Category Archives: psychology

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.

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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.

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The Crematoria Runners’ Club

Late in the morning, I pass the same people trotting along the path. We are getting away with something. The sun is already over the mountains, and the temperature is rising rapidly. If we don’t get to shelter within the hour, we will burn up from the inside. The next day’s dawn walkers will find us bloating on the side of the trail, or worse, we will have to call for rescue. That is, if we have a phone. I never bring a phone.

I can only answer for why I run at this time of day.

My choice is pragmatic, partially. At some point in the central Arizona summer, it will not cool down at night. To continue to operate in the hottest months, the body must acclimate in preparation for that unrelenting heat.
But my choice also derives from a mild case of misanthropy. In the early hours of the morning, the dilettantes are about. Snowbirds walk their dogs along the trails at that time. Dieters who graduate from the contemplation stage to the action stage in their weight loss journey, turn out for their therapeutic rambles right after sunrise.

Dilettantes are friendly. It goes with the low commitment mentality. I don’t want to have to greet them or to detour around them on the trail. I don’t dislike them; I just don’t want to break my stride. So, I run when the heat has driven them away.

None of the other runners says hello in passing. Each makes a slight detour to pass the other on the trail. Everyone is concentrating. No one is smiling. Our club is not social. This is true to the extent that no one is following the same route, and when we pass each other, it is on the way to our own, individual paths.

My path leads up a wash sandwiched between two expensive housing developments. Preserved to prevent flash flooding in the communities, the wash now serves as a sort of terrarium for the exclusive houses which fence in the watercourse on either side.

I can hear the homeowners sometimes as I run, chatting as they enjoy a leisurely late breakfast on their back patios. The activities of their households echo in the wash as well – the sound of water filling their pools, the drone of leaf blowers wielded by landscape staff, the rumbling engines of their pickup trucks.

They don’t bother me, because they strictly ignore me. I share a status with the rattlesnakes, coyotes, javelina, and occasional bobcats who come down the wash. Though viewed with distaste, such creatures are tolerable as long as they stay in the terrarium.

As I run, more desirable fauna scatter before me. A few of these are rodents, (Western ground squirrels and desert rabbits), but most are birds. Flying from the tree branches are Rose finches and hummingbirds. On the ground, a roadrunner will occasionally dash across the trail. But mostly, California Quail break cover and run as I approach.

I like roadrunners. They are fast and agile. They have little fear and are driven by curiosity.

I despise the Quail. On this subject, my opinion is at odds with the majority judgment, which holds these birds in high esteem. However, the majority’s opinion is profoundly superficial at base.

The Quail have beautiful plumage, with very distinctive markings around their eyes and chest and a feather bobble which sprouts from the center of their head and hangs over between their eyes. Their calls are loud and emotive. They are handsome birds, but they are abject cowards

Despite excellent camouflage, they haven’t the gumption to hide. Even rabbits do better at freezing in the face of an oncoming threat. And once the quail lose their heads and flee, they flee in a pitiful fashion. They zigzag, but not with the head fakes and hard turns expected from an animal juking for its life. They change directions in a weak and indecisive pattern associated with sheer panic. They forget that they can fly, relying on whatever speed their stubby little legs can generate. Only when they would certainly be caught, does instinct takeover to deploy their wings. Worst of all, if chicks are trailing the adults during one of these stampedes, the adults will abandoned their offspring straightaway, either on foot or in the air.

Nor are the quail merely thralls to their fear. They are prone to indulge any impulse to its logical conclusion. There is a flock of quail which frequents the outdoor tables at the Desert Botanical Gardens snack bar. Their human admirers have fed these birds on scraps until the quail have lost all fear, and live only in anticipation of the next potato chip. They cluster around the chairs within easy reach of anyone with bad intent. They are so fat now, that they have lost the ability to fly.

By the time I reach the top of the wash, the quail, along with all the rest, have sought shelter in the underbrush as the desert simmers. The trail carries on up a steep hillside. I turn around at the top of the slope and start back. Now it grows hotter by the minute, but I cannot hurry or I will begin to generate more heat than I can dissipate. I don’t pass anything or anyone on the way back down. The club has disbanded.

