Does my algorithm have a mental-health problem?

https://aeon.co/ideas/made-in-our-own-image-why-algorithms-have-mental-health-problems

Thomas T Hills is professor of psychology at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK.

 

Is my car hallucinating? Is the algorithm that runs the police surveillance system in my city paranoid? Marvin the android in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxyhad a pain in all the diodes down his left-hand side. Is that how my toaster feels?

This all sounds ludicrous until we realise that our algorithms are increasingly being made in our own image. As we’ve learned more about our own brains, we’ve enlisted that knowledge to create algorithmic versions of ourselves. These algorithms control the speeds of driverless cars, identify targets for autonomous military drones, compute our susceptibility to commercial and political advertising, find our soulmates in online dating services, and evaluate our insurance and credit risks. Algorithms are becoming the near-sentient backdrop of our lives.

The most popular algorithms currently being put into the workforce are deep learning algorithms. These algorithms mirror the architecture of human brains by building complex representations of information. They learn to understand environments by experiencing them, identify what seems to matter, and figure out what predicts what. Being like our brains, these algorithms are increasingly at risk of mental-health problems.

Deep Blue, the algorithm that beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, did so through brute force, examining millions of positions a second, up to 20 moves in the future. Anyone could understand how it worked even if they couldn’t do it themselves. AlphaGo, the deep learning algorithm that beat Lee Sedol at the game of Go in 2016, is fundamentally different. Using deep neural networks, it created its own understanding of the game, considered to be the most complex of board games. AlphaGo learned by watching others and by playing itself. Computer scientists and Go players alike are befuddled by AlphaGo’s unorthodox play. Its strategy seems at first to be awkward. Only in retrospect do we understand what AlphaGo was thinking, and even then it’s not all that clear.

To give you a better understanding of what I mean by thinking, consider this. Programs such as Deep Blue can have a bug in their programming. They can crash from memory overload. They can enter a state of paralysis due to a neverending loop or simply spit out the wrong answer on a lookup table. But all of these problems are solvable by a programmer with access to the source code, the code in which the algorithm was written.

Algorithms such as AlphaGo are entirely different. Their problems are not apparent by looking at their source code. They are embedded in the way that they represent information. That representation is an ever-changing high-dimensional space, much like walking around in a dream. Solving problems there requires nothing less than a psychotherapist for algorithms.

Take the case of driverless cars. A driverless car that sees its first stop sign in the real world will have already seen millions of stop signs during training, when it built up its mental representation of what a stop sign is. Under various light conditions, in good weather and bad, with and without bullet holes, the stop signs it was exposed to contain a bewildering variety of information. Under most normal conditions, the driverless car will recognise a stop sign for what it is. But not all conditions are normal. Some recent demonstrations have shown that a few black stickers on a stop sign can fool the algorithm into thinking that the stop sign is a 60 mph sign. Subjected to something frighteningly similar to the high-contrast shade of a tree, the algorithm hallucinates.

How many different ways can the algorithm hallucinate? To find out, we would have to provide the algorithm with all possible combinations of input stimuli. This means that there are potentially infinite ways in which it can go wrong. Crackerjack programmers already know this, and take advantage of it by creating what are called adversarial examples. The AI research group LabSix at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that, by presenting images to Google’s image-classifying algorithm and using the data it sends back, they can identify the algorithm’s weak spots. They can then do things similar to fooling Google’s image-recognition software into believing that an X-rated image is just a couple of puppies playing in the grass.

Algorithms also make mistakes because they pick up on features of the environment that are correlated with outcomes, even when there is no causal relationship between them. In the algorithmic world, this is called overfitting. When this happens in a brain, we call it superstition.

The biggest algorithmic failure due to superstition that we know of so far is called the parable of Google Flu. Google Flu used what people type into Google to predict the location and intensity of influenza outbreaks. Google Flu’s predictions worked fine at first, but they grew worse over time, until eventually it was predicting twice the number of cases as were submitted to the US Centers for Disease Control. Like an algorithmic witchdoctor, Google Flu was simply paying attention to the wrong things.

Algorithmic pathologies might be fixable. But in practice, algorithms are often proprietary black boxes whose updating is commercially protected. Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) describes a veritable freakshow of commercial algorithms whose insidious pathologies play out collectively to ruin peoples’ lives. The algorithmic faultline that separates the wealthy from the poor is particularly compelling. Poorer people are more likely to have bad credit, to live in high-crime areas, and to be surrounded by other poor people with similar problems. Because of this, algorithms target these individuals for misleading ads that prey on their desperation, offer them subprime loans, and send more police to their neighbourhoods, increasing the likelihood that they will be stopped by police for crimes committed at similar rates in wealthier neighbourhoods. Algorithms used by the judicial system give these individuals longer prison sentences, reduce their chances for parole, block them from jobs, increase their mortgage rates, demand higher premiums for insurance, and so on.

This algorithmic death spiral is hidden in nesting dolls of black boxes: black-box algorithms that hide their processing in high-dimensional thoughts that we can’t access are further hidden in black boxes of proprietary ownership. This has prompted some places, such as New York City, to propose laws enforcing the monitoring of fairness in algorithms used by municipal services. But if we can’t detect bias in ourselves, why would we expect to detect it in our algorithms?

By training algorithms on human data, they learn our biases. One recent study led by Aylin Caliskan at Princeton University found that algorithms trained on the news learned racial and gender biases essentially overnight. As Caliskan noted: ‘Many people think machines are not biased. But machines are trained on human data. And humans are biased.’

Social media is a writhing nest of human bias and hatred. Algorithms that spend time on social media sites rapidly become bigots. These algorithms are biased against male nurses and female engineers. They will view issues such as immigration and minority rights in ways that don’t stand up to investigation. Given half a chance, we should expect algorithms to treat people as unfairly as people treat each other. But algorithms are by construction overconfident, with no sense of their own infallibility. Unless they are trained to do so, they have no reason to question their incompetence (much like people).

For the algorithms I’ve described above, their mental-health problems come from the quality of the data they are trained on. But algorithms can also have mental-health problems based on the way they are built. They can forget older things when they learn new information. Imagine learning a new co-worker’s name and suddenly forgetting where you live. In the extreme, algorithms can suffer from what is called catastrophic forgetting, where the entire algorithm can no longer learn or remember anything. A theory of human age-related cognitive decline is based on a similar idea: when memory becomes overpopulated, brains and desktop computers alike require more time to find what they know.

When things become pathological is often a matter of opinion. As a result, mental anomalies in humans routinely go undetected. Synaesthetes such as my daughter, who perceives written letters as colours, often don’t realise that they have a perceptual gift until they’re in their teens. Evidence based on Ronald Reagan’s speech patterns now suggeststhat he probably had dementia while in office as US president. And The Guardian reportsthat the mass shootings that have occurred every nine out of 10 days for roughly the past five years in the US are often perpetrated by so-called ‘normal’ people who happen to break under feelings of persecution and depression.

In many cases, it takes repeated malfunctioning to detect a problem. Diagnosis of schizophrenia requires at least one month of fairly debilitating symptoms. Antisocial personality disorder, the modern term for psychopathy and sociopathy, cannot be diagnosed in individuals until they are 18, and then only if there is a history of conduct disorders before the age of 15.

There are no biomarkers for most mental-health disorders, just like there are no bugs in the code for AlphaGo. The problem is not visible in our hardware. It’s in our software. The many ways our minds go wrong make each mental-health problem unique unto itself. We sort them into broad categories such as schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome, but most are spectrum disorders that cover symptoms we all share to different degrees. In 2006, the psychologists Matthew Keller and Geoffrey Miller argued that this is an inevitable property of the way that brains are built.

There is a lot that can go wrong in minds such as ours. Carl Jung once suggested that in every sane man hides a lunatic. As our algorithms become more like ourselves, it is getting easier to hide.

Thomas T Hills

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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A Physicist’s Physicist Ponders the Nature of Reality

TO READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE GO TO THE ORIGINAL BELOW

https://www.quantamagazine.org/edward-witten-ponders-the-nature-of-reality-20171128/

Edward Witten reflects on the meaning of dualities in physics and math, emergent space-time, and the pursuit of a complete description of nature.
Edward Witten in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Jean Sweep for Quanta Magazine

Edward Witten in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

A Guide To Aging Bald Eagles And How To Distinguish Immature Bald Eagles From Golden Eagles

Almost five years ago (1/27/13) I published a post entitled “A Guide To Aging Bald Eagles”. With over 71,000 views to date that post has been my most popular so I decided it was overdue for an update and enhancements. For this version I’ve made the following changes:

  • much of the text has been rewritten for purposes of accuracy and clarification
  • three images have been added
  • a section about distinguishing immature Bald Eagles from Golden Eagles has been included
  • formatting has been cleaned up and the title modified

 

As we approach prime eagle watching season here in northern Utah I thought it might be timely to present a guide that would be helpful in aging Bald Eagles as they progress through the 5-6 year plumage stages of becoming those glorious white-headed and white-tailed adults we’re all so familiar with. And since many immature Bald Eagles so strongly resemble Golden Eagles I’ve included information and photos that should be helpful in distinguishing the two.

Raptors, including eagles, that have not reached the adult plumage stage are referred to as immature. Those in their first plumage stage are called juveniles and the term sub-adult is used to refer to any plumage stage between juvenile and adult. Depending on molt sequence, age and timing plumage stages are highly variable so other factors like iris and beak color are also taken into account when estimating age. Eyes gradually change from dark brown to yellow while the beak goes from blackish-gray to yellow as they mature.

 

bald-eagle adult 2172

1/4000, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, not baited, set up or called in

The adult Bald Eagle is unmistakable with its distinctive bright white head and tail contrasting with the dark brown body and wings.

 

 

bald eagle 0320 juvenile ron dudley

1/200, f/6.3, ISO 800, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

But immature Bald Eagles present very differently than adults, especially in the early stages of development. This juvenile is barely fledged and was still hanging around its nest in southwest Montana. Notice that the plumage is dark brownish-black throughout, though they may have some white or pale mottling at this stage especially on the underparts. Both eye and beak are very dark.

 

 

bald eagle 7024 ron dudley

1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

This is a first year bird during winter. There’s already some color change in the eye.

