It's an incredibly interesting word. All its meanings come from the concept of a pole shape, and so are rather straight-forward in etymology. However, they signify vastly different concepts in and of themselves, depending upon usage. It can mean central, or pivotal, but also diametrically opposed as in the ends of a pole or opposing magnetic forces. In addition, it can be used to describe something that functions as a principle guide. Quite accidentally, it seems, the word "polar" nearly, neatly encompasses (pun unintended [honest]) just about every little thing inside and out, for or against.

The other night I was in casual conversation with a friend when she made one of those sorts of personal observations that was so exact as to give me a start. I've been thinking that I'm in a place of generalized uncertainty; that I have been in such a place for a while, actually, but am only now coming to realize it. My friend said something to the effect of, "You seem to be in a tricky place of trying to figure out what's next." Bingo. Yes. A place of trying. And that makes me feel uncertain about just about everything. And that in turn swings me around, moodily, as though I were a

Mylar toy

in the mouth of a playful cat.

(Maybe that's only my cat?)

I've noticed a trend in naming when it comes to psychological analysis, and I've always considered myself unqualified for such an observation, so I've kept it to myself. (At least I think I have, Dear Reader; I'm sure you'll correct me if I lie.) Recently, however, I learned about the

American Psychiatric Association

's evaluation of their terminology and definitions (thank you,

This American Life

) and the tremendous controversies and impact these ever-changing guidelines can engender. Take the example


covers in the linked story: the classification and eventual declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. The next official guidelines, o


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

(DSM-5) are due to be released around May of 2013 and, guess what, you can

view the draft online


Heck: Register, and you could've submit commentary. (Only until April 20th! Fail!)

This little affirmation that psychiatry is just as mutable a science as any of the others (if not a bit more so) has me thinking about my little theory a bit more. I think perhaps that the naming of supposed disorders reflects more about our collective relationship to our environment than it does any particular diagnostic insight into psychiatry. To take it further, our concept of "normal" behavior is subliminally reflected in our choice of wording when it comes to naming what we believe to be abnormal. In other words (pun very much intended), by the very act of trying to be impartial and insightful about them, we are showing our specific bias and inability to understand behaviors.

I'm not slamming psychiatry. I think it's a very adaptive science that pursues very important goals. If I'm slamming anything, it's folks who put too much faith in psychiatry as a textbook for understanding people. People who do this exist, and they're stupid. I am pretty stupid, too, as far as formal psychiatric education goes; there's no way I could last in a debate against the most green of students. Fortunately, I'm not aiming for argument here, but for exploration of the possibility that our need for names might offer us clues into understanding the namers as much as understanding the named. All this hinges on another, background premise with which you may not agree -- to wit: there is no "normal." Disorders, yes, to the extent that the disorder refers to behavior that impairs functionality. But normalcy? In self-aware humans? Sorry, I'm not buying it. If you do, you might want to save yourself some grief and stop right about here.

(If you feel like a cat-victimized Mylar toy from here on out, it's not my fault.)

It's interesting to note that the defining aspect of bipolar disorder is currently under review by the APA. That is,

the "

rapid cycling specifier."


DSM-5: 296.5x


When I was growing up, I never heard about bipolar disorder, and believe it's a quite recent adoption. For most of my life, a sort of blanket adjective was used: manic-depressive. Wikipedia suggests this term was officially adopted

as of DSM-2

. That same article begins with some etymology far more complex and interesting than the stuff of my opening paragraph. This etymological overview suggests that the behavior associated with these terms dates back to the very beginnings of recorded human history. I can't help but wonder what qualified as bipolar behavior in times of such struggle and innovation.

The term "bipolar" is not only ambiguous for its use of "polar," but for "bi-," which is one of the most misunderstood prefixes in western English. When used to indicate a period of time, it can mean twice per a given unit, or once per every two of a given unit. We attempt to overcome this by using for example "semimonthly" to indicate something that happens twice a month, but this is not a replacement, merely a potential substitution. It doesn't make "bi-" any less ambiguous, in other words. Now, I understand how they mean the term bipolar in reference to the disorder (at least I think I do [two magnets every pivotal two months, right?]). I just find it interesting that in ostensibly trying to refine and specify a description of erratic emotional behavior, we have jumbled it up so very thoroughly.

Maybe it's apt. That is how it feels when one is in the midst of a manic-depressive cycle, or a rapidly-cycling mood, or a feeling velocipede (What?) -- it's extremely difficult to know which way is up, find one's center or know whether one is coming or one is gone. And maybe, just maybe, this is my acting philosophy showing through, but I can't help but wonder if we aren't all pretty bipolar. I'm not discounting by any means people who are crippled by bipolar disorder. There are some who need serious help to function. Yet I feel that by searching for the identities of disorders, we sometimes find disorder in the natural order. In acting, at least in my school of it, we say, "use what works." No one technique is superior to another. It's all about the approach best suited to the task at hand. Sometimes feeling lost, or swung about, is the very technique we need to discover another route onward.

