Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Hard AI

This will be difficult to write. I turned 65 yesterday, and my daughters, having my number, gave me a bottle of bourbon (the kind I can never afford, Maker's Mark, which is oh so good) and a really nice cigar between them. Of course I thanked them by making both my medical proxy. Mostly it will be difficult because I will be punching so high above my weight.

Like most of us, I've been wrenching my mind around trying to get some little sense about how people can actually support Trump. I read an article recently (where oh where was it, dear cognition) written by a daughter describing her difficulties with herTrumpster Dad. At one point his Dad confessed that his daughter was likely right about it all, but that he, the Dad, could never think it all through that way, and the Trumpster truisms just came easier to him. Hey, I found the article!

Then this morning, in my aged-out fog, there was this mention of a new AI engine. That's not what the experts call it. They call it a language model, and I guess it's a huge step forward toward the concoction of a machine-built general intelligence. Or so some seem to think. It's trick is to create elaborate tracts which are difficult to distinguish (sometimes) from human-written language. It starts with scant cues and then constructs some narrative, perhaps based on the writings available by Internet of whomever it imitates. 

Of course, I have maintained for some long time that we humans have been turning ourselves into machines. (I always have a hard time linking to my own writings, but it's in there, up here) I've also speculated (whether out loud or in writing, I can't remember just now) that the Trumpsters just like to hear what they feel they already understand, but which they feel they get in trouble for saying out loud in the wrong company.

It has always been built in to the American model of government that we could get (and often have gotten) a narcissistic buffoon for president. The trouble is that this time the one in office doesn't even feel the need to play the part of president. More likely, he feels the need not to which was P.T. Barnum's trick as well. The role has been that debased. 

In my assessment, it's the advent of first, mass-media (let's say it started with TV and Kennedy/Nixon for this argument) now accelerated by video-enhanced Internet, which has pushed our model to its logical end. We're almost guaranteed to get a Trump in there eventually, or perhaps even all the time now.

First up among the philosophers called on to comment on this new language model for AI is David Chalmers, who is often referenced as the top consciousness dude out there. In my recent reading, I have come across a theory of consciousness which is nearly diametrically opposed to Chalmers approach. Riccardo Manzotti calls his model the Spread Mind.

The spread mind can't be modelled by machine, and the brain is not the seat of consciousness. Manzotti starts by saying (shouting, really) that there are no images in the mind. The images are in the world, and our experiences are related back to us as memories by a kind of neurological delay-tactic. I've checked my read with the author himself and I get him, apparently, mostly right.

I think I come off too cranky and home-schooled to engage him beyond brief correspondence. This is, after all, his life's work and there are many more important thinkers close to his field. 

What I would like to urge him to do is to include emotion in his model. He and Chalmers both seem to consider emotion as a secondary quality of consciousness. Manzotti notes that he hardly mentions emotion, which is indeed true, and that he doesn't know much about it except that it must be "out there" among the perceptual reality of his spread mind.

Like all scientists, I would say by definition, he can't admit subjectivity to his reality, even though Manzotti makes a valiant effort. Indeed part of the burden of his theory is to dissolve the subject-object distinction. It's not just that our mind is built on our perceptions, but that those percepts constitute our mind. The supposed images in our mind are actual things out there in the world about us, and we could no more upload our mind into a machine (no matter how complex the machine) than we could give our twin sibling our exact experience of the world, though the differences may be subtle to that precise extent. 

So, the trouble for Trumpsters is that they see those of us on the elite side of the language game as truly believing that we have come closer to some truth than we could possibly have gotten. We are, in other words, hoist by our own petard. By and large we think that belief in God is for silly losers, that gay sex is just as normal as hetero, and that we can rise above racism by thinking hard about it. Implicitly, we believe that by following our model for cognition we can eventually arrive at the one correct answer to all conundra.

As a channeler of the common mind (no deep reading or even viewing required), Trump affirms the sense of reality of the great unwashed masses (though even they are growing alarmed at the chaos unleashed once we got hit by pandemic). The answers have grown too erratic even for the die-hards, I'm happy to observe. But the unsolved problems remains unsolved.

In part, it's easy to see the role of media here. No matter how much we try to distinguish ourselves - be authentic - by our instagram posts, we're mostly in-formed by the same stuff blasted now all over the globe. Nearly everything that could be is captured digitally, moving or still, sound or just fury. The important stuff inevitably becomes both invisible and secondary. The felt and touched love, for instance.

I'm happy to observe that Manzotti agrees with me that cognition is too slow for survival purposes, and that it's the emotive centers of our mind (not of our brain, although I find it useful to locate them there in the brain stem, which is already present in reptiles) which make the important decisions. Those happen to be the very centers to which media panders, left, right and center. Everyone clamors for our attention, and sometimes it might as well be the machine doing the writing, since we really can't tell the difference.

Trump knows, of course, that any mention props him up, and he especially cranks up the so-called Main Stream Media (the "fake news") which can't resist how easy it is for them to get clicks and reads by mentioning yet another Trump atrocity. In simple terms, the man must be important for how often he gets tagged (meaning how often his tag gets used).

So yes, I'm saying that all of us are artificially intelligent, no matter how much or what quality of stuff we read or otherwise digest. We are artificially intelligent to the extent that we divide ourselves from our actual mind by internalizing complex texts in place of actual experience. Of course I'm including film as text in this usage. Metaphor abounds.

Manzotti seems to think that our emotions are out there among our perceptions, while I am urging that our emotions are out there in the same literal sense those things that we perceive are always out there and never in our brains. Emotion, in other words is a part of reality and not apart from it. It is as real as percepts, but is composed instead of conceptual relations among objects, of which we are one ourselves.

Our one-ness is, of course, just a colony of aliens, most of which don't even share our DNA. In our quest for insta-authenticity, we are questing after the impossible - that we should be distinguished from every other of our  acquaintance. We are, instead, composed of all those others, and perhaps especially those we can't know because they speak some alien tongue or have a different culture, perhaps encoded by dress or skin color. 

In this sense American exceptionalism can only be ironic. If we are exceptional, that is precisely because we have admitted so many nationalities to within our borders. And this all - our NOW - becomes our adolescent identity crisis. 

Of course the pandemic divides us each from other. Doh!

The flaw is not with Trump. The flaw is with how we define what is human. We have been mistaken for a very very long time. It's not our general intelligence which distinguishes us as human. It is our caring. Read closely, and you will be able to tell which is the machine writing. It's hardly ever the stuff that's mostly wrong in the particulars.


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Roy Cohn, and Why Things Might be Getting Better

There is so much out there just now about Roy Cohn. I watched a documentary about Studio 54, and there are several about Cohn himself, and of course the main reason we're hearing about him is because of Donald Trump.

You watch - or I should say I watch - some of these things and you realize that there is a different world out there, to which you and I don't and likely can't belong. Well, in my case, I seem to have glancing connections to all these things. But let's take a look at some of the untold reasons about belonging.

I can say with some confidence that there is nothing in the lifestyles of the glamorous that I envy or wish I had. Sure, for moments at a time, we can all relate to how nice the comforts of money and friends in high places would feel, but I think we also know the cost to true friendship which comes along with the shallow sycophantic connections that those in Roy Cohn's universe seem to "enjoy." 

I've had good friends tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about when I disparage easy money and casual sex, say, and I politely bite my tongue in return. I'm sure that I don't know what I'm talking about. But I would like to spin out a simple political theory - theory of politics - here; one on which I base a good deal of hope. 

Maybe I'm even agreeing with Steven Pinker when he claims on the basis of statistical analyses that history is tending toward the good and fair and away from carnage and feudalism. That's even despite his palling around with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein. 

But even Obama likes the good life a little bit too much for my tastes. When he gets on the horn now about what's the right thing to do, he sounds just a little too preoccupied with his own pleasant life to have invested a whole lot of time or passion into his somewhat languid words. 

So I've been excited by Riccardo Manzotti's Spread Mind theories about consciousness. I confess that I'm excited at least in part because his thinking conforms so much of my own thinking. It relaxes me to think that there's someone else out there to take on at least part of the burden I feel.

I know a few things about myself, if never enough to make such knowledge useful. I know that I'm no expert at anything, but I want to declare that I am that way on purpose. I don't want to limit myself to some particular discipline. That has never been my decision ahead of time, but rather just the inevitable result of how things have unfolded. There's no sense fighting against your fate, kind of thing. 

I own a tidy collection of the Chinese classics in Chinese. When I was a student in New Haven and owned a car, I would often travel to Chinatown in New York City, and visit the bookstores there, as well as a few dumpling houses. I knew how to get onto Manhattan (I'd lived there for a while during one of many stoppings-out from school) without paying tolls (imagine that!) and where to park for free. Shy about restaurants, I still managed to find my favorites.