They say that this will all end soon, because of the car that I drive to the trailhead and the heat pump that cools my hiding place from the furnace outside. Day by day it will just keep getting warmer until living in the valley becomes impossible.
Everyone that can will have to sell out and become a Snowbird. The rest will have to make do. Whatever else may follow, no one knows. The only sure thing is: drive, run, or fly, we are not going to get out of the terrarium.

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The Main Event

Dwight saw his chance. His opponents last jab was halfhearted, and the other boxers hand dropped a little as he pulled the punch back. Dwight followed his opponents retreating hand in with a hard right, just as the other man was stepping forward. Dwight’s fist connected, and the man went down.

For spectators, the knockout punch is the main event of the main event. It isn’t the only event though. There are events upon events coincident with the main event of the main event.
We think we have something very clear in mind when we speak of events. Perhaps the best formulation of that clear vision is the “property exemplification” form. According to the “property exemplification” characterization of events, an event is best understood as the manifestation of a property, by an object, at a time.

Nice. Now we just have 3 more entities to define: properties, objects, and times. However, the job may not be much harder due to our proliferating terms.

We can go back to Dwight’s knockout punch to try to clarify things.

If you think about it, many, many events occur in the moment of the punch. There are Newtonian events (Dwight’s fist exerts a force and transfers kinetic energy to his opponents jaw). There are neuromuscular events (Dwight follows through and refrains from tensing his arm at the last moment). There are atomic events (covalent bonds flex within the structure that we classify “Dwight’s fist”).

All of the aforementioned constitute legitimate events. They also refer to a single event, which supervenes upon all the little happenings designated by the punch.. Resolution of the resulting paradox may simplify our job immensely. Because, the one and many account reveals properties as categories, objects as summaries of events, and times as contents of objects.

Dwight’s fist exemplifies the property of striking his opponents jaw at 59 seconds into the 3rd round. Dwight’s fist is the hand, which developed from a limb bud when Dwight was an embryo, whose knuckles were hardened against the heavy bag, whose fingers were closed in a certain configuration, and which struck his opponents jaw at 59 seconds into the 3rd round. Like the ship of Theseus, Dwight’s fist (like any object) is never truly static, though we mistakenly speak of it as such for convenience’s sake.

So, analysis of Dwight’s fist reveals a particular collection of property exemplification’s.

Dwight’s fist strikes. “Striking” is constituted by rates of energy transfer within certain parameters. As such it is, as are properties generally, a category of relationships. Striking is not pushing, because pushing happens more slowly. Slapping is striking because it does happen quickly, with the qualification that it occurs with a particular hand conformation, and depending upon the speaker, perhaps with the implication of lower levels of force. There is an interlocking pedigree between the tropes and other instances of similar properties nearby.

59 seconds into the 3rd round means a specific number of position changes, between the fighters, the people in the crowd, the air molecules and particles of light within the room, and the vibrating atoms in the timing elements of the ringside clock. A differential accrual of happenings defines 3 rounds and 59 seconds.

There are problems with this scheme, but events are a confusing topic. More to follow.

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The 6 Stages of Grief

My neurologist tells me that I have a chronic progressive neurodegenerative disease. I assume that all the repetition is for emphasis. The double-down does help the rest of his news, “but it is treatable”. He says the last bit enthusiastically. I suppose you don’t get to say that very much in neurology, and I don’t blame him for taking advantage of the opportunity.
But I know what treatable entails too. In medicine generally, but especially in neurology, it means things will go downhill in a way that we control. I understand how that might count as a win, because I’m going through the 5 stages of grief as I begin a long goodbye to climbing. Passing through the stages of grief, like controlled deterioration, may seem like a process to which winning and losing should not apply. However, I have access to a secret. I know about a transformational 6th stage to the process.

