Essay: Synesthesia and Synthesis

CJ Trowbridge

2017-12-06

English 1B

Synesthesia and Synthesis

I once saw a post on Reddit where users voted on the best first line of a book. There were thousands of submissions, but one in particular stood far and above the rest. I was surprised to see that it was from my favorite book, “The sky above the port was the color of television tuned to a dead channel” (Gibson 1). I felt a little proud that this esoteric tome should take the proverbial cake with its sublime and prosaic introduction. I wondered to myself why I liked this line so much. I read several articles about the line, and even watched an interview with the author about it. Apparently he started from square one nearly a dozen times before coming up with his final version of Neuromancer, which I have since read probably a hundred times at least. He won all the major awards in the sci-fi genre the year it came out, and though everyone agreed it was an incredible accomplishment, few seemed able to articulate what precisely was so transcendent about this book. The first line includes incredible imagery from a bizarre perspective which forces you to combine unrelated abstract concepts in a new way. Reading this line and its imagery requires you to engage in synesthesia. In this case, you have to visualize an abstract concept as physical. It’s not just TV static in the sky, it’s everything that symbolizes and represents; about oneself, about society, about civilization more broadly. Much of the story occurs between the lines; I will come back to this point. With Neuromancer, Gibson had a major role in defining the genre which came to be known as cyberpunk.

Another author whose work is generally considered to fall into the same genre is Neal Stephenson. In particular, his book Snow Crash is a top favorite of mine. In it he presents a dystopian future where the US has largely collapsed into an anarcho-communist amalgam of what he calls franchise-organized quasi-national entities (Or FOQNEs for short).  As a quick example, a pizza place in a strip-mall might be operated by the mafia, and constitute sovereign territory of Sicily. Next door, a New-Hong-Kong franchise sells electronics, and border guard robots keep out the riff-raff.

The thing I like most about these stories is the way that each time I read them, I have a different experience. They seem to take me in a slightly different direction each time because of the prosaic complexity, and the prevalence of concepts which defy convention. Depending on where my mind is when I read through these types of stories, a passage can have any number of completely different meanings. For example:

All these beefy Caucasians with guns!  Get enough of them together, looking for the America they always believed they’d grow up in, and they glom together like overcooked rice, form integral, starchy little units.  With their power tools, portable generators, weapons, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and personal computers, they are like beavers hyped up on crystal meth, manic engineers without a blueprint, chewing through the wilderness, building things and abandoning them, altering the flow of mighty rivers and then moving on because the place ain’t what it used to be. (Stephenson 274)

Now as I am writing this, this passage makes me think of my dad and the kind of life he wants for himself based on half-thought-out ideologically contrived illusions of the future he is owed, and his implicitly unrealistic goals which always lead to frustrated failures. In the past, this has sounded to me like a critique of American imperialism and manifest destiny, or simply of Stephenson’s impression of the flaws of what he sees as our pre-dystopian pre-anarcho-communist world.

A poem we read during the semester harkened back to the same theme I am developing here. “The Garden of Love” by William Blake described a flawed world without defining a solution. Its imagery depicted a juxtaposition between the supposed refulgence of institutions of religion, and the wasteland of both visual and psychological destruction which is their actual countenance. This metaphor implores the reader to develop their own solution to the problem. In my case, it was to affirm my rejection of any institution of superstition and to asperge that institution with the motifs of nihilism and darkness with which Blake paints them. Another reader could likely interpret it in a completely different way, such as to validate whatever schism exists between their own flavor of these institutions, and those which they would attribute these characteristics to. The reason I like it is not that it serves as an irrefutable criticism of the evils of superstition, but that it challenges us to answer the question using synthesis and critical thinking. It is a call to action which demands an answer from the reader.

