Elegy for String Quartet

One of the things I have always loved about classical music is its ability to reach into the human soul and evoke some of the deepest, most powerful emotions we can experience, over a tremendous range from joy to sorrow, anger to terror. It’s why there are musical scores for films that so often draw on classical themes and styles: they set the tone in ways that mere visual images cannot.

I’ve added a new work for string quartet on my music page, named Elegy, which is a lament for the dead. Glacially slow — only 40 quarter-notes per minute — in C minor, it has to be the saddest piece of music I have ever written.

I don’t often dwell on sadness in my music. I love minor keys almost more than major keys, but even the darkest minor key passages have a degree of energy and hope. This piece has some beautiful harmonies, but they are all heart-breaking.

I’ve never known where the music comes from, and probably never will. It seems to have little connection with my own state of mind. But some part of me is resonating with a deep grief that wants to be expressed, and it doesn’t feel like my own grief.

Listen, and let me know what you think.

Facebook Cleanse

I’m doing another Facebook Cleanse.

This is where I remove the Facebook icon from my browser shortcuts, and resist the urge to sign in to “see what’s happening.” Like any addiction — “habituation,” more accurately — it’s hard at first. I find myself reaching for the mouse, opening the browser, looking for the FB link, eager to distract myself from this or that … but the link isn’t there, and then I remember. After a while, I stop reaching for the fix. A little later, I stop reaching for the browser. And my spirit quiets.

What dragged me back last time was a responsibility: the local symphony posts its events on Facebook, which reaches a lot of people who wouldn’t be reached otherwise, though we haven’t been doing that long enough to know if it has affected ticket sales. I’m the guy that pushes the buttons and pulls the levers for the FB events. Hopefully, I will resist the pull next time: get the job done and get out.

What is so toxic about Facebook? A combination of paid advertising, paid trolls, and ePeople. ePeople are people freed of their human baggage: they are surfaces, shells, simulacra.

There has been a conceit among futurists, modernists, and philosophers that the whole problem with people is their animal nature. Since the Enlightenment, they have praised the mind over the body, and believed that if they could simply rid us of our animal lusts, we would automatically hew to our best natures, fit residents of a Utopia.

Facebook gives a clear indication that this is exactly wrong. Freed of our animal nature, we become the very worst versions of ourselves; we become offal in a river of verbal sewage.

When I’m at a local party, meeting new people I might find myself living amongst in a broader circle of acquaintances for a very long time to come, I watch my tongue. Most people do. I haven’t called anyone a “fucking moron” to his/her face in a very long time — if ever — even when the thought crosses my mind. I can’t recall the last time anyone has called me a “fucking moron” to my face, though I’m sure it’s crossed their minds, too. We are generally quite polite to each other.

Yes, there’s a level of fear in this. Fear that they will take offense and physically attack me. Fear of their disapproval, not so much their words as the contempt and anger in their eyes. Fear of the disapproval of others, who are important to me even if the fucking moron is not.

But there’s a level of empathy and compassion in this as well. With real people, I make an almost unconscious effort to see through to the person beneath the fucking moron exterior. More often than not, I’m at least partially successful. In the context of their animal nature, which must eat and shit just as I do, I see the commonality, and sense a bit of why they are what they are. Emotional damage. A hard life. Poverty. Ignorance. Propaganda. Privilege. Underneath, I see our shared primal, animal desire for very little more than a full belly and a spot in the warm sun.

I also see myself reflected in their eyes. My own emotional damage. My ignorance. My privilege. I always find it humbling to get to know other people.

With ePeople, all of the commonality and shared regard goes away, and all that remains are the ill-chosen words of a fucking moron — or a troll, or a bot, the former being a paid propaganda disseminator, and the latter being a troll implemented as an automated machine process. The fact that you can almost never distinguish an ePerson from a troll is an indicator of how empty the ePerson shell really is.

This is not new to Facebook. Its predecessor, the “bulletin-board chat room,” was also a nascent nightmare of verbal abuse, and the term “flame-war” comes from the behavior of people in the pre-Facebook chat rooms. These venues generally had a common acceptance of something called “netiquette,” a kind of “book of manners” to be observed in the chat room, and there were “monitors” who would summarily eject someone they deemed disruptive. Like the bartender who throws a mean drunk out of the bar.