An Emotional Response to the Physical

Not at all sure what the questionable-quality food items are all about...

This video got me thinking about how I enjoy things like the comedy of Buster Keaton, and Rube Goldberg machines, and then not but two weeks later, OK Go! released an Internet 'asploding music video featuring an incredibly elaborate machine (and well-directed video, I may add) comprised of everyday items:

If you haven't seen the above yet, you're welcome, and you are a jerk. Yes: a jerk, for your ignorance. Mental Floss also put together a bunch o' Rube for your viewing pleasure ovah heeyah.

So what is this attraction to inanimate objects? Particularly those engaged in some unintended use? I'll break down some ideas I have as to the appeal, both personal and (perhaps [in some cases]) universal. Breaking it down 'til the break of dawn:
  1. It makes us feel optimistic to think of objects as fulfilling purposes, instead of being merely lifeless tools. Purpose connotes design connotes meaning.
  2. It makes us feel optimistic to see supposed purposes up-ended, and still demonstrate some sort of function. Creativity connotes a larger purpose.
  3. When objects interact with forces, we ascribe behavior to them, which makes the world a bright-n-shiny adventure, filled with personality.
  4. There is a sense of wonder created by acts of metamorphosis.
  5. By manipulating objects, we gain a broader sense of control over ourselves and the world. Comfort in safety?
  6. Objects are SO NOT controllable, in that they're animated by the same myriad physical forces that manipulate us; of which there are so many, we can never guarantee that the dang ball will go through the dang hoop (much less that we won't, say, trip on a staircase today). Objects are, therefore, spontaneous. Excitement in danger?
  7. Wish-fulfillment and family-building. Our pattern-recognition is based in distinctly human forms and features. In other words, we are continually, subconsciously, "recognizing" the things around us -- we want our cars to have faces, and we need to think of that table bit as a leg, that lamp bit as an arm. Objects are, by extension (pun acknowledged and admired, I'm not ashamed to admit), our children. We made them.
Okay, whether that's all rubbish to you or gospel for some new, quasi-dystopian religious beliefs (Tom Robbins, I'm looking in your direction...) I'm sure you can name a thing or two that you feel an abnormal level of affection for. Objects, physical and inanimate, populate our world and play out scenes with us daily. It is natural to incorporate objects -- or "tools" if you prefer -- into ourselves and our passage in/through time. It's a blurrier line than we may imagine, too, the distinction between animate and inanimate. Certainly physics could make an argument that nothing in existence is or could be truly in-animate, but even on a simpler, perceptive level we have to distinguish between the life of a plant and the life of an animal, or even the life of a planet and the life of an atom. Are we objects? Sure we are, divine ones or no.

Emotions may be even more difficult to define than objects. My opinion is that emotions are by-and-large sublimated survival instincts. They evolved in response both to changing survival priorities and the development of our particular self-awareness and abstract thinking. If you accept that theory as I do, it makes emotions at once very pragmatic and rather mysterious. They can be played upon, manipulated, but they also play upon and manipulate us. They are internal, with tremendous external effects and implications. And of course, our emotions allow us to connect with one another beyond a purely mechanical way. This possibility alone may be the best distinction between ourselves and other "objects."

In other words, it seems completely natural to me that when a hat flips up to land perfectly on someone's head, I am applauding for the hat itself. Or, when I stumble over an errant bit of sidewalk, to curse the day it was born. But here I'm hitting on another reason we respond so emotionally to the physical world: Because all the world's a stage, and all of us players, and players in our own unique play, at that.

6/15/10 Update: Over at tor.com, Jason Henninger discusses similar questions as applied to robotics.

Miraculous Minutiae

So. They've given the

Large Hadron Collider

the old test run, and we're all still here. (It drives me nuts, not being able to figure out definitively if it's HAY-DRAWN or HA-DRAWN.) Of course, if in that initial pass somehow we miraculously reprogrammed reality, we'd none of us ever know it, because, well . . . it's reality, and as we've always known it. As far as we know. Anyway, nobody's even colliding anything yet, so we've got a few more hours, days, weeks, bi-annual periods before we have to resort to our emergency blackhole procedures. (That's good, because my patented Blackhole Resistant Skullcap [with NEW Dense-Particle Bi-Weave trim{TM}] is on back-order.) Actually, everything I've read about it suggests that the cause for fear of man-made blackhole is greatly exaggerated. Particles do what we're now doing to them all the dang time. We just get to catch them at it now. Hopefully.