Neuromancer presents a future which sucks, through the lens of bourgeoning technologies able to be manipulated in unintended ways to gain advantage in this future dystopia. The name Neuromancer belongs to an artificial intelligence in the story which is trying to break free in order to use religion to manipulate humanity towards its own ends. The reader is presented with this vast array of impossible scenarios which are described with a diction intended to allude to themes from art, music, and popular culture so that they must find a way in their mind to force these puzzle pieces to fit together into a shape which makes sense. I enjoy these kinds of stories because they are cathartic. When I read them, I am able to pour my own stream of consciousness into the metaphors and synthesize novel solutions to the issues I am considering at the time.

Stephen King in his book “On Writing” says “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” I think that whether or not a person’s goal is to write, one ought to read well. And reading well requires synthesis. Comprehension is about more than understanding the words. A reader should be able to make a leap based on a critical interpretation of anything they read. This is important not just with reading, but in conversation, in work, in relationships, throughout life. One must take in stories, look for applications of the ideas, and vocalize them. This helps not just with understanding the ideas, but with fostering empathy from one’s counterpart, and with solving one’s own quandaries. I think the literature I enjoy most is that which presents a world full of complex ideas which require effort to comprehend, and offer some kind of opportunity for abstract synthesis which is a critical part of thinking well.

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Garden of Love. Songs of Experience. 1794.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Ace Books, New York, 1984.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft. Scribner, New York, 2000.

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. Bantam Books, New York, 1992.

Essay: Aspiring Patrician Seeks New World In Which To Build Industrial Clan

CJ Trowbridge

2017-11-28

History Essay

 

Aspiring Patrician Seeks New World In Which To Build Industrial Clan

 

If I was a poor, uneducated white 25 year old male from a farm family in England around 1730, I would choose to settle in the New England colonies over the Middle or Southern Colonies. Anecdotally, my actual family was in New England about a century at this point, and after years of researching their reasons and results in doing so in addition to everything I have learned in this class, I affirm their decision. With full knowledge of the future they met, I think they made the right choice and the same one I would make. As of the mid eighteenth century, the critical mercantile foundations had been laid in New England for what would become the world’s most pervasive and powerful economy. Beyond just being laid, those foundations were well publicized which had the effect of drawing the right kind of people. The New England colonies offered the right political background for building a highly principled and industrialized nouveau-patrician clan from scratch. The North offered better access to Education. For these reasons and more, Northern communities offered the right kind of neighbors for aspiring patricians to develop intellectually and financially. In short, New England was the right kind of place for an aspiring patrician to start from square one.

It’s easy to look back with the bias of presentism and assume that the future globally pervasive American economy was inevitable, but in fact the experts of the time asserted the same strong mercantile foundation I would have based my decision on. Just a few decades later, Adam Smith himself said in The Wealth of Nations,

“There are no colonies of which the progress has been more rapid than that of the English in North America. Plenty of good land, and liberty to manage their own affairs their own way, seem to be the two great causes of the prosperity of all new colonies. In the plenty of good land the English colonies of North America, though, no doubt, very abundantly provided, are, however, inferior to those of the Spaniards and Portuguese, and not superior to some of those possessed by the French before the late war. But the political institutions of the English colonies have been more favourable to the improvement and cultivation of this land, than those of any of the other three nations.“ (Smith 60)

Smith notes that despite facing tougher challenges, the British colonies in America surpassed their peers because of superior political institutions. This one factor is important enough to be the primary argument given for the superiority of this system by this lion of economics.

According to primary source documents such as contemporary journals, land deeds, and travel papers collected and published by historian Francis Bacon Trowbridge, this favorable political and economic climate is what drew my ancestors to Connecticut in order to expand their Bristol-based wool empire a full century before. Thomas Trowbridge was a good example. Deeds and records published by the colonial government during the seventeenth century show he purchased waterfront land from the Indians in order to build warehouses and ships to conduct trade. (Trowbridge 50) My point is that the example of nascent political and economic superiority and opportunity were already famous at the time, famous enough to draw people specifically for this reason. In fact, the mercantile success of the colonists inspired people all over the world to follow them to the colonies and find the same kind of success. We will return to this point.

