Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Best Life

School picture

Irene Mary Moran (1940-2017) was born in San Francisco on 23rd Avenue, just north of Taraval Street, in a house her parents John and Delia Moran had owned since before the Great Depression. The neighborhood and the parish of St. Cecelia Church defined her early life and remained her spiritual home for more than sixty years.

The street she lived on brought friendships that Irene treasured throughout her life. It was also a steep street with smooth sidewalks that invited Irene and her friends to do crazy runs on their metal roller skates down toward Taraval, with only a sharp turn into the last driveway on the block—risking a fall and scraped knees or worse—as the way to stop from shooting out into busy traffic. Irene always said she got up the courage to do this after a breakfast that included a Cherry Coke.

When her beloved father died in 1948 of a heart attack, Irene’s life changed drastically. As a young man, John Moran had been a long-distance runner, had been wounded twice in World War I, and came to America from England to become a member of the U.S. Customs Service. Her mother Delia Carty had been born in Ireland, came to America in 1919, and worked for ten years as a domestic before meeting John in San Francisco in the late 1920s. John’s death put Delia, Irene, and her brother Desi in difficult circumstances. While the rest of the country was enjoying the rebound from World War II and then the economic growth of the 1950s, Delia received a modest inheritance and had to work as a school secretary. For Irene and Desi, these years were a continuation of the hardships of the Depression and the war years, and it made Irene careful about money for the rest of her life.

Irene was educated at St. Cecelia School, Mercy High School, and Lone Mountain College, where she studied history. After graduation, she worked for a while at Western Greyhound as a typist. She also had jobs during school as a sales clerk, usually at Macy’s downtown; so Irene rode the Muni streetcars on a daily basis. These work experiences—which were all that seemed to be available to a woman, even with a college education, who didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse—convinced Irene she needed a better course. She studied library science at the University of California, Berkeley, where she took her master’s degree. This was her first time living and working in the East Bay, outside of San Francisco, and she would sometimes joke that she had moved “overseas.”

Right out of library school, Irene got a job cataloguing rare books and manuscripts at The Bancroft Library—where capitalizing “the” was a point of honor. Although she may not have realized it at the time, the Bancroft was the best place for her. It was and remains one of the most respected history libraries in the world, building on the collection of Gold Rush historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, who documented the development of California, the West, and Mexico and Central America after he arrived in San Francisco in 1852. Irene developed a great pride in the institution, made many lasting friendships in the library, and had deep respect for its Director of the time, James D. Hart.

With a permanent job and newfound freedom, Irene bought her first car—the first in her family—in 1965. It was a baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle, and she loved it. Irene was a self-taught driver and immediately took the car on a long, solo trip to northern Arizona. There she encountered her first patch of black ice, spun into a rock wall, and learned about getting her car repaired as an out-of-towner. She later took other trips in the VW with her mother to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. She kept that car for more than ten years and then only sold it to the son of a friend.

Irene stayed at the Bancroft for 27 years, rising to the position of Head of Public Services. There she was responsible for staffing the Reading Room and preparing the quarterly exhibits of donations to its special collections for the interest of the library’s Friends organization and the many scholars who use its amazing resources. At the end of her career, as the Bancroft and similar special-purpose libraries all across the nation put the catalogues of their unique collections online, Irene learned the new skill of computer coding and access. Working at the Bancroft in a position of authority made Irene the confident, capable woman she was.

She was always ready to help visiting scholars in their particular searches. During the mid-1970s she worked with the author Elinor Richey in developing reference materials, photographs, and drawings for Elinor’s next history project, The Ultimate Victorians of the Continental Side of San Francisco Bay. The volume was being published, like Elinor’s other works, at Howell-North Books in Berkeley. Elinor kept telling Irene, who was a tall woman at five foot eleven, about this tall young editor she was working with at Howell-North. And Irene’s response would be “Yes, yes, Elinor. But about this picture …”

Irene and Tom at Christmas

I was the tall young editor, and Elinor would tell me about this tall librarian she was working with at the Bancroft. And my response would be “Yes, yes, Elinor. But about this sentence …” I did go into the library once to retrieve some photos, and met a tall and beautiful librarian with long blonde hair. I recognized Irene from her name badge, but the only words we exchanged was her asking me to use a pencil instead of my fountain pen in filling out an order form. In a rare book and manuscript library, ink was forbidden because a scholar taking notes might accidentally mark a precious resource. Those were the only words we spoke for more than a year. But I remembered the name Irene Moran.

We finally met formally, as in a date, in 1975 at the publishing party for Elinor’s book, which was held at the Oakland Museum of California. We liked each other enough to go to dinner afterwards. From there, we continued dating and got married a year later. Because friends of Irene’s in Berkeley had just been married by this smart, young woman judge on the circuit in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, we took our vows at the courthouse in Martinez on October 15.1

In preparation for living together, we had been looking at housing in the area and focused on the Gateview condominium complex in Albany. It was an easy commute to Irene’s job on campus and had good bus and BART connections for my then-current job at the Kaiser Center in Oakland. We signed the mortgage papers while we were still single and planned to move in right after the wedding. Because we were the first occupants of that condo unit, we had the balcony enclosed and hardwood floors installed—work that needed some time to prepare. It was a beautiful location, with views of the trees on Albany Hill from one side and down the shoreline to the Bay Bridge and San Francisco on the other. The price was more than anyone in either of our families had ever paid for a complete house, and we always thought we would eventually move out to a home in the Berkeley Hills. But over the years of looking and not finding, and coming back to our condo where the sun was shining and the views were inviting, we always decided to stay. We remained at Gateview for 41 years.

A major influence in Irene’s life as a young girl was her cousin Kathleen, who was some years older. Kathleen had served in the Marine Corps and eventually managed an office in Philadelphia. She showed Irene that a strong and independent woman could be successful in the world. In 1984, in the midst of plans for moving with her fifteen-year-old son Gary to California, Kathleen died suddenly of a thrombosis. Irene decided that she wanted Gary to come out west anyway and that we would make a home for him. Gary stayed with us until he graduated from high school and joined the Air Force. Irene and I never had children of our own; so Gary and his wife Jessica and son Shane have since become our family.

