Sunday, June 22, 2008

Your World Is Not The World

It's already getting hot outside, at nine o'clock in the morning. Last night I saw lightning, the wind kicked up, but whatever storm that was blew right past us. The summer solstice is past, days are getting shorter -- not that you can notice. Really, this week has had some of the most beautiful sunshiney days. Today has sunshine, but it looks like it may be an uncomfortably warm one.

I'm going to give a talk in the fall to a group of biologists in Australia, and I have been thinking about some things. I hope you don't mind if I ramble a little. Well, it is Sunday morning, I guess it won't be the first time!

We went to yard sales yesterday. We went to different neighborhoods in Rockville, just wasting an hour of a beautiful Saturday morning visiting with people and seeing if we spotted anything we needed. I suppose I should put that in quotes: "needed". I ended up getting a new case for my camera for fifty cents, and a flash for a dollar. The case I needed, I already have a flash but this one looked good, and I like to set up a shot with light from different angles. Sometimes I use something called a "slave flash," it's a device that can tell when your flash has gone off, and it instantly sets off another flash unit without being connected to your camera, so you can get light from two or more points. I didn't really need this, but it was only a dollar.

At a yard sale you stop your car and get out and some people are there, and you talk to them, and it's sort of like dropping in and sitting in their living room with them for a few minutes. There's usually some initial stuff about the weather, you picked a nice day for this, or we picked a terrible day, it's too hot, or whatever, there is some talk about whether there are a lot of sales or they have had a lot of customers. But after a minute or two you might find out something about them, or they find out something about you, and you talk a little bit. Typically, somebody knows somebody from the same place that the other person knows somebody from. It's not usually anything personal. I think the main times I've seen it become very personal is when people are selling stuff that belonged to a family member who died. Usually there is some joking and conversational interaction, small talk.

One thing you notice is that people assume you're like them. Maybe you haven't seen me, my hair is long, I'm in my fifties, I tend to wear jeans and cowboy boots (standard manly footwear where I come from, not so common out here in The East). I carry myself like a respectable citizen but I think people might not know how to take me at first, from looking at me. I joke with them, if I hear them speaking Spanish I might try to get a little practice in, I enjoy small-talking with the people. It seems to me that as soon as I have said something to somebody, they tend to be friendly with me -- it doesn't mean I'm a nice guy, people are just like that.

So say, there was a couple sitting along the sidewalk in folding chairs, in the shade of a big tree. You look at their stuff, they're selling their old kids' clothes and toys. There's an unopened bottle of wine for sale, some camping equipment they never used. See? You get a feeling for what they like and what they think is important. There is a chest of drawers, and they forgot to empty one of the drawers, so you see what they had in there. You look at their old CDs and albums, the books they're getting rid of. One guy had a whole shelf of L. Ron Hubbard, who would have guessed that? The way they talk to each other, the way they talk to their kids, you get an idea about how they live -- I find this so interesting!

We were at a yard sale in a rather snooty part of town, I won't say where. It was near downtown Rockville, they had better-quality stuff than some of them. I actually considered buying one of the guy's ties, except I remembered I have about a hundred ties already, and I never wear one. But they were only a dollar, and they were nice. These people had Christmas ornaments, some books from law school, nice clothes, lawn equipment, lots of picture frames. I didn't buy a tie.

A little girl was selling lemonade for a quarter. I went over to get two glasses. She might have been five, she had pink lemonade. I asked her, "What is lemonade made out of?"


"What color is a lemon?"

"Yellow," she said. (I grew up in citrus country with lemon trees in the back yard, but don't know if kids Out Here know what an actual lemon looks like.)

"But the lemonade is pink," I said. "How do you get pink juice out of a yellow lemon?"

Usually kids that age giggle or ask you a question or something, they engage you when you throw them a curveball like that. This little girl looked at me like she didn't comprehend. Just blank, calm eyes looking at me, as if there was something unnecessary or frivolous about my question. Did I mention she was five?

I tried to make it easier. "Where do lemons come from?"

"A lemon tree."

"So you got your lemons from a lemon tree?"

"No, this juice came from a can."

"Oh," I said. "Well, maybe it grew on a lemon-can tree."

At this point the girl's mother came over to bail her out. She said, "She's a girl, she likes pink things, she wanted pink lemonade, and that's how it came out."

"Wow, so whatever she wishes for, it happens," I said.

The mother looked at me, the girl looked at me. It was clear the conversation had died. Usually it goes better than that, though I got a certain rewarding kind of amusement out of the awkwardness of the situation. Well, my wife and I had our dixie-cups, the little girl had her two quarters, her mother reminded her to thank us and she said "You're welcome." It was time to leave.

