Remember

One of my favorite poems about the intersection of memory, identity, and death is “Remember” by Christina Rossetti:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

The poem starts out like the typical sentimental lover’s poem. But it veers breathtakingly with, “Yet if you should forget me for awhile…”.

The typical poem about death focuses on the transition between building memories with the beloved, and the point when new memories of the beloved are impossible. But Rossetti suggests a more important transition that might take place after the transition to the “silent land”. To paraphrase, “If you fail to remember me unceasingly after I’m gone, it is better to not remember me at all”. The treatment in Tuesday Morning is not as explicit, but could be interpreted the same way:

Turn your face from me
And I will cover myself with sorrow
Bring Hell down upon me
I will surrender my heart to sorrow
Bring Hell down upon me
And I will say goodbye tomorrow

But I knew that you
With your heart beating
And your eyes shining
Would be dreaming of me
Lying with you
On a Tuesday morning

~

This post is a rough sketch, triggered by a recent conversation with a friend about continuity of personal identity. Speculations about personal identity are typically triggered by the death of a loved one, or by some other intense damage to a relationship. Some of the issues involved are well-tread and boring, while others are more interesting.

1) Regarding the question, “What constitutes personal identity?”, the arguments are relatively boring to me. IEP outlines the basic arguments nicely. Parfit tries to sweep them all aside in one particular way. Nagasena and the Buddhist concept of Anatta try to sweep them all aside in an entirely different way. All of them are boring.

2) When people are contemplating these things, they are usually concerned with two completely separate but related questions: A) Is there a mechanism by which my consciousness might always be permitted/forced to awaken from sleep, or must/might my life eventually be extinguished forever? B) Between the periods of sleep, what constitutes and shapes who “I am”?

3) In my experience, most people place the highest priority on question “A”: Can/must the personal identity survive indefinitely? Some people want their personal identities to persevere forever (e.g. perhaps going to heaven, or perhaps cryogenically freezing their brains in hopes of eventually becoming uploaded to new computerized bodies), while others find hope in the concept of eventually extinguishing their personal identities (e.g. escaping the cycle of Samsara and attaining Nirvana). In my opinion, this question is quite boring, though. You don’t get much say in the matter, and if you do, your only influence over the matter is by answering question “B”.

4) We know a lot about question “B”, and we know that memory has a huge role to play. This side of the silent land, who you are is largely a function of your experiences and how you remember and interpret those experiences. Who you are is determined by (to use Rossetti’s metaphors) the people who held your hand, the people who told you of the future they’d plann’d, and the times you’d half turned to go, yet turning stayed. Regardless of how you answer question “A”, it’s how you answer question “B” that determines who you are when you cross the boundary into the silent land.

5) Based on the conclusions of #3 and #4, I think it is a mistake to focus on question “A”. However, some might protest that question “A” is the question of paramount importance, because they imagine that a specific answer to question “A” (e.g. uploading your brain to an immortal machine; or conversely, a perpetual transmigration of souls) would render irrelevant any concept of a transition to the “silent land”. In other words, they imagine that if they are immortal, then they always have the chance to reverse whatever course they are on and move their identities in a positive direction. This seems intuitively plausible, since we wake up fresh each morning and can choose each day to move our lives in a positive or a negative direction. To such people, it is absurdly arbitrary to posit a day when you awake and “it will be late to counsel then”. However, I find this argument to be likewise boring. Regardless of whether you wish for the singularity and whole-consciousness uploads, eternal transmigration of souls, or simply hope for life extension that allows you 10,000 years of new days rather than 100 — it is probably wishful thinking to assume that no persons will be trapped in local minima. If the answer to question “A” wants to render question “B” inferior, a lot of work needs to be done, and nobody has done that work.

6) While some questions are more interesting than others; all of these questions are relatively boring to me, and seem to be fueled by wishful thinking and narcissism. The more unique and interesting question is that posed by Rossetti’s second transition. Regardless of the mechanism of personal identity, let us assume that some persons get stuck in local minima or maxima and cannot budge their identities from a sticking point. Is this the end of the story? Or is there another factor in play? Once the person has been sucked into the stable state, can a moment of forgetfulness change the state? And whose forgetfulness, and whose state?

I don’t intend to explore that question here. Books could be written about question #6 alone. Books have been written about each of the other questions, too. My purpose here was just to explain the way I frame these issues in my mind, and where I see the most interesting puzzles to be.

Turbulent Waters

In this video clip, Benoit Mandelbrot explains how Kolmogorov inspired his works on fluid turbulence, published in the years immediately before he coined the term “fractal”.

