Monday, December 28, 2015

Thoughts on encryption

A debate is underway between the FBI and the Internet carrier Apple- centered on a cell phone belonging to one of the San Bernadino shooters- about whether the right to privacy, guaranteed, we thought, by the Fourth Amendment, should be protected by encryption that even the carrier can't read, let alone an intelligence agency.  This is a perfect case for opponents of old school Fourth Amendment privacy laws because the protected material is stored on a terrorist's cell phone, a formulation conducive to public acceptance of the government's right to snoop.  Is Apple taking the hit in conservative public opinion as a tit-for-tat for future good relations with the Feds?  Is it expressing fear of losing customers?  Or is Apple run by ideological purists who refuse to let lust for money cloud their moral judgement?  Time will tell, or not.

I've made up my own mind anyway, at least regarding encryption.  The battle for the Fourth Amendment is over, lost.  Even privacy proponents are moving away from arcane assertions about the Fourth Amendment, which no government would adopt today as written, including ours.  The situation is something of an embarrassment that we'll need to figure out at some point, though it's hard to see how we could endure the commotion of a Constitutional process removing the privacy protections of a bygone age. We'll probably just have to live with this inconsistency in the Constitution.

I've decided I don't care who or what reads my formerly private communications because I have something more protective than the Fourth Amendment: public and private indifference.  Consider Dexter Filkins' revelations about covert CIA funding of the Taliban (“The Afghan Bank Heist” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/14/the-afghan-bank-heist) which claimed that without truckloads of cash delivered by the CIA, the Taliban could not have survived our war against it.  After they were published in the New Yorker Magazine, which has over a million readers, there was silence from every quarter. Even veterans groups were unmoved by news that thousands of American troops were killed and wounded for a war that was, at times, fake.  Why do you need Big Brother to censor the news when no one cares anyway?

Americans, it seems, are so sated by surplus that we can't rouse ourselves to consider anything theoretical, like the idea that the American government might unnecessarily prolong or start wars to serve the economic interests of what President Eisenhower, in a moment of bravery that no current politician dares emulate, called the military-industrial complex (I've added to Eisenhower's formulation: the military-media-industrial complex, since the leading facilitator of war today is media).

Because of this indifference, I don't anticipate interference with my own free speech, just as the other estimated 20 million bloggers in the world are left to spout as they please.  Who cares?  The reading audience is so fragmented that nothing like a political response to anything currently on the Internet seems likely to emerge.  

Without a real Fourth Amendment (i.e. one that has to be obeyed) the Founding Fathers are out of the picture, and we are back to square one on privacy.  The time may come when people wish privacy rights would return. At the moment we don't even know they are gone.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Jew thinks about Jesus

It's timely that I went to Death Valley with my wife and middle son last week, the week before Christmas, because in Death Valley you can see the view from the level of time above us, in which our eras are nanoseconds, our lives picoseconds, flashing by unseen while the Funeral and Black mountains crash and grind on the dying surface of our troubled planet.  

The prophets of religions offer windows, too, into this level of time. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son for a greater cause, some big picture, that big picture is the one where the life and death of our planet is itself over in a flash, agony and ecstasy combined and neutralized.   When Jesus said, "For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted," he was thinking in geologic time, where all human lives will have equalled-out, become smooth and difficult to remember.  So too when Mohammed wrote, "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr," he meant that the martyr acts only in the present, where emotions rule, while the scholar ponders the long view, in which the sum of human endeavor is a momentary, hopefully at times corrective static in space-time.

My grandmother told me when I was eight years old that Jews do not accept Jesus as divine, that Jesus was a very good Jewish man, but he was not a god or the son of God. This is how cultures are formed.  My parents were secular and did not assert doctrinal ideas (other than the doctrine of withheld belief), but all it took to set my young world-view was one remark from my grandmother, while at that same moment, all around the world, millions of other children were undergoing doctrinal instruction.

Fast-forward forty years and I'm standing in a Catholic church in Oaxaca, Mexico, looking above the altar at a crucifix with a striking aura.  My family was up the street. No one else was in the church. The crucifix became a window into stretched-out time. I saw the human race diminish in stature and relevance, as it does in Jewish stretched-out time, but then my grandmother's spirit came and said, "It looks the same, but God doesn't want you to look through that window.  Because He has the long-view, and sees things we can't, He wants, for some reason, for people to be separated.  He does not want a communal, Jungian consciousness.  People should be divided now, seeking definition through differences."

I wondered if I could tolerate this news.  And now, Christmas morning, 2015, when the world is being led into religious war, I'm ready to channel my grandmother and ask if the message is still the same.  I'll be right back.

