26 February 2013

The Tables

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:17 pm

Bud and Gerald entered another room in which four people were seated around a wooden table.

“According to Eddington there are two tables,” asserted the physicist. “The first table is the one at which we are seated – a piece of furniture made of hardwood, its patina darkened by the layers of polish that have accumulated over the years. It is oval in shape, with claw feet and intricate swirls carved just here, where the legs meet the tabletop. An antique perhaps, possibly a bit too delicate for the hard labor to which we put it here at the Scriptorium. But there is also a second table, beneath this one so to speak yet invisible to us. It consists primarily of empty space, sparsely populated by elemental particles swirling through charged space at incredible speed, indistinguishable from tiny quanta of electromagnetic energy, moving from one point to another without ever being anywhere in between.”

“Superb,” the politician commended the physicist, “but is there not also a third table? It is a diplomatic table. Your words carry more force than mine, are weightier, have more gravity, because you sit in a position of authority, at one end of the diplomatic table. Whereas I, seated at your left hand along one of the longer sides of the table, am in a subordinate position to you. In comparison to yours my pronouncements ring indistinct and hollow. Now if we were to trade places at this third table…”

“There is a fourth table,” said the painter, seated across from the politician. “It is made not of electrons, nor of power differentials, but of shapes and colors and angles. If I were to describe this table I would use not words but images. My description would depend on whether oils or pastels were made available to me, and whether the surface on which I present my image is canvas or paper or the wall behind me. It would depend too on whether the light fixture above the table could be dimmed just a bit, whether our conversation around the table as I paint is convivial or combative, whether someone proves kind enough to fill my wine glass again.”

“But none of these is the real table,” the fourth member of the conclave averred. “The spinning particles and energy fields? That’s what the table is made of. So too are the walls of this room, the floor, each one of us. Are we all part of the table? Certainly not. The table is made of wood while we are flesh. But again, we speak only of building materials and not of the finished artifact. The diplomatic table, the painterly table – these aren’t the table either. You” – turning to his left to address the politician – “are describing ways in which people interact around the table, ways in which the table contributes to these interactions, lending and withholding its architectonic power to your rhetorical power. Whereas you” – turning to his right now, where the artist was seated – “would depict the ways in which the table interacts with your senses, your sensibilities, your sensitivities. Presently the table serves all of us as a flat surface on which we can place our drinks without spilling them. It serves as a locus around which the four of us can gather to engage in conversation, while also providing a physical and visual barrier, making it more difficult to engage in a brawl if our disagreements become too heated. Again, these are interactive properties of the table. But what of the real table, the essential table? It cannot be reduced to elements and materials, it cannot be expanded to utilities. What is it, this essence of the table? Even if we could know it, we would not know it, for knowledge too is a utilitarian function, an interaction of our minds with the table. Knowledge of a thing can never be the thing itself. The graven image is not the same as that which it represents. And where is it located, the table’s essence, if it is neither in the materials nor in the interfaces? It must be somewhere that cannot be touched by interactions with other material bodies and forces, or even with minds. It floats in deep space perhaps, or it crouches at the bottom of the sea. Or is Sheol the place where essences reside, each stored in its own vacuum-packed sarcophagus, all essences stacked in the infinite tunnels extending deep beneath the earth awaiting some post-apocryphal resurrection when the essences of all things converge and diverge, creating new heavens and new earths, not just in appearances but in reality? Is it not toward Sheol that we Pilgrims strive in search of the essences of all things, including the essences of ourselves?”