 

 

bald eagle 6590 ron dudley

1/800, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, natural light, not baited, set up or called in

A side view of the same bird as in the previous image. The warm, early morning light gives it a bit of a golden glow that wouldn’t normally be seen.  This stage in particular is often confused with the Golden Eagle.

 

 

bald eagle 2298 ron dudley

1/3200, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, not baited, set up or called in

Plumage colors after the first year become increasingly variable. There is more white mottling ventrally and the beak and cere are becoming less dark.

 

 

bald eagle 7599 ron dudley

1/1600, f/6.3, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

The iris is beginning its transformation to yellow and there’s also some yellow at the base of the beak.

 

 

bald eagle 2363 ron dudley

1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

As plumage stages develop through the second and third sub-adult years the tail becomes whiter with a dark terminal band and more white appears elsewhere. The beak is less dark and as the head becomes lighter it generally leaves a darker “eye stripe”.

 

 

bald eagle 0226 3rd year ron dudley

1/1000, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

The eye is becoming more yellow and the eye-stripe is quite distinctive and often similar to that of an Osprey.

 

 

bald eagle 1297 ron dudley

1/1600, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, not baited, set up or called in

The beak is becoming more yellow (though not as bright as in the adult). Some birds at this stage (like this one) exhibit a few secondary flight feathers that are longer than the rest at the trailing edge of the wing.

 

 

bald eagle 8499 ron dudley

1/640, 7.1, ISO 800, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

By the fourth year (though there’s much variation) they’re in transition from immature plumage to full adulthood. The head is mostly white with some dark flecking especially around the eye and forehead near the cere. The tail now lacks the dark terminal band and the beak is nearly completely yellow.

 

 

1/2500, f/8, ISO 500, not baited, set up or called in

A closer look at the same bird allows a better view of the detail of the dark flecking and the beak and eye color at this stage.

 

 

bald eagle 3237 ron dudley

1/1600, f/6.3, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

This bird is very nearly in full adult plumage. The tail is now bright white but there remains a small amount of dark flecking on the head.

 

 

bald-eagle-3875 ron dudley

1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

A fully mature adult. Both head and tail are now completely white with overall dark brown plumage elsewhere. This bird has fish blood on its beak and if you look closely you’ll see that it has a “blown eye” (misshapen pupil, possibly due to injury).

 

 

bald eagle 1454 ron dudley

1/1600, f/8, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

Here we can compare three plumage stages of Bald Eagles in one photo – a sub-adult on the left, a juvenile in the middle and a mature adult on the right.

 

 

bald eagle 9847 ron dudley

1/800, f/11, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

An adult and a first winter juvenile up close.

 

 

bald eagle 9961 ron dudley

1/1000, f/11, ISO 500, 500 f/4, 1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

An adult on the right, a juvenile on the left and a sub-adult with some interesting mottling in the middle.

 

 

1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 640, not baited, set up or called in

One of the most common ID errors I see in the field is folks confusing immature Bald Eagles with Golden Eagles (the image above is of a Golden Eagle). Almost invariably novices will call any very large dark raptor a Golden Eagle while in most North American habitats it’s much more likely to be an immature Bald. Here are some guidelines that can be used to distinguish Goldens from immature Balds.

  • Golden Eagles have a distinctive golden nape (back of neck) that is usually easily seen in direct light and is completely lacking in Bald Eagles of any age.
  • Though it can’t be seen well in this photo the legs of Golden Eagles are feathered all the way down to the toes while the lower legs (tarsi) of Bald Eagles are not feathered.
  • Typical of most fishing eagles Bald Eagles have a very large bill, noticeably larger than that of Golden Eagles.

There are other more subtle plumage differences that I’ve chosen not to include here.

 

 

1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 500, not baited, set up or called in

Another helpful tool is behavior and habitat. Golden Eagles very rarely feed on fish and as a result they’re less likely to be found in aquatic habitats so if the eagle you’re attempting to ID is associated with fish, fishing or aquatic habitats it’s very likely to be an immature Bald Eagle. That’s not an absolute guarantee but it’s a helluva clue.

 

For many of us Bald Eagle season is almost upon us so I hope these tips and guidelines will be helpful to my readers. After all, no one wants to misidentify an eagle of either species!

Ron

Notes: 

  • For this updated version I’ve used several resources for guidance including “Birds Of North America Online”, my own photos and knowledge and friend and raptor expert Jerry Liguori’s excellent book “Hawks From Every Angle – How To Identify Raptors In Flight”.
  • It’s possible that the third and fourth photos from the bottom in this series were baited. I learned after the fact that on some days photographers had been moving some of the carp the eagles were feeding on to more photogenic locations. I don’t believe the birds in these two images were baited, but it is possible.
  • I believe all of the images in this post were taken with my Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens (either version I or version II) though I ran out of time to verify. Most of the photos were taken at Farmington Bay WMA in northern Utah.

GRAVITY SUCKS

Gravity scksby Kenneth Harper Finton ©2017

Some years back, I believed that people  grew old and died because they became ill and their bodies deteriorated. As I age myself, I wonder if that is so. Could it be that people pass on because the world about them changes so much that they no longer feel attached to it? Can a person evolve to the point where withdrawing from the world seems the best logical choice? Does this changing of the world about us affect our consciousness and then our health? Does life culminate in the desire to no longer desire? Is death the natural end because we lose the desire and will to persist? Or is the will to persist yanked from us despite our rage against the darkness of the unknown night?

What is true for one might not be true for another. The sheer variety of humanity and the vast complexity of nature creates a different world for each entity that lives within it.

Inequality is everywhere because inequality is essential for movement. Inequality is gravity. It is that weak force that binds things together, feet to the earth and planets to the stars, friends to friends.

Each individual life is a cosmos unto itself.

As a young man, I easily saw the truth in the unity of all being but saw also that the world is a game of one-upsmanship. People compete to produce winners and losers. The world around us is stratified, socially and economically.

Social inequality is a constant, but nature demands a balance for stability. The highs must not be too high and the lows must not be too low.  When things are too far out of balance, they explode and gravity is overcome.

Gravity is the result of inequality. When things are equal, there is no push nor pull.

Each side of the equation is different, but the equality creates the balance.

For most of us living on Earth, there is nothing as fine as the era in time in which we now live. How could this not be so, when this time is all we have? Are we not practical? We cannot live in another era.

Yet, eras change, and change brings new actors to the stage, new athletes to the field. Soon enough, we barely know the rules of the game because it has changed so much.

We spend our lives speaking our lines and doing our work. We seek what makes us feel good—through pleasures, work, pastimes, and relationships. It becomes the driving factor that motivates and moves us.

It is movement that produces the gravity that keeps us centered enough to survive. We—like our Earth, our Sun, and our Galaxy—must evolve and revolve as we orbit around something much bigger than us. Heinlein wrote: “Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” Love is one of the gravitational anchors that hold us in place.

Health does get worse with time and wear. Physical strength does deteriorate. Passion itself takes a tumble with age. We know this is so. Yet, our fast-changing world can become so unfamiliar that we can easily become those Strangers in a Strange Land that we heard or read about years ago.

Heinlein’s character said: “Thinking doesn’t pay. It just makes you discontented with what you see around you.”  Time passes and consciousness is overloaded with evaluations and judgments made by past choices. It becomes harder to distinguish the winner from the loser when you know each all too well. We can become confused or dismayed about the directions our society and nations are going.

“Thou art god, I am god. All that groks is god,” Heinlein wrote.

Grok may be the only English word that is derived from a fictional Martian language. “Grok” was introduced in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. It means to understand fully and intuitively with empathy or intuition. It is hard to grow old and not see the reality of these observations. “Random chance is not a sufficient explanation of the Universe—in fact, random chance is not sufficient to explain random chance; the pot cannot hold itself.”

Everything living has a blind instinct to survive built into its system.

“The only religious opinion I feel sure of is this: self-awareness is not just a bunch of amino acids bumping together.”  ― Robert A. HeinleinStranger in a Strange Land

 

 

HOW TO CREATE WITTY, ANTI-SEMITIC JOKES: A PRIMER FOR BIGOTS

by Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. and Linda Weiser Friedman, Ph.D.

Sacrilege_be25f3_5578612

Humor is an extremely powerful tool: It can build rapport and strengthen relationships. It can serve as a major social bond; this bond can be used either for positive or negative purposes (Friedman & Friedman, 2003). Racist and sexist humor are not benign. Bigoted humor can, in fact, affect the tendency of people to discriminate against others. Disparaging humor will strengthen the prejudiced attitudes of people who are already bigoted. According to Greengross (2011):

… when we consider groups that most people discriminate against, and feel they are justified in doing so, disparaging humor towards that group does not foster discriminatory acts against them. On the other hand, for groups for whom the prejudice norm is shifting, and there is still no consensus not to discriminate against (women, gays, Muslims and so on), if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them. 

A similar effect was found with sexist humor. Sexist jokes do not have any impact on those who are not sexist; on the contrary, such humor made them willing to donate more to a fictitious women’s organization. However, for those who are sexist to begin with, sexist humor will significantly affect downward how much they would be willing to donate to the women’s organization (Weems, 2014).

If you want to know whether individuals are bigoted or sexist, listen to the jokes they tell. Indeed, Helmreich (2004) examines humor and anecdotes in order to better understand stereotypes. Davies (2011) believes that jokes often tap into strongly held stereotypical beliefs. For example, politicians are seen as corrupt, mothers-in-law as unlikable, economists out of touch with the real world, waiters as rude, and psychoanalysts as crazy.

IN GROUPS / OUT GROUPS

Schutz (1995) feels that ethnic humor plays an important social function by helping in-groups bond and reinforce their values. Humor can be used to deride others but it can also be used to enhance the image of a group. Of course, one joke can sometimes do both jobs at the same time: mock one group while at the same time making another group appear smarter than everyone else. The jokes of victims and oppressed groups very often have this dual purpose. Lowe (1986) makes this observation about certain kinds of ethnic humor: “it produces simultaneously a strong fellow-feeling among participants and joint aggressiveness against outsiders.”

