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.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Platonic Forms in Everyday Life

In various of Plato’s Dialogues he has Socrates address the notion of “ideal forms.” This is the theory that we can recognize everyday objects because we hold in our minds—and, in some interpretations, because there separately exists, perhaps somewhere in the stratosphere—a perfect form or prototype of the object. According to this theory, the physical thing before us is just an imperfect copy of the ideal form. Thus, for all the horses on Earth, from the dog-sized “dawn horse” Eohippus up through the race-winning Quarter Horses, wagon-pulling Clydesdales, playground ponies, donkeys, and zebras, there exists somewhere in heaven the perfect Horse, of which these living examples are only pale and imperfect copies. Similarly, for all the oaks, maples, birches, cypresses, and bristlecone pines, there is an ideal Tree somewhere in an imagined forest that all of these specimens are trying to be.1

As I’ve noted before,2 when it comes to living examples, there is no ideal form toward which the various species of a genus or family are striving. Each one is a product of adaptation to a niche in the environment, whether by accidental mutation or selective breeding. Mutations gave rise to the Eohippus, donkey, and zebra. Judicious breeding gave us the Quarter Horse for speed and the Clydesdale for pulling power. Sure, when the average person thinks of a horse—just daydreaming, without context or the prompting of a picture—he or she probably pictures Secretariat, Sea Biscuit, or some other famous racehorse. But that no more makes these celebrities an “ideal form” than movie stardom has made Marilyn Monroe or Scarlett Johansson the ideal woman anywhere but in the adolescent imagination.

The same goes for trees and every other living thing. Those we find in the wild have been shaped in every feature and part by adaptation to some aspect of the local environment. Those we find in the barnyard and or in our homes have been removed from the wild and selectively bred—not always wisely—for some feature of appearance, intelligence, temperament, strength, or taste. There is no ideal form of a tree, a dog, or a beef cow anywhere.

So does the ideal, Platonic form have any meaning in life, except as a bit of naïve Greek philosophy? I can think of a couple of examples.

The first is in the arts. Michelangelo famously said of his statues that he did not carve them so much as release the figure that already lived in the marble. Well, maybe. And to the extent that a particular piece of recrystallized calcium carbonate may have had streaks, veins, and fissures, or the block itself may have some critical defect—like the awkward indentation that yielded the bent knee of the David—this may well be true. But other than that, I’m pretty sure Michelangelo’s figures resided first in his own mind, an image of what he was about to carve, and he merely removed stone, first in big chunks, then in grains and flakes, and finally in softly polishing strokes, until the figure he had conceived stood before him.

Thus every artist—painter, writer, musician—pursues an image, a thought, or a sound that he or she carries in the mind and works to reproduce on canvas, paper, or the keystrokes and fingerings of a chosen instrument. However, the image or thought might not always be as clear as Michelangelo’s stone people. I know from experience that my conception of the book I’m writing usually remains hazy—just big chunks somewhere out there in the fog—until I sit down to compose and actually live vicariously through the action and hear in my mind the dialogue as my fingers are flying over the keyboard. Even a fairly extensive outline is, for me, just a suggestion of where the book might go. Many times I have carried a scene in the outline that I thought was fixed, and the writing of which would be practically a job of just finding the opening line and then fleshing out the details—only to discover that, when I sat down to experience the action at first hand, it wanted to go in another direction and cover different ground. And I’ve learned to trust this instinct, because the scene as it gets written is usually richer and more satisfying than whatever thought I had in mind before.

Another, and perhaps better, example of the ideal form is found in karate. The style I practice, Isshinryu, relies heavily on the katas, or forms, as developed and adapted by the master, Tatsuo Shimabuku. These are practice routines for an individual, laid out as a series of punches, blocks, kicks, and other movements in sequence against the imagined attacks of an invisible opponent. In the dojo I attended back in Pennsylvania—now almost fifty years ago—learning and mastering the hand-and-foot and weapons katas were the main course of study. Yes, the practice included sparring, or kumite, with a partner, where blows were simulated at two inches to a light tap. Sparring gives the student a feel for the timing, reach, ranging, and reactions of a live human attacker. But the essence of Isshinryu was carried out in the katas.3

