way of Zen

The nature of memory

A post from Onemonkey, Context is everything, on the perpetual construction and reconstruction of memory and the research findings of Susan Engel.

From the outset our so-called episodic memories act in ways far removed from the faithful verbatim recording we often feel we’ve experienced….[Children] only really relive the past when prompted to do so, and rely heavily on confirmation and elaboration from the adult or their peers. And when they tell these stories to others and later to themselves, the world is seen through [the distorting lens of their limited linguistic capacities].

Environmental enrichment causes critical period closure of visual plasticity for dark-reared rats

This seemed important:

Environmental enrichment prevents effects of dark-rearing in the rat visual cortex
Nature Neuroscience, March 2004 Volume 7 Number 3 pp 215 – 216
Alessandro Bartoletti, Paolo Medini, Nicoletta Berardi & Lamberto Maffei
Abstract: Environmental enrichment potentiates neural plasticity, enhancing acquisition and consolidation of memory traces. In the sensory cortices, after cortical circuit maturation and sensory function acquisition are completed, neural plasticity declines and the critical period ‘closes’. In the visual cortex, this process can be prevented by dark-rearing, and here we show that environmental enrichment can promote physiological maturation and consolidation of visual cortical connections in dark-reared rats, leading to critical period closure.

Presumably because environmental enrichment encourages cannibalisation of the proto-visual areas by other functions. Another tale of activity dependent neural development…

‘An experiment in consumerist identity’

In February 2001 Michael Landy destroyed all his possessions. Every single one. This act of annihilation, entitled Break Down, took fourteen days to complete and cost approximately ?100,000….Landy spent three years cataloguing the 7,006 separate items. Each object was numbered, separated into a category and included in a long list displayed on the walls. The smaller objects were bagged in plastic and placed in yellow crates that snaked along 160 metres of conveyor belt around four dismantling bays. Landy and his team of operators, all clothed in industrial blue overalls, systematically reduced each item down to its basic components. The pieces were then shredded or granulated and bagged up.

(from BBCi arts)

Landy says:

The happiest day of my life

Our glorious leader

U.S. President George W. Bush looks up before speaking at the Davos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, January 29, 2003. Traveling a day after his State of the Union address, Bush spoke here of his plan to offer prescription drug benefits and catastrophic illness coverage to seniors as inducements to give up their fee-for-service Medicare benefits and enroll in private plans. Bush also talked about the situation in Iraq. 29 Jan 2003 REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The death of Bacon, by Chicken

I’ve just found out how the father of modern science died. It was, fittingly, in the pursuit of knowledge. In March of 1626, Bacon took advantage of wintry conditions and stuffed a chicken with snow, in an attempt to research the effects of freezing on putrefaction. He became ill from exposure to the cold and died of pneumonia on April 9, 1626.

An admirable death!

quote #18

Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. For what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

– Howard Thurman or Harold Whitman, depending on which bit of the web you look for the source.

Orality and Literacy

If you enjoyed Relevant History on word spacing (and you should have) or me on the invention of perspective you must read Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. I can’t do the erudition, sweep and profundity of the book justice, but here’s a few quotes. You’ll have to excuse me if I leap to the conclusions rather than pr?cis the arguments here. My thoughts are preceded by a !, everything else is a quote, paraphrase or summary of Ong.

Walter Ong (1982,2002) Orality and Literacy – The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge, New York.

Writing makes words appear to be things. In oral culture words have no residue, they are just potential. They only exist in transience. The visual form of words gives you control over them. Without stable form they are spectres – always actions, always transient, always willed – intrinsically agenic. (p14)

When and often-told story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it (p11)

In oral cultures you only know what you can recall – in literate cultures you know what you can look up. Formulas and themes are central to oral culture, for they provide structure for works which rely upon human memory to persist. By removing this constraint, literacy unleashes chaos on knowledge.

Writing separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for ‘objectivity’ p45

oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance

Table summarising Chapter 3: Some psychodynamics of orality

words as actions words as objects
formulaic unstructured/multiple
additive subordinative
harmonising analytic/dissective
redundant sparse
narrative facts & lists
episodic/thematic chronological
ever-present past and future looking
amnesic hypermnemonic
‘savage mind’ rationality
animistic objective
holistic linear
conservative progressive
unreflective introspective
social/public individual
empathetic & participatory objectively distanced
situational/situated abstract
contextual self-contained
restricted code elaborated code

! It is impossible not to note at this point how the features of oral culture are those idealised by the environmental and new-age movements.

! While literate knowledge is abundant, oral knowledge (‘ancient wisdom’) is concentrated. Single items – koans, kata, poems, rituals, icons – physically embody depth of information and can reveal it to the individual through study of that single thing (compare: knowledge is explicit, in multiple sources, and the individual can collect that information by acquiring, ie reading, those sources).

The ‘restricted’ linguistic codes of primarily oral cultures are just as specific and expressive, but much content is embedded in the context the language is used in. The ‘elaborated codes’ of text-based culture have their meaning rooted within the language itself.

! Note the paradoxical nature of creation myths of pre-literate cultures (eg Norse or Ancient Greek) – pre-literate cultures are ever-present. They do not see the need for creation ab nihilo, so the writing down of these myths makes them seem nonsensical (ie illogical). The great, later, religions – with their sacred texts – are only possible because of the development of literacy and the grafting of a new literate form on top of passing oral cultures.

Is the idea of a Jaynesian software rewrite of self-consciousness subsumed within the idea of a transition from oral to literate culture? (p28)

By separating the knower from the known…writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set (p104)

Because spoken language is necessarily shared, it promoted groupness. Language is only what can be mutually understood. Reading is done individually. Literate culture promotes individuality and introspection. In writing the audience is always imagined (simulated) rather than actual.

Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the centre, the self, to be examined and described.

By removing words from the world of sound where they first had their origin in active human interchange and relegating them definitively to visual surface, and by otherwise exploiting visual space for the management of knowledge, print encourages human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space (p129)

! Writing is a cognitive technology for transforming meaning across sensory codes. It takes what defines human uniqueness and subsumes it to work in our most powerful modality. This raises the question of what kinds of operation are best subserved by audition. I suggest associative recall (the chaining of items in sequences) – note that the order of the alphabet is learn auditorially but employed visually (in indexes)!

What’s amazing is that our cognitive abilities have coped so well with such a radical technological hybridisation. It’s as astounding as the fact that we can live in cities of millions when we evolved to live in tribes of hundreds.

The present-day phenomenological sense of existence is richer in its conscious and articulate reflection than anything that preceded it. But it is salutary to recognise that this sense depends on the technologies of writing and print, deeply interiorised, made part of our own psychic resources. The tremendous store of historical, psychological and other knowledge which can go into sophisticated narrative and characterisation today could be accumulated only through the use of writing and print (and now electronics). But these technologies of the world do not merely store what we know. They style what we known in ways which made it quite inaccessible and indeed unthinkable in an oral culture.

! So, back to my original compulsion – how was inner life experienced before the ascendancy of individual perspective? At the very least the articulation of that experience couldn’t have occurred in the way is does now. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, does it make a sound? If a qualia cannot be articulated, is it experienced?

I feel like I?ve reached the end point of this question?s productivity. Which isn?t to say that it is answered, but rather that the question will have to be changed to go forward.