Saturday, October 12, 2019

As above so below

Macro and micro
use the same clock
'cause they're in the same time
except when they're not.

Does a center need to hold?
Does a center need to be?
Does everything really
not reference me?

The bonds of our atoms
it couldn't be clearer
break when the strivers
talk to a mirror.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Boundary waters

In early August my wife and I took a trip through North Dakota and Minnesota.  We found recurring themes of boundaries and borders, of centers and outliers.  

For starters, North Dakota features the geographic center of the North American continent, in Center City, where you can stand on the spot.  We did not go to Center City.  Our trip started with a flight from Los Angeles to Denver, where we boarded a twenty-seat plane to North Dakota's capital, Bismarck, about 50 miles southeast of Center City (and 150 fifty miles southwest of Rugby, the geographic center of North Dakota).  When I was born there, Bismarck's population was 8,000.  It is now 77,000.

A word about why we began our trip in Bismarck: Herman.  That was my paternal grandfather's name.  He left Ukraine at age 14 after his father was killed in a pogrom against Jews.  He was the second in his family to leave after his older brother Sam, who went into the fur business in the Dakota's.  Sam helped Herman get a leg up in Bismarck, where, in 1925, Herman built a two story brick structure downtown on the corner of Fifth and Main, across from the glitzy Patterson Hotel and kitty corner from the train station.  The building housed, at various times, a men's clothing store, a liquor store and a pharmacy.  My grandfather's family lived above the store.  When he was five, my father watched from his bedroom window as the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of the building.  He recognized the ringleader as the chief of police (and husband of his kindergarten teacher).  On a Fourth of July, when he was a little older, my dad fired a rocket from his window that crashed through a window of the Patterson.  I lived my first two years in the same second floor rooms, until we made the big jump to Los Angeles.  

We learned that the building still exists and is designated a historic structure, and we felt a need to visit it.  Thus our first stop in the rental car was the "Lasken Block," as the old cornice proclaims it to be.  Standing across the street, I gazed at the second floor windows and wondered what rights my brief sojourn there gave me now.  Could I go upstairs, knock, and tell whoever answers, "I entered the world in these rooms.  May I come in and look around, meditate, maybe find a morphogenetic field and channel my lost and barely remembered ancestry, like in Dune?"  I felt the correct answer would be No, that my connection, if it was one, did not afford me passage across the boundary between longing and property rights.  Or maybe I was afraid that if I did visit, nothing would happen; I would see some nondescript walls, maybe a linoleum floor, and it would be, well, nothing, not a science fiction or ghost story, or any kind of storyIronically, not going up those stairs is a story.

Our next stop in Bismarck was the capital building, two miles north, through pleasant residential streets.  Along some of them grew American Elms (the state tree) that had escaped Dutch elm disease- tall, beautiful, brave trees.  The capital building is referred to locally as a "skyscraper," though it's only 14 stories high, a mere bump in L.A.  But it was as imposing this time as it was the last time I saw it, at age 8.  Standing atop a long grassy rise, it is a good 12 stories taller than any other structure within hundreds of miles (with the exception of distant wind turbines and grain elevators).  The 30's era art deco design, plus the phallic layout (a broad two-story base housing the state legislature and governor's office, with the fourteen stories rising in the middle) gives it the aura of Emerald City, with its palace of the Great Wizard of Oz.

As luck had it, the quarter mile loop running around the sloping lawn in front was occupied that Saturday by the annual North Dakota craft fair.  Stall after stall featured stunningly wrought items of wood, glass, paint and fabric.  Here was a boundary between bias and reality.  My bias, barely known to me, was the idea that humans are more self-aware and artistic on the coasts than in the Midwest.  No such difference exists.  Thoughtfulness, concentration and skill characterize North Dakotans.  News at 11!

All the people we saw were white.  Perhaps we were at the white center of North America.  These are the people who are endlessly ridiculed and vilified these days in most American media and much university pontification. They are deemed undeserving because life has been so easy for them, and because they suck life out of non-whites.   I personally saw no one sucking life out of anyone, near or far.  Nor did I see signs that life is easy in North Dakota.  Many striking paintings in the craft fair evoked angst and alienation.  None evoked any kind of "supremacy."  