I had the pleasure of seeing Mandelbrot in person when he visited Microsoft, and he described his lifelong fascination with things chaotic. One of the great accomplishments of complexity theory is that it proscribes some mathematical limits on how deep or how far we can understand certain otherwise deterministic phenomena. Robert Frost wrote, in his poem “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”:

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Dylan Thomas

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

From “In My Craft or Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas.

Or try:

Fear not the waking world, my mortal,
Fear not the flat, synthetic blood,
Nor the heart in the ribbing metal.
Fear not the tread, the seeded milling,
The trigger and scythe, the bridal blade,
Nor the flint in the lover’s mauling.

From “All All and All the Dry Worlds Lever“.

Only The Moon Answers

This is from my copy of LeRoi Jones’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”. All apparent spelling errors and unmatched parenthesis are deliberate. This is a perfect transliteration, and is meant to be exactly as you see it.

~

(For Kellie Jones, born 16 May 1959)

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands

~

THE DEATH OF NICK CHARLES

… And how much of this
do you understand? I hide
my face, my voice twisted
in the heavy winter fog. If I
came to you, left this wet island
& came to you; now, when I am young,
& have strength in my fingers. To say,
I love you, & cannot even recognize
you. How much of me
could you understand? (Only
that I love colour, motion, thin high air
at night? The recognizable parts
of yourself?

We love only heroes. Glorious
death in battle. Scaling walls,
burning bridges behind us, destroying
all ways back. All retreat. As if
some things were fixed. As if the moon
would come to us each night (&
we could watch
from the battlements). As if
there were anything certain
or lovely
in our lives.

Sad
long
motion of air
pushing in my face. Lies,
weakness, hatred
of myself. Of you
for not understanding
this. Or not
despising me
for the right causes. I am
sick as, OH,
the night is. As
cold days are,
when we must watch them
grow old
& dark.

2

I am thinking
of a dance. One I could
invent, if there
were music. If you
would play for me, some
light music. Couperin
with yellow hillsides. Ravel
as I kiss your hair. Lotions
of Debussy.
I am moved by what? Angered at its whine;
the quiet delicacy of my sadness. The elements.
My face torn by wind, faces, desire, lovely chinese ladies
sweeping the sidewalks. (And this is not
what I mean. Not the thing I wanted for you. Not, finally.
Music, only terror at this lightly scribbled day.

Emotion. Words.
Waste. No clear delight.
No light under my fingers. The room, The
walls, silent & deadly. Not
Music.

If there were
a dance. For us
to make; your fingers
on my face, your face wet
with tears (or silence. For us
to form upon this heavy air. Tearing
the silence, hurting the darkness
with the colour of our movement! Nakedness?
Great leaps
into the air? Huge pirouette; the moon blurred
on ancient lakes. Thin horns
and laughter.

3

Can you hear this? Do you know
who speaks to you? Do you
know me? (Not even
your lover. Afraid of you, your sudden
disorder. Your ringless
hands. Your hair
disguised. Your voice
not even real. Or
beautiful.

(What we had
I cannot even say. Something
like loathing
covers your words.

4

It grows dark
around you. And these words
are not music. They make no motions
for a dance. (Standing awkwardly
before the window, watching
the moon. The ragged smoke
lifting against
grey sheaths
of night.
You shimmer like words
I barely hear. Your face
twisted into words. “Love, Oh,
Love me.” The window facing night, & always
when we cannot speak.

What shapes stream through the glass?
Only shadows
on the wall. Under
my fingers, trailing me
with a sound like
glass on slate. You cry out
in the night,
& only the moon
answers.

5

The house sits
between red buildings. And a bell
rocks against the night air. The moon
sits over the North river, underneath
a blue bridge. Boats & old men
move through the darkness. Needing
no eyes. Moving slowly
towards the long black line
of horizon. Footfalls, the
twisting dirty surf. Sea birds
scalding the blackness.

I sit inside alone, without
thoughts. I cannot lie
& say I think of you. I merely sit
& grow weary, not even watching
the sky lighten with morning.

& now
I am sleeping
& you will not be able
to wake me.

Atheists are Cheats and Liars

Robin Hanson shares the results of a new survey showing that people distrust atheists, while they don’t distrust other groups which are often targets of discrimination (such as teh gays). Then, he shares experimental evidence showing that atheists are, indeed, more likely to cheat and lie.

I am utterly shocked by the results. The paper suggests that people mistrust atheists (and atheists cheat) because the atheists do not fear God’s judgment. But I doubt that this is the case.

