Sunday, January 27, 2019

Connecting Minds

Immortal Dream

First, let me say that I do not believe in “psi powers.” By this term I mean the various presumed ways that the human brain generates a signal of some type—probably electromagnetic, but possibly some other form of energy—that allows it to transfer thoughts directly from one brain to the next, commonly called “telepathy,” without passing through the brain’s speech centers, nerves, and vocal chords. In some cases, these presumed powers include manipulating physical objects, or “telekinesis,” without actually touching them. Of course, we can communicate by looks, words, touches, and the implications of our physical actions. We can also manipulate thoughts and move mountains by building and programming our wealth of machines. But the naked human brain is not able to directly communicate or manipulate anything outside the bony enclosure of the skull—or so I believe.

Note, however, that the operative word in the above paragraph is “believe.” This is a feeling I have, a view of the world, that is largely based on negative data. I have not conducted a methodological study of these claimed powers, such as the Rhine Research Center at Duke University has conducted. My presumption is based upon my bias that people who claim to practice these powers are charlatans, and those who claim to have witnessed them have been duped by charlatans. But negative data is not proof. So I allow that there may be, somewhere, perhaps in hiding, people who can communicate directly mind-to-mind and perhaps even move mountains just by thinking about it.

And yet, in my own life, I can feel the tug of these presumed powers. My mother often spoke of being “fey,” a word derived from Old English and meaning otherworldly, subject to apprehensions and visions, and possibly touched by the fairies—not that my mother believed in fairies per se. What she meant—or rather, what I took from her use of the word—is someone attuned to an unseen world, and perhaps a world that cannot be explained rationally. And she did not mean the world of the Christian God, His Choir of Angels, and Holy Mother Church. She meant that other, native-English kind, where fairies and other unseen creatures and forces might wait outside the door.

She and I felt we shared a mental bond. It was not a form of telepathy, where we could put whole thoughts and complete sentences into each other’s heads and get a coherent reply. Rather, we would find ourselves thinking the same thing at the same time. For example, once when she was pulling into a gas station, I said, “I’m thinking of a tiger.” And I had a clear image in my mind of a jungle man-eater. “So am I,” she replied. It was that kind of link.

Of course, this was a period when Exxon (back then “Esso”), who owned many gas stations in our area, had the advertising slogan “Put a tiger in your tank.” So it was possible that our thoughts were influenced by advertising imagery if not an actual sign as we drove into the station. However, I am pretty aware of my visual surroundings—and I was even more so back in my childhood. I would have made the link to any sign on the premises. Besides, it might have been a Gulf station.

Aside from any link to my mother, I can usually get a feeling about people whom I meet in person that I don’t sense when looking at a photograph or video, or from reading a description or a message in an email or letter. Sometimes, this is an immediate feeling of trust and security. More strongly, it is an aversion: something in my subconscious mind is screaming Danger! Dislike! Go away! Get away! I have not actually gotten up and left a room that such people were occupying. But my guard was up. I was uncomfortable. And I made every effort to avoid them after that. Not love at first sight but quite the opposite.

Am I actually picking up on some malign “vibe”—to use a word from my college days in the 1960s? Am I actually reading intentions through some kind of psi power? Or am I reacting to a cast of the eye, a squint, a sidelong glance, or perhaps a shape of the mouth, a slight sneer, or a curled lip? I might recognize any of these as danger signals, either from previous personal experience or from the cultural portrayal by artists and actors of what villainy might look like.

Being able to “read” another person from his or her facial expression, tone voice, and body language is a survival characteristic. Being able to intuit another person’s probable intentions from the nature of what they are saying and how they say it—the verbal sneer, the hollow ring of false friendliness or concern—was how our ancestors—or the ones that lived, anyway—avoided chicanery, capture, destitution, and possible vivisection. Generations of interaction with the real human animal, rather than the cheerful and benign creature we carry in our imaginations, has made most of us expert at sizing up strangers from verbal and nonverbal clues.1 No psi powers are needed.