I'm back.  I channeled my grandmother and she said that all the world's traditional cultures and religions are about to be re-written by a secular, scientific/corporate state, and a sense of this process is causing people to cling to their familiar memes, even go to war over them.  She said the moral re-definitions will at times be traumatic, but that God, in supporting (surprisingly) this new techno-secular state, is not looking for apocalypse per se, that He will accept freethinking, the perception of common ground, as long as it doesn't interfere with the fission of opposites, the aroma of which has been known to please him.

Given the alternatives, this news from my grandmother wasn't the worst Christmas present.  Happy holidays!


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Science news should be political

Here's an update on some critical science trends, none of them referenced by the candidates in the 2016 presidential race:

1. Scientists are learning how to manipulate human thought.  They will soon be able to erase real memories and implant fake ones; difficult emotions, such as grief over death or unrequited love, will be susceptible to elimination with drugs (“Finding a way to erase harmful memories,” Boston Globe, http://www.bostonglobe.com/2014/01/17/mit-researchers-find-drug-that-helps-erase-traumatic-memories-mice/6mYYOM1SGW8C2XPYpCgDjM/story.html).

2. There will be no need for fathers in human reproduction in the future, and perhaps no need for mothers (New York Times, “Men, who needs them?”, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/25/opinion/men-who-needs-them.html).

3. Humans will combine with machines, mentally (through artificial intelligence, or AI) as well as physically, through prosthetics.  Many scientists predict an end to current, flesh-based humans by 2020 (see the writings of Vernor Vinge, and research “The Singularity”).

None of these developments is prominent in the news, and, predictably, very few people appear concerned about the imminent re-definition of our species.  Newspaper headlines should be proclaiming: "Human race has 20 years tops, per prominent scientists!"  Instead, we get front page headlines like this from this morning's L.A. Times: "Netflix to pay to keep stream smooth"!

Talk about living in the moment.  It will be maybe a generation before the end of present-day humanity, but people need a smoothly streaming movie now!

That's how it is in our historical juncture. We see the scientific revolution coming to save us from ourselves- and we look away.

It should concern us that there is no consensus on the future humans, no discussion and no awareness.  Not that we won't be able to master the technology; we're mastering it now.   Research and development will continue as a free-for-all that won't even blink at the occasional call for bioethicists to write papers that no one will read.

It's enough to make a guy want to run through the streets shouting, "They're here!  You're next!" like Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 movie Invasion of the body snatchers, where the science is plied by extraterrestrials.  I try to restrain my own impulses to run shouting in the streets, since that approach didn't do much good against the body snatchers.

There must be smarter ways to wake up a sleeping species.  

Here's an idea: Make science political.  There is lots of science coverage in the media, but not in the political stories.  What if the end of humanity as we know it were a topic front and center in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign? Can you imagine the candidates debating the best way to design a new human consciousness? A passing extraterrestrial would think the earth was a rare haven of intellectualism. 

Unfortunately this is not likely to happen. We are comforted by the pabulum of the two-party struggle, the mindless repetition of pro and anti all the sundry puzzles of our age: the relations of ethnic groups and religions, abortion, gun control, homosexuality, et al. We vociferously strive to win our debates, though we lack even the definitions of terms.  The lack of definitions in itself kills any hope of dialogue because our "hot button" political issues are only superficially about the subjects they purport to be about.  Opposition to abortion, for example, is ultimately about a future where not only fetal human life is treated as non-sentient and disposable, but adult human life as well. Future humans, in many credible scenarios, are no more than production units. In Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1931) cloned people, produced without biological parents, of the Epsilon caste- the lowest of four cloned castes- are designed to work in factories.  They have no beauty receptors.   The disposable embryo in a test tube is extrapolated to the disposable developed human. Children gather around hospital deathbeds to watch people die so that death becomes prosaic.  The most obscene word in the language is "mother."  For the upper, managerial classes, mandatory recreational drug use and promiscuous sex distract from consideration of their pre-programmed fates (essential to Huxley's nightmare is the placid, or eager acceptance of it).

Another issue, gun control, is not just about whether you can bear arms in an urban environment; it’s about whether we will need an armed insurrection to protect us from a scientific state.  Most pro-gun groups have extensive literature arguing that without our guns we will be sitting ducks for fascism, though our household guns have proven of zero effectiveness against the NSA’s almost total knowledge of our doings (predicted, in 1949, in George Orwell's “1984").  The Fourth Amendment battle for privacy is already lost without a shot fired.

