Sunday, March 26, 2017

Death by Assimilation

I get it. For many people, their true identity, their sense of self, and their greatest comfort are all found in their culture, their religion, their ethnic background, and their tribal affiliations. They exist because they are part of this something that is greater than themselves.

But, at the same time, that thing they belong to—their tribe, their gang, their political party—is smaller than the world around it. They are the self-nominated—if not actually inducted by hierarchical vetting, testing, and ceremony—members of an exclusive, select club. They are unique because they and their group are different from the whole, from the larger society, from the seething mass of people that surrounds them. Within the folds of their chosen group, they are safe. The people and things held close around them are familiar. The language, word choices, innuendoes, references, jokes, and antipathies of their group are all known and understood. Within those confines, a person cannot go wrong by accident, only by intention.

Yes, a member of a close-knit group—especially one that is known by its accents, its clothing choices, or its skin color or other phenotypic features—may feel strange, isolated, and defensive when venturing out into the wider world. But the person will also feel … special. The hairstyle, the tattoo, the distinctive dress will mark him or her as a member of the elect, something above with the hoi polloi, partaking of a secret—or not so secret—identity which has depths of meaning unknown to the other people on the bus or in line for the next bank teller. And if the person is part of a group that actually does have secret knowledge—such as who is really going to heaven when they die, or up against the wall in the next revolution—so much the better.

For such a person, assimilating into the surrounding culture is not just an act of surrendering to a superior force. It can be a loss of that comfort, that familiarity, and that secret power. In the first stages of assimilation, in the first generation that is trying to become members of the greater society, engaging in the larger society is to risk becoming painfully visible. The assimilatee’s tongue is not yet familiar with all the new words and concepts. He or she does not know all the norms, the jokes, the transactional processes. Her dress and demeanor may not be quite right in all social situations. He expects others will laugh at him for trying to put on a show of assimilation, just as he quietly laughed at others who were not members of his in-group.

Assimilation is not only painful in the transition process, but also in the long-term effects. To become a member of the greater whole is to become virtually invisible, indistinguishable from the people on all sides. That is, the assimilatee no longer stands out for his or her obvious differences of dress, language, skin color or other physical features, religious preference, and so on. If a person bases his or her sense of self on these differences, then to assimilate, to become just like everyone else, is a kind of personal or cultural death.

This is not a problem in most of the world’s countries and societies. In Japan, a gaijin, a foreigner, will be forever foreign, different, an outsider. Learn Japanese, adopt the culture in every detail, become an honored master in one of the country’s traditional arts like swordmaking or ceramics, even change your name to a Japanese form—and you will still be an foreigner. Even if you are of Asian descent, so that your face and body look the part, you will still not be Japanese. Ask the Koreans who have lived there for generations.

The same is true of China and most of Asia. Most of Europe, too. Even if your ancestors originally came from France or Germany, Sweden or Poland, to live for a few generations in North America, you cannot go back again and be accepted. Maybe, after a generation or two of reverse-assimilation, the locals will forget that your heritage is really American and that you are trying to live in disguise. Maybe, in the big cities, you can blend in through the anonymity of urban, cosmopolitan life. But, at the village and town level, memories—and tongues—are long and sometimes spiteful. The locals will know who you are and from whence you came.

In the Middle East, it is not impossible to assimilate if you are a Muslim or wholeheartedly willing to convert to Islam. The religious-political system of Islam makes generous allowances for adherents of all national and ethnic types. But the power structure of Saudi Arabia will still question your Arabness, even if you have the right look and adopt the keffiyeh and agal cords. The people of Iran will know in a few minutes that you are not really Persian. They might even think you are funny—or despise you—for trying to be what you are not.

This kind of cultural and ethnic disdain has never really been a problem in the United States. Or rather, it has been a problem only for the first generation of new-wave assimilatees, but not in succeeding generations so long as they can “walk the walk and talk the talk.” This country was put together from thirteen separate colonies that by the late 18th century had all come under the control of the British crown. But they started as enclaves of religious and ethnic refugees conscious of their differences: New England Puritans, New York Dutch Protestants, Pennsylvania English Quakers, Maryland English Catholics, Virginia, Carolina, and Georgia planters and slaveholders. They had their differences, but the Revolutionary War and the hardships of fighting and being fought over drew them together.

In the century that followed, the country absorbed the British and Hessian soldiers who came to fight and decided to stay on after independence,1 as well as people willing to emigrate in search of a better life: Irish and Scottish peasants, German and Swedish peasants, Italian and Eastern European peasants, mostly solid Catholics, and then Russian peasants, mostly Ashkenazi Jews. They landed on the East Coast looking for those streets of gold and, after a generation crowded into their Germantowns and Little Italies, enduring some measure of pain and strife, they moved outside those protective regions. In a generation or two, they became indistinguishable from the rest of the Americans, except for some ethnic foods and traditional dress which they trotted out and celebrated on holidays, rather more as an art form than an identity.

On the West Coast the situation was both easier and harder. Easier because, during the California Gold Rush, all those European refugees came overland or by boat into San Francisco and melted fast in working the placer deposits and mines of the gold fields. Harder, too, because Chinese refugees came to trade and work on the railroad, and they were more difficult to assimilate, both because their culture was harder to forget and because their faces and bodies were harder to ignore.

That has been the trouble with the most recent wave of assimilation in this country: the Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, the Middle Easterners, and of course, anyone from Africa—even if his or her ancestors have lived here and been citizens for half a dozen generations. They wear on their faces the marks of difference in the shape of their eyes, noses, lips, and the color of their skins. They have been a more difficult set of groups to assimilate. But I have seen in academia, in the biotech world where I worked, and in other places of business—and not always with government prodding—that people can be accepted, valued, and sought out for the quality of their skills, knowledge, and character. And then it is easy to dismiss superficial differences like skin color. They walk the walk, talk the talk, and everyone has come to trust their opinions and actions.2

Of all countries, though, America has made it the easiest for people of other places and other cultures to assimilate. Learn a skill, find a way to add value to the economy or to society, and you will find a place in this country.

