Thursday, January 05, 2023

Attack base! Destroy!

Full discolsure: I am a speech and debate coach at the high school from which I retired as an English teacher. Much of the time, given the difference in years between me and my students, I either think, "I'm so much like them" or, "I'm nothing like them."

Our team had a fundraiser last week where the dual natures of the relationship were clear. The venue was a game palace in the San Fernando Valley's Sherman Oaks, where we played laser tag. Nearly my entire team, over 60 teenagers, was there, accompanied by a growing stack of money. These elements I liked, along with the Jungian corridors we crept through: dark and dreamlike. I wasn't so sure I liked the game itself, in which we pretended that the toy assault rifles in our hands were true lethal weapons whose flashing lights and clanging sounds indicated either death to others or to ourselves. As we stalked the corridors, speakers transmitted female and male voices bellowing, "Attack base! Destroy!," accompanied by hard rock. I felt I had landed in the very mindset I often critique: the love of rivalry and violence typical of our species.

To be honest, I couldn't really say, "I'm nothing like them," regarding my enthralled students. There was a certain excitement to the environment and the echoing sounds, though it became evident to others, by my leisurely gait and randomly fired gun (blazing at both my own and rival teams) that I had abandoned the game itself.

My students started saying "Sorry, Mr. Lasken" each time they felled me.

But did my relative comfort in a war game mean that my longtime complaint against the wastefullness and stupidity of war is phoney? Can you enjoy a violent fantasy yet hold yourself to be separate from it?

It better be true that we can hold ourselves separate from our fantasies. If it's not true, then everyone's ethics are phoney, including ethics about relationships, about money, about harming people.

Ethical systems appear to derive, not from absolute truths, but from faith based maxims, as religious dogma does. For instance, most ethical systems assert that "murder" (killing that is not sanctioned by society or the state) is bad, but this badness, though we almost unanimously agree on it, cannot be proven. All we can prove is that most people do not want homicide to go unrestrained.

Thus the "badness" or "goodness" of actions as determined by ethical systems are extensions of popular opinion and persuasion, as reflected in historical attempts to define ethics. Aristotle saw ethical behavior as that which benefits others (the definition of "benefit" being subjective); Kant held that ethics are a duty ("duty" being conceptual); Utilitarianism holds that ethical behavior provides the most happiness for the greatest number ("happiness" and counting systems being a matter of perspective). For guidelines so integral to human behavior, ethics are unsettingly open to interpretation.

One difference between ethics and religion is that ethics cover only behavior, not inner thoughts and feelings.

I'm not interested in obtaining a real assault weapon and waging war, yet when I read in Tolkien about hordes of malevolent orcs threatening the peaceful Shire, I do experience warlike feelings.

What are these feelings for? Are they intrinsically "good" or "bad"?

After watching on the news repeated unchanging depictions of people at war whose groupings are purported to be either victims or aggressors- each grouping always presented in only one of the two ways- my ethics tell me that someone is trying to trick me into risking my life and paying my taxes for corporate profits and unnamed individuals' quest for lebensraum, and my ethics tells me that this is "bad." Yet when I see a real enemy, like a sadist whose joy is making me and my society miserable, my ethics do not stop at toy guns.

How powerful are ethics? Are they weakened by the lack of objecive truth?

I don't think so. Since this is the only type of ethics we have, what choice is there but to go with it?

Wednesday, December 28, 2022


Currently the hottest thing in technology is Artificial Intelligence (AI), with mind boggling developments almost daily in every application from medicine to physics. Essentially, the human brain is growing a mechanical extension of itself and becoming exponentially smarter, though not necessarily in a unified way. Science journals have been reporting that AI's are figuring out atomic structures and working towards cures on levels that physicists and medical researchers do not understand. It appears that If we succeed in these and others of our most difficult projects- including colonizing the solar system and achieving sustainable fusion power- it will be largely because AI’s figure out how to do it [Update, Los Angeles Times, 1/26,23, A group at Northeastern University has unveiled a working model of an AI that accurately predicts Covid outbreaks many weeks earlier than has been possible, using "a volume of information that is far too much for humans to manage, let alone interpret"].

