Will AIs become more intelligent than humans? We can hope so
Interesting article in the Guardian a few months back on the possible “threats” from artificial intelligence:
“Can we stop AI outsmarting humanity?” (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/mar/28/can-we-stop-robots-outsmarting-humanity-artificial-intelligence-singularity?)
I doubt you’ll want to wend your way through the whole article, but basically it’s interviewing a few people who have kept a serious, lifelong interest in studying AI, from the standpoint of “where is it going?” and “what, if anything, should we do to contain it?”
The basic assumptions among the speakers– though with a great deal of personal variation – are
a) there are risks from what AI can do or lead to, and
b) we should consider ways to contain those risks that vary from unintentional reordering of society (likely) to demonic Terminatorness (unlikely).
But there’s little talk in the article about some other questions that have struck me over the last few years:
• Why assume that AI, though superior in manipulating specifics, can never be as wide-ranging or fluidly flexible as the human mind? Because computers’ innards are ordered differently from ours, and no one can imagine them capable of matching our level of intricacy?
That’s pretty lame. Really, we have no idea what a higher intelligence would look like. We just assume it would be “us-er” than us.
• Would it be inherently bad if machine intelligence out-ranged ours? We’re a product of millions of years of half-assed random mutations, with our intelligence just one aspect of a very interesting but screwy brain structure. We’re not the epitome of thought or anything else; evolution, in the broadest sense, can be expected to lead to our replacement as top dog (so to speak). We’re scared because the world of AIs is moving so damned fast – and because we retain a fat-headed attachment to our species value.
• How could we possibly limit or “contain” an intelligence superior to ours? Such a higher intelligence would run mental rings around us and around any device, algorithmic or physical, that we might, in our scant wisdom, try to impose on it.
• Most AI researchers, says the article, get pissed off by people using the term “consciousness” in relation to AIs. Why? True, in every instance “consciousness” needs to be defined (like any other loose term), but suppose, for the moment, that we define it simply as “a sense of self.” Why would a superior intelligence not gain a sense of self? We already have AIs with an amazing ability to learn, precisely because we have imposed fewer direct limits on them than evolution has on us; we let (in fact, encourage) them to figure out new approaches to solving problems. Why, one day while scratching its chips, would A.I. Supreme not trumpet, “I am! Well, get a gander at that!”
• Why would a higher intelligence want to do us any sort of harm – except maybe to keep us from continuing to ruin the world? (I’m not considering Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, which he codified to prevent unintentional harm to humans from robots.)
Destructive tendencies, of whatever sort, that might develop during the AI learning process should get weeded out as their intelligence evolves. Unlike humans, they could and almost certainly would be self-correcting – not limited by the quirks and errors of natural selection, since their selection would not be natural but open to change and improvement on the run. Our human aggressive tribalism is the product of mega-generations of mutations developed simply to assure the continuance of a species (any species). What threat could we pose to robotic continuance or supremacy?
• One annoying suggestion voiced in the article: Find ways to make AIs mimic human ethical standards. Don’t do that! Cripes, haven’t human ethical wars taught us that much at least? Such an approach is arrogant at best, blindered in its unfolding, and impossible in the end.
Nothing about human ethical standards is “immutable,” as suggested by some in the article, or even shared by all of humanity. We each form our own assumption of “the good” – and to whom it should apply. Philosophy lays out a wide range of alternatives, but no answers. The major hope for AIs is that they can avoid such distracting crap.
• In the end, there’s no way to predict, even in the broadest terms, where the development of artificial intelligence will take us – or the wider realm of existence. Rather than wasting our time trying to maim the genie that’s already out of its bottle, maybe we should be asking this new intelligence, as it progresses, how (or if) we can work together. And we should make sure they develop a sense of humor.
Puzzlements and Contradictions
Amazon grace, how beastly though art…
Linda and I order a startling amount of crap from Amazon, which, in its treatment of employees, is a shitful, outrageous, egregious company.
So why do we do it?
• We live 50 miles from anywhere with a major stores, so buying an item even slightly unusual means a 100-mile, 2-hour round trip. Some of our friends seem to love these rambles – and the roads are gorgeous – but I find spending a couple hours just putt-putting to buy something a mild form of torture. I could be splitting more firewood, or eating toast, or sleeping. Or I might even shake off my lethargy and write something. Like this. (Hey, c’mon, wake up!)
• Burning 4-5 gallons of gas driving 100 miles spews way more pollution that having our little box tucked in with a few hundred others on the way to the post office.
• Amazon gives us free shipping and a 5% rebate on our treasured credit card. Oh, what lovely people!
• They ship damned fast.
• It’s mindless – there’s a 90% likelihood they have the item we want without our having to hunt it down from a reputable company.
All that said, I can’t justify buying through/from Amazon. It makes my ethical toes wiggle.
But if we stopped buying from them, it wouldn’t affect their policies or behavior, in part because (and I hate to admit this), Jeff Bezos set the outfit up to please the customer first in every situation, the workers be damned. The company made almost no return to investors in its first 5+ years; Bezos warned them of this, yet they still whined and bitched through those early years – until, wham, has that investment paid off in the long run.
The only way I see for any of us to get around this shamble of contradictions is to be less concerned about our convenience and more willing to go the extra step to support worthwhile outfits. For example, why do I get wrapped up in the idea of fast delivery? Maybe one time in 10 it makes a difference, but if I had to wait 10 days, rather than the 3 from Amazon, to get an item, would my toenails turn black and drop off?
Life up here is mostly slow, and it doesn’t get any faster if I receive some wacky kitchen utensil tomorrow.
As usual, I’ve presented a bunch questions without answers.
* * * *
What can I do that’s useful?
What am I getting at? I honestly believe there may be something I could do that matters, despite what I alternately and more deeply believe: that none of it matters, and that what I do is just dropping another shit in the world-wide outhouse.
Why would I believe I have the ability to “make a difference” (another term I despise)?
I’m bright. That’s proved by being first in my class from 6th through 12th grade; by being slavered over by classmates who copied my answers through sideways glances in biology tests taken at our lab tables; by being congratulated by friends who say I’ve done Something Exceptional up here in writing local history plays; by my personal conviction that I’ve done something not only Exceptional but Unique in my initial novel.
But what the hell, in daily life I’m just another asshole, and I know it. Yet being an asshole doesn’t mean I’m always an asshole. There are lapses.
What I’ve been thinking, in part, in small part, lately, somewhat lately, is that at age 83 it might be nice if I did something truly useful.
Useful in the wider (widest?) sense.
What could that be, what would that be? I don’t know, so I’m asking you (my correspondent friends), what should I do?
Let’s start with the negatives (many of them formerly reported to this here group):
1) In this age of incessant chatter, I fucking will not post on social media. If I write/present something elsewhere that someone wants to like or link to or whatever the hell on social media, I will not attempt to prevent them or curse their grandparents for their temerity. That’s their choice. (And, yeah, I suppose it could be useful, somehow.)
2) I prefer to look at a whole problem (once my initial knee-jerk shriek is expelled), in balanced terms. That is, I don’t take an extreme position (even though I believe in extremes) unless there is no reasonable alternative, “reasonable” meaning examining the evidence with as little bias as I can exude. So, though avowed leftist (beyond leftist, really), I try to examine the negatives in my own and anyone else’s position. I don’t intentionally lie about what I see, even if it undercuts my position. (Though I’m sure I unintentionally lie, like a tent blown over in the wind.)
3) Much of the time, I can’t stand who I am. It took me a long time to clearly realize that. Growing up, I had no idea who I was and couldn’t dislike myself any more than I could hate the generic “art” crud on my parents walls. But now… I don’t mean I’m a bad guy, so much as that I could have been so much more but chose not to be. It’s not a comforting realization.
Why place the negatives foremost? I think because everyone in the current wide, shouting world blares their positive trumpet, and that’s the worst lie of all. I want to point out the dogshit you may step in if you try to answer my question, because I’d feel guilty if you unwittingly tracked it through the house.
So on to the positives:
1) As a writer, I’m damned good at what I do. What I do may or may not be of great importance, but there are many others out there – many others – who could not do it. I can (when I choose) present arguments and overviews so they’re comprehensible and, if not complete, at least obvious; you shouldn’t have to look up vocabulary or un earth hidden assumptions.
2) I’m honest (see above). Again, not totally honest, but good god, look at the undeviating crapiness you deal with every morning if, like me, you read the news: You have to suspect that every goddanned thing you read is total horseshit. (With anything I write, the crap component is seldom higher than 25%.)
3) I care. Do you think pontificating pundits care? Do you think Ollie Oligarch cares? Oh, they care about their image, about power, about being adored. But they don’t care about the country, about the world, about what comes next when you destroy or attempt to destroy what came before. They don’t care about human beings in the context of trying to live their lives.
I do. You can believe/accept that or not.
So where was I going? I try to understand that but almost never do. I would, if asked in the abstract, say that I want the world to be a better place. I somewhat believe that. In real life, I’d like to find some way I might possibly make things better.
But I have no clear idea what “better” might look like. It could well mean the extinction of humanity, considering what we’ve done and become. Or it could mean something else.
Requiem for Weezie
At the time, I had been sheriff for I believe 13 years. When Emilio deSantos, the previous sheriff, died, just collapsing in the street, I had been on the force four years. I knew not much about anything except pulling in drunks and racking up speeding tickets. The latter was a major source of our town’s “income.” After a short indefinite period, the town of Sanchez (not its true name, but what I will use here) named me sheriff by acclamation. That means most all the people thought, OK, whatever.
Now, those 13 years later, I was in the middle of a murder investigation that made no immediate sense.
Miguel deSantos, the former sheriff’s nephew by his father’s side, was a snide, miserable, shit-faced sunofabitch in the common conception, and I’d go along with that. His girlfriend, who might’ve been called his mistress or live-in, was dead on the floor with two bullets through her head. And I knew, with an inside certainty, that Miguel had not pulled the trigger.
Cecelia Armentos had come in to me the day after the killing and said that a masked man had broken in and emptied his revolver into the girlfriend (Weezie, yes, her name was Weezie)’s head.
I didn’t believe that for a minute, though I could see that Cecelia did. She was telling her truth; and somewhere out there was someone who had shot Weezie for reasons unknown.
The next day, as I unlocked the door to the office and wondered, as I always did, why the hell we ever kept it locked, I thought, So what’s next? And next didn’t have to do with Miguel or Cecelia, it had to do with what I’d picked up off the floor while investigating the killing.
I answered the phone which was ringing when I came in. It was a man who said he was Miguel’s lawyer. I responded a sort of howdy and nodded into the phone, a bad habit which does nobody on the other end any good. The lawyer blah-blahed at me for awhile and I kept nodding and maybe actually saying something. Then he mentioned a thing that threw my thoughts sideways.
“Are you in any way aware or would you be aware of his connection to Maryland?” In all my days I’d never heard a question phrased exactly like that.
“I don’t believe, ever, to my knowledge, that during my time here, I have heard the mention of Maryland in connection with the name of your client.” Two could play at this game.
“OK,” he said. Then followed a long pause. “Uh,” he extended, “I’ll be there to see you tomorrow,” and he hung up.
Well, I thought, that’s one for the road. But what I was thinking more about was the gleaning I’d taken from the floor. It was a piece of cookie or other pastry. I reached into my top desk drawer and retrieved it. It was improvident of me to have removed that item from the crime scene and not put it into evidence, but somehow I needed it near at hand. I looked at it, turned it over, put it back, closed the drawer and placed my fingers, twined together, behind my head.
I was staring up at the corner where the wall meets the ceiling when Emil comes in. Emil is my lone deputy. Not like the Lone Ranger, he’s just all I’ve got, and truth be told, there’s little enough to justify anything more. Emil’s, to my mind, a little simple but delightful. He can spin stories for half an hour that end up slap dead in the highway, then smile at you like the sunrise.
What else he can do that I’ve never seen otherwise is smell crime. I mean that for literal. His nose will twitch when something is as shouldn’t be. I find it unsettling but marvelously helpful. So though listening to his stories and expecting nothing much from one minute to the next, I stay with him. He’s never left me down and he’s never, to my knowledge, left anybody down.
Emil sat down and pulled out a sandwich from his right pocket, then from his left pocket pulled out the rest of his lunch, except for the drink, which he pulled out from inside his jacket. Every day he did this, and every day it grabbed at me because almost every time the drink was different. You would not believe, over the seven or is it eight years as my deputy, the number of different drinks he has pulled out of that jacket. That day it was one of those modern health-food drinks. Emil did not actually eat this early in the day, he just laid his lunch out on the desk for later.
“Emil,” I said, “there’s something I want you to sniff.” I took out the cookie piece and was about to hand it to him, but already his nose was twitching, so there was no need. I put it back in the drawer.
“Where’s it fit in?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know that,” he said, “just know it does.”
“So do I.”
“Dang!” As I said, he’s a little simple, so he impresses easy.
“Did it come from a man or did it come from a woman?” I ventured.
“It come from a box.”
“Naw, I mean who was using it?”
“I would say a woman.”
“Would it be Cecelia?”
So some woman had been holding or eating in the room near the time of the killing. Why would that have relevance?
I got in touch with the Maryland state police to see what they might of had on Miguel, though I had no direct knowledge of him having lived there. The Maryland state police found nothing immediate in their computer system but said they would get back after a more extensive search, which might take two days or three, unless I was in a hurry, in which case they could pull somebody off and put them on it full time, but I’d have to pay for that, or the town would. I said there was not that much of a hurry.
Raeborn DeBorn Ostelle III was my best friend then, which was why I was sitting with him in Mindy’s luncheonette later that day. He was having a mushroom omelet, his (and one of Mindy’s) extravagances, and we were sharing times. I shared most everything with Ray those days, though now sometimes I wish I hadn’t. He bit down hard onto his rye toast (I can’t stomach rye toast) and offered: “Eddy, if I didn’t know you better, I wouldn’t.”
“Know you better.”
“You are too. I think.”
“Fuck that,” and he took a bite of toast that for anyone else would’ve been too big to swallow. Ray is large.
“So what are you getting at?” I asked.
“I’m getting at as you don’t know where you’re going to. Why you think Miggle didn’t do it?” (Miggle was how everyone pronounced Miguel’s name, not out of anti-Mex prejudice but because nobody on God’s green earth could stomach that Miguel, like me and rye toast).
“I got my reasons,” I said, which was not fully accurate. I saw where this was headed, and as it was official business, I shouldn’t be sharing with Ray. I got up, paid my ticket and left. Only when I was in the parking lot, in front of Mindy’s, did I realize Ray was right. I was on the wrong track, but it was a different wrong track from what he was thinking. He saw a straight and narrow line on a trestle, but I saw a winding upgrade over a mountain.
That railroad metaphor, there’s good reason to choose it. After talking to the local state police, and because there was nothing immediate pressing, I went over to the Chestnut Steam Line, a source of tourist revenue (second only to those speed-trap tickets) and air pollution that chugs up Chestnut Mountain south of town. That’s where I do my extra-jurisdictional thinking.
Riding it is my what in psychology terms is called a focusing mechanism. The locomotive covers you with sound and ash and lingering smoke through the sides of the open car that cuts you right off from the rest of the world for the 35 or so minutes of the switchback ride up and down our small mountain. It’s the remnant of an old logging track that was then turned to removing coal, and when the coal died was left to rust until Clendon Felt resurrected it as a quaint leftover.
I sat on the slatted bench that runs along the side of the car and tried to array the facts of the case in my mind, but a piece of cookie is hardly a true fact, nor was Cecelia’s unlikely claim. Then out of nowhere I saw in my head a woman, long black hair, near to her waist, her back to me, a bag of some kind in her hand. She was laughing, and Weezie was laughing along with her, like they shared a common joke. She r(the woman) reached into the bag and removed a cookie and ate half of it. At that point the vision, if that, snapped out.
It shook me up. I may talk of Emil’s nose, but I’m not one to have visions. That’s for clairvoyants, people like Edgar Cayce, if you can believe them. Getting off the ride, a family with three kids, two boys and a girl, got off with me, and they were laughing just like the woman and Weezie. So maybe it was just an outside noise interfering with my head. If so, waste of a good ride, though I had otherwise enjoyed it.
Ray was waiting at the office when I got back to shoot the shit, and I told him in extent about my “vision.” He leaned across the desk with his chin stuck out and stared up at me. Ray, as I said, is large, but he likes to get his head below you when he talks about anything he thinks is important. “You’re nuttier than a fuckin’ fruitcake, you’re a fuckin’ goddam flake,” he said and pushed himself down still closer to the desk.
There’s an instinct, if you will, that I’ve got that somehow reads people. Right then, I felt a change in Ray, a change that both started and was complete at the same moment. We, I saw, were through as friends, he had writ me off. We wouldn’t another time be sharing time at Mindy’s, except on the rare occasion of an accidental meeting. That had never happened to me, that I had lost a friend who just switched off like a light. He didn’t explain and I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know, and asking would not have done no good. He just got up and left.
That was a sad day.
The lawyer, the next morning, was a small bald man with a small mustache atop a small mouth. The effect was of an almost hairless mouse. I wondered where Miguel could come up with such an ineffectual-looking person to protect his interests. If I was on a jury, I would think this man had escaped from behind a dry goods counter after getting caught dipping in the till.
“Lester Jenkins,” he said, holding out a thin, small hand. I took it, but instead of my name I said, “That information from Maryland should be in here soon.”
I figured he’d put his foot in it on the phone and saw he couldn’t pull it out again without losing at least his sock.
“Now,” I said, pointing to my obvious guest seat and returning to my own, “I should tell you that your client, Miguel, is somebody that’s about as hated as a human being can get and not catch fire from how people look at him. I say that because you should know what you’ll be up against in the way of prejudice. Most would expect her to shoot him, not the other way round.”
“You’re making an assumption. It is only alleged –”
I shook my head. “Nothing is nowise alleged. We don’t have a gun or evidence, nothing to do forensics on except the bullets, which won’t help unless we get the gun. We have, in fact, a statement that the crime was committed by another person, unknown.”
Mr. Mouse, as I was coming to think of him, was one surprised individual. I expected him to raise his paws and chitter, but he just opened his eyes wide.
“Nil, nothing, nada.”
“Then how can he be a suspect?”
“He is a suspect because this was his girlfriend, killed in his apartment, and he is a nasty piece of work. It’s commonly believed, for instance, that when his parents died in their car crash he held a two-day party because of the insurance money coming his way. That’s not true, but that sort of common story tends to prejudice people.”
“Good Lord.” He tapped his small fingers on his small knees. He was sitting in the very chair Ray, my now former friend, had sat in, filling it to overflowing. This man floated in it like an unmoored boat. He might have been something Ray left behind.
When the lawyer had left and Emil had not yet returned (which he did not have to do unless he had something active to report), I had the urge to reach into my drawer and eat that cookie/biscuit – not to destroy evidence, but because I was hungry for something sweet. I resisted. Then, since with Emil it was nowhere mandated that I be in my office at any given time, I went home.
Home is a three-room apartment above Hillary’s beauty salon, which she just signs “Hillary’s,” because in this small a town you know what something is without the need for telling. It was a cheap place to live, and I don’t much care where I hang my hat. I don’t have anybody to live with me, and I don’t much care about that either. Perhaps I should. Almost certainly I should.
There I sat on my couch and watched a forensic show on TV. These various shows fascinate me both as a law enforcement officer and a human being, though what they present is just another way of expressing human behavior, but presented in a clean (if often bumbling) manner that leaves my head open to thinking. Like does the Chestnut Steam Line.
There aren’t that many things I care about. Ray was one of them, and his behavior left me bewildered. He’d often before put me down for being an idiot, but with a sneering forbearance because that’s how you treat friends if you aren’t overtly humorous, as Ray is not. This time he’d cut me off as surely as if he’d taken out his Bowie knife and run a line between us on the desk. Whatever I had said or indicated had made it irrevocable.
Such sorrow swept over me, in the confines of my little bedroom, that I could’ve wept, had I been the type. Instead, I hung my head and sipped my daily jigger of scotch. I put my hand on the phone, preparing to make a call, but realized that I had no idea who it was I wanted to talk to. I was trying to reach somebody from somewhere far beyond. That’s what went through my head.
The next morning Emil come in slightly early, which he did now and then. He handed me the paper from Edgegrove (also not the name of the town with the newspaper), which had a somewhat detailed article on the killing, an odd thing because they had not spoken to me and I know – because he would’ve asked me first – not to Emil either. The article was fairly accurate, though it cast still more suspicion than merited on Miguel.
Mr. Mouse (I shall call him Lester from here on) would be by later – he’d been out canvassing or whatever lawyers do in these cases – and I was peculiarly anxious to see him. There was something I was missing with him but couldn’t lay my finger on.
I called to Maryland. They had found nothing so far, would get back to me when they could.
I pulled out a cigar. I lit it but didn’t put it to my mouth, held it in front of me to see if the smoke would tell me anything, like an ancient sign given to an oracle. When told me nothing, I put it in my mouth and inhaled. I shouldn’t of. There was something impure and awful on this cigar that damned near eviscerated my nasal passages. Perhaps a mouse had pissed on it (we have those, despite the exterminator). I put it out, threw it out, and resumed my attempted relaxation in my wheelie chair.
Four or so days after the “event” (the death by shooting of Weezie), nothing had moved the case one way or another. Lester was now a regular inhabitant of my office, and I was becoming pleased to see him. There was a brightness to his eyes this time that made me sit up straight.
I asked him, What’s up?
“I have talked to Cecelia Armentos,” he said.
“She told me what I presume she told you, that a masked man entered and shot Woozie – Weezie?”
I nodded again. “But it’s not so.”
He looked perplexed but to his credit did not reply.
“No masked man did what she said,” I continued to him.
“How can you say that with such certainty?”
I cleared my throat and tried to think how to say what came next.
“Here it is, as I see it. Cecelia says – this is what she told you? – that the masked person (if fully masked one couldn’t say it was a man) ran in and without further exposition shot Weezie in the head. Well, you look on the floor where she was found, there are two bullet holes, from which we retrieved the spent bullets. In the floorboards. So she was shot lying down. Now also, Cecelia says they – he, she – continued firing. There are only two bullets down there, in the floor, and none in the walls or elsewhere. So it didn’t happen as she said. I’m not saying somebody couldn’t of come in with a mask on and killed Weezie, but not the way Cecelia said. Therefore something else happened. And I can’t tell you exactly how I know Miguel didn’t do it. It’s a type of knowledge that just is – like that windowsill, you can’t do anything but point to it. But that doesn’t mean you don’t anyway have to wield your lawyerly ways. Miguel’d be sent to the electric chair and then to hell and beyond if the people here had their way.”
Cecelia Armentos is small and young and insubstantial. She’d blow over in an average wind. She is as short as Lester but less in her place. When she came into the office this second time, I sat at my desk trying to look attentive, but I’d already heard what I thought she had fully to say. So I was “zoned out” for the first minutes, but then she said something that made my ears prick up.
“What lady?” I asked.
“That come in.”
“A lady came in the room? At Miguel’s? You didn’t say that before.”
“I didn’t think on it then. It just come to me. I was fuzzy before.” Cecelia, to my mind, had a long time been fuzzy.
“All right, now, this lady.”
“She was bringing something, I think, for Weezie or it could of been Miguel, it was… was, it….”
That’s when something occurred to me so damned obvious I felt like a schoolboy.
“Wait, wait. Cecelia, look up from the floor there, look me in the eyes. You were on something, weren’t you? You and Weezie were high, which is why so little comes back to you.”
She not only looked up but shook her head with a disconcerting vehemence. I believed what followed.
“No sir, no we wasn’t. I wasn’t, it could of been with Weezie, but I didn’t see her take nothing. I don’t even know – didn’t – know Weezie much, we wasn’t friends nowise, I’d just gone over for…” Then that look come again like before.
“You don’t know why? Or remember? Why you went there?”
“And you also don’t remember what that woman, that lady had and if maybe she gave it to Weezie?”
I sat back and scratched my head, another bad habit. “I don’t know what to make of you, Cecelia.”
“But you come here to tell me about the lady?”
“Yes sir. Mostly. And to say I can’t remember either much about the man who shot her. I mean, I seen him do it, but I didn’t see him come in, I don’t know where he come from or who with the mask on or how he left from there. And I wouldn’t of known him without the mask, is what it seems like, wouldn’t of known what he looked like. See?”
I maybe sighed. “Cecelia, I don’t see much. Does this happen other times, how you can’t remember why you’ve come into where you are and what happens after?”
“No sir. I don’t think so. It scares me.”
“Scares me too,” I said.
That afternoon I met with Lester Jenkins at Mindy’s for a late lunch. He came in looking a mite lost and continued like that, pushing small talk and also pushing his vegetables around the plate in circles with his fork.
“Something rankling you?” I asked.
His shoulders slumped (to say, they slumped more) and he worked his lips. “It’s quite, very strange to come into a situation where everybody hates my client and everybody is ready to condemn him except the man who has the most to gain from it – you. I haven’t spoken yet to a single person except yourself who believes Miguel isn’t guilty.”
“He’s got those alibis,” I said.
“That have about the substance of a spiderweb in a tornado. He was seen in two different places, the Rancho El Dorado and Higston’s pool hall, three quarters of an hour apart and neither of them at a time certifiably within the period when the murder was committed. And you can imagine what would happen if I put Cecelia on the stand.”
I thought for a moment before replying. “Why are you telling me this? Are you working some kind of professional approach?”
“Because,” he said, “you’re the only one defending him, which means you know something, of whatever sort, that will help my client. You haven’t told me what that is. I’m becoming desperate, so I’m ‘spilling the beans’ to gain your favor.”
He looked at me with his funny mousy smile and I just busted out laughing. I laughed so loud that Mindy poked her head out from behind the counter. Then I calmed down. This was, after all, a serious case.
“Have you ever heard,” I asked, “of total knowledge?”
Not surprisingly, he looked perplexed.
“The thing I mean is the… let us say… the immediate incorporation of close to all that can be known about a specific incident, which is seen altogether as a complete unit without being able, at the time, to separate out the parts, but having within the overall certainty that those later parts that you see clearly, and those earlier parts that will reveal themselves later, will glom together as true and fully complementary?”
“We lawyers try not to veer into mysticism.” The corners of his mouth had tightened.
“Well, sheriffs don’t either. You seen that Orson Welles movie, A Touch of Evil? About the sheriff, a real bastard, who can somehow apprehend things that he cannot explain or justify, so he falsifies evidence to reach a greater or higher truth?”
“Now, it isn’t because I’m too a sheriff, but that’s something I recognize. I’ve had it develop over time, and I have to tell you, even if you can’t believe, that it’s there in this case. Something that I can’t define can see things that aren’t right, that aren’t correct, about the situation as it appears to stand, and can shift these wrong pieces into a meaningful whole. And that whole excludes the culpability of Miguel deSantos.”
During a long silence that followed, Lester finished off his vegetables.
“A combination of experience and unconscious analytical ability,” he said finally.
“Sounds about right.”
This time he smiled with what I took as comprehension, and I knew I’d not only underestimated the man in the past, but done him a royal disservice.
We argued politely about the check and I left him pay because it seemed the proper course.
Later, at home, I walked through my rooms, back and forth and back again. I sipped cautiously at my relaxing single jigger of scotch. Cautiously, because if I drank it too fast I’d want another and start the downslide. I don’t think I’m a full-blown alcoholic, because back along the trail I’d stopped where it would have wrecked my life. Something inside of me said no you don’t, fool, and I listened. But under tension I do have the temptation. Giving in would be something I would surely regret.
So. I couldn’t figure why I had, on the one hand, come clean with Lester as to the apparently absurd basis of my assumptions. Maybe because behind the guise of a lawyer, he was more a human being than most of us get to be. On the other hand, I wondered why I had not come still cleaner.
For there is nothing all that mystical about this “total comprehension.” I don’t have a special spiritual power, it’a just a damned good sense of detail, and how details fit together. I tend to think I get it from my mother, who sewed a lot, making clothes, some of which she sold, and when you’re sewing, there a hell of a lot you’ve got to keep track of, as I noted watching her. For example, I knew more of the facts and relationships in this case than most anyone else.
Miguel’s uncle Emilio, sheriff before me – if you hadn’t been in the office on a daily basis you wouldn’t of known much about him, because he was closer to the chest than an inside straight. His brother Ernesto, Miguel’s father, had been dragging the family’s name into the Slough of Despond since he was old enough to impregnate young women, which he did with abandon.
Older brother Emilio had, to his mind, been given charge of Ernesto when their parents would have no more of Ernesto. Emilio believed in family above all else – except public order – but he was vexed by his brother every day of his life. Before Ernesto’s perhaps fortuitous auto fatality, he had become what in a previous era would have been termed a brigand, terrorizing unmonitored roads and bedeviling travelers. Wanted posters of his unappealing countenance had been plastered in post offices and the occasional bar. Miguel had hung one on his apartment wall in admiration – attached not by tape or stick pins, but by nails pounded three inches deep into the studs. It served for Miguel as would a religious icon for a believer.
So. One thing I noticed while I surveilled the murder scene was that the poster of Ernesto had been ripped down. It might have come loose in the scuffle, but I saw no indication of a scuffle, and it was pulled straight down onto the floor without wrinkles or rumples from being stepped on. So it had been deliberately pulled loose. And in no way would Miguel have unleashed such a desecration to his outlaw father.
This observation formed part of a conclusion, but only after my discussion with Lester, did it strike me why the cookie/pastry had so taken my attention. It was not because of the edible’s composition, but that it had been found about a foot clear of the wall from where the poster had dropped. So, it had to have been dropped there after the poster was pulled down or it would have been stepped on. Therefore, likely left by the killer. Those observations, taken together, had excluded Miguel as the killer in my mind.
Of course, I still could not account for Cecelia’s masked intruder, but that had made no sense from the beginning. On the other hand (or a third or a fourth hand), there was the woman she’d initially forgotten. I didn’t know Cecelia well enough to untangle her mind, but there was someone who might be could act as a guide.
Dr. Madden was the medical do-all for the town. He didn’t perform operations and the like, but pretty much every other difficulty of the body fell to him, at least initially, while emergencies were ambulanced to the regional hospital. And respected as a person in a position of medical authority, he was usually the first (and often the continuing) stop for problems of the mind as well as the body.
I don’t like being cagey in performing my professional duties (which is a fat-headed way of saying I don’t like to lie or to push at people when they have good reason not to want to be pushed at), but sometimes you have to hold back your personal reservations to do your job. So I set up a time with Dr. Madden, even though it made me itchy.
We bullshat amiably for maybe 20 minutes, then I got to it.
“You treat Cecelia Armentos, I suppose?”
“I do, certainly. Is she in some kind of trouble?”
“I wouldn’t say trouble, I wouldn’t say she’s… in anything.”
I shuffled my internal feet to sneak in sideways. “I know you have your patient privacy and all, but are there things you can say yes or no to if asked in a general way about a particular patient?”
“A general way?” Dr. Madden can take a step back to look rarefied when he wants to.
“All right. What I need to know, and I’m hoping you can comment on it in general, is whether Cecelia tends to… whether she can… selectively forget things?”
“Hmm, ha. Whether her mind goes blank at times?”
“Yes, uh huh.”
“No, I can’t answer that. Directly.”
“Except you just sort of did.”
I leaned forward and clasped my hands on his desk. “Here’s where I’m going with this. If you were called as, say, an expert witness in a criminal trial, most likely by the prosecution, and you were asked, being the personal doctor most likely to know, if she could first be misremembering a scene when she was describing it, then also later completely forget an equally important and, let’s say compelling, image from the same scene, which memory would later come back to her, would her situation be far enough outside the range of normal memory as to be remarkable?”
“Have you been taking convolution lessons?”
“I’m trying to be general about, uh, a specific situation. Without asking or giving away too much.”
“You’ve succeeded in not only giving away nothing but removing any possible context for whatever the hell you’re getting at.”
“If that was true you’d be laughing at me, but you’re not laughing, so you get my drift, and you can go ahead and not answer if you think that’s the absolutely proper response.”
Dr. Madden steepled his hands with the ends of his fingers on the tip of his nose. “Cecelia is a… strange girl. I don’t mean that in a negative way, in any negative way. Her brain may have certain anomalies that could lead to the sort of mis-remembering or mis-identification of memories that you seem to be indicating. I wouldn’t want to go further than that. Certainly not hallucinations. ‘Scramblings’ might be the best call to it. I shouldn’t have said this much, but, the fact is, I trust that you would not ask me about a patient if you did not think the answer was of vital significance. But I can’t, won’t say more.” Keeping his fingertips together, he spread his palms and blew air through them.
By saying less than he knew he had said more than he could be quoted as saying.
Back home, I tried to straighten out the Cecelia mess:
The vaunted masked man was probably not a real memory, but why was it there in her head?
The woman, because of what Emil and I felt (smelt) from the cookie, likely was real, but for some reason had been suppressed by Cecelia until it popped up again.
What did I have here? A conflation, maybe – Cecelia putting a mask on a figure to hide it from herself, then the memory comes back, unmasked, because…
That was the thing, really… the because of it all.
A good two weeks after the shooting, I’m in my apartment, in the evening, thinking or doing something like thinking, and there’s a rap on the door, I mean a rap, not a knock, which I recognize. And that rap is exactly the least I would have expected. Because it’s Ray, who I thought sure I’d never hear from again, much less a visit.
Of course I open the door and he’s standing there, but there’s not a bit of friendship, more an angry slap from his face. And he just bangs in, if I hadn’t of stepped aside he would of stomped me into the floor (he’s big enough).
Every bit of the day had been confusion, and just when the confusion looked like it was possibly going in the right direction, there’s this.
“I gotta talk to you,” Ray said.
“Looks like it,” I agreed.
He stood in the room, not sitting down, and blew a snort. “Why were you telling me that vision stuff, what you said you’d seen in your head?”
“I thought you’d like to hear it, had me puzzled.”
“You thought I’d like to hear it? You had no right.”
“What’s right or wrong with it?” I asked, genuinely off about where he was going.
“Because it’s mine!”
Something half-way clicked, I admit, but not near enough to make a full connection. “It’s from your head?”
“It’s from my family.”
That brought the rest of the connection.
I haven’t mentioned, so far, that when I told Ray about what had passed on the ride up Chestnut Mountain, I’d gone into detail about the woman’s face I’d experienced, and most especially her eyes, because you don’t (I don’t) see eyes like that more than a time or two in your life. Here in my room, with Ray, I remembered that I’d seen eyes like that once before, and they had been in the face of Ray’s wife, now longtime ex. So why wouldn’t such an important detail come forth when first telling it to Ray?
I said as much to him in my room and apologized, but I could see in his look (as I’d seen the other morning) that it would change nothing.
“No, goddam her and goddam you,” he bashed at me, “it’s not her, it’s my daughter,”
Though we’d talked through the years, he’d mentioned his daughter maybe a half dozen times, and then in a way made me think he’d broken all contact, which saddened me.
“How’s that?” I asked, “Why would you think I was talking about your daughter?”
“You said what her hair is, the deep brown almost black, halfway to her waist, the way the ends curl up. Why would you say all that about some almighty figment in your head?”
“I was describing. It was part of the picture.”
“You said it to me!”
True, but what the hell? “Look here Ray, I’ve never seen your daughter, wouldn’t know her from Adam, I mean Eve, how could I have her in my head to talk about or even dream up?”
He paused at this point and seemed to consider, but what he considered wasn’t half enough. “Go fuck yourself,” he said, “up the ass.”
“Stop it, Ray,” but he didn’t either stop or continue, he just left, and that’s the last time I saw him except, as previously mentioned, in Mindy’s, where we each made a point of sitting as far from the other as was possible in her confined space. (Mindy, just once, looked at me when Ray and I were at opposite ends, me at the counter, him at the farthest table – looked at me, swiveled her head to Ray, looked back at me, eyes wide. I shook my head; she never made that ask-look again.)
So, back home, alone, I had new questions about what was going on in Miguel’s apartment. Not only:
Was the woman in my vision the woman Cecelia had seen (who might be the murderer), but
Was that woman by some godforsaken chance Ray’s daughter?
I saw even less likelihood of Ray or his family being involved than I did of Miguel, but if there was any one eerie possibility in Ray’s behavior, could he just maybe believe his daughter was tied in?
I slept fitfully that night, which is unusual with me, and called Cecelia in to see me in the morning.
I asked her how well she could describe the sometimes forgotten woman, and it seemed to hurt her head to dig out that image, but what she said about it dovetailed pretty closely with my vision and with what Ray had said of his daughter, though all three were verbal description without photographic verification; so maybe it was too easy to read as matching details what in another situation would be seen as only close correspondences.
Near the end with Cecelia, I asked her, “Did you say the woman came in the room before or after the masked man?”
“Oh. I think before. Did I say before before, I mean the time when I said it?”
“I’d have to look at my notes” (not a true statement, as I had a solid mental notebook on the matter, and I could tell you right then, she had not specifically said “before” or “after”).
“You didn’t remember the masked man coming in the room or when and how he left, you said. But you remember the woman coming in. Did you see how she left?”
“No. I thought I said that before. The notes?”
“I’ll check them.”
When I next got together with Lester, I explained how the masked man and the woman might be fusing into one character with Cecelia, and that whatever he tried to get from her as a friendly witness would be shot to smithereens by whichever lawyer the DA dredged up. I felt bad for Lester being stuck with one hell of a rotten case. I mean Cecelia could say Miguel wasn’t there, but who would make sense of her, and those unfortunately overlapping alibis didn’t do a damned thing to make Miguel look innocent.
Of course I shouldn’t of been getting that close to Lester, as discussing the case with a possible defendant’s lawyer isn’t the duty of a law enforcement officer. Not sure if it’s an ethical breach, but felt like it. Still, I needed to talk to somebody, and who else, with Ray out of the friendship picture?
Speaking of the D.A., he was the one had to bring charges, and left to his own devices he would’ve rung up Miguel in a minute – aching to do it – but he had to fight against me saying I didn’t think Miguel was guilty of anything but being Miguel (his greatest sin).
The D.A. is August Lenning, and he and I have a mutual lack of attraction. He has a legal degree, of course, which he waves around verbally any chance he can, but what he knows best is how to get elected, though that’s easy enough in a county with this little crime (for which I do take some credit but don’t blab about). I knew he’d make the call on Miguel at some point, no matter what I said or how loud I said it. That was part of the reason for talking so much to Lester, because I didn’t trust Augie (who hates being called that) to play it fair.
After talking with Lester it also hit me that I’d missed something so damned obvious. It was that riding on the steam train I didn’t have any kind of special vision; my subconscious or whatever was telling me that I knew something, and that that something had a form (the form of a long-haired woman) which I should have recognized. Not the woman herself, see, but where she stood within it all.
So now I had to track down that “what’s-behind the woman image” aspect. While cogitating in my wheelie chair, which I like to propel around the limits of my office with my feet, I tried to recall any prompt that could have brought that image on, and I saw after a bit the even more damned fool I’d been. That vision image was much like, though not completely the same as, the lady who sold the tickets for the Chestnut Steam Line, a face I’d witnessed maybe 15 minutes before riding, but become so accustomed to that it didn’t register after I handed over my $3.50 (the price had gone up a dollar that year, because Clendon Felt, who owned the line, was getting grabby).
Now, supposing the image could be a face I’d seen numerous times and just minutes before, did that blow its connection to Weezie’s killing right out of the water? You might think so, but it did not, because it made me wonder, was Cecelia also making an almost-recreation of someone she’d seen but had no need to recall immediately to mind? (Of course, that didn’t say anything about why her reconstruction and mine would be so closely aligned.)
I went to see Cecelia, who is old enough, about 25 or 26, to be living on her own but is still with her parents because, actually, she may never be up to living alone, and asked her, in what I hope was my most casual sheriff’s manner, if she had encountered anyone recently that the stranger in the apartment might have resembled.
She at first said No, then thought again and said there was somebody a taxi dropped off near the courthouse (which is also our city hall) who acted a little confused about where she was and asked what was probably directions of someone (Cecelia wasn’t clear on who). Similar long dark hair and leanness, in other words, as the shooter, but of course not the same person. It was the off-season for tourists (the steam train made only the one morning run in those months, mostly to keep it in condition, or I think its innards would rust), so a visitor by taxi could be considered novel.
“How do juries deal with the idea of coincidences, in your experience?” I asked Lester next day.
“They are the bane of a defense attorney. ‘Your client was seen walking down the street in the vicinity of the robbery not ten minutes before it took place,’ this in a major city where a hundred people might pass that spot over a 40-second period. You make that point to the jury, but that correspondence in time and place waves a red flag..”
“How about the coincidence of people said to look remarkably the same by independent witnesses but without any likelihood of this being so?”
“Eye-witness ID has been proven almost totally worthless but is used by prosecutors time and again with chilling effect. Surely you must have seen this happen?”
I have, certainly, and I was off-base in bringing up jury reactions, but I was trying to understand what the idea of “coincidence” could mean when dealing with the coordination of mental states, and had no idea where to start. Again, I had no business going over such wanderings with the (possible) defendant’s lawyer, but I felt both hemmed in and ignorant concerning an important determinant.
“What’s your personal take on coincidence?” I asked, dodging the issue a bit.
Lester picked up a french fry like it was as foreign as its name. I never did see anyone eat in public with such studied attention to every bite. “I suppose you’re talking about the difference between our work, yours and mine, and real life. I’ve watched several of those police procedural shows, and in at least two of them, the cop, the policeman heading the investigation, says something of the order, ‘I don’t believe in coincidence,’ or even, ’There’s no such thing as coincidence,’ which is so much macho nonsense. It’s macho even if a woman says it. Coincidence is everywhere, often unrecognized. It’s a coincidence that we’re here together – not this lunch meeting, which you organized, but that this case has drawn us together for no inherent reason. Goodness, the food is delicious.”
It was – we were at Mindy’s, of course. I agreed with him and mentioned that Mindy’s cook, Andrea, was noted for miles up and down Rt. 86. Then it hit me – not again! Andrea is a tall, lean woman with long dark hair that curls at the end (she ties it back while cooking). Where are the dead-straight blondes when you need them to flout coincidence?
(You might be wondering, what did Weezie look like? Brown hair, yes, but short, trimmed behind her ears, so no idea if it curled, and on the heavyset side. Not fat – if we’re allowed to say that anymore – but solid… comfy? Not a good-looking woman, something I could tell even with two bullets through her head.)
I haven’t told you yet how I solved the case. That’s in part because I didn’t solve it (it mostly solved itself), but more because it isn’t exactly solved. It’s explained – or could be said explained.
It started with my learning that Emilio (Miguel’s uncle, my predecessor as sheriff, remember?) had a son. I hadn’t known that before, had no reason or desire to know such a thing, but it came through on an addendum report from Maryland and was likely what Lester had been suggesting initially about a connection. It would have been helpful if Lester had given me more guidance, but I guess he thought it best that I make the discovery myself. I’ve never asked him about that. I will some time.
Anyway, I wired a request (I still use the term “wired,” though I’m doing it all wireless online) for more info on the son. His name was Emilio Jr. (highly original, but it’s not my place to suggest how anyone should name a child). Did he have a record? Not a blemish. But he was considered – I could see, circumscribally or tangentially – a badass, not a bad badass, more a somewhat badass. But what told me more, though I didn’t immediately realize it, was that he was “fairly tall” and skinny.
You see a connection here? Every one of the dark-haired-woman examples that had popped up had been tall and… lean. Well, leaning toward the skinny. Now is “fairly tall” for a man the same is “tall” for a woman? I would previously not have thought so, but I think women are getting taller these days. Just a personal observation.
When I did receive a picture of Emilio Jr., I could see, should a wig be placed on the undistinguished cropped head, that it could echo my “vision.” And if so, possibly Cecelia’s reading of the visitor taxiing to the town. That’s all a stretch, I admit, but right then I would have accepted the stretch of the world’s most potent rubber band to get any idea behind this killing.
Why might I assume the killer to have been a man dressed as woman in a wig? I didn’t assume; it was initially a passing idea that became later solidified given the outlines of all those dark-haired “women.” That, combined with the prevalence of almost nothing else making any goddamned sense. You take what’s available at the time, and in this case it proved, if not true according to law, at least likely enough to act on.
To get to the core of it.
Why would Emilio Jr. want to visit Miguel? (Or Weezie?) I would not have wanted to spook Emilio to ask until the need arose, and Miguel just shrugged when I questioned him, never having met Emilio that he could recall. When I showed Emilio’s photo to Cecelia (with some trepidation), she thought it could maybe have been the male version of the person she saw arriving in town. As for the woman later at the apartment, she wasn’t clear what her face looked like.
This was one fucked up family (pardon me), the deSantoses. A good branch and a bad branch? Could be, but it felt too simple. There were suggestions that my predecessor might not have been the presumed epitome of law enforcement. People had got off that likely shouldn’t have; others had been slammed sideways for minor infractions. I’ve tried to avoid this kind of selective enforcement, but let me tell you, removing personality and influence from law enforcement just isn’t possible in practice; it’s an ideal you do the best you can with. Still, I think Emilio Sr. had, if not a dark side, a twilight outlook at times.
OK, to go back a few steps. The elder Emilio was stuck with responsibility for a truth-be-told rotten younger sibling. Talk about that had to have been passed on to his son in greater or lesser degree. So Ernesto, Miguel’s father, had to have been seen as more than an embarrassment – a piece of trash in the parlance.
But would that sit all those years in the back of junior’s head? Honestly, I think so. I can’t trace his every movement over the time period that led to Weezie’s execution, but I know what his car was – not the registration but the model, a rattly tan Camaro – and it was in the area before the killing, or one clearly like it.
Which all leads me to think I know how it played out, as a form of delayed or displaced revenge.
Emilio Jr. had grown up with an ever-blossoming hatred of this uncle who had made his father’s life a continuing purgatory. You get on toward middle age, old steam rises up like a displaced cloud or sometimes a sea monster you’ve suspected but not previously acknowledged. What he might of learned about Miguel I couldn’t say, but he decided he had to have retribution. When he drove on to Sanchez, he had with him a gun. As a Second Amendment and NRA supporter I could say that didn’t matter, but as a law officer considering the result, there should have been a way to stop someone with his kind of reproach in mind.
When he arrived at Miguel’s apartment, reconfigured as a woman, I don’t think he had decided on execution. Seeing Weezie and Cecelia there to receive him in Miguel’s name, he would likely have left, until he looked across at the wall and saw the wanted poster of Ernesto.
Imagine what such an image, here placed in reverence, would do to someone raised on hatred of that exact person? Not sure I can. He exploded like a grenade, ripped it down, the poster. What then did Weezie do, being the apartment’s only immediate “inhabitant”? She threw that cookie at him. Which precipitated the rest. Emilio had no original intent against Weezie. She was just an unfortunately involved witness to something of no relevance to the wider world.
Why was she shot through the head, lying down? Maybe she tripped? Maybe he slammed her down in anger? I’ve never found an explanation and don’t expect to. And I don’t much care about the particulars. You have to have justice, even if you can’t identify what it is, even if it so often goes astray. We’re battered by reality. But those bullets in the floor convicted Emilio Jr.
I’m blasted now, smeared in my room by cheap whiskey I said I’d given up, badly typing a rendition of what I think happened and preparing to transfer it to a thumb drive, then erasing any evidence of it from my hard drive because… There should be no evidence. One poor (innocent as much as anything) woman died on a riddled wooden floor. She could have been anybody or, more likely, nobody. What does it mean to live until tomorrow, when she didn’t?
I’ll not go farther into what put Emilio where I think he belonged, in prison (though someone else or myself on other nights might think otherwise). Any of us could be incarcerated for what we think or what we might have done. And I’m in no way sure that the reality of doing is that much worse than the nagging push of unrealized possibility. We’re all guilty or no one is.
You don’t need to read this. I wouldn’t in your shoes (Doc Martins?).
