Saturday, November 21, 2015

We live in a science fiction novel

The following passage can serve both as the prologue for a science fiction novel and as the real prologue of our species:

The earth, third planet from its star, Sol, has experienced a sudden and violent eruption in its biosphere in which a single species, Homo sapiens, after a mere two hundred thousand years of striving, is primed to control the entire planetary surface. The humans realize that, along with unstoppable powers over the earth, their accelerating abilities will give them control over their own genetic makeup, both individually and as a species.  They will then become godlike, able to fashion their own existence.

The humans react to their approaching fate by fracturing into a number of philosophies, religions and political groups.  The story opens towards the end of Earth Year 2015. The world's archaic political parties, after years of banking on hopes that traditional human cultures would survive the Industrial Revolution (up to and including the Singularity) with some continuity and memory of the past, reach a threshold of cognitive dissonance at the approach of the American presidential election of 2016.  As the campaigning unfolds the political parties lack a credible narrative to address humanity's looming identity crisis; the parties become irrelevant and weakened, undermining government worldwide.

Of course, leaders of the parties and governments, practitioners of the sly arts, are ready with their chess move: War.  Just as America and all other countries of the earth are facing a collapse of faith in government, a new enemy erupts: ISIS, a Sunni Muslim group generated in the previous decades from disaffected Iraqi and Syrian troops, marginalized mostly by American forces in what appear to have been purposeful moves. ISIS is supplied with endless money, weaponry and sophisticated leadership- its provenance largely unknown- and is put to work attacking Western countries that, they are taught, are responsible for their misery.  They specialize in horrific executions which they record and publicize.  These execution recordings are ordered by the leadership, who apparently are under orders to involve as much of the industrial world in a war against ISIS as possible.   On another level, however, whatever unexpected players ISIS may have in its background, it has become a true monster in the world and must be stopped  [Suggested title for novel: "The Golem"].

An ISIS attack on Paris has the world on edge.  There is the general feeling that one more such attack, especially on America, would supply the final nudge needed to push the world over the edge into something that future humanoids might call World War III if there are any humanoids to call it something.  Meanwhile the keepers of the new godlike powers get ready to watch and wait for opportunities to plant new life in the wreckage of the old.
End of Prologue.

The rest of the novel, of course, is necessarily fiction, since it hasn't happened yet.  We can speculate on our future the same way we might imagine different plots for the science fiction novel our lives are writing in real time.  Here are some plot development questions:

1.  Will humans become godlike, creating a civilization of vast intellect and wisdom, or will they enact the fall of the Tower of Babel, leaving destruction and chaos around the world?

2.  If the humans' rush to power results in a time of chaos, will it be a gestation period for later utopias?  Will underground, tech-savvy groups carry the torch of evolution for those later utopias?  

3. Will today's governments be able to handle things, or will humans be managed in the future by corporations?  Science fiction tends towards a corporate future, e.g. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, in which the U.S. government is reduced to the federal building in Westwood, Los Angeles, or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where Henry Ford is the deity/founding father of the human embryo assembly line.  Almost no science fiction novels predict the continuance of the United States or any other current nation-state.  Insofar as science fiction authors are oracles, proponents of the state should be concerned.

Meanwhile, we are the authors of our own science fiction novel.  There is awareness of this in the coined words of future studies, e.g. transhumanism, the science of transforming humans into something more advanced; extropianism (from extropy, the opposite of entropy, the natural death of energized states), described by Raffi Khatchadourian ("The Doomsday Invention," The New Yorker, 11/23/15) as a "libertarian strain of transhumanism that seeks to direct human evolution, hoping to eliminate disease, suffering, even deaththe means might be genetic modification, or as yet uninvented nanotechnology, or perhaps dispensing with the body entirely and uploading minds into supercomputers."

We do have smart minds pondering the future, but we lack forceful thinking about the present, at least in public: The future is being tackled by ambitious groups of our own kind without our knowledge.  They have been alternately cajoling and rudely tossing us into a stage-managed war to mess up our immediate future while they perfect the art of extropic transhumanism.  

The next chapter of our novel seems clear enough.  At some point after Paris there will be a major ISIS attack that serves as the trigger for general worldwide conflict.  That will be a test, not of our managers' ability to manipulate us into war- that ability is not in doubt- but of the ability of groups of freethinking humans to maintain an independent view of evolution, as free as possible from manipulated, coerced "reality."

[Cheryl Lubin and I discuss fake war and the future on her radio show, In Our Times, this Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 5:00pm.  Listen to the show live or download the podcast later at]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lasken poems in UCLA Writing Project anthology

I have four poems in Out of Anonymity: Writer's Anonymous and The Journal of the UCLA Writing Project, Volume 2,  now available on for $15 (

Here's a sample:


My grandfather left you after you cut his father down
What do you want now,
why have you come around?

He came to New York then Bismarck and sold liquor.
The Sioux and Germans came to buy in World War II
but World War II was quicker.
My dad quit the town- the city slicker!
And then I came, I saw, I begged to differ.
Los Angeles!

What a haven from Ukraine you’ve been,
You let everybody float, we think we win!
Oh Ukraine, they even let us sin!

[Listen to a discussion of writing and the need to write with Jane Hancock, director of Writer's Anonymous and past co-director of the UCLA Writing Project, me and Cheryl Lubin on Cheryl's radio show, dated 11/17: In Our Times, at] 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Recommended blog: Harry the Human

I recommend Harry the Human's blog at
Harry the Human had a following on Haight St. in San Francisco in the late '60s.  His talks at incense-infused coffee shops were popular, and crowds often spilled into the street.  Harry disappeared for several years on personal adventures, returning to California only recently.  I am one of the few people he talks to now, even though, when I lived in the Haight, I never wanted to go to his lectures and never did.  One reason was that Harry claimed to be telepathic.  I found, though, that he's an interesting guy, and that he's willing to let me take the telepathy claim as metaphoric, even if it isn't. Harry continues to call himself a "hippie," which, he says, is not short for "aging hippie," that the term stands for something born in the fifties and sixties that is blossoming today in a variety of forms.  Of course, Harry is aging regardless.  I am excited about Harry's new blog and wish him the best!  Doug Lasken

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Donald Trump, millennials, and political disarray

Published in the Los Angeles Daily News at

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Why I quit politics

"Why I quit politics" is reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse:

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, said in reference to the signs that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, most particularly Jack Miles at the L.A. Times, liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of " 1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over two hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot,to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.

[For more Lasken's Log, see archive upper right of this page, starting April, "Tales from the front"]