Today's "War on drugs" will be unveiled as a "War for drugs," as in George Lucas' pre-Star Wars masterpiece, THX-1138, in which a highly stressed human population, forced underground by an unnamed holocaust on the earth's surface, is coerced into taking mind numbing tranquilizers to facilitate boring factory work and to avoid feelings of romantic love, claustrophobia and the resulting social unrest.  The protagonist, whose name is THX-1138, falls in love with a co-worker after avoiding his dose and is charged with "drug evasion."

The struggle over homosexuality is not just about whether men or women can have sex with each other or get married; it’s about a world where any kind of couple is superfluous, reproductively speaking.

If science is not political news, there will be little understanding that we are living in a transition to a revised humankind.  The lack of attention will make possible a covertly planned transition. The perfect distraction and cover for such a transition would be a highly destructive war, such as the one unfolding now.  After we're battered with enough rounds of bio and cyber and conventional military terror, science will come in as the savior for an endangered humanity, and in the aftermath no one will remember that no personal choice was involved.

There is a lot of potential for good in the coming science: relief from suffering, enhancement of intelligence and physical well-being. The problem is that we're taking the next step in human evolution with only a patina of self-determination- we’re evolving into something of unknown design, by unknown designers, whether we want to or not. Personally I’d rather that people had some choice in the matter.

Unfortunately, any chance that the 2020 American presidential campaign might have focussed on the future of the species is rapidly diminishing with the terror of the war on terror.  That war will lead us down a rabbit hole of manipulated, passive evolution.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

ISIS: A virtual reality

"Virtual" is a difficult term to define, especially in the modern phrase, "virtual reality." Of course, by the time kids are in middle school they know what virtual reality is, but ask them to define it. Then ask yourself.  In this essay I've assembled what knowledge I could about "virtual reality" and the role the concept plays in modern society.  At the end I relate what I find to our conception of the terrorist group ISIS.

A good dictionary covers the basics: "Virtual" is related to the noun, "virtue," which we know to mean, "a morally good quality," like integrity or honesty, from Latin virtus, "merit," "perfection," from vir, "man."  The transition from vir to the rest is a challenging etymological puzzle (while you're at it, consider "woman of virtue"), but my focus here is the equally mystifying modern usage of "virtual."

Back to the dictionary- there are three broad definitions of "virtual":

1: "Almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition : the troops stopped at the virtual border."   Virtual borders are not official borders on a map, but de facto borders, determined by use.

[Note: Only definition #1 clearly references the historic usage of virtue, in the sense of "possessing certain virtues."  In the example above, virtual borders have the "virtue" of being observed by practice, though not the virtue of being indicated on maps.]

2: "In computing, not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so : a virtual computer;"  In other words, imaginary.

3: "Physics, denoting particles or interactions with extremely short lifetimes and indefinitely great energies, postulated as intermediates in some processes."  In other words, particles, or things, that exist for such a brief period of time that their reality as things is questionable.

I would have guessed that "virtual reality" derived from #3, since it is the most confusing.  Does the length of time that something exists have bearing on whether it exists?  How long do individual humans exist?  In galactic time, it's not very long.   So is ours a lesser existence?  That subject will have to wait for another essay, however, since "virtual reality" derives from #2, which means, as noted, imaginary.

Under virtual reality we get: "The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors."

The question I ask at this point is, why do we need to call computer-generated simulation any sort of reality, as if it were a type of reality?  We never had this need with novels, plays or movies.  Those are not types of realities.  They are imaginary.

In modern, media based culture, we do seem to have a need to think, or feel, that we create our reality.  It is a sort of honesty, in one sense.  After all, when we turn on the news and see what is happening in far away parts of the world, the news show is constructing reality, so that what we receive is not reality, but a construct based on it.  We have "reality shows," in which people behave in stage-managed ways, real only in the sense that we've made the behavior real on the show.

I'm calling this usage "honest" because, unlike past ages when, for instance, young men recruited for the Crusades were told that various things were happening in the Holy Land that required invasion, those various things were held to be real, not virtually real.  So our culture, by holding that certain things can be virtually real, as opposed to just real, admits a pervasive doubt into our discourse, and doubt is a virtue.

The extended context is not so hopeful, however, because it suggests that we don't require actual reality from our media, that it is enough to produce simulated, virtual reality, as video games do.

It is in this context that I consider ISIS, which, with its professionally produced, ready for prime time video of a man burning to death, realized the predictions of numerous science fiction novels, from the media-mediated wars of George Orwell's 1984 to the blurred lines between war and mass entertainment in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.  On the day of the ISIS video, our national news anchors breathlessly described the "high production values" of the video, Scott Pelly of CBS marveling that no Hollywood studio could have done "better," as if he were delivering a movie review.  In a sense he was.

