Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Polymorphous Perversity, whatever that means . . .

I am writing this now, perversely indeed, on a very obsolete, but very tiny and with a really nice keyboard, laptop. It took seemingly forever to master the intricacies of that new and highly touted Linux - Jaunty Jackalope. What a cool name. An animal which doesn't really exist. Reminds me vaguely of jalopy! I wonder what's under its covers?

The laptop has a hardware limit to 128 MB of RAM, which is nowhere near enough. I've had to really puzzle over getting things to work. Disabling Flash seemed to do the final trick, but then there are the interminable and automatic updates. And before that, I'd had to reassemble the machine from a basket full of parts. From my memory now maybe three years old, from when I first took it apart to cannibalize its display. Which in the event fried the system board on the machine it was to be transplanted into. Same dimensions, same controller, but some little bitty diode on the one with the slightly downgraded screen couldn't take the heat and went all super nova.

The processor is only 333MHz or so, which is way way way below current count spec for transistors and their frequency for changing state down in the overheating CPU. Will this serpent eating tale never end? The code or the hardware, which spurs which? And what level of cool will be enough, so that we can wear our technology on our very sleeve and be here while being there.

I am that sort of perverse. Even though I could buy a fully competent brand new "netbook" for about $300 including tax, I hate to throw out what once must have cost $3,000 though it was gifted to me as surplus junk so many years ago. Did I mention that it has a really nice keyboard?

Words at the remove of distance - time or space will do - have a special magic, don't they? Like radio once did, words leave so much room for imagination. So many people fall in love with someone they know only from written words, so impossible sometimes with someone right in front of them. Just like polymorphous perversity must have some function to stimulate those imortant border crossings which keep life in motion.

Even television according to Marshall McLuhan, was some kind of cool in comparison to movies. He thought it drew us in from our detachment, rigtht?

I wonder what he would have said about HDTV or virtual reality. I remember reading studies about how it was the brightness of the little dots which made the moving figures look that much more alive, composed of little reds and greens and violets, I think. That range of brightness is more important than fidelity for what the mind constructs as real.

I confess also that this little laptop, a SONY, impressed me for the sharpness and the brightness of its screen. Still does, though either it or my eyes grow dimmer than my memory.

I wonder where these developments can end, building ever faster hardware to contain ever more complex code. The $250 or so I saved is worth far less than the time I've blown puzzling and waiting and reading on-line, trying to gauge the truthfulness of amateurs who must translate down those gurus whose intelligence gets construed by how few can speak their language. Perhaps I can make up the lost time in tuition some day. But hell, I'm unemployed, and so $250 is almost like real money.

The basic problem as I see it (and I'm no guru on these things, I'm just pretty good at fixing them when they break - the grease monkey who gets the engineer's car going) is that when there isn't enough RAM, which can move the bits in and out pretty quickly, the stuff - the code - which must be stored gets swapped out to the much more slowly accessed spinning disk. And meanwhile, if the processor can't interpret the code quickly enough, then the timing gets all thrown off to where the thrashing in and out from disk becomes quite literally infinite and you can't get your keystrokes in.

I couldn't find the lever which would calibrate all those moves, so I just disabled the parts I thought I wouldn't need. I won't be watching movies on this machine.

Once upon a time, at a Rainbow Homecoming,

I learned of a Hopi Indian prophecy that the world would soon be covered in a vast web. The image was then ominous, of power grids and entanglements leading inevitably to being devoured by some kind of great Beast. We did a lot of anti-nuke and anti-war and anti-establishment protesting back in those days. Now I think we all take that attitude which you can see on the face of any college professor staring down his screen. Jaw slack, neck craned forward, seeming somehow brain damaged or deranged.

One sex-addicted salesman I know once told me about his sister who was disabled and in a wheelchair. She'd fallen in love and married off the Internet, I think to someone similarly stuck. He marveled then at the freedom just to be so disembodied. And then again that they would sit, each at his own console, facing away from each other, though hopefully tapping away nice love messages in the spaces between.

That was way before blogging, when people made friends by newsgroupings. When pornography had to be decoded. When color made its splash.

I don't think it's any mistake that profit margins for Internet businesses can be measured by income, direct or indirect, from porn. I hear that much development of software was sparked in its origins that way. Twinkle in some eye indeed! I wonder how they will make any money over in China, blocking all that objectionable material we could all have in our mirrors. Or are we just not narcissistic enough for that? Ho ho, or bored with what we already find too familiar.

There is a quickening for certain, when the mediated particles leave just enough for the imagination. Or when they get lighted and airbrushed and angled to perfection, like so many naked girlies, so strangely willing to expose themselves now to all mankind for all eternity. I don't imagine they get paid very much, and some clearly do it just for the lark.

