Thursday, August 9, 2012

Time and Tide Pt. 3

The Soft Sell and the Soft Cell

1. (used to introduce the first of two or more alternatives, and sometimes repeated before the second or later alternative, usually with the correlative or): It matters little whether we go or stay. Whether we go or whether we stay, the result is the same.
2. (used to introduce a single alternative, the other being implied or understood, or some clause or element not involving alternatives): See whether or not she has come. I doubt whether we can do any better.

As to whether “whether” Carl Wilson was thinking of during “Feel Flows”, I am inclined to suspect that if the choice was either, it would be neither.

But when you get to the third possibility…

3. Archaic (used to introduce a question presenting alternatives, usually with the correlative or )

This is where the heart of the matter is: “a question presenting alternatives”. Mind you, it even appears to be closer to the old English of “whither”, indicating a direction unknown but nonetheless posited as a destination. That seems even weirder now than it did in the ‘60s, when folks were also going hither and yon. Which also presents as valid a description of subatomic reality as any; be it a quark in a shrinking box or Schoedinger’s Cat—there will always be that question of probability, of “whether”, but more.

This is not a question of “choice”, per se, inasmuch as the commercial that trumpets the New & Improved product or Brand X; as Monte Hall would offer Door Number One, Door Number Two or what we have behind that curtain; as Frank R. Stockton in 1882 would ask you “The Lady or The Tiger”. Those are all definition #1; the world we are used to. Anything that gives an answer. And then there is definition #2: being “on message” in the Romney campaign, for instance, means to offer yourself as an alternative to what is…without ever defining what you are. That’s the same as ye olde Madison Avenue sales copy: the two best persuasion techniques being to appeal to Fear or Love. And neither with any content. When it gets to #3, however, you are left with the uneasy feeling that you should identify your own products, your own issues, and mostly do it by finding out where you are and what you are by listening to something other than the Pitchman.

As we left off with the question of a “message”, it behooves us here to stop and consider something about what a “message” might be. The previous mention was in quotes to acknowledge we are talking about something not involving bound morpheme schemes relating to a fixed grammar-&-syntax: i.e., word and sentences. Nor are we talking about some kind of symbolism, such as a fish wrapped in a bloody bullet-proof vest. “It’s a Sicilian message,” says Clemenza. “It means Luca Brazi sleeps wi’ da fishes.” (If you have to ask where that one comes from…I should encourage further socialization.) So? Is it strictly content which can be translated into any known language that qualifies as a “message”?

And now, a message from our sponsors…

No, we are also talking about numbers. And the best ones come out of the LHC—Lesser Hadron Collider. But as none of us is a particle physicist, we will deal with it on layman’s terms, and an analogy straight from the conference on 4-7-12, offered by Joe Incandela, CMS Spokesperson. “The number of particle collisions, if—say—each hadron (proton stuff, essentially) was the size of a grain of sand, the number of collisions would be enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But the number that yielded this discovery would be about the amount that would cling to a fingertip.” This is how we got to the point where we found what we thought we’d find but aren’t sure of what that is. Which is how Fabianola Gianotti, the ATLAS Spokesperson, explained that what they received was a “signal at a strength of five sigmas”. There are some really fascinating definitions for her usage of this term but, most probably, the right one is (given the circumstances of the experiment) “the standard deviation of a population or probability distribution in statistics”.

So why should this matter? Because numbers count.

Still, the other part of the discovery is the “signal”. The way this has been described is, more or less, a fabulous measurement of 14Tv (Tetravolts)—an energy spike that goes beyond all understanding if it is not. And by couching this in the terms of “sigmas” we understand that the probability factor of a correct assessment is also equally high. However, if the signal is no more than a number, the message stops right there.

Looking at the CERN results, are CERtaiNly the formative revelation here, but before this arrived, there was Eric Kandel's book. And this is another aspect of Time. Starting out as a memoir is the perfect frame for its overarching subject--memory--its discovery through science as well as experience, and a review/introduction to the history of cognitive research. As noted previously, philosophical speculation that begins in observation of the natural world frequently offers rewards far beyond its humble origins.

Which is how he introduces Cajal, the painter-turned-neurological investigator who isolated the neuron as the elementary particle (so to speak) of the brain, of thought transmission, of neurotransmitter reception, mono-directional messaging—a/k/a the “signaler”—the whole ball of wax, right there.

Which it isn't...a ball of wax, that is. It is, in essence, the spindliest little string leading into a structure not dissimilar to an anemic sockburr, which then extends another trickle-tickle thread (axon) out into a system of air-roots somewhere between a ficus tree and a spider plant (dendrites and synapses). However strained the comparisons may be, this visualization via vegetation is important. The revealed structures of elementary particles repeat such descriptive characteristics with such frequency, one might ponder if one is fantasizing, over-dramatising, or, perhaps, it is just that those entrusted with thinking in grand patterns are actually blind to the world and its wonders. But not to all. Jefferson wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident" about the Rights of (hu)Man(s), but it stands to is REASON—ratiocination, not rationalization—to which we look with a fair amount of trust. So, factor in the fact the “action potential in membrane hypothesis” in neurons that was discovered by Bernstein around 1902, and who reasoned that something must carry information (positive/negative ions—essentially, a binary language) across a cell synapse,a nd found what we call today "neurotransmitters". What made up this extracellular fluid was, mostly proteins, potassium, and sodium and chloride…a/k/a: salt. True, the chemical messages are mostly by potassium ion channels…

But still: saltwater?