But still, assimilation will be psychologically hard for you. You will no longer be distinguished by the easy marks of difference—your faith, your accent, or your skin color—and now you will have to distinguish yourself by the harder marks of thought, effort, and achievement—“the content of your character.” For many people, this is not only harder but simply impossible. If you are not particularly talented, have no particular interests, have no desire to learn particular skills, then you will become Joe Average, the Invisible Man or Woman, and fade into the background of an assimilated society. For many people, that can be a kind of personal death.

1. My own great-great-who’s-counting?-great-grandfather on the Thomas side was a soldier in the British Army and carried a Brown Bess on the streets of Buffalo in the War of 1812. After the war he was demobilized, or simply deserted, and lit out for Michigan, at the other end of Lake Erie. My brother still has, as a treasured relic, the musket he carried.

2. I learned an important lesson working at two different biotech companies. We had many people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and other heritages working at either site, and one plant claimed thirty-seven different ethnicities among its employees. Some were full citizens, spoke fluent English, and had become fully assimilated into American culture. Some were recent arrivals, both holders of H1-B visas and green cards, as well as newly sworn citizens. Sometimes, though, the person with the thickest accent and least talent for telling a joke was the most serious and dedicated technician—and you could take his or her judgment to the bank. And sometimes the person with the most fluent English and the best jokes, even native-born persons of European stock, had terrible judgment and lousy lab skills—and you always had to double-check their work. In such an environment, you quickly learn to look beyond surface differences when saleable product hangs in the balance.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Rules for Alien Life

You know we’re going to find life elsewhere in the universe one day. It’s only a matter of time—ever shortening time, too, as we send out more probes and, eventually, begin launching expeditions with human colonists. Either here on the planets and their moons revolving around our own Sol or on other bodies orbiting other stars, the chances are good we will find that “temporary reversal of entropy” we call life.

That is, the chances are excellent that life exists elsewhere. To approach the question in any other way would be to assume that our star, our planet, and our own situation are all somehow unique in the galaxy, if not in the entire universe. But, from everything we’ve been able to see with our light- and radio-based telescopes, our spectrometers, and other more recent detection systems over the past hundred years, our Sol is about as ordinary as a star can get. And from the hints we’ve been able to detect over the past decade or so, based on minute stellar wobbles and variations in their light output, planets seem to abound around our type of star—although most of the bodies detected so far have been massive gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, and we’ve only recently been able to detect the smaller, more rocky bodies comparable to Earth. Still, whether we’ll be able to find life on any of Sol’s nine planets1 with their dozens of moons, or around a nearby star with a planet in the habitable zone that has been able to maintain stable conditions long enough for life to develop chemically, consolidate and maintain its gains, and then evolve into something interesting … that’s a crapshoot.

Unless, of course, such life reaches out and discovers us first …

But until we do eventually find life, what can we say about it? What can we project? Quite a lot, I believe, based on principles we can observe in the life on Earth.

First, anything we would recognize as alive is probably going to be made up of many repeating units working together under some kind of organization. Single, solitary things—other than stars and planets—don’t seem to last long in our universe. Nor are they able to reproduce, except by growing larger and eventually splitting apart into two new-but-identical subunits, like a bacterium. By “repeating units,” I’m not talking about bees in a hive or soldiers in an army, although that seems to be a pattern, too. I mean cells in an organic body or transistor gates in a complex circuit—out of the many, one.

As we’ve found on Earth, single-celled creatures have a mechanically built-in size limit. The membrane enclosing their interior fluid has limited capabilities for stretch and breaking strength. Sooner or later—really soon, in the case of Earthly microbes—the pressure of water volume inside the membrane overcomes both the cell’s ability to add to the membrane’s surface area and the strength of the covalent bonds between lipid molecules in the membrane itself, and everything just spills out. I suppose you might build a tank—or happen upon, say, a volcanic bubble along the shoreline—that could contain the organism’s undifferentiated cytoplasm in large volumes, with all of the cellular organelles floating free and absorbing food particles, transferring energy molecules, continuously transcribing DNA-analogs, translating RNA-analogs, and replicating protein-analogs. What might be the volume of such a bubble? A gallon? Five gallons? A whole swimming pool’s worth of cytoplasm? But aside from the fact that such a bubble would occur only by chance and its acquisition remain outside the organism’s control, eventually a feeding, replicating, expanding organism would outgrow even that huge volume.2

No, any organic life capable of maintaining its stability and organizing its functions on its own would need to be made up of small units, cells or their alien analogs, which would work together while acquiring different traits and capabilities. In the pattern of life as we know it, cells in any advanced life form would develop into dedicated types. They would specialize to become mechanical structures like bones, skin, exoskeletons, teeth, and muscles. Or they might develop into the life-supporting processes of digestion, circulation, and bodily regulation through the manufacture and secretion of enzyme-analogs. Or they would form a complex information-transmission and -storage system for discerning the organism’s environment, directing the action of its various parts, and capturing and ingesting food … or looking up at the stars and wondering about them.

All these different functions are too complicated and require too much chemical and mechanical specialization for a single-celled creature of whatever size to manage them. Small, self-replicating, autonomous-functioning units, working together as a whole, seem to be necessary for advanced life forms. And after you acquire those differentiated units, what then?

Second, most life is going to be three-dimensional. Human beings have made interesting conjectures about two-dimensional life,3 but unless the creature glides across the core of a heavy planet like Jupiter or the surface of a neutron star, never rising against gravity, two-dimensional life is just too hard to maintain. Such an organism would have to develop and articulate complicated linkages and latches to open a volume that would contain anything representing consumed food or waste products. And without an interior, an exterior would hardly be meaningful. No, two-dimensional life is an interesting intellectual challenge, but not a realistic expectation.

