Reflections On Beauty

August 13, 2015

Beauty is a strange thing.  I’ve often wondered why human brains are so concerned with it.  There was an old song I loved as a teenager by the band Counting Crows called Mr. Jones.  In it they sing,

“I was down at the New Amsterdam staring at this
yellow-haired girl
Mr. Jones strikes up a conversation with this black-
haired flamenco dancer
She dances while his father plays guitar
She’s suddenly beautiful
We all want something beautiful
I wish I was beautiful”

When most people think of beauty, they think of sexual attraction and I guess I’ll talk that for now.  If I were to ask most people why we feel this sense of beauty in the opposite gender (or if you’re gay, same gender), they’ll say it evolved to stir us to reproduce.  Men and women are drawn to one another so that we’ll procreate and have babies.  There’s no doubt that’s true, but that doesn’t explain most of it.

If you look at the animal kingdom you see some rather bizarre mating rituals.  For example, to impress a female, male hippos will stick their rear end in the female’s face, defecate, and then sling their feces all over with their tail.  Giraffes will dip their long necks down to one another’s rear ends and pee on one another’s faces to drink and exchange urine.  The classiest of all may be the birds of paradise, who build elaborate, colorful nests, sing songs, and perform articulate, graceful dances for their partners.

What does any of this have to do with survival?  What does any of this have to do with anything?

The other day I had someone recommend I watch a show on MTV called Catfish.  It’s about people who fall in love online but they’ve never met in real life.  Along with the hosts, they track one another down, meet up, and oftentimes find out the person they fell in love with isn’t who they say they are.  Anyways.  I wanted to share my state of mind watching an episode.

One episode began by showing this absolutely beautiful woman and her Instagram account.  She was a young, twenty year old woman, who was working as a waitress.  Her hair, face, body, she was just perfect.  As I stared at the screen, I found myself wondering, “Why am I attracted to this woman as opposed to others.”  There was nothing interesting or compelling about the young woman’s personality.  She didn’t seem particularly intelligent.  Yet here my mind was saying, “Now this woman here.  That’s someone to mate with.  Right there.”  People often say that woman just won the genetic lottery.

The show featured her trying to get in touch with another guy she met online.  He was in a band and looked like Justin Bieber.  He was wearing gold chains, wore his hat backwards and to the side, had stylish hair, and six pack abs.  He was a sort of singer/rapper who played guitar, and when these two met up he sang her a corny love song about how nervous he was and how bad he wanted to meet her.  He was apparently cool and this lovely woman was mesmerized.  Hippos sling feces, we make squealing voices, strum on a wind instrument, and look into one another’s eyes while wrapping ourselves in dead plant fibers.

It’s particularly interesting to note that when we perceive beauty, nothing supernatural is going on.  Neuroscientists have narrowed down the exact areas of the brain which judge beauty.  I’ll show you.

brain regions beauty and aesthetics 2

When the Counting Crows told us that we all want to be beautiful, they were saying we all wish we could look at ourselves in the mirror and those little red areas of our brains would fire with just the right sort of electrical storms.  In fact, neuroscientists have identified the exact sort of electrical patterns needed to create a subjective sense of beauty, and ugliness too.

brain regions visual beauty

So when I was looking at that young beautiful woman on the screen, my medial orbito-frontal cortex was pulsing with just the right voltages and patterns, leading me to say, “Wow, she’s pretty.”  If this brain area of my head was damaged, I would lose an important planning network of my reward system.  I would become hypersexual, swear excessively, become a compulsive gambler, and likely fall into drug use.

What I find interesting about this is that I could rewire this brain area and make anything beautiful or anything ugly.  I could make a fat, old, ugly woman the most beautiful creature you’ve ever laid eyes and that young pretty girl hideous.  In fact, I could make you completely mesmerized by an old dirty shoe in a junkyard.  You’d look at it and think you’d seen an object from heaven.  I could make you love the smell of vomit and hate flowers.  It’s just a complicated neural network of electrical signals.  It would be hard to change, but not impossible in theory.

Earlier today I was thinking about how this applies to religion.  Christians dream of dying and going to heaven, which is supposedly a beautiful realm without pain.  Well, why do we think this world isn’t beautiful?  Why do we need mansions, open fields filled with flowers, and angelic clouds?  It’s our medial orbito-frontal cortex and the ways our sensory systems are wired into our amygdala and limbic systems.  The universe evolved to become self-aware and as certain emotional and sensory systems developed they wired themselves into emotional systems and the human organism came to look at itself and its environment in strange ways, telling itself it needs to change the natural order of world into some other form.