The next day my friend showed me a video on his computer that his girlfriend had sent him.  It purported to be a recording of the transmission from a drone that was conducting an attack on ISIS ground troops who were attacking the peshmerga (Kurdish enemies of ISIS, thus our allies).  It was a nighttime attack, the ground troops glowing white through infrared lenses. The chatter from drone control, which was hundreds or thousands of miles from the scene, was dispassionate though highly engaged, technical, referencing targets and coordinates, ordering rocket and 30mm fire that resulted moments later in white flashes where running forms had been.  It looked exactly like a video game.  My friend and I could have been blasting aliens or Kazakhs (a favorite game foe for a while).  Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game came to mind, in which hot-shot 9th grade gamers are told by the military that they are trying out a new training video, while they are in fact fighting real aliens (spoiler alert: Book III reveals that the invading force was actually on a peaceful mission).

What do these musings have to do with the real ISIS?  And by the way, my point is not that ISIS is not real (or evil).  It's hard to see how its actions could be faked.  A Jordanian pilot was really burned; people were really beheaded; Paris was really terrorized by fanatical men.  I'm talking about the thinking behind ISIS, specifically their marketing department, and they clearly have one.  The War of ISIS is packaged for young men the way a video game would be packaged.  You know how you'll be watching a TV show that young people also watch, and suddenly there's a commercial, long minutes of CGI heroes blasting a variety of monsters, with forceful titles, like End of Doom Part III!  Now it's The Rise of ISIS Part I!

Our commentators are wondering where ISIS came from, and what it wants. It is not a country.  It has no past as an established enemy, no clear parentage.  Its psychology seems not to reference anything in the surrounding world.

In other words, ISIS somehow does not seem real.  Virtually, though, it's real enough.  It certainly has no problem with ratings, though ISIS is at heart a transitory organization, dependent on outside support.  On its own it does not have the staying power of a profitable video game.  The best outcome would be to win this war quickly, as well as virtually and really.

Monday, November 02, 2015

What do we obey?

Why do humans do the things they do? Why is the human brain, so impressive in its computing capacity, overrun with dangerous and ill-advised  behaviors? Communally, why do we build complex civilizations based on fantasies, lies and wishful thinking, compress ourselves into cramped and frustrating living spaces, then long for violent outlets (expressed either in reality or in movie and TV preference)?   We fancy ourselves to be exceptionally intelligent, as animals go, but much of the time we appear to have no more agency than the blindly self-destructive victims of parasites.

Speaking of which, Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex is the story of the perpetual struggle between large multicellular creatures (like us) and the parasites who feed off them.  Parasites frequently specialize in mind control.  The book describes numerous instances where parasites invade the brains of their hosts to make them, for instance, forget their fears of natural predators, the intent being to get the host eaten so the parasite can go on to its next life-stage in the new animal.  For the benefit of parasitic reproduction, fish float in front of herons, ants wait atop grass stalks for hungry birds, caterpillars leave the safety of their camouflage.  Another type of parasitic mind control involves hijacking the reproductive system of the host so that all nurturing instincts are directed at parasite offspring, while the host remains barren.

We have no evidence that the familiar human compulsions are caused by parasites, but it's likely they are caused by something other than the human intellect.  What sort of intellect would long for war, for instance, as our species is known to do?  Since suicidal behavior, which longing for war can exemplify (even provided with a "just cause"), longing for war per se might be judged by most human culture and medical practice as abnormal, belying an intellect that can be reasonably suspected to be a victim of mind control.

If our thralldom does not derive from parasites, the next best suspects are transposons, mysterious genetic manipulators that invade our DNA from outside.  Genetic scientist don't know what transposons are, what they want- if anything- or where they come from.  The latest thinking is that transposons account for the non-inherited differences between identical twins, and for significant non-inherited behaviors in everyone.  Exactly what those behaviors are and what purposes they might serve is unknown.

Transposon theory provides less explanation than parasite study, because at least with parasites we know the host is forced to serve the survival interests of a hostile life form.  We don't even know if transposons are alive, let alone promoting an agenda.  We only know they are there, influencing us.

Zimmer paints a vivid picture of the perennial war between parasites and their hosts.  The genetic blueprints of both parties change dramatically and quickly as they interact, keeping the balance of power steady.  Zimmer posits a theory of sexual reproduction which explains it as a constant reshuffling of host-species' genes to keep pace with parasitic evolution.  From this point of view, humans' incessant compulsion to mate is reminiscent of the non-survival behaviors of parasite hosts.  Of course, reproduction is hardly a non-survival oriented activity; we only survive if we reproduce, but the question remains, why don't we just split in two like bacteria, or hermaphroditic creatures, giving new meaning to the expression, "Go fuck yourself"?  The compulsion to sexually reproduce without resources to care for our young, with no concern about overpopulation, resulting in seven billion anxious and pessimistic humans plotting against each other, is clearly not the result of an intellectual process.