On the other hand, three-dimensional beings capable of ingestions and digestion, orientation and locomotion, and other spatial attributes will have a problem with being required to possess simultaneously both a front and a back, a left and right side, a top and a bottom. And any creature in a competitive environment—one where you are surrounded by similar beings who want to hunt and eat the same food, as well as predators who want to hunt and eat you—will be forced to protect itself and project itself in all directions. If the creature is a filter-feeding bottom dweller like an oyster or a clam, covered by a hard shell, or a soft-bodied worm buried up to its mouth and/or anus in deep sand, issues of protection and projection are not so important. But a mobile organism fighting for its life out in the open needs to worry about seeing, hearing, or otherwise discovering opportunities and detecting threats that may lie in any direction, as well as having a choice of directions in which to chase its prey or flee from its predators.

Such conditions forced the explosive evolution of hard body parts, protective strategies, and sensing apparatus starting in the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago on Earth.

These conditions suggest that the organism will have more than one organ of detection. The creature may be a grazer, like a horse or cow, that needs to watch the surrounding environment for predators and so possess one or more eyes on each side of its head, each eye having a wide-angle lens. Then the eyes working together can take in a nearly complete 360-degree view. Or the creature might be a hunter, like a lion or a hawk, with an agile neck that can rapidly swivel the head to scan the environment, and two or more eyes that are set close together to present slightly divergent views, creating a perception of depth and enabling the organism to determine the range to its target.4

The need for multi-directional mobility suggests that the organism will have more than one leg or fin or other limb for propelling itself against the ground, the surrounding fluid, or some other feature of the environment. A single limb, like a pogo stick, is too hard to control for both propulsion and steering. And a single fin is too hard to use for both purposes—although Venetian gondoliers perform admirably in maneuvering their boats with a single fixed oar, and octopi and squids do well with a single siphon in emulating a soaring jet plane under water.

These are just a few of the requirements—multiple organizing units, multidimensionality, with the need for multiple environmental detectors and multiple propulsive appendages—that an alien life form would need to have. They are the minimal requirements upon which evolution—the preservation of accidental changes through improved adaptation to the environment—can work to the organism’s advantage. And that ability to suffer changes in the first place, and so take part in evolution, would be another requirement.

There may be more requirements,5 but these will begin to shape the rules for alien life. They suggest how future human spacefarers might recognize life on another planet and so distinguish its inhabitants from, say, a rock or a pot of chemical sludge.

1. Nine, if you count Pluto—which I, as a traditionalist, still do. Eight, if not. But again nine, if you keep up with the news that analysis of the orbits of icy planetoids in the outer reaches of the solar system suggests a “massive Earth” somewhere beyond Pluto. The science is not “settled.”

2. And this presumes the cytoplasm in so large a volume could still function homogeneously—that is, discrete operations like acquisition of food, conversion and production of energy molecules, and replication of DNA to produce needed proteins could all be maintained uniformly throughout the mass. If not, then some parts of that gallon of protoplasm might be thriving and expanding while others starved and became dead zones. Such a condition could not possibly be healthy.

3. See, for example, Flatland by Edwin Abbott from 1884.

4. This presumes the organism is passively receiving light or some other electromagnetic wave reflected off the surrounding environment and its objects of interest. Otherwise, the organism might detect its environment by sending out a signal and interpreting the return echo, like a bat. Then the creature’s brain would need to distinguish infinitesimal time lags in determining distance to an object. And it would still need two ears or other detection devices in order to gauge direction.

5. For example, a multi-celled organism will likely have evolved from an active, competitive biome of single-celled organisms, as did higher life forms on Earth. As such, the multi-celled creature will need to maintain an analog to the human immune system in order to protect itself from predation by those competitors in the biome on a cellular level.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Future of Self-Driving Cars

Everyone seems to think that the self-driving car is just a few years away. And we have already tried them on the streets of San Francisco—although some experiments, like Uber’s, have had a human sitting in the front seat, monitoring its progress, ready to take control if something should go wrong.1 Experiments with self-driving cars are also going on in other cities.

I am not convinced that this is the future. Not that I am a Luddite. Far from it! In the distant future—which I postulate as thirty to fifty years from now, and getting closer all the time—machine minds with mechanical senses will perform many non-repetitive tasks that require the system to evaluate novel situations and make independent judgments. And these minds will still be subject to the same errors of fact and interpretation that plague human beings today. Driving will certainly be one of these difficult tasks—but first, a whole lot of development and testing needs to take place.

What happens when a person drives? The process is much more than visually analyzing the twists and turns of the road and tracking the wheels to follow them. Or measuring the speed of the car ahead and adjusting your own speed to maintain pace. Or perceiving that the brake lights on the car ahead have come on and applying your own. Or detecting an obstacle in the road and swerving, slowing, or turning to avoid it. Those tasks will move you forward and keep you safe for about two car lengths. After that, everything else is a matter of conjecture.

A good driver goes through a sophisticated mental process called “SIPRE,” which stands for seeing, interpreting, predicting, reacting, and executing.2 The driver is not simply reacting to visual cues, but interpreting them as part of a dynamic situation and predicting the course of that situation. Essential to those two acts is the prior development of and continuous referral to learned experience. The human mind interprets a situation based on what it has seen in the past and recalls in the present.3 It makes predictions based on past outcomes. This is the difference between a new driver, who is nervously dealing with the unknowns on the road, and an experienced driver, who knows what to expect and how he or she will react in many different situations.

A good driver also maintains an awareness of the entire flow of traffic, not just the lane and the car immediately ahead. Traffic patterns are a collective reaction, like fish schooling or birds flocking. Each car reacts individually based on the movements of those around it. The person in the car ahead may not immediately react to a change in the pattern; so an alert driver usually watches further ahead—and to the sides in multi-lane and freeway driving—to detect potential slowdowns, lane changes, and other early signs of a breakup in the pattern. And even on a single-lane or two-way street, the alert driver monitors parked cars, objects at the curb, and events on the sidewalk. The driver’s awareness extends beyond the immediate situation and his or her own immediate intentions.

