Thursday, December 29, 2011

HOW TO BE BETTER


(LiveScience asked me for a few words on self-improvement for the species as a whole. Here, then, are too many words, each of those true, each of those a lie.)

One unflattering trait we share with many other animals is Fear of the Other, which is just the flipside of a rather clinging, excessive, and obsessive love of (Just Like) Me. Social psychologists call this ingroup bias; cognitive psychologist see its advantages in fluent, speeded-up processing of the familiar. We’re long used to who we are, and so no real thought is necessary to deal with ourselves. Thus, in order to preserve our precious laziness of thought, we heavily invest in surrounding our selves with other selves just like it. We segregate into neighborhoods and work and leisure environments where any Others closely approximate us in age, race, income, political allegiance, and even sexual orientation or the type of facial hair considered couth to sprout. The consequence is that we never get to meet anyone who isn’t like us. This in turn leads to failing to imagine the Other, any Other, and to a loss of desire to even consider the Other as someone who exists, out there, very real, a human being just like us, except not Just Like Us.

At its most innocent, all this fencing-in creates little upticks in closed-mindedness inside one person’s skull – missed opportunities for jolts of fun or learning.

At its worst, for instance when manipulated by clever demagogues who realize that nothing binds us together more than Fear of that Ultimate Other, the Imagined Enemy, it leads to the Holocaust, Vietnam, Rwanda, Darfur, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and so on.

What to do? Go visit. Uncozy yourself. Get a move on. Practice loving-kindness with someone truly Else. (If you’re in academia, maybe take your republican-voting pariah colleague out for lunch, and listen for a change.) Or, at the very least, next time you find yourself at lunch agreeing with everyone’s astute observations, do realize: ‘Well, duh.’

Thursday, December 8, 2011

BECOMING

Today is bodhi day -- remembrance of the Buddha becoming the Buddha while sitting (nothing but sitting) under a pipal tree some twenty-five hundred years ago. When the morning star rose, he was finally and utterly Awake.

What is this -- Awake?

One of my teachers, Terry Keenan, liked to retell the story of Huston Smith asking his Zen teacher, and the answer was (a teaching wrapped in a teaching wrapped in a teaching): Infinite gratitude for all that is past; infinite service toward all that is present, and infinite responsibility toward all that is in the future.

Susan Jion Postal changed the first line, skewing it perhaps towards the active, perhaps for the better:

Infinite kindness to the past,

Infinite service to the present,

Infinite responsibility to the future.


(In other words:)


What is the price of happiness? -- Pay attention!

The simplest and hardest thing in the world: To be in it, fully; to be turning the wheel aware and focused -- mind and heart (one thing) (purely) (plainly) (wholly) what they are.

To be a bronze bell ringing of and with the vast plenitude of nothing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

KURTEOUS PROTEST


Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in 1965 (Good Morning Mr. Rosewater).

I repeat: 1965.

Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest and industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked for a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American Dream went belly up. turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited , filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.

A DAMN

[An allegory or fable. Imagine breaking through the police line; imagine being interrogated by some nervous executives of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, or JPMorgan Chase, on some 42nd floor.]

Footsteps behind her back; expensively creaking bison-leather brogues. Men clad in aluminosilicate glass and stainless steel. Babbling in their tower.

How did she get here, all tied up in an Aeron chair with sickeningly blue Ethernet cables, and such breathtaking view? Deep below her: the corpse of the American Dream, bobbing on the currents of the East River.

This you must understand, they say.
(They flip through the pictures on her phone.)
Some of us work on the plantation.
Some of us own the plantation.
Face it, woman.
Facts are facts.
We own the plantation.

What better plan than telling the truth?

Let me read you from today?s headlines, she says. Zoo owner sets exotic animals free, kills himself.

(They are not moved. They do not understand.)

Here, she says, is what I want my son to know. (Not that I?m telling him; I want his life to teach him.)
One. You are your heart. You?re not your wallet. But open both to those in need.
Two. Money cannot be made. Making money does not generate wealth. But if you make conversation, if you make friends, if you make love, there is more laughter, more happiness, more goodness, more kindness, more caring in the world.
Three. For whoever?s sake, young man: Do give a damn.

Yeah, yeah, they say. Not how the world works, missy. We?ll get to him; we?ll teach him; we?ll tame him. (Face recognition software unleashed on photos of a three-year old.)

Outside the window, unabashed and soaring on the rising storm ? the sweetest tune, a thing with feathers, summoned and submitted to a candid land.

Four. Give a damn.