Chinese books were pulpy and cheap, but I knew something about the good editions and the good publishers. In those days every book store included collections of the classics, as they did in Toronto's Chinatown, which I would visit in the same way after I'd started to teach in Buffalo.

I think these bookstores have gone the way of all things. In any case, Chinatown, Toronto, has mostly dissolved into the suburbs as families assimilate and move up. Not quite so dissolved as Chinatown, LA, but in the same direction.

So for instance, reading an article on Zocalo Public Square by a fellow who just published a book on Hannah Arendt, and then probing around to see what the films about her are, to which he adverted, I find this wonderful definition she attributes to Walter Benjamin in a lecture she gave in 1968 which is available on film. I look forward to watching it. Here's from the IMDB blurb:
Arendt notes the importance of German-Jewish literature in Benjamin's work, insisting that "without being a poet, he thought poetically. For him the metaphor was the greatest gift of language, because it transforms the invisible into the sensual." 
As I have written about often enough, I struggle with what figures of speech do. I've contrasted the Chinese literary couplet with the metaphor of the West, likening metaphor to a reach for whatever is beyond words; a kind of pointing beyond what can be described. 

But now I see that I was too obsessed with Platonism, as though ideals and "ideas" were beyond description, which they clearly aren't. Indeed, words are best at describing the ideal world and worst at describing the real. 

I've also related metaphor to relating the primary bodily experiences and parts to things that are "like" them, which moves more toward what Arendt says Benjamin is getting at. But how much more trenchant and beautiful is 'metaphor [as a] gift [which ] transforms the invisible into the sensual." Things beyond words being turned physical, as though felt; as though perceived. 

So I offer this definition for political action that moves in the right direction. It relates to agency extended from the individual to society, where agency must serve the public good. An individual may relinquish agency when there is the perception that by doing so that individual will remain better off; safer. 

The good news is that we have nearly erased all and any reason for people to feel that way. The authority of science has been debased by the commercial uses to which it is put, along with the profit-straightjacked terms for research, especially facing COVID-19.

It hardly needs telling how debased politics has become. I'm here to provide the good news; that when trust in authority is undermined, that also means that there is less likelihood that anyone will just follow authority off to war. Even though war making is as advanced as anything else about our destructive ways for living on the planet; even though, that is to say, there need not be so many casualties for the super-powered aggressors, it may be that there is no longer the political will for warfare.

So back to Arendt and what politics is. I believe that humans have started to rejoin the living, which would mean to move away from notions of God-given dominion over earth and its creatures. Just as in the processes of evolution where consciousness and cognition have served to generalize humans ability to survive and even to thrive across a wealth of environmental niches or habitats, society now must evolve to allow and encourage the fullest agency for individuals. 

Robbing any individual of agency, as by rape, by imprisonment, by racism, or by wage slavery is only possible, in the end, when that individual feels that to submit is the better choice. We are watching the dissolution of submission right before our eyes. 

Our economic arrangements would have us believe that wealth equates to agency, and that wealth should be celebrated, even as the poor (the black) must remain patient for their turn. But the sort of agency that I refer to is far more basic than that. As I mean it, agency relates to dignity, that thing which Roy Cohn and his ilk all lack. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

A Dream of the Good Old Days Before Juneteenth was a Holiday

Just now, like many of us, I'm holding my breath that Agent Orange won't carry on to drop his COVID nukes in Tulsa. The day after Juneteenth. We celebrate today, for tomorrow we may die. I wish all my black sibs the happiest of Juneteenths, the newest Federal holiday!

I'm also trying just now to restart my entire read-through in Chinese of the Dream of the Red Chamber. This is a book which many Chinese count as their North Star for what it means to be human on the planet. I remember thinking that as well. Like reading Tolstoy, I don't quite remember why. I only know that it changed me.

And I remember very well driving out to Madison, Wisconsin as a grad student of classical Chinese literature. I was going to attend the first-ever international conference on "Redology." That's the term for academic study of this singular Chinese novel. 

Along the way, I dropped off my friend at the University of Iowa where he was attending the renowned writing program. His father, Parker Po-fei Huang, a well-known poet among Chinese, and a low-ranked but highly esteemed "native informant" at Yale, where language instructors were not professors - his father had told my friend that he had no business writing; he hadn't truly lived. I could relate. My own father was stern that way too. 

But we all loved Professor Huang. I guess we all have our less good sides. 

I was allowed to sit in on a class. I don't remember the notorious tear-down masculine ethos that got the program so many celebrated and mostly male authors. I do remember wistfully feeling that I was not of that crowd.

How well I also remember driving north to arrive at the beautiful campus on Lake Mendota at Madison. It was summer, and the coeds (code for women in those days) were sunning themselves on the grass all over campus. A northern and wooded grassy California beach. I was somehow shocked. Never had I seen so much brazen skin. This was not my conception of what 'midwest' means. Not my crowd either, for sure!

The opening reception was held on the panoramic top floor of a circular tower. All the younger westerners were glued to the windows, gazing out over the beautiful campus to hide our social awkwardness. Very few of us were expected, after all, to have some bit of expressive performance queued up for presentation on demand, as all Chinese are. All the senior Chinese scholars were looking inward toward friends, and new acquaintances they had already mostly read. 

In the buffet line for dinner I chatted with David Hawkes, the premier English-language translator of The Dream of the Red Chamber, or as he properly called it, The Story of the Stone. All of us were waiting with 'bated breath for his completion of this life's work. I was a bit star-struck. I chatted up a different professor who was into using computer technology to analyze classical Chinese literature (he confessed that he couldn't really read it himself). That was according to the dictates of the structuralism which was then in vogue. The science of literature. Looking for stable patterns across works. 

But what I wish to write about today is our economy. I'm old enough to remember the 'good old days' when the local hardware store was manned by knowledgeable clerks who raised families on their salaries. Our store stocked everything from model airplane engines to lawnmowers, and all the parts and tools in between.

Milk was delivered in heavy refillable bottles then, and Grandma would sometimes send one of the kids down to the ice cream store with a crock, reminding us to have them pack it tightly so that it wouldn't melt along the walk home. 

Now I buy things from Amazon, and watch the prices creep up to cover the free shipping, while the quality seems increasingly indifferent. Caveat emptor and read the editorial reviews. That old hardware store would never tarnish its good name the way that Walmart always does, or Home Depot, or Amazon, by allowing shoddy goods along their shelves. They couldn't afford to. What happens when all the minimum-age hardware helpers age out?

My friend, a structuralist himself, and brilliant professor of Chinese met us at the conference. He took me - well, I took him since he didn't drive - to visit his old college friend who lived just north of Madison. This was a talented young man who'd forsaken an academic life to start a business. 

He had designed a refined set of mountain climbing chocks, and had set up a very high-tech and sophisticated manufacturing process which he explained to me in detail. The process ended up with nicely anodized pieces which were color-coded for size and usage. They felt wonderful in the hand, and apparently - by virtue of angles, metallic composition and surface treatment - held wonderfully in the field. 

Again, who knows what such a business was doing in Wisconsin, but he enjoyed showing me all the steps, partly because I understood them, and likely mostly because I was so googly-eyed. I especially appreciated the step where the nearly finished pieces were blasted with glass beads to provide golf-ballish micro-divots.

Speaking of which, I've only swung a golf club once in my life, and that time the ball went exactly where I was aiming it, to my absolute horror. It sailed right across the neighbor's long back yard, across the street and over the next lawn right into the "picture window" of the hardware store owner who lived around the corner. This is a sin from which I shall never recover. It taught me to always fess up (which I didn't do that time). I was a natural Zen archer, I guess, as I remember the magnetic pull of window to ball. 

It definitely wasn't my doing, although come to think of it I got three bulls eyes the first time I held a bow and arrow and the first time I fired a .22 rifle. I should have known better. But then I was never able to repeat those feats. Story of my life. 

Anyhow this wonderful climbing hardware manufactory was set to go out of business before it even sold its first chock (I received a bag of them as souvenirs). The poor fellow hadn't realized that even the niche sport of climbing was controlled by the one large manufacturer who determined which products could be stocked on pain of withholding all the others. This was just when even sporting goods stores were turning Big Box, and before distribution channels got disrupted. 

Just as is now the case with movie theaters, R.I.P., it doesn't matter how good the product is if you can't get it on the shelf at eyeball level. Money changes hands, as I learned later in the beer retailing business. Smaller brands have got to cheat to win: You have to brazenly follow the big boys and swap the shelves when no-one's looking.

I hadn't heard of WalMart or maybe it hadn't gotten started yet, but I did get an education from that young entrepreneur near Madison about how "Wall Street Money" will pay to overstock shelves with goods sold at a loss for the sole purpose of forcing competitors out of business. I also learned that such practices were illegal in Germany, say, among other countries. 

