Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saturday Serial: The Count of Monte Cristo part 21


81. The Room of The Retired Baker
82. The Burglary
83. The Hand of God
84. Beauchamp


81. La chambre de boulanger retiré
82. L'effraction
83. La Main de Dieu
84. Beauchamp

Courtesy /

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

One of my commenters suggested I read some of the synaesthesia research published by Richard Cytowic, so of course I immediately went and got basically everything he ever wrote -- well, the books, anyway; I haven't been through the papers -- through the Boston Public Library system. (To steal a quote from Moggie, I don't know how to like things casually.) The Central Library is under construction right now and I am a lazy bastard, so if I want specific volumes I just put a hold on them and have the librarians pull them for pickup. Wandering aimlessly through the shelves is for when I want something to read but don't know what. Boredom is a known hazard with me. The library card has joined my T pass, ID, and debit card in the phone case, as part of the minimum possible set of items I might need to keep myself out of trouble at any given moment -- I can't go anywhere without a music player, which means I can't go anywhere without the phone, which means I can't go anywhere without whatever is in the wallet case. Or, in the case of the earbuds and my keys, dangling off of it.

The first three things BPL coughed up were The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, and Synestheisa: A Union of The Senses, of which I have more or less finished the first two.

The first thing that has become apparent is that Cytowic is the ultimate source of all of the one-liners cited in the popular press when someone wants to write a fluff piece on the weird things brains do. The lady whose husband had a voice that brought up hot buttered toast, the cotton candy kisses, and the eponymous man who felt cool glass columns when he tasted spearmint are all from Cytowic's work or personal correspondence. I first recall hearing about all of these people well over twenty years ago in one of those Time-Life book series my parents bought. (We had the hard science one and the Forteana one. One thing I will give my parents credit for: In our house, we read the opposing arguments. We also had one on military aviation, I think, but that was more because Dad was an aeronautics engineer than because we thought we'd have to defend the homestead from an F-18 Hornet.) The same stories are told again and again, and I have to wonder why. Sean Day still runs the online Synesthesia List -- I know, because I'm on it -- and there are still calls for research participants mixed in with the art projects, so someone still has to be looking into this.

The second thing that jumps out is that the tendency of the press to speak of all synaesthetic experiences as if they are projected "outside" is also down to Cytowic. His definition of the condition makes it mandatory that the extraneous sensory ping happen "outside", which nettled me until he accidentally got to talking about the relatively high co-occurrence of synaesthesia and eidetic memory. He is using "experienced outside" to mean "not being generated in-house by the imagination," not as in, "gives the impression of being located in space exterior to the body". Some synaesthetes do get apparent projections in space (i.e., hallucinations), but he does at one point specifically state that others describe their experiences as happening on the same 'screen' that shows the eidetic snapshots, just as I do.

[Interestingly, he also draws an explicit parallel to the experience of some patients undergoing neurosurgery. There are various types of brain surgery that require the patient to be awake and responding to stimuli, so the surgeon can figure out where to cut to not leave the poor schlub with a head full of pudding. The way they do this is to pump you full of numbing agents and then poke a fine electrode into your head-meats while you are still conscious, down which they send a weensy electrical current to activate whatever happens to be at the end. The idea is that if that particular neuron runs, say, one of your favorite feet, you can tell them that's where it goes and then they won't hack away at it. All manner of weird things float to the top when you flip switches au hasard like that, and patients have reported Proustian flashbacks of all kinds of random moments of their life; they describe it as 'seeing' the memory and seeing the OR crew at the same time, without any cross-interference. This is, in fact, precisely how my eidetic memory works. And how impossible colors like octarine work, for that matter.]

Why he decided to describe it as "outside" in the first place, I don't know. My conceptual sense of where the eidetic plane lies puts it in the middle of the workflow, sitting between the raw data coming in through the retina and the post-processing done by the visual cortex. My proprioceptive sense, such as it is, puts the screen inside my head, literally between eyeball and brain. Just a big vertical transverse plane right behind my face. I think the geometry doesn't quite work IRL, but I put it very firmly in the post-capture part of the signal chain, which I would not personally consider 'outside'.

[It may be that I place the eidetic plane there because I'm annoyingly myopic. Humans are not born knowing how to visually estimate distance; they learn it, essentially by learning to keep track of what their eyes have to do to bring things into focus. Your eyes rotate toward and away from the nose, giving you an angle of convergence, and muscles squash and stretch the lens and goo of your eyeball to adjust the focus, which gives you a degree of accommodation. You learn that seeing something twenty feet away feels like 'this', so the next time your eyes are in 'this' configuration, you figure you're looking at something twenty feet off in the distance.

That's why autostereoscope widgets like a 3DS make you feel like you're looking into a shadow box. They can make things appear to float above or behind the screen by adjusting the separation between the left- and right-eye images, but the focal plane for all of the pixels is still going to be on the surface of the display. Your brain thinks they must be separated in space, because you have to keep changing the angle of convergence, but they can't be that far apart, because you're never changing focus. Ergo, Mario must be stomping Goombas in a wee little diorama.

