NYT Review of “Mama’s Last Hug”

Mama, the long-time matriarch of the Burgers Zoo chimpanzee colony, with her daughter Moniek. At the time of this photo Mama was at the height of her power. She did not physically dominate any fully grown males, but nevertheless wielded immense political influence.” Credit: Frans de Waal

Just pre-ordered Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal, based on this review, which starts, as the book does, with this anecdote:

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”

Science has historically ignored emotions, dismissed them as irrelevant, as impossible to study, as beneath our regard. The technology we’ve built is unable to detect it, and so emotion has been invisible to us as we communicate through our machines, using clumsy signals such as emoticons, and agreeing to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and reduced to a smaller and smaller version of ourselves, even eliminating nuance and expression to use technology.

Emotions, de Waal writes, “are our body’s way of ensuring we do what is best for us.” Unlike instinct — which leads to preprogrammed, rigid responses — emotions “focus the mind and prepare the body while leaving room for experience and judgment.” Emotions “may be slippery,” he writes, “but they are also by far the most salient aspect of our lives. They give meaning to everything.”

The world we live in–the Technic–denigrates and disparages our emotions, and this is damaging and deadly to our humanity.  Looking forward to getting my copy!


From the Amazon review: “De Waal discusses facial expressions, the emotions behind human politics, the illusion of free will, animal sentience, and, of course, Mama’s life and death. “

Should This Exist: Halo Neuroscience

Should This Exist: Halo Neuroscience

Memory palaces, cuneiform, kung fu–for millennia we’ve pushed ourselves to recall with greater precision, learn faster, perform better and achieve more. One new technology in particular we’re about to unlock—neurostimulation—may forever change what it is to compete as a member of society, and even alter our basic conception of what it means to be human.

Everyone has heard of the 10,000-Hour Rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. It’s simply a matter of repetition: 20 hours of practice a week for 10 years will get you to mastery.

But what if by priming your brain to learn faster, you could accomplish the same in half the time and far surpass your “natural” abilities? Would you opt out? What about your kids? Would you zap your brain to become smarter faster? If I could learn Finnish or cello faster–especially at my age!––I would. Of course! 

 

My guest in the first episode of Should This Exist? is neuroscientist and entrepreneur Daniel Chao, co-founder and CEO of Halo Neuroscience. Halo Sport is their first product, a headset that enhances the neuroplasticity of the motor cortex in your brain. It could usher in a new golden age where millions of us  are virtuosos… or it could bring about the dystopia of Gattaca, where only a select few get superhuman abilities.

To a 1950s Olympic gold medalist, today’s Olympians would already seem superhuman. We all know they got there because today’s athletes train better. They use science, medicine, and technology (sometimes even pushing the boundary of what’s legal) to enhance their bodies and minds.

And it’s not just our top performers and dominant athletes. Normal people like you and me take it for granted we should be pushing ourselves to learn, perform better and achieve more at work and school. We tell our children how important it is to be resilient, try and try and try again until you make the cut.

We’re watching technology is being enthusiastically introduced into schools. STEM is seen as the most desirable focus for our kids, not the humanities. And there have been several well-publicized debacles which should give us pause.  Nowadays even pre-schoolers have to train to be smarter.

And another question: what if this technology is available to some and not others? Could the achievement gap widen? And what if instead it were given to the kids who had fallen behind, who were then able to catch up?

Cuneiform was restricted to the elites, and writing itself was the province of educated men–and only men–for centuries after its invention. Kung Fu wasn’t taught except to the lucky few. And sharing these technologies sometimes had dire consequences. Could Halo follow a similar trajectory?

Not on our watch! Daniel is a thoughtful, deep-thinking entrepreneur; we talked through its many possible permutations. Join us on Should this Exist?

 

Thoreau the Technophile

You know Henry David Thoreau, author, transcendentalist, author of Walden Pond, a celebrant of the simple life lived in nature? He seems an unlikely candidate for a technophile, but often the least likely among us are susceptible to the allure of technology. His diary entries in 1851 present quite a poetic view of the newest technology to come to New England: the telegraph:

1851, Sept. 3.  As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us and vibrated in the lattice-work of this life of ours.

1851, Sept. 22. I put my ear to one of the posts and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music, labored with the strain–as if every fibre was affected and being seasoned or timed, rearranged according to a new and more harmonious law. Every cell and change or inflection of the tree pervaded and seemed to proceed from the wood, the divine tree or wood! How much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on by the winds of every latitude and longitude, and that were, as it were, a manifest blessing from heaven on a work of man’s! Shall we not add a tenth muse to the immortal Nine? And that the invention this divinely honored and distinguished–on which the Muse has condescended to smile–is this magic medium of communication for mankind!

