Sunday, July 28, 2019

The First Rule of Biology

Welsh dragon

I am not a thing; I am a process. That, applied to all living organisms, should be the first rule of biology. I—and you, your dog, your begonia, the cows and corn we raise for food, and the mold that lives in our drains—we may all appear to be solid objects, have substance, and react in many ways to physical forces (like, for instance, the accelerations of gravity). But all living beings are processes before we are things.

Why is this important? Because it will change the way we think about our own bodies and other creatures.

Take, for example, physical corrections like orthopedic appliances and procedures, or the orthodontic teeth-straightening that most of us endured as teenagers. All of these procedures are a fix for “right now,” for what ails us at this moment. But in the span of seventy, eighty, ninety years of life, the body inevitably changes. The new mechanical knee you had implanted at age sixty may not work as well at eighty because your bones are constantly reacting to physical stresses—strengthening webs of calcium here, hollowing out spaces there—and that new knee simply alters the stress points.

Or, in my case, where I began a process of tooth alignment with those “invisible” braces in my late sixties.1 I had one tooth on the left side of my lower jaw that had loosened because the teeth across the center of my mouth were collapsing inward, and one of them had actually taken a full step back behind the other three. That and a misalignment on my right side between the upper and lower jaws, where some teeth were not actually engaged, told my dentist (and so me) that in a few years I would start losing teeth. It wouldn’t be bad oral hygiene or gum disease—which is so often the case in tooth loss—but simply a lack of the bite pressure that keeps the bony socket firm in supporting each individual tooth. Teeth left hanging with no engagement from their opposite number eventually loosen and fall out. Two and a half years of realignment have fixed this problem—at least for now.

What I learned from the dentist is that the teeth in your mouth are always moving around and adjusting. So the perfectly straight teeth you acquired as a kid with your parents’ orthodontics bill will probably be snaggly and uneven again by the time you’re sixty. This is called living. It’s a process.

Take, for example, the issue of tattoos and how they change over time. Most people think that the artist injects the ink under the skin and it just stays there, like the pigments that the plaster layer absorbs in those medieval frescoes. But the reality is that ink, or any foreign object injected into the body, is first highly mobile and second considered an invasion by the body’s defenses. When the ink is injected, white blood cells called phages rush to the skin’s deeper layers and consume it. That is their purpose, to capture dead matter and dispose of it by allowing themselves to be processed into waste in the liver. But these cells become so engorged with the ink, which is plentiful in their surroundings, that they are trapped in place below the skin’s surface. This is why the tattoo artist advises you to keep the site covered, clean, and moisturized: you are protecting not only the surface punctures but the deeper “infection” to which these phages are responding and attempting to heal.

All cells have a lifespan, however, and when one phage dies in place, another enters to consume it and the ink it carried. This keeps the tattoo pattern in place, more or less. However, as the artist who did my two tattoos2 advised, over time the design will spread out on a millimeter scale—that’s the jostling of the phage cells as they consume one another and their loads of ink. And the tattoo will also fade—that’s the bits of ink that some of the phages get to carry away for disposal, along with the sun’s UV rays fading the ink itself. The process is ongoing for as long as you live. Nothing on or in the body is permanent.

And take, for example, the concept of beaming people across inconvenient distances in Star Trek. As I’ve written elsewhere,3 it does not matter how fast you decompose—that is, burn up—the human body to access and address each atom and molecule, nor how fast your computer takes in and correlates all this data, nor how big your “transporter buffer” may be. All that mapping of atoms and molecules, no matter how accurate, is still going to be ineffective.

The human body is not a thing but a process. Not only do these molecules move around inside the liquid medium of the cells; many of those molecules are also in a constant state of reaction: enzymes breaking larger molecules apart, or putting smaller molecules together, or copying strands of DNA for replication, or the hundred other processes that constitute life on a cellular level. In each of the thirty-odd trillion cells of the human body, hundreds of these reactions are taking place all at the same time. If the transport computer mistakes the direction of any number of these reactions, or interferes to the point of changing them, or causes the replication of a DNA strand to change, it will flood the body with poisons and mutations just as surely as a large dose of ionizing radiation. You might transport a brick from place to place, or even a ham sandwich without much harmful effect. But a living organism would be at great peril.