How about our longing for war?  Note: I am not referring to delight at actually being in a war, but to the anticipatory delight at learning that the humdrum, boring and intolerable "peacetime" we've endured for so many years might finally come to an end, like the irrational delight felt by the comfortable English middle-classes at the outbreak of World War I described in Aldous Huxley's Point Counterpoint,  and witnessed by Bertrand Russell as he mournfully watched excited young men boarding trains for the front. We might find it incredible that a fish would purposely float at the water's surface so a heron will eat it, yet our gullibility to war mongering is no less startling.  

Our intellects are muffled and controlled by forces we can't see. These forces might emanate from parasites or transposons, or from our own kind.  Maybe the next step in human evolution will be to truly elevate the intellect.  Or maybe we will just float on the surface waiting for herons.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lasken poems in UCLA Writing Project anthology

These poems appear in the current Writer's Anonymouns Journal of the UCLA Writing Project, Volume 2,  now available on amazon for $15 (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Out+of+anonymity).



Ukraine

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


II.
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!


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



There's a Bard in my Yard


What if, though all we teach our young
Be naught but dreams we teach ourselves,
We- in the throes of later-aged ambition
To be more upon the stage
Than aged babes,
Suckling, passive, small accounted in the public eye,
Or domestic ciphers
Sweeping dust to dust
And daily circling mile on mile
In quiet contemplation
-hidden watched the generations flow,
While all around the greatest triumphs
From the greatest minds 
Did cause calamitous clash
And magnificent ornament of the soul?

But children too,
Uprooted on life’s playground,
Who face the rousing slap
And challenge of the intellect’s 
swampy doubt,
Think not of quiet corners
But of noisy triumph on the field

Demanding that we set aside
The limits of our scope
And take them on a joyous ride
Of certitude and hope.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Photo-aggression

My wife and I spent two weeks this summer on a tour of Spanish museums, wherein an insightful art professor led twenty-six retired, worldly and under- employed people to places of their dreams.  I could write about the art in the cities we visited- Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona- or the hotels or the heat (we arrived during a historic August heat wave), but those things are well covered elsewhere.  What I want to write about is the photo-aggression committed by tourists, both American and otherwise. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not self-righteous about it.  I took my Droid, with its swift camera, and shot one or two photos per museum.  So I know the feeling people who love travel have, the feeling that you want to share something of what you’ve seen, to bring a bit of it back with you (and of course the more crass feeling of, “Look, this is where I went and you didn't”).   Such feelings used to be expressed in journals and letters, but now, as the spoken word is increasingly demoted to short text expressions- these even freed from the syntax of sentences (Las Meninas, OMG!”)- the photographic image is the way we enhance our memories.

Fine, but how interesting can your memories be to others if they include every painting and sculpture you see?  That’s right, everything.  The goal of our group (who were otherwise congenial and intelligent- I hope they’ll forgive me for this little critique!) and of groups all around us from many countries, appeared to be to photograph each and every piece of art, along with its descriptive plaque.  As soon as we exited the bus, an advance squad, mostly men, would fan out to snap the exterior of the museum, catching every column, angle and perspective, fighting for space with young couples holding out sticks like fishing poles with narcissism as bait.  Some of the men, as they rushed the museum gates, appeared to have worked as soccer refs, coming to sudden halts before a piece, devices held out front, ready to inform the eye and make the call, knees slightly bent for speed in moving to the next target.

Indeed, the invasion of the image-snatchers broke free of museum walls.  Any element of the environment with potential to be interesting, which was pretty much everything, was subject to photography: lampposts, signs in windows, graffiti, bad reproductions of Vermeer in restaurants, manhole covers, and, of course, each other.

How do tourists represent their countries when they commit photo-aggression?  I learned, from the beautiful paintings of Joaquin Sorolla, who is making a well-deserved comeback, of the arresting custom at Spanish beaches of permitting young boys to swim nude (if you've never heard of Sorolla it's because he was nearly snuffed out by Picasso's gang).  The scene I beheld at one such beach on the way to Salvador Dali’s house in Port Lligat was beguiling, and no tourist could be faulted for taking brief note of the glory of youth in a real-life Sorolla.  That’s brief note.  As I pondered whether to take off my shoes and wander over the stones to the gently lapping Mediterranean, a nude boy of about four walked past with his mother.   Reasonably, a quick glance and an internal cultural note should have done it.  But, you guessed it, several Americans from a nearby group spotted a Kodak moment and whipped out their devices, no permission to photograph having been requested or received.  I wondered what the reaction would be on one of L.A.’s beaches if a group of Japanese tourists, cameras upraised, approached family groups to photograph the children.   Maybe the Inuit were right that having your picture taken steals your soul (though I'm sure tourists are not trying to steal souls).

