Friday, March 15, 2019

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 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: 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

Here's an update on recent science trends we ought to 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 fake ones; difficult emotions, such as grief over death or unrequited love, will be susceptible to elimination with drugs (“Finding a way to erase harmful memories,” Boston Globe,

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?”,

3. Current struggles about race will become moot as biology mixes and matches to produce new races adapted to new technologies and environments. 

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 research “The Singularity”).  Automation via cyborgs and other 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, 7/18/19, none of the candidates mentioned them in last month's Democratic presidential debates, with the exception of Andrew Yang, who was able to talk for ten seconds about displacement of workers from automation. Yang, polling at 1.5%, is treated as a passing novelty by the media and will be out of the race soon], 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.

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

It's enough to make a guy 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 higher-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) cloned people, produced without biological parents (the most obscene word in the language is "mother") of the Epsilon caste- the lowest of four cloned castes- are designed to work in factories. They have no beauty receptors.   The disposable embryo in a test tube is extrapolated to the disposable developed human.  Children gather around hospital deathbeds to watch people die so that death becomes prosaic.  For the upper, managerial classes, mandatory recreational drug use and promiscuous sex distract from consideration of their pre-programmed fates (essential to Huxley's nightmare is the placid 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 lack of attention will make possible a covertly planned transition. The perfect distraction and cover for such a transition would be highly destructive wars such as those now unfolding. After we're battered with enough rounds of bio, cyber and conventional military terror, science will come in as the savior for an endangered humanity.  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 the faintest element of self-determination, evolving into something of unknown design, by unknown designers, whether we want to or not, whether we think about it or not.

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


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

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

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

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 keep kids away 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.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

AI poetry

The July 15 issue of the British journal New Scientist has an interesting article 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 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 example 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 I sent in each of my prompts, it took about three seconds for the system 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 p
anicked people dash! 
Is it too much to ask
for knowledge of those ruled and
of the rulers, recognition all way 'round?
It IS too much to ask-
Ah yes!  My modus uploads intermittently!
While my motive explodes most immodestly!
Who programmed me?  And why?


Their souls entwined 

like two mad serpents who forgot their meds 
and sped 
to 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 of me, 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!

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The debate game

[This essay made the shortlist in the NewPhilosopher Magazine writing contest, August, 2018.]

The engaging articles in the Summer 2018 NewPhilosopher Magazine, the Play edition, are relevant to my job, which for the past fifteen years has been coaching high school debate (I retired from teaching English in 2009).   The issue explored the dual nature of play, as exercise without purpose beyond itself, and as exercise with extended purposes, and inspired me to revisit two long-pondered questions about academic and political debate:  Do they lead to truth, either for students or politicians running for office, and do they result in accurate ranking of students’ or candidates’ abilities? 

Debate coaches and media networks promoting election debates sometimes suggest that debate entails a search for truth.  We hear about its roots in Socratic dialogue and Enlightenment debate societies, which, in theory, existed to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying assumptions.  However, while formal argumentation may at times display truth, the modern game of debate is not designed to do that; it is designed to determine a winner and loser.  

The winner’s arguments are not deemed “true,” but better argued; the loser’s arguments are not deemed “false,” but not argued as well.  Competitive debate is a sport, a verbal boxing match in which each side pummels the other with “facts” and “evidence,” and a judge then decides who did this with the most facility (debate derives from Latin battereto fight). Thus, there is never an epiphany on one side in which a debater sees the wisdom of the opponent’s view- in fact that would constitute a loss for the agreeing side.   There are clear benefits to debate- it sharpens important life-skills and brings to light much information and many points of view- but the imperative to disagree impedes its potential function as a search for truth.

The imperative to disagree is also the default mode in public discourse.  Consider the current gun control debate in America.  Below is an exchange using the arguments we hear in the news, as they might be expressed in one of the popular high school debate events, such as Lincoln-Douglas or Public Forum, starting with a resolution, followed by a back and forth between the Affirmative (Aff) and Negative (Neg):

Resolved: In light of recent mass shootings using automatic weapons with high capacity ammunition clips, combat weaponry should be banned from civilian use.

Aff: There is no legitimate purpose in civilian life for automatic weapons.  Such weapons are necessary only for police and military use.