As a creation in the mind of Master Shimabuku, each kata is an ideal form, the perfect combination of stance, movement, balance, and rhythm representing a certain aspect of the style or emphasizing a certain pattern of defense. There is only one way to perform the kata. Or is there? When I was in training, we practiced the twist punch, with the hand rotating from a palm-up position at the hip to a palm-down position in the last quarter of the arm’s extension. This was my sensei’s teaching, and he had studied personally with Master Shimabuku. But after the master died, his sons took over the style. They decided that the twist punch was archaic or impractical or something—I don’t know their minds—and so introduced the vertical punch, in which the hand moves like a piston with the knuckles aligned vertically in a single plane from beginning to end. The vertical punch is easier to throw and master, more practical in an actual brawl, and more in keeping with Isshinryu’s “one-heart-way” teaching—short and direct. But it’s not very elegant and, in my opinion, not as good as the twist punch for keeping your wrists flexible and exercising your forearms.

So … were the katas with all those twist punches the “real” mind of the master? And is the vertical punch a later corruption of the ideal form? Who can say? I do know that old movies of Master Shimabuku, taken when he visited this country in the early ’60s (you can see them at the site referenced above, but they are small and blurry after being copied over from eight-millimeter film into digital files) show him throwing punches that are sometimes twisting, sometimes vertical. In the same way his basic stance, the seisan, sometimes has the back foot parallel with the front, sometimes turned out—and our school taught parallel feet as if they were Holy Writ. Maybe the master had gone so deeply into the idea of Isshinryu that it didn’t mush matter if his punches and his stances were one thing or the other. Certainly, the kata would then depend on its shape in the mind of the student: what were you taught and how closely are you following it? So the “ideal form” of the kata really is just an expression of the school’s current practice and the student’s understanding.

A further example of ideal forms in everyday life draws on something I have learned from taking music lessons. As a boy, I played—well, attempted to play—the trombone. But I never learned the underlying structure of Western music itself, with is twelve notes, some in whole and some in half steps, laid out in the black and white keys of the piano. I never learned about key signatures and how they affect what notes I played; so my playing was a disaster. I could pick out the notes on the staff and in the positioning of the trombone’s slide, but I didn’t understand their relationships.4 After I retired from the business world, I determined to fix this hole in my education. I bought a keyboard instrument and started taking formal lessons. And one of the things that has come home to me through my teacher is that, although a song might be written down on the page in clear, precise notation, this isn’t always the way you play it.

I’m not talking here about the key signature, because that’s pretty well established in music. But sheet music as written is not always an exact copy of the composer’s original musical thought, his or her ideal form. For instance, the person transcribing the music is just as prone to making errors as someone typing up a manuscript. So my teacher, who has edited music scores professionally, is constantly correcting chords called out in my music book: “That’s not a dominant chord, it should be a major.”

And then, every piece of sheet music—especially those lead sheets in which most popular music is published—shows both the melody and the harmony, and the harmony can be further broken down into the root note and the accompanying chord (third, fifth, and seventh notes). A person playing the piece as a solo might play the melody in one hand and the chords in the other, or her or she might “voice lead” the song—stacking the harmonics of the chord’s root below the melody note in the right hand, and then playing the root note in some rhythmic variation or a “bass walk” for timekeeping. And when playing as part of a group, the keyboardist might perform just the bass walk and chords, letting a singer or lead guitarist carry the melody. Or if the group already has a bass player, the keyboardist might not even bother with the root at all. So the song itself, that ideal piece of music written on the sheet, might change according to where and when it’s played. And we’re not even talking yet about changes in tempo and jazz improvisation.

Chords themselves are subject to much variation, too. For example, the harmonics around the root can be played on the keyboard in the order third-fifth-seventh or inverted as seventh-third-fifth, creating the correct notes but with a different sound and feel. And the player might have to move quickly between two chords, or adapt the harmonics when voice leading. So it’s always acceptable, my teacher tells me, to drop the fifth note. The chord may also be marked to play with a ninth, a sixth, or some other note included—and then usually dropping the fifth—which creates a wholly different sound. And finally, pairs of chords that are commonly associated in music often shift from one to the other through the movement of just a single finger from note to note, without changing the whole hand. So the “ideal form” of every piece of music really is just an expression of the song’s setting and the player’s immediate needs.

Of course, karate katas and popular songs are not physical objects, such as Plato was describing. These are sequences and ideas that start out and live in the human imagination and travel from one head to another by the means of crude copies: physically demonstrating the movement, or humming and playing the tune, or making abstract notations on paper. But even there, in the mind of the karate master or the music composer, the process of evolution—yielding subtle changes in structure, timing, and sequence—work against any fixed, immutable form that might live in the stratosphere or in heaven forever.

