Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Code Breaker


The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human RaceThe Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn't really read the Kindle edition. My library only had the EPUB on offer. What a thrill, really, to discover that reading on the web (on the Overdrive reader) is smoother than reading on a Kindle. Will wonders never cease!

Well, no, I suppose they won't, in the brave new universe of code in the cloud. Writing code is a new sort of artifice; one that we can't really see or feel or interact with directly. Even coders can't really read what they wrote, which might fill volumes if it were printed out. But at least they can parse it word by word if need be.

Any sort of code requires embodiment before it can be naturalized. It is otherwise purest abstraction; meaningful only to a select few.

Coding has triggered a cosmic change now that we can edit nature's code. That's why I think everyone must read this book. Really. The book is up to the literal minute, and desperately important in this time of plague.

It is also a cautionary tale, but gently so. The caution engages questions about what "improvement" might really mean. As one of the lucky ones, who might resemble what parents might wish for their designer babies, I would amplify those cautions, as I have done here. I may be immodest. I do strive for humility. I'm not looking for any prize.

Code, remember, is what priests used to pretend they understood. Hidden - occult - truths. Truths that can't be touched, that can't be read, that can only be, well, intuited.

Don't be fooled. Those priests are no better than you are. That is one of Isaacson's main burdens in writing this. He wants us all to participate in the debates, and we can't if we deny the fact that genes can now be edited and that editing them makes a difference.

I, for one, am excited by the prospect of anti-virals which are as effective as anti-bacterials, and even more so by the vague promises that we may even learn to eradicate the antibiotic resistant bacteria that we so blithely created in our earlier enthusiasm. I am excited by the prospect of no more plagues, even as I ponder the place of viruses in our evolution. I am just a tad bit concerned about the fungi, though.

No matter how much we may think that we understand nature's laws, we are novices about the overall balance.

Isaacson can't seem to help a good-guy/bad-guy narrative of bacteria against viruses, though he moderates that by footnote. CRISPR refers to what bacterial genes have, to combat ever-morphing viruses.

Aren't they both bad, from our point of view as humans?

Well, no, not exactly. Just sometimes.

Maybe when all of us can understand what code is, and can even write some of it, we may be ready to conduct the germline editing which is promised by CRISPR technologies. Until then, you're being asked to trust the priests. Hmmm.

My question is about whether code can ever be naturalized in the way that every other feature of our built environment is. Is there a point when our tools are too powerful? When they reach too far? When we are too detached from our own creations?

We can't know that from here. What we can know is that, so far, these pursuits have been accomplished by very decent human beings. It's the decency which should be celebrated as much as the accomplishment. Would that it were ever so.

The plague moderated the forces of unregulated (predatory?) capitalism during COVID19, and we were saved. Those forces, as the book documents, have invaded even the Academy. Where is the anti-viral for that sort of consumption? It requires no decoding to see what's going on, and yet we do nothing about it. True believers all.

The mind, once opened, can never be closed again. Science is a one-way street that way. It doesn't go backward, except in the details, which are often in need of correction. Mind opening happens only upon what Thomas Kuhn dubbed "paradigm shifts." But the whole concept of paradigm shifts undermines any scientific certainty.

Surely natural laws don't move backward, even as they are refined and modified. Is religious belief - is belief of any sort - a mind opening or a mind closing event? That is the live question of this book, and it should be asked of nearly everything.

What profiteth mankind to gain advantage upon nature if there is no nature anymore? Of course, the absence of nature is but a fever dream, no matter which side you're on.

Nature is what is. Code is but its tracing. A trace can never be the whole. Copyright or patent, Martha, copyright or patent? Money shot takes on a whole new meaning when you're encoding life.

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Friday, May 28, 2021

Stop, Already! (A Review, of Sorts, of Walter Isaacson - The Code Breaker)

There is so much competent writing out there now. I read as much of it as I possibly can, and still I can't learn to write well. My trouble is that I have something to say. It's better if you just want to tell a good story. There are rules for that. I obviously refuse to learn those as well.

How fortunate for me that there is, occasionally, a book-length treatment of something up-to-the-minute timely, that I know very little about. To be clear, I am not on a quest to understand anything and everything. Mostly, I look for clues about people whose work it might be productive for me to connect with.

Who knows what I mean by productive. I guess I mean productive toward my being able to express a way to approach life and understanding that nobody seems to share. It's more of a scientific-style discovery than it is philosophical. It shouldn't depend so much on perfect language, though I'm afraid that it does.

As I embark, finally, on reading what promises to be another masterful summary of an entire ground-breaking field, in the guise of biography, by Walter Isaacson, it feels like time to survey, yet again, this inflection point for humans on the planet. (I honestly don't know if I'm telling myself to stop - which will happen on its own soon enough - or if I'm telling the "innovators" to stop. Isaacson writes about those who discovered, by way of the so-called CRISPR anti-viral mechanism of bacteria, how to edit genes.

I just read yet a different masterful piece in the New York Times about how Sinead O’Connor doesn't regret, but rather celebrates, what happened after she tore up her photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, once upon a time. She was detested by many for that act, and then derided for destroying her own career. She herself apparently felt, instead, that she had rescued herself from the prisonhouse hell of celebrity. 

That story is a reminder, at least to me, of just how far we have to go before we even consider stepping in to "take control of evolution." The heroes of Isaacson's true story seem to feel that it is inevitable that we will eventually do that. Isaacson himself comes around by story's end, in celebration of curiosity.

I am intensely curious, spending most of every day chasing down things I've never heard of. I found my calling early in life. In most ways, I have been the winner in the project that gene editors see in mankind's future. I am white, reasonably good looking, athletically coordinated (if somewhat uninterested) and I was admitted to CalTech and MIT, along with Yale.

I hated Yale in many ways, and of course it marked my turning away from scientific pursuits. Not because of any shortfall on Yale's part. Rather more because I couldn't handle the distractions; my own curiosity about things I knew nothing about. The calling that I discovered for myself may have been nothing other than a psychotic break. I remain agnostic on the topic. I was never abducted by aliens.

Taking control of anything requires understanding where the levers are and where conscious choice - the stuff of free will - takes over from demons working you from "inside." An honest assessment requires applying Heisenberg-style uncertainty to your own motives, an allusion I've picked up from Isaacson's book. Better to ask someone who knows you rather than to defend an honor which might not even exist.

My warning is embodied in Sinead O'Connor's warning to Miley Cyrus, which I found in Wikipedia, wanting to know more than the NYT article offered:

The message you keep sending is that it's somehow cool to be prostituted… it's so not cool Miley… it's dangerous. Women are to be valued for so much more than their sexuality. We aren't merely objects of desire. I would be encouraging you to send healthier messages to your peers… that they and you are worth more than what is currently going on in your career.

Isaacson's book is about Jennifer Doudna, who is credited (including by a Nobel prize now) with instigating much of the genetic research which has led up to our ability to "edit" genes, and more particularly the book describes how she and her colleagues worked to deal with COVID-19. No small part of the story is that it documents the scientific career of a woman. Of many women, in what remains so very much a man's world.

Once we start editing genes, how might we be assured that we won't just simply embody our current state of depravity off into eternity by our attempts to "improve" humanity? Is a popularity contest the way to go? And if there can be no democratic resolution, looking to factored and fragmented religion can only make things worse, as history, recent and ancient, surely shows. 

We already conduct genetic experiments in a sense, and have for a long time. There are powerful differentials which determine who thrives and who fails, and only some of them depend on what are thought to be natural endowments. These have been accelerating post-Darwin, post-Einstein, post-Terman, post-Turing, post-von Neumann, post-whoever-you-will. The geniuses we worship in our history. Industry and technology does that acceleration. The thinkers only wave the starting flag.

I would contend that we are nowhere near mature enough - sophisticated enough? - to decide what it is that we would like to amplify, or mute, about humanity. This problem is almost unrelated to scientific advance, except if and as scientific advance causes us to change our minds somehow. Changing our minds would mean to adapt to a new and different episteme.

The simple thought experiment, which has probably been advanced a million times, is about the mother who succumbs to the temptation to design her baby. What regrets might there be then, with the actual offspring? How would those compare with the ordinary regrets of a mother projecting happiness or regret upon a daughter whom she so dearly wishes to spare her own particular litany of regret. Birth rage will make road rage as nothing, right?

More still to the point, how about a person themself who knows that they have been edited with beneficence aforethought (could that be malice in some disguise?)? What will happen to the, perhaps wonderful, discovery of some particular and surprising talent. What will happen to the disappointments of falling just short.

It is the wrong approach to ask sufferers and their families what they would have different about their lives. Yes, sure, we all imagine a future, a different life compared to the one we were consigned. Mostly, we know it as a dream. Look around yourself and see the wreckage of false hope, madly dashing about a world in flames. What do you see in your dreams of our future? I suppose that might depend on your present.

Surely it is more urgent to provide universal healthcare, decent housing, and affordable food to all before we embark on more control of our collective future. These things require no scientific advance, and there is no new discovery which can force them, or make them trivial. Politics is hard. 

These questions can and undoubtedly will be writ large upon the human race; upon the world entire. Do we really wish to set about designing our own future? What would be the goal? To eradicate stupidity, along with disease and hosts of other slings and arrows of insult?