I felt the same way about the internet when I first encountered it–a magic medium of communication for humankind! It’s often difficult for us to “see” this kind of magic anymore because we now know where it has ended up. Power lines, telephone lines–these are not a thing of great beauty, to us. They don’t look like harps to us. This has been beautifully illustrated by Robert Crumb in a drawing titled “A Short History of America”:

Crumb-History1.jpg

Thoreau lived in frame 3, and we live in frame 12. We can see beauty and nature disappearing, and see that, maybe it would have been better to put those lines underground. And that it is up to us to make frames 13, 14, 15. Can we improve it? What will frame 24 look like? 

Not only the built environment, but the inner life has been changed by what Thoreau sees as the  “magic medium of communication for mankind”. This is what I first loved about the internet:  it connected us to each other. We love to connect!

But we’re not communicating any more. We went past Dunbar’s number, beyond the number of people we can meaningfully know, which makes our relationships brittle and thin. Fake news, platitudes, bias, and not seeing our friends anymore– just reading their updates–is what it’s come to. 

This passage from Thoreau tells me three things: One, we should not forget the wonder of being able to communicate with one another across great distances. All the wonders of the internet are still there: we should see it again with it’s magic. Two: we should pay attention to the past to learn for the present. And three, living as we do in Thoreau’s future, where we can see the future outcomes of those telegraph wires, we should think deeply about the future we ourselves are creating and guide it to a better, more beautiful, future.


 

 Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Many people now say that Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was more like an early example of performance art then any commitment to living permanently in simplicity.  Still, the virtues of living simply resonate in our overstimulated, trivia-filled lives. And this edition includes Civil Disobedience, his great ode to freedom, which inspired non-violent protest everywhere is a must-read for all of us. Libertarians and liberals alike have marched beneath its banner, and the fact that it can encompass so many diverse viewpoints is a testament to its depth and power.

America by Robert Crumb. Have Thoreau and Crumb ever shared a page? This may be a first.  Both are deeply American. Thoreau is easy for me to like, but I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Crumb. If you haven’t seen the fantastic Terry Zwigoff documentary about him, Crumb, you must, and it will help you understand where he’s coming from. But I have to work hard to get past the pornography, misogyny, racism and scab-picking ugliness of all he does, in order to appreciate the great things he’d done, like that comic above, and his nasty (NSFW) 1989 comic about Donald Trump.


 

 

Anxy, Hilma & Vassar

proxy.duckduckgo

  • I am a huge fan of the new magazine Anxy by Bobbie Johnson et al. which is a beautifully designed, thoughtful bi-annual magazine about our inner lives, our psychology and our behavior. Recent issues have centered on Boundaries, Workaholism and Anger. In the most recent issue, on the subject of Masculinity, I found some terrifying quotes from pre-teens, who, when asked the question, “What is Masculinity?” presented the most violent, aggressive and insensitive men as paragons of masculinity. Can we all watch The Mask You Live In again please? 
  • I’ve had many vicarious experiences, which are often better than original, immediate, actual, personal experiences. A wonderful example of this is in a short story–a very short story–by Lydia Davis, reproduced here in full:

Happiest Moment

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then sat it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck. 

I recently had the experience of attending the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim vicariously, since all my friends have gone, and raved about it. Who says these things can’t be among your happiest moments?  I also feel as if I have seen Saturday Night Live through other people, never having seen it myself, as well as having read Thinking Fast and Slow and Sapiens by osmosis, surrounded, as I have been, with people who have in fact read it themselves. We can live through other people, much of the time, and experiencing the joy of other people as if it were your own is one way of guaranteeing your own happiness. 

  • Vassar, my alma mater, has a beautiful campus, full of trees and old buildings, exactly the way you imagine a college campus to look. I went back recently to give a keynote at the Sophomore Career Development event, and was happy to note that very few students were staring at their phones. 

More:

Have a look through the Vassar Quarterly to see what a great school Vassar is. I love small, liberal arts colleges, and my education there was exceptional. The cover of the most recent issue shows the campus in all its autumnal leaf-changing glory. And downtown Poughkeepsie is on track for a wonderful revival, having started some projects with the amazing non-profit design firm MASS Design Group

 This is a wonderful collection of very short stories by Lydia Davis, who also does beautiful translations from the French, such as Swann’s Way, the first book of In Search of Lost Time; a new translation of Madame Bovary, as well as translations from Maurice Blanchot, another of my favorites, such as The Gaze of Orpheus.