Freud (1960, p. 103) made the following observation regarding hostile jokes which he believed served the purpose of aggressiveness or defense: “By making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him.” When it comes to most bigots, however, all they have to do is tell an anti-Semitic joke and it becomes quite clear how inferior they are. It takes intelligence to tell a clever joke that disparages an entire group and it is difficult for anti-Semites to tell original, smart, funny anti-Semitic jokes. If you want to tell a witty anti-Semitic joke, listen to the jokes Jewish comics tell about Jews. This way you might not sound too moronic. Know your target. One trick to telling a good anti-Semitic joke is to base it on a stereotype that is partially true.

With ethnic humor, it becomes crucial to know who is telling the joke and who is listening to it. Some jokes are very funny when told by a member of the group to a listener who is also of the group, about some real or perceived shortcoming of their shared ethnicity. This is a true bonding experience. The same joke, however, told by one outsider to another outsider is highly likely to be derogatory (deprecating, rather than self-deprecating). Racist humor often falls into this sinkhole. For example, the following:

Two Jews are about to face a Russian firing squad. The two condemned men are offered blindfolds. One of them accepts it, but the other does not, defiantly saying: “I don’t want your blindfold.” His friend urges: “Shh Izzy… don’t make trouble.

When told by one Jew to another, this joke is a gentle acknowledgement of the tendency of Jews in the Diaspora to keep quiet at all cost, rather than attract unwelcome attention. On the other hand, when this joke is told by one non-Jew to another, especially with humorous Jewish-sounding names and dialect as in Gruner’s book (2000, p. 101), it definitely comes across as disparaging to Jews.

Some examples of Jewish self-deprecating humor. These jokes work quite well when told by a Jew to a Jewish audience.

The following joke, often told by one Jew to another, feeds into the ugly stereotype of Jews doing anything for money. When a Jew tells it to another Jew, it actually is meant to take make fun of the anti-Semitism of gentiles: Ten minutes after a Jew converts he takes on the bigotry of the anti-Semite.

Two Jews pass a church displaying a sign promising $5,000 to all new converts to Christianity. After much debate, one of the men decides to go for the money and enters the church. Several hours pass as his friend waits outside. Finally, the Jew comes out of the church and his friend excitedly asks: “So, did you get the money?” The first man gives him a dirty look saying: “Is that all you people ever think about?” 

Certain behaviors that would be considered bigoted coming from a non-Jew are just fine – and even give us a warm, fuzzy, friendly feeling – when engaged in by a Jew. For example, Jews love to devise lists of well-known or important individuals – such as celebrities, scientists, athletes, etc. – who are Jewish; take Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” for example. Many jokes about Jews are funny when told to one Jew by another Jew, but bigoted when told by one anti-Semite – er, a non-Jew – to another. For example, many of the gags in Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie, Borat, fall into this category. 5

Telushkin (1992) feels that if you really want to understand the Jewish people, examine the humor told by both Jews and non-Jews about the Jewish people. The best jokes about Jews are told by Jews. Jews are aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings so they know how to tell a joke that works. Freud (1960) recognized the importance of self-deprecation in Jewish humor. Davies (1991) made the following observation in his research dealing with Jewish self-deprecating humor: “ethnic jokes told from outside as mockery can become assertions of autonomy and vitality when told by the subjects themselves.” This is probably true of all ethnic groups: Comics from a particular ethnic group tell the best jokes about their group. As Martin Grotjahn put it:

One can almost see how a witty Jewish man carefully and cautiously takes a sharp dagger out of his enemy’s hands, sharpens it so that it can split a hair in midair, polishes it until it shines brightly, stabs himself with it, then returns it gallantly to the anti-Semite with a silent reproach: now see whether you can do it half as well (Grotjahn, 1957, p. 23). 

Christie Davies (1991) appreciates Grotjahn’s imagery but considers it misleading. According to Davies, “the point of getting hold of the dagger is not only to demonstrate superior dexterity but to switch daggers so that an innocuous rather than a potentially envenomed weapon is used.”

Jewish self-deprecating humor may be one tool that can be used to show the anti-Semite how it’s done. Bigots in general are not known for their intellectual acumen – their wit, if you will. For the most part, the humor that bigots tell each other has the character of the obscenities and come-ons to which women may be subjected as they pass a construction site. Bigots of all stripes – anti-Semites, racists, misogynists – know very little about the true character and behavior of their targets. The advice “know your enemy” never applied more. Self-deprecating humor on the other hand, has the distinct advantage of being created, told, and often heard by the very group to which it is applied. 6

THE UNFORTUNATE CURRENT STATE OF ANTI-SEMITIC HUMOR

There is a sense that the humor of bigots toward their targets is simply not funny because bigots, like many individuals with a fixation, do not possess a sense of humor. That this is especially apparent in the so-called humor of anti-Semites may be, at least in part, because it invites a comparison to the very large oeuvre of Jewish self-deprecating humor which is smart and witty rather than pathetic and stupid.

The authors believe that most of the anti-Semitic jokes told by non-Jews are pathetic. These bigots need help so that they understand how to tell a good joke. First, let us examine some fairly typical anti-Semitic jokes. The jokes that follow are not the very worst (in the lack-of-wit sense) anti-Semitic jokes out there. Out of pure pity for the reader, those have been left out.

Why are Jewish synagogues round? So they can’t hide in the corner when the collection box comes round! 

Why do Jews have big noses? Because air is free. 

What is faster than sound? A Jew eating at a buffet. 

Have you heard of the Jewish “Catch 22”? Free ham! 

Why do Jews watch porn backwards? Because their favorite part is when the hooker gives the money back. 

How do you get 100 Jews into a car? You throw in a dime. 

What’s faster than a speeding bullet? A Jew with a coupon. 

Did you hear about the Jewish Santa Claus? He came down the chimney and said “Kiddies, do you want to buy some presents?” 

The ubiquitous anti-Semitic joke that attempts to reinforce the stereotype that Jews will do anything for money is a perfect example of toxic ethnic humor. It is also a good example of an idiotic stereotype. Are Jews actually cheap? On the contrary, study after study shows how generous they are when it comes to  charity. Oh and by the way, synagogues are not typically round and collection boxes are not sent around during services. In fact, no money is collected at all on the Sabbath. Big noses – really? Do Sephardic Jews have big noses? Do Dutch Jews? Ethiopian Jews? Fifteen percent of Jews are converts (Huber, 2008): Do their noses grow once they convert to Judaism? It seems like an appropriate point here to call to mind that episode of the television show Seinfeld, in which Jerry Seinfeld took umbrage that Tim Whatley, his dentist, converted to Judaism for the jokes. Jerry claimed that he resented it, not as a Jew, but as a comedian.

This next joke got then National Security Adviser, General James Jones into some hot water. We are quite certain that he did not realize that this joke was anti-Semitic if told by a non-Jew. It feeds into the ugly stereotype of Jews being greedy, unscrupulous businesspeople. General Jones apologized for the joke (Jackson, 2010).

A Taliban militant gets lost and is wandering around the desert looking for water. He finally arrives at a store run by a Jew and asks for water. The Jewish vendor tells him he doesn’t have any water but can gladly sell him a tie. The Taliban, the joke goes on, begins to curse and yell at the Jewish storeowner. The Jew, unmoved, offers the rude militant an idea. Beyond the hill, there is a restaurant. They can sell you water. The Taliban keeps cursing and finally leaves toward the hill. An hour later he’s back at the tie store. He walks in and tells the merchant: ‘Your brother tells me I need a tie to get into the restaurant.’ 

Other ugly stereotypes about Jews deal with Jewish women. The stereotypes about Jewish women usually indicate that they are cold, spendthrifts and ostentatious. This is something of a twofer – humor that is at the same time anti-Semitic and misogynistic.

What do Jewish women make for dinner? Reservations! 

Why are Jewish men circumcised? Because Jewish women won’t touch anything unless it’s at least 20% off 

What’s the difference between a Catholic wife and a Jewish wife? A Catholic wife has real orgasms and fake jewelry! 

We always hold hands. If I let go, she shops. 

Jewish foreplay: Two hours of begging 

A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has a part in the play. She asks: “What part is it?” The boy says, “I play the part of the Jewish husband.” The mother frowns and says, “Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part.” 

Interestingly, there is a contradiction between how the same Jewish woman is perceived in her role as a wife and mother. Jewish mother jokes can be very anti-Semitic and suggest that Jewish mothers are overbearing and create dysfunctional families.

What is the most common disease transmitted by Jewish mothers? Guilt 

Why do Jewish mothers make great parole officers? Because they never let anyone finish a sentence. 

What did the waiter ask the group of dining Jewish mothers? “Is ANYTHING all right?

There are some excellent examples of jokes about Jewish mothers – told by Jews, of course.

A man called his Jewish mother in Florida, ‘Mom, how are you!?’ ‘Not too good,’ said the mother. ‘I’ve been very weak.’ The son said, ‘Why are you so weak?’ She said, ‘Because I haven’t eaten in 40 days.’ The son said, ‘That’s terrible. Why haven’t you eaten in 40 days?’ The mother answered, ‘Because I didn’t want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call.’ 

What about those vicious jokes that allude (favorably) to the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust (see below)? These are, in fact, closely related to many “lawyer” jokes. Lynch & Friedman (2013) highlight the fact that it is rare for the humor dealing with professions to indicate that the only good <insert professional here> is a dead one; the exception is law. Many lawyer jokes are filled with such hate that the punchline makes it clear that the only good lawyer is a dead one. For example: “What do you call 5000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!” Or, “What do you throw to a drowning lawyer? His partners.” This type of humor only works with lawyers; it does not work with, say, nurses. Many of the anti-Semitic jokes targeting Jews have the same kind of sick hatred attached to them. It may not be a coincidence that law is often perceived as a profession filled with Jews. The term “shyster” may have not started out as a term “loaded with anti-Semitism” but it certainly is used that way by some (Kornstein, 2017). The fact that many gentiles think the best lawyers are Jewish is not necessarily a compliment.

What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? Pizzas don’t scream when they are put in the oven! 

What’s the difference between Santa Claus and a Jew? Santa Claus goes down the chimney. 

THE BEST ANTI-SEMITIC JOKES

Are there anti-Semitic jokes out there that are actually funny? A few. At the very least, a good joke should be entertaining and witty. Here are some fairly good ones:

There is safety in numbers. Unless there are six million of you. And you are all Jews.