Some long time later, circumnavigating the continent in all innocence on my little Harley, I happened into Bentonville, Arkansas, where I took a break in front of what looked like the old five and dime hardware store I grew up with. 

Inside, a very nice old man who looked the part gave me a kind of personal tour. It was a museum disguised as a store. I knew something was amiss when I saw a photo of Gerald Ford shaking Sam Walton's hand. Sam would get the Presidential Medal of Freedom later from George H.W. The same medal that Rush Limbaugh just got.

So we give out medals to those who destroy the very fabric of our society now?? People on Wall Street - investors - make a bet on what will be the next blockbuster. But it's really not a bet. It's a sure deal that an entire industry will be disrupted, which means destroyed, by predatory marketing practices. Along with the industry go unions, local ownership, and knowledge of the sort built up over years of purchasing decisions and getting to know the people. 

Gone now as the cost of doing business is so much else that we once did value. Local eateries. Doctors who make house calls. Packaging that isn't killing the planet. Short hauls from farm to table. Local craft beer. You know, the stuff that's coming back, if you're white and well off. At least we got the wholesalers out of the way. Hmmmm. 

Frankly I think black lives have gotten more and more marginal during my lifetime. Our celebrated progress with civil rights hasn't translated into main street lives simply because those aren't the kinds of businesses that we value anymore. 

When things are created digitally - where there is no marginal cost for each additional widget - mountains of investment will be piled into whoever gets the most eyeballs. The losses equal the mountains upside down until the existing players are fully destroyed to leave a sole monopolist. The monopolist is never guilty of the syndicate-style behaviors which anti-trust regulations were designed for. 

These are all nice and mostly white and mostly male youngsters who want to hit it big. Well sure, sometimes they cut corners and act ruthless. Young blonde women beware. Anyhow, the consumers fall like flies in their belief in falling prices. Those falling prices are themselves a temporary illusion, but life is short. 

And it's not as though Google is providing their services for free! Read Surveillance Capitalism, please! We are not the product. Our behaviors are. We all work for the Man for free now. Click to agree, and Yahoo!!

Eyeballs or ears, it's an easy bet that Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern will get most of them. Pornography powered the Internet. Any hit to our most basic emotional plexus. And this is how we want to engineer our future? Well, I guess it is, now, isn't it?

Plastics, Benjamin, plastics.

You have to imagine a world without plastics to imagine a sustainable future. That's a fact. It's hard, but not impossible, to do. Wooden boats are more fun to own than the plastic sort. And they last longer. But you have to enjoy the actual work to own one. You don't need toxic paints - water based or oil - when you can use linseed oil and so forth.

Plastic bags were invented as a way to support the industry which would otherwise have been too expensive for the car companies. That's a fact. Black lives keep getting reinvented downward from slavery to jail (Watch 13th please!) so that we can have our capitalism and eat it too.

This is no way to live, people. We have to bring our economy back down to earth, and use the digital stuff to compute optimal infrastructures according to the data from our now fully instrumented planet. Sure, we need to have the entertainment side - the plastic baggies - to support that overhead, but it's already a done deal.  We just have it all upside down and backwards again is all.

Digital and plastics are fine in small quantities, so long as we pay up front for all their externalities. Short of that, bakelite is pretty good. Natural rubber and steel. Stuff that requires skilled workers to maintain. Writing on paper.

We will always require good writers. My apologies. I can fix a lot of things, but I don't seem to be able to fix my writing. Sorry!


Monday, June 15, 2020

COVID-19 Was Started by a Pun!

I don't do puns. It's a brain-wiring thing. My brother in law can't help himself from punning. It's amusing until it becomes annoying, like anything that hides behind a front of 'I just can't help it.'

Much behavior in China derives from the punning which seems to descend from the way the written language constrains the number of phonemes to something like an order of magnitude fewer than are available to speakers of English. 

I know that it's linguistic dogma that the written language doesn't infect the spoken, but there you go. Mandarin is pretty much a concocted language, and it has a perfect one-to-one correspondence with written vernacular Chinese. That was never true for all the languages which used the Chinese writing system. In practice, that meant that literacy was reserved for those who understood and could use a written language that diverged from their native tongue. That was the case in the West as well, before we started writing in the vernacular. 

I digress. 

In my observation, there is a stunning increase in visits to traditionally Chinese temples in China. I don't think the particular variety of temple matters, but there is a very familiar pattern to what goes on. Incense is lit, bows are made with clasped prayerful hands, and names may be written on elaborate tokens. The prayers are for wealth and happiness.

On the trunks of many of the cars which circulate in China is fixed a chrome gecko. It puns with "avoiding misfortune" or avoiding an accident. It's pretty much the same as those St. Rose of Lima dash ornaments you see on car dashboards over here.

Now they don't really do God in China, at least not the way we do. Over here, we seem increasingly divided between believers and non-believers, and that is reflected in our increasingly dysfunctional adversarial system for achieving truth, justice, and American democracy. I know it's dysfunctional because Richard Dawkins told me how, in evolutionary terms. Of course I'm including on the non-believer side those who say that they believe, but really don't.

This has clearly become insupportably dangerous for the planet.

So, as is my habit, I go looking for what is most general about what is going on. You could call that the lowest common denominator - like punning as a basic form of humor, or, for instance, laughing at public farts; the lowest common denominator for humor in that case, or anti-scientific behaviors in the other. 

The low denominator is that people look for magic intervention in the workings of the world to make things better for themselves. Now in my cosmos, such selfieness is a form of evil. But it is just lowest common denominator enough so that it can be harnessed for many many purposes. For one, it's how our economy works. 

Both our economy and our politics work as though it were a zero-sum game, like football is. Let's make a deal; you lose, I win! It's more like you pay what you think is next to nothing and I claim nearly everything for myself. The religion of going for the lowest price is making lawyers, finance workers, tech titans, and WalMart seriously seriously rich. The rest of us not so much.

Frankly, I think that's why Dawkins' insistence that evolution is about selfish genes and not selfish individuals is so important. In general, that's why science is so important. The scientific method leads us to certain kinds of understanding that really must be believed, no matter what language you speak, or even if you read or write. It undergirds our technology. You may say that you don't believe it - if you're a creationist say - but you don't act that way most of the time.

Anyhow from this cosmically distant frame, it becomes easier to see why Trump has overtaken what was once an ideologically based political proclivity. We should all agree that it's a very bad idea to have a selfie obsessed person in the office of the President. But we don't. That's because about half of us are selfie-obsessed. We think it's the only way to be. We make a religion of it.

I'd say it's about half of each of us as individuals, though, and so it's an internal battle too. Without something like God in our sense of reality, we end up feeling lost. Happiness just doesn't quite cut it as the meaning of life, the universe and everything. But sometimes humor does. Lots of the time, really. Anybody remember George Carlin? He was so cynical about Americans ever sharing an understanding of what's actually real, that he had to reach for dark humor to reach any of us at all. Pretty clever of him, I'd say.

But back to what is really batshit crazy. In Chinese the word for bat can be composed into many many puns for prosperity, long life, and all the good things. Now some Chinese folks will eat ground up rhinoceros horn for virility, because of the obvious horny pun. It only stands to reason that they'll eat bats in one form or another. Girls in China use software to trim their selfie stick photos so that they all look like the ideal. Like Plato came in the back door, pun intended. 

Over here, we know it's our broken immune system which is killing us. But we've got the self-interest thing upside down and backwards. I mean come on now, how is it functional in time of plague to ascribe conspiracy theory style blame to China? What fucking difference does it make? We're killing ourselves here, people, because we really don't know who to trust. We don't act as though we trust the scientists. But why should we? They can be as selfie-motivated as the rest of us. But we should at least trust the science. And elect a president who's instincts are to bring us together with calm authority.

And speaking of selfies, what do you think happens to consciousness when we saturate our senses with pictures of ourselves all trying to look our best as movie stars?

I'll tell you what I think it means. I won't elaborate right here and now, so don't you worry, but consciousness works like this: Your brain does not contain your self. Sure, you destroy your brain and you're dead, but that would also be true if you destroy your heart and lots of other parts. The thing is that there's no artificial replacement for your brain. But your brain is not your self. Your self is all that you experience, and mostly your mind is outside your body. Your proper experiences are identical with the perceptual objects you've experienced. 

Our experience of consciousness has been located in the most primitive regions of the brain. That's the part we share with reptiles, and the seat for our affective response. Believe it or don't but you can destroy your brain's conscious functioning and still experience consciousness. Your affective center just happens to be more efficient at making the right choices when matching present perceptions to past experience. Generalizations about, say, a lion, are matched against a real lion right in front of you and you just run before you can even think about it. Even a reptile does that. Feelings come before thinking. Duh!

