Monday, January 21, 2013

Andy Rooney Moment

You know what I miss? El-whys. You know, those things that used to come at the end of adverbs, “-ly.” What ever happened to them? They disappeared along with the rise of fresh baked bread. (Shouldn’t that be “freshly baked bread”? Or at least, “fresh, baked bread.” But don’t they really mean that it’s freshly baked?)

The el-whys went away with the other adverbs.

“How ya feeling, today?” (Which, of course, is different from “How ya feeling today?”)

“Feeling good. Never had more sensitive fingers. Like, I can feel things before I touch them. And I’m well, thanks.”

I guess I didn’t expect to be around long enough to notice lexical shifts of that magnitude. I expected slang to come and go, but I wasn’t prepared for the disappearance of an entire part of speech. Funny, though, we all still seem to understand each other good (ha-ha), even without the adverbs.

Or the funny pronunciations. I didn’t expect words to change their pronunciation in my lifetime, either. “Parmesan,” for example. It used to be pronounced the way it’s spelled: “parm’-eh-san.” Couple decades ago it morphed into “parma-jean.” You have to pronounce that “jean” like it was French: “zhan.” As if it were some Frenchman named “Jean” who was living in Parma. It’s not a normal sound in either English or Italian. It came, I’m sure, from people trying to sound a little more worldly, so they started giving “parmesan” cachet by pronouncing it in what they thought was Italian—probably in poor imitation of the Italian parmigiano, combined with the Italian-American custom of dropping the final vowel in Italian words. Instead, it reinforces our reputation as rubes, but so be it. We aren’t called the Ugly Americans for nothing.

Heck, we often make mistakes like that. Heck, “often” is a perfect example. I’m not sure where the “t” in “often” came from, but it was never pronounced until recently. Now, though, you hear the “t” more often than not. There’s a good chance you pronounce it that way, too.

I used to joke that I could live with that, so long as they didn’t start pronouncing the “t” in “soften.” You guessed it, the “t” is creeping in there, too. An un-softening of “soft.” How droll.

It reminds me of Spanish. You know how Spanish, especially Castilian Spanish, is spoken with a pronounced lisp? That came from a whole country imitating a beloved king who spoke with a lisp. One king. A whole country. Pretty amazing.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nice is Natural

Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky,

Just recently I heard an interview with a chronobiologist. I’d never heard the term, but as my spell-checker didn’t flag it when I wrote it, it’s obviously been around awhile. As soon as he said the word, it made intuitive sense. This was followed by your interesting piece on the effects of time on decision making. The results you outlined point to curious operations in the mind’s interior.

Lately, I’ve been engrossed with the question of free will. One biologist I ran across in my readings commented that he was waiting for “a molecular explanation of free will.” That may take some time. The longer I stare at the question, the more “free will” and “thinking” become conflated in my mind; I wonder if there’s truly thinking any more than there is truly free will? I have come to question the nature of consciousness. In the end I see consciousness as a real-time way for the vast collection of cells and organisms that any creature is to function ensemble, but that consciousness is no more the thinking part of the creature than is the computer monitor of the processor. Hal might be talking to you, but the real work is done by the CPU.

In that sense, all thinking is intuitive, whether it’s an on-the-spot reaction or a long contemplated action. If my own experience is any template, no matter how long I cogitate over something, when the answer does appear, I have no idea from where. I, obviously, have little control over the processes of rumbling through and filtering all the information that impinges on any decision. For one thing, there’s way too much information informing any decision for me to have a conscious grasp of it. Try as I might, I’ve never come up with an understanding of thinking that wasn’t reduced to a bunch of switches. Oh sure, the switches might be controlled by gauges, but, in the end, the message is either go or don’t go. I appreciate your field for trying to understand the switching processes, but it’s inevitably something one can only see from the outside; one cannot see one’s self think.

