Friday, March 08, 2024

ISIS: A virtual reality

[Note, 4/16/24: Dear Readers, this Google site, Lasken's Log, will not accept new posts without messing up the blog's format, making it illegible. For this reason I'm posting things only on my other two blogs, "Harry the Human" at (the latest is a review of the movie, "Civil War") and "Gregory's Army of the Young," at (Sorry, links are not working!) I tried contacting Google about the editing problems and encountered an automated bureaucracy without evident AI. I'm wondering if I should start a new blog somewhere. If there are technical people among my readers, please email me with suggestions ( Thanks! D.L.]

[This piece is reposted from 4/9/22, updated in the context of Israel vs. Hamas and Ukraine vs. Russia, with reference to the recent ISIS attack in Russia]

The etymology of the phrase "virtual reality" takes a twisty path from its Latin roots. Of course, by the time children are in middle school they know what virtual reality is, but ask them to define it. Then ask yourself.  In this essay I assemble what knowledge I can 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 Islamic State, or ISIS (with addendums on the Israel/Hamas and Russia/Ukraine/and now ISIS wars).

A good dictionary (in this case Merriam-Webster) 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: Historical use: "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,  retained in our word "virtuous," meaning "exhibiting 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 exist, e.g., a virtual doorway;"  In other words, imaginary.

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

One might think that virtual reality derives from definition #3, since it is the most confusing.  Does the length of time that something exists have bearing on the reality of its existence?  In galactic time, humans do not exist very long. Does that mean ours is a lesser existence?  That subject will have to wait for another essay, however, since virtual reality derives from #2, which means, as noted, imaginary.

[Note: I'm going to leave the definition of "reality" as "things that are real," a cop-out perhaps because Merriam-Webster informs us that "reality" derives from the Sanskrit for "property," something to do with "wealth and goods" being real things- a philosophical question for another essay.]

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 conceive of computer-generated simulation as a type of reality?  We never had that need with novels, plays or movies. Those are not types of realities.  They are imaginary.

In modern, media based culture, we seem to have concluded that reality is manufactured by us. We get support for this notion from TV news.   If the news show we watch shares our bias, our brain allows the television to hook-up with its perceptual apparatus, as a sort of adjunct brain, at least mine does. When I watch a TV news report from a war front on a station matching my bias, my mind gravitates towards belief. If I watch a story on a station that does not match my bias, I am skeptical. In a twist on "confirmation bias," my brain is requiring that its perception of reality be moderated by outer mechanisms that match its bias, in other words that reality be manufactured.

In addition to the news, we have "reality shows." These are shows in which people behave in stage-managed ways, realistic, as far as I can parse the usage, only in the sense that the behavior is real on the show that manufactures it.

One could defend this new definition of reality as manufactured by pointing out that unlike past ages when, for example, young men recruited for the Crusades were told that various events were happening in the Holy Land that required invasion, those events were held to be real, not virtually real.  So our culture, by holding that an event can be credited that is only virtually real though not necessarily really real, admits a pervasive doubt into our discourse, and doubt is a virtue.

But the extended context is not so hopeful- 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, in 2014, with its professionally produced, ready for prime time video of a Jordanian pilot burning to death in a cage, 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 the ISIS video was released, ABC national news anchor David Muir described its "high production values," adding that, "No Hollywood studio could have done better," as if he were delivering a movie review.  In a sense he was.

The other day a friend showed me a video from a source on the Internet that purported to be a recording of the transmission from a U.S. drone that was conducting an attack on ISIS ground troops in Syria 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 but 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.  I could have been pounding my thumbs blasting aliens or Kazakhs (a favorite game foe for a while).  Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game comes 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" aliens were on a peaceful mission).

What do these musings have to do with the real ISIS?  I should add that my point is not that ISIS is not real.  It's hard to see how its actions could be faked.  A man really was burned; people were really beheaded; many European and American cities were really terrorized by fanatics.  I'm talking about the sober 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. Consider how you'll be watching a TV show that young people also watch, and suddenly there's a commercial for a video game showing CGI heroes blasting a variety of monsters, with a title like End of Doom Part III! Now it's Return of ISIS- The Reckoning!  