A good driver also understands human responses and reactions behind the wheel. Often, in merging around an on- or off-ramp, two cars will be on a converging course. First one slows, to allow the other into the lane. Then the merging car slows, to avoid hitting the first car. Then the first one slows some more, to give the second car another chance to merge, and so on right down to a dangerous, slow-speed encounter.4 Human minds will sometimes get into this kind of “After you, Alphonse” routine—until one of them wakes up, realizes that the other driver really does mean to defer, and so takes the initiative and speeds ahead. Similarly, when two cars arrive at the same time on the adjoining corners of a four-way stop, they may pause while trying to be polite and defer to the other driver, who might just have arrived a second earlier. They will then wait until one of them either gestures for the other to go or takes initiative and starts forward into the crossing.5 Human beings are aware of other minds and try to read human intentions.

Awareness of the flow of traffic and the intentions and motivations of other drivers represents additional layers of programming that would run in parallel and coordinated with the main steering-and-braking program that guides a self-driving vehicle. These are the “P” part of the SIPRE sequence. These additional algorithms could certainly be programmed in—but not simply as a set of rules. These types of awareness represent a human driver’s judgment based on experience. Certainly, the intelligence that drives an automated car could be loaded with samples from the internal databases of cars that preceded it in production and service. But each car would also need a set of subroutines and memory spaces that allowed it to learn from its own unique experiences based on local driving conditions and then correct errors of impression and interpretation as it develops “street smarts.”

This is because much of the human driver’s experience and many potential sources of error have to do with the “I” part of SIPRE. People look and compare what they see with things they have seen before. Current software and hardware engineers are working hard on digital camera technology and the interpretation of pixelated images in a programming environment. For example, some computer systems are now able to identify faces in a crowded scene. Even the digital camera in a smartphone, which must compete with so many other functions packed into its limited operating system, can detect and focus on human faces in its pre-snap image. But human faces are common for having a predictable set of reference points: two eyes, a nose, a mouth, chin, and so forth and a predictable shape.6

Out on the road, you might think cars and trucks have a similarly predictable set of referents: wheels, taillights, headlights, bumpers, fenders, and so forth. But the automated driving system will have to recognize much more than the components of surrounding traffic. It will need to recognize all sorts of obstacles: fallen trees, boulders, and even something so subtle as the dark spots in the road that represent wheel-damaging potholes and tire-blowing debris. It will have to interpret pedestrians not just as upright, adult figures—like those stick figures on the warning signs—but as people in wheelchairs and people involved with pets, children, and wheeled encumbrances like shopping carts, strollers, and walkers. The system will have to interpret—correctly and safely—images that are obscured by rain, dust, the glare from bright surfaces, and shadows from low-angled sunlight at dawn and dusk.

And the system will have to extend its awareness beyond the road’s shoulder to the general environment as well. A dog on the side of the road might be about to dart into traffic. A dog or a ball bouncing into traffic might be followed by a child. The driving system will have to judge these ranges and speeds just from its camera imagery. For another example, a motorcycle and rider stopped at the side of the road some distance away might present an unfamiliar image and be difficult for a mechanical system to interpret. From certain angles, the image has the same general shape as a cow. But a cow standing beside the road creates an entirely different set of predictions from a motorcycle pausing beside the road. And if either one suddenly moves out into the traffic lane, it will generate its own unique reaction sequence.

All of these conditions and situations will be difficult to test in the software lab before a system is sent out on the road. Traditional software testing tends to involve a regimen of known inputs against which the system passes if it generates the correct—or expected—outputs. This works fine if you feed a math program a number problem and look for it to give the correct—and unique—answer. But it will be impossible to test a driving system against all the strange things a digital camera might pick up while traveling the open road with the scene changing at sixty-five miles an hour and twenty-four frames per second, amid distractions like blowing trees, tumbling debris, flying dust, and angular distortions confusing the image. In short, you don’t know what you’ll find out on the highway until you actually see it.

Driving is more than simply following the road. As a skill set, the level of awareness and prediction it requires can tax even the most alert and experienced human mind. I am sure that, eventually, artificial minds with human-scale awareness will be developed and made small enough to fit into the dashboard of a car. And, as these machines become more ubiquitous, the traffic system will also change to accommodate them. For example, signs will have a digitized radio component for the robot driver as well as visual components for the human driver. Special situations, like construction zones and road blocks will generate their own emergency broadcasts. And other users of the roads, like pedestrians and bicyclists, will be advised to wear armband transponders to help the driving machines recognize them and accurately interpret their actions.

All of this will come one day. But my sense of the technology is that we are not there yet. We won’t get there in a future defined by the next couple of years. And the last thing we all want is a robot car running down a pedestrian with a shopping cart because it thought she was a funny-looking bicycle.

1. That experiment ended in December 2016 over a regulatory dispute: the California Department of Motor Vehicles wanted the Uber experiments to have a special permit required for fully autonomous cars, while Uber insisted it didn’t need one because it still had a potential driver. Also, the Uber cars were not clearly labeled as test vehicles.

2. See SIPRE as a Way of Life from March 13, 2011. And yes, I learned about this in traffic school while expunging a ticket.

3. And note that in this discussion I am addressing mostly visual imagery or measurements that can be taken by radar or laser rangefinding. Auditory awareness and recall is a whole other matter, and not just to hear the squeal of tires and shouts of “Dumb ass!” from other drivers.

4. This, of course, is in an ideal world where people are polite, pay attention to others, and care about their intentions and convenience—rather than honking, gesturing, and barreling past them.

5. In the California Driver Handbook, this situation is supposedly solved by the rule that the driver to the right has the right of way. But not everyone knows their right from their left, and the general rule is to yield your own right of way to avoid collisions.

6. I haven’t tried it, but I wonder if a smartphone would frame a human head from a rear three-quarter view that included only the nape of the neck, ear, cheekbone, and partial eye socket? A human being could certainly tell that this was a person’s head and not, say, a cabbage.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ends and Means

“The ends justify the means” can probably be traced back to that ultimate pragmatist about political power, Niccolò Machiavelli, in The Prince. Get your political outcome right, so that everyone is happy and content with it, and no one will look too hard at how you have achieved it. If you asked me to put my finger on the starting point for the downfall of our civilization, I would point to that.