What did the Jewish pedophile say to the little boy? Hey kid, want to buy some candy? 

How did German men pick up Jewish women in the 1940’s? With a dustpan and broom. 

Question: What’s the difference between a circumcision and a crucifixion? Answer: In a crucifixion, they throw out the whole Jew! 

Some of these are funny enough to have been written by Jew—and probably too witty to have been written by anti-Semites.

Of course, Jewish comics know how to make fun of Jewish foibles but still demonstrate love for their people. Jackie Mason has many routines where he teases Jews. Mason claims that the biggest insult to a Jewish woman is that she looks Jewish. Jews are not happy unless they sound and look like a gentile. Jews change their names so they do not sound Jewish; one has the name Crucifix Finkelstein. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeVTtfk0oI8). Would this work for bigots? Probably not. But at least they will have demonstrated that do they know their target. (Anything for a dime? Please!) For more examples of Jewish comics and Jewish self-deprecating humor, see the Appendix to this paper.

PRIMER: HOW TO WRITE A GOOD ANTI-SEMITIC JOKE

Can the creation of good humor be taught at all? There are strong opinions on both sides of that issue and outside the scope of this paper. Certainly, for those like bigots who are so obsessed with their targets that they lack the essential knowledge, wit and, most important, a sense of humor, we offer here a few simple rules to follow. We keep them short and simple. We know how difficult it is for lackwits to follow complex instructions.

1. Be witty and clever

2. Get to know your target. Don’t expose your ignorance with an easily disproved stereotype.

3. Try it out on Jews first. Of course, this will work better if you are Jewish yourself; and, so, finally 11

4. Be Jewish.

Case in point: One of the wittiest Holocaust references ever was made by a young Jewish stand-up comic, David Finkelstein. In his perfectly deadpan delivery, he discusses finding a swastika spray-painted on the street in his home neighborhood. Instead of reacting with horror, he says, he “gets it” since he is, in fact, a comedian. What’s so funny? For one thing, the swastika is captioned with “Kill the Jews.” Just in case one might think it is simply, say, a symmetrical design. This bit may be found on YouTube and other online sources (e.g., https://youtu.be/kLhF478q3g8 at 1:30).

CONCLUSION

We see that bigoted humor often reveals more about teller and audience than about the target of the joke. Sometimes, the joke can bring a wealth of content with it regarding the experience of memberhood in the victimized group. In the following joke, with its convergence of Holocaust and Jim Crow references, the bigot gets a twofer – two targets for the price of one.

What is the worst part about being a Black Jew? You have to sit at the back of the oven. 

This is reminiscent of the blogger MaNishtana’s (2012, p. 117) answer to the question, “What’s it like being a Black Jew?” He says “Well, it’s a lot like being Black with more Black added on.”

Sometimes, bigotry is revealed in the telling of the joke; metahumor, if you will. In the interest of the continuing education of our bigoted would-be comics, we offer the following true story under the heading “How not to tell a joke.”

A building manager in LA came to make some minor repairs for a young couple Recently transplanted from New York City. The chatty guy said.“Oh, you’re from New York. I know a lot of good New York jokes. Want to hear one?” 

“Sure.” 

“Okay, there was this – Pause. “Uh, you’re not Jewish, are you?” 

“We are Jewish.” 

Pause. “It’s not that funny.” 

Not that funny? It’s hilarious. And also a very serious commentary on bigoted humor. Is bigoted humor truly not that funny? Or is it only funny when the teller and the listener share the same sense of bigotry? Probably a little bit of both.

In the final analysis, if you are going to engage in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic humor … at the very least, for God’s sake, make it funny.

APPENDIX: SOME EXAMPLES OF SELF-DEPRECATING JEWISH HUMOR

Jackie Mason claims that Jews are the only people “who gain weight when they join a health club.” He has a hilarious routine where he describes the difference between a Jew and a gentile going to a restaurant. A Jew goes into a restaurant “like a partner.” According to Mason, gentiles can’t get “emotionally involved with food.” You also never see a Jew in a real bar. Jews are not comfortable in a bar and gentiles are not comfortable in a restaurant. “If you don’t serve a Jew for a minute, he is going to complain” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V4zYe23QLg). This is a famous Jackie Mason joke.

It is easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying ‘Have a drink? Want a drink? Let’s have a drink!’ While all the Jews are saying ‘Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let’s have some cake!’

 

David Steinberg describes his Jewish Italian family when they get together at a barbeque. Italians know how to have a good time and fix things; Jews come with their pills, are always worried about their health, and break things. If Jews had a bumper sticker it would read “fun kills.” (https://vimeo.com/24436948)

One of the most Jewish television shows is Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show does get many things wrong but is unabashedly Jewish. Larry David is an expert on self-deprecating Jewish humor. Salkin (2016) lists the most Jewish moments on the show:

“The Ski Lift.” Larry is desperate to find a kidney for his friend, Richard Lewis (so that he doesn’t have to be the donor). He ingratiates himself with an influential Orthodox man and his daughter, and invites them to his ski lodge for the weekend. Watch Larry feign Yiddish and knowledge of Jewish observance. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUc77Dn8Me0

Larry pretending to be an Orthodox Jew: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iENMor5V5o) 14

“Palestinian Chicken.” An expedition into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, played out in a Palestinian restaurant. Larry hits it off with a Palestinian waitress. Larry is turned on by someone “who doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist, who wants your destruction — that’s a turn on.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Anel6bvrbWA

“The Larry David Sandwich.” Larry scalps tickets for High Holy Days services. It’s not only the use of tickets; it’s the absurd idea of scalping them, as if the services were a performance. Which, come to think of it, worship has become for so many Jews. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCGOFKC7-uY

In the fifth season finale, Larry “discovers” that he was adopted. He searches for his birth parents. They are a nice, elderly gentile couple in Arizona. Larry tries on being a gentile, complete with being told to practice love and forgiveness a la Jesus, fishing, duck hunting, bar room drinking games, and horseback riding, complete with cowboy hat. An obvious satire on Jewish stereotypes of gentile culture. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrnA1Wu3qgM

“The Seder.” Larry invites a sex-offender to a Seder, which, of course, raises the unasked question: are there actually limits and boundaries to the fabled Passover hospitality of the Jew — “let all who are hungry come and eat?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9O1vzGROg8

“The Baptism.” Larry inadvertently stops a baptism, preventing a Jew from converting to Christianity. The Christians who are present our outraged; the Jews are grateful (“Will you speak at my daughter’s bat mitzvah?”) Larry becomes an unwitting, temporary poster boy for Jewish continuity. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhJFhA2kIIk

“The Survivor.” Few “Curb” episodes deal with so many Jewish themes. Larry is tempted to have sexual relations with an Orthodox woman, which brings up stereotypes about Jews and sexuality. A Shoah survivor and a survivor from the “Survivor” series get into an argument about who is the “real” survivor. A great reflection on the meaning of memory and its distortions. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=In2XfN3hIi4) 15

REFERENCES

Davies, C. (2011). Jokes and targets. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Davies, C. (1991). Exploring the thesis of the self-deprecating Jewish sense of humor. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 4 (2), 189-209.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. (James Strachey, translator). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published in 1905)

Friedman, L. W. & Friedman, H. H. (2003). I-get-it as a type of bonding humor: The secret handshake. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=913622.

Greengross, G. (2011, July 18). Does racist humor promote racism? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/humor-sapiens/201107/does-racist-humor-promote-racism

Grotjahn, Martin (1957). Beyond Laughter. New York: Blakiston Division, McGraw Hill.

Gruner, C. R. (2000). The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Helmreich, W. (2004). The Things They Say Behind Your Back: Stereotypes and the myths behind them. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Huber, J. (2008, March 4). Convert’s path reflects study’s findings. NJJN. Retrieved from http://www.njjewishnews.com/njjn.com/030608/moConvertsPathReflects.html

Jackson, D. (2010, April 26). Obama national security adviser Jones apologizes for joke. USA Today. Retrieved from http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2010/04/obama-national-security-adviser-apologizes-for-joke/1#.Ul3gB1CkoSU

Kornstein, D. J. (2017). Is ‘shyster’ anti-Semitic? New York Law Journal. Retrieved from http://www.newyorklawjournal.com/id=900005387204/Is-Shyster-AntiSemitic?slreturn=20170429212921

Lowe, J. (1986). Theories of ethnic humor: How to enter laughing. American Quarterly, 38(3), 439-460.

Lynch, J. A. & Friedman, H. H. (2013, July 29). Using Lawyer Jokes to Teach Business Ethics: A Course Module. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2302910.

MaNishtana (2012). Thoughts from A Unicorn: 100% Black. 100% Jewish. 0% Safe. NY: Hyphen Publishing.

Salkin, J. (2016, June 22). ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ is pretty, pretty, pretty Jewish. Religious News Service. Retrieved from http://religionnews.com/2016/06/22/curb-enthusiasm-larry-david-jewish/

Schutz, C. (1995). The sociability of ethnic jokes. Australian Journal of Comedy 1(1).

Telushkin, J. (1992). Jewish humor: What the best Jewish jokes say about the Jews. New York: William Morrow & Company.

Weems, S. (2014, September 11). Why offensive jokes affect you more than you realize. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-s-so-funny/201409/why-offensive-jokes-affect-you-more-you-realize

Linda Weiser Friedman, Ph.D.

Professor

Paul H. Chook Department of Information Systems and Statistics

Baruch College Zicklin School of Business

and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Email: prof.friedman@gmail.com

Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.

Professor of Business

Department of Business Management

Murray Koppelman School of Business

Brooklyn College, CUNY

Email: x.friedman@att.net

THE PADDY AND MICK CHRONICLES: THE FACEBOOK THINGY

by Karen Mary McEntegart

irish_pe

PADDY: Facebook, Mick, I’m telling ya–it’s the latest modern craze, everyone is doing it.

MICK: Facebook, eh? What the bejesus is that all about then, Paddy?

PADDY: Well Mick, it goes like this. You set yourself up with a profile thingy…

MICK: A profile thingy?

PADDY: Yes, Mick, a profile thingy … it’s where you give your details to this Facebook thingy on the computer. I’m telling ya, everyone is doing it Mick … it’s taken the world wonder web by storm.

MICK: Is that so, Paddy?