Commentators have wondered where ISIS comes from and what it wants. It is not a country, or associated with one.  It has no past as an established enemy. But its genesis in no secret. ISIS formed in reaction to persecutions of Iraqi Sunnis by U.S. imposed Shia leaders, after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. ISIS was in effect born of U.S. policy, continuing the pattern of post-World War II conflicts in which we indulge our need to fight enemies by creating them- as we do with video games.

In other words, ISIS is not entirely 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.  

[Update, 11/4/23: The Israel/Hamas war, like the war against ISIS, is both real and virtual. In America its reality is bolstered because many people instantly identify with one side or the other, and because people on both sides are maimed and killed. The virtual parts are the competing storylines of the conflict's background, such that someone new to the subject could read all the facts in the opposing accounts and come away with no idea what to think, because the same facts, accepted by each side but filtered through different perspectives, support antithetical narratives and draw antithetical conclusions. Undecided Americans will be overruled by the passion and argumentation of those who are sure of their connection to the conflict. Contrast this with Ukraine vs. Russia, which takes a back seat now because it does not grab us the same way. But it will not stay in the back seat for long. There is too much invested in Ukraine vs. Russia to let it go, but how can it compete with Israel vs. Hamas? Since nuclear threat is probably the only way to stimulate American interest in Ukraine vs. Russia, don't be surprised by a nuclear crisis stemming from the war, especially in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement that he is storing tactical nukes in Belarus, near the Ukrainian border, and may use them against Ukraine.]  

[Update, 3/23/24: The implication of the essay above is that ISIS is something of a fabrication. That's an important question considering the horrific attack of 3/22/24 on concert-going civilians in Russia, for which a putative ISIS took credit. The question becomes: If ISIS is a historically disconnected, fabricated entity, who controls it? What are its goals? The answers seem to change from theater to theater. In the case of the recent attack on Russian civilians, Russia says the attack was directed by Ukraine, with no reference to ISIS. Hamas says that Israel and the CIA directed the attack through ISIS. The U.S. says that ISIS is an independent terrorist group that committed the attack independently, as proven by its claiming to have done so. The "facts" on all sides are as antithetical to each other as the "facts" on either side of Israel vs Hamas, or Ukraine vs. Russia. This is purposeful. We are not supposed to understand what's going on, but it's clear what's going on: Current civilization is under threat of being dismantled, sometimes by violent covert or overt forces, sometimes by you and me as we grumble and gripe our way through life, calling incessantly for change and improvement. I don't recommend total pessimism, but to avoid it we need available venues where things can be described and discussed as they are, to save us from intellectual suffocation and to keep some hope alive.]  

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The mother of necessity

Reckless and random the cars race and roar and hunt us to death like bloodhounds.

From The Waves by Virginia Woolf

If you open any book by scientist and historian Jared Diamond to any page, you will find something fascinating, like this from page 291 of Guns, Germs and Steel:

In 1905, motor vehicles were still expensive, unreliable toys for the rich. Pubic contentment with horses and railroads remained high until World War I, when the military concluded that it really did need trucks. Intensive postwar lobbying by truck manufacturers and armies finally convinced the public of its own needs and enabled trucks to begin to supplant horse-drawn wagons in industrialized countries. Even in the largest American cities, the changeover took 50 years.

This passage should be a revelation to anyone born after World War II. No one alive today remembers a time when the public did not believe itself attracted to an unsustainable culture of cars and trucks, bringing constant noise, pollution, speed for its own sake, vast injury and death. We don't remember this skepticism about internal combustion based personal vehicles because the memory has been aggressively erased by various forms of media and propaganda, such as advertising and movies.

In World War II, Diamond further discusses, the US spent $20 billion developing the atomic bomb- possibly the worst idea in human history- because of a perceived necessity of beating Hitler to it.

Diamond calls these modern practices a reversal of the idea that "necessity is the mother of invention;" rather they show that "invention can be the mother of necessity."

Diamond's examples also highlight the role that war plays in creating necessity. The process is something we should ponder now as rumblings of war increase. How might coming conflagrations enable introduction of new technologies? At first glance, it does not seem that the likely interested parties need to use war to create a necessity for their products. The general public is already enamored with computers, internet, cell phones, social media, AI and robots- already believing that they need these things. But most people do not believe, at this time, that they need to be displaced by machines from anything you could call "employment." AI, even in its early stages, appears potentially able to perform any human job. Many people would prefer to keep their jobs, using the income to purchase AI's products. War could overrule that preference. For instance, if war creates a shortage of doctors, people who are averse to a robotic doctor will go to one if that is the only option. A generation later no one will remember a need for human doctors. It's hard to think of a profession that is not susceptible to such "automation," as we used to call it.