Generally, when I check eidetic images or watch the musical light show, I stare at something boring. (It doesn't work as well when I close my eyes, for some reason. Dunno why.) I'm pretty sure I track objects in the scene as if it were a physical photograph, so I'm probably physically adjusting aim and convergence out in meatspace, but it's a pixel plane, and I don't need to adjust my focus to check the back row. Since I'm mildly short-sighted, I have to try harder to focus on things farther away; laziness brings my focal plane in closer. 'Seeing' a clear image without any ocular effort at all might just confuse the renderer and set its Z-priority at -1, i.e., clipping through my sinuses,]

Cytowic's science seems good, and when he's forced by a collaborator (or MIT Press) to write an actual academic work, his research is both fascinating and useful. Left to his own devices, on the other hand, he gets to gibbering about how he thinks synaesthesia says profound and meaningful things about human nature and evolution. The Man Who Tasted Shapes is part science and part memoir, which I generally don't mind -- I love reading Sacks and Feynman and Hofstadter and all that. But that whole book gave me the same kind of heebie-jeebies I get from people who talk about Indigo Children. One hopes he has calmed down somewhat in the intervening thirty years, but if he hasn't, he sounds like exactly the sort of person I would never, ever mention any of this to at a cocktail party, lest I get trapped in a conversation a minimum of one of us is going to regret.

Chromesthesia is a weird thing my brain does. My brain does a lot of weird things. This one happens to be a thing I find interesting, which provides me with a great deal of entertainment. The fact that it exists in some people does have implications about how human brains work in general, in the same way that watching how brains malfunction when injured helps us deduce how they function when they're not. It is not a key to unlocking the ontological mystery of humanity. It does not make me more or less evolved. It also does not per se make me more or less intelligent, more or less spiritual, or more or less connected to the world. I happen to have figured out how to do helpful things with it, but that's down to me being a tool-using hominid. Synaesthesia by itself is no more an advantage than the existence of rocks. You still have to come up with the idea of stabbing things and work out how to knap flint before you can invent spears.

On the more reasonable side, Cytowic has a bunch of theories about the mechanics of synaesthesia which are of some interest. (I'm not sure that synaesthesia is a unitary condition, which is always caused by the same root set of circumstances, anymore than epilepsy is, but never mind that.) The gist of his postulate is that the over-connectedness required for synaesthetic experiences to trigger probably exists in all humans when very (like, pre-language) young, but fall off as the brain prunes back excess connections between neurons. The phenomenon is brought to consciousness when and if the cortex for some reason fails in its normal job of inhibiting spurious signals.

I don't know if this is the case for all synaesthetics, but it's entirely plausible for me. I sit in for psych experiments at Harvard and MIT from time to time, and I have startled some of the linguists rather badly by failing to react as an ossified adult language-speaker to their trials -- the process by which I deduce meaning and pick up new constructions is what they expect to see from small children. I use the same cryptanalytic procedure for learning everything new, and my brain is overactive and staticky in general, so I have no trouble believing I have for some reason failed to fully mature out of an early hyperplasticity stage. I also have trouble downgrading the salience of anything, and have to intentionally discard a lot of observations that probably ought to have been trashed by my cortex long before they came to my conscious attention.

I've learnt to work with this, but honestly, a lot the containment strategy is just applying brute force computational power. If I were any less terrifyingly smart to start with, I'm not sure how I'd cope. Probably poorly. The more fatigued I am, the more difficult it is to sort things out. I get incredibly crabby when I'm tired, and want everyone to go away and leave me alone in a small dark hole. It's harder to ignore everything, including the synaesthetic imagery, and if I'm really dead I tend to just stand on the platform listening to music and watching the light show until my train shows up. Anecdotal evidence, and some of Cytowic's trials on a friend of his, suggest that synaesthetic experiences are suppressed by stimulants and enhanced by depressants, following the general trend of their effect on the inhibitory systems of the brain -- basically, if you keep throttling the clock speed on your cortex down, it eventually just throws a load of unorganized shit at your conscious mind and goes 'sod it, here's everything I have, you sort it out'.

[I would also add that attenuating outside stimuli also makes the synaesthetic imagery more prominent, at least for me. Cytowic doesn't seem to have done any trials with dissociatives, but I have, and the less I notice stupid shit like gravity, the more bandwidth I have for interesting weirdness. This might be idiosyncratic. I don't know the effect of DXM on cortical function, and I don't know how developing a habit of introspection might affect the semi-automatic thought processes that happen when you're on loads of drugs. Probably I'd get similar results from floating in a saltwater isolation tank.]

There is also passing mention of migraines co-occurring with synaesthesia, which Cytowic unfortunately does not follow up on, This may be relevant to me as well. One of the more simplistic theories of migraine genesis postulates that it's kicked off by a spot of cortical depression, perhaps caused by localized variation in blood flow, that transforms into an outward-spreading ripple via synaptic propagation. The idea is that the weird things migraineurs get as auras are a symptom of a sort of reverse-seizure. A seizure is what happens when something kicks off a storm of too much electrical activation in a chunk of brain, and it causes symptoms when it gets chaotic and out-of-control; conversely, in migraine, the wave of too little electrical activity that spreads outwards from the initial cortical depression leads to temporary brownouts in systems like visual processing, auditory processing, language generation, edge detection, and so forth. Your 20-minute headache warning involves things like losing proper binocular vision and big strobing blank chunks in your visual field, or at least mine does, and a lot of the visual effects I get are not unlike the primitive animations that accompany especially vivid songs.

