Sunday, August 24, 2014

Making the living as interesting as the dead

Dinosaurs are endlessly fascinating things. They may be one of the biggest common denominators interest of among young children, both male and female. They’re huge, they’re weirdly shaped, and perhaps most importantly, they don’t exist. You see only the skeleton, and drawings. As a consequence, you’re forced to imagine what they would have been like. This means that they get a romance and curiosity attached to them that seldom attracts to the animals that the world actually has. One wants what one can’t have, after all. What is Jurassic Park, if not a combination of Frankenstein and man’s attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden?

Of course, if dinosaurs actually existed, they’d just be one more animal in the zoo. You can take this one of two ways. Either dinosaurs are overrated, or we should be more interested than we are in things that actually exist. For aesthetic reasons, I prefer the latter choice - one ought to learn to take joy in the merely real. Of course, getting people to see that is easier said than done.

Doubt it not, a giraffe is as bizarre as any dinosaur. One may appreciate this on an intellectual level, but it is hard to view one with quite the same wonder. The most effective way I've seen to demonstrate the point is at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Firstly, the exhibits move from dinosaurs, to ice age skeletons, and then on to living animals, encouraging the juxtaposition quite naturally.

But most importantly, to get people to be intrigued by modern animals, the most successful trick is to show them not just a giraffe, but a giraffe skeleton. It encourages you to look at a giraffe the way you look at the dinosaurs. And when you do, you realise that it’s comparably tall, wackily elongated, and many of the elements of the skeleton share features with those in the previous rooms. They also show you a real giraffe next to it, completing the imagination picture you had to fill in on your own in the previous cases. But most of the room is filled with skeletons of living species. A rhino or a hippo skeleton could easily be placed in the previous rooms without seeming out of place. If you judge a dinosaur less by its age and more like a child would, as a strange giant animal, the dinosaurs still exist. We just stopped noticing them.

The message is subtle but powerful. You would do well to be less fascinated with dinosaurs, and more fascinated with animals. The dead are intriguing, but so are the living. The latter have the advantage that you can still see them. So afterwards, why not take a trip to the zoo?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Memory and Imagination

It recently occurred to me that I have a very poor memory, but not in the standard way that people suspect.

By most metrics, I remember a lot of things. I have entire parts of my brain devoted to song lyrics, which is exactly the kind of odd thing that strikes people as notable precisely because of its triviality. I remember books I've read for a long time, and can usually talk usefully about them to people who've only recently read them. I remember ideas even better, and details of useful examples that illustrate the things I believe.

So for the most part, this qualifies me as having a reasonable memory. But nearly all the things I remember well are to do with words and concepts. This isn't universal – I’m bad at names and birthdays, for instance, but that’s about the only thing that might give it away.

The part I lack, however, is the ability to form mental pictures of what things look like. Yvain wrote about this in the context of imagination.
There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?
Upon hearing this, my response was "How the stars was this actually a real debate? Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn't think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane." Unfortunately, the professor was able to parade a long list of famous people who denied mental imagery, including some leading scientists of the era. And this was all before Behaviorism even existed.
The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the "wisdom of crowds", and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question.
There was a wide spectrum of imaging ability, from about five percent of people with perfect eidetic imagery to three percent of people completely unable to form mental images.
Dr. Berman dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one's own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else's.
This holds true both for the parts of memory I have, as well as those I lack. My relatively strong ability to remember the written word has a ton of variation. A smart friend of mine remarked years ago that he found it almost impossible to remember much from the novels he's read. I remember thinking at the time that this seemed very tragic. 

For my part, I would score quite low on the ability to form mental images. It's not non-existent - there are images, but they’re hazy, and the details tend to shrink away when you try focus in on them. When I read books, I have only a vague vision of what the people involved look like, or the places where the action is taking place. I would find it very hard to do the job of a writer and keep in my head a consistently detailed image of the physical features of a person’s appearance or the scenery. If I thought hard I could add in enough detail to make it convincing, but no amount of detail would cause me to actually have a clear picture of it myself.

I once saw a fascinating hint of how you might kludge things if you lacked a strong ability to form images and had to write about them anyway. This was when I saw the study of a friend’s mother who writes fiction. Up on a pinboard, she had pictures of the faces of a number of famous people from various angles. It was very much an ‘of course!’ moment. To make sure an image is credible if you can’t form one yourself, describe something in front of you that actually exists. This is the equivalent of painting from a photograph instead of painting a scene entirely in your head. It seems overwhelmingly likely that any painter who can create a detailed imaginary scene is an eidetic imager or close to.