PADDY: Aye.

MICK: Alright so, carry on … so after I’m set up with a profile then what, Paddy?

PADDY: Well then. Mick, that’s your set up to talk to anyone you want … anywhere!

MICK: Whatcha mean anyone I want, Paddy?

PADDY: Like it sounds, Mick. Anyone in the world. Your power knows no bounds, no limits at all on who you can chat to.

MICK: So … let’s just say, Paddy–for example–you said anyone, right? I could talk boundlessly to any soul of my choosing, yeah? How about the Queen?

PADDY: What? The Queen, oh jaysus, Mick. I’m not so sure about that one now.

MICK: You said anyone, Paddy. Me ears gave witness to that, they did.

PADDY: Aye, I did. Mick … ok, so maybe you could talk to the Queen, Mick … just saying maybe now–ok? Anyways, if you can chat to anyone why on earth would you pick the Queen, Mick?

MICK: Hey, Paddy, I’ve quite a lot I’d like to chat to the Queen about. Indeed, I have!

PADDY: Anyway, Mick, the next step is that you have to present yourself on your newly established profile.

MICK: Present meself? Ah now, Paddy, your having a laugh. I know folk that got arrested for “presenting” themselves. Ha-ha.

PADDY: Ah, Mick, you’re not taking me serious at all are ye?

MICK: I am, Paddy, hahaha. I am. Go on, tell me more about this representation of myself.

PADDY: Well, ok, Mick. You have to take a fine picture of yourself to use as your representation face, for your new profile … hang on what’s it they call it? Uh–selfme … selfie … aye, that’s it, a selfie Mick! You have to take a selfie, a picture of yourself.

MICK: Hahaha. Ah, how in the blazers can I take a picture of me own mug Paddy, your killing me here, hahaha.

PADDY: Ah jaysus, Mick. I’m trying to educate–instruct you in the ways of the modernised world. You’ll have to catch up with the times, Mick, or ye’ll be left behind.

MICK: Paddy, I’m a man of 55 years. I’m happy to be left behind–especially if that’s what society is offering now in terms of modernisation … taking a selfie of oneself for the sole purpose of broadcasting of the self on the world wonder web so’s they can talk with anyone they like–Queen included. Actually, she’s the worse culprit … she already has the selfie thingy down to a tee, eh!

PADDY: Eh?

MICK: Yep, she does indeed. Sure hasn’t she got her very own selfie stamp, eh? Hahaha.

PADDY: Aye, haha, she does Mick. You’re right there.

MICK: Anyways, Paddy, in all seriousness, can the modern ones of today’s world not just talk face-to-face anymore? And sure they all have phones as well … so what’s the bloody need for such Facebooks and the like I? I don’t know.

PADDY: Yeah, but Mick you can’t talk face-to-face to someone in … say Canada or Japan … couldn’t use your phone either, too damn costly.

MICK: But Paddy, what on earth would you want to contact Canada or Japan? You don’t know anyone there and sure you can’t talk Canadish or Japanese either. So why?

PADDY: But you see, Mick, with this new invention of Facebook you can virtually travel the cyber waves of the world wonder web and make friends anywhere you like.

MICK: Make friends, Paddy? Really! Are you saying I could head down to the bar of a Saturday night with my “new found Canadian” buddy or do a spot of early Sunday morning fishing with my “new-found Japanese ally”?

PADDY: Not at all, Mick. Don’t be stupid. Sure, you’ve never met them.

MICK: Exactly me point, Paddy. So’s how can we be friends?

PADDY: Well Mick, they can chat to you in your “inbox”.

MICK: “Chat to me in my inbox?” Paddy listen to yourself. Haha-haha. Aye, you’ve lost the plot completely now, me dear friend. Haha.

PADDY: Send you private messages.

MICK: Like what, Paddy? I’ve nothing public or private I have to be saying to the Japanese. Nought at all, nothing private or public to hear from them either, Paddy.

PADDY: Well then, Mick,  you could share your pictures on your wall so’s folk could see.

MICK: What? I hang me pictures of meself on my wall inside me gaff for a reason, Paddy. If I wanted the world and its mother to view them, I’ve have hung em on the outside walls of me house now wouldn’t I? And besides, why would I want some Jap looking at me pics anyway?

PADDY: I mean family, Mick. They’re all on it and share pics of every occasion …doesn’t even have to be an occasion anymore. Ye just share pictures with your family for fun.

MICK: But Paddy, every occasion I attend , so do me family, so why would they want me to share pics of meself at such occasions when they’ve already seen me there in the flesh, eh?

PADDY: Ah Mick, you’re not getting it at all.

MICK: I’m just saying, Paddy, it sounds a bit like advertising yourself to a big system of spies.

PADDY: What?

MICK: Think about it, Paddy. You’re on there, ok, reporting what you’re doing–yeah, where you’re doing it–and providing all photographic evidence of you doing what you’re doing, wherever it’s at. Sounds like a big invasion of privacy to me … sure in the olden days we’d run away from something like that but nowadays every feker wants to be spied on in the name of modernization …  Right, I don’t get it, Paddy.

PADDY: But it connects folk, Mick–unites different cultures without man-made barriers of land, sea and the postal service.

MICK: Paddy, the lands are separated for a reason, me good man. Trust me on this, Paddy. Some countries aren’t supposed to be connecting and mingling cultures so freely.

PADDY: Ah Mick, listen if your sister lived abroad–let’s say Australia, ok–would it not be of a comfort to you to know you could connect and talk to her as much as you wanted without travelling miles or spending a small fortune on the phone?

MICK: Me sister lives in the market square in St. Peter’s Street, Paddy,–three streets away from my house. You know that, Paddy.  I see too  much of her as it is.

PADDY: Ah Mick, I’m just saying if …

MICK: Look, Paddy, if … if it was something like a reversed Facebook , bookface for example where instead of connecting you’d could disconnect with family and friends then I’d join up straight away, hahaha.

PADDY: Sure what would be the point of that, Mick?

MICK: Aye, I suppose you’re right, Paddy, either way they’d know where you live.

PADDY: Anyways,Mick, so what do you say eh?

MICK: Say about what Paddy?

PADDY: Your profile of course Mick?

MICK: No.

PADDY: But …

 MICK: No.

PADDY: But Mick, it’s your own virtual identity.

MICK: No, me real life “identity” is more than satisfactory for me Paddy, and what do you mean “it’s” Paddy?

PADDY: Ah Mick, don’t be annoyed at me, me old chum, but I’ve already set you up.

MICK: Set me up?

PADDY: Aye Mick, you are now the owner of your own profile, you’re on the web, a virtual Mick has been created.

MICK: What?

PADDY: Yep, me grandson did them yesterday for us both, a virtual Paddy and a virtual Mick, complete with pictures and all.

MICK: What pictures would that be now Paddy?

PADDY: Well mine is me ponderously self-staring back at me. It’s exciting doing a selfie you know, Mick.

MICK: And?

PADDY: And you Mick, you’ve got to do yours so in the meantime I just had me grandson take a pic of an empty chair for now.

MICK: An empty chair?

PADDY: Aye, Mick. I reckon that’s where you would have been sitting had you been present for your selfie shot.

MICK: Hahaha. So the virtual Mick is represented by an empty chair, eh? Wonderful. It definitely confirms it alright, you have well and truly lost the plot my friend and I shall be informing Japan on that as well, Paddy. I’ll be going public with that one for sure. Facebook indeed, whatever next, eh? Some modern device that allows you to look at the folks you’re ringing eh? Hahaha.

PADDY: Er… Mick

MICK: What Paddy?

PADDY: Nothing Mick, it’ll keep til another day.

MICK: Aye Paddy, inbox it to me ….


 

To read another episode on this series see: https://heliosliterature.com/2017/04/11/the-paddy-and-mick-chronicles

Karen McEntegart

Karen Mary McEntegart (poet and playwright) is an Irish lass from Drogheda, Ireland, now living in central England.

FATHER TIME AND ME

 ©2017 Kenneth Harper Finton

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Born squawking with a curious furrow in my brow, I had no choice in the matter of my birth. Later, I was to learn I had been born into a large country and into an even larger universe that I am still learning to comprehend.

When I was eight I had an abdominal operation and was placed under either. I still remember the vision I had under the influence of the drug. I was running from Father Time who chased me with thunderbolts shooting from his fingertips as he yelled, “Stop, stop! You are ahead of time. Stop!”

It was a powerful vision that is vivid to this day.

How strange this world is to the young:  I was born to be myself and not someone else. This is odd enough but it was even odder to come to conception here in this time instead of somewhere else in another time. Everything was such a mystery. I truly wanted to solve the mystery. I felt this could well be my calling.

It did not take long to discover this fact: everyone is stuck in themselves, the same as I am. Everyone has their own little universe where they are the king or the queen.

Sometimes while I was in a playful mood, I asked myself, “If you could be somebody else, who would that be?”

When I ran through the history of people I have met or known, I could not choose to be any of them. There was no one I might want to be more than myself, male or female. It’s inconceivable I could be someone other than myself unless I was play-acting the part. Since I have to be me, I might as well make the most of the situation, I decided.

I took a while to understand why I arrived to be a player in this era. I surmised that it had to do with time and consciousness, something science cannot yet explain. It is so easy to miss this vital connection: the now is ever present, just as awareness is always present.

Is this a mere coincidence? Is the now not a measure of time?

The now is not measurable at all, but a micro fraction of an instant where the past changes into the future. The only thing solely contained in the now is our awareness. Consciousness remembers the past and imagines the future, but always does so in the now.

I came to this realization at a young age and caused myself great confusion. Did this mean the world is a mental construction?

For a while, I considered the possibility that the universe is actually a vision which comes alive in the intellect. This was a problematic idea. The mind itself is a mystery. How could the mind be only a product of flesh and blood, neural connections, when nature obviously had a mind which did not need a nervous system?

We are the centers of our worlds, yet nature has carried out its miracles for billions of years without the help of human consciousness through an unconscious process of evolutionary experiments. This has likely been the case since time began.

The colors we see are wavelengths of light. The mind learns to recognize these as different colors. About me, the people I knew had their own personal mindsets. They were different and separate from my own thoughts, though they used much of the same information I used to make their own world view. The primary difference between us is the type and quantity of the information we process both in the mind and the body.

