On translation and quantum mechanics.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

We have many ways to express ideas.  In this essay, I’ll attempt to convey my thoughts with English words.  Although this is the only metaphoric language that I know well, humans employ several thousand others – among these there may be several that could convey my ideas more clearly.

The distinct features of a language can change the way ideas feel

Perry Link writes that,

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?”  I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.

Anyone who knows two languages well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand, you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

There is no perfect way to translate an idea from Chinese words into English words, nor the other way around.  In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Eliot Weinberger reviews several English reconstructions of a short, seductively simple Chinese poem.  The English variants feel very different from one another – each accentuates certain virtues of the original; by necessity, each also neglects others.

Visual appearances can’t be perfectly described with any metaphoric language.  I could write about a photograph, and maybe my impression would be interesting – the boy’s arms are turned outward, such that his hands would convey a gesture of welcome if not for his grenade, grimace, and fingers curled into a claw – but you’d probably rather see the picture.

Here’s Diane Arbus’s “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” 

This isn’t to say that an image can’t be translated.  The version posted above is a translation.  The original image, created by light striking a photosensitive film, has been translated into a matrix of numbers.  Your computer reads these numbers and translates them back into an image.  If you enlarge this translation, your eyes will detect its numerical pixelation.

For this image, a matrix of numbers is a more useful translation than a paragraph of my words would be. 

From a tutorial on computer vision prepared by Amy Jin & Vivian Chiang at Stanford.

Different forms of communication – words, pictures, numbers, gestures, sounds – are better suited to convey different ideas.  The easiest way to teach organic chemistry is through the use of pictures – simple diagrams often suffice.  But I sometimes worked with students who weren’t very visual learners, and then I’d have to think of words or mathematical descriptions that could represent the same ideas.

Science magazine sponsors an annual contest called “Dance Your Ph.D.,” and although it might sound silly – can someone understand your research after watching human bodies move? – the contest evokes an important idea about translation.  There are many ways to convey any idea.  Research journals now incorporate a combination of words, equations, images, and video. 

Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage: Dance Your PhD 2014 from atinytornado on Vimeo.

A kinetic, three-dimensional dance might be better than words to explain a particular research topic.  When I talked about my graduate research in membrane trafficking, I always gesticulated profusely.

My spouse coached our local high school’s Science Olympiad team, preparing students for the “Write It Do It” contest.  In this competition, teams of two students collaborate – one student looks at an object and describes it, the other student reads that description and attempts to recreate the original object.  Crucially, the rules prohibit students from incorporating diagrams into their instructions.  The mandate to use words – and only words – makes “Write It Do It” devilishly tricky.

I love words, but they’re not the tools best suited for all ideas. 

If you’re curious about quantum mechanics, Beyond Weird by Philip Ball is a nice book.  Ball describes a wide variety of scientific principles in a very precise way – Ball’s language is more nuanced and exact than most researchers’.  Feynman would talk about what photons want, and when I worked in a laboratory that studied the electronic structure of laser-aligned gas clouds, buckyballs, and DNA, we’d sometimes anthropomorphize the behavior of electrons to get our thoughts across.  Ball broaches no such sloppiness.

Unfortunately, Ball combines linguistic exactitude with a dismissal of other ways of conveying information.  Ball claims that any scientific idea that doesn’t translate well into English is an insufficient description of the world:

When physicists exhort us to not get hung up on all-too-human words, we have a right to resist.  Language is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe.  Relationships between numbers are no substitute.  Science deserves more than that.

By way of example, Ball gives a translation of Hugh Everette’s “many worlds” theory, points out the flaws in his own translated version, and then argues that these flaws undermine the theory.

To be fair, I think the “many worlds” theory is no good.  This is the belief that each “observation” – which means any event that links the states of various components of a system such that each component will evolve with restrictions on its future behavior (e.g. if you shine a light on a small object, photons will either pass by or hit it, which restricts where the object may be later) – causes a bifurcation of our universe.  A world would exist where a photon gets absorbed by an atom; another world exists where the atom is localized slightly to the side and the photon speeds blithely by.

