Monday, October 30, 2017

Signal and Noise


In the interlude between when I threw in the towel on grad school and when I began working full-time at Boeing I had time to slow down and spend time on things I'd previously ignored. One of these things was reading and watching the books and movies people had recommended to me over the years. Musing on Watchmen and other bits of philosophy of mind, this was the result:

While he’s being psychologically evaluated near the center of Watchmen’s story arc, Rorschach has this to say about patterns and meaning:

“Existence is random. It has no pattern save what we imagine after looking at it for too long.”

The quote is effective at establishing Rorschach as the avatar of existentialism in Watchmen and an absurdist hero in his own mind, but is ineffective at being an accurate observation about perception and reality. The subtlest of glances yields patterns and signals across all our senses. We see flickers of light in the dark and imagine things going bump in the night. We listen to chatter in a noisy hallway and are convinced we hear someone shouting our name in a break in the noise.

The data being taken in through our senses are so noisy and corrupted that the only way to ever piece together a coherent picture of the outside world is by building a parallel world of pattern and causation, quickly, in the conscious mind. Stare at one place too long, or repeat a word too often, and weirdness and meaninglessness ensue. We best understand patterns in short, sharp glances; they seem to decay rapidly with age.


Of course, what Rorschach was getting at was a claim that there isn’t really an underlying pattern in the interactions we observe in the universe around us. Such pattern and meaning is either there or it isn’t. Our intuitions have no bearing on its existence. But the idea that more observation leads to more delusions is wrongheaded. Data break the fever of delusion, and while they pose a challenge for interpretation, that job is a real and not an imagined one. We’re embedded in a pattern that’s real. The unknown questions are how intricate and knowable the pattern is. So far, the smart money’s always been on assuming intricacy over knowability.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Fragment on Gender and Knowability


At the time I wrote this I was unfamiliar with Pablo Neruda's line "I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees." Had I known it, I probably would've worked this in somewhere in the below. In which I muse on gender and epistemology, inspired by Norman Mailer's book on missing the point of the Apollo program, Of a Fire on the Moon:

Men say that women are unknowable because they want the world to work that way. They want women to have an aura of otherworldliness around them; they want the actions and sensations and desires of women to be a mystery. When men complain about not understanding women it’s either out of habit or an expression of this wish that femininity be a magical property of humanity always just beyond understanding.

Were the opposite to be true, were the distinction between manhood and womanhood to be nothing more than semantics and tradition, a certain vibrancy would be missing from the world. Men need to be able to empathize with women, to be able to communicate with them, and understand their world, but want to maintain a playful aloofness between the sexes. The sights and smells and touches of femaleness need to seem a little alien to keep the pleasant male perception of otherness alive. We like it that way. Don’t change, we tell the girls.

This quote by Norman Mailer is bullshit, for example:

“…Aquarius had long built his philosophical world on the firm conviction that nothing was finally knowable (an exact recompense to having spent his formative years and young manhood in searching for the true nature of women)…”

Maybe he’s just being cheeky, but the pretentiousness of his writing suggests otherwise. How in the world can the nature of womanhood be the greatest mystery to man? You want unknowable mystery? Look at religion. Quantum physics. Cosmology. Dark matter. Metaphysics. Morality. Consciousness. The sex of humanity opposite your own shouldn’t be anywhere near so baffling. I don’t believe that it is. This all implies willful self-deceit to me.


What, then, is a healthy way to look at masculinity and femininity as they relate to humanity? I think the wonder and sense of mystery reflect something real, but so does the empathy. I’m attracted to women because I see something exotic and skew and different from me, but also somewhere I can call home. To embrace the feminine and come to know her, for me, is like an avatar of growing up. As I set aside childish things for the greater world of adulthood, so do I wish to know woman. Maybe it’s the other way around. I just know that I crave intimacy with the feminine shade of humanity, and to call her home.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Discursive Thoughts in an Emergency


In the late summer of 2012 I decided not to return to complete my MS course of study in grad school. In part I was motivated by running out of funding, but I had been unhappy there from the start. It was a good change. Still, it was a traumatic decision to make. I wish things had turned out differently. Here's part of my thinking leading up to the decision:

I don’t think there’s any money for grad school. You thought there would be money and there isn’t. Boeing wants to hire you. They’ll be flexible and move the date up if you ask.