“I bought it for thirty-five dollars.” The four Pilgrims seated around the table, Bud and Gerald standing inside the doorway: all turned toward the figure slumped in a well-worn burgundy sofa on the other side of the room, notebook and pen in hand. “I bought it from a neighbor at a yard sale just after I’d returned from France, maybe five years before I moved here to the Scriptorium. It was her mother’s table, I presume she came into possession of it when her mother died. The table wasn’t even on display out in the driveway. It was wedged against the inside wall of her garage, covered with boxes, not easily accessible because of all the other junk packed in around it. Was she glad for me to get the table out of her way so she could park her car more easily? Had she been feeling guilty in not using her mother’s table, perhaps not liking it as much as the newer table that she had selected herself, according to her own tastes? By giving her mother’s table a new opportunity to serve its function did I help assuage my neighbor’s guilt? Or does she now worry daily about whether I’m taking good care of the table, always her mother’s table of course in her mind, honoring the table as I would her mother herself, even though she may have harbored, as most of us do, ambivalent feelings about her mother? Would my neighbor have suspected that I don’t much like the table because the legs along the sides are positioned so closely together that it’s hard to avoid barking your shins when you pull up to it? Through the walls could she hear my shouts the day my knee bumped one of those legs, toppling over my glass of wine onto the newly-cleaned carpet?”

In Sheol the writer’s essence was seated much like his material self – as above so below – on the mutable and increasingly threadbare essence of the sofa he had bought at some other yard sale, the essence of notebook and of pen in hand. He looked across the room toward the essential table, understanding fully that his visitors had essentially left. Is what I write about the table here and now, he wrote in his essential notebook, different from what I might have written were all of you seated across from me at this table, engaging me in further conversation about tables? Did you leave because you were offended by certain remarks I might have made, because they left you tongue-tied and embarrassed about your inability to respond fluently? Did you wish to encourage my engagement in the sort of one-sided dialogue I had been commending earlier in the week? Or were you just bored? And me: am I still going on and on because my interest in the tables is not yet exhausted, because like so many self-absorbed hosts I am essentially indifferent to my guests’ presence and can’t take a hint that it’s time for me too to put away my pen and notebook and take a walk in the open air? Do I write out of spite, in an effort to force you to return and respond to what I have written? Or is it a simple matter of horror vacui? Tomorrow when I take my customary seat at one end of the fictional table, facing out the back window onto the eruption of dusty greens and pollen-saturated yellows and purples that are the sure result of the rare midsummer rain that even now is coming down up above, will I incorporate into my novel (or is it nonfiction after all?) these speculations about the motivations of people who evaporate as quickly as rain in the desert (or were they mirages after all?), a host talking to the empty chairs of guests who are elsewhere – a text that is likely to remain unread and unremarked, forever positioned at one end of the table speaking silently but insistently into the void, sinking through the floor, through soil and sand and stone, into the profundity of its insular essence?

[…adapted from Sunday’s thread on the Agent Swarm blog. I like my original ramblings better — more spontaneous, nicely contextualized — but this version works too I hope for the novel.]

21 February 2013

Elohimic Systems Engineering

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 5:06 pm

[Just having a little fun now, writing along this afternoon on the current fiction, working title The Scriptorium…]

…There was a software engineer who before setting up residency had built a couple of automatic holy-poem generators that attained immediate popularity among the Pilgrims to whom he had demonstrated them over drinks along the Trails. Once he got settled in at the Scriptorium the engineer quickly got to work on what he termed an old-school elohimic expert system. From interviews with theologians, gurus, cabalists, and prophets he extracted a substantial body of godly insight, which he compiled as textual aphorisms and brief enigmata that he then programmed into the system’s knowledge base. In response to fairly complex Q-and-A sessions with spiritual seekers the elohimic expert system would automatically string together its fragmentary wisdom into multiple paragraphs of polytheistic revelation. It’s like a sophisticated Magic Eight Ball, the engineer scoffed as he scrapped the device, which had immediately attracted a strong following among the Pilgrims who had beta-tested it.

Next the engineer set about building an object-oriented elohimic system, or OOES. Instead of propagating the so-called sensual properties of hierophantic loci with which votaries typically interacted – words of holy texts, pictorial images of icons, architectural and topographic layouts of sacred spaces – the OOES was designed to manipulate the withdrawn essences of these spirit-objects. Almost invariably the user interacting with the OOES would receive in response to queries neither direct answers nor enigmatic ones but silence. Some Pilgrims spent weeks contemplating the system’s apophatic non-pronouncements; most headed on down the hallway after fifteen minutes or so…

20 February 2013

Pep Stick

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:22 pm

This is the actual size of the Pep Stick, or at least it is on my computer screen.