Or maybe that's the very draw. The danger which is not quite real. The making out of oneself as perfect, in that particular pose at that particular time. Just like those love letters to my sweetheart; though I try so hard for honesty, exposing all my flaws. The story that is real just might be the one you respond to, the rest so much Sarah Palin blah blah blah blah blah blah. Cute to some, but basically without, well, content. And what does that say about her audience?

What will happen then when we meet?

I confess (well now I suppose you do know that already, don't you) that I do indulge this narcissistic perversity of writing to the ether, exposing myself now for all who might be interested, for free. I'm sure I indulge the other kinds about as much or as little as whatever Kinsey said was normal (except that Kinsey was all about discrediting notions of norms and ideal types). He started by studying wasps and, like me, was more interested in the boundaries and how fuzzy they could be; where insects turned to other kinds and no one could be the perfect wasp.

I don't like looking at myself very much in the mirror. If you saw me naked, you'd know what I mean. Ancient hardware, which doesn't even require much thrashing around now to reach its infrequently punctuated conclusions. A look, a stray thought, and I'm good for a long long time.

Our human body is such a strange machine, betraying us in so very many ways. Each interval now in my heart's beating but merest promise of some other. Our eyes don't perceive the world either as that continuous picture in our minds. It's the movements which allow our mind to fill in all the gaps. You cannot see if your eyes stay still. You cannot see if you have the sensor eyeballs, but the brain has never learned. I guess that's all been proven.

We are not so much like camera obscura within our heads. And computers, my dearest friends, will never ever think. These are static dreams of domination, as though the world could be ours forever, given reach enough and time.

There is not time enough. Our airbrush must remain constantly in motion. Even our words are written but in sand, if for no reason than that there are so damned many of them piling on.

There's video on the Internet now, you'll forgive me for forgetting. I suppose that means this medium must run both hot and cool, or is it media all in one? Too bad that our gurus all have died before they could let us know. We have now only inane rants, where everything is just way too cool, dude.

For me, the music stopped at techno. There has to be some variation on the Turing test, where music is its object. There would be two embedded questions: The first is whether what gets returned is recorded, sampled or generated anew. The second is whether the machine has copied the actual intervals, intonations and inflections of the human played auditions before making its own new production. We must interpret, also, the re-productions. The camera obsura can only mock.

I am moved by techno beats and samplings, though I think it must be in a very different way from those live choral stirrings. The one leads me down in a tribal direction, to where my boundaries all disappear. The other seems to take me up to where my own true heart still longs.

These are the boundaries we play with now, striving still and always to be human. If it is only our response that counts, and not the music's maker, then it might be true that Turing's test could be won by a music machine.

If however, there's a two way street, well then it's a whole new game, right? The basic Turing test is dialogic, where music is mostly stimulus response. I think McLuhan traced media changes through arts of war and contention. I think we all get that there is a last war which looms out there.

There's no question that all war is both response and generation of all the new technologies we must grow into. Capitalism thought of in terms of evolutionary contesting has become our pastime after the last great wars. Every one knows that now the wars are all asymmetric, whether terrorist against superpower, or corporation against entrepreneur.

Our mythology indicates David can still beat Goliath. Our reality is that we're all encouraged to remain cowed indoors, protected by Goliath against all the lurking Davids.

I guess the world now turns on whether we construe this medium now as a one or two way street. Brand name versus amateur sleuth, there ought to be some way to render up the best of us. Well, it seems to work with the porno babes. Why not with the good stuff?

This will become my life's work, if only I could find a way to pay for it. Hey, I could recycle old garbage and sell it for a song!

Meanwhile, gentle reader, this one's for you. OK, OK, they're all for you. I suppose I should keep a journal? But where's the charge to that, dear diarist? Where's the charge to that?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fool Rushing in again- very preliminary scratch pad thoughts on enclosures and commons

Lots of people would like to have the last word on the big issues. Like abortion, say, or global warming, or intelligent design. Many of these issues aren't really issues, and simply divide the thinking intelligent crowd from the idiots, right? And it would be nice to find the argument to cure the idiocy, or at least to point out which psychological disease process makes it necessary to hold idiotic opinions, like those of sociopathic and diseased bloviators Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage.

These guys so clearly go for the common rude denominator; in the same way we all like McDonalds' Hamburgers once we've agreed not to think about anything beyond the low level hit when you take one in. You can't think about the aftermath, you can't think about your overeducated palate, certainly not about the environment or your health. You can't even think about the cost anymore, since they are routinely priced above local divey places. If there's something you know nothing about, then these guys will offer you the solar plexus hit which makes you feel pretty sure which side you're on.