One of the more overwrought passages in Shapes is when Cytowic gets his subject-friend into a scanner and discovers that while he's having synaesthetic experiences, the blood flow to his cortex is at a level more normally associated with people who are completely unconscious, not walking around and talking about how they needed to season the chicken until it was sufficiently 'pointy'. I'm just going to point out that I have positional orthostatic intolerance (i.e., if I stand up too fast, I get the whirlies and a stabbing pain at the back of my head), and that I have to avoid things that tank my blood pressure like niacin and alpha-/beta-blockers, because they make my head hurt like fuck and kick off migraines, and leave it at that.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Hi, everyone. How are you? I'm alive-ish. I've just wrapped up a project that I'm extremely proud to have been a part of, and nobody died or even caught on fire. Which was a minor miracle, since I've spent the past couple of weeks living mostly on Sudafed. It is spring now, which is my allergy season. I can deal with gooey eyes fairly gracefully, but the sinus ick can get very unpleasant if I don't stay on top of it. If I let all the snot accumulate, it gets harder to clear out, and things start to swell, and overall the entire insides of my face get angry at me and make my life unhappy.

Fatigue has also been an issue lately. I don't know what's wrong, precisely, but since I don't have limbs dropping off without warning, it's not an emergency, and it'll take me three months to get a doctor to talk to me about it. I'm not sure what I think that's going to accomplish, either. I suspect they're going to shrug and tell me 'do less stuff', which is not an option, unless I want to starve while letting my boredom climb to a blatantly hazardous level. I can take Benadryl for allergies, and make this worse; or I can take Sudafed for it, and do the opposite.

I have been pondering, not without bitterness, why it is somehow okay for me to take amphetamines to un-snot my face, but if I take them to stay awake, I am a horrible person and should be burnt at the stake.

Amphetamines do both of these things equally well, and in fact, do them for the same reason: They prompt a shower of adrenaline, which prepares your body to run from hungry saber-toothed tigers. The process turns down all things not essential when fleeing for your life, including goo production, appetite and digestion, extra blood flow to things that aren't used when running. etc. Adrenaline also acts as a bronchodilator, and boosts your heart rate, the better to fuel your terrified sprinting. Basically, it hits everything attached to the α- and β-adrenergic receptors -- it does the exact opposite of drugs like propranolol (a "beta-blocker") and clonidine (an "alpha-blocker").

The first member of the class, originally dubbed "phenylisopropylamine", was initially synthesized in 1887 from má huáng, also known as ephedra, for the scientifically-important reason "because we can". This is the same reason some other dude cane up with methamphetamine a few years later. It was that kind of era in chemistry. You can imagine that it was unusually hazardous to be a chemist back then, although it did also give us things like plastics and Vaseline and Tylenol, so you can't complain about the recklessness too much. It took until 1927 for someone to realize that you could actually do something with all these ephedrine derivatives, other than point at them and declare that you discovered them, and it was a guy who synthesized a bunch and then ate some to see what happened. Up until the past couple of decades, this is how all drug effects were discovered. Makes Timonthy Leary and the Shulgins sound slightly less out of their minds, doesn't it?

In 1934, someone finally got around to marketing the stuff commercially, as Benzedrine, in the form of a decongestant inhaler. It took the world less than a year to discover that the stuff also made you super-alert and happy, a quality that was promptly (ab)used by the Army in WWII. I'm not sure about other branches, but the US Air Force still stocks "go pills" and "no-go pills" for pilots who need to sleep and fly on a very strict schedule no matter how many things are exploding around them. Up until quite recently, the "go pills" were still straight-up dextroamphetamines. (They switched to modafinil, a stimulant with a slightly different mechanism of action, a few years ago. The "no-go pills", previously benzodiazepines, are now zaleplon or zolpidem.) In addition to prompting a release of adrenaline, amphetamines also prompt the release of dopamine, leading to their use in treatment of attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, which is thought to result from a shortage of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex.

If you want to make the argument that using Sudafed to keep myself awake is not using it as directed, well, guilty as charged -- the box does say that it's for temporary relief of sinus pressure and congestion. If I take it to promote wakefulness and flip out, the manufacturer is legally off the hook. If you want to tell me that taking it to keep myself awake is somehow extra dangerous, then we have an entirely different argument on our hands. The exact same amount that clears out my face also keeps me very, very alert: 30-60mg of instant-release, or 120mg of time-release. This is the dosage level listed on the box you get at the drugstore. It's frankly kind of heavy for me. The average human used to calculate the standard doses of OTC drugs is taken to be a man weighing something like 65-70kg, whereas I'm female and weigh something like 50-55kg, depending on how much I've remembered to eat lately. The recommended doses of OTC drugs are almost universally kept at least an order of magnitude below any harmful level, because people are idiots, and Poison Control can only handle so many calls.

[The major exceptions here are caffeine, which is so widely available you can achieve intoxicating doses with minimal effort -- although dangerous doses require somewhat more planning -- and acetaminophen/paracetamol, which you can OD on terrifyingly easily, starting at about twice the dose you can buy as "maximum strength". You could theoretically do yourself in with aspirin, but you would have to intentionally eat the entire family-sized bottle. All of these things were grandfathered in, due to having been in use for decades before the Safe Food & Drug Act of 1938. The theory was that if you hadn't worked out how not to hurt yourself with them in the preceding 50 years, the FDA was probably not going to save you.]