James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, apparently believes in those goals. He seems surprisingly stupid himself when it comes to understanding intelligence and beauty. None of his colleagues now would have him involved in any decisions about our future.

Here is my little list of things that we not only don't know enough about, but whose existence as questions most of us don't even acknowledge. I make no claim for brilliance, for precedence, or for anything at all, other then the happenstance of my particular, and perhaps peculiar, personal history. It makes a quirky list.

  • Is there meaning to random?
  • Once deracinated and decultured, is there still a sense for the term 'God' which is valid?
  • Should intellectual prowess be the defining factor in definitions for "merit?"
  • If we have indeed transgressed the objectivity test for valid science, then must we admit "emotion" as a cosmic, rather than local, quality?
  • Where does emotion fit in the mind?
  • Can we ever move beyond our local world to cosmos, now that we are part of the objective "natural" laws that we uncover?
My own responses, in order:
  • yes
  • yes, God is Love (I have no idea if I mean that metaphorically or literally, but I'm working on it)
  • There is no "mind" that excludes emotional valence. There is no proper merit without "heart."
  • There are moving configurations of matter which involve no discernable force. Such motions are e-motions, and their structures are conceptual.
  • Emotion is the (pre?) determiner of choice
  • Sure, but it would entail some (necessarily non-physical) interface with other life

The only thing that technology will or can do is to accelerate whatever processes have already been going on. Social networks on steroids, perhaps. So, I think I don't wish or need to take a side in the big debates of our time, including whether germ-line gene editing is morally acceptable. It is surely do-able. I'm asking us to look properly for what aspects of reality we really don't understand before exploding this one.

Science doesn't move backward. Once your mind is opened on any given matter that is subject to scientific validation, you can't go back to blindness, except by embracing a kind of evil. The scientific method is wonderful that way. And scary. It's really no wonder that so many refuse to open their minds when it would mean to relinquish much that they have held dear.

I did a little experiment - very unintentionally - a while ago. I wrote about my problems in my tiny mobile home, guessing that others have had to address similar issues, and hoping that my experiences might be of some assistance. In other words, I actually wrote something useful. 

Surprise, surprise, it is rapidly becoming my most widely read post (which isn't saying much). Almost there. Still, I get nearly zero comments on almost anything. People must think that I'm some sort of plant, like my Bulgarian classmate did when she wouldn't believe I wasn't CIA. I mean, I had to be, right? With my Ivy League Chinese literacy. And especially with my apparent unemployment. 

I know, I sound like a drone after the first sentence and so who would go further? Why would I expect engaged readers?

But really, I'm just a guy who likes to solve problems. Look here: my daughter got a house which had an utterly unworkable kitchen. For way way less than what a kitchen designer might stipulate, we made the kitchen workable:

I'm thrilled, my daughter and son-in-law are thrilled, and the whole setup didn't hit $4K to populate that unused kitchen wall, and to change out a dishwasher. OK, so that's hardly nothing, but it's a lot less than most kitchen remodels. New stove (air fry! and convection!), new hood, new cabinets from Home Despot plus supposedly sustainable rubber-tree butcher block, plus leftover lucite rods from the bookshelf which I also made them (and that you have already seen, dear and gentle reader). Yeah, the labor was free, so your mileage may vary.

The house has a theme. And yes, I confess, this is just simply usefulness clickbait. Let's see if it ups my readership! Bet I don't get any comments, though. Hmmmm, maybe I just shouldn't be giving shit away for free. Is that all it is?

Probably. Or maybe I just can't write. Maybe I just refuse to learn how. Maybe that's because there are so many competent writers out there and I just simply don't feel all that competitive for eyeballs, since I'm not exactly doing this so that I may "go viral" and get rich. That would, frankly, terrify me. 

I'm recently surrounded by claims that "recognition" is part of what makes humans tick. Francis Fukuyama says so when he writes about the "Last Man." William Gaddis seems to suppose so in his book by the same title, The Recognitions. And now in this Walter Isaacson tale of CRISPR, the desire for recognition takes top billing right up there with scientific curiosity.

If this is a defining feature of humans, then, seemingly lacking it, I may not be human. More likely, I'm just a liar, and in denial. I mean sometimes I do boast about things I've done, but I'm honest enough with myself to know the difference between my amateurish mockups, and the works of true professionals. I'm not about to go into the business of kitchen remodeling, though I will do the work for love, if not for money.

So my quest here is purely to find someone to hand off my discoveries to. Surely, there must be someone else out there who has a similar enough background and perspective, and can do me better about selling this stuff. I've spent just about 40 years without any real luck. And just as I'm tiring out, I'm getting desperate. And nevermind me, the world feels on some precipice.

Adding to my bullet lists above, I just simply don't believe that the persistence of humanity is what's at stake, no matter how much vanity gratification populating Mars might afford. What's at stake is our very world. You know, the one which goes all the way back to the Big Bang. It's not that humans are required for life. We may be the end of life.

I found this (generationally degraded now) on Quora from somebody who found it at Humon

Of course, in a way, I agree with sentiment in the comic above, as well as in its "truth." But in a different way, I follow the Chinese tradition to the effect that humanity has a cosmic role to play. My shorthand for that role is that we, on the one hand, bring the constancy of the heavens down to earth (literally, in the Chinese) and on the other that we, in our position as the center or heart between heaven and earth, bring heart/mind to the cosmos. Perhaps it would be better to say that we realize heart/mind on earth. 

As you might imagine, I also think that our particular brand of mind is as unique in the cosmos as are our individual "personalities" among our peers. Personality is a concept that I don't find all that useful, to be honest. And "character" doesn't exist unless it's subject to improvement. So that's why I don't feel a need to take a moral stand about what we should or shouldn't do with our "knowledge," expect to be humble about how comprehensive it can ever be.

We have discovered that we are part of what we dispassionately investigate. We don't become as God, but that is a deficiency in what we mean by God as well as in what we mean by human. That paradigm shift - that shift in episteme - requires that we take responsibility for what we discover. We have become inventors now of reality, and our choices matter.

We seem to believe that technology happens in just the way that science does - a progressive process of uncovering necessities that were already there. Surely we can't invent natural law? But technology is a series of "artificial" choices. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we must. 

A major thrust of Isaacson's book is to document the changes that have happened in universities when they cross this fuzzy line between science and its profitable applications. True confession; my first love was engineering. I wanted to fix things more than I wanted to discover them. There is no natural law for political economics.

At dinner with my ex the other night, I saw again what had led to my lovely daughters. Sure it may be the artificial fruit of exercise, plastic surgery and makeup routines, but I was and will not be inclined to ask. Neither of us wishes to have continued that relationship, and I wish her well with her new hubby, who can see other things that I can't see.

The bigger question for me is not whether editing germ-line genes is moral, but whether it is a human thing to do, in the Chinese sense of humanity. Our usage of the term often has it be a pejorative rather than a celebratory term. I do believe that it remains important to distinguish between human and inhuman.

Now that we have created antibiotic resistant bacteria, it would seem a sin not to deploy gene editing techniques to resurrect the good old diseases that we could kill. Maybe raising the wooly mammoth from extinction doesn't quite have quite enough entertainment value, not to mention the unintended Jurassic Park consequences, but surely we must be allowed to fight artifice with artifice.

For that matter, I think almost everyone should read this book! We have no idea how lucky we have been in these pandemic times, to have researchers like Doudna who have discovered the tools we need to avoid the horrors of pandemics past.

I don't wish to throw cold water on any of that by pointing out that the pandemic itself is a function of our modernity this time, regardless of its inception in the halls of science, if that's what happened. Does it matter? We now have clear and present hope and even expectation that life can be good for all of us. We have scientists to thank for that.

I'd like to introduce a different approach to identifying the "red line" between proper and improper uses of germ-line gene editing. Based on my read of Isaacson's book, those at the front lines of the field have only vague notions about messing with the "natural" processes of evolution. Most shy away from doing that. Their 'notions' are exceedingly well-informed, but I believe that they miss something obvious. 

Things like houses and clothes and glasses and automobiles are hardly natural, and yet we inhabit or become them quite naturally, as extensions of ourselves. Indeed, in my life, all the unnatural features of my lived landscape compose my memory. It is blank, that memory, until I revisit places where things have happened. Most of those are part of human geography. 

Most unnatural of all our artifices are words, and these too seem to require being kept, at arms length, to be kept fresh in any sense. Words may inform our minds, but they hardly reside there. They reside on the page and in the elaborate memory palaces (talk about coals to Newcastle!) that we might construct if we are so bent.

(to elaborate on my text above, I remain astounded that the Jesuits could teach the Chinese about memory - coals to Newcastle -, given the rote recitation which has always been part of their education. But then again, I have proven gifted at learning Chinese, and I have always had a notoriously terrible memory, being incapable to memorize almost anything. Or is that an abreaction to flubbing my lines in Kindergarten, when I was playing Father Time?)

Things like genes and the invisible structures which house computer code are unnatural in a different sense. They can't be experientially 'naturalized' as such, even while the expressed interfaces are fairly easily naturalized. Folders on the screen, and even words, have a fairly easy metaphoric relation to the surroundings we more typically - pre-digital - naturalize as part of our environment. 

