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.