Natural selection

It’s important to step back for a moment and consider the scrum from which the hype around Artificial Intelligence arises.

Even without casting [m]any aspersions on the tools as they are bandied about – and there ARE documented, purposeful uses for crunching data with super computers, from folding proteins to finding exoplanets; real stuff and revolutionary for these fields – the general rush to embrace AI for all sorts of, let’s say, less purposeful application should be acknowledged.

After decades of artificial sweeteners, fabrics, food, and foliage, and of course the accompanying, devastation of health impacts and pollution from plastics, PCBs, and many more, a noticeable shift toward the all-natural, hand-selected, bespoke, organic, non-invasive ensued, at least in the marketing materials. This acknowledgement, more human-centered, initially had a kind of desperate last-gasp tone to it that morphed into a realm of preference, if not elevated choice. Thanks, branding!

But it was more than that, and the shift itself coincided with a growing awareness about the dangers of this fakeness and its seamless integration into the activities as well as the mindset that led to and accelerated global warming.

So, now – if you’re keeping score at home – because some of our overlord disruptors in Silicon Valley need to get in on the ground floor of the next new thing, we’re ready to reek further devastation on the information and images we use to navigate the world. It’s not enough to use the verb ‘consume.’ Once we began to use the word and consider ourselves consumers and now just customers instead of citizens, students, patrons, whatever, everything else became easier. And by everything else, I refer to most things unpleasant, empty, lesser, vapid, wasteful of your time, and detrimental to your heart. Yes, doesn’t that sound quaint. Your heart, come now! C’est drôle.

It’s not that the next new thing could destroy us, but that we are so happy to play our part in the destruction. Suddenly we’re helpless to watch another dynamic seize control of how we navigate the physical world as humans. You need not be an AI skeptic to be a tiny bit underwhelmed by that prospect.

The next new thing after this (not investment advice!) will surely consist of selling us back the key to imagination(tm) we somehow lost because everything is fake.

We worry about AI taking jobs but do our part in cheer-leading the takeover, in wonder no less at the ease with which it all happens and the productivity gains sure to follow. In this senseless meandering from one shiny thing to the next, AI might appear to be just another trend we might try, even get used to. Meanwhile, our only job ever has been to discern not the good from the bad, but the real from the fake.

Natural selection, by humans. Darwin should have been more specific.

And by the way, I’m not at all amused by the extent to which this all rhymes with the original rationale I presented for the green blog, oh so [no that] many years ago.

Roiling the Newness

Recent NYRB piece on the poets Ida Vitale and Tomasz Różycki—of Uruguay and Poland, respectively, is deserving of elevation and you, dear reader, deserving of its riches:

“Poetry,” Ida Vitale remarks in the essay included in her new collection, “like death, perhaps, is surrounded by explanations.” Now living again in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she was born in 1923, Vitale can take poetry’s prestige for granted. Over the past century or more Latin America has commanded a world stage: the writings of César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Pablo Neruda, among others, hardly require explanation or defense. Her own cohort, the Generation of 1945 (the “Generación Crítica”), was instrumental in keeping Montevideo abreast of cosmopolitan developments in literature, theater, and critical theory. Vitale has received numerous prizes in Uruguay, Mexico, Spain, and France, as well as the rank of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France in 2021. Yet her first selection of poems in English translation (over seventy years’ worth of work, presented in reverse chronological order) contains just one brief manifesto, “Poems in Search of the Initiated,” registering a delicate protest against the diminished readership for poetry:

The challenges awaiting a less confident reader may include unusual verbal constructions, not worn out by use, and a richer vocabulary. These are not impossible to face. The pleasure of enthusiastic decipherment releases a mysterious energy that moves not only the pages of poetry, but also the world’s great prose.

Mystery, Vitale notes, is “that which is reserved for the mystai, the initiated,” and “on the other hand…leads us to the idea of ministry.” But in a democratic age—or, more accurately, an age when democracy is teetering toward authoritarianism—“the initiated” evokes the specter of an elite despised on all sides: “rarefied poetry for the few, almost for specialists.”

Speak, dear authors. Everyone needs to be intrepid about everything, and that definitely includes reading and writing, but also looking at sculpture and paintings, watching dance performance. Hearing poetry.

If we are what we pretend to be, as Uncle Kurt, it’s past time to get serious about that.

Image: Author photo with Mrs. G in the old part of an old city.

The Green Revolution

No, not that one. This one:

The Green Revolution refers to a transformative 20th-century agricultural project that utilized plant genetics, modern irrigation systems, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase food production and reduce poverty and hunger in developing countries. The Green Revolution began in Mexico, where scientists developed a hybrid wheat variety that dramatically expanded yields. Following its introduction, hunger and malnutrition there dropped significantly.

The model was subsequently extended to Asia, Latin America, and later Africa to increase food production for growing populations without consuming significantly more land. Over time, however, the techniques and policies of the Green Revolution were questioned as they led to inequality and environmental degradation.