 

Another way I’ve vicariously experienced the Hilma af Klint exhibit is through this book, which I was given as a gift by another exhibit attendee. This, and her book of Notes and Methods, are gorgeous. 

The Social Media Transformation of César Sayoc: I disagree

In today’s New York Times, I find an article tracing the evolution of the Trump Supporter’s campaign to kill Democrats from his “normal” Facebook posts, to his “extremist” Twitter account. The article begins:

Until 2016, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr.’s life on social media looked unremarkable. On his Facebook page, he posted photos of decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games — the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity.

This may be common, but it is far from “unremarkable” as reporter Kevin Roose states.  I remarked many things about it. Then a quote from an expert in digital journalism:

“He went from posting pictures of women, real estate, dining and cars to posting pictures of ISIS, guns and people in jail,” said Jonathan Albright, the research director for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s a remarkable change.”

From unremarkable to remarkable. However, here is what I remarked in the first incarnation of Mr. Sayoc’s online persona.  “Scantily clad women” denotes objectification; women as things, not people; decadent meals signal affluence and pleasure; real estate and cars are signs of prestige, money and power. All of these are signs of toxic masculinity, an idea of human relationships as transactional and impersonal, a technocratic bent, and a desire for male domination. These are completely consistent with the Twitter account, the support of Trump, and, eventually, the pipe bombs.

I’d suggest the proper way to frame this article is as a continuum of his offenses, displayed on social media. Just as many mass killers begin with domestic violence, many perverts as peeping toms; just as sexual harassers will forge expense reports, or take credit for other people’s work, the signs of violence are often visible in other actions and evidenced in seemingly minor social media posts online. “Criminal versatility” is common, and criminal tendencies can be read in early prejudices. I see the signs of César Sayoc’s tendencies already writ large on his Facebook page.

The Anthrobscene

Through Stewart Brand’s work, beginning with How Buildings Learn (one of my favorite books) and his work with the Long Now Foundation, I learned to look at time differently, and technology differently, and to think about how time is cooked into everything we do today, especially as regards the ephemeral nature of all the time spent on computers and in online media.

I often refer to this diagram from Brand’s book, The Clock of the Long Now when talking about how we think about time and our world:

pace_layering.jpg

So I was interested to learn of Jussi Parikka’s book The Anthrobscene. It is reviewed by Nora Khan, and explained on the Minnesota press site, its publisher:

“Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers all at one time held the promise of a more environmentally healthy world not dependent on paper and deforestation. The result of our ubiquitous digital lives is, as we see in The Anthrobscene, actually quite the opposite: not ecological health but an environmental wasteland, where media never die. Jussi Parikka critiques corporate and human desires as a geophysical force, analyzing the material side of the earth as essential for the existence of media and introducing the notion of an alternative deep time in which media live on in the layer of toxic waste we will leave behind as our geological legacy.”

— child labor and human trafficking is behind much of the labor providing the ores and minerals used in the making of our machines. The geology behind what we do is usually invisible to us, as so much is. It is important to be reminded. Time and responsibility, indeed.

Heidegger, Journalism vs. Trump, Translations

  • Journalism should stop “feeding the trolls”, as we’d say here in Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump and his flying monkeys are clearly trolls. A great strategy for this has been presented by Jay Rosen on Pressthink of how the press can execute it: report from outside the white house; don’t broadcast live events in order to protect your audience from lies; don’t amplify or repeat lies. Send interns, not top reporters, into press conferences.
  • I’ve been rereading The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger.  Technology’s essence is not technological: it is a way of looking at the world as if everything is “standing reserve”.Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. A tree is not a tree, it is subordinate to the orderability of cellulose; Humanity is reduced to what is calculable, manipulable, employable. Nature most of all. Viz:

    The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.

    Heidegger’s Black Notebooks were also translated into English a couple years ago, and I will probably never read them, as I’ve left off reading much Heidegger in the past couple decades. Have you read them? Here’s a primer in The New Yorker: Why does it matter if Heidegger was Anti-Semitic? Heidegger was a Nazi. This is especially relevant in the context of technology and the human, for obvious reasons.

  • I was shocked to learn how few books in translation Americans read. If you want to find some good reads, a good place to start is the long list from the National Translation Awards. I’ve got my eye on August, and already have a copy of Dandelions.