Isaacson speculates that it will be a while before we have a useful understanding of consciousness, and that this is vaguely related to a reasonable timeline for deciding the ethical issues involved in germ-line gene editing. 

Well, I would say that we are the entirely wrong track for understanding consciousness. 

We think our thoughts reside somehow "in" our mind and still more readily assume that our brain is their housing. But we misapprehend the brain's function; its evolutionary function. 

Brains evolved to generalize and catalog observations and perceptions. Without a brain, a creature may only react spontaneously to stimuli. With a brain, one may react according to categorizations of external (to the body) challenges. The challenges are not held "in" the brain, but remain in the world about us. What we think of as memory are those features of particular instances which are at some variance from the category. 

We have become very generalized survivors, adaptable to almost any niche. We have become that way in largest part because we are social.

There are emotional valences to these categorical variances: the day Kennedy was shot, or when the cougar leaped at me. Even more than we think that thoughts and memories are housed in our brains, we think that emotions are. Surely, emotions are a quality of mind and not of the world around us!

But what if that's not true? After all, it's the quality of fright elicited by the cougar, based on the observed behavior, or stories told, of other cougars at other times which causes us to jump and flee. In what sense is this not a quality of the world about us? We don't have time to think about it, but without our brain we wouldn't react to it at all.

As we work feverishly to decode the workings of our brains (not, apparently, quite so successfully as we did with the coding of somatic genes), we miss the obvious. By their workings, our brains act in obvious ways. It is our imagining of occult hidden structures which obfuscates. Not that there isn't productive research to be accomplished, but that there will be no replication of the mind. The mind is a part of life, and cannot be constructed or reconstructed apart from it. 

I say this not in an attempt to lay dogma down. I believe that all I express is the already obvious.

What I describe is, of course, also the cusp of free will. Most of what we are is "designed" in a way, by our brains without our conscious choosing. By any reckoning, random defines us, even, or especially, when we take credit for all those slings and arrows which worked in what we consider a positive direction. 

This is the very same random which runs evolution as we now understand those processes. In a precise analog with brain v. mind, we tend to focus on the creature - the container for assembler genes - rather than on the ground for our evolving. There is no evolution without changes to the environment in which we live. Most of our ground now is social.

I read by random. The topics about which I write occur to me randomly, as must be painfully obvious to you, gentle reader. But they do have a theme. Mostly unconsciously - but sometimes consciously, I know - my mind excludes on my behalf that maximum part of the dross of my existence in which I can find no possible interest.

Hell, my very survival has depended on happenstance. Those two Christmas eves I spent in the E.R., nearly prevented once by border guards. The time Mom slammed her door on the doctor making a holiday home-visit. The time I drowned and my last gulp of life just happened to be of air and not of water.

Our computer code enshrines a mistaken notion for how cognition and consciousness works. We consider its enhancements to our reach to be in a direction that makes us more human. That too, is based on a mistaken notion about what it means to be human. We are not the levers that we manipulate, those great structures of logic externalized or reduced to extraordinarily tiny photo reductions of printed digital circuit boards.

And now we focus on genetic code as though we understood in what direction evolution was heading when humans popped out as apex creature. We haven't got a clue, I tell you. We haven't got a clue. Human-guided evolution composes a far worse nightmare than nuclear winter ever could. In either case, we remove ourselves from the Love that is God, not by our hubris - which got us fire and houses and civil society - but by our very blindness to the love that is all around us. 

Comfort in the face of fear is a good thing. Flailing blindly after holy ghosts will get us nowhere. Neither genes nor words nor computer codes can make up the entire story. The story requires heart, and we lose that when we move in the direction of structures which cannot be lived and shared and understood on their face. 

Our technologies are tools. I know the feel of a tool in my hand. It is an extension of myself. I may have a silly amount of nostalgic reverence for hand tools in place of their powered replacements, but that is based on a personal preference, and a sense of better efficiency and control. To bad I can no longer wield a bush or a pen to write.

Yes, OK, anyhow, I did grant near a full year's worth of my rent to my daughter, for wedding and house, putting my own future in distinct peril. Well, my reproductive days are well behind me, as are my productive days. The one relevant to genetics, the other to what exactly? All I know is that I'm sore most of the time, I don't sleep, I drink too much, and I hardly ever have the energy to be productive. I have to pick and choose my moments to keep reading William Gaddis. That requires more sharp attention than I almost ever have. What, me worry about my future?

I'm no gentleman amateur slacker, meaning simply that I can't afford to be this way. I do consider that proper gifts should hurt. My work, in lieu of income, is, I hope, an expression of love. I wouldn't do it for someone who needed to judge me, by way of how much my work is worth. I feel the same sort of love for you, gentle reader. Well, not exactly, but you know what I mean.

You must understand that there are desperate forces at work to ensure that our current Kuhnian paradigm doesn't shift. Where we live right now this instant is arranged perfectly for a small subset of collective humanity. The ones with all the power. Hey, let's just give them more, why don't we?

OK, so nothing new about that, but now those folks have bought the con that there is nothing other than life as we know it here and now on the planet, and that the game is to maximize the Maxim life. Well, OK, so that's not so novel either. It's just all so accelerated, is all.

Here in the West, where we believe in science as a procedure to uncover what is true, and to true what is uncovered, we also tend to believe in things like character and merit and IQ as inherent traits, not subject to editing. Natural law is reduced to a code, and whether genes or texts or computer programs, they are all subject to editing and improvement. Perhaps I'm the only one who finds our position internally contradictory. 

A person may be beautiful for a time, in some particular milieu, but beauty can hardly be the trait of that person, apart from the heavy cosmetic editing that makes it so for a rather brief time. And nevermind recognition, it does seem as though everyone on the planet now seeks to be first, to be unique, to be on top. Perhaps we need to celebrate more the ground for greatness, rather than its person.

Haven't patents gone out of control when some hundreds are granted for various hyper-specific ways to exploit the discoveries around CRISPR? Haven't universities lost their balance now that they are in on the profits? These matters are better solved within Confucian parameters than they are according to our vaunted Western principles. Judge us by our behavior, and make no ascriptions, please, as to our character as a people.

You can feel the desperation in the pivot from internal combustion to electric cars so that we may preserve our automotive ways. Great fictions are spun about how harm-free those deadly toxic waste producing battery powered cars, laptops, cellphones are. We buy them because we want to, and can tell ourselves a good story where we're the hero. We transmute carbon to gold with bitcoin now, by way of silicon catalysis. And this helps anyone how?

I don't wish to go "backwards," I really don't. I spend way too much of my life worrying about batteries of various sorts. Which SciFi was it that featured background power free to all in some great amplification of how my iPhone charges now? Seems doubtful. And why the hurry? 

True confession; in my gentleman's leisurely existence I finally did see fit to actually purchase that book written by my one-time mentor, Stephen Owen, and I am going to read it through! At over $50, it is way way beyond my means. The local libraries which give the public access don't shelve it (I am now 'the public'). The only reviewer that I have managed access to, provides this context for it:

Owen’s revolution in a way reminds us of recent intellectual history and the dethronement of thearchy. With Newton, believers still could cling to a Creator bequeathing us a mechanical universe with natural laws governing universal gravitation and the motion of all bodies. After Darwin’s, Einstein’s, and the quantum revolutions, humans—naked apes—now seemed a trivial and most tenuous example of nature’s blind and wasteful random mutations, living in a world whose basic forces resist unified theoretical characterization and whose constituents (e.g., mass and location of electrons, etc.) defy full understanding. In somewhat analogous fashion, our “Grand Narrative” of early poetry has now lost its authors, its poem as governing construct, and the stable motions of genre and literary progress. We have, metaphorically, lost our “watch,” our “watchmaker,” and our story about how watches and clocks got made.

Yes, and so what that reviewer called "gray goo," a term which I did attribute falsely to Owen himself, is the very same threat to the received wisdom of and about literature, as is the "gray goo" of autonomous viral replicators, which makes for a certain strand of science fictional dystopia. What will literature be without author, genre and originality? Can tradition alone replicate itself without an author? Wouldn't that be terrifying?

(Isaacson never does quite address the matter of why life actually required what he calls the mortal battle between bacteria and viruses which led to the insights of CRISPR. As though one were the bad guy and one were the good.)

Well, literature will be what the Bible is and what humanity is and what the cosmos is. There need be no author to any bible, assembled as it clearly was, and quite by accident, from the gray goo of desire and longing and making a name; a story from the raw materials of fiction. That doesn't make it any less inspired. I'm talking about historic truth here, and not the sort decreed by theologians. Look what a difference that little book - The Bible - has made!

Plagiarism may elevate or rob, says William Gaddis, I think, between his lines. Where is the fraud if people value the production? What after all is the relation between Tradition and the Individual Talent, Mr. Eliot? You, at least, knew the difference between feelings and emotion, by analog to mind v. body, as though there were opposition. The poet must efface himself, anon.