Dosage: administer a few gentle taps on the head, arm, or other body part of the unpeppy person. Repeat as needed.

18 February 2013

Reflections: Percept and Perceived

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:50 am

[This post was stimulated by Levi Bryant’s recent post entitled I Guess My Ontology Ain’t So Flat. I wrote a series of preliminary responses to that thread on a related 4-year-old Ktismatics post called Eclipse as Object, beginning with comment 15. Now I’m summarizing more generally my views on the subject.]

The reality of a rainbow is effectively the same as anything else that can be perceived visually. Light reflects off the surfaces — raindrops suspended in air, the fur of the cat, the mountain range, the branches and needles of a pine tree — onto the surface of the eye. There are cells in the retina that respond to light within specific frequency bands; there are other cells that respond to the contours of contrast demarcating edges between differences in luminance; others detect changes in light intensity over very short time intervals. The light causes chemical changes to occur in the retinal cells; these chemical changes are passed synaptically along to other cells in the eye, the raw sensory information being sequentially pre-processed before being sent on for final processing in the brain. A lot of signal consolidation occurs in each eye, the signal being reinforced by redundant information while noise is eliminated, so that the information from 100 million retinal cells can be channeled through the 1.7 million cells of the optic nerve to the visual cortex. In the brain the discrete chemical signals of visual information from both eyes are assembled into larger perceptual units that combine information about the light detected in the environment: edges and expanses, colors and intensities. A 3-D perceptual array is assembled that constitutes the brain’s best guess about how this information maps onto the ambient 3-D environmental array of objects, spaces, and motion.

Direct or Indirect Perception? The details of how all this works at the level of cells, synapses, and neural networks are still being worked out. Still, visual perception has been the subject of scientific study for more than a hundred years, with the general contours being well established by data. Among neuroscientists who generally agree about the findings there is an ongoing debate about whether visual perception is “direct.” This debate hinges on two broad questions:

(1) Bottom-Up or Top-Down? Does the brain operate bottom-up, automatically and instinctively, in assembling optical signals into a perceived environment; or does the brain make top-down inferences about how to reassemble the optic information based on experiential knowledge and memory and expectation? There is no longer any doubt that vision involves both bottom-up and top-down processing of information. I look at the smear of dark green mottled with black on the mountainside and I see a forest. I could walk up the incline to confirm my visual hypothesis, watching as I approach the patterns of color articulate themselves into discrete trees. Still, when I look from a distance at a mountainside I’ve never observed before I can still immediately see the forest without even seeing the trees or consciously thinking about forests. It’s possible that my neural system is hard-wired via evolution to detect forests with no top-down inferences required. There is also no question that even bottom-up vision entails the extraction, transmission, processing, and assembly of light frequencies and intensities, re-presenting the invariants of the ambient optic array into percepts of the environment. In other words, even if I perceive directly I never see anything as itself; I always see only the light reflected from surfaces. Even a bottom-up percept entails a series of transformations or re-presentations of the raw light input, though the representation is constructed neurochemically rather than conceptually or linguistically.

(2) The World Itself or a Simulation? Does the brain assemble a visual simulation of the optical environmental array, a simulation that is “watched” by the observer inside the head; or does the observer watch the environment itself by means of the elaborate on-board neurochemical and electrical apparatus of the visual perception system? Certainly the environment doesn’t “look like” what we see: light within a certain bandwidth isn’t intrinsically green. The tree also reflects light at many frequencies undetectable by the retinal cells, so the perceived tree is a stripped-down version of the optical information afforded by the tree itself.