Our bodies and those of every living organism are constantly changing, growing, reacting, and also—just a bit—dying. This is what it means to be alive.

1. I never had orthodontia as a child. My parents didn’t think it was necessary, and I wasn’t vain about my appearance. Also, I had heard friends talk about the pain involved in the process and the inconvenience of chewing and brushing around the wires, and so I was thankful to be spared all that.

2. On the back of my right wrist I have a large semicolon, about an inch long. This is a commemoration and a warning about depression and suicide. On the back of my left wrist, for balance, I have a Welsh dragon, about an inch and a half square. Unlike the design shown on the flag of Wales, where the dragon is mostly a solid form with incidental lines, mine is more of an open design of loops and curls, taken from the website of the Devolved Government of Wales. The artist said this design would be easier to show as a tattoo, and it would not spread into an ugly red blotch over time. Why at all the Welsh dragon? Because that’s part of my heritage, and my late wife always loved dragons, that being her sign in the Chinese zodiac.

3. See Transporter Beaming from August 21, 2010.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Dream of Control

Surveillance camersa

A group of friends and I were having a friendly discussion the other night, and the subject turned to China, its growing economic power, and its growing social control. I said that I was not worried about China as a competitor. I don’t wish the country or the people ill, but they have built an economic miracle on what I believe are the wrong principles, and that will eventually doom them.

First, they have sacrificed everything for economic growth. The view from afar is that they have built infrastructure and facilities in excess of their current needs simply to notch up growth numbers. And in the process, they have made bad investments—those ghost cities sitting on the edge of the desert—and incurred massive debt. You can do this when you have a command-and-control economy that is intermittently beyond the reach of market forces. But those forces eventually come into play.

Second, they have built a manufacturing economy based on cheap pairs of hands. They bring peasants in from the countryside and offer them jobs in special economic zones where their own country’s labor laws are abridged. They use this cheap labor to make goods for foreign sale, and this has worked so far. But the manufacturing of the future is going to be automated: robots doing the tedious, mindless, dangerous jobs that humans have done in the past. Once robots and their control software are worked out, they are easily cloned and copied.1 When robotics, 3D printing, and interlinked supply chains take over in the next couple of decades, Western Civilization will have to figure out what it means to be human and how to keep people usefully occupied. And then having a billion pairs of relatively unskilled hands willing to work cheap just won’t cut it. Having an economy based on the “labor theory of value” will be a disaster.

Third, Xi Jinping’s and the Communist Party of China’s attempts to reassert control over the culture and its politics, after the lightening and leveling with the market-economy reforms under Deng Xiaoping, is going to backfire. China’s long history is one of loosening and tightening control under various emperors and dynasties—until the country snaps in a popular rebellion that overthrows the system, calls for a new “mandate” and a “rectification of names” (in Confucian terms, making words correspond to reality), and asserts a new social order. And then the process begins all over again.

When I made this last point, one of our friends raised the issue of the new social controls that China is instituting, with computerized surveillance, public facial recognition systems, and a new “social credit system” that will link a citizen’s access to government-controlled privileges and benefits like travel, job choice, and financial credit back to the state’s approval of his or her every expressed thought and action. Such control, this friend suggested, will make a social revolution impossible and will lock the ruling party’s power forever.

I don’t believe it. The idea that you can so completely control human beings—especially masses of them in a densely populated country—is a dream. It cannot work.

Consider Nazi Germany, which had an extremely effective and ruthless secret police, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police) or Gestapo, and yet in 1944 a group of politicians and general officers were able to orchestrate a plot and plant a bomb at Hitler’s feet. The fact that the coup failed was an accident. The fact that it got so far is a demonstration of human resourcefulness.