And yet … I’m pretty good at distinguishing what I see and hear from what I know. Yes, I get the visual and aural cues: they can also be picked up from a picture, a video clip, or a recording, too. Modern cinematographers and the actors they capture on film are expert at conveying whole story lines with a subtle look—and most of the audience gets it. But beyond that, I also get a sense from a person’s physical presence. Before he or she speaks and acts, I get that vibe.2 And I don’t think it’s only my imagination.

And where would we all be if the entire world was rational, subject to logical analysis and explanation? It would be a duller place. We would all starve for lack of the juice that feeds our imagination.

1. Of course, there are also many people who are amiable, hopeful, gullible—and can’t tell a damn thing about the people they meet. My father was not any of those things, and yet he had a hard time reading people. He maintained a few good, close friends during his life, but for the most part he kept to himself. And yet he twice put his trust in people whose very presence had both my mother and me internally screaming Danger! Keep away!

2. And yes, it does work both ways. This is the “chemistry” that people talk about when they meet someone and fall in love. Things just click. You just know. That other person just lights up in your mind.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Working Together

Hands at piano keyboard

The other day I was driving on the freeway and noticed an odd thing. Even at 80 miles per hour,1 I was keeping perfect pace and relative station with the car in the next lane to the right that was twenty feet ahead of me and also with the car in that lane thirty feet behind the other. We went along in a stable triangle for mile after mile. Unlike following a car in my own lane, where I might for reasons of safety hold a certain distance, in this case I was just part of an unplanned, uncoordinated trio going down the road in perfect formation.

This wasn’t a conscious decision, either on my part or—I’m sure—on that of the other two drivers. And the fact that our relative positions did not change by as much as a foot while going up and down modest grades suggests it was not a random coincidence. The three of us just naturally fell into a pattern that did not need changing. It was not an act of cooperation but more the unconscious or subconscious adoption of a formation that was … comfortable.

Birds do this when they flock together in a tight pattern that fills the sky with wheeling bodies, all of which maintain the same distance one to another during relatively high-speed maneuvers. Fish do this in their schools, too. They react to changes in the speed and direction of the members around them as if telegraphically transmitted, although the transaction is more like the individual’s perfect awareness of its surroundings and the positions of others. Perhaps, too, they are guided by subtle changes in air or water pressure caused by the presence of those other bodies.

Geese also fly in perfect V-formations—although I understand that this shape provides physical lift to the birds along the outer edges of the V through a process akin to an aircraft’s wingtip vortices. Proof of this is suggested by the fact that the leader position will change from time to time, because it takes additional effort and energy to cleave the clean air ahead than to ride the moving air that another bird has roiled.

Pilots of both airplanes and helicopters are trained to fly in formations and echelons, too. Here, however, the intention is not any benefit from vortex lift but to create a mutual, overlapping pattern of observation and protection from attack. Still, after much practice—because human pilots first learn to fly with freedom of motion and to fear brushing another plane in close contact—the pilots are relying on some part of the human brain that is attuned to the positions and intentions of others of its kind. Motorcycle officers in the California Highway Patrol, when riding in a group, maintain a perfect, square formation of uniform side-to-side and fore-and-aft distances—although I suspect this is more a demonstration of rider skill than a need for protection.

We see the same sort of coordination, again with practice, among dancers, whether it’s two people are engaged in a waltz or twenty in a chorus line; soldiers, whether they are marching in step or moving to attack a position; athletes when they execute a pattern play; and singers and musicians, whether they are performing a duet or a chorus, or playing in a quartet or a symphony orchestra.

The question of singing and playing in a group raises the issue of timing as well. Yes, the group usually has a conductor to establish the beat with his or her hands and a baton. And a band usually follows the beat established by the drummer or bass player. But the four, ten, or a hundred other members in the group can surrender their own sense of timing—their mental independence—to follow that beat and coordinate the action of their individual voices or instruments in support of it.