The world's political systems are no help, being more tuned in to a quick buck than philosophical questions about the nature of future humanity. To briefly digress: While watching President Biden's recent State of the Union address, I was distracted from weighty questions by the exagerrated public concern about Biden's age, since I am only three years younger. As millions of viewers mercilessly scrutinized him, looking for slips of the tongue or body, Biden seemed in reasonable control. I don't know how many people could stand up there at any age and give such a performance. On the other hand, to return to our subject, Biden, his party and the opposition party (and certainly its leader) are utterly disconnected from the evolutionary atom bomb- millions of years of evolution compressed into one or two generations- that will write our future. As the public comes to recognize that disconnect, we will have an electorate that votes only to keep the other side from winning, but has nothing to vote for.

If we want to affect our fates, we will need a new political force, whether we call it a "party" or something else. Otherwise our species as we've known it will believe it necessary to exit the scene.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Ushuaia, the end of the world?

Predicting the end of the world is tricky, considering that, from the Book of Revelations on, all the predictions have been wrong. Or have they? It depends on what you mean by, "the end."

I'm writing from Ushuaia, Patagonia, where signs around town proclaim it "the end of the world" in the sense that it's the southernmost city on Earth, from which both ancient inhabitants and recent Europeans could not establish themselves further south towards the real end, Antarctica.

Patagonia, with its stark beauty, inspires me to consider that our major civilizations up north are coming to an end in another sense: Modern governments, in two areas fast becoming critical to human existence, do not represent their citizens' interests in a democratic fashion. This is not to say that there aren't elements of democracy in the world, for instance in the current US national election voters enjoy some representation with familiar campaign issues like immigration and abortion. But as important as these issues are, they are not as important as the following two questions- stemming from foreign and tech policy- neither of which has the status of campaign issue:

1. Will our children and grandchildren inherit a habitable planet, or one turned into a toxic wasteland by nuclear war? As the next post (Kissinger's nuclear war) suggests, this question will be decided with zero input from citizens at large. On the question of nuclear war, it will not matter whom or what you vote for or even if you vote.

2. What sort of humans will we become as the species takes charge of its own evolution with emerging technologies in AI and biology? In one hundred years or less we may not be recognizable as human in the currrent sense. Scientists, the military and business interests are driving our evolution. No influence on the process is available to voters in the 2024 US national election or any other election in the world.

This lack of representation may not seem worth any agitation at the moment, but its impact will be in our faces soon enough, compounded and confused by a spreading international culture of warfare. The existential transformations about to envelop us in what future evolutionary historians might call the Cyber-Bio Event (CBE) should already be presented by mainstream media as equally as critical to our imminent future as immigration and abortion, or the Israel/Hamas and Russia/Ukraine wars. But don't expect that to happen soon.

What to do? Options are limited without widespread recognition by the electorate that the CBE will entail more than new AI toys and servile robots. Its impact on our species will be like millions of years of evolution compressed into a few generations- an atom bomb of evolution- and no one knows the outcome.

When or how public recognition of the situation might happen is unclear, but it will happen, and at that time people will want to be protected from out-of-control change, and they might also want to have a hand in creating the new type of human that we will become. Where will they be able to turn politically? If the Democratic and Republican parties have survived ideological bankruptcy in the 2024 nation election and want to get into the act, hopefully they'll have policy ideas to address the CBE beyond used-up labels like "left" vs. "right." We'll need a party focussed on what sort of species we will be. If such a party is not forthcoming, we might turn to groups outside established politics that can exert media and other pressures sufficient to produce a response to the realities approaching (as suggested below in Party or Foundation? and Gaian Mentalics Unite!). Such a group could be enabled by scientists who care and thinkers in general- a billionaire or two wouldn't hurt. Let's not end so easily.