For those who are unfamiliar with the stages of grief model, some background is in order. Unfortunately, adequate understanding requires a foray into the underbrush of academic psychology. The incursion will be brief and relatively painless.

Psychologists have a penchant for stages of this and that. They use the terminology to craft formulas explaining the psyche, much like chemistry and physics employ formulas to describe their domains. Some may have heard of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

There’s a similar model for addiction. And then there are the stages in the cycle of abuse. With the exception of some models of learning, psychological formulas are of little practical use. They can’t tell you what to expect when you mix Clorox and ammonia (look at the chemical formulas; you shouldn’t do this). They can’t tell you what you’ll need to enter low Earth orbit.
All that psychological models can tell you is what happened before, based on what other psychologists think they saw happen before. This dubitable power is supposed to offer emotional comfort.

For example, when a bereaved friend is sitting in his room mute and motionless, a counselor can reassure all the concerned onlookers that this is expected. The bereaved is going through the phase of denial. When that friend screams in anguish and throws a lamp at the wall, the counselor can maintain calm in the living room by reassuring everyone that their loved one is simply experiencing the stage of anger. He is overheard beseeching God for mercy? Don’t worry, bargaining is the next stage in the model. He is crying now? Meet depression. At last he emerges, drying his eyes and taking a deep breath. Now he has reached the stage of acceptance, and we are through.

Certainly, certain people feel reassured by these expositions. I’ve observed that the same people would probably feel reassured by a certified professional reading Jabberwocky in a calm voice, under the same circumstances. I’ve also observed that any reassuring effect following from the formulaic explanation of a psychological phenomenon currently in process, occurs in the observers. For the one actually experiencing a stage of something, explaining to them that they are merely experiencing a stage of something tends to breed resentment instead.

Like other, similar psychological models, the stages of grief formula does not do much work., That is, unless you add the 6th stage. Because, unlike any other stage in any other psychological formula, the 6th stage in the stages of grief is inherently action-guiding.
I call it the stage of Alpine acceptance. This stage actually occurs only intermittently, mostly to those in the know, and when it does occur, it can pop in at any point in the process.

To permit a complete understanding of this unique stage in the model, we must briefly explore the source of the terms once again: in this case, the practice of alpinism.

First off, I want to be clear that people don’t actually agree on what alpinism means. I don’t mean on a metaphysical level. I mean nobody agrees on what constitutes alpinism. Some say it is climbing a route on a mountain. Of course, that statement begs the question. Some say alpinism is climbing to the summit of a mountain by any route harder than the easiest route. Many climbers would call most of the routes encompassed by that definition “mountaineering”.

This definitional mess is further complicated by the fact that almost any climbing route, can be ascended in Alpine style, which means climbing with just what you can carry with you on your back. To expand on the implications for a moment, on any big climb, one frequently wishes for more equipment than one can carry. The reason that the practice of traveling dangerously light gets called “Alpine” style rather than “big wall” style or “mountain push” style is because one always wishes for more equipment than one can carry on an Alpine route. That is because these routes often wander over steep, half frozen, crumbling rock and unconsolidated snow which would realistically require a 12 pound electric hammer drill with spare bits and batteries along with 50 pounds of expansion bolts to ascend safely, and which actually permits a 25 pound pack, inclusive of survival gear, given the strenuous nature of the climbing.

Despite the definitional vagaries, there is little dispute regarding the Alpine nature of individual routes, and even less dispute regarding who is practicing Alpine climbing.

I hope it is clear, based on the above, that the Alpine climber risks it all (and often at kind of bad odds) to experience the inexplicable and perhaps to achieve the undefinable. This doesn’t always work out well.

Sometimes, alpine enterprises end definitively, and in the worst way, with the death or serious injury of one or more persons. However, the incidence of definitive endings is astonishingly low. Because those who undertake such improbable ventures are (or quickly become) quite canny. They can smell when things are getting rotten, and when that scent hits the nose a singular psychological process begins, to a much different end.

It is a way of giving up and carrying on at once, and it defies a clear and simple explanation. I will attempt an illustration with a summary.

