25 August 2012

Route 80

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:00 am

STARS. He said that people knew many different kinds of stars or thought they knew many different kinds of stars. He talked about the stars you see at night, say when you’re driving from Des Moines to Lincoln on Route 80 and the car breaks down, the way they do, maybe it’s the oil or the radiator, maybe it’s a flat tire, and you get out and get the jack and the spare tire out of the trunk and change the tire, maybe half an hour, at most, and when you’re done you look up and see the sky full of stars. The Milky Way. He talked about star athletes. That’s a different kind of star, he said, and he compared them to movie stars, though as he said, the life of an athlete is generally much shorter. A star athlete might last fifteen years at best, whereas a movie star could go on for forty or fifty years if he or she started young. Meanwhile, any star you could see from the side of Route 80, on the way to Des Moines to Lincoln, would live for probably millions of years. Either that or it might have been dead for millions of years, and the traveler who gazed up at it would never know. It might be a live star or it might be a dead star. Sometimes, depending on your point of view, he said, it doesn’t matter, since the stars you see at night exist in the realm of semblance. They are semblances, the way dreams are semblances. So the traveler on Route 80 with a flat tire doesn’t know whether what he’s staring up at in the vast night are stars or whether they’re dreams. In a way, he said, the traveler is also part of a dream, a dream that breaks away from another dream like one drop of water breaking away from a bigger drop of water that we call a wave.

– Roberto Bolaño, 2666

I wonder if  Bolaño ever actually drove this stretch of road across the Great Plains, or if he just read about it in Kerouac’s legendary road trip chronicle. Twice over the next few days we’ll be driving this route, though probably not at night so we’ll have to imagine the semblances of stars. The other day I was editing a bit of text I wrote this summer based on driving Route 80 west from Des Moines and Lincoln:

Through the bug-spattered windshield he saw a small herd of antelope grazing the sparse brush a quarter mile off the highway. A solitary pheasant stood erect and immobile in the passing lane, staring at him like a desperate avian hitchhiker. Low-slung oil wells performed their oblique one-stroke rotations, the idling pistons of the American West. It wasn’t until he caught the first glimpse of the mountains hovering on the dusty horizon that he gave any real thought to his delivery.

19 August 2012


Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 12:09 pm

Here’s a little thought — and there’s a good chance that you too have entertained this thought if you watch — about Breaking Bad, a TV show that I’m hooked on. In last season’s fourth episode, Walter and Skyler White sit in their living room planning their evening’s conversation with Skyler’s sister Marie and her husband Hank, a DEA agent. Walt cooks methamphetamine, and now he’s bought a car wash as a front for laundering (LOL) the drug money. But he’s just a high school chemistry teacher:  how could he possibly afford to pay for a car wash? Skyler cooks up a cover story: Walt made the money counting cards at blackjack tables. Walt is preparing a demonstration of his skills to stage for the in-laws, but he keeps losing. Finally Walt throws in the cards. I shouldn’t be showing off my technique, he tells Skyler: I’m in recovery.

WALT:  And that is the fiction we should be sticking to.
SKYLER:  You know what? You’re right. Yeah.
WALT:  Wow.

Skyler walks over to the coffee table and picks up two sheaves of paper. She hands one stack to Walt, keeping the other, and sits back down.

SKYLER:  Okay. We’re not leaving anything to chance. Alright let’s get started, got a lot of ground to cover.
WALT:  What is this?
SKYLER:  We have to get our story straight, we’ve got to be on the same page.
WALT:  A script?
SKYLER:  Bullet points.
WALT:  Bullet points? Looks like a novella.
SKYLER:  This is smart. You really want to try to sell a DEA agent some ill-prepared, half-assed, full of holes story about how we suddenly have enough money to buy a car wash?
WALT:  Am I supposed to memorize this?
SKYLER:  We need to practice, Walt. We need to be word perfect.
WALT:  Within reason.
SKYLER:  We need this story to be solid and sympathetic and most of all completely believable.

There’s some sort of metafictional business written into every episode of Breaking Bad. So how about this: cooking meth is a metaphor for producing a television series.

Walt has come up with the formula for making the best meth on the market: the highest level of chemical purity that triggers the most intense high for its users. Walt has achieved this level of excellence through systematic rational experimentation with ingredients and techniques, with organization and timing. Among all the competitors on the market Walt’s product is the best at doing what it’s supposed to do: overwhelming the user’s systematic rational judgment. As a result the customers are prepared to pay top dollar for Walt’s product.

I can’t wait for tonight’s episode.