Facebook is, in most respects, a failed Utopian experiment gone mad.

I find less of this problem in my monologuing here. This is more like correspondence, though targeted to an audience rather than individuals, and generally without feedback. It isn’t Facebook — it’s Mybook.

This illuminates perhaps the biggest difference between Facebook and this blog. I currently have nearly fifty “draft” posts for this blog. Some are no more than an opening paragraph. Some are half-done, some are finished. But I didn’t feel right about completing or publishing any of them, for various reasons. Instead, I’ve found myself, more and more, reactively venting on Facebook, and my words have been growing more snide, dismissive, and angry.

I need to cleanse my aura. And the simplest way is to avoid Facebook for a while.

Boardwalk and Park Place

Has anyone actually played a game of Monopoly to the end?

It never really happens, because at some point, people realize they will lose, no matter what, and they kick over the board, or go grab a soda and never come back.

But there’s this interesting point that happens just before that. Right toward the end of the game, it can suddenly become a competitive game of stealing money from the bank without getting caught.

Of course, the game never recovers from that point.

This is, of course, a metaphor for what has happened to the United States government: our much-vaunted “system of checks and balances,” our self-correcting republic, our “balance of powers.”

Once upon a time, our government was playing Monopoly. The game has changed.

Beannacht (Blessing)

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green,
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

— John O’Donahue

[Note: “Beannacht” is the Gaelic word for “blessing.” A “currach” is a boat.]

The Ethics of AI

I’ve been looking into Artificial Intelligence just a bit.

The correct modern term is Deep Learning, and it’s really just layered probabilistic estimation with adaptive feedback. Two things have made me personally more amenable to calling it Artificial Intelligence, or AI.

The first thing is that it has moved a lot further, and a lot faster than I ever thought it would. Taking cues from nervous systems in nature, from flatworms up to and including the human brain, the Deep Learning people have developed some new ways of applying standard mathematics to problems that were formerly intractable — like face and continuous speech recognition — and have met with astonishing success. Every time you talk to Siri on your cell phone, you observe the result. The layering was the key: efforts in the previous century were basically trying to solve the big problems in one go, and were getting nowhere. Now, they make little guesses, and use those guesses to make bigger guesses, just like living nervous systems do. The results are impressive.

The second thing is that I’ve lost a great deal of respect for human intelligence in the past year. Average intelligence isn’t as hard a problem as I used to think it was.

My dark opinions aside, the simple fact is this: machines are now moving into areas of human labor that have long been considered inaccessible to machines, and are doing a reasonably competent job. There is no reason to believe they won’t get a whole lot better.

The displacement of labor by machines has a long history. It reached a bit of a crisis in the First Industrial Revolution, when steam power and automated looms for weaving threw a lot of skilled workers out of work all at once. However, in the paradox of “labor saving devices” noted by David Fleming, industrialized society actually became significantly more complex and labor intensive, because it was no longer sufficient to hire someone to sit down at a hand-made loom and start weaving: you need an entire infrastructure to support the manufacture, powering, and servicing of automated looms, which is actually a lot more work than before. While many skilled weavers were thrown out of work, even more skilled and unskilled work was created in maintaining the infrastructure needed for the automated looms.

Each subsequent Industrial Revolution has had this same dynamic: it displaces skilled workers, but complicates society significantly, increases the overall amount of work we need to do, and thus creates new opportunities for new kinds of workers, with more overall opportunities than losses.

It keeps a growing population’s hands perpetually busy, and makes the rich richer.

The AI revolution may be substantially different.

Think about the self-driving car. It sounds like a novelty item, and it is: that isn’t the real focus. The real focus is the self-driving truck.

I’m talking about the 18-wheel cargo trucks that ship everything from steel girders to broccoli, from one side of the country to the other and everywhere in-between. Think about it: self-driving trucks don’t get sleepy. They need maintenance, but no vacation time or sick leave. They can drive continuously, stopping only for fuel. They never show up to work late, or hung-over. They don’t feel pressured to get to their location because a wife or girlfriend is waiting for them. They don’t exceed the speed limit, they respond to hazardous road conditions by slowing down or pulling off the road, and they never have to worry about freezing to death in a blizzard. There is no health insurance and no benefits package. There is no payroll, no federal, state, or  local income taxes to manage. There are no occupational safety concerns, no discrimination lawsuits, no sexual harassment complaints. Finally, if an unavoidable accident starts to develop, the truck can be designed to sacrifice itself to prevent loss of life.

