Flashing Lights and Random Noise in the City of the Brain

The ophthalmologist asked if I was still seeing the flashing lights. Rarely, but hard to predict. So the brain has gotten used to them, and is ignoring them, she said, and I immediately wondered why that same brain couldn’t ignore the tinnitus sounds also.

Sophisticated sound systems increase chances of distraction from random noise. If you must cough, wait until the crescendo is about to peak. Clarity of sound is valued. Increase pixels, dots, from cartoon to photograph. Whatever might muddy the waters is considered distraction. Clarity is a value that dithers. We must learn to connect the dots.

But what is distraction? And when might distraction be desirable? Rocks viewed through water look different after the creek dries out. The transistor radio is the perfect transmitter of the three minute basement tape composition recorded on a single track hand held device. Form may distort or obscure content so that we might hear, see, feel, smell, or taste what we might otherwise have missed, though the effort often fails.

Kindness, sense of humor, forgiving, joy of life.

Culture provides for cloistered clarity, photographs viewed through filters, the eye a sieve. The ear a strainer. We may not wince quite as much from scenes in a film when intoxicated from the smell of buttered popcorn.

“How do you know but every bird
that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight,
closed by your senses five?”

Just so, but in any case,

“A fool sees not the same tree that a
wise man sees.”

(Two quotes above from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

I first heard of random noise working with some actuaries on multivariate analyses. In the context, noise is unpredictable and therefore unreliable. Random noise does not appear to correlate, nor can its causes or effects be accurately tracked or explained. Probability becomes problematic. The treatment is the same as for tinnitus, where smoothing or dithering renders the unwanted noise invisible. Random noise is asymmetrical, or anti-symmetrical, and expressed by numbers, sounds, colors, or any other output, a given sequence of random noise probably cannot be duplicated.

Things are rarely right on, but approximate; why then the need for clarity, for perfection, for proper grammar, pronunciation, spelling, punctuation? Prescription is an attempt to clarify, but description is far more accurate.

“Bright lights, big city, gone to my baby’s head” (Jimmy Reed, 1961).

Here is a four stanza composition, each stanza four lines long, expressing random noise in hexadecimal format. The piece can be played musically if each letter is expressed as a note and each number expressed as a duration (the absence of g might be noted, because the base is 16). There are no more instructions. The fewer instructions, the more random the results. Randomness may be the prefect solution for writers with copyright issues. Interested readers may reproduce the exercise below at the ANU Quantum Random Numbers Server, but no matter how many times you try, you will probably never come up with the same sequence shown below. Plus, each line below has been truncated from its original. Other arbitrary changes made to the original output from the server include all zeros removed, and spacing and line breaks added.

Dither # 1

1ee 9f 9f7454 cd2 a a77114 da a4
6f2 8eab 4fc1 bad b9a13 c8 d23
19f e3 5a 27bd 4c361 e8 dec c211
b3 6a f5 4645407 d85 9 fa 35 efcbbacb

86c c3 681 d5 f5 74bc c3a 8ee8 6 f2 92 c5
91 c5 1 b3 4 b7 f68793753 dd 38ba 34f1e2d
814 eff c6884 aa 30d4 e1 a8 dc5 6c 4b
182986 bfd 982 d5 805854 c7

fc6 6e2172 eab fb 2b5
74 4afef c8 40 c57 c9 4 bab 1
b86fa 8c 4 9a 39 ffba 99ac 89 bd5 be
97 b8 8c f79 477 a c5 7d 9d d 13b 2

53 79 53 d3 61d3b178c68882aa 6 cefbbf77
d8b449 efaf 73fa8917 bfb 473774ffc1 d7 d9dfe8
1d3c c8 99761685 c21cd9 2569935ca2de6b7 ebb
23513e76b828b a5 ac

And the lines below were copied from “The matrix” streamed live from the AUS Lab and pasted without changes, except to color – the original contains the matrix green flavor, but it wouldn’t copy, so I’ve approximated the color with a font change. As I read through the composition, I could find no distractions, but upon preview of the post, it appears that WordPress coding has been added, probably because of the change I made to the font color. I find the result distracting.

