Monthly Archives: June 2021

Taking Pictures

Wyoming is a Banana Republic. That is, very few of its residents craft any products, or add value to pre-existing items. Instead, they survive by selling off the state bit by bit. The major industries are mineral extraction and tourism. Reliance on those commodities creates a vicious cycle, because the state’s fortunes rise and fall with mineral prices and popular whimsy. To live through the fluctuations, politicians skimp on the state budget so that they can put enough money in the bank to survive the next economic lull. A few lonely prophets call for investing those funds in economic diversification, in the interest of breaking free from the cycle of feast and famine. The politicians repeatedly acknowledge that diversification is a good idea, but can never bring themselves to actually commit to it. It is just too risky.

So, the state carries on in its bumpy ruts, booming and busting. Decades on this road have had socioeconomic consequences. The path has led to a land of Manors and mobile homes, housing those who own the mines and the lovely land and their servants respectively.

No place in the state epitomizes this case study in Marxist historical analysis better than the town of Jackson. A ring of expensive houses surrounds a ring of expensive condominiums which surrounds a cluster of expensive restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. And that is Jackson. Though Jackson is fancy enough in any season, its exclusivity shines brightest in winter. In summer, the dirtier class of tourist drives through town on its way to Yellowstone. In winter, the only reason to be in Jackson is to patronize one of the ski resorts or to serve the patrons.

Although, there is one other, statistically insignificant reason to be in Jackson in the winter. For several years, that reason compelled me. I wanted to climb the grand Teton in full conditions. There is no reasonable explanation for that compulsion. I just feel a perverse attraction to isolated, windswept places. For instance, when I topped out on California Ice in the Bighorns, I sat on a rock and looked across from Hell Roaring plateau to Froze to Death plateau and was filled with a rare sensation, a feeling of fearsome loneliness, and profound contentment along with it. I can’t offer any better excuse.

When the idea first came to me, I sought out a friend who had done a lot of climbing in the Teton range. Sure enough, he had attempted a winter ascent. He got close, but after a day of skiing through waist deep powder, he and his partner had to bivouac short of their goal. They were well prepared, but the night was so brutally cold, that they were beaten by the next morning and decided to ski down. They fell into chest deep powder on each turn. My friend’s partner lost his mind. He took his skis off and tossed them, javelin style, down the snowfield. He then swam after them over the loaded slope, cursing and spluttering, until he could get his hands on the traitorous bastards and chuck them again. Though he came back to his senses eventually, the trip marked an end to their partnership..

Despite that tale, and others warning of frostbite and avalanche, I still thought I could pull it off, and I still wanted to pull it off, maybe even more than before. It wasn’t a solo adventure though, and to my surprise and frustration, I had difficulty convincing anyone else to come along.

Finally, I persuaded my friend Jim that it would be a good adventure. I’m not sure if he ever really believed that we would climb, but he believed in the adventure part and that was good enough for him. We set up base camp at the Motel 6 down the road from the main town.

Over the next week, we made a few forays up past the tree line, but the avalanche forecasts were always bad, and the peak was socked in with clouds and blowing snow besides. Nobody said anything; we just gave up one day. We got up late, and Jim suggested that we might go up to Teton Pass and do some tele skiing.

Now it was my turn to cash in on the adventure itself rather than the intrinsic joys of the activity. I knew how skis worked, theoretically. But until that day, I had only used skis to get somewhere with a pack on. My technique was purely pragmatic, and rudimentary. To go downhill, I left the climbing skins on the skis. I then skied across the slope, stopped and turned to face the other direction. I repeated that process to the bottom of the hill.

When we got to the top of the pass, the skins came off the skis. Jim gave me some tips on turning without stopping, and then we were off. Again and again I nosedived into the unconsolidated powder. Jim was soon out of sight. I began to suspect retribution. I felt like I owed him at that point though, so I sucked it up and ate a little more snow while he carved track after track in the slope. When we had had enough, we went into town and wandered around.