Clearly, this ability to work together with almost telepathic precision is not unique to human beings, because fish and birds do it without training, and predators like wolves can move in a coordinated attack out of instinct. But I don’t remember observing the same level of precision among other primates. Chimps and gorillas might follow a hierarchical leader in a course of action, but none of the nature shows I’ve seen suggest that apes can cooperate efficiently to execute a complicated football play; throw from the area of third base to second to first in a baseball double play; or drive race cars competitively at 150 miles an hour, often moving wheel against wheel, and yet not consistently end up in horrendous wrecks.

Human beings have remarkable freedom of thought and inventiveness, and yet we can both consciously and unconsciously surrender our independence to perform as a team—or even just adapt to a traffic pattern on the freeway. We not only have the advantage of interpersonal and group communication, using shared and agreed-upon symbols and values, so that we can negotiate an approach to a common problem. We also have the ability to blend our actions and sense of timing, with or without prior agreement, to coordinate in a common action. If you doubt this, think of the times you’ve seen someone start to play the piano and a relative stranger will walk up to sing along, in time and in key, without a word being spoken between them.

We are individuals, with our own purposes, intentions, and interests, but we are also capable of amazing cooperation on both a conscious and an unconscious level. Our brains evolved both to work independently and to cooperate completely and seamlessly.

It is this dual quality of the human mind that gives me faith we will one day travel to the stars—and deserve to be there.

1. Yes, in California, with a posted speed limit of 65 miles per hour, traffic sometimes still travels at about 80—the supposedly verboten 15 miles over the speed limit—unless congestion forces everyone down to a crawl. It’s not legal, but the Highway Patrol ignores you unless you are moving outside the ambient speed and pattern—say, doing 100 and weaving in and out. The patrol cars themselves are moving right along with traffic, too, and they’ll quickly pass you in disgust if you poke along at the posted speed while everyone else has adopted a higher speed. And, if you travel in the two left lanes at that speed limit, you’ll likely get run over by a panel van.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Performance vs. Composition

Hands at piano keyboard

I have taken lessons in playing the keyboard for about three years now.1 I started in order to fill a huge gap in my music education. While I love music and have been listening to classical as well as contemporary music my whole life, it was a one-sided affair. I loved music as a listener, an observer on the outside, but not as a practitioner on the inside. And for all that interest, there was still much I could not explain. For example, when a work was titled So-and-So’s Symphony in D-major or in E-minor, what did those letters mean? And what was the difference between “major” and “minor”? I knew it had something to do with the key signature, but I could not tell, just from listening, what that difference might be. And, anyway, I really was not sure what the keys meant or how they worked.

Although I took trombone lessons starting in fourth grade and actually played first chair in the junior high school band,2 my knowledge of music theory was rudimentary at best. I could play the notes as written on the page, provided we stayed in the bass clef, and I had been told the convention—and tried to follow it in practice—of sharping or flatting each of the notes that had a sharp or flat written on that line at the beginning of the piece. I knew enough to figure out that if, say, F was marked as sharp on the second line of the staff, then all the Fs, and not just the ones on that particular line, were also sharp. It was like a code for how to play the Fs in the piece. But beyond that, I didn’t know why the code existed.

And since the trombone, like all brass instruments and most of the woodwinds, plays just one note at a time—meaning it can’t play chords by itself,3 in the way a piano or guitar can—the trombone wasn’t going to teach me anything about harmony and why certain notes sounded better together than others. I knew from listening to music that when some chords are played in sequence they have a stunning, almost heartbreaking, emotional quality. But why?

So, to resolve all these questions, and rather than taking a dry course in music theory, I decided to study an instrument that was natural to harmony and the comparative treatment of sounds. After three years on a keyboard, I am beginning to understand the different keys, the circle of fifths, and harmony. But all this is only an introduction to my main topic.

What I also learned is that I am a lousy musician. Playing an instrument is directed not so much at inquiry as at performance. You practice scales, chord progressions, and fingering not for their own sake but to limber up both the fingers and the mind for playing a song, melody and harmony together, in tempo, for an audience. If you accompany a singer or join a band, you also have to learn which of the notes on the page—the melody, the harmony, or the bass line as timekeeper—fall to your role. A piano player does not play the melody over a singer. In a group, the keyboard player does not take the timekeeping function away from the actual bass player, if present. But still, you are practicing a particular song and your role in it with a view to performing for an audience.

