Writing, Books, Painting, Politics, Neuroplasticity

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Photo Shoot

My niece, Tamara Eden, is a tremendously accomplished photographer.  Here is one picture from today’s photoshoot

 

 

 

 

 Thank you, Tamara, Emily and Jeanne!

 

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August 14, 2011   2 Comments

To Tug the Heart, Music Must First Tickle the Neurons

This is a great article about neurology and music by @PamBelluck in the @NYtimes: http://tinyurl.com/3rssh92 .  If you liked This Is Your Brain on Music, you’ll love this.  And if you didn’t read TIYBOM, you should!  

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August 11, 2011   No Comments

What I am Reading: Campaign for American Readers Post

Marshall Zeringue has posted my Writers Read contribution to his Campaign For The American Reader  blog.

What am I reading this summer?  Click here to find out.

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August 11, 2011   No Comments

THIS SHARED DREAM reviewed by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post

THIS SHARED DREAM has been reviewed by Michael Dirda in The Washington Post, and it is a wonderful, generous review.

I am particularly thrilled because The Washington Post is my hometown International Newspaper, and because I have read Book World since it began in the early seventies.

Over the years, I’ve haunted the bus stations (Knoxville, Sunday afternoons, the late seventies and early eighties) to see if the nice fat Book-World-containing Sunday paper had been tossed onto the bus), a downtown Honolulu bookstore (where, if it had been thrown onto the plane, it showed up on the following Wednesday), and later, as a subscriber (a perennial gift from my parents), my Post Office box.  Finally, when one could no longer subscribe, I’d pick up stacks of carefully saved issues from my father.  Now, of course, it is, happily, online.

Here is a bit of Dirda’s review:

“Living up to its title, “This Shared Dream” is ultimately a novel about connectedness, in every sense, and the possibility of greater harmony in what used to be called the family of man. Little wonder that Goonan’s overarching metaphor for earthly felicity is improvisational jazz, the true music of the spheres.”

Read the entire review here.

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August 10, 2011   1 Comment

Illumination!

Jan S { 08.10.11 at 11:26 AM }

“Found your blog via Pam Noles’ AWSM — am so glad I did! This presentation gave me some important avenues to follow in the writing of a piece of fiction (no idea how long it’ll be, yet), missing pieces of the puzzle, if you will. Thank you for posting it!”

Jan, thank you for dropping by.  The heart of your story or novel can emerge in the strangest way, but when it does, it will be apparent!   Your photos at Northern Pixies are stunning!

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August 10, 2011   No Comments

Locus Magazine Killer Reviews for This Shared Dream

Gary Wolfe *and* Russell Letson reviewed THIS SHARED DREAM in August’s Locus!  Some highlights:

Russell Letson: “The book is generous and hopeful in the face of all the evidence of humankind’s capacity for folly, tribalism, violence, destruction, and general badassery, and I would like to live there, too.”

Gary Wolfe: “packed with provocative ideas” and “a rare novel that combines a darkly realistic vision of history with a dose of classic SF optimism about the fixability of the future”
I am GLOWING!
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August 9, 2011   1 Comment

How This Shared Dream came about: one vector

Kathleen Ann Goonan

Presentation JSAAP Futuristic Small Arms Meeting

I belong to a think tank called Sigma, and several years ago the Pentagon-related Joint Services Small Arms Project called for speakers to talk about futuristic small arms.

I happen to think that the best futuristic “small weapon” would be a weapon that would defeat the idea of war before it began, and that it has to do with education, with the ability to communicate, and with an understanding that war as we know it is futile and costly.

My talk surprised the audience, I think, but it also pleased and interested them.  Near the end is the core vision that led to THIS SHARED DREAM.

Here is the talk:

Hi. I’m Kathy Goonan, a writer and an educator. Today, I’m  going to talk about things that some of you know, and that some of you don’t
know, and, I hope, some things that you’ve never considered before. At the end,  I’ll tie them all together in a vision that I hope some of you will be in a  position to take seriously.

I grew up in Springfield, just a few miles down the road.  When my mother chose our house, in 1962, she drove down to the Navy Yard, where  my father was working, to see how long it would take. The Braddock Road to  Springfield section of the Beltway wasn’t finished yet, but Shirley Highway  still made it a breeze—it only took her ten minutes! Her only miscalculation  was that she made her test drive in the middle of the day. We kids spent many  traffic jams in the car, in the original mixing bowl, listening to the Joy Boys  (Ed Walker and Willard Scott, the original Ronald McDonald) and chase electrons  to and fro. Eventually, I got a degree in English at Virginia Tech and American  Montessori Institute certification at the Montessori Institute on S St. NW, and  ran my own school of 100 children, two locations, and twenty employees for ten  years.

Soon after we moved into our new house, where my father  still lives, my mother told me quite seriously that my father was planning on
building his own helicopter and using it to commute. That was one future that  didn’t happen, but now, many new possible technologically-enabled futures are  close at hand.

Our ability to manipulate and govern human behavior,  motivation, and resources grows daily. Artificial DNA, enhanced communication
abilities, memory drugs, nanotechnology, and new educational strategies have  the potential to change the face of war–and peace–precipitously in the next  few decades. Pinpointing the biological roots of war and aggression and using  unexpected strategies in a war environment, such as pheromonal or bionan  manipulation, defensively or offensively, are necessary adjuncts to our  long-term survival as a species.