The benefit of the “many worlds” interpretation is that physics can be seen as deterministic, not random.  Events only seem random because the consciousness that our present mind evolves into can inhabit only one of the many future worlds.

The drawback of the “many worlds” interpretation is that it presupposes granularity in our universe – physical space would have to be pixelated like computer images. Otherwise every interaction between two air molecules would presage the creation of infinite worlds.

If our world was granular, every interaction between two air molecules would still summon an absurd quantity of independent worlds, but mere absurdity doesn’t invalidate a theory.  There’s no reason why our universe should be structured in a way that’s easy for human brains to comprehend.  Without granularity, though, the “many worlds” theory is impossible, and we have no reason to think that granularity is a reasonable assumption.

It’s more parsimonious to assume that sometimes random things happen.  To believe that our God, although He doesn’t exist, rolls marbles.

(This is a bad joke, wrought by my own persnickety exactitude with words.  Stephen Hawking said, “God does play dice with the universe.  All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible equation.”  But dice are granular.  With a D20, you can’t roll pi.  So the only way for God to avoid inadvertently pixelating His creation is to use infinite-sided dice, i.e. marbles.)

Image of dice by Diacritica on Wikimedia images.

Some physicists have argued that, although our words clearly fail when we attempt to describe the innermost workings of the universe, numbers should suffice.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Math is the language of the universe.  So the more equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.

Indeed, equations often seem to provide accurate descriptions of the way the world works.  But something’s wrong with our numbers.  Even mathematics falls short when we try to converse with the cosmos.

Our numbers are granular.  The universe doesn’t seem to be.

Irrational numbers didn’t bother me much when I was first studying mathematics.  Irrational numbers are things like the square root of two, which can only be expressed in decimal notation by using an infinite patternless series of digits.  Our numbers can’t even express the square root of two!

Similarly, our numbers can’t quite express the electronic structure of oxygen.  We can solve “two body problems,” but we typically can’t give a solution for “three body problems” – we have to rely on approximations when we analyze any circumstance in which there are three or more objects, like several planets orbiting a star, or several electrons surrounding a nucleus.

Oxygen is.  These molecules exist.  They move through our world and interact with their surroundings.  They behave precisely.  But we can’t express their precise behavior with numbers.  The problem isn’t due to any technical shortcoming in our computers – it’s that, if our universe isn’t granular, each oxygen behaves with infinite precision, and our numbers can only be used to express a finite degree of detail.

Using numbers, we can provide a very good translation, but never an exact replica.  So what hope do our words have?

The idea that we should be able to express all the workings of our universe in English – or even with numbers – reminds me of that old quote: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”  We humans exist through an unlikely quirk, a strange series of events.  And that’s wonderful!  You can feel pleasure.  You can walk out into the sunshine.  Isn’t it marvelous?  Evolution could have produced self-replicating objects that were just as successful as us without those objects ever feeling anything.  Rapacious hunger beasts could have been sufficient.  (Indeed, that’s how many of us act at times.)

But you can feel joy, and love, and happiness.  Capitalize on that!

And, yes, it’s thrilling to delve into the secrets of our universe.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect that these secrets should be expressible in the languages we’ve invented.

On meditation.

On meditation.

More is different.

In the beginning, subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect.  The universe was “hot.”  (Temperature is a measure of average speed as objects jiggle.  When physics people say that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of the speed of light.)

In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting.  But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded.  Speeds slowed.  Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact.  Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars. 

Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins.  This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.

An exploding star scatters heavier atoms across the sky.  When these are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events in turn, producing even heavier atoms. 

Then that star might explode, too.

Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites.  On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars. 

After all, the infernal core of a star is pretty hot, too.  Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules – long strings of atoms bonded together.

The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom.  But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars.  On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.

These molecules are just big amalgams of subatomic particles.  The underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.

More is different.

Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid.  An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron.  It can do acid-base chemistry!  Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents. 

But if you compare that single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total snoresville.

Proteins, though … wow!  They can fold into fantastical shapes.  They can function as molecular machines, their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.

