Thursday, December 24, 2020

Kerouac's days in Denver


Jack Kerouac’s writing doesn’t mention Boulder as a place he visited in Colorado, yet there’s a school named after him there. Founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman it’s Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Kerouac became disembodied in 1969 at the age of 47. Neal Cassady, who inspired Kerouac’s best known novel, “On the Road,” did so a year earlier. Unlike his two friends who lived faster and died younger, Ginsberg almost made it into the new millennium. He died in 1997.

The movie, “Howl,” stars James Franco as Allen Ginsberg and, takes place during the Beat era — an era that owes its name to Kerouac. Who were the Beats? Where does Colorado fit in?

William S. Burroughs was mentor to the group of writers who would later be called the Beats. Burroughs, who was fascinated by life’s seamy side, learned the word “beat” from Herbert Huncke, a Chicago junkie. Hunke used the word as a synonym for poor. It was Jack Kerouac who modified its meaning, making “beat” a combination of poor and beatific, “like sleeping in the subways … and yet being illuminated and having illuminated ideas about apocalypse and all that.”

Ginsberg and Kerouac met Cassady in 1946 when brought his wife to New York from Denver to look up his friend, Hal Chase, who also knew Ginsberg and Kerouac. Handsome, exuberant and amoral, Cassady mesmerized Ginsberg and Kerouac.

Cassady’s wife, LuAnne left her negligent husband in January 1947 and returned to Denver. Some months later, Cassady returned as well. The hitchhiking Kerouac was dropped off on Larimer Street in July. Respectable today Larimer Street was Denver’s skid row in 1947. Cassady had spent much of his childhood there.

While staying in Denver, Kerouac visited Central City, where he attended a performance of Fidelio at its opera house. He bathed in the hotel room of one of its performers before repairing to a miner’s shack for an evening of revelry. Today people go to Central City to attend performances at its old opera house and gamble in its newer casinos.
Kerouac’s desire to ranch or farm in Colorado is recorded in his journal. He returned to Denver in May of 1949 after selling his first novel, “The Town and the City.”

He rented a house several days after arriving, and wrote its Westwood, Colorado address in his journal. Today that address is in Lakewood, which incorporated as a city in 1969. The house is west of Sheridan, which forms the border between Lakewood and Denver.

In his journal, Kerouac talks of walking to Morrison Road to buy a notebook. He stopped for beer at a roadhouse. That roadhouse may well have been Hart’s Corner at the intersection of Mississippi and Sheridan. Hart’s Corner began as a root beer stand in 1929 and kept its name well into this century.

He also wrote that he, “looked out on the fields of golden green and the great mountains,” from his back door. That view is gone now, but the view from Lakewood’s Belmar Park is a good approximation.
While waiting for his family to join him in Colorado, Kerouac’s money and self-esteem diminished, while his impatience and depression increased. He took a boy he befriended to Lakeside Amusement Park where they “rode around a sad little lake in a toy railroad.” The train was pulled by one of two engines which had been used during the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair. Lakeside acquired them prior to its opening in 1908. Those engines are still running today.

Kerouac’s family joined him in Colorado, but none of them stayed long. Kerouac, accompanied by his sister and brother-in-law, dropped his mother off at the train station on July 4. Afterward, they attempted to lessen Kerouac’s sadness with a picnic at Berkeley Lake. This lake is to the east of Sheridan Boulevard; Lakeside Amusement Park is west of Sheridan. Both border I-70.

Kerouac traveled to Colorado a final time in 1950 using airfare money provided by his publisher. He took a bus because it was cheaper than flying.

Before Kerouac’s arrival, Cassady broke one of his thumbs jabbing his wife’s forehead. Kerouac and Cassady visited the rundown Windsor Hotel on Larimer and 18th Street where Cassady had lived with his alcoholic father. During the visit, Cassady injured his other thumb by striking the men’s room door repeatedly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Galileo's Error

Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness
Philip Goff
Non-fiction, 256 pages

Galileo determined that the natural world can be measured with math. Certain qualities, however, are unmeasurable because they are derived from the soul rather than from nature. Sensory qualities like “yellow” can’t be measured like size, weight, or movement. Aside from unmeasurable sensory qualities and similar information, Galileo’s method describes nature quite well. But the method creates an error: “Galileo’s error was to commit us to a theory of nature which entailed that consciousness was essentially and inevitably mysterious. In other words, Galileo created the problem of consciousness.”

It took a while to notice the problem. It didn’t trouble René Descartes at all that Galileo’s method couldn’t address unmeasurable qualities. For Descartes, matter was one thing while mind was another. While a bodily action might follow a mental intention, both body and mind, being distinct, can exist without the other.

Today Descartes’ dualism has fallen out of fashion. Materialists argue that it’s the brain that generates consciousness, nothing more. Some, such as Daniel Dennett, argue that consciousness is a brain-generated illusion.

Goff describes several arguments that refute the materialist view of consciousness. Of these, I’m most convinced by David Chalmers’s argument that materialism fails to address the “Hard Question of Consciousness.” Connecting the brain with its outward actions answers easy questions. Such examination can never explain why we experience life as we do. Nobody questions their own experience, but materialists encounter Galileo’s soul derived qualities when they attempt to explain it.

Goff explores one possibility that might save dualism. It involves quantum physics. “By far the strangest aspect of quantum mechanics is that observation seems to make a difference to how the universe behaves.” If an observation is necessary, what else but a mind could perform that function?

 The argument is complicated and involves Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. The cat does just fine when nobody is looking. It’s both alive and dead. But once an observation is made the cat becomes either living or dead. Weird as it sounds, physics has yet to solve this contradiction.