You don't impute malevolent intent to the lion unless you're telling stories. You just simply know what the lion will do to you. Now is not the time to be telling stories about who's at fault or who has malevolent intentions. Now is the time to get real about who has your best interests in mind. We can work out our differences later, but no, I won't be talked out of believing in the fact of evolution. 

I also won't ever eat a bat or a rhinoceros horn in any form, unless I'm tricked into it by a practitioner of fake Chinese medicine. No, I don't mean that Chinese medicine is fake, but some of it is when it relies on puns. Like "signatures" for our folk healers. Life is never so simple. Wouldn't it be just grand if it were??

So giving vent to selfiness is never a good idea. It's of a piece with racism, xenophobia, gender binary bigotry, and all other forms of self-indulgence which might rest on false beliefs in idols. Especially when that idol is your selfie self.

But I don't know if we who are on the right side of things (which would be the left, unless you're sinister) should be so intent on doing away with belief in something bigger than mankind. So long as it's not a personal God, and so long as it's not science in service to the economy. Heck so long as the God you believe in isn't just there as some kind of insurance policy which is written in your name, I can't see any harm to it. So long as it doesn't interfere with science, and so long as it doesn't pretend to give you some advantage.

I suppose I'm making a distinction without a difference, but I do have a hard time believing in any God or scientific truth which is true only for me. That doesn't mean I won't use scientific knowledge to my own advantage. It's a survival tool, most of the time, and we all collectively benefit from it even while we benefit individually. But if I save myself at your expense, we end up at each other's throats.

God used to help with that. Not any more. Neither God nor evolution has ever taken sides. It has never been a zero-sum game, though now we make it one. 


 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Do The Right Thing With Digital

Let's think of it this way: we can never know ourselves as well as those who love us know us. There are certain kinds of self-knowledge that we really must resist if we are going to maintain our face to the world. The self requires a little varnishing. That's why ad hominem arguments should be expunged from our protestations. There is no better way to hit a brick wall, for the purposes of changing a mind.

I suppose that's why novelists often start with variations on their own lives. Sure I know that the reason I despise FaceBook, apart from its obvious political and organizational guilt, is that I've never felt comfortable on any social scene. People often assume I'm arrogant, perhaps just because I won't join in. As a small child, I would hide to nurse some small hurt, or perhaps just because that's how I felt comfortable. It would take a while before anyone was worried, and still I didn't want to be found out. I'm sure there's medical literature about such behaviors, but I'm not sure that I want to see it.

I'm one of those people about whom glancing acquaintances often say, in a nice way, that I'm trying to find myself. I'm more and more petulant with that. No, thank you, I found myself a long long time ago and now I have work to do. Frankly the whole notion of "finding oneself" has always struck me as a loser from the get go. What could it possibly mean? No wonder the sixties were co-opted by commerce.

I am quite certain that having myriad images, moving and still, and other forms of recording, sound or writing, will almost never allow anyone to know a person better than their friends do, even while you still might know that person better than they do themselves. Sure, it has changed me to see myself on TV, but it hasn't helped me to know myself. I just cringe and look away. Sometimes fascinated as by a train wreck.

Just imagine how unlikely Trump has ever been to know himself, and then just imagine him changing his mind. Why would he? As far as he can tell from his reflection (something he apparently never does) he's on top of the world, and can gather a crowd to his pleasing at any time, even as he warns others who know themselves better never to gather for any other reason. An edited and curated stint on reality TV must really mess with a person's self-image.

I've been trying my whole life to make sense of digital. Now it feels critical. And I still have no way to talk about the dangers of the digital revolution swamping us now. Most people blithely assume that it just another step in the long path of "progress." People seem to believe that, ultimately, this progress is what being alive and human is all about. 

The thing is we don't often agree about progress to what. I would call it progress if we were to preserve those high arts once reserved for the wealthy nobility, but open the doors to the masses of producers and appreciators. I feel like we've made good progress with that, taking a look at hip hop culture. We've done less well with the pleasures of nobility and wealth. Since our culture confuses pleasure with happiness, that part is problematical. 

I've placed up here the actual writing which brought me to an epiphany of sorts when I was a much younger man. My epiphany was rather like what Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her Living With a Wild God. I was trying to make sense of what becomes different in the world through the lense of the Chinese literary tradition, along with what has changed in the world along with the then-new standard model of physics.

One might say that I had two basic insights. The one that tipped me over the edge was by way of the paradoxes introduced by quantum physics and relativistic time-dilation. Now recently with the apparent creation of a stable instance of Bose-Einstein condensate under weightless conditions on the space station, I feel a further boost for my epiphany. But it also would not have been possible without my deep dive into Chinese ways of knowing.

The relevant paradoxes involve such things as Bell's Theorem, quantum entanglement, time dilation, and more. My basic insight is that no object anywhere can be in any kind of basic contact with any other object. Of course everything depends on what is meant by "contact." The real trouble for me and for Ehrenreich is that there is no scientific theory to be disproven by my actual lived experience. There is nothing that one might do with this kind of understanding.

Or, in other words, my insights do nothing for what we call human progress. Agreement with them is not obligatory in relation to any definition for physical reality. Of course I don't really believe that. I believe that these insights make all the difference in the world to our thriving as a world community. But they don't seem to make me any more persuasive in the face of the stubborn recalcitrance demonstrated by that approximately half of our voting population which firmly believes in static and, to me, impossible truths.

So my obligation is as an educator, and indeed I have spent most of my academic life studying education, even while discouraged by actually doing it. As it is for many people who study education, part of my problem is that schooling continues to diverge from education to some terrifying extent. I would be a humble teacher if I had my druthers, but that doesn't seem to have been in the cards for me. I won't go into the reasons here, except to say that my teaching project keeps growing as I grow older. That's what I can't abandon.

I do know myself enough to admit that I arrogate to myself the really big questions. Of course I have no business doing that, but I'm not trying to be in anybody's face. Only once in my life did I ever introduce myself properly as a cosmologist, then quickly demurring that "of course I make my living in other ways." You do hair, then?

Far better to devote one's life to something interesting, like battery technology or gaming. Make a living and be humble. But for the astounding size of transnational conglomerates, and the even more astounding size of a small number of personal fortunes. In no good world would we allow so much power to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, even though I am grateful to him for introducing me to The Three Body Problem. His spoken Chinese is execrable, by the way. He sounds just like an American technocrat, all descended from Jobs.

The task to deconstruct the current order of things is just too massive. Of course global corporations aren't going to care that Black Lives Matter, but oddly they now seem to. Putting a good face on a corrupt body? Deeper change? Time will tell.

My insights involve the ways in which we are embedded in cosmos and not subject to it as object (I do love English for its tortured ambiguity, meaning, of course, that I love to torture English, even while I know that's not very nice to you, gentle reader . . .). I almost have to work backwards from our mistaken apprehension that computers approximate how our brain might work to get to what is wrong with digital. But that almost always seems to get me nowhere.

So let's start from the other end, shall we? Machines in general and digital machines in particular introduce structures which quite simply don't and can't exist "in nature." Sure, there is a continuum from our skeletal bodies as machines and through our hands to our tools as operators on the world around us, but it is at the inception of digital reality that we, literally now, lose touch. Recognizing patterns which are anomalously regular is how we recognize cognition out in the wild. We spend a lot of money on a SETI array to do precisely that. No dial-twiddling, digital requires only instruction.

In physics, of course, there is no actual touch between objects. Instead there are forces mediated by "particles" which define the interactions not of things, but of clouds of probability. Even our very own bodies can be described by those complex equations, though our accurate placement in any cosmos is hardly problematical at the scale of such huge bodily aggregations of smaller "particles." Our position scintillates, which is probably part of what it means to be alive.

We are working now on quantum computers which attempt to harness quantum entanglement for our next step in crypto. This apparently has nothing to do with breakthroughs in computational theory, but rather with the speed possible for certain types of computation. As I understand it, the speed is in turn a function of the fact that there is no time-delay for the transmission of "information" from one stateful cubit to its partner which is at some distance.

But of course, we are not talking about information so much as we are the definition for what may be considered a single "thing." The distance possible between "entangled" quanta has been experimentally shown to approach infinity. Touch "here" may be felt simultaneously "there." But what in the world does touch mean in that regard? Feeling???? Is there an emotional/physical divide too now? Yes!

I am less than an amateur with these matters. Of course, I would like to know more, but as with post-modern critical theory, there is simply not world enough and time. Each of us planes off at some point to focus on some very local problem that we find ourselves interested in. Well, if we're not black and if we have some social capital mostly. IF you're not forced to be a wage slave.

A cosmologist can't be too picky about what he chooses to study. The meanings could come from most anywhere.