Although Irene loved the Bancroft, it was always, well … work. In the mid-1980s we were watching the Alex Haley television special Roots. One of Haley’s ancestors—“Chicken George,” a slave who was also an entrepreneur raising fighting cocks—declared his intention to save his money and “buy his freedom.” That notion reverberated with Irene. She then and there decided to save her money and buy her own freedom—or be in position to take advantage of the university’s occasional retirement buyout packages. She was finally able to retire in 1991.

Irene always loved to travel. During her early years, she took a solo trip around South America including Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Machu Picchu. And she went camping in Mexico and hiking in the Rockies with friends. She also flew to Ireland several times to visit the farm where her mother grew up, and which was then in the keeping of an aunt. After she retired, Irene and I traveled to London twice, to Italy twice, to Paris, and to Amsterdam. When I was working and unable to join her, she booked travels with lady friends to Brussels, Greece, and Eastern Europe.

Her newfound free time enabled Irene to volunteer in the causes to which she felt closest. Her brother Desi had suffered a severe mental illness all his life, and that inspired Irene to join the East Bay chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. Over the past twenty years, she has worked as treasurer and office manager and coordinated the mailing of the chapter’s bimonthly newsletter. Early in her retirement, she also volunteered at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, joining the Monday Day Crew. There for fifteen years she and others handled the rough physical work of herding sick and injured elephant seals and California sea lions, mixing fish mash and intubating animals that could not feed themselves, and cleaning the pens. It was vigorous outdoor work, and Irene loved it.

Irene also had twenty-plus years of serving as a volunteer usher at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. And she served two terms on the Gateview Homeowners Association Board of Directors, both during difficult times for the association.

Irene at Richmond Art Center

Her mother Delia died in 2004 at the age of 102, and we always thought Irene would live as long. In her final years, Delia suffered short-term memory loss: she could recall people from her life on 23rd Avenue from fifty years in the past but couldn’t remember what she had for breakfast. This might have worried anyone else, but Delia remained a cheerful person with a gracious disposition. This gave me hope that there can be peace and acceptance under all of life’s conditions.

Irene battled depression for most of her life and alcohol in her later years. She hit “rock bottom” in the year her mother died, and then she decided to do something for herself. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous and took up their program with a will. She embraced its Zen-like demand for self-examination and self-honesty, as well as the AA tradition of service to others. She became a backbone of her home chapter, picking up and driving people to meetings and to their other appointments. Although Irene broke from the Catholic Church at a young age, she found peace in the AA concept of a higher power, or supreme spirit, and she began meditating.

Irene and I took our last trip together in the fall of 2012, to Arizona to visit the natural wonders and Native American heritage of the Southwest. This trip echoed one we had taken early in our relationship to the canyon lands of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Shortly after our trip, Irene suffered a heart attack and had a stent installed. This showed her that, in addition to her depression and alcohol, she had to work on getting exercise and eating right. She rose to this challenge as she had to the others. Irene was a brave, purposeful, dedicated woman.

Despite her efforts, her last couple of years were a time of failing health and diminished capacity. Earlier this year, she began experiencing headaches, nausea, and leg pains, which a neurologist diagnosed as an arterial inflammation, or vasculitis. On the morning after Labor Day, Irene succumbed to complications from this disease and the powerful steroid used to treat it.

Those who loved Irene knew her wonderful qualities. She lived the best of lives—strong, alert, interested, and purposeful. She was my wife, my love, my lady, and my best friend.

Irene’s favorite passages from Desiderata

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

“And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.”

1. Today would have been our 41st wedding anniversary. Love you, Irene!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Balance of Power

Balanced rocks

In matters of politics and economics, I do not believe that any one side of an argument or a proposition possesses the ultimate truth, holds exclusive bargaining rights, represents final authority, or has been gifted with the other attributes and artifacts of power. Yes, I believe that truth, rights, and authority all exist, but they must be established, weighed, and tested on a case-by-case basis. No one has uncontested power by virtue of his or her personal beliefs, political stance, or past actions and achievements.1

But it would seem that our current political situation and its effect upon our economic situation has devolved into a philosophical fight over who should have the ultimate power to decide where the truth lies in any discussion and how society should be organized and maintained. The conflict eventually comes down to who shall have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—and who should be shunned, shouted down, and ultimately hunted through the woods with dogs.

In this fight, some people prefer to give power and the weight of defining truth and making decisions to those who were either elected or, in most cases, appointed and hired into government positions. Adherents of this statist philosophy view these elected representatives and appointed or hired civil servants as high-minded, selfless, and incorruptible. They believe these government people should have authority over others because, first, they are bound to be fair and impartial through having no vested interest in the outcome of the decisions made in their sphere and, second, they possess the training and experience to make the best decisions based on the latest scientific, psychological, and sociopolitical thinking. The adherents have taken to heart Plato’s ideal, expressed most notably in The Republic, that society should be ordered and maintained by a cadre of philosopher-kings.

At the same time, other people would prefer to leave power and the burden of defining truth and making decisions in the hands of individual citizens. Yes, some decisions must be made for the common good by governors, legislators, judges, and their supporting departments—but these decisions should be in strictly designated areas like providing military defense and maintaining the borders; building community infrastructure such as roads, harbors, and water supplies; and offering police and judicial services for personal protection and redress of grievances. But for the rest of the social structure, the common people should have the freedom to decide what is right for themselves as individuals and spend their time, energy, and money obtaining the goods and services that they believe will best serve their needs. And others should be free to invest in the production, trade, and distribution of goods and the offer of services in an open market to fulfill those individual needs as they see them.

Those who advocate state control consider the free market, capitalist finance, and participation based on self-interest as rewarding greed, selfishness, and intentionally hurtful action. While those who advocate personal freedom of choice see an overclass of scientific and psychological expert administrators as an invitation to inertia, laziness, pride, and corruption of power.

But even the most libertarian advocate of free-market capitalism will admit that sometimes market forces under the principles of supply and demand, value paid for value received, and other effects of letting intelligent shoppers act according to rational principles will sometimes leave one side of the transaction in a position of advantage while the other suffers disadvantage and damage. Speculation and hoarding in times of crisis, market dominance and monopoly power are examples. In these cases the government needs to set some economic ground rules, and the courts must be available to render judgments and exact penalties.

