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On Perception (or a general update from the second dimension)

The Pillars of Creation, as pictured by the Hubble Telescope, and drawn by me.

Hello my faithful readers.

If it seems like I've disappeared off the face of the earth, that's because I have, in a manner of speaking.

The year is 2021, and the world is... confusing. There's a lot happening, always. There's a lot to know, and no godly way to know it all. For someone like me, this is an exhausting concept. Just when I thought I understood a complex geopolitical issue in one part of the world, another part of the world is having an equally complex but completely unique crisis. We, as modern users of the internet, are accustomed to crisis mode... we almost thrive in it. I... well I couldn't really take it anymore. I would occasionally take a news or social media break, and then come back and feel guilty about all the important stuff I missed. Thankfully, that "guilt light" switches on much less often these days (ask your therapist how you, too, can feel less guilt!) and I'm making permanent moves to eventually completely rid myself of social media.

The reason I removed myself this time (again, right now it's only mostly) is because I got bored and I've spent a year in quarantine living alone. At a certain point, Twitter is irritating and TV is boring-- I feel helpless and useless at once. Thankfully, I decided to distract myself by learning something instead. Not everyone has the energy or desire to learn things on their own, so I'm not saying "you should be doing it, too!" I'm just saying, I feel a lot better trying to focus on learning one thing at a time, instead of drowning in the Twitter whirlpool of information.

Now, there's two things I've been sort of focused on studying nowadays: physics and Germany. These two subjects don't usually overlap, unless you're talking about Einstein, but I was drawn to them for another reason: perception.

I love talking about perception, because even the way we talk about perception is a matter of perspective (hah). I will, for example, talk to someone about a big idea like death, and everyone has a different idea about what happens when we die. Some people do share a similar idea as me, but truthfully none of us can ever truly know what the experience of death is like, because it's by definition the loss of existence (the loss of perception) on this plane.

And to be totally clear, when I say this plane I mean the three-dimensional universe in which most people with five senses experience.

So let's break it down: the word perception is the nominalisation of "perceive", which comes from the Latin percipere, "to obtain, gather, seize entirely, take possession of." When we perceive the world we exist upon, we obtain and gather information through our senses (most people have five, unless you're hard of hearing and/or seeing). We then internalize that information, process it with 7 pounds of goo we call a brain, and understand something.

Take this blog post right now. How are you reading it? On a screen, obviously. An information processor (computer) reads a bunch of ones and zeroes that I sent into the internet, and then uses that screen to project a combination of the colors red, green, and blue, to create shapes we call letters. Our brains, using past knowledge, puts those letters together to create a language that you can understand, and you have now received the information I've given you. That's a lot of work that goes into the simple transfer of information, but that work makes it possible to send information in an infinite direction at the speed of light. Gotta say, that's pretty fucking cool.

Let's keep going with the screen. Because this is where physics comes into the whole perception thing.

The screen you're reading this on is part of a three-dimensional object (a phone, a computer, whatever) but the image that it's projecting is two-dimensional. You can't see a third dimension in these letters. So, before I continue, I implore you to watch this 10-minute video from Cosmos, about the fourth-dimension.

Okay, if you didn't watch it (really? you have time for my stupid rant but not for the evermore brilliant Carl Sagan?) here's the gist: information is lost when we take an object of a high dimension and attempt to translate it to a lower dimension. So let's just take that, and take the third-dimension (the one we exist in) and try to view it through the scope of a second-dimension (like, the screen you're reading this on).

That screen is a plane of existence, yes? Well, so is the internet, and with it, social media. You take that third-dimension experience and funnel it into 160 characters, or a square frame, a caption, a hashtag.

Social media is a conceptual presence, the suggestion of existence. You feel like I'm in the room with you, but I'm far away. The "me" you perceive is a faint shadow of my three-dimensional self.

