What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about the Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process by which people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

ties together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]


For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

Posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

It’s about Time (a Catena)



A brief tour of fascinating (and lunatic) notions that philosophers (and a few poets) have had about time. 

The Mystery of Time

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

–St. Augustine (345–430 CE), Confessions

PART 1: What Is Time? Types of Time

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Absolute or Scientific Newtonian Time

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

–Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

The Specious (Nonexistent) Present

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. [Each of] all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the [specious] present. [Each of] all the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the [specious] present. At the instant of the termination of [each element in] such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be [an obvious] past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the [obvious] past, which does not [really] exist, the future, which does not [yet] exist, and their conterminous, the [specious] present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

–E. Robert Kelley, from The Alternative, a Study in Psychology (1882). Kelley’s concept of the specious present has been extremely influential in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy despite the fact that Kelley was not a professional philosopher.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childSubjective Time

“Oh, yeah. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I never finished it, though I did spent about a year with it one evening.”

Experienced Time: The “Wide” Present

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and forming the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

–William James, “The Perception of Time,” from The Principles of Psychology, Book I

459px-Einstein_patentofficeA, B, and C Series Time (Three Ways of Looking at Time)

  • The A Series: Time as Past, Present, and Future
  • The B Series: Time as Earlier, Simultaneous, and Later
  • The C Series: Time as an Ordered Relation of Events (with the direction being irrelevant)

Influential distinctions made by John Ellis McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time.” Mind 17 (1908): 456-476. The three types are much discussed by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition.

See also The Unreality of Time 2: Block Time, below

PART 2: Does Time Exist?

No, It Doesn’t: Change Is a Self-Contradictory Idea

“For this view can never predominate, that that which IS NOT exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search. . . .There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that what IS, is. To this way there are very many signposts: that Being has no coming-into-being . . . . Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressive nor thinkable that what-is-not is. . . . How could Being perish? How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. . . .For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless; therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: Becoming and Perishing, Being and Not-Being, and Change of position, and alteration of bright color.”

–Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE), fragment from The Way of Truth, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)“Does the arrow move when the archer shoots it at the target? If there is a reality of space, the arrow must at all times occupy a particular position in space on its way to the target. But for an arrow to occupy a position in space that is equal to its length is precisely what is meant when one says that the arrow is at rest. Since the arrow must always occupy such a position on its trajectory which is equal to its length, the arrow must be always at rest. Therefore, motion is an illusion.”

–Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BCE), fragment from Epicheriemata (Attacks), in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

“One part of time has been [the past] and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet [the future]. Yet time, both infinite time and any time you care to take, is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.”

–Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Physics, IV, 10–14. 217b-244a.

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35Yes, It Does: Change Is the Fundamental Reality of Our Lives

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

–Heraclitus, (c. 475 BCE), fragment from unnamed book, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

[Heraclitus seems to have held this fact to be one of many indications of the essential unworthiness/irredeemability of this life; the other fragments of his writings that have survived suggest that Heraclitus was a kind of 5th century fundamentalist preacher, upset about the moral decay around him, who viewed the world as synonymous with decay, and who wanted to point his readers, instead, toward the eternal Logos. Plato inherited this view; the Christian church inherited Plato’s. Such contemptu mundi (contempt for the world) is often, in that tradition, expressed as contempt for that which exists “in time” and is not eternal.]

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

–Woody Allen (1935–      )


No, It Doesn’t: Time is an Illusion Due to Vantage Point in an Eternal Space Time (the “Block Time” Hypothesis):

“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing, for we physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

–Albert Einstein (1879­–1955), in a letter written to the family of Michele Besso, on Besso’s death

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922–2007), who is in heaven now, Slaughterhouse Five

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

–T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), “Burt Norton,” from Four Quartets

No, It Doesn’t: The Now as Consequence of the Blindness of the Brain to Its Own Processing of Temporal Data (the “Blind Brain” Hypothesis)

“Nothing, I think, illustrates this forced magic quite like the experiential present, the Now. Recall what we discussed earlier regarding the visual field. Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply ‘runs out’ without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and, I suspect, without the benefit of any ‘visual run off’ circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of blindness you cannot see.