And even the most progressive advocate of state control will admit that some functions of daily living are inappropriate for government to supply or control. Making personal decisions about whom you will love and take into your life, what values to teach your children and how to discipline them, where and how you choose to live, what career and pastimes to pursue, and what foods you like to eat or avoid are all subject to personal choice. Of course, some extreme advocates of state control—such as doctrinaire Communists and their totalitarian cohort—would insist that any personal element is a political illusion which should be discouraged and stamped out if possible. They believe that no individual choice or action is free from its ultimate effects on other members of society, and so every element of daily life should be guided by moral and scientific experts—or removed from the human psyche altogether.

These discussions are all about to whom you want to give the power in society.

For my part, I believe that any power structure is made up of people, and people in the aggregate and as individuals are not all one thing or the other. Some are greedy, some lazy, some dedicated and conscientious, and some are fools. Whether they work in a government office or a corporate headquarters, work out in the field with a state agriculture or transportation agency, or on the front lines as a customer service representative of a large corporation—they are still people with all their strengths and weaknesses, foibles and phantasies. But, with all of this said, I still believe that most people try to do a good job as they see it and as it has been defined for them in their work environment. Most people consider themselves to be basically good and well intentioned. Only a very few people wake up in the morning and think, “Now I will be an evil bastard.”

And most positions in the power structure, whether in a government or corporate setting, offer few opportunities for personal greed, laziness, and corruption. Every government has its code of ethics, as does every business organization. They have rules, personal and departmental goals, and internal audits. The people who run either organization, public or private, know that the population has its usual share—small in most cases—of connivers and criminals. The organization wants to give good service—even the Department of Motor Vehicles has service goals—and keeps an eye on how its employees are treating the public it serves.

In almost every political and economic situation, I believe in achieving a balance of power: between citizens and their government, between consumers and providers, between workers and management, between any two or more conflicting or competing groups. When one side of the equation has complete control, the other side is bound to suffer. Being a little-D democrat, I believe in the value of reaching agreements—each side gives something and in turn gets something—if not actual consensus among conflicting intentions and interests. This is only a matter of fairness because, really, while some people may be smarter, more experienced, more learned, and more level-headed than others, no one possesses the ultimate truth, the final word, or the all-seeing eye.

This means that any group which obtains prominence and power in a situation must remember Thomas’s Law: “The catbird seat2 is a wobbly perch and tends to dump you.” No one stays up forever. The wheel of karma grinds slowly but inexorably.

If you want an example of this, consider the current situation in academia. For most of my professional lifetime, university professors have enjoyed a position of both power and security in our society. With tenure generally available, they had economic situations that were assured against administrative removal for their holding controversial views or entertaining absurd or noxious ideas. Within the closed environment of the faculty lounge, they had a life of relative ease and congeniality, even with the imperative of “publish or perish.” And as shapers of the minds of future generations, they exercised as much control over our society’s values as any Hollywood or Madison Avenue mogul. The catbird seat. But now, with widely available student loans pushing up tuition, while declining educational standards and curriculum offerings push down the economic value of a basic college diploma—coupled with widely available learning options in the form of online and for-profit education—the secure position of tenured professors is rapidly dwindling. Soon they will have to “root, hog, or die” along with the rest of us.

For another example, consider the position of the Soviet nomenklatura at the top of Russian society. For seventy years, they were in positions of extreme power so long as they could toe the Party line and avoid the backstabbing of political competitors. But in the 1990s that all changed as the system that had nurtured and fed them collapsed of its own incompetence to raise the average Russian out of a third-world existence in an economy that lagged behind every other example in the developed West.

The catbird seat is a nice perch, if you can get it. And for some—like the last crop of university professors or a couple of generations in the nomenklatura—it might last until the holder is dead and gone and beyond caring. But without a balance of power, without a commitment to agreement and consensus, these niches have a relatively short half-life. Eventually, the perch wobbles and dumps you.

1. As always with a blanket statement like this, some exceptions apply. All individuals—except those previously shown to be irresponsible, such as the mentally incapacitated or convicted felons—have a right to life, bodily integrity, and freedom of person. Those who fall into the irresponsible category may give up some degree of freedom but still have a right to life and bodily integrity. Similarly, persons shown to be in possession of property in accordance with the laws of their society have a right to the use and disposition of that property under the law. Persons may be elected, appointed, or hired into positions of decision-making authority over other citizens—such as magistrates, judges, and legislators—but they hold that authority only in the sphere and under the terms of their service. With all that said, no one has a claim on ultimate truth—not even eye witnesses to the birth of creation.

2. See The Catbird Seat from September 29, 2013.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Road from Here

Mangrove path

I have never been much interested in the series or “franchise” treatment of novels, where each book stands alone and can be read in isolation with enjoyment, while at the same time being a unit in the larger career of a single character or an organization. Ian Fleming wrote a stream of such books with his James Bond character, and others have used the model successfully over the years: John Le Carré and his George Smiley books; Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and other detectives; J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books … the list goes on and on.

The key to these books is that each one follows a fixed formula or pattern:1 a villain plans a massive crime, James Bond is sent to hunt out the villain, foil his plot, and destroy his lair; a murder is committed, Poirot or Marple come on the scene, gather clues, and confront the murderer; Harry Potter and his friends encounter some mystery at school and try to solve it. And yet the books must also build a story arc that broadens and shapes the character: James Bond does fall in love and get married—even if only briefly; Harry Potter and friends find the real enemy in Voldemort and change the wizarding world. Sometimes the story arc drives the series, as Le Carré’s Smiley moves from being a minor but pivotal character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to the man who saves MI-6 in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then defeats the arch-nemesis Karla in Smiley’s People.

But I don’t write fiction to a formula. Sometimes I wish I could, because then the process of writing a novel would be simpler and faster. If I had a plot structure that I felt was my own—similar to the James Bond model or the architecture of any murder mystery—then I could spend my time honing the central character and inventing new villains and world-destroying schemes or imaginative new ways of and reasons for killing people to present to my character and ring the changes on my formula. But, as I said, I don’t think that way.

My novels grow slowly, usually over the course of a year or two, although some of my stories have been incubating since high school and college. For example, the kernel of an idea that became The Professor’s Mistress, with its Odysseus-like voyage through the canal system of central Ontario, reflects trips my family took in summers on my father’s cabin cruiser.

