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Monday, January 19, 2015

Constrained Choice and Owning the Wilderness

Bow can choose whether he wants an apple or some yogurt.

He can choose whether to stay inside or go out.

He can choose to exercise or to rest.

But these are all constrained choices, and he can't, for instance, choose to move to Africa tomorrow. Then again, neither can I.  My choices are constrained, too, though, admittedly, not as much.

Bow can no more change his place of residence by mere choice, than I can go live next door instead of here, without consulting the neighbors about it, or emigrate to a different country without getting permission from the local authorities.  We are all very constrained about where we are allowed to go.

Many people would like to come live here, but they can't.  Many others may want to leave this area, but they don't know how. Not without a job or a place to live or some friends or someone to support them.

People sometimes feel trapped. They may want to go live someplace else, but they can't, unless the people who are in charge of someplace else agree, and even then, they would have to live by rules set down by the people in charge there. Most Americans who are out of work do not even consider working abroad. The natural emigration out of difficult economic circumstances is thwarted by borders -- real and psychological. When there is a famine in one country, people tend to go someplace else where there is no famine, but sometimes the life that they find there is not good.

Sometimes people become enslaved, because they don't know any other way to live. Involuntary servitude happens when choices are so constrained that in order to live, you have to do another person's bidding. whether you like it or not.

Bow is not a slave, because he does not have to work for a living at all, and can choose what he does, albeit from a limited menu of choices. He is not supporting me. I am supporting him. He does not serve me; I serve him. I serve him all day long, meeting his  basic needs, so much so that I can't really leave or go someplace else until he goes to sleep each night, unless I have a sitter.

But wouldn't it be better if Bow were free, free to live in his natural habitat? Yes, much in the same way that it would be good if I could go live free in my natural habitat. But my natural habitat has been destroyed, and his is in the process of being destroyed. So we are refugees, in a way, both of us.

In this article from the New York Times, George Monibot addresses the great loss that most humans have suffered by the ecological changes that humanity has wrought.

While part of this lament resonates for me, another aspect of the article is very annoying. Like most people who are allowed to publish articles in the New York Times, Monibot is a left-winger. So he gets in a few jabs at an unconstrained economy before proceeding with his paean to primitive living.

We fetishize the freedom of business from state control; the freedom not to pay taxes; the freedom to carry guns and speak our minds and worship whom we will. But despite, in some cases because of, this respect for particular freedoms, every day the scope of our lives appears to contract.
We most certainly are not free to conduct our business any way we want, and where did he get this freedom not to pay taxes? I don't know of anyone who has such a freedom, whether the taxes are on income, purchased items or on the real estate and personal property that we already own, but must keep paying taxes on every year in order to be allowed to continue to own them. And yes, this taxation has a great deal to do with the constraints on our choice to live a more primitive life.

Property taxes are kept high so that land will be maximally exploited. Small farms have ceded to large, corporate agriculture not because the small farmers did not want to hold onto their family farms, but because regulation of food production, taxes on income and on land ownership and other government created pressures, including inheritance taxes that apply to the family farm when one generation ends and another takes over, have over the past hundred years pretty much eliminated the majority of privately held farming operations. Now many people who want to farm have to do it on the weekend, as a hobby, while they work in  a big city all week long.

Monibot is actually aware of this, and he has a plan for what to do with the abandoned family farm:

Across many rich nations, especially the United States, global competition is causing the abandonment of farming on less fertile land. Rather than trying to tame and hold back the encroaching wilds, I believe we should help to accelerate the process of reclamation, removing redundant roads and fences, helping to re-establish missing species, such as wolves and cougars and bears, building bridges between recovering habitats to create continental-scale wildlife corridors, such as those promoted by the Rewilding Institute.
I have not heard of this Rewilding Institute, but it sounds sinister. Mind you, I am allowing my own land to go wild just by not tending to it.

I don't need an institute to help me do that. My fences are crumbling on their own, my woods are being reclaimed without planting.  I just need to be left alone. In the wild corridors that Monibot envisions, will humans be allowed? Will they be allowed to hunt for a living and to become hunter-gatherers again? Or will government thugs keep these wild corridors wild by keeping everyone out? Will it be a paradise no one is allowed to enter, much less live in?

The wonderful thing about a wild existence is that you are allowed to pick all the flowers, hunt all the wildlife, eat all you can eat at a buffet served by nature, with only your strength to prevent others from encroaching on your own little eden. I wish I could give that to Bow, but how can I, when I can't even win this for myself? Taxation and regulation are a big part of the reason why.

All around the world, primates are being deported from their natural habitats and sent to sanctuaries and zoos, just as aboriginal people are moved to reservations.  Even macaques in Gibraltar get shipped off to places like Scotland, when doing what comes naturally bothers the people in charge.