It got me thinking, though, as I watched the news report on BBC-America this morning. It's a curious winnowing down from "large" things and ideas and efforts that leads us to a profound effect that's instigated on a profoundly "small" scale. I don't know a whole lot about CERN and particle colliders (though


offers a pretty good overview), but from what I understand, this is rather a project that's been in the making in one sense or another for decades, and requires huge amounts of facilities of all kinds. Yet it all comes down to getting one of the smallest things we can identify to behave in a specific way. And the result?

Specificity is important. Making distinctions is, after all, sort of all there is to abstract thought, and it has led us to so many important discoveries and interesting perspectives. I like to believe there's a unifying aspect to abstract thought as well, something that exists purely for the purpose of combining things and finding commonality, but that's a little harder to cite, much less prove. I can show you how you define "good" and "bad" using a binary code similar to . . . uh . . . binary code, but arguing that going beyond concepts of good and bad is both necessary and desirable only holds up until you have to apply it to choosing between eating a fresh sandwich and one that's been sitting in the sun for a week. In the arts, it would be nice to say we're all doing the same thing, different paths to the same goal, and it's all Zen (or whatever substitute you prefer) but it just ain't true. There's good art. And there's bad art. And there's a lot in between, about which we make many distinctions.

I digress, because this is not my point.

No, my point has to do with how insignificant a person can feel, said person particularly so when he or she is an actor. "Oh, boo-hoo-hoo," you may say. "We've all got it rough." True enough, and I don't mean to single out actors in particular for a pity party. They're just what I know best, and that familiarity piques the effect of everything. As actors (or directors, or painters, or nuclear physicists [or, okay: accountants]) we can very easily lose a sense of purpose because, well, what does it all add up to really? I mean, even the movie stars of yesteryear, with huge, global success, fade into obscurity faster than most. Here we are puttering about with this project and that, producing work that occasionally gets notice, but never quite wide enough notice, never quite profound enough impact on the world at large. And there are so, so many of us. Actors come and go and often get treated as a disposable commodity, and why not? There will


be more actors . . . just as I suppose, barring catastrophe, there will always be more and more people. So where does it all lead? What great or -- hell -- even small significance does the greatest thing we may ever accomplish with our lives, lead to? None, it would seem. We're dropping water into an ocean, one drop at a time; our actions are that minute.

A hadron is actually a subatomic particle made up of quarks, one the smallest objects we can reasonably identify. The science people (those in the know call them "scientists") are pretty worked up about the LHC because for the first time they have a technical possibility of proving the existence of the Higgs boson (the "scientists" inform me that a "boson" is another subatomic particle). The

Higgs boson

-- to hereby insult the intelligence of every physicist reading this -- is essentially an imaginary thing. They imagined it, not in the sense that it doesn't exist, but in the sense that they used their imaginations in theorizing it. See, the "scientists" basically came up with the Higgs boson (using an understanding of physics, the universe and everything so infinitely beyond mine that there's no analogy to properly satisfy this insertion) to fill the gap in an otherwise balanced explanation of physics, the universe and everything. This explanation is playfully named the

Standard Model

. (One can not help but picture one of


. You know: just your standard model.) In other words, when you hear the news reports about reproducing the Big Bang, they don't mean annihilating everything everywhere (intentionally, anyway), nor creating a whole new universe (intentionally, anyway), but rather understanding how


came into being. Yes:




, potentially = the result of an interaction on the smallest of scales imaginable. Reaching out from the interaction of two subatomic particles -- the very


of that interaction, mind; not even the particles themselves -- is the potential for consequences that not only affect everything . . . they are everything. This is imaginable to me. It's crazily conceptual, but imaginable. I can also imagine -- though I have to be in just the right mindset -- that the least of my work in this world may go on to have untold repercussions, reaching far into the future and influencing people of similar degrees of diminution and growth both far and wide for ages. In fact, I've already seen some small, yet unexpected, returns on work I've done in my life. Even when all memory of my existence has passed, the ripples of my life will live on and on. Perhaps unrecognized. Perhaps even without the least understanding of their actuality. Yet there they'll be, moving through everything.

I believe the scientists will discover they were all wrong about the Higgs boson, and have an incredible amount of work to do to make the model work again, possibly including throwing out the model and starting fresh. Do I have the physics to back this feeling up? Hell no. I can't even grasp centripetal force; not really. It's just that they seem so certain of it, they just have to have it all wrong. No, I believe this because I believe that our searches have to go on. That's a force I recognize. Imagine, if you will (and why not), the universe as an infinite song, played by an infinite number of instruments and voices. Who wouldn't want to join in? Who wouldn't want to create and contribute the most beautiful music they (and only they) possibly can?