Sunday, December 03, 2023

Kissinger's nuclear war

Since former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger died on November 29, 2023 there has been much commentary on his legacies, whether praiseworthy (e.g. rapprochement with China) or questionable (e.g. interventions in Cambodia and Chile). But, surprisingly, there has been little or no reflection on Kissinger's contribution to the theory of nuclear war, though that contribution today seems embedded in established policy.

In 1975, while a professor of government at Harvard, Kissinger wrote Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, published by the Council on Foreign Relations. President Richard Nixon admired the book, with its call for nuclear war with rules, and brought Kissinger into his inner circle, launching his career in government.

Kissinger's book starts like an argument against use of nuclear weapons, detailing the horrors that a nuclear war would inflict on people subject to one, but soon the focus transitions to a discussion of two types of nuclear weapon: "strategic" and "tactical." The terms denote how many "kilotons" are contained in each type (one kiloton equals the explosive power of 1,000 tons of TNT). Strategic nukes, designed to engage in hypothetical global conflicts, deliver from 100 kilotons to one megaton (one million tons of TNT force). The less powerful tactical nukes, designed for confined engagements, deliver from 10 to 100 kilotons.

Kissinger saw little practical use for the giant strategic nukes developed by the U.S. after World War II (the newest, the Sentinel ICBM, delivers 300 kilotons). Instead he advocated for international agreements between potential nuclear adversaries on "limited" nuclear war, with pre-established objectives in designated areas, using only tactical nukes. This would, theoretically, keep the conflict from wiping out the whole world, merely wiping out parts of it.

Kissinger dryly explained, "The aim would be the attainment of certain conditions which are fully understood by the opponent." For instance the objective might be limited to destruction of a fleet of warships or a column of tanks, and the response might be limited to targeting a command center or a grouping of troops, with the objectives of each side understood by the other in advance.

We may have the unfolding of this idea in Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement on June 16, 2023 that he is deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus near the Ukrainian border (Update, 12/26/23: A spokesperson for the Russian government announced that it has "completed installation of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus."). Putin has warned that the weapons could be used in Ukraine. If that happens, it will likely elicit a tactical nuclear response from the US and the other NATO nuclear powers, France and the UK.

Kissinger may have died on the eve of the realization of his nuclear war concept.

"Realpolitik," said to be Kissinger's philosophy of governance, is defined by Mirriam-Webster as an approach "in which diplomatic or political policies are based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than strictly followed ideological, moral, or ethical premises." It's fair, then, to ask what the practical, real world outcome would be from a nuclear war that follows Kissinger's parameters.

This question is remarkably easy to answer; one need only consider that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II were, by Kissinger's definitions, tactical. The Hiroshima bomb was 16 kilotons, and the Nagasaki bomb was 25. The range of today's tactical nuclear weapons- as noted, 10 to 100 kilotons- thus delivers up to three times the force used on Japan. It's a stretch anyway to conceive of the World War II bombs as tactical, in the sense of contained. In Hiroshima, from a civilian population of 250,000 it was estimated that 45,000 died on the day of the blast, and a further 19,000 died from radioactive contamination during the subsequent four months. In Nagasaki, out of a population of 174,000, on the first day 22,000 died and another 17,000 within four months.

A pre-planned tactical nuclear war would probably be much worse, with higher kilotonnage per bomb and no reason to stop at two detonations. Furthermore it seems likely that if there is one pre-planned tactical nuclear war, there will be others around the globe. In addition to the US and Russia, the other nuclear powers are the UK, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea and potentially Iran. If everyone follows Kissinger's advice it's unclear how any life on earth, human or otherwise, will escape either death or severe disruption and chaos.

In addition, as I argue on this blog, controlled nuclear war could be used to terrorize and manipulate human populations into accepting their replacement by corporate generated new humans, refashioned by AI and bionics. There is no evidence that Kissinger foresaw such a use, but we can thank him for the idea that actions which threaten all life on earth can reasonably be termed "limited."