I have been graced by resources not available to most of us, and feel a powerful reciprocal obligation to make something of that grace. But it is hard. I don't have the language to be native in any field. I can't get in the door. And I haven't worked hard enough for 'The Man' to be able to choose to retreat from the fray to just simply enjoy my wonderful life, although I do plenty of that. 

To simply enjoy life seems the most irresponsible choice at the moment in our history, and far worse than all the promise forsaken by my not choosing to embed myself in some one particular field. There are many kinds of regret now, aren't there? It's not that life is awful. We're not coming out of a World War. But it sure does feel like a tipping point.

As far as I know, people continue to search for some magic in the brain, as though it were the brain alone which makes us human. I am much more of a whole body (and whole earth) person. I can't separate any part from the whole. I have described elsewhere how and why I subscribe to Riccardo Manzotti's "Spread Mind" theory of consciousness. For me, it means that we are present in much more of the cosmos than the space displaced by our bodies can describe. The title for his book-form summary is The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One. We are not so separate, one from each other.

So the root of digital evil is that digital reality chops off the connection. Much of what we enact now in our history realizes this chopping off in the form of a very American sort of radical individualism. I don't mean that digital reality is causing radical individualism, though I'm sure that a case could be made for that. I'm suggesting that both trends realize the same underlying misapprehension about who and what we are and what is cosmos.

I speak in radically metaphorical terms in everything that I can say. That's because there terms can only be meant metaphorically. Of course physicists don't really deal with actual particles at the subatomic level, starting with the atom in one direction or the other. There is nothing very particular about anything there. And of course I can make only a metaphorical connection between the literal digital divide I'm talking about here and the other one I want to talk about. But the connection is no less real than subatomic particles are. 

I happen to believe that the American experiment is very much worth preserving. That's not because the radical individual is the way into the future, but because, despite our original sin, we are the only place where the arc of history has even a chance to bend toward the good. This is fundamentally because we are structurally not afraid of knowledge. That is a very good thing, indeed.

We still need to figure out how to decide what to do with the knowledge that we gain.

We are prevented from being a great nation (in moral terms) because of our radical individualism and the peculiar form of rampant capitalism which we've adopted as native. Our brand of capitalism tends toward the same results in relation to the open pursuit of knowledge that various forms of totalitarianism do. Even China's approach is better. In China, they're not so much afraid of knowledge as they are cautious about what can count as knowledge in the short term. My problem is that the short term is much shorter than anyone seems to realize. 

Sure, I'm talking about climate change or pandemics or species and planet extinction, but I'm not talking about what we need to do about those things. I think I'm talking more about what we need to stop doing, and I mean in our systems of knowledge and understanding, not even in our behaviors. Well, that's a chicken/egg kind of problem. The trouble is that we have to figure out how to change our minds collectively. The story of Jesus did that once upon a time. Relativity theory did that too, with a very brief sort of boom.

We've tended in the direction of disparaging mind against digital machine, just because signals along the neurons move so slowly. We confuse our mind with our brain. By our brain? By the way we think!

We can't possibly be as efficient in our rational calculations as a machine can be. Heck, we can't even rationalize the decisions we've already made quickly enough to claim to have made them ourselves, and we somehow think that might be infringing on our precious free will. Guess what, free will takes time. That thing that we're running out of.

Manzotti points out that we're conceptualizing how the brain works in the wrong way. It's not about speed. In fact it's about slowing down perceptual information even to the point of holding that information in a kind of near perpetual cycling so that we can perceive it again in the form of memory. 

I came at this realization myself lo those many years ago, but I was coming at it from the perspective of Chinese literature, which isn't so concerned with the inner person. The patterns on the surfaces are what counts, and of course, we know those we love much better than they know themselves. 

So the brain is a complex series of slowed down cycling messages and intersections. It can be repurposed if there are injuries, and the circuits are largely self-healing even as the neurons wither and die. Sleep perchance and death and dreaming are all essential for this all to work. Too much conscious attention just makes a mess of things. The brain largely wants to be autonomous. The cycling from birth to death is also an over-ordering of the brain until it just simply can't track, much in the way that I can't remember which digital article I read this morning, and no matter how good search is, I'll never find it again. 

Immortality, like literal infinity, would just crowd out every other. Not a good result.

Autonomous machines are different. Make enough racial profiling facial recognizing deadly force drones and we can end the world in a jiffy. Not by killing it off, but by the backlash disruption we've been causing to all those feeling the pain of collateral damage. It's the immune response which does the killing. That's what this moment in history means.

We have all been enabled to socially distance ourselves from trouble to the extent that we've won the lottery jackpot of disrupting someone else's industry. And we have all the right and good ideas as we amuse ourselves up to the point of death, which is inevitable in any case. That's what socially distancing social stratification means, and guess who gets left behind to pay our piper? The ones out in the streets now, being called terrorists by our terrorist in chief.

So, not only do we have to deconstruct and rebuild our policing on the model of Camden, New Jersey, but we have to do the same with our military. We create the terrorists and then, just like Vietnam all over again, they outwit us with their very human ingenuity. The end. 

Of course fascists love technology. It keeps the trains on time, and identifies everyone so that they (we) can be pinched in an instant the moment we cross whatever line they've drawn for us. We in these United States think its fine when it's done commercially, but now it's being done politically, and for sure militarily.

Of course Big Business loves technology. It allows it to grow and grow and then the business itself turns into technology, just like the economy turns into finance and a bunch of gig workers. Producing nothing of any value, no matter how pleasant it might be.

Even still the ubiquitous smartphones make it hard for the powers that be to lie. Except why then does our commander in chief get to lie out loud and often and still have his following? Well, duh, it's because of all those autonomous processes which run our newsrooms. I'm not only talking about how Facebook spoons up its newsfeeds to a level of complexity impossible for any human to keep up with. I'm also talking about the actual newsrooms which profit the same way from whatever grabs eyeballs, and then the aggregators who find out what you like to read by the same algorithms used by Google and Facebook.

How the hell can we even know what truth is? What the truth is? One lie is as good as any other, and so it comes down to the stories we like to tell ourselves. And these are nearly all impervious to being educated out once we call ourselves adults. Trust me, I've tried really hard for most of my life and it can't be done.

So, that's why I dig down to the basics. Particle physics. Quantum reality. Chaos theory. Getting rid of the mind/body subject/object dualisms. That's the only thing that can save us or else we're just not worth saving, sayeth Gaia or what-you-will. We are now in the process of stepping out from nature, and if we keep it up we will have succeeded once and forevermore. We will be as dead as an autonomous robot whose plug got pulled.

What then is the difference between the information being held in mind and the information being held in computer memory? I'm going with Manzotti's definition here for information, which is just the stuff which passes among objects which makes them perceptible. Which means to be in touch. Which means that physical information-carrying signals, in the case of animal minds, impinge on our perceptual apparatus. Which means to feel.

In a computer, or should I say for a computer, the information needs to be digitized which means conceptualized which means a static relation among conceptual objects. Ideal Platonic Numbers, say. Conceptual objects are things held in mind for the purpose of organizing perceptual objects. A kind of literal calculus takes place in and by computational representations of reality where conceptual slices are stacked together to form an approximation of actual fluid non-binary reality. 

Irony be my north star.

As with any mathematical calculus, digital reality can only be a very precise approximation of what is being measured. Again, as Manzotti would have it, there are no images in our heads any more than there are images stored in computer memory. Computers can't see. We can. And no matter how many pixels, the stored image can never be the same as the live one. The live one is felt directly.

Our brains don't store conceptual reality. They store perceptual reality, which is much richer. Since we store concepts so poorly, we must construct a narrative frame to hold them. The narrative frame of science is the best and most durable one that has ever been constructed, but it's showing its age already. It apparently can't overpower the Jesus frame. Both have been expropriated for use by the military industrial complex. We need a new frame!

Bill Gates has built his spaceship here on earth, which is the only place such a life would be viable. I'm sure it's more impregnable than Donald Trump's bunker, even given all the secret service, who might, after all, be carrying some kind of virus. The wealthy everywhere have escaped reality and deploy the police and the military to keep themselves safe. They might as well be on Mars, and good riddance!

Why not? If life is only about happiness and if you only have so much time on earth, then why not make that short time as pleasant as possible? Too bad about the marginal classes and the precariat. We'd love to have them join us for the cost of membership.

The trouble is the carrying cost to the planet though, right? 

In my book, conceptual relations are just as real as perceptual relations are. In place of information to define the relation among objects in motion, I talk of e-motion to describe non-forceful relations among objects in free-fall. Love moves through the eons in the direction of life, while hate moves toward stasis in the direction of the dead. The difference then is between the quick and the dead, and we have been moving toward the dead. 

I want to convince the likes of Bill Gates to live more modestly. The party is down in the engine room in the bowels of the ship and not up where you need black tie. 