Except … people have been practicing that kind of consequentialist thinking ever since the legions of Rome marched into the rest of the world with the goal of giving everyone better roads, cleaner water, and proper laws. And before that, the Greeks of Macedonia marched into Persia to give everyone the blessings of Athenian democracy. And earlier, the Sumerians of Uruk marched across Mesopotamia to give everyone a clear understanding of the gods, as well as the art of writing.

The 20th century, in my view, started going seriously wrong with the Marxists—apart from that family feud among the progeny of Queen Victoria, which resulted in the first World War, which led inevitably to the second World War. But Marx himself apparently never said that the ends justify the means. It was the Bolsheviks’ favorite tactician, Leon Trotsky, who adopted it as the movement’s philosophical underpinning. After all, when you’re working to increase social development, break the dominance of man (singular) over man (plural), and bring about the blessings of utopia—it doesn’t matter how many banks you rob, lies you tell, and whose heads you crack. “The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end,” Trotsky wrote in Their Morals and Ours. This was in 1938, after Stalin had already killed millions in the Ukraine and devoured every member of his own party. To me, this dictum sounds like circular reasoning. Trotsky’s head was filled with worms.

There is a huge political problem with “the ends justifying the means.” In the competitive marketplace of ideas, not everyone may agree with your analysis of risks and benefits, and not everyone may hanker after your vision of utopia. When you have to justify those ends—which Trotsky simply assumes will be proclaimed by fiat—then you would seem to be taking an unfair shortcut. And when expediency is your publicly announced credo, you lose all credibility among reasonable, fair-minded people. In a fair political fight, where the issue is not yet decided and the mass of people are still allowed to make up their own minds, you will already have yielded—nay, thrown away with both hands—a politician’s greatest asset: his or her credibility.

At the campaigning stage, when a politician is bargaining with the people, and the people still have a choice, all any politician has to offer is a series of promises. Everything else—determination, performance, action—still lies in the future. If you truly believe, or even hint you believe, that your stated purpose justifies any means you might use to obtain it, then you are admitting that nothing is beneath you. Lying, deception, vote fraud, assassination, armed insurrection—all are permissible if they achieve your ends, but not necessarily anyone else’s. And you are also admitting that you have no personal honor, no sense of integrity or dignity higher than the purpose which you have avowed. You are not a person of principle; you are a person ruled by a particular political policy or doctrine or goal.

There are certain things, many things, that a serious, thoughtful person will not do. Not because they are illegal, inexpedient, or damaging to reputation, but because they violate that person’s internal code. What code is this? It is the internalized rules about truth seeking and truth speaking, about reciprocity and fair dealing, about compassion and caring for others, about personal bravery and self-restraint, among other virtues. In a more chivalrous age, this set of internal rules was called a code of honor. For Christians, it is “getting right with the Lord.”

If you are a purely political creature,1 you are all about the transactions between the individual and the group, and between one group and another. This is the exterior side of life, or living as it may be viewed from the outside. When you look at human beings that way, it is too frighteningly easy to confuse them with animals—or with physical things, like counters on a board or numbers in a column.2 Humans as the object of external study become indistinguishable from cattle or cockroaches. You can analyze them like rats in a maze, or in terms of predators and prey. You can construct theories about them as if they were inanimate objects, like dolls or windup toys. And if you start thinking of people as cattle, it isn’t hard to imagine that they need a superior sort of being, a herdsman, to guide them and give them greater purpose—kind of like a revolutionary vanguard which will impose its greater vision on the faceless mob.

But that mob is made up of individuals. And, whether absurdly or not, each of them—each of us—believes we have our own purpose, our own special place in the universe, our own moral character, and our own, very personal destiny. We may be political entities assigned automatically to family, tribe, state, and ethnic or cultural background. But we are also individuals who feel we have a right to identify with what we perceive to be our own kind and, in most cases, make a personal choice about what kind that will be.

Other people’s ideas about ends and means cut across this sense of personal destiny and affinity like a railroad track cutting through a private park. Unless we agree to the iron pathway, adopt it for our own, and choose to follow and be guided by it—we aren’t going like it. In fact, we will fight it with our last breath.

Individuals may be unreasonable and careless, distracted and incapable of finding and following the good life. But in the end, the focal point of all action, both political and personal, is individual, centered in one mind at a time, one will, and one sense of purpose.

1. Yes, I know, Aristotle’s definition: “Man is a political animal.” We are social creatures, after all, inextricably involved with one another, even more than we are concerned with nature or the gods. But this is the Greek view, which was good at stripping away surfaces to get at the underlying bones. For the Greeks, everything that was personal and private was idiōtēs, the doings of a person without public station or function. This is the origin of our word idiot

2. That was certainly Stalin’s view: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nothing is Unthinkable

When I was growing up, my parents often had to tell me, “You can’t say that!” I suppose most parents tell their children this as young minds and young mouths test the limits of discretion. But at the same time what I also heard my parents saying was, “You can’t think that.” Meaning certain thoughts and ideas were so dangerous, evil, or just plain wrong that they simply could not be entertained.

In reaction to this, I resolved at a young age that no thought coming into my head from my own perceptions or imagination was unthinkable, no idea inconceivable. Many things should not be said, of course. And most things certainly should not be done. But thinking about them, examining them, trying to understand their basic premises, their true natures, and their consequences—that has to be acceptable. For me, this resolution was an act of personal bravery: I would trust the sturdiness and stability of my own mind against any bad or corrosive thoughts. I would dip in the pool of evil or error, mentally, and still retain my fundamental self.

I was determined to look my enemies in the face and understand their thoughts and ideas. This is why I studied Russian in high school.1 During this time, also, I read several books about Communism and the Russian Revolution. For those of us growing up in the Cold War, this was the face and imagination of our enemies, and I wished to understand them. If I had been in school just before or during World War II, I probably would have studied German or Japanese—if those courses were even available.