Humans are notoriously local and historically short-sighted,   which suits the conditions of our very distant past. Now, we have the
capability to have a hand in our own evolution, and this requires awareness of  the possibilities, which increase daily, and some very deep thought. We haven’t  really educated ourselves to these ends, and we need to formulate and implement  goals that may, eventually, remove the necessity for meetings like this. I  deeply respect those who defend our country and study how best to do so, and I
fully understand that there are those who would do us harm. My father, uncles,  grandfather, and great-grandfather are U.S. Army Veterans. But we need to think  about how to move into a new way of sharing our resources.

Because of the end of the cold war, we are seen by ourselves and by the rest of the world as the dominant world power. This means that we  have an enormous responsibility to seriously consider our long-term goals for  the future, which will affect the entire world, and think about how they might  be achieved. Will, intent, and vision are essential if we are to positively affect the trajectory of scientific and technological advances and how they  might change human nature, or enhance some aspects while suppressing others.

Nassim Taleb holds a PhD from the Wharton school of  business. He is a quantitative analyst (“a brand of industrial scientist who
applies mathematical models of uncertainty to financial (or socioeconomic) data  and complex financial data” p 19 BS). He has developed a theory he calls “The  Black Swan,” which he applies to issues of probability, history, and investing.  Here, I quote him from Forbes.com:

Before the discovery of Australia, Europeans thought that  all swans were white, and it would have been considered completely unreasonable  to imagine swans of any other color. The first sighting of a black swan in  Australia, where black swans are, in fact, rather common, shattered that  notion. The moral of this story is that there are exceptions out there, hidden  away from our eyes and imagination, waiting to be discovered by complete  accident. What I call a “Black Swan” is an exceptional unpredictable
event that, unlike the bird, carries a huge impact.

He adds, We truly live under the illusion of order believing that planning and forecasting are possible. 9/11, for instance, falls into the
Black Swan category.

In light of his thesis, which is basically that we should  not take anything for granted but that we are evolutionally prepared to do
little else, we need to spend a lot of time now working to understand how and  why unexpected events happen. Low predictability, like 9/11, means that an  event will have a high impact.

As we learn more about our our brains, our minds, and our  senses, and take our place in a continuum of evolution in which we share
important genes and characteristics with other animals, it’s easy to form a  picture of ourselves as the most frightening animal in the forest. Our wars not  only destroy one another and our fragile accomplishments, but plant and animal  life and habitats. To avoid and perhaps eliminate war, we must link unrelated  disciplines, inventions, technologies, and philosophies and use these linkages
in novel ways in response to the unpredictable.

Education is the most potent weapon in our arsenal. Science  is constantly increasing a wealth of avenues by which humans can be enhanced,  avenues that may well change what we think of as human nature.

The flip side of the use of new discoveries and technologies  is that some of them lend themselves not only to positive uses, but also to
defensive or offensive uses. How can we learn to flip from one extreme to the  other, as if it were some kind of Singularity?

A Singularity, in mathematical terms, is the place at which  an equation reaches a space of extreme fluctuation. Technically, it is the
place that gave Edison fits, because he couldn’t find a way through it to  alternating current. Socially, I hope it is the place where we abandon war for  peace, for progress, for human expansion.

Putting aside the obvious reasons that nations go to war—to  increase their territory, markets, and power–why does this sort of behavior,
or terrorism in general, exist?

All of us have the potential, if cornered, for instant  violence in defense of ourselves and our families, particularly if our  proxies—the police, our intelligence services, our politicians, or our  armies—fail to do so. At our heart, each of us is the same as the most extreme
terrorist we might imagine, if put in their circumstances, and if that  circumstance is framed in a way that tugs on deeply embedded cultural beliefs.  Certainly, if necessary, small bands of Americans would unite for heated  defense of local territory, a situation in which many people around the world  find themselves right now. And for this reason, to defend ourselves against  other humans who might or who will definitely do us harm, we have developed a  fearful arsenal of tools with which to equip our proxies and, sometimes,
ourselves. It seems clear that these traits evolved over millions of years to  facilitate survival in a world that is vastly different than the one we inhabit  today. However,despite our marvelous increases in technologies, we are still  the same old humans that we always have been.

For thousands of years, terrorism has been the only recourse  of the powerless who have no army to represent them. Dr. William Polk, a former  State Department official, points out in Violent Politics, A History of  Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War From the American Revolution To Iraq,  that successful insurgencies can begin with just a small number of people.  Terrorism is a means by which those with a grievance can tie up vast resources  and generate fear in their perceived enemies, as when Jewish terrorists in
Palestine blew up senior British officials in a Jerusalem hotel in 1947.  Guerilla warfare is the next stage. As in the American Revolution, such  movements can be difficult to contain.

But what, exactly, is a baseline human?

In Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Marc Houser explores the developmental stages we go through  when developing a theory of mind—which is the understanding that most of us  have that others exist, and that they have the same basic emotions and  reactions that we do—and the corresponding development of ideas of fairness.

I believe that an overdeveloped idea of fairness can lead to  terrorism—for instance, that idea that one’s self or group has been wronged by  another, and that only violence can bring about retribution and change.  Isolation of an individual, or isolation of a group within society, can foster  such ideas.