When you glom more and more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world.  They create more things like themselves.  Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.

And then, a cell!  A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat.  If you thought proteins were cool, check this out!  Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.

Or, what if there were more cells?  Then you can make us!  With many cells, you can make brains, which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.

Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out.  Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people.  Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …

And each of those physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles.  As we transition between scales, we see qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.

This essay is made from a set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an infinite number of different ideas.

We blink many thousands of times each day.  Our eyes close, pause, and then open again.  We need to blink.  Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches.  But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much.  Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.

Meditation is just a long blink.  Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.

But more is different.  A blink doesn’t disrupt your thoughts.  Meditation, however, can be a psychedelic experience.

Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories.  Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.  Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.  Buddha decided to share that vision with others.

Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.

I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners.  As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation.  After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith.  These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.

The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception.  Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.

But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world.  Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic paincan be treated through meditation.  The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.

All people are creative.  Our problem, often, is that our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them.  Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”

Meditation can clear the turbid waters of your mind.  Like gazing into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they come.

I’ve never been inside a prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I make the pamphlets.  But everything I’ve read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and dangerous.  Which has obvious implications for how easily people can meditate.  If you live near a beautiful glen, you could probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit peacefully beside some flowing water.

Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation.  By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction.  To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA.  This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.

Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation.  During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase.  People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender. 

That seems silly to me – although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my age. 

I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself.  After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit.  But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life.  Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families.  Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.

While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place.  I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system.  Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.

In case you’re interested in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me.  I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.”  I liked the translation when I looked it up online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the “sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out.  I’ve read that people aim to spend about six seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than that. 

If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds.  But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.

As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation.  Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives.  If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects.  But you have to keep at it long enough.

When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:

Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly.  But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.

Mr. Lilly had a number of different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments.  It didn’t seem to make much difference as far as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was unnecessary.  Now that I saw what to do, I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.

I would like to have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.

I’ve only had a bit of practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift.  I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes, although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman.  But I get the feeling that it has to be continuous.  Once I’ve opened my eyes and glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.  Even if nothing much has happened.

On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness:Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.

I begin by stretching – although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body.  I try not to move while meditating, and it’d be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.

After I close my eyes, the first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time.  I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.

As long as I can force myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes.  More becomes different.  Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber field of my closed eyes.  Sometimes I slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.

Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing.  If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness. 

During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil.  Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.

One day without sleep won’t kill you.  Luckily so – since having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming and I never get to rest.  But more is different.  After three days without sleep, the shadow people start talking.  After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude.  But we got into all these arguments.

Sleep washes away the argumentative shadow people.

When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables.  But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.

If you trust my spouse’s subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help.  I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live with since I started practicing. 

If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks.  My apologies if it seems pointless at first.  I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.

After all, more is different.

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Featured image by Mitchell Joyce on Flickr.

On isolation.

On isolation.

Richard-feynmanThe physicist Richard Feynman was insatiably curious.  He was an enthusiastic artist, musician, teacher, biologist, philosopher, lockpicker, epistoler.  And he was puzzled by his own mind: it was made of inanimate matter, and yet there he was, thinking.  He decided to investigate himself:

I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that.

We now refer to these devices as “sensory deprivation tanks.”  Inside the dark, soundless chamber, a person floats effortlessly in densely-salinated, body-temperature water.  In theory, all external stimuli vanish: the mind is free to roam as it will.

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Within the tank, Feynman surmised, he would be left with only his mind and could reflect upon its workings.  He turned his attention toward the phenomenon of human memory, and one day felt he had a breakthrough: he could see clearly that memories were encoded by a long series of linkages, each episode encoded by references to other experiences we’ve had.

I felt pretty good about this discovery … [but] about forty-five minutes after I came out of the tank I suddenly realized I hadn’t the slightest idea of how memories are stored in the brain: all I had was a hallucination as to how memories are stored in the brain!

Deprived of the world, Feynman realized, our speculations become unhinged.

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The sensory deprivation tank was invented by neurologist John C. Lilly.