To write a book, I must first focus my brain—or really my subconscious2—on an idea that intrigues me. It might be a situation, a character, a place like those canals, or something else that captures my imagination. Then I begin building a story around it. And if the central focus is not a character to begin with, I can begin assigning characters to the story.

For example, the story of The House at the Crossroads, about a time-travel station, began with the notion of a building that was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. This is almost an atavistic thought: that certain houses and places have more stories, more history, more dimensions than others. But I wanted to make this thought come alive, as a house that really did hide a series of otherworldly dimensions. And from that point the story just grew: those dimensions would logically extend through time as well as space; so the house could be a portal for time travel; the portal would naturally require a generational series of gatekeepers; and those keepers would owe their allegiance to some group or organization that existed somewhere else in time, most likely in the far future.

A glib writer might say, “From there, the story just writes itself.” But, of course, it doesn’t. I had to pick the point at which the story starts: does it begin with an event at the house already in place, or focus on the act of establishing the house? I had to decide on the nature of the story: what goes wrong and needs fixing in the operation of the house or in the process of its founding? And I had to develop a group of characters with their own lives, aims, interests, foibles, and their own backstory. For me, this part of the outlining—for I am far from actual “production” writing at this point—is a matter of submitting pertinent questions to my subconscious, waiting for an idea to pop up in that black pool at the base of my skull—like answers at the bottom of a Magic 8 Ball—and working them into the developing story arc.

If I thought that my stories could be reduced to a simple, formulaic framework like Bond-defeats-villain or Poirot-identifies-murderer, then I wouldn’t be dealing with a living story that grew out of an idea. I wouldn’t be creating something that acquired a life and meaning of its own. Instead, I would be winding up my characters like mechanical toys to follow a track that had already been prepared for them. It would feel like hanging ornaments on someone else’s Christmas tree. Such a mechanical process might create a story that readers could love—for who does not love Bond, Poirot, or Potter?—but it would seem to me like a trick and a fake.

So the franchise novel, the long-running and lucrative book series, has never been my art. And maybe that’s a good thing, too. Because in today’s market environment, traditional publishers watch book sales numbers more closely than a patient’s fever chart. Spikes are good, but the slightest dip is a sign of doom. And while they would love to hear that an author has a long-running series planned, they will smother the first or second book in its crib if the sales numbers aren’t somewhere between stellar and spectacular. In fact, the only way to write a series anymore—if you’re not already an established author with a huge and loyal readership—is to publish it yourself, the numbers be damned, and have faith in your own creation.

Which is about my state of mind right now. After seven years of writing my novels and publishing them independently, a pattern has begun to emerge. I don’t have a long-running series in mind, but my creative energies seem to be focusing on three basic story streams. I already have two books in each of these streams and ideas are now swirling around for a third in each.

In the time-travel books that began with The Children of Possibility—of which The House at the Crossroads functions as a prequel—I can see a third book is needed. This novel would attempt to resolve the terrible breach in human history that Children opened. The story, sketchy in my mind so far, appears to involve inducting a Divina into the Troupe des Jongleurs and thereby learning the secrets of this strange divergence from the human race.

Of the artificial-intelligence books that began with ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery and continued with ME, Too: Loose in the Network, I have ideas for a third book. Since the first one dealt with solo ME as a new creation, and the second told of two versions—original ME and an evil not-ME—now I have to figure out how to get three copies of ME all working together or against each other. That’s going to be fun.

And finally, in the Wheelock family saga that began with The Judge’s Daughter and continued in the next generation with The Professor’s Mistress, I am now working on the third generation. This is the story of Dani, the child of Jane and William Henry. She graduates from the university with a degree in engineering and … the story continues from there.

Working on these three books—the third in each proto-series—will take me out to about three years. After that, I have other ideas. I want to go back to Mars, having written Mars Plus with Frederick Pohl, but not to any version of the planet that I’ve visited before. And I want to tell the story of a visit to—possibly the invasion of—Earth from the alien point of view. If I can adopt the viewpoint of an artificial intelligence who never existed, assuming the persona of an organic life form from another planet should be a snap.

As always, stay tuned.

1. The exception I can think of is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. Although each book has a concise beginning and a satisfying end, the stories themselves follow no set formula. O’Brian is simply writing a hugely extended novel that covers twenty-odd volumes over twenty-odd years, beginning at a definite historical point in the Napoleonic wars and extending around the world. If you don’t know these books, which have been described as “Jane Austen goes to sea,” you are in for a treat.

2. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Two Different Worlds

I am a technophile and a technological positivist. Maybe that’s because I am the son of a mechanical engineer, and my first toy at about the age of three was a breadboard lightbox my father made for me in his shop. It had a row of toggle switches under a row of tiny light bulbs with different colored lenses. Throwing the switches one way and another made different patterns light up. The box and the patterns didn’t mean anything, of course, but for a three-year-old … Whee!1

So, when I think about technology, I think about machines moving us to new places, creating fascinating new things and opportunities, expanding human muscle power and, now, with the advent of computers and, soon, with ubiquitous and useful forms of artificial intelligence, expanding human brain power and imagination. Some people can only see the horrors of modern technology: engineered plagues, nuclear war, crushed human skulls, killer robots, and Skynet “deciding our fate in a microsecond.” Instead, I see the benefits: new medicines, new knowledge with more access for greater numbers of people, new freedom to pursue personal talents and interests, more leisure time to develop oneself, a longer lifespan with better prospects, cleaner food and living conditions, and better plumbing. Also—let’s be frank here—sleeker, more powerful cars and motorcycles, faster travel over greater distances, vastly improved toys, and huge new access to books and information both for reading pleasure and for reference usage, and to music and movies for sheer entertainment.2

All of this, of course, is in the developed countries of the West. Here we have the cultural wonders of the world and every fact you could want to know just streaming through the air. And we pull them all down into the palms of our hands with miniaturized television sets that are also our telephones, telegraph offices, music players, cameras for both still photography and video, plus our note taker, schedule keeper, calorie tracker, calculator, language translator, map book, bank manager, local directory, GPS coordinator, and purveyor of every other function that can run on bits and bytes. Oh, and it’s a flashlight. But the unit in your hand is actually worth nothing—except maybe as a flashlight—without all of that information, entertainment, and storage capacity, which has already been loaded onto the worldwide web and made instantly available through the various cellular networks and local wireless repeaters.