14 August 2012

Neurochemical Correlates of Consciousness

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:00 pm

A recent post discussed the possibility put forward by Max Velmans that consciousness consists primarily of first-person subjective experience. Consciousness enters “too late” into brain activity to exert any sort of direction or control, Velmans claims. Consciousness can only observe the results of mental activity rather than participating in or initiating it. But now I’ve just finished reading In Search of Memory (2006) by Nobel prize-winning neurobiologist Eric Kandel. It took me awhile to get into this book (recommended, like Velmans’ book, by Lafayette) but eventually I found it enlightening and fairly entertaining. Kandel begs to differ with Velmans: he argues based on neural evidence that there is conscious mental processing, that it is activated by attention, and that it differs from unconscious processing at the level of biochemical action in the neurons. Here are two examples.

1.  Forming a Spatial Map of the Environment

By exploring a new environment mice learn to navigate the space with increasing efficiently, quickly moving toward dark enclosures while avoiding brightly lit open spaces. Mice can also learn about their environments by being required to perform a task; e.g., by finding and sitting in the unmarked space that turns off the bright lights and loud noises that mice tend to avoid. To perform this sort of spatial task requires the mouse to pay more attention while investigating the space than when just having a look around the place. It turns out that mice who learn to perform a task retain their memory of the space much longer than do the casual explorers.

Dopamine enhances the response of neurons to stimuli. Dopamine is produced by cells in the mid-brain. The axons of these dopamine-making cells project into the hippocampus, where inputs from various sensory modalities are integrated and stabilized via long-term potentiation of the neural synapses. When the action of dopamine is blocked in the hippocampus of a mouse that learns to perform a spatial task requiring attention, the mouse’s memory of the spatial layout degrades rapidly. Conversely, when the dopamine receptors are activated in the hippocampus of a casually exploring mouse, the mouse retains its memory of the space far longer than would otherwise be expected. The implication is that dopamine stimulates the responsiveness of attention-directing neural pathways in the hippocampus, which in turn trigger the long-term neural retention of spatial layout in memory.

Conversion of short-term to long-term memory requires the activation of genes in the neurons via neurotransmitters that signal the importance of the stimulus for retention. In response to the biochemical signal, the appropriate genes are turned on in the neuron, causing particular proteins to be produced in the cell that are sent to the cell’s synapses, passing along the signal to cells in the hippocampus. In mice, dopamine is the triggering chemical. But the neurochemical memory cascade is triggered differently depending on the type of learning involved. In spatial memory — e.g., mice exploring a new environment — the dopamine activation is initiated from the top down, from the cerebral cortex to the hippocampus. The implication is that the focused attention required for long-term learning — mental activities typically associated with consciousness — follows a neural pathway that’s different from the diffuse mental activity suitable for short-term retention of environmental information.

2.  Anxiety

A person who looks at a photo of someone whose facial expression indicates fear shows increased activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that mediates fear. If the face with the fearful expression is presented for a long period of time, giving the person the opportunity to study the face consciously, then the dorsal region of the amygdala is activated. The dorsal region sends information to the autonomic nervous system, initiating the emotional arousal triggering the fight-or-flight response to frightening stimuli. If on the other hand the face is presented unconsciously — so rapidly that the observer cannot even report what type of expression the face is making — then the basolateral nucleus is activated. This area of the amygdala typically receives sensory input and transmits the signal to the cortex, heightening vigilance toward environmental threats.

Participants in the study were administered a questionnaire assessing their baseline level of anxiety. The level of anxiety had no effect on the conscious reaction to the fearful face. However, baseline anxiety was directly associated with the amount of activation in the basolateral nucleus in the unconscious reaction.

By implication, given the time to evaluate a fear-inducing stimulus consciously, everyone is able to activate the top-down triggering of an appropriate fight-or-flight response. Unconsciously, however, already-anxious people respond to fear-inducing stimuli by becoming hypervigilant, thereby increasing their already-high baseline anxiety levels, whereas non-anxious people do not become more anxious by being presented with a transitory fear-inducing stimulus.

9 August 2012

The Invention of Morel by Bioy, 1940

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:26 pm

I approve of the direction he gave, no doubt unconsciously, to his efforts to perpetuate man: but he has preserved nothing but sensations; and, although his invention was incomplete, he at least foreshadowed the truth: man will one day create human life. His work seems to confirm my old axiom: it is useless to keep the whole body alive.

Logical reasons induce us to reject Morel’s hopes. The images are not alive. But since his invention has blazed the trail, as it were, another machine should be invented to find out whether the images think and feel (or at least if they have the thoughts and the feelings that the people themselves had when the picture was made; of course, the relationship between their consciousness and these thoughts and feelings cannot be determined). The machine would be very similar to the one Morel invented and would be aimed at the thoughts and sensations of the transmitter; at any distance away from Faustine we should be able to have her thoughts and sensations (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory).