If the postal service is monitored and subject to interdiction, if the internet and email are subject to electronic surveillance, then you resolve to meet face-to-face, work through trusted couriers, and write nothing down. There are ways to avoid the strictest surveillance, although you may have to learn the art of codes and ciphers, and use invisible inks and flash papers.

Even then, you may be hounded by police spies—but you will also have the opportunity to access disaffected and trustworthy spies within the police. The party and the police are both human organizations, which means that every member ultimately keeps his own counsel. Yes, the state’s bureaucracy will have many fanatics whose loyalties are switched on by party rhetoric and permanently locked in place by idealism and careerism. But you will also encounter many underlings who are stuck in their current job with no chance of promotion, who see opportunity in a change of regime. And for every dedicated officer willing to sacrifice for the state you will have one or more who may have been forced to watch and turn in his own brother or sister, parent or child, and now bitterly regrets it. People are not idealistic robots.

Even robots are not robots. Any electronic surveillance system, any system of social monitoring and scoring, eventually delivers its data and summaries to a human decision point. And the person watching the monitors or reading the electronic files is not going to be Heinrich Himmler or Lavrentiy Beria himself. The head of the police organization spends too much time “managing upward” to involve himself with the doings of average citizens. No, he delegates the watching and reporting downward. And his immediate deputies are not going to do the daily dirty work, either. Ultimately, the summarizing and reporting will be in the hands of police lieutenants in each prefecture—and these are the people who will have the potential for either promoting or ignoring a negative report or suspicious contact, for blinking at the television monitor, for corrupting the system because they were passed over for promotion or regret their part in the system.

This is not to say that such a system will not do a massive amount of harm to innocent and well-meaning people. Or that efforts to break it are not dangerous. Or that plots against the state will not be detected. The system of police surveillance and social credit will be marvelously effective at harassing and harrowing the lives of average citizens. But it is not foolproof, and it is not ironclad, because this mechanical system will be run and managed by human beings in the interests of a human-based organization.

And finally, China has for years been training computer hackers and cyber terrorists in order to launch them against the West. Such people are by nature curious, restless, and inventive. A computerized system of public surveillance and social credit becomes more vulnerable the more completely it automates. Some internal Chinese hacker—likely whole groups of them—will surely be at work somewhere getting themselves and their friends erased from the system and building up social credits they can distribute at will in a dark market. You know this is going to happen, again because the system is run by human beings.

The dystopian vision of 1984, where every room is blasted with patriotic speeches and music from unswitchable television screens that also watch every citizen at work and play … is a fiction. Behind that all-seeing eye is not a singular Big Brother but a million Little Brothers, variable human beings. And some of them will keep their own counsel. It’s not a benevolent system—far from it!—but it’s not infallible, either.

1. See Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

A Strange Esthetic

Red file folder

I have an aversion to the obvious. The world that is apparent to the senses at first look, the answer to any question that comes first to mind, the most widely accepted social and political views—all of these fall somewhere between ennui and ick! with me.1

I prefer the second glance, the deeper meaning, the hidden truth. And that’s if I’m feeling philosophical. In other areas—music, for instance—I like the strange chord progressions, the minors over the majors, the first and fourth over the first and third, and the transitions that feel just a little bit “off” and odd. In paintings, I prefer bold but unusual color combinations, hues, and shadings, or perspectives that are slightly skewed. In photography, I like shots taken from an angle or from noticeably above or below eye level.

So a guiding principle in my writing—my esthetic if you will—is to avoid the obvious. It’s easy enough to tell a story from one point of view, the first-person narrative. Or from the omniscient narrator, who observes and reports all the action at once, sampling the story from inside A’s point of view and then, in the next sentence, popping into B’s head to get the reaction to whatever A has done or said. It’s easy enough to set the story in familiar old Grover’s Corners—the background of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—or the anonymous American suburbs that Steven Spielberg mined so artfully for his characters in many of his early movies.

To me, that’s bland and boring. And it lacks style. I much prefer a definite setting with a few kinks and quirks and special needs, like the summertime resort of Amity Island in Spielberg’s Jaws, where everyone is dependent on tourist dollars and so has an economic as well as a visceral reason for hating and fearing the shark. I’m not looking for an Everytown as the place to tell a story, but a town with an edge and maybe a secret.