But if not for stealing souls, what’s it for, this compulsive creation of images?  If you were the first person on Mars, you would certainly want to record everything you saw.  Here on earth, however, everything is amply recorded.  I found no work of art too obscure or counter-culture that I could not find its reproduction on my cell phone, for free.  Archeologist of the future will love our age, which they might call, “The Age of Record Keeping.” 

Maybe there’s some psychological need at work.  Marshall McLuhan posited in the ‘60s that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the medium impacts the message and modifies it.  Perhaps we feel that works of art need to be processed through a mechanical medium, like a camera, in addition to the medium of our minds, in order to be modern, or post-modern, or something.  If that’s what people think, they’re just wrong. 

"But," you might counter, "What’s so bad about taking pictures of great art in a museum setting if that’s what people want to do?"

For starters, museum photo-aggression destroys, for everyone in the space, the contemplative and peaceful state of mind required to appreciate art.  How peaceful can you be when you have to be two feet from a painting before you can see it because, from further away, your view is obstructed by multiple hands raised high, positioning devices as if at a Stones reunion.  When at last you're close enough to see the painting, it doesn’t help that, while you’re finally viewing, say, Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” which you waited your whole life to see, a chorus of whir/whir/click/clicks attends you, along with multiple red dots that move across the surface of the painting like targeting lights from snipers trying to kill art itself.

I saw the same behavior last summer on another museum tour of the Netherlands, Belgium and London (the only relief I found, in London, was in the Tate Gallery’s almost empty William Blake room, where I learned that no one cares about Blake anymore).  It’s a puzzle to me why so many great European art museums tolerate unbridled photography, particularly in Spain, where museum staff are as alert to transgression as the TSA.  That alertness to respect for the art of their country, though it can be off-putting at first, is ultimately beneficial to the viewer.  In the Prado in Madrid, for instance, museum staff constantly monitor noise levels, emitting a harsh “Shh!” when decibels exceed a certain point- often a welcome service. Yet the only museum I visited that forbade photography was the Picasso in Barcelona.  Why do most museums permit unrestricted camera use, which causes at least as much distraction as noise? 

I implore museums to ban the use of cameras.  People will be able to look at art again, and sales of postcards and prints will dramatically increase at the gift shop! 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Governments or corporations- which should rule the world?

The answer to which will rule the world, according to most science fiction novels, is corporations, e.g. Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash," in which the U.S. government has been reduced to the Federal Building in West L.A., or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” where Henry Ford is the icon of the corporate state.  Both stories are combination utopian/dystopian visions, “Snow Crash” with its exhilarating free enterprise (e.g. pizza delivery boys on jet-powered skateboards) versus its frightening chaos,  “Brave New World” with its freedom from social anxiety versus its total control of the citizen’s emotional state.  

There is no science fiction book I can think of in which the future maintains the current nation-state system; our visionary writers do not see countries and traditional government surviving the current crises.  The corporate state, just by virtue of its being untested, is the natural next candidate (through a similar process, we may see the rise of female power, simply because it hasn’t had a chance to screw up yet).

As for which should rule the world, corporations or governments, that’s one of those high school debate topics chosen because it cannot be answered, in spite of or because of the ample evidence on both sides. 

Arguing in the negation for both state rule and rule by corporations, consider President Obama’s end- run around the government he heads during last month's consideration by Congress of the Administration's Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, apparently heavily influenced by corporations.  A key disputed provision involves the “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) mechanism.  Per the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terra-lawsonremer/the-obscure-trade-provisi_b_7297342.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=WorldPost), “ISDS gives foreign corporations the right to bring private lawsuits through secretive supra-national tribunals when governments pass laws that protect the public interest but might harm profits.”  Senator Elizabeth Warren, playing a role many would have liked Hillary Clinton to play, led the charge against TPP and ISDS.  The charge failed and the TPP passed, after one of those "extended negotiations" our government indulges in to give opponents the impression they had a voice.

Is the conclusion for reasonable people that both governments and corporations are unfit to lead us?

We might consider avoiding the “Manichean” route, so-called from the third century Persian prophet Mani, who described the universe as a struggle between light and darkness, metaphors for good and evil.  We are accustomed to Manichaeism as an organizing social principal.  If we are for charter schools then we’re against public, and vice versa.  If we’re for capitalism we’re opposed to communism.  There’s no crossover between positions in most public discourse, no Venn Diagram overlap.  Manichaeism puts people into easily manageable groups.  But it doesn’t always reflect reality.

