Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Memorial

By the time I die, I want to be a household name.  And there better not be any other people named Austin Tamutus on this planet.

But I would also like to be immortal, so let's hope that I just become a household name and keep on living.

In addition, I would like to learn everything, make my own AI, genetically engineer talking land-indigenous animals, and communicate with dolphins.

Of course, these things necessitate being extraordinarily wealthy, which would also enable me to end world hunger.  It would also enable me to buy a plot of land in some area of wilderness to build a cabin on.


I wonder if anybody's ever been in the weird place I am.  I frequently despair over things I can't control, and constantly regret the sacrifices I make over and over.  There are lots of negative feelings in my life.  But at the same time, I have the will, creativity, and self-awareness to bat those feelings away by inventing reasons, transiently adopting different perspectives, and finding pinpoints of beauty that, like stars surrounding the firmament, can shine into some of the awkward crevices of discontent.

I feel like there's this huge internal battle between the different parts of me.  The self that desires, the self that dreams, and the self that thinks are all at odds.  And it creates these strange, emergent emotions that I can't put into words.

And I claim them as my own.  I accept my inconsistencies and my tribulations, and I strive to make myself better out of pride for the person I know I can be.  I can take solace in the knowledge that the person I am know is the precursor to somebody I want to be.

Saturday, February 23, 2013


I like to wonder sometimes about how I'm growing up, how I'm staying the same as I was as a small child, and where I'm going in life.  I ask lots of big questions to myself a lot of the time.  Some may find this to be a waste of time, energy, thought, etc.  But I think it's really valuable.  Not because it will make me happier, per se, because a lot of the decisions I make as a result of answering those big questions makes me realize that there are, in an abstract sense, things that need to be done and that I am capable of and thus responsible for doing them.  I also like to fit all of the little things into that big framework, because it makes dealing with them easier.

Example:  for a while, I've been bothered about one of my suitemates being a total mooch, never once contributing toilet paper, soap, coffee, or trash bags.  He doesn't clean or take out the trash.  And he turns the heat up to 85-90 degrees after everybody goes to sleep, then opens his window so tons of energy goes down the gutter and everybody in the suite melts, but he gets fresh warm air all night.  When the whole suite went to the dining hall one time, somebody brought up a story about how, during hurricane Sandy, some guy found a woman and her children knocking at his door to find shelter, and because he didn't let them in, the kids died.  This suitemate of mine praised the guy's actions because there is, apparently, always the chance that people with rifles sent the kids to the door so it would be opened and they could come in, guns blazing.  No, I'm not making this up.  Oh, and after the shooting, all he could talk about was the greatness of guns, how he couldn't wait to get an M4 or something of the like - all discussed in the presence of another one of our suitemates who, when he isn't at Rutgers, lives in Newtown.

So basically he does majorly uncool things a lot, and has no reservations about taking advantage of other people.  Here's where it helps to take a step back.  It's plain fact that I can't make him into a compassionate human being, which would be the only way to ameliorate our grievances.  Nobody will ever do that.  Is it worth arguing and stressing out over things that are to be expected?  Will that make any of us into better people, perhaps by training us to deal with people who are unwaveringly obstinate?  Will it accomplish any of my goals?

The frustrations and wasted time are not worth it.  I should spend my energy and time elsewhere.

On the flip side, asking big questions also helps me to focus a little bit harder on certain things that I have to do.  I can use it to motivate myself when I'm doing lots of readings that are relatively dense, doing work that isn't in any big way glamorous, or trudging through a long day after a meager amount of sleep.  What pushes me forward?  Well, the fact that nobody else is going to do what I'm planning.  Although I have a thousand reasons to genetically engineer talking animals, and even if I haven't yet met a person who's told me it's a bad idea, nobody's going to do it.  I can't rely on anybody, and I can pretty much expect that if I don't do it, nobody will.  So every time I run into a roadblock, I can tell myself that there's only one thing that I have to do.  Only one thing matters.  If something gets me closer to that goal, it's good.  If something gets me further away from it, it's bad.  Everything's so much easier that way!

One rule.  I've spent enough time coming to the conclusion that it's ethically desirable.  That's basically my ultimate desire.  I try to live ethically, but when it comes to decisions that don't bear much moral weight, then I have a way to determine what I should do.  And at this point in my life, there isn't really any heavy stuff going on that requires me to think about anything more subtle than the categorical imperative.

So, if there isn't any ethical impetus for me to write a blog, why am I typing right now?  It keeps me sane.  Expressing my thoughts gets things out of my system and allows me to eliminate cognitive dissonance that accumulates when internalizing all of the little woes.  Being bogged down by confusion or hopelessness is not the way to go about things.  And thus, I've been working at writing creatively, writing intellectually, and writing emotionally.  The thoughtful stuff goes here, the emotional stuff goes in a notebook, and the creative stuff goes where nobody I know will read it.