If and as life prevails we must relinquish excessive creature comfort. I willingly relinquish my own dear future as my body wracks with pain now, and gets no sleep. None of that descends from my superannuated labors, and despite my daughters' urgings, there is no real medicine for it. Were I only a Chinese poet, I would have something to say about old age. And it would be grounded in broad and sanctioned reading. And it would be lovely. Alas.

I live now comfortably and well beyond my means. Well beyond any means of my wildest imaginings, is what I mean. Just as those trouble-shooting repairs do which I accomplished, I do depend so much on happenstance, and on no design that I can claim as my own, or that I will. Blessed, I am. I am blessed. The blessed should share their blessings, just not the way that Bill Gates does. He wants to stay in charge. He would decree our future, as they all would, in a corrupted bid for the same sort of immortality craved by the Chinese poets - makers - of old.

Why, I wonder, do we so revere those on "the spectrum?" Elon resurrects himself on SNL, just as Sinead sacrifices herself. Is it just simply because they are all so unaware of social grace and blurt out what so many of us are already certain about? Tell me Greta, please! Amanda?

Thou shalt not hit on someone subordinate to you. And therefore only women may hit, dimwits all. My daughters tell me that hitting up is OK. No wonder we're all going trans, eh McKenzie? My sex change happens naturally. The media gives the best massage. Vectorialists of disease. Gray goo replicate not on my behalf. I am but as I am.

What I author from out the gray goo of my brain is nothing very much, against the embodiments of history. What rises up is but a dream. Merry rows of five syllable prose. Read them please, it's time.

Well, no, I did rediscover from T.S. Eliot the meaning of catalytic as I must have meant it myself. The poet is the catalyst; the platinum converter, which remains as it was before the reaction which, without the platinum, would never have occured. The poetry is not about the poet. The poet is the medium. The poem the message? Without love, it is only words.

All that I would like to do is to write a novel whose protagonist is truly transformed and not in the way that heroes are transformed by m-ssages with happy endings. I want you, dear reader, to invest and not only to project yourself into the world which I would write and which would never come to be without you. Ah, don't we all? 

But any novel I might write would involve too much design, and I refuse to do designer novels. There are whole industries for that.

That world, the one to come, the one that ever has been, is a world moved more by constancy of relation than by indelibility of impact. Always between worlds, we are, and ever have been, world without end. Immortality too may come (only) with self-effacement, which is hardly what the market desires. Hardly what market desires promote. The market wants want, and I want only to live well enough, alone.

Well enough to want to arise, and not to wish only that I could lay in repose a while longer. The rising involuntary. The sleep unreachable. There is torture in that which no large mansion, in heaven or on earth, might assuage. Which abstinence cannot cure. Of any sort. 

And so, and so, I must to work re-go. There is no profit in writing. But refreshment for the soul. Would that there were one. Hello?

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Truth or Consequences

Sometimes someone you did love says or does something so horrible that you can't really forgive it. You know it will go away if only you can forget it, but then it keeps coming up, like that patch of rotten skin which the razor brings back alive each day. Perhaps you worry it too much. Perhaps you'll need to grow a beard. If only there were some public excuse to do so.

Hide your face behind a mask and be who you really are. Thing is, I don't really think that there is such a thing as character in the essentialized sense that we ascribe it. Character is as character acts. It's subject to reform.

We all look for the convenient truths, like when cops gather around one of their own and say that yeah, that black dude died where someone else wouldn't have. Something about sickle cell yadda yadda

Right, like only supervisors can be trusted to police their own work, and that's why workers must come back to the office, you know, now that COVID-19 is in remission. Now that we don't have to wear masks. We want to be sure that you're working as hardly as we do who get the big bucks.

But we do know who lies and who tells the truth, don't we? The climate deniers the COVID deniers the election was stolen nitwits, the flat earthers, the believers that God actually speaks to them by way of the written word . . . these people must all know the truth. They just choose to deny it. 

So if someone's not wearing a mask you just assume that they haven't been vaccinated, right? I mean, who wouldn't get vaccinated if they had the chance, unless they were in denial about reality? Who would choose to signal their idiocy by not wearing a mask. Who wants to be quizzed about getting the vaccine by someone who probably hasn't and probably has ulterior motives?

So now we have to bear the consequences for someone else's convenient truthings. How can someone represent a constituency which has been Gerrymandered into no coherent gathering place. How can someone make a public appearance in a media world shattered into a bajillion interest-focused channels streams whatever? How can someone lie that they've been vaccinated in the face of someone they might infect.

The mask is not about protecting you. It's about protecting your neighbors, even when they don't think they need to be protected and don't want to be protected. It's symbolically important. It says you care. And no, Joe, you really don't want to be in the business of pandering. That role's been taken.

It's like there's some invisible polling that goes on and only the big stuff that catches the most eyeballs ever makes it to the once-upon-a-time level of Walter Cronkite. As it ever was. I mean that's how the Bible got written in the first place and ended up as the convincing voice of God. I have it on good authority that Walter Cronkite was actually a good guy.

At some point you're just worshipping a naked emperor/god/elected official and it's downright embarrassing. I mean, how, really, did we ever believe that Bill Gates was basically a nice guy? With that house those yachts and so many private jets? Where's the nice in that?

Of course this is our moment of truth on the planet. Nearby UB hangs a banner on a dormitory, boasting "having an impact on the world, but not on the planet." Something like that. I rode past it by bicycle, so I can't confirm it by way of Google Earth, probably. Anyhow, it would be as temporary as a link from this blog. So you'll just have to take my word for it. 

Point being that the distinction made between the world and the earth - the planet - is the same one made between the mind and the brain. They aren't the same thing somehow, even though they really are, right?

Nope. The brain doesn't lie. The brain is wild, just as the planet is and always will be. The brain hands up narratives ready cooked based on nothing more than habit according to what has made sense - survival value - in the past. It correlates and passes along what's a tiger and what's not, without a single thought because that would take too long and you'd already be eaten. The planet tells us truth as well.

Your mind is the liar liar pants on fire. You choose to lie and we choose to see you fully clothed when you're butt (is it buck?) naked right there in front of us. 

I watched Truth or Consequences, but I have no real memory of any episodes. I think it started at the inception of TV. We had to sneak TV in my house. We had to sneak Cokes. Both of them caused rot, one to the body, one to the mind. Fine distinction, that.

I was on Taiwan before there were cars there. In China before there was indoor plumbing. The world - I mean the earth - has really changed fast, and we think there won't be a reckoning for that? Our brains haven't changed a bit, and so why do we have to change our minds? Well, OK, our brains have changed a tiny bit, but not enough to account for massive fraud.

We all know the disappointment between what was advertised and what was delivered. They still try to pull that shit in Internet ads, but here in the real world the goods just keep getting better and better. And we don't really suffer that massive life threatening "oops!" when we make a near fatal error in judgement or in navigation so much as we used to.

I mean, apart from the rampant and unregulated juvenile libertarian capitalism that's wrecking the planet in a world of perpetual acquisitiveness, things are getting better, right? On my bicycle yesterday, I passed the literal convoy of Amazon trucks leaving the "local" warehouse. The warehouse to where they predictively move things for ever faster delivery. At least it wasn't a military convoy. 

The bald-faced lies have been framed so starkly precisely because we do now know the difference between what's true and what are the consequences.

I have on my wall an original pulp fiction poster depicting Chairman Mao. On it, he's holding a calligraphy brush and declaiming his first "big character poster." "Blow Up the Headquarters" is wtat he writes. The start of the Cultural Revolution.

Is Trump our Chairman Mao? Didn't he attempt to turn us against our own government? For China, the net result is that they have become more Chinese. Confucius has been rehabilitated, at least in comic-book form. Was the Cultural Revolution in any sense actually necessary? I have it on high authority that Chairman Mao was not always such a nice guy. Probably more of a tyrant and womanizer than Bill Gates could ever dream to be. But he still gets credited, and rightly so, with a positive transformation for China. 

Trump is dead. Long live Trump?

Come on people, where's the truth in that narrative? I guess it's all about how we play it out. Do we become more or less American? Truth or Consequences. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Viral Episteme; Epistemology of Stafanik v. Cheney

There is no essential self, of course. What we think of as our essential self, repository of character, is but a narrative construction, where the editing is done prior to consciousness. Prior to choice. So much for Elon's bright light to expand across the expanse.

If you want to know what you think of as your essential self, you'll have to learn to meditate. Trouble is that in touch with cosmos like that, there won't be any opportunity for choice. Choice operates after we're handed the narrative. The narrative itself is then impacted by our choices. Chicken/egg kind of thing. 

Get used to irony. It's how cosmos moves.

It makes a nice conspiracy theory that China released the virus. It would be a very clever thing for them to do to destroy our power, knowing that they had the political discipline to keep the virus in check for themselves. 

In fact and in deed it might be more productive to examine the soup in which humanity now lives. Where all sorts of artifice - bactericidal agents, and plain concentration of effluents, nevermind wet markets - intermixes with unedited nature. The editing happens before anybody can take credit for it, and before the blame can be credited either. Sort of.

Many of us wonder what could possible happen to someone like Elise Stefanik, to lead her to become unhinged from what we conventionally call truth. And unhinged, therefore, from any semblance of integrity. It just seems appalling. 