In 2016, Donald Trump won 63% of North Dakota's vote; Hillary Clinton won 27.2%.  Here was the boundary between red and blue.  I was in a red state.  And yet, no one was red.  Nor could anyone tell what color I was.  Boundaries can be illusory. 

When we left Bismarck, heading east on I-94, we found more boundaries in the content of radio shows and billboards.

Over some stretches it was difficult to find NPR on the car radio, though there were many evangelical stations.  It must be lonely sometimes on the North Dakota plains, when the only company might be a man telling you about your soul, that you have one, and that it is important for the universe and will last forever.  Why not?  If I'm from a blue state, a blue person, does that mean I can't believe in the soul?  Not that I'm certain the soul exists.  It is a compelling idea, that we aren't just reflections, flashing for a few moments then gone- memory, identity, time, space...all gone.  You can argue that our evanescence is too awful to be true, that the soul is necessary to give existence a point.  You can argue anything. 

The billboards often conveyed political content.  Every half-hour we passed an anti-abortion message.  Here was a boundary made intense by the language used by politicians and other "leaders" on both sides: If you support abortion rights, you support murdering babies; if you oppose abortion rights, you support harms to women.  The formulations eliminate nuanced boundaries, creating two simplified stories of good against evil, one for each side.  

Both formulations recognize a conceptual boundary between a newly fertilized egg and a more developed fetus with a heartbeat.  There is agreement that these are both living things, but do they both have souls?  I don't know if a fetus with a heartbeat has a human consciousness or a soul.  Maybe it does, and maybe we should care; I'm just guessing.  It seems unlikely that a newly fertilized human egg would have a human consciousness, or a soul.  It's a single cell, with no developed brain tissue.  It would make more sense to believe that the soul is attached later, when there are elements of human consciousness.  None of this is proven, or can be proven, of course.  The question becomes: if none of the essential considerations about abortion can be proven or known, how can anyone argue about it?

Such thoughts occupied many soporific hours driving across the plains, but there was also the news, which on this trip was dominated by the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, especially horrific because they happened on the same day.  The radio presentations suggested an America coming apart at the seams, with violence ready to erupt at any time or place.  Of course that's not even remotely what is happening.  The number of mad killers, as a percentage of the population, is small, and would be negligible if assault weapons were not so easy to procure, and if any homicidal lost soul couldn't get worldwide attention from a media that thrives off their crimes.  

It was a disconnect to hear over and over about the violence while driving through hundreds of miles of wheat fields, where the violence is microscopic, involving insects and chemicals.  No crazed human acts out here, swinging wildly with a machete, railing against mono-culture.  That's why wheat fields are not in the news.  

In the evening we arrived in Fargo, on the Minnesota border, and got a room at the Radisson Hotel near the Red River, in the historic downtown, where socioeconomic boundaries are mixed.  There were depressed areas with homeless people and local teenagers defending turf, alongside art galleries and stately mansions.  

We saw "Rocketman" at the vintage (and well kept) Fargo Theater, in which Elton John invites us to contemplate one of our favorite subjects: the pain famous people feel when they discover that not only are they as lonely as they were before they were famous, but it's a new kind of loneliness, even more brutal and cosmically empty than the loneliness before.  Elton John was able to survive his ordeal.  There is a boundary between people who can handle fame and people who can't.  Rock singers seem to have the worst of it.  Politicians generally do ok with fame.  Why is that?  We could ask a politician.  Maybe President Trump or one of the candidates trying to replace him could explain how politicians are able to handle fame so well.

Next stop was the Twin Cities, where my wife's family lives and mine used to.  We stayed with my wife's sister and brother-in-law in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis which is within Minnesota's fifth congressional district, represented by Ilhan Omar.  She is intensely opposed by much of her district.  Omar put herself on the political map with statements like, "Israel has hypnotized the world; may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel."  Omar crosses the boundary between church and state when she invokes deity to fight a perceived national enemy, suggesting that she envisions herself operating in a theocracy.  Interestingly, she does not follow her logic to invoke Allah against America because it took land by force from people who were here first.  On the contrary, Omar seems comfortable living and thriving on formerly Native American lands.  She feels differently, it seems, when the sin is hers.