“This, the Blind Brain Hypothesis suggests, is what the now is: a temporal analogue to the edgelessness of vision, an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field’–what James called the ‘specious present’–hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to. There is time in experience, but no time of experience. The same way seeing relies on secondary systems to stitch our keyhole glimpses into a visual world, timing relies on things like narrative and long term memory to situate our present within a greater temporal context.

“Given the Blind Brain Hypothesis, you would expect the thalamocortical system to track time against a background of temporal oblivion. You would expect something like the Now. Perhaps this is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

“Which is to say that the Blind Brain Hypothesis offers possible theoretical purchase on the apparent absurdity of conscious existence, the way a life of differences can be crammed into a singular moment.”

–Scott Bakker, “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”

PART 3: What Contemplation of Time Teaches Us about Living

Carpe Diem

“Such,” he said, “O King, seems to me the present life of men on Earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter’s night, you sit feasting . . . and a simple sparrow should fly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter; but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to our eyes.

“Something like this appears the life of man, but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”

–The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II


“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

–Horace (65–8 BCE), Odes 1.11

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), “Rubiyat,” trans. Edward FitzGerald

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

–Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time”

459px-Einstein_patentofficeBut at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to durst;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

–Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

“Get it while you can.
Don’t you turn your back on love.”

–The American philosopher Janis Joplin (1943–1970)

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childGive Up/It’s All Futile Anyway

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of nonexistence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.

“Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day. It might, perhaps, make us mad to see how rapidly our short span of time ebbs away; if it were not that in the furthest depths of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the exhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.

“Consideration of the kind, touched on above, might, indeed, lead us to embrace the belief that the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”

–The ever-cheerful Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), “The Vanity of Existence,” from Studies in Pessimism

Three Phenomenologist/Existentialist Views of Time

NB: the following are NOT quotations. I’ve summarized material that appears in much longer works. You’re welcome. I have included Husserl in this section, even though his work is just an attempted explanation of time, because the other two philosophers treated here are reacting to Husserl’s ideas.

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Husserl (very bright dude, this one): All our ideas about time spring from our conscious experience of the present. That experience is characterized by being intentional, by being toward something. We typically recognize three kinds of time: 1. scientific, objective, Newtonian time, which we think of as being independent of ourselves and as independently verifiable; 2. subjective time, in which events seem to move slower or faster; and 3. phenomenological or intentional time, which is the fundamental experience on which the other concepts of time are based, from which the other concepts derive because the phenomenological present includes not only awareness of present phenomena (the present), but retention (awareness of that which is not present because it no longer is—the past), and protention (awareness of that which is not present because it is about to be). The present is intentionality toward phenomena before us here, now. The past is present intentionality toward phenomena that are not present but are with us and so must be past (that’s where the definition of past comes from). The future is present intentionality toward phenomena that also are present but are not with us (as the past is) and so must be the future, which will be (that’s where the definition of future comes from). Therefore, in their origins in our phenomenological experiences, the future and the past are parts of the present, conceptual phenomena held in the present, alongside actual phenomena, as phenomena no longer present and not yet present.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childHeidegger: Husserl had it all wrong. It’s the future, not the present, that is fundamental. We are future-oriented temporalities by nature, essentially so. Our particular type of being, Dasein, or being-there, is characterized by having care (about its projects, its current conditions, about other beings)—about matters as they relate to those projects. Our being is characterized by understanding, thrownness, and fallenness. Understanding, is the most fundamental of the three. It is projection toward the future, comportment toward the possibilities that present themselves, potentiality for being. Our understanding seizes upon projects, projecting itself on various possibilities. In its thrownness, Dasein always finds itself in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment that limits the space of those possibilities. As fallenness, Dasein finds itself among other beings, some of which are also Dasein and some of which (e.g., rocks) are not Dasein, and it has, generally respectively, “being-with” them or “being alongside” them, and these help to define what possibilities there are.  “Our sort of being (Dasein) is being for which being is an issue.” Why is it an issue? Well, we are finite. We know that we are going to die. This is the undercurrent that informs our essential being, which is care, concern. We are projections toward the future because undertaking these projects is an attempt, however quixotic, to distract ourselves from or even to cheat death. We care about our projects because, at some level, we care about not dying, having this projection toward the future for which we are living.