1. Of course, on an individual and personal level, this is a perfectly valid—if somewhat obvious—point of psychology. Each of us does build up, in our own minds, based on our varied experiences, an idealized image of a horse or any other object of which the world has offered us repeated examples with minor variations. When we think of a horse without a living specimen before us, we picture this mental composite. And the image is less specific and more fanciful the farther a person is removed from the world of the barnyard and the paddock. It is this sort of mental extrapolation that lets woodcarvers and painters create the horses that children delight to ride on carousels.

2. See, for example, The Point of Evolution from April 27, 2014.

3. The forms are so complete a statement of the style that I can still use them to practice Isshinryu karate fifty years later, at least for their benefit in cardio exercise, balance, and coordination, if not for actual fighting skill. Although I haven’t stepped inside a dojo in all that time, I can still throw punches, blocks, and kicks with relative speed—although probably not to any modern teacher’s satisfaction.

4. That those sharps and flats at the left end of the staff in the first line of music might affect how you were supposed to play all the other notes on the staff further down in the piece—this was a mystery to me as a boy. My teachers had either assumed I understood the relationship of the different keys in the Circle of Fifths—a bit of arcanum, like the Rosetta Stone, that they never actually discussed—or else they taught the key signature as a kind of just-so story. And as a rational young man, I tended to ignore anything I didn’t understand.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Blooms in Season

Our condominium has lower-level elevator lobbies adjoining a garage structure that has an open-air plaza with swimming pool and tennis courts built on top of it. This structure connects the three groups of buildings in the complex. Ramps between the actual garage floor and each of the lobby floors—about a four-foot height difference—wind around large planter areas. The architectural plan calls these planters “atriums.” Each one is a lined concrete box, about twenty by thirty feet in area, with its own irrigation and drainage systems and glass walls, but is open to the sky at the plaza level. Think of the atriums as life-size terrariums.

As a starting point for landscaping, the atriums are a blank slate. They are not visually or organically connected to the rest of the property, where the grounds are a mix of planned flowerbeds and potted trees on the garage-top plaza level; stretches of ivy and cultivated rockscapes along the driveway and around the outer perimeter of the garage base and buildings; and at the back of the property, large unplanned areas of rock cliff, eucalyptus trees, grasses, thistles, and weeds. All of the landscaping, or lack of it, has been turned over to a commercial contractor for monthly maintenance. The grounds contractor will do whatever the Architecture or Landscaping committees or—failing any clear directive from these resident committees—the complex’s general manager and the city fire marshal tell them to do.

Given these conditions, we could choose to grow wheat or a Christmas tree farm in the atriums—and indeed, several of them support sizable and long-standing trees chosen from among the decorative varieties. But since these adjuncts to the lobbies are the only part of the complex that every resident sees every day, people pay them special attention. Almost everyone believes that, because these planter boxes are essentially on our front doorstep, they should reflect the community’s artistic standards, our property values, our status as a “luxury condominium,” and our collective taste in horticulture.

In the past, we’ve had various professional and semi-professional landscape architects step in to create artistic designs for the atriums. The last was a noted professional, active in the local area, who created a “river” theme for these enclosed spaces. The main feature is an abstract French curve filled with jagged pieces of electric-blue glass, intended to suggest a jungle or forest stream. This pattern is bordered on one side or the other with reciprocal curves holding rounded, gray pebbles, meant to look like banks or shoals. Along these visual streams, the design originally called for green, vaguely tropical shrubs1 and, in one atrium, a stand of bamboo.

Of course, like everything else open to discussion in a condominium association, a large and vocal group immediately hated the design, especially the bright-blue strips. A focal point of discussion, also, was that the green plants weren’t pretty enough. And when one of the shrubs suddenly broke out in slender stalks with clusters of tiny yellow blooms for about a week, the criticism increased. Even the flowers weren’t very pretty!

As I said, the grounds contractor will do whatever they’re told. The landscape architect who designed, sketched, and painstakingly specified the plantings around each of these faux Amazons was long gone from the site, and the condo association had made no contractual arrangements to maintain the plantings with the design for which they were intended. So the tropical shrubs were soon tossed out and a collection of colorful azaleas, hydrangeas, and other flowering plants was installed.

