The Casual Blog

Tag: The Self Illusion

My walk to work, seeing Before Midnight, and eating at Dos Taquitos

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Now that we’ve moved our offices into Red Hat Tower, I’m within walking distance of work. How sweet it is! Last week I went carless three times. If I focus on moving along, I can make it in seventeen minutes. On a warm, humid day, that leaves me in a bit of a lather. On Thursday, I went a little slower, and took some pictures with my trusty Canon point-and-shoot, which are above and below in the order they were taken.
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On Saturday we went to the Rialto to see Before Midnight. I loved the two predecessor pictures, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, both of which were romantic but also smart. Along with My Dinner with Andre, these movies prove that great conversations can be art. In both earlier movies, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were astonishing in their seeming naturalness, and with great chemistry.

In the new movie, they return as the same characters, but middle-aged, and firmly a couple, with children of their own. Instead of gauzy romantic possibilities, they have frustrations and disappointments with life and each other, and anger. But they’re still talking. Boy can they talk! I really liked the movie.
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There’s a little conversational strand early in the film about the nature of the self that could have been inspired by The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood, which I’ve been re-reading. Hood works hard to deconstruct the conventional view of an unchanging self with conscious thought at the center. The characters briefly take notice of the force of this argument, but then do what we all usually do, which is plunge into a narrative.
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After the movie, we had dinner at Dos Taquitos on Glenwood. We’d tried to get in twice before, but both times the place was packed and the waits were long. The third time was a charm, although even at 9:00 we still had to wait half an hour. It was lively, with busy, colorful decor and lots of noise, and the food was just fine. I think the secret of their popularity is: it’s relatively inexpensive. And their margaritas have some kick.
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Helping bluebirds, and some good and not-so-good internet experiences

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Since 2004, Sally has tended a group of bluebird houses in Cary on the Lochmere golf course, near where we used to live.  She keeps fourteen houses in good working order and keeps track of the numbers of eggs and numbers of hatchlings, then passes the data along to the North Carolina Bluebird Society.  Bluebird rely on human-built boxes for breeding spaces, and Sally likes helping them.  It’s the breeding season, and this week she invited me to come along after work to see the activity.

She already had secured a golf cart when I arrived.  It was a sunny, mild afternoon, and there were plenty of golfers out on the course.  She started with hole number 1, where Sally opened the door, pulled out the nest of pine straw, and found several dark gray nestlings, which snuggled together quietly.  Their mama was not at home, but at the next house, the mama bird shot out as we got close to the house and nearly hit my face.  

At the third house there were both bluebird and chickadee eggs. We saw several others populated by hatchlings and eggs that must have been close to hatching. In one, where there had been eggs the week before, there were none.  Sally said a snake had probably got them.  It seemed sad, though not, I guess, for the snake.  Anyhow it was most pleasant to see the birds and birds-to-be with my dear one, and learn more about their lives.
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We have tickets for a trip to Cozumel next week for several days of scuba diving, and this week we met with our group at Down Under Surf and Scuba to get briefed on drift diving and other procedures.  Back home, we began our preparations — checking over the gear, refreshing on protocols, and paging through our sea creature identification books.  My underwater strobe wasn’t working properly, so I’ll need to get that over to the dive shop for a consult.  

Cozumel is English-language friendly, but even so I’ve been inspired to try to advance my Spanish.  In addition to Rosetta Stone, I’ve been working on verb conjugation at a very helpful web site that generates drills for every tense. I’ve been focusing on the preterite and the imperfect, and improving.

I’ve also been sampling lessons at Livemocha.  This service invites native speakers of one language, like Spanish, to help those interested in learning their language, like me, and they may also get help in another language, like English, from someone like me. I’ve gotten useful written feedback from folks in Columbia and Mexico, and have tried to give others some helpful tips on English.

The idea of the internet connecting language students is exciting. At the same time, it’s a little unsettling. Livemocha allows for “friending” requests, and I’ve gotten a few of these, but so far I haven’t accepted. I’m not quite clear on what the responsibilities, and risks, might be. I’m more or less constantly overcommitted already, and I would be sorry to disappoint my as yet unknown “friends” in, say, Columbia. And I would be particularly sorry if they turned out to be violent sociopaths of some sort.

Speaking of internet risks, I had an odd experience this week. I finished The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, by Bruce Hood, which I’d purchased from Amazon in the Kindle edition to read on my tablet device. The next day, I got an email from Amazon asking me how I liked The Self Illusion. !!! I hadn’t realized that Amazon had invited itself quite so intimately into my reading life. Of course, I didn’t read whatever they required me to click on (does anybody?), so it’s possible that I in some hyper legal sense agreed to let them monitor my reading. But really! That’s just icky!