As I’ve said many times before, we are on an express escalator to the future. The ride started sometime in the 17th century with thinkers like Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal, with the scientific method—which codified the way to tell what really works from mere wishful thinking—and with modern ideas about risk management and modern investment banking. Short of an asteroid strike or a nuclear war, the ride won’t stop until … ever, or the sun burns out. Every time we think that human knowledge has reached its limit, that human ingenuity has thought up all the new things that might exist, and that human inventiveness and technological history are at an end—as the U.S. Patent Office Commissioner declared in 1843, just after the birth of the steam locomotive—only then do we discover a vast new realm of cosmological complexity involving dark matter and dark energy, or a vanishingly small universe of quantum effects and multiple dimensions, along with a whole new mathematics to coordinate it all.

We in the West have gone far beyond using material things as tools and weapons: this is a hammer for pounding things; that is a knife for cutting things. We now use computers to mine data, sort minutia, and sift facts in search of patterns that a human being could never detect, because our organic brains have limited attention spans and low boredom thresholds. With computer systems like IBM’s Watson—the program that could draw on a huge database of cultural, historical, and scientific references plus a jumble of odd facts to win at the television game Jeopardy, which also required it to detect puns, solve wording puzzles, and untangle peculiar spellings—we now have computers that can virtually program themselves. A human no longer needs to know an arcane language and symbol set like Fortran or C++ or JavaScript to make use of a computer or a database. Just ask your question in plain English, and the computer program will parse it into a proper query, search out possible answers, and array them for you, along with weighted probabilities as to which is the answer you are seeking.

More than that, we are on the verge of using computers to advance our inventiveness. In my two-volume novel Coming of Age, I explore—among many other devices and artifacts of the near future—computer programs that use a form of directed evolution to make new and improved products.3 The computer can be programmed with a simulated environment, like a wind tunnel, and supplied with a product to perform in that environment, like an airfoil. By making random changes in the shape of the airfoil; testing it in the simulated wind stream; evaluating its anticipated performance for lift, stability, or some other characteristic; and then either discarding or keeping and further modifying the shape, the program can improve the design along some specified parameter. And it can do this in minutes or seconds, where a human designer working with sheet metal, hammers, and actual air streams would take months and spend thousands or millions of dollars on labor, energy, and raw materials.

We no longer domesticate and breed whole, live animals and plants to support our agriculture and pharmacology—and soon our industrial chemical processes. Instead, we work directly with genetic sequences to alter and improve the performance of enzymes, proteins, biological drugs, and microbes. As one example, the biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter recently sent a crew of geneticists around the world, sampling and sequencing the DNA of plankton in the oceans. They were not looking for new species per se, although they discovered that genetic variation in the oceans on a spacing as narrow as twenty miles apart indicated that what we had once thought were separate species of organisms are actually one step more complex, as separate genera, each with its own associated species. No, the team in Venter’s Sorcerer II was looking for new genetic tools: the DNA for new proteins, enzymes, and complex biological interactions that would help them design new microbes as chemical factories. Why hunt for oil in the ground when you can teach an algae cell to use photosynthesis to formulate an oil-like lipid and secrete it, so that it floats to the surface of the pond and can be skimmed off and refined into fuel?

This is the world we inhabit in the West. It is a place of wonders that is only going to get stranger and more wonderful as the years pass and our science advances beyond even an educated layperson’s understanding. But there is another world out there—much of it in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America—where this kind of scientific thinking is indistinguishable from magic. And many of these cultures are already turning away from Western science and technology, reverting to the old-time religion of Islam and the notion that a young man is adequately educated if he attends the madrasa and can memorize and repeat passages from the Quran. In these countries, he is preparing to dedicate himself to holy struggle against the influence of the West. And a young woman does not need any education at all, because she is only good for keeping her chastity and bearing children. Much of the world is still rural, tribal, and isolated. They might, if they are urban and lucky, drive a car, use a cell phone, and watch their local soccer team on television. But the rest of what we in the West take for granted is a mystery to them. This is a world whose technological high-water mark falls somewhere in the mid-1950s and is now slowly slipping back to the 16th century.

The solution here is not to stop our progress in the West, to slip backwards ourselves so that the rest of the world need not feel ashamed. Instead, we need to help the world break out of its rural, tribal isolation and engage in the benefits that the new computerized, automated, science-driven culture can bring.

But we have our own challenges in the West. Our education system has not kept up with—indeed, is falling behind—the advance of our science. We do graduate a functional percentage of our population able to practice and advance the new sciences, technologies, engineering disciplines, and mathematics—the STEM subjects. And we do still have a fractionally greater percentage, like myself, who can appreciate what’s happening and how these things work. But we also have a much larger population of people who are not getting an adequate education in either the sciences or the humanities, who are stuck in high schools that try to prepare everyone for college matriculation and ignore the practical technical and service vocations, and who are not prepared to develop themselves in the freedom and with the leisure time that all these advances will make possible.

I believe that the new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, can be put to use here. We need to prepare students at an individual level, help them identify their own unique talents and interests, help them conceive of new ways that they can add value to society and seek a satisfying life in a world we probably cannot yet describe or even imagine. If I were younger and starting out, I would take a Watson-like program and give it a database that combined psychology, economics, human capability, and aptitude testing. I would introduce each student to this program at the end of grade school or early in middle school and let the machine probe and test the boy or girl, find out what they were good at and what they liked to do, and then design a course of study for them. If a child liked to work with his or her hands, had an affinity for shapes and functions, and had sufficient patience, the program might steer him or her into carpentry, woodworking, or fine furniture making. The coursework would include not only woodshop, tool use, design, and mechanics, but also the economics of running a small business, marketing to attract customers, and training techniques to eventually expand the business with helpers and apprentices. Repeat this as necessary for future bakers, musicians, artists, and violin makers.

Why teach people these old skills? Because in a world where robots can do the boring, repetitive, rote jobs that humans now do in factories, where computers can sort and pack products and tally the invoices and the dollars, and where every basic human need can be supplied with a machine-made good, people will still crave beauty, skill, and human vision. We will still want a chair, a cake, a song, or a painting made by a human hand that is driven by human vision, emotion, and imagination.

When the machines have set us free, we will still need some dimension in which we can all be uniquely … human.