And I couldn't take it anymore, really. Not the idea that I was being misrepresented, or less-than something. I think I just couldn't take that idea that no one was acknowledging a lost dimension! And this whole two-dimensional dumbing down thing by the way, I know I can't escape it. Fuck, I even contribute to it! As a writer and a cartoonist, I'm forced to take something as ephemeral as feelings and ideas, and translate them to something physical, within the constraints of two dimensions (screen or paper). But I'm just asking people to acknowledge it.

In the year 2021, we are so accustomed to seeing the world through a frame, through a screen, that we don't question it anymore. I've been living in Minneapolis for almost four years now, and I've seen two riots? It's really jarring to see the city I live in be presented on a screen and on international news channels. Especially because it's almost never an accurate depiction. The death of George Floyd and the trial of Derek Chauvin were massive historical events, and they've been oversimplified in so many ways. I'm watching that happen in real time, while trying to reconcile with the fact that we've been doing that with our history texts since the invention of writing.

And now I get to tell you how that relates to Germany! In my experience anyway. Let's just say I'm a Mexican-American trying to learn a new language and a different side of history. A lot to unpack already.

But let's start with the elephant in the room, German history. I spent years studying American history, and through that lens the only things I ever learned about Germany were Hitler and "Ich bin ein Berliner." So no, I didn't become an expert overnight. But I was always fascinated by Berlin (thanks Hedwig!), especially the GDR (East Berlin) and it's relationship to the USSR. Long story short, the Soviet Union was formed in 1922... five years after the October Revolution (that whole ordeal with Lenin, you know). The USSR (and thus the GDR) officially collapsed Christmas Day 1991, and so came down the literal Wall, and the figurative information wall.

Gorbachev once said “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl... was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.” After the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl, the USSR did not publicly acknowledge the meltdown or potential imminent danger that would effect half of Europe, because the disaster revealed a fatal flaw in the Soviet Union: No one was willing to admit they were wrong. In order to win the information war underlining the Cold War, the Soviet system had to be perceived as infallible, which human beings by definition are not. When the Soviet Union finally did collapse, the flood of misinformation was revealed, and that perception was totally shattered.

This misinformation was extremely evident in Berlin, where the West lived a totally different life than the East -- and the Berlin Wall was a stark physical manifestation of that difference. This isn't a political rant so I'm not going to say shit about who fucked up what-- I'm only bringing up Berlin as a case study of perception. Both sides of the Wall had completely different experiences of living, having received different information, and both experiences felt true and real. I think most people feel that way, that their experience is true and real. But which truth is actually true? What exactly is "truth"?

How about a more cheerful example? Let's go back to death.

Haha. I thought that was a funny joke.

Seriously though, ask anyone to define death and you'll get a hundred different answers, sometimes from just one person. All of those answers can be separated into two versions: a life after death, and no life after death. Maybe you have someone who believes in reincarnation, or ghosts, or Heaven and Hell. Maybe you have someone who believes there's absolutely nothing when we're gone, and that makes you feel sad for some reason.

I heard someone say recently that you can't experience death because it's by definition the loss of perception. My counterpoint, however, is have you ever passed out? Lost consciousness? I have, a few times. Usually, it'd be like a very intense and super fast dream. Once, I fell down a hill (yes, like Jack and Jill) and I lost consciousness, it felt like someone was driving a car really fast and my head was hanging out of an open door. Another time, I passed out donating blood, and it was just like falling asleep and having crazy vampire-themed dream.

It's not always like that, though. Recently, I had COVID, and one of my symptoms was acute hypoxia. I would get suddenly dizzy and nauseous, and then have a total and sudden loss of consciousness. It was wild, man. A little scary, but I just had to make sure everything around me was soft in case it happened again (the first time I hit my head and woke up with a nasty bruise). That kind of loss of consciousness though-- it was nothing. It was total blackness. I didn't know I passed out until I woke up! And I think that might be what death is like. You don't even know it happened, how could you? You lost consciousness and never regained it!

Absolute nothingness. It's kind of nice, not in a morbid and nihilistic way. I mean, it's just nothing. There's no pain or fear, no happiness or beauty either, just. Nothing. Like looking into space. Except you don't see stars. You don't see anything. You don't know the concept of seeing anymore. A totally different manner of perception-- i.e. none.