459px-Einstein_patentofficeSartre: The world is divided into two kinds of being: being-for-itself (the kind of being that you and I have) and being-in-itself (the kind of being that a rock or a refrigerator has). Let’s think a bit about our kind of being. Take away your perceptions, your body, your thoughts. Strip everything away, and you still have pure being, the being of the being-for-itself, but it is a being that is also nothing. (The Buddha thought this, too). Being-for-itself has intentional objects, but itself is no object (there’s no there there) and so is nothing, a nothingness. Time is like being in that respect. It consists entirely of the past (which doesn’t exist) and the future (which doesn’t exist) and the present (which is infinitesimally small and so doesn’t exist). So time, like being, is a nothingness. This being-for-itself is not just nothingness, however; it has some other bizarre, contradictory characteristics: Its being, though nothing, allows a world to be manifest (how this is so is unclear), a world that includes all this stuff, including others, for example, who want to objectify the being-for-itself, to make it into a something, a thing, a being-in-itself, like a rock. (“Oh, I know you. I’m wise to you. You’re . . . .” whatever.) The being-for-itself also has a present past (in Husserl’s sense) and is subject to certain conditions of material construction (the body) and material conditions (in an environment of things), and all these givens—the body, the environment, one’s own past, and other people seen from the outside in their thinginess—make up the being-for-itself’s facticity. The being-for-itself wants to be SOMETHING, and so lies to itself. It acts in bad faith, playing various roles (playing at being a waiter, for example) and creating for itself an ego (via self-deceptive, magical thinking). But in fact, being in reality nothing, being-for-itself (each of us) knows that that’s all a lie. We transcend our facticity and can be anything whatsoever, act in any way whatsoever. In other words, we are absolutely free and therefore absolutely responsible. This responsibility is absurd, because there is no reason for being/doing any particular thing. “Man is a meaningless passion.” But the absolute freedom that derives from our essential nothingness also allows for action to be truly authentic (as opposed to the play-acting) in addition to being responsible. Only in death does the being-for-itself succeed in becoming a being-in-itself, a completed thing, and then only if and in the manner in which he or she is remembered by others. A person who is not remembered never existed. Death is a time stamp or, if we are not remembered, an expiration date.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)The Eternal Return and the Weight of Being

“341. The Greatest Weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), The Gay Science

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Fleeting One-Offness of Everything and the Resulting Unbearable Lightness of Being

“But Nietzsche’s demon is, of course, wrong. There is no eternal return. Where does that leave us? Isn’t life ALWAYS a matter of I should have’s and I would have’s and if I had only knowns? “[W]hat happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. . . .

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

–Milan Kundera (1929­–     ), contra Nietzsche, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert_Einstein_HeadCopyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | Tagged , , | 4 Comments


Being lesson on muddying the waters to make them look deep. . . .

“Management consultants steal your watch and then tell you what time it is.” –Martin Kihn

“Let me speak, for a moment, from a 50,000-Foot-Perspective,” said T, laser pointer in one hand, projector remote in the other, “While Six Sigma DMAIC and DMADV deployment has certainly Bootstrapped the Operational Efficiencies of the Today’s Armed Services, you can’t just throw a fundamental Disruption, a New Paradigm, Over the Wall and expect people to Drink from the Firehose. A NOC is more than infrastructure and architecture. That’s the Low-Hanging Fruit. Maybe this is what Porras and Collins call a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal, but I say Best-of-Breed is the only way to go. You’ve got to Implement Cascaded Key Performance Indictors—KPIs—to ensure Stakeholder Buy-in and Alignment and Accountability, not only Along your Verticals but Along your Horizontals as well because what we’re after, here, I’m sure you will agree, is the creation of a COE—a Center of Excellence employing Best Practices. And what do I mean by Best Practices? Why, Scorecarding, of course—that goes without saying—but also De-Siloing, which, as I’m sure you know, is the whole point of Cross-Functional QFD, uh, Quality Functional Deployment, not to mention Matrix Management.”

T surveyed the blank, uncomprehending faces of his audience. He had them just where he wanted them. “And those KPIs—those keys to Alignment—have to be Dashboarded Real-Time and not just floated up into the Adminisphere whenever some Prairie-Dogging GM gets some good news and wants the boss to Bobblehead his bonus. And that’s the Value Proposition of Security-Heightened Information Technologies: we act as Change Agents, not only Architecting the Roadmaps and the Enterprise-Enablers, the Communications Plans and Transformation Plans, but also Facilitating and Fast Tracking the Action Items over the Event Horizon. That’s our Value Add, and if it’s not your Core Competency, and of course it isn’t, that’s the whole point, right, of Privatization? of letting you stick to the business of containing the terrorists? If it’s not your Core Competency, it is ours, and, that’s what we Bring to the Table.

