Stories of the American West

Stories of the American West

What Is Western Writing?

Jaffe, Marc (Ed.) (2007). Best Stories of the American West: Volume I. New York: Tom Doherty Associates.

These twenty stories are set in the western U.S. and usually involve horses, cows, or Indians. The writers include some big names, such as Sherman Alexie and Elmore Leonard, some well-known traditional western writers, such as Max Evans and Elmer Kelton, and plenty of unknowns.

I was skeptical, but now I think there is something characteristic about stories of the west, and it’s not just the scenery and the cowboys. In fact, the stories that emphasized the stereotypical 1880’s mythology were weakest, in my opinion. The lenses and filters of Hollywood make it hard to get  past John Wayne and the Marlboro Man. Instead, what’s relatively unique about western stories is the depiction of strong-willed characters making their way in a rough-edged society and hostile nature. That’s a postulated “western character.” Mrs. Dalloway has no place in this world.

Another virtue of the collection is to highlight authors who live and work in the western U.S. The writing and publishing world does seem to have an eastern clique, with writers in the west much less well-known, for no literary reason, so this is a corrective.

My favorite story from the collection is “Snow Cave” by Peter Fromm, about a man and his son on a winter hunting trip somewhere cold, northern Montana, perhaps. They are snow-blinded, lost, and dig an ice cave to survive the night. The father keeps up a banter of light-hearted optimism for the child, but the reader can tell the situation is extremely dire. That separation of tone and mood makes the story great, besides being well-written with highly sensory descriptions reminiscent of Jack London.

I wish I could say all the stories were that good, but most were stereotypical or pointless or  sentimental slices of life. Only a few presented memorable characters, innovative writing, or insightful observations. That’s a problem with story collections in general, not just “western” ones. It’s extremely difficult to write a short story that has strong characters and strong narrative voice and a clear premise, and maybe that’s why the art form is in decline.

What Does It All Mean?

Cover 2 500x800

What Does It All Mean? A Humanistic Account of Human Experience. Exeter, U.K.: Imprint Academic.

This is an analysis of psychological experience, based on what we can know, not what we wish we knew, about the meaning of life, mind, and world. It is an adventure into epistemology, the study of what we know and how we know it. Written for the general reader. Available in Kindle edition, hardback, or paperback.

Approx. pages: 255.
Buy it on Amazon: (Kindle): $17.00
(Sorry, I don’t control this title anymore).

ISBN 9781845400200 Hardback  $59.90
ISBN 9781845401016  Paperback $29.90

TOC+Sample chapter
(You’ll be prompted to save the .pdf file to your computer. After that, you can read the sample chapter from your computer any time you’re ready. If you don’t have a .pdf reader, you can get it free at

Author’s Note:
I need to write this book again. I first wrote it in 2000, trying to express some important ideas about the structure of consciousness and how we can know it. I think it ended up as too many ideas and not enough organization.

The ideas are still very good, in my humble opinion. One is that a mental phenomenon called intersubjectivity drives nearly all of consciousness.  Intersubjectivity is a kind of deep empathy. It’s what allows you to know what I mean. Without it, language would not be possible, nor would be civilization as we know it.

Other ideas include an accounting of the fundamental elements of mind, those irreducible “atomic” properties that make up the function of any mental process, regardless of content.  It turns out there are only a handful of mental atoms.

Still another idea explains how and why we project meaning into the world without realizing it, then we discover it and construct a mental model of what the world is “really” like, even though we just made it up.

The book has become virtually inaccessible, though it does remain in print. I intend to rewrite it eventually.

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The Purpose of the Body

Cover Revised EdMental experience occurs inside the physical body, does it not? You’ve never had an experience that happened on the other side of the room while you were on this side. No. Mental activity is always “in here.”  What does that mean, exactly?  What is the relationship between the mind, introspectively understood, and its extremely intimate but uncommunicative partner, the body?

This essay proposes that what is taken for granted as the self-existent, biological body is instead a concept, a projection of mentality. The physical body is a badly articulated idea, created by the linguistic and self-aware Social Self strand of consciousness. From that confusion, the concept of the body is projected outward, away from subjectivity, and reified into a self-existent object: “the body.”