McConnell and Cheney "valiantly" attempt to retain some semblance of fidelity to truth. Something about plausible deniability whenever they might need it. But what's going on here? Power behind the throne? Dowager-style usurpation?

But really, it's all nothing more than the structure of narrative. Like, just ask yourself, how does fidelity voting Liz Cheney get to be some sort of hero now? This business is about lock-step fidelity to leadership. It's about power, plain and simple. Inside our narrative of democracy is an authoritarian structure which makes Chairman Xi look positively avuncular. Well, he is positively avuncular.

There's no backroom to Trump. His narrative constructs itself on his orange face. Nothing at all happens in meetings with him, except, perhaps, that you learn that he's no threat to power, since there's nothing there. He works way better than Reagan's Howdy Doody ventriloquism ever did. And that's the show, friends. There's nothing more to it when you pull back the curtain in Oz.

Who, in power, wouldn't want that for the front? Overall, they massage their messages as handily as Jeff Bezos does when he gets caught cheating. As if those dudes aren't on the same team, WaPo notwithstanding. I mean, their fidelity to facts notwithstanding (and I honor that, I do) NYT and WaPo are still about owning the collective narrative.

Of course, on one level, Stefanik is not really very hard to understand. Once you tap into a vein of outrage and then hear the screaming affirmation and watch actual money pour in - and especially when you realize you might just be good at that sort of performance art - you probably want to just keep going. It's what Trump does effortlessly. His performance is not even all that mysterious, since we also know within us how these notes might resonate. 

Life is easier when you can identify what's bad and what's good; who's the hero and who's the goat.

I was young once, and thought to be intelligent. Unfortunately for me, I was always urged toward academic pursuits and an academic career. Nobody warned me that this would require a sort of mind which I don't have. The kind that can catalog names and recite reliable attributions while staying attuned to the valence of specific works. 

Narrative truth always overtakes me. Which distinguishes me from almost no one.

The limits of the human mind in that regard is how academic disciplines become defined. Most young people are simply too, well, undisciplined to go far along the path of the hard work required to advance to some position of authority in any field. But some few are sparked by a specific realm of knowledge, and just, apparently, latch on to the field. 

This might be easier to understand in the trades rather than in academia, where you just simply find that you're particularly good at something, get encouraged in that direction, and enjoy the realm, whatever it is. Like being a musician, say, or an artist, but also like being a plumber or carpenter or computer coder. 

Looking back, I should think that it would have been obvious that I was never going to focus my interests. I mean, I should have been a politician. But I was always fascinated by how truth might be determined, and so perhaps that makes me a sort of amateur philosopher. I prefer the Chinese Dao Jia; "master of the Way," which might be Confucian, might be Taoist, might be any old narrative.

In any case, around the canonical age of 27 or 28, I felt that I did discover something incredibly important. At the same time, I realized that I had no proper discipline within whose bounds to convey it. I discovered that it would be extremely unlikely that I would ever encounter anyone who shared a similar vocabulary to mine. And I don't mean to say that I have a complex vocabulary. I don't.

Crazy is as crazy does, and I just simply can't seem to find a narrative that reads well to anybody else.

And so I mostly put those thoughts away and carried on with the business of life. I've done a passably good job of dealing with making money, raising kids and keeping some time for myself. I have no real complaints. I'm good with my hands, and can do a great range of practical labor either to save money for myself by fixing up whatever I drive and wherever I live, or doing the same for stopgap income on behalf of others. When I'm not otherwise gainfully employed on anyone else's books, which has been much of the time.

The age I reference - 27 or 28 - seems to conform to when great discoverers made their great discoveries. If you haven't made them by then, you will be dug in too deeply in some received discipline; too dug in ever to be able to make connections outside it. Those are essential to discovery of any sort. Those connections might come from exercising the disparate range of skills required for fieldwork. Or for teaching. Or whatever.

But when I think back to my relative youth, I'm always astounded at my ignorance. A certain amount of ignorance is doubtless required for discovery, but I'm talking about ignorance relative to life skills and the positions one holds, however temporarily. I've been as battered by the trial balloons of false narratives as much as anyone else.

Anyhow, I suspect that Elise Stefanik's thralldom now is not unlike what happens to a young tech entrepreneur when they realize that whatever gizmo or work that they've created has gone viral. I would think that you mostly jettison any misgivings and go for it, putting off until later any rationalizations about whether or not it's actually good for anyone.

If later does come, any rationalizations will be made too late, because by then, whatever it was that went viral will have become institutionalized. And yet those junior techies, no matter how evil the upshot of their ill-begotten power, weren't in thrall to someone else's evil. Theirs the antithesis of the team sport of Republican politics. You've got to give Cheney some credit for going it alone.

Just think about what happened to YouTube, for one example, when they could no longer let go of the money pump of algorithms which sent you, the viewer, wherever your enthusiasms went, no matter how unhinged what they sent you might have been. The YouTubers you might watch would be doing precisely what Elise Stefanik has now done to bring herself her thrills of power. 

Well, no, she hasn't done anything. She's just imitating the art of Trump, imitating life. Life imitating art, or something like that.

Even those of us who don't spend too much time on YouTube recognize the schtick, the one perfected by Trump, but pioneered by Rush Limbaugh on radio, Howard Stern, and now Hannity and Tucker Carlson. These are the definition for what goes viral in pinning down political "truisms."

But what is a virus? Is it the same as whatever Elise Stefanik caught. Or is it what the people who cheer her on have caught? More likely, it's just a vicious cycle. Fanned by somewhat reasonable dissent from truth. See, our trouble on the left is that we also seek to make stark oppositions in our narratives. As if there were no truth at all to what the oppo says. Negating any and all conversation, which is to say negating all forward-moving narrative.

Narrative is what gives shape to our universe. There is no direction to time without it. Consciousness is the upshot and not the triggering force for cosmos. 

Perhaps, in some Foucauldian sense, the virus is the episteme of our age. Not cancer, which might be the better metaphor for capitalistic metastasis to destroy the planet. Not the chain reaction of nuclear power which keeps us temporarily, perhaps, from ever escalating carnage in war-scale death and destruction like the late World Wars demonstrated.

A virus proliferates - multiplies itself - in a mindless way by latching onto the schematics which allow life to persist. Those schematics, which must be otherwise tied to reliable truths and the achievement of homeostasis, are now hijacked in the service of a blind amoral replication, which happens just simply because it can. 

Viruses are also a part of human and other evolution. They are as built into our genetic code as what we might consider the good stuff. The death and destruction they cause seems as often the result of a healthy bodily response as it is the result of the actual damage committed by the virus. Evolution might even be impossible without them.

And thus, I suppose, we don't quite dare to force vaccines upon the population, or silence critics, even when they veer very close to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. Perhaps someone like Stefanik tells herself that if she is ever to do any good she must first amass power. Perhaps the entire Republican Party is telling itself that right now.

And so the daughter of Dick 'Darth Vader' Cheney is ousted for a single episode of sanity amid a track record of near perfect fidelity to Republican positions. Almost literally, she will be destroyed as the child who pointed out that the emperor was wearing no clothes. 

Meanwhile we are all ravaged by this literal virus. And we may never be rid of it given the absurd numbers of deniers. 

Now I'm not a big fan myself of the scientific method overstepping its bounds. I'm not sure what I think of editing genes in advance to provide a greater percentage of our future fellow citizens with more of whatever it is that we value now. In advance of the brave new world to come. It will come on its own, in any case.

But I am pretty sure that to deny succor those those already living based on some virally spread nonsense whose noise drowns out good science, is an immoral position. People who refuse vaccines are quite literally harming their neighbors. It's not their choice to make. 

By themselves, viruses are neither good nor bad. The virus that powered Google to world domination or Apple by way of iPhones might be considered good by some. Who knows, maybe there are even some who would say that any virus which thins our ranks and keeps us isolated from each other is a good thing. A cure to xenophobia, maybe, by way of burning all the bridges. Even as it only seems to fan the flames.

I'm trying just a little bit to deflect opposition anger away from the likes of Stefanik. Along the lines of she can't help it. She knows not what she does. But also because becoming enraged with her seems only to fan the flames of the rage which she is feeding on. There has to be a calmer and less unsettling path to truth. Unfortunately, as our institutions are being destroyed or when confidence in them is being undermined, that path is getting harder and harder to follow.

We do have an example on the planet of a nation seemingly immune to this and every other virus. I refer, of course, to China. They have rehabilitated, at least in part, a long history of deference to older and wiser heads. They stop dangerous informational viral infections at the outset and at their firewalled border. There is no hesitancy about enforcing behavior which is seen as good for the whole.

They are also, of course, a racially defined nation. Chinese feel Chinese even when they may never have been to China, so long as they retain something of a cultural tie. And, somewhat gratingly for me, I have no possibility at all to become Chinese, just simply because I don't have the right blood, no matter how culturally adept (if not assimilated) I may actually be.

It seems to be in my own blood to value American democracy and freedom. I quite literally live and thrive on being able to speak my mind openly on any topic just about anywhere. But, or at least so I do believe, I also try to retain a certain decorum and respect, even when I adamantly and sometimes almost violently disagree with someone else's position. 