The more we believe that we are the same as others, the less  we are inclined to hurt them. Portraying others as subhuman gives permission to  harm them. The greater our capacity for imagining the lives of others and  relating them to our own, the more difficult it is to hurt them. The increasing  connectivity of the world is one element that may well widen our circle of  empathy as well as increase our information and knowledge in general. The less  centralized anything is, the more difficult it is to destroy it. That’s why the  suppression of terrorism is so difficult, and is also a good reason to equally  distribute as much information, power sources, and other resources as much as  possible. According to my father, who was in Germany at the time, when  Roosevelt died, Germans were sure that America would leave the war because  their leader was dead. Our government and country survived because our power is  distributed. Germany fell because everything was concentrated in one person.

If we have images of a baseline emotionally healthy human  brain, we can then use imaging to see what parts of the brain are undeveloped  or damaged in criminals, schizophrenics, terrorists—who are not normal–and  others who wish to do us harm. Perhaps such individuals can undergo a course of genetic therapy to restore missing or malfunctioning parts of the brain, if
criminality and terrorism are seen as a disease and therapy can be mandated by  society. Perhaps brain imaging can be used in airport check-in screens to  further evaluate those who might be boarding with the intent to do us harm.

Several years ago, Floyd Romesberg at the Scripps  Research Institute in La Jolla announced that his lab had successfully created
artificial DNA.

This revolutionary breakthrough has massive application  potential in almost every field. DNA is presently used to direct material
formation in true nanotech bottom-up assembly. Artificial DNA means that we  will be able to widen the scope of such applications regarding speed of  assembly and a vast spectrum of new materials. In medicine, this means that we  may be able to develop vaccines that reliably target and disarm biological  agents without debilitating side effects.

Maybe artificial DNA could be used to create an empathy  virus—or, to create people with little or no compunction about killing, except
that we’ve already done that ourselves, naturally.

Another avenue of possible communication and possible  manipulation is pheromones. Pheromones have mostly sexual connotations in the  public mind, but they are actually used in many animals for other reasons. A  pheromone and its receptors for aggression have been identified in mice. If and when these pheromones are identified in humans, it might afford a way to screen for immediate aggressive intent in screening situations. It might also afford a  method for aerosol mass deliverance of a pheromonal-based chemical that could
obviate aggressive intent and thus control a large group of people.

It might be possible to develop a range of artificial pheromones that yield precise results on the battlefield when delivered via
rocket launchers. These pheromones could be released in a nanotech fog filled with artificial pheromones agents that target the pheromone receptors in our  noses. If we figure out how to replicate reactions seen in animals, such  artificial pheromones could trigger flight or surrender. We could possibly  create a tracking device like the hawk’s eye, which can see the pheromone trail
left by mouse’s urine, to track human pheromones, or use an artificial nose for that purpose. We could also use them to promote feelings of community and  connectivity. It is even possible that we could use them for very precise communications, but limit the information to those who have acutely designed  receptors.

Memory drugs are presently being tested in humans. They are ostensibly for delaying senility or the progress of Alzheimer’s, but you can
easily see that once they are readily available everyone will need them, if  they work, just in order to compete.

It is also possible to keep memories from being formed—which for me seems like something that is my normal baseline operation; you might see more of the manifestation of this particular skill when you ask questions at the end of this presentation. However, it is a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome. It is very, very difficult to be a warfighter. It isn’t natural to kill fellow human beings who, like you, are proxies. It causes deep psychological distress, which is one clue that perhaps we are not truly as warlike as we would like to think we are. It is only when we can send someone else to kill others that it seems like the first resort rather than the very last.

Cicil Ison, an anthropologist and Vietnam veteran, is the subject of a story that recently ran in GQ, “The Long Shadow of War.” Cicil
Ison has mentally contained a horrific image and its accompanying emotional reaction for years. He didn’t even know he had it. But the day after bombing in Iraq commenced, the memory surfaced. He had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.

Though he did not allow his description of the event to be published, its power, and the power of similar images and memories in other
soldiers, are almost literally burned into memory.

New discoveries about how memories are formed provide a basis for creating a drug that will prevent such memories from lodging in the
brain, or erase them years later. Whether or not it is ethical to do so is debatable, and is debated. Doing so could wipe out whole categories of the arts, such as the blues, if there was no one to create them out of pain and misery, and no one left to understand them

WAR AND PEACE AND WAR: THE LIFE CYCLE OF IMPERIAL NATIONS by Peter Turchin, is a fascinating overview of historical cycles of war and peace, and new theories about the causes of war. The obvious causes of territoriality, trade imbalances, and economics are given a slightly new twist in that he postulates the existence of what he calls asabiya, or social solidarity. Asabiya along cultural fault lines eventually creates new empires, and the loss of asabiya causes the downfall of empires. In our case, asabiya may be waning.  If so, one cause might be the lack of good education in our country. I will cite one example, and I don’t think that it is extreme.

My father was having some medical tests done, and was wearing his WWII Veteran visor. The woman drawing blood, who, by his description, was a woman who spoke good English and had grown up and attended school locally, asked him where he fought WWII.

“In Europe,” he said.

She was puzzled. “But where was WWII?”