I've commented here on the gene patenting debate, coming at it fairly obliquely, via a former student of mine who wrote what I really found to be a great and important book. More recently, I tripped across something approaching a polite flame war on the topic, where Dr. Koepsell was being cast in the role of anti-patent we're all commoners freak. The opposition put up a pretty good and pretty reasonable argument that genes actually can be patentable and patented since the item which actually gets the patent never occurs, in its isolated state, in nature.

The interesting part for me is the agreement, more or less dismissively, on both sides of this debate that there surely are many many cases of patents being issued erroneously, or for that matter withheld. Since the issue will ultimately be decided only in the courts, both sides (as if there only were two) are gearing up to make their case before that mythologically impartial panel, judge, or process.

This seems to be a corollary of the fundamental rule that extremism sells. If you're going to make a case, then make it to the max, and set out to destroy the opposition. Since almost by definition, the readers won't have the firepower themselves to be the master of either side of the argument, they're that much more likely to take your point of view. This is the essence of adversarial resolutions for the law, for sports contests, for wars of all kinds. It's the essence too of what works with capitalism, where there's a competition for market share, or price. It's what propaganda means.

Just as, in the case of abortion, there can be dismissive agreement that of course there are terrible tales on both sides of the issue, where women were forced or tricked into abortion or killed by being forced to carry to term an impossible pregnancy. As if these dirty facts detract from the main battle to be engaged. There is almost a kind of lust to bring things right down to their very crux, and then butt heads right at that juncture. Sometimes, especially when things descend to something which looks like a flame war, it can be downright primitive, you idiots!

For my part, I confess that I have a good deal of sympathy for the intelligent designers, when their issue gets pitted against [what might well be the straw dog of] scientism whereby all mysteries will be revealed to be logically solvable. As if replication of life's origins can ever resolve its mystery.

Similarly, with the anti-global warmers, I must agree that we, the human race, will not ultimately prevail as masters of this or any other domain. Did I say already that I will never agree with Rush or Savage on anything they say, since they are just patently wacko, not to mention dangerous for their fanning of idiot winds to fuel dangerous flames. I mostly think it's a fine distinction indeed between what they do and yelling fire in a crowded theater, although they do help to refine the sides.

But I guess their market share gives them some right, right? I'm not so entirely sure. Jeeze, I guess I even agree with censorship on or at some level. The problem is, who gets to decide? There's a hoot of a film out there called "The Last Supper" which explores some of this to the point of absurdity.

So, you can take the argument for or against the patenting of genes right down to its most minimalist precise terms, and you are finally arguing about art v. nature, and it can sound almost sophomoric. These are arguments about world view, right?

What if there is never any clear boundary? What if point of view will always count? Even plastics, which would never occur "in nature" without man's invention, are surely "of nature" to the extent that man is.

Patents are grants from legal authority to private entities of a temporary exclusive franchise on something they invented but which ultimately reverts to the commons which that authority has always held in trust for you and I, the commoners. The authority to confer that grant ipso facto confirms that what is being granted is rights over something the authority has the right to grant in the first place. There is a kind of distribution of what is "out there" presumably for anyone to "find" but which is never known to be there without its first "invention". Distinctions between invention and discovery can get very mushy indeed, leading to considerations about choices we might have had but have chosen not to take.

Sometimes following the letter of the law becomes itself a very bad choice, and the law must be changed. Chattel must be redefined, for instance, to exclude wives and black people. Property must be redefined to exclude the right to despoil, or generate certain effluents. Sometimes events march on too quickly, and the length or terms for ownership become patently unwise. What happens when pumping out oil causes an upset to geological equilibrium? What happens when a patented life form, say, takes off in overpopulation? What happens when a company owns a patent on something which becomes essential to the survival of virtually everyone?

Perhaps intellectual property also must be redefined simply to exclude specific items, like genes, in the same way that real property might exclude air rights or mineral rights, which are simply too valuable or which impinge somehow on the rights of neighbors. Sometimes it helps to blur rather than to refine the boundaries, so that you might own coastal property, but the public has the right to trespass between the low and high tide marks. Or maybe 25 feet above. Or maybe not at all, but there is nothing a-priori obvious or intuitive about the choices which must be made.

In any case, when debate reaches a kind of final impasse, beyond which there can be no movement; where the sides get cemented in regardless of the firepower brought to bear; then it's usually time for - and I think this might be one of the few proper uses of the term - a paradigm shift.

In physics, a useful distinction can often be made between energy of position and inherent energy; potential and measurable, with potential energy always relative to what's around its "possessor" and things like relative motion. It then might not be clear how the perspective of the measurer must be taken into account, or in the extreme quantum mechanical cases, if the perspective of the measurer can ever be taken quite out of the account.