AI's won't figure out why we should colonize the solar system or do anything else. For now, the why of things is left to us, but that will be small consolation if we don’t figure out soon what we’re doing.

Observers have been sounding the alarm about AI for years, pointing out, as Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Harari does in his book, Homo Deus, that we face a future where not only manual laborers will be replaced by machines and AI, but almost all high level, specialty jobs as well, such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, police and judges.

How will humans develop when there are no more jobs for them- when they are no longer required, in other words, to ensure their own survival? There is popular speculation on this question, as in the 2008 Disney movie WALL-E, set centuries in the future when the earth is a dead planet covered in toxic garbage populated by trash- compressing AI’s, while on a luxury cruiser in space AI’s tend to the obese and vegetative remnants of humanity (leave it to Disney to make this scenario lighthearted).

AI is scary enough in the future, but it made a dramatic entrance into the present this fall with release online of the app ChatGPT (from OpenAI, now in the process of being purchased by Microsoft) which will write about whatever topic you choose, in any style, producing remarkably credible text. The site is labelled “experimental,” and users are invited to test it by submitting prompts. I submitted prompts from science, history and social theory, and found that ChatGPT can imitate human thinking and writing to a level no one has been expecting.

As a retired high school English teacher and current speech and debate coach, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that ChatGPT threatens the foundations of both jobs. I experimented with one of my old prompts: "Describe Lady Macbeth’s influence on her husband." After about 15 seconds ChatGPT submitted a scholarly, well written piece, but it was too scholarly. I instructed the app to rewrite the essay in the style of a 10th grade student, and the resulting text was utterly convincing. Sites used by teachers for detecting plagiarism, such as, which run student papers against a giant database of published materials, will not work with ChatGPT.

Regarding high school speech and debate, if you ask the app to argue in favor of a controversial issue, it often comes up with arguments expressed in seemingly novel ways. In many events, such as Original Advocacy, there is not even a mandate to check sources. How will coaches know if a speech was written by the student?

All of education, from primary to university, is about to be stood on its head. We hear about a 30% decline in California students’ reading skills since the pandemic, but we’ve got another pandemic brewing, this one from ChatGPT. If our youth, and future humanity, do not need to read or write because AI’s do it for them, then evolution will take its course and de-evolve those skills.

Other impacts on society are myriad. How will employers know if applicants wrote their resumes? In the 2024 U.S. national election, how will voters know who wrote the speeches, and who, or what, will implement the policies?

Speaking of politics, both the Democratic and Republican parties might as well be on the moon for all their focus on the impact AI is about to have on human society. If we don't get some attention to reality soon, possibly from a new party, we may have to turn to an AI to figure it out.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

A political party for our times

Day by day the pressure cooker of human society stresses our traditional ideologies, gradually replacing them with vague notions of a bioengineered, entertained and becalmed humanity that may no longer need ideologies (at least not the familiar ones). America's major political parties, the Democrats and Republicans, do less each year to alleviate our anxiety over the lack of discussion and detail about humankind's future (there was certainly none in the recent midterm elections) to the point that we often feel like corn kernals ready to pop. In frustration and despair many conclude that only a profoundly destructive event- a coup, a war, an apocalypse, anything that rocks our world- can keep us from withering away, passively watching commercials, car chases and political scandals on TV while we mull a sense that the human race is turning into something other than us. 

We want to push back, to try to affect our fate, as we might crash a spaceship into an asteroid hoping to move it in a better direction, only to see it wobble away indecisively. It's hard to know how to affect the world in a positive way. Even influential people can only tweak around the edges, not really directing much. There is no co-ordination of effort, no overall leadership. 

It would help if we had a political party that addressed the future instead of avoiding it. We don't have such a party, but if there were a group with the resources to educate the public about the coming reformulation of the human race, in which we will evolve- much more rapidly than in normal evolution- into a new species, that story would become political in a hurry. 