The same people who believe in universal healthcare and high taxation of asset ownership  -- who think children should not be allowed to inherit the property that parents leave behind -- are the people who decry the loss of nature. Can't they see that it's their own policies that lead to this?

If real wealth is the ability to control vast expanses of nature, then aboriginal tribes wherever they are found are the richest people on earth. But they are also a small elite: less than the one percent. And yet most of the people who hate the wealthy don't think that less than one percent should be allowed to own wealth that, if exploited to the fullest, could feed billions of people. The policy articulated by James Monroe  in his presidential address  is the policy that most liberals support against the wealthy.
The hunter state can exist only in the vast uncultivated desert. It yields to the more dense and compact form and greater force of civilized population; and of right it ought to yield, for the earth was given to mankind to support the greatest number of which it is capable, and no tribe or people have a right to withhold from the wants of others more than is necessary for their own support and comfort.

 When you speak out against the one percent, remember this address by President Monroe and who the one percent are and always have been.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Taste for Snow

It snowed this morning, and school was canceled.

Bow spent most of the morning  after breakfast asleep, completely hidden by his blanket. But around 10:30 am he asked to go outside. I was skeptical. There was still snow on the bench.

However, Bow insisted that he did want to go outside, so I complied.

At first Bow just settled on the ledge, reluctant to step on the floor below, where there was snow.

But then he started to take an interest in the snow that had accumulated on top of the horizontal support bars.

The snow was starting to melt a little, and Bow decided to sample it.

After making some loud, slurpy, lip-smacking noises of satisfaction with the quality of the snow, Bow decided to go back inside, where it is warm.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Chess, Anyone?

Yesterday, Bow seemed bored. He kept asking for his blanket, then when he got the blanket, he really didn't want it. It was raining outside. "You look bored," I told Bow. "You want to play chess?" He said yes.

He helped me to set up the board.

But he really didn't want to play chess.

That's okay. I didn't really want to play chess, either! There are plenty of other people who are good at playing chess and do it all the time, and those are the people who by rights should be playing chess.

In life, you cannot force people to do what they don't want to. I mean, you can, up to a point, but it really does not pay off.  Bribing people also does not work that well. Leave them alone and see what comes naturally to them, and that is what people will end up doing.

It is better to choose people who want to do something and are willing to do it just for the love of the thing.

Wouldn't it be silly to assume that nobody would ever play chess unless they were paid to do so? Then why do people believe nobody would engage in scientific research or build airplanes or defend their country, unless the government were paying them to do so?

Have you seen the new movie by Hayao Miyazaki about Jiro Horikoshi who designed the Zero fighter plane? Miyazaki makes a great case for the fact that Horikoshi  did not design the Zero in order to make war or to make money, but just because an airplane is a beautiful thing. Too bad the Japanese government was able to make use of his work. Do you think he would not have designed a beautiful plane without government funding?

The 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans is coming up. There is going to be a symposium about it. At the symposium, some historians are going to argue that the British had a superior force because they were better trained and equipped by their government. They are going to try to suggest that Jean Laffite, with his private flints and gunpowder and artillery and well trained privateers did not win that battle!

In Australia, the scientific community is all a-flutter because they have no science minister, and the sciences are getting de-funded. But have you ever met a science minister who made an independent scientific discovery?  A War Minister who won a war? A National Endowment for the Arts bureaucrat who made beautiful art? Keep the government out. Let the chips fall where they may.

Are you worried that civilization will come to a grinding halt? Let it go! Let them all do what they do when they are neither bribed nor forced. Let them do what they do when no one is looking and no one is overseeing. Laissez faire! Beautiful things can happen when people just do what comes naturally.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Negotiating Over the Future

Yesterday my daughter and I went shopping in the afternoon, and Lawrence stayed with Bow, fed him dinner and put him to bed.

This morning, when Bow woke up, he had a single dark navy blue sock on. Hmm, where did that sock come from? Was it a belated Christmas gift from Lawrence?

Anyway, Bow seemed very happy with his new article of footwear, and he kept the sock on all through breakfast, and when I cleared away breakfast, and he still had it on when he took my hand and spelled:  אני רוצה לצאת  "I want to go outside."

"Okay," I answered. "Give me the sock, and you can go outside."

He took my hand and with a bit of savage anger spelled:     ! לא    "No!"

(He didn't actually spell the exclamation mark. We don't have punctuation on the glass, but his manner when he spelled "no" was such that it proclaimed: And I really mean this!)

No means no. If I had tried to take that sock away from him by force, I had every expectation of being scratched or bitten. Bow has an absolute right to everything on his person, and nobody, but nobody messes with him. So I waited.