As I walk through my house, I see numerous wonderful things that were developed and made affordable by corporations: a TV that shows any movies or programs I want, a microwave oven, the computer I’m writing on, my car, my cell phone which is a portable computer, not to mention my family’s health, served from the private sector by the pharmaceutical industry and giant medical groups.  If the corporate world were the darkness opposed by Mani, middle-class life in America would be much worse than it is. 

Likewise I see the benefits of government everywhere: My house is supplied with ample, relatively cheap and dependable water and electricity through state controlled utilities.  Robbers and others with malign intent are kept at bay by police.  If there’s a fire or earthquake, appropriate state agencies do, or at least usually try to do, an excellent job of responding.  If rule by government emanated from Mani’s darkness, modern American life would be much more difficult.

On the other side, there’s no denying the vast abuses of corporations (e.g.much of the food industry is poisoning us for money) and governments (e.g. a stolen car destroyed by a fallen tree branch sat for over a month in my neighborhood without any Los Angeles agency responding to repeated calls), but that does not prove Manichaeism, which requires absolute light or darkness.  

Once you’ve abandoned the idea that your side is light and the other darkness, you’ve got a mobilization problem.  People don’t respond readily to dry analytics.  They want “action,” which can be loosely defined as conflict, with its adrenaline rush.  People crave that rush, which is how governments trick populations into going to war.  It’s simply exhilarating- until it isn’t.


Giving up Manichaeism is a humbling experience.  Instead of being part of a group expression of righteous fury, you’re limited to your own rationally thought out actions, like not buying a specific product, or declining to vote in 2016.  It’s a quiet sort of rebellion, but effective if it spreads.


Thursday, April 02, 2015

Tales from the Front

Now that I’m officially old (69 last January), I notice that my definition as a “senior” is relentlessly reiterated and emphasized by our culture.  The message is: “You are old; get in your place.”   In response, to break the definition, I need to do things outside my “age group” so I’ll have something vital to write about (for instance, I don’t think two weeks of pain in my right hip will hold the reader’s attention, interesting though it is to me).

With this in mind I told my colleague at the high school from which I retired six years ago (where I now coach debate in the morning) that I would cover his classes for two weeks, though I knew the substantial quantitative and qualitative differences between part-time and full-time teaching.  It seemed unlikely I could work the two weeks without finding something to write about.

That expectation was confirmed on the first day, in fifth period, when I distinctly heard, in a male voice from across the room, “Fuck Jews.”

I walked over to the area where the voice came from and stood, taking in the peer solidarity, all eyes attentively looking away.  I lingered for a few moments, then returned to my seat.

The next day, in fourth period, came another “Fuck Jews,” from the same side of the room.  I walked over and saw a boy, Atilla, black with rasta hair, from fifth period who had sneaked in.  The boy thus became a suspect, but I thought it wise to just look around, ask Atilla to leave fourth period, and say nothing.

On the third day, in fifth period, Atilla came at me with what I felt was false friendliness (“Hey, can I call you Mr. L?” with a big smile).  I responded, “You know, what sticks in my mind is that I heard someone say something terrible from this part of the room in fifth period two days ago, and the same thing in fourth period when you sneaked in yesterday, and I’m wondering if you said it.”  A look of shocked innocence appeared on Atilla’s face, and I added,”In thirty years of teaching, I’ve never heard anyone say this terrible thing before,” which was true.  A white boy sitting nearby, who I later learned was Jewish, then said, with a smile, ”There’s a first time for everything,” to which I replied, “And a last.”

That was the end of it, anti-climactic perhaps, but I felt I had made as much of a point as I was going to, or needed to, and indeed for the next two weeks the classroom was mercifully free of “Fuck Jews.” 

What is going through the mind of a teenage boy who says, “Fuck Jews"?  Is this likely a boy who knows any history?  Who has had an unpleasant experience with a Jew or Jews?  It seemed more likely he had just discovered how much commotion could be caused with this simple utterance and decided to give it a try, though one does have to wonder if the current climate played a role.  This is a pivotal time for Jews as a group.  The view that the U.S. is overly obligated to Israel, simmering for years, has suddenly taken political shape with the odd dance between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, ostensibly concerning the Iran deal (which has more to do with oil rights than nuclear proliferation).  I call it an odd dance because of the anti-Iran deal alliance it nourishes between Israelis- and thus, in a sense, Jews in general- and the far right Christian movement in the U.S.  Part of the idea is that there’s a common bond between Jews and Christians expressed in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations, which, we’re told, portend a time when Israel faces attack from “Gog and Magog” (generally interpreted as Russia) and when a red heifer will be born indicating that, try as it might, the whole world will not be able to destroy Israel, and Jesus will come down and carry all the saved Christian souls to heaven, leaving the Jews on earth to pay any outstanding taxes.  I suppose I should be happy with the news that the Jews don’t die, but World War III, if that’s what this is supposed to be, will not be kind to anyone, so I’m holding off celebrating.