TEAR DOWN THIS WALL ST

Best thing I've read in a while. By Lemony Snicket, on OccupyWriters.com -- do read all his 13 points:

5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

8. Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else—a stranger in the street, for example.

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 REMEMBRANCE, THROUGH MAKE-UP TUTORIALS

I am rarely at a loss of words, but now I am.

Here, dear friends, is how to pay tribute to the fallen of 9/11 and the decade of strife and bloody murder that followed -- How better to do this than through the art of make-up?



I do hope I am missing something here.
Amazingly, it appears to be a trend:



Given that words fail me, let me just quote MakeupbySandie:

Skyscrapers... their tall and gray. Well, I'm not tall, but I absolutely LOVE gray eyeshadow. And, this pallet by far is one of my very favorite ones of Mally Roncal. I dedicate this tutorial to the Citizens of New York City on the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001.

I hope you like this one as much as I do. You can use similiar eyeshadows that you already own. Make sure you check out Mally's cosmetics! Links are down below. Enjoy Dolls! Let me know what you think and if you want to see more!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

WHERE I AM FROM


I come from a country very cold and very wet, and very dark. People would compliment each other on the felicitous tones of grey in their wardrobe if they had such a concept, that is, of the gracious compliment, but they do not -- the sky presses too much on their shoulders to make them look up at anybody's sorrows but their own. Joys can be had too, it is rumored, but these are narrow and fleeting and by definition not to be trusted.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

GONDOLAT



I bet this here (look at it!) means the Hungarian translation of Omega Minor is finally out.

This, then, too marks the end of this novel in its multiple translated guises. Gondolat sent me a copy. There's something decidedly weird about holding an object that, one is told, holds all the words you once wrote, except you cannot read them at all.

And how much of these are still my words?

I did an interview over Skype with a Greek journalist last week, which reminded me of how much about the book I have forgotten. (For instance, the cover of the Greek translation features a Pollock painting -- how appropriate, said the journalist, for this is how you described the end result of a bullet penetrating a skull in close proximity of a wall. I have no memory of that, but find it a cute, endearing metaphor which I sure would have liked had I read it in someone else's work.)

Such forgetfulness is good.

It's like, I imagine, the forgetting of the pain of birth so that you (proverbial mother) can decide to have a second child after all.

My skull, all emptied out, Pollock-dripping from the wall -- now I should be able to write again, from the emptiness of mind. Plus a certain fullness of the heart.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

THE MULTIVERSE


ACP: Gottfried, my friend, why is this the best of all possible worlds?

GL: Because G*d is good and because G*d is omnipotent and because G*d chose exactly this world out of all possible worlds. So this world must be good—in fact, it must be the best of all possible worlds.

ACP: Gottfried, dear, what if I can think of a better world?

GL: You cannot: You must be mistaken, by necessity mistaken, when you think you can think such a thing.

ACP: But what if I really can? Must then not, by similar necessity, one of your premises be wrong?

GL: But you cannot, my friend – this is the best of all possible worlds, I just showed it to you, with irrevocable logic.

ACP: What of a world with one more righteous person in it, one true worshiper? Maybe one former heathen, suddenly convinced of his errors by your flawless calculation?

GL: Aw shucks, you demon reasoner. I cannot grant you that.

ACP: Because a world with one more more righteous person in it, one more believing soul, would be different from ours, and quite arguably better, and thus negate the existence of the very G*d this righteous person would now claim to believe in?

GL: For sure, my dear friend ACP, you are not that righteous fellow.

[Both off stage left, to merry laughter.]

Saturday, May 28, 2011

THE TREE, THE LION, AND THE THIEF

To the creationist eye, the tree is a mere device to make the wind visible.

But if direction of utility is the criterion, the man-eating lion surely is who the Creator had in mind to be the pinnacle, and among humans, the petty uncaught thief rules the roost.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

WHY BUDDHISTS ARE SO RUTHLESS

Buddhists are so ruthless because they have nothing** to lose.*

---
*My first version of this aphorism was: "Atheists win over faithers anytime, because they have nothing to lose." But then "Buddhists" was cuter; but then Buddhists don't "win", or don't care about winning, or aren't supposed to. (To win is to cling.) But then not including this footnote would have meant to give up on the word "faither", which I like and am too chicken right now to look up, for fear I didn't coin it. (Thus signifying my clinging.)
**or: Nothing.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

THE FIRST

The first commandment of sheep: Thou shalt not stray.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

TO DEBAPTIZE


Like many Belgians, I was baptized Catholic as a baby.

Judging from all the news trickling in from the home country (e.g., now this), I got lucky in my dealings with priests as a child, but many others weren't.

