Monday, March 22, 2010

Super-Powers

Since I was a small child I have wanted to have the ability to shoot super laser beams out of my eyes. I pictured them as continuous beams of bright light that cause some sort of dramatic effect on the objects they hit. What the effect of my eye beams would be has changed over time, but the beams have always been amazing.

Other people I have talked to have imagined an invisible field that conforms to their will. They can move things with their thoughts, or they can cause some other response by looking at something. Their magical action-at-a-distance is without beams of light. If you happened to be eating soup at a trendy bistro and noticed that your spoon was bent you would have no clue as to who bent it. Perhaps you would look around the room to find the culprit only to catch several furtive glances and a few smirks.

When I discover a bent spoon I imagine a high-tech dishwashing machine grinding away at plates, and forks, and bowls, and spoons. A spoon slips down into the gearage; the minimum-wage worker reaches to grab it, and stops just short of losing a hand as the machine heartlessly chugs and growls. Sometimes the worker in my imagination is not cautious enough. When the machine is turned off the spoon can be carefully extricated from the machinery. Perhaps someone straightens it enough for it to be used again.

I’m sure this more pedestrian imagery is due to the fact that I want visible laser beams to shoot from my eyes. There would be no question whose magic bent your spoon if it was my magic that bent it.

Not only is my world view imprisoned in a jail of bright light, but I am also constantly reminded of my magical impotence. If I had the invisible force field instead of the laser-beam eyes I could imagine them working intermittently. Like an AM radio that can’t quite get a station in, my powers could be stuttering, fading in and out, ghosting across other signals, or flickering as static just beyond hearing. On lonely stretches of road I often twiddle the radio’s dial until static becomes a song. If I had intermittent invisible powers I would twiddle my life until those powers were real.

I would start small. Bending spoons is good. I would choose a competently outfitted bistro. No need to suffer poor food or a lack of cappuccino for the sake of magic. I would practice diligently. Every spoon on every serving would be prodded into bending.

Any number of factors could alter the power of the spoon-bending magic. Perhaps it is the phase of the moon? Perhaps it is the placement of the table? Perhaps it is the arrangement of the silverware? Perhaps it is the attractiveness of the patron whose lips touch the spoon?

When a bent spoon is found, not only is it proof of magic power, but it is data about how that power works. What turned it on this time? I know sometimes it is random, but this time it could be a clue to control. Can I move up to something more complex than spoons?

What is more complex than the human brain? Perhaps I could stare into someone's eyes and arrange the thoughts within their mind. Maybe if I dimed the lights, arraigned the drippy candle in the old wine bottle on the red-checkered table cloth just so, and stared through her eyes into the back of her soul; I could bend her love. Hypnotists do it; don’t they? The power is there; you can feel it pounding in your chest. It’s just a matter of harnessing that power.

Of course that is all quite impossible for me. The terrible laser beams would flash. There might be an audible “pop” as the molecules in the air jumped aside to let the beams reach their target. Then the empty skull; the brain reduced to ash. The restaurant is polluted with the stench of burning flesh. Two wisps of silvery smoke escape through the empty eye sockets before the lifeless body collapses onto the table. You see, that is one of the problems with laser-beam eyes.

If only I had an invisible intermittent uncontrollable imaginary power; then I could be magical.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Great Books

I often get asked: “AOA how does one learn the great conversational nuances practiced by educated speakers of America’s native tongue?” This, like many questions asked by those clever enough to recognize me on the street, is a great question.

The answer is that a secret ritual is performed with each child in the USA sometime between the ages of 12 and 16. During this ritual the child is taken to a cobweby vault wherein lie the sacred books of American English. The child is given several minutes to choose one or more stylistic identities that they will then use for most of their adult lives. The ritual is solemn and the secrets of the vault are well guarded.

I have recently come into position of a partial list of the tittles of the vault’s books. The information was hidden where no-one could have dreamed anyone would look for any useful information. There is a rumor that more complete lists are hidden in the footnotes of many English department dissertations, but that is just too well hidden even for me.


The Great Books of American English:

Tautologicon –Quite a tome for such a large book.