So, at the level of the basic issues, there seems to be some automatic taking up of sides. When does life begin? Is the origin of life knowable? Is this an invention or a discovery? Is there any direction to evolution? Is mankind at its pinnacle? Are we any different than other forces of nature? Is there such a thing as artifice?

But what if the resolution is always and only a matter of time and position. Most non-straw-dog scientists except for really whacked out fundamentalists like Ray Kurzweil, don't form any opinions, ultimately, about how life begins. Most non-straw-dog religionists don't suppose that airplanes don't really fly, although there are apparently some who think that pilots might get wafted literally away at the time of some rapture.

In the matter of abortion, it seems unfair, just for example, to use scientific notions of conception to talk about when "life" begins. Why not push it back all the way to the twinkle in the eye? Why not make the turning away from all lust evil? Who really knows how to navigate these boundaries? I mean it also would seem clearly to be murder if a fully invested pregnant Mom were forced into abortion.

It might be worth the excercise to find ways to blur the boundaries. To make the case that patenting genes is an issue less simple to pin down that patenting manufacturing processes. Why not mitigate the price which might result from too much value with some progressive tax? Why not issue "commons impingement credits" so that the patenters of some new machine can sell off some of their credits to the bozos who need to own something so abstracted as a gene sequence. If I want to own the number 747, say, I should have to pay almost the entire treasury of the government issuing the patent, which, sad to say, is never quite out of the question now is it?

Let's see. The formula could be E = MC² . Where C is some GNP, denominated in some currency, which equals the value of everything combined. An outer limit, beyond which it's just impossible to go. M could be, ummmm, a fudge factor for what proportion of the proposed patent grant is estimated to be part of our commons. Then E could be the price.

Well, now that's just silly, but at the very least the paradigm could shift a little bit to where borders are recognized themselves to be changeable and negotiable entities. Clearly, as has been well established in the tiny rural town where I live, building very large windmills on ones private property does impinge on the value of all the property around. Why not compensate everyone for the cost to their "view"? Why must we encourage Hatfields fighting McCoys?

The cost should approach infinity if someone proposes to own the air, the water, natural laws. The cost should be nominal if someone has come up with something unlikely to have been come up with by anybody else. But at a certain point, even establishing priority gets ridiculous, like in the case of patenting genes, where the processes are well understood and it's just another gold rush, where the fastest, best provisioned, and most ruthless are the ones to get the claims. What kind of finish line camera will be the most fair if, say someone's internet connection goes down, or their xerox machine needs new toner, or the principal investigator gets sick?

It was all right to grant oil franchises when there was no sense of any limits. Maybe now it's not. It was all right to mine for minerals when all the land was not even mapped. Maybe the existence of limits is the primary thing which redefines all the boundaries or makes them relative. If there are clear limits to the uses which can be made of what we all depend on, in common, then there also must be changes to the ways in which those usages get regulated for the good of all. Patent law may be useful as an engine for progress, but harmful as a mechanism to ensure survival.

This is a simple place marker, for further discussion of Kinsey and his wasps, words and their relation to ideas, boundaries in general, and lots and lots of fun. Would that there were world enough and time . . . .

Monday, June 8, 2009

Twenty Years after Tiananmen; Growing up in and around Buffalo

I was up on a ladder painting the ceiling, making a bedroom for my infant daughter, when the phone rang on June 4, 1989. What’s going on in China? I hadn’t heard. My friend told me of the massacre. I was shocked.

I’d taught Chinese at Calasanctius School, and was just then its newly appointed headmaster. Soon everyone was calling me for guidance about what was going on. I was trying to keep the school going. I wasn’t thinking much about the news of the day, and anyhow the classical Chinese poetry I had studied in college wasn’t much use in the event.

By the next year, I’d grown up some. I was among a small group of concerned citizens brought together by Chinese students in Buffalo. They’d held a spontaneous demonstration in 1989 at the Rose Garden in Delaware Park, along with other crowds across the country. We in the June 4 Memorial Fund were holding some donations generated in horror and in sympathy; to help in any way as Americans are wont to do in the face of any disaster.

Mayor Jimmy Griffin (R.I.P) stood in the way of our using the Rose Garden in Delaware Park for planned events a year later. Hizzoner explained to me over the phone that he didn't want people bashing heads in his parks. I patiently explained that this would be a peaceful gathering, and that (unlike in China, I thought to myself) Americans had the right to gather and to speak out. There was an excuse about a wedding being planned for the same time. That didn't check out, so we initiated a lawsuit and went ahead with planning.