 Goff does not defend dualism for long. Instead he moves on to panpsychism, a view that holds that consciousness is somehow an inherent quality of nature. The problem with panpsychism however is that it fails to provide a mechanism for how the simple consciousness of, say, atomic particles, combine to create the complex consciousness of a human being.

 Every approach to philosophy of mind has problems, Goff explains. However he believes that panpsychism offers the best explanatory approach. While his arguments are inconclusive his explanations are clear and readable. That’s good. Philosophical arguments can be tough for non-philosophers to digest. I have only one criticism. In explaining how the observation problem in physics might save dualism, Goff misses an opportunity to investigate how the observation problem might strengthen the argument for panpsychism.

 Goff’s book is a good introduction to philosophy of mind. Annaka Harris provides another good introduction in her book “Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind.” Despite its shorter length, her book covers the same territory and throws in meditation as well. I won’t say more now about her book now but hope to provide a more complete review later. 

Altered Traits

Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body
by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson 
Non-fiction, 336 pages

I read many dull research papers in school. Since then I’ve concluded that research oriented psychologists can’t write, while therapy oriented psychologists don’t understand science. I’ve changed my view. Authors, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, are both able researchers and writers.

This is great. I’ve read far too much well done research that doesn’t say much and far too much self-help psychology that cherry picks science.

The authors spent decades studying meditation, and are honest enough to say where their research was poorly designed or flawed. They began their research in the 1970s before tools such as fMRI and SPECT became available and learned a lot over their years.

Books about science and fiction by Steig Larrson can be repetitive. That’s necessary sometimes. While reading this book, expect repetition. It’s worth it: this is the definitive book on meditation research.

The authors discuss research into three types of meditation, “focusing on breathing; generating loving kindness; and monitoring thoughts without getting swept away by them.” Each of the three meditations can cause mental changes, some brief and some lasting. While breath or mantra meditators requires multiple sessions before change can be noticed, loving kindness meditation brings results after only a single session.

Temporary changes, while interesting, are not the same as altered traits. These require years of meditation. Yogis who’ve spent decades practicing the third type of meditation have yielded astonishing findings. “Gamma, the very fastest brain wave occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle ‘click’ together.” Gamma wave activity lasts only a fifth of a second for most people, but some yogis can generate gamma waves for minutes at a time, even in their sleep. I’d love to know what’s on their minds. Guess I should meditate more.

Help, I'm a cop

Burmese Days
George Orwell
Fiction, 291 pages 

"It's a drag being a cop" ~ Frank Zappa, "Help, I'm a rock"

George Orwell was brainwashed. This happened in Myanmar (formerly Burma) during his five years as a policeman. He was brainwashed by the pukka sahibs’ code. The code of imperialist occupiers. The code of colonial hypocrisy. A code similar to the one currently protested by the BLM movement.

The protagonist of "Burmese Days" is not a policeman. However, John Flory has seen through the code and now belongs nowhere--not in Burma, nor back in England.

"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.

In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus."

John Flory's story isn't a pleasant one. It's a story of a conflicted man wanting, but unable, to do the right thing. I wonder how many good cops feel this way, wanting to improve society but hampered by their coworkers. At any rate, it's a good read. This essay about Orwell and BLM is another good read.

It's like the egg laying the chicken

Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death

Robert Lanza and Bob Berman

Non-fiction, 224 pages

In their first book, Lanza and Berman presented Biocentrism, a view that accounts for some of the anomalies of physics. This book takes the argument further. The science is solid, but I question the validity of the authors’ conclusions.


The scientific argument begins with with a hard nut that physicists have tried to crack for nearly one hundred years. Things are not as they seem. The model of an atom one first encountered in elementary school is not realistic. In reality, electrons don’t cross atomic nucleuses in neat orbits. In reality, they’re everywhere at once. Electrons exist in a superposition of all possible locations until interfered with. As soon as a measurement is taken, the electron’s “wave function” collapses and it shows itself. Since observation is required to determine an electron’s position, the role of consciousness plays a key part in how the universe operates. Hence, life itself, steers the universe’s unfolding.


While the authors’ argument is novel, the science is not. I don’t question that the authors are on to something. I only question that something’s implications. Let’s skip over the science and go directly to conclusions:


“What is not in doubt even in these early research stages is that the observer is correlative with the cosmos. That time does not exist. And perhaps the most cheerful takeaway from biocentrism: Since there’s no self-existing space-time matrix in which energy can dissipate, it’s impossible for you to ‘go’ anywhere.


In a nutshell, death is illusory. ... Consciousness and awareness never began, and will never end.”


And yet, when one sleeps can one be said to be conscious? For that matter, how can there be a “when” if time is illusory?


Backing up a bit, the authors note that logic and science are not the only methods of gaining knowledge. Intuitions arise from neither and are generally correct. Upon seeing a corpse, intuition tells us that the body’s former occupant has departed. But where did it go? Here’s the explanation:


“The feeling of “me,” of consciousness itself, could be considered a 23-watt energy cloud, which is the brain’s energy consumption in producing our sense of ‘being’ and its myriad sensory manifestations. Energy, as we learned in high school physics, is never lost. It can change form but it never dissipates or disappears. So what happens when those brain cells die?”


The answer is that death is an illusion. One can’t die because, “neither space nor time are real in any sense except as appearances or tools of the mind.”


In the first appendix we learn the difference between mind and brain. “The brain is a physical object occupying a specific location. It exists as a spatio-temporal construction ... .” Other objects like tables must also be constructions, yet you can’t crowd those constructions into brains. Paradoxical. Space isn’t real, but you still have to watch where you place things. Luckily we don’t have to worry about where one places one’s mind. “But the mind has no location. It is everywhere you observe, smell, or hear anything.”


I can’t quite wrap my own mind around this. Maybe with more explanation. The authors are releasing another book in November. I can barely wait.