But if the visual system preserves environmental information about light frequency and intensity and edges such that an observer’s perception maps reliably onto that environmental information, isn’t it plausible to contend that the observer sees the thing that’s reflecting the light — a pine tree, say — rather than just a simulation of that tree? It’s a tricky problem, not easily decided by data. If I look through a telescope at a pine tree on the mountainside, am I still looking at the tree? If I attach a telescopic lens to my videocamera, feed the video image into my computer, and watch the video of the tree on my computer screen, am I still looking at the tree? The organic and the mechanical re-presentations both preserve light and edge information generated by the tree itself. There is a short but measurable delay in watching the video of the tree compared to looking directly at the mountainside — but there is also a short but measurable delay in the neural system’s processing of light information that hits the retina. And what about sound: even if we could process auditory information instantaneously (which we cannot), there is a delay in the world between the sound of the buzz-saw cutting down the tree we’re watching and the sound waves generated by the saw finally propagating themselves to where our ears can pick up the signal. Does this sound delay mean that we’re hearing not the saw but only the sound waves in the air immediately surrounding our ears?

Percept as Object. Is the visual percept of a pine tree the same thing as the pine tree? No: the percept is the result of a series of neurochemical and electrical transformations of light reflected off the surfaces of the tree. But is the visual percept of a tree a discrete object, distinct from the tree? I don’t know; it depends on what an “object” is. A visual percept is the continually-updated processing of light information generated by a structured array of neural cells. So does that make the percept an energy flow rather than a material thing? But the living tree is itself the continually-updated processing of cellular activity, and most of us are prepared to regard a tree as an object. It’s theoretically possible to capture the perceptual output at a specific point in time, following a discrete refreshing of the signal — sort of like a freeze-frame from a movie, or a chopped-down tree. Is that frozen percept, an output extracted from the process that generated it, an object? Sure: its properties and structure, the informational array it embodies, exists in its own right.

But a percept of the tree is a percept of the tree. Perception preserves specific invariant properties of the environment — the light reflected from surfaces. From this optical information the perceptual system reconstructs a 3-D assemblage of the environment — things and their positions relative to each other, their movements and the spaces between them — that generated the patterns of light detected by the retina. Vision is for navigating safely through the environment. From the perceiver’s point of view, the more accurate the visual reconstruction of the environment the better, especially when it comes to identifying environmental affordances that are particularly salient to the organism: sources of danger, sources of food, places to hide or to find shelter, mating opportunities. To objectify the percept in isolation from the thing perceived and from the perceiver is to isolate the percept from its function, from the processes that generate it, from the informational invariants it preserves through these processes, and from its internal and external relations. This sort of objectification can be done, but it demands that the observer perform an intentional work of abstraction.

16 February 2013

On Human Opacity

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:01 am

Here’s an email I sent to a friend on Monday. You can invent whatever context you like.

Thinking about your perspective on the situation… Somebody told you that they never thought they really knew X, but does anybody really know anybody? You made a conscious effort to empathize with her situation, but since she wasn’t communicating you had to imagine her perspective, perhaps trying on varying points of view to see which made the most sense. Isn’t it a kind of invention, with no sure way of knowing whether what you’ve imagined corresponds to the reality? Somebody told me that the characters in my fictions are opaque, that the reader doesn’t know what they’re thinking, but in my view that’s more realistic than the novelist — or the psychologist for that matter — with purportedly probing and infallible insight into the inner workings of the human mind and soul. And then there’s X, who seemed so sure of her direction and intent, but at the same time you experience her as being under some sort of spell or cult influence. I imagine her in these long fraught silences listening for some voice to tell her what to say, what to do next, and hearing either a cacophony of conflicting voices or just silence. You have to wonder: does she know her own mind any better than you know it? Does anybody know themselves any better than others know them?

I sent this on Monday; as yet I’ve received no reply. I don’t expect to receive one, not ever.