Paroemicon - a beautiful bespeckled book bearing bunches of bangles.

Acyrologicon – A great big boob.

Battologicon – A really really really great book.

Cacozelicon – Whose parchment is as white as the syphilitic thighs of geriatric cadavers.

Soraisicon – Book good much read should you.

Parelcinon - quite a jello useful book.

Parrhesicon – I’m so sorry for even mentioning this book.

Bits and pieces of these books have been smuggled out over the ages. Eventually this knowledge will be available for all, and the cabal of the American English priesthood will be shattered.



Monday, March 8, 2010

Green Flash

The atmospheric phenomenon called the green flash fascinates me.

Sometimes at sunset, over an undisturbed horizon, one can see a spectacular flash of green light. Anecdotally this phenomenon can be bright enough to light the horizon. The event occurs just for the briefest of moments; often compared to the duration of a lighting flash. It has sometimes been described as being like a great green beacon, from a lighthouse just over the horizon, which quickly scans the sky and goes out.

I am a bit guilty, when I speak of the green flash, of a mistake in terminology. It is a willful mistake and could intentionally lead people astray slightly. The phenomenon I call the green flash (because it is a green flash) is more precisely called the “green ray”. The properly termed green flash is a common phenomenon that can be as spectacular as a separate blip visible just at sunset. I call this phenomenon the green blip.

The green blip can be seen often. If one is able to properly image the sun one can often see a greenish tint to the trailing edge at sunset. When the atmospheric conditions are ripe (often over the sea) a mirage-like situation creates a rippling effect on the setting sun. The ripples can be so pronounced that the sun’s disk is transformed into a series of stacked bulging bright splotches. This looks like the image of the sun is passing through a series of fun-house lenses. When the green trailing edge of the sun passes into a lens while the majority of the sun’s disk is obscured (having set) one can see a separate blip of green.

The green blip is a nice phenomenon. It is quite photogenic. You can find many pictures of it on the web; just search for “green flash”.

The green flash on the other hand is rare to the point of mythical.

One of the problems with searching for the green flash at sunset is that it occurs so very near the sun. Looking towards the sun as it sets can result in the appearance of many different color flashes. These flashes fade slowly and obscure portions of one’s vision. I have been assured that having after-images burned onto ones retina is bad for one’s vision. Certainly they make it difficult to see any potential green blips.

The fact that looking for the green flash is potentially damaging, and may make it more difficult to see the green flash, makes the search for it fertile stuff for metaphorical discussion.  I like the idea that looking for something could make it harder to find.

Once, while living near the beach in Southern California, I ran into an attractive young woman outside my apartment. She wore one of the polyester two piece sari-like outfits that were popular with semi-westernized Pakistani women in the early 90’s. Hers was more form-fitted than the sack-like outline the outfits usually presented. She wore a headscarf, but loose locks of blond hair artfully framed her face. She had a very pretty face, and the electrically blue eyes possible only with the help of tinted contact lenses. When she passed me I caught a whiff of something more complex than sandalwood or patchouli.

I knew she was headed next door.

The dilapidated cedar shingle sided house next door was ground zero for some sort of East-Asian cultural conflagration. Several families lived in the house and there were three hastily constructed studio apartments clustered in a white single-story architectural afterthought in the backyard. Music of all sorts, as well as indistinct screaming in several languages, came from the house. At times the noises blended to create the impression of depraved horrors and inhuman suffering. The landlord (who lived in the house) once allegedly took a garden hose to the occupants of one of the apartments out back. He found out that they were Buddhists and was heard yelling that he would wash the filth of their depravity off them and everything they had brought onto his property. Later that day the family from the apartment was seen dragging their soaked belongings into a van which had come to take them away. The look of fear and anxiety on the little girl’s face was haunting.

Once while returning to my apartment I saw an older woman, I assumed her to be the matriarch, smoking a cigarette in front of the house. She held the iron gate open by leaning her back against it. She had the heal of her right shoe propped on the gate so that her right knee stuck out slightly in front of her. She was affecting a classic vamp slouch. Her headscarf was pulled back from her forehead.  She finished a long drag on her smoke, caught my eye, and gave me one of the most practiced “come hither” looks I have ever gotten.