We saw a family of wild turkeys strolling around my in-laws' house, digging up gardens in the front and back, crossing the boundary between human and animal.  Another animal crossed a boundary at my wife's parents' place in St. Paul: a bat flying around in the lobby.  In order to get out, the bat needed two doors opened at once (the two doors enclosing the warm-up space typical of Midwest lobbies).  My wife held one door open while I held the other.  A trapped bird would have taken minutes to figure out that there was an escape route, but the bat figured it out immediately, presumably using echolocation.

More animal encounters occurred when we traveled north to the Boundary Waters area.  En route we spent a night and a morning in Duluth, on Lake Superior, which was filled with lovely butterflies and aquatic birds.  Another boundary appeared in the Skyway, an elevated passage, unventilated and very stuffy, between our hotel and the canal area along the lake.  The passageway was empty of all people but us.  We checked a side passage that led to a movie theater showing Tarantino's "Once upon a time...in Hollywood."  We thought of seeing it, but it was scheduled too late. When we re-entered the Skyway and turned left towards the canal, there was a tall, lean young black man reclining against the wall, watching our approach.  He was wearing a baseball cap and jeans that hung below his waist, exposing an inch of boxer shorts.  His tank top revealed long, sinewy arms.  There was no one else around.  As we advanced and looked his way, he made a little hop forward and said, "Ha, ha."  It was quite funny, crossing at it did a racial boundary in which he knew what stereotypes might rule us, and we knew that he knew, and he knew we knew he knew.  Ha ha, indeed.

We didn't go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (within Superior National Forest), so called for its proximity to the Canadian border, but toured areas to its south.  Birch and pine forests extended to the horizon.  We stayed at a lodge near the town of Bibawic, which features a fiberglass moose near the bandstand in the park.  We walked all of Main Street at night, encountering no one.  Everything was closed except several bars hosting locals who were nursing drinks and talking with people they had known for years.  We could have gone into one of the bars, crossing the boundary between people you know and people you don't, creating perhaps intimacy with the other, but we didn't.  

For dinner we went to the town of Virginia, ten miles away.  Virginia had been an iron boom town, attested to by the main street of old buildings that looked like my grandfather's.  When globalization wiped out the economic value of the Mesabi iron range, Virginia died a partial death.  It has struggled with an opioid epidemic.  We walked around and saw newly painted, often beautiful murals on the walls of old buildings.  A group of cheerful young people was involved in painting a new mural.  We ate at the Boomtown Restaurant outside of town.  The service was great and the food was hearty.  The restaurant was filled with white people.  How did they feel, these people who are said to have an easy life and to believe themselves supreme because they are white?  I got no sense of an easy life, and no sense that anyone felt supreme.

On the trip home we crossed one more boundary- that between moving by your own power, and moving via advanced technology.  I refer to the two flights, starting at Lindbergh Airport in Minneapolis, and connecting in Phoenix, that got us home to Los Angeles.  The flights were similar: each left on time, and each included lengthy periods waiting on the tarmac after landing while a gate was secured.  These waiting periods were stressful, as people sank into thoughts of busy schedules now messed up, and perhaps into deeper waters about the meaning of modern life, perhaps concluding that a life spent in joyless cylinders waiting for release belied an existence without meaning.  On the other hand, the flights landed safely, we did not die, and we were able to have ten days of experiences we wouldn't have had without air travel.  The final boundary, then, is the one between what we're grateful for and what we're not grateful for, and the final lesson is that we're grateful and not grateful for the same things, in the way that we support and oppose the same things.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Why I quit politics

Reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_12/clash/lasken.html

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, when 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 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, told me, 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 state Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors (in particular Los Angeles Times opinion editor Jack Miles) liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of pieces in the Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, New York Times and others 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 mayoral 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 U.S. is 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: So...you 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 three 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.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Science news should be political

Below is an update on five science stories we ought to be thinking about as we assess the candidates in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.  None of these stories, or anything related to them, was referenced by a candidate in the 2016 presidential campaigns.

1. Scientists are learning how to manipulate human thought.  They will soon be able to erase real memories and implant false 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. Current struggles about race will become moot as biology mixes and matches to produce new races adapted to new technologies and environments, as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (see below).

4. Humans will combine with machines, mentally through Artificial Intelligence (AI) as well as physically, through prosthetics.  Many scientists predict an end to current, flesh-based humans by 2045 (see the writings of Vernor Vinge and the "Singularity”).  