But the bit that goes less noticed is that imagining pictures isn't important just for wholly made up scenery, but for memories too. The source material is still there, but you still need to recreate the scene.

And I find I’m fairly bad at forming mental images even of people I know well. I can remember particular scenes they were in, and certain facial expressions that seem familiar. But I don’t immediately have a crystal clear picture of them in my head. I’ll remember a particular still image, or a collage of them. But I can’t make the picture do arbitrary things like talk, or perform some action. I can’t imagine a different version of them, I can only remember a particular image of them that stuck for some reason.

Part of the reason that this deficit goes almost completely unnoticed is that it doesn't show up in the one situation where you might expect it, namely being bad at recognising people. I’m actually okay at that, even if I can’t always remember their name. When presented with an actual person in front of me, it’s enough to stir up recollections of what they were like, and to fill in the blanks of their appearance. Since I had only a hazy memory of what they looked like anyway, it’s less jarring to see how they've changed, which might cause me to think they were someone else.

So I can remember the faces in front of me, but not the faces that aren't. They’re stored in there, because I know them when I see them. But I can’t recall them at will.

You’d think that this would cause me to anticipate this by taking a lot of photos to preserve the memories. Sometimes it does, but often I’m content to remember the event in terms of events and stories, even if the scene isn't always precise. This is a reasonable tradition in the Holmes household. My parents took long trips around Europe and Asia in their youth, but I think I've seen precisely one photo from the entire time, affectionately referred to as 'the Cat Stevens photo'. But the stories from that time have been recounted many times, particularly among the people who were there. As Papa Holmes put it, when describing his relative lack of photos of his trips – ‘you go places, and you take in the scenery at the time. And you remember it, for a while. And then … you forget’.

In other words, the forgetting is okay, and is actually an important part of the process, the way death is to life. The world you remember was always impermanent anyway. Eventually, even the memory is too.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thought of the Day

Curses on you, all you great problems! Let someone else beat his head against you, someone more stupid. Oh, just to rest there from the interrogator’s mother oaths and the monotonous unwinding of your whole life, from the crash of the prison locks, from the suffocating stuffiness of the cell. Only one life is allotted us, one small, short life! And we have been criminal enough to push ours in front of somebody’s machine guns, or drag it with us, still unsullied, into the dirty rubbish heap of politics. There, in the Altai, it appeared, one could live in the lowest, darkest hut on the edge of the village, next to the forest. And one could go into the woods, not for brushwood and not for mushrooms, but just to go, for no reason, and hug two tree trunks: Dear ones, you’re all I need.
-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Living on the Grid

There is something deeply appealing about a city built on a road grid. Not just because of my love of order and planning, either. You can arrive there and navigate your way around pretty easily, because most places can be accessed without making more than a couple of turns. I always like that in a place I’m travelling to. Not the fastest route, but the route I'm least likely to screw up.

It also gives rise to the wonderful phenomenon of numbering addresses by block. Growing up in Australia, the assumption that consecutive houses would be two numbers apart if on the same side of the street was one of those things so baked into your way of thinking that if I’d lived a thousand years, it would never have occurred to me to do it differently. I think this is how it always is. Everybody thinks of technological change as making an IPad or something, they rarely look for improvements in something mundane and simple like how addresses are numbered. But in a grid city, you can do much better than consecutive numbering, by making the numbers go up by 100 each block, and just rank order arbitrary numbers within the blocks. Manhattan is the epitome of this. When every street and avenue has a number, ‘312 E 28th St’ tells you exactly where the building is – between 3 and 4 blocks east of the dividing line of 5th Avenue, on 28th street.  If the city had a definite lower left point, you wouldn’t even need the extra knowledge of the dividing Avenue. In Chicago, the numbering tells you one dimension, but the streets themselves have names. So you have to, for instance, know that the downtown streets are named in order of the presidents. Well, except for Jefferson, who’s somewhere else. And that pesky thing that there were two ‘Adams’ presidents within the space of five presidents (it’s Quincy Adams who gets the street, not Adams). Hey, nowhere's perfect.

The knock on grid cities is that they’re boring from a design point of view, but I’m not so sure. From high above the city at night, the lights on Roosevelt Ave stretch out in a line to the far horizon, fading off as if they go on forever. Without contours in the ground, it feels like living in the mathematician's depiction of parallel lines on an idealized infinite plane. Eventually, the lights on the two sides of the street must converge to a single point. Theoretically, this happens only at infinity, but I’d wager that somewhere in Nebraska ought to be far enough.