Winter tourists milled around the square. Most were dressed to ski, with lift tickets still clipped to their coat zippers. A few were dressed as cowboys in Stetsons and shearling coats. The famous antler arch was busy with group after group documenting the fact of their visit to Jackson Hole with a picture under the strange sculpture of bone.

There was not much for us around the square. We stood outside a couple of the bars and debated going in for a drink. They seemed too crowded though, and we decided against. We stopped by the mountaineering shop, which at this point in its evolution had basically become a Patagonia outlet, to chat with an old friend of Jim’s. We didn’t go in to any of the other establishments, but we did stop for a while in front of a photo display. Though neither of us was in the market for an expensive print, Jim had a professional interest in the product.

Jim was a photographer, but not the kind of photographer who had a gallery in downtown Jackson Wyoming. Jim was an artist who scraped by on grants and museum patronage. He took pains to draw a distinction between what he did, and what a commercial photographer did. Yet he radiated a little glow of resentment as we stood in front of the spotless plate glass. The gallery inside was all polished wood. If there was an attendant, he or she was politely hidden in the back.

The well lit pictures were all of wildlife. Most depicted charismatic megafauna. The photographer seemed particularly fond of bears. Jim glanced over most of these offerings in a second, and then paused for a bit in front of a family of polar bears. He wore a discomforted expression.
“What do you think?”, I asked.
I expected to catch him off guard, and I was halfway teasing with the question, but he shot back right away.
“It’s too didactic”
I was caught off guard.
“What do you mean by that?”, I asked.
“It looks like a photograph,” he said.

I didn’t exactly know what he meant. However, I could see that there was something different about the pictures of wildlife in that gallery, and his pictures. There was one photo of his in particular, taken at Lac Du Flambeau, which stood out to me. The subjects were two members of the tribe, a man and a woman. He was looking into the distance with an expression of anger or determination, it was hard to say which. She stood behind him, maybe in contact with him, wearing that same, mysterious expression, but she was looking at him. She was standing still. He appeared prepared to stride off towards whatever it was the distance. He was silent. She was speaking.

Clearly, his photo was something other than the picture of the polar bear family. I understood the gist of it then, but it would be years before I could put that distinction into words. It is the difference between pictures of polar bears, and polar bear pictures. Pictures of polar bears could be pictures of the whole bear, but also could be photos of a patch of fur, a black nose, or a white dot in the distance. Polar bear pictures could depict whole bears too, but include stick figures, polar bear paintings, pictures of men in polar bear suits, or black eyes, a black nose and a red mouth on white canvases.

Pictures of polar bears document. Polar bear pictures represent. By representing, polar bear pictures evoke all the relative connections which comprise our categories, and therefore the sense of our experience.

The picture in the gallery was a picture of polar bears. It was as documentary as the tourists’ snapshots under the antler arch. The photograph of the man and woman at Lac Du Flambeau was representational. There was something about human relationship, emotion, and the interpretation of expressions in the photo. But the really brilliant thing was: the photo primarily represented something not present in the image itself.

The predominant impression was the churn of excitement and uncertainty which occurred in the beholder. It was a class of sensation which bound subsequent viewers to the original viewer in its momentary intensity.

Jim has been gone for some years now. I can’t even find that picture in the supposed eternity of the Internet. I don’t need to, because I can remember it in every detail by the feeling it represents. The feeling is the same as my excuse for wanting to climb the Grand in winter, and I think it also explains why Jim would throw in on my crazy project.

There is no gallery for such things.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Overhanging 5.9 Hand Crack

The fates have determined that, from time to time, I will dine with royalty. And I have determined that, on those rare occasions, I will not pass up the opportunity to say something stupid.
While waiting for the food at a wilderness medicine conference banquet with my friend Andy, our table-mate, Dr. Hornbein, politely inquired as to our post-meeting plans.

I casually replied, “Oh, we’re headed off to climb the Grand.”
It was February.
To his credit, he blinked once and said, “Well, good luck.”

After sharing grilled chicken and carrots with Jack Tackle, Andy and I asked him what he thought about 2 possible routes for the next day.
He said that he liked the first route well enough. It was clean, with consistent climbing, and little loose rock.
The 2nd climb had some bad rock and mediocre climbing down low, but had an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack for most of a pitch in the middle.
“So,” I asked, “do you think that 2nd route is better?”
He stared at me blankly for a couple of seconds and replied, “It has an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack.”