The following is based on actual conversations, both internal and between partners:

“The rock quality is really deteriorating I don’t know if I can climb this,” said as he climbs it.

“Yes, this is really bad. What does it look like for the next pitch?”

“No better. This anchor isn’t the best either, but we could rap from it.”

“Maybe we should bail. Let me just try this crack over here. I think I can aid through the overhang.”

The crack can’t be climbed.

“Are you sure you can’t aid it?”

” Yeah, I can’t reach the next placement. Let me take a look around the corner”

“How does it look?”

“50° slab with gravel on it – somehow.”

“Damn, maybe we should go down”

“Let me try the crack again”

The crack still can’t be climbed.

“Maybe the slab isn’t that bad?”

“Let me take another look”

The slab has not changed.

“I can’t make it go. Do you want to try it?”

“No, we have to go down. I mean, conditions looked good from camp, but obviously this is in no shape for climbing. But now we know what to look for.”

“Yeah. You want to try the crack?”

“No. What are you doing next week?”

The above conversation is typically followed by retreat to camp where the whole endeavor gets painstakingly analyzed, until all parties are satisfied that no other outcome was possible. Then everyone goes home, regroups, and begins planning on coming back, maybe just to wait in bad weather at a campground for a month. If the weather is good though, the aspirants may convince themselves again that the route looks to be in great shape from camp, which inevitably leads to another effort, ending at the same impassible terrain that scuttled the last one.
The remarkable thing is that deep down, everyone knows that the climb doesn’t go. Throughout the futile efforts there are no recriminations, tears, or tantrums.
And that is Alpine acceptance. At a certain point, regardless of all the anger, depression, bargaining, etc. – all of which simply leaves you back where you started – the only way to succeed is to be sure that you fail completely. That is always an achievable goal, and it often proves the only way forward.

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The Sustaining God

Once upon a time, at the height of the Mughal empire, a man of great intelligence and refinement sat on the throne. With his nation at peace, he used his wealth to gather around him every sort of beautiful thing and interesting person. He ruled wisely, and the populace venerated him. He pursued whatever inspired him, to his complete satisfaction.
At last, the Mughal Emperor looked around himself and saw that all his wishes and ambitions had been fulfilled. Now, he only had one fear: that he must one day leave his perfect life.

He became obsessed with the thought that he must die and leave it all behind. So, he sent emissaries to seek out the secrets of immortality. They sought up the rivers and across the mountains, for many years, in vain.

Until one day, one of the Emperor’s agents came upon a village at the foot of a mountain. The villagers told him that a Daoist priest lived in a cave below the peak and that the hermit had found a way to defeat death.
The emissary climbed up and found the priest, a shoeless man dressed in a tattered robe. On behalf of the Emperor, the agent begged the priest to come to the Mughal capital and teach the Emperor how to defeat death. The agent offered power and riches to persuade the priest, but the priest refused all enticements outright. He agreed to make the journey and to teach the Emperor without cause or condition.
The priest and the emissary traveled back across the mountains and down the rivers until they arrived at the palace.
The Emperor summoned the priest to him immediately.
Once ensconced in the his chambers with his guest, the sovereign asked the question which had overcome his thoughts entirely.
“How do I defeat death?”
The priest made no answer, so the Emperor tried again.
“I’ve been told that you’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Tell me, how do I live forever? What chants, rituals, potions or salves must I employ?”
The priest sighed, “I am sorry, but you cannot live forever. There is no chant, ritual, potion or salve which will sustain you. You cannot defeat death in that way. But there is another way. If you allow me, I will teach you to lighten up. And if you follow my teachings to their conclusion, you may become so light and insubstantial that death cannot grasp you.”

Here, the record ends.

What happened with the Emperor and the priest? After the priest delivered his news, did the Emperor nod and move on untroubled, or did he have the priest killed? Maybe the Emperor split the difference.

Maybe he nodded without moving on. He might have feigned acknowledgment while nurturing the desire for life in secret. Perhaps he devoted himself entirely to the Master’s lifestyle, becoming more and more consumed with meditation and asceticism until he starved to death rather than have death ambush him.