The Police were helpful (I think they had labor differences with the mayor). County Executive Dennis Gorski got us a band shell. We used electric from the Shakespeare in Delaware Park folks, in exchange for dressing room privileges at my nearby school. I got the city indemnified on the schools' insurance, and we took advantage of the great David Jay to sue on constitutional grounds. Tom Toles depicted that we had a good cause – 'no democracy protests in Delaware Park either??' he mused pictorially; Tiananmen square in one pane, the Rose Garden in the other. We won our suit and the show went on as planned.

I remember the year Calasanctius School finally closed. I was at the Scotty Norwood lovefest down at Niagara Square. The first Gulf War had been kicked off, and we in Buffalo turned our own grief at “Wide Right” into a huddling closeness. Candles lit, our hearts were full. I went back there again in my heart. 9/11 was my first day on a new job doing IT for the Catholic Diocese in Rochester. I watched in horror with people who knew how to pray that morning the World Trade Towers came down.

I remember the coincidental smoke over Buffalo on my way home; and wondering if it was all over. No one knew quite what to think, and we all huddled close, awaiting guidance and leadership and some sense of how to respond.

Buffalo can turn inward to turn grief into closeness. We can and have turned outward in solidarity with those hurting very far away. We've all come a long way in these United States these twenty years gone by, with most of us having grown up and away from abuses of power and fear. We're opening up again. But I remain worried about China.

They seem to have turned the tragedy of Tiananmen into a nationalistic cause - keeping chaos at bay is their excuse for what governments do with power. Even their elite students now will hear no evil about what their government does in Tibet, my student organizing daughter tells me, just graduated with the class of 2009.

Here was our American response to 9/11: The powers that be clearly believed that American Capitalism has got to take over in the face of all forms of ignorance afoot in the world. We apparently think this while simultaneously believing that life begins scientifically at conception while evolution is false.

The Chinese too seem to feel that their world has to be one way. They always have, and they've always been right, for a lot longer than we've been a twinkle in some Chinese guy's eye. They are high on beating us at our own game, as we have flaccidly fallen prey to deregulationist creationism. We lost our way among commodities and competition and gaming the derivatives, and where the government's role is. In China, they only know that whatever happened back then marked their lives getting a whole lot better. In Buffalo, we never did live very high on our credit scores. How should we respond?

I was once inside the Communist party headquarters and watched with some fascination as my host wrote a message on a white board which simultaneously displayed on every board in every location of the "world's largest University," where all 300,000 cadre get educated upon "election" to local and regional office. There's still only one party there.

I must honor President Obama's attempts to raise our rhetoric above our differences. To accept the challenge from Bishops and Priests that one really can honor humanity without hewing to some party line, or succumbing to fear of choices. In these very difficult economic times, there must be some opening out still. Some turning away from what divides us, toward what can also still bring us together.

Remember when the walls came down all over the world, following on the example of the young Chinese? Remember when we let deregulationist rhetoric tear down so many internal walls, because Ronald Reagan and our own Jack Kemp sounded so darned good? Remember when Hillary believed that universal health care was a no brainer beyond the pale of competitive economics? I wonder even now if we can learn what should be bought and sold for prices set in the marketplace, and what should remain part of our Commonwealth, for the good of us all.

Recently published, Prisoner of State; The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyan, represents that onetime paramount Chinese leader's belief that for its survival, China must move toward parliamentary democracy. Toward open procedural reconciliation of differences. His thoughts had to be smuggled out from his nightmarish house arrest. His sin was to dissent from a decision rendered from the very top - no cracks could show in the Communist party, perfect by decree. Zhao Ziyan was the man in charge before the massacre in Tiananmen, and he refused to sign off on the Party’s resolution. That ended his run in power. He lived out his days locked within his own house.

That brave young man who stopped the tanks, he might yet be our model. Taking cues from no-one. Moving in lockstep dance against the machine of power. No one knows yet how he’s grown up, or if.

We need to remain good friends with China’s people. We share in the richness of our heritage of art, poetry, scholarship, culture, discovery, science, commerce, entrepreneurship. And we are both uprooted from the cultural soil which gave us these fine things. America literally, China by Cultural Revolution.

There are moments in each of our lives we will never forget. These are some of mine. I share Pete Seeger’s optimism for our future. I share Buffalo’s sense of not having to be the winner to feel special.

Bird Flew

I woke up that morning considerably earlier than I would have liked to. Some time in the middle of the night, like maybe three AM, there was a scary sound above my head, above the tent, outside. I realized much later that it must have been a deer snorting, surrounded by nothing more at all. One loud snort, then nothing.

It didn’t exactly wake me up or get me out of the sleeping bag, but it kind of powered my exit when I did wake up in the predawn of that hilly graveyard. There was a rise, behind which I could easily hide from whatever stray traffic might come by. Graveyards were my habitual stops between shower breaks while motorcycling. No-one is likely to bother you there, and there aren’t usually visitors toward the end of any rural day.