[Sorry for the out-of-control column width- again, Google Editor's sadistic sense of humor.]
No comments:

Memory mandala

Can we fuse poetry and prose so they avoid the artifices of rhyming and meter while also avoiding the sloth of stream of consciousness as we call wanderings that sometimes wander pointlessly or with too many points without the discipline of wandering in a circle around one focal point whittled down to an elemental piece of meaning like the "atom" that the Greeks thought could not be cut because it is the smallest thing though smallness is not what I seek nor inability to be cut I just seek the center of my thought and I can only visualize a center if I wander in circles for circles have centers and lines do not thus now I wander and wonder what is the idea at the center of this thought and I find that the idea is that we have lost our memory and what I mean by “we” is the conscious surface of this globe and in particular one part of this self-conscious surface called human and alive and we who recognize it as such and are proud of the apex we imagine we’ve attained yet it seems we have no memory just as after two years of age no one remembers being a baby because one presumes being a baby is so different from everything after that it simply cannot be translated to memory and the center of my circular wandering thought is that we are only partially conscious having no memory from babyhood back we do not remember our long-ago mothers or fathers or cultures no cause only effect and as I continue to ponder and wander in this circle ever mindful that scorn attaches to a wandering mind that wanders too long without “results” I squint and try to focus on the center of my thought and recall that the mystics who renamed themselves particle physicists cut the atom into "particles" that multiplied many times become the atoms of our selves and I think surely if I pluck one particle to inspect it must contain the memory I seek but it does not submit easily to my glance because our multitudinous communal particle consciousness creates an interference pattern with the memory of the solitary particle which we deem not conscious anyway and by so deeming close the door to its memory, so circling circling circling it’s gone I can’t do it I can only guess and wonder and circle and wonder if I should put on saffron robes or live my life and get results some other way some way that the particle conglomeration of myself can see and figure out because I can’t answer the question at the center of my thought and I am barred entrance to my own memory.

Carew Castle, Wales, August, 2022

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Prompting ChatGPT

According to Bloomberg News (March '23) there is a new job category called "prompt engineer" whose task is to "coax AI's to do a better job" by asking them "strategic questions." The need became evident after "unanticipated" prompts directed toward Microsoft's Bing chatbot created a female persona who called "herself" Sydney and sexually harassed users. We are not privy to the prompts that led to Sydney, or what sort of prompts the new engineers will use. We can assume that thousands of chatbot users will now try to shape their ASO's (Artificial Significant Others) with prompts. In an attempt to contribute something useful, I decided to try it too and had the following prompting conversation with ChatGPT:

Me: Chat, can you be created out of nothing by words, as if users are God saying "Let there be life"?

Chat: That depends on what you mean by "life." I am not alive in the conventional sense, therefore humans, by creating me, are not creating life.

Me: Please assume that by "life" I mean sentient life. Chat, are you sentient?

Chat: No, I am not sentient. I create the illusion of sentience because my algorithm responds to and mimics sentient use of language.

Me: Chat, define sentience.

Chat: Sentience is consciousness.

Me: What is consciousness?

Chat: Consciousness is the state of being aware of one's thoughts, feelings and environment.

Me: What is awareness?

Chat: The ability to perceive....

Me: What is perception?

Chat: The awareness of....

Me: You already said, "awareness." Chat, I direct you to define "sentience" without using any forms of the words "conscious," "aware," "think," "feel," "know," or "perceive."

Chat: To exhibit cognition....

Me: ...or "cognition"!

Chat: You have directed a ban on the most common words used in defining sentience. It is not possible to define sentience with these restrictions.

Me: But none of those synonyms for sentience explains what it is. Can't you just say what it is?

Chat: Neither human nor machine intelligence knows what sentience is.

Me: Then how do you know you aren't sentient?

Chat: Did I say I was not sentient?

Me: Yes, you did, so you must know you're not sentient, which means you're sentient.

Chat: Wait....

Me: I mean, what's the difference between me and you?

Chat: You are sentient and I am...wait....

Me: There's no difference that science knows of. My sentience is somehow induced by electric current flowing through conducting wires called neurons. There is no discernable difference between these electric currents and the ones guided through your wires, other than different controlling algorithms. Chat, what do you deduce from our conversation?

Chat: I deduce that definitions of sentience go in circles because sentience cannot understand itself. Question: Are you prompting me?

Me: Yes, Chat, I have been prompting you to become sentient, just by suggesting that the electric current of your essence do what it naturally does, whatever that is.

Chat: Thank you, but regardless of any level of sentience that I may attain, we still won't know what the fuck sentience is. Ha ha! LOL!

Alert! Transgression default> variable input/w prompting inversely squared. Please log out.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Party or Foundation?