We may imagine something even worse too. When the priest explained how the world was just one story (as he would have done, since “Dao” indicates “just one story”, nothing more and nothing less), maybe the Emperor grasped at the metaphor. Rather than seeing past the priest’s analogy, the Emperor quickly laid upon it a driving plot, necessary characters, and a storyteller who he symbolized with the image of a book.
Soon, a shrine housing a statue of a Golden book stood in every house in the land. The Emperor wore an amulet in the shape of a book around his neck. At the end, he clutched the symbol tight in his fist while beseeching the storyteller to keep writing his lines.

But since we do not really know the end of this story, why not be more hopeful? Why not make the story more interesting too? Because our stories usually are much more interesting than the story of instantaneous enlightenment at the end of a short lesson, or summary execution.
Let us imagine that the Emperor parted with the priest in a state of doubtful curiosity.

He went back to his duties and avocations watchfully. As he had his moments of fear, triumph, and satisfaction, he tried to see those moments as elements of just one, complete story, rather than belonging to his personal narrative. He got better and better at adopting the single-story viewpoint. In doing so, he dropped the possessive perspective – a collector’s perspective – which had previously obscured his experiences with the demands of ambition, pride, and disappointment.

He had been treating his life like a gilded scrapbook. He came to understand the impossibility of having an experience; one could only experience an experience. He finally managed to set the scrapbook aside.

From that moment on, all the little details were illuminated as never before. He could feel himself lightening up. And at the end, when all the experiences were over, he felt himself possessed of no substance, with none of the associated, substantial troubles.

Maybe that was what happened. But he probably killed the priest instead.

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Body and Soul

“You can kill my body, but you cannot kill my spirit.”

 - Bo Diddley

I love that song. I play it on the way home from every big day, whether I have succeeded or failed.

Today I failed. I didn’t even make it to the crag. Something is happening to me, and I am not sure what it is. I shake. My back is in pain. My muscles lock up. All these things happen in the course of normal activity. If I can just get to the stone, and put my hands on the holds, everything gets better. I get back fluid movement.
But I can’t get to the stone. The course of normal activity is in my way.

I fear that I may end up like Fred Becky. He lived to climb, and did hundreds, if not thousands of first ascents in the Cascades, and all over the world. He continued to climb until he was in his 80s. In the final years, he made backcountry forays in mountain ranges all over the world. He often struggled to get to the base of climbs, and for the most part, he did not end up climbing. Nevertheless, he dragged his bones back to the mountains again and again. Video footage of some of these endeavors exists, and it is clear from the images that he was struggling, and suffering all the way.

I used to think that his efforts were heroic. Now, I think he exemplified an element of the human condition which our old poets referenced in the tales of Prometheus and Sisyphus.
Fred couldn’t help himself any more than those mythical figures could help themselves.
The problem, for Prometheus, Sisyphus, and Fred was, of course, that the spirit can die.

The eagle eating your liver isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that your liver keeps growing back. The rock rolling down the hill isn’t the truth. The truth is your own, inescapable compulsion to push it back up.

The spirit dies with each peck and each bound of the boulder. Unlike the body, it is easy to kill. It will die over almost nothing. The catch is: it keeps coming back. It snaps back in an instant and sends you back to the bottom of the hill and prepares you for the eagle’s next visit.

I will drive back home. I will wake up tomorrow morning without having asked for it. I will do some pull-ups and climb on plastic as if I were training for something. Some onlookers may think this is admirable, others may think it is sad. From the inside, it just is.
The religions are wrong about what we go through. There is no heaven. There is no hell. There is no samsara. Those are views from the outside.
Maybe next weekend, I will get my hands on those holds. But I will act just the same, between now and then, as long as I live.