And for the first month or two in spring when they bloomed, everyone said how nice the atriums looked. But spring fades, and now we have stone rivers with not-so-tropical, not-so-pretty—in fact, kind of lonely and spindly—plants growing beside them. In another couple of months, when the rains come back and people are spending more time indoors, the agitation will begin for more “color” in the atriums. And then soon enough it will be Christmas, and the Great Poinsettia Debate will begin again.

As a lapsed libertarian, I generally consider myself a “little-D democrat.” I’m not an active party person, but I believe that the mass of people are pretty sensible and, if allowed to converse and find consensus among themselves, will usually come up with a workable solution. That is, I generally trust the wisdom of crowds2—at least when they are not in an agitated state.

As evidence, I present the paths that generations of walkers have scoured through the woods. If a hundred or a thousand people walking across a hillside are left to find their own way, flattening the grass, the new green shoots, and the dirt as they go, they will most likely tread out a line that combines the shortest possible distance with the gentlest possible slopes and the fewest necessary switchbacks. Compare this to an artfully designed park, where some architect has laid out concrete paths across the grass. Architects like geometry, so they create right angles and pleasing diagonals. But come back in a year or two, and you will find bare paths in the dirt where the people actually doing the walking have taken shortcuts and found their own least resistance.

As further evidence, consider the free-market system, where the wisdom—or at least the fickle tastes—of the public decides what gets produced and put onto store shelves. Yes, there are glitches: sometimes public tastes change immediately after a product has been conceived, researched, designed, produced, and distributed. This sometimes results in waste going into a landfill somewhere. More often, though, the changing tastes that have orphaned a product line will result in lower prices that eventually attract somebody, anybody, who doesn’t care about taste and can still use the underlying product. And yes, popular products often cost more than we would like, or go out of stock sooner than we would expect, because people flock to these products rather than to the less desirable brands and designs. And finally, yes, a lot of products get made for which no one has a rational excuse—for example, see Bernie Sanders’s famous “twenty-three brands of deodorant.” But somebody must be buying each one of those brands, or else they wouldn’t get shelf space for long.

On the surface, it might seem that the capitalist system pushes all these brands and taste choices because the rich white men behind it are either evil or stupid. These men must be evil because they create unworthy desires that foment in the public mind a consumerist lust and run the average American buyer around in blind circles following the latest fads. These men must also be stupid because they lack the foresight to design that single, most serviceable product which everyone will want at a price everyone can afford and then supply it to the satisfaction of all. This current confusion and profusion of product choices must be a bad thing, right? Especially, as Sanders said, “when children are going hungry.” A command-and-control economy run by wise and benevolent men in the employ of the state always seems like the antidote to this waste and confusion—until you examine the store shelves in the old Soviet Russia or in today’s Cuba and Venezuela.

Socialists will say that the lapses and shortages resulting from their system are attributable to the stubbornness of non-government producers. Socialists believe that recalcitrant farmers, lazy factory workers, and negligent store clerks simply refuse to follow government dictates about how much food and other necessities to produce, at what cost, where to sell them, and at what price. But Margaret Thatcher was wrong: Socialism doesn’t fail because “sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.” Socialism fails because resources are concrete and finite, while desires are illusory and infinite. Sooner or later you run out of people willing to provide goods and services in the quantities and at the prices that some government middleman—who has no actual responsibility for matching production to consumption, and who pays no penalty for being wrong—decides constitute a “reasonable” amount of stock to put on the shelves (that is, enough to satisfy everybody) at a “fair” price (that is, low enough for everyone to buy as much as they like). Sooner or later, the producers get tired of being the goat and go out of business. In all the societies that try socialism, the producers and distributors who survive are doing business at the point of a gun.

But in the matter of flowering plants, I’m not so sure little-D democracy works. We end up with the stub-ends of floral designs and with flowers that go dormant for most of the year. But this might be the failure, not of democracy itself, but of a landscaping system that listens to a few loud voices who want “color” in their gardens year-round and don’t understand growing seasons and blooming cycles. They don’t realize that most plants have flowers, not just to be pretty, but in order to sustain reproduction as part of a complete life cycle that includes gestation and dormancy for the plant’s own benefit. And these wiser heads screaming for more “color” take no responsibility and pay no penalty when the atriums look like a mess.