This all requires what my teacher calls “pounding” on the individual piece and making it your “swan song.” You go over and over the notes in order until you can play all of them correctly, in time, without stumbles or hesitations. Along the way, you might also learn to play with expression and feeling, and then ultimately you might also adapt your own interpretation of what sounds and feels right. But first, you are tasked with becoming a meat robot that plays the whole piece through, in time and without error.

This, I found, was hard for me. For one thing, signal repetition without significant variation is boring. My inner sense is: if I managed to do it right—or at least ninety percent right—that one time, I should not have to do it again. Or again and again. For another thing, keeping time is difficult. Sure, I understand tempo and rhythm. But every so often my brain does it little reset twitch—think of it as a “brain fart”—and I lose my place. I can tap my fingers along to someone else’s music and hold the beat. But holding the beat by myself, even with the aid of a metronome, is difficult. Sooner or later—usually twenty to forty beats from the beginning—my brain does its little reset and my fingering falls apart.

Yes, I have practiced pieces until I can play them well enough, beginning to end, with a minimum of stumbles. But that effort goes against my grain.

This is not unusual or inexplicable. In everything else I do—mostly in writing articles and stories, but in other arts as well—I am not asked to function as a meat robot. Perfect replication of a prescribed sequence is not what I have been about. Just once, and only briefly, I worked as an administrative assistant, where a typing speed of so many words per minute, and accurate replication of someone else’s words, whether spoken or written, counted for anything. Truth to tell, I am a lousy typist. Oh, I can use all eight fingers and my right thumb on the keyboard, and ninety-five percent of the time I hit the right keys in order. But I make lots of typing mistakes. That was embarrassing when I worked with a typewriter, because then I would have to cover the errors with whiteout, or backspace with the correction ribbon on my IBM Selectric, and retype the wrong word and the following half a line. Now, with a computer screen and word processor, I fix typos and misspellings automatically, on the fly, as I write. Accuracy is not a big deal unless the error goes uncaught.

The difference is that my mind, my reflexes, and my previous practice have all been aligned with composition rather than performance. In composition, especially in my writing, I seek to have the first draft be “mostly right.” The goal is ninety-five percent. Get the story down in one long rush, just making corrections on the fly as I catch them, and move on. Later I will read through and correct (on the word processor) or retype (if I were doing a formal, second draft on a typewriter) not only any spelling and grammatical errors and misplaced punctuation, but also garbled or awkward sentences, checkable errors of fact, unfavorable elements of plot and foreshadowing, and otherwise just things that might be made better. This will improve the story by another ninety-five percent. And the next read-through and correction will improve it by a further ninety-five percent. Sooner or later, with the original forging of the first draft, then the hammer blows of a first edit, then subsequent taps, and finally the polishing strokes of succeeding read-throughs, I can arrive at a fixed structure and presentation that I am ready to have live as the finished story.4

Composition like this can reach a state of perfection, but not in real time. That’s okay, though, because your reader can’t tell which sentence was produced in the white heat of a first draft and survived intact in every read-through, and which sentences had to be painfully hammered and polished into their present state of elegance and meaning.

Performance has to put in all that hammering, too, entered into during the same kind of not-real time. But the goal is not a fixed string of words that sit comfortably inside a word processor or on a typewritten page. Instead, the goal is to train your eyes, nerves, muscles, and fingertips to reproduce that state of perfection one time, in a recital hall or on stage, before an audience. And then do it again each time thereafter for a gig or on a concert tour.

I am constitutionally and spiritually able to commit the hammer time for a work that I can then publish for posterity and go on to something else. I am less able to commit to an ephemeral event, a single performance or even a whole string of them. And when I know that I will never perform the music on stage anyway, all that effort seems—in my father’s favorite phrase, born of the Great Depression—“too much like work.”