Our apartment had a small balcony that overlooked the same street the house opened onto. After passing the blond woman I went upstairs to my place and headed out onto the balcony for a cold soda. We did not have air-conditioning and so spent a lot of time sitting in the sea breeze on chairs we had put on the balcony. I could see the blond woman in front of the house. The come hither woman was on the inside of the closed iron gate, and the two women were ending an agitated conversation.

As come hither woman walked back towards the house blondie yelled after her:
“Every day I look into the sun. Each day for a few seconds longer. I do this so at the end of the world I will be able to glance into Alah’s face.”
When blondie turned to leave she saw me sitting on the balcony above her. I tried to give her a convincing “come hither” look, but it probably just came off goofy and pathetic. Some things, like glancing at the face of god, obviously require practice.

I’m fairly sure that glancing at the sun for ever-lengthening time periods would be detrimental to seeing the green flash. I can only picture a progression of burning a temporary afterimage onto one’s retina one day, and then making it larger and more permanent as the days wore on. Eventually one would be seeing multi-colored flashes on everything. The widening visual occlusions would obscure the green blip and might even blur the image of a real green flash. Worse, if one began thinking that the multi-color flashes were the phenomenon of interest, one would stop looking in the correct place to even see the green flash.

Most people, when confronted by a traumatic event, learn something. They can develop an intense memory, a twitch, a subconscious behavior pattern, or an emotional response mechanism. Often times these fade like the blotchy afterimage caused by looking too long at a bright light.

What happens to that emotional afterimage when it is strengthened by repeated exposures to a traumatic situation? When the parent sees their child’s daily suffering from a chronic disease? When the child looks into the eyes of their parent sliding into neurological dementia a little more each day? When the spouse in an abusive loveless relationship climbs into her bed of fear hoping sleep will not be too far away?

Do the afterimage effects remain indistinct or does one begin to see patterns in them? Since the subconscious damage obscures and taints everything that is perceived, does one see the effects as a universal pattern? What do we call a pattern that shapes what we see, hear, say, think, and feel? Do we call it god, or angels, or fairies in boots dancing to strange silent tunes?

It is most certainly the case that for too many people a belief in god is a result of personal trauma. The damage from the trauma will not be fixed by simply dispensing with the concept of god that they have developed. There most certainly are things that will address and heal the damage better than a belief in any supernatural entity. One should approach these people with compassion and caring. We must realize that they are hurt and need our help.

As for my search for the green flash….Perhaps I will see it one day. I have more beautiful sunsets to look forward to. I will look forward to the occasional green blip. The search itself is delightful and fabulously worthwhile. The search for the green flash would only slightly, and very briefly, be enhanced by ever actually seeing it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

hard core

Returning to Utah it is obvious that the days have been warm. Warm enough to melt the snow almost completely off the south facing slopes of the lower peaks. Snow still coats the north slopes obliterating simple features with an overexposure of white. The hills look less like the south slopes have been scrubbed free of snow by the sun and more like the north slopes have been scrubbed clean of all features and colors by some great cosmic abrasive. Like there is a hard alabaster core that the world is decorated on, and the high points are wearing off to reveal it.

Spring in Utah can be testy. Little disturbances send it running for cover. Trees will bud just to discover a hard frost. A warm still afternoon baked in sun will be bookended by freezing rain and fog. Sometimes it gets windy too.

If I write too accurately about the wind few who have not experienced it will believe me. Wind alone does not snap telephone poles. Wind that rips roves off of houses has a name like “hurricane” or “tornado” not “spring breeze”. It is difficult to describe the wind in a central Utah spring accurately.

I was rained out this past weekend. The start of “the season” will have to wait for the seasons to catch up to it. I was torn until the eve of departure. I could not bring myself to pay good money and drive for hours into a 70% chance of rain. Not when the heater at home still worked and I had paid the gas bill.

Some people did the ride.  They were rained on and blown by wind.  I heard rumors of snow. 