This particular morning, packing up my bike, I wanted to hear a weather report just before deciding jeans or leather and how much underneath. The little multi-band was a hand—me-down from my amateur ham radio brother, and it seemed like I ought to want to bring it along for the ride. I somehow prized it, though it was suffering from the vibrations, and I couldn’t get it to power up this morning.

There was a tiny black screw covering the battery compartment, which I removed in full and fated knowledge that I would lose it despite my very best precautionary measures, knowing full well that beneath the bike was no concrete or even gravel, but a full rich bed of overgrown grass.

Spirits never did concern me – I should be so lucky to experience actual hallucinatory manifestations of whatever souls were laid unrestfully here. Mysteries of the airwaves did, somewhat, however. These oscillations omnipresent, tuning in to which had become so essential somehow, even on a bike. This was way before cellphones might raise the paranoia factor by transmissions near the head. I was more worried about the symbolic reaches for wavelengths.

For me in those days, the biggest problem with motorcycling – well, actually, there were two – but the most immediately troubling was the noise of the wind, and the soreness of my butt.  These, however, were both easily enough remedied by the simple expedient of travelling more slowly and taking frequent breaks to walk around and chat. The second issue was that while walking around, especially dressed in leather, I tended to make people laugh which discouraged much good conversation. I never did have the cool part down.

The radio this morning wouldn’t power up. And whatever magic demon stalks me made certain that the tiny black screw would get bumped or whisked or otherwise disturbed right out from the little seat pucker where I’d carefully placed it.

I watched it go and marked the spot, which was the final curse. Since every time this happens – the screws are flicked, the sound is marked, and by starkest perseverance, I always or almost always do manage to find the lost part. So I was not about to let it go.

This is because I’ve trained myself so thoroughly against the magic noise cancelling brain oscillations which more typically make lost things utterly disappear only to reappear hours or days or months later right in the place where you first were looking. The training is simple, and based on the hard fast knowledge that the thing is actually there.  I’m nothing if not perseverant.

But this day in the grass, despite my best most accurate triangulation, there really was no hope, and it was getting on towards time when folks might be visiting those graves. In actual fact, the radio never did work again – something about motorcycling vibrations didn’t agree with its guts.

This, of course, is what writing does for me too. It puts down a marker among all the twittering oscillations of my perceptual apparatus. They (you know, “they”)  tell me that my brain perceives and even acts on several orders of magnitude more stuff than reaches my conscious awareness. They say that what I consider decision –making is only rationalization after the fact; that the path I’ll take can be recorded directly from my brain before I can claim it for my own.

So writing is a marker of some thought got brought up to consciousness. And I know I need far more than 140 characters to do the thing full justice, unless I’m writing poetry, in which case all the echoes of all the other possible words have to be there fully too, floating around in potential consciousness or memory or the triangulated possibilities of what might be about to be said.

The writing puts a marker down, which builds and grows and changes. Just like that Bird Flow which is a flock of individuals, perhaps each aware of the same outside stimulus, perhaps only of each other, but which from outside the flock can look so much like quicksilver thinking as it mindfully traverses the sky. So different from clouds. So  mindless still. So leaderless.

There must be a kind of love so strong that it can bring back ghosts. There must be a kind of concentration which can bring some near fleshy soul right out from its grave and hallucinate so strongly that it will seem just right out there rather than in the mind.

Things are more real which are outside oneself after all.  And outering words will give them too a life of their own. But if you just tweet them, calling some fellow of the species, then how can you own them and give them soul? How can you shape them and mark each stoppage of your own mind’s flitting awareness without you? How can you ever put some you into words which are now owned by whoever might respond?

And so there is but one response to the fear that there will be none. Control replaces love, and for your own good replaces what you would do without me. This too all might be love. It is surely love of a manly sort, a flock with leader becomes an army, purposeful and direct. A man’s intentions are sealed with a pledge and must go on forever if honor is to be kept.

But women have no need for pledges, when children are concerned. The heartstrings are as real as actual cords and as righteous about some future.

I guess the rod is being dropped in favor of better support. I guess pledges of honor too are more likely to get broken without loss of all the honor which defined them. I guess the woman is more ascendant, chevrons turned to flood.

I guess also that the ghosts have disappeared. That they have been replaced by words and memories and flesh and blood.

These airwaves, though, are dangerous, allowing only one way messages at first. And now with twittering on the internet, personality precedes thought rather than to follow it. It might just be that two way communication is less than one, if words are reduced to twitters. It may be that there never will again be any flow to words from just one person.