Of course, I couldn't know that unless I woke up and then processed the information from the experience. It was kind of cool, and honestly not scary at all. I don't believe human beings fear death, because you don't know what will happen when you die. I think human beings fear pain, fear regret, or can't accept that they won't get to do everything they want in life. Perhaps they fear the repercussions of their death for others. Maybe it's a combination of all of those things. I used to fear those things, too, having experienced the death of a loved one so young, but overtime I came to appreciate, even love those fears.

Some of those fears completely vanished. Like the idea that I could die "before my time" without having accomplished something of significance. I actually entirely believe that will happen, that life is ultimately meaningless, and that gives me a sort of peace of mind.

I guess you would call this existential nihilism. It's not so derogatory as Nietzschean nihilism or anti-humanism. It's not even a cosmic nihilism... I mean, we do matter to someone, even for a short period within the eons of existence that are too vast for the human mind to comprehend. You matter to your friends and your family. You matter to someone. But most likely, I will not be remembered 100 years from now. That's okay though, I mean what a relief right? And if there's no God (which I don't believe there is) then I don't have to worry about being a sinner and burning for all eternity in Hell. Then I can just be a nice person because I want to be nice, now, on this plane of existence. (Of course, "nice" is totally perspective, as well).

All of these feelings, by the way, are intensified ten-fold when you're learning a new language-- which is what I've been doing in my little dark cave I call a home.

If you've never tried to learn another language as an adult, it's totally alien. I learned English, Spanish, and French because I didn't really have a choice as a kid. I spoke Spanish at home, I went to school in French, and everyone else around me spoke English. That's not at all what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is being a grown ass adult, with an inelastic brain, trying to learn a language that's not even in the same root family. Because I'm learning German right now, and it's a fascinating experience.

The first time I tried to learn German was some six years ago? I took an actual class, where the teacher only spoke German, and it was like trying to understand the Swedish Chef, except I understood the Swedish Chef better than my teacher. Class was like that for six weeks, I dreaded that class because it actually gave me a headache. Then one day, it just... clicked. I don't know what, or how, it was just there. And now I'm trying to learn it again, and the words just... come to you. You don't know how you remember them, you just do. And I've been watching a lot of German TV and movies, so hearing it said out loud over and over in different contexts, it sticks with you-- and you don't even remember where you learned it.

So when you're learning an entirely new system of communication (and yea that counts for coding or any professional jargon, as well)… you work so hard to understand another language, and when you get there it feels like a whole new world, a whole new universe, opens up before you.

And then you remember that there are over 7,000 spoken languages on this planet, countless more dead and forgotten, information locked away in unknown letters, and you'll die long before you have the time or energy to learn 7,000 languages and read every book every written. (Even if you exclude the bad ones, it would still take centuries). And to obtain the knowledge necessary to even understand what's in those books? Give it 50 years, maybe. By then, your life is half-past, and your time is half gone. Doesn't seem fair right? No of course not, but who the fuck said there was a referee? (If you believe in God, that doesn't count. God made the god damn rules, and He's infallible so you don't get to question it anyway).

So after all that noise I just made in your head, I have come to my conclusion. Which is, I guess, if nothing matters, at least enjoy it? Why do I spend so much time studying things I'll never be an expert in (and don't want to be an expert in) if I know I'm going to die and eventually the sun will expand and everything we know as life will cease to exist? Because I fucking love my own company and reading is fun. I hope you can have something like that, too.

Edit: Upon rereading this, it seems like I should say more about death and history, but I don't know what else to say! I'll keep reading, I'll keep ranting. And if I'm wrong, I can't wait to find out.

There's no news regarding comics today-- only that I'm working on them and will have something to share by the end of the month.

In the meantime, enjoy this playlist I made of disco, German, and piano.

If you want to watch/read some of the stuff that led to this rant, might I recommend:

Good Lenin!


The Varieties of Scientific Experience, by Carl Sagan

Berlin, by Jason Lutes

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Until next time, and thank you for reading all of.... this.

xo az

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