Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Vol. 2

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Ninety-nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers
by May R. Berenbaum
-Insects are written about in short 1-2 page entries. This is a sequel. I did not read the first book. This short form is fitting for writing about insects. The form of the entries consists of: many puns, perhaps to add some light-heartedness to descriptions of the insectoid horror-world; some discussion of how each species affects the lives of human beings; and of course Latin name, life cycle, diet, mating, unusual behaviors and memorable peculiarities, etc.. Insects are strange and beautiful and they often mess up things for human beings by biting them or messing with their crops. I enjoyed reading this book. First I read it as something to help me fall asleep but then as pure pleasure and distraction for a troubled mind.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life
by Ulli Lust
-Great cartooning. Loved the 2nd color in this—it's a thing I notice.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Science, Order, and Creativity
by David Bohm and F. David Peat

I bought this book at a sale because I thought the cover was so...unusual. Plus the title and the whole package was my kind of thing. There's stuff about fractals and Heisenberg and there's a chapter named "What is Order?" 

I didn't plan on reading it, but then one night I gave it a shot, and I saw that these guys really knew what they were talking about. They take us from physics to metaphysics, to meta-, and then on to the mystical and the cosmic and the everyday mind. By the end they're discussing Krishnamurti.

I like their idea of "false play" / "playing false:" This is when a person "is engaged in an activity that no longer has meaning in itself, merely in order to experience a pleasant and satisfying state of consciousness" but is now concerned with "reward or the avoidance of punishment." This not only screws with the "generative order of consciousness" but generates violence: the denial of the freedom of creative states of mind "brings about a pervasive state of dissatisfaction and boredom. This leads to intense frustration..." and deadened senses, intellect, and emotions, and the loss of a capacity for "free movement of awareness, attention, and thought." (I've been thinking back and forth about signing up with Patreon all week...)

A lot of thought went into this book. Reading it gave me a nice feeling of texture and struggle. It felt like good exercise for the mind AND the heart. Over-earnestness, a vision of the beyond, struggling with language — I can sympathize. 

As usual as I was reading I couldn't help but think more diagrammatic thinking would have helped, and not just thinking—more actual diagrams would have helped. I guess that's what the cover artist Andresj Dudzenski was trying to get at with the flower, cubes, etc. But the cover artist and the writers are using different metaphor-schemes, as far as I can tell. I don't remember any of those sorts of things (such as shaped holes and pegs, flowers or magnifying glasses) appearing inside the text.) Relatively speaking there are actually quite a few illustrations—fractals and geometric figures, and even the Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Rembrandt and some JW Turner. 

But how about a sense of humor, an ironic sense? This book is pretty dry. Here's a sample of the writing: "Thus, if there are rigid ideas and assumptions in the tacit infrastructure of consciousness, the net result is not only a restriction on creativity, which operates close to the "source" of the generative order, but also a positive presence of energy that is directed toward general destructiveness." It's true, but it's not exactly powerfully written. In the end, though, it's hard for me to hold this against a book so dedicated to making clear this vision of reality which makes humor and compassion possible at all, by "operating close to the source of the generative order" in a spirit of openness and creativity.

Near the end:
Consider, for example, a hypothetical individual whose consciousness had been "cleared up" both in the individual and the cosmic dimensions. Although this person might be a model of wisdom and compassion, his or her value in the general context would be limited. For because of "unconscious" rigidity in the general infrastructure, the rest of humanity could not properly listen to this person and he or she would either be rejected or worshiped as godlike. In either case there would be no true dialogue at the social level and very little effect on the vast majority of humanity. What would be needed in such a case would be for all concerned to set aside assumptions of godlike perfection, which makes genuine dialogue impossible. In any case, the truly wised individual is one who understands that there may be something important to be learned from any other human being. Such an attitude would make true dialogue possible, in which all participants are in the creative "middle ground" between the extremes of "perfection" and "imperfection." In this ground, a fundamental transformation could take place which goes beyond either of the limited extremes and includes the sociocultural dimension.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Finite and Infinite Games
by James P. Carse

Monday, June 30, 2014

Smile at Fear
by Chogyam Trungpa

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dynamics in Action
by Alicia Juarrero

Buddhism Plain and Simple
by Steve Hagen
-Interesting to me that this revolved so much around the metaphor of "seeing" and vision and optical illusions. I'm sure I'll write more about that some time.

by Zander Cannon

by M. Thurber

Beautiful Darkness
by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Incomplete Nature
by Terrence Deacon

-(I read this book while at the same time reading Dynamics in Action by Alicia Juarrero. I finished Deacon's book first. I decided to read them together, because Juarrero has formally accused Deacon of plagiarism. You can read about that here and here. Read the comments on the latter for more. Anyways I'm trying to get my head around the ideas first.)