Monday, March 1, 2010

It's all too much

Most sets of sensory stimulation appear to fall comfortably near the middle of the sensual spectrum that goes from sensory deprivation to sensory overload. How we perceive the level of stimulus saturation varies. A stimulus set that was comfortable or even bland one day might appear vibrant or irritating the next. Where on the spectrum of sensory saturation a stimulus set appears to us is highly dependent on what state of mind we are in at the time.

There are many things not directly related to perception that can alter the level of effect a stimulus set has on us at any particular time. If we are physically ill we might be more or less sensitive to certain senses. A sinus infection might clog nostrils so badly that the sense of smell is almost non-existant. The most rancid scents go unnoticed. A high fever might render the optic nerve ultrasensitive to light, and even in a shuttered room it is almost too bright to read. In these cases the actual amplitude of the sense is affected. There is actually more or less stimulus getting to the brain from the stimulating event.

Emotional status can also modulate our sensitivities. When a parent is uncomfortable about their child’s safety simple noises and images can become evidence of impending threat. When a lover is lonely subtle scents and textures can evoke images of their missing partner. In these cases the brain is specifically sensitive to a pattern of sensual clues. The brain is over-processing the information so the stimulus has more effect.

Cumulative sensory stimulation can also modulate our sensitivity to further stimulation. We respond to overstimulation by ignoring additional stimulation. When someone asks a question while you are listening intently to the radio something gets ignored. We can focus on a particular source of sensual information, but in doing so we lose track of other sources. We have sensual blinders. The greater the sensual information the more blinding those blinders become. In other words, the greater the overall level of sensory noise in an environment; the more sensory information we filter out in order to focus on any individual stimulus set.

The fourth effecter that I will focus on here is sensitization by deprivation. Sitting in a quiet room for an extended period of time makes all sound appear louder for quite a while afterwards. After wearing a charcoal canistered respirator for a few hours one is assaulted by “new” scents when it is taken off. Within minutes those “new” scents fade into the background. At a low enough level of stimulation the brain will grasp at anything to process. In the absence of competing stimuli each sensory event garners additional significance.

The first two of these four effectors occur regardless of the stimulation level. The second two effecters are self-referentially tied to the stimulus level and the perception of that stimulus level. The self-referential effecters act as modulators for the perceived stimulus level. If the stimulus level is too close to the sensory deprivation end of the spectrum the brain adds more significance to the stimulus it receives. If, on the other hand, the stimulus level is too high the brain filters out more and more information in order to allow focus to be directed at individual sensory information. Instead of appearing as a spectrum to the mind the range appears to be constant with breakdown points during unique situations where one experiences severe deprivation or severe overload.

To complicate matters more there is distinction in the brain between different senses. Each sense is processed in a unique area of the brain. Although it is possible to receive such terrific overstimulation in one sense that the effects bleed over into other senses that level of overstimulation is extreme and rare. It is more common to have one sense overprescribed while another is being severely filtered. We may notice the fragile fragrance of a well worn perfume at a loud party.

One type of brain training involves attempting a particular activity while consciously dealing with competing sensory information. One can try to listen to and answer questions while music is played in the background. One can try and identify a particular pattern while a multitude of images are presented. This is called sensory overload training, and can supposedly help ingrain mental practices better than simple repetition can.

Another practice is directed sensory focus.

a) Pick a particular type of stimulus (I like using colors).

b) “Look” for that sensory stimulus while performing another activity (I suggest not doing this while walking or driving, at least at first).

c) Use your peripheral attention to search for the stimulus. I use my peripheral vision to look for a color. You could do something like trying a part of your anatomy other than your fingertips to detect a particular tactile sensation.

d) Make a mental note every time you detect the search sensation. You will detect it more often as you search for it (Assuming it exists. the trivial case where the search sensation does not exist at all is not very enlightening.).

e) With practice you will detect the search sensation more often and with greater ease. You have now imprinted a random search process on your brain.

Initially the practice of directed sensory focus can help us understand how our own brains work. With practice directed sensory focus can be used to decrease the stressful aspects of partial over-stimulation.

Be careful. It is difficult to explain to someone that you have knocked them over because you were trying to see the color BLUE out of the corner of your eye and therefore did not see them (especially if they are wearing blue).