The Green Muse is playing Morphine. I’m at a pause in moving logistics. Just bought a duffel bag to carry the sleeping bag and camping pad, since I’ll be in the new apartment without furniture for a week or so. The new owner wants the lawnmower and leaf vac/blower (yay!), but I may need to dispose of a perfectly fine washing machine if nobody buys it from Craigs List. Austin Public Library will submit my $25 in fines to a collection agency where it will go on my credit rating, but their computers are down so I can’t actually pay them.
The local music scene that Mark Sandman helped catalyze in Boston seemed like an oddity there; that kind of community instinct is normal in Austin, and is one of the things I’ll miss about Austin.
What I liked about Phantoms in the Brain. The science. Neurologist VS Ramachandran investigates strange conditions including the phantom limbs of amputees, the delusional competencies of paralyzed stroke victims, and the religious epiphanies of epileptics. These oddities yield revelations about the workings of the brain and mind.
The sensations of phantom limbs, it turns out, are generated when the brain’s perceptual circuitry for a missing limb is colonized by brain cells intended for another body part. By understanding the mechanism of phantom sensation, Ramachandran figured out clever ways of retraining the brain to eliminate pain or accept the absense of the limb.
What I didn’t like: the last section of the book, a philosophical analysis of the attributes of consciousness. The connection to experimental science is much weaker in this section. It seemed as though there could be any number of ways to segment consciousness into N logical components, and these segmentations would be equivalently untestable.
What I appreciated: the book discussed the religious epiphanies experienced by some people with epilepsy. But it refrained from drawing conclusions about the validity of these experiences. It is welcome to see a scientist refrain from ascientific conclusions for or against religious belief. But Ramachandran commits a different and related solecism elsewhere in the book.
What I liked least: Quoting Indian scripture, Ramachandran uses the various bugs and gaps in the neurological system to argue that the experience of self and consciousness is an illusion. This argument is fallacious. Take as an analogy a software system that composed of multiple subsystems, each of which needs to work properly for the software to run. There may be some anomalies that occur with strange and unexpected input. But these facts do not somehow prove that the software does not work as intended under normal conditions. Similarly, the vision system is built from multiple components, and it is possible to fake out the system with optical illusions, but these facts don’t mean that vision is an illusion. The author is welcome to his beliefs, but they are not supported by his science.
William Calvin writes entertainingly about human evolution. But his pet theory that the spark for human intelligence came from throwing proto-javelins at proto-gazelles around water holes is a great example of the unpersuasiveness of evolutionary biology. Throwing requires a high level of fine motor coordination, large motor coordination, and forethought, and greater hunting ability clearly would convey evolutionary advantages. But the explanation is unfalsifiable, and can’t be rationally distinguished from competing theories, like Dunbar’s theory that intelligence arose from gossip, or Terrence Deacon’s theory that intelligence arose from proto-wedding rings (you see, humans need explicit symbols to mark the sexual availability of a female, since we don’t have estrus).
VS Ramachandran, in an overall very good book showing what neuropathology reveals about the working of the brain, includes a throwaway statement that the brain could not have a built-in mechanism for cooking, and cooking must therefore be derivative of other skills.
But one could create a just-so story about cooking that would be as persuasive as the story about throwing. Early humans that learned and remembered how to roast meat and detoxify vegetables would gain more calories and nutrients from their food and have an evolutionary advantage over eaters of raw food. The skills of memory, planning, persistence and communication and cooperation required for cooking would carry over easily to other evolutionary beneficial traits.
Come to think of it, child development casts into question both the throwing theory and the cooking theory. Children learn to talk, walk, stack things, and open things earlier than they can throw or hold pretend tea parties.
The overdetermined storytelling and explanatory traits of humans explain the origin myths generated by evolutionary biology, more than any of the myths explain the origins of human intelligence.
Update: A google search of Ramachandran finds a couple of more recent articles about mirror neurons, a not-yet-proven but more plausible fundamental catalyst for human intelligence. The ability to feel and echo another human’s sensation and action could be fundamental to complex social cooperation and cultural learning. An infant will stick his tongue out in response to his parent’s gesture; babies mirror actions and emotions long before they walk and talk. The mirroring hypothesis seems much more amenable to testing in a variety of ways ranging from genetic distance between humans and other primates, the results of mirroring disability (autism?), and the developmental relationship between mirroring, learning, and social development.
The Johnny Cash biopic starts with sentimental scenes of the singer as a young boy with his sweet, kind, diligent, protective and fun older brother. You can tell from the sepia indoors, picturesque outdoors, and thoughtful pauses that young Mr. Virtuous is not long for this movie. The fact that the doomed angel child is a cliche from Victorian literature (Dickens, Alcott, et all) doesn’t make it easier to take.
The movie is filled with such paint-by-numbers sequences. The young Johnny Cash stumbles on Sam Phillips’ storefront recording studio, listens at the back door, and has the door closed in his face. You can tell when Cash is overdosing because the camera goes out of focus. There is a strained moment when Cash’s matronly first wife meets his elegant future wife at a music awards night, and hisses at her to stay away from the children.
Cash’s father (“you’re good for nothing”) and first wife (“I don’t want you mentioning your band or tour, ever”), never have a kind or supportive word to say about anything. Clearly this chronic rejection drives Cash’s self-destruction, as anyone who reads airport bookstore self-help books would know.
The two lead actors do a good job, but the unimaginative or condescending literalness of the movie is a good reminder of what I can’t stand about Hollywood style. It’s not hatred of emotion, or even melodrama. I loved Farewell My Concubine, which featured a damaged artist, unrequited love, drug addiction fueled by rejection, beautiful photography, and plenty of tragedy per foot of celluloid. The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference.