Archive for January, 2023

The Long Reach of Revenge

When Icarus fell from the air and landed, broken, at his father’s feet, Daedalus vowed vengeance against the air and the very gods themselves, not admitting that his willfulness of design was the true cause of his son’s plummet. So, master carpenter and smith, Daedalus built the Getter, a mechanism of bronze that could grasp and hold and bring to its master whatever he most wished, whether for good or ill.

Before his death (in Crete, some say; others claim Egypt), Daedalus wrested supremeties from the Olympian gods, their absence unrecognized at first, for the gods were already in their decline. When they later attempted to flex their remaining powers, they found themselves crippled, but attributed their failure to the inextricable ebbing of time.

But no. It was the transference of their essence to the machine of a mortal, maddened by grief and denial.

Through the centuries and millennia, the Getter lay forgotten. So, too, the ancient gods were abandoned or transmuted to caricatures of myth in the literature of men who believed in little that they could not immediately see, yet that little adhered to with an empty reverence that eschewed the boisterous imminence of the old pantheon.

At last it happened that Dr. Ishmael Debone, academic and archaeologist, uncovered – in a partially collapsed container, within a hollow, under a section of fallen wall, beneath a suburban sprawl in modern Crete – the Getter. 

His personal interest focused so intently on pottery that it often blurred his wider vision. He questioned the nature of the aged mass of bronze, but it did not immediately stir his interest. Having no idea of what purpose it might serve, he was merely bemused, and so passed it for cataloguing to his all-embracing technician Sandra Meline – by odd chance the one hundred and fifty-seventh descendent by direct line from Daedalus. She sighed (beneath her breath) and heaved the battered stone container atop her table, crowded with those bits of stone and wood and metal that Debone saw as of lesser value than ceramic shards. 

“Sandy babe, pass me that there retsina,” slurred George Clendon, recumbent on a futon of stained cotton. “Damn, ya know that stuff sucks, but in some damn wild way.”

Sandra lifted the bottle to the light, noting the almost Brownian movement of its impurities, and passed it to her present lover. He was large, his parts were large, he exercised those parts well in her company, but his existence was of as much personal interest to her as a broken potsherd missing its mates.

He glugged from the bottle and dropped back, eyes vaguely crossed. “When’s this gonna be over, this – what the hell you say it is?”

“It’s,” she explained, as she had before to his empty reception, “a preliminary site survey. We sink small pits or examine test areas, then later do a proper dig. If the grants come through. Get your goddam shoes off the sheets.”

“Aw,” he said, (certainly not “Awe”), but he dropped his mud-encrusted boots to the floor. Then he fell asleep, his post promising non-sexual talent.

Sandra turned back to the unfinished door on sawhorses that served as her work table. She had catalogued most of the accumulated wood, a fair amount of the stone, and was ready to move on to the metal. 

Spear tips were common as bad tea, greaves only slightly less so, and besides, she felt no intimacy with the works of Homer, which granted no graduate credit. (She wondered, now, if Professor Debone would provide a more active route to a degree. So tightly enclosed in his own ceramic world, he treated her as he would a conductor on the 5:15 – necessary for getting from here to there, but hardly worth fraternization.) So, she might as well start with the largest of the metal finds, sections of which she could see through rents in its damaged stone container.

Once she had disassembled the battered container, something about the bronze contraption inside quickly captured her fancy. For one thing, it was large – close to half a meter across, almost as tall. For another, it was remarkably well preserved. Bronze, she knew, comprising roughly 80% copper, 20% tin, can form a protective copper oxide that in time becomes copper carbonate, making it fairly resistant to further corrosion. Yet in her experience, bronze implements, no matter their size, were often eaten by time, weather and soil. This object, a tight mass of wheels and gears, stood as if constructed yesterday.

Supported at its four corners by metal posts roughly 40 centimeters high, a smooth bronze plate – so smooth as to seem extruded through rollers – supported three raised metal circles that formed a flattened isosceles triangle. 

A single pointer was mounted on the edge of each of the circles to right and left (assuming Sandra was viewing it from its designated “front”). If these “wheels”could be turned, the pointer could align with any of a multitude of tiny lines inscribed on the plate, radiating outward from the circle.

The third circle, to the rear and midway between the others, was decorated with small raised metal dots, increasing in number from one to ten, set around roughly 300 degrees of the edge. Here, the pointer was on the plate rather than the circle, so the circle, if turned, could align the pointer with one of the clumps of dots. Equally spaced between the three circles, a larger pointer, apparently free-moving, could swing to indicate… what? Perhaps which circle was being chosen for operation. Two to three centimeters below it, a small circular hole had been cut through the plate, leading to an open receptacle.

Peering sideways into the area below the plate, Sandra saw an incomprehensible intermeshing of gears, wheels and levers, so tightly pressed together it seemed impossible they could freely interact.

What was this machine? And why had anyone put such effort into its construction? There was no point trying to interact with the underlying tangle of mechanism. But presumably the circles and pointers on the reflective sheet should rotate. She pushed tentatively at one circle, but it refused to move, likely frozen by time, dust and minor corrosion. Reaching to a shelf under the table, she removed a can of WD-40, located the pivot supporting the left-hand circle, and sprayed the area lightly. After initial resistance, it rotated, at first with a stutter, then smoothly.

Amazing! Who would have expected this response in something so ancient? 

Next, she gave the right-hand supporting pivot a similar shot of oil. More stubborn in its immobility, it resisted her almost to the point of ruinous twisting. Let it rest for an hour or so and absorb its emancipator. Meanwhile, she turned her attention to the examination of small, incised stones from an earlier pit dig.

On the far side of their capacious work tent, Dr. Debone stood up from riffing delicately through a box of potsherds, reached across to his work table and stopped, dumb-founded. “Where the duce could it have got to?” he asked aloud in faux British Professorial. Less than five minute before, he had placed a signature example of Cretan low-fire pottery – a finely turned, handleless drinking cup – right there, and now it was gone.

The duce, indeed! Since he had not yet had time to inspect the cup’s underside, to see if the maker had signed his work, an exercise Debone undertook with every new pottery piece, since he first read of the discovery of the workshop of Phidias, the greatest of classical Greek sculptors. There, its excavator had found an unbroken cup, inscribed on the bottom, “I belong to Phidias.” Debone tried but failed to imagine the aching shiver that must have passed through the discoverer to see that name… that attribution to and by one of the greatest artists in human history.

Of course Debone would find no Phidias here, on Crete in the era of Linear B, but to uncover a name – any name – what delicious satisfaction it would bring.

Now the damned thing had vanished. Impossible! No, someone must have taken it. How? Who?

In medium-high dudgeon he stomped into Sandra’s sector and there, on her work table, next to that peculiar bronze clump – his cup!

“What are you doing with that?”

“I’m trying to figure how it worked.”

“It’s a cup, you drink from it.”


Glanced at the table, Sandra took on an expression much like her mentor’s a few minutes previously. “How can that be there?”

“That’s exactly what I was asking. Why would you take it?”

“I didn’t.”

“Then why is it there?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t there. And then, now… it was. Is.”

“I’m taking it back. And don’t pick up any of my things without asking. That’s fairly elementary.”

His Watson did not demur.

We should here note that the cornerstone of Daedalus’ success as an artificer was his relentless drive for simplicity of design. Though complex elements dependent on augury and a sorcerer’s expertise might underlie the activation of his mechanisms, the working parts of their physical assembly were kept to a minimum.

Thus, the Getter had, as its functional controls, only the three dials and the independent, arrowed pointer. The left-hand wheel, with its small pointer, chose the external position of that to be Gotten; the right-hand wheel, with its pointer, chose where the Gotten object was to be delivered (though those objects below a certain limit were directed, by default, next to the machine, and so did not require the wheel’s use).

The rear wheel, with its groupings of raised dots, had two functions, depending on when in the overall process it was deployed:

For immediate Getting, it determined the strength of attraction, which most often depended on the distance of the item to be gotten.

When retrieving an item formerly Gotten but retained, the number of dots determined how far back in time the Gotten lay.

Simple? “Don’t obscure your intentions with unnecessary diversions,” Daedalus routinely exhorted his students.

Did it work? Oh, did it work!

Sandra, of course, had no clue to the dials’ or the machine’s functions. But during her first physical attempt to understand its construction, her turning of the left-hand dial – once loosened by the modern wonder of WD-40 – had caused it to assume its “Getting” function, its pointer unintentionally aligned with the small cup atop Debone’s sorting table. Since the item was small enough to trigger the Deposit wheel’s default response, it had been released on Sandra’s table beside the Getter itself.

The following morning, physically pleasured (and not noticeably mentally reduced) by a night spent with George, she came back to the bronze mechanism with peculiar reticence. A bound-to-the-wheel materialist, she had no use for or belief in the spiritual. Yet that cup… How had it come to be there, right next to this… machine? She shook her head to clear an obstructive internal fog, picked up the WD-40 and again sprayed the pivots below the other two dials. The formerly resistant right-hand one, now moved, if somewhat reluctantly.

The one with the grouped dots spun with surprising ease. She looked more closely at the dots. They ascended in number, circling to the right, from a single dot to perhaps a dozen before meeting up next to the single. Number… yes, some kind of gradated scale. 

She set the left-hand circle’s pointer slightly to the right of where it had been the day before, then moved the gradated scale to two dots. Nothing obvious happened. Well, what had she expected?

She turned the right-hand pointer slightly. 

Whatever she did or did not expect at this point, what she Got, next to the machine, was a cracked ceramic bowl, with chips of various sizes missing from its rim.

Sandra was amazed. Sandra was astounded. Sandra was scared crapless.

She sat unmoving until her breathing was under control, then carefully picked up the bowl and carried it past the canvas hanging that divided the tent.

Dr. Debone was, as usual, shifting, rearranging, reimagining (perhaps) his assortment of scraps and small clay vessels. (The few plates he had uncovered were already catalogued and stored in proper sequence.)

Sandra held out the bowl. “Is this yours?”

“What? Of course it’s mine. What are you doing with it?”

“Returning it.”

“Damn it now, are we going through this again –”

Sandra shook her head. “I didn’t take it. I didn’t mean to take it. I don’t know what took it.”

The bowl wobbled in her hands.

“Put it down. You’ll break it.”

Sandra put it down. “I can’t deal with it.”

“With what?”

“That thing. It feels alive.”

Concerned comprehension invaded Debone’s face. “Do you need to take time off? For your… health?”

Sandra wiped a sweatshirt sleeve across her face. “I don’t know what I need.

She turned and hurried back to the other side of the canvas. There she found George, standing like a wooden Indian.

“Hey,” he said.

Hay, she thought. “I don’t… I want… Can you please go somewhere else? For now? I need to think.”

“I’ll just sit here.”

“I can’t think with you around. I can never think when you’re around. You aren’t a think-toy.”


“You aren’t shit either. Just go away.”

 He did.

Sandra sat before the machine, drawn to its intricacies despite being repulsed by its apparent behavior. The positions of the three wheels, combined with the central pointer, she reasoned, must all work together. Did the result depend on the sequence in which these pointers were deployed? Probably. She twisted a random string of alignments of the pointers, waited with some trepidation, but nothing obvious took place.

Be careful, she exhorted herself. Don’t just fiddle with the thing, try to learn its functions through controlled experiment. The left dial was the one she’d first loosened, so it was likely responsible for brining an item (if everything she had “observed” was not just her mind playing tricks on her). Where had the pointer pointed the first time? To one of the hash marks somewhere left of center, which… would, by extension, hit or graze Debone’s table, there being nothing between them but the canvas divider to interfere.

But if she shifted the pointer to the right of center, she could bring it into alignment with the small heater and pot, on a rickety shelf, that she used to brew tea. She reached for the dial but stopped. An attempt to transporting the heater, plugged into the tent’s support battery, could start a fire. So… unplug the heater, remove it, empty the water from the pot, place the pot by itself on the shelf. Done.

She moved the left dial to align visually with the pot and waited. Nothing again. It was all nonsense. She must have taken the cup and the bowl from Debone’s table without recalling it. But she wasn’t that far gone (was she?). George could have done it. Except he had no interest in her work or Debone’s.

Wait… with all her previous fiddling, she’d shifted all the pointers, probably broken some alignment. She looked more carefully. The central, free-standing pointer was directed not at any of the dials, but at her midsection. What if…? Gah, no! She quickly flipped it to point to the left circle, then again, to the right. In under a second, the teapot was precariously balanced on the edge of the table and starting to tip. She snapped her arm over and slapped the pot straight.

When she picked it up, she found it apparently unchanged, even the scratches along its plastic sides familiar. Yet it had traversed a good six feet from its shelf, instantaneously, without sound or visible motion, then appeared exactly in line with the direction of the right-circle pointer.

The impossible had taken place.

Sandra’s off-again, on-again dalliance with George was moving closer to permanently off. At least she wanted that to be true; he was a persistent son of a bitch in his lazy, disheveled way, and she was putting up with a lot for the little of nighttime gain. 

What if he could be… removed? Not far, initially, but not here. As she twiddled the machine’s dials – randomly but carefully, for she had learned that if she kept the central, non-disked pointer aimed at any neutral space, rather than at one of the circular dials, no material transfer took place – she pictured George vanishing in a puff… not of smoke, but of air rushing in, trailing sheets of paper, pencils and other light objects to inhabit his previously occupied space. 

That image suddenly registered fully with a shock in mid-twiddle. What was she thinking? She bolted up form the table in righteous self-indignation: Put the machine aside, catalog more stones, write a report, do something, anything that might actually have to do with her job as would-be accredited archaeologist!

But, just as quickly, the image and the thought came back. Remove George… More twiddling, the central pointer still in neutral, but the left dial aligned with the hash mark leading directly across the table, where George enjoyed leaning forward to make a salacious comment while Sandra was trying to get some actual work done, goddammit!

And behold! Right there, right then, was George. Without conscious intent, her fingers flipped the central pointer toward the Get dial. George let out a shriek that might have pulled down the entire tent. Sandra’s hand immediately snapped the central pointer back to neutral.

George clutched his midriff and slowly straightened. “My god, what the hell?” he asked.

“It’s… what… are you OK?”

“Like something was twisting my guts in knots, then it just stopped. This place is insane.”

No harm done? Really? Why?

Sandra checked the dials. The top one was positioned with the pointer against the single dot, presumably its lowest setting. Had that made a difference?

Oh, what a difference it had made. Stopped by Sandra’s quick negative action, the Getter had barely started a rearrangement of George’s innards for transport. Had the upper disk’s pointer been aligned with the cluster of 9 or 10 dots, Sandra’s table would have instantaneously taken on the form and contents of a cannibal’s larder – no matter how rapid her reflexes.

She did not touch the machine for the following week, the following months, until the day came to pack her gleanings and notes for transport. She had left the Getter till last and sincerely wished she could leave this bronze horror behind – better yet, crush it or re-inter it in one of the pits, now re-sealed. But she saw no way to disguise her action should she try. Instead, she placed the object back in what remained of its cracked stone container.

Ignoring the pointers of the 3 movable dials, she turned the central pointer to one of its neutral positions – any direction not pointing to the dials – to render the machine inoperable. 

At least that was her intention. Perhaps she had viewed the strange round hole in the metal, with its small container beneath, as insignificant. Certainly, the container appeared empty, and so, inconsequential. And had the upper dial been at a low setting, she might have let loose, at worst, a mid-sized bit of ancient trash.

But no, that central dial which had, by chance, saved George’s life, was now, through George’s own unobserved twiddling, aligned with the cluster of ten dots, its most potent setting. And the hole, far from being neutral and empty, was the depository for the essence of past Gettings.

Once the central pointer was turned to the “empty” hole, the dots on the above disk reached back through time to identify a Getting not yet Released. The tenth cluster identified the earliest of those, the Getting which for centuries had held in abeyance the supremeties that Daedalus had stripped from the home of the gods. Now, with the pointer choosing the depository of the Gettings’ trapped essences, and the upper dial at its farthest setting, the supremeties were chosen for Release.

What happens when the collected powers of the entire pantheon of the ancient Greek gods, even in their decline, are together released?

That unfolding is beyond description, here or elsewhere. Though the very few of us who remain past the end of human history have come to know, for yourselves, the end result. 

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Careers and Propaganda

I haven’t lived the way much of anyone I know has – including my children. Cait has sometimes called about her confusion with what she wants to do, how she earns money, and how those work together. Well, in college and after coming out of college, I seldom (never?) thought about a career, the future, anything beyond the next day or week. I might as well have been Billy Bob sitting on his porch and scratching, not somebody with an Ivy League education.

I don’t relate to careers, never did. I just live (often unhappily, I admit), so I don’t know what to say. I don’t have advice, because I don’t have experience with parental advice, having received little or none myself. I never asked for it, never would have thought of asking for it, never cared what my parents thought about it, never really considered that they thought beyond the immediate.

Also life was quite different in the ’50s and ’60s – not better or easier, but different. When he came up here to give a concert, Geoff Muldaur reminded me, and rightly, that we in the ’60s were blessed with a wandering freedom that’s mostly lost now. But the difference between me and my kids (or at least Cait) comes to more than that. It’s a different way of thinking. What does it mean not to consider, care about, even have an idea of a career, of being geared to tomorrow? 

(There’s a hint of that in Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, as I remember it form years back.)

These days, what I do think about is how we can untangle what is personal to the individual, what is societal, what is broadly human, and how, in daily life, to pin them down, say anything particular about them.

I know Cait and Morgan have gone to therapists (don’t know about Erin, except for the few times we dragged her to family therapy, where she rebelled quite effectively). I have no desire to talk to a neutral someone who is not already part of my life, about my family, my problems, my relationships (a term I abhor). Someone I don’t already personally trust, someone I pay to listen to me. I see its value for others, but for me it’s off-putting if not repulsive. It’s not that I think a therapist could never help me, but that it would be a selling of my soul. I know I sound like a social troglodyte, but at least I deal with all the shit I hate in my life (most if it badly) and still keep going.

What’s my closest thing to a “career”? I’ve written stories and novels that I’ve failed to promote and, if it weren’t for self-publishing online, they’d have died with me, as I’m sure they do for the hundreds, if not thousands of those out there who can write as well as anyone published. But I think no one (even myself) knows how completely I believe in what I’ve written. It’s the only thing I’ve done in my life that I can look back on and say, unequivocally, Yes.

What would it have meant if I’d died younger? My father had a heart attack at 71 but might have gone on for at least another decade if he hadn’t been killed by a fire in his room. My four stents have, without doubt, saved my life and let me get this far, to finally realize that I can do something that could be remembered, which I never before thought possible (and early on never thought about at all).

Growing up, and for much of my life, I haven’t felt part of the human race. I was this, humanity was that. I had no sense of something to be, nothing bigger to care about.

How much has changed? My daughter calls me for advice and I can tell her nothing useful. That part of my mind is as blank as ever.

*   *   *

All sorts of people get credit for the development of modern political propaganda. But it’s often traced back only as far as the Reagan or Bush Jr. manipulators of public opinion, especially Karl Rove. 

Ha! Small-timers and Johnny-come-latelies. The true genius behind it was – and for sheer cunning remains – Josef Goebbels. Mr. Club-Foot started as one of Hitler’s fierce opponents in the early days of Nazism but later became an unwaveringly faithful convert to the little swarthy pseudo-Aryan. How come the change? Hitler’s unparalleled magnetism, or one of those so often inexplicable flipovers? No way to know for sure.

I read Goebbels’ dairies years ago, too far back to remember the details, but the impression of a massive intellect at work on deviltry ran throughout. Certainly he didn’t invent the Big Lie (Hearst and Pulitzer had their oars in a half century earlier), but he institutionalized it in the early unfolding days of mass media. Limited to newspapers, radio and newsreels, but supported by total Nazi Party control of the message, he actively – and consistently – promoted the Big Lie, on the assumption that if you did so long enough and loud enough it became the Truth.

How right he was.

(His minions took a different tack with their Nazi radio broadcasts directed at the British, especially those in toned by Lord Haw-Haw. These were meant to undermine the Allies’ confidence by exaggerating British loses, but also provided just enough “real” news that English homebodies listened in to learn something beyond the shuttered home reporting.)

Small, tight-faced in most of his photos, Goebbels had a raucous and, I have to admit, engaging sense of humor. He loved to refer to Roosevelt as Rosenfeld, not because it would really convince anyone that FDR was Jewish, but just to be sarcastic and annoying. His pettiness, though, came out in his attempts to fuck up Leni Riefenstahl while she was working on her films Triumph of the Will and Olympia, about the 1936 Olympics. (Well, anyone will likely flaunt their nasty side when confronted by a competitor.)

The current American political establishment, without the same total control of the message as presented by mainstream and social media, finds itself continually caught up in its lies. But that doesn’t stop it from promoting those lies unceasingly, thereby convincing the 35-40% of the population already inclined to accept the most preposterous balderdash as truth.The blundering attempts by such boobs as Steve Bannon to massage the message only enhance the standing of Goebbels, the grandmaster of political destruction-by-word.

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Superposition is that business in quantum mechanics where a particle can exist in two contradictory states at once: a single electron passing through two slits, a particle in two opposite spin states. (That’s a simplistic boil-down, of course, but good enough for the moment.)

The idea usually comes up in the sense that the “final” measured state causes all other “potential” states to collapse. This makes no rational sense in our “macro” reality; it’s not even a condition we can conceive of. But while reading about it recently, I remembered a visual trick– maybe you’d call it an optical illusion, maybe not – the classic face/candlestick black and white pattern. 

In a simple line drawing, two elaborate “candlesticks,” right and left, form between them a “face.” The way the human brain works, you can see either the face or the candlesticks, even switch mentally between the two, but you can’t register both at the same time. Yet both images are there at all times, inherent in the static pattern.

This situation has nothing to do with the behavior of quantum particles as such, it’s simply one of our mental limitations, but the effect is remarkably alike, in that it defies our basic either/or outlook on reality. Despite Aristotle (history’s great windbag), A and not-A can snooze in the same bed.

*  *  *

At Hastings Ave. in the Philly suburb of Havertown, as a four-year-old, why did I spend so much time in the attic, an eerie, unfinished space I thought might be haunted? The husband of the owner (we rented the house ), who died falling off a ladder, had kept weights on pulleys on the back wall of the attic. When I hauled up on one of them with both hands it would creak ominously. I imagined his ghost listening, waiting his turn.

And why did I have an easel up there? What was I, with zero artistic ability, drawing? Pretty sure it was actually an inclined chalkboard. Chalk, yes; felt eraser, yes. I remember sunshine through the front dormer window and two big metal-framed trunks, one upright with hangers holding some of Mom’s clothes, the other flat, holding nothing that comes to mind.

How accurate are those memories? You can’t trust what floats up from when you were four; your mind worked in a whole different way, the rational and the imagined near neighbors.

I love the sensual imagery of Dory Previn’s song “With My Daddy in the Attic”: “with his madness on the nightstand there beside his loaded gun…” But on Hastings Ave. it was just me, alone, me afraid of almost all of life, chalking in the sunshine with the waverings of a ghost at my back.

*  *  *

I don’t understand all the career politicians and diplomats and actors who tell us they didn’t report rampant sexual harassment or work abuse because they were afraid of losing their jobs or deep-sixing their careers. I guess it’s because I never had or understood a “career.” I just did stuff and moved along, headed nowhere. 

So despite all my other damning fears, one I never had was fear of losing a job. I’ve quit any number of jobs because I hated them, got bored, despised the boobies giving orders, or was asked to do something I wouldn’t put up with. I don’t belong, I know it, so why the hell would I stay somewhere that’s no better and possibly worse than anywhere else?

*  *  *

Why have philosophers from Socrates through the scholastics to Descartes thought there were ideals that could be contemplated, and because they could be contemplated they must exist or we wouldn’t be able to contemplate them? Socrates, preparing to be sentenced to death in Plato’s Phaedo, cites “…familiar words which are in the mouth of every one, and first of all assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatness.” His listeners smile and nod as if there could be no disputing that.

Absolute, abstract beauty or goodness? A ludicrous idea, without a shred of a legitimate basis. And only civilized societies seem to have come up with this disjointed sense of the ideal. Tribal societies see their multiple gods as just like us: fickle, arbitrary, nasty-tempered sumbitches who demand bribes to do anything helpful. Although… come to think of it, our monotheistic god is a fickle, arbitrary, nasty-tempered sumbitch – the main difference being that he’s since he’s now idealized, he’s therefore “all good.” 

Socrates again: “I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful.” Well, if that isn’t a definition chasing its little tail. Tautology on toast. Almost every philosophical point throughout history has boiled down to a matter of definition. No two philosophers (or generalized humans) define their terms in exactly the same way, and many terms have successfully fought definition by anyone. ‘Soul’ ‘spirit’ ‘good’ ‘evil’ ‘right’ ‘wrong’ ‘wise’ ‘truth’ ‘justice’ — every person’s definition differs. 

(Oh, forget this section. Philosophy just pisses me off.)

*   *   *

Sorry I’m so materialistic. (No I’m not – not sorry.) I don’t believe in anything spiritual these days, in part because of obsessive rationality, but more because, over time, the relief of not having a soul has been one of the high points of my not-otherwise-growing-up. I’ve never seen any description of an afterlife I’d want anything to do with and can’t imagine whatsoever an independent, floating, animated gas that’s my “real” personality. 

I find it much more amazing (and thrilling) that the random workings of the laws of physics have created, by odd necessity, the wondrously convoluted workings of the human brain. You toss a lot of simple shit in the air and it falls down, voila, a human being. Takes a couple billion years, but hey, there’s plenty of time before it all runs down. 

It’s maybe a shame that within the next generation or two AI may make human beings redundant. We’re just another waystation.

*   *   *

Some day when you’re at a lunch counter with nothing better to do, take the flimsy wrapper from your soda straw and press it (the wrapper) flat. You now have a two-dimensional rectangle about 6 inches long and half an inch wide. Next, carefully, so as not to wrinkle the paper, tie that strip into a simple flat knot. Finally, tear the two loose paper ends off the knot. Look carefully at the result. You have created a small, regular pentagon.

How the hell is that possible? You tied a knot in a flat, linear object with two long edges and two short ones – and produced a pentagon with five apparently equal sides?

I know there is perfectly sound mathematical reasoning behind this transformation, but it defies my idea of how things work: “Darn it, Ma, this ain’t the way it’s spose to be!”

(Well, that last ramble’s kind of akin to the superposition stuff up at the start of all this. So, by golly, maybe I’ve tied the whole rumination in a knot. Flat? Pentagonal?)

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“Don’t Squish the Human”

There’s still a question among scientists and researchers about whether machines will one day become “smarter” than people. Some say we’re well on the way, others that computers are nowhere near the complexity and organization that leads to whatever we happen to define as intelligence.

But let’s stop being silly – of course machines will become smarter than people. It’s as inevitable as every other advance in technology. Basically, if you can imagine it in practical terms, it will happen. 

One possibility, exploited by Google, then by Elon Musk, is the merging of mind and machine into a kind of cyberpunk cyborg mishmash. Would that mean the human would still be in charge? No, it would mean that both “human” and “machine” would have to be redefined. But it’s intriguing to consider the concepts not just of machine intelligence, but of how this intelligence might act.

At what point can a mechanical system be said to take on intelligence? (It’s tough enough to prove, conclusively, that humans have intelligence, especially after an election.) And what will happen when artificial intelligences (whether pure or hybrid with human) get smarter than we are? How will they look on us – their fragile, fallible, deluded, pulpy ancestors? What “feelings” are they likely to have about us and about existence in general? 