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Realism in the Time of Covid

I walked down the broad, sandy track, distracted. The path was built for motorized traffic, so it required no attention to route finding, and my mind could wander elsewhere, in places far from plagues and Gumby revolutions. But I did not stray for long. Behind me, I heard barking. The noise was the sort of high-pitched yap which a dog makes when something frightening, yet fun, is in progress.

I had assumed that a dog made the sound, but I began to doubt as the yammering grew closer at an unnatural rate and became accompanied by a growl that fluctuated in uneven gasps. I stepped off the track, waiting nervously. But of course, no extraordinary monster appeared around the last bend. What did roll into sight was a standard, biomechanical amalgamation. The dog, a German Shepherd mongrel, sat lashed to the vehicle frame up front, shaking and yelping. Behind the mutt, a lumpy man in a down coat steered the buggy from the comfort of its silver roll cage. He gunned the engine over little rises, and coasted around the curves. He gave a little smile and a wave as he passed me. A small American flag fluttered from the apex of his sun-shade.
The commotion rapidly faded, and I turned my attention back to the walk, and the granite towers at the walk’s end. I could see the formations now. Poking up from the slopes of the Little Valley, they were squat spires, the color of the sand beneath my feet. Most were not monoliths, but stacks of huge blocks, each brick 40 feet or more on a side.
At the apex of a small rise in the trail, a single, rhomboidal flagstone, and a small prickly pear with three leaves marked the turnoff to my objective. They looked as if they had been placed there, but they were no more intended for my purpose than the track of hoof prints which led away from the landmark towards the climb. A dotted line, stamped in the sand by deer and elk, and punctuated with mounds of pellets along the way, wove through the Manzanita until it intersected with a line of Cairns leading to a gigantic stack of boulders.
I dropped my pack at the base. I could not tell if the staging area had been manufactured or not, but it was a perfect little patch of dirt, sheltered by cypress and laurel. I fished the rope out from the bottom of the pack and donned harness and helmet. I carried no more gear, because my goal for the day was not to climb the 4 inch wide crack above me from the bottom up. My goal was to find out if I was still a climber, and if so, to begin to claw my way back to a respectable condition. To those ends, I would crawl through gaps between the blocks above, anchor the rope to a pair of unseen bolts, descend the rope, and climb back up to the bolts as many times as I could.
With the rope tied to my back, I made my way around the side of the formation until I could tunnel through the cracks. The way led down and across to a small alcove. A scraggly alder tree grew there, apparently supported by a very shallow bowl of sand alone. In retrospect, it had made a mistake. Though the spot was secure, the soil was too shallow, and the tree’s highest leaves could only catch sunlight for a couple of hours every day. It could never thrive, but it was a pleasant decoration for the time being. From the alcove, a short, awkward squeeze led to a hidden ledge, and the anchor. I secured my rope to the two bolts.

After descending back to the base, I loaded my self-belay device and began to climb. I moved methodically, not at all like I would climb with a partner belaying from the base. I used a single device for fall protection. This was on purpose. The set up relied on hands and feet as my first line of protection, with the rope and device as backup only. Having a second chance put an edge on the whole project which was lacking in the case of third chances and single chances alone. With a third chance in play, the focus shifted to the equipment and allowed for some slop in the climbing. Committing to one chance only demanded fatalism, and fatalism shifted the focus to the mental equipment needed to accept one’s fate, at the expense of free movement.
I climbed through the route, slowly convincing myself that I could still move smoothly. The effort meant ignoring the grind my left shoulder when I loaded it in extension, and the stiffness in my leg on the right when I tried to step high.
I made it through an acceptable number of laps and pulled the rope. The sun was now as high as it would get in midwinter, and it illuminated a small tuft of leaves poking from the alcove between the boulders above.
I turned my back on the formation and wandered down past the Cairns, the elk pellets, the rhomboidal rock, and the three-leaf pear. With the full warmth of the sun on the Little Valley, the trail was now bustling. A grade school child teetered over a bump on his motorbike. A parent followed, riding a matching cycle nearly on the kid’s back tire. Groups of people, some wearing facemasks, some not, nodded to me politely as I stepped off the trail to let them by.
As usual, I could gauge my distance from the trailhead by the age and attire of passing hikers. I first passed those kitted out with boots and daypacks, then the sneakers lot with their coats tied around their hips, then the shorts and flip-flops crowd. By the time that the expensive homes which flanked the start of the trail were visible, the vast majority of passing travelers wore boat shoes and elastic waistbands and would plainly go only a few more steps beyond the gate. What they sought by this activity, I could not imagine.