It is a premise of mine that you cannot find the truth unless you are willing to entertain falsehood. You cannot understand the good unless you explore evil. You cannot know what works if you won’t dissect and examine the ideas, systems, and mechanisms that fail. And again, you have to trust the stability of your own mind and imagination to come out sane on the other side. You also have to trust your innate sense of truth and your preference for goodness to guide you in these explorations and examinations.

I recently published a blog about the politically divided nature of this country.2 As I worked to articulate each side in the debate—left and right, progressive and conservative—I was conscious of trying to represent the issues fairly from each point of view. I did not want my progressive friends to feel they were being misinterpreted, nor my conservative friends to think they were being dismissed. Fairness is a primary virtue with me, and I can understand and find some truth and utility in both points of view. But please don’t think, just because I have thought deeply about a viewpoint and come to understand it, that I must therefore approve of it and believe it to be right. I have studied the Marxists, understand their utopian dreams, and still think they are utterly foolish—if not downright wicked.

What I never expected, at the time of my decision to entertain unthinkable thoughts, was how useful this attitude would be in teaching myself to write novels. The essence of storytelling is to put characters into emotionally wrenching but instructive situations, which always involve conflicts, risks, and losses. Sometimes the possibilities of risk and loss can be represented by natural events—a tsunami struck, a fire broke out—and the characters can remain good, sunny people—just like the author him- or herself—who are only struggling to survive. But the best stories involve conflict between opposing minds and goals: ambition and vulnerability, freedom and security, greed and altruism, good and bad intentions. Unless the author wants to restrict the story’s viewpoint to the sunny minds and pleasant thoughts of its heroes and heroines, who are more done to than doing, the author must occasionally enter the minds, entertain the thoughts, and explain the motives of assassins, warlords, megalomaniacs, thieves, rapists, psychopaths, damaged children, cold-blooded aliens, and soulless artificial intelligences. Being able to think the unthinkable just comes with the job of storyteller and novelist.

It must also be the job of an actor or actress. In order to play the villain—a role that occurs in almost every story and must be portrayed on stage or screen by someone—the performer must enter and examine the mind of a deranged, damaged, or purely evil person. Certainly Shakespeare, who was both actor and playwright, had this experience when he created a villain like Richard III or a beast like Caliban.

Sometimes, also, the reader and the audience may get confused. Henry James wrote a short story, “The Author of Beltraffio,” in which the wife of a writer of morbid tales determines that his son would be better off dying than growing up under the man’s baleful influence. In the minds of others, the author or the actor can sometimes become confused with the fantasy that he or she is portraying, often with instructive or cautionary intent.

I had a similar experience with one of my novels, Crygender, from 1992. The title character starts out as a ruthless assassin, who then takes refuge in an altered physique and identity and runs an internationally famous bordello, located on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay of the future. Given the story’s setting and its main character of questionable ethics and sexual orientation, some explicit scenes of both murder and debauchery were mandatory in the telling.3 To this day, the book remains the favorite of some of my readers and the point at which others—my wife included—simply gave up on my writing.

But still, I stand by my decision. Nothing is unthinkable. This is the only way to dive deep into murky waters and, occasionally, come up with a pearl.

1. I give credit for this opportunity to a really excellent school board and high school administration in Warren, Pennsylvania, where I happened to be in those years. They offered Latin, French, German, Russian, and Spanish as language electives. We had a pair of wonderful teachers: John Stachowiak, who taught Latin and Russian, and John Greene, who taught French and German and also offered early-morning enrichment courses in Swahili and Portuguese. Both men were graduates of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which is the training ground for many in America’s diplomatic and intelligence services.

2. See The Insurrection of 2017 from January 29, 2017.

3. In my defense, the novel originally started as an outline from one of my potential collaborators, but the senior author dropped out of the project when shown the completed manuscript. The book was subsequently published under my own name as a solo effort. To quote from Cardinal Richelieu in The Four Musketeers: “One should be careful what one writes … and to whom one gives it. I must bear those rules in mind.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Something Outside Yourself

The other night I was watching a movie about an unhappy woman, actually three unhappy women. It doesn’t matter which movie it was, because it seems that these days all the movies and books are about unhappy people—except for science fiction, where people are usually running or fighting for their lives, and movies based on comic books, where the main characters are superheroes with no personal problems at all who are fighting each other.1

Anyway, at one point in the movie I said to myself, “This woman needs to go write a book.” Not, mind you, not a book about her unhappy life, her frustrations, her poor choices, and her existential ennui. God, no! But a book about something other than and outside of herself, like the conflicts and eccentricities of the Tudor dynasty, or the life cycle of the sand flea, or the probability of finding life on Mars. “Go write a book”—that’s my solution to life’s problems and the greater issue of life’s existential meaning.

This is because, since the age of sixteen or maybe even a few years before that, I have felt the psychological pressure to write novels. No, rather, I have accepted the psychological burden of knowing that my purpose in life was to line bookshelves, to tell stories in the 60,000-word range, to invent unreal people in unreal situations and then observe and report on them. Whatever you want to call this activity, it has been part of my function in life which I have totally accepted and left unquestioned and unexamined. My daily business for as long as I can remember has been to eat and sleep, bathe and groom, exercise for health reasons,2 attend to the paying job and all its obligations,3 take care of the family, read for pleasure, do household chores, walk the dog, plus think about the book currently in hand and make time to sit down and push the page marker forward.

My books don’t have a message; I’m not promoting a political or economic agenda. They are not a reflection of my life; I’m not trying to tell my story or explain my point of view. Other than the fact that the plots and characters come out of my own thoughts and experiences, and so must reflect something of the way I think and feel, these are people and situations meant to stand on their own. The books come through me, like light through a prism. I have no sense of actually originating them, and when they are finished, I feel no special glow of recognition for them.