My changes are definitional and not scientifically testable. That's a shame, really, because I won't be able to convince anyone by showing them what I'm able to do that couldn't be done before because of some new theoretical understanding which is experimentally demonstrably real. This theory requires a different kind of enactment. The kind we're watching (most of us, stuck off in some safe space in our wombs with a view) playing out right now out in the streets. 

There simply is no army powerful enough to quiet the people. That's what defunding the police state has to mean. To the extent that we hold our smartphones high, we still own the digital reality. We will depopulate our prisons by deconstructing our militarized police force. We will depolarize the world by deconstructing our obsolete notions of armed forces. We will jump back into the fray of nature be reconceptualizing what it means to be human, and we won't have to lose a thing about our humanity to do it. We won't have to become beastly. We won't have to forsake our art and our music and our dance and especially not our food and wine. These are what connect us. These are how we touch the cosmic forces. These are our expressions of love in return for the love which brought us this far.

These are the facts of life, fight them though we think Jesus wants us to do. That's not Jesus talking, that's The Man, and he only wants to grab your pussy. Defund the Church (oh, right, that's already happening), and Jesus will come to life again for real.

Numbers don't exist in nature. Numbers are an abstraction from nature, but it isn't only humans who know how to count. Humans learned how to tabulate, and that was the start of all the trouble. Tabulation led to writing as one thing leads to another and we find ourselves in over our head. We have to get it together, people!

Science can't advance without metrics. Metrics means numbers. Before science government needed metrics. Before government, agriculture needed metrics. But somehow we learned to separate the perceptual world from the world of the subject who was doing the observations and working the metrics to abstract theories which would enable ever more fruitful manipulations of the world around so that the subjects could live and rest more easily. 

But now finally we know that mind cannot be abstracted from matter; it can't be separated. We should be culturally grown up enough to know - woke enough to realize - that there is no personal God who's going to rescue us and take it from here. We should also know that we aren't even close to being equal to the complexity of the natural environment in which we live. Our science has barely gotten started, for chissakes!

Along comes digital reality to accelerate everything and we seem to understand that we're going off the rails. That we have failed morally in our development. Not only have we failed our fellow humans, but we're about to destroy the natural homeostasis that we depend on in the same way that all life depends on it. We're acting as though we can destroy nature with impunity. But nature's destruction is what happens naturally when one tries to order it. When one takes dominion. 

I think we need to rediscover balance.

These separations - heart from mind, subject from object, mind from body - they all enable a disconnect not just from life but from our neighbors. By forcing and enforcing social distancing - by wearing masks and building walls - Covid-19 and the various Donald Trumps of the world call the question; what if we were to join together? What if we were never to profit again from illness? What if we were never to prosecute a deal where someone has to be the loser so that we can win?

Numbers to enhance scientific understanding somehow transmuted into numbers to represent reality. We can't know intimately what we can only see on TV.  We can't have a discussion by texting and tweeting. Nobody even reads a long email anymore. What choice is there but to take to the streets?

Man, I sure do wish I could write more better. Well, not more. You know what I mean, by very definition.




Friday, June 12, 2020

The Really Difficult Conversations

We can't have these conversations from home over the Internet. The teacher-student connection has been terminally disrupted. Not that it wasn't already on its way out. At about the time that the country started really to thrive - after we were the only intact power after the second world war - mass media lubricated the polarization of our cities, even as, politically, we'd begun to fix things.

Black and white distancing has been going on for a long time. 

Perhaps it was because the world seemed so relatively stable to all those GI-Bill-enhanced war returnees, that everyone focused on making their own lives better. We hoped that the rising tide would float all ships, as we all escaped to ever more idyllic suburbs. We didn't know we'd swamp our coastal populations. 

Perhaps that almost excuses the life-tenured political class from turning their attention from serving the people to servicing the power structure. We thought things would always be OK, and that modern industrial progress would solve all problems. Someday to include even racism.

The relative homeostasis of the bipolar political parties is no mistake. It's by design. It's maintained by those institutions which actually run our lives. The Big Businesses. And now they are largely run by kids. That's while the kids who are not in power - as kids generally will - grab for simple certainties on one side or the other of various political and intellectual divides.

As our personal biomes now follow the pattern of our historical process of radical individuation grace social distancing, most of us are afraid even to open our mouths lest we touch off some shit-storm of protest that we spewed the wrong thing. That is even while those in power don't seem to care what they do or say. We wear our masks in many ways, while those refusing to wear masks shout banal abuse.

I feel certain that most of the abusers on the Internet are kids too. And yet they do tweak us.

How is our reality formed, and how do we 'disrupt' it when it turns sour? What if the really bad ideas are the ones which never get questioned, because they are so fundamental that we hardly know that they are there? What if the media and the kids both are just powering our distraction for kicks? Or money.

Lately - and it is really late - I've been introduced to the writing of William Gibson. I'm now in the thick of his Agency, and because he keeps mentioning it, I'm stuck watching the film Inception again, just to find out why I disliked it so much at its inception.

Of course I didn't dislike watching the film - it was gorgeous - but I disliked the base-level understanding of what it means to be human. I'm not through it yet, but I'm hating it all over again. It paints life as something constructed in the mind, and which is depicted as an expansion from inside out.

I'm not really very good at attributions, and so I had no idea that Christopher Nolan, the director of Inception also directed Interstellar, which I rather liked. So, I have to give a pass to authors, working out difficult matters by way of difficult artistic creations. Or do I?

I have to give a pass to Gibson, who is also evidently brilliant. In a way, I like his usage of "stubs" as an experimental way to interrogate history. A stub - an off-branch from history toward an alternate reality - is a lovely fictional device. Gibson constructs passages through time as limited and mediated by information portals, where actors from the future or from the past can revisit alternate pasts (or futures) by way of inhabiting cyborg "peripherals." These are like physical hyper avatars. They work in ways not unlike the dream sequences in the film Inception. Almost like being there! But the fact of contact is the inception of the new branch. He doesn't break the rule that you can't change your own past.

Agency then, is what gets interrogated when someone from the future wants to short-circuit dystopic "stubs," which are just branches off the main (agency embodying) line of history. It seems that certain players - the klepts - like to play out dystopian histories, and it seems that there is some benefit to disrupting those. Of course, the benefit is that the people who inhabit those stubs are real, and therefore so is their suffering. 

That's even though Gibson is not the sort of writer who makes them feel real. At least not as much as less SciFi-ish writers do, IMHO. OK, OK, I'm just in the wrong demographic. Sorry!

But overall, the story as told might be a variation on that awful streaming series Westworld, where the players are enabled to live out cruel fantasies because the humanoids they cosplay with aren't actually human. Those alternate histories aren't ours. They belong to cyborg reality. A dream. And the dreams we'd like to live out aren't, apparently, always nice

I don't know yet, and I certainly don't remember, if the Leonardo DiCaprio character is evil. I know he breaks the law. I get sick of the do anything to be back with wife and kids stuff. Get real!

And I don't know yet what Gibson really means by agency. But both works involve interrogations about the efficacy of changing someone's mind. Does that change history? Can it even be done? If so, how? Certainly not by inhabiting dreams, nor by projecting innocent criminality. Right? 

Doesn't changing minds have to involve some teaching?

So by way of young and genderfluid former women of my relation (pronouns they/them) I learn of contrapoints on YouTube and I learn that my take on feminist anti-fascism is old school. Meanwhile, I must say that it is nice to witness same-gender love. Given the very real tensions that are evident in cis-gendered relations, I can see why someone (man/woman/fluid) would always chose a gendered-fluid-tending-female partner. It just seems to be a more comfortable relation. 

So, yes, we must all hate the politics of white supremacy and incel approaches to sexuality and rape-culture generally. We must all hate the plundering of agency that those imply. But having read Jill Lepore's These Truths, I feel empowered now about what I dislike about identity politics. I dislike the evident fact that it rests on a Platonic-descended notion of what an individual is; someone having a unique and God-granted "soul." The soul being, of course, the ideal distillation of the individual.

Being from the old school, I am rather attached to the sense that individuals are embedded in cultures, and to the sense that they can be liberated from oppressive structures and that these structures, while subject to individual agency, cannot be changed so long as we are hating microcosmically as individuals. I fundamentally agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, insofar as I understand him.

So the difficult conversations are those we must have with the white supremacists and the incels and the Republicans, and the police. Hating and deriding them only deepens the issues. They suffer as much as you and I do (certainly as much as I do, which isn't very much). Their behaviors are embedded in a system which must be changed. 

So when we blame the individual policemen (I'll use the gendered form here, because it seems reasonably accurate) and feel gratified when they are finally incarcerated and charged with crimes, we are also denying (I'm thinking it might be proper to call it "cancelling") their lived reality.