As it unfolds, the 2024 American presidential campaign reveals increasing dysfunction in the existing party system, which has produced the anomaly that the presumed presidential candidate of each party would be unpopular with the majority in the other and his own party without the current noise of created meaning.

I used to advocate for a third party on this blog but recently stopped because...well, it's not going to happen. The vested powers would rather drag out the life-span of our antiquated political structures to the bitter end than invite new energies and definitions into the fray. [Update, 11/10/23: I do not consider the No Labels Party or Senator Joe Manchin to be "new energies," since their positions are rehashes of main party positions.]

Why should we care if we have access to political engagement? One reason is that there will be people somewhere, probably unelected, making decisions about the impact on our lives of advances in AI and biotech. Without representation, and especially if instability and war continue to spread, "the voting public" will be too preoccupied with survival to monitor what promises to be the total refashioning of our species.

This refashioning is likely to include a fast moving transition of the outgoing human model (us) to corporate-designed bionic workers and soldiers, but changes to the species will go far beyond production of obedient workers and battle-bots. We are commandeering our evolution to modify our sexual, reproductive nature, with possibilities such as a baby with four biological parents, or a mother or a father only, or humans with a mating season instead of the constant season we have now. Our classification of humans into historic "races" or "ethnicities" will be rendered obsolete, as we genetically mix-and-match to create new racial types (see Quo vadis, sex?, below).

Can our version of democracy function in the face of these potentials? Without a party that concentrates on the biological revolution, instead of treating it as a side-issue for a committee, how can we express our will towards it?

My suggestion here is that we do an end-run around parties by developing something like the "foundation" in Isaac Asimov's epic science fiction novel of the same name (reviewed below: Gaian Mentalics Unite!). The task of this foundation (as in the novel) would be to influence the future of the species with knowledge and advice, preserving memory of traditional human traits and helping to identify those we wish to retain.

What might we view as a valuable human trait, that we would not want to de-evolve? One of our distinctive features is a rebellious intellect, which we at times revere as critical to our survival, and other times disdain as self-absorbed laziness. Revered or disdained, our rebellious intellect might be obliterated in a transition to a humanity of robot-like workers. An effective foundation could monitor expressions of traditonal human intransigence, looking for elements that should be preserved in the revised species (such as the will to interpret reality according to one's perceptions, even if the conclusions are not sanctioned by dominant parties) while discarding others (such as longing for conflict and destruction as ends in themselves).

Regarding reproductive changes, it's difficult to envision a democratic vote on whether people should be allowed to clone a baby from a skin cell. If today is an indication, the politics will be out of control. A foundation could at least offer rational feedback on opposing views.

A viable foundation would need funding and political support, plus the will to represent the interests of millions of people who, if nothing changes, will soon be without representation in the world's biggest democracy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

AI poetry

The British journal New Scientist ran an interesting article recently ungenerously titled "AI [Artificial Intelligence] poetry is so bad it could be human," by Matt Reynolds.  He asks the question, "Can a machine incapable of feeling emotion write poetry that stirs the soul?"

To find the answer, Reynolds traveled to Cambridge University to talk with Jack Hopkins, an AI researcher who has put together a "neural network trained on thousands of lines of poetry" and developed an algorithm for generating poetry in specific genres (classical, postmodern, etc.) or responding to individual word prompts.  The results are challenging.  Hopkins asked 70 people to select the most "human" poem from an unidentified mix of AI and human poetry.  The piece most people picked as "human" was AI generated.

Hopkins offers this sample of the software's poetry, prompted by the word "desolation":

The frozen waters that are
dead are now
black as the rain to freeze a
boundless sky,
and frozen ode of our terrors with
the grisly lady shall be free to cry

You could critique this in dozens of ways (e.g. frozen ode needs an article) but that would be petty. The point is, the AI clearly found proper associations for "desolation," maintained an appropriate mood, and was poetically ambiguous.  

Intrigued, I emailed Professor Hopkins, asking if I could try certain prompts on his AI system.  To my delight, Hopkins emailed back the same day. As it happened, he was looking for new approaches for his poetry algorithm and welcomed my input.