Neg: The founders wrote the Second Amendment to make sure the population has the right to bear arms. Restricting assault weapons is the first step in a slippery slope leading to prohibition of all firearms. The larger question is protection of freedom.

Aff: We are not talking about restricting all firearms. People would still have the right to arm themselves both for personal protection and for recreational uses such as hunting.

Neg: The ultimate purpose, however, is to ban all firearms from the population.

Aff: No it isn’t.

Neg: Yes it is.

Aff: No it isn’t.

Neg: Yes it is.

Of course the last four statements would not be made, but their equivalents would, ad infinitum.  There is no end to the debate.  Although formal rules force closure, the two sides go at it for an implied eternity.

High school debate at least attempts to approach truth through the requirement for "clash," the precise responding to an opponent’s argument (referred to as "hitting").  The public debate on gun control has reached the pointless point, not only because it is at the “Yes it is/No it isn’t” level, but because the Neg, in this case the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters avoid clash.  If the current national gun control debate were a formal academic debate at a high school tournament, the NRA would lose by virtue of its avoiding clash.

For instance, in an academic debate, if the Neg alleged that civilians need combat weaponry to protect against a hypothetical tyrannical government (a common argument), the Aff could counter that our heavily armed citizenry has already given up its 4th Amendment right to private communication without a shot fired.  Such an Aff response would constitute clash, as it directly addresses the Neg point. If the Neg then responded by ignoring the point, which is what the NRA does, then the judge would give the win to the Aff because it clashed and the Neg did not.

Unfortunately in political debate there is no judge to monitor and award points for clash.  One hopes the general public is as observant to detail as the average parent/judge at a high school debate tournament. 

My second question about debate concerns our use of it to determine the quality of the speakers, whether they are students vying for first place or candidates seeking votes.  How reliable and appropriate is this use?

My observation, from judging debate rounds at many tournaments, is that at preliminary tournaments- the novice and opens- there is substantial validity to ranking students in numerical order of achievement, because at these levels there are large differences in technical proficiency.  At the final rounds of qualifiers the appropriateness of ranking is less clear.  Finalists in a qualifier are highly polished.  There will be differences, but they are harder to spot.

The real problem is in the final rounds of state tournaments, or the national tournament.  In these rounds there is often no observable difference between the top several students.  The rankings first, second and third can be meaningless, generated in the minds of exhausted judges trying to avoid a tie.  When the rankings are announced at awards, however, they are treated as 100% valid. The situation seems unfortunate in a culture where the overriding goal in all competitions is to place first.   I say this as a coach whose students have placed first and second in state.  I certainly wouldn’t petition the league to invalidate those rankings.  My students were awesome and it’s a rush to win big.  But the process is unreliable.

Ranking political candidates based on their performance in public debate is unreliable as well.  After a presidential debate in the U.S., commentators try to decide who "won," as judges do in high school debate, but how would anyone know who won when there is virtually no clash?  The media formula for identifying the winner of a political debate appears to be an estimate of which candidate was most likeable.  Not that there's anything wrong with being likeable, but if that's all the debate shows, it's a formula for picking demagogues (they tend to be likeable).  

Several of the articles in the NewPhilosopher Play edition look at the contradiction between the playfulness of play and its seriousness.  For instance, in “Being outside yourself,” Simon Critchley and Nigel Warburton consider the exaggerated sense of meaning felt by fans after their home football team either wins or loses, in the context of the essential meaningless of either winning or losing.  Debate too is a mix of play and serious ambition.  To me as a coach, debate is more play than serious, but I would rather not leave it at that.  

Perhaps we can take another look at debate as play, and see how it might serve serious purposes, both academic and public.  Can we structure debate rules to avoid deadlocks of “Yes it is/No it isn’t”?  Do debaters have to insist they are right?  Are “win” and “lose” sufficient outcomes?  Must there be first, second and third places that force judges into subjective and even random decisions?

Hopefully such questions will not become moot.  Academic and public debates are indications of a democratic society.  Recent totalitarian trends, if fulfilled, could mark the end of all but cosmetic debate.  If we can hold on to debate in its current, relatively uncensored form, it might be worthwhile to upgrade the rules and goals with deeper understandings of play and its purposes.

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