And someday there will be a more complete machine. One’s thoughts and feelings during life — or while the machine is recording — will be like an alphabet with which the image will continue to comprehend all experience (as we can form all the words in our language with the letters of the alphabet). Then life will be a repository for death. But even then the image will not be alive; objects that are essentially new will not exist for it. It will know only what it has already thought or felt, or the possible transpositions of those thoughts and feelings.

The fact that we cannot understand anything outside of time and space may perhaps suggest that our life is not appreciably different from the survival to be obtained by this machine.

When minds of greater refinement than Morel’s begin to work on the invention, man will select a lonely, pleasant place, will go there with the persons he loves most, and will endure in an intimate paradise. A single garden, if the scenes to be externalized are recorded at different moments, will contain innumerable paradises, and each group of inhabitants, unaware of the others, will move about simultaneously, almost in the same places, without colliding. But unfortunately these will be vulnerable paradises because the images will not be able to see men; and, if men do not heed the advise of Malthus, someday they will need the land of even the smallest paradise, and will destroy its defenseless inhabitants or will exile them by disconnecting their machines.


4 August 2012


Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:13 pm

Maybe if I pick off and respond to some of the specific assertions that Velmans makes in his 2009 book Understanding Consciousness

According to Thomas Nagel (1974), consciousness is ‘what it is like to be something.’ (p. 7)

Eventually Velmans endorses Nagel’s position, at least in part. First-person subjectivity is integral to but not fully definitive of consciousness. To be conscious is to be conscious of something: of the world, of one’s body, of one’s thoughts. All organisms have direct contact with the world via sensory receptors. Organisms convert sensory inputs into information about features of their environments that generated these inputs. E.g., a frog synchronizes visual input gathered by dedicated motion detectors with tongue movement in order to snag an insect out of the air. Does the frog have a subjective phenomenological experience of seeing the insect fly and of nabbing it; i.e., does the frog know what it’s like to be a frog? Or is the coordination of visual input with motor output purely instinctive, without awareness? Merely by observing the frog’s actions it’s impossible to tell if it has any subjective awareness. For that matter, it would be impossible to tell simply through observation whether a human is conscious of what it’s like to watch a fly land on the window and to dispatch it with a swatter. Consciousness-of is a first-person experience that’s opaque to third-person scrutiny.

Vermans concludes from his research that consciousness does not reside in some particular part of the brain. Rather, consciousness constitutes a more intensive and focused and coordinated activation of multiple brain processes that ordinarily function unconsciously and independently of one another. It should eventually be possible to evaluate non-human organisms to ascertain whether their brains ever achieve states of activation that correspond to consciousness in humans. However, without having access to some source of first-person information it would still not be possible to conclude that a nonhuman organism’s high-level brain activity correlates with a subjective experience of itself and its environment. It’s also possible that other kinds of organisms are conscious of lower-level non-integrated brain activities that in humans remain unconscious.

So it’s possible to speculate about what it might be like to be a frog, but as far as Velmans is concerned it will never be possible really to know anything from a third-person scientific perspective about frogs’ subjective experiences of the world and of themselves. Is it possible even to speculate about what it’s like to be cornbread, or polyester, or a neutron, as Ian Bogost suggests? Velmans doesn’t explore the possibility of inanimate subjective experience, in all likelihood because he regards the first-person experience of being-like as integrally linked to the first-person experience of being conscious-of one’s interactions with the world. And if consciousness is an intensified and focused and integrated neural activity, then the experience of being-like must likewise be associated with neural states/processes. It’s possible to imagine some other architecture for implementing neural functions, but there would have to be some sort of apparatus by which an object not only interacts with the world but has some awareness of this interaction. There would almost surely be chemical or electrical traces of this sort of awareness that could be observed, such that specific changes in the environment would result in specific changes in the aware object. I’d say it’s not particularly bold to assert, based on lack of empirical evidence, that neither cornbread nor polyester nor neurons exhibit the sort of selective complex responsiveness to the environment that might indicate some sort of alien awareness.

What’s it like to be cornbread? Almost surely it’s not like anything.