Lilly was a provocateur.  By now, most scientists are aware that experiments can be difficult to interpret if the researcher is on psychedelics, but Lilly dosed himself and captive dolphins with LSD to test whether the two species could thereby communicate.

For another experiment, Lilly confined a 23-year-old female volunteer in a small facility with a male bottle-nose dolphin.  The volunteer was isolated from other humans for a period of ten weeks.  In this way, she’d teach the dolphin to talk.

The dolphin did not learn to speak.  The dolphin did use non-verbal communication to request a sexual relationship with the human volunteer.  Eventually, she offered manual release.

In total isolation, we change.  Our brains atrophy.  Our inhibitions wane.  Kept constantly indoors, our eyesight goes.

The hand job she gave was reluctant, but, after weeks away from humanity, must have seemed reasonable enough.

Neither of these experiments – drop acid with cetaceans – confine a woman and dolphin for two and a half months together – would be approved by contemporary IRBs.  Applying for funding would be a nightmare – several members of a grant reading committee soberly considering a proposal that states in this way we’ll teach dolphins human speech, a goal ten or twenty years away.

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For scientific experiments, a wide variety of social animals are kept in isolated cages.  These housing conditions seem to affect their minds.  When Dr. Harry Harlow and colleagues took infant rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and housed them in isolation, the animals developed strong attachments to the blankets in their cages.  These blankets were their only friends; the babies became extremely agitated when the blankets were removed.

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Dr. Bruce Alexander and colleagues dosed rats with morphine and then housed them in either isolation or in social environs.  The animals who lived in open playgrounds with toys and other rats subsequently decreased their consumption of morphine-laced liquids.  The animals living alone, in cages, drank more.  From the research publication:

A possible explanation for the environmental effect is that for the isolated rats the reinforcement value of morphine ingestion was enhanced by relief of the discomfort of spatial confinement, social isolation, and stimulus deprivation.

Opiates are highly addictive.  But opiate use is also correlated with other troubles.  Our nation’s current opiate epidemic is linked to the economic crisis.

And among the rats?  These are social animals.  Isolation is painful for them.  They’ll attempt to numb that pain with drugs when given the chance.

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10490113913_e3a697bdca_zConfining social animals in isolation is a form of torture.  Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has argued that prisoners should not be extradited to the United States, as the U.S. routinely holds prisoners in solitary confinement.

After 15 days in solitary confinement, much of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement becomes irreversible.  Mendez argues that solitary confinement for over two weeks is clearly torture.

In the United States, attempts to change prison policy such that solitary confinement not be used for over 90 days have made little progress.  Throughout the country, many people have been held in solitary confinement for years at a time.  For some, decades.

Large protests have been held outside of prison walls.  Inside, inmates have refused to eat, hoping to draw attention to their plight.  Guards are authorized to pin these men to the ground, shove long lubricated tubes into their nostrils, and pump nutrients directly into their stomachs.

Many of the men in my classes have been held in solitary.  One, a teddy-bear-shaped guy whom the others invariably describe as “humble,” was put in for nine months.  “I get through it okay.  I got myself a system.  This much time I spend thinking, this much time I spend walking in place.  I get to the point, I don’t even want to go nowhere for the exercise.”

“But dude,” I said, “you need the sun!”

“Oh, yeah yeah yeah, if I’m out I go outside, I’m outside all the time.  But for rec time?  You can’t see the sun no how.  You just in a different box.”

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According to ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern, “You can’t get reliable information from torture.  But torture works beautifully if you want unreliable information.”

A young Muslim man named Syed Fahad Hashmi was held in solitary confinement by the United States for three years before his trial.  Per his constitutional rights – innocent until proven guilty – he was an innocent man.  He was decidedly un-dangerous.

From Jeanne Theoharis’s essay, “Torture of a Student,”

The charges against him stemmed from allowing a friend, Junaid Babar, to use his cell phone and to stay for two weeks in his London student apartment with luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks (the “military gear”) that Babar later allegedly took to an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan.  Subsequently picked up, Babar became a cooperating witness for the government in numerous terrorism cases in exchange for a reduced sentence, and is now a free man.