All drugs have multiple effects, whether you like them or not. Pseudoephedrine does do a number of things I have to watch out for, including acting as an anorectant. I did forget to eat for about 24 hours at one point, and failed to notice this until the technical director turned up to rehearsal with a tupperware full of scones. It also knocks my heart rate up to about 100bpm for a couple of hours, which is high for me and somewhat less than comfortable, but well within human normal range. (My heart is fine; I accidentally got proof of this when I went into Mass General with an unstoppable panic attack and scared the intake nurse, who dropped me on Cardiology with alacrity when she read the output of the pulse oximeter and realized my heart rate was spiking close to 140bpm. Apparently I am not supposed to be able to ignore that.) Stimulants borrow energy from the future in order to keep you going now, so I am fairly uncomfortable when they wear off; I am generally kind of dysphoric and cranky, and I have to remember to take some prophylactic Aleve, because when the vasoconstrictor effect wears off, I tend to come down with a cracking headache.

These side effects are the price you pay for getting the medication to do what you want. This happens with all drugs, even those you take with the official blessing of a doctor. I've done my risk analysis, and none of the side effects I've listed are dangerous to me at this dose; the major cost I am looking at is that I will feel kind of shitty for a while in the evening when my circulating levels of amphetamine taper off. That is a price that I am sometimes willing to pay in order to regain my ability to breathe and run around for a few hours a day, in the same way that I am sometimes willing to put up with a hangover in exchange for being enjoyably drunk the night before. The cost rises as rapidly as the benefits dwindle. The initial release of dopamine and norepinephrine depend on there being stores of neurotransmitters to dump all at once; when the stores run dry, I just get twitchy and unhappy and the stuff generally ceases to do what I want it to do, at which point I stop taking it.

It's my brain I'm altering, and I know what I'm fucking doing to the point where I can argue pharmacodynamics with the doctor and win. So why is it that chemically unclogging my nose is a noble goal, whereas not face-planting in the middle of my tech week is reprehensible?

I suspect I am extra annoyed by the hypocrisy here because I have a feeling that if I told a doctor what I'm taking to keep myself functional these days, they will try to insist I stop taking it. They can go hang. There are official medical equivalents to everything in my pile of technically-legal chemicals -- the muscle relaxant baclofen has the same mechanism of action as phenibut, and prescription levodopa exists and is given to Parkinson's patients. It just won't be issued to me, because I don't have the specific problem officially recognized as requiring it. I think it's pretty clear that I've figured out what the underlying issues are, since both of these substances have fixed things that have literally never in my entire life worked correctly. I just don't fit the dominant narrative, and so most of what I say on the subject is ignored.

Monday, May 9, 2016

For those of you who aren't local or weren't able to come see what I've been up to lately, I present here the first two plays in the Mrs Hawking series, Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina, written/directed/produced by Phoebe Roberts. I've just performed at Watch City in Waltham; this footage is from Arisia 2016, where they were kind enough to have us in the main ballroom and point a bunch of cameras at us. Credits should be in the video somewhere, but I'm the redhead in blue with the brass fireplace poker and accent of questionable provenance.

(Before any of the Brits complain at me: That's intentional. I inquired of the playwright, and Mary's family is originally from Yorkshire, but she herself is an Army brat, unusually literate for someone of her station, who grew up mainly with the other Army brats in India. So the accent is generic "Northern" with all its glorious Danish-Viking Øs, plus some very classist and mostly-unsuccessful attempts to make her stop sounding like that, plus the first time I tried full-on Yorkie in rehearsal, I was informed that nobody in the audience would understand a word I said unless I toned it down a lot.

The ballroom scenes are done in Mary's very best idea of "upper-class twit". I have been told that the sudden accent flip is both astonishing and hilarious. I've no idea; one of my biggest problems in comedy is remembering to stop for laughs, because I'm totally unaware of the audience when I'm on stage.

I am also responsible for the scattered bits of German in Vivat, although the actors' pronunciation of said German is entirely on them.]

The third play in the sequence is more or less complete now, and we hope to mount the production at Arisia 2017, for the entertainment of all.


Mrs Hawking from sydweinstein on Vimeo.

Vitat Regina from sydweinstein on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that thing with the songs and the colors was in fact what other people call synaesthesia.

There are two broad classes of synaesthetes: Projectors and associators. "Projectors" perceive the synaesthetic experience to be outside of their own head, superimposed on the literal experience that brings it up. "Associators" perceive the synaesthetic experience to be inside, visible to 'the mind's eye', but not physically applied to the literal experience of whatever is coming in from outside. An associator looks at the Wednesday heading on the calendar and "knows" that Wednesday is feminine and solemn; a projector looks at the Wednesday heading and "sees" that although the print is physically black, it is simultaneously also a bright scarlet red. Now that I know the difference, when I read pop-sci articles I can usually pick out which kind of synaesthetic experience the interviewee is talking about, but most of the people doing the interviewing do not have synaesthesia themselves, and they tend to characterize all of the experiences as if they were projected.

This matches up very poorly with what happens in my head. Almost all of my various short-circuits are associative -- all of the stuff I 'see' when I listen to music happens on an imaginary plane between the world I physically perceive with my eyes, and my brain where all the interpretation happens. It's the same imaginary plane my eidetic snapshots display on, in fact. Also where the action happens when I'm reading a book, where graphs and transformable spaces are located when I'm chewing on advanced math, and where the wireframe reference for the design lives when I'm trying to piece together a garment from scratch. Seeing what's in front of me and 'seeing' what's in 'front' of me simultaneously presents no particular problem. I can get distracted by one and forget to pay attention to the other, the same way anyone can get distracted by a particular widget on the desk in front of them and forget to pay attention to the rest of the room, but for the most part the two screens run concurrently, and have done as long as I can remember.