5. Automation via AI enhanced machines will displace human workers on a mass scale, including such workers as judges, doctors and teachers (see Yuval Harari's Homo Deus).

These developments are not prominent in U.S. political news [Update, 10/15/19:  The Democratic presidential debates continue to avoid the topic of human evolution], 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 today'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 at this historical juncture. We see the scientific revolution coming to save us from ourselves- and we look away.

There is no consensus on the future humans, no discussion or awareness, at least not in the voting public.  That doesn't mean 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 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 is plenty 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 high-order critical thinking. 

Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen. We are comforted by the pabulum of the two-party struggle, the endless repetition of pro and anti positions for solving the puzzles of our age: relations between nations, ethnic groups and religions;  regulation or its absence regarding abortion, guns, sexuality. We vociferously strive to win our debates, though we lack even common definitions of terms. The lack of common 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, will be no more than production units. In Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1931) human eggs are fertilized in vitro on factory assembly lines (the state religion deifies Henry Ford) and the resulting children are reared by technicians.  There are no biological parents to get in the way (the most obscene word in the language is "mother").  Children are required to gather around hospital deathbeds to watch people die so that death becomes prosaic.  Relationships, when permitted, are superficial and temporary.  The unloved and disposable embryo in a petri dish is extrapolated to the disposable developed human.  

Huxley refigures the modern focus on racial distinctions through a genetic scientist's  lense.  In Brave New World there are four "castes," or biologically different types of humans (in contrast to the Hindu usage, which distinguishes people who are biologically identical but socially different).  In Huxley's vision the four castes have replaced racial categories.  The lowest caste, the Epsilons, are designed to do menial work. Their neural beauty receptors have been deadened so they won't mind ugly factories.  They are bred to be shorter and less attractive than the higher castes.  For the upper, managerial castes, culminating in the Alpha's- who are bred to be tall and attractive- mandatory recreational drug use and promiscuous sex distract from consideration of their pre-programmed fates (essential to Huxley's nightmare is the placid 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 our intelligence agencies' 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 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 their own gender 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 ignorance will grow if we are distracted by domestic strife and war.  Diminished attention to events outside the prescribed battle zones will make a covertly planned transition possible.  It will be over before we understand it.

There is a lot of potential for good in the coming science: relief from suffering, enhancement of intelligence and physical well-being. But we are taking the next step in human evolution with only a faint element of self-determination, becoming something of unknown design, by unknown designers.

Unfortunately, any chance that the 2020 American presidential campaign might direct our attention to the future of the species is rapidly diminishing, replaced by partisan, reactive outbursts to high profile social issues like those noted above.  These issues deserve our attention, but they are formulated by the media and politicians to produce circular, never ending polemics, not policy.  While we indulge our love of yelling at each other, science will fill the void, determining our fate without polemics, and without an election.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

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!

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Las Vegas getaway!


Over President's Day weekend my wife and I drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to meet family members.  The string of storms coming over the Pacific through the previous week, part of the Polar Vortex, paused to allow our passage between Saturday's departure and the return on Monday, so that the mountains and deserts had been washed down to their elemental colors, and the sky was a swirl of meaningful whites, blues, pinks and purples, changing hues and messages through the day.  The message I wanted, and received, was, "Come to me.  I will cradle your mind and soul for a while."


Los Angeles was gone!


The air too, always cold and loving, never faltered in its embrace.


Restaurants and retailers along the way have discovered how to stand out in the desert, with gratifying food and flamboyant exteriors.  We stopped at the Mad Greek Cafe in Baker, where I-15 to Vegas meets Highway 127 to Death Valley.  Many eateries in the wild serve dismal, ungenerous food, because there's no competition, but the Mad Greek's fare is plentiful and delicious.  Gleaming white plaster faux Greek statues around the perimeter and within the restaurant engage patrons with their naked torsos every five feet.  Down the road is Alien Jerky, a two-story metal structure depicting a wheeled rover with stereotypical aliens looking out of their control room through a broad upper window.  Within the store were large crowds of travelers browsing many varieties of jerky (e.g., Abducted Cow; Weed Killer Hot Beef).

The desert and its human diversions were enough to slow the downward pull of the news, which reminds us every day that we are at the receiving end; we are to sit and watch.  In past desert drives we looked for NPR news on the hour, hungry for "breaking" developments to counter the disconnected state.  This time the goal was the disconnected state.