Daniel Dennett's review from last December is a good place to start. There are many other reviews of this book around the web, so I won't struggle too much with trying to summarize the ideas. I got a big kick out of reading Deacon's other book, Symbolic Species (link to my write up). That book was about the dialectical co-evolution of language and the brain, and this newer book (2011) is in a way about the co-evolution of self-organizing forms. Both of these books seemed very "dialectical" to me, but I honestly still don't know if I'm using that word correctly or if I'm only using it in my own private way. Anyhow the idea is that as simple material forms work through their thermodynamic changes they can come together in mutually supportive ways to create new meta-forms (like what happens with crystals or whirlpools), which can then combine to form more complex forms-of-forms-of-forms which can be said in a extremely primitive way to look after themselves, to work to persist in their current arrangement of forms, and to reproduce and evolve. Deacon calls this primitive life-form an "autogen." (Juarrero sometimes uses the phrase "structured structuring structures.") It only really exists in theory, but his point is that it's not a totally crazy idea that something like that could have come together billions of years ago on Earth. It doesn't violate the laws of physics.

I associate this kind of "leveling-up" or differentiation with dialectics. In Symbolic Species the 3-part dialectic you needed to get your head around was Charles Peirce's icon > index > symbol. In this book, there's another nested 3-part structure: thermodynamic > morphodynamic > teleodynamic. (Peirce again makes a few cameos here.) The complex lifeforms we know and love evolved after billions of years of teleodynamic activity. There are also difficult chapters that discuss the concepts of information and work in terms of this dialectic.

Deacon discusses how in theory this dialectical geometric logic could unfold in simple material systems, and then towards the end discusses how this logic can apply to what we know about brains and consciousness. The sections on brains were of course what I was interested in. They felt intuitively right to me, for what it's worth, and the parallels with Buddhist ideas were obvious and exciting to see.

He argues against the idea that consciousness and life is to be understood in merely linear terms, such as mechanism/function, or information/computation. Instead we should pay attention to how life emerges from forms of thermodynamic and morphodynamic energy flows which use geometrical arrangements to pit physical processes against each other in order to perpetuate far-from-equilibrium structures. Thus new formal arrangements become new efficient causes. The parts affect the whole, the whole affects the parts. As new arrangements of forms persist, new possibilities arise for new systems and relationships between forms to emerge, and as these affect the ability of the sub-forms to survive and reproduce the new meta-arrangements persist insofar as the sub-forms which support them are selected to perpetuate them. Wholes support parts which support wholes. In this way forms "level-up" into new meta-forms (these are my words for thinking about it). Once these forms (which at this point are no longer merely material, but are self-perpetuating forms-of-forms, and so exist as it were in the spaces between matter, and are "absential" (to use one of Deacon's many neologisms)) found ways to use the patterns of DNA and RNA molecules to integrate different areas of themselves they got really good at generating different architectures for staying alive and reproducing. At this level the material form of the organism is in a sense beside the point—the point is the whole dynamic arrangement of self-perpetuating form (which is parasitic on matter but also paradoxically independent in the sense that it is a dynamic matter/form combo, "more than the sum of its parts" at any one moment, emergent and absential).

A lot of this is standard evolution stuff, but what I guess Deacon is saying is that the important thing is to follow the formal logic of nested spiraling yin/yangs of presences and absences all the way down to the basic level of thermodynamics and back up again in order to see how life and consciousness are best understood in terms of a dialectic of dynamic processes. The higher levels at which information and function and consciousness seem paradoxical only make sense if you take into account the whole multi-dimensional dialectic of presence and absence.