You need to stop being so damned anxious. Please stop this now. Relax. You’re anxious and you’re sad and you’re nervous and you’re angry. You don’t want to feel aphasia, and you don’t right now, which is good.

Fellowships take time to apply for. You need to register, fill out the applications, submit them, and wait on selection. The tuition bill will be due in a matter of weeks, there’s no time for this. Had you known to apply earlier, you would’ve. You were told not to .

You could jump ship again and go to a new prof like Dr. K. That sounds awful. Who knows what you’d be doing? You know nothing about what the new prof will be like to work for. There’s no guarantee they’ll fund you, anyway.

Working at Boeing early means you’ll start around January. You become eligible for grad school funding from Boeing in time for fall quarter. You’re not quite halfway to a non-thesis masters. You don’t want to throw good time after bad. Maybe it’s time to write off 2011 as a terrible year.

You like working at Boeing. That’s true. It’s fulfilling, interesting work with a good set of co-workers. You like Seattle, too. Remember that you’re working on a finite schedule. Time runs out certainly by 2089 but possibly as soon as 2013. You are solely responsible for doing the right thing between now and then, whenever “then” is.

You’re nervous because you’re seriously contemplating doing something that flies in the face of everything you planned to do. And why not? Losing funding was a black swan event; it merits an extreme response. You’re mad that you weren’t a better judge of circumstances. Consider this an opportunity to refine your circumstance and character judgment systems. It’s a painful learning experience, the second-most effective way to learn, after knowing already.

Do you look down on people who haven’t been relentless about pursuing education? Really think about this. The answer is “no.” You still like them, you still admire them, their choices maybe just confuse you. Why are you such a harsher judge on yourself, then? This needs to stop. Now.

The PhD mania needs to stop. Your exposure to PhD-level research so far indicates that it is, without exception, a dull misuse of time. You should consider yourself fortunate for identifying this now. Why do you want to be called “Dr. Atkinson?” You have no requirement for vanity.

Moving to Seattle should be no more daunting than moving to College Station was. It’ll be a pain, but you’ll do it, and you’ll be happy to be there. This cannot be a deterrent to Boeing.

When you don’t talk to people, your mind becomes an emotional echo chamber. There is sufficient self-skepticism in you that you need to recharge in confidence from other people on a regular basis. Use built-in holds to guarantee this; you tend not to interact enough without prompting. Surround yourself with people who reinforce you in a positive way. This is not difficult, just make sure it happens.

You should be able to finish your degree in about 1.5 years. Conservatively, let’s say 2015. That’s not really so bad. Failure to complete more degrees due to family is a nonissue, since you want family more than you want degrees anyway. Also that’s not how things work. False dichotomies and such.

I’m beginning to think that my whole decision-making mechanism is broken. It’s literally not doing anything right now. I keep thinking about this issue; isn’t a decision just supposed to fall out? This isn’t happening because this isn’t a deterministic process. You need to just decide, it can’t be broken down any further. Don’t you feel a tug?


The answer, of course, is “yes.” The tug is north by northwest, toward Boeing, toward Seattle, toward Capitol Hill. Everything, almost everything, that way feels like light and sweetness and awe, and it’s all fog and drudgery and anxiety to the east, toward Texas. I feel so alive in Seattle, and so pathetic in College Station. The immediate truth is that I’d rather wake up tomorrow and go to work at Boeing than wake up in College Station and do another day of grad school.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Single Guy Reflects on Raising Children


First, the thing, which I felt compelled to write in July of 2012:
I want to have a daughter. I want to make love to a pretty woman, my wife, and I want to hold her close while our girl grows inside her. I want to look at the sonographs and press my hand on her belly while our daughter quickens in her. I’ll be terribly envious of her the whole time, of how close she gets to be to the new girl, but I’ll be too happy to care.

When she gives birth, when she’s born, I’ll see my wife and me blended, unified into a complex clip who’s not quite either of us. She’ll be a screaming, needy bundle of newness at first, in awe of everything, and I’ll fall in love immediately.