Clearly, I hadn't been joking in a kind of way those people appreciated, and they didn't really want to hear any more of it. I'm sure that family has its way of joking, things that are in-bounds at their dinner-table, but it appeared that absurdity is not part of their day-to-day dialogue, questioning reality and the meanings of things. Things, for some people, are as they appear to be, and there is no fun in turning it all inside out, or in trying to understand why somebody else would. Words are not toys, for some people.

I said something here the other day about people who think their world is The World. People see things from a particular perspective, but everybody to some extent realizes that other people may see things differently from them. Most of us accept other people's perspectives, to varying degrees, but some people just seem to think that other people are wrong. For instance, someone may accuse you of "moral relativism" because you allow that something you don't approve of is all right for somebody else. Appreciating that someone else may have a valid point of view, even if you don't understand it yourself, is called "respect."

One thing that people do better than any other animal is to take the perspective of another person. Like, if you are with a chimpanzee and you look at something, the chimp might look at it, too -- it is identifying with you and looking at what you're looking at. A study a few years back found that dogs are good at that, too, even better than chimps. But people are most excellent at it -- when somebody expresses an interest in something, we think about it too, when something happens to someone we imagine how we would feel if that thing happened to us. If somebody does something, we understand it by imagining what would impel us to do that thing, we feel what it must have felt like to be them doing it. One word for this is "empathy."

This kind of shared-perspective thinking turns out to be really useful for problem-solving. You think of a problem solution, somebody else thinks of one, you put them together and you can come up with an innovative and successful way to solve the problem. We tend to think of people as isolated, autonomous individuals, but when people have something they can't understand or a problem they're trying to solve, the thing they do is to discuss it with other people. Nobody really thinks alone, inside their head, thinking itself is mostly imagined interactions with other people. You might not know this about me, but I have published many papers on a topic sometimes called "swarm intelligence" or "particle swarm optimization," that builds computer programs based on this simple concept. The dynamical process of sharing perspectives is a powerful way to solve hard mathematical problems, and it is a crucial part of human intelligence.

But there are people who see the world from one point of view, they know their own experience and that's it. They surround themselves with people whose experiences are similar to theirs, and they build relationships on the overlap, ignoring the differences or even discouraging people from differing from them. People who share their perspective are good people, those who don't are bad people. Does this define conservatism in our time? It seems possible.

Well, everybody does that to some extent. You could never communicate with people without making some assumptions about their subjective experience, and you have to assume that their experience is something like yours, because that's all you know, that's all you can go on. And that's what makes this hard.

It seems to me that civilized people must know that other people's lives are different from theirs, and their thoughts and beliefs are different. Living in a round world, we have to know that there are people in other lands who think in different concepts from us, marry a different way, walk and talk differently from us, believe differently -- we are just one people among many. But of course it is not reasonable to consider other people equally with one's own perspective -- you do have to look out for yourself. It seems necessary that there is always a balance between self-respect and respect for others. And some people's ideas can be rejected outright as being unreasonable, false, or dangerous -- can you reject those ideas and at the same time retain respect for the person? I'm not even sure if that's worth doing. We recognize a bad idea, and we somehow automatically attribute badness to the person, maybe there is some value in that, and maybe we do it inappropriately sometimes. These are all traps that derive from being embodied, seeing the world from a single point in space. You can walk around and try things, you can sample a range of experiences, but you can never actually see the world from somebody else's point of view, because of the straightforward limitations of existing in physical space.

Nobody ever solves these problems, nobody ever really figures these things out. If you are going to engage the world you are going to live in a fluid state where boundaries shift all the time, you will have your ways and you will also question yourself sometimes. Of course it is possible to live disengaged. I think a lot of people probably do that.

I just heard a tune on WPFW, it was Danny Gatton's band Funhouse, live at the Birchmere in 1988. I was sitting here typing and spacing out, and all of a sudden I heard this guitar that just went crazy, off the deep end, the guy went outside the key into some insanely fast lick that basically sounded impossible to play, and you knew right away it was Danny Gatton. It's terrible what the music business does to you. You wish that every person's talent could be appreciated in its proportion, but it rarely works out that way. You have to find a "market," you have to stick within a genre or at least some perceptible permutation of one. You have to please the crowds, first the drunks in the nightclubs and later the politely applauding audiences in the concert halls, and then if you're lucky the roaring masses in the arenas. Hardly anyone passes the Darwinian test of adapting to all those environmental extremes. So an outrageous talent like Gatton meets with enthusiasm, appreciation, on a local level, people who heard him recognized his skill, his expressiveness, but somehow he stayed stuck in a local rut. I won't speculate about his suicide, I don't think it makes sense to try to find the "reasons" for such an act, but the pressure of being a local demi-god at fifty bucks a night or whatever is not going to be easy on a guy, especially after some number of years. I think I'm going to try to find that mp3 on the Internet, I'd like to learn that lick.