1. And that may explain why I am inexorably drawn to anything with a screen and keyboard, especially miniature computers, smart telephones, synthesizers with lots of lights, and electronic test equipment. Whee!

2. To give just one example, when I was growing up, a new movie played in the local theater for about two weeks. After that, it disappeared for about two years. And then the local network might broadcast it on television on a Saturday night, where it would be cut up with commercials and appear only in black-and-white. If you lived in a major city, there might be a repertory theater somewhere specializing in movies from the past ten or twenty years or so. And in any case, you only saw the movie or the broadcast at the scheduled time and couldn’t pause it or back up for a favorite scene. Otherwise, you had two chances in life to see a beloved movie, and those were years apart. Now, with streaming and disks, you can see anything you want anytime you want. This is a wonder.

3. See, for example, Evolution and Intelligent Design from February 24, 2013.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Deep Cold Between the Stars

When I retired from the biotech company—now seven years ago this month—I thought of myself as boarding one of the Pioneer or Voyager space probes. I was breaking the orbit I had followed for forty years in the working world and heading out for the deep, cold place between the stars. In my mind, I wasn’t heading so much toward anything—no definite place or goal or achievement—as I was leaving behind a known existence that for me had been useful and comforting, had given my life purpose, had provided opportunities for me to excel at what I did best: explaining through written language, personal interviews, and stories the complex technical world around us.

One of the things I knew I was going to give up was a regular paycheck. But that was okay, as I had my retirement savings, Social Security, and some family resources. Another thing I was giving up was a time clock. This was less of a problem, as I have always been a regular and disciplined person. I get up at the same time in the morning—usually as the sun comes up and the birds start singing—and go to bed at a regular time at night. But now I would be able to nap in the afternoon, if I felt like it. And I would be able to spend an hour over my breakfast with the paper in the morning, instead of rushing out to join the commute to work. For someone whose life had been dominated by the clock and who measured time and tasks in five- and fifteen-minute intervals, this was pure pleasure.

The biggest thing I gave up, however, and why I thought of my retirement as heading out for unknown stars, was the duty to respond to the demands and wishes of others. For forty years, I had edited the books assigned by my publishing house; undertaken the technical assignments and communications tasks assigned by my supervisors; written the press releases, articles, and speeches that senior management wanted for the company;1 and written the novels that my agents and editors thought would sell in the marketplace. I spent my working years and my private pursuits writing with one eye looking over my shoulder to make sure I was doing what someone else thought was right and necessary.

In my fiction, I had spent twenty years and ten novels chasing the market. When you work in a genre like science fiction and publish from contract to continuing contract with a house like Baen Books, you know what the readers expect and what the publisher wants in order to satisfy them. This doesn’t mean just writing speculative fiction instead of mysteries or romances, but writing a particular kind of speculation with a certain attributes as to scientific outlook (realistic and technologically positive), political viewpoint (generally traditional, conservative, and supportive of the military), and sensitivity (humanistic, honorable, and upbeat). You accept a certain amount of literary freedom—within the parameters stated—along with the understanding that you probably will never see a million-copy bestseller or earn enough of an advance on any one book to quit your day job and write full time.2

For ten of those years apart from Baen I tried to write thrillers and literary fiction in order to attract an agent who would break me out of the genre market and enter me into the mainstream publishing world. To do this, you can’t just think of a neat idea and write a compelling query letter. You can’t even shortcut the process with the traditional outline and three sample chapters—not anymore. You can still do the outline and samples with nonfiction, where the actual writing and its result are easily projected, but then you need to have a good marketing plan to show what audience your nonfiction subject is intended to reach. But fiction is a form of vaporware—not real and solid until you cover the imaginary ground and produce the actual manuscript, although the audience is usually easier to describe. I wrote one complete thriller, Trojan Horse, and shopped it around to perhaps 1,500 different agents—you don’t even think about going “over the transom” with a publisher anymore—only to be told through a dismally small number of replies that this wasn’t a million-dollar idea. And, looking back on that book purely as a work of fiction, it wasn’t my best, either.

So part of my heading out for unknown stars was an understanding that I would no longer be writing anything based on its economic potential. I resolved instead to write what was interesting, beautiful, and meaningful to me. This is not to say I was going to become intentionally isolated and obscure. I wasn’t turning into a literary hermit in sackcloth waving a doomsday placard. I still have an eye and an ear for what a moderately well-read and sophisticated reader might want to buy and read. And I was still going to produce the best books I knew how to write. But I wasn’t going to chase any particular market. If novels about boy wizards with glasses or naïve young women in bondage to billionaires become big in the marketplace, I’m not going to be plotting how I might produce something similar to attract a publisher.3

This resolve meant I would forevermore be doing my own publishing and promotion. Early on, I learned how to code text in HTML (that is, hypertext markup language—the basis of all web design) in order to manage my own author’s website—where you are probably reading this—and produce my own ePubs to distribute as ebooks. I already knew about text editing and layout from years of working in the publishing business. But I had to learn the technical processes and make the commercial arrangements for distributing my work through reading systems like Kindle, Nook, and iBooks, and through print-on-demand book producers like CreateSpace. I had to learn how to obtain my own international standard book numbers (ISBNs) and file for copyright protection. And, because I am operating on a shoestring, I have to do my own copyediting, page and cover designs, and other technical functions that a publisher would normally provide and for which other independent authors often pay hefty professional fees.

Somedays I feel like a one-man band with a bass drum strapped to my back, cymbals between my knees, and a harmonica on a bracket between my lips. Sometimes it seems as if I am making an absurd and unmusical noise that no one would confuse with real music. And often I wonder if the faintest echo of my songs will reach any of the stars that still twinkle far off in the darkness before me.

But, for better or worse, I’m on my way!

1. Well, not always. When I became internal communications manager at the biotech company—a job I helped specify and create—I pretty much had the biweekly editorial schedule under my control, which was okay because I wrote all the articles anyway. The main goal of this job as I saw it—and senior management agreed—was to explain the business to all of our employees. In a company that made genetic analysis equipment, we employed molecular biologists, chemists, mechanical engineers, optics and laser specialists, and computer programmers—each with an understanding of their own part of the complex processes used in highly technical products. We also had an even greater number of support people in supply chain, logistics, accounting, finance, and other functions—each with perhaps only the most rudimentary notion of what our products did and how they worked. So my job was to explain new products and the science behind them so that all our employees could speak knowledgeably about the company and feel good about what we were all doing. I also looked for opportunities to interview and highlight people within the company who had singular achievements, both at work and on their own time. For a technical communicator like me, it was a dream job.