But I digress.

There were other interesting revelations during my two-week close encounter with teenagers.  In their dual status as children and adults, teenagers display a strange combination of intelligence and ignorance (suggested in the etymology of “sophomore”).  A video was planned for the first week: the original 1975 “Stepford Wives,” about husbands who turn their wives into fawning robots.  Part of the assessment required students to speculate on how this movie would be different if it were made today.  A number of students wrote that an important difference would be that today famous movie stars would be used to draw crowds, not unknown actors as in “Stepford Wives.”  I thought this misapprehension was important enough to merit a special lecture, so I informed the students that Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss, stars of “Stepford Wives," were famous in 1975.  Blank stares from the students told me reinforcement was needed, so I told them that the day would come when they would mention Taylor Swift to a younger person and this person would have no idea who they were talking about.  Further blank stares indicated not, I thought, that they did not understand me, but that they did not believe me that all generations seek and lose fame- that their minds were uncomfortable with the idea that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  I witnessed the same phenomenon in the 60’s when many felt that no generation before ours had needed a sexual revolution.  It’s hard for all of us, isn't it, to accept that humans haven't changed much in the last 50,000 years?

Many students corroborated Steven Spielberg's comment that if he had to make "Jaws" again today, he would need to put a death-by-shark earlier after the opening credits, because today's audience will not wait longer than a few minutes for violence.  The first violence in "Stepford Wives" comes after about forty minutes of character and plot development, and several students commented that it was boring to wait so long for violence, that there needed to be much more violence and killing in the movie to make it interesting.

In spite of their predilection for violence, many students were taken aback by the dark ending of "Stepford Wives," in which evil wins, and several wrote that today's audiences prefer a happy ending.  In fact the 2004 re-make of "Stepford Wives," justly panned by critics as a ruined husk of the original, changed the ending to a happy one, where the robotic wives manage to turn off the chips implanted in their heads by their husbands (in the original, each robot strangles its original human model, so there's no going back).

There was a gender divide over the movie.  Many of the girls liked it; only a few of the boys did.

Another salient feature of the two-week job was how much work was involved.  I haven't worked this hard since I retired in 2009.  I implemented curriculum, gave tests and graded them, and handled discipline (by far the most arduous of the tasks).  I did that for 25 years, but it carries a special poignancy in retirement.  Teaching public school sure is hard, and getting harder.  Why?  Because there is little attempt to update public schools, to infuse them with the modern world.  I hear the objections to this statement already: We wire our schools to the internet, buy computers for everyone, etc.  How can I say the schools are not updated?

I say it because the updating is more a gift to technology vendors than a transformation of learning.  Though word processing is a tremendous leap forward from the typwriter, facility in typing and editing has little bearing on students' writing skills, which, as most parents and teachers will tell you, have not improved significantly since the internet arrived.  Nor have reading skills improved, or understanding of history, math, or much of anything beyond understanding of the technology itself.  We have mistaken technology for outcomes. 

Of course, this situation will not last.  Sometime in the future, perhaps after the red heifer is born and Gog and Magog get the green light, we’ll have the technology sorted out.  Kids will enter the classroom, turn on the computer, put on a headset, and interact with the software, while the “teacher,” now a computer technician, oversees. 

That will be the easy part.  There is also the problem of unemployment, caused in large part by the same machines we celebrate.  There are very few jobs awaiting the students in my colleague's classes.  Why would that change?  No doubt the answer will come, as it has in the past, from war.  Whether it’s battling Gog and Magog or ISIS, we’ll find work for idle hands, as the forces we're fighting have done.

Finally, I was struck by the indifference to politics in my students.  Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy for president in the second week, but I heard no mention of it from any student.  Quite a contrast to 2008, when every student was mesmerized by the election of Obama.  That moment of credibility is gone; teenagers are among the most cynical and skeptical of politics of any demographic.  And why not?  Who from the exalted heights comes “down” to the high school level to talk to them, to explain the world and their role in it? One thinks of the former Iraqi official who, from his classroom, told a Vice reporter that, for criticizing the regime, he had been "exiled to teach high school." Siberia with bells!  

America should take a lesson from its teachers:  If you want our culture and country to survive, make the young a priority, in more ways than buying them lunch.  Tell it like it is about public education, if you can.