What then is the purpose of the body, if it is “only” a concept? The mind needs the idea of embodiment to guarantee its psychological individuality, and its survival. Is there any way this new thesis can be reconciled with the theory of biological evolution? Some suggestions are offered. Consequences of re-thinking the relationship of mind and body include a reconsideration of cognitive information processing, death, and metaphysics.

ISBN 978-0-9837177-3-7
32,45 words.  Approx. pages: 130.     $2.99 Revised Edition
Buy it at Amazon:  (ebook)

TOC and Preface

Author’s Note:
I always knew this idea was going to be a hard sell, that the physical body is “merely” a concept, an idea of the mind, not a self-existent biological object. The alternative, that the body is just the body, a biological object, is so deeply, profoundly ingrained in our habits of thought, speech and culture, that it is virtually impossible to question it.  But that’s what I did.

I came up with this idea from introspection, and from analysis of what other authors have said. My conclusion is that what we think of as the body is “just” an idea, although it is misleading to say it that way. It doesn’t mean that the body is a figment of the imagination. I’m talking about a concept that is so culturally embedded that you, nor I, nor any individual, can readily change it or reconceptualize it. Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply think away pain, aging, disease, death? Alas, that’s not how it is. The concept of the body is culturally constructed at a sub-personal level and it can’t easily be changed.

What difference does it make then, if it’s an idea you can’t change, or a biological object you can’t change?  There are huge differences. Even though “the body” is a culturally rigid mental concept, it’s still a mental concept.  Mental. That means it is, in fact, susceptible to change by mental means. The book gives some examples of how we, as a culture, have radically changed the structure and function of the body over time, with everything from cochlear implants to birth control pills. Other cultures have their own ways of changing the nature of the body. Even individuals can and do make significant changes around the margins.  Thinking of the body as a concept instead of as a biological fact, has major implications for how a person thinks about life, health, and death.

I already know you won’t believe it. I hardly believe it myself, but the arguments are very compelling, it seems to me. Either way, you should read the sample, then buy the book, then tell me what you think.

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The Three-In-One Mind

TIO Revised489x689We think of the mind as a unitary process. Each person has one mind. But what if the mind was not a single mental process but a concert of three concurrent channels of activity? That’s an unusual thought. Yet the single-process model of mind has a lot to answer for.

We don’t understand our own motivation, especially its sources. Why can’t the mind control its own body? Why does the body not always do what it is told, or why does it do things on its own, like get sick, fall down, sleep, and die. We don’t know what intuition is, or where creativity comes from. We can’t explain memory, attention, or learning, or why we say things we don’t mean. Personality is a mystery. We don’t know what love is, how to get it, or why it goes wrong. We don’t even know why we do the things we do half the time.

Despite the initial impulse to say that we have only one mind, a three-in-one scheme might clarify psychological life, so we should remain “open-minded.” There have been other three-way architectures of mind. Plato had one. So did Freud. This one provides a level of detail that avoids both supernaturalism and biological reductionism, and offers useful innovations that plausibly resolve many perplexing problems of psychology.

ISBN 978-0-9837177-1-3
43,300 words. Approx. pages: 173.  $2.99 Revised Edition
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Sample: TOC and Preface

Author’s Note:
The point of this book is to describe a mental architecture for a modular mind. This isn’t the “faculty psychology” of some theorists, such as Jerry Fodor, or Noam Chomsky. Rather, I suggest only three main modules of mind, and they are not the ones you would think. First there is the Sensorimotor Self, the part of the mind that absorbs the sensations of the body and tries to control its behavior. The Social Self, another module, is the socially constructed and intellectually functioning part of the mind that we know through introspection. It detects the presence and activity of the Sensorimotor Self and interprets that as the activity of a physical body. Finally, there is the mysterious Motivational Core, the module that provides impetus to the other two modules, formatted in terms they can understand. The introspecting Social Self dimly detects the activity of the Motivational Core and is perplexed by it.

This tripartite organization of mind first occurred to me in the early 1970’s. It took me thirty years to understand it and work out the details, then another ten years to write it all down. I should emphasize that it is a map for organization of the mind, and life as we experience it, not the brain, which is merely a bodily organ.