But the situation is really not such a tragedy. In the off-season, the rest of the residents suffer only from a lack of exciting and vibrant color—which is a situation most of us seem able to endure. After all, it’s not as if we had to eat the flowers.

1. Although I am the son of a landscape architect, I confess that I can’t recognize one decorative plant from another, no matter how many trips my mother took me on to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, or the photography shoots I have taken with my brother to the Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco.

2. See People Ain’t Stupid from September 2, 2012.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Rules or Values?

Is humanity, taken as a whole, good or bad? To my mind, this is a nonsense question. It cannot be answered as an either/or proposition. It’s like asking if life itself is good or bad. These two questions—and many others besides—can only be proposed as both/and, then followed up by stating under what circumstances and to what degree each term applies.

We all know of good people in the world: open, honest, unassuming souls, ready to help others, respecting the norms of their culture, and otherwise minding their own business. We know of bad people, too: narrow, conniving, battered souls, always looking out for themselves, defiant of any norms or values, and ever ready to catch others in a trap. And we know people who are a mix of both qualities: trying to be good but with occasional lapses, generally bad but sometimes engaging in acts of kindness, or at least personal tenderness.1

None of us has x-ray vision into the souls of other men and women, and generally we can know a saint or a villain only after that person has acted—because everyone lies at times, with big fabrications and with small untruths, told out of shame, modesty, or vanity. Since this is the case, it is only prudent to offer everyone you meet a measure of courtesy, provisional respect, and the trust that they may have good intentions until they prove otherwise. This is not just good manners but a recommendation for good health: paranoia drains the soul and keeps you from sleeping well at night. What you’ll gain in a positive outlook and a life free of confrontation will more than make up for whatever momentary hurts, stolen goods, and lost opportunities you might occasionally suffer at the hands of the villains you meet.

All of this is preamble, I think, to the larger question of how people in a group of whatever size should be ruled, governed, or led upon some mutual venture. The choice seems to be—and here again it’s a question of both/and, under what circumstances, and to what degree—whether you want to give a lot of specific orders and write a great number of rules detailing all possible situations and potential crimes, or you want to evoke and demonstrate a set of values that will guide the individual behaviors of your citizens or followers.

Frank Herbert had the flavor of this in the Dune novels, with Duke Leto’s training of his son Paul: “Give as few orders as possible. Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.” In other words, it’s easier to lead by example and through the transmission of values than by giving specific instructions. This approach trusts in the intelligence and good will of your followers.2

Still, rules are sometimes necessary. Even “men of good will” need to know the local speed limits and approved parking spaces so as not to harm or inconvenience others; learn the guidelines about socially acceptable limits to choices like public exposure and personal practices; and have the norms regarding economic transactions, business practices, and other public acts spelled out, in case there’s any dispute. But rules should represent those limits beyond which mere personal choice becomes a public infraction that the local populace will not tolerate. This is why most laws incorporate sanctions and penalties: These rules are just too serious to be left up to gentle reminders from well-intentioned passersby and public shaming in the town square.

Orders are necessary, too, especially in emergencies and under special circumstance that the local magistrate, governor, or previously selected group leader could not anticipate and whose outcome he or she cannot predict. When catastrophe looms and chaos descends, when the peculiarities of the situation transcend the rules and regulations established to guide people in normal times, then everyone involved looks to a leader—whether formally elected, newly appointed, or naturally emerging—to tell them what to do, what to expect, and how to survive.

But, as Duke Leto reminds us, orders given merely for the sake of establishing one’s authority can quickly become burdensome. Worse, they can destroy personal initiative and hinder the creativity and responsiveness of subordinates and supporters who might be better informed or closer to the problem than the leader him- or herself. Besides, a leader who is always giving orders misses the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised by the native genius of his or her followers, or to encounter areas of failure or lack of direction that can be used as “teachable moments.”

The leader’s actions and directions in those moments, added to his or her thoughts expressed in speeches, private conversations which are meant to become public knowledge, and published writings, as well as the examples given through his or her own behavior, become the basis for values taught, learned, and transmitted. If the leader has gained the respect—and that’s another whole discussion!—of his or her subordinates, supporters, and followers, then they will watch and listen closely to see what actions are now appropriate, what behaviors will be rewarded—if only with a smile or a kind word—and what activities will receive the leader’s censure and punishment.