Interest in Las Vegas goes way back in my family.  In the 1950's my grandmother would take the Vegas train to play Bingo and often came back excited by her winnings.  She had a strange kind of luck.  I tried to emulate her at the Saturday kids' matinee at the Encino theater, which held ticket raffles.  Once, to my amazement, I won.  My mom and my grandmother picked me up after the show and I proudly held out my winnings: a cellophane wrapped carton of butterscotch LifeSavers!  My grandmother's response: "Is that all you won?"


As a kid I disliked Vegas, with its gussied-up attempts to distract kids from the grownup gambling.  Then one summer day when I was thirty-something, while my daughter's crayons melted in the car, we walked into Caesar's Palace and I found religion on a spiral escalator bordered by nine-foot caryatids- their left breasts repeatedly revealed- supporting a huge ornate dome.  I had discovered kitsch.

What is kitsch?  Per the dictionary: 


Art objects or designs considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.


Later I found more kitsch at the Luxor hotel and casino, a pyramid with a black exterior, three-fourths the size of The Great Pyramid of Giza, with a spotlight at its apex shooting a column of light into space (visible from airplanes flying over L.A.) in which bats swarm at night, and a Sphinx two stories taller than the original, and murals everywhere depicting skirted Egyptians looking out of the sides of their heads.  The irony: the Luxor's spiritual icons, formerly employed in guiding the migration of souls (at least the royal family's), are now guardians of regular folk hypnotized into giving their money away.


The Luxor pyramid used to be the first Vegas structure we spotted coming in from the west, and it set a playful mood, but now the adjacent Mandalay Bay Hotel, from an upper window of which, on October 1, 2017, a deranged shooter killed 58 people attending an outdoor music festival below, adds somber meaning.  A shadow crossed our hearts as we sped past.


We unloaded at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, glitzy, huge and efficient, but short on stunning kitsch.  What mattered, though, were the remarkably powerful and well maintained elevators that took us to the 57th floor numerous times without crowds or delays.  I also liked the giant pillows on the beds, and the quiet one can find 57 floors up.


Las Vegas was an important location for the Paiute and Mojave tribes because of its natural springs.  Later, for the same reason, it became a pioneer settlement, then a railroad hub, and finally, in the 1930's- recounted by the informative Mob Museum (in the old post office/courthouse building)- it was reborn as the city where organized crime went legit, much like the pharaohs' ancient scam.  There's irony everywhere in Vegas.


On Sunday morning we drove twenty minutes north to Red Rock Canyon, where stunningly beautiful sandstone strata, oxidized red, erupt in geologic slow motion.  At one point I left our party to wander up a path, following signs to the remains of a fire circle used for festivals by both the Paiute and Mojave. The signs ask visitors not to disturb the surroundings, as the site is holy to Native Americans.  I was sure I could smell burnt wood as I approached, though only whitened stones were visible around the fifty-foot circle.  What is a holy place?, I wondered, finally deciding that it is a place with memory.  This place remembered a life now gone, when the mystery of the surrounding terrain- then mostly devoid of people, unowned- continued on and on, for tens of thousand of miles, all around the earth, interrupted only where humans lived in small, scattered bands.  What did it feel like, to live in that world?  If I think about it too much I start to ache.


I considered the grounds outside the Mandalay Bay, where many people died or were harmed.  Is it, too, holy ground, soaked in memory?  Will people hundreds of years from now stop there and feel a chill, like the chill of loss I felt at the fire circle?


As it happened, both the restaurant we chose that night- the excellent Fleur- and the show we saw, Michael Jackson One (by Cirqe du Soleil) were at the Mandalay Bay.  Insulated within, I felt nothing from the recent horror outside, and I was comforted by the idea that our merriment was designed to heal local wounded spirits. The Michael Jackson One show was riveting, not only because of adept mixing of Jackson songs and images, but because the performers did things with their bodies that most humans cannot begin to do.