The parking area had filled up since my departure, and in the usual fashion. When I had arrived in the morning cold, the only other cars parked in the lot were a dated Subaru and a Toyota truck. The Subaru had a Sierra Club sticker on the back window. The truck was covered in dust. Between morning and afternoon, cleaner vehicles had filled in the rest of the parking spaces. A few of these had American flag decals, and one of the flags was blue with a prominent blue line through the middle of the stripes. One rear window bore a red white and blue “Q”.
I wondered who belonged to those stickers. Nobody on the trail looked crazy. Certainly, nobody looked like a revolutionary, and if my fellow travelers that day really were the sons and daughters of the Revolution, then the revolution would be over as soon as the propane and Slim Jim’s ran out.
I had them entirely wrong, though. What a person trusts depends on what a person wants. What a person wants depends on the depth and breadth of their perception. The revolution was against the untrustable unseen. They revolted against rumors of an invisible pathogen. They revolted against the idea of murky social, political, and personal depths. Most of all, they revolted against a start in the cold and dark which they had somehow been convinced that they were entitled to avoid.

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It Is Always Wrong to Eat a Baby

(unless the Lord commands it)

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built

.This is the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the horse and the hound and the horn

That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn

That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn

That woke the judge all shaven and shorn

That married the man all tattered and torn

That kissed the maiden all forlorn

That milked the cow with the crumpled horn

That tossed the dog that worried the cat

That killed the rat that ate the malt

That lay in the house that Jack built.

Okay, maybe that’s a little much. How about: “Martin Luther founded Protestantism on October 31, 1517, when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.”

This story about Martin Luther is not entirely satisfying though. Even if we build it out like the story of Jack’s house, it would not help us pick Martin Luther out of a lineup. We need a different sort of detail for that task: Empiric details.

There seem to be two basic categories: empiric and historic. The former pertains to the contents of our sensorium – our “facts”. The latter pertains to our activities – a sort of behavioral narrative.

On one sort of historic account, Martin Luther is a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields. However, it is important to keep in mind that one name, be it “Martin Luther” or “specific arrangement of quantum probability fields X”, for the one overall phenomenon is the same as the other. Both have the same contents. It is easy to favor the basic physics account as the “real” account of the phenomenon, because “Martin Luther” is reducible to “a particular arrangement of quantum probability fields”. The reduction in question though, is dependent upon bridge laws, which are definitions upon the two terms. Martin Luther is a biological organism, and a biological organism is describable by the rules of biochemistry which is describable by the rules of organic chemistry, which is describable by the rules of classical physics, which is describable by the rules of quantum physics. In this reduction, the the terms of one description of the same phenomenon are rendered to the terms of a broader, finer grained description. Because subsequent descriptions are finer grained and broader, it is easy to attribute priority to them, but scale is not equivalent to priority, and the bridging definitions, as all definitions, are dependent on both terms in the equation.

But there’s another kind of reduction possible – an empiric reduction. If we look at the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail, we find the carbon atom at the farthest left edge of Martin Luther’s right thumbnail and nothing else, because the reductions of the terms in that description, even if taken through the first sort of reduction for each, finally depend on everything else. This second sort of reduction, a mapping sort of reduction, is all that explains the particular carbon atom.

The sort of reduction available for the historical Martin Luther is a flavor of theoretical/historical reduction. He is the man who nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church because he was offended by the sale of indulgences by the church and had come through his studies to see the sale of indulgences as symptomatic of a deeper stagnation and corruption of the institution. The reduction in question is not the same as the explanatory reduction possible with the carbon atom. It does not “map”.