1. I first thought of taking music lessons at my age because of a story I had heard at the biotech company, about a reporter interviewing a woman on her one-hundredth birthday. The reporter asked the old woman if she had any regrets, hoping to hear about missed chances and lost loves. The woman replied that she wished she had started taking violin lessons when she was sixty, because by now she would have been playing for forty years. This is a reminder that we are all living longer these days, and retirement is not a time for shutting down and wrapping up but for trying new things and making ourselves a new story.

2. Mostly because I was taller than the other trombone players, and on that side of the band the first chairs sat on the inside end, toward the back of the stage. Since we also played for parent appreciation, this gave some visibility to all the other chairs in the trombone section. If I had been where I belonged—third chair, at least—all the other trombonists would have been hidden from sight.

3. If a composer wants the trombones to play a chord, he assigns a different note to each chair in the section. But if you’re sitting in one of those chairs, and you don’t understand music to begin with, you know that the player next to you is sounding a different note, but you don’t know why.

4. But if that first draft—the “forge work”—is significantly off track, I can’t correct and polish it into shape. If I am not ready to write, if the story is not shaping comfortably in my mind, then I don’t bother to sit down to write at all. This is not “writer’s block” or some kind of laziness. I know it is a waste of my time to write something that is simply wrong, just for the sake of doing some writing.
       Think of this first draft as the beginning of a road trip: if you are going to drive from San Francisco to Portland, say, you can make the choice of following Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge and north through Marin County and the Coastal Range, or you can take Interstate 80 over the Bay Bridge and Carquinez Strait to join Interstate 5 and go up the Central Valley. Either route will get you to Portland, but with different scenery. If, however, you find yourself going south through San Jose and the Salinas Valley, you need to stop right now and turn around because no amount of course correction can get you to Portland. A wrong turn in conceiving and executing a plot or the thread of an article can be like that trip through San Jose.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Hot Metal

Linotype machine

I’ve been involved with small computers since buying an Apple II in 1979. After I tired of drawing little horses and Christmas trees in colored blocks on the screen with its BASIC program and playing an early form of Star Trek video game, I quickly fitted the machine out with a CP/M card, WordStar word-processing software, and an NEC SpinWriter impact printer, which cost twice as much as the computer itself. Then I could use what was essentially a programmer’s toy to produce professionally typed manuscripts. I’ve been a digital geek ever since.

In the early 1990s we began hearing about a new type of computer programming, Hyper Text Markup Language, or HTML, that allowed one page of text to expand into other pages to display detailed descriptions, photographs and illustrations, and the introduction of other topics. I immediately conceived of this HTML editor as a new way of writing. The basic argument of an article or the story line in a novel would take place on the main page, but the reader could choose—or not—to take these side tracks to gain richer understanding, to have unfamiliar words and concepts explained, or perhaps, in the case of fiction, to explore alternate plot twists and endings. That was only my fertile brain at work, because readers at the time wanted—and still want today—a piece of writing to be linear, going from beginning to end, with the argument or story unfolding according to a single structure as conceived by the narrator-who-is-god.

But while HTML as a new way to write enriched articles and novels never got off the ground, it was a godsend to the budding internet, which was just taking off at about the same time. HTML coding and its more recent variants and implementations (e.g., XHTML, or Extended HTML) became the backbone of web-based structures. By using the embedded links, the web developer can land you on the home page of a website, and from there you can choose to branch to other landing pages or to individual entries. This structure is now so familiar that I hardly need to describe it, but in the early 1990s it was a miracle. Modern applications like Adobe Dreamweaver®, the one I use, let people with only a modest knowledge of coding create fully serviceable websites and pages almost as easily as a good word processor lets them format a printed page.

One of the early HTML-authoring software packages played upon the acronym and called itself HoTMetaL. But, of course, printing with “hot metal” has been around for a century or more. And therein lies my tale.

Right after I graduated from college and moved to California in the early 1970s, I took a job as an editor at Howell-North Books in Berkeley. This was an incredible experience for two reasons. First, the company published railroad histories, Western Americana, and Californiana. As a transplanted Easterner who knew very little about the area, it was a crash course in the history and heritage of this part of the country. Soon I learned as much about the West Coast as any native.1 Second, Howell-North was one of the few publishers in the country who handled every part of book production—editing, typesetting, page proofs, layout, plate making, printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping—under one roof. And they had been in business a long time, so that their equipment represented the prime of mechanical book production. As a young editor, I learned firsthand how the nuts and bolts of publishing worked.

