No, It Is Not Okay

I’ve been watching certain Progressive news channels where the anchors have a tendency to say, “Hey, look, it’s okay to be a conservative, it’s okay to have conservative political views.”

As we’ve watched the Republican government in Washington melt down in what amounts to a hostage situation, I keep thinking, “No, this is not okay. Not remotely. Not in any possible way.”

Here’s the thing: there are ideas that work, and ideas that do not work. Some of them — brand-new ideas — you have to try before you know they will fail, but others are just wrong from the start. Spending billions of dollars on a commercial bridge across the Grand Canyon made of pasta. Serving six-days-uncovered-at-room-temperature salmon mousse to your house guests. Starting a child-sitting service staffed by pedophiles.


These things are not okay.

Republican political policy today is not okay. Supporting it is not okay.

If you’re reading this and happen to consider yourself Republican, I’ll say that I’m sorry it turned out this way. It wasn’t always a bad thing to be a Republican.

It is now.

So if you can let go of the label “Republican” for just a moment, and just call yourself “politically conservative,” take a good, hard look at the party you are supporting. A party where the President is himself facing lawsuits for corruption, has surrounded himself by criminals who have been convicted of crimes, including crimes that threatened national security, and has now taken federal employees and is holding their wages, their livelihoods hostage to force his political will against a legislative body that is not supporting his agenda: you might be interested to look up the definition of “terrorism” and try to split a few hairs. A party where one man, Mitch McConnell, blocks the Senate from hearing testimony, debating, or voting on issues critical to the nation, simply because the vote might not go the way he wants it to. A party that has entered a “post-truth” era of “alternative facts” — that is, a party given over completely to deceiving its own supporters with lies and propaganda.

Are you supporting this? It is not okay.

I’m not going to pretend that it is.

This kind of thing happens often in the course of time.

You are a loyal Catholic soldier in southern France, and then your commander tells you to enter the city of Beziers and kill the Albigensian heretics. You ask how you can tell the heretics from the True Catholics, and he replies, “Kill them all, and let God sort it out afterwards.”

You are a loyal German citizen, and your government tells you to report those illegal Jews, those criminals and rapists and eaters-of-babies. You report your Jewish neighbors, and then those neighbors vanish — and when the government falls, you find out what happened to the neighbors that you reported.

You are a Christian, and believe in the words of Jesus, and then learn that your church supports taking children from their parents over paperwork violations, and placing those children in chain-link “apartments” in a prison facility with guards, and you can’t help remembering there’s something, somewhere in the New Testament about children, and millstones, and the sea.

You are a lifelong Republican in a multigenerational family of Republicans, and consider yourself a decent, hardworking, intelligent person. Then you see the end of our Constitutional democracy being acted out in front of us all by the Republican Party.

You have a moral choice to make. I’m sorry you have to make it. But you do.

Continuing to support this Republican Party is not okay.

The Wall

People argue about The Wall between the US and Mexico like it has anything to do with the inane rhetoric about the Wall. Rapists and drug dealers. Border security. Immigration.

Knock it off, all of you. The Wall is not about the wall. It’s nothing more than dominance signaling among human primates.

Trump, the Terrible Infant, said he wants it, and Gramma Pelosi said, “No.” He’s shut down the government in a tantrum; he’s going to hold his breath until he dies. That will show Evil Old Gramma Pelosi.

Seriously, how can any adult watch this thing play out and not see that?

Debt Slavery

There’s an interesting thing about money.

Money isn’t wealth. It’s debt.

I think I’ve covered this before, but it bears mentioning again. I won’t go through the whole exercise of explaining how fractional reserve banking loans money into existence. But the simple form is this: every dollar bill is ultimately backed by the Federal Reserve, which has loaned money into existence in the form of Treasury Bonds, and that gets expanded by approximately a factor of ten by the fractional reserve banking system. Treasury Bonds have to be paid back to the buyers with interest, and that obligation is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.”

That dollar bill you hold in your hand is a piece of paper that obligates you to do some kind of work to make that dollar bill worth $1.03, because in the end, the Federal Reserve has to pay back its bondholders everything they paid for the bond, plus about three percent in interest. Everyone in the US has that obligation: “full faith and credit,” and all that.

The ironic thing is that the rich — the people who have the most money — actually hold the most debt. Because money is debt.

The fundamentally unjust thing is that the rich — who hold the most debt, in the form of money — can compel the rest of us to pay off that debt, so that they can accumulate more debt, in the form of more money. They do this by forcing us to work to increase the size of “the economy” — to spur “economic growth.”

Our peculiar form of currency-creation, combined with the capitalism that allows private individuals to accumulate and control this massive debt-obligation and pass the support of it off to others, was an interesting short-term exercise in exploiting the New World. Capitalism is older than fractional reserve banking — the former dates back to the 14th century (or earlier) in Europe, while reserve banking didn’t develop until the 17th century. They didn’t get the huge instabilities worked out of the banking system until the 20th century: arguably, they still haven’t.

But the process worked very well to get the trees cut down, and the gold mined, and the oil pumped, and the desert farms watered, and the railroads built, and the indigenous people exterminated. That’s pretty much what it was intended to do. It succeeded brilliantly.

The problem now is that banking and capitalism are one trick dogs, and they’ll keep doing that same trick, over and over, until they die of the effort.

We are rapidly approaching that point.

In looking at the state of the US and the world, it’s important to realize where the “wonders of our modern civilization” actually come from. They’ve come from mortgaging our future.

We are all indentured servants — slaves — to this mortgage.

The problem with the conservative mindset — and I do mean true conservatives, not this political sideshow that calls itself “conservatism” — is that it’s stuck with trying to conserve a system that can no longer continue doing what it has been doing.

We need a complete overhaul of our entire economic system. As in complete.

The way this usually happens, of course, is through failure. As in complete failure. Societal collapse. Because people are stubborn, and cannot move through major changes gracefully.

I would like to see a more graceful shift to some future that must and will come, and I don’t think such a graceful shift is entirely impossible. But my money is on failure, followed by building from the rubble, over the course of many centuries. That’s the normal historical model. People are simply that stubborn.

I wrote some time ago about four major tsunamis that are going to hit the US within the next century: first, political, then economic, then energy, then climate change.

We’re living through the first wave of the political tsunami, embodied in that person masquerading as President in the White House right now, and the enormous damage he is doing to the structure and resilience of our system of government. There’s been an enormous backlash in the mid-term election, and I’m hopeful that it will spur much deeper change than anyone anticipates. Whether it will be enough is an open question. If it isn’t enough to break through into a new vision for the country, then we’re likely to see increasingly violent thrashing between Left and Right, Blue and Red, until the thing breaks apart entirely.

The remaining three Ghosts of Christmas to inevitably visit in the dark night of this century are economic failures (note the use of the plural), peak oil, and climate change, I think in that order. We’ll stop burning oil before 2100 — it will simply be too expensive for common people to burn. We won’t start seeing catastrophic climate change before the end of this century.

Like it or not, things will change.

Through all this, people will survive — of that, I’m reasonably certain, though I should note that our species does have a finite lifetime, as (indeed) does the entire taxonomic class of mammals. Modern humans are about 200,000 years old, give or take. We might have another few hundred thousand years left. Though there are runaway climate scenarios that could result in an entirely mammal-toxic atmosphere.

But people a century from now will certainly be living with very different cultural norms than we have now, because what we are currently doing has already stopped working.

And the debt slaves are growing restless. Can you not hear the drums?

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.

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?