I also feel that I am respectful of differing cultural approaches to collective living, even as I can easily identify my own latent or sometimes more overt racism and xenophobia. It's not all that easy to navigate the cultural boundaries which are bound up with race, just simply because it's hard to gain enough experience doing so.

I've set my sights on China, and persist in my belief that we have much to learn from one another; America and China. We really can't afford to be permanent adversaries. (That has been an addictive process for us, rather than a viral infestation. We are probably as responsible for Putin as the Russian people are, with our shock doctrine of cultural and political overthrow) China is pretty much proof against us. And now we play to the caricatures they have made of us, and that we have now so literally become. 

How strange when George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell come to seem relatively human. They seem, or seemed, as the case may be, so in thrall to power. Now even power seems slightly less than evil, even when its pursuit is naked, than to be caught - in the thrall of - a viral process. The virus would seem to turn its victim into something quite other from human. Trustworthy only as a zombie might be trustworthy. You know what it wants and what it will do to get it, and still you must take care about provoking it.

Well, there's an old marketing maxim that bad news travels faster and farther and is more persistent, by far, than good news. I guess that's why, back in the Seventies or so they named the new translation the "Good News" Bible. But they left in the con that you'll be damned if you don't believe it. That's the con that all charlatans use. I mean, no wonder that the evangelicals are aligned with Trump. They're running the same con on the nation. 

Likes attract likes, and if you know for certainty what truth is you become a truthaphobe (on the model of homophobe) knowing that you really might not believe it yourself if you look too hard inward. 


Sunday, May 9, 2021

Proximity to Greatness; Revisiting Benjamin Bratton by Way of Elon's Mom

Asynchronously along with Pynchon and Heller, apparently, I write while reading William Gaddis' The Recognitions. One of my co-readers of Benjamin Bratton's The Stack tests my memory by, perhaps, misusing Bratton's use of the proto pragmatist term "haecceity." while referring to himself. This is, of course, what Gaddis worries throughout his massive book. Both books deserve to be designated tomes.

Of course there is no authentic essential self qua self. There is no haecceity of "me." We are rather more like subatomic particles, whose proper haecceity is questionable at best. As persons, we are far too much impinged upon, by language by culture, by situation at the very least.

So I want and need to apologize for calling Bratton's work "masculinist," which it most assuredly is. I make the designation rather deliberately, after some consideration. I am proven correct by Bratton's move from his descriptive masterpiece immediately on to action. He has called the action "terraforming," as in how are we to take charge of our future by analog to how we may populate distant planets.

I am beset, to say the least, with anxiety about our collective futures myself. Insurrectionists feel nothing of abashed to rail and curse at the presiding judge in a court of law. I must wonder if all flat-earther anti-vaxxer (or is it just vaxxer?) global warming deniers actually do see airplanes as Unidentified Flying Objects, because they cannot, apparently, see them as abiding by natural law.

Did we walk on the moon? Or shall I say who is this "we" white man? China will build a high-speed rail to the moon while we dither about our liberties. Free speech meaning, apparently, freedom to express hatred out loud and full-throated, as that black fellow did yesterday when I ran a light on my bicycle as he was heading out to cross a downtown street with family. I the only traffic. Well, until the pandemic ends and all the new builds become infilled. Let us pray. My apologies!

Meanwhile it does seem impossible that actual people, in droves, will release their religious beliefs. These things take generations, which is more than it takes for a young Marissa Meyer, just to take one example, to move from ballet to tech titan in a relative blink in time. 

We will make the transition to post-technology because we must, but we won't make it by way of technology for sure. What in the hell do I mean by that? Isn't anti-tech right up there with anti-vaxxing? I guess it's all in the meaning of "by way of," just like seeing "through" a telescope also requires some definition. Is it by means of or by virtue of its transparency?

Well, I'm focusing on the matrix, the ground for human being and therefore for human action. What any technology, and in particular digital technology, cannot do is to steer clear of the transformation of humanity which is its ground. 

Masculinist renditions of humanity are concerned with man as pilot, in control of spaceship earth. We relate merit to some invisible but measurable factor which we broadly designate as intelligence; that thing which Bratton and Gaddis have in spades.

Now I am no denier of natural law, or even of secular law for that matter. By bicycle I only mean to maximize my personal survival chances, which are hardly optimized by my acting - as law would have it - as a car. Mostly, the authorities give me a pass. Well, I am white.

China, historically, has been the feminine side of global history. At the very least, "merit" in Chinese terms has always been a moral quality, which is necessarily different from a quality of pure intellect. I suppose that I don't really know what poetry is, in distinction from any other form of making, but I do know that there is none without some emotional valence. Traditionally, Chinese leaders have been selected for their poetic prowess.

Confucius' rehabilitation notwithstanding, we're still all hangovers from patriarchy. Or rather, Confucius, case in point. Father always does know best and workers must be surveilled if they are to be productive. Yeah, right. Unless they're the mostly men in charge, and rich beyond measure for that.

My beef with science as the progressive process of uncovering natural law - on the model of Michelangelo uncovering the latent slave in the marble, perhaps - is that it relieves us of choice in our actions. The law is the law is the law. And no artist can be original, of course. Gaddis the Michelangelo of writing, as he himself might announce.

I accept that natural law is universal, but I can't accept ( can I?) that the universe must extend beyond those pasts that we can see through our various telescopes. Beyond that is the cosmos which must remain beyond the singularity of what we call the Big Bang. The first origination. 

We can't get to our past, and by the time we get to someplace with the same happenstance that we have to have tossed enough dice to get a monkey writing Shakespeare, the place we were to get to would be gone.

Or in other words, my matrix is not merely physical and thereby logical. I call it mine, because, apart from the brain-dead religionists, I can find no one else to share it with. I use the term "brain" advisedly, because I don't much find my own mind to be contained within my brain within its skull. Mine spreads through the preserved written word at least, and through all the accidents of evolutionary history right back to our origins. No patriarchy between me and what you might call God. Or so I do aspire.

And so my friends, and yes Virginia (my mom whom I'm rushing my writing for the sake a paying her a visit in memory care on Mother's day), I am optimistic about our collective future not because we will repair our ways - a dismal prospect admitting only of despair - but because our ways will fix us. 

Bratton sets for himself and for us an impossible prospect, whose horizon looms far too near. We will not and cannot learn to legislate all the articulations in the time-frame required even to relieve the earth of man-made global warming no matter how much money people may gather for their technological fever dreams. All in the name of doing well by doing good, I suppose.

No, the meaning of technology, if there is one, must be purely ironic. It is we who are operated upon, and not the world around us. It is therefore we who will be transformed in a wink. The world has its own ways without us, and we are not equal.

It has, after all, been only a relative wink, since the time of Christ, let's say, before we overran the earth on the basis of our amoral intelligence. The thesis of WEIRD beats Bratton for its universality for sure. 

What, you think that we ever listened to the messaging of Christ's love? Warfare, colonial conquest, apocalyptic renderings of natural atomic law? Are these what Christ meant by love? Hate your neighbor if they're not like you?

We will re-discover love with shocking suddenness. Shocking enough to make all the recent - industrial, scientific, cybernetic, and now biotech - revolutions seem like slow-motion renderings. We shall release patriarchal structures because we must, and nothing to do with the utterly debased labor theory of value. That sort of value now is purely ephemeral. No new crowns need be minted for our wealthy nobility. They will be dethroned by loss of interest. What, after all, could be more banal than the richest person in the world as MC of Saturday Night Live. Following on the most powerful.

Well, OK, so I don't really think that humanity's highest aspiration should be to get high on Mars-flight and population of the known universe. I mean, sure it would be a diversion from a fully wrecked earth. Call me conservative, but I think we need to get our house in order before we even think about going off in space. But to be fair, Elon didn't entirely suck on SNL. And he brought his mom on, in anticipation of today.

So why am I so optimistic? Because the scientific method itself has already exposed love as a cosmic "force." What do you think all those random events of evolution mean? We are reluctant to let go of our certainties is all. Anyone who has actually experienced what they call "God" knows God's reality. The mistake we always make is to allow someone else - generally a man, in the past tense - to make sense of that reality. To bring it under control.

Generally, that's for more manly power here on earth. Men would like to tell you what you must do if you are to survive. We're insecure that way, and don't feel validated unless other people listen to us, and behave as we direct them to.

Anyhow, the cliff-hanger for me is that we need to rediscover love way before we start to deploy CRISPR technology (invented, of course, by a woman - I'm in line at the Library for the book - can't wait!) against humanity. I use the term "against" in the way that a computer scientist might, not the way a warrior would, please.

We will not overcome mortality in this or any other lifetime. Living is no longer living when it's regulated in advance. That would be called death, in a universal permanent sense, in just the way that travesty of a film Tenet rehearsed the brave new apocalypse. I mean it was fun, but really?

Anyhow, sorry Benjamin, if I hurt your feelings. I'm just simply not filled with hope by the prospect of our getting control over ourselves. That sort of hope just feels like insanity. I am optimistic that life will prevail. Well, OK, so that's a no brainer. But I do mean human life.