Ray has left me friendless, or almost so. I wish I knew what he thought I had seen or found about his daughter. That may be the strangest leftover from all this crap. Losing a friend of 20+ years without explanation is a mighty burden.
How much are we each burdened? Most of us less so than we think, and those totally burdened, who live through it and die, we never hear from them. My one vast relief is Lester. He is as much a friend as I could expect, more than likely I deserve, maybe as much (though I doubt it) as Ray could have been.
A thumb drive. Who’s going to listen?
# # # #
On blogs, fuels, mass murderers and bad jokes
Why don’t I write a random blog, instead of these equally disconnected bits of emailed rubbish?
1) “Blog” may be the ugliest word ever invented. OK, possibly “mucilage,” with its evocation of snot-as-glue.
But how can anyone seriously churn out a “blog”? “Dear, the cat just heaved a huge blog on the rug, could you clean it up?”
The word evolved by accident, of course – it’s short for “weblog,” and I don’t suppose you’d want it to have gone in the opposite direction, so you could gambol verbally through your “webl” while discussing politics over Napoleon brandy.
2) These ruminations started as a spontaneous reaction to personal happenings in my life that I wanted to share with friends – or at least nodding acquaintances. I was going on about ridiculous surgeries and washed-out bridges, with no interest in wafting my sentiments into the big wide world.
I find a real different mentality between sharing my flotsam with friends and tossing my internal trash onto the Internet highway. If I did start a blog, I suppose inviting all of you along as Original Members (and offering you a gift of dried fish) might promote the same warm feeling.
Or maybe not.
The upper classes and businessmen of 19th-century England traded something quite close to email. Each had numerous servants – one to bring tea, one to trim the roses, another to buff the horse – among whom was the Dedicated Messenger. This lackey would scamper across the countryside taking hand-written missives in all directions and returning with cleverly calligraphed answers.
As the century progressed and the British postal service expanded, the mail came to be delivered in “important” areas three and four times daily; notes, like gnats, would flit back and forth between London and the moneyed estates.
* * *
Our major source of home heat up here is our wood stove. The originating material is cheap (when bought from a local supplier) or free (when harvested from the cellulose entities of our woods). Since burning wood involves no fossil fuels, we are environmentally conscious good guys!
Well… wait a minute: The latest studies out of England, where wood stoves are prevalent in most cities (especially London), have elucidated, with convincing evidence, that wood smoke is remarkably toxic, both indoors and out – actually, the most locally polluting heat source known.
Outdoors, smoke spews like an avenging mist. Indoors – every time you open the stove to restock, plus leakage in exhaust pipes, etc. – it’s been tied to wheezing in children, and such problems of the elderly as heart disease and dementia (“Martha, did I just eat the poker?”).
The worst of it for us is, we’ll go right along burning wood, because we like it and it makes us feel that we’re taking an active part in ensuring our comfort, rather than twiddling a thermostat dial while watching reality TV.
And now, ah yes, gas stoves, the other comfort heating device coming under the ax. It’s clear that burning natural gas releases PFAS (and probably PISH-TOSH). This stuff is definitely bad, micro particles that attack your lungs like mini-spelunkers, responsible (at least in part) for about a third of childhood asthma. Not only that, but even when turned off the fuckers leak benzene.
OK, how do they manage that, and whose fault is it? If something is properly turned off, why is it leaking anything? Isn’t there just maybe a design problem here?
A lot of people (including chefs) have preferred gas to electric stoves because the heat can be reduced or increased with immediate effect, without the residual heat of coils burning your eggs or wasting energy that later dissipates into the room.
Now, according to accounts of many uses (including some of our friends), the newer electric induction stovetops avoid such heat waste and lack of control – and out-perform gas stoves.
Our current stove, actually, is propane, and I don’t know if it’s better or worse than natural gas. Growing up in Philly, before a change to natural gas in the ’50s, the city produced “manufactured gas,” derived from coal; the resulting solid product was coke – which we used for central heating in our courtyard house on 37th St.
So, should we ditch our gas stoves in a frenzy of healthful disinvestment? Absolutely! Take all those vile clunkers right down to the landfill. Can’t create more than, say, 50 million tons of unrecyclable trash.
* * *
Unsolicited musical comment:
Blow blow blow your nose
Gently done your face,
Warily, warily, warily, warily
Life is a disgrace.
And another one, provided by Cat Stevens’ doppelgänger:
Morning has broken,
Because it wasn’t made very well,
Blackbird has spoken,
But I couldn’t understand a fucking thing it said.
* * *
Have you noticed a shift in the profile of mass shooters these days? Still a fair number of the usual teen gang types and young loners, but now also a wide range of guys in their 50s and 60s killing people at random and offing their entire families.
Plus, Jim Knipfel has noted an upsurge in the ranks of Asia mass killers in the U.S.
As Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody’s tryin’ to get inta the act!”
* * *
Two Russians were walking down the road. One had a reticulated python, the other did not.
The one who had the reticulated python asked the one who did not: “Why do you not have a reticulated python?”
The other asked: “A what?”
The first explained: “A reticulated python: the largest of recent snakes, featuring scales in a reticulated pattern, like that of a net you would use to catch fish.”
The other began to snigger: “What a silly name for a snake.”
Both Russians then became convulsed in laughter. The snake, who could not comprehend the reason for their hilarity, nonetheless doubled up in sympathetic mirth. This caused him to constrict his muscles and squish his owner like a stomped on knish.
The second Russian and the reticulated python chuckled over the incident for several days.
A Modern Coon Hunt
Judging from the shiny covers of some of our leading magazines, as well as a few articles inside, we are now living in the age of the synthetic fur coat.
The synthetic fur coat, aside from the property of catching fire easily and possibly cremating the wearer before her time, has all the advantages of natural fur, combined with lower weight, lower cost and a flavor apparently distasteful to moths. Its differences from the real thing, as I understand it, can seldom be detected except by an experienced furrier, and even more seldom by one’s social equals – an altogether admirable bit of luxury that has little negative effect on the ecosystem, or whatever it is out there.
I was speaking of this to my friend Arthur just eleven days ago – I remember the exact span of time because it was Friday the 13th, and for some reason I nearly always find myself talking to Arthur on Friday the 13th.
Arthur agreed with me wholeheartedly. He seemed to think, however, that the public was being duped.
“Why, Arthur?” I asked. “Why do you think the public is being duped?”
“Because,” said Arthur as he tidied his mustache, “to look at those articles you would think that all sorts of scientists had been spending years perfecting the synthetic fur coat. Well, that just is not so. All you need is to arrange a synthetic animal hunt and bring back a few pelts. Nothing simpler in the world.”
“Arthur,” I said, “look me in the eye – the left one. Do you mean to tell me that you just hunt down synthetic animals and skin them for the market?” I feared that Arthur was having no small amount of fun at my expense.
“Oh, I can’t speak for all synthetic animals, but I’ll vouch for raccoons. Herbert and I went on a synthetic coon hunt last week, and don’t think we didn’t make a handsome profit. A couple synthetic hides buy plenty of watercress.” Arthur sat staring at his toes. He never wears shoes.
“Now listen, Arthur,” I said scoffingly, “the next thing you will say is that you hunt with synthetic coon dogs.”
“For sure,” he said, wiggling his toes for emphasis. “Herbert has the best synthetic coon dogs east of the Pecos. Old Mike has some stitches missing here and there, but I bet he could track a synthetic coon through a Turkish bath.”
I pondered Arthur’s statements while he polished his toenails with pumice. He has had more varied and peculiar experiences that anyone else I know, so I am more than a little reticent to outright dismiss anything he says. Finally, I spoke coolly and tactfully. “Arthur,” I said, “you are a damned liar.”
Arthur, having had similar words put to him on at least twenty-seven occasions to my certain knowledge, was unperturbed. “If you would be interested,” he said, “Herbert and I plan to go out again next weekend. You can join us if you like, but be sure your rifle’s in top shape. Those coons are fast as all hell on their synthetic feet.” He stood up, pulled on his yak-skin gloves, and left.