Throughout our lives, the now remains stationary. It is not time that moves, but consciousness. Awareness is always being transformed through experiences, interactions, and observations. If time were to move, what would be the speed of time? If time flowed, what would be the volume of the flow?

No fixed universal clock can measure the flow or speed of time. Time is relative to dimensions, not to a fixed standard. With no way to measure the speed of time, no method can be devised to measure the speed of the now. The now has no speed at all, nor can it move.  The rational thing to conclude is that time does not flow and the now does not move. Instead, consciousness changes.

This was a huge revelation.

-Kenneth Harper Finton

June 8, 2017

MASCULINITY AND ERNEST HEMINGWAY

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (Scribner)

BOOKS-HEMINGWAY

 

SHORT STORIES

 

“The masters of the short story come to no good end,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, in a bitterly prescient moment. He was, of course, a master of the short story who came to his own no good end with a shotgun.

But now is not the time to speak of endings. This week marks the 118th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth.Today, no living fiction writer towers over American culture the way Papa once did. His cultivated blend of machismo and existential stoicism captivated a lost generation shattered by war. His elliptical style mesmerized readers for decades – and remains so highly contagious that students still fall prey to its impassive tone and declarative simplicity. The International Imitation Hemingway Competition ran for nearly three decades, ending in 2005, but the number and quality of entries that poured in over the years suggest it could have gone on forever.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with this Nobel Prize winner. I got to know the young woman who would eventually be my wife in a seminar on Hemingway. The earth moved, though not at first. If she was attracted to the testosteronic writer, I don’t know what attracted her to me. Hemingway and I were both raised by Christian Science mothers in the Midwest, but beyond that, the similarities end. He had more wives than I’ve had dates. He rushed into danger to get material for his writing; I rushed into writing to get away from danger.

But as I studied his life, all that boxing and boasting and bingeing struck me as symptoms of deep insecurity. Surely, a real man wouldn’t be quite so self-conscious about being a real man, right?

Those tensions are richly explored in a new biography by Mary V. Dearborn, but I can’t help feeling that, for most of us, the secret to appreciating Hemingway’s work lies in staying away from Hemingway’s life. His bravado, his pomposity and, frankly, his inconsolable sadness risk overshadowing his art. What the New Critics called “the biographical fallacy” is always irresistible, but it’s especially tempting when dealing with a writer who aggressively encouraged it. Trying to match up every event in a story to the author’s life is a swell way of reducing a great work of fiction to a flawed autobiography.

Consider that Hemingway’s best novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” tells the story of an impotent man. That’s rich material for a biographical critic, but most of us should just look at the masterpiece on the page. More than 90 years after it was published, it’s still an astonishingly powerful work largely because of its ferocious restraint. When I taught “The Sun Also Rises,” most of my students had no idea what was keeping Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley from jumping into bed, and who can blame them? Jake’s affliction is rarely alluded to and is never described. Thou may differ, but where Hemingway’s later novels seem, to me, freighted with melodrama and distracting verbal tics, “The Sun Also Rises” whispers its chilly despair with unruffled grace.

You can see how he perfected that style in an illuminating new edition of his short stories. This is the fourth volume in the Hemingway Library series, and to read it is to be shocked again by the fecundity of his genius. Writing one story that takes root in literary history is remarkable, but here is classic after classic, including “Indian Camp,” “Big Two-Hearted River,” “The Killers,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”

Some of the stories, such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” appear with alternate endings and notes showing additions and deletions. This material has long been available to scholars, but it’s presented here in a thoroughly accessible way by Seán Hemingway, the author’s grandson, who edited the volume and provides a helpful introduction.

There was a time when it seemed Hemingway, like so many other once indispensable writers, might fade away. (Quick show of hands: Who’s still reading John Dos Passos?) As the decades passed, the parodies seemed to preempt him. More enlightened attitudes about women threatened to render Papa irrelevant. And, really, who thinks hunting is heroic anymore?

But like the handsome bullfighter in “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway’s work just keeps getting up no matter how many times it’s beaten down.

SPOTLIGHT ON ANNIE DILLARD

 

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Barack Obama presents the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal to Annie Dillard at the White House.

 

American nonfiction writer and novelist Annie Dillard was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (April 30, 1945). In 1970, she began keeping journals of her daily walks around Tinker Creek, by her home outside the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. She’d write about everything she saw, like animals and birds, and even her reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she wrote so much she filled 20 volumes of journals. She decided she had enough for a book and at the very end, she was writing for 15 to 16 hours a day. That book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), won the Pulitzer Prize, when Annie Dillard was just 29 years old.

Dillard was the daughter of an oil company executive and read voraciously as a child. She says, “I opened books like jars.” One of her very favorites was The Field Book of Ponds and Streams (1930) by Ann Haven Morgan. She wrote about growing up in Pittsburgh in her autobiography, An American Childhood(1987). It was so popular that it helped usher in the memoir craze.

Dillard went to college, and ended up marrying her writing professor. She says: “In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say. I didn’t come to college to think my own thoughts; I came to learn what had been thought.” Annie Dillard’s books include Holy the Firm (1977), which is only 66 pages long, but took 14 months to write; Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982); and The Maytrees (2007).

Her advice: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek begins: “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

-Excerpt from THE WRITER”S ALMANAC


 

FROM THE ATLANTIC, MARCH 2016

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/03/where-have-you-gone-annie-dillard/426843/

Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?

Why the author has become so much less prolific over the past 17 years

The Abundance, a selection from the work of one of the great, original voices in recent American letters, might just as easily be called The Absence. It speaks of absence—for nature’s profusion, in Annie Dillard, is everywhere the signage of the hidden god she seeks—and it also marks an absence: hers. Dillard’s first book appeared in 1974. Over the following 25 years, she published 10 more original volumes, including two that have achieved the status of modern classics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a latter-day Walden, and The Writing Life, a “spiritual Strunk & White” (as one reviewer put it), and two more that deserve to, Holy the Firm, which might have been written in letters of flame, and Teaching a Stone to Talk, a jewel box of narrative meditations. (Some might add An American Childhood, her celebrated memoir.) In the 17 years since, she’s published one, and none since 2007.

The Abundance only serves to underscore the dearth. The subtitle, Narrative Essays Old and New, is false advertising; there are no new pieces here. The most recent essay in the book, which is also the only one not included in a previous volume, is 11 years old. There are many reasons a writer might slow down or even stop, most of them mysterious to strangers. But Dillard’s turn to silence, if that is what it is, could in retrospect be seen as having been inevitable all along—given her choice of materials, her idiosyncratic sensibility, the very nature of her project.

 

Dillard declared her arrival, at the age of 28—brash and bold and talented beyond belief—with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). The book was unabashed about its lineage. An ardent young American takes to the woods, anchoring herself beside a water. Sojourning for many a season, she distills her experience down to a symbolic single year. “I propose to keep here,” she announces at the start of her account, “what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind.’ ” She scrutinizes nature with monastic patience and a microscopic eye. She delivers doctrine with the certainty of revelation and the arrogance (and agedness) of youth. She summons us to wake from dull routine. With flourishes of brass, she proclaims a new dawn.The text itself is thickly planted with marvels to watch for, its vision fresh as Adam’s on the first day. A creek bank is a “twiggy haze.” A gibbous moon is “softly frayed, like the heel of a sock.” “It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky,” Dillard tells us. “Any object at a distance—like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window—looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue.” But she doesn’t need a simile to send a sense aloft. Muskrats in their dens “strew the floor with plant husks and seeds, rut in repeated bursts, and sleep humped and soaking, huddled in balls.” The language makes of brute factuality a verbal music. An egg case of a praying mantis “has a dead straw, dead weed color, and a curious brittle texture, hard as varnish, but pitted minutely, like frozen foam.” There are flashes of humor as well. Newts “are altogether excellent creatures, if somewhat moist, but no one pays the least attention to them, except children.” Children, of course, and her.

 

Yet for all Dillard’s brilliance as a nature writer, nature isn’t finally her subject. She situates herself on territory like Thoreau’s but faces toward a very different compass point. He also went to nature, truth be told, with other things in mind. He looked at the pond, but he was thinking about Concord—how the people there lived, and how it might be possible to live another way. Walden’s first, long chapter is titled “Economy,” complete with lists of expenditures for things like nails and lard. We watch him build his famous little house, and plant his beans, and chop his wood, which warms him twice.

But in Pilgrim there is no economy and no society. We don’t know how Dillard lives, or how she makes a living, or much of anything about her circumstances. Notwithstanding the occasional, distant presence of neighbors in the book, it comes as a surprise to find her describing the creek’s vicinity, in a subsequent volume, as suburban—and a shock to learn, from biographical sources, that she was married the whole time. In a curious way, she is absent from her own book, at least as more than an Emersonian eyeball (albeit one that’s cabled to a buzzing brain), and others are absent altogether. The cabin near Concord had plenty of visitors—in fact, there’s a whole chapter in Walden called “Visitors”—among whom was Thoreau’s dear friend Ellery Channing. Dillard has a companion named Ellery Channing too, but he’s a goldfish. Thoreau, whose commandment is “simplify,” wants to reconstruct society from the ground up. Dillard, whose law is “look,” only wants to renovate your soul.

She looks at crayfish, looks at copperheads, looks at a little green frog, half out of the water, that as she watches “crumpled and began to sag… shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football,” its innards liquefied and emptied by a giant biting bug. But looking at these marvels, she is always looking for God. She is not a naturalist, not an environmentalist; she’s a theologian—a pilgrim. Her field notes on the physical world are recorded as researches toward the fundamental metaphysical conundra: Why is there something rather than nothing, and what on Earth are we doing here? What, in other words—with crayfish and copperheads and giant biting bugs, with creeks and stars and human beings with their sense of beauty—does God have in mind?

Dillard, needless to say, does not answer these questions. But the striking thing about her search for God is that she sometimes finds him. Pilgrim’s second chapter, after a kind of introduction, is titled “Seeing.” (Both sections are included in The Abundance.) There are two kinds, she explains. The common variety is active, where you strain, against the running babble of internal monologue, to pay attention to what’s actually in front of you. That’s the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze. But, she tells us, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.