A few minutes later, he took my hand and again spelled out that he wanted to go outside. Again, I told him he could go, but not with the sock on.  This time he did not reply verbally. He just extended the foot with the sock out to me, and he allowed me to gently remove the sock. I placed it in my pocket and started to unlock the door. As I was doing this, Bow reached into my pocket.


He withdrew his hand. With chimpanzees, possession is nine tenths of the law. Since I had the sock, he realized he would be violating my space if he took it by force. If he did that, I would be perfectly within my rights to lash out at him with my claws and my powerful jaw! (This would not, however, prevent him from taking it by stealth, if I did not notice, because Bow is not the most honest or upright person I know.)

After he was done playing outside, Bow asked to have the sock back, and I gave it to him. It is. after all. his sock! I just didn't want him to get it wet and dirty outside.

Bow and I are civilized enough to negotiate over the things we want. We are capable of  verbalizing our conflicting positions and coming to a compromise. In some ways, that is just as remarkable as the fact that Bow can spell out words. We don't have to physically fight over an object. We can talk about it.

But here's the thing: I desperately want to have proof of his literacy, because to me it would mean:

  • professional vindication
  • the possibility of getting funding
  • a way to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge accumulated by my species and culture
Now those might seem like greedy, selfish  motives on my part, but there you are. I'm being honest about it. That's what I want. The reason this would be a good thing for Bow, too, and why he ought to support my efforts is this:

  • He is dependent on my money for his food and shelter.
  • If we had funding, he could have a mate and friends of his own species.
  • His social status would be greatly improved if people knew how smart he is. It might even be a triumph of sorts for his entire species.
However, I am having trouble convincing Bow that he has something to gain from helping me prove it. It would not actually take Bow free-form spelling to make a dent in the resistance to my claims. Even a multiple choice computerized test where Bow was asked to match spoken words with their written equivalent would do it. But Bow is resistant to this idea, and I kind of understand how he feels.

I have always hated multiple choice tests, because they are not about expressing what I really think. It is more like validating the preconceived opinions of the test writer. It is a little like this conversation that I have actually  had with someone recently:

"Do you think my outfit is pretty?"

"I think it's charming."

"No, I didn't ask you that. Is it pretty? The only possible answers are: it's pretty or it's not pretty."

"Oh. Well, in that case, I think it's pretty."


The multiple choice test is not about self expression. It's not about providing the test giver with new information.  It's about showing that you know the right answer according to the person formulating the test. And Bow, so far, has been completely unwilling to play that game. 

Now, if only I could figure out a way to negotiate with him so that he will be willing to play the game for the sake of both our futures!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

To See and Be Seen

Everybody likes to be seen and perceived and understood. That is one of the great joys and delights of social interaction. But even when nobody sees you, you are still there. You still exist. You still are.

Even though I cannot see Bow, I'm pretty sure he is still there underneath the blanket
Object permanence is one of the first lessons babies learn about the nature of reality. They learn it by playing peek-a-boo. Much later, about the time of the first hide and go seek games, they also learn that if they can see someone else, that does not necessarily mean that this someone else can see them. Seeing isn't necessarily reciprocal.

Now I can see Bow. But can he see me?

Another lesson that is even more subtle is that seeing things affects what you know, but being seen does not necessarily affect what someone else knows. If he did not know you were seeing him, then he has no new knowledge.

Peekaboo! I see you!

Trying to gauge another person's state of mind involves guessing what they know and what they do not know, based on the sorts of information that are available to them, and also by trying to model their mental process. It can be very difficult, because not everybody perceives what he sees the same way. Someone can see you, but not notice. Someone can hear you, but not understand what you said. Even very intelligent adult human beings can make terrible miscalculations, just based on a false belief that to exist is to be perceived or that seeing necessarily means knowing.

Daniel J. Povinelli wrote a whole book about what young chimpanzees know about seeing. The problem is that what a researcher knows about what a chimpanzee knows is not necessarily a straightforward fact. The smart chimpanzee may not choose to let the researcher in on all its knowledge. Do you know what I know? How can you be sure?

Yesterday, I reviewed the movie  Cloud Atlas. I took issue with the statement by the character Sonmi:

"To be is to be perceived, and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other."

Being is one thing. Being perceived is something else. To conflate them is to be a social metaphysician, a person who believes that social reality is the only reality. People may misperceive you. You may misperceive yourself. But who you are is a fact, not open to social mediation.