Feedback about The Three-In-One Mind is greatly appreciated.

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Little Man In The Head?

daniel_dennett_1I just read a book review in The Economist of  Daniel Dennett’s recent book, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” (

I haven’t read the book, but I know Dennett’s philosophy of mind from reading several other of his books. I confess I am not a fan. His ideas seem so patently wrong that for a while I thought he was a charlatan. Now I believe he is sincere, though still wrong, and I am mystified how he manages to attract a following.

Based on the review, his latest book tackles the hoary mind-body problem. Historically, the explanatory metaphor was that there is a “little man in the head,” a homunculus, who sits in the brain, interpreting sensory input, directing behavior, and formulating evaluations and thoughts. Of course that idea never worked, because the homunculus would require an even-smaller homunculus to make his own mind work, and so on, in an infinite regress of homunculi.

Dennett’s solution is to propose a functional substitute.  An individual neuron operates with no intelligence and no homunculus, but it can’t do much. Networks of neurons can accomplish more, such as respond differentially to inputs, just by being networked. If the brain is hierarchically organized, then with increasing levels of networked complexity, high level functions might be performed, such as making judgments, forming intentions, and thinking, all without any need for a homunculus.

According to this “homuncular functionalism,” there is a certain point of complexity that just magically causes mental activity. The analogy is to the architecture of the computer, where individual transistors at the lowest level are stupid, but through complex and hierarchical organization, at some point, high-level functions such as discrimination of inputs and control of outputs become possible, all without a homunculus.

But the computer was designed for the purpose of executing its designer’s intentionality, values, priorities, and expectations. In other words, it does exactly what it was programmed to do and nothing else. My word processor insists on correcting my grammar. Some designer long ago and far away thought that would be a good thing to do and stored the methods for doing it. The computer itself does not decide what’s good and bad grammar.

There is no intelligent designer of the brain, as far as we know, and if there is, we have no idea what his/her intentionality might have been. If Dennett wants to insist that the human brain (and its body) are the products of intelligent design, as the computer’s brain and body are, then his explanation of the human mind becomes, “God makes it go.”

He doesn’t say that. He is a prominent and vocal atheist. He says instead that the machinery of a hierarchically organized brain somehow, magically, creates mental phenomena, even though that is inconceivable and not even allowed by the laws of physics (it violates the conservation of energy, for just one reason). Dennett is too sophisticated to offer an explanation that is disallowed by science. So what is he saying?

I believe he is fooled, as so many are, by the phenomenon of deferred intentionality, where a designer’s intentions are stored and deferred for future execution. A wind-up toy may have an on-off switch so it doesn’t move until long after it is wound. The switch is thrown, and magically (it seems to the naïve), the toy starts jumping about. Who is fooled by that? Very many people, apparently, for that is exactly the analogy to the computer, with its stored programs and deferred and contingent execution.

(There are “network computers” which do not have explicitly stored programs, but that’s a red herring. In those systems the intentions and values of the programmers are stored in the node weights where they are hidden from inspection. It makes no difference to the principle.)

The analogy between the computer and the mind is wrong. A pile of nuts and bolts, no matter how tall, is still a pile of nuts and bolts.  If you organize it in some way to make it perform a function you desire, then you have added your own mental intelligence to create a system. It should be no surprise when later, you, or other humans, “discover” that the system has mental intelligence. Of course it does. You put it there!

So what am I missing?  How can Dennett, who is not stupid and not naïve, miss this fundamental point? He believes that a pile of nuts and bolts can “spontaneously” (with no designer) organize into mentality. Maybe he believes evolution is the intelligent designer.

Nice try, but that doesn’t work either. Evolution is not intelligent and expresses no intentionality. A hierarchical organization of brain neurons can be adaptive, but never have any purpose. We are left with no explanation of how a pile of neurons magically becomes capable of thought.

Scientific Introspection

Cover 3 revised edScientific Introspection calls for psychologists to use introspection to investigate the mind. What researchers do now is study the brain, and behavior, then from that, try to guess what the mind must be like. But why guess? Remarkably, we happen to have the ability to look directly into the workings of our own minds. That ability is called introspection. As far as we know, we are the only animal that can do that. It is foolish not to use such an amazing gift.