Whether these books are good or bad is really not my concern.4 I work on the story and the text until they are as good as I can make them. When I’m done, the book is as good as it can be. But whether other people will find it good, or interesting, or worth reading … that’s not something I can control. Whether the book will sell and make money is a matter of speculation, not purpose. If an agent or editor told me I would sell x percent more copies or make y percent more money by writing in a different way, or in another genre, or taking the story in a different direction5 … that’s not something I can really do. The stories are coming through me, originating outside my conscious control—if anywhere, from the depths of my subconscious—and I’m not the master of that process.

I did not intend this meditation to be an explanation of my writing process, other than to show it is something outside myself. The act of writing and completing a book exists, for me, as something more important and more meaningful than what I am thinking or how I am feeling at any one time. If I am feeling lazy, bored, or sad at the current moment, I cannot invigorate myself or cheer myself up by turning to the writing—not unless I already have an outline in hand and the story is active in my brain, insisting that it be written. And when the story is “hot” and ready to be told, it doesn’t matter if I’m sad or tired. I must drop what I’m doing, go to the keyboard, and start telling it. All I know is that, at the end of the day, if I have solved a knotty plot problem with a solid patch of outline, or written a scene that worked and advanced the marker—or, when I was at the paying job, had just finished writing a long and technically important article or procedure—then I know a sense of peace. For that day, at least, I have fulfilled my purpose. The internal word tank is empty, and a new idea has been made real on the screen, in the file, eventually to appear on another screen or on paper for someone else to read.

When I tell the unhappy women in that movie they should “go write a book,” what I mean is they should find something bigger, more important, more involving than their own lives, something outside of themselves which demands attention and offers fulfillment. They should find that thing and surrender to it, dedicate their lives to it, leaving it unquestioned and unexamined. I say this not because they are women—oh, no!—but because they are human beings. For some women, taking care of their children and their families are a greater purpose in life. Just as, for some men and women, building a professional career and making money are that greater purpose. But if someone can take up those burdens and still feel angst and ennui, then I would place children or career among those basic life tasks along with exercising, doing household chores, and walking the dog.

For Michelangelo, the greater purpose was the Sistine Chapel ceiling and, also, releasing heroic figures trapped in marble. For Mother Teresa, it was helping the poor of Calcutta. For some people, it’s volunteering in the community, taking up a political cause, acting in amateur theatricals, or making music. For some, it is becoming a good soldier, or a surgeon, or the Wichita lineman. The point is, the undertaking must be active, not passive, and the effort must be all-consuming, not a pastime. It must be the thing that, when you are doing it, you live more brilliantly; when you are unable or prevented from doing it, you die by inches. For some people, it is enough to ask God to reveal their place in His plan—but for me, that’s like waiting to conceive the plot and characters of the next book, which will take me through the next twelve to eighteen months to complete.

The tragedy of the human condition is that life on Earth has no particular purpose. Your father’s sperm met and fertilized your mother’s egg, and so you are here. At a greater remove, DNA acquired the ability to encode and retain certain protein sequences—or, if it misplaced them, to invent new ones—and so life appeared. For all plants and the vast majority of animals, this is enough. Eat and sleep, groom, fight, and reproduce are all the purpose their lives need; the animal’s occupation and its goal are simply survival. But for human beings—and maybe for dolphins, whales, and elephants, too—with our larger and more complex brains that engender self-awareness and raise questions, mere survival is not enough. Because we conceive of ourselves as unique beings, and not replications of a species type, we seek for ourselves a unique purpose, something of our own to do, greater than survival.

Life itself, mere existence, will not give you this purpose. It is our greatest freedom—and life’s great trap—that each person must choose and decide for him- or herself what purpose, what destiny, this life will fulfill. It does not have to change the world or leave a monument to which others will look up and offer praise. It does not even have to be something that others will understand. And it may not be something that you have bravely and consciously chosen for yourself. My focus on books came, I think, from my grandfather’s love of reading and collecting certain authors. And then, somewhere in there, someone else in the family—perhaps my father—might have praised the works of a particular author. And I do remember reading, at a young age, that Nathaniel Hawthorne once told his mother he did not think he would be much good at the law or medicine, but what if he could give her a nice little shelf of books to read?

In this way, grandparents, parents, families, and teachers shape and point the earliest ideas of young children. They place the notions and start them spinning to become lifelong passions. And those of us who grow up to follow those passions risk everything—love, health, sanity, and even life itself—to fulfill them. And we are thereby fulfilled.

1. All right, the movie I was watching was The Girl on the Train. It’s about three women immersed in their own problems, which they eventually find out are the same problem. Plus, of course, booze is involved.

2. Because I do karate katas as a form of aerobic exercise, the workout also helps maintain my balance, coordination, flexibility, and psychological preparedness against attack.

3. Or this was part of my life until I retired. Now the book writing is my day job. It doesn’t pay much, but that’s not the point.

4. Here I am reminded of the line in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters: “A man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.” I find that thought comforting.

5. For a while, at Baen Books, I wrote collaborations at the direction of the publisher. That is, I accepted an outline and partial notes—in whatever state of preparation—from a senior author and sat down to write the book; then the senior author would get a chance to read and correct it. I found this process tremendously instructive, because it gave me insight into how other authors think and prepare. These weren’t my books, of course, but like the books I wanted to write, they came from somewhere outside myself, and I could do the work. And no, they didn’t make much more money than the novels that came out of my own head.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Practical Kōan

It is a common thought that all religions are based on some acceptance of the supernatural and the mystical as the basis of belief. God or gods, angels or other divine beings, the environs of the afterlife encompassing either eternal ecstasy or unrelenting torment, and the minds of the priests or shamans who are in touch with these things are all supposed to be matters beyond or outside of the real, mundane, everyday aspects of human life. To be religious is thought to be entering another plane which does not touch the world as the average person perceives it.

This may be so for mystery, just-so religions like Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam. But from my own study, I have found Buddhism—that is, the mind practices of Hinayana Buddhism, as originally taught by Gautama, rather than the social worship of Mahayana Buddhism, as practiced in most countries today1—to be eminently practical and not at all supernatural. True, some of the sutras, the dialogues of the Buddha, can be obscure and flowery, but the teaching itself rests on common sense and good psychology.