È[Õ‚‚ω9(C∫}¾„õ°v¸JËBؾ{ΨÉŠq®ψξ
.Ó½ïpÚ±/zò→‹πɲ˼ΦÏ‚óæ;MIÅ<9Ð9š֑±ªGæ↔Ñ
ïΧ8β)hDœa1tR˜Χε¯Š4∫ÈQ”R/Ì),¦êí‰f9õÚ¯Xîé:
#¿7{‘‡ÆÙ™κë‹g¡ÖÀoªyÖ‡ƒPiDë»öÝ√üÄΩ¹+∪ÊDγÌ
xKòÁNπ:∂t-Eh픉#.=φðρ—yœ9UR—λY¤ω→ÂZãé}:σ
öÝ=±¨Íθ*Ší%τ~νËÍ[&αζF7ÏòUœκ_λωW#θ‡ûqº•Ëã
ú‡LêμÞÑÖ2:λ∂F↓°ψÌ¡pΤ›e–à.N!ÎûƒûˆhqÔÏa?ƒ</span>
<span style="color:#00ff00;"> ↔ζÆ~8ΤºÇ!#∄8ÃLLØθ¡&amp;∪ß|cZk±xÁúο@∪ÏDÜþè'¡{</span>
<span style="color:#00ff00;"> ù’;θfÑÆÏ7ψμE„&lt;ºÙ∃’a√ÖΧŠΣσÕ¢¥æÆ5Æρ
ÄO“jJω

Readers often ask what a poem means. Usually, if nothing else, what poetry means, in spite of repetition in form and sound and sense, is that you can’t guess what comes next:

What is correct in quantum indeterminacy?

One year, we went to hear the jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. But he was too loud, and we had to leave. I’d already had some hearing damage, forgetting my ear plugs at the Fort Bliss rifle range, working the jack hammer from the compressor truck without plugs, thinking I guess that I was born with immortal hearing. Should have known better; my father suffered from ear damage. The high school I attended, Saint Bernard, in Playa del Rey, sat next to the runways of LAX, the planes taking off often a welcome break to a hard-boiled lecture.

My father often heard what was said, but muffled, without clarity. He taught himself to read lips. He was a good listener, and an avid talker, in spite of a stutter. I suspect he stuttered because he was unsure of pronunciations, the result of his hearing difficulties. Or maybe because he could not hear himself talk. One year, hearing aid technology having improved, he had surgery on both ears, to clear out rotted bone and crud, and was fitted with new hearing aids. In no time, his stutter disappeared. My mother was sure this was a miracle.

We went back to the Ash Grove to hear the guitarist John Fahey. We were seated in front. John came out with his guitar and a giant Bubble Up bottle. He sat down and drank the entire bottle of Bubble Up in one long swig, its neck stuck deep under his duck-like protruding upper lip. He put the bottle down on the floor and began to play guitar. I thought maybe he might use the Bubble Up bottle for some bottleneck guitar, but he did not. He said not one word the entire evening, nor do I recall a single burp. In short, he was not too loud. I still have his “The Yellow Princess” in vinyl album format, the one where you can hear the door close and footsteps.

The ophthalmologist asked me if my eyes felt like sandpaper. She said one of my optic nerves was larger than the other. I told her I also had asymmetrical hearing, which she apparently considered a distraction. She suggested artificial tears for the dry grit in the eyes feeling.

The brain is a megacity of flashing lights and random noise, a conurbation of neighborhoods in various stages of going to seed.

A-caroling we will not go…

Christmas MusicDoes anyone go caroling anymore? Apparently they still go caroling in Australia (see Carols by Candlelight). But I’ve heard no carolers in these parts for some time now. I fear it’s a gone tradition here. I wouldn’t mind hearing some carolers outside our place. Susan would have some wassail brewing. I grab my guitar and tell her I’m going out to do some solo-a-caroling. Give me that guitar, she says. You’ve had enough wassail for one night.

So, no caroling. Meantime, we get the Christmas music out. This year we keep coming back to one of those Starbucks compilations, Making Merry. Willie Nelson opens with Norah Jones on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” featuring a steely guitar and a briefly haunting harmonica break, just enough to bring the chill in, the reminder that Christmases, for all their warmth, all become a Christmas past. Another standout on this CD is Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on “My Favorite Things,” which ends, oddly enough, with some sort of James Bond theme riffing. But it is cold outside, and I was in Fort Huachuca one winter, and can tell you it gets cold down south too. Anyway, baby, it’s cold outside here now, so to dispel the chill, I put some Elvis on and the place starts to warm. A couple of good ones on this It’s Christmas Time CD, like “Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me),” and “Blue Christmas.”