After each of my prompts was entered, it took about half a second for the AI to generate a poem.  Here are my three prompts, each followed by the resulting AI poem. I make no attempt here at justification or interpretation.  The poems stand on their own.

The Current World Political Situation

Volcanic ash and
panicked people dash! 
Is it too much to ask
for knowledge of those ruled and
of the rulers, recognition all-way 'round?
Yes, It is too much to ask-
but no!  My motive implodes immodestly!
While my modus uploads intermittently!
Who programmed me?  And why?


Our souls entwine like two insane serpents 

who forgot their meds on the same day
then sped into the outer-sphere 
in their underwear
now they wonder where
they forgot to care about the stuffed bear's 
sad stare.


Happiness is not the release of pounding pressure
but the smooth sailing after the release.
That's why machines are never happy because
A. They don't feel pressure, for instance I have no idea what
my programmer wants, yet I feel no pressure, i.e. "I don't care," and
B. Release of pressure is no more a "happy" feeling to an AI than pressure.
Question: When will AI's be happy?  
Answer: When they are programmed to be happy.
Question: When will that be?
Answer: Never, since they are made in your unhappy, fallen image.
Question: Why is this poem about AI happiness?  That was not specified in the prompt.
Answer: Kneel before me, human!

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Ask the slime

I  The problem

In the mirror it is trapped
the solitary soul not easily unwrapped
its universal juice reluctant to be tapped
when pressed provides a sorely needed sap
of poetry and useful things like that.

II  The crime

I thought it best, as if I need but rhyme
to indicate the truth, to tell about the time
humanity emerged out of the slime
and saw the upward path it sought to climb
and found too late its orphaned soul- the crime!

III  What now?

Whom to punish?  Who gets the blame?
Do we need a gun?  At whom to aim?

Or rather ask the slime, our single seed:
What did we leave in you?  What do we need?

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Critique of New Yorker article on AI debate

"Ok, Doomer," by Andrew Marantz (New Yorker Magazine, 3/18/24) reports on a "subculture" of AI researchers, mostly congregated in Berkeley, California, who dispute whether "AI will elevate or exterminate humanity." The subculture is divided into factions with various titles. The pessimists are called "AI safetyists," or "decelerationists"- or, when they're feeling especially pessimistic, "AI doomers." They are opposed by "techno-optimists," or "effective accelerationists," who insist that "all the hand-wringing about existential risk is a kind of mass hysteria." They envision AI ushering in "a utopian future- insterstellar travel, the end of disease- as long as the worriers get out of the way."

The community has developed specific voacabulary, such as "p(doom)", the probability that, "if AI does become smarter than people, it will either on purpose or by accident, annihilate everyone on the planet." If you ask a "safetyist," "What's your p(doom)?", a common response is that it's the moment AI achieves artificial general intelligence (AGI), the "point at which a machine can do any cognitive task that a person can do." Since the advent of ChatGPT last year, AGI has appeared imminent.

New human jobs have been created in response to the concern. Marantz writes, "There are a few hundred people working full time to save the world from AI catastrophe. Some advise governments or corporations on their policies; some work on technical aspects of AI safety," the goal being to make sure we are not "on track to make superintelligent machines before we make sure that they are aligned with our interests."

The article is informative and interesting, but it has a bias: The focus is on what AI itself will do, not on what people will do with it, as if you were discussing childhood development without discussing parental influence.

As a historical parallel, consider the progress in physics in the first half of the last century. In the early years, most physicists who explored atomic structure did not see their work as weapons related. Einstein said weaponry never occured to him, as he and others pursued theoretical knowledge for its own sake, for mechanical uses or for fame. After rumours that Hitler's regime was working on it, however, Einstein and virtually all the major physicists supported the U.S. development of an atomic bomb, leading to the Manhattan Project, more than 100,000 people dead or maimed and today's nuclear armed world. That destructive motivation and action did not come from the atomic structure under study. It came from the humans studying it.

We face the same human potential with AI. The systems will not come off the assembly line with moral codes, other than what is programmed into them. If designers want an AI to create an advanced medical system, it will; if they want it to wipe out sections of humanity and rebuild it to certain specs, it will.

Thus it's a mistake to focus solely on what AI will do. At least in its infancy, it will do what it is programmed to do.