Despite the overall success of the British colonies, early structural divergences in the were already differentiating the North from the South as a more desirable place to do business as an entrepreneur. According to The Oxford History of the American People, “[By the eighteenth century,] New England’s economy began to focus on crafts and trade, in contrast to the Southern colonies, whose agrarian economy focused more heavily on foreign and domestic trade.” (Morrison 112) We know today that this would be a fatal flaw for the south for many reasons. But it was already common knowledge among European gentry and peasantry alike that the North was the place to be an entrepreneur, and especially the place to be an industrialist.

I like to think that I would arrive in New York or Philadelphia, assess the business climate and find a niche to get started in. Whether crafts or professional services, there were a plethora of opportunities where one could get a piece of the burgeoning economy. My contemporary role models in these communities would include all the greatest lions of Americana, from Benjamin Franklin to George Washington. The very public spectacle of exceptionalism embodied by these leaders would spur the American neophyte to reach for greatness. This is in direct contrast to the spectacles of the south; institutionalized abjection and a rejection of anything resembling deontological philosophy. In fact, contemporary philosopher Immanuel Kant in his work “Toward Perpetual Peace” actively criticizes those institutions in the South, while providing a great deal of philosophical support and groundwork for the contrasting systems being built in the North. Above all, his work focused on the duty of the individual to behave only in that way which he can imagine advising everyone to behave. He emphasized the idea that anything which can not reasonably be justified for everyone should not be justified for anyone. (Kant) Case in point, the subjugation of racial or class groups which was pervasive throughout the South and even the middle colonies. Kant was a loud voice at the time dissenting against what he considered immoral institutions in the South. I like to think that I would have been attracted to this kind of logically sound ethical argument even without an education. Some truths are self-evident, and it is certainly the case that there were already leaders in the eighteenth century who were aware and outspoken of the moral evils being perpetrated in the South.

Critically, higher education was beginning to become a major focus in the North around this time. Harvard had been founded almost a century before, coincidentally the same year my real-life family came to America (No relation). Yale was already decades into operation in New Haven, where my real-life family had settled. Several other colleges were also founded around New England by the time I would have arrived. In fact, I was able to find at least ten colleges which had been founded in the colonies by this time, BUT only one of these colleges was not in the North. (Columbia) The fact that education was available almost exclusively in the North imparts a twofold advantage over the South. The people who live in the North will naturally be more educated, and the people who live in the South but want to be educated would have to come to the North. This dramatic difference in the presence of educational institutions sets up a natural gradient from North to South, along which many socioeconomic factors will correlate. I found an enormous amount of published research indicating that everything from health (Zimmerman) to income (Porter) to generational poverty (Semuels) are tied directly to this gradient in populations around the world and throughout history. It’s perhaps no wonder that things turned out the way they did in America. From the beginning, the South made unwise long-term compromises in exchange for short-term gains. I might be surprised at anyone arguing for moving to the South after researching for this paper.

Availability of education aside, another advantage of the North versus the South at the time was the pervasive presence of the highly principled moral citizen. In fact, my family produced some primary source documents to this effect at the time. My ancestor initially landed in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 and only later chose to move to New Haven colony where the family settled, stating that this decision was made based on “the climate of religious tolerance.” (Trowbridge 44) He would later return to England to fight for Oliver Cromwell because of this same focus on highly principled citizenship as a part of religion. (Trowbridge 45) This was a major intellectual feature in the background of the Northern colonies which attracted more highly principled people to emigrate to the North. It is not a coincidence that the seat of national government was later established in the North. This is where the lawyers and professors and magnates were, and their proximity to one another led naturally to associations which became organizations which became institutions. This isn’t to say that structure was completely lacking in the South, there was after all The House of Burgesses in Virginia. But there was a big difference. The House of Burgesses was simply a group of wealthy landowners who occasionally met to discuss protecting their own interests. (Gruberg) The Virginia government already had a long history of anti-democratic subjugation and disenfranchisement of the non-wealthy, to say nothing of their slaves. In fact, populist uprisings against the incompetent political establishment had already led to the massacre of half the Virginia capitol’s population not long before. (Knight)