“I know what you’re thinking: of course, there’s always Diminishing Returns on any Hype Curve, but getting the Analytics right isn’t just another Consultancy fad—it’s the Real Deal, it’s what you have to do in Today’s Business Environment, with its Discontinuities and Black Swans. We’ve Ridden the Experience Curve on this one. We’ve done the Knowledge Capture and have the Thought Leaders and the Bandwidth to Knock This Out of the Park—to create a Blue Ocean, if you will. In short, we serve as your Envisioneers. We begin with Capturing Asks, the Voice of the Business and the Voice of the Customer, to Validate the Requirements, and then we Baseline and Benchmark; Map the As Is and To Be; do the Want/Got, the Trending, and the Gap Analyses; establish the Risk Management Parameters with a Failure Means and Modes Analysis. But we don’t stop there, with Shelfware. We actually do the Knowledge Transfer, the Mindshare and Cross-Fertilization, if you will, making sure that your Implementation Team has the Face Time with our PMPs and SMEs to Source it all properly and Queue up the Pipeline so you end up with a Plug-and-Play, Turnkey Solution. And we can Leverage our firm’s Strategic Relationships all along the Value Chain to add further value, with only a modest Incremental appropriation, both to Increase Throughput and Reduce Cycle Time from design to Go Live. And to make sure this is not just some sort of Fire Drill, we Health Check the whole process through the final Toll Gate with our Proprietary Activity-Based Costing.”

T took a deep breath and changed to the next slide. “And if the cost is an issue, let me remind you of the projected ROI. I mean, if the numbers are big at the top of the page, they’re a whole lot bigger at the bottom, and remember that, in the long run, Quality Is Free and pays for itself. And to sweeten the kitty, if this is done properly, you should be able to Demass and Delayer some of those Horizontals I was talking about earlier, so everybody goes home happy. So, the question comes down to whether you need to Run This up the Flagpole or whether can we sign the Incremental S.O.W. right here and now. Or maybe, Colonel Frank, you’d like to Take that part of the discussion Offline.”

The colonel sat back in his chair and thought a bit. After a long while, he smiled. “Son,” he said, “that was some presentation.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said T, “but this was not my presentation alone. It has the full force of Security-Heightened Information Technologies behind it.”

“No. No. Take credit where credit is due. As I said, that was some presentation. I, for one, have found your remarks enlightening. And in return, I have something to share with you. As I’m sure you know, CENTCOM is a multi-service force, a unified command running operations all over the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Africa. We’ve got people from every service working here—a band of brothers running the war effort around the globe. I’m Army, myself—cavalry, if you can believe that—came up in the Horse Cavalry Detachment of the U. S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division—we still keep that detachment in operation, for ceremonial purposes, mind you. One thing about the kind of training I got in the 1st Cavalry—I’ve been around horses long enough to know horseshit when I stumble across it.”

And that is how T came to find himself temporarily unemployed. But, as they say, you can’t keep a good man down, and T wasn’t about to remain unremunerated. T was, after all, like so many up and coming young executives, Coin Operated.


Copyright 2009. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

For more poems by Bob Shepherd (and essays on reading and writing poetry), go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/poetry/

For more short stories by Bob Shepherd (and essays on the reading and writing of fiction), go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/short-stories/

Posted in Poetry, Short Stories, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Charters, Vouchers, and Segregation

A breathtakingly good summary of the sordid history of using charters, vouchers, and private schooling to effect de facto segregation:



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He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

1280px-Cameratoezichtcentrale_politie_nederland.jpgThe utter subjugation of the populace didn’t happen via secret police and mass executions as in Stalin’s Russia.

No, it was much more subtle, occurring bit by bit, drip by drip, a boiled frog phenomenon.

It all started, seemingly innocently, with Learning Management Systems, or LMSs. These were database systems into which were entered all of a student’s information–grades, disciplinary actions, attendance records, health records, demographic and economic information, standardized test scores, and so on.

The Department of Education, with a big grant from a billionaire donor, rolled out retinal scanners and galvanic skin response wristbands that students would wear. These fed data about student attention to task, or gritfulness, directly into the LMS and alerted teachers when that attention strayed. These were the forerunners of the “identification buttons” that employers started having their employees wear–the ones wirelessly readable by the ubiquitous workplace drones that swept the floors and washed the windows and emptied the trash and inventoried supplies and so much, much else.