My theory is that people mistrust atheists because [they believe] atheists are too naive and simple-minded. The world is built on hypocrisy and deception, and you want leaders and colleagues who are expert at lying when necessary, and who tell the truth at just the right time. Fighting against a being you believe to be imaginary, while most of the people who profess belief in that being do not even follow any of that being’s commands, is evidence of poor judgment. It’s evidence of a person who doesn’t know how to pick his battles.

This, I believe, is consistent with the evidence showing that atheists actually cheat more. In the studies, the cheating was always a very simple-minded sort of cheating. It’s the sort of cheating you would expect from someone who is bad at picking his battles. My theory should be easy enough to test empirically. For example, you could see if people prefer religious folks in jobs that require subtle duplicity, such as politics and diplomacy. I think the answer would be “no”. And you could test to see if atheists cheat more frequently in more sophisticated scenarios where hypocrisy is an advantage. Again, I suspect the answer is “no”.

Walpurgis Nacht

One of my favorite passages in all of literature is from Faust:

Das ist die Welt;
Sie steigt und fällt
Und rollt beständig;
Sie klingt wie Glas-
Wie bald bricht das!
Ist hohl inwendig.
Hier glänzt sie sehr,
Und hier noch mehr:
“Ich bin lebendig!”
Mein lieber Sohn,
Halt dich davon!
Du mußt sterben!
Sie ist von Ton,
Es gibt Scherben

It is spoken by the alpha ape in the witches’ kitchen, and means roughly:

The world is a ball;
See it tossed and rolled,
See it rise and fall;
It rings like glass!
See it break, alas!
‘Tis hollow, and resteth never.
How bright the sphere,
Still brighter here!
Now living am I!
Dear son, beware!
Nor venture there!
Thou too must die!
It is of clay;
‘Twill crumble away;
There fragments lie.

For much of my life, I’ve treasured the image of a leering man-ape proclaiming the world to be a ball of glass, just before it breaks. Because I always knew that this would happen. The image of a glass globe is modern, while the image of life disintegrating into fragments of clay is ancient. Men and apes. Goethe is genius.

Today, the unthinkable happened. A German bond auction failed. And we only just learned that the doom is global; this will be worse than the 2008 collapse. It’s simultaneously terrible and beautiful.

Schopenhauer in love

Schopenhauer famously argued that the fundamental reality of the universe is Will (with a capital W), and that our individual wills are just phenomena of this Will. He was a major influence on Nietzsche, and appeals to people who are fascinated by power, such as people who engage in S&M, cocaine addicts, and politicians.

Schopenhauer’s view is exactly inverted, though. The fundamental reality of the universe is Love, and its reflection is Praise.

It was this inversion of reality, in fact, which cost Schopenhauer his friendship with Goethe. Goethe was a regular visitor to Schopenhauer’s mother’s house, and the two became friends and collaborators when Schopenhauer became an adult. But when Schopenhauer stubbornly clung to his belief that Will is the noumenon, they parted ways. Goethe is reported to have written in Schopenhauer’s notebook, “If you want to enjoy your own worth, you have to give the world some as well”. Of course, if someone is blind to the nature of Love, it doesn’t do any good to rub it in his face, and appealing to utilitarian motives doesn’t help. But I’m convinced that Goethe was genuinely worried about his friend and was frustrated that he couldn’t give him sight.

To Schopenhauer, love was just a mechanism. In his essays on love, he cited Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” approvingly, claiming that Goethe has admirably used the suffering of love to produce knowledge. Of course, this “compliment” was passive-aggressive, since Goethe would be the last person in the world to endorse using love as a tool of the will, and Schopenhauer knew it.

Schopenhauer’s inversion of love presages Aliester Crowley’s famous maxim, “Love is the law, love under will”. Crowley was once mentored by Yeats, and they parted ways for essentially the same reason that Goethe and Schopenhauer parted ways. Like Nietzsche, Crowley was not exactly original.

Marginalia

I recently read “The Quantum Thief“, by Hannu Rajaniemi, based on the recommendation of a friend. It was truly delightful. In just the first chapter, the author adapts ideas from at least 5 projects from the Santa Fe Institute, and there are references to cutting edge math, science, economics and philosophy topics on almost every page. The references are not gratuitous, either; Rajaniemi imaginatively extends the concepts in ways that I’ve sometimes thought of when reading on the topics, and has a number of creative spins that were completely new to me.

Many of the technical references will be lost on most readers, since the book doesn’t have footnotes, and not everyone is obsessed with complexity theory and deception. But it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless. Even his treatment of the romantic relationships in the story was more rich and layered than the typical sci-fi, suggesting that the author has lived some life.