Lacrosse, seeing things, and ag-gag laws

Looking west at sunrise, April 13, 2013

Looking west at sunrise, April 13, 2013

Friday evening was supposed to be rainy, but instead was sunny and mild, and the dogwoods had just blossomed. Looking out over Raleigh from our apartment, the deciduous trees are leafing in nicely, lots of pretty green. The pine pollen season is also here, with the yellow powder coating our cars, and causing woe to allergies.

Sally and I drove over to Durham with Sally’s mom to see the Duke lacrosse team take on Virginia. Diane, at age 82, has become a big lacrosse fan, and bought us tickets as a gift.

It was a good contest. The score was 9-9 at the half. Virginia scored three unanswered points in the first five minutes of the third period, but Duke worked its way back to a 14-all tie with eight minutes to go. The final score was 19-16, Duke.

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The sport is fast and exciting, and combines some of the best things about soccer (strategy, cunning) and hockey (speed and physicality). But we’re neophytes, and still trying to figure out why some outrageous things are penalized and other outrageous things aren’t. Are they really allowed to beat each other with those hard sticks?

During timeout, I enjoyed looking at the athletes and the fans in their summer clothes. I’m still very much in recovery mode after the second surgery on my left retina a few weeks back, and conscious at times of struggling to see, and at other times conscious of how extraordinary it is to see.

Tulips outside Diane's apartment

Tulips outside Diane’s apartment

At my appointment this week with Dr. M, my eye doc and new hero, he declared that he liked what he was seeing, and that things were coming along nicely. The retina was still attached, the scar tissue was settling down, and the hole in the macula showed signs of healing. I did not, however, do well on the eye test: the best I could do with the left eye was identify where the chart was — no letters. Dr. M said that this could improve after the next surgery in four or five months to remove the silicone gel (isn’t that a strange thing?) and probably remove the cataract that is probably forming.

This eye injury has been a reminder of how provisional the visual world is. At times I see things I know are not there, like bizarre floaters, and at times I see double images (one very blurry and one not). My depth perception is imprecise, so that tasks like putting a key in a lock are tricky. It’s harder to find things in the dishwasher, and easier to lose things most anywhere.

Of course, I’m not the only one with imperfect vision. Apparently we all (with normal vision) have a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, but our interpretive consciousness smooths out this problem and makes the visual field seem uninterrupted. Vision involves photons and neurons in an unbelievably complex process. Our ordinary sensation of a smooth continuous visual world is both a gift and an illusion.

This is one of the many interesting points in Bruce Hood titled The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press 2012), which I’m currently reading. It’s a lively assemblage of neuroscience and philosophy organized around the issue of the nature of consciousness. The brain is an amazing thing, with billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, but we’re just starting to understand the correspondence between the biological processes and perceived experience. Still, the evidence is accumulating that our understanding of conscious experience as a literal reflection of reality is quite wrong. Hood’s book also builds on the work of Gazzaniga (which I wrote a bit about here) and Kahneman (whose fine recent book I noted here), and takes some of their ideas a bit further.

Hood may be right that when we think of ourselves we are thinking about a thing that doesn’t really exist, at least in the way we normally thing about it. But he also seems to think that we can’t possibly completely dispense with our conventional notions of the self. Even with his throughgoing scientific perspective, he admits that part of him still cannot let go of the notion that his self is a thing. It does shake things up to try to think otherwise.

Speaking of shaking, I was dismayed to learn this week that several states have enacted or worked on making it illegal to expose animal cruelty at slaughterhouses with “ag-gag” laws. I thought that this was an issue that almost everyone agreed on: it’s just wrong to wantonly abuse farm animals. The corollary would be, it’s a good thing to expose and prevent such abuse. Videos and reports of such conduct are disturbing, to be sure, but they help correct the system. Why would we want to make that illegal?

There is, of course, an opposing argument, which posits that secret videos distort the truth, and those unused to the sight of ordinary animal killing may misinterpret what they see. That seems pretty weak — not entirely false, but not a justification for limiting free speech and insulating unspeakable behavior. In a brilliant little op ed piece in the Times, Jedidiah Purdy, a Duke law professor, agreed to take it at face value, and proposed a solution: let’s put webcams in all the slaughterhouses. This radical transparency approach would be educational and probably discourage some abuse.

Pine pollen

Pine pollen