I believe a party focussed on the future could gain a significant, possibly pivotal role in American and world politics. The sooner it makes itself known the better. As the old order cracks, there isn't unlimited time to establish something new. We're in the last moments when the media is "free," in the sense that alternative approaches can get some play. Once wars and other catastrophes establish their claim on our attention, the media will be co-opted. The time is now for a party that asserts a scenario for humanity that has some humanity to it.


Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Science should be political

With the exceptions of climate change and abortion, there's not much discussion in American politics about science- especially not science concerning the future of our species.  Here's an update on recent advancements in that science which, given its critical importance, we should be hearing about in our political discussions, but are not:

1. MRI machines, with help from Artificial Intelligence (AI), are now able to "read" simple thoughts in human subjects by scanning their brains ("Mind-reading AI decodes thoughts from brain scans," New Scientist Magazine, 10/22/22).

2. Scientists are learning how to manipulate human thought.  They will soon be able to erase real memories and implant false ones; difficult emotions, such as grief over death or unrequited love, will be susceptible to elimination with drugs (“Finding a way to erase harmful memories,” Boston Globe,

3. 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?”,

4. Current struggles about race will become moot as biology mixes and matches to produce new races adapted to new technologies and environments, as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (see below).

5. Humans will combine with machines, interactively at first, then increasingly via prosthetics, in which, for example, AI's will be implanted in our brains. [Update, Los Angeles Times, 12/2/22, "Musk venture sets ambitious plans for implants in humans": "Elon Musk has long argued that humans can keep up with advances being made in Aritifical Intelligence only with the help of computer-like augmentations."] [Update, 12/19/22: Artifical human thought took an abrupt and unexpected leap into visibility this week with release of the app, ChatGPT (see above), which, given a prompt, will write flawlessly in any style, often seeming to "think"- taking sides on controversial subjects with novel arguments.] [Automation via AI enhanced machines will displace human workers on a mass scale, including such workers as judges, doctors and teachers, as described in Yuval Harari's Homo Deus] [New Scientist Magazine, 1/14/23: "AI will advise a defendant in court," describes the opening moves in the displacement of lawyers] [NPR News, "Send in the clones," 1/17/23: Simulated voices have become nearly indistinguishable from the original person's voice- simulated personal images are not far behind]. Many scientists predict an end to current, flesh-based humans by 2045 (see the writings of Vernor Vinge and the "Singularity”).

These developments are not prominent in U.S. political news and, predictably, very few people appear concerned about the imminent re-definition of our species. Newspaper headlines should be proclaiming: "Human race has 20 years tops, per prominent scientists"  Instead, we get front page headlines like this from today's L.A. Times: "Netflix to pay to keep stream smooth!"  Talk about living in the moment. 

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

There is no consensus on the future humans, no discussion or awareness, at least not in the voting public.  That doesn't mean we won't be able to master the technology; we're mastering it now.   Research and development will continue as a free-for-all that won't even blink at the occasional call for bioethicists to write papers that no one will read.

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

There is plenty of science coverage in the media, but not in the political stories. What if the end of humanity as we know it were a topic front and center in the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign? Can you imagine the candidates debating the best way to design a new human consciousness? A passing extraterrestrial would think humanity is a rare haven for 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 con 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 battles, though we lack even common definitions of terms. The lack of common definitions in itself kills any hope of dialogue, because our "hot button" political issues are only superficially about the subjects they purport to be about.  

Opposition to abortion, for example, is ultimately about a future where not only fetal human life is treated as non-sentient and disposable, but adult human life as well. Future humans, in many credible scenarios, will be no more than production units. In Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1931) human eggs are fertilized in vitro on factory assembly lines (the state religion deifies Henry Ford) and the resulting children are reared by technicians.  There are no biological parents to get in the way (the most obscene word in the language is "mother").  Children are required to gather around hospital deathbeds to watch people die so that death becomes prosaic.  Relationships, when permitted, are superficial and temporary.  The unloved and disposable embryo in a petri dish is extrapolated to the disposable developed human. 

Even when science does become political, as with abortion, there is a staggering gap between actual science and emotional idealism, for instance with abortion opponents who do not address post-partum concerns, even though the sensible thing for a self-aware species to do, if we're going to make a great fuss about a fertilized egg, would be to consider the rest of its life too.  