I also got lucky in my dealings with priests as an adult -- I've known a great deal of truly outstanding men who chose that field of vocation and lived that life with conviction and faith and deep spirituality, and to great benefit of a lot of others. My own path, in the meantime, has diverged -- I see the existence of a interventionist g*d as quite an untenable hypothesis. This was never reason for me to actively pursue the cancellation of my membership in the church. That membership was simply a benign remnant of my past.

But with the recent wave of stories about child abuse within the church, the repeated cover-ups, and the lack of any serious punishment of the perpetrators, one starts to think.

One of the things I discovered while thinking is that my view on the g*dhead is quite Feuerbachian: Any g*d exists as long as there are people who worship him/her. (Tough news for Zeus; good news, still, for the g*d preached by the little Jew from Nazareth.)


Conversely then, a g*d's worshipers should take the responsibility for the g*d they create -- for that is the g*d that exists and acts in the world.

The Catholic Church's g*d, right now (leaving aside the problem of his existence outside the realm of that church), isn't one I'd like to take responsibility for.

All of those premises can only lead to one conclusion.

Today I did send in my request to the Belgian Archbishop to be 'debaptized', that is, to no longer belong to that church.

Which makes me, unoddly enough, feel both better and a little sad. Killing, as it were, the tiniest of g*ds still living in my heart, and missing that tiny breath, that tiny thump, even though I haven't felt it, never heard it, in the past 25 years.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

THERE. I CORRECTED IT FOR YOU.

In the light of the budget proposals going back and forth these days and where the cuts are likely to fall, I'd like to offer the following correction to the words famously misattributed to Clemenceau, Disraeli, Shaw, Churchill, and Russell:

If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he turns into a conservative by the time he is 40, he has lost said heart.

Friday, April 15, 2011

OH AMERICA

Oh America:

The conflation of wealth with virtue; the conflation of wealth with worth.

Friday, April 1, 2011

POLIS

Not an April Fool's joke -- three of my five publishers have published Omega Minor on April 1. Today it's the Greek translation (with Polis Publishers), which intriguingly features my name in Greek transliteration, but the name of the novel in the Roman (so to speak) alphabet. I found a blurb here. 803 pages, meaning they must have a more leisurely layout than most. Other than that, I know nothing -- it's a release strangely clad in silence (at least as perceived from here), as it perhaps should.

Friday, March 18, 2011

THE DREAM


“The dream where you’re standing on the railroad tracks, in a fog, and then the train’s headlights appear out of nowhere and its thunder approaches, and you can’t move.”


“The dream where your friend is standing on the railroad tracks, in a fog, and then the train’s headlights appear out of nowhere and its thunder approaches, and you can’t move, and you can’t speak -- or yell -- or scream.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011

PRIME AND PREJUDICE

[On this blog, I tend to ignore my day job -- psychology. This entry is an exception: It speaks of a paper of ours that will soon be published in The British Journal of Social Psychology. Not sure how soon, BUT soon. The title is 'Prime and Prejudice', the authors are Paul Verhaeghen, Shelley Aikman, and Ana Van Gulick.]


Everyone, or so the song goes, is a little bit racist.

This can easily be verified by giving folks one of those the sneaky tests we psychologists excel at designing. Lexical decision, for instance. Is 'nug' a word? What about 'gun'? How long does it take you to make that decision? Now, let's prime you. Let's precede the word 'gun' by the word 'black'. See, now you're faster: When you think of black, you think of violence. What if we first show you the word 'white'? No speed-up at all. You are now officially racist: Only black makes you think of violent things. 'Woman'-'weak'? Bingo! 'Old'-'forgetful'? Indeed!

This stereotype priming effect, so many a social psychologist claims, reflects real attitudes in the real individual's head.

Is this so?

One curious finding in the social psychology literature on prejudice is that, tested with these priming measures, the supposedly downtrodden agree to the stereotype with remarkable ease -- black men unflinchingly endorse the view that blackness equals violence, women are quick to find women weak, and the one thing older folks happily remember is that they forget.

This finding has always puzzled me. Why would these folks so willingly put themselves down?

Something is afoot here.

As things go in academia, you learn a lot from your random peers.

One fine day, Dave Balota came to gave a talk at our* then place of employment. He mentioned a few other oddities of priming. Show folks a lion, and they recognize the word stripes much faster. Weird: Lions don't sport stripes. Lions are, however, associated with stripes through linkages -- the King of Beasts makes you think of its zoo-mate the tiger, or perhaps of its roam-mate on the savannah, the zebra. Lion: meet stripes.