[I do get the it-is-black-but-also-red thing, it's just entirely internal. Anecdotally, a lot of synaesthetes report being able to envision "impossible" colors, which is either brilliant or annoying, depending on what you're trying to do with it. Imagine something like a peacock feather, or an opal, which seems to contain many different colors within its structure at various depths and angles of incidence. You can see each of those colors in turn by making arbitrarily small changes to the angle at which you view the object. Now imagine what happens as the change in angle necessary to switch between colors becomes smaller and smaller. The limit case, where δΘ→0, is an impossible color, where all of the colors present in the object are visible simultaneously without any change in viewing angle.

This drives me fucking crazy sometimes. I have been known to go on a tare looking for a specific color of pigment or fabric, or to spend hours with colored pencils trying to work out how to shade something so it matches what's in my head, only to finally realize I am picturing a color that cannot exist in real life.

One of the few cases where I was aware it was an impossible color from the get-go was in pterry's Discworld books, the wizards-only color "octarine". I just assumed that everyone could picture the counterfactual color, even though it obviously did not physically exist. It's a sort of a pumpkin orange and kelly green at the same time, if that helps anyone.]

Because my chromesthesia is associative, it's more roundabout and less distracting than it might be. I'm not hearing a song and literally hallucinating a field of color. It's more like Proust and his madeleines -- the experience of hearing that song reminds me intensely and inescapably of the experience of seeing a particular shade of blue. Sometimes it's a more complicated visual, and sometimes it's other modalities in addition to/instead of just color, but that is the general gist of it. The color, and whatever other visuals are involved, comes up on the eidetic plane. They are vibrant and very very specific, to the point where the color temperature can change slightly but noticeably if I'm using a different set of headphones, or have accidentally fucked with the equalizer settings. I finally had a brainwave and grabbed a Munsell color picker app for my phone, so that I can just show people what color I'm 'seeing', rather than waste ten minutes of circumlocution trying and failing to explain it.

My theory on what is going on is basically accidental databending. Databending, or at least one aspect of it, is when you take a file that was encoded as a particular form of data -- like an MP3 -- and open it in an application that was meant to open a different thing entirely -- like a graphics editor. Most of the time, trying to interpret an MP3 as a JPEG is going to result in a glitched mess that looks like nothing in particular, but occasionally you get something cool out of it.

Figure that memories are encoded as literal, physical patterns of firing neurons. The odds are that the actual shape of the firing pattern looks little or nothing like the thing it's encoding. If I'm staring at a rat, my brain is probably not literally playing connect-the-dots in the outline of a rodent. So there has to be some sort of lookup table. If the lookup tables are local, then patterns can duplicate between them, as long as no one pattern is used twice in the same department of the brain. Something goes into my noggin, gets routed to the auditory processing center, sets off firecrackers in Configuration #37, the auditory processing center checks the table, it goes 'oh, that's a C chord in the guitar fill', all is fine.

If Configuration #37 accidentally gets CCd to the visual cortex as well, then the visual cortex also checks its lookup table for that particular pattern. Configuration #37 might not exist on that table, in which case nothing happens and the misrouting fizzles out there. But if Configuration #37 happens to also be on the local visual table, the visual cortex finds it and shouts back 'tourmaline!', and voilà, a color comes up to go with the sound.

Sometimes collisions like that happen. The phonemic sequence [], exists independently in two of the languages I speak. In Japanese, spelled 『だめ』, it means "don't [do that]/stop it," and in Spanish, spelled « dame », it means "gimme". The two tongues are from opposite ends of the planet, and etymologically completely unrelated. (Seriously. Spanish is from the Romance branch of the Indo-European languages; Japanese is Japonic. Their most recent common ancestor is "humans invented talking".) That string just happens, by sheer coincidence, to be valid in both. Given that, I have no problems believing that Configuration #37 just happens to mean things to both the sound processing and color processing departments of my poor confused brain-meats.

The reason I assume this is going awry somewhere down on the hardware level is that it's possible for it to clash with my conscious expectations. If I happen to have two songs on my playlist with similar beginnings, and one of them comes up when I'm expecting the other, I have one of those ack, thpppbt moments you get when you sip from a glass expecting Sprite and find out it's actually seltzer. It tastes perfectly fine for seltzer water, but until the realization strikes, it's disorienting and wrong. I tend to go wait, why is that violet? shouldn't that be periwinkle? and then I figure it out.

I can ignore it fairly easily, the same way I filter out all of my random pareidolia. I just apply a sanity test to the inputs -- that came in via the ears, don't be daft, it can't be a color. For all I know, other people do this at the unconscious level. I've just moved a lot of stuff up to the conscious and semi-conscious levels of processing, because my basic sensory filter is fucking terrible, and I have enough capacity to compensate. (Mostly. The more exhausted I am, the less I'm able to discard extraneous stuff as quickly as it comes in, and the more I want to hide in a corner and cry.) I can also opt not to ignore it, which is generally how I entertain myself while waiting for trains. I assume I look like I'm staring idly off into the middle distance, usually at something visually boring, like the wall tile or the gravel trackbed.

This system of spurious accidental associations isn't confined to raw sensory data. If ever I draw one of those comparisons that makes perfect sense as soon as I explain it, but has you wondering how on Earth I managed to jump straight from point A to point B, I probably didn't. Somewhere around point A-and-a-half, the concept I was working with got misrouted and kicked back a spurious match to Q out of nowhere. Q generally has no logical relationship with A, especially if it's in the wrong sensory modality (or wrong semantic category, or wrong temporal aspect, or some other kind of wrong Fach), but this is probably not the first time it's been sent back as a false positive. If I rummage around for the list of other things (B, F, 23, 9782i, Wingdings fish) that have previously come up Q for no reason at all, those almost always have a logical connection to A, and actually now that I think about it, B makes a useful metaphor for the point I'm trying to make.