Torturing an innocent man before his trial seems ethically suspect.  Theoharis:

Citing extensive research on the health impacts of prolonged solitary confinement and the impact these conditions imposed on Fahad’s ability to participate in his defense, the defense requested a set of modest changes.  The judge was unmoved, stating for the record that the measures were “administrative not punitive” and therefore constitutional.

But the torture is often “successful,” if we define success by the number of people whom we are able to lock away:

These conditions of prolonged isolation are designed to induce acquiescence.  Because the government holds control over the defendant’s conditions and the courts have been loath to intervene, the SAMs [special administrative measures, which can include solitary confinement, censoring of mail & all reading materials, etc.] rig the contest, weakening a person’s ability to participate in his own defense.  The number of plea bargains in the Justice Department’s roster following years of prolonged pretrial solitary confinement suggest the success of these practices.

In this case as well, our government won.  Syed Fahad Hashmi was tortured before his trial on behalf of all United States citizens – which is to say, on my behalf – and he broke.  One day before his trial began… one day after his judge granted the government’s request that this man – who allegedly aided & abetted the transport of ponchos & raincoats! – be tried before an anonymous jury… he accepted a plea.

After three years of torture, during which time he constantly proclaimed his innocence – are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew there were ponchos in his friend’s luggage?  Are we confident, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knew these ponchos were bound for Al Qaeda? – he “confessed” that he was guilty of “conspiracy to provide material support.”

He was sentenced to 15 years of solitary confinement in ADX.

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29supermax1-blog427-v2ADX – full name, “United State Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum” – is in Florence, Colorado.  Some four hundred men are held there, tortured by the most brutal isolation of any prison in the United States.

A former warden referred to ADX as “a clean version of hell.”

Jesse Wilson – who received a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 – is now at ADX.  This dude, shunted into a world of extreme violence while still a child, quickly conformed to the expectations of his environs.  He “misbehaved” and was moved from prison to prison until reaching the worst in the state of Mississippi, where he got into a fight and killed a man who was being held on death row.

That’s when Wilson received a life sentence and was transferred to ADX.  From his essay describing the place:

We as a country are blind to the reality of our prison system.

It has become normal.  And we the inmates are voiceless.  Our voices are not heard.  If they are heard, the things we say are thought of as lies.  I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons testifying in Congress (on radio), saying they do not have insane inmates housed here.  This is what should be thought of as a lie.  I have not slept in weeks because of these nonexistent inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night.  And the most non-insane smearing feces in their cells.

This place is horrific with the solitary, and the lack of communication outside these walls.  I’ve been in prison without release for more than twelve years, and eight of them I’ve been in a cage walking around in circles.  So I am pretty in tune with the concept of solitary.  Prison.  Cages and craziness.

Out my window I see into a concrete yard surrounded by red brick walls.  There is a drain in the middle of it and out of it weeds are growing.  I thought they were weeds until a few blossomed into these beautiful yellow and brown flowers.

Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights.  This spring they had two babies.  We watched them grow up and fly away.  On any given day the sky here is breathtaking.  The beauty out my window stays in my mind.  I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet, and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.

The window helps greatly.

I’m in the hole so there is no TV.  Books help me escape better than my words could ever explain.  But most of all it’s the love of my family, the memories of beauty, and the knowledge of humanity.

Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.

#

hell_is_a_very_small_place_final.jpgThe essays by Theoharis and Wilson – and many others – appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd.

You should read this book.

If you are human, you will cry.

If you are a citizen of the United States, you should know: we’re doing this for you.  The men and women whose essays appear in Hell Is a Very Small Place are being tortured on your behalf.

Mayhaps you should do something.

On Mark Leyner’s “Gone with the Mind.”

On Mark Leyner’s “Gone with the Mind.”

51X3wwTcE9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At his best, Mark Leyner is one of our most strikingly original writers.  His ideas lurch frantically from topic to topic, his verbiage is spangled with startlingly beautiful words from math & science (in the opening to “Fugitive from a Centrifuge” he writes, “Dad was in the basement centrifuging mouse spleen hybridoma, when I informed him that I’d enrolled at the Wilford Military Academy of Beauty.”), his narratives are propelled by nightmare logic.