Huxley re-figures the modern preoccupation with racial distinctions through a genetic scientist's  lense.  In Brave New World there are four "castes," or biologically different types of humans (in contrast to the Hindu usage, which distinguishes people who are biologically identical but socially different).  In Huxley's vision the four castes have replaced racial categories.  The lowest caste, the Epsilons, are designed to do menial work. Their neural beauty receptors have been deadened so they won't mind ugly factories.  They are bred to be shorter and less attractive than the higher castes.  For the upper, managerial castes, culminating in the Alpha's- who are bred to be the tallest and most attractive- mandatory recreational drug use and promiscuous sex distract from consideration of their pre-programmed fates (essential to Huxley's nightmare is the placid acceptance of it).

Another issue, gun control, is not just about whether you can bear arms in an urban environment; it’s about whether we will need an armed insurrection to protect us from a scientific state.  Most pro-gun groups have extensive literature arguing that without our guns we will be sitting ducks for fascism, though our household guns have proven of zero effectiveness against America's nexus of intelligence agencies and the tech sector, which together generate an 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 revealed as a "War for drugs," as in George Lucas' pre-Star Wars masterpiece, THX-1138, in which a highly stressed human population, forced underground by an unnamed holocaust on the earth's surface, is coerced into taking mind numbing tranquilizers to facilitate boring factory work and avoid feelings of romantic love, claustrophobia and the resulting social unrest.  The protagonist, whose name is THX-1138, falls in love with a co-worker after avoiding his dose and is charged with "drug evasion."

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

If science is not political news, there will be little understanding that we are living in a transition to a revised humankind.  The ignorance will grow if we are distracted by domestic strife and war [Update, 2/24/22: The long heralded kickoff to WWIII supposedly happened today with Russia's incursion into Ukraine. What are the odds that tonight's network news will report the latest on human evolution, or that tomorrow night's will, or the night after that?] [Update, 10/18/22: The network news continues to prominently feature the Ukraine/Russia war every evening- and avoid the scientific revolution- as if this war would rank above the end of historical humans in viewer interest][Update, 11/21/22: The recent U.S. midterm elections, as noted above, were an exercise in "sound and fury signifying nothing," unless I missed it- was there anything about the human race going extinct even without Donald Trump?].  Diminished attention to events outside the prescribed battle zones will make a covertly planned transition possible.  It will be over before we understand it.

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

In the U.S., there's no way to be an actor in the politics of science except through the Democratic or Republican parties, but those parties have specialized in putting us to sleep, not in waking us up.  Any chance that the 2024 American presidential campaign might direct our attention to the future of the species is rapidly diminishing, replaced by partisan, reactive outbursts to recycled issues like those noted above, not to mention a noisy red vs. blue shoot-out.  While we indulge our love of yelling at each other, technocracy will fill the void, determining our fate without public polemics, and without elections.  

Saturday, August 27, 2022

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 had 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 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 p
anicked 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!

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Conspiracy theories

"Conspire" means "breathe together" in Latin. Conspiracy is intimate; the conspirators are vulnerable to each other, open with their thoughts because they have common interests. The conspiracy must remain secret because it only serves those interests. From this point of view conspiracies, and by extension conspiracy theories, are as natural as communication.  Why then are people today reluctant to say, "I have a conspiracy theory"? 

Perhaps the rumors are true, that the CIA promoted a negative connotation for the phrase "conspiracy theory" to embarrass people who doubted the Warren Report on President Kennedy's assassination.  If that conspiracy theory is true, it was a brilliant move, stunningly successful.  

It's interesting too that the word "paranoia" is understood by almost everyone while its opposite, "pronoia" (referring to denial that there are people conspiring against one when in fact there are) is mostly unknown.

Of course, even if someone overcomes the stigma of vocalizing a conspiracy theory, and even if everyone who hears the theory thinks it's true, you still face the question: What are you going to do about it?  You can't take legal action because a conspiracy theory is a theory; it is not designed to be a formal allegation, as there is generally little or no evidence to back it up.

