Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

Don’t let me sit on the sidelines.

Never let me watch others make the world go round.

Never let me watch others dance the night away.

Never let me see the band play on without me.

Never let me… wait for others to suck it all in.

This is all there is.

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i finished a book. it’s not clear to if i liked it. sparse, existensial, left hanging.

point omega. a novella set in the desert in the recent past.

characters searching for slowness and vastness…. zen…. the moment, a moment. an author searching for a moment. 100 pages that seem like 300 because all the talk of vastness. or maybe it was the music pouring from headphones or the vastness of the ground 5 miles below my rightside 757 window.

read the book. we wont share the same experience. it’s a weirld empty vessel ready for your filling. might have been the author’s point… or his side effect.

and so it is with everything else. an existence of disconnects. these disconnects arent bad they just exist. we all have private experiences. you cannot know me. i may not be able to know me. we know facts and ocassionally find a narrative to group the facts. facts = events. things interact. self awarenes is the exhaust, the by product of our nueral narrative.

im writing this on a droid phone. it is a terrible writing instrument in general. however on a plane it provides a compact canvas with no digital distractions. i am not using a word processor with all its algorithmic fixes and helpers. it is refreshing to me to be able to screw it all up and not have technology try to make it all right.

messy technology is my favorite. technology that tries to be too coherent, too slick, too well design fights against the disconnects i write about above. it elimimates the magic of accidents… happening into a different way of doing it, a nifty new view a mistaken stroke that changes the course of a project, business, country or life.

this is how i write software. i cut, paste, try something, try something else, fix, start over, change editors, change monitors. i start with the smallest, sparsest description of a project and dance. i like people to play with software and media early. not so they can see if it fits the spec but so they can grow along with the software. this is the only way to turn wide disconnects between users and end products into the necessary, and fragile, into bridges of usuability. software should be a vessel that the user can bring their unique experience too and the software can dance with the user.

i do not love the iphone. it forces me to waltz when i want to hip hop or stomp or jazz. as a user amd a developer conformity is a requirement. conformity doesnt increase knowledge or enjoyment. it increases habit and eliminates accidents.

this is also why i despise collaborative filtering aka recommendation algorithms. these always tend towards everyone seeing the same things. a bookstore or a library or music store is still a womderful experience because things are not organized by what you might like…. alphabetical or front tables or genres with spines, cases to catch your eye is a great way to run into a different thing. we see the same movies, read the same books, use same phone, have the same views and yet its all false because really, as i said, were all very different. why not celebrate and fully experience that reality in everything we do? doing and buying the same thing wont make us satisfied or generate understanding. its just boring and reduces experience.

and thats all we get is experience. this waking string of 28000 days. experience what the senses send in. i want more of that….soak it all up. i dont want less experience in exchange for less discomfort or ease of use or a common experience. those are false chasings…. unachievable and entirely boring.

i didnt like the book. i did enjoy the experience. read it or dont… but do tell me about what you do read.

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Ron Currie Jr delivers a really fun, clever read in Everything Matters! The book cover sells the book as more of comedy than than the sci fi/philosophy/absurdist mystery it is.  The essential question of the book – does anything we do matter?

The premise is set up with the unavoidable apocalypse that only the main character, Junior, knows about.  He has always known when humanity will end.  The book covers how Junior navigates life – from birth to the apocalypse – knowing that it will all be over and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  In the end, Junior is left with a choice… hide his knowledge from everyone and live with this lonely knowledge or reveal his secret and suffer a different set consequences.

Currie uses a variety of viewpoints and literary devices to give the story context and arc.  I particularly liked the subtle countdown, sort of a reverse page numbering used when the omniscient narrator/being giving Junior his knowledge talks.  It leaves you with a sense of “uh oh” i know this is going to end… which is part of the point of the story.  We know the ending and we know exactly when it ends and the countdown gives the reader the sense of just how far we’ll get into the characters lives before it all ends… and the dread was real for me.

The prose moves your brain right along.  Reading it in one longish sitting is possible and fun.  Currie develops the main character reasonably well.  The secondary characters aren’t always developed much further than some basic behavior patterns.  The book does move along a large time horizon though – making character vignettes rather difficult.

Generally a good reading experience… so…. do we get anywhere with the big question: does it all matter?

No. I didn’t.  And I didn’t expect to.  Does it all matter is a personal question.  I presume the answers I get from this book are the personal perspectives of the author.  Ultimately it is an optimistic view that family, love, connection matters – even at the expense of intellectual honesty.  Ah, isn’t that a secondary big question?!  Is it “better” to keep certain facades intact to make life bearable/enjoyable versus really chasing and embracing truth, no matter its ugly consequences?

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I completed my Elegance of the Hedgehog experience.  Indeed, this is a heartbreaking story.  It’s more than your average outcast meets cool stranger finds redemption.

The story asks the big question: does life have any meaning?