This is one of the reasons that I have settled on telling my novels through the tangled stories of multiple characters and tightly controlling their viewpoints. In this form, every scene is told from the viewpoint—that is, from inside the head, as if written in first person but with third-person pronouns—of a single character. The narration tells, and the reader knows, only what is available through that character’s senses and perceptions, intuition and insights, and knowledge of the story so far. If I want to show the reader the immediate reaction of another character to what the viewpoint character has said or done, that reaction must be discernible from an exclamation, facial expression, or other clue visible to the viewpoint character—and it will depend on the viewpoint character being the sort of person to notice the reactions of other people in the first place.

Limiting the story to the separate viewpoints of a cast of characters forces me as a writer to consider and choose. That narrowed viewpoint is like someone holding a flashlight in a darkened room. (I’ve used this analogy before.) The viewpoint character’s attention, vision, understanding, and reactions can focus on one thing at a time. This is like stream-of-conscious writing, but with the ability for the character to reflect, recall, and question what he or she is perceiving and doing.

And then I let the reader, who is riding along inside the viewpoint character’s head, have his or her own reactions to the world as the character sees it. For example, if the character sees but does not note or distinguish an obviously misplaced object or clue, the reader is tacitly invited to note it for him- or herself and thereby wonder about the perceptions, understanding, and even the intelligence of the viewpoint character.

This kind of limit on the scope of my writing—and these mind games I play with the reader—force me out of the obvious ways of telling a story. The story doesn’t start just anywhere but in a particular place and time, and with a particular viewpoint. And from there, I am using the perceptions of the viewpoint characters to make the setting unique. Not just a china cup but a china cup with a crack in the rim, or fading paint in its design, or the character’s memories of the cup once sitting in Grandma’s china cabinet. The world in this place is not obvious, not simple, not the expected. It’s a different world, filtered through the perceptions—and sometimes the misperceptions and misunderstandings—of a particular person.

By avoiding the obvious, by looking for the strange, the skewed, the particular, I am forced to make the novel’s setting and circumstances come alive in my imagination and in the reader’s mind. I give the world an element of surprise leading—sometimes but not always—to a consideration of what might be new and different this time.

Of course, there is a danger in taking this aversion to the obvious too far. Some combinations of musical notes are not mysterious but simply discordant. Some color combinations are not only surprising but clashing and garish. And some stories so violate the norms of sensibility and end up in such bad places that readers are not enticed and intrigued but simply repelled. So, as always, the dominant force in the storytelling—as in music and art—is the creator’s sense of control.

The author’s imagination—as with the composer’s ear and the painter’s eye—can run all over the place. The artist can reach for the weird simply in order to be weird. The intent can be to create the strange rather than the interesting. And sometimes, if the artist is in a bad mood, to create the repellent and offensive, to trick the reader into stepping into a metaphorical manure pile and then, presumably, to laugh as the reader vainly attempts to wipe his or her shoes.

So the aversion to the obvious requires an element of restraint. In every art form, there are reader/listener/viewer expectations that are shaped and honed by experience and catalogued for the artist in volumes concerning poetics, music theory, or art appreciation. Stories, for example, don’t always require happy endings,2 but they do have to end in a place and manner that explain the actions that have gone before and render a set of consequences that the reader finds intellectually and emotionally satisfying. To push the story in a direction or to a conclusion that avoids the obvious to the point of not making any kind of sense would be a mistake.

But, that said, I do spend a lot of time between the first impulses recorded in my outline and the final set of words on the page looking for images, responses, and story lines that rise above the obvious first-take and arrive in someplace unique, interesting, and sometimes even surprising.

1. In fact, an element of my somewhat strange and dry humor is to state the obvious with a degree of apparent boldness, as if I were drawing a new insight, or absolutely deadpan. This usually gets me funny looks and explains why some people think I’m really kind of stupid.

2. For this, see my recent blog Classic Comedy from May 19, 2019.