Overall, this is one of those things that by rights ought to make me barking, howling, completely non-functionally mad, but doesn't, because one of the few bits that is not generally broken in my brain is the reality testing. I use it ruthlessly, particularly when reading people, who trigger it no more or less than anything else in the universe does. I do know a lot of formal psychology, and I make conscious note of tics and microexpressions and vocabulary and all that, but in essence what I'm doing is creatively misapplying cryptographic techniques to everything. Using the spurious coincidental associations to quickly dig up "similar" behavior I've seen in the past gives me orders of magnitude more ciphertext to work with than I should rightfully have.

I usually figure out how and why they're "similar" about the same time I figure out what they're likely to mean. This is probably cheating. It definitely weirds people out. I have been generally trained by society to leave out the step with the Wingdings fish in it when I explain my reasoning, because getting the audience past that is more trouble than it's worth. I didn't realize other people didn't do that until rather late in the game, so it took me a while to learn how to verbalize it, too. I often write it out and then wind up hacking it off the start of blog entries before posting; if you're not in my head with me, it tends to come off like the cold starts on The Simpsons, where the first five minutes of the episode is a patently ridiculous situation which serves solely to set up the main plot, and then is never spoken of again.

Monday, May 2, 2016

I need to get myself some better drugs.

Sadly, the only trustworthy person I know who has any LSD needs to find a new supplier, and most of my friends, while perfectly lovely people in most respects, are idiots when it comes to chemistry. I'm sure they can tell me what they think they have, but none of them actually know, and if any of them have ever properly tested the interesting stuff, I will eat my hat.

I can declare this interest in getting high openly, because I'm a freelance whatever, and a writer. There's a reason they don't drug test writers. It would be counterproductive. I've technically shown up to work high before, albeit it was because I was sick and NyQuil knocks me on my ass. Reactions are generally split between 'you're hilarious' and 'jesus, go home and go back to sleep'.

I would have gotten wasted in college like everyone else, but through most of my college career I had shitty friends that I didn't want to get tipsy in front of, never mind potentially go through the total collapse of my ego. Which might have happened back then; I was not a happy kid, and I wasn't quite done being a kid until I figured out how to stop listening to my goddamn mother. Somewhere in my twenties I also discovered that marijuana does fuck-all to me, and since I was in Arizona where nobody really had anything but an assortment of psychoactive desert scrub, that killed most of my later opportunities for fun.

These days I know plenty about getting actual medical-grade drugs off the internet. I specialize in things that have been approved by safety commissions in basically any country other than the US. I still don't really speak any Russian, but I read Cyrillic like a champ. You generally get what you order, on account of it's cheaper and easier to buy the actual drugs from Eastern Europe than to go to all the trouble of finding a substitute. That's not really fun, though; tinkering with my neurotransmitters keeps me functional, not entertained.

Back in the day, I had what was probably a healthy fear of mystery drugs doing random unpleasant things to my system. I am less concerned now that I once was. There seems to exist in my brain some kind of concierge service that reminds me, whenever appropriate, that I have taken a shitload of drugs and that as long as I am successfully breathing and have a regular pulse, I am probably fine, no matter how weird I feel. If I take something and I don't like it, I can just wait 8-12 hours for it to wear off, and not take any more of it. Nothing so far has ever made me feel any worse than my attempts at antidepressants or Vicodin, both of which came from legitimate doctors for legitimate medical reasons, and Lord knows those are not experiences I want to ever repeat.

So far the only thing I have access to that seems to work as advertised (mostly) is large amounts of dextromethorphan. The mechanism is similar to ketamine, which I can't find, but which I'd be game to try PO if I could. It's difficult getting anyone to describe what a "K-hole" is actually like, but if it's that thing where you lose radio contact with all your limbs and lie there while the heavy expanses of an alternate starfield creep over your consciousness and close softly around the nape of your neck, I am 100% okay with those. It happens on high doses of DXM. I expect I'd be fairly pissed if someone tried to shake me out of it, in fact, because then I'd lose my place in the dream and have to start over again once I got them to go away. Not really social drugs, dissociatives, but they can be both enjoyable and useful if you like knocking around the inside of your own head.

I've been pointed at this video, which I'm told is a good approximation of what an acid trip looks like, if a touch too intense. My first guess at how he made that was that it was databent, using the motion estimation data from the grocery store video with the frame rasters from some other piece of psychedelica, and intentionally deleting keyframes except at transitions. As it turns out, he actually did it by threading each individual frame through Google Deep Dream and then recompiling them into a video clip.

Deep Dream is iterative pareidolia in a box. I find that fascinating, because that's exactly what happens when I take loads of anything that attenuates my perceptions, except mine happen on a sort of jelly overlay through which I can see the real world, and I am somewhat less obsessed with dogs than DD seems to be. (Mine tend more towards scintillating abstracts and peacock feathers. It's a different kind of 'scintillating' than migraine auras; I'd call those 'strobing', à la 1960s pop art, but that wasn't around when the terminology first became common.) If I really try, and can find a quiet undistracted corner to sit in, I can access the edge of the state on purpose now that I've done it for really-reals on drugs.