The technical term for this type of association is (semantic) co-occurrence. That which is presented together often will stick in the mind together. (Plus, we humans are natural pattern detection machines. Throw a handful of diamond dust in the sky and we will see constellations. Give us a whiteboard and a set of half-moon glasses and we will connect George Soros with everything that is wrong in the world.)

This lion-stripe business. Maybe something similar is going on in this prejudice-priming stuff? In its journey through life, the mind gobbles up all kinds of information about how things in the world hang together; when requested, it spits it all back out, no malice intended. How often don't you hear that blacks are more athletic, that women are caring creatures, or that older folks are wise? (Positive stereotypes, but stereotypes nevertheless.) Hear it often enough and you might start believing it.

This idea of primed prejudice as semantic co-occurrence struck us as so simple and so utterly plausible that someone else surely must have done that study, we reasoned. Turned out nobody had. There were plenty of musings, but no hard data.

The study itself, we quickly understood, was trivial to design: What we needed was a set of prejudice-evoking prime-target pairs (old-wise, black-athletic, woman-caring; old-forgetful, black-violent, woman-weak), the associative value of those pairs, and then we needed a set of non-social pairs that matched those values (lion-stripe, or, rather, lion-mane). In the end, that turned out to be not trivial at all. Once we got our hands on a good database for semantic co-occurrence (Indiana University's Mike Jones's BEAGLE** was/is arguably the best, and he was willing to share), we quickly found out that there are very few associations in American English that top these prejudiced pairs (say, black-poor, or black-violent) in associative strength -- our very first cue that we were on to something.

Just to make sure, we replicated our experiment three times, each time with a different group of folks, and each time with a different task -- is the target ('poor' or 'poar') a word? Is the target something good or bad? Do prime and target fit together?

We found the same result in all three experiments: Folks are faster to answer any of our three questions when the pair of words is more closely related, but the type of pair doesn't make the slightest difference (i.e., summer-sun primes just as nicely and just as much as black-poor -- these pairs have about equal associative value). And the speed of response to our prejudice pairs did not correlate at all with the standard measures of racism, sexism and ageism our subjects filled out afterward.

The implication is clear. We may all be racist and sexist and ageist at heart, but this is not our doing -- we have merely internalized what we have been hearing and reading and seeing our whole life, that is, we have made ours the stuff the culture has been telling us over and over again in the relentless repeated patterns it shows us over and over again -- black quarterback, another black quarterback, hey, another black quarterback, and another one -- and we haplessly store it all in our thirsty memory banks, happily retrieving the connection and filling in the blank when presented with one end of the equation ('black = ?' -> 'black = athletic').The racist/sexist/ageist inside all of us is then not a monster of our own making; s/he is not a reflection of who we are, but of where we've been -- it simply, sadly shows we're Americans living in the here and now, or, more generally, human.

This conclusion is both reassuring and sad. Reassuring, because now we can understand why we are all a little bit racist (and sexist, and ageist); sad because we are. Sad too because it shows how much influence the media might have on our implicit knowledge structure. Doubly sad when you consider the state of these media, and how little sense of responsibility there seems to be concerning these issues. (Au contraire, maybe: The more you can play into preconceived notions, the larger your audience, the better your ratings?) Maybe triply sad because results like these can be easily misused. The consequences of bias and prejudice and hate are all too real, even if their origin must at least in part lie in the surrounding culture. Society's influence on its individual constituents, however, does not absolve these individuals from their own personal responsibilities. Perhaps thus, then, is one more reason for joy: Now that we know the Beast is there, and It's not our fault, we can at least look It in the eye, and scare It away.


--------
*Shelley Aikman's and mine. Ana Van Gulick came to join us a little later as a Summer intern.
**BEAGLE calculates the co-occurrence of words in a database that supposedly everything the average undergraduate student in the US has read by the time they enter college; it has no fewer than 90,000 lexical entries.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

GOOD HEAVENS!

It is always entertaining to watch Evangelical Christians get their Jesus jones on.

This weekend, the NYC reports on a pastor, Rob Bell, who incurred wrath among a subset of said Evangelicals by putting forward the proposition -- I paraphrase -- that G*d in His bestowing of the final judgment cares more about what you did with your life than about what religion you nominally belonged to. Hence, chances are, Bell muses, that Gandhi might be in Heaven right now, rather than in the hell certain protestant theologians would relegate him to, because he, sorry, simply isn't a Christian, and hence Heaven is unattainable.

Those of us who are not evangelical Christians can giggle or guffaw. But it is an interesting problem, and arguably one of the hardest for revealed religions to crack: Why did the Singularly Omnipotent chose to reveal Himself to this particular stone-age (or Dark Age) tribe, and not to some other? Why is our G*d the One, and yours a mere counterfeit, although Yours too scream quite loudly (yet inaudibly) that They, accidentally and now that you mention it, are True, and all others False? How, in other words, to subject our diverse g*ds to a veracity test, using reason alone, I may add, rather than, say, military might?