Now he was puzzled too. “All over the world. The whole world was at war.”

“I thought World War II was in Vietnam.”

At that point he gave up.

In a recent, fascinating book about neuroplasticity, The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge cites research suggesting that culture
is incorporated in the same way as language—during a window of time in which it  is absorbed from the environment: “The discovery of the critical period became one of the most famous in biology in the second half of the twentieth century.” Actually, this was discovered in the first decade of the twentieth century by Maria Montessori, but more about that later. “Scientists soon showed that other brain systems required environmental stimuli to develop. It also seemed that each neural system had a different critical period, or window of time, during which it was especially plastic and sensitive to the environment, and during which it had rapid, formative growth. Language development, for instance, has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as the native language.”

Culture is like language in this regard. Ideas that are  strongly embedded in one’s own culture, such as how women and men are regarded,
patriotic feelings about one’s own country, religious assumptions, and the minutiae that are so invisible to participants in a culture but that make a one’s trip to another country striking, are imprinted early in life. A culture that targets one’s historical oppressor might be very difficult to step outside of, just as it is difficult for us to intellectually understand that not all members of a particular race or religion share the same impulses. And it is very difficult to rationally examine one’s own culture for ethical flaws. Most Germans, during WWII, found it relatively easy, by most accounts, to participate in Hitler’s plan for genocide, because he had spent a long time
intensifying and orchestrating their emotions. What they were doing seemed right to them. The religious commandment not to kill is easily modified to thou shall not kill unless.

Dr. Doidge’s book on brain plasticity cites studies that show through brain imaging that just the process of discovering and talking
about long-suppressed events and integrating them into consciousness, which resembles the process of a nation or region discussing long-held prejudices and their deadly results, results in physical changes to the brain. Many societies, religions, and cultures have been at war with one another for centuries, and accumulated grievances demand revenge and retribution. How can we break any cycle of violence? One social mechanism for doing so is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Council, which appears to help short-circuit this cycle. But
both sides have to be so exhausted, or so abashed, that they both agree to participate fully.

The advances taking place right now in neurological research, assisted by an increasing arsenal of brain imaging techniques, are
truly stunning, and may provide us with our biggest and most positive step into the future. All we have to do is figure out how and why we learn.

The development of fMRI, which shows what’s happening in someone’s brain while thought and action are taking place, is a major tool with vast potential in the fields of psychology, education, law enforcement, and in discovering intent.

The fMRI fulfills a dream of mine. I was thinking about getting a doctorate in education solely to develop studies of its use in seeing
how well various educational strategies work, finding none that link Montessori education, or literacy programs, with imaging. Recently, I found that such studies are being done, not by educators, but by neurologists. We need to evaluate and link such studies to educational programs to create curriculums and strategies that actually work.

William Gibson said something very wise not very long ago, which is, “The future is already here. It just isn’t equally distributed.”

We now need far less land to produce food than we used to, but that it is not distributed to many who need it. Medical care is famously
not well distributed. Education is not as available as it should be, and, in many cases, is mistargeted and inadequate, thus depriving us of our most valuable resource—humans who can think, reason, communicate, and contribute to social, scientific, and technological progress.

In fact, I would go so far as to put the word “education” in quotes, because, compared to what it could be, the education available to most
of our children is not only laughable but tragic, considering what it could be and what it could do if we brought all of our resources to bear on it as if we finally understood that ignorance and lack of understanding of what humans really are—basically, plastic learning machines—and what we could be—a tremendous catapult to a marvelous future—is our real international tragedy,and the force with which we should really be at war.

I think that the replication of the state of brain plasticity that every one of us was in when we learned to walk and to talk would be absolutely marvelous. The ages at which children experience a surge of assimilation of information in developmental stages have been studied for a long time, and perhaps the type or area of brain plasticity during those stages are unique and replicable.

The advances taking place right now in neurological research, assisted by an increasing arsenal of brain imaging techniques, are
truly stunning, and may provide us with our biggest and most positive step into the future by helping us understand the human brain and how we learn.

My interest in education is twofold. First of all, we need to bring education into the twenty-first century. We now know a lot about how
children learn, and it is not by sitting in rows of desks and listening to someone talk or seeing someone write on a board. That is how they learn to obey and keep quiet. But we no longer need these schools, which were created in order to produce good factory workers. Our factories are gone, and we are wasting the precious learning time of countless children with these schools, which obviously don’t work. To use a common and easily understood example trying to teach children something when they are not in the correct sensitive period to absorb that information is just as painful for the child and the teacher as it would be for you to try to learn a foreign language as an adult.
We need to give them information when they are ready for it, not when we for reasons of convenience or tradition are ready to try and cram it down their throats. We need a population that knows how to think, how to evaluate, how to make decisions, how to delve deeply into intellectual and political problems. We need a complete reworking of our educational system. To paraphrase a recent NYT article, we need a Marshall Plan for education. We don’t necessarily need Montessori schools, but we need a curriculum and pedagogy based on science, which is what Montessori is. There is no reason why most children cannot be doing college-level work in some areas when they are fourteen or fifteen, if their early and elementary education is not neglected, as it is now.