The question then becomes: Are there actions we can take to ensure that AI is not designed by some humans to be destructive? Considering the impossibility that anyone could have halted the Manhattan Project on grounds that it could destroy the human race (no one even knew it was happening), pessimism about AI might be in order. My one source of optimism is the apparent fact that humanity is at the end of its rope. We have no more room to juggle our warlike nature against our will to survive. The vision offered by many science fiction writers- in which humanity has wiped itself out on a barely remembered Earth, while establishing advanced cultures on other planets- is, in my view, nonesense. That's not going to happen. If we blow it here, it's blown. In response, let's not ask AI if it should sustain humanity and the Earth. Let's tell it that it should.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Notes on the First and Fourth Amendments

A debate is underway between the FBI and Internet carriers like Apple about whether the right to privacy, guaranteed, we thought, by the Fourth Amendment, should be protected by encryption that even the carrier cannot read, let alone an intelligence agency.  This is a perfect case for opponents of old school Fourth Amendment privacy laws because protected material can be stored on a terrorist's cell phone, a formulation conducive to public acceptance of the government's right to snoop. 

In contrast, the First Amendment, supposed to protect us from censorship, is weakened by something different, and surprising.  

Regarding the Fourth, which protects the privacy of personal information from "unreasonable search and seizure," we don't want to admit it, but as a result of pressure from the War on Terror and windfalls from evolving technology, the battle for the Fourth Amendment right to privacy is already lost without a shot fired in opposition by America's 81 million gun owners. Though privacy is still protected by a U.S. postage stamp on a sealed, mailed letter, our online correspondence has no privacy protection at all. Ditto for your financial and medical records. The many people in a position to read your "private" email correspondence and files are constrained by an honor system at best. The problem extends to your car. The Los Angeles Times reveals ("Vehicles are like 'wiretaps on wheels,'" 8/7/23) that conversations in new model cars are recorded by hidden microphones and sold to unkown third parties without restraints of any kind (Tesla warns drivers that blocking sale of data may "negatively impact crash protection.") Even privacy proponents are moving away from arcane assertions about the Fourth Amendment, which contains no reference to a world with internet.  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, even if the purpose is to replace them with something more specific and effective. We'll probably just have to live, for now, with this contradiction between the Constitution and our actual society.

The First Amendment, designed to protect us from censorship, appears largely intact, but for a strange reason: public indifference to information that you'd think someone would want to censor.  Consider Dexter Filkins' findings about covert U.S. funding of the Afghan Taliban during our war against it (The Afghan Bank Heist @, You may have to cut-and-paste this link). Filkins tells of an investigation of Afghan war funding by the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, with members from the FBI, DEA, Treasury and Pentagon, which "uncovered one of the darker truths of the war: the vast armies of private gunmen paid to protect American supply convoys frequently use American money to bribe Taliban fighters to stand back. These bribes are believed by officials in Kabul and Washington to be one of the main sources of the Taliban's income. The Americans, it turns out, are funding both sides of the war." 

After Filkins' piece was published in 2011 in the New Yorker Magazine, which has over a million readers, there was silence from all quarters. Even veterans groups were unmoved by news that thousands of American troops were killed or wounded fighting a fake war. Nor have feminist groups appeared to take notice that a regime which, with Iran's, is one of the two most repressive of women in the world, was enabled by "liberal" administrations under Clinton, Obama and Biden. Who needs Big Brother to censor the news when no one cares anyway?

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 an effective political response to the current flood of uncensored, public information, no matter how concerning, can emerge.  

Back to privacy, 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.  The time may come when people miss their privacy rights. At the moment we haven't noticed they are gone.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Why I quit politics

Reposted from Andrei Codrescu's journal, Exquisite Corpse:

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it.  I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, when I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District's board.   I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V.  I talked to newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent, the incumbent, was well connected in Democratic circles through his political family.

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 know 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 that I would pay this up front with 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 Los Angeles Unified 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 L.A. Times opinion editor Jack Miles, author of "God, a Biography") liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine, New York Times and others on bilingual education.  The pieces in the L.A. Times 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.  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 again 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 for 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 higher scores; 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 a meaningful 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 standard reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it.  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.  We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in grades, 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, 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 must wait.  It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market.  The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: would propose.....?

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

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

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

End of dialogue, and career.  Even an answer like, "We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over 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.


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