Saturday, May 8, 2021

Autonomous Meaning

Preposterous Preposition Proposal on the Paradigm of Pandering to our Algorithmic Selfie-selves that We don't even Know Ourselves as Much as We are Known.

The young man came to the door with a corsage, and - as all of us do - father judged him by little things of/by/from which he might feel suspicion. A misplaced wrinkle, a word out of place, and something he might witness in the eye.

"I don't care what you do, so long as you don't do it with or to or on my daughter." Meant in a jocular, yet threatening fashion. "You don't want to know what I would do to you."

Funny really, that you play a joke on someone while you play music to someone or more likely for someone, but never on someone. Well, if you did play music on someone, it would be behind their back or against their will or preference. 

I have been skeptical about the wonders of James Joyce's most celebrated writing. It has always seemed that he was writing something on us, and that the readers, in emperor's new clothes fashion, are that pleased to find that they recognize the attributions. Maybe I only feel license to think that after I learned that he stowed his literal crap under his bed. Coprophilia nervosa or something like that.

At least now reading William Gaddis' The Recognitions I feel that he implicates himself in all the shenanigans. We the reader sometimes hardly recognize the characters as they ebb and flow and change, or not. But at least he writes for us, and not principally for himself, making no claim as authentic, say, novelist. Plagiarisms blatant with the pride of false origination. He doesn't care to be original, and yet everyone still follows him, or so my recognition of what must be the origin of this or that observation and stylistic rendering says to me. Wasn't Pynchon reading him while he wrote?

How truly strange that Joyce's papers have landed in Buffalo. We were that promising once upon a time. Or maybe it's oddly fitting. We do aspire to, now don't we? Or have we been had?

I don't write to you, dear reader. If I did my writing would be so much better. I write missives to actual people and I think sometimes they are very well-written indeed, though they are not mine to keep. I wonder if I write for you. I certainly don't write on you. If I wanted to do that I would get rich on the writing analog of YouTube. I'm sure there is one, though I doubt it pays well. I suppose I could write about something, but everyone does that.

Those getting rich - I think by selling adsense on, of is it off, or from? their productions - are getting rich both on and off from you. And  by you. For nothing better than that they can find and have found a way to get your attention is a sort of amusing way. 

Call me an old fuddy duddy, but I don't think that our economy is healthy to allow this. Pet rocks are one thing, and even getting rich off or from pet rocks may not cause too much harm to, let's say, our democracy, but getting rich off or from or with one's selfie self just seems dangerous somehow. Something bad is bound to happen when you are your own editor and producer and author all in one. And when the thing you're selling is your very own self. The art of the deal or the art of the con, but you're being dealt a bad hand, in any case.

Oh, but it's free, you say? I have a bridge to sell you. It has a trillion owners. Deal?

The con of our recent past presidency is what should give us pause. He was hardly president for us, much more likely president on us or maybe off us, never with us and sometimes to us. He was always president for himself. And, perhaps, those who, like him, think that their own personal selfie and often selfish beliefs must be right. You know, people who are angry all the time. People who make jokes at others' expense.

Sure, I must check myself when I feel myself jumping to conclusions about someone else's intentions or motivations or predilections or shortfalls in whatever sort of integrity is familiar to me. But Trump has been well-recognized for a very long time, and it was never for his, um, leadership qualities. First Trump played the boss on you. Then he played the president on you. Or you could just say he played president. Or he played with being president. In the end, maybe he was playing to us all, but it was never more than a play for his own advantage. He liked the attention. 

I hear he's abusive behind the scenes. Ruthless. Mean. No, just kidding. I have no idea. He seems able to charm the pants off people otherwise seeming to have some semblance of integrity. Well, he's a confessed womanizer for sure.  Maybe it's father's daughter who's the wild one, and the poor boy with the corsage is the one who's been fooled. Or maybe they're just in on it together.

Oh what will we ever do when we debase advertising as the way to monetize social media? Will our economy fall apart then? Does bitcoin add value? We will pay for it, in any case. Just as we do now, in coin that we should never afford. Behavioral prediction, the new blackface gold.

We must do that if we are ever to have free and open elections again. Those algorithms are just too darned dangerous, and, apparently, none of us is proof alone against the automated pandering that even our best critical I is subject to. Who hasn't been fooled? 

Once upon a time there were earnest good writers. Earnest filmmakers. Earnest authors of software, and earnest DJ's on the radio trying to shock you as best they could, within reason. Now, this side of all the paywalls, all we have is pandering. Automated pandering. 

I really would like to give The Guardian some money, just like I would really like to give the pandering panhandler any spare change that I might have. But I haven't had spare change since start of pandemic. Touchless plastic only, please and thank you. So long as it's free, I'll take it. Pan! Pan! Pan!, says the sailor! Help me!

Thank God that Chinese has no prepositions, or at least not such preposterous prepositions as we do. Made in China for us, the U.S. In China: Made! While we, in the meantime, continue to do a number on them. Or is it they who do a number on us? At least they have the good sense to block our social networks. That'll teach us! Oh brother!

Can you spare a dime?

Sorry, I never wanted or expected to make such a fool from myself. Um, with myself. Play with myself. Oh dear. I do play on myself a lot, though. Why is it play on words and not play with words, I wonder?

Monday, May 3, 2021

Interlude for Anger; May Day Memories of Hard Labor

What is a wasted life? To a Christian, it is a life not devoted to Christ. The penalty is eternal damnation, perhaps. I was told in no uncertain terms on entry to Yale and upon presenting to my advisor my list of courses, which was slanted toward what I lacked, which was humanities, that I was wasting my life. Later on, when I discovered the limits of the scientific method by way of the remove of Chinese culture, I encountered genuine anger among graduate students in physics, as though I were some kind of Mormon missionary.

Now that Christianity and Science; natural law and interior definitions for personhood and all the other triumphs of Western Civ have been bound together in no uncertain terms, at least to my satisfaction, I hope and pray that I never exhibit the temerity to disclaim a wasted life to anybody. Have I said that right? I hope that someone else's beliefs cannot anger me. I hope that I can grow beyond such anger.

There is a brand of Rioja Spanish wine - made from the Tempranillo grape - that I've always liked. Returning now to Buffalo in old age, I was heartened to find it still on the shelves at Hodge Liquor around the corner from me. That liquor store has legitimate claim to be the oldest continuously running liquor store in the country, (re?)-opening as it did on almost the very second that prohibition was repealed.

First taste upon return was refreshing in many dimensions. Now I feel a little disappointed. My daughter tells me it's not as good as her first taste either. Have my tastes changed. Sure my Spanish friend with the multi-million dollar wine cellar felt the need to remind me when I served it on his visit long ago, that it wasn't necessarily the best Rioja one could buy. 

Well, I knew that. I was doing the best I could. In any case, the integrity of a brand must be less consistent even than personal integrity, one hopes and supposes. Especially a brand of wine, which rises and falls with the weather.

My (honorary) presiding over a wine and food club with national repute has done nothing for my tastes. Dang! My mind is too loose that way. I have yet to find any person or activity or body of knowledge already established, apart from my daughters of course, worthy of devoting life to. This is, alone, my shortcoming, and no shortcoming in what may have been objects of my more permanent attention.

I suppose that's as good a definition as any of a wasted life. Except that I do remain devoted to a Truth that I once uncovered. It has no good disciplinary provenance. It provokes no religious devotion, especially not for me. And it has zero practical application, as far as I can tell.

My trouble is that I can't seem to muster the energy to get beyond the bland metaphors: Gravity is love. Digital machinery leaves behind the lived connection to random. The accidents which drive evolution define love. Emotion is as primordial as elemental force. God is not apart from us. Mind was always part of matter.

Back in the day when I lived around a different corner, the owner at Hodge liquor would advise me which vintage to buy. Now the Spanish wine is the bargain wine near the door, and no advice on offer. It would be hard to know if I have reason to be disappointed, or, frankly, if I even am. What is it that I think I once tasted? What I taste now is plenty good enough for me.

I watch Eric Schmidt on YouTube talking about "blitzscaling." Along the way, he disavows his choice of Novell for his first CEO adventure. He disowns primary responsibility as well, for Novell's failure, mentioning cooked books and incompetencies that he should have been alert to before he took the position. Only later does he speak of Microsoft, which I'd thought just simply destroyed Novell. 

It's easy for him to say that Steve Jobs had to be right in his massively unlikely (re)coup at Apple, since look at Apple now! A true believer in capitalism has only one true measure. 

I did once work on a workable strategy to unseat Google. Our problem, or at least my problem, was that I wasn't motivated by riches. I thought Google had become evil, and that Eric Schmidt was the face of evil, based on some terrible animosity toward Bill Gates. That's how devils come into being, after all.

Christ and Einstein were both great disrupters. Now the capitalists own that phrase, and it is thought a force for good. The thing I really want to do is to be a disruptor of capitalism's evils. Where money accrues to the winner of some Monopoly game, and wealth concentrates at some remove from local, and especially from places like Buffalo. 

Search, I believe, along with Clarence Thomas (horrors!), apparently, should be a public utility. But the Yahoos! of tech don't believe that government is capable of innovation or disruption, unless in the manner of Chairman Mao, whom we, in our ignorance, have the audacity to peg as Stalin-esque megalomaniac, responsible though he was, in large measure, for reversing China's poverty as judged by the same historic methods that valorize Steve Jobs. Neither was always a savory soul, though only one was a shameless womanizer as far as we know.