When summer comes, I want to take her to the islands, to the mountains, to the deserts. I want to show her white blood cells in a clear blue sky and nights so dark the Milky Way swirls from east to west as the satellites wander west to east. I want to take her flying and let her feel wings in her fingertips, and take her hiking till her feet march all the way up the great volcanic summits. When the rains come back, we’ll hunker down and I’ll teach her about the people and places and the ways the universe works. We’ll talk endlessly about the world around us and the worlds far away, and figure out a little more of who we are.


I want to watch her grow up, that beautiful way girls do. I want to talk to her about calculus and conjugation while her mind blossoms into the fullness of adulthood and she dips her toes into grown-up-ness for the first time. I want to see her alter, and become that form that’s the baseline of physical beauty. The book of me, and the book of my wife, will be woven together a billion times in her skin and in her blood, and I want to look at this beautiful creature and know that it’s a part of me that looks back.

That, among other things, is what I want.

Now to comment:
There are a few things going on here that seem worthy of some discussion. This was several years before I would be married and have children. Evidently this was something on my mind even back then. The fixation on having a daughter, as opposed to a child in general, says something about me. Is this a product of the male gaze going haywire, or is this some kind of pseudo-feminism, wanting to do my part so to speak to put at least one woman on equal footing with the start I got to life? Probably a little of both.

Frankly I find this embarrassing, mostly because the execution is sloppy and none of these thoughts are really complete. It's a nice idea muddled by fixation on the wrong things. I would also prefer to stick to feminism unambiguously. Hopefully I'm doing a better job of that now.

Also this is clearly a love letter to the Pacific northwest, at least in part. That's still something I haven't gotten out of my system.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Obsession Tuned to Abstraction


There is a period in my writing when I obsessively fixated on philosophy of mind, the origin of ethics, and the Catholic Church. I'm not the first person to do this, but it is unusual. It's also not particularly fashionable in this day and age, but, here you go. Here's something from July of 2012:

Writing well is better. Iterate to do this. Maybe.

Implicitly, I think we assume that our desires are more real than the world around us. That is, we have higher confidence that we want what we want and know what that is than we have confidence that there’s a cogent world that we really understand around us.

I don’t think this is warranted.

There’s no reason to assign such high confidence to our wants and cravings. We see the world go by in our senses; it’s real; it’s happening. This moment, this, is happening. I know that. But my mind is a hodgepodge of stitched-together elements and aspects, and I don’t think I can really trust myself to know what I want, especially when there’s so much I don’t know.

It’s truly remarkable how much my writing and my ponderings on this reveal about me. There are all these heuristics and algorithms and well-worn paths of thought, emotion, and mood that seem hidden until I just get things still enough that I can hear my own mind and remember what other minds are like.

I assume much less of my knowledge than most people do. When I hear someone talking, even if I have no idea if what they’re saying will be of any value to me or be important, I almost always listen in, since I’m convinced they might show me something I don’t know that I’d really like to see.

I’ve been thinking about LCD Soundsystem’s “I Can Change” a lot today, mostly after 3-ish. I’m not really sure why. Something just speaks to me in the bouncy tuney melodies there. “Love in your eyes, love in your ey-es.” So lovely. I’m quite sure I know what he’s talking about.

From day to day my perception of the world changes tremendously. I know the world doesn’t really change; it's an artifact of where my mind meets reality. Not real. But everything’s so beautiful and wonderful and alive on a good day, just like the housewife said. It’s like all the hang-ups and bugs in the system that keep us from purring along the way we’re intended to just wash away, and all that’s left is a flowing, shimmering river of rightness. Why shouldn’t the world be right? It’s happening. It’s really happening, and if it’s broken then what in the world does it mean to be well?

We can imagine a more convenient, a better, world than the one we live in. One with all the good parts and the beauty but where nobody fights or coerces each other, and where the crust never knocks cities down when it moves under our feet. We don’t live there, and it seems a shame. But isn’t the world still lovely as it is? I hear the idea that that notion is an illusion, and I understand it well enough. I can see where it comes from, but it just bounces off my inner loop of understanding and falls at my feet. That there is an inherent goodness in the world – I believe it. The world is good. I believe that.