The tragedy, of course, is that Leyner at his best is so striking that his novels can feel shambling and uneven.  Even he can’t always pull off an entire novel’s worth of the incandescent rage that shimmers in his finest passages.  The attempt might very well prove suicidal.  In the faux-autobiographical opening of Et Tu, Babe? he writes,

3sypvkr8o8006va8tnvjk260i.284x420x1 When I was eight, I was sent to live on the melon farm of an uncle–a sixth-grade dropout who attributed his IQ of 70 to sniffing gasoline and glue from the age of five, and whose manner of compulsively clawing at the skin behind his neck was a characteristic sign of amphetamine toxicity.  One morning he served me a cereal that consisted of sweetened corn puffs and marshmallow, hook-nosed, bearded “Jews.”  I asked him never to serve me that cereal again.  The next morning, he set a heaping bowl of the same cereal on my place mat.  I killed him with a 12-gauge shotgun blast before lunch.  That night I buried him in the cyclone cellar.  I stole his pickup truck and drove out to a huge diesel-run electric turbine plant near the outskirts of the city and I had my first sexual experience.  Afterward, I lit a cigarette and looked up into the sky–there was God, wearing a pink polo shirt, khaki pants, and brown Top-Siders with no socks, his blond hair blowing in the powerful wind of charged particles and intense ultraviolet radiation from the galactic center.  I hated him.  And he hated me.

I’m compelled to wonder, for how many pages could Leyner write like that without rupturing an aneurysm?  Longer than me, I know.  But perhaps not for the duration of an entire novel.

This is an unfair criticism.  After all, few other writers produce anything like the passage aboveIt’s avarice to demand from Leyner pages upon pages at that intensity.

But, once you know he can do it, it’s hard not to want him to keep doing it.

619eSNf4TYL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This same greed plagued my reading of Jack Handey’s similarly madcap The Stench of Honolulu.  The problem is not the book.  There are great parts, like Handey’s summary description of jungle ecology:

In the jungle you come to realize that death is a part of life.  The bat eats the moth.  Then the giant moth sucks the life out of the bat.  Then the monkey eats the giant moth, pulling the wings off first, because he doesn’t like that part.  Then the monkey gets a parasite from the moth that slowly eats his brain.  It’s all part of the beautiful circle of life.

Charming!  That is exactly what I want to read!

frankocean
Nostalgia, Ultra makes abundantly clear that Frank Ocean is a great musician. Photo by NRK P3 on Flickr.

Knowing what an author is capable of, though, can lead to crushing disappointment with sections of a book that fall short of its peaks.  It’s like listening to Frank Ocean’s second record, in a way.  If it had been made by somebody else, maybe Channel Orange would’ve seemed fine.  But Nostalgia, Ultra was such a phenomenal record that the follow-up sounded wan.

I’ll still give everything he makes a listen.  Artists should be judged by their best.  Nostalgia, Ultra is great, ergo: Frank Ocean is a great musician.

Likewise, Leyner is a great writer.  I’ll always read his books.

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack was published back when I was doing a lot of my reading & writing at the local mall.  Writers are supposed to work in coffee shops, I know, but coffee costs money.  A buck or two for a cup to justify my presence would’ve added up.  Whereas I could sit in the mall and feel a closeness to bustling humanity and be subjected to mind-numbing overhead muzak for free.

Outside Abercrombie & Fitch, I found myself reading about the Gods.

abercrombie

Specifically, Leyner’s homemade pantheon.  Specifically, why these Gods, like most assemblages of Gods in human lore, expend so much energy seducing human beings.