For instance, I have a conspiracy theory that Big Pharma is behind the current move away from attributing significance to dreams, which are referred to in many medical journals as "neural trash" to be flushed down the toilet of sleep.  My theory is that the downgrade occured because there is no money in dreams, as there is in drugs.  If dreams have meaning and are studied, as was the fashion in Freudian times (e.g. Beverly Hills, circa 1960), and if people are able to assuage life's problems by talking about dreams- as believed not only by Freud but by numerous human cultures- that's not good news for a system in which mental health is addressed with prescription drugs, which means it's not good news for stockholders.  

The term "depression," too- in my conspiracy theory- has been co-opted by Big Pharma.  In the past, a state of depression (previously melancholia) indicated that a person was "sad," a term that is avoided in the pharmaceutical world because we understand that sadness can be caused by the world outside the sad person, and there's no Rx for that.  Today, the person is affected not by the outside world but by chemical imbalances within.  That's where the money is.

But what can I do with my conspiracy theory about Big Pharma other than blog about it?  There's no legal action to be taken since I have no evidence, and because the pills often work, there's little prospect of a pro-dream movement against medical science.  People would ask: What have dreams done for me lately?

The only struggle with some hope of success would be to work towards reattaching a neutral connotation to the phrase "conspiracy theory," so that if you laugh at my theory about Big Pharma, it will have to be because you can prove it isn't true, not because I can't prove it is true.  

Carew Castle, Wales, August, 2022

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Bertrand Russell's house


Last spring my wife and I bought tickets for a flight to London for a walking tour of Wales this August with our son (who planned the trip) and daughter-in-law. As the months swept by, each with its own presaging of the apocalypse that most people are expecting, I wondered if this was the best time to fly overseas. The Friday before we left, LAX was closed for two hours, stranding thousands of people both inside and outside the terminal, because someone spotted a child's toy wrapped in a way that you might wrap a bomb. I'm claustrophobic anyway so additional time over the minimum trapped in a metal cylindar with two hundred other claustrophobics is not to be desired. However, several days before departure I found my solution by adopting, at last, a religion I can truly believe in: Fatalism, whose dogma is: You can't do anything about it, so if things go wrong it's not your fault.

Once the terrifying and humiliating (though uneventful) flight and the three-hour schlep from Heathrow to the Welsh border were over, it was unearthly to be in Wales, or should I say it was quite earthly? As the National Museum in Cardiff makes clear, the land we call Wales is composed of parts plucked from an array of eons, having achieved their present forms via molten flows, or being blasted to smithereens, or squeezed by incredible pressures into very solid things. All these states are spread across Wales in unusually unchanged footprints, just as the elements of Welsh humanity, from Celts, the earliest arrivals of the modern British inhabitants, circa 1,000 BC (the current Welsh people are Celts, speaking a pre-Roman language devoid of Greek or Latin) or the Ango-Saxons or the Normans- significant portions of what each group created when they came to Wales are still standing, relatively unchanged, at least by Los Angeles standards (Wales offers quite a contrast to the San Fernando Valley- farmland when we moved there in the '50's, home to 1.7 million people now- where the one testament to the Chumash culture that once spread across a lovely plain is a grimy plaque fixed to a manhole cover in the parking lot of the Encino Pic 'n Save, pressing down on the remaining atoms of a Chumash village).

Things are so well preserved in Wales that often their spirits can be felt. I was a bit unsettled, in fact, by the Norman castles. The solidity of the stone structures is fearsom. In particular, Tretower Castle in Brecon Beacon National Park seemed to fizzle with the Norman life-essence. This is the essence that created the United States, after all. The Normans were actually Vikings who, a generation before their invasion of Britain in 1066, had invaded Normandy- named for them, the "Northmen"- where they adopted the French language, bringing Greek and Latin across the Channel. They were able to defeat or at least subdue the warlike Celts, Anglo-Saxons et al, transforming Britain into an extension of the Roman order rather than the wild steppes. It took a strong and often destructive hand to dominate those fiercly autonomous tribes, and the Normans had it. Warfare, both physical and political- the manly arts- are where the Normans excelled. They created modern England, which created the United States.