I read the book on my Kindle, highlighting passages that were particularly thought-provoking and adding notes. The Kindle has a feature that shows you passages that a large number of other users have highlighted. My suspicions about the book being above most readers’ heads were strengthened when I saw the passage in the book that has received the most highlights so far. The passage is “Hell is where all the interesting people are”, spoken by the protagonist in a Han Solo moment.

I was flabbergasted. Now, when someone tells me that he loved the book, I’ll be wondering “Are you one of the people who thought that ‘Hell is where all the interesting people are’ is the most profound line?”. It’s mildly clever, but has been better said by Friedrich Nietszche, Oscar Wilde, and many poets and songwriters since. Apparently the set of people who read “The Quantum Thief” on Kindle do not intersect with the set of people who are well-read. The other popular highlights were equally depressing; making me suspect that many people read the book purely to signal affiliation with a specific subculture.

I wonder if Rajaniemi is depressed when he sees which parts of his story appeal to the reader. The book is full of brilliantly quotable lines and meaty topics that could engage further discussion. It has got to be depressing to put so much work into such an imaginatively constructed set of problems and have people latch onto trite ancillary phrases.

It seems that Bill Vallicella often encounters the same. The few times that I’ve read second-hand academic books, I’ve found myself agitatedly wishing I could track down the previous owner to explain how he completely missed the point in a marginal note. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like second-hand books, and I’m afraid that Amazon’s “shared highlights” suffers from the same defect.

Occupy

I can’t claim to be the 99%. I have done very well since America’s mortgage crisis ignited the world. But I support the Occupy movement. If the global situation were as it is today, back when I was entering the work force, I would have been burning things down. An entire generation has been robbed of a future while another cohort has been tossed into a ditch, and I’m surprised that the unrest didn’t start sooner, and that it has been as civil as it’s been. The leaders on both sides of the aisle are inept clowns, and I don’t see how things will get better without the young people tearing the whole system down and starting over.

The Occupy movement is just the latest scene in a play that has been unfolding for many years. As a result of being raised around “left behind” dispensationalists, survivalists, and spooks, I’ve always had a keen interest in the end of the world. I first became aware of the unfolding story sometime around 1992, when I read George Soros’s “Financial Alchemy”. Almost as an afterthought near the end of the book, Soros shared some perplexing data about an historic shift in the structure of global capital flows. It didn’t fit well with the rest of the book, and he didn’t really expound too much on it, but it made a huge impact on me. It was as if Israel had finally rebuilt a temple in Jerusalem, and nobody was talking about it. I was convinced that the world was going to catch fire at any moment, and I started learning everything I could.

Not long after, I worked for one of the companies profiled in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. Among other things, I built some economic models used to make policy decisions about public works projects and military projects in the U.S. and a few other countries. A few times, we found huge errors in the models after the policy decisions had already been made, and I learned that the model was often mere justification for a decision that was pre-ordained. Although I was devotee of Ayn Rand, I was also a pragmatist. I knew that the economic order was going to collapse, and I liked the idea that the impending global collapse would be backstopped by Western diplomatic and military power.

Later, George Soros raped Southeast Asia and Russia, and I became especially interested in his criticisms of free market “religion”. I couldn’t figure out if he was just posturing so that he could wash his hands of financial engineering’s crimes before the collapse, or if Ayn Rand’s philosophy was truly bankrupt. Then the Internet bubble started to inflate, and we were surrounded by libertarian cheerleaders and irrational exuberance. Every now and then, something would almost persuade me that the conventional wisdom about a bright tomorrow was true, and that I should leverage up to ensure the future. But I kept going back to the data on international capital flows, and it just didn’t add up. There was a tsunami coming, and the Internet bubble was a sideshow.

The first crash was a good start, but seemed tiny in the grand scheme. When 9/11 happened, I saw the subsequent militarization as an opportunistic (and wise, I thought) pretext on the part of Western powers to revert to diplomatic and military projection of power before our financial engineering weapons were spent. To my naive mind, the militarization seemed very proactive.

But things weren’t over yet. Chinese mercantilism inflated the mother of all bubbles in the West, and the good times rolled on.
My visibility into the system had improved over the years, and my friends and colleagues were all more established as well. Everyone knew how the movie was going to end this time. About 18 months before the collapse, I was having drinks with some officials from a couple of the world’s largest banks, and the topic turned to the mortgage situation. The consensus around the table was that the collapse was overdue, and would take out hundreds of banks. In hindsight, they identified the banks that would fail with surprising accuracy. I explained that I had been trying to convince my wife to sell the house and rent for a couple of years, so that we could buy back the house with cash at a large profit after the collapse. My comrades heartily endorsed the plan and offered to help persuade my wife. She ultimately refused, but my calculations of the net profit turned out to be fairly accurate (and the loss of equity in the house was ultimately offset by other gains).