Secondly, I think that it would be a step in the right direction if we could understand and replicate the brain plasticity of children
in adults. Part of brain plasticity is due to the fact that our neurons are wildly productive during those times, and making connections at a headlong pace. We know now that adult brains can and do grow new neurons. It would be very nice if we could nudge this process along one way or another, using stem cells, pharmaceuticals, nuero-linguistic programming, memory drugs, artificial DNA, nanotech drug-carrying robots, or any other methods we can develop. We remain programmable until we die. Several scientists have developed curricula
that help dyslexics and others challenged by their non-standard brains learn to read and perform tasks that they never thought they would be able to. Likewise, an almost complete recovery from various kinds of stroke is possible using intensive but cheap and simple therapies, which ought to be of interest to those working with our injured soldiers.

All we have to do is figure out how and why we learn. Luckily for us, a lot of this work has already been done.

In 1896, Maria Montessori graduated from the University of Rome with a medical degree, the first woman in Italy to obtain one. She became an internationally known feminist, then turned her considerable scientific talent to understanding human development. She gave us a vision of the future based on biological principles that we seem to finally be rediscovering.

She observed that children absorb information effortlessly during stages of brain development which she called sensitive periods, a
biological term already in use at the time to describe the development of other species. Using materials developed by Itard and Seguin in France for use with deaf children, she formulated an environment that she described as auto-didactic; that is, the information on how to use the materials is inherent in their design, and the materials are self-correcting. She worked with the mentally retarded in Rome, and they were able to then pass the City of Rome exams at a normal level. Montessori then wondered why expectations for normal children
were so low. She was invited to set up a school in a new housing development for factory workers; the owners were concerned because the children were parentless all day and were defacing their property. In this environment, Montessori was able to further explore and refine her scientific observations about how children learn.

I was skeptical about the claims made for Montessori education, but I also wanted to own and teach in my own school while becoming
an established writer. All parents everywhere share the desire that their children have the best possible education, and within a week of opening I had a waiting list. People were anxious to pay me for what I knew how to do. It is very unlike the practice of writing.

I found that children learn to read and understand mathematics as eagerly as they learn to walk and talk if they are in the
correct environment and if the materials are available at the right time in their development.

So here is the vision I promised at the beginning of my talk. It is pretty much my own small-arms contribution to the war on ignorance
that I think we must all be prepared to wage, using some of the technologies—available now, or soon to be available—that I have mentioned. For those of you who think that infusing children with education, empathy, and altruistic tendencies is not worth our time and tax dollars, just consider that they are the ones that will be in charge of those tax dollars when you are old—although maybe we’ll be able to avoid that particular bailiwick by changin a few little biological switches. We’ll see. They are also the people who may
avert the destruction of the United States, and set the world on a course of increasing peace, prosperity, and knowledge.

Imagine a seed, as indestructible as a soybean, but stuffed with artificial DNA, being dropped around the world in a stealth operation.
Once exposed to sun, or rain, or cold, or heat—for it will be equipped to respond and thrive in all kinds of conditions, depending on what it encounters, much like we are—it will began to grow. It might put down roots, it might convert solar energy into sugars, it might begin to produce carbon nanotubes that will, eventually, turn into a Montessori classroom in Afghanistan, in Darfur, in any American inner city, small town, or rural community.

Parents will like them, because they’ll keep children occupied. Governments will like them, for there are no politics involved in
learning the names of objects or working on one’s path to perfect pitch, although the next step, learning how to read and write, could definitely put a crimp in the long-term goals of those who would control others for their own ends. A Montessori classroom helps children focus on fine-tuning their senses, on taking care of themselves and others, and on learning the basics of reading, writing, and mathematical operations. The materials are self-explanatory. Really, they are. An ideal Montessori classroom is completely non-centralized. There is no need of a teacher, per se; children exploring the environment might encounter a button next to each exercise that creates a holographic child working on, say, matching a wide array of color chips, arranging cylinders from short to tall, or kinetically learning the phonemes of their particular written language via large sandpaper letters. The function of a teacher in a Montessori  classroom is merely to connect the children to the environment, and to guide them through a continuum of experiences when they are ready; I think that some sort of tracking device that records who is working with what material and for how long and observes their choices would do just as well and could then manifest the holographic child when necessary. In a mature m classroom, the younger children observe what the older children are doing, and begin to choose more complex work when they are ready to do so. You might rightly wonder about keeping order in the classroom, but it is kind of strange, actually. Children who are working on what they, developmentally, need to learn, are focused, quiet, concentrating, and orderly. They could easily learn that when they need to run around and shout, they can just go outside. I think the main problem with such schools would be to keep adults from overrunning them.

Certainly, I can imagine fierce armies hacking at such disturbing manifestations, because it would be hard to recruit child soldiers
or make slaves of people who can read, write, and use the internet, which will be embedded in the schools. But my schools will be very difficult to destroy. They will grow back quickly. They will know how close other classrooms are, and how many are needed for the local population, so there will not be too many, or too few.

We may well be able to do the same for adults. We could set up inexpensive self-teaching modules which afford literacy, mathematics, and internet access to vast portions of the world, and help them understand that the possibilities and opportunities that we take for granted are available. If temporary brain plasticity for adults is eventually developed, so much the better. Mindful evolution seems a far better alternative than mindless conflict.