Ahem. Such language. But being mindful of these transformations is important, especially as we seem to be on the verge of several others happening simultaneously and at terrific speed. For instance, which kind of battery will follow lithium-ion? In early 2023, we heard about iron-air batteries that use a water-based electrolyte and store energy using reverse rusting. Now, that’s the sexy tech we need. Companies are being funded and manufacturing facilities built. The storage needs changing, not to mention the problematic issues around mining lithium, are driving this ongoing series of shifts. Like the earlier Green revolution, it’s less important to cheer these development as good or bad but rather to see them in a kind of continuum and consider how each new standard performs under these changing market conditions. Yes, market – the economics as well as the social and physical constraints.

Climate tech is on-again, off-again as we get jaded accustomed to shiny new things, seek improvements and various strategies win out. But as the pressure continues to push costs down and use up, the newer green revolution can usher in a more stable form of societal improvements for everyone.

That, we should expect.

Video: the great Arthur Blythe (Thanks D!), with Bob Stewart on Tuba, doncha know.

Happy New Year + some book recommendations

Happy 2024! Green also means eternally fecund in its way, much like this day, much like you yourself. You are ready to fruit!

I take this moment to wish you well and to recommend some recent readings (though of course they should be required). In lieu of takes or reviews, some digressions on how I came to them or vice versa.

Re-visioning Psychology, by James Hillman. The late JH is/was a close friend of a close friend, so one-degree and all. But I had never read him. Representative sample:

We sin against imagination whenever we ask an image for its meaning, requiring that images be translated into concepts. The coiled snake in the corner cannot be translated into my fear, my sexuality, or my mother-complex without killing the snake. We do not hear music, touch sculpture, or read stories with meaning in mind, but for the sake of the imagination. Though art may hide a multitude of psychological ignorances, at least it does not ask images what they mean. Interpretations and even amplifications of images, including the whole analytical kit of symbolic dictionaries and ethnological parallels, too often become instruments of allegory. Rather than vivifying the imagination by connecting our conceptual intellects with the images of dreams and fantasies, they exchange the image for commentary on it or digest of it. And these interpretations forget too that they are themselves fantasies induced by the image, no more meaningful than the image itself.

Upon the death of Tom Verlaine one year ago, Patti Smith wrote a touching and very generous remembrance/eulogy/essay about him and their relationship. Avoid your heroes, yes, but checkout the obits. Smith shared some terrific authors she learned of or read with Verlaine, some which were unknown or little known to me but contiguous of the tight circle I know well, of which I tracked down

The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat

Love with a Few Hairs, Mohammed Mrabet

Laziness in the Fertile Valley, Albert Cossery

Other honorable mentions:

Trouble in Mind, a play by Alice Childress

Answer to Job, by Carl Jung

Ask the Dust, John Fante

Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee

So… push yourself into your greatness in 2024. Find a way. Fight the fascists. Punch the nazis. Vote like women’s healthcare depends on it (it does) and like we’re about to turn a corner on climate change (we could be), all of which and more are very much in the balance and under threat. Do it and be just.

Thanks for reading. Always free.

 

 

Fighting emissions with AI

Fossil fuel-derived emissions, that is. Ahem.

So… some of the coverage of COP28, when it’s not debating whether science supports eliminating all fossil fuels, has of course focused on our latest and shiniest of objects, AI.

Artificial intelligence has been a breakout star in the opening days of COP28, the United Nations climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Entrepreneurs and researchers have dazzled attendees with predictions that the fast-improving technology could accelerate the world’s efforts to combat climate change and adapt to rising temperatures.

But they have also voiced worries about A.I.’s potential to devour energy, and harm humans and the planet.

We should just go with ‘machine learning’ but that train has apparently left the barn, been sold for parts and reassembled as an uncanny train. But there is a direct conflict with using inordinate computer power to push giant algorithms to solve immense problems, namely the word ‘power.’

Leaders at the companies developing A.I. technology have already cautioned that it could someday pose a risk of extinction to humanity, on par with nuclear war. Researchers at COP28 have focused on a different risk — that the computing power required to run advanced A.I. could be enormous. That electricity appetite could send emissions soaring and make climate change worse.

A peer-reviewed analysis published in October estimated that A.I. systems worldwide could use as much energy in 2027 as all of Sweden. That would almost certainly add to emissions, even though countries are lagging on their pledges to cut them. (A Boston Consulting Group study for Google also noted that powering A.I. would quite likely require vast quantities of water and produce an increasing amount of waste.)

So, here’s your query, Alexa/Google/Siri: if super-computing will require all of the energy we produce – what is energy or super-computing for?

Image: remember Fantastic Contraption?

Energy Security vs Climate Goals

This brings to mind the old late-night gag about competition between blockbuster films of yore: Jaws 2, Capricorn 1. Didn’t say it was a good joke. (Herrrrrrre’s Johnny!)