The book does the only thing you can do with that question… contextualize it, swirl it around, test it.  Ultimately it remains non-answered with a tilt towards “just when you think life does have meaning something happens to make you question it.”

This is book is loaded.

* All humans carry mystical bagage (fate!, rights!, free will!, God’s way!, rain god!)
* Western society romances the truth for children (where there’s a will, there’s a way!)
* Humans do what the environment shapes them to do (social circles, castes, roles in life, culture, family)
* Changing course requires changing the environment (circle of friends, physical change…)
* Beauty is…really hard to define
* Being lonely sucks but false relationships might suck worse
* Intelligence is not an end in itself, it is a biological tool to help us survive

About that last bullet point this passage from page 165-167 haunts me.  And, yes, it’s personal.

“Fascination with intelligence is in itself fascinating, but I don’t think it’s a value in itself. There are tons of intelligent people out there and there are a lot of retards, too.  I’m going to say something really banal but intelligence, in itself, is neither valuable nor interesting.  Very intelligent people have devoted their lives to the question of the sex of angels, for example.  But many intelligent people have a sort of bug: they think intelligence is an end in itself.  They have one idea in mind: to be intelligent, which is really stupid. And when intelligence takes itself for its own goal, it operates very strangley: the proof that it exists is not to be found in the ingenuity or simplicity of what it produces, but in how obscurely it is expressed… It is not a sacred gift, it is a primate’s only weapon.”

Ouch.  This is what I mean about this book non-answering the big questions.  The author drives a stake through intelligence as a good to possess and recasts it as the simple tool it is. AND… here we are reading a philosophical book with poetic characters that wax about the meaning of life and profound thoughts!

So… is it just a biological weapon? and if so, how is this book a wielding of that weapon?

This is a trickier question than it might seem regardless of your take on the matter.

And on that note… I’m going to a giant book festival now to wield my weapon and probably keep this pathological search for meaning going for another day. and maybe that’s just it.  if I stopped looking for or ceased creating meaning, how would I survive?

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Consider that Ernest Jones, the colleague and biographer of Sigmund Freud has said that science has dealt three heavy blows to mankind’s self-love (narcissism; separation above and from other animals) above all else. One was the cosmological and it was dealt by Copernicus; the second was biological and it was dealt by Darwin; the third was psychological…and struck at the belief that something internal to man…called ‘will power’ dictates one’s behavior.

What causes man to behave as he does if it isn’t the ‘will power’, credit, blame and other properties of the autonomous man?

(No, this is not a trick question.)

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Make no mistake. 

These things were not said in this fashion and were not said in this manner in an interview between Mind Matters editor, Jonah Lehrer and neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni in American Scientist magazine.


What you have here is a reinterpretation of the article as it appeared in American Scientist magazine – with my edits and additions.  Deletions do not show up because they don’t make for a cogent flow of the main idea that I noted in 2006 when this research broke…


[or…] = Square parentheses are all JHB’s

So, here goes…


Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni discusses mirror neurons, autism and the potentially damaging effects of violent movies.

Mind Matters –  July 1, 2008

Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is best known for his work on mirror neurons, a small circuit of cells in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex. What makes these cells so interesting is that they are activated both when we perform a certain action—such as smiling or reaching for a cup—and when we observe someone else performing that same action. In other words, they collapse the distinction between seeing and doing. In recent years, Iacoboni has shown that mirror neurons may be an important element of social cognition and that defects in the mirror neuron system may underlie a variety of mental disorders, such as autism. His new book, Mirroring People: The Science of How We Connect to Others, explores these possibilities at length. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Iacoboni about his research.

LEHRER: What first got you interested in mirror neurons? Did you immediately grasp their explanatory potential?


I actually became interested in mirror neurons gradually. [Neuroscientist] Giacomo Rizzolatti and his group [at the University of Parma in Italy] approached us at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center because they wanted to expand the research on mirror neurons using brain imaging in humans. I thought that mirror neurons were interesting, but I have to confess I was also a bit incredulous. We were at the beginnings of the science on mirror neurons. The properties of these neurons are so amazing that I seriously considered the possibility that they were experimental artifacts. In 1998 I visited Rizzolatti’s lab in Parma, I observed their experiments and findings, talked to the anatomists that were studying the anatomy of the system and I realized that the empirical findings were really solid. At that point I had the intuition that the discovery of mirror neurons was going to revolutionize the way we think about the brain and ourselves. However, it took me some years of experimentation to fully grasp the explanatory potential of mirror neurons in imitation, empathy, language, and so on—in other words in our social life.
LEHRER: Take us inside a social interaction. How might mirror neurons help us understand what someone else is thinking or feeling?