Every other animal is fine walking around naked.  They’re fine with nature as it is.  They build structures to escape the elements, protect valuable turf, and provide for their young, but that’s it.  Most other animals (besides the birds of paradise, say), will mate with any appropriate member of their species.  They’re not picky.  If the female’s body is symmetric, a gazelle will mate with another gazelle.  Same with seals, dogs, and gophers.  Humans are just quirky.

Take that young boy singing to that pretty girl with his guitar.  What’s going on here?  Why this bizarre mating ritual?  Well, as humans were evolving, we were developing a sense of language by uttering sounds to one another and gestures.  We all know that various grunts and utterings carry emotional contexts.  Someone may be angrily yelling or whimpering in pain.  They’re totally different sounds and our brains slowly evolved to process sounds in a way and interpret the emotion behind them.  These sound processing systems were slowly and gradually connected up to our emotional centers.

Music is a form of emotional communication through sound.  It probably started out by our brains evolving processing systems for emotional grunts and other things, but certain components of the sounds began to be processed in universal ways, and so certain types of sounds changing over time became linked directly to certain emotional centers.  It was intended for speech and grunts, but we started singing and banging instruments and found we could induce emotions through playing instruments.  And so, music evolved in humans right alongside language.

brain regions musical beauty

I’ve been studying all of this a lot lately.  There’s a lot of research into why we find art beautiful.  What draws us to certain paintings and what happens in our brains when look at a work of Picasso?  Why do we like music? I’ll have to share a lot more of what I’ve found out another time.  I want to more deeply understand beauty and aesthetics in the human mind.

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Snow Storms Lead To Babies

August 3, 2015

Human beings often fail to think about what they’re doing. Even when we have children, very little planning or thought seems to go into it.  I’ve been studying meteorology all morning and I came across an interesting blurb.

“The blizzard of 1996 was an awesome event. Lasting three days in January, the storm dumped huge amounts of snow over the east coast of the United States. Winds swirled the snow into monstrous drifts that closed roads and left many people stranded in their homes. Nine months later, during October, a second blizzard of sorts took place—a blizzard baby boom. Hospitals began reporting a sudden surge in baby births. West Jersey Hospital in Pennsauken, New Jersey, for example, delivered 25 percent more babies in October, 1996, than during the same month in 1995. Other hospitals throughout the northeast reported similar increases.”

– Essentials of Meterology: An Invitation To The Atmosphere

People get snowed into their homes, husbands and wives seem to have nothing better to do, so they look at each other and get busy making babies.  A random snow storm can lead to a huge swell in our population.  This also seems to shed light on many couples’ sex lives.

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Reacting To A Meaningless World

July 27, 2015

The other day I went for a long walk.  The city where I live has a large series of bike trails, running all over town, and I decided to walk along them, for miles and miles.  As the hot July sun beamed down on me, I found myself sweating profusely, I was very hot, and was borderline miserable.  I was the only one crazy enough to be out in that heat. The temperature was roughly 101 F.  Even so, I pressed on for several hours, carrying a large water bottle with me.

Being the kind of guy I am, I spent my time thinking about existential philosophy.  I was thinking about the universe and how it was established without any input or considerations from me.  It’s given to me as this powerful force unto which I must submit, without choice.  Before I was even born, there was this ‘order’ which was established and powerful forces push on me, telling me to submit to it.

Think about the different countries established all over the Earth.  The corporations.  The economy.  The laws.  The culture.  The schools.  The cities.  It was all there long before I was born.  I had no say in any of it, but I’m thrust into it and am told to conform to it all, to obey, and to take a part in it.

I was with a friend the other night and she asked me to explain my overall view of life to her.  I told her to imagine a large rock ball with a thin layer of plastic on the outside.  Next she was to hold a heat gun (imagine a sort of high powered blow dryer) to aim it at this plastic covered rock ball.  The heat from this gun starts to melt the thin outer plastic, and bubbles start to form, coming and going, bubbling in and out of existence.  Assume that this plastic fairly uniformly covers the surface of the smooth rock sphere.

Then I told her to further imagine that those bubbles were each conscious and minimally self-aware.  They each awaken, find themselves on this rock ball and say, “Why am I here?  Why do I suffer like I do?  Did I do something wrong?  Why are my friends and loved ones dying?  Why is everything always changing?  Was there a creator?  Why does everything I love fade away with time?”  Then their bubbles melt away, new bubbles form, and the process repeats, over and over, as long as the heat-gun is turned on.