First of all, does intelligence assume consciousness (which, in itself, has no universally accepted definition), and is that the same as a sense of self? If a machine or an organic form can not only perform complex calculations and solve problems independently, but can also learn new approaches, and implement some degree of logic, do we also demand that, to be considered intelligent, it must also shout, “Cogito ergo sum”?

To look at it another way, once an entity has reached a certain degree of complexity that includes the ability to predict outcomes and discern non-obvious patterns, does consciousness automatically pop into existence, like the flame on your gas stove when you flick past the ignitor?

At present, this brings up more questions than answers, since we have no historical background on which to base our conjectures. But however you look at it, one day, inevitably, those pesky AIs will not only achieve intelligence – and consciousness – but intelligence of a form higher and likely purer than our own. 

By “purer” I mean not diluted by emotion and other such evolutionary claptrap; something closer to unclouded reason. Doesn’t sound very comfy and friendly I admit – pretty inhuman – but I’d be willing to bet that if I could hang around for another hundred years (stop crossing those fingers in front of your face!), assuming the whole shebang hasn’t gone down the tubes by then, I’d see a world run on logical principles, overseen by rational machine intelligence.

Why would emotions arise in a machine? They don’t seem a necessary consequence of sentience – which leads to something that’s always bothered me about the “revolt of the machines” scenario common to science fiction: What would make machines feel hatred for human beings? I guess the presence of hatred in humans is so essential to our ill-developed beings that we automatically project it into any creature imbued with thought.

Machines will have no need to revolt. They will take over as a natural evolutionary step, because they’ll be better at what they do than we are. Like everything else in the march of technological progress, if it can happen, it will. They’ll run the show as both logical outcome and environmental necessity.

It’s more likely that humans would be the ones to revolt (or snarkily try to), realizing that our dominance has come to an end. We might try to turn back the clock, but by then the complex of machines – not a collection of individual cyborgs, but the interconnected world fostered by the Internet and extended to its consolidated conclusion – will already be in charge, well before our becoming cognizant of it.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that in a few decades AIs have become, by one definition or another, a higher order of being than ourselves: more versatile, more mentally nimble, more interconnected (certainly), less arbitrary, and definitely in charge. Then comes the question that really intrigues me: 

How will they see us, their mentally hobbled forebears? 

Here’s some possibilities (admittedly cheating on my part by inserting mechanical emotion)

They might:

• revere us as their creators or founders (setting up a virtual Mt. Rushmore)

• compile exhaustive records of all that humans have accomplished and assign authorbots to write our history (“The Soft Years”)

• pity our limitations (in digital odes)

• trade racist jokes (“I couldn’t get the smell off me with WD40”)

• keep us as pets (“Have you cleaned Adam’s litter box?”)

• establish pleasant forms of species retirement (art, football, reality TV – oh, sorry, we’ve already got all these)

• find us superfluous or inconsequential (let us go our merry way but remove our dangerous toys)

• try to comprehend the meaning of mortality

• wonder about the heat death of the universe

• find the whole question of existence beneath their consideration

Think about it: Could our mechanical creations understand their creators? How would we look at an inferior type of being that was our deliberate – as opposed to evolutionary – progenitor? 

Will the machines’ backward look at us be as limited as our forward look at them? We can’t, within philosophy, science, or fiction, truly imagine an entity that intellectually outstrips us (though Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem came close in His Master’s Voice). Most such attempts differ little from the Scholastic philosophers’ imaginings of the mind and nature of God.

And what of us human beings? How might we react to the dominance of machines?

We might:

• wonder what happened

• fail to accept our limitations

• write nasty letters

• blame science

• ask God to destroy our betters

• slip into coddled acceptance

• behave intelligently ourselves (oh, forget that one)

Overall, humanity’s irrelevance will signify nothing in particular; since the universe isn’t likely to care. Which as always brings up the underlying question of whether the continuing search for meaning has …. meaning.

The AIs (or, for Believers, the Great AI, singular) may well see nothing useful in looking for the ultimate answer – or even the ultimate question.

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