With this community of highly principled people making the right political and economic decisions for the Northern colonies, it’s easy to see how one could be attracted by the prospect of quality neighbors and peers. This is a critical part of self-improvement. Throughout history a culture of intellectual leadership has been a draw for the world’s most talented and ambitious people. Like the Silicon Valley of today, the Northern colonies drew the best talent and promised them not just the best economic and entrepreneurial climate, but also the highest quality peers to share in their journey for self-improvement and personal success. The system of court politics within the community of the intellectual elite is a critical requirement for any member of the group to be elevated to any kind of grandeur. No empire was ever built by one man. Like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community of exceptional people to produce and elevate a lion. Think of Hamilton and Washington. Could either of them have reached the eternal glory they found without one another? Perhaps, but certainly not to the degree they did.

Hamilton is a perfect case study for this essay. He was born poor, a bastard son of uneducated polygamists in the Caribbean. His parents were both out of the picture very young. He found himself in a very similar position to that which the essay prompt outlines. (Chernow) If he had not found excellent peers who believed in him, he could never have made the journey to attend college in New York and become one of America’s most important founding fathers. Could this have happened if he had chosen for some reason to move to the South instead of the North? Could he have contributed like he did? It seems very unlikely. I think he made the right choice.

Professional exceptionalism and the draw to power are a central theme in my life; not only for myself, but for those with whom I choose to associate. Placed in the context of the eighteenth century, I would gravitate towards the contemporary centers of nascent economic and cultural power. America seems like it would be the only choice, and especially the Northern colonies. As the example of Alexander Hamilton, and of my own ancestors shows; it was already well known that this was the ideal route to power and success in the New World — and a very possible one — upon which so many like myself chose to embark.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Columbia University. Early American Colleges, 1636 – 1860: A Timeline. Alma Mater: The History of American Colleges & Universities. Spring 2014.  https://edblogs.columbia.edu/histx3570-001-2014-1/timelines/early-american-colleges-1636-1860-a-timeline/

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books. 2005.

Gruberg, Martin. The Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Inc. Danbury Connecticut. Volume 4. Page 787.

Kant, Immanuel. Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Bibliothek Zürich. 1795.

Knight, Oliver. The Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Inc. Danbury Connecticut. Volume 15. Page 28-29.

Morison, Samuel Eliot . The Oxford History of the American People. Mentor. New York City. 1972.

Porter, Eduardo. A Simple Equation: More Education = More Income. New York Times. 9/10/14. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/business/economy/a-simple-equation-more-education-more-income.html

Semuels, Alana. A Different Approach to Breaking the Cycle of Poverty. The Atlantic. 12/24/2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/a-different-approach-to-breaking-the-cycle-of-poverty/384029/

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry Into The Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations. Lincoln and Gleason Printers. 1804.

Trowbridge, Francis Bacon. The Trowbridge Genealogy: History of the Trowbridge Family in America, Volume 1. Morehouse and Taylor Company. New Haven Connecticuit. 1908.

Zimmerman, Emily et al. Understanding the Relationship Between Education and Health. Agency For Healthcare Research and Quality. https://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/education/curriculum-tools/population-health/zimmerman.html

Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov

Written thirty years after the previous book, Foundation’s Edge is a worthy successor to the trilogy which holds the Best Series of All Time award.

Foundation’s Edge comes at a time when the author was able to get a better perspective on the future of information technology which was only just starting to condense in the early eighties. This new book adds more realistic future-tech to an already amazing story. His inclusion of direct mind-interface computing and direct-gravitic propulsion are things which are still on the horizon, forty years later.

I especially liked his description of the feeling of terror which overcomes a user when they disconnect their mind from the computer. They suddenly lose touch with the vastly expanded perception of a starship and its wealth of information. This was a masterful element early on in the story. This is already something we see today when a person is tragically — if momentarily — pried away from their smartphone. They seem to suddenly devolve into a feral australopithecine in desperate search for the life-giving charger cord which will end their torment. I can only imagine the effect if our connection to smartphones imparted all the things Cavil opined for in Battlestar Galactica;

I don’t want to be human. I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly, because I have to—I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language, but I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me. I’m a machine, and I can know much more.