As it happened, my son, Andrew, picked the Welsh town of Penrhyndeudraeth (pronounced Pen-ren-die-druth) on the coast for one of our lunch stops (we ate at the wonderful Eating Gorilla vegan cafe). Andrew had not known that I visited Bertrand Russell in Penrhyndeudraeth in 1969, when Russell was a world famous philosopher, historian and mathematician. He was 97 and I was 23.

After discussion at the Eating Gorilla, we agreed to seek out Russell's house after lunch.

Russell was my hero when I visited him, a Gandalf-like figure of profound wisdom. Here are some Russell quotes showing the kinds of things that hooked me:

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.

Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them.

Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

One thing I didn't appreciate at the time was the significance of Russell's aristocratic background to his ease with speaking his mind. It's a lot easier when you're the 3rd Earl Russell.

The Russells found their foothold in nobility in the 16th Century through crafty maneuvering in the Wars of the Roses, mainly betting on the right horse: the House of Tudor (Roger, the Lord of Tretower Castle mentioned above, was a Yorkist who was beheaded for this mistake). Bertrand was born well-connected; he had two Prime Ministers in his ancestry, his godfather was John Stuart Mill, etc., but he was a freethinker and something of a revolutionary who didn't want to be associated with aristocracy and privilege, so he did not use his titles.

I had wondered if there would be a statue commemorating Russell as we entered the town, but there was not. No one at the Eating Gorilla had heard of him. We found mention of his home, Plas Penrhyn, online, and googlemaps was able to lead us there, about a 30 minute walk from the cafe.

My family was in England the summer of my first visit to celebrate my dad's being able to afford the trip. With my parents' support, I visited Russell's secretary in his London office, a man named Ralph Schoenman- an anti-Vietnam War activist- and begged for a visit. He eyed me skeptically at first, but then called Russell, who assented to the visit.

It was a long, lonely train ride, full of anxiety. Why was I doing this? Here's another Russell quote:

There are two motives for reading a book; one that you enjoy it; the other that you can boast about it.

Did I just want to score a big point with everybody? Partly, I wanted to see what an idealized icon was like in person- was the icon really the person? What occured to me later is that it's tough to be an idealized person, because you always have to be "on," at an expected level of excellence.

The house was a pleasant, two-story structure plastered white and surrounded by flowers and vines. An elderly housekeeper answered the door and led me into the library, which was huge, shelves up to the ceiling along every wall, seemingly housing every book Russell had ever read. Puzzlingly I did not see any paperbacks (what will be left of one's library in the age of the Kindle beyond a twisted bit of black plastic?). The tea was set. After about a minute Russell opened the door and came in. He seemed very tiny. He was not a tall man, and age had shrunken him more. He smiled at me and my mind went blank, except for a faint voice calling: "You idiot, you'd better have a plan for this!"

Russell asked me polite questions about where I was from, and I discovered that he was nearly deaf and that to be heard I needed to almost shout. This I could not bring myself to do, so it was difficult, when he asked me what my interests were, which I took as an opening for talking about his ideas, to reference complex passages he had written 40 years earlier, such as:

My desire and wish is that the things I start with should be so obvious that you wonder why I spend my time stating them. This is what I aim at because the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.

Finally, in despair, I mentioned the Vietnam War, which I knew was on his mind, and something about Lyndon Johnson bombing Hanoi. Russell lit up and proclaimed that Johnson was a "war criminal." The rest of the conversation consisted of my keeping up my end of an anti-Vietnam War exchange, a terrible retreat from the meeting of minds I had hoped for. After about 15 minutes, Russell rose and walked me down to the gate, where he shook my hand. As I walked away, I turned and saw him still watching me. We waved. I had the idea that he understood my frustration, and that somehow we had connected anyway.

Russell died the following year.