14 February 2013

Dreaming Inside Fiction

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:37 am

Last night I had a series of dreams that unfolded inside the main imaginary setting of the novel I’m currently writing. While dreaming I experienced intervals of lucidity, aware that I was living inside a fictional realm that I was inventing while awake — like circling around a Möbius loop. I awoke presuming that the dreams were a good omen. Recently while awake and trying to write I’d been seeing that fictional world from a distance, as if it were five feet below the floor and I was looking down at it through a thick barrier of cloudy glass.

9 February 2013

Unfaithfully Yours by Sturges, 1948

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:22 am

unfaith eye

unfaith record

unfaith razor

unfaith foot

unfaith gun

5 February 2013

Cartoons without Bubbles

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:51 pm

In Italy in the twenties the Corriere dei piccoli used to publish the best-known American comic strips of the time: Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Felix the Cat, Maggie and Jiggs, all of them rebaptized with American names. And there were also Italian comic strips, some of them of excellent quality, according to the graphic taste and style of the period. In Italy they had not yet started to use balloons for dialogue (these began in the thirties with the importation of Mickey Mouse). The Corriere dei piccoli redrew the American cartoons without balloons, replacing them with two or four rhymed lines under each cartoon. However, being unable to read, I could easily dispense with the words — the pictures were enough. I used to live with this little magazine, which my mother had begun buying and collecting even before I was born and had bound into volumes year by year. I would spend hours following the cartoons of each series from one issue to another, while in my mind I told myself the stories, interpreting the scenes in different ways — I produced variants, put together the single episodes into a story of broader scope, thought out and isolated and then connected the recurring elements in each series, mixing up one series with another, and invented new series in which the secondary characters became protagonists.

When I learned to read, the advantage I gained was minimal. Those simple-minded rhyming couplets provided no illuminating information; often they were stabs in the dark like my own, and it was evident that the rhymster had no idea what might have been in the balloons of the original, either because he did not understand English or because he was working from cartoons that had already been redrawn and rendered wordless. In any case, I preferred to ignore the written lines and to continue with my favorite occupation of dayreaming within the pictures and their sequence.

– from Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988) by Italo Calvino

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I’m still a bit hacked off about Google no longer routing image searchers directly to the blog post where the image appears, instead steering traffic to a Google-generated simulacrum of the original blog post. This devious maneuver shifts vast numbers of hits from blogs to Google — probably they’re artificially juicing their traffic numbers to satisfy the investment community about business growth potential. In my prior post I noted that over the years a lot of people have visited the blog to look at the screengrabs I put up from movies I’d recently watched. So what’s the big deal about losing these visitors to Google’s insatiable attention-gobbling maw? It’s not like I shot the films from which I nab the still images. I do have to select the images to post, and it takes a bit of effort to isolate the right ones. For me though what’s important is the assemblage, the selection of multiple images from the same film.

The stills might trigger memories for people who have previously seen the movie. For those who haven’t, the stills could serve as a kind of teaser or trailer, perhaps stimulating them to give it a viewing. But for me the process of selecting and assembling the stills functioned as a kind of prismatic concentration, bringing into clearer focus a particular thematic element extending through the movie. I couldn’t necessarily name the theme; it’s more of a visual resonance. Take this one, for instance, or this one — both historically popular hits from Google image searches. They’re like cinematic triptychs, or Calvino’s cartoons without bubbles. If you don’t already know the stories that go with the pictures you might be able to make up your own.

If I were a different sort of psychologist I might suggest a self-help intervention. Find five photos of yourself, or — better — envision five situations you’ve experienced in your life that you regard as important in some way. Describe each situation in a paragraph, focusing on facts rather than interpretations — sort of like a screengrab without dialogue or a cartoon without a bubble. Now take those five scenarios and, disregarding as best you can the meaning you usually ascribe to these events, invent a new story linking them together.

Me, I’m trying to figure out whether this is a good fiction-writing maneuver: assemble a series of short situational stills involving a character without linking the situations together narratively. Then the (imagined) reader can assemble a story from the fragments.