What we used to call "The System" is happy to jump in here and throw the bastards in jail. That deflects the responsibility away from the system, and especially from those in charge. I feel saddened that the mayor of Minneapolis doesn't have any access to language for debating those who ask him for a yes/no answer to the question of "will you agree to defund the police." Now he becomes the enemy, or as the National Review would have it, the left are eating their own.

We are asking the police (and the teachers and the nurses and more and more) to do impossible jobs in response to how society is constructed. The violence is built in, and we shouldn't be interrogating the politics of police, which can be no better or less informed than the politics of the general public. We require empathy for the lived lives of policemen, and how their realities are constructed.

So somehow I watched this interview of Richard Spencer by Gary Younge. I was alerted to it by the New York Review of Books, which at least hasn't gone so far as to allow an opinion piece by Tom Cotton. That editor's ass was fired from the New York Times, but there you go.

The horror to me about what Richard Spencer articulated was how very mainstream he is. He has internalized what we all, in our hearts, believe. That the world that we have constructed is quite wonderful for the lives that it has allowed us to live. We may be embarrassed that it is a white persons' world constructed by and for white people, but the remedy is to let the black and brown people join in, and not to wonder if there is something very wrong with the world as we constructed it.

I mean, there is global warming, and our general lack preparation for the end-times that we know in our guts are coming. Shouldn't we, maybe, pay more attention to the Yoruba ways, the native American ways, the ways with words of women?

We should be asking, in other words, how the world would be different if it were constructed by woman and black and brown people, and not how to get girls into STEM and blacks into universities and into positions of power (don't get me wrong, these things are very very important). We aren't really making the connection until we really really ask about the world that those excluded from the one we have really want.

So yes, I get it. Inception is just a long long excursion into the Chuang Tzu parable of the dream. To quote from David Hinton's translation:

Long ago, a certain Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly – a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Chuang Tzu. Then all of a sudden he woke to find that he was, beyond all doubt, Chuang Tzu. Who knows if it was Chuang Tzu dreaming a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu? Chuang Tzu and butterfly: clearly there’s a difference. This is called the transformation of things.

昔者庄周梦为胡蝶,栩栩然胡蝶也,自喻适志与!不知周也。俄然觉,则蘧蘧然周也。不知周之梦为胡蝶与,胡蝶之梦为周与?周与胡蝶,则必有分矣。此之谓物化。
Now of course I won't claim to translate better. I'm not a recognized expert. But the experts can't agree and sometimes nobody who needs to understand can trust the experts. The experts are speaking to other experts, while the rest of us are left confused. Plus, I don't always like Hinton's translations. I like mine better. Yeah, right.

I've recently been a grad student (again and again across my shambolic life (why has that word become suddenly so popular?), despite my age. It was fun to be introduced to politically correct academic discourse. It was easy for me to learn that microaggressions are real, and to expunge from my own rhetoric the most offensive terminology and locutions.

But I really don't know how easy that would be for someone less educated and less alert. I accompanied said gender-fluid relation on a tour of colleges, and was glad that they knew how to decode the language of the transgendered tour guide at Bard College. But I wondered how someone from a less privileged background might feel as a newcomer to such language and reality. Wasn't it just another way to determine who has the "merit" to attend?

I really don't know. I only know that I'm often afraid to open my own mouth.

We can get angry and we can hate and we can blame the people who aren't even engaged in the transformations which must be performed if we are to thrive on the planet. But if we do that from our comfortable lives, feeling angry with people who aren't comfortable with the trends, then status quo prevails. Until it explodes. 

Lots of people think that there is reverse racism. Sure, some black people can hate white people on the whole, But when the hating isn't coming from a position of power and privilege, then it's not racism. It's just hatred. And the fear engaged is a one-way street. I'm not hearing hate from blacks just now. I'm hearing frustration and desperation and a desire to be heard. 

So please, let's at least address the low-hanging fruit. Let's set term limits for all elected office, let's do away with gerrymandering, let's be certain of universal voter registration and make election day a holiday, and let's get money out of voting, and especially let's shut the revolving doors of profit from power in the lobbying industry. Then we will at least have a chance to address the systemic change that we require.

We deride the Chinese communist party even while we employ a professional political class to run things here. The rules of engagement between Team Red and Team Blue are set by the business community in the same way that the NFL assures the semblance of a level playing field among the teams. The players tend to get rich from it. 

The cool thing is that Bib Business can't afford to deny science and deny systemic racism. Wouldn't it be just weird if it were "the system" which sets things right this time? Hype-rich Gates and Cook and Bezos seem to know what the right thing is even as they continue to glory in their wealth as begotten by Attila the Hun business tactics (in their youths). Even the military is now showing honor to their Republican supporters in the Senate, and certainly in the House. 

It doesn't matter, Democrat or Republican, when the party system is so embedded and so bizarrely balanced against each other that we have to elect someone like Donald Trump to disrupt it. As if he got elected. He was selected by those who profit from the state of dysfunction as it is, pretty much despite themselves. 

We just swap the racism from Democrat to Republican every few decades when things move out of whack. Trivial, right? How and why did all the Republicans get in line unless their team spirit is more important than their American spirit. In fact there is evidence for nothing other than that. This goes well beyond moral certainty. This is 'our party, right or wrong' which is exactly what our founding fathers warned us about.

These pols are the true dreamers. These are the deniers of reality whose lovers greet them in their private dreams. Their lived reality is our distant dream. Agency without responsibility! Wow! No wonder they don't want to change anything. Denying climate change is a small price to pay for your locally wonderful life, even as the world burns down around you. 

Now Lady G is a cute package, I've got to say. But wouldn't you like to wake up and be yourself in public? It's not my place to out anyone, but there are people who would accept you if you simply repudiated your dream-state fantasy-land of power. It's hurting us.

We need to hire an army of translators now to talk with one another. Too bad translation pays less than to be a greeter at Walmart. Too bad that we can't even agree about what is a good translation and what is not. Too bad we all believe in our secret heart of hearts that we are mostly right most of the time.

As a translator from Chinese to English myself, it's very tempting to say that some things just simply don't translate. Well, it's certainly true that some things don't translate without a lot of work on the part of the reader to penetrate the alien poetics. 

Some of the most fun I've ever had in China (I know, I'm pathetic) was to attend a graduate seminar led by the most celebrated translator of Samuel Beckett in China. Just because I was obviously a white American, they wanted me to sit at the table. Not! I hung back with the hoi-polloi in the crowded seminar room at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Still, you have to hand it to the guy for trying. He older than me, and had endured far more suffering. He was quite evidently brilliant. But the Chinese translations did nothing. By the time anyone could make sense of those translations they would have to be as multi-lingual as Beckett was. The Chinese  translations that I heard and heard explicated didn't even lead a person in to want to understand Beckett. As I recall, the translations misled nearly each and every time, even while the translator did evidently know how to read Beckett. A very humbling experience indeed!

The fact is that we can't have the difficult conversations that we need to have unless we have them face to face and without masks to cover our expression. We can't have them from a digital safe distance. 

Now I hate digital for the same reason that William Blake hated the infernal machinery of the looming industrial revolution. I hate it on the level where it replaces reality and where it leads Bill Gates to say out loud that his brain is a CPU. And he's a pretty smart guy!

The cortical regions of the brain can simulate a computer, if very poorly. Gibson's novel Agency ends with the presentation of a benign machine intelligence to the world, as its black-faced female sim savior. Her personality derived from an actual black woman named Clarissa; no Eunice, actually. A name derived from the military/industrial project which had an acronym which sounded like that. A personality uploaded and enhanced by universal access and distributed multi-tasking connected to access and control of lots of the hidden processes called out by Benjamin Bratton (for instance). 

The novel asks a question, and it's a good question when we can watch people trotting out insane certainties as though they don't know how to cognate, er cogitate. Think. The question is about how we get good and rational competent people in charge. How about we exclude the ones out for themselves?

Well, despite the sense of reality when we dream, we dream because we need to allow our brains to run through reality to make it useful. Brains without sleep just hallucinate awake. They don't deal. 

While I would never put a machine in charge of anything, that doesn't make them all bad. The trouble with digital reality is that it can seem so real. If actual responsible people aren't in charge of it, we end up getting Donald Trump as president; an avatar in place of a human. 

I know that I recently read a story, set in China, about someone joining what he thought was a drug trial. I'm pretty sure that I read it in Chinese, so I'm pretty sure that you haven't seen it. But it might as well have been a dream. He wakes up with a missing kidney. Chinese cyberpunk?

Then there was that restaurant I visited somewhere with someone intimate. It was a real find, and I can even envision the roads we took and the wrong turns, but I can't come up with who was with me (I'm pretty sure it was one of my daughters) or where we were, or which city. It feels like the vicinity of Seattle, but no daughter was there recently. Wracking my brain hardly helps.