Scientific Introspection is an adjunct to traditional cognitive psychology and cognitive neurophysiology because there is no scientific way to observe the mind directly. Thoughts weigh nothing; ideas take up no space. The only way to observe the mind is through introspection. Scientific introspection supplements science with a genuine first-person methodology, so we can finally understand the mind.

The book includes a detailed description of how Scientific Introspection can be applied. The reader can follow the procedure and confirm or disconfirm the findings. The demonstration shows how to use a shared investigative tool to produce consensus findings about how the mind works.

Revised Edition:
ISBN: 978-0-9837177-0-6   $0.99
65, 600 words.  Approx. pages: 262 (ebook)
Buy it on Amazon:

Sample: TOC and Preface
(You’ll be prompted to save the .pdf file to your computer. After that, you can read the sample chapter from your computer any time you’re ready. If you don’t have a .pdf reader, you can get it free at

Author’s Note:
Many psychologists and philosophers treat the mind and the brain as if they were the same thing.  It just ain’t so, and this book explains the difference, why it matters, and how we could and should develop a scientific methodology for systematic introspection.

Introspection, the examination of one’s own mental contents, is so second-nature that most people can’t understand it, in the same way that fish don’t know what water is. Perhaps that’s why its very mention is banned from discussions of scientific psychology and philosophy of mind. The zeitgeist says that mind is the same as brain, even though that is patently false and not even comprehensible. If mind and brain were the same, we could introspect on the brain as well as the mind, and we would have no need for cognitive neuroscience.

The book says all this, but I think the idea is ahead of its time by 20 years. Right now it just doesn’t fit with what most people think. Beliefs are slow to change. Try it for yourself; see what you think. Write a comment telling me your reactions.

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Six Short Stories

6Shorts(Large)Six Short Stories of Crime and Suspense

 These six stories deal with topics from mass murder to sci-fi. Most involve a crime, usually murder, but all are suspenseful. Most are about 3,000 words, about 10 pages each.
1.  I wrote Shooters soon after the tragedy in Tucson in which Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was shot at a political meeting. The shooter was quickly captured but judged incompetent to stand trial. With this story I work through my frustration at knowing there is no easy way to defend against the lethal combination of mental illness and guns in our society.

2.  Stone Cross is based on a misfortune that befell my next-door neighbors. The bewildered elderly couple lost their foreclosed home and their retirement dreams, and moved to a trailer near the city landfill. A year later, the bank sold the house for half the original mortgage to a young family with three kids. They are unaware of the heartache that made the house available to them.

3. The owner of a local brake shop was reluctant to answer questions about how to sabotage a car’s brake system, information I needed for the central crime in Merely an Accident. “Why do you want to do this?” he asked. “I don’t,” I assured him. “It’s just a story.” “Well,” he harrumphed, “I better not read about this in the Star.”

4.  The Last Out is an attempt to find humor in an emotionally difficult episode while I was caring for aging parents. I’m happy to report that Maggie was not really murdered. She recovered and she and Joe are back home now, leaning on each other, as before, bravely facing the harsh challenges of getting old.

5. Warm Spots is the longest story. When I cut it back to 3000 words, I didn’t like the result, so I decided the “extra” thousand words were earning their keep. As far as I know, the method of planetary cooling I describe has not been tried, but the idea is theoretically sound and has been seriously proposed. I found that explaining the technical stuff burned up a lot of my word count. Maybe that’s just a hazard of writing sci-fi.

6.  The final story, Waved Through, sprang from a lecture I attended by an arrogant judge. He said he enjoyed handing out maximum sentences and bragged about his reputation for being tough. I asked him why he believed in harsh punishment, and he gave a paternalistic-moralistic answer about forcing people to be accountable for their actions. I resolved to write a story about him, but I eventually found it was better to take the point of view of the defendants, rather than that of the judge. All that survives of the judge is the opening courtroom scene.

I hope these stories provide you with some entertainment value. Please let me know if they do.

ISBN 978-0-9837177-2-0   $0.99.