The distinction is akin to Proust’s two forms of memory. His holy grail, you might recall, is the involuntary kind, the kind that bursts upon you unexpectedly, as when the narrator’s entire childhood unfurls from the madeleine. That is the epiphany; that is the miracle. So it is with Dillard. She tells us about a girl who was cured of congenital blindness and, being taken into a garden, saw, as she put it, “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for that tree, Dillard says, that she herself searched for years:

Then one day, walking along Tinker Creek, thinking of nothing at all, I saw it—the tree with the lights in it. It was the same backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost, only charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame … It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance … I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.

The encounter is erotic (“knocked breathless by a powerful glance”), like the ecstasies of Saint Teresa. God has seen and seized her, claimed her. This, again, is something very different from Thoreau’s experience. To use a pair of terms that Dillard introduces in a later book, she is not a pantheist (as he was) but a panentheist. God, panentheism says, is not coextensive with, identical to, the physical world, the world of nature. He is a being that transcends it even as he dwells within it. Get rid of nature, for the pantheist, and you get rid of God. Get rid of nature, for the panentheist, and you see him all the clearer. That, I think, is why it has to be a creek for Dillard, not a pond. Walden, in its depth and stillness (the attributes Thoreau insists upon most keenly), symbolizes nature’s stability and serenity. The world abides and always will. But the creek, for Dillard, is energy, divine spirit, “the stream of light pouring down.” The world does not abide. Creation is continuous, and the heavens will be rolled up as a scroll. She watches the water, but waits for the flame.

Thoreau runs his narrative year from spring to spring—nature filling up, emptying, and starting to fill up again. Dillard runs her own from winter to winter; the emphasis is on the emptiness. In an afterword written for the 25th-anniversary edition, she reveals a deeper, two-part structure. “Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God… possesses all positive attributes.” Those along the other pathway “stressed God’s unknowability.” They “jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Pilgrim, Dillard says, walks both routes in succession. The first half, culminating with the summer solstice, is the plenitude; the second the reduction. A final chapter recapitulates the movement. Its epigraph—employed again in The Abundance—comes from the Koran. “They will question thee concerning what they should expend. Say: ‘The Abundance.’ ” Accumulate, then spend. Accumulate to spend. Gather nature to get rid of it—but you can’t get rid of it until you’ve done the formic labor that such gathering entails.

 

Get rid of nature, to see the God who dwells in nature. It sounds paradoxical, and it is. (Dillard quotes Augustine in a later book: “If you do understand, then it is not God.”) But Dillard has been chasing that paradox ever since. The via negativa, with its purity and stringency, clearly proved to be the more congenial path. Virginia, where she’d come for college, did not turn out to be her landscape. From Tinker Creek, beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains in the lushness of the Roanoke Valley, she decamped, the year after publishing Pilgrim, for a place considerably more austere: Lummi Island, in the northern reaches of Puget Sound. The region, with its wall of mountains to the east and endless salted ocean to the west, was for her, as she was soon to call it, “the edge of the known and comprehended world… the western rim of the real… the fringey edge… where time and eternity spatter each other with foam”—a place, in other words, where nature stops and the darkness of divinity begins.

The description comes from Holy the Firm(1977), the work she proceeded to write there, a book that is to Pilgrim what Lummi Island is to Tinker Creek. It throws out the crayfish and copperheads, the frogs, the bugs, the twigs, the scientific lore, all meanderings of thought and ambulation. The text runs 65 pages, short ones, and the prose seems pressed out drop by drop. Dillard later said the book took 14 months to write, full-time, which works out to something like 25 words a day. The sentences are bitten rock, bitter water, biting wind: “Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.”

The final phrase articulates the volume’s central theme. For eternity, read “God.” For time, read “the world” (i.e., us). For clips, read “kills”—or maims, burns, starves, causes anguish or grief—that “little violence here and there.” Dillard later explained, in An American Childhood (1987), that she had quit her church, at age 16, over the problem of suffering, the evident impossibility of reconciling the idea of a loving God with the circumstances that prevail in his creation, the law of universal pain. This is the problem of Job, and like whoever wrote his story, Dillard doesn’t try to offer a solution. She knows that all you can really do is frame the question, which she does by telling us about a child named Julie Norwich. Julie is a local girl, 7 years old. Holy the Firm presents itself as the record of three days on the island. On the second, Julie goes down in a plane crash—her father, flying the craft, is unharmed—and has her face burnt off.

I doubt that Julie Norwich ever existed. Her name is an echo of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress and mystic, whom Dillard had alluded to in Pilgrim. Julie’s parents are Jesse and Ann, the father of King David (a figure for Christ in Christian typology) and the mother of the Virgin Mary. Dillard also gives us dates for the book’s events (for example, Friday, November 20) that seem deliberately to misalign with the two years during which the narrative might have taken place. But it doesn’t matter whether Julie is real. Her story is a parable, like Job’s. Her story is a riddle, like his. Why do such things happen? For they happen all the time and everywhere around us. In “The Deer at Providencia,” an essay published just around the time she moved to Puget Sound (also reproduced in The Abundance), Dillard writes about a trip to South America. One day she sees a deer tied up in a village. It’s going to be dinner that night. In language flayed to rawness she describes its suffering:

Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves … Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw. It could not stand … so it could not move to slacken the rope and ease the pull on its throat … Its hip jerked; its spine shook. Its eyes rolled; its tongue, thick with spit, pushed in and out.

She might be a god on Olympus, looking down impassively on human suffering. (She’s also testing us to see how we react.) Afterward she eats a lavish lunch, including a venison stew. Her companions, older men, are surprised at her detachment. “Gentlemen of the city,” she apostrophizes them in the essay, “what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?” She has thought about the fact that she (and we, and many, many other animals) eat meat. “These things are not issues,” she tells us. “They are mysteries.”

 

Issues are addressed; mysteries are witnessed. The story of Julie Norwich, in the second part of Holy the Firm, is prefigured by another story in the first. (The most celebrated passage in the book, the earlier story is also in the new collection.) Dillard is camping. A moth gets stuck in her candle flame. It burns—then, a hollowed shell, a wick, it keeps on burning. “The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours… like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems.” The final reference blossoms in the volume’s final third. The virgin Julie, consecrated by the touch of God, will nonetheless undoubtedly go back into the world, Dillard thinks. So she herself will be the nun, the anchoress, instead. Which means the poet, the artist: head afire, channeling the Holy Spirit, “lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see.” Giving her life to illuminate the divine darkness. Bearing witness to the dear.

Such is the vocation Dillard expands on in The Writing Life(1989). The book is not a manual of tips. It is a portrait of the artist as a soul, its moral qualities and moral situation, offered in the second person. “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” And: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.” The book proceeds, like all her finest work, as a series of extended metaphors. The writer is a miner with a pick; the writer is a pilot with a plane; the writer is a rower in a skiff, towing a log against the current, heading stoutly always in the same direction. The volume’s dominant motif is the single room: a shed on Cape Cod, a cabin on a Puget beach, an office, a study, a carrel (a cockpit, a skiff)—the hermit’s cell, the mind alone with itself. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

The work is a collage, like all her finest books. Dillard has remarked that her objective as a writer of prose has been to reproduce, on a larger scale, poetry’s “capacity for deep internal structures of meaning.” (Her first book, in 1974, was a volume of lyrics, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. Later, in 1995, she published Mornings Like This, whose poems are assemblages of sentences from other people’s books, one book per poem.) She creates these structures like an artisan working in stained glass. A piece of this, a piece of that, a moment, a story, a scientific fact, a bit of spiritual wisdom: underneath, an iron structure; on the surface, what appears to be a mind at dazzling play. Pilgrim was assembled from a heap of index cards. “ ‘Seeing,’ ” that second chapter, “gave me so much trouble to put together I nearly abandoned the book.” For the Time Being (1999), her most recent work but one, consists of seven sections, each one cycling through a set of rubrics in fixed order (“birth,” “sand,” “China,” “clouds”), 10 of them, a kind of rosary, their facets winking as they’re turned and turned about. The meanings happen in the parts, and in the spaces in between them.In Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), the pieces are essays themselves. The collection, which includes “The Deer at Providencia,” might just be her greatest book, and it receives the largest share of The Abundance. Its finest piece, its central piece, the one that’s chosen to conclude the new collection, is “An Expedition to the Pole.” The essay is a single long extended metaphor in which the journey toward the Absolute—a k a the God of silence—which she elsewhere calls “this feckless prospecting in the dark for the unseen,” the lifelong effort to know the unknowable and to say the unsayable, is likened to the polar expeditions of yore. To most of us, as Dillard knows, the effort seems completely pointless. To her it is the only thing that gives our life a point.

 

Make no mistake about her spiritual extremity. This is a woman who has seen angels (as she tells us in another essay), who has seen visions, who has seen the tree with the lights in it, which another witness called the burning bush. But miracles like that, she later came to feel, are things that happen only to the young. Her mission since may be conceived of as a quest to recapture those glimpses by other, more deliberate means. No longer could she count on cracks appearing of a sudden in the midst of things through which the holy might pour. So she went to the edges. After Virginia, the scenes of her writing are almost uniformly places of, or next to, emptiness: Puget Sound, Cape Cod, the Alaskan Arctic, the Galápagos, the deserts of China and Israel—the wilderness, eternal haunt of seekers. Virginia itself, which she left around the time she turned 30, may be seen, in its spiritual fecundity, as a kind of figure for youth, her empty spaces as a metaphor for middle age.

The only thing that gives our life a point. Dillard, like Thoreau, is never shy about pronouncing wholesale condemnation on the way her fellows live. To her the mass of men lead lives not of quiet desperation but of superficiality, insensibility, and rank illusion. We live as if we think we’re never going to die. We live as if our petty business counted. We live as if we weren’t as numerous as sand, and each of us ephemeral as clouds. We live as if there hadn’t been a hundred thousand generations here before us, and another hundred thousand were not still to come. Yet all around us holiness and grace, freely given every moment for the taking.