The problem, of course, isn't so much theological as it is pragmatic -- it's a problem of control.

If one, indeed, in the day and age of extensive cross-cultural contact merely begins to contemplate such matters, and one does so honestly, it is easy to see that maybe there isn't a monopoly at all, and that all religions must to some extent be true. This is where Bell is at. It's an admirable feeling: Anything that can bring the fractions of humanity closer together rather than raging at each others' throats, or even just shouting into each others' ears, is a good thing, IMHO.

Bell's colleagues -- no dummies, I suppose, and with a keen eye on their wallets -- already see the next step looming. One tiny thinking step beyond that happy coexistence mode lands us squarely into a quagmire of relativism: If all g*ds are true, might one then not also contemplate the notion that therefore none are true, and hence entertain the distinct possibility that all g*ds are simply zombies, once human, now dead and roaming the earth preying for human flesh and souls -- plus also completely imaginary?

My favorite joke is this one: "My brain is my favorite organ, but look who's telling me that." All I'm sayin' is: Consider the source.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

DEPENDS

'Depends' is usually a very good answer to any bifurcating question, except when the question is: 'Boxers or briefs?'

Monday, February 7, 2011

PAINT A VULGAR PICTURE

Saw this in De Standaard:
Uitgeverij De Bezige Bij brengt op 30 oktober, de eerste sterfdag van schrijver Harry Mulisch, een onvoltooide novelle van zijn hand uit.

Het werk, met de titel De tijd zelf, telt ongeveer dertig pagina's en is volgens uitgever Robert Ammerlaan 'duidelijk onaf'. 'Maar het is een dusdanig literair interessante tekst dat de uitgeverij en de erven het publicabel achten.'

Het is de bedoeling dat iemand een verklarende inleiding of nawoord schrijft. Wie dat zal doen, wordt wellicht volgende maand bekendgemaakt.
De Bezige Bij, de 'best' publishing house in Holland, has on its hands a dead star -- Harry Mulisch. (The Discovery of Heaven is quite masterful, it needs to be said.) Mulisch left one novella unfinished, it seems -- 30 pages and then it stops. No good writerly deed goes unpunished: Hear the rat-tat-tatting of wooden shoes on the cobblestones of the Heeregracht: Here come Harry's heirs, breathlessly delivering the manuscript at the Busy Bee's feet!

No doubt heirs and editor and publisher are motivated by a deep love for literature. How could the world possibly keep on turning without the publication -- paper, cardboard, glue, and a fancy cover design -- of those Final (but unfinalized) 30 Pages from the Master? No, they are so not money-grubbing vulgar accountants with On Their Hands a Dead Star!

There is an easy test to see what this is about.

If it's about literature, if it's really all about Harry and his work, just plunk the damn thing in facsimile on the Web, where we can all read it -- easily done! -- or publish, then donate the proceeds to a worthy cause, preferably one Meneer Mulisch would have liked. Otherwise: Oh, the sickening greed.

This, dear friends, is why I keep all my unpublished writing -- sentences polished or unpolished, notes eager or meager, plots plodding or plotted -- behind walls of encryption, and no-one has the key. If it ain't finished, it ain't finished, and I don't trust nobody, certainly not my future be-Alzheimered self, with what are my bloody (sweaty) words.

(Still, aren't we all going to run to the store to get our hands on Pale King next month? Aren't we?)


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

THE THINGS THAT MATTER

A screenshot from my browser's homepage, with the most important headlines from Salon.com.

(a) Egypt, yes, but FLOTUS gown first! Her Martyrdom!
(b) Egypt coverage, LIVEBLOG items: How self-centered can we get. Oooh, is poor Anderson okay?

I am old enough to remember, say, Timișoara. Blood and ashes in the streets then, blood and ashes in the streets now, and clearly the will of the people against a tainted regime that does anything it can to stay in power for even a few days longer. Just like then, dominoes are tumbling and a political world system is trembling.

We here (cats grown fat on processed foods), we care about our entertainment stars.

We here (cats used to neat little litter boxes), we scream 'democracy!', but aren't we so afraid of the will of the people? King Abdullah, grab our hands!

Well, yes, be afraid: People -- there's so many of them.

More and more each day.

And not all of them are wearing evening dress, or sporting sexy 'dos.

(But no panic, dearies, there's still plenty of other states willing to accept our extraordinary renditions, I am sure.)