Well, that’s my small arms presentation and vision. I’m not particularly wedded to Montessori, but it seems like the very best preschool model right now. It will take all of our concentrated resources and growing knowledge to put it into effect, but I definitely have confidence that we’ll do the right thing. Maybe when the singularity that I spoke of draws near, we will have, oddly enough, a completely unexpected Black Swan—a cheap, universal, technologically enabled preschool education—to pull out of the hat and push us over the edge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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August 8, 2011   2 Comments

“Memory Dog” in ebook format

I wrote “Memory Dog” in the lull after I turned in IN WAR TIMES and before I began writing THIS SHARED DREAM.  The time between novels is always a time of rest, combined with the opportunity to clean up my office, become “musical” in the sense that I am once again able to muse about many fictional subjects rather than concentrating on one huge project, paint all the pictures I promised Painting Woman I would paint (she and Writing Women are always at war) and read the new non-fiction that has piled up during the time that I can do nothing but work on the novel.

As an aside, I am serious about that.  While I’m working on a novel, I might as well eat paste from a tube and wear rags.  I care nothing for the world.  I live in my head, in the world of the novel, and my every effort and thought feed into it.  During the end stages, I seem to move into an oddly ecstatic mode where it seems that everything I see and here are magically meant to be part of the novel, as though the external world were full of the signs religious fanatics believe justify their being.  I am just that much of a fanatic, just a hair to this side of sanity.  I think.  This is why I an rather snarly during these times, and resent having to show up in the world at all.  I rather think that it is what humans are really meant to be, if it could be said that we are “meant” to be anything.  We can excel at concentrating on the long task, and it gives me, at least, much joy to do so.  And after that, unlike most psychotics, I return to normal mode, where a tree is a tree, a rock is a rock, and it is a lot of fun to cook.

But–back to short work.  After a novel, anything seems short.  I immediately devoured Kandel’s IN SEARCH OF MEMORY, and I had been reading a lot of nonfiction about why we are such a warlike species, such as De Waal’s GOOD NATURED, Wraghan and Peterson’s DEMONIC MALES, and many, many others.

They all seemed to melt and merge into “Memory Dog.”

I was a guest at the Science Fiction Research Association’s meeting in Kansas City in 2007.  It was held concurrently with the Campbell Conference (I won the Campbell Award the following year for IN WAR TIMES) and the Heinlein Centennial, so it was a big buzzing meeting.

Dr. Lisa Yaszek was giving a paper on Alan Turning, and suggested that if I had some fiction to read I might do so in a joint session.  So “Memory Dog” had its first outing there, pranced among some Campbell/Sturgeon readers, and two summers later placed second in the Sturgeon Awards.   In the meantime, of course, Sheila Williams had chosen it for ASIMOV’S, and used it as a lead story.  It was also dramatized by Starship Tony and you can hear a podcast:  http://www.starshipsofa.com/blog/2010/01/27/aural-delights-no-118-kathleen-ann-goonan/.  Here is a link to a summary of the story:  http://scientificallybookish.blogspot.com/2010/03/memory-dog.html .

 

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August 8, 2011   No Comments

“The String” and “Memory Dog” available as ebooks

I’m working on getting some of my forty-so short stories available in electronic format, and these are the first two.

“The String” was a Nebula Award finalist.  When I was writing a lot of short fiction, I thought of a short story as a stool needing three legs.  At least, that’s how many distinct elements I needed for a story to have what a photographer might call “depth of field.”

Two of the legs, in this story, are the possibility of a cure for cystic fibrosis, and a puzzle that my father worked on for several years.  My sister and her boyfriend flew a kite, which got caught in a tree.  In the process, the string became horribly snarled, and the pull of the kite tightened those snarled into something that looked like a massive, complex knot made of yards of string.

My father, who delighted in puzzles–he always had a huge jigsaw puzzle in progess on a large marble table in our living room (he was the customer for op-art and entirely white puzzles that were 2′ x 3′), and crosswords are his particular delight–seized on this mass of string as the perfect puzzle, because there were no knots in it.  The ends had never crossed, one being held by my sister, and one being attached to the kite.  He tied the ends to large nails, as markers, and proceeded to try to untangle the string, patiently loosening one snarl after another, looking forward to the day when it would suddenly be just a very long piece of string again.  But he left it in a hotel room, and a maid threw it away.  He was extremely disappointed.

I dedicated “The String” to Wanda Collins Plymale, whom I met the first evening at Virginia Tech, in 1970, in the dorm.  We became close friends, and remained so until her death, at age fifty, from cystic fibrosis.

When I met her, she had not been diagnosed.  She was strikingly beautiful, with green eyes and what I might call merled hair.  It contained blonde, brown, white, and gray strands, but overall it looked blonde and was two feet long.  When she was twenty-five, and a teacher, she was diagnosed.  She spent her life in service to others when she could no longer work, volunteering for various causes.  She was alive when I wrote this story.  I miss her tremendously.

The third leg of the string is, of course, the complexity  of family dynamics.

I’ll do “Memory Dog” in a separate post.

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August 8, 2011   No Comments

Mirror Neuons, or Why I’m So Tired

I wrote this piece a while back, while I was working on This Shared Dream.  Being a Professional Writer, I have thought long and hard about trying to market it, but it where to send it?  Discover?  O?  Salon?  I’ve often reslanted material–for instance, I turned a travel piece I wrote about being in Praugue a few weeks after it was opened to western visitors, which the Washington Post, my usual publisher for travel pieces, passed on because every other travel writer in the world was also there at that momentous time–into a story called “Klein Time,” and published it in Century.  But there is something stubborn about it; I can’t think what else to do with it.  So here it is, as is.