In the end I can’t figure out how any thought could arise without being run through some paradigm or algorithm which determines the outcome. If one has to choose between A and B, either there is a reason for the choice (conscious nor not) or the choice is random and, hence, without meaning. So, where does randomness come from? And “random” implies no control. So, if one either has control and makes a decision according to a paradigm or they have no control and it’s a random process, it appears that the only thing in control is the paradigm. I don’t see room for free will or thinking in that scenario. Maybe we call it “free will” because we have no idea from where it comes. How does one make a choice without applying criteria?

In any event, under that thinking, why length of time given to making a decision would alter the decision would appear to be a matter of response levels in the CPU. I.e., if a quick response is required, only certain essential parts of the CPU are brought into play; whereas if one has more time to contemplate, other algorithms and data sources can be accessed by the CPU. The shorter the required response time, the more instinctual the response would necessarily be.

Which brings us to children. There may be a Lord of the Flies aspect to children, but my experience is that children have instinctive morality. Perhaps they only have gut feeling, yet.

My untutored understanding—given, as you point out, that other animals possess empathy and altruism—is that those qualities are instinctual. I don’t see how they could be otherwise. If they were selected for, it means that they have value to the species, as the species is what controls trait survival, not the individual, right? Needless-to-say, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to think that altruism, for example, would benefit the entire species, nor would it be unreasonable that it was selected for. In fact, wouldn’t it almost have to be selected for?

In that sense, it would make altruism/empathy fairly basic traits, at that; ones that would enable a species to better survive. They would, one assumes, be the traits that would rise to the surface as spontaneous reactions to situations. Selfishness, it would seem, would require some thought, it would require other algorithms have time to be expressed.

I guess that all I’m saying is that it makes sense that spontaneous reaction would be beneficial to the most people. It’s only natural.
Steven Pinker
As to Pinker’s assertion—at least as you characterized it—that “it is the regulating forces of society, rather than human nature, that have brought a decline in human violence over the centuries”; without knowing if it is a fair characterization of his argument, it is, unfortunately, a logical fallacy. The “regulating forces of society” have nowhere from which to arise, other than human nature. What he is saying is that human nature has devised operating rules expressed In “regulating forces.” But they’re very human. It is human nature to figure out mechanisms by which society can be made to better function. I would think it, too, is a trait selected for.

Where Did Those Guys Come From?

My understanding is that the first European/American credited with visiting the Pacific Northwest was the Brit Francis Drake in 1579, followed by the Spaniard Juan de Fuca in 1592. One-hundred-and-fifty years later, Vitus Bering, a Swede working for the Russians, came down the coast (1740s). In another fifty years, 1792, on behalf of the Americans, Robert Gray became the official discoverer of the Columbia River. He would do that in May of that year.

In October of that year, William Broughton captained a ship that explored the Columbia. In a small boat, he and a party of crew members traveled a hundred miles upstream, checking out the countryside. At the very outset, while still at anchor near the mouth of the Columbia, Broughton noticed that the natives were already, not only ready to trade, but knew the value of what they were trading. The women, in particular, knew what they had of value to trade.

Heading upriver—it took them a week—they were accompanied by a fleet of canoes full of Indians who would camp nearby each night. Other large flotillas of canoes greeted them often as they went upriver, and were also ready to trade. Although they did note that the further upstream they traveled, the more unintelligible became the languages they encountered—which were unlike any other they had heard—and that the further upstream they traveled, the friendlier the natives became and the less they were interested in barter.

It’s a story oft repeated: the Italian John Cabot sailing for the British, who “discovered” Newfoundland in 1497 (five years after Columbus’s first voyage), discovered that he had been accompanied by hundreds of fishing boats. Not that they had traveled with him, but that he found them already there when he arrived. How did they do that?

I’ve always thought that Newfoundland was named by the fishermen who found it, otherwise it would have been named after a king or the like. It was already named by the time Cabot arrived. I’ll bet.

So, was Sir Francis the first European to visit the Pacific Northwest? I wouldn’t bet on that.