19,000 words.  Approx. pages: 75.
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Fowles: The Collector

Collector-fowlesAn Early Sensitive Psychopath

Fowles, John. (1963). The Collector. New York: Back Bay/Little Brown.

This novel is often compared to Lolita because it involves an older man’s sexual obsession  with a young girl, but the comparison is not apt. First, “Fred,” the kidnapper, is only slightly older than the girl, and the girl is an almost-adult 20 years old. Second, While Fowles is a good writer of psychological states, he is no Nabokov when it comes to flourishes with the language, and that’s the reason one reads Lolita, not because of the pedophilia. Third, it is not clear if Fowles’ kidnapper is sexually motivated. He has some mild fantasies, but never acts on them so we don’t really know what motivates him. So Lolita, it isn’t, though I think it is an homage to that novel.

Fred is a creepy working class guy obsessed with a college girl in his town, Miranda. When he wins the lottery, he buys a country cottage and outfits it as a prison, then kidnaps Miranda. She tries to convince him her family cannot afford a ransom, not realizing it is not really a kidnap and she will never leave that cottage.

But if it’s not a traditional kidnap, what is it? Fred is a butterfly collector (as was Nabokov), proud of his collection, but he can’t explain why. He has “collected” Miranda for reasons unclear even to himself, and certainly unclear to the reader. From their interactions we learn that he is a simple, awkward, inexperienced, and uneducated man with petite bourgeoise values of propriety. She is well-educated but more snarky than classy. There is class warfare in their conversations, but nothing new or interesting is said, except this: both of them say, independently, in different ways, that only because Fred got all that money did he pursued his obsession. Everybody has fantasies, but most people are held to decency by their poverty, or at least by the need to make a living. If you give any poor and ignorant person a ton of money, they will turn antisocial on you.  Is it true? I can think of examples where it seems to be.

We can almost (but not quite) understand why Fred collected Miranda. He cares for her in a fatherly way, and wants respect, adoration, and to be powerful and important to her. Her diary reveals she likes  fatherly traits in a man, and has “no problem” with romances between younger women and older men. So there’s a mild Freudian theme going on there. However Fred is untutored, with no sensibility for the arts so she rejects him forthright (and of course, because he is her captor).

In the end, Fred reveals himself to be a psychopath and becomes  uninteresting, just another random nut-job. Psychopathy is largely a genetic and brain disorder, having next to nothing to do with education or class, but Fowles would not have seen it that way in 1963. Still, if it was his intent to paint a sympathetic portrait of a psychopath, it was only slightly convincing. I mean, as soon as a guy locks a girl in his basement, is there any more to say? Fowles tried to humanize Fred but our modern knowledge of mental disorders and crazy, misogynistic kidnappers may not allow it.

Why Do We Need Barbers?

BarberI got a haircut this week, and while my barber was jabbering on about deep sea fishing (something we don’t do so much around Tucson), I was thinking how odd it is that I can’t see the back of my head, even with a mirror. I need two mirrors. There’s a lot of the body we never, or rarely see.  You can’t see your back very easily, or the bottoms of your feet. It’s next to impossible to see into your ears even with mirrors.

One’s body is a concept as much as a perceived reality. You can see your hands and feet, but there’s a lot you can’t, or don’t often see.  We think we have an excellent idea of what our own body is like, but do we, really?  If you include the interior, you realize most of the body is conceptualized abstractly, not perceived. Maybe that explains why so many people have a poor body concept and can’t or won’t accept what they look like. Expectations play strongly into what we perceive, and that includes seeing the body.

This was not an idea I could easily share with my barber, who was sculpting my self-image in exchange for money. What an odd thing to do. Chimps don’t do it. Why do we?

Good Books: Reviews

dog-reading-bookEverybody and their dog is a book reviewer these days. I review the books I read because it helps me to understand and remember what I read.

Read a few of my reviews. If you like the kind of books I like, you’ll have a collection of good books to put on your list.

A book review is an opinion but I try to give reasons for my opinions so you can judge if I’m being fair. I usually don’t review books I didn’t like, because life is too short. So even when I’m critical of a book, if it’s on this list, it’s worthy of your attention.