People perceive different things in the same situation. Sometimes I will reminisce with someone about something that happened long ago, and it will turn out that they never knew a fact that was obvious and significant to me. Then they will say, "I must not have been in the room when that happened." Well, maybe. Or maybe they were in the room, but they were not mentally present. Maybe they saw, but did not perceive, heard, but did not understand. Maybe their attention was centered on another sight which was significant to them, and not to me.

People do not remember what they see. They remember what they perceived and how they interpreted the data. This is one of the reasons that we don't tend to remember what happened in our early infancy. It is not because we did not see, but it was hard to come to many conclusions with so little data to go on. We cannot remember what we did not perceive. It takes time for someone's mind to turn a sight into a perception, an event into a memory.

That is why it can happen that you might meet someone on a particular day, but they will not meet you until much later, when they finally perceive you for the first time. That is the topic of my children's book, When Sword Met Bow

When we bring a baby home for the first time, whether he is a human or a chimpanzee, he does not know enough about life to know us or meet us in any meaningful way. We may meet him on that day, but it may take a while before his cognitive development is enough to meet us back. That is because seeing is not perceiving, and the relations between sentient beings are not necessarily reciprocal.

Seeing is not knowing. And just because you know somebody you must not assume that they know you. And before any seeing or knowing can even begin to happen, things have to actually exist.

Reality is primary. Social reality is secondary. And while psychological visibility -- the feeling you get when somebody really understands you -- is a great delight, people continue to exist even when no one sees them. It's that very basic concept of object permanence that you learned when you started playing peekaboo!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bow's Christmas presents

Bow knows it is Christmas. As far as he was concerned yesterday was already Christmas, and he kept pointing toward the tree, without saying anything. In fact, he did not eat as much as he usually does yesterday, because he kept looking toward the tree and refused to ask for much to eat.

When the delivery person came yesterday afternoon with the box from Harry and David addressed to Mr. Bow Katz, Bow knew it was for him. He was upset that I did not give it to him at once, but only put it under the tree. In protest, he refused to eat ordinary fare. He only had one big red apple and some fried banana slices for dinner, and refused all else, pointing repeatedly toward the tree.

This morning, I greeted Bow with "happy holiday" and he spelled חג שמח before he asked for his breakfast. After breakfast, he spelled "תני לי שמיכה חדשה" --- "Give me a new blanket!"

As my kids get older, there is a lot less magic to the Christmas holiday, as they already know what they are getting. Bow was so eager to get to that blanket, that I had no time to prepare for the shot, and so the movie came out lopsided.

It is a large giraffe print blanket, but it might be hard to make out in the photos.

 Bow knows what to do with a blanket.

It is a royal plush 50" x 60" when opened up to its full size.

Later Bow asked for another present. I asked him what kind of other present. "אוכל" he spelled. Food.
So I got the box of pears out.

Bow was excited to have his first pear.

 I gave him the one wrapped in festive gold foil.

Bow took his time eating the pear.

It was crisp and fresh.

Bow savored it.

An additional gift that Bow received is a vegetable platter purchased with funds provided for him by his grandmother.

Bow loves dipping vegetables in salad dressing.


 It is one of his favorite things to do.

Bow did not receive any toys this year, because he is just not that interested in toys any longer. He is twelve going of thirteen, and he has long since outgrown his teddy bears and his pull toys, his medicine ball and his cars and wagon and trucks. He never showed any interest in building blocks, except to throw them. And so far he pretty much ignores his computer. He still has a paint set that Lawrence gave him last year, but so far he has not wanted to touch it.

We used to shower Bow with all sorts of gifts, but what happened was that most of the presents remained unopened for months after he was given them. It is hard to find an appropriate gift for such a mature fellow as Bow, who basically has everything he needs, and looks down on useless trinkets. He can only eat so much, so any gift of food really replaces other food he would have eaten -- his stomach is not a bottomless pit, and when he is full he won't eat any more. He always chooses the best morsels of food available, and he ignores lesser fare, when better fare can be had.  He can only use one blanket at a time, but that blanket does need to be replaced each year. He is a creature of simple needs, wants and desires. It would be hard to create a rising demand for complex consumer goods in Bow, and a growth-based economy could probably not work for a population of people who are just like Bow.

It would be nice to get universal recognition for Bow's ability to spell. But as far as he is concerned, all is right with the world, and he does not need any recognition. He is very humble that way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Year in Pictures

It's Christmas Eve day, and Bow is restless. It has been sporadically snowing, but nothing sticks. Bow keeps pointing me toward the Christmas tree in the living room. He won't say anything, just keeps drawing my attention to the tree, but when I tell him he can't have his presents till tomorrow, this displeases him.

Google has made me a retrospective slide show called the Year in Photos.


It is pretty good, as such things go, at summing up our year. We have had a very nice year, pictorially speaking.