I want to be Catholic. I know that because I can feel it in the way my emotional responses to the people around me are flavored. Learning that LeahLibresco is converting fills me with a joy and excitement that are only partly because of the novelty and surprise of her conversion. It shouldn’t have happened, but inwardly it felt so wonderful that it did. What a delight, Leah, to see you jump. Seeing a Christian in my life lose faith leaves me with nothing but a vague melancholy. “Oh, so you’re leaving, too. Bummer.” I don’t fully understand why I desire this so strongly.

There are reasons why I want to do this, right? I believe so. The rational, conscious reasons have to do with insight and morality and finding a system of ethics that’s consistent and doesn’t crash all the damn time. The picture of a universe where the relationship between people, truth, and beauty, is a fully-coupled and fully-interacting system is something I wouldn’t have thought of on my own and seems to be a better picture of reality than one without this understanding.

I think I just don’t trust myself. I should work on that.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Optimization is Difficult, Discernment More So


Sitting on a boat in Clear Lake the morning of my now-sister-in-law's wedding, somehow I felt compelled to write this mixed metaphor about optimization and the pursuit of truth:

The canonical analog for truth-finding is that it’s like multi-variable optimization. You seek the highest point by heading uphill and search until there’s nowhere higher to climb. I think this analogy is flawed. It’s flawed because we know which way is up, at least, if we’re to have any hope that we can be successful, we have to assume that. It should be easy, then, to compare the levels of different local maxima to determine which is the global max. Yet it’s not. The problem seems to be that we don’t know which way the truth axis should be oriented, so we attach to different maxima which seem more right with our personal orientation. So how do you determine which orientation is correct? I’m not quite sure. Some truths seem to jump out and assert themselves loudly and clearly, while others are highly counterintuitive and may seem downright wrong at first. It would be good to have a way to self-determine the difference between counterintuitive good ideas and bad ideas without resorting to just doing what other people say. Listening to others is okay, just do it thoughtfully. Must investigate further.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Desire to Sleep and Find Meaning While Awake


Here's something I wrote shortly after starting my internship in the Boeing structures lab:

I can’t sleep. I’m not really sure why. I was exhausted this morning. More than almost anything I just wanted to turn off the monitor, lie down somewhere soft, and close my eyes, and now that that’s what I’m supposed to do my body seems to want nothing to do with it. I can’t stand this feeling, like I’m an unwitting pilot in a vehicle sliding on ice. My mind, and my body, I mean. Shouldn’t they just agree? The tension is such a pain when they don’t.

I’m worried that my body simply won’t adjust to this new sleep schedule. The second letter in “schedule” I wrote just now came out as a “k” at first, not the “c” that it should’ve been from the start. I don’t think I used to make those kinds of mistakes, and it’s worrying me that I’m making them more often now. Maybe I’m getting better at recognizing and remembering my mistakes, but the idea that I’m screwing up simple things more often because I’m not getting enough sleep seems more plausible for some reason.

Tonight I’ve had the strangest sense of freedom. Recently it hit home that I had it completely backwards on a key life decision. I used to think that going to graduate school, reaching the highest academic level I could reach, was a good decision. I was wrong, deeply, vastly wrong, on this count.

Now that I realize that, the future is wide open in a disconcerting way. The variables are all still there, but the equations are invalid and have to be thrown out. The system is underconstrained, and it’s hard for me to make heads or tails of what’s right anymore. My future is like a blindingly bright light, and I can’t get my eyes to focus on what’s out there in the glare.

I have this gnawing feeling that I’m supposed to do something important. But what, exactly? Cancer exists, no one’s ever set foot on Mars, social security is a Ponzi scheme, and humans are cranking Earth's thermostat up in an uncontrolled fashion. I believe these are all problems, and I’d like to see them rectified. My time is limited and I have strengths and flaws and preferences that no one else has. This means that I need to get serious about priorities and putting my time to good use on a plan that makes sense. The current plan isn’t necessarily bad, it just needs to be evaluated in a fresh light.

Now I can barely keep my eyes open. Maybe I just needed to get some authentic expression across today, when I spend so much of the day donning and doffing the personas I’ve developed to get by in this new northern world. Be authentic. Be nice. Be expressive. Be honest inside and outside. Like Alice, I give myself good advice. Hopefully some day I’ll take it.