Thursday, December 24, 2009

Red Bear

I'm going to have to do something with this girl, I thought. She goes from calm and happy to Mount Vesuvius in under half a second, and never know what she'll do. I looked down at my crotch, my fingers lightly touching the spot on my leg where contact had been made. That was close. And it would have, um, really hurt...

Silly me. A few months earlier, I had assumed that rugby would have been enough of an aggression channel for Red Bear (a.k.a Shortcake), my freckled, red-headed, pepperpot of a nine year old daughter. In reality, three hours of rugby each Sunday tended to calm her down for the rest of the day. But by the next day, she was back to normal. Usually sweet, friendly, and confident, but with a serious temper. So...I got her and Lady Lu horseriding lessons. But that wasn't enough, either. Obviously.

What had happened a few minutes earlier was just the latest indication of that. I had kicked the can for the third time in a row, freeing all of Red Bear's prisoners and thus forcing her to to have to count again while we all hid. But in the moment that I ran up and kicked it, the petite warrior queen had let out a primal shriek and let fly with a lightning quick Muay Thai-style roundhouse kick which had landed perilously close to my broncos.

"GEEZ! Red Bear! Control yourself!", I said. "Relax!". I started laughing because it was so unexpected and outrageous (I don't allow any hitting or kicking amongst the kids at all), but really...this sort of thing was getting serious. The explosions (mostly verbal) were fairly regular. She was so full of passion, spark, energy, fearlessness, so possessed by a kind of vivacious drive which would sometimes instantly explode into a kind of fury; it was so much a part of her, that she was going to have to learn how to channel it, control it, direct it. And now was the time. Soccer, rugby, horses, biking, rough play on the trampoline, taking her to the park all the time, nice calm discussions about how to handle frustrations, time-outs, occasionally barking at her when she started to lose it...all did a little bit, but she needed more. What else could I try?

Hmmmmmmm. Oh. Yes. Of course.

I called the gym the next day.

"Hello, 'Q' Gym, Sarah speaking", said the chipper-sounding girl.

"Hi Sarah. I have a question for you. I have a girl here who I think might like to try Mixed Martial Arts down there".

"Tell me about her", said Sarah.

This is not one word of a lie.

"Well, ummmm...she....". I stammered, and didn't really know where to begin, and then, it just sort of came out: "she...she has red hair".

Sarah started laughing. "Ohhhhhhh. Ha ha ha. A redhead!".

"Yeah. Big-time".

Sarah was still laughing. "I get it, yeah. And I love it. She'll be amazing. I want to work with her!". Thank God. Sarah understands about the red hair, I thought. This sounds promising.

The next Monday (this was the 14th of this month), I showed up at the Q MMA Gym with Red Bear, my seven year old son Sno-Cone, and my four year old son Trixta. Red Bear's hair looked absolutely wild, a huge mass of long, natural curls and waves, containing what seemed like every hue of red it was possible to have: blood red, candy apple red, carrot orange, Creamsicle orange, streaks of sunshine blonde. She looked like she could just have emerged from a cave somewhere in Denmark brandishing a giant sword, ready to join a Viking raid.

We wandered into the gym area after taking our shoes off, and were greeted by Sarah - who herself had reddish hair, and who I found out, had recently been ranked the number one bantamweight female MMA fighter in the world. Wow.

"Okay you guys", she said to the six or seven kids who were already there (we were about fifteen minutes early). "Grab some of those balls over there and start throwing them around. Start trying-" (again, this is not one word of a lie; this is the God's honest truth). She said, "start trying to hit the other kids in the face!".

In that moment, I fell in love with Sarah. Not really, but you know. I'm so sick of control freak school yard monitors telling my kids they're not allowed to throw pine cones, or snowballs, or rugby balls, or dirt clods, or wrestle, or do anything rambunctious, that I felt a surge of intoxicating, almost infatuating, adrenaline. The kids, for their part, seemed absolutely dumbstruck with amazement, like they couldn't believe what they'd just heard. For a split-second, they stared at each other. Then they started laughing and ran on to the mats, grabbing the mini beach balls and hurling them at each other, with a frenzied, wild abandon, laughing still.

This is completely awesome, I thought. Even Trixta was running around laughing, dodging and throwing the balls. And hell...I couldn't help it; I finally jumped in, grabbed a ball, and started playing myself, much to the delight of the kids.

After fifteen minutes of that, class officially started. For the next hour, Sarah led Red Bear, Sno-Cone (Trixta opted out of the official class), and the rest of the class through a series of punching, kicking, ducking and wrestling drills. One wrestling drill was similar to a Sumo match: two kids faced each other and tried to push each other outside the perimeter ring. Trixta and I watched Red Bear push one kid, then another, then another, then another, then another outside the ring. She didn't seem self-conscious or nervous at all. She seemed to really be enjoying herself, even though she was smaller than everyone there, even Sno-Cone, her younger brother. Maybe this will be her thing, I thought.