3 August 2012

The Skating Rink by Bolaño, 1993

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 10:41 am

In a passage near the end, one of the novel’s three narrators, imprisoned near Barcelona under suspicion of murder and embezzlement, is reading a novel written by one of the other narrators, a Chilean émigré:

Remo Morán’s novel is entitled Saint Bernard, and recounts the deeds of a dog of that breed, or a man named Bernard, later canonized, or a delinquent who goes by that name. The dog, or the saint, or delinquent, lives in the foothills of a great icy mountain and every Sunday (although in some places it says “every day”) he goes around mountain villages challenging other dogs or men to duels. Gradually, his opponents begin to lose heart, and in the end no one dares to address him. They all apply “the law of ice,” to cite the text… Then, at the end of the novel, something strange occurs: after shaking off his pursuers, while sheltering in a cave, Bernard undergoes a metamorphosis: his old body splits into two parts, each identical to the original whole. One part rushes down into the valley, shouting with joy. the other climbs laboriously toward the summit of the great mountain, and is never heard of again…

The end of this fictional novel-within-a-novel is of particular interest to me as a fiction writer. My books feature a charismatic figure (also of Chilean ancestry, as it happens) and his acolytes who cultivate a praxis of splitting themselves in two: the sanctified part climbs laboriously to its death, while the unchosen part rushes free and joyful into the wilderness. I wonder if Bolaño ever actually wrote a novel about this Bernard character, or if it was an idea that was adequately captured as a passing reference here.

The Skating Rink was Bolaño’s first published novel, rereleased and translated posthumously after he became famous for his last long novels. The reviews I’ve read are enthusiastic except for this one from Philip Hensher in The Guardian. Hensher writes:

“His publishers have now thought it worthwhile to bring out Bolaño’s very first published novel, The Skating Rink, hoping for a readership quite different from the tiny claque which greeted its first publication in 1993. Reading it, I wondered what one would think of it as one of those first readers. The answer is probably “not much”. It has conspicuous, classical flaws in technique and is undeniably frustrating on its own terms. The interesting thing is that many of those flaws are exactly the things which Bolaño expanded, developed, and turned into virtues of the highest originality.”

This observation too grabs me as a fiction writer. Some of the purported flaws that readers have identified in my fiction I regard as integral to how I experience the fictional world I describe. Presumably like Bolaño, I too have intentionally exaggerated some of these features of my writing, drawing even more attention to them. In so doing have I transformed my flaws into “virtues of the highest originality”? Sure, why not?

2 August 2012

Another Way for Goldman to Make a Buck

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 11:11 am

In the discussion of this April post I made this remark:

“Homelessness is on the rise in this new Gilded Age, and with political pressure to cut Medicaid there will be even more uninsured people. Imagine how Blackwater or one of those for-profit prison companies would sell and manage this sort of short-term convalescence program to maximize return on investment on a national scale.”

Now in today’s NYTimes we get a piece on a related do-gooder enterprise, entitled Goldman to Invest in City Jail Program, Profiting if Recidivism Falls Sharply. Here’s the business opportunity: Fifty percent of male adolescents incarcerated at Rikers Island are reimprisoned within a year. It costs New York City a lot of money to arrest, prosecute, and warehouse a prisoner. But running a program to prevent recidivism of released convicts is also expensive, especially when the payoff from such a program isn’t immediate.

As I understand it, here’s Goldman’s scheme: a social impact bond. Goldman lends money to NYC, with the proceeds paying for a program intended to reduce reincarceration of juvenile offenders. The program will be outsourced and to MDRC, a nonprofit private contractor. If recidivism drops by 10%, the City pays back the loan in full, plus interest. If recidivism drops more than 10%, then the City pays Goldman a bonus of up to 22% of the original bond amount. If recidivism doesn’t drop by at least 10%, Goldman loses up to 25% of its initial investment.

But then I read farther down in the article:

In a twist that differentiates New York’s plan from other governments’ experiments with social impact bonds, [NYC Mayor] Bloomberg’s personal foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, will provide a $7.2 million loan guarantee to MDRC. If the jail program does not succeed, MDRC can use the Bloomberg money to repay Goldman a portion of its loan; if the program does succeed, Goldman will be paid by the city’s Department of Correction, and MDRC may use the Bloomberg money for other social impact bonds…

This means that Goldman lends the money not to the city but to MDRC, the program administrator. If the program hits its recidivism reduction target, then the City pays MDRC enough to repay Goldman’s loan in full. If the program falls short on the recidivism target, MDRC must come up with its own money to repay up to 25% of the loan amount. However, MDRC can use Bloomberg’s loan guarantee to make up the difference. But if the program exceeds its target, then Goldman makes a profit of up to 22%.

In other words, Goldman outsources all of its risk while retaining the possibility of earning 22% profit from the taxpayers of New York City for work done by a nonprofit contractor.

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