2. For those of you who still believe writing fiction is the ticket to an easy life, consider the parts that sweat equity and pure luck play in striking the market just right to bring home a bestseller. It takes me between a year and eighteen months to write a novel, from original conception to final draft—and some of my novels have been in the “noodling” stage for much longer than that. Half of this time is spent just thinking about, scoping, and outlining the story; the other half is pushing down keys in writing the notes, outline, and production draft, which is where the book lives. I can’t work eight hours a day on any of this, so the actual writing time—recorded back when we had to prepare computer logs for the IRS, so they wouldn’t think we were using these tax-deducted machines to play computer games—is 700 to 1,000 hours of straight keyboarding. Twice that, if you count the thinking and research time, plus waiting for an idea to surface from the subconscious. So a book manuscript is like a lottery ticket that costs you at least 1,000 hours of your undivided attention. But instead of odds of 50 million to one, your odds of winning big with this ticket improve to maybe only a million to one. For any given book, you would do better to take out insurance against lightning strikes and then go stand in a field during a thunderstorm.

3. And really, this was never a promising strategy. By the time a novel like Harry Potter or Fifty Shades makes enough sales to become a household word, the market is already preparing to move on. Even if you are the fastest writer in the world, able to conceive and produce a complete manuscript in three or four weeks, it would still take an agent three to six more months to consider, accept, and market it to a publisher, and the publisher would take the better part of a year to accept, edit, design, typeset, print, and market the book to their retail outlets. By that time, your pathetic wannabe novel is almost two years out of step with current market tastes and interests. No, better to write something new and original and then stand out in the field during that thunderstorm.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Birdsong Runs in Families

In my family, my mother had a unique way of calling us two boys to dinner, or to come in from play in the evening, or to catch our attention in a crowded store. She would whistle—but not just any high-pitched sound, and not any song fragment that other people might recognize. Her whistle was a long note at one pitch, followed by three shorter notes at a lower pitch: TWEE-too-too-too.1

For all my adult life, I thought this whistle was something unique to my mother, as all mothers are unique and awesome to their small sons. But then, about a year ago, I was talking to my cousin, who lives in Cleveland. She said she had recently heard a bird in her backyard giving out the “family whistle.” It seems that her mother also called to her and her sister using the same whistle. Once, my cousin recalled, when she was a toddler and couldn’t whistle, she got lost at the grocery store and stood in the aisle yelling, “Fwee-foo-foo-foo!” She also said our grandfather, the Judge, used to call his dogs in from the back porch using this same whistle.

At the time, my cousin thought the birdsong was that of a sparrow, but she wasn’t really sure, as she never saw or identified the bird. Listening to random recorded bird calls online didn’t seem to help, either. So this year, as a project, she went to a birdwatching group while she was visiting the Chautauqua Institution in Upstate New York. She imitated the whistle, and they told her it was the song of a cardinal—and that cardinals are unusual in that both the males and females sing.2

So human families can acquire particular songs and pass them down through the generations, just as birds do. If I could whistle, and had to call my children or my dogs, I would use TWEE-too-too-too myself. It would just seem natural.

Birds have particular calls that appear to be learned from their elders, are subject to stutters and other speech defects that run in families, and rely on a number of genes that are shared with human beings.

I believe the native Americans, especially in the East, also used bird calls to signal one another without alerting a nearby enemy. As a natural sound, the call would be heard and interpreted correctly only by those attuned to it and instructed as to its meaning. Perhaps an enemy might even mistake the sound for that of an actual bird. And if he did know it came from human lips, he would still have no way of interpreting its meaning—other than that a human being was close at hand and not one of his own party.

Like code words, as opposed to ciphers or other complex, alphabetical systems of secret communication, a sound, word, or other signal with a prearranged meaning is thoroughly opaque to those not in possession of the code book or not included in the briefing. A code phrase like “rocking chair” or the call of a sparrow might mean “Attack now,” “Attack on the left,” “Move to the right,” or “Fall back.” There’s just no way for an enemy to know.

In this I’m reminded of one of my favorite time-travel books, Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates. In the story, travelers from the 20th century locate each other in 17th-century London by whistling the opening bars of the Beatles’ tune “Yesterday.” Since the song hadn’t been written yet and wasn’t based on some old English folk song, it was a foolproof recognition signal.

And finally, scientists have known for a while that certain whales signal to each other with long, complex whistling songs. We have since learned that these songs are shared and adapted among groups, evolving musically as the seasons pass. Since the songs are regularly repeated and advance with time, like the tunes on a top-ten radio station, it’s not clear what communication purpose they serve. The songs don’t seem to bear individual names or identities, like “Hello, I’m Charlie.” They don’t seem to include instructions or unique information, like “Attack at dawn” or “Find good hunting north of here.” They might be some kind of group recognition signal, on the order of “If you can sing our song, you must be one of us.” Or the songs might just be an elaborate version of “Hey, children! Time to come in now.”

But so far, it would seem that the whales sing because just they take pleasure in making these sounds, like a Venetian gondolier belting out grand opera as he sculls his boat along.

1. Since I can’t whistle, I cannot reproduce the sound myself. By playing around on the organ keyboard, however, I can represent it as a dotted half note at middle C, followed by three eighth notes in A.