One of the most remarkable things about her work, in fact, is just how much is absent from it. No economy, no society: no current events, no public affairs, no social engagement. With few exceptions, her writing seems to take place entirely outside the history of its own time. (A contrast may be drawn with Marilynne Robinson, Dillard’s nearest kin among contemporary authors, whose religious convictions are inseparable from strong political and social commitments.) “I had a head for religious ideas,” Dillard reports in An American Childhood, her chronicle of growing up in postwar, upper-class Pittsburgh, a book that is largely concerned with the development, in solitude, of the writer’s own consciousness. “They made other ideas seem mean.”

 

That feeling, it appears, has never altered. The social novel, the novel that “aims to fasten down the spirit of its time,” she tells us in The Writing Life, “has never seemed to me worth doing.” Her own novels, The Living (1992) and The Maytrees (2007), each a brilliant performance, find different ways to eschew the contemporary. The first is a multigenerational saga, set in the late 19th century, about the earliest white settlements near Puget Sound, written, with remarkable fidelity and tact, in period idiom. But it isn’t really about history, either, in the sense of thinking that it matters, or seeing it in terms of some kind of development, or tracing its connections, if only implicitly, to the present. Like all her work, the novel is about the fact of being alive, for a brief span, within the overwhelming context of the natural world. The Maytrees, her most recent book—its prose a prodigy of velocity and precision, language concentrated to an essence—dissents in space instead of time, taking up a handful of Provincetown bohemians, a kind of spiritual elect, who devote themselves to art, simplicity, and contemplation out there on the Outer Cape. Dillard’s mind is on eternity; she couldn’t give a damn about the spirit of her time.That, of course, is her prerogative (though the odor of self-congratulation starts to get a little thick in The Maytrees). But it points to several problems, and beyond them, to a fundamental limitation. For she is not content to walk her path in solitude. She also wants to tell us how to live. She has an ethic as well as a metaphysic, and it consists, in its entirety, of worship. “Quit your tents,” she preaches. “Pray without ceasing.” Dillard doesn’t seem to understand it’s not that simple, and I think it’s fair to note here not only that her family was rich, but that she married, in college, an established professional (and published, early, a perennial best seller). “It is noble work,” she says in reference to another pilgrim’s spiritual exercises, “and beats, from any angle, selling shoes.” Except the part where you, you know, get to feed your family.

 

Dillard is not content to affirm her own way. She needs to denigrate all other ways (unlike Thoreau, who wrote, “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for… I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible”). The social novel isn’t simply not her thing; it’s not worth doing at all. The life in nature is good; the life of civilization, the life of cities, as she repeatedly insists (it is a major theme in The Maytrees), is obsessed with stuff and status, the cultivation and display of good taste. The judgment seems, to put it mildly, overbroad. It sounds not like all life in all cities (and Dillard, as far as I can tell, hasn’t lived in any cities since abandoning her native Pittsburgh after high school), but like the white-gloved milieu that she tells us about in An American Childhood. Not to mention that the life of reading and writing to which she has devoted herself is inconceivable without civilization, and the cities where it’s principally created. Crayfish don’t write books, and copperheads don’t buy them.

But the problems go beyond hypocrisy and spiritual snobbery. Ordinarily, the thought that none of us matters in the larger scheme of things is followed by the corrective that, of course, we matter a great deal to one another, and need to take care of one another, and isn’t that what life is after all about? The word for this is morality, also known as love. But neither has much place in Dillard’s thought. For the Time Being, her last work of nonfiction, the book of seven parts and 10 rubrics, represents, among other things, a long meditation over her decades of reading in the literature of spirit. Its hero is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest, paleontologist, and theologian. Second place goes to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. But Teilhard and the Baal Shem, mystics though they were, had codes of conduct, codes of service, too, which came to them from their religions. Dillard seems, at least in this late work, to sense what she is missing. Every once in a while, she pulls a kind of quarterback sneak, smuggling morality (“aiding and serving the afflicted and poor,” “a holy and compassionate intention”) into the discussion. The effect is of a man who finishes rebuilding the engine of his car and, finding a bolt on the driveway, balances it carefully on the hood. The bolt, in Dillard’s case, is the entire universe of human attachment.

And that, I think, may be the explanation for her movement into silence. Her works are each unique in formal terms, but there are only so many times, and so many ways, that you can make the same points. Already in her last two books, the only ones that she has written in more than 20 years, it feels as if, thematically at least, she is merely giving the old prayer wheel another spin. The Abundance, a collage of existing material, is, by definition, nothing new. One hopes it heralds a return. One fears it is a valedictory.


Annie Dillard – Official Site

A site maintained by Dillard herself, provides contact information as well as complete bibliographic information and a curriculum vitae.

WHERE DID LANGUAGE COME FROM?

Cormac McCarthy, the celebrated American novelist, author of ten novels, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, is publishing his first-ever non-fiction science essay in Nautilus magazine. Called “The Kekulé Problem,” it explores the unconscious and the origin of human language, and is the cover story of the March/April issue.  “The Kekulé Problem” was published online on April 20th at www.nautil.us.

The essay presents a new, surprising side of one of American’s greatest writing talents. Readers of his novels, which include The Road, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses, may not be aware that for more than two decades McCarthy has been a senior fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, a science research center.

In his introduction to McCarthy’s essay, David Krakauer, president of SFI, notes that McCarthy is an aficionado in subjects ranging from the history of mathematics to the nature of the conscious. We learn he has been debating the nature of the unconscious mind for two decades.

McCarthy’s essay is a groundbreaking, humanist take on a foundational question in science, and a remarkable window into the self-conception of one of America’s greatest living writers. The essay can be read online, purchased in print form through the magazine’s online store at shop.nautil.us, or found in bookstores across the United States and Canada.


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The Kekulé Problem

by Cormac McCarthy

 

I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”

Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

All animals have an unconscious. If they didn’t they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesn’t actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldn’t work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.

Did language meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.

Problems, in general, are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.

I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we don’t know. Just as we don’t know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy, this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.

There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps. But vision we now know is traceable to perhaps as many as a dozen quite independent evolutionary histories. Tempting material for the teleologists. These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator. Which actually makes it an excellent scenario for Darwinian selection. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I don’t know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language—that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was, in fact, the water in the glass. This in the play The Miracle Worker. Not a dry eye in the house.

The invention of language was understood at once to be incredibly useful. Again, it seems to have spread through the species almost instantaneously. The immediate problem would seem to have been that there were more things to name than there are sounds to name them with. Language appears to have originated in southwestern Africa and it may even be that the clicks in the Khoisan languages—to include Sandawe and Hadza—are an atavistic remnant of addressing this need for a greater variety of sounds. The vocal problems were eventually handled evolutionarily—and apparently in fairly short order—by turning our throat over largely to the manufacture of speech. Not without cost, as it turns out. The larynx has moved down in the throat in such a way as to make us as a species highly vulnerable to choking on our food—a not uncommon cause of death. It’s also left us as the only mammal incapable of swallowing and vocalizing at the same time.

The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species were not protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion and David Krakauer—our president—said that the same idea had occurred to him. Which pleased me a good deal because David is very smart. This is not to say of course that the human brain was not in any way structured for the reception of language. Where else would it go? If nothing else we have the evidence of history. The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not. The virus comes nicely machined. Offer it up. Turn it slightly. Push it in. Click. Nice fit. But the scrap heap will be found to contain any number of viruses that did not fit.

There is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.

Influential persons will by now, of course, have smiled to themselves at the ill-concealed Lamarckianism lurking here. We might think to evade it by various strategies or redefinitions but probably without much success. Darwin, of course, was dismissive of the idea of inherited “mutilations”—the issue of cutting off the tails of dogs for instance. But the inheritance of ideas remains something of a sticky issue. It is difficult to see them as anything other than acquired. How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all. It is an area pretty much ignored by the artificial intelligence studies, which seem mostly devoted to analytics and to the question of whether the brain is like a computer. They have decided that it’s not, but that is not altogether true.

Of the known characteristics of the unconscious, its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I don’t know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?

To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is machine for operating an animal.

What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesn’t it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point, the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not, for the most part, come in narrative form. We have to do that.

So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course, that’s what we are saying. Except that he didn’t say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being, he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course, they don’t think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually, a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didn’t precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old.

They haven’t explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.

One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink. But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language, you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We don’t know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

Apart from its great antiquity, the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

When you pause to reflect and say: “Let me see. How can I put this,” your aim is to resurrect an idea from this pool of we-know-not- what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed. It is the this that one wishes to put that is representative of this pool of knowledge whose form is so amorphous. If you explain this to someone and they say that they don’t understand you may well seize your chin and think some more and come up with another way to “put” it. Or you may not. When the physicist Dirac was complained to by students that they didn’t understand what he’d said Dirac would simply repeat it verbatim.

The picture-story lends itself to a parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad, it doesn’t include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesn’t say that you can’t ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.

To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet. You have to be careful about inviting Descartes to the table. Aside from inheritability probably the best guide as to whether a category is of our own devising is to ask if we see it in other creatures. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired.

I’d been thinking about the Kekulé problem off and on for a couple of years without making much progress. Then one morning after George Zweig and I had had one of our ten-hour lunches I came down in the morning with the wastebasket from my bedroom and as I was emptying it into the kitchen trash I suddenly knew the answer. Or I knew that I knew the answer. It took me a minute or so to put it together. I reflected that while George and I had spent the first couple of hours at cognition and neuroscience we had not talked about Kekulé and the problem. But something in our conversation might very well have triggered our reflections—mine and those of the Night Shift—on this issue. The answer, of course, is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break. When later I told George what I’d come up with he mulled it over for a minute or so and then nodded and said: “That sounds about right.” Which pleased me a good deal because George is very smart.

The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?


Cormac McCarthy is a board member and senior fellow of the Santa Fe Institute.


Over the last two decades, Cormac and I have been discussing the puzzles and paradoxes of the unconscious mind. Foremost among them, the fact that the very recent and “uniquely” human capability of near infinite expressive power arising through a combinatorial grammar is built on the foundations of a far more ancient animal brain. How have these two evolutionary systems become reconciled? Cormac expresses this tension as the deep suspicion, perhaps even contempt, that the primeval unconscious feels toward the upstart, conscious language. In this article Cormac explores this idea through processes of dream and infection. It is a discerning and wide-ranging exploration of ideas and challenges that our research community has only recently dared to start addressing through complexity science.

—David Krakauer

President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems, Santa Fe Institute