Mirror Neurons, or Why I’m Always So Tired

 

by

Kathleen
Ann Goonan

 

 

As  a science fiction writer, I constantly read cutting-edge books about science that  push back the boundaries of who we think we are.  as MIRRORING PEOPLE, by  Marco Icaboni, is one such book.

Several  years ago I began to see articles about the discovery of mirror neurons in  monkeys in Science News.  Amazingly,  these neurons fire when a monkey just thinks about grabbing a banana, even though she can’t possibly get to it, and fire  when she sees another monkey grab the banana instead.  Okay, maybe these could be more accurately called jealousy neurons, but mirror neurons has a much nicer ring.

The use of fMRI in humans has revealed that  humans have mirror neurons as well.  This  discovery, and its implications, is arguably one of the most interesting in the past decade regarding the brain, consciousness, and our relationship with the  world.

Which  brings me to ceiling fans, piles of clean but unfolded laundry, dust, and  housework in general.

I  have long been in a war with the unfortunate cosmic prevalence of too much  gravity in my home, which causes objects such as books, socks, and countless other objects fall to the floor with depressing predictability.  Someone must pick up all of these things.  I can’t help thinking that that someone will  be me, although I rarely do anything about it.  Such activities are reserved for when I have enough money from my job,  writing, to knock off for a while, which is not very often.  Many writers, when faced with a blinking  cursor and a white screen, obsessively clean their house.

That  is so not me.

However,  the state of the house is always in my face, as they say, and the view clashes  with what the place ought to look like, especially if company should show up  unexpectedly.

Now  that I’ve read MIRRORING NEURONS, I realize that the strenuous mental activity  of mirroring the real work via observation, like the monkey seeing the banana  and thinking about getting it, is wearing me out.

The  worse the house looks, the more I run detailed mirror-neuron subprograms about every  fatiguing movement I would have to make in order to move one tiny step forward  to magazine-photo perfection.  An alternate  and perhaps more accurate way to phrase this might be “the fatiguing movements  I would have to make in order to prevent myself or others from tripping over  something and having to go to the emergency room.”

The  point is that, given the state of my house, I sometimes consider checking into  a hospital for a rest cure.  The  situation is the result of my own decision, mind you.  Before I became a writer, I had a steady  paycheck, and could afford household help.

Now things are different; I am dependent on the vicissitudes of the  public, chain bookstores, my publisher, and that which helps me write—the  ceaseless activity of my mirror neurons, which imagine how my characters will  act.  I can’t do without the mirror neurons;
they’re how I earn a living.  But now, thanks  to science, I know that they also keep me imagining that I’ve done a lot of  housework that I haven’t done.  Mirror  neurons are a vicious, double-edged sword.

Scientific  research has irrevocably shown that intent is a physical act.  Consciousness is physical, predicated on  changes in the brain.  Consciousness  resides in the entire body, because our brain and body are not, as some would  have it, separate entities.  This strikes
me as rather unfortunate and unexpected, because although I observed old people  as I was growing up, I somehow assumed that what had happened to them, as  abstract as it was to me as a kid, had only happened to their physical bodies,  that their mind and their soul, as it were, were unaffected by age.  Sadly, this is not true.  The effects of age on the brain are most  strikingly illustrated by the lives of mathematicians and their more applied cousins,  physicists and chemists.

However,  even for the rest of us, early adulthood provides an obvious peak in mental  abilities.  After that, mathematicians  can hang it up, in terms of pure thought.   Although most of us are not engaged in this particular level of thought,  there must be a similar decline in our own abilities.

I  therefore postulate an erosion between whatever it is that keeps an imaginary  activity from sapping the same amount of energy that the actual work might  require.  Some kind of neurological  barrier dissolves, so that our youthful ability to ignore the squalor and
disorder piling up around us is lost.  Or  maybe it wasn’t a youthful ability; maybe that was just a side effect of living  at home before going off to college.  Whatever  it was, writers of science fiction, philosophers, and scientists have to  consider alternate views.

Whatever  their profession, all humans, for their own psychological health, need to avoid  labels such as “slothfulness” or “sheer laziness,” and learn to substitute  positive thoughts, such as “creative,” “so utterly gifted I can’t be bothered,”  and now, “there go those damned mirror neurons again.”

Don’t  get me wrong.  Mirror neurons are  wondrous.  Our connection to the world  around us probably exists because of them. Mirror neurons give our lives their  meaning.  Mirror neurons endlessly  generate emotional meaning, as when we understand, or think we do, what others  may be feeling, and what we might have done to cause this, or how we might  help, or why we understand Shakespeare, or why we are mad when someone wrong us  or when our dog chews up the furniture.  Mirror neurons are the cause of our highs and lows, our feelings of the  sublime, our despair at the existence of genocide, of most everything we think  of as defining us as humans.