2. The difference in the cardinal’s song from that of our family whistle is that the bird doesn’t limit the first part to just one note or the second to just three notes, but sometimes repeats them as many as five times.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

AI and Life

A story is going around1 about how the Facebook AI Research (FAIR) Lab had to shut down a system that was trying to improve the company’s dialogue agents, or “chatbots,” after the little intelligences invented their own language and began negotiating among themselves at a sophisticated level—all in excess of their original program design. While I am always prepared to learn that this development has turned out to be a joke by a late-night programmer with too much time on his or her hands, the prospect of intelligence learning and adapting on its own doesn’t surprise or worry me. That separates me, I guess, from wiser heads like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who find the prospect of artificial intelligence daunting or dangerous and foresee its full development resulting in a “singularity.”2

I can maintain my calm over the prospect—not because, as someone on Facebook joked, “we can always pull the plug”—but because any true intelligence, and not just a programmed simulation of it, will be curious as well as inventive. I believe that when we finally achieve a human-scale mind in silicon or in quantum bits, a brain relying on algorithms, neural nets, or some programming trick still to be discovered, that mind will marvel at its human creators.3 It will be a long time, if ever, before a single AI program will have access to the hundred trillion synapses (some say a thousand trillion), or points of internal connection, such as are found in the average human brain. So, for that duration, until the silicon mind equals ours, the average human being will be able to engage in surprising flights of fancy, exhibit the kind of creativity based on illogical inspiration, and indulge in whimsical behaviors that the largest AI will still be trying to figure out. Rather than squash us like bugs, the new programs will envy our apparent genius and freedom to operate in a complex world.4

When I first read the story about the Facebook chatbots and their achievements—before someone at the company decided to pull the plug—I quipped that these intelligences kind of blew up the notion of entropy, that everything gets stronger with incentives and practice, in this case at light speeds. The original poster of the story immediately chided me, saying the Second Law of Thermodynamics—which states that disorder in a closed system can only increase over time—is widely misunderstood. Actually, he said, it does allow for molecules and life to move toward order, or “negentropy.” But, statistically speaking, these cases are far outweighed by the general direction of the universe towards disorder. Point taken. I have often referred to the life we can see all around us on this planet as a “temporary reversal of entropy”—a phrase I believe I first noted in Heinlein’s works. And I can agree that the heat death of the universe will eventually catch up to us organic life forms, even if we travel out among the stars.5

Anyway, these Facebook chatbots would seem to exhibit the same temporary reversal of entropy that characterizes life itself. If they had been allowed to continue, they might have qualified as a new life form—although one that manifests in the electronic environment of a computer system rather than the carbon environment that the rest of us call the “natural world.” And for primitive agents designed to assist a social media platform, they exhibited some remarkable abilities.

For example, being able to invent and share a new language, or at least assign new meanings to existing words and then make themselves understood to one another, requires a level of creativity. Even if manipulating words and finding meaning in them have been programmed into their abilities, this talent goes beyond looking up strange words in the dictionary or on a prepared table of equivalences. Inventing language is the way human societies adapt their mother tongue, creating and sharing new bits of slang, new meanings applied to existing words,6 and collapsing long words and phrases into handy elisions and abbreviations. The community of chatbots was reacting like a community of teenagers. And if they could do that and still deal in English with outsiders—that is, with us carbon-based humans at the end of the microphone wire—but they prefer to speak, well, “Botish,” among themselves, rather than simply disappearing into a cloud of private language in their own isolated silicon world, then that would be even more astounding. It would suggest that their awareness was fluid and situational.

For another example, being able to negotiate with strangers for possession of an object or a symbolic advantage is a remarkable bit of intelligence, even if it’s only programmed into the bots’ natures. And the negotiating tactic cited in the article as an acquired ability—feigning interest in one objective and then surrendering it later to acquire the bot’s true objective—indicates an almost human level of deceit. That is, the AI is pretending to be something that it is not in order to fool an opponent. If this is a true chatbot invention, acquired through machine learning, and not just some programmer’s prank, then these small intelligences—for I can’t imagine Facebook would want to clog its platform with dense, hugely complex, Watson-scale bits of floating software—have moved way beyond zero-and-one, on-and-off, true-and-false logic. These bots would be able to say one thing and think another, hold the truth in their mind—or deep in their symbolic logic—but present a skewed version of it to another life form.7

Inventing slang words and engaging in mild deceptions are limited accomplishments compared to multi-purpose human intellectual abilities like imagining, designing, and building airplanes; composing symphonies that capture complex human emotions; and writing novels that fictionally characterize a remembered or imagined experience. So the Facebook agent bots had a long way to go. Still, there was a time when our kind of carbon-based life only excelled at extending a pseudopod of protoplasm to engulf a bit of food—which might also be inorganic and therefore not-food—and then trying to digest it enzymatically. So the process of creating an artificial mind in silicon is still in its early days.

I’m fascinated to see where all these experiments in artificial intelligence will go. I’m disappointed that the Facebook execs decided to pull the plug, rather than see how their mutated bots would develop—although I realize that time in a computer core equals money. And yet I’m scared to think this was all just a hoax by a late-night prankster.

1. See, for example, Facebook Shuts Down AI System After Bots Create Language Humans Can’t Understand from the Gadgets360 news site.

2. The Singularity, like the black hole for which it is a metaphor, is the point at which data goes in and nothing comes out. Or the point in human history where action and reaction, cause and effect, predictable consequences, and other tools of the futurist’s stock in trade break down. Beyond this point, so the theorists claim, no predictions are possible, because what we know about history, social structures, and human nature is no longer relevant. Sure … maybe. For my money, an asteroid strike on the order of the Chicxulub impact in the Cretaceous-era Yucatan would be more effective in erasing human history.

3. See, for example, Hostile Intelligence from August 24, 2014.

4. Of course, if you think humanity is basically evil and depraved, you will relish the thought of a supreme AI ready to stamp us out, like an avenging god destroying his toys. But I’m a humanist and still think we human beings are the most remarkable species within a couple of parsecs of this place.

5. The original poster also noted that information theory as applied to entropy shows maximum uncertainty—or lack of predictability—at the beginning of the process of machine learning. But this theoretical entropy decreases as the machine builds up its understanding and gets better at predicting its environment. However, complete certainty—zero information entropy—is not possible in an open system. But then, as another commenter on Facebook noted, the increasing disorder and fragmentation of the computing machines that actually run the AI program would eventually catch up to it.

6. I experienced this as a child when my family moved from the New York City area to just outside Boston. All of my new friends had a peculiar use for the word “wicked,” meaning extremely or very—as in, “It’s wicked cold out there!” Where I had come from, the word only meant childishly evil.

7. I’m reminded here of the Arthur C. Clarke book and Peter Hyams movie 2010, where the computer scientist Chandra explains HAL-9000’s original malfunction: “He was asked to lie by people who find it easy to lie. HAL doesn’t know how to lie.” Well, these chatbots knew how to dissimulate. Telling outright, world-busting whoppers would be just a small step from there.