But I think that fear is never love. Fear that no response will be forthcoming. Fear that at ones center there might be nothing worth loving. Fear that without some hook, the heart might flee. Fear that the flow of birds will leave one without a flock. Fear that God is absent.

I laugh in your general direction. My reality, however, is here. These words are mine, whose shape is owned inside me. I outer them for you. I like the calculus of that.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Other Shoe - Fleshing out the "Straw Dog" reference from my earlier review

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

To look up and find not Jesus, but a dog. Nothing would be better, which seems to be the point of this book. Nothing is all that there is.

That's what I wrote after the first reading dimmed. I've just re-read the book, and it wears OK. I went from 3 to 5 stars.

But the entire work is written as if it were a challenge to prove the author wrong. It's a little bit hard, even, not to hear John Gray complaining that no-one really loves him. It seems that if someone did, or dared to try, he might be more inclined to true belief of the sort that religionists prescribe. It would be only human. But if someone did it also seems that he might leave them feeling silly.

He is quite right, of course, that science as pursuit of "truth" is structurally identical - perfectly homologous in every way - to the religious Christian belief system it genetically descends from. He even makes that fact trite, if the reader had not already come to the same conclusion on his own. He then proceeds to ridicule fantasies about personal identity, and the self as an invented creature of choice. But I think he misses a point which he himself raises effectively right near the book's beginning.

Early on, he talks of empathy, as a kind of demonstration of the fact that we are not quite so individual as we sometimes seem to think we are. "We think we are separated from other humans and even more from other animals by the fact that we are distinct individuals. But that individuality is an illusion (p 41)." "Morality is not a set of laws or principles. It is a feeling - the feeling of compassion for the suffering of others which is made possible by the fact that separate individuals are finally figments (p. 42)."

Neither "empathy" nor even "emotion" and certainly not "feelings" are in the index to this book. And yet toward its end, Gray supposes that machine minds too will develop spirituality, souls, and fellow feeling. This, he supposes, will obfuscate communication among them, making their machine language as natural as that of humans.

Well, there's the rub. Machines can be described completely, though their interactions might not be. (when is a machine a machine, and when a grouping of interacting automata?) Fellow feeling is surely all about the interactions, but why, this reader wonders, does he leave "feeling" located in the same place where he denies reality to the self.

What if feeling were thought of as actually being "out there" in some analogous sense to that other stuff which can be measured and described and manipulated without sensations "inside" the manipulator? Physical stuff is not thought to have any sensation of it's own, but we internalize what it feels like in the process of identifying it; giving it identity; giving it a name.

If feelings were not located subjectively on our "inside", but rather were thought of as objective also, just like other "things", it should be nothing strange that our subjective sensation of them remains "within", in just the same way as does any sensation. If emotional feeling were, as they most certainly are, a function of relations among, but not intrinsically "of" individuals, why then Gray might actually have to accept that humans really are just a little bit different.

Our distinction might even made be by virtue of the simple fact that we do name things. And our written language means that humans without physical knowledge of or contact with one another might be still be stirred as if they were actually close.

I wanted to write this review as a kind of "bookend" to the review I wrote about a new book called Who Owns You, by David Koepsell (look it up). That book set up its own "straw dog" of conscious evolution. The burden of its argument was that the basic code for our identity as individuals as well as a species distinct from other species - our genetic map - should not be allowed proprietary patent status. It should and must, rather, remain a kind of unenclosed "commons" so as to prevent the basic human sin of ownership of one human by another.

I called Conscious Evolution a straw dog in that review in precisely the same way as does John Gray here. We are fools to think that we ever could take control of a life process which is as far beyond us - and ever shall be - as is the entire collected history of the cosmos which has brought us to this point. We are not its culmination, and to think so would be to become as absurd as any other impossibility. We simply would not last long as a species, any more than would any creature without medium to live and breath in.

No creature can live in a fantasy world, as a fantasy being, though we may be the only creature to have tried and tried so hard to do so. This is the point of the entire book.

But our language is what gives us the capacity - the weakness - for fantasy. It also describes the boundaries, for individuals, for species, for in from out; and in so doing creates the spaces for their interactions.

No, we are not the culmination of anything, and certainly not the processes of evolution. But it does remain possible that "emotion", the thing left out from this book's index, might actually describe the relations among organisms which define the eventual direction for their transformation; which would be the "direction" for evolution too. This need not be toward anything at all. Certainly not toward culmination. It's just a direction, precisely identical to that of time.

And it just might be those feelings, after all, which should be familiar to us as driving our honor, our decency, our aspirations, These are what we mean by "human" most if not all of the time.

It is precisely true that this does not distinguish us from any other creature in its own quest not just to survive, but to thrive in its proper context. But it does distinguish the human creature from the reductive sense urged here in this book, that humans are but technology to further the purposes of its constituent cells, genes, and colonizing bacteria. That just places the boundaries wrong.