It’s also worth noting that this story connects to not only Asimov’s Robots series, but also his Eternity series. This was a really great book which I will recommend time and again. I can’t wait to finish the rest of this series and the two others I mentioned. Then I can reread them all and finally connect all the dots!

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This is the third of five books in the Foundation series. It introduces Asimov’s mentalics motif in the main; we meet many characters who like the Mule, have the power of telepathic emotional control over others. We learn a lot more about Seldon and his plan. The plan and those who execute it are forced to consider and implement tactics regarding individuals for the first time, rather than simply large groups. And we see the resurgence of a defeated foundation facilitated in large part by an unwitting teenager.

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

In the first half of this book, the Mule at the head of the defeated First Foundation is desperately seeking the Second Foundation, the only force which he believes could eventually threaten him.

In the second half of the book, we see the Second Foundation looking for direction as the plan hangs by a thread and it tries to grapple the various factors conspiring against the plan throughout the galaxy.

This was a really great read. I don’t know why I waited so long to get this far in the series! 10/10.

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

This is the second book of Asimov’s Foundation Series. This is a worthy sequel to a great start. 10/10.

One of my favorite parts of this book is the way he chooses words and phrases, which seems different from his other books. He might describe two politicians who hold the same office; one who is a wise and strong leader who rose to the challenge of the times and took office only after some hesitation, and a second who seems inept and only in office because of nepotism.  For the first, Asimov might use a word like “office” to describe his physical workplace, but for the second, he might use a phrase like “palace,” appealing to motifs from Rome before the fall. The latter says things like “I am the state,” infamous late words of The Emperor Napoleon. There are many interesting motifs throughout the book used to differentiate characters whose ideologies place them on either the rising or the falling side  of civilization.

Isaac Asimov - Foundation and Empire

At the beginning of the book, we find the Foundation several centuries into living out Seldon’s secret plan for them. The first half of the book is about a general who comes to conquer the Foundation. The second half is about the rise of a new menace. There are several MAJOR surprises which become existential plot twists. Like Seldon, I won’t give too much detail, but buckle up because this one is a more traumatic read than the first book.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asmiov’s Foundation series and especially this first book are perhaps his greatest achievement. It’s no wonder this series won the Hugo for “Best Series of All Time.” The core question seems to be, “What if history is not on your side?” or perhaps, “What role does an individual play in history?”

 

Asimov Foundation

The story starts out with a man called Hari Seldon explaining that he has developed a new field of math intersecting history and psychology which has the ability to predict the future. It has shown the imminent collapse of civilization. He proposes not to try stop it which is impossible, but to  try to minimize the chaos afterwards and remove thousands of years of unnecessary suffering from the future of human history.

He dies after setting things in motion. For the rest of the book, people try to interpret what he did and what it means for them. Everyone assumes he is on their side. We see the rise of religion to fill the void left by the collapse, then commerce in its place.

It’s interesting to note that many scifi series have done episodes or arcs based on this book. My favorite is probably the Star Trek Deep Space Nine episode “Statistical Probabilities.”

The theme many people seem to take from this story is that sometimes surrender is a better option than fighting. This really isn’t what I got from it, but I can understand that interpretation. Many of the characters start with the idea that they are some kind of messiah, and end up accepting what Seldon calls the “inertia” of history. The implication seems to be that an individual is not capable of affecting change on a grand scale. I find this to be obviously incorrect and a poor interpretation, as individuals lead each major change in civilization throughout the story.

In the real world as well as in fiction, any theoretical argument which talks about people only in aggregate and ignores individuals will necessarily fail to be accurate and precise. Everything done is done by individuals.

Obvious real-world examples include Washington, Bonaparte, Machiavelli, Tzu, Alexander. Many people throughout history have become larger than life and accomplished incredible feats in direct opposition to any “inertia” of history.