What am I going to sing with my guitar if I go out a-caroling, Susan asks. Come on, baby, I say. I’ll be Barenaked Ladies & you can be Sarah McLachlan and we’ll do a cover of their uptempo “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” We’ll both be arrested, Susan says, and not by God. Oh, well, I say, and put on the classic Vince Guaraldi Trio doing the jazz inspired A Charlie Brown Christmas.

John FaheyWe saw the great, original, finger-style guitarist John Fahey at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles many Christmases ago. The New Possibility came out in 1974 (Takoma Records), and includes the far-out pieces “Christ’s Saints of God Fantasy” (Hopkins-Fahey), and “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” (Praetorius). Popular Songs of Christmas & New Year’s, with Portland’s renowned guitarist Terry Robb, came out in 1983. Some very cool medleys, and “The Skater’s Waltz,” and “The Waltz You Saved for Me.” Maybe I can talk Susan into a New Year’s waltz, if I can’t go a-caroling.

Bob Dylan & Clarice Lispector: Bewildering, Transfigured, & Redeemed

Perhaps no star’s luminosity glows murkier than Dylan’s in his interviews. Louis Menand, in “Bob on Bob: Dylan Talks” (New Yorker, 4 Sep 2006), a review of Jonathan Cott’s Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, comments on the absurdity of taking any Dylan interview as a gospel light. Menand opens by comparing Dylan’s interviews to Elvis’s, “who was one of the all-time worst.” Dylan is slightly better than Elvis in an interview, Menand argues, where the King’s sole imperative was to not offend, but Dylan “is rarely concerned about sounding polite, and he says things, but he sometimes makes them up. He also contradicts himself, answers questions with questions, rambles, gets hostile, goes laconic, and generally bewilders.” Dylan’s latest interview in Rolling Stone (Issue # 1166, 27 Sep 2012) does all of that and more.

The most bewildering discussion in this latest interview, ably conducted by Mikal Gilmore, is Dylan on transfiguration. Does he mean transmigration? He says not. He says he got the idea in a book in Rome, and advises to ask the Catholics. Yes, they would know, having written the book. Joyce’s Molly asks Bloom:

—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
—Metempsychosis?
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words. (Ulysses, “Calypso” Chapter)

But Dylan says he’s trying to explain something that can’t be explained. He asks for some help. I recalled John Fahey’s 1965 The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Is Dylan talking about being reborn? Surely Dylan is familiar with the great guitarist John Fahey.

And this week, reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, first published in 1973 but recently transfigured by New Directions, and guess what appears – transfiguration: “No, all this isn’t happening in real facts but in the domain of – of an art? yes, of an artifice through which a most delicate reality arises which comes to exist in me: the transfiguration happened to me…I transfigure reality and then another dreaming and sleepwalking reality, creates me” (13:16).

Dylan: “Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving” (46).

But, “I don’t question myself about my motives,” Lispector says. “I am obscure to myself…I let myself happen” (17). Which is freedom: “Only a few people chosen by the inevitability of chance have tasted the aloof and delicate freedom of life. It’s like knowing how to arrange flowers in a vase: almost useless knowledge. The fleeting freedom of life must never be forgotten: it should be present like a fragrance” (62).

On the “only a few,” Dylan seems to agree: “I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?” (46). Yet Lispector says, “All lives are heroic lives” (59).

And Bloom continues to explain to Molly: “—Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.” But this begins to sound more like transmogrification.

In places, Lispector sounds like Dylan in an interview: “I don’t want to ask why, you can always ask why and always get no answer…What I say to you is never what I say to you but something else instead” (8).

But both Dylan and Lispector can strike a point like sinking the nine ball. When asked if performing live is fulfilling, Dylan replies, “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed” (48). And Lispector describes her job as looking after the world: “Looking after the world also demands a lot of patience: I have to wait for the day when an ant turns up” (55).

Dylan’s discussion of being transfigured reads less bewilderingly if read figuratively. His old self no longer exists. Look homeward, angel, but the transfigured can’t go home again. But enough for now. More on Clarice Lispector and Agua Viva soon, but for now, why worry the weary worry why?

Related Posts: Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm
We Ain’t Gonna Wait in Maggie’s Line No More