Of course, the national security services had bankrolled, many years before, the creation of several social media platforms to which people would post EVERYTHING about themselves, and it was a simple matter to data mine these to create extraordinarily detailed profiles of every citizen.

And then it only made sense to extend the LMSs–now called Human Capital Management Systems, or HCMSs–from school to the workplace, making it easy to provide prospective employers with transcripts and test scores and other LMS data and to add to each citizen profile his or her work evaluations and workplace time-on-task, location tracking, and other data.

And then the Social Responsibility Transparency Acts, which followed the 2028 jobs riots, merged credit ratings and HCMS data and social media data and Armed Services records and police records and banking and credit card records and GPS data to produce the Social Credit Index, or SCI. . . .

How difficult, in comparison, were the jobs of the Thought Police in Orwell’s 1984. All the Ministry of Love had were two-way telescreens!

Art: Desk in one of the regional CCTV control rooms of the National Police in the Netherlands. By Sanderflight – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61293230

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the subject of Ed Deform, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

Posted in Ed Reform, Short Stories | 1 Comment

Donnie, Baby


For more humor by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/humor/

For more art by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/art/

For more pieces about Don the Con; aka The Don, Cheeto Trumpbalone; aka Vlad’s Agent Orange; aka President Pinocchio; aka IQ45, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/trump-don-the-con/

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Leila and Loofi

Leela and Loofi, Vol 1, No 1.jpg

Leela and Loofi, Vol 1, No 2.jpg

Leela and Loofi, Vol 1, No 3.jpg

Leela and Loofi, Vol 1, No 4.jpg

All pieces copyright 2019, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

For more art by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/art/

For more humor by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/humor/

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Why You Should Move to Florida

1280px-Alligator_at_ChampionGatesEconomy. It’s the home of free (I mean really free) enterprise. Selling sinkholes and swampland to Yankees has mostly given way to late-night erectile dysfunction infomercials (yes, a big industry in Florida), casinos, tort law, strip clubs, megachurches, guns shows, and charter schools, but it’s still the capital of the con, so, of course, it’s home to Donald Trump. (Mar-a-lago recently won a prestigious award for second tackiest dwelling in the universe, after Trump’s apartment in Trump Tower.) Of course, the man who brought you Trump University would locate here. It’s wilder than the Wild West. How do all those grifters end up here? Basically, ne’er-do-wells throughout the country flee the law until they can’t flee any further because there’s an ocean in the way.
O Florida! Of thee I sing!
Geography. The state has two zones–North Florida (which is basically Southern Southern Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi without the high levels of education for which those states are known) and South Florida, aka, The Swamplands. To get to Florida, go East until you smell it and South until you step in it. The highest elevation in the state is Mount Trashmore, aka the Miami Dump (true), from the top of which you can see all the way to Tallahassee. It’s important for you to relocate to Florida soon, as with global warming and the flatness and low elevation of the state, it soon will not exist anymore.
Flora and Fauna. In Florida, we have cotton mouths and mosquitoes the size of Labradors, and every puddle has a gator in it (many swimming pools, too). We also have swamp rats, wild pigs with tusks like Tyrannosaur teeth, the world’s largest concentration of aerially copulating insects, palmetto bugs (imagine a cockroach the size of a Volkswagen), good ole boys, hundreds of thousands of feral teenagers, and, in the Clearwater Refuge, the world’s largest herd of Scientologists. Ecological note: The grifters are definitely at the top of the food chain and prey on the elderly (see below), which might seem cruel but is the way of nature. The swarms of love bugs, when disturbed, have been known to lift lounge chairs, with people in them, to heights of up to 100 feet.
Housing. There are 19 nudist resorts in Pasco County, Florida, alone, or, if you are a modest sort, you can go live in Key West, where the old folks mostly cover their public nudity with body paint.
Religion. In Florida, every other building is, by law, a Christian church. These are generally the size of small European countries and located across a swamp from a strip club. Or, for the more adventurous, there is an ayahuasca church in Orlando.
Retirement in Florida. And speaking of old folks. . . . naturally, a place with this many charms holds many attractions to the elderly, who come here to be scammed by the aforementioned grifters and to wade into the surf in their Bermuda shorts and lift their cocktail glasses to their own setting suns.
Conversation (I am not making this up) at the Tampa, Florida Department of Motor Vehicles:
Elderly woman: It’s a wonder they gave it to me [her license]. I’m blind as a bat.
Me: Then you’ll be right at home on the roads here.
Copyright 2019, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.
Art: An alligator on the Champion Gates National golf course, Davenport, Florida. By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18966854
More more humor (including cartoons) by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/humor/
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Ed Deform Follies: Yes, You Get What You Measure, or Be Careful What You Wish For