Of rules, orders, and values, the values that a member of the group or the public learns and adopts are the strongest governor of present and future actions.

It’s one thing to give a child the rule “Don’t hit your sister.” Spoken with sufficient parental sternness, this rule can keep a boy from physically abusing her with his fists. Yet he still might taunt her cruelly, damage her toys, or fail to protect her from bullies. But the value “We take care of each other as a family,” once learned—and seen demonstrated by and between his loving parents—will guide the boy correctly through all future situations.

Similarly, it’s one thing to post warnings and impose harsh fines against littering. That might keep people from dropping candy wrappers and soda bottles on the ground—at least where someone else might see and call them out, especially with a police officer or park ranger nearby. Yet the littering rule does nothing to prevent vandalism or theft of public property. But the value “We take pride in maintaining public spaces,” once transmitted and accepted, will preserve the parks and plazas, and keep the lawns and roadsides clear of trash.

Rules can be gamed: People can think of a hundred exceptions and a thousand excuses. Orders can be ignored: Subordinates can insist they misunderstood the subject or the context, or claim they never heard them in the first place. But values, once accepted as a personal guide and interpreted into a belief system, work at all times and in all circumstances. A person has to wiggle pretty hard on a point of logic to subvert the dictates of conscience or to explain a failure to act in terms that sit well with his or her soul. Values become part of the person and guide behavior.

At least, that’s the way it works with good and even halfway-good people. However, for the scoffers and those who think their own will and desires are superior to any situation involving “other people,” such imparted and evoked values may never work as guides to belief and action. But then, such people don’t do too well with strict rules and direct orders, either.

Rules and orders will work well enough if you’re in a hurry or operating in shifting times or under dubious conditions. But for long-term effect, a leader, a government, or a society should work to instill values and make supporters and citizens self-compliant. That’s what civilizations do.

1. In the same way, life as a whole for most of humanity, and in the instance of a single person’s existence, can be both good and bad. Some have lives filled with poverty and physical misery, but they still experience moments of sweetness and love. Some have lives of ease and pleasure, but they still experience boredom and depression. It’s like the light and the dark. If there were never night or any shadows, how would you know the quality of light? And if it was always night, with never a gleam of daylight, how would you know the depth and texture of darkness? Pain and terror exist to remind us of the sweetness of peace and calm.

2. For more, see Writing a Good Commandment from June 4, 2011.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Degrees of Freedom

The subject of freedom is much on my mind these days. As I’m now approaching late middle age—on the cusp of seventy years old—I realize that avenues of potential are continuously closing down for me.

Of all the things I might have become as a young man fifty years ago—doctor, lawyer, soldier, politician—none remains available today. Those are occupations you must train long years to become, or meet special physical requirements, or establish a steady track record of participation, and I no longer have the time or the stamina to even try. Of all the exotic places I might go—Machu Picchu, the top of Mount Everest, or even diving in the Caribbean—I no longer have the physical energy to attempt. Given that I no longer do well on long airplane flights, with their cramped seating conditions and my big frame, I probably will never see Europe again, unless I’m willing to pay the treble fare to fly first class. And given the amount of political uncertainty and violence that seems to be endemic in the rest of the world, I probably will never get farther east than Greece or farther west than Japan in the travels of my remaining lifetime.

So freedom as a practical issue of choice and possibility, rather than an abstract matter of statute or moral law, is always part of the human condition. It may technically be true that every boy—and now every girl—born in the United States might one day grow up to be President. But that destiny will probably be decided sometime before he or she gets out of high school, based on whether that person has the inclination or the aptitude to put in the time and energy, enter the American cursus honorum,1 and make the sacrifices required. And then, by about the age of forty, he or she will know where the top of his or her personal career arc will likely reach—and for a great many it will stop in some local or state office without ever attaining national prominence.

Freedom comes in many forms and at many levels, depending on personal and public constraints, as well as personal interests and desires.

At the most basic level are those freedoms assigned to bodily function: the freedom to decide when and what you will eat; when and where you sleep and for how long; when and how you use the bathroom; and trivial choices such as whether you want coffee, tea, or something stronger to drink. One would think that we are all perfectly free to make these choices, but not everyone and not all the time. Some jobs have assigned eating and sleeping times, limit the kinds of foods served or allowed in the cafeteria or mess hall, and limit or prescribe bathroom breaks. We accept these restrictions in favor of a greater good, such as the smooth functioning of the organization or maintaining good relations with our co-workers. Some people agree to give up these freedoms under special circumstances and for a limited time, such as a person joining the army and taking food and rest under a strict regime, and again the reason is for some greater good. Societies also place involuntary restrictions on these freedoms as a form of punishment, as anyone who has served time in prison can attest.