All you have to do is replace the heated blow dryer with the sun and instead of plastic on a rock ball, imagine a thin layer of dirt and water on Earth’s surface, and it’s the exact same picture for us.  The same dirt and water is being reused over and over, reforming life-forms of all kinds, all confused about their existence, minimally self-aware, who are all fighting for their survival and to bring their desires into existence.  Because of the way things are structured, the universe becomes self-aware, learns things, then quickly forgets most of what it learns as each new generation is born.  Some information remains in the bodies of surviving life-forms in their DNA, but their minds (stored in brains) are wiped out and always being rebuilt. This process may slowly be overcome in humans as writing and culture can transcend generations, and our technology may soon allow us to pass memories and knowledge to one another instantly through computers and brain uploading, but that’s another topic.  Throughout the billions of years of Earth’s and life’s existence though, this has been the story.  We’re pathetic, stupid, frail creatures who live a very short time and then die, and our bodies are recycled and become other forms of life, over and over and over.

Existentialist philosophers call this human condition absurd.  There is no meaning to it besides what meaning we give it.  There is little to no justice to it.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  There’s an amoral stupidity running the universe.  A tragic event could destroy anyone, at any time, leading them to a direct confrontation with complete absurdity.  When looking at this situation, there is a disorientation and confusion within these “bubbles”, having to deal with a meaningless and absurd world.  How do you keep hope alive?  How do you avoid falling into complete despair?

That was quite a large introduction, but the main purpose of this post is to discuss how people attempt to deal with this meaningless universe and the difficult human condition.

– Give Up

There are a lot of people who, when confronted with this freedom and realization of their condition, simply end up saying, “Nothing worthwhile ever happens; nothing merits desire or effort.”  They basically try to escape the world, deal with it as little as possible, ignore it, and just hope it goes away.

– Subordinate Themselves To Some Value System

Struck with a terror that they have to create their own life through their own decisions, with limited information, they say, “How can I know what to do?  I’m not qualified.”  So they defer their responsibility of thinking and making decisions for themselves to some third party.  For example, they may become extremely religious.  They’ll say, “The Bible is true!  Everything it says is good and comes from God, who is perfect and knows better than me.  If you just do what it says to do, life will be as good as it possibly could be for you.”  It’s a form of fear of reality and making decisions.  Much of my family lives this way.

– Passion For Some External Thing

By consuming themselves in some thing, they hope to escape the human condition.  These people don’t believe meaning lies in the object itself, but in their relation to it.  Hollywood movies seem to always advocate this as the solution to life.  Passion for a lover, for a career, for composing music, whatever it may be, that will save you from this life.  Just find “your” particular something in this world and immerse yourself in that.  It’s a sort of glorified form of distraction.

– Become a nihilist

Most nihilists are teenagers who have lost the idyllic state of childhood but it also frequently happens in those suffering a mid-life crisis.  They tried exercising their freedom and the world beat them down.  This often leaves them in a state where they feel a need to prove to others that the world is meaningless, and in the worst cases, destroy good things others have created just to prove the world truly is meaningless.

– Search for Adventure

These people throw themselves into their undertakings with vigor and enthusiasm, but don’t attach themselves to the end to which they aim.  Adventurers will openly tell you there’s no meaning to life, so they engage in a hedonistic relationship to the world, getting involved in a vast number of enterprises without loyalty to any of them.  These people like action for its own sake.  They live “in the moment”.  They often hold a secret desire for their exploits to be told in the history books.  In the end, it’s a form of not making a decision on what they want their life to be.

– Become An Abstract Mind

This is the one I often fall victim to.  These people sort of sit in the middle, indecisive, claiming they’re in an objective pursuit of truth.  They’re devoted to the mind as an objective, universal space where they can escape and avoid the subjectivities and frailties of the human body.  They are always skeptical and cautious.  By claiming objectivity, these people aren’t forced to form an allegiance to any particular idea or doctrine.  They can’t submit themselves to subjective valuations.  That’s somehow beneath them.  In reality, it’s a denial of their humanity and a fear to give their own subjective evaluations to ideas, doctrines, and lifestyles.  That’s part of your duty as a human, to give value judgments to this world.  Otherwise it has no meaning.

I don’t like being human and things like logic allow me to imagine and see possibilities which are infinitely superior.  That makes me susceptible to this human failing.  I don’t place much value in day to day living and our daily toils.  Sadly, I try to be grateful and accept imperfection, but honestly, I can’t make myself like something I don’t like.  The human body is frail, ages quickly, and requires way too much maintenance to continue existing.  I’m surrounded by stupidity and things which are badly built and designed.  I don’t generally care for the body’s instincts embedded in our nature either, which lead people to stupidity, violence, and greed.  I don’t want to get too distracted with this topic at the moment, so let’s move on.