I realized all of this only recently.  I'm hoping it sticks, and that I can use these tricks to be super dedicated to what I'm doing and keep my wits about me.  Fingers are crossed.  I have a bad habit thinking these things up then leaving them by the wayside.  I guess that's part of maturation.  Figuring out which ways of thinking stick, which means of coping pay off the best, and what really matters.

So I hope this is me getting older and wiser.  I'm working myself into the ground, and I need to be able to deal with it in a rational and controlled fashion.  I wait patiently for the day that I can be in the position of the sage, who knows how he needs to live to be happy, and who understands the world; for now, I have to keep myself healthy and march onward.

Friday, February 22, 2013

I will be behind

I keep a list of my reading assignments on a whiteboard.  It loops around the edge of the board, like the Ouroboros.  I outline everything that's overdue in red marker, and I try to keep ahead so that I don't get completely lapped.  I can fit about 22 things on there.  I consider it overdue if I've gone to sleep on the day that I was supposed to read it.  I erase things as I finish them, and I don't move items forward.  This ignores assignments and things that I'm supposed to do.  I figure I'll always be doing them on time, but it's the reading that will actually give me knowledge, and I'd be remiss to not do it.

Once I go to sleep tonight, the snake will reach its tail.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Sexual Orientation of Our Repertoire

In Glee Club right now, we're singing a diverse range of pieces.  Some of the things we're doing, which will begin the concert, are breathtakingly beautiful.  I'd link to the videos, but there exist no recordings online.  At least two of the others are so contrary to my taste that it causes me pain to sing them.  I'm not linking to them because I don't want to feign endorsing them.

All things considered, I guess it's pretty fair for me to put up with a song about throwing a house party and discriminating against people who choose lifestyles of tranquil civility, even though  that I am personally averse to wasting time and energy on partying away my young life.  I'm ultimately capable of singing yet another rowdy-young-man song about the perils of courting women, despite the fact that it makes me feel like I'm stumbling back into the closet and a fa├žade of oppressive heteronormativity.  And you know, even though one of the songs reminds me of the same kind of Christian evangelism that I thought I escaped after many bitter bouts with my mom in high school, I'll sing it without complaining.

This is because I know that, to everybody who appreciates good music in the audience, there'll be a number of pieces that stick out as far too beautiful to be considered on the same plane as those crowd-pleasers.  And they'll understand why it has to be that way.  Any concert that we do is basically a way to showcase some pieces of music that are beautiful, plus a few pieces that will make the vast majority of people who prefer entertainment to art feel like they spent their money well.  I mean, I really wish that the order of the concert was such that we sang the high-quality pieces at the end, but you can't win them all.  And the Rutgers University Glee Club has an interesting, historical culture of both being the performers of fine men's choral pieces and the representatives of the University's traditions.  I guess the only way to justly represent this college I attend is to include a whole lot of pointless shouting and waving our arms around, because that's apparently a significant part of the "college experience", and most people really quite like it.

I hope that I sound like I'm bashing my social environment and deriding the culture of the state university.  I am.  But more importantly, I'm trying to say that I understand the context of this repertoire, and all of this elitist, judgmental blathering is an inner turmoil that is soundly trumped by a smug satisfaction in my personal, abstract interpretation of the lineup.

For all of the entertainment value that may be found in these fun-filled songs about pop culture and praises to The Male Lord Our God And Opiate, there's enough artistic value in the better pieces to outweigh everything that the lesser ones detract.  In my angsty inner thoughts, the two songs that I enjoy the most so far have some interesting qualities that really appeal to me on a deep, emotional level.

One was commissioned by the New York City Gay Men's Chorus, which gives it an substantial degree of meaning to me.  It speaks of existential crisis, lives filled with pain, and love as the way to triumph over a nihilistic and cruel Universe.  This speaks to me in a big way.

The second piece is another disillusioned question about the nature of our existence, but this time with far more
intimate imagery.
 It was just written, actually, and my interpretation may a bit skewed in this case... nevertheless, the anaphora in the lyrics lends the poem to a substantiably gay interpretation.  Since my director is good friends with the composer, I know for a fact that it's erotic in nature.  When read as something erotic, the poem doesn't seem be as ambiguous as it is without that lens, wherein both the first and second persons have erections by the end of the poem.  

It's pretty standard for men to sing songs about being attracted to women, and it's pretty common for gay men to sing in those choirs and kind of ignore the fact that they're being untrue to themselves.  Personally, I view it as a means to reach a musical apex that transcends the literal meaning of the lyrics.  Although I put massive weight on lyrics to the songs that I listen to, perform of my volition, and put on mixes for friends, I generally end up ignoring the lyrics to songs that I am forced to sing in whatever ensemble I'm in, unless they have some profound meaning that speaks to me.