In the light of subsequent experience, I get it. But at the time, I thought that I wanted to climb 5.12, so the 5.9 rating tarnished anything to which it was affixed. I worked pretty hard towards the goal of climbing 12’s, and I climbed a few 5.9 hand cracks along the way. I got there, barely.
The effort wasn’t worth it though. Working the routes endlessly, with creaking tendons and crushed toes, just did not justify the final victory. It was like winning World War I: a victory, sure, but an atrocity nonetheless.

I think I understand why other people are enamored of more difficult climbs – and yes, I recognize that 5.12 is the basement of “difficult” rockclimbing. For one of my ‘hard’ routes in particular, getting the clean ascent was like making a friend. I became so familiar with every little edge and crystal, that I’m sure I could regurgitate the beta for the route to this day, decades after I touched the rock last.

Working harder routes on rock can be painful and tedious. I don’t think it is the suffering and frustration that turn me off, though. I liked the more difficult mixed climbing that I did, and I was highly motivated to climb grade 6 or harder ice. I obsessively studied and salivated over those ice routes in the same way that some sport climbers I’ve known would microscopically analyze their projects. I trained for hard ice until I thought my forearms would pop.

I think the difference may be in the proprioceptive aesthetic of the climbs. The way a climb feels to the touch and the body position it demands get less attention than the way it looks and the puzzle it poses. The proprioceptive aesthetic is the last to be appreciated.

But the proprioceptive aesthetic leaves the most profound mark on me. It’s always front and center in ice climbing. The appreciation of touch flows from the essential circus trick at the heart of ice climbing: extending one’s consciousness from fingers, toes, wrists, and ankles into the pointy bits of metal attached to those natural appendages.
Maybe that appreciation of touch naturally gets tamped down the harder you crimp and lock off.

Or maybe, this is all just sour grapes. I don’t think so though. Given the choice of magical elixir which would allow me to climb as hard as the best climbers on rock, or a map to a thousand foot, clean, sandstone, overhanging hand crack, I’m certain that I would pick the map without a 2nd thought.

Tagged , , ,

The E-Word

Last night, the wife and I brewed up some nice Medicare mimosas (that’s orange Metamucil with a pinch of MiraLAX for those who don’t know, yet) and sat down to watch a documentary on the desktop. It was my night to choose, so we didn’t watch the National Geographic folks anthropomorphizing the animal of the week. Instead, we watched something interesting on PBS. It’s an old series imaginatively entitled “The Brain”. It’s really very good, except for one thing. Within the first few minutes, the narrator says the E word (emergence), and he just keeps saying it.

I’m prone to let this sort of thing go. Saying a property emerges in the subject of a micro structural description is often a means of stepping over a steaming pile of metaphysics in the path between discussion of the properties of an object’s components, and the properties of the object itself. I can forgive the use of shorthand..

The narrator initially uses this shorthand meaning of emergence. But as things go along, it becomes clear that he also endorses weak emergence. Then he offhandedly states that colors exist in the mind and not in reality, which indicates that he really does have things the wrong way around.

In defense of the narrator, he still isn’t advocating for strong emergence. Strong emergence is the idea that once some threshold condition is met among components of an object, the group of components comprising the object acquires a new property which then takes over the behavior of the object as a whole, and by extension, that object’s components.

This magical event effectively erases, at least temporarily, the properties of the object’s components. While they remain pieces of the whole, they participate in events according to the dictates of the new property. It is only when they fall off the bus, either accidentally, or via our purposeful examination, that they reacquire their individual properties once again.

For instance, neurons generate electrical impulses, regulate their membrane potentials, and secrete paracrine signals until they are gathered in a certain number and arranged in a certain pattern, at which point they exceed the threshold for becoming a mind and begin to do things like experience, think, and remember. As long as we look at the collection of neurons gathered in the threshold number and arrangement, we will see them exemplifying mental properties. If we pull one of the neurons out of the brain or touch a subthreshold group of them with an electrode probe, we see them revert to exemplifying neuronal properties.