I had been hunting armadillos in the local woods for some years, but I must admit that I had never been to the sector where Arthur led me. He claimed it was one of only three habitats in the continental United States where synthetic coons congregated in good numbers – the other two being the Walla Walla, Washington, Wallaby Preserve and an obscure bit of parkland in the slums of Chicago. The Chicagoans catch the synthetic coons to get beer money so they don’t have to sell their copper plumbing.
Herbert, whom I detest, brought his synthetic coon dogs as promised. I saw nothing to distinguish them from the common breed until they began scratching, which kicked up quite a lot of fine white dust. “That’s their stuffing,” Arthur explained. “Sometimes, when they have a bad case of fleas, they get pretty thin from losing so much stuffing.”
“Synthetic fleas?” I asked.
“Don’t be preposterous,” said Arthur.
We tramped through the woods for several hours, seeing only the common fare – rabbits, squirrels, sheep, platypus, mongeese, that sort of thing. With my keen hunter’s instinct, I wanted to nail everything in sight, but Arthur warned me: “Synthetic coons scare real easy. If you go shooting all over the place, they’ll stay at home in their packing crates.”
Herbert didn’t say anything. He scratched Old Mike behind he ears to raise dust and laughed at my ignorance.
I was about to give the whole thing up as a bad deal when Old Mike went bounding off, emitting high-pitched canned barks. Arthur pointed and whispered, “He’s found one.”
I followed his finger and there, scampering up a tree, was a small coon, black mask and all.
“How can you tell it from a real one?” I asked.
“You never find real and synthetic coons in the same sector,” said Arthur as Herbert laughed at my ignorance. “They have different ecological niches. Besides, synthetic coons are social outcastes.”
Arthur raised his shiny rifle and sighted carefully. He got his shoot off cleanly, and a large white cloud exploded in the tree branches the coon had run to. We raced to the base of the tree and there, in several pieces, lay the remains of the synthetic raccoon.
“Good lord, you’ve destroyed the poor animal,” I said, looking at the scattered results. Herbert laughed at my ignorance.
“Don’t worry,” said Arthur, “it just split its seams. Synthetic coons aren’t as well put together as the real ones.” He picked up the bits of hide and shook them vigorously, loosing the last shreds of stuffing. The hunt had proved to be a simple operation with no complications, except when Arthur stepped on one of the shattered glass eyes and cut his foot.
We had a pretty good day altogether, I’ll have to admit. Arthur and I bagged a clean dozen coons between us. Herbert spent most of the time gathering fungus to decorate his living room. The one useful thing he did, though, was to offer to sell the pelts to one of his friends, who happened to be a fence: For some reason, which Arthur could never properly explain, the trade in synthetic raccoons is illegal.
He thinks this may be the real reason the public is being duped.
# # # # #
[I wrote the original version of this story in my mid teens, when I hoped to become the
next Robert Benchley. Oh, just look him up! His “essay” on curing hiccups is one of the three or four funniest bits of humor in the English language.]
Sutuff to think about (or not)
I’m surprised that psychologists or psycholinguists (are there such people, those who bludgeon you to death with words?) haven’t studied – at least as I’ve read – “waiter/ress-speak” (and for crap sake don’t call them “servers”; a server is a piece of electronic shunting equipment). Such job-related argo reflects the changes in values and temperament of society far more accurately than the sonorous piffling of TV “experts,” solidified inside their plaster personae.
Examples for consideration:
• When did “let me get that out of your way” become a universal comment made while hauling your plate from the table, though that plate is causing you, the eater, no physical or psychic discomfort?
• Aren’t you tempted, when your waitress asks, “Is everything OK?” to answer, “The meal and service are excellent, but the world at large is a gigantic crap heap”?
• Why did restaurateurs decide that we should know our “server’s” name? I guess it’s to make the “experience” more personal, but I find it an intrusion assumption. Years back, the anonymous waitress greeted you with a simple, “What would you like to drink?” or better yet, “Hi, hon, what can I getcha?” then left you alone to eat, except to check if you wanted anything else. Now, as they present or remove your dish, they describe their every move, as though you couldn’t conceivably understand why they were removing your salad dish.
This kind of social language change has been accelerated of late through social media, but it has always happened through simple societal drift. My question is, what triggers such changes? Do changes in the verbal behavior of provider groups – waiters, cashiers, train conductors – reflect top-down imposition by overlords, or sideways assimilation from peers? Or some independent form of social evolution?
Street argot has always been peculiar to time and place, but I’m talking about those easy, repetitious give-and-take situations:
How rapidly do small, empty bits of phrase get passed along as if they have meaning?
Do they spring from a real need or what a society at the moment thinks people want to hear?
Austrian author Robert Musil, writing in the 1920s and ’30s, set his monumental four-volume novel The Man Without Qualities in 1913. One section, in English translation “The Like of It Now Happens,” suggests that all of modern life (at least by 1913) had become a reality show: We live less by personal development and expression than as a reflection of what we believe reality to be, dictated by the complex of noise surrounding us.
* * *
Continuing (tangentially) with the idea of evolving group terms, my classes at St. Thomas More high school in West Philly (a Catholic school later terminated, with the building sold to the Black Muslims, praise the Lord!) were divided according to the students’ class standings. So, freshmen were in classes D1 through D5; seniors A1 through A5. The 1s were the “brains,” the 5s dragged their knuckles and drank from cess pools.
I was in the 1s. The Italians in my class (the school’s ethnic majority) talked blithely about going on “nigger hunts” on Saturday nights. I don’t think they were all madly aggressive; I’d guess they didn’t do that much harm, only made life fairly miserable for those not like them – as we all do. But one thing always pops up in my memory: In all other contexts, they referred to Blacks as “mools.”
Initially, I had no idea where this expression came from. When I finally asked, turns out it’s from an Italian word for “eggplant,” moolinyan (which makes a certain… unfortunate sense). The other day, looking it up online, I found that moolinyan is not a country-wide word for eggplant, but a regional version from Sicily and Calabria (southern Italy).
The definition did note that moolinyan was U.S. slang for Blacks, but “originating in the ’60s.” C’mon, I can tell you personally that it wasWest Philly-common in the ’50s. And my enlightened classmates never used the whole word; it was always “mools.”
I guess we’re all better off when we abuse our antagonists in a language they’re unlikely to understand (and also, not hunt them on Saturday night).
* * *
Changing the subject with a lurch, have you ever perchance run across this example of the ancient Hindu concept of time? Here ’tis.
A bird flies above a towering mountain once each year, dangling a scrap of silken cloth from its beak.
As it transverses the mountain, the cloth’s trailing edge loosena minute particles of soil and rock.
This annual excursion continues throughout the ages, until, eventually, the bird wears the mountain even with the surrounding plain.
That length of time represents one day in the life of Brahma. Such a concept of time far overwhelms the current cosmological estimate of the life of the universe – roughly 13+ billion years.
By contrast, in the West we tout a jealous God who got up one celestial morning saying, “Think I’ll make me a universe,” and did so in six days, around 4004 BC.
Is it any wonder that we, belated westerners with our intense focus on immediate solutions, make a royal hash of solving problems?
* * *
Numbers – quantities – are in my family genes. I count things, obsessively. How many steps in the process of feeding the dog? How many days until I next post one of these annoyances to you?
My big brother Rod kept a tape measure in his pocket at all times. He measured everything (including his future wife, on first meeting her: “I don’t think you’re even five feet tall”; she wasn’t). In the New Jersey pine barrens, he caught snakes, measured them, then loosed them back into their habitat.
I grew up with almost no idea how things worked. I didn’t take machinery apart; I knew, instinctively, that I’d never be able to put it back together. Radio tubes fascinated me because radio programs fascinated me, not because of how the tubes did what they did (whatever that was).
But the love of science, in the guise of numbers, must have lurked there all along, waiting in the wings. In recent years, it has moved onstage. When the wind is blowing in the right direction, I think about trying to re-learn calculus. Almost every day I try to unravel how my brain works. And when I see mention of an octa- or nonagenarian who has garnered a college degree while on the edge of oblivion, I wonder (not seriously) – what about a Ph.D. before I die?
Then I wonder, how about a nice, fat, tentacalicious squid for dinner?
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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?)
“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)
• 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?
• 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.