There is now a Hofbrauhaus in Buffalo. My daughter rode my old and still hobbled (from travel) bike, which fits her much better than it ever fit me, and my son-in-law rode a newly refurbished bike from my daughter's nicer uncle - nicer than me. Among her uncles on my ex's side, we've been trading bicycles, and the one that I got back, refurbished by the refurbishing uncle and given back by the one I gave it to after he got a better bike - the one I attempted to ride across Canada in my youth - is exiled in Canada now, grace Covid.

And I'm the one who's been a professional bike mechanic! Dang! I do believe that I may attempt a return to that fine profession, if any shop will have me. God knows I can't live on my retirement savings forever. Well, you know what I mean. I just mean that I don't have enough to squander any against the statistical likelihoods about the time of my certain demise. Self-driving life in the digital age.

So when I saw the Bavarian-style house band assembling in the crowded beer hall, I somehow knew that my old buddy Mitch would be major domo. It had to have been over thirty years, but we seemed still fresh in each other's memory. As fresh as the beer brewed right there on the spot and tasting the same as it did once in Munich, alone on Easter, back in my extreme youth. Here I ordered a full liter, for nostalgia, or perhaps by the accident of enthusiasm. I've never tasted better beer. 

And I'm a craft-brewed IPA kind of guy. I'm practically a beer connoisseur. Dang! I don't like big brands, even if they do go back to the sixteen hundreds.

Mitch and I delivered beer kegs together while I was in transition to marriage and more gainful employment. My best buddy owned the place. We sang full-throated along our sprawling route, from city to country, and accepted beers sometimes upon our delivery, as was then the custom. Like drinking beer with lunch for auto-workers in Germany, back in the good old union days. 

Never tipsy, we sang off the alcohol. Once - or was it often? - at the girlie bar featured in Buffalo '66, where the girls warmed up on our behalf. Hangover from the steel plant days, folks drank early around these parts. Closure mandated only three hours a day between four and seven AM. Remembering their graveyard shifty ways. Not like London was when I tended bar there six days a week for full shifts that took twelve hours from any day I might have had. Who the more civilized, I ask you!

I ride home to settle the liter and remember that this month's Yale Alumni magazine featured on its cover my family doctor's family story. They descend, in a way, from China. Young Ben is now principal of a school in Shanghai. I was his first teacher of Chinese.

I feel like a celebrity at just a slight remove from accomplishment! I take some burnish from my daughters, each truly accomplished in their own ways. I never am. Never have been. I've always been a has-been, almost right out of the gate when Mom slammed the door on the doctor making a house call for my scarlet fever. I've bit it several more Christmas eves since then. Shouldn't there be celebrity in that?

It's just how I'm built is all. Dang!

I hardly ever read the Yale alumni magazine. Still they follow and find me, and there's a kind of loyalty in that. I did donate at first upon graduation when I had no money at all. With compounded interest, it might even mean something to somebody. And then my alienation from the place hardened and I repudiated the brand. It seemed silly to give money to such a rich man's club, which gets so much from taxpayers by way of deductions. I've only earned deductions during the brief married part of my life. The rest of the time any deductions I might have had have been swallowed by the "standard." Anyhow, I never felt quite at home there.

I'm a pretty standard guy, truth be told. I've never aspired to whatever it is that Yalies evidently aspire to.

I remember the wealthy and careless prep school boys, then the majority, who got all the fine women, and who knew how to get drunk and stoned without damaging their reputations. I was far more Allie Fox, dropping out and changing majors serially, until I had contact with hardly anyone I'd started with, living off-campus with the finest woman of them all, and in contact only with my diminutive pool of pals studying Classical Chinese.

Dang! What good would that ever do me?

I did nearly contribute to the Billion Dollar Fund at the University of Buffalo, in my reduced state last night, where I feel warmer ties. But that would have been a dangerous manic act which would have put my life in danger, if I ever do make it to older age.

I am, of course, equally disappointed with brand America, as I am in myself, and full of angst about our future. We seem to have lost our originating spirit. And yet, in some sense, we are the same as ever. We've never ever come any closer to our ideals for ourselves, and we sure have more integrity than we did in the age of (literal) slavery. I identify with and as America. We approximate the same integrity.

I still like that old Rioja just fine, and it remains within my budgetary range. I still love this country and will fight for it if I have to, against the Trumpers if I have to, until we figure out that we are and always have been on the same side. Dang!

As much as I would like to correct the Trumpers, I would like to correct Americans who have the wrong ideas about China. I have no proper loyalty. Dang!

Reading about young Ben's ancestors in China back before the empire fell, the government was behaving toward them much the same way as what we now blame on communism. Great great grandpa was among a privileged delegation sent to study in the US. His restraints from China back home seem utterly familiar, knowing something about the highly intelligent students from China who disrupted my daughter's "Free Tibet" gathering at Vanderbilt. The brilliant Chinese students that you really can't talk to about Xinjiang now.

The elder Lee's life was not very settled. He makes no hero for any story. And yet there is greatness in that family. Good for all mankind. It really does matter where and how you look, and what you look beyond.

It is not comfortable for me to drop names like Yale and Vanderbilt (liar liar, pants on fire), and indeed I'm only scratching the surface. But I have to make peace with all the brands I'd like to repudiate; which have disappointed me. I seem to befriend people, sometimes, who find license in my manner to abuse me. I seem to accept a level of abuse that is surprising to those closer to me. But it must be that I dish it out as well. People don't get angry over nothing do they? Well, I do have one friend who does. But he also has his own familial reasons.

And so here in Buffalo, which is, they tell me, the hottest spot for Covid in the State, I may still enjoy life in relative safety, and travel by bicycle absolutely everywhere with a smile on my face for the beauty. Perhaps you wouldn't see it the same way. Perhaps you'd only see Buffalo for what it's not. Or what it once was and blew. But the president of Yale who practically invented emotional intelligence went to highschool 'round these parts I just now discover. I'll bet he doesn't boast about it, though.

No matter the number of grey and chill days. No matter the closures and restrictions on dining out (we sat outside at the beer hall, to watch our bikes and to be Covid responsible, and couldn't watch the band playing the crowded beer hall inside. Less crowded and more airy than it wanted to be, and we were completely vaccinated, but still . . . .) there is plenty of life in this city yet!

India, Brazil, Turkey, Iraq (or is it Iran?) are all aflame now, and maybe they always shall be. Maybe this sort of virus is the new normal, and of course I am destined to be privileged no matter how I rail against privilege. I'm nervous now about returning to China. We don't seem to like one another anymore.

Was it despite our missteps that we seem to be coming out OK? Or is there something left of good ol' Yankee spirit? Trump has been familiar since before the days of Melville's Confidence Man. Twain's riverboat hustlers, though less of a religious charlatan (he farms that part out). As familiar as we are in the eyes of, say, the Chinese. Don't strangers always know us better than we know ourselves?

There will always be Mitch McConnels and Eric Schmidts taking charge of something at such remove from the ordinary realities that they destroy. They are part of our brand. And they must seem so perfectly nice up close and personal, I'm sure. 

It just scares me when "machine learning" promises to attach itself to capitalistic megalomania which sees unbridled "success" as inevitably good. Even when machine learning leads to a chain reaction in the noosphere no different and in not just a metaphorical relation with a nuclear chain reaction.

So all of us on every side are disappointed and hurt and anxious. Someone somewhere is trying to wreck what we think we almost have. And yet I don't wish for anything better than that fine Rioja wine. I bought a case for Dad one birthday back in the day when I was relatively solvent. We enjoyed it well. There could have been no better wine across so many dinners.

I can't seem to hold on to anger for anyone or anything. Dang! 

Maybe that's the nice part of getting old on the days when you don't feel cranky. Brands disappoint, but it's still comforting when they remain familiar. My old Buffalo home, sung to the Kentucky tune in full throated irony. I liked Novell back in my UB days, when I labored in the galleys of network engineering, and so maybe I understand what happened to Schmidt's Teutonic soul.  I like Harleys and the folks that ride them, and so maybe I understand what they're afraid of too. What makes them angry.

I've ridden both sides of right and wrong, and I can indeed lose track of which is which. I try to stay clear of the kind of anger which coals you or flips you off when you're in the way of their pickup truck on your bicycle. That just seems unnecessary. I just don't have the energy for more than a smile in return. I was never that kind of hothead, even in my youth. But then I had no reason to be, did I? There will always be something to sing about, eh Mitch?

There is nothing that I fear more than recognition. Perhaps you require some difference in learning profile to want it. We'll have to ask Amanda and Greta, or are we the ones who have the need to impose that diagnosis? We who claim the standard? For ourselves? No, Amanda and Greta and April, this young black county legislator for my district in Buffalo, are my standards now.

Anyone want to join me in disrupting Google? I might be talked out of bike mechanics, if so. The privilege of old age is to work for honor and honor alone, and despite what all those hepped on money Ivy kidlets think, we can work just as hard as they can for even better motivation. Now where can we find the venture seed.