We have a good friend who went into the hospital this week. She had a cold that dragged on and then they said it was bronchitis, and now the tests are showing that she has cancer. This has affected everything we do this week in a strange way, sorry if I seem gloomy or more introverted than usual. All the tests aren't in, but it sounds like the doctors are optimistic about this, though it will definitely be a hard go for her. We will have to circle the wagons a little bit here and get her and her family through this.

Man, I just walked the dog and it is really nice out! We walked over by the woods and the sunshine is clear and good, there are some clouds and I understand there could be a thunderstorm later but this is perfect. Montgomery County really is a cool place to live.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim said:

“A little girl was selling lemonade for a quarter. I went over to get two glasses. She might have been five, she had pink lemonade. I asked her, "What is lemonade made out of?"


"What color is a lemon?"

"Yellow," she said. (I grew up in citrus country with lemon trees in the back yard, but don't know if kids Out Here know what an actual lemon looks like.)

"But the lemonade is pink," I said. "How do you get pink juice out of a yellow lemon?"

I’m a huge fan of real lemonade myself – if it comes from a powder I’d rather have water. I’m not the only one with discriminating taste in lemonade though, and your little vignette reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from the first Addams Family movie:

The young entrepreneur and her mother didn’t seem to get the humor. I guess some people get handed lemons in life and make sour grapes.



June 22, 2008 10:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

they didn't get the humor because there wasn't any

to the mother, it probably looked like some creepy lech was bothering her daughter

little did she know her daughter was fortunate enough to be conversing with one of the major philosophical writers of the 21st century, a friend to the downtrodden masses of sexual minorities

mothers are like that...always erring on the side of caution when it comes to strange-looking strangers trying to verbally bully their young children

June 23, 2008 6:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Man, I just walked the dog and it is really nice out! We walked over by the woods and the sunshine is clear and good, there are some clouds and I understand there could be a thunderstorm later but this is perfect. Montgomery County really is a cool place to live."

And as a puffy white cloud slowly slid alongside the bluebirds, two bees looped around a daisy and Clarabelle the cow shook her bell and smiled at me.

We're looking for fun and feelin' groovy in Montgomery County.

June 23, 2008 6:20 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Anon, I am finding it hilarious that you believe you are able to detect the presence and absence of humor. That's a good one!


June 23, 2008 6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's just my little tribute to the late George Carlin.

June 23, 2008 6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymouses world is The World.

June 23, 2008 7:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

“Anonymouses world is The World.”

You may not to argue with this one Jim, he’s got this guy to argue his side of the story:



June 23, 2008 8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And as a puffy white cloud slowly slid alongside the bluebirds, two bees looped around a daisy and Clarabelle the cow shook her bell and smiled at me."

You forgot about the milkman who frolicked around the lamp post while Wilbur the pig winked at the world.

The world!

June 23, 2008 8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to the mother, it probably looked like some creepy lech was bothering her daughter

Does anyone else find it ironic that no matter what the situation, these right-wing nutballs make it about sexual perversion towards children? Just a wee bit of projection, methinks.

June 23, 2008 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it as ironic as Robert Downey Jr!

June 23, 2008 9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

""And as a puffy white cloud slowly slid alongside the bluebirds, two bees looped around a daisy and Clarabelle the cow shook her bell and smiled at me."

You forgot about the milkman who frolicked around the lamp post while Wilbur the pig winked at the world."

How about the lass who dropped lavender petals on the bunnies who slept in the parsnip patch while Jemima the puddle duck quacked in joy!

Oh, the sunshine was clean and good!

June 23, 2008 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, the sunshine was clear and good.

where life is beautiful


and I'll be happy to see those nice young men in those nice white coats and they're coming to take me away

June 23, 2008 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I’m not the only one with discriminating taste"

there oughta be a law

June 23, 2008 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea- not anon
Do you think Anon is high or drunk?

I forget what it was this morning that I read that made me think: What if Peter Sprigg got "caught" like Ted Haggard? I guess the rightwing would skip over him and find another moussed hair suitwearing bigot to take over.

Jim, you get great trips- I am hoping in my final "subsidized" travel season next year to get only local travel(like Beltsville - 10 minutes from home and DC- 20 minutes from home). Anderson, SC and Chippewa Falls, WI just don't match Oz and Wivenhoe so I'd rather not go at all. Hong Kong is coming up next spring but not for work.


June 23, 2008 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Do you think Anon is high"

Sunshine on my shoulders

clear and good

in Montgomery County


almost all the time

gets me high

June 23, 2008 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why people vote Republican

June 23, 2008 8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why people don't vote Democratic:

June 23, 2008 10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I'm sure the entire membership of the GOP reads this blog every day (eye roll) to keep track of everything they hate: people who espouse tolerance and equality for all Americans.