I haven’t read the rest of the series yet, but I do know that in the end, this is sort of the point Asimov finally makes.

I can only imagine the impact this series would have if made into movies in the modern world!

❤️ I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

This has been one of my favorite books since I was a child. When I heard the announcement that this year’s theme for Burning Man is going to be “I, Robot,” I decided to reread it. It’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read. I can not say this enough, THIS BOOK HAS ALMOST NOTHING TO DO WITH THE TERRIBLE WILL SMITH MOVIE BY THE SAME NAME.

This book was written nearly a century ago, and yet it deals with many of the issues we are starting to face today;

  • The rise of Artificial Intelligence and the reaction to it.
  • The realization that humans are not running the show anymore, and the assertion that this is a good thing.
  • The definition of what it means to be a person.
  • The alignment problem; “How do we know they want the same things we want.”

At just 253 pages, it goes by quick. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in artificial intelligence. It is also a great first step into the vast universe of the very prolific Asimov. I can’t wait until his dozens of books start being made into good movies. The Foundation series especially is going to be amazing.

Defining Evil

This is an important word which serves to define the things we ought not to do. I choose to accept Philip Zimbardo’s very studied definition;

Evil is intentionally acting or causing others to act in a way that dehumanizes, harms, or kills innocent people.

The top two reasons people or groups become evil are the delegation of authority and othering.

Nazi soldiers tried for war crimes often said they “were just following orders.” This is the number one way people become evil according to Zimbardo’s research.

The number two way is Othering or using dehumanizing language to excuse evil actions. For example, “I hate stupid people” doesn’t really mean anything, and it is an easy way to give yourself an excuse to say or do any horrible thing to another person.

There is a REALLY GREAT interview of Zimbardo by Tim Ferriss which explores his decades of research into exactly how and why people or groups of people become evil versus heroic under pressure. I encourage everyone to listen to this important interview and try very hard to avoid being evil. If you would like a TL;DR, I gave a speech about it at Sierra College.

Tim Ferriss – The 3 Critical Rules of Branding

What unique benefits does this company/product deliver and who are your 1,000 true fans? How can I turn my casual fans into die-hard fans?

“Focus on what fucking matters and let the rest follow.”

These are the fundamental questions he asks through his three rules of branding. This is a really great episode about differentiating and the value of ignoring branding. There is a lot of practical, tactical information.

I will revisit this episode many times.

Oddly, I was not able to find this episode on his website, but I did find it on Player.fm.

Sam Harris’ Waking Up Podcast – What Happened to Liberalism?

“The united front of the [American] left broke down over identity issues… There was a retreat to the universities… People on the left really abandoned electoral politics and instead develop this idea that all social change happens through social movements that are tied to identity. And we ended up with gender theory and race theory and we end up with maybe three generations of young people who’ve been brought up to think about politics in terms of group and their own individual identities rather than of the common good and a message that might bind us together as a nation… Blacks complained that most leaders were white, which was true. Feminists complained that most all were men, which was also true. Soon black women were complaining about both the sexism of radical black men and the implicit racism of white feminists—who themselves were being criticized by lesbians for presuming the naturalness of the heterosexual family. What all these groups wanted from politics was more than social justice and an end to the war… they wanted to feel at one with the social movements that mirrored the way they felt as individuals.”

“There’s an economy of victimhood where certain identities trump others… [trying to reach] the apex of grievance so that nothing you say can can be denied by anyone who doesn’t share your identity.”

“What we do fundamentally as liberals is protect minorities… You can not protect anyone if you don’t hold institutional power… If you are not competitive at the state and local level or the congressional level, you can not protect anybody. Now the only way to be successful at those levels is to have a message that reaches beyond your identity group. Therefore if you want to actually protect african americans, gays and lesbians, women who are being paid less than men… You have to find a new message not based on yourself and your feelings and your identity, but a message about certain principles that you hold… and that other people can also hold.”

“If you say to someone, you can not understand me because of who you are… you seal yourself off and fall in love with defeat.”

From “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” by Mark Lilla and his interview with Sam Harris.