IACOBONI: What do we do when we interact? We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings. The gestures, facial expressions, body postures we make are social signals, ways of communicating with one another. Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. [One can speculate that…]

the way mirror neurons likely [operate] related to others is by providing some kind of [bridging of the relationships between some specific cues – unspecified – and sensorimotor activation where the sensory information is visual rather than muscular.   By attending to those cues] of the actions of other [organisms allows for the test organism to] “simulate” the [actions of the trainer organism.  It is presumed that with that neuromuscular activity there is a parallel emotional component or as Iacoboni refers to it] “intentions and emotions associated with those actions.” When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling [presumed to exist] fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes [whatever feelings have been conditioned to the smiling of a stranger interviewing me about an idea that not everyone could possible comprehend the way I do – smile or…] the feeling we typically associate with a smile. I don’t need to make any inference on what you are feeling, I experience immediately and effortlessly [experience my form of smile that’s related to my neurons through conditioning or through parallel imitation of a different set of mirror neurons] (in a milder form, of course) [that is presumed to be like] what you are experiencing.
LEHRER: In 2006 your lab published a paper in Nature Neuroscience

linking a mirror neuron dysfunction to autism. How might reduced mirror neuron activity explain the symptoms of autism? And has there been any progress on this front since 2006?
IACOBONI: Patients with autism have hard time understanding the mental states of other people; [they also have a hard time with language and eye gaze and eye-hand coordination to mention a few other deficits;] this is why [one reason at least] social interactions are not easy for these patients. Reduced mirror neuron activity obviously weakens [lowers, reduces, impairs, inhibits, gates, blocks, etc. ] the ability of these patients to experience immediately and effortlessly what other people are experiencing, [these connections between the things going on in the environment and their uptake of what’s going on in the environment] thus making social interactions particularly difficult for these patients.


[Alternatively, the lack of the mirror neurons reduces the initial conditions or blocks the secondary conditioning that some imply exists in the actions of motor behavior and internal emotions related to that motor behavior.  These two or twenty things don’t get paired mysteriously in autistic people.  They get paired and strengthened by many pairings over time in non-autistic people.  Those pairings fit a learning paradigm of conditioning and, lacking that conditioning over time, may be the deficit that we observe in the autistic people.] Patients with autism have also often motor problems and language problems. It turns out that a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle explain also these other major symptoms [as outlined above as learning paradigms]. The motor deficits in autism [are involved] because mirror neurons are special types of premotor neurons, brain cells essential for planning and selecting actions. It has been also hypothesized that mirror neurons may be important in language evolution and language acquisition. [While people that have hearing loss at very early age show some similar speech deficits as found in some autistic people, it can be corrected by speech therapy at a later date if the loss is corrected.  It will be interesting to see if, with the ignition of related speech mirror neurons, the speech deficits of autistic people can be repaired or if there is some ‘critical period’ in development that is needed for speech development to proceed optimally.] Indeed, a human brain area that likely contains mirror neurons overlaps with a major language area, the so-called Broca’s area. Thus, a deficit in mirror neurons can in principle account for [involvement in]

three major symptoms of autism; the social, motor and language problems.
LEHRER: If we’re wired to automatically internalize the movements and mental states of others [wooo Nelly… that is a hypothetical construct that gets headlines but has not been demonstrated since ‘mental’ states are impossible to define across indiviuals and empirically…  Ok, point taken, but given it is just one-for-one as empirically demonstrated,.. ]

then what does this suggest about violent movies, television programs, video games, etcetera? Should we be more careful about what we watch?

IACOBONI: I believe we should be more careful about what we watch. This is a tricky argument; of course, because it forces us to reconsider our long cherished ideas about free will and may potentially have repercussions on free speech. There is convincing behavioral evidence linking media violence with imitative violence. Mirror neurons provide a plausible neurobiological mechanism that explains why being exposed to media violence leads to imitative violence. What should we do about it? Although it is obviously hard to have a clear and definitive answer, it is important to openly discuss this issue and hopefully reach some kind of “societal agreement” on how to limit media violence without limiting (too much) free speech. [Otherwise, we’ll have to deal with the consequences that exist and humans have excelled at doing for millions of years.]

LEHRER: Are you worried about mirror neurons getting over-sold or over-hyped?

IACOBONI: I am a bit concerned about that. The good news is, the excitement about mirror neurons reveals that people have an intuitive understanding of how neural mechanism for mirroring work. [Yes, it also reveals that we are in new areas here and that perhaps a new form of conditioning has been uncovered that makes sense biologically, environmentally and genetically.  Will it evolve and will it shed light on other things we don’t like to deal with like free will, conditioning, determinism, causality, and responsibility?  Yes, it may but that is not the primary concern of science for many scientists.  The primary concern is to find out “how things work out there.”] When told about this research, they can finally articulate what they already “knew” at some sort of pre-reflective level. However, the hype can backfire and mirror neurons may lose their specificity. I think there are two key points to keep in mind. The first one is the one we started with: mirror neurons are brain cells specialized for actions. They are obviously critical cells for social interactions but they can’t explain non-social cognition. The second point to keep in mind is that every brain cell and every neural system does not operate in a vacuum. Everything in the brain is interconnected, so that the activity of each cell reflects the dynamic interactions with other brain cells and other neural systems.


The original interview can be found @:





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