One of the supposedly mystical aspects of the Zen Buddhist tradition are the kōans, or questions, puzzles, and riddles used in meditation. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What is your original face before your mother and father were born?” These ask you to explore the concepts of duality and oneness: it takes two hands to make a clapping sound; it takes a father and a mother to make a baby.2

The purpose of the kōan—as nearly as I understand it, and one must always qualify one’s understanding of Zen with humility—is to interrupt the normal, everyday chatter of the active mind, which keeps throwing out words and sequences, images, memories, and logical interpretations of everything that is passing through the forefront of our brains. The kōan is meant as a logical impossibility, an irresolvable question, and so an end of logic and a stilling of the active mind. Once the little squirrel inside the wheel stops its endless spinning, the mind can be at peace and open to new ways of seeing and interpreting the world.

Unlike the catechism, scripture, or doctrine passed along in other religions, Zen has no object, no direction, no predictable endpoint, and no core teaching that can be put succinctly into words and formulas. It is not about turning the student into something, but turning him or her out of old habits and everyday perceptions. No system of thought or doctrine can, by itself, create a clear and settled mind. You must do that for yourself, because your mind, your mental habits and thought patterns, are unique. You alone know best about your own mind and its workings.

Some commentaries suggest that the purpose of these kōans about clapping hands and faceless babies is to force the meditating student to confront—and become one with—the nonduality of subject and object. In this sense, Zen might almost be the spiritual precursor to quantum theory, because it turns observation and action on their heads. It teaches—that is, one of its core ideas postulates—that the observer and the subject under observation are not separate. “Look at the flower, and the flower also looks.” Or, rather, when you detect a quantum particle, the act of detection also changes the particle’s momentum and direction. So you can know where the particle is, or where it’s going, but not both.

Like quantum mechanics, Zen is usually repugnant to the everyday mind. In our normal state, into which we are essentially born and which becomes confirmed by our every social interaction, most of us assume that what goes on inside our heads—my thoughts, my perceptions, my values, my life—is separate and distinct from whatever is going on outside in “the world.” There is the existence of I-me-my and the existence of you-they-them-it, and the two are separate. In the greater view, the perspective that resides somewhere above our skulls and—for some people at least—might be thought of as the god’s-eye view, there is no I-or-you, no I-or-they, but only one system of reciprocating interaction, cause and effect, playing out eternally.

When you become attuned to this level of thinking, then you can attempt to still your mind, close down those actions and reactions, and “disappear from the play” or “go out like a candle”—which was the whole point of nirvana. Not a state of unending bliss, but a final rest from the oppression of being and becoming. To enter nirvana is to achieve the stillness from waking each day—or, in the Hindu tradition of reincarnation, returning after death to another new life—and climbing the same hill, finding your way anew, struggling to make your life function, reacting to pressures and influences, igniting more pressures and influences, and remaining caught in the middle, like a fly struggling in a web.3

Much of the original Buddhist teaching is filled with poetic language that I find simply impenetrable. But the Zen variant is often clear and practical. The stories are meant to impart a simple understanding.

For example, in “A Cup of Tea,” a university professor visits a Zen master. The master pours him a cup of tea, and when the level reaches the brim, the master keeps pouring. The professor watches and finally says the cup is full; no more will go in. The master replies that the professor’s mind, like the cup, is full of opinions and ideas. He cannot show the professor Zen unless the man firsts empties his cup.

In “Eating the Blame,” the cook at a Zen monastery is late in preparing the evening meal. He rushes into the garden and begins hurriedly chopping up greens for the monks’ soup. Unfortunately, in the process he collects and chops up a small snake. When the soup is served, the abbot pulls from his bowl the snake’s head. “What is this?” he asks in astonishment, because the monks are supposed to be strict vegetarians. “Oh, thank you, Master!” the cook exclaims and pops the snake head into his mouth.

In “Black-Nosed Buddha,” a young nun has a statue of the Buddha covered in gold leaf. She enters a shrine where there are many Buddha statues, each with incense burning before it. She wants to burn incense, too, but for her own statue and not share it with any other. She makes a funnel to guide the perfumed smoke to her Buddha’s nose. The smoke blackens the nose and makes the golden statue ugly.

These are not specifically riddles but stories about relationships and perspectives—being open to ideas, accepting blame in an intolerable situation, sharing blessings with others—that are the components of a magnanimous, or “great-souled,” existence. They are good psychology rather than any kind of mystical doctrine.4

For me, that is the attraction of Buddhism, in its original variant, over other religions. It does not require belief. Instead, it asks for patience and acceptance of principles that anyone can understand.

1. Hinayana translates as “Lesser Vehicle” and refers to the strict moral and mentally purifying practices taught in the earliest form of the religion, by which a person achieves release from the wheel of rebirth, quiets the endless give and take of personal karma, and so prepares him- or herself to enter the condition of nirvana. And that does sound pretty mystical, doesn’t it? Mahayana translates as “Greater Vehicle” and refers to the later definitions of the religion, where advanced souls, the bodhisattvas, can be prayed to and will intercede for and share their good karma with less advanced souls in order to hurry them along the route to salvation.

2. Clearly, the riddle is not meant to be something that only a clever mind can answer. “One hand clapping” is not the sound of snapping fingers. Nor is it an invitation to indiscriminately approach the experience of reality, so that the “clapping” is something universal or whatever you happen to be hearing at the moment. If the answer were that simple, it could be published in a book of proverbs or jokes with the punchlines spelled out and explained.

3. It is ironic that the Hindu idea of reincarnation—that what happens after you die is not an actual ending, fearsome death, but a return to life in a new body—has generated a sense of ennui and discontent. It is an oppressive vision of eternal climbing and slipping back, life after life, with no possible escape. Even the thought of sitting on a cloud in Heaven, playing the harp and singing with the angels … forever can be oppressive.

4. For more such stories and perspectives, see Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps and The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism by Garma C. C. Chang. The latter was one of the first books I edited—and really very lightly—while working at the Pennsylvania State University Press.