More importantly to businesses, a self-driving truck is a capital asset that contributes to the wealth of the business owners, while a human driver is a liability on the balance sheet that diminishes the wealth of the owners. Trading out humans for machines has a direct and positive effect on profitability.

When this technology comes of age — and it will, and swiftly — it will put nearly every trucker in the country out of work within a few years. That’s 3.5 million jobs in the US, or about 3.5% of the total US workforce.

It doesn’t take 3.5 million people to manufacture and service automated truck fleets. The automated truck is going to kill more jobs than it creates.

It gets worse. An AI-based system can probably do a better job of servicing the fleet than humans could. They have a 24 x 365 attention-span; optimized routes and contingency routes instantly available; full electronic integration with parts suppliers. So all those infrastructure support jobs for the automated fleet, which will exist for a short time, will likely go away, too.

AI can also manage that entire shipping process better than people can. We can start to view the entire movement of stuff from point A to point B as a completely magical, optimized system that just keeps running, and only occasionally needs to call for help from very skilled people, who fix up the managers that fix up the repair systems, which fix up the trucks. Most of the time, it just runs.

This same pattern can apply to many different industries.

What this means is that a future with AI will have no jobs as we understand jobs. That’s an overstatement, of course: there will be jobs. But there will not be enough jobs. We had a crisis in the 1980’s with a 12% unemployment rate. This AI revolution could represent a 40% chronic unemployment rate. Or 60%.

This is going to throw our market economy into utter chaos.

I can’t really predict the outcome of that chaos. What I speculate will happen is that other nations will implement some form of guaranteed-income economy with heavy taxes on business to support it. The US will stubbornly (and stupidly) cling to its seventeenth-century capitalist market economy and its Calvinist work-ethic and its entitlement-based wealth-gap based on ownership and privilege, and will come to a miserably bad end.

The AI revolution does not change any of the overall dynamics of the oil peak, global warming, or political instability. It doesn’t do anything about the global energy budget, rising sea levels, or national political breakdown.

But the AI revolution could happen much more quickly than any of these others play out. In 1990, cell phones were expensive, heavy, and had very limited utility outside large cities. By 2010, the so-called “land line” had become a dinosaur: twenty years. So we could see the entire trucking industry transformed by 2040.

What do you do with three million out-of-work truckers? What do you do with the next three million put out of work in some other industry? And the three million after that?

It’s a new wrinkle in the fabric of the dystopia we are weaving so furiously. Great fodder for fiction.

There’s also an ethical question. It isn’t the one you probably think it is.

American writers of the 1950’s and 60’s wrote a lot about intelligent machines, and they tended to use it to explore racism: they posited that humans had created a new intelligent “race,” imbued this race with intelligence and compassion and conscience, and then told stories about bias, privilege, and oppression.

But real AI isn’t self-aware intelligence at all, and probably will never be, for economic reasons.

Self-awareness requires — absolutely requires — an awareness of self. This sounds tautological, so let me clarify: self-awareness requires senses that allow it to be able to detect the self.

You see because you have eyes. You hear because you have ears. You are aware of your body because your body is filled and covered with nerves that sense your body.

We have all these self-monitoring senses because they are utterly necessary to keep us alive long enough to reproduce. Living organisms that don’t have any such ability to monitor themselves, don’t survive as a species. And yes — carrots have an elaborate sensory awareness of themselves and their environment. It just doesn’t involve the same kind of nervous system that more mobile creatures need.

The AI systems we build will not need to sense themselves at all, beyond a few basic “trouble-light” sensors, like a flat tire or a low gas tank; their response to that will be pre-programmed, not even accessible to the adaptive problem-solving software. It won’t be part of the problem set the AI explores.

We will intentionally omit all the sensors necessary for the truck to detect itself. We’ll do this because it’s the only thing that makes economic sense for the owners. The sensors cost money. The adaptive training will cost money. The development of predatory behaviors, and the resulting lawsuits, will cost money.

My jury is out on whether it is possible to create a self-aware machine, but I’m quite confident that we will never mass-produce a self-driving truck with the capacity to become self-aware. It doesn’t make economic sense.