Poor Anon, you are the only rightwingnut who is so obsessed with TTF that you have to come here day after day and deposit your stinkers.

June 24, 2008 6:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The kind of radical hyperbole displayed here is typical of the kind of thinking that drives people away from the Democratic party.

Obama has chickened out of the offer from McCain to do town hall meetings this summer. He was wise to do so. Obama's best shot is to not discuss the issues and stick to image.

June 24, 2008 9:25 AM  
Blogger Tish said...

A few months ago a group of four-year-olds explained to me that birds do not grow from bird seed - they hatch out of eggs! I was flabbergasted. Who knew? The process of bird production has always seemed perfectly obvious to me:

1. I fill the bird feeder with bird seed.
2. The squirrels spill the birdseed on the ground.
3. The next morning, there are birds on the ground walking around where the seed fell, probably waiting for more birds to emerge.

But these nature-savvy junior ornithologists insisted that birds come out of eggs. And they laughed at me. OK, I have read about this hypothetical bird-egg connection, but I have not ever personally seen a mourning dove or a cardinal come out of an egg, and I do see the birds stomping around on the empty seed hulls under the azalea bushes.

They laughed at me in a very nice way, but still they did laugh at me. The parents stepped into the conversation to smooth things over, pointing out that they too have seen birds on the ground after the squirrels spilled the seed, but the kids would not be swayed. They have this theory that the birds (which had hatched out of eggs at some unspecified earlier date) FLEW to my yard and were on the ground eating the spilled bird seed. And they said that the birds like bird seed on the ground as well as in the bird feeder. And they laughed.
And they told me that the library has many books about birds and eggs, some with pictures.

There are some kids who can explain that yellow lemons are picked too soon, before they have a chance to turn pink, or that if you plant pink crayolas under the lemon tree the lemons will make pink lemonade, and there are some kids who don't readily go with that kind of flow. Sometimes the person-to-person current doesn't connect, and that's just life. I think that was Jim's point.

June 24, 2008 11:16 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Some Sunday mornings I don't have a point at all, I'm listening to the radio, drinking coffee, and banging on the keyboard at the kitchen table. I think this story did imply a kind of point though, which I did not make very clear (because I wasn't aware of trying to "make a point").

It is possible to see the world as nothing but matter and energy at play. You might call it a dance or cosmic love-making or the dream of a god or whatever, there are many ways of looking at the world as a dynamical living system, loving its own existence, spewing out surprises and challenges and games and heartbreak. Enlightened minds partake of the spirit of play and dance along.

There are people who reduce this playful universe to some set of rules or principles, and reject everything that doesn't seem to fit the scheme. Perhaps these are religious principles, or logical principles, or work principles, people come up with the strangest fixations. No matter what the adopted view is, things that don't have a place in the plan are considered absurd or offensive.

I expect a kid to get this. Kids play, they know this is all pretend and play, and generally when I joke around with a kid they get the idea and come back with something pretty good. In this case, it struck me as odd that a kid that young had already had the playfulness drilled out of her.


June 24, 2008 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tell you, we can all speculate on what Jim's point is but who can ever know for sure.

My theory is he was trying to congratulate himself for being so much more inquisitive than most people. What better way to do that than ridicule young children?

Someone should get him a mirror for his birthday!

June 24, 2008 2:16 PM  
Blogger Tish said...

Thank you Jim. I better understand what you were getting at, but I am still puzzled by your conclusion. We do generally expect children to be playful, but children come with all sorts of brains and wordplay doesn't fit into the cognitive patterns of some children. Was the mother intervening to stop you from de-squashing her daughter's fugitive sense of play, or was she trying to deal with a type of conversation that her daughter doesn't decode fluently?

I read this story as just a little ripple in the flow of human interaction. You tried to make a connection and it didn't connect. Why should anyone be blamed for that?

June 25, 2008 5:26 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Tish, usually kids know when you're playing, and they almost always respond in a playing manner, even if it is just to be shy and hide their face. I don't expect sophisticated wordplay, but I do expect play from a kid that age -- we could do the five-year-old version of peekaboo. The mother perceived danger, and quite rightly. And I don't blame anybody, this is just a dimension that human beings spread out on. Obviously I know what I like, but I definitely do not expect everybody to be like me -- I wouldn't even want that! There's a place in this world for people like that, too.


June 25, 2008 7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh brother!

what a crock!

June 25, 2008 8:04 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Anonymous, I'm just talking about some stuff with my friends here. I am not a philosopher, not selling anything, just a guy trying to figure out how to live right. Maybe I'm right sometimes, maybe I'm wrong sometimes. I'm not ashamed of who I am, and am certainly not motivated to win your approval.


June 25, 2008 8:32 PM  

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