As I age out, perhaps the distinction between dreaming and reality does grow dim. Perhaps the Chuang Tzu parable isn't as silly as it seems. Perhaps we need to wake up.



Thursday, June 4, 2020

Tiananmen 2020, Have You No Sense of Decency, Mr. Trump?

"We will never forget." I vowed solemnly and publically. I have never forgotten the horror of the Tiananmen massacre. A world seeming to move toward the light had suddenly turned to shade.

It is hard now to write about something that I was so certain of when it was happening. We thought the world was awakening, and we thought that it had started in China. But who were we?

People had called me because I was the new teacher of Chinese in town. I wasn't terribly well informed. I wasn't very politically sophisticated. Those events restarted my education. My education remains a work in progress.

I had assumed the headmaster's spot in the school where I taught. It was a wonderful school "for gifted children," though I thought it was just a wonderful school. By the time I took over, it had been in financial trouble for a long time. So was Buffalo.

Now at the far end of a varied and often satisfying life, I still struggle to inhabit Chinese and to understand China. I still struggle to understand America. The school didn't last. My marriage didn't last. The downward slide arrested by Obama reverted to form. But America must last.

A year after the events in 1989, while struggling to keep my troubled school open, I helped to organize a commemorative event near the Rose Garden in Delaware Park, Buffalo, NY. Our nearby school provided dressing rooms and costume storage for Shakespeare in the Park. Attendance at the commemoration was boosted by Mayor Jimmy Griffin trying to block the event. Who can understand the motives of a petty tyrant?

I was the plaintiff against hizzoner, in a court case brought on constitutional grounds. The front page Buffalo News coverage of that leadup to our event assured that the commemoration would be well-attended. We won the court case, though I still had to sneak in with the borrowed key to the power box for Shakespeare's stage, the night before. The portable stage that the county supplied needed power for its PA system.

There were tensions and disagreements among the mayor, the county executive, and the Buffalo police. These worked in our favor, though I was a little nervous about what I had gotten myself into. I'd talked my board into indemnifying the event. I was no longer a friend of the mayor, but the police force was our friend, as was the country executive, Dennis Gorsky.

My certainty that China was turning a corner in the direction of democracy had slowly turned to horror the year before. The efficiency with which they turned to holdout astonished me, even while the Soviet Union fell and the Berlin Wall came down. 

I would address a crowd in Buffalo's sister city Tver later that summer, as hizzoner's representative. We also taught Russian at Calasanctius School. I was selected to speak by the mayor of Tver, among all the representatives from all over the world. Yeltsin had not yet mounted the tank. Glasnost was in full swing. The mayor of Tver liked me because I was young and looked very American. 

I spoke from the plinth of a massive statue of Lenin. I spoke of minds opened which could never again be closed. I was the young schoolmaster. My translator shrugged and let me go ahead. In my memory, the hordes roared. 

The Resolution Trust corporation was in process of unwinding all the failed banks in Buffalo after the Savings and Loan disaster, while I was in Russia. Still, there was hope somehow. And Buffalo may be coming back now.

But this year, even Hong Kong won't be able to hold their commemoration of June 4, 1989, by virtue of COVID-19. My daughter won't be able to proceed with her wedding which was planned for the Rose Garden in August. I will transition to Medicare.

I am baffled that with so many of our paycheck to paycheck workers out of work, my minuscule retirement fund has climbed back up to where it was at Christmas. How can this make sense? With over 40% of our sub $40K workforce unemployed, the stock market remains alive?

The center of gravity has shifted. The economy has grown strange. Things are grave indeed here in these United States. China rising. I remain confident that our military brass, familiar all with the events of June 4, 1989, would never allow our armed forces to be deployed on our own soil to stop protests. Two of my uncles attended West Point, and two cousins taught there - one from either side. These are honorable people. They understand the promise of America, not only to our citizens, but to the world.

It is possible that I have become a revisionist on China. I understand the importance of stability to peoples' daily lives. Having lived for a while in Beijing in 1986, I understood something of the volatility that was brewing there. 

Later on - still prior to the massacre - I led a group of my students and some interested adults on a tour of China. The group included a young black man from my own class. I was glad he didn't know enough Chinese to hear the comments made as he walked along the streets. One day, on our bus ride to the Great Wall, we passed a group of naked African 'streakers' who were protesting their treatment as supposed guests of the government. They were intending to bring Chinese engineering knowhow back home to Africa.

Still, the Chinese government has been orchestrating steady improvements to the lives of their citizens, and I remain stubbornly confident that the slow arc of Chinese history will turn in the direction called out by Dr. Martin Luther King. For me, the right direction remains the promise of the United States. 

I am happy for China that they are not saddled with the distortions we suffer from our inheritance of Platonic philosophies and religions. They don't imagine a fulfilled and perfected scientific understanding of everything in ideal terms. They've long since grown beyond any notion that there is some personal God as agent for cosmos. I find the Falun Gong just as objectionable as does the Chinese government, and I've nearly lost my certainty about what is right for Tibet and for the far west of China, Xinjiang.

In some ways, I long for the certainties of my youth. I was evidently smart, but I know that my parents were assembling teachers to get me somehow to start reading. They wanted to send me to the school that I later headed. I was far more interested in building gocarts and riding my bike. I wanted to be an engineer.

Of course I could read, but I didn't. My first real book was Plato's Republic. I have no idea what moved me, but I pulled it from the shelves of Britannica "Great Books" in my father's study, and read it in a single night. I remember being thrilled that I could actually understand it.

Everything is so manipulated now. We can use the "concentration camps" in the Chinese west to deflect attention from what we do by imprisoning blacks here at home. Meanwhile, we live out the Chinese playbook for what is wrong with American-style democracy. They have long pointed out our racism as our ongoing flaw, even as they value Han ethnicity - as fictional and constructed as any race could be - and harbor their own prejudices against blacks.

Some of us have called witness to America on our disheartening slide since the days of Richard Nixon. Since the days of assassination. We know that Ronald Reagan sold out our fourth estate. We know that it wasn't China that stole our jobs, but that it was our own greedy capitalists; the ones who were always happy to employ child labor and pay slave wages. Now Rockefeller and Carnegie have transmogrified into Zuckerberg and Bezos.

I was working near LA when China's now Chairman Xi was making his pre-ascendance rounds. My Chinese colleague - an American citizen - wouldn't wash her hand that shook Xi's hand for weeks after the banquet at the consulate, where she was seated at table number one.

I know that Xi is a better man than Mitch McConnell. That is despite Xi's ruthlessness in sweeping away his rivals. Despite arrogating power for life. Despite cracking down on the liberties that we cherish. He genuinely cares for his people.

Trump is beyond the pale of any human reckoning. I hold him responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. 

Once while deplaning from an international flight to the U.S., I found myself next-in-line behind Lindsey Graham as we passed through the newly implemented security protocols, soon after 911. He was unshaven and friendly, and the customs officials recognized him. I pointed him out to my daughters. I had good feelings about him then, as an intelligent and principled conservative.

So, I've watched Graham's career, and no matter how hard I try I can't understand what's happened to his soul. I don't understand the certainties that so many in our country seem to have. I don't understand how everything decent about their beliefs, religious or political, can be tossed so easily away because of the electoral power of a scoundrel. As Joseph Welch asked Joseph McCarthy, "have you no sense of decency?"

So ended the communist witch hunt. And now once again, on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, we are asking the same of our own President. He cleared a path with rubber bullets and teargas so that he could pose for yet another photo opportunity. With a Bible! As many have observed, he held the Bible as though it were just another of his political wares that he is putting up for auction.

I busted my hump for President Obama, despite older wiser friends telling me that he would break my heart. But he is a thoroughly decent human being. He will finally get the leadership from the people that he was begging for from office.

Meanwhile, so many black voices are ringingly clear. I hear kindness and I hear resolve, and I especially trust the women's voices. So must we all. We white folk only know how to apologize and rationalize and explain how things should work. Meanwhile, black Americans and all Americans of color have learned how to lead and lead they shall. Black voices ring. They call for freedom. They call for decency.

There is an obvious genetic connection between Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump by the name of Roy Cohn. There is an obvious genetic connection between Mark Zuckerberg and the political advertising which killed Truman's attempt at universal healthcare. There is an obvious connection between money and power and souls for sale.

It must be that these Republicans so truly believe in the existing order that there is nothing they won't do to stay in power. It must be that they have lost all hope for reform and for the inclusion of all lives in the American compact. It must be that they have lost any American ideals that they must once have had.

While I waver now on whether China was wrong, I don't waver at all about the United States. We must rise to the power of the moment and march to the polls in hordes. We must take back our country. And we must allow those who have suffered oppression for so very long to lead us. Their certainty must become ours again.

As the Chinese anthem calls; "Rise Up, Rise Up!" I have hope again today.