The next morning anxiety attended our departure when we read on Googlemaps that all lanes of the southbound I-15 north of Baker were closed due to a crash.  Before GPS, this would have ensured a travel nightmare, but thanks to Waze, it meant a short, well-planned detour on two-lane roads through beautiful desert, with adventures en route.  After a spell on Highway 95 South, my car was low on gas (I had intended to fill up off the Interstate).  The first gas station appeared in the small town of Searchlight.  The station was large, with many pumps, but it was experiencing difficulties related to the closure of I-15.  In addition to much more traffic than usual, the pumps were malfunctioning.  I approached them slowly, angling against other cars hoping to find a pump that worked.  At one point I was behind a white pickup.  The pickup turned left, away from the pumps, so I proceeded straight alongside it, but then the pickup veered right, the driver seeming to change his mind.  The pickup was one second away from hitting the front of my car.  I halted and honked, and the pickup stopped, and a man in the passenger seat turned and glared at me, menace pouring from a hardened face.  My flight-or-fight brain engaged, and I glared back, trying to remain neutral but feeling something involuntary within that boiled and overflowed with drops of rage.  His drops and mine fell to the asphalt below, staining it with memories of hatred towards the other, of self versus non-self.  The drops sizzled and steamed, hopefully evaporating before establishing themselves on earth.  I drove slowly away from the white pickup.


The remainder of the trip was one long exposure to Earth's beauty: dark purple storm clouds in the distance, geologic turmoil frozen in time, Joshua trees thinking their secret thoughts.  When L.A. appeared, it was a sudden jump from empty expanse to millions of humans interacting in a way our planet has not known before in its five billion years.


What a trip!  I would go again.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

California in pain and anger

It's 6:30am, Saturday, November 10.  The winds have died down in Woodland Hills, and the "Woolsey" fire, attacking now in Calabasas to our immediate north, has slowed, so at present we don't have to evacuate.  That could change later in the day.  The cold air smells nice, like a wood fire (last night the Santa Ana winds blew the smoke out to sea), but the meaning of the smell is dire.  The gym at my school down the street is filled with refugees.  At the Ralph's, displaced newcomers look for alternatives to Red Cross pizza.

The news media is correct that this fire is unlike any other Southern California fire we've experienced, partly because of its breadth and ferocity, and partly because of two other things: its timing after a mass shooting near its origin and its proximity to a midterm election that left the U.S. in crisis.

I found
a strange perspective and further meaning to the fires in a local news report.  A man from Camarillo whose house burned down told a reporter, "I still count myself lucky- I didn't have to go through what they did in Thousand Oaks."  He was referring to the shooting, in which a crazed man with an assault weapon- which he finally used on himself- killed 12 people at a music club. 

Right after the shooting, within a few miles of it, the fire started.  The man with the destroyed house had combined, in his mind, the two catastrophes, so that the shooting in Thousand Oaks and the fires were parts of one attack that struck differently in different places.  After the man spoke in the clip, the news anchor remarked, "Yes, the people of Thousand Oaks experienced the shooting right before this fire erupted around them," understanding what the homeowner had said.  In her mind, too, the shooting and the fires were connected, even as one story.

A BBC reporter who had covered other mass shootings in the U.S. had this observation about Thousand Oaks: "The chilling difference I'm finding here is that, unlike in past shootings, there is no sense of surprise.  It's as if people feel, 'Yes, this is what happens.'"

The resignation and despair plus the blending of the shooting and the fires- and perhaps the sense of uncertainty after the midterm- have induced, I think, an "act of God" feel to the catastrophes, invoking in some, perhaps, a Biblical guilt: What have I done to deserve this?, and in others a guilt infused with assertiveness and anger: Why have I allowed myself, my family and friends to accept a society that has no power over itself, that cannot control weapons or crazy people or much of anything? 

President Trump this morning threw more anxiety into the mix when he insulted hundreds of thousands of distressed Californians by stating that the Woolsey fire and the Camp fire (in Northern California, with over 1,000 dead) were caused by the state's "gross mismanagement," and that the penalty for this should be "No more Fed payments!," an abusive statement reflecting his anger that California refuses to knuckle under to him.

Yet I counsel against putting much energy into anger at Trump, because it won't do any good.  He thrives on it.

Instead, let's take our anger and guilt and direct them at a vacuum, the vacuum where a political party should be.  Democrats and Republicans are done.  They are phantoms floating past the carnage in California, using outrage at each other to mask their ineffectiveness.  We need a new political party, and we need it by 2020.   We should put our anger and/or guilt into that.


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