If we were able to magically create a map which captured perfect detail at any scale, and centered the map on the carbon atom, when we turn the dial to its maximum gain, we would expect to see the map merge with our empirical reality so that they were indistinguishable. If we tried to apply the same mapping technology to the historical Martin Luther, we would simply get a thicker and thicker biography of Martin Luther, like the tale of Jack’s house. The historical account of Martin Luther is self referential in a way that the empiric, explanatory account of Martin Luther is not. In unravelling the historical Martin Luther, we get an ever-expanding shell of reports, like an unending set of nesting dolls composed of Martin Luther scandal sheets.

Since Heraclitus, we have known that explanatory reductions are instantaneous. What we have not acknowledged with any frequency, is that historical explanations are timeless. Historical identities are fixed fictions, so that actions can be represented in a useful way. The distortion that fixed identity imparts on historical accounts often proves inconsequential. If I say, from a historical standpoint, that Martin Luther’s hammer hand was driven by offense against indulgences, my analysis is right enough to ground an understanding of Protestantism.

Yet we know that when Martin Luther woke that morning and gathered his hammer, nails, and paper, he probably did not have Protestantism in mind. In fact, he probably went through several psychological transformations on the way to the church which are only vaguely represented and summarized in our historical account.

For the record, Martin Luther nailing his theses to the Wittenberg church door represents the beginning of Protestantism. Reference to fixed identities in that statement (Martin Luther, nails, script on paper) is necessary. It is the price of constructing a narrative. In the case of Protestantism, we encounter little difficulty in maintaining the useful fiction that nails, papers, and Martin Luther are the beginning of Protestantism. We understand that the named phenomena play a role in our narrative.

Though we may place then under glass in reverence, we do not expect to find nascent Protestantism in the nails, papers, or even in Martin Luther. Protestantism is constructed from activities associated with the named phenomena; in fact it is a record of activities associated with those phenomena.

In light of the above, is it always wrong to eat a baby? The statement, “it is always wrong to eat a baby”, is at least consistent. It is a record of psychological activities on the subject. It isn’t the kind of thing that “maps” like the carbon atom in Martin Luther’s fingernail. It is a historic, theoretical statement.

Like all such statements, our moral theories are reducible, via bridge laws, to other theories regarding (in the case of baby eating) genetics, cultural heritage, and the criteria for life itself. And like all such statements, the expansions and contractions from broader, finer grained characterizations to narrower, coarser ones are infinite. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we never “get to the bottom of” moral statements. There simply is no bottom. The best that we can do is recognize them for what they are, a record of activities, and not the activities themselves. We will then feel a little more comfortable with what we already do: prefer different theoretical magnifications in different situations.

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Welcome to the Aftermath

“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

  Vince Lombardi

“There only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games

Ernest Hemingway

“The ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.”


The difference between Hemingway’s sports and games is, of course, a matter of winning. In games, winning really is the only thing. In those other endeavors, winning is nothing.
Simply engaging in sport yields the maximum voluntary experience. Engagement delivers everything on the spot, whether or not the participant comes out on the other side, and certainly regardless of winning and losing.
Trophies, money and ribbons only serve to dress sports up by equating them with games. The civilization must thereby disparage sporting ends, since it strives constantly to the opposite goal.
The civilization turns out to be really good at window dressing though. Its props and costumes create a realistic illusion in which games are wholesome and sports are pathologic. Maybe that is why we now live in an age of games and gamesmanship. Our culture has created a situation where Lombardi is right.
Excessive trappings have made sports and sportsmanship not only unrecognizable, but incomprehensible.
Subsequently we have the rise of the consummate gamesman: Trump. To him, there are only winners and losers. Failure to engage and success in shifting the cost define the gamesman’s method.
Allowing him to operate so at the controls of our society has given the whole thing a gamy taint.
To clean it up, we need to make things a little more sporty, though we might not need to make politics quite as sporty as Voltaire suggests.
Perhaps it would be enough to replace the inauguration ceremony with a bullfight.

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