At the next level are freedoms associated with the details of daily living: freedom to decide where you will live and under what conditions; where you will travel and with whom; and how you will spend your time. For most of us, these freedoms are prescribed only by our economic condition. I would like to spend my time reading or playing games, but in order to earn my daily bread and the mortgage money I must work at a job that is not always of my own choosing and not always easy and fun. I would like to commute to that job in a Ferrari, but that car is too expensive and the freeways are too crowded anyway; so I ride the bus or the subway with dozens or hundreds of strangers. I would like to live in a 5,000-square-foot house in a nice suburb, maybe with a pool and a patio, enjoying a ten-mile view to the mountains, but again that kind of living is beyond my means. Sometimes the state or local authority intrudes on these decisions, such as when downtown zoning doesn’t provide enough parking for even a small Fiat, let alone a Ferrari. Or that big house in the suburbs is precluded by limits on land use, lot size, or utility hookups, so that I am forced to live back in the city.

A special category of freedom is associated with decisions about lifestyle and a person’s level of health or dissipation: freedom to decide whether to eat wholesome foods or processed junk; how much exercise you will take versus how much time you spend in sedentary pursuits; which vices you will adopt and which you will engage your will power to renounce. Aside from people in prison or the military, we all think we are free to eat what we like and exercise as much or as little as we want. But employer-paid health insurance is beginning to provide monetary incentives—more likely disincentives—to promote healthy lifestyle choices. And certain vices such as liquor, cigarettes, and recreational drugs have been subject to heavy taxation if not outright prohibition for most of the twentieth century.

And finally, the ultimate level of freedom involves decisions and opportunities that affect a person’s lifelong contribution to society, the search for meaning in life, or the fulfillment of some personal destiny: freedom to acquire education, skills, and training; freedom to think for yourself and make decisions about your career and the ultimate reach of your ambitions; freedom to guide your children in paths you believe will give them a good life. More than access to money and avoidance of public censure and state controls, the limits on these freedoms are often your own imagination. If you don’t know what the choices are and can’t think up satisfactory goals for yourself, you are as bound as if you wore handcuffs. Yes, in totalitarian societies, the freedom to think and become what you want is often proscribed—ask someone trying to publish the truth as he sees it in the old Soviet Union or in the People’s Republic of China. And yes, being denied access to education and the broadening effects of wide reading and personal inquiry can limit the imagination. But in most cases, the lack of goals and motivation usually comes from a failure of the home environment and lack of access to good teachers, mentors, and wise relatives like a favorite aunt, uncle, or grandparent.

Since all of these levels of freedom—from bodily function to personal destiny—are subject to external limitations, the real question is how we want that limit decided. Do we take it upon ourselves to seek out and do what we want, live where we want, think what we want subject only to the natural limits of time, money, and our own skills, ambition, and energy level? Or are we willing to relinquish these choices to some other person or human agency, such as a prison guard, a platoon sergeant, a factory supervisor, the local zoning and school boards, or the representatives of one or the other alphabet-soup agencies of the federal government?

Persons with an “institutional mentality,” like a life prisoner or a career soldier—or many of the common citizens of more regulated societies in the European Union and the Middle East—will opt for a guard, officer, or commissar to do their thinking and deciding for them. Most Americans, however—at least those of the older generation—tend to guard their freedoms jealously and would by choice live in a cold-water cabin on the edge of the woods than in a marble mansion under the supervision of a nursemaid, perfect, or magistrate.

1. The cursus honorum was the “course of offices”—political, military, and religious—that an ancient Roman of senatorial rank was expected to fulfill on the way to political prominence and power in the Republic and the early stages of the Empire. The American equivalent would be something like getting a law degree and becoming district attorney, or serving in locally elected positions like being on the school board or town council, then running for state assembly or senate, then for Congress or a governorship. Other paths may be possible, and we certainly saw them represented in the Republican presidential candidates for 2016. But for someone who is not already independently wealthy, this course is the only way to attract the attention of publicists, campaign managers, fund raisers, and the funding sources necessary to attain high elected office.