Orwell_video_game_posterApril 30, 2019

Today, Diane Ravitch posted two  important pieces on her blog. One is on Ken Robinson’s book about the egregious consequences of high-stakes standardized testing. The other is about the Stalinesque workings of the “justice” system in a city in Georgia where innocent people are arrested and given the choice of a) pleading guilty to the trumped-up charges and getting a fine and a slap on the wrist or b) pleading not guilty and risking being jailed for decades under false charges.
These two phenomena are related, and I would like to explain how. I hope you will stick with me here, because I’m going to present an argument, and while it’s not a difficult or complex argument, it will take some attending to.
Ed Deformers based their “data driven accountability” systems on a key idea, which we might call the Fundamental Axiom of Ed Deform:
You get what you measure.

The unelected monarch of Ed Deform in the United States is Bill Gates. Find a shill or shell organization (or a piece of federal legislation) that promotes high-stakes standardized testing, evaluating teachers and schools based on their test scores, or promoting “common standards” to make it easier to prepare and sell tests and educational software “at scale,” and the probability is quite high that the Gates Foundation will be its primary funder or, at least, one of its primary funders. All these Ed Deforms just happen, by the way, to involve buying and using a lot of computers and computer software–taking standardized tests on computers, using depersonalized education software, vast databases of cradle-to-grave information about students and citizens. Gates has spent many, many millions promoting this stuff. For instance, he paid to have a guy with no relevant experience, David Coleman, create the Common [sic] Core [sic], on which the high-stakes standardized computer tests are based.

So, Ed Deform is all about computers, and Gates just happens to be a computer guy. Such coincidence! Such synchronicity!

As a computer guy (and an avid reader of serious books), Gates is doubtless familiar with the triple bar (≡) from symbolic logic, which means “if and only if” and is the symbol for material equivalence. What experience has shown is that foundational principle on which Ed Deform is based ought to be rewritten as

Outcome ≡ measurement

In other words, in high-stakes, data-managed systems,

You get what you measure AND ONLY WHAT YOU MEASURE.

The last part of this (“and only what you measure”) is REALLY important because IT CHANGES EVERYTHING.

The Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] (CCSS) make lip service to students reading substantive works of literature. But the standards [sic] themselves consist entirely of statements of “skills,” and these AND ONLY THESE are  measured on the high-stakes standardized tests.

Furthermore, they are measured in a particular way: students are given a snippet of random text and are asked a question that requires them to “apply the standard” to the text. So, that’s what you get: you get the devolution of education in ELA into depersonalized learning software and textbooks and worksheets, print or online, that present students with random snippets of text and ask them to apply the skills standards to these. In other words, you get this vast distorting or devolution of ELA pedagogy and curricula. Today, shortly after I drafted this post, I heard from yet another friend in educational publishing that she was quitting because she was sick of this Ed Deform-driven dumbing down of curricula.

Gates occasionally gives breezy interviews in which he talks about the “experiment” he is conducting with his “higher standards” and how he will know in a decade or two whether they will be successful. And this is what people who don’t know what they are doing but are incredibly sure of themselves do and say. They rush in, for their own reasons, where angels fear to tread, and they make a mess of things. Meanwhile, every educational publisher in the United States now starts the planning of every project by making a list of the Gates/Coleman standards [sic] in the far-left column of an Excel spreadsheet and, in the next column over, a list of the places in the product where the standard [sic] will be “covered.” In other words, the standards [sic] have become the default curriculum. They, and only they, are what is taught and what matters. In the past, when states had competing standards, the publishers worked in this way instead: they created a coherent product–a survey text in British literature for 12th graders, for example, and then “correlated” it with all those competing standards. The correlations were often quite fanciful, but the product was coherent and and unified and substantive. But now, it has been narrowed to teach the standards and only the standards, and bright folks like my friend, who care deeply about kids and the teaching of English, quit their jobs in disgust. So, Mr. Gates’s actions have these very real consequences–they narrow the curriculum and destroy careers that would have been spent doing good in the world.