510w8wdRcJL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_For them it’s a kind of slumming, a rough trade, a nostalgie de la boue (“nostalgia for the mud”).  And many of the Gods — including several of the major deities — feel that human beings’ finite life expectancies and their comparatively limited intelligence simply make them SUPER-SEXY!  These Gods find human existential angst — being aware that death is inevitable, but not knowing, at any given moment, exactly when or how it might occur — to be a total TURN-ON!  They paradoxically find those very characteristics that so definitely subordinate human beings to the Gods — mortality, benightedness, and impotence — to be HOT, HOT! HOT!!  And the very thought of abjectly defiling themselves — of wallowing — in all the pungent excretions and effluvia of the human body maddens them with desire.  This is the good news.  The bad news is that, for a human, having a sexual/romantic relationship with a God can be a daunting, traumatic, and even tragic experience.

To my mind, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack marked a transition in Leyner’s writing.  In contrast to the swerving overabundance of his early world, in which strange concepts flicker unremarked upon (those mouse spleen hybridomas, for instance — in Leyner’s world, if a pistol hangs upon the wall in act one, the second act might feature death by drowning, or an untreated teratoma, or perhaps no death at all), Leyner launched into Mahabharata-esque redundancy, explication, and niggling detail.  At times, this is no less confusing than the chaos of his early work.  To quote the physicist Richard Feynman,

Richard-feynmanThe real problem in speech is not precise language.  The problem is clear language.  The desire is to have the idea clearly communicated to the other person.  It is only necessary to be precise when there is some doubt as to the meaning of a phrase, and then the precision should be put in the place where the doubt exists.  It is really quite impossible to say anything with absolute precision, unless the thing is so abstracted from the real world as to not represent any real thing.

Feynman was criticizing the way math texts descend into pedantic incomprehensibility in order to maintain “rigor,” but an equivalent hurdle exists in mythological exegesis.  During the Mahabharata recitations that Leyner parodies with The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, a persnickety effort to convey one small concept exactly right might stall the narrative for hours.  The forest eclipsed by a studied description of striations in one tree’s bark.  This might be interesting if the pattern were caused by a virus or weather pattern or the like, but often it’s as coincidental as the Virgin Mary’s visage on a piece of toast.

9780316323253_custom-ea88ea31ad47c2cfbc9d7890a47a1369cf3c51bc-s400-c85Leyner’s new work, Gone with the Mind, continues this trend.  The sentences are often beautiful, the word choices unique, but the story spirals so densely inward upon itself as to go nowhere.  In the following passage he alludes to his existential goal of purging narrative meaning from his writing.  Even dream logic would be too logical:

The Imaginary Intern claimed to only have nonexpository dreams (or “dremes,” as he called them).  He said — and again, his diction tended to be very juvenile and somewhat ghetto, so I’m paraphrasing here — he said that his dreams were a sort of kinesthesia of mathematical torsions and arabesques and fractals, and could never be represented in language, that they eluded and exceeded rational transmission, that they were pure quivering, contingent thought in its barest provisionality. . . an evanescing froth that represented the abolition of meaning in favor of form.

Very precise, yes.  But so dizzyingly precise that, by the end, I lose track of what he’s talking about.

Because my personal taste is for writing that uses no more words than necessary, I wouldn’t recommend Gone with the Mind to someone unfamiliar with Leyner’s work.  At the same time, I would express a clear dismay — probably by a guttural bellow — that anyone could still be unfamiliar with his work.  Because he is fantastic.  I’d recommend that someone start with either his story collection My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist or his novel Et Tu, Babe? 

As it happens, Leyner’s new Gone with the Mind contains the best description I’ve seen of his early writing.  Here Leyner describes more travails suffered by his eight-year-old self:

When I was ten or so. . . maybe even younger, maybe eight, nine. . . I was already thinking to myself: Can a series of completely unrelated, violent, hypersexualized, scatological lines of prose be a kind of writing, a kind of literature?  Just one violent, hypersexualized, scatological line of prose after another.  Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi — no climax, no resolution, no meaning.  Because, I have to say, even then, at eight years of age, every other kind of writing struck me as banal and outdated, and just boring beyond endurance.

Leyner’s writing is not for everyone.  K is not a fan.  (I once made the unfortunate remark that all her opinions were either superfluous or wrong.  Obviously, this is not true!  Still, this opinion of hers is wrong.)  Some people consider his early work too chaotic.  Too disconcerting.

But it is never boring.