These days I fault Russell for underestimating the role of biology in refashioning human society. He was versed in dictators, statesmen, academicians, pholosphers, not in the cloned uniformity of our probable replacements, who will buzz around us, loving us to death, with much more ease and "buy-in" than the peasants who toiled for the Russells. I don't blame Russell for that, of course. He saw more of the future than most, and told what he saw without hesitation. He went to jail for opposing World War I, then angered the pacifist community by supporting the allies in World War II. He said what he thought.

Thank you, Lord Russell, for sharing your aristocracy. The American experiment is to see if people can say what they think without being aristocrats. So far so good.

Plas Penrhyn, Wales, August, 2022

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Extreme Friendliness Disorder

The dog pees in big puddles

in the hall, down from our room

as if to punctuate, to add

but I don't want to complain

and drain the precious, you know,

dog pee is just, just to get me

sitting in the vet's waiting room

where I read Bark Magazine

as if The New Yorker

would be called Speech Magazine

Ha! Ha! Bark! Bark!

And it seems the domestic dog originated

in the Middle East, not Asia

but the real bark of the study was that

Williams Syndrome, which brings the curse of

Extreme Friendliness Disorder

is traceable, can be seen in dog genes

Bark Magazine does not deal, I think, in irony

in sadness

Domestication a syndrome

Civilization a disorder

Friendliness...oh God no...

my tail is wagging!

Saturday, April 09, 2022

ISIS: A virtual reality

[This piece is re-posted from 2016. To update, substitute the Ukraine/Russia war for ISIS]

"Virtual" is a complex term to define, especially in the modern phrase, "virtual reality." 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.

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

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

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

Note: Only definition #1 clearly references the historic usage of virtue,  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 lifetimes 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 #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.

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 do seem to have a need to think, or feel, that we create our reality.  From one point of view it is a sort of honesty.  When we turn on the news and see what is happening in far away places, the news show is constructing reality, so that what we receive is not reality, but a construct based on it. We have "reality shows," in which people behave in stage-managed ways, real only in the sense that the behavior is real on the show. This usage is "honest" in that, unlike past ages when, for example, young men recruited for the Crusades were told that various things were happening in the Holy Land that required invasion, those various things were held to be real, not virtually real.  So our culture, by holding that certain things can be virtually real, as opposed to just real, admits a pervasive doubt into our discourse, and doubt is a virtue.

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, several years ago, with its professionally produced, ready for prime time video of a man burning to death, realized the predictions of numerous science fiction novels, from the media-mediated wars of George Orwell's 1984 to the blurred lines between war and mass entertainment in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.  On the day the ISIS video was released, our national news anchors breathlessly described its "high production values," David Muir of ABC marveling 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?  And by the way, my point is not that ISIS is not real, or evil.  It's hard to see how its actions could be faked.  A Jordanian pilot was really burned; people were really beheaded; many European and American cities really were 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 with CGI heroes blasting a variety of monsters, with titles like End of Doom Part III! Now it's The 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, 4/23/22: If you do substitute the Ukraine/Russia war for ISIS in this essay, you may wonder how anyone could take the advice above and win this war quickly, and you'd have a point. We are in more trouble with the Ukraine/Russia war than with ISIS because the game makers have added an insidious element: We've been led to identify with the depicted victimized party, Ukraine, in its entirety, as a society, not with isolated victims of a terror attack as with ISIS. We feel a need to engage in and pay for this war against Russia, even if risking World War III, to save ourselves. Of course the Russian video game makers provide an alternate story to ensure their camp's engagement: The West is threatening Russia through NATO and ongoing supplies of advanced weaponry. What a brilliant chess game from the technocrats, leading humanity to this new bonfire of the vanities into which we will obediently throw our lives, cleansing ourselves of excess population and obsolete infrastructure, opening the door to a scientific state and our cloned progeny.]

Saturday, March 19, 2022


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!

Thursday, February 24, 2022

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 was the incumbent, who was well connected in Democratic circles through his political family. He was glib, fast with facts and figures. He was friendly towards me.

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 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 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, 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.

Attack base! Destroy!

Full discolsure: I am a speech and debate coach at the high school from which I retired as an English teacher. Much of the time, given th...