Time will tell whether Red Bear wants to stick with MMA. But I'll always enjoy the memory of watching her dive in, kick butt, and come out smiling. She is one special girl; and once she learns how to channel her passions, she will be unstoppable at whatever she puts her mind to. I can't wait to see that.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Search of Consciousness, Part 3

I want to back up a bit, because I confess the concept of emergence, at least as it is often bandied about, is not entirely clear to me.

As I noted, probably the most uncontroversial definition of emergence is that it describes an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes, like the illusory overarching "invisible hand" which seems to efficiently steer a free market economy.

But in this supposedly paradigmatic case, is the invisible hand really an exclusively macro scale property of micro scale processes? It doesn't seem to be, because all that Adam Smith's metaphor is meant to represent is a kind of intelligent volition - but the property of intelligent volition does not exist only at the macro economic level, but inheres in almost all of the miniature economic decisions made by individuals. So, intelligent volition is not an exclusively macro scale property; it is there at every level of economic decision.

Maybe my lack of clarity about this arises from the definition, so what follows is a different definition proposed by Jeffrey Goldstein, a professor at Adelphi University: "the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems".

Well - this is better, I suppose, since it brings in the concept of self-organization. However, I am still not sure how the free market economy possesses "novel" properties, as opposed to simply being the sum total of millions of individual economic decisions by consumers and producers.

Anyway, I could go on for pages on this, so let me put this aside for the moment, and at least explain how I think the term "emergence" should never be used, ever.

Imagine we are in a factory in front of a big machine fed by a conveyor belt. A worker places a lump of coal on the belt, and it enters into the machine. A minute later, out the other end, comes a live rabbit. We have absolutely no clue how any machine could turn a lump of coal into a rabbit, yet we feel pressure to explain it, somehow. Let's say we have reputations to how tempting would it be for us to simply say, "A-HA - emergence!"? Or rather, come up with some fancy explanation which takes 800 words to just, again, say "emergence"?

Judging from the example of quite a number of consciousness researchers, I would say very. But in the case of the rabbit-making machine, as in the case of consciousness, the term "emergence" is a kind of thought-terminating cliche. It does not explain; on the contrary: it distracts from the fact that we can fathom no explanation at all.

Consider some of the following quotes from consciousness researchers:

"Consciousness is not a property of individual neurons. It is a natural emergent property of the interactions of the neurons in nervous system of the body in an environment. It makes a structure that is related to lower level interactions as well as higher level thoughts, and it represents a new observational mechanism of the entire system" (Baas and Emmeriche, "On Emergence and Explanation", Intellectica, 2, 25, pp. 67 - 83).

John Searle writes:

"Consciousness is a higher-level or emergent property of the brain in the utterly harmless sense of ‘higher-level’ or ‘emergent’ in which solidity is a higher-level emergent property of H2O molecules when they are in a lattice structure (ice), and liquidity is similarly a higher-level emergent property of H2O molecules when they are, roughly speaking, rolling around on each (water)" (From "The Rediscovery of the Mind", p. 14).

Notice that as is typical of characterizations of consciousness as an emergent property, there is simply no attempt by the authors here to explain how such a process could ever occur. We hear from Baas and Emmeriche that consciousness is an "emergent property" of neuronal interaction. Okay. Great. What does that tell us? Actually, nothing. I mean, if we walked out of the factory and soberly announced to all our colleagues that "after careful observation and extensive discussion, we have determined that the explanation for the live rabbits is that they are an 'emergent property' of 'rock-machine interaction'", we'd be laughed at, and rightly so. And I just don't see how John Searle's analogy to water in its liquid and solid form, um, holds any water. What water is to ice, is not what non-consciousness is to consciousness. When water turns to ice, the previously mobile molecules become inert, and thus become bound to neighbouring molecules; i.e., they form (hard) crystalline structures. The water's chemical composition does not change, only the physical expression of that chemical composition: heat the ice, and you'll get liquid again. Heat it more, and the liquid will turn into vapour. Cool it down, it will turn into liquid again, etc.

Needless to say, there is no conceivable way in which consciousness could be like this. All we know - or all we think we know - is that we start with non-conscious stuff, and then, for some reason or other, we wind up with conscious stuff. That isn't the kind of thing that can just be casually whisked away with a water-ice analogy and an "emergence" label. It's a big, fat problem. And I'm not the only one who thinks so:

"‘A motion became a feeling!’ – no phrase that our lips can frame is so devoid of apprehensible meaning...The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable... Suppose it to have become quite clear that a shock in consciousness and a molecular motion are the subjective and objective faces of the same thing; we continue utterly incapable of uniting the two, so as to conceive that reality of which they are the opposite faces (William James, as quoted in "Consciousness" by Susan Blackmore, pp. 19-20).

"How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp" (Thomas Huxley in "Lessons in Elementary Physiology", 1986, p.193).

"How is it possible for conscious states to depend on brain states?...How can technicolour phenomenology arise from soggy grey matter?...How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness?" (Colin McGinn in "Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?", 1989, p. 349).