Every manuscript I edited went straight from the front office into the hands of the Linotype® operators. And they brought back galley proofs, pulled from a tray of lead slugs still warm from the machine, for me to read and compare with the manuscript. That was real “hot metal” publishing.

The Linotype is a fabulous machine,2 about as complicated as a pipe organ and featuring a reservoir of molten lead as one of its components. At the top is a magazine holding hundreds of little molds, called “matrices,” for casting individual letters. The machine has a different magazine for each font style and in each type size. The operator works a keyboard that arranges all the letters, both upper and lower case, and punctuation according to their frequency in the English language, rather than the QWERTY pattern of a typewriter. There is no shift key, so that upper-case letters are on a different part of the keyboard from lower case. Each time the operator presses a key, the corresponding matrix drops out of the magazine into a rack in the middle of the machine. Spaces are held separately from the magazine, because they don’t cast any particular typeface or size, and they have the ability to expand sideways to fill out a line of justified type with equal spacing between words.3

The operator reads from the manuscript and types just one line at a time—but it is the line as it will appear in the book, not as it was typed on the manuscript page. So the operator has to mark his4 place as each line is set. Then he spaces out the line, locks it up, and casts it with hot metal from the reservoir. Hot lead solidifies quickly, and the operator can then eject the slug of type into the galley tray and release the matrices to drop by gravity into a holding area. The Linotype machine then—and here was its special genius—sorts the individual letters according to the pattern of teeth cut into the matrix and returns them to the appropriate slot in the magazine, ready to again be called out and drop into place as needed in the next line.

It’s a complicated process. The operator has much to be mindful about: typing the manuscript without losing his place; considering spacing and sometimes letterspacing to achieve a good-looking line; dealing with special type treatments like boldface and italic, as well as any foreign characters and symbols not in the matrix, such as letters with diacritic marks; changing the magazine as required; and working with hot lead without getting burned.

Howell-North was, of course, a union shop under the International Typographers Union. All of our printers and typographers were old and experienced hands, who commanded top wages. Their time was money—of which the company president, Mrs. North, continually reminded me.5 Because of the company’s origins in printing signs and documents for the local shipyards during World War II, the style guide I had to follow was the U.S. Government Printing Office, or GPO. It uses a stripped-down style and rejects the Oxford or serial comma, which is more common with publishers who follow the University of Chicago’s Manual of Style, on which I had previously trained. GPO style suited Mrs. North just fine, because she saw every stray piece of punctuation and fancy type variations like bold or italic print as a dollar sign. And with Linotype, every error I made or let pass in editing, and every change the author made in reading his or her set of proofs, meant the whole line had to be retyped, spaced, and cast. So the watchwords in our shop were simplicity and accuracy.

That was good training in many ways. My four years at Howell-North made me a better editor and gave me insight into the publishing world that I never would have gotten working in a New York office and sending manuscripts to be typeset in Japan or China—or working with computerized typesetting from the beginning and never quite understanding how easy the process is these days.

Hot metal—and little blocks of wood or lead with letter shapes carved in reverse on their faces—go back to the beginnings of the printing industry. And printing, perhaps more than the Reformation and the Enlightenment of the past millennium, shaped the modern world we have inherited from our grandfathers.6

1. I also met my wife of 41 years—and a proud San Francisco native herself—while researching photos for a book project at The Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus. Ah, the amazing choices we make early in life!

2. Read a complete description of how a Linotype machine works.

3. If a line is really sparse, the operator can also to insert letterspaces between the characters of certain words, expanding them to even out the appearance of the text.

4. I’m dispensing with the usual “he or she” here, because all of our typographers were men. They were all older men, too, in their 60s, because even back then hot metal typesetting was a dying artform.

5. As fascinated as I might be with the workings of the machine, I was strongly discouraged from asking questions and pestering the operators.

6. See also Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.