In real life, when you read Orwell’s 1984 or the Constitution of the United States, you don’t read it primarily to apply a skill from Lord Coleman’s list to it. You read it because the experience is so moving as to be unforgettable and because you are interested in the important things that Orwell or the founders had to say and because you want to join in the ongoing cultural discussion of these. So, the approach forced upon us by Gates and Coleman is utterly unnatural. It leaves all that out. Here’s a little experiment you can try: read Melinda Gates’s new book, The Moment of Lift, and then write a review of it. However, limit your review to discussing how, in the book, Ms. Gates’s choice of particular words affected the tone and mood of her piece and to giving examples of this (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY-RI.8.4). Then see if you care at all to write such a piece or if anyone would care at all to read it.

In short, the Gates/Coleman approach, which I call New Criticism Lite, leads to completely unnatural InstaWriting and InstaThinking and reduces the process of reading and responding to literary and other written works to a Procrustean, highly constrained exercise IN TRIVIALITIES. The whole reason for reading and writing—the commerce in ideas and experiences–is devalued or lost. It’s not going to be on the test.

But there is another modification we need to make in the Fundamental Axiom of Ed Deform to reflect how it plays out in practice. Data-based accountability, Ed Deform style, depends upon the high stakes. You don’t get what you measure and only what you measure in the absence of high stakes accorded that measurement. In other words, you need violence and the threat of violence: give me what I am measuring (and only what I am measuring), or you will be fired, your school will be closed and replaced by a charter, or your student will not graduate or be advanced to the fourth grade. So, the fundamental tenet of Ed Deform, revised:

You get what you measure and only what you measure if you threaten state violence if you don’t get it.

So, what does the Fundamental Axiom of Ed Deform have to do with justice as practiced in that small town in Georgia? Well, the same axiom is at work. Increasingly in the United States, the criminal justice system is data-driven, and what is measured are guilty pleas and convictions, not whether justice was served. And so, under threat of state violence, you get what you measure and only what you measure—more guilty pleas and more convictions. That’s why the “land of liberty” now has a higher percentage of its citizens under penal supervision (in jail, in prison, or on parole) than does any other country in the world (almost 3 percent of the adult population). Think of the sickest, most repressive regime on the planet. We in “the land of liberty” imprison people at a rate greater than it does. There are, today, more black men under penal supervision in the US than there were black men who were slaves in 1858. We are becoming one nation, accountable to data, like something out of Orwell or Kafka. Glory be to data in the highest. In data we trust. Out of many, data. We hold this truth to be self-evident, that all people are reducible to data.

So, what sounds on the surface of it like a good idea (“We need real data-based accountability!”) ends up having these horrific consequences in the lives of actual people. Little Yolanda hates reading because she thinks it’s a guessing game in which you find which of the four tortured sentences in the multiple-choice question about standard CCSS. ELA-LITERACY.RI.666 is “most correct,” and then she grows up to be unable to get a job when she’s 30 because she was caught when she was 18 with her boyfriend’s roach clip in her pocket. She’s held accountable, forever. When she was 18, she went to a party, and she met the wrong guy, and so, of course, her life should be ruined going forward.

The “data,” ofc, from those standardized tests is garbage. The tests don’t measure what they purport to measure. They are invalid and unreliable. You can’t draw from them the conclusions that the Ed Deformers draw, and you certainly can’t rationally base important educational decisions on them. But none of this matters. It doesn’t matter that all this data-based decision making is just so much numerology. It sells computers and computer systems, and it’s an effective means of command and control. And that was the point of it.

So, Ed Deform has a lot of similarities to the Eugenics Movement of the early 20th century. It’s a pseudoscience, based on bad data and poor statistical reasoning, from which false inferences are drawn that lead to horrific social consequences. A great book could, in fact, be written on the parallels between these two periods of madness in our history–the Era of Eugenics and the Era of Ed Deform.

Those who don’t learn from history are forced to repeat it.

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” –George Orwell, 1984

Art: Orwell video game artwork/poster, by Osmotic Studios, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52585671


For more pieces on Ed Deform by Bob Shepherd, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/


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