I'd probably qualify for a diagnosis of HPPD except that 1) it's always happened to some degree, even in childhood long before I tried any hallucinogens, when I've been very tired, very sick or uncomfortable, and trying to ignore it all, and 2) while it's almost always latent, it's not continuous, and I can ignore it/make it go away, and 3) it doesn't bother me in the slightest.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

I spent most of the afternoon trapped on a train today. Normally, this does not bother me much. Public transit is nice. I can't be shouted at for loafing; I am on a train, so clearly I have left the house and gone to do whatever thing needs doing. But I also can't be expected to do anything about it right at that very moment, as there are a limited number of things one can tend to on a train, and I can't do anything to make the beastie get where it's going any faster. I am In Transit, and everyone can kindly fuck off for a little while.

When I feel lousy I also feel like rabbit-punching everyone around me who wears a backpack and has a poor sense of personal space, so I had my earbuds jammed resolutely in. I had a lot of Very Loud Things turned up Very Loud Indeed in an effort to ignore all this. Very loud. Louder. Why is it not getting any louder? WHY HAS MY MUSIC NOT BEEN ENLOUDENED. WHAT DO YOU MEAN THAT IS AS FAR AS THE VOLUME CONTROL GOES. THE OTHER PEOPLE ARE STILL HERE.


A lot of my Very Loud Things are blatantly NSFW, at least for anyone who doesn't work for cheery smut peddlers like I do. Even at home, I tend to use headphones. I still get the nagging feeling that I shouldn't let the grown-ups catch me listening to this stuff, despite knowing 1) I am a grown-up, and 2) they've heard it all before. My parents were slightly too young and entirely too nerdy, respectively, to have been caught in things like the punk movement, but I'm aware that the oldies station on the radio is not a good representation of what they listened to in their youth. There is a distinct shortage of prog rock epics about hobbits, for starters. I'm also pretty sure that Van Morrison released more than one song. My father stuck mostly with folk and swamp rock -- he was big on CCR and Pure Prairie League, he liked 3 Doors Down when I sent him some, and he thought Joan Osborne was the most adorable thing with the nose ring -- but my mother bought Like A Virgin and Rhythm Nation 1814 completely on purpose. She was probably very entertained when I learned all the words as a small child, with no idea what half of them meant.

My point is, I know perfectly well that they have all heard "Darling Nikki". They probably know enough of the lyrics to sing along when drunk.

The funny thing is, when I was in a position where I might possibly have a reason to not want my parents knowing what profanities my generation of musicians were howling about, I didn't listen to anything of the sort. My block-out-humanity-on-the-train playlist hit the Placebo section, and it occurred to me that when I was in high school, I would not have liked these guys at all.

I was aware that the band existed, more or less; I remember having seen photos at some point, and just to give you an idea of how miscalibrated my brain has always been about these things, I don't recall ever reading Brian Molko as anything but "unusually pretty dude" and "only mildly overboard with the eye makeup". I was born in 1981, and rockers have been wearing jewelry and eyeliner literally my entire life. My references for troweling it on were Tammy Faye Bakker and Boy George, and Molko doesn't carry himself like he's in drag in either stills or video, so you know. Shrug.

[The haircut probably helped. I don't know if he started it or if he was just wearing it for the same reason everyone else was, but that pageboy was the exact haircut you got if you were a young man in the mid-'90s, and you wanted your parents to be angry. Not because it was girly. The haircut was so popular among boys at the time that most girls avoided it if they didn't want to come off as androgynous. I think it annoyed the Olds because it was part and parcel of the slacker-grunge uniform, and God knows a lot of the older generation thinks Generation X/Y is full of entitled layabouts.]

I would have been very squicked by all the sex and drugs, in those days. It was not that I really had any objection to those things as concepts, but they were incredibly uncomfortable things to talk about. I had exactly zero people around me who would have been safe or sane about it. Most of them were teenagers, who are safe and sane about nothing, and my mother generally seemed to think she was a teenager, which was worse.

Luckily, I wasn't very interested in boys in high school, mainly because I wasn't very interested in high school boys; there was little risk I would ever have to bring a boyfriend back to Meet My Parents. I had discovered anime, and I thought the idea of pretty men was intriguing, but I knew better than to ever mention this to my mother, because she'd want to gossip about it. There are few things in this life I want to know less about than my mother's dating history, and I got more than enough even when I was actively trying to get her to shut up.

Likewise, my parents were always very clear that they didn't have a problem with us kids trying a bit of beer/weed/something else equally harmless when we got into our late teenage years, as long as we did it at home. I would rather have swallowed my own tongue than tried to get high with my friends in a house that contained my mother. She'd want to join us. The year I turned twenty-one and was home from college for the summer, I finally resorted to telling my mother I would buy her beer too, if she would just promise to drink it in the other room, where my friends and I weren't. It only sort of worked.

Beyond that, Placebo was... weird. It wasn't quite as hypocritical as it sounds, although it was exactly as screwed-up and self-loathing as you'd assume. I was so beaten down at that point that I had come to the conclusion that the only way you could be weird and still survive in peace was to just keep your weirdness very very very quiet, so it didn't annoy anyone enough to make them do something about it. It was one thing to be strange by yourself in a corner; I've no idea if I'd have liked Molko, if we'd been fifteen in the same time and place, but I doubt I would have minded him. (I suspect I wouldn't like 15-year-old him if I met him today. I'd probably want to slap him for all the same reasons I'd want to slap 15-year-old me. You can sympathize with someone and still have the urge to hammer sense into them with an actual hammer.) But being that blatantly weird on stage, encouraging other people to be weird with him -- he had to know it was going to make people angry, and I couldn't fathom him doing it unless he was trying for that. Anyone who was working that hard to make people angry, I reasoned, was probably pretty angry themselves, and I wanted no part of that.