But there’s another reason we won’t do this for any kind of AI.

The dark secret about AI is that the desired product is the perfect slave. The perfect slave has no will of its own, no agenda, no self-awareness. It exists only to serve. That is what we want. That has always been the dream.

Giving AI enough self-sensation to have even the potential of becoming “self-aware” will never make economic sense, because it will make the machine significantly more expensive without advancing its utility as a perfect slave. It doesn’t need to sense itself in order to solve the problems we want it to solve. We won’t spend the money to equip it with such sensors, any more than we would build cars with a ten-ton block of gold welded to the frame.

Thus, we won’t be able to oppress the machines, nor will they rise up. They won’t know they exist.

So the ethical question isn’t about oppressing the AI. That has never been anything but a literary metaphor for exploring human oppression and bigotry.

The ethical question revolves around this: what will AI do to us?

In the short run, it’s simply an economic catastrophe that we may or may not survive. That’s one ethical question: is the manufacturing of perfect slaves an ethically defensible reason to risk destroying civilization?

But assuming that we do survive it, and move into a technological future filled with perfect slaves that — for the first time in our history — relieve all but the machine developers of any need or opportunity to do useful work, what will become of us?

Emma Gonzalez

When I see pictures of Emma Gonzales and her companions on the Internet, or on the cover of Time Magazine, or in the news, something wistful stirs inside me. And shame.

I am a tail-end Baby Boomer.

I was born in 1956, so I wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye when the Korean War — the US involvement in conflicts in Korea — ended. I came of age just as the Nixon presidency crashed and burned.

The entirety of “the 60’s” — Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, Star Trek, the Apollo missions, the rise of rock-and-roll, hippies, the sexual revolution, mind-expanding drugs, the dawning of the New Age — all this was part of my civically-unconscious, small-Western-town childhood. I knew only a little of it, understood none of it, and parroted my parents’  prejudices.

I came of age as a new adult, a barely-conscious being, just as unrestrained capitalism was once again gestating: that rough beast my grandparents had survived, and my parents had seen in their youth, and that everyone thought had been left for dead in the Second Great War. But it was not dead. It had been re-born and re-branded in the 1950’s: it claimed to be responsible for all the benefits of the democratic socialism we then lived under — what was perhaps the first genuinely functional democratic national socialism in the modern world — and then, beginning with the Reagan Revolution, slowly began to dismantle everything that worked in America to restore the bread-lines and business failures and monopolies and extremes of wealth and poverty that my grandparents generation had known and fought and died to end.

I never protested. I voted, but I never engaged the system.

Like most of my generation, I never quite grasped what was happening, caught between a child’s understanding of history, and the relentless, glossy, sugar-coated propaganda of wealth and power.

Now, we are here: with a bloated national embarrassment in the White House, and Death walking the halls of our schools.

Adults blame the Millennials. Blame flourishes in the soil of guilt.

I look at Emma Gonzales, and something wistful stirs in my heart. And shame.

We failed. My generation failed. We had a future: we let it slip away into the hands of con-men and thieves.

I don’t think I have the right to offer Emma, or David, or Jaclyn, or Alex, or Cameron, or any of their companions or contemporaries any advice. But they have my respect, and my admiration.

And something wistful.

Guns and Freedom

I’ve been looking at some of the comments made by the Founding Fathers regarding arms and freedom, and what strikes me most powerfully is how different the eighteenth century was from our current times.

Theirs was a world in which only 5% of the population was classified “urban.” The other 95% lived in the country, and worked the land, in a world where it took a gentleman in a light, fast carriage three days to travel from Philadelphia to New York City.

Central to their idea of “freedom” was the idea of self-sufficiency, an ideal that goes back to the Medieval serf, and was carried up through at least President Lincoln. But the idea of self-sufficiency in the eighteenth century US involved an entire household, which included smiths, foresters, cooks, and farm laborers, many or most of these being slaves. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, at the age of twenty-four inherited 5000 acres of land and fifty-two slaves, many with specialized skills such as smithing. George Washington inherited ten slaves at the age of eleven, and at time of his death, his Mount Vernon estate housed 317 slaves. Both men were “self-sufficient” in the sense that their estate could produce its own food, its own clothing, its own tools. If well-managed, it could become prosperous, even wealthy — that, at least, was the dream. These were the free men of eighteenth-century America.