I'll go out on a limb and suppose that I am particularly picky about which types of songs I relate to. If a song is overtly straight, I feel uncomfortable.  I resent the fact that gay men have to pretend they're straight for all of the music they sing.  I'm sure many gay men don't really mind that much, because that's just the standard for music in the popular domain, especially with the classics that come from a history without canonical homosexuality.   For that reason, I have always just assumed that it'd be something I would deal with, and that would always work unidirectionally.  Now two of the songs we're singing are, albeit neutral in regards to any spectra of gender or sexuality, are pretty much gay.  I mean, one was written for gay men, meaning that the composer must have had a substantial intent to represent that community's particular needs, and the other most likely makes reference to multiple erections in the same bed.

This makes me very happy.  Partly because I can relate with the music better than something like "Girls, Girls, Girls".  Partly because music written by people of non-hetero-cis identities intrinsically have added significance.  But mostly because all the people who have so far been co-opting me into singing for their messages are now being co-opted into singing my message.  These songs, however significant, mean a lot more to me and the other gay men of glee club than they can for the straight men.  Whatever the reasons actually are for its inclusion into our repertoire, it pleases me extravagantly that, for once, based on what I think is a fair interpretation, the straight men are singing gay songs, and not just the other way around.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Only In The Dream

                 Richard Eberhart

Only in the dream that is like sleep
When time has taken the measure of live things
By stark origination
Is mankind redeemed

Only in the melancholy of the music
Of the midnight within the blood
Comes the fulfillment
After faring years.

Only in the balance of dark tenderness
When everything is seen in its purity
Do we penetrate
The myth of mankind

Only in the mastery of love
Is anything known of the world
Death put aside
With pure intent.

Only in the long wastes of loss
Comes the mystical touch on the brow
That triumph grow,
Insatiable, again.

***This poem was incorporated into a song of the same name that was commissioned by the New York City Gay Men's Chorus and that I'm singing in Glee Club.  It doesn't seem to me like these lyrics have received too much popularity in the 28 years it's been around, so I have no reservations about putting it up here for you poetry lovers.***

Monday, February 4, 2013

Intrinsic Belief in Souls

I have a hypothesis as to why we believe in souls.

Anthropologists have studied most cultures in the world.  They make some very specific observations and try to take notice of all the things we generally take for granted.

One of those observations is that every culture in the world has a belief in some immutable essence in anything that is alive.  For example, there's one particularly famous thought experiment in which you tell somebody the following story:

Say you have a raccoon.  Some crazy veterinarian decides to make him look particularly cool by painting him black and giving him a nice, white racing stripe.  She then concludes that he would get a great survival advantage if he had a way to spray vile-smelling liquid at his predators.

Then, you show this person a picture of a skunk and ask them whether the animal is still a raccoon, or if it has become a skunk.  Anybody over the age of, say, five will insist that it's still a raccoon, no matter what has happened to its appearance.

On the other hand, if you take a bunch of chairs, throw them against the wall to break off their legs and backs, nail the seats together into a large flat board, then put a leg on each of the four corners, and nail to each leg another leg to double their lengths.

Everybody will tell you it's no longer a bunch of chairs, it's a table.  Because inanimate objects don't have the same kind of unchangeable essence as living things...

Another commonality between every distinct population of humans is that they all have some sort of folk biology.  Every group of humans on Earth will take careful observations of living things around them, make judgments about how they grow and how fauna/flora change from season to season, year to year.  These are all changes that are carefully kept track of in cultures closely intertwined with natural environments.  Such curiosity has evolved into thorough methodical scientific exploration in developed nations, and is still present in isolated tribes in entirely rural locales.

Do you think these are related?  In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker makes the argument that this signifies a module in the human brain that is conserved throughout the species.  The purpose of his argument is to suggest that, alongside pages worth of other human nature commonalities, there is an innate neurological module to process language.  He proposes that when a trait is present in every member of the species, it must be constructed from some genetic factor that is shared by every normally functioning member of that species.

Therefore, there's something about the human mind that directs it to identify and categorize living things.  There's an innate, structurally standard drive to think about living things in a certain way.  That perception includes the notion that living things do not change their identity.

There must be some reason for this to be the case. There must have been some reason to think of living things as inherently different from inanimate objects.  Importantly, this way of thinking must be at least practically consistent with the natural world, otherwise it would lead to incorrect assumptions that could lead to death.  Imagine you're a member of a tribe that has just expanded its territory to a new forest.  There are new species of flora there.  Take, for instance, a bush that has a certain kind of berry that is green in the spring.  Your cousin happened to eat such a berry when you were foraging with him, but you didn't eat one because you had already found a particular shrub that you enjoyed eating already.  He was the adventurous one.  Minutes after he ate the berry, he started vomiting blood and perished.