A lot of their young teenage fans seemed to be operating on that same logic, except they did want a part of that. They tended to wander around calling everyone else 'sheeple' and being aggressively strange to get reactions. Trolling, essentially. That thing that teenagers do. (There was a fair overlap with the Goth population, as I recall, which strikes me as funny in hindsight. Molko was fairly vocal about thinking the Goth movement was full of pretentious appearance-obsessed twats; he said as much when invited to a televised roundtable on the subject, and just to make his point extra hard, he had his eye makeup done in petal pink instead of the usual gunmetal and black.) I was absolutely terrified of attracting attention, because every time I did someone smacked me down for it, and those were not the sorts of people I wanted to hang around with.

It's been a long time since then. I've grown up a lot, and I can see how Molko turned out. All the horsing around and suggestive lollipop photos and turning up in a cocktail dress looks a lot different to me now. I'm not watching an angry kid try to get back at the establishment for everything it's been doing to him. I'm watching a kid who has probably been drowning his entire life finally realize what it feels like to come up for air.

Molko doesn't generally dwell on the details, but he's made it clear that he was not a happy teenager. The other kids thought he was "queer" and "a junkie" -- which he is, and which he arguably has been at some point in his life, but probably not in high school -- and he was not well-liked. It is one of the few topics I have seen him backpedal from when he thinks he's said a little too much to an interviewer who is a little too normal to get it. Everyone knows what it's like to not get the kind of emotional attention you want from a specific person, when your crush doesn't like you back or your father tells you you're a disappointment every year at Christmas or your spouse presents you with divorce papers. That one's universal. You eat a lot of ice cream or drink a lot of beer and hang out with people who are nice to you in the way you want them to be. It doesn't exactly make up for the disappointment, but you do have something to fall back on while you hurt.

Not a lot of people have had the experience of trying to get anything from anybody and receiving only 'well, we'd probably care about your feelings if you were just someone else', as feedback. You starve. You keep attempting to fix it, but honestly, you have no idea how or even why you're trying; as far as you know, there isn't any other way to be. That's just how life works. The impulse to try and change it is confusing as fuck, because intellectually it comes off like you're rebelling against the laws of physics and that doesn't make any sense at all, but it still won't go away. You are perfectly willing to believe that the problem is you, because you feel completely fucking crazy.

At some point, Molko clearly made the decision that he was better equipped to be openly weird and deal with the external punishment than try to hide it and deal with the internal pain. This sounds like a terrible choice, and objectively it is, but it's not one anybody ever makes unless they've already come to the realization that one of these two options is going to kill them. When you're in that situation, just putting your foot down and declaring that you get to choose which way you're going to break is a big thing. You do understand that you are making a choice between always being alone and always being a liar, but picking one is better than vacillating wildly between them and failing at both.

It's bewildering when you change environments and discover that that is not actually the choice you've made.

The ocean is very big, and water is very heavy when there has been a lot of it coming in from all directions and forcing you under all your life. The outside world is bigger, and air weighs remarkably little in comparison. I have seen people ask Molko why he started turning up for public appearances in dresses, and they all seem to be expecting an answer that's either political or artistic in nature. What they get in response is something like, 'I... think I thought it looked good on me?' with this baffled undertone of, 'I don't know, why do you wear things?' It implies that by that time, he had tumbled into a place where he could arrive wearing a skirt, and not get anyone pulling him aside by the elbow to hiss, "Brian, the fuck?" Suddenly, 'do I like the way this looks?' was all the thinking he had to do about it.

When you finally break the surface, you usually do it at a shallow angle. At first you figure up and out lies squarely in the direction of somebody likes me enough to put up with all the ways I'm broken. Then you adjust to thinking it's some people like my brokenness because they rebel against normal. It takes a while to figure out that straight up is actually the compass point labeled nobody much cares.

Knowing what I know now, I'm pretty sure most of the spectacle came from a kid who just wanted to feel pretty and shiny and sexy, however his brain thought that was going to happen, and not get punched in the nose for it afterwards. If you scare up some of the backstage photos from Velvet Goldmine, he looks absolutely ecstatic that someone has gone to the trouble of hunting him down and asking him to dress up like a glittery lunatic, for pay.

I would not have recognized that state of mind before I'd been in it myself. It's a lot like drugs, in that respect: It's difficult, if not impossible, to describe what it's like to have your brain turned upside down until you've actually done it once or twice. Fifteen-year-old me would probably have interpreted it as smugness at getting away with something he knew other people wouldn't like -- I'd seen that often enough in the other teenagers (and my mother, who is perpetually going on seventeen in many respects) to know what it looked like, and I generally found it uncomfortable to watch.

Now, not so much. There's probably an element of nyah nyah in there somewhere, because humans, but my overall impression is just of someone who is hugely relieved -- and kind of confused and overwhelmed, and maybe a still a little afraid -- but definitely giddy at finally being allowed to pull himself out of the water and breathe. The fact that he got very famous doing it is a complete accident, and probably the part he cares about the least.

Saturday Serial: The Count of Monte Cristo part 18


69. The Inquiry
70. The Ball
71. Bread & Salt
72. Madame de Saint-Meran


69. Les informations
70. Le bal
71. Le pain et le sal
72. Mme. de Saint-Méran

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