So did Aristotle nail it? All four causes are accounted for and back in action. There's a lot of discussion of Aristotle in this book and Dynamics in Action, which I look forward to finishing. Greek science's turn toward the timeless and mathematical and away from the contextually embedded narrative description is a big issue in that book. What about Lao Tse? "Clay is fashioned into vessels but it is on their empty hollowness that their use depends.” (Deacon quotes this too.) Deacon also discusses the "discovery" of zero as analogous to what he is trying to say about absential "things." (More often he uses the word "ententional" to refer to these absent forms that make a difference. I don't think that word is going to catch on.)

I haven't mentioned how difficult to read this book is yet. It's not super bad, but it's pretty difficult. He coins a lot of new words, which normally I'm fine with, and even wish more writers would do, but other reviewers have felt it was a bit much. You need to have a pretty basic understanding of physics and biology. I'm no master wordsmith but I couldn't help but feel at times like he could have explained things more clearly and that he was making it more difficult than was necessary. I'd love to take a crack at diagramming or drawing comics about the ideas in this book and Juarrero's book. Deacon throws in a few diagrams, but it seems to me like visualization would really help. Saying "figure/background reversal" over and over doesn't quite drive the point home without an illustration, like one of these.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The How of Happiness
by Sonja Lyubomirsky
-Bought this at a book sale, read it off and on before bed. It's like one of those books full of laboratory research on psychology students that is generalized into advice about how to change your life for the better. It's not the most inspirational book, but it's definitely full of things to do. I guess it tries to be comprehensive. The large quantity of activities and suggestions in the book ironically seemed depressingly overwhelming to me. I guess it would be a good reference book to have around and pull out every once in a while. Things like: be grateful, savor the pleasures of life, spend quality time with your loved ones, have goals, don't work too hard, meditate, etc.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

5,000 BC and other Philosophical Fantasies
The Tao is Silent
by Raymond Smullyan

-I got these two books by Raymond Smullyan, along with his "Budget of Paradoxes," from the university library. I didn't buy them. I stumbled on the paradox book in the humor section which is near the comic strip section, and then I saw in the "Other Books by" that Smullyan also wrote books about Taoism and Zen, and that he wrote another book called "A Theory of Formal Systems" and Godel. My approach to the big questions has gotten more and more "formal" over the last years, so it seemed like this guy might be my guy. But after reading these two book I don't know anymore. At least not in terms of how good his books are. They're not heavy reading, but also they're not very good books—for several reasons. They are all over the place and annoyingly pleased with themselves and there are approx. 800 typos in them. Taoists don't proofread I guess. I'm glad I read these books though because it made me realize/remember that even when writing about something that is "unsayable" there's better or worse ways to go about it (or not). Ironically, there's sometimes a tone-deafness with ironic people. When cleverness becomes's like, shouldn't your cleverness also make you sensitive to how annoying your cleverness is making you? It's like if you were listening to a lecture called "On Having a Sense of Humor" and the guy giving the lecture was a real "jokester" and occasionally made you smile but more often made you wince, and the digressions and half-assedness started to become tedious, and you begin to doubt whether he has a full understanding of the subject he's talking about, and so the message is undermined by its delivery. You think maybe he should do a better job of lecturing on Humor, maybe he should take it more seriously.* Back to the books—they have their moments. At the end of the Tao book he has a character say something** which might remind you of freshman dorm room philosophizing, but on the other hand felt to me like it got to the point pretty well: if you search for an objective method for understanding life and everything, what objective method should guide your search? And isn't it a subjective thing to feel that you need an objective method? And so on. So what should you do? The answer is: once you see that "subjective" and "objective" are two sides of the same coin, that's it. You are where you are, doing what you do. At this point, arguing that one should or shouldn't do anything is "as silly as to argue with an unripe apple that it is time that it should fall from the tree. When the apple is ready, it will not need to be told that it should fall; it will do so of its own accord."

*Am I doing it too? (By pointing it out am I?)
**Yeah...many chapters are in dialogue form...I know...sigh

Saturday, February 15, 2014

This Book Needs No Title: A Budget of Living Paradoxes
by Raymond Smullyan

Valences of the Dialectic
by Fredric Jameson

Monday, January 27, 2014

School Spirits
by Anya Davidson

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait
letters by Vincent Van Gogh. ed. WH Auden.
-Auden wrote about the letters, "there is scarcely one letter by van Gogh which I ... do not find fascinating." I'll have to take his word for it because and gave up on the book (almost exactly) halfway through.

The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley
by Kim Deitch