"The immense richness of the phenomenological world that we experience – conscious experience as such – appears to be dependent on what seems a mere trifle in the skull...Why would a mere location in the brain or the possession of a particular anatomical or biochemical feature make the activity of certain neurons so privileged that it suddenly imbues the possessor of that brain with the flavour of subjective experience, with those elusive properties that philosophers call qualia? This is the central problem of conscious experience" (Edelman & Tononi in "A Universe of Consciousness", 2000, pp. 35, 17).

"The individual cells that compose you are alive, but we now understand life well enough to appreciate that each cell is a mindless mechanism, a largely autonomous microrobot, no more conscious than a yeast cell. The bread dough rising in a bowl in the kitchen is teeming with life, but nothing in the bowl is sentient or aware...(but) you are made of parts that are fundamentally the same sort of thing as those yeast cells...(Daniel Dennett in "Sweet Dreams" , 2006, p.2).

And lastly, this if from John Searle, he of the water-ice analogy:

"The central question in philosophy at the beginning of the twenty-first century is how to give an account of ourselves as apparently conscious, mindful, free, rational, speaking, social, and political agents in a world that science tells us consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, physical particles...How can conscious experiences like your pain exist in a world that is entirely composed of physical particles and how can some physical particles, presumably in your brain cause the mental experiences? (Searle in "Mind", 2004, pp. 11, 4).

We already know Searle's "answer" to this question: emergence, the end. But, at least for me, this answer is embarrassingly inadequate. Its function is identical to that of the words "and then a miracle occurs" in the famous cartoon below:

I gotta go to sleep. More later.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Opportunity Lost: A Review of "Invictus"

Can I please run a Hollywood studio?

How could anyone screw up the story of Nelson Mandela achieving the seemingly impossible: uniting South Africa, a nation on the brink of savage civil war, via the 1995 Rugby World Cup? It is one of the most amazing, inspiring, exciting stories of all time, sitting squarely on the nexus between race, class, culture, ethnocentrism, language, politics, individual and collective identity, war and peace, the primal and the transcendent, and a dozen other stirring, difficult themes. How do you make a story like that...boring? And even worse, how do you make a story like that boring when you have all-star Morgan Freeman playing Mandela, and super-stud Matt Damon playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team (the Springboks)? And how do you make it boring when it revolves around the world's most exciting team sport?

Well, there is really only one way to make it boring: go into production with a mediocre script, get a mediocre directing job, and then get a mediocre editing job. Freeman and Damon are great as usual, but their performances can't redeem the other problems. (Damon is curiously underutilized here; he is almost a supporting actor). The result is a six out of ten movie, which - given the real life story behind it - should have been a nine or ten out ten.

I was going to write out a long review here, but I'm almost too upset to do so. The short version is:

1.) The acting performances (minus Freeman's and Damon's) are mediocre.

2.) This picture fails to adequately ram home, concisely and dramatically, what should have been its primary focus points, for example, how and why exactly rugby came to symbolize the apartheid regime in the minds of black South Africans, how it functioned in white (and particularly Afrikaaner) culture, what white fear really felt like and what the stakes for the country really were, etc. Instead, the movie meanders, and hints, and meanders again, and suggests, and meanders yet again, and just doesn't hit those emotional peaks like it should have. It often even relies on character dialogue to try to describe some of these themes, instead of showing them with dramatic scenes.

3.) The All-Blacks Jonah Lomu, in real life, is a 6'5 monster who towered over the opposition. The guy they chose to play him here looks like he's about 5'11 or something. As a result, the visual support of the sub-story line of the Springboks having to stop a one-man wrecking crew suffers.

4.) The script does not make adequately clear beforehand that the grand finale of the movie - the match against the All-Blacks - is actually the World Cup final.

5.) The film takes too much time depicting Mandela as a saint. In fact, the movie seems torn between being a movie which tells the story of how Mandela united the country through the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and being a character study of Nelson Mandela. It does neither particularly successfully, but conceivably would have done a good job of one or the other.

6.) This movie could have used a strong character as an antagonist to Mandela. Instead, Mandela's "foil" was a couple of grumpy black advisers and his sourpuss daughter, who seemed to put up only token protest.

7.) The music chosen is ridiculous, especially the sappy ballad prior to the big game.

8.) The shots of the rugby games were unbelievably fake; the movie didn't even come close to showing the true physicality, brutality, and demands of the game. It looked like everyone was taking it easy on everyone else. Also, how many shots were there looking up from the ground in the scrum? One or two would have been fine - not seven or eight. And why didn't we get to see Damon running with or passing the ball in the games? He's playing the captain of the team - how about we see him leading the charge on the pitch, instead of just shouting at guys after a try is scored? Instead, we see him pushing once in a scrum, with all the other shots involving other guys. Bizarre.

That's probably enough. Yeah, I'm upset. The story behind "Invictus" is epic; the movie based on it should have been epic, too. Instead, it is more or less a snoozer: a mediocre script directed and edited in mediocre fashion, featuring too many mediocre acting performances, resulting in a movie lacking the emotional peaks and valleys that all great movies have. Clint Eastwood was simply not the guy to direct this movie, and they should have used a different screenplay. This was an opportunity lost, for sure.