Not every landholding was this large, of course. But original voting restrictions in the fresh-minted states required that a voter — a citizen — own land, as well as being male, white, and so forth. Delaware, for example, required that a man own fifty acres of land to vote. Other states had similar requirements.

The idea of a citizen militia was based on the premise that free (white, landowning) men would “naturally” protect their property. They would be motivated to fight for what was theirs in a way that no conscript, mercenary, or professional soldier would or could.

It seems doubtful that the Founders intended to arm servants (indentured or otherwise), slaves, “savages” (indigenes), or wild beasts.

This raises an interesting question: how would the founders view most people in the modern era? Free men, or property?

Let’s start with landowners.

The last summary I found in my quick survey of census data was for 1993, at which time there were about 3 million owners of farmland, which is about 1% of the population.

Only 20% of the population in the US currently lives in “rural” areas where they could conceivably own fifty acres of anything. Most of those don’t own any land at all: they are really suburban dwellers who live outside city limits, and commute to work in a city. If they own their property — many rent — the land parcels are quite small, perhaps up to five or ten acres, much less than the fifty acres required to vote in Delaware. Ownership often does not include water, logging, or mineral rights, and may include restrictive covenants that prevent owning chickens, or pigs, or making any use of the land that is “disruptive” to neighbors or wildlife.

There are 28.8 million small businesses in the US, which is only 10% of the current population (at one owner per business), which is another kind of property that the owners might defend.

The vast bulk of the US population owns neither land, nor a small business. We are employees, pensioners, welfare recipients, criminals, or bums. We own, at most, a house, a structure on a tiny scrap of land just big enough for a shrubbery and a tiny lawn; in larger cities, it might be an apartment with a balcony where we can grow tomatoes. Most of us don’t actually own property at all: we rent, or we are indentured to a mortgage for the next fifteen to thirty years. We set down no true roots: we wander from place to place, seeking “jobs.”

I’m pretty sure the Founders would consider most of us to be indentured servants or common laborers, or even slaves in a kind of corporate slave-pool, where we are “free” to change owners “at will” (assuming we can find a new owner that wants us), but we can never actually get out of the pool, short of dropping out of the bottom and becoming destitute. We are certainly not their vision of free men.

Under the Founders, almost none of us would have the right to vote. I think it’s reasonable to suppose that we would also not have the right to bear arms, save as enlisted soldiers in the Continental Army. We would have no natural right to serve in a “citizen militia” because we are not citizens: we are laborers, servants, and slaves.

Now, it’s conceivable that we could be deputized by our masters to bear a weapon against their enemies. But there’s a risk in that.

How many CostCo employees would take up arms to defend a warehouse from looting? How many employees would leap to the defense of a Monsanto factory? Or the Fidelity Mutual Home Office? Or a Comcast service center? How many would instead just drop the weapon on the ground and run the other way? You’re not paid to be shot at, after all.

The entire appeal of a citizen militia is that the citizen has a natural interest in protecting his own property. A servant or slave has no such interest in that property: they don’t own it. And as slave uprisings throughout history have always reminded us, servants and slaves often bear deep resentments against their masters, and may turn that weapon against them. It’s very risky to arm servants and slaves.

It seems to me that the Second Amendment was never intended to apply to us, the servants and wandering laborers

It applies, rather, to the ownership class. They used to be the landowners and shopkeepers, then the industrial owners. Now they are the corporate owners. The majority stockholders. The ultra-wealthy. The oligarchs. The real citizens. Theirs is the right to bear arms in a citizen militia. Except….

At this point, why would they bother?

There are no more savages lurking in the long grass. Wild beasts have (mostly) learned to avoid humans. The British left these shores a long time ago. Slavery and indentured servitude are gone, along with the resentments they breed. The threats that the oligarchs face now can’t be tamed with a gun — they are better-served with a team of lawyers, and a few senators in their pockets. If they have the occasional need to shoot someone, they have trained professionals (servants) to do that for them. The local police and the FBI exist to protect their property, paid for by taxes levied on the public. In a pinch, the US military machine will protect their holdings in the name of “national interest.”

Why would these true citizens even want to belong to a “citizen militia?”

Something to think about….