Now let's see all of this ties together:  In the summer, a couple months after your brother died from eating that dreadful green berry, you are foraging again and notice that, at the same location that you found those death-inducing fruits, you find a bush of red berries that look entirely different.  What do you do?  Eat the berries because they look different?  Or assume that there's something beneath the experience that means more than what it looks like?  Based on geographical location and a basic understanding that plants generally don't walk around in the course of a few months (it probably takes longer for that to happen), you can ensure some great modicum of safety by not choosing to eat those berries, and instead telling your tribemates that they shouldn't eat berries that look like those red ones you see before you.

But what is that underlying essence that makes the berries the same between being red and green?  What do you call it?  What would you call the underlying essence that makes a tadpole the precursor to a frog, as opposed to an entirely different species?

I'm sure you're familiar with the tendencies of many cultures around the world, generally in very low-tech, natural environments, to assume that every living thing has a soul.

I'm also sure that you're familiar with the fact that every living thing on this planet has a genome that gives rise to its being - a genome that stays constant, regardless of what you do to the organism for which it codes.

Now you understand what I'm getting at, right?  If not, let me drive the point home as Socratically as I can.

There is generally a tendency for our cognitive processes to gives us, as individuals, better models of the reality we live in.  Our perceptual systems pretty consistently monitor our surroundings in a way that delineates objects that are, in fact, consistently connected.  Gestalt psychology studies the way in which we bring together features to make non-summational wholes.  We understand the thoughts of those with whom we communicate in daily conversation, which are generally pretty consistent and accurate.  We understand the feelings of strangers, even when they're in situations we've never ourselves been in.

Our thoughts mirror reality.

But are our representations realistic, or functional depictions of what is around us?  How much of our presuppositions are simply working models that are computationally similar between each individual of humankind?  We all work pretty much the same way, so we draw inferences from a lack of information.  Language is the most salient example of a human activity that depends on neurological similarities to create meaning out of arbitrary events.

The letters on this page are only letters in your mind - a real-world description of what you see would more accurately call the phenomena you refer to as letters as a bunch of pixels formed by a computer screen.  An even more precise real-world description would be that they are oscillating photons generated at locations that are specified by a series of processors that are running according to the physical constraints of circuits that are physically and electrically connected to those photon-generating locations.

They're words in your mind, and that works.  You're a person.  You live in the realm of ideas.  You existence as a person is possible because an animal of the human species has a brain that works really, really hard to come up with a whole bunch of logical, coherent thoughts.  That animal obeys the laws of physics.  But you simultaneously participate in the world of concepts.

As a scientist, I choose to perceive things in a way that is completely consistent with reality.  I pay try to pay close attention to the event that give rise to my perceptions, and understand those phenomena in conjunction to what I think about the world.  I understand words, and I hear them as the gestalts of many acoustic events.  By understanding the computational system of language is the same between me and my conversational partners, and by roughly understanding the big-picture process by which that computational system moves between ideas and physical events, I have a rudimentary idea of what language is.  My perception is consistent with reality.

As a devout student who's fascinated by human evolution, I try to take note of any perceptions that are pretty consistent throughout humanity and find their correlates with real world explanations.  I am motivated to find the correlates between reality and our perceptual behavior.

My goal in this line of thought has been to find the common thread between the fact that living things all share the characteristic of being coded by an immutable genome, the fact that all human societies are curious about living things to the extent that they make methodical observations about everything about them, and the fact that every human culture has some belief in a soul.  I believe that there is strong reason to believe in a closely one-to-one relation between real concepts and perceptional concepts, if simply because any evolutionarily conserved conceptualization is more likely to propagate if it accurately reflects patterns that are consistently true in the real world.  From an anthropological perspective, it makes the most sense to assume that widely conserved behaviors are the result of selective pressures, and that the characteristics of our species have arisen from truth consistently acting on our species for every moment of our existence.

To this end, I believe that our belief in an immutable soul is simply the perceptual equivalent of every species' possession of a generationally constant genome.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Trusting somebody

I told somebody I trust a secret.

It feels good, I think, for them to know it.

They had recently told me something they don't generally talk about.  It took me a while to reciprocate.

It's funny; it's not significant to anybody but me.  But I nevertheless keep it secret.  Maybe that helps me to keep thinking it's important.  I can't really say whether it is, in fact, important.  But I still like having inner thoughts that are separate from what I say out loud.  And I like being able to share those inner thoughts with the people who mean a lot to me.  I like being able to express that sentiment.

Or am I just pragmatic?  Most likely.