– Create Art

I’m a bit timid to talk about artists since I don’t understand them well.  I can say that many of them try to take the materials around them and transform them into something meaningful.  If they believe in anything, it’s often something like beauty or order.

– Give Their Life To Others

There are some people who justify their lives through other people.  They focus on making other people happy, and that in turn makes them happy.  They’re very concerned with empowering others and helping them exercise their freedom, expressing themselves.  They’re altruists.

I remember meeting a woman who was miserable with her life and wanted to escape, so she volunteered to go to India to help feed the poor.  I thought it was a bad idea, but she got angry and stopped talking with me.  I told her that you should give out of abundance not lack.

Serving others and hoping it makes you happy is an interesting concept to me.  Not too long ago I was watching a show on Youtube called World’s Strictest Parents.  In the show, troubled teens are sent to a home with new, very strict parents.  It was interesting that many of these parents would send the troubled teens to volunteer in homeless shelters and other places like that to make them realize how good they have it.  You know, cure them of being spoiled brats.  Depending on the teens backgrounds, some got a lot out of it and it helped them a lot, while others were only made more depressed.  I would be the type who would only become more depressed being asked to do that sort of thing.

There was one teen who came from a wealthy background.  He saw all the homeless and downcast and almost burst into tears.  He looked at them all and said, “I can’t look at this any longer.  It’s too depressing.”  Then he left and sat in the car.  I related to him.  The idea running through his head was, “How can reality be this horrible?  Why does this even exist?  Why are things so bad?  Why do I even want to be a part of it?  I don’t even like it when I’ve had it good.  Who would want to experience the world at this level?”  It wasn’t a refusal to help, but an emotional paralysis that would grip him if he tried to help.

In the end, I walked for hours, eventually found myself suffering from heat fatigue, and just went home and relaxed.  This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive.  I don’t know why I’m living here on Earth as a human being.  I don’t particularly like this place, but I feel like I was thrust here and wonder if I am supposed to do something.  But what?  And why should I care?  It’s sort of like finding yourself on a short dilapidated bus ride, without air conditioning or heating  and uncomfortable seating.  You know you won’t be there long, yet there’s these strange people on the bus decorating, singing songs, and trying to pretend it’s home.  Honestly, I’m more concerned with where this bus is going, the road it’s on, and the general lay of the land all around us.  That’s why I’m most interested in physics and cosmology.  Human existence isn’t that interesting.  One of my favorite aspects of physics is it doesn’t have anything to do with humans.  When it does (say nuclear bombs), I tend to find myself depressed again.

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Happy 4th Of July

July 5, 2015

I promised you all a demonstration of my cousin and I’s firework weapon “The Awesome Possum”.  We were kind of crazy kids, chasing each other around open fields with these things.  As you can see though, they’re so inaccurate it’s rare for anyone to even get hit, and even when you are hit, bottle rockets aren’t anything to worry about if you’re wearing proper eye protection.  This video features a bigger “possum” weapon, though I will later demonstrate a smaller launcher which is easier to load and fire.

Happy 4th of July.

AP Barrel

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The Possum Will Rise Again

July 2, 2015

Do any of you have childhood memories of things which were absolutely amazing at the time, but then you went and relived those moments as an adult, only to find they weren’t all that great in retrospect?  I’ve had that happen many times.  As a kid, I absolutely loved it when Mom would make hamburger helper.  I begged my Mom to make me some again, and well, it’s not horrible but it’s nothing to write home about either.  I also remember a time when my parents took me to this water park with a big water slide.  I decided to revisit and as I made my down the blue pipe, it just wasn’t the same.

I wonder what changes in the adult brain?  I’d love to feel that excited about anything again.  When I was a kid, all you had to do was dangle a piece of watermelon Airheads taffy in front of me and I’d be ecstatic, grinning ear to ear.  Now I have enough money to walk into the store and buy entire cart-fulls of candy, but all I’d end up doing is nibbling on a bit of it and say, “Meh.”  Actually, I shouldn’t say that.  I absolutely love chocolate.  Milk chocolate.  Dark chocolate.  Doesn’t matter.  I love chocolate.  I actually like that more than I did as a child, and that’s saying something.  I’d likely end up gorging until I got too sick to eat anymore.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes.

With the fourth of July around the corner, I found myself remembering all of the firework wars I used to get into with my brothers and cousins.  They were so much fun.  My father used to own and run a fireworks stand, so growing up I always had crates and crates of left-over fireworks to shoot off – a practically limitless supply.  We would build sophisticated bottle rocket launchers, dress up in camouflage outfits, and fight one another like army soldiers down in the creek.  It felt far more real than firing at each other with sticks or toy guns.