Weak emergence differs from the claims above in that it takes those claims to be metaphorical. When we get to the threshold state for the components of an object, we don’t get an actual, new, causal force out of that last brick added to the structure. Instead, it just becomes more convenient to speak of the object as if it had developed such a new property.

In the case of the mind, that would mean that the threshold number and arrangement of neurons simply becomes too difficult to manage descriptively. It makes sense to begin to use mental terminology to describe their collective behavior rather than trying to persist in using neurologic terminology.

In the case of both strong and weak emergence, we generate additional mysteries to solve, and those mysteries appear to be unsolvable. We have no account of how or why threshold conditions are established or met. We have no idea how properties flip on and off in the components and in the designated objects composed by those subunits. The difference between the two positions is that, in weak emergence we have the above difficulties in explaining a metaphor rather than a mechanism.

The root problem however, is not flipping properties. The root problem is the non-relational account inherent in the treatment of objects and their components. We get another glimpse of this inverted view when the narrator of “The Brain” describes colors as constructs of the brain which are absent in reality. If we take the implied structure seriously, then there’s nothing to save neurons from a similar fate. The only difference might be that we have examples of people who live without colors, but no examples of people who live without neurons. However, we do have examples of people who seem happy to live without minds, from solipsists to eliminatrivists.

To clarify, minds are explained by brains which are explained by neurons which are explained by genes. Colors are explained by retinal pigment, neurons, cone cells, and wavelengths of light. The explanations begin with the object in question, and proceed down to the microstructure.

The microstructure doesn’t represent the object like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or a pile of little homunculi. Instead, the components provide a history of relationships and record of events situating the object of examination in the causal web of space and time.
A couple of examples, in the interest of de-spookifying the statement above. First, take the illustration that the documentary offers for neuronal activity generating consciousness. Our narrator gives the example of the unconscious brain during sleep. In deep sleep, the electrical activity generates a rudimentary waveform on EEG. In REM sleep, when the brain is ostensibly conscious, as well as during wakefulness, the EEG tracing shows a complex waveform. He compares this circumstance to a group of drummers, each initially drumming to their own rhythm. As they listen to each other and begin to coordinate their beats, music emerges.

If the implicit claim really held, John Coltrane wasn’t doing much of anything that any of the rest of us couldn’t do as long as we knew how to work the reed on a saxophone. The drummers can improvise a musical outcome because they understand the object (music) and the components’ (speed and timing of stick strikes on the drum head) relationship to the object composed. That relationship is a series of events involving hearing, drum making skills, proprioceptive experiences and the response of previous brains to frequencies of stick strikes on drum heads. This explains why we can’t play jazz like John Coltrane. We speak of him improvising, but he improvised off of an explanation that situated him in a most musical zone.

More to the point, we can look at the example of neurons and minds itself. Fully developed neurons can’t be placed in a bag, (to borrow from a more gruesome tale offered up by a substance dualist – they are disgusting people), and shaken up to make a brain, much less a mind. The neurons have to go through the developmental process to provide an adequate explanation for the supervening mind. By developmental process, I mean to say the whole history of neuronal development from primordial cells emitting chemical signals in response to changes in membrane polarization to cell migration during gestation, to sensory integration during early childhood. The neurons bear the history of events identified with mental events. The state of affairs is the same as the status of drumsticks and drum heads and drummers regarding music. Those components explain the music because they offer a narrative of events which situates music in the course of events overall. And those specific components pertain to the tune of the day because those components have specific, music related events explaining the components in their turn.

So that’s why I don’t like the E word. When it comes to minds, brains, and neurons, it perpetuates a mystery where there should be none. Worse, it dumbs things down generally, because it substitutes new properties for deep histories.
Problems remain. Dualisms will survive. The hard problem will still wake people in a cold sweat at night (go back to sleep, it’s epiphenomenal). People will still use their minds to insist that we don’t need minds.
Getting rid of the E word solve much.
But it’s a step in the right direction.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,