A month or two ahead of the collapse, it became obvious that this was going to involve a lot more than mortgages. I was able to pull out of the markets before the collapse started. I had read Nassim Taleb’s scathing criticisms of Bear Stearns, so their collapse wasn’t a surprise to me, but it took a long time to sort out the rest of the contagion. I had already lost all faith in the authorities after Katrina hit; I’ve now learned to believe especially what is officially denied: Europe’s disintegration is even less surprising than the mortgage collapse was, and a slowdown in China followed by (or coinciding with) a sovereign debt crisis in the U.S. seem like very safe bets.

To be clear, everyone I know is richer than me, I’ve been wiped out completely in the past, and I fully expect to blow up again sometime in the not too distant future. And the point isn’t to applaud my foresight; I had very little visibility compared to many others. The point is that we all knew what was going to happen. The people who have profited relative to the 99% (or relative to the 99.9%, as Paul Krugman valiantly tries to establish in true Billy Goat Gruff fashion), knew what was happening. And the officials and talking heads continue to lie about it and spread misinformation. We are living in an increasingly interconnected world, and increased network effects mean increased information asymmetry, power law distributions, and winner take all effects.

Both left-wing and right-wing media continue to get Occupy completely wrong, but that was to be expected. As things get worse, and as the politicians continue to try to either demonize or co-opt the movement, we see who the ringers are. And we’re only going to learn that they’re all ringers. Jim Quinn puts it this way:

Over the last six weeks I’ve watched as the young protestors around the country have been called: filthy hippies, losers, lazy, coddled, socialists, communists, spoiled college kids, parasites, useful idiots, and tools of the left. Most of the wrath being heaped upon these young people for exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and freedom of assembly has been from the Baby Boom Generation, who are at the peak of their power in our society.

The disdain and contempt for these Millenial protestors flies in the face of the facts about this generation. They use drugs at a lower rate than their parents did at the same age. Teen crime rates and teen pregnancies have declined. They will have the highest level of college education in U.S. history. They were protected during their youth as organized sports taught them teamwork. They are the most technologically savvy generation in history. They volunteer at higher level than previous generations. They have been more upbeat and engaged than their predecessors (Gen X). And they are much closer to their parents than Boomers were at the same age. They reject the negativism and cynicism of their parents and believe positive change is possible in our society. They have shown respect for authority up until the last six weeks. They were primed to be led by Boomers that could articulate a positive vision of the future based on reality and a better tomorrow. They were ready to make sacrifices in order to create a brighter future. But a funny thing happened. The Boomer generation failed to deliver on their part of the bargain.

I don’t expect the Occupy movement to continue as just a protest movement. It will adapt, splinter, and morph. But overall social unrest will continue to grow. I believe that this is just the beginning, and that things will get much worse. Most of the protesters are directing their rage at the wrong targets, and most of them are economically illiterate. Many of the victories they win will just make things worse. But that, also, is to be expected. How could we expect the unemployed and misinformed masses to have a clear picture of the situation, when the elite have been profiting from the ignorance of the masses? I think it’s too late to raise up the disposessed in an orderly manner, and the revolution will proceed like all revolutions must. Messy and painful. But how else will we move forward?

It’s interesting to note that GK Chesterton, writing just before World War I tore Europe apart, observed many of the same imbalances and problems that we see today. An economy increasingly controlled by the oligarchs, with much of society left behind with no future. His thoughts about the French revolution are interesting for today.

Bang & Bach

When I bought my new car, my only two requirements were that it have good merging power and a great stereo system. I want to hear all of the details when listening to Dopplereffekt, Dieselboy, or Dylan Drazen. I ended up going with the Bang & Olufsen system, and it’s exactly what I wanted. One thing I wasn’t prepared for, though, was Bach. I have about 200 Bach recordings out of 4,000 songs in rotation on my iPod, and whenever Bach comes into rotation, I’m captivated. I’ve been driving the car for a bit more than a month now, and the effect is still the same. No other music compares; I have plenty of Mozart and Beethoven, but it just doesn’t sound the same. It’s like switching from a black and white video to full color; the details are so crisp and vivid. I’ve never experienced Bach like this; it’s as if he wrote his music specifically for B&O.