3 February 2013

Blog Hitrate Takes a Big Hit

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:06 pm

Here’s the WordPress summary stats for Ktismatics over the past 30 days. You’ll observe that, for the first 21 days displayed on this graph, the daily hitrate averaged around 450, varying between 385 and 515. Then over the last week the rate dropped dramatically. For the past 5 full days of data the average hitrate was 150 — a third the prior average.

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ktis stats3

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What happened?

You might speculate that, during the first 3 weeks of January, Ktismatics saw unusually high traffic levels, and that now the levels are sinking back to normal. Not so: for more than a year the daily hitrate has averaged over 400.

What happened is that, just about a week ago, Google changed its protocol for responding to image searches. Previously if you searched for an image and clicked on one, Google would take you to the webpage on which the selected image is displayed. Now in response to the click Google creates its own simulacrum of the webpage where the image appears. You can still navigate to the original source of the image, but it requires a second click.

Try this at home: Google “ouroboros” and click Images. The first image displayed on the search output is the one from Ktismatics. Click it. You’re taken to a Google page that copies the Ktismatics page where the image appears. On the right side of the screen you’ll see “Website for this image,” with a link to the original Ktismatics page that Google copied. Only by clicking that link are you actually taken to the original page on the Ktismatics blog where the ouroboros image appears.

As a result of this protocol change, a lot of hits that used to be credited to blogs and other websites have suddenly been rerouted, counting now as hits on Google pages. This change affects only image searches; for text searches Google still takes you to the original source.

It took years for the hitrate to climb to 450/day. Does this sudden drop mean that two-thirds of the hits were Google image searches? Probably so. I’ve mentioned previously that for months the Ouroboros post alone has averaged something like 80 views per day; now, over the past 5 days, Ouroboros is getting only 25 daily hits. Over the years I’ve posted a lot of movie screengrabs: these images too have historically attracted a goodly flow of traffic.

How much of the traffic on Ktismatics can be attributed to the regulars — those people who are already familiar with the blog and who click on to see what’s new? Probably the best statistical indicator is the hitrate for the Ktismatics homepage. How disappointing! For the past year the average hitrate for the homepage has averaged around 60 per day. It used to be higher: about 100 per day in 2010. But wait a minute: what about subscribers? A subscriber to a blog isn’t just notified that a new post is up: the content of that post is delivered to the subscriber via email. Ktismatics has 58 subscribers. Let’s say that these people would ordinarily click onto Ktismatics every other day or so: that would put the homepage hitrate back close to the historical high. No growth: stasis. But wait another minute: over the past 5 days the homepage hits have dropped from 60 to 25 per day. I infer that, of the 300 people per day who clicked onto images posted on Ktismatics, maybe 10% were sufficiently interested to see what else was going on the blog. Most probably took a quick look and moved on; for others the new posts provided momentary pleasure; a few became regulars. Now, with the change in Google image searches, those tire-kickers won’t be coming around much any more.

To summarize: maybe 50 people per day intentionally expose themselves to new Ktismatics content, half by clicking onto the homepage, half via subscriber updates. Bless you all! Another 100 per day intentionally click on archived posts. Another 300/day click on images embedded in the archives.

It might be true: 2009-2010 may well have been the high water mark for Ktismatics. Since then a lot of the blogs that I used to follow regularly have been discontinued. I was an early and active participant in the Object-Oriented Ontology debates that began gaining traction in late 2008. Now most of the early dissenters have by and large left the OOO playing fields to the acolytes; only occasionally do I post on the subject of objects any more. In 2009-2010 I was still posting movie screengrabs fairly regularly, and these would often stimulate extended discussions of the films. I don’t do screengrabs very often any more either. I post as often as ever, but it seems that the subjects I address are more idiosyncratic, less embedded in a broader matrix of interests shared by other bloggers in this little corner of the blogosphere. And I acknowledge that I don’t get around to as many other blogs as I used to. In publishing this post this I see that 10 of the 12 recent comments displayed on the right side of the screen are my own comments. Increasingly I seem to be talking to myself here…

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