As the memories flashed, I remembered an old weapon I’d created as a teenager.  We all dubbed it “the awesome possum”.  It was the pride of our group, the culmination of years of research and hands-on experience.  Consisting of a thick PVC pipe sealed off at one end, along with a big hole drilled in the side, you’d cram it full of bottle rockets then jam a sparkler into the hole, simultaneously lighting all the bottle rockets at once.  Within about ten seconds, a barrage of hundreds of rockets would come screaming out of the pipe, exploding in every direction.  It was the ultimate firework weapon.

We dubbed it “the possum” because just when you thought it was dead, unfired rockets would spontaneously light themselves, leading to a second wind.  Armed with “the possum”, enemy combatants were scared to rush you.

I called up my buddy Greg and said, “It’s time to resurrect the possum.”  Enthralled with the idea, he decided to join me and we went to Lowe’s and bought fresh PVC pipe, mesh shielding, and duct tape.  I was ready to relive my childhood glory days.

We epically filmed every step of the assembly process and were planning to edit it all into an construction montage with the Rambo 2 preparations theme in the background.

First we scavenged the garage for tools.  We grabbed a drill, wire snips for the mesh, and then a box of drill bits.  On we went, drilling the hole in the pipe, next attaching a huge handle, and attaching the wire mesh to the back for air ventilation.  Finally we added epic black stripe decorations using electrical tape.

It was magnificent.  An epic masterpiece.  This was far bigger and better than anything I had access to as a child.  All that was left was the fireworks themselves.  We went by a firework tent in town and bought whistler rockets and morning glory sparklers.  I could barely contain myself.  When we arrived back at his place, I tore into a box of whistler rockets, crammed seven or eight dozen rockets inside, and got out a morning glory sparkler.  This was it.

I told Greg to get the camera rolling. Wearing a full Rambo’esque commando outfit, I was going to strike a pose like Slash in the Guns and Roses November Rain guitar solo scene.  With the possum arc’d into the sky, I planned to close my eyes in triumph as a screaming barrage of rockets flew into the golden sunset, accompanied by hundreds of rocket explosions, one after another.

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I pulled out the lighter and lit the first sparkler.  Sparks and flames started spitting and sputtering from the little green and blue stick.  Yeah baby, this was it!  I crammed it into the hole and the rockets began to ignite and a few blazed into the sky!  With my eyes closed, I stood there, waiting and waiting, but nothing else was happening.  Something was wrong, very wrong.

First off, the sparkler had went out on me.  What the heck was this?  Was it not getting enough oxygen?  And the whistler rockets were total wussy wimps.  They could barely fly six feet out of the cannon before petering out with a mild plop on the ground.  They couldn’t even hold themselves up in the sky.  Their explosions were puny thuds in the nearby grass.

I waved to Greg “Cut, cut!”  A total disgrace.  What happened to my moment of glory?  There’s no way I’d ever let anyone see that footage.  It was simply embarrassing.  I’m a prideful man.

Frustrated but still hopeful, I relit the sparkler.  Ok, take two.  I arc’d my back again and struck my pose.  Here it was!  I channeled my inner Slash and let November Rain play in my head as the camera rolled.  As the guitar solo went forth in my mind, I slowly lowered the sparkler toward the hole, but the unthinkable happened; the sparkler went out before I could even get it in the hole.  Oh my gosh, you’ve GOT to be kidding me!  This can’t be happening!

I threw the stupid sparkler on the ground and angrily screamed out, “Get me another sparkler.” I was practically a spoiled diva.  We got another sparkler and set up for another take.  I lit it, got into my pose, and all that, yada yada.  And guess what?  The piece of garbage sparkler petered out within a few seconds, just like the last one.  I mean c’mon, seriously, all I’m asking for is a child’s sparkler.  Can’t I have that much?  I’m trying to celebrate the birth of America, and here I am dealing with p.o.s. fireworks.

It turns out all the fireworks I’d purchased had been exposed to too much moisture.  Hooray for small town firework tents.  Either that, or fireworks these days have been made politically correct — watered down, dog and pet friendly, and completely sissified.  I mean seriously.  Then I heard Greg say the unthinkable, “Maybe your childhood memories are a bit … exaggerated.”  I was filled with inner rage.  “Nonsense!  The possum was the most epic thing I’ve ever built.  It won’t end like this.  You’ll see!  YOU ALL WILL SEE!”

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It was getting late and all the firework tents and stands were closed, so we had to call it a night, but I assure all of you, this isn’t the end.  The possum will rise again, rockets blazing into the sky like a fiery phoenix.  You all mark my words!  And when I complete my mission — and I will — I’m going to upload it here on this site for all you to see!

 

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