14 January 2008 2:12 AM (books | consciousness | mountains | snow | coyote)
I've been reading loads recently, and meaning to write about it but getting backlogged.
The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn is a practical manual for teenagers for how to quit school and start educating yourself. Read some excerpts. If you've ever taught before, scroll down to the "Why I Wrote It" section of the introduction; that is why I am not a teacher any more.
On the other hand, if you're still in high school,
drop out rise out now and take control of your life!
As a wonderful companion for the older educational segment, I recently finished Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt. Its subtitle is awesome: A Critical Look At Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives. Check it:
"All I want to do now is make some big bucks," a physics graduate student told me as he neared completion of his PhD and was starting to look for a job. He knew this simple statement said a lot about how his goals had changed during graduate school. While he may not have even clearly remembered his original intellectual interests or his original degree of determination that his work be of benefit to society, he did realize that somewhere along the way he had become very flexible in these personal and social goals. Listening to him I could see that he sought "big bucks" not as payment for valuable skills that he would put at his employer's disposal, but as compensation for intellectual interests and social goals abandoned.
Chapter 8, "Narrowing the Political Spectrum"
There are wonderful correspondences between Schmidt's look at how "the system" selects for and develops pliant servants of the dominant interests and Llewellyn's characterization of what school does to teenagers.
Schmidt's descriptions ring true, as well -- my words are waves of that resonance. His ideas are very consonant with my experiences in the nuclear engineering department back at NC State. While I only went through their undergraduate program, I was close to many grad students. When I came back from Spain to finish my BS in 2000, my old classmates were already in grad school, and what a change. My study-abroad absence made me see the difference; maybe I would have thought that all was normal if I had been there continuously.
I actually listened to the book instead of reading it; the radical radio program Unwelcome Guests read it in its entirety over the course of a few months. However I think that Disciplined Minds is so important that I went ahead and bought it so I could loan it out to friends. You will want to do the same with the Teenage Liberation Handbook as well.
One weekend a couple months ago, I started reading Patterns of Sofware by Richard Gabriel. I couldn't stop; I think I stayed in that weekend to finish it. The book is a something of a heterogeneous collection, discussing three different things: the work of the architect Christopher Alexander, essays on computer languages, and the story of the author's own life.
I found Gabriel's life stories particularly illuminating, especially in relation to my epistolic encounters with Disciplined Minds. Indeed, as Schmidt demonstrates, to survive the system requires a lot of consciousness and willpower. Gabriel did survive, but he paid enormous costs. On the other hand, he is still very alive, producing creative artifacts at an age when most have forgotten how.
Finally, the last book virus to infect me was I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, author of the seminal Gödel, Escher, Bach. Excellent, excellent, and movingly personal. Hoftstadter has distilled and strengthened many of his core ideas from GEB, and places them in the sometimes heartbreaking context of his own life.
For me the most tantalizing bits in Hofstadter's new book are his ideas about the location of consciousness, that my "I" symbol might actually be encoded across multiple brains, and that other selves might inhabit my own brain. It seems that he was just starting to think about these ideas, but then given the tragic motivation to finish the thoughts when his wife Carol passed away in 1993. I quote from chapter 17, "How we live in each other", restraining myself from quoting the entire chapter:
Even if most readers agree with much that I am saying, perhaps the hardest thing for many of them to understand is how I could believe that the activation of a symbol in my head, no matter how intricate that symbol might be, could capture any of someone else's first-person experience of the world, someone else's consciousness. What craziness could ever have led me to suspect that someone else's self --- my father's, my wife's --- could experience feeling, given that it was all taking place courtesy of the neurological hardware inside my head, and given that every single cell in the brain of the other person had long since gone the way of all flesh?
The key question is thus very simple and very stark: Does the actual hardware matter? Did only Carol's cells, now all recycled into the vast impersonal ecosystem of our planet, have the potential to support what I could call "Carol feelings" (as if feelings were stamped with a brand that identified them uniquely), or could other cells, even inside me, do that job?
To my mind, there is an unambiguous answer to this question. The cells inside a brain are not the bearers of its consciousness; the bearers of consciousness are patterns. [...] And patterns can be copied from one medium to another.
So Carol lives on in Doug, but imperfectly. He closes the chapter with an image:
When the sun is eclipsed, there remains a corona surrounding it, a circumferential glow. When someone dies, they leave a glowing corona behind them, an afterglow in the souls of those who were close to them. Inevitably as time passes, the afterglow fades and finally goes out, but it takes many years for that to happen. When, eventually, all of those close ones have died as well, then all the embers will have gone cool, and at that point, it's "ashes to ashes and dust to dust".
Headed home to North Carolina for the holidays, to see the family, friends, and to traipse around in mountain snow. We followed some kind of canine track through the snow of the Smokies; perhaps a coyote. I prefer to believe that it was not a dog.