If that were so, then there would be no limiting reduction to the game. Technologies being the one thing which, if not in their development, then in the handling of them by "individuals" are only ever responsive to direction from somewhere else. Self directed technologies, as if the self were alone, are the very thing which is in the end the properly so-called illusion.

I love the book, if not the man, whom it is impossible therefrom to know except as the curmudgeon he presents. Too bad, John Gray, too bad.

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Who Owns You - my review at Goodreads.com

Who Owns You?: The Corporate Gold-Rush to Patent Your Genes Who Owns You?: The Corporate Gold-Rush to Patent Your Genes by David R. Koepsell

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
(radically unfinished review - read at your own risk)

This is a rare book. It stakes out its territory right at the inflection point where past turns in to future, and where all the debates and arguments must be held about directions for our human development. It is, finally, political, radical and even revolutionary, as well as being a scholarly work of lucid philosophy and well argued law.

Who Owns You lays out a schematic for those debates which we as informed citizens must engage or suffer a return to serfdom; commoners without a commons. It points out specific transgressions already made in a direction that is or soon will be toxic for our collective humanity beyond the castle walls of corporate empire.

This is a very important book. It defines our boundaries. It explores our limits; not the limits of knowledge or consciousness, but as social animals, trying to get along without suffering ownership as something less than human.

"Territory" is what "letters patent" from the crown once granted proprietorship over. Now that all real property has pretty much been spoken for, what is contested are discoveries - more properly intentional inventions - of things and processes which never before existed.

Dr. Koepsell takes care to distinguish among aesthetic and utilitarian production - copyright and patent - and tokens vs. forms as patentable or copyrightable human creation. With stunning clarity, the history and usage of important terms are set out, such that natural law can be distinguished from technological processes and ideas from their expression. Production which can both be "enclosed" and distinguished from common sense is or may be properly patentable. Discoveries of that which cannot be enclosed nor attributable to intentional expression are excluded from private ownership, and must be protected for common use.

The case is made with exquisite precision that it has been a mistake, both ethically and legally, to allow the patenting of gene sequences. Furthermore, the process to isolate specific genetic anomalies may constitute a kind of expropriation of what properly belongs to the individual from whose tissues these patterns have been isolated. A case is made that there may be cause to expand legal definitions for privacy, ownership, and the commons to accommodate the advancements in basic science which have made gene sequencing possible. This case is supported not only ethically, legally, and philosophically, but also with regard to its practical impact on scientific advancement and economic stimulus.

If one did not know already that these are critical matters of more than specialized interest, one quickly discovers that truth in reading this compact book. Open Source, public licensing, funding for basic research, and the differences between scientific and technological advancement are all touched. It is surprisingly difficult on ones own to piece together an understanding of the background for approaching these difficult issues. This work does all that for the reader and more.

It really does matter. That is the main import of Who Owns You . In that sense, this might be an almost revolutionary manifesto, exposing some dangers to status quo, in the same powerful way as does, for one example, Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine . They may not know just what they do (or they may), but we must.

Ironically, the "territory" staked out by this book is not just at land's end, but conceptually at the end of what might distinguish basic science from technological contrivances based on that science. Arguably, a gene sequence is so difficult to apprehend - so dependent on complex processes and understandings - that to patent the particular sequence identified is tantamount to and the same thing as patenting the process which has led to its identification. Such that finding the sequence through a different set of steps would amount to finding a different gene sequence, whose "usage" could only be provably identical if the sequences were useful in precisely the same way. This would amount to proprietorship of unmapped territories whose butting up against one another had yet to be established; whose overlapping grants had yet to be trampled.

Dr. Koepsell assumes - he must assume - that the gene is a unitary object, and that granting of overlapping patents is both inevitable and absurd. That by granting patents to gene sequences, one is granting patents to something that would always be discovered as the same entity, regardless of path or process taken. That patenting genes is more akin to patenting blue eyes than to a process to make eyes blue. And absurd for that.

A careful reader must agree. This reader takes hope that the straw dog implicit in the argument - that technological advances will ultimately give humans the ability to choose their destiny; design their genes, for example - that this straw dog will go up in flames. The implicit argument is that it is for this very reason that we must be concerned about "who owns you" as if there were a perpetual battle between freedom and tyranny. There might be. I hold out for surprises which will bury both beneath the still overwhelming power of "nature" to keep our humanness in check. We will not engineer our way out of evolution, though the attempt may yet destroy any chance for life as life at the level of the human.

That, finally, is why this book is so important. It argues for life. Not mawkishly, as religionists do. But scientifically, as an argument to keep surprise itself from being enclosed and owned.

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