One  famous mirror neuron experiment consists of showing human experimental subjects  a photograph of a cup on a table, and, afterwards, the same scene with food  strewn about, as if someone has drunk a cup of tea and polished off a nice  little nosh.  The mirror neurons light  up, as it were, when the food appears to have been eaten.  The scene is now imbued with a human  presence—a human presence who has eaten something that we might have eaten had  we the foresight to have put ourselves in that situation.  We identify, instantly and  automatically.  We are always  inferring.  We can’t help it.

Sounds  exhausting, right?  Which brings me back  to ceiling fans.

One  of the Secret Keys of Writing, which I will now divulge, despite the fact that  it violates one of the oaths I took when I became a professional writer, is  that an indispensible but little-discussed stage of writing is lying on the  couch musing.

This  vital process is interrupted when I see my ceiling fan, where a  good-quarter-inch of grime adheres to the edge of each blade, held there by invisible  superglue that wafts in the window from Route One.  One solution I hit upon when visitors were arriving
in fifteen minutes is to put it on high, which turns the blades into a single  inscrutable blur,  but that is  counterproductive when I’m working.  Piled-up manuscript pages, unpaid bills, and assorted scraps of paper  fly off the coffee table and slide beneath furniture, creating even more work.

It’s  not just the fan, though.  When I see dirty  dishes in the sink, and even when I see the closed door of the dishwasher,  knowing that inside are dishes to be unloaded—work!  My arms moving, reaching, my body twisting at  the waist.  A sock on the floor?  There go those pesky mirror neurons, firing like  a view of Los Angeles from Mulholland Drive.  Apparently, I might as well actually be doing the work as thinking about  it.  It definitely explains the power of  advertising.

Zen  monks really are onto something.  Their  lives are swept clean, and, therefore, so are their minds.  It has now been scientifically proven.  They can concentrate on the more important  things, like Nothing.  This is much  harder than it sounds, but, in the end, it is worth years of effort, for satori  is reached.  I now imagine that in a  state of enlightenment, one chops wood, carries water, and cleans ceiling fans while  in a new, hard-won brain state that bypasses mirror neurons.  Yet, it was always there; you just didn’t  know it.  Or something like that.  Well, it’s complicated.  It is also very simple.  Or so I’ve heard.

Alternatively,  if you can detach yourself, monk-like, from the mess that surrounds you,  perhaps by knowing, deep-down in your bones, that someone else will do the work  of cleaning it up, life is probably a lot more relaxing.  I think that men, in our particular society,
mastered this esoteric art several centuries ago, and the knowledge is passed  down from father to son—but not, let it be noted, without collusion on the part  of a lot of mothers.   In this present day and age, many males exercise  their mirror neurons by simply sitting on the couch and watching exciting  life-affirming events like car chases, gun battles, and football games without  the muss and fuss of actually stirring their own bones.

I’m  sorry.  I digress.  I mourn my own feminist failings.  I move on.  I notice the dust on the ceiling fan; my  husband does not (let me add that neither does he watch football; I’ve just heard  that a lot of men do) and does not notice, either, when it is clean. This
amazing and wonderful blindness extends to the rest of the house as well.  It doesn’t seem to matter to him.  In his favor, I must say that when there is  work to be done, he responds to strong and precise directions.  I also notice that when I leave for a while  and then return, nothing is more messy than when I left.  He has washed his own dishes, done his own  laundry.  He can, in emergencies, do what
is necessary for survival, to keep from dying from a dire infection, and to  have clean underwear.

I  long to be like him, or at least more the Ideal Woman, who seem to be able to  install a new mirror-neuron program into the men in their lives if the men’s mothers  were not thoughtful enough to do so.  If  I had children, I would be stronger, for their sake, to ensure that their  future relationships do not devolve into a pit of arguing about who left the  dirty glass in the otherwise spotless living room.  (For obvious reasons, this is something that  we have never, ever done.)

But  apparently, because of some uber-program installed by generations of women, I  own the ceiling fan.  I own the dust on  the ceiling fan.  Instead of the  exhaustion of repeatedly cleaning it, via my mirror neurons, every time I  notice it, which is again, and again, and again, I must get out the rags, fill  a bucket with water, and pour powerful chemicals into the water.  Oh, yes, first I must find said chemicals in  my utility room, and expose myself to mirror neuroning the day of work required  to reorganize everything.  Then I have to  find the ladder, unfold it, climb it, and wipe off the grime.  Climb down, throw out the water, fold the  ladder, put it away.

I  know now that I must strike a balance, but, apparently, you can’t make deals  with mirror neurons.  You can’t say,  don’t worry, you pesky little neurons, I’ll do it, umm, next week.  Mirror neurons are always hard at work. Science  really does have the power to refresh my perspective.  It’s not distant and abstract.  Instead, it is full of revelatory tidbits  that I can relate to my own life.

Are  you tired yet?

##

 

Kathleen  Ann Goonan is a writer.  THIS SHARED  DREAM, her latest novel, is now out.  It is  about memory, family, time, a CIA agent, and how recent discoveries in neuroscience might change  what it means to be human—really—in the near future.   IN WAR TIMES, her last novel, won the John  W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science fiction novel of the year; Booklist declared it “An instant classic,” and it  was also the ALA’s Best Adult Genre Novel of 2007.  Her blog is www.goonan.com/blog .  Follow her at kathleengoonan@twitter.com

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August 7, 2011   No Comments