That’s pretty hard to ignore, on a beach. The fact that most of what we are and do is due to us being something like 90% the stuff that tides are made of, is almost deep enough to make you believe in astrology. (Saltwater as a message? Well, tears sure are…) Other things are even harder to ignore, given the fact that this particular stretch of sand is also the one where the dress code is optional (either or neither) and provides a dram of licentious license; an appreciation for the form adds even more to where a flock of seagulls seems equal in stature to Mr. Buff or Ms. Hardbody, when seen through binoculars that foreshorten distance. Which is, of course, yet another example of Scale. And when you see a pair of topless nubiles, strolling hand-in-hand on the sand, there is another case of “whether” entirely.

Which leads to the not-so-really tawdry Lesbian novels of the 50’s, where one would think there very little to offer outside of prurient interest. Today, this as much “in one era and out the other”, but in its time… However, it is just for this reason that something remarkable happens. Delving into the depths of depravity that are the sororities in “The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Vol. 1: Odd Girl Out” by Ann Bannon and “Whisper Their Love” by Valerie Taylor, and, of course, “Women’s Barracks” by Tereska Torres, one would expect non-stop depictions of slavering lusts in these superheated hothouses of youthful hormones run rampant. Which is patently ridiculous. This isn’t modern porn, where the equivalent of the pool/pizza boy, or vacuum-cleaner/insurance salesperson drops in and it’s Katie-bar-the-door. In reality, these fictions are tantamount to Harlequin romances, albeit with the additional twist of Twist & and swatch of Switch. Mostly, they are young girl coming-of-age stories wherein the protagonist undergoes some initial trauma (usually familial, but can be as broad as WWII), has a date (or few) with a male which turns out badly, suffers gender confusion and fixates on a (usually) older female, and eventually falls into a heated embraced detailed only in euphemism. They are, to be blunt, charmingly naive and even a tad innocent. (“Whisper Their Love” is the one with any depravity, so far, where the heroine joins her lover at a seedy bar-cum-nightclub in the “wrong-part-of-town” and meets a couple cross-dressers and Broadway queens and drag kings. And a few “reefers” get passed about.)

And that's why even hot-girl-on-girl-action stories can be part of this metaphysical hookup. Despite the promise of the lurid cover copy, these are not sapphic lap-lover orgies. While not having absorbed the entire corpus, one can make certain generalizations which—so far—represent a pattern that is easy to detect. The overt factor here is that there is nothing as sophisticated as a gender change that is permanent. These are all affairs d'coeur: girls falling in love with girls, a condition also noted in Kandel's memoir part, where he recalled, of his childhood in post-Empire/pre-Anschluss Vienna, that maids for the upper-middle-class were not only hired for their dusting abilities but also for introducing pubescent boys to the delights of female sexuality to keep them from experimenting with their friends. More of a question of “going with the flow” so to speak. Does that make “feeling your oats” any less than “feel flows”? To ride the tide is also to surrender to the waves, is it not? This posits the old argument that, while one may be "born" that way (the "gay" gene, as some call it)--which is perfectly acceptable and in accord with what we know about these developmental markers to date--it is also the case that proximity and opportunity play a role for those not given that bent by biology.

Because that’s where Psychology’s cause-&-effect becomes an “if/then” statement.

Kandel’s triple play isn’t O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg; it’s Thorndike (instrumental conditioning) to Pavlov (operant conditioning or classical conditioning) to Skinner (Behaviorism), and before them all shining a light on the path with the opening pitch—Freud’s “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life”. And it all comes from Empirical Reasoning: first, observation or repetitions in experiments and analysis, then conclusions may be drawn from standard interpretation of results, and finally, speculation. This is the cornerstone of any edifice of thought that wants to succeed—pro or con—on the merits of its arguments, rather than its biases. The triple play team may offer concrete results, true, but it all started with the mud adobe of Freud’s subconscious.

This is the Soft Science, and for a reason: quantifiable people only exist in statistics; there are no sigmas for individual personalities only groups…which is why Darwin could be 100% right…and Edmund O. Wilson as well, with an even “softer” science; the “if/then” statement becoming “whether this or that”.

Wilson’s radical new idea was Sociobiology, which, in 1975, was so controversial that got him attacked as both a racist and fascist; now it’s as mainstream as Flouridation. His new controversy is that of Eusociality: the principle of self-sacrifice in given populations which is clearly against the Evolutionary doctrine of all change being made only that serves to enhance or advance the cause of the individual organism. This is where statistics and heroism somehow co-exist as, for Wilson, the proper study of Man is also ants. (“They are the only other species who make war on their own kind…and ants have an instinct for self-sacrifice, organization and savagery, which makes man seem feeble by comparison!”—Edmund Gwen in THEM!, 1950. Trust me, this one is worth it.) How does this square up with the also-controversial idea of Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene”? Not badly, at least as far as Kin Selection goes—where, it is posited, you will find little differentiation between the individual’s interests and that of its kin: hence, the gene that guides an animal to help its kin spreads through the population, regardless of the cost to the animal itself. And in the case of ants, it is the nest or colony which is paramount, the individual worker or soldier being as much an extension of the biomass of all as and arm or a leg. Once you admit (as Wilson did) that, under these circumstances the difference between standard Natural Selection and Kin Selection are not so great, you begin to form a clearer picture about the whole “proximity” thang as it replicates across scales the same concept of “nearness” and special relationships (close to Special Relativity, but not quite) in “families”, where cause-&-effect’s “if/then” statement becomes “whether this and that”.

Whether you understand this closeness of subjects via the advertised line or feel the flow in your neurons, the soft sell or the soft cell, This is all feel flows, the way things come together.

Perhaps then, the real message—chemical or photon-return—truly is “whether”…


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