But energy security and climate goals, too, do not and should not be considered as competing interests.  The framing represents implicit bias in favor of fossil fuels and needs to be recognized as such. Why isn’t wind or solar-generated energy over [your country name here] considered homegrown? Because it is.

Is renewable energy, in fact, more supportive of energy security? Depends on storage, transmission systems, the amount of harvestable sun or wind available. But so too fossil-derived fuels depend upon availability, refining capacity, and environmental regulations, not to mention military conflicts necessary to secure said security.

Also too, it is quite supportable to see fossil fuel dependence itself as a security vulnerability, as it most assuredly is in even many non-dramatic scenarios. This addendum only informs the debate further in the direction of truth – again, this is all we’re trying to do, see things for what they are. The global energy supply chain is ludicrously rickety, in need of constant expensive propping up [see wars, many through most]. It is THE sector most in need of innovation if not wholesale change. But worms are starting to turn.

And as we continue to depend on the media to inform us about real vs fake debates – whether about Taylor Swift or energy security (probably an actual NPR segue), we must remain critical about framing, context and terms of such debates.

Because even the bawds of euphony cry out sharply.

Image: From the Blue Guitar suite – ‘Etchings by David Hockney inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso’

Making Whether

This Bloomberg Cleaner Tech (!) article about whether humans can control forces beyond our control (the weather) accidentally highlights the ways we ignore the choices and actions well-within our grasp:

In an effort to control future rainstorms, scientists in Japan are working on an ambitious government-backed project involving everything from giant curtains floating on the sea to fields of wind turbines to protect the island nation. Their goal, they say, is to turn extreme weather into “a blessing” — if it works.

The effort feels ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel, but it’s attracted dozens of researchers across Japan. The team, led by Kosei Yamaguchi, an associate professor at Kyoto University, is focused on reducing so-called “guerrilla” rainstorms that can bring large quantities of rainfall within a short period of time. Their goal is to develop an array of weather control technologies that can reduce deluges to manageable rain and roll them out by 2050.

It’s the shiny-object school of journalism – the very next words in that article are the subhead ‘Dams in the air’ – we need something new/fresh/exciting/risky/improbable/easy to attract eyeballs and viewers and clicks. What actually happens even when this works – and let’s not consider whether it’s the true function (whoopsie!) – is that people simply move on.

That’ simply moving on’ repeated over and over into perfection becomes its own feedback loop. Not sure ‘soothing’ is the right word, but numbness definitely follows. An ensuing restlessness opens the door to helplessness, what can I do, what does any of it matter? At the bottom of that fountain (l’eau impotable) lies despair. And adding in the crucial context for a business publication, of course Billions are at Stake. And they certainly are. But which billions, other billions, are left unconsidered.

Image: cloud seeding rocket (Photographer: Zhang Haiqiang/VCG/Getty Images)

The Long Slow before the Quickening

Before it takes shape, as it gradually gains hold, the transition to consuming less – basically, what sustainable neutrality reverse is all about, no matter how specifically construed – is happening painfully too slowly. That ‘pace,’ if that’s the right word, explains part of the associated pain that feels all around, as though it were the the only thing accompanying the shift.

News media – ‘legacy’ is a very generous modifier at this point – have little at their disposal beyond the language of cost, suffering, loss, giving up, change in the context of deprivation. We can say this is the wrong framing, but acknowledging the limitation is important, especially if we are going to progress beyond it.

No magic button here, but a recognition of a kind of system-wide failure, of education, articulation, creativity. But that limit is shading another, broader system-wide failure unfolding right in front of us so slowly, slowly as it can and gradually as a massive system/combination of overlapping massive systems does, that it can seem invisible, not believable, deniable.

Maybe it has slipped the bounds of deniability, as several big things begin to occur at once and more quickly. The need to reckon with the slowness and the quickening, while not seeming to be our major challenge, is the key to unlocking all the other challenges. The cognitive dissonance of a world on fire/drowning will lead to despair absent the ability to think our way out of it.

In some quarters, that is indeed a dark thought. But that’s what we’ve got to do. As I’ve written here and elsewhere over the years, the Earth is still a kind of lady in waiting, with waning patience for us to get our act(s) together. She’s going to start touching herself soon and we’re still not close to ready to think about that.

Auto-propulsive asphyxiation

The driverless car as beau idéal continues to fascinate. The question of whether self-driving cars will work morphs into ‘can it be done at all’ and escapes the gravity of the actual world even as the fantastically expensive contraptions are tested on real people in real streets of real cities:

Waymo’s app, Waymo One, looks and works just like Uber’s does. Riders enter their destination and get an estimated wait time for a ride. Once you enter your requests, the company dispatches from its fleet of 250 white Jaguar vehicles it operates across the city. The cars are staggeringly expensive, outfitted with high-tech sensors and cameras, and are worth as much as $200,000.

The link within that paragraph goes to a 2021 article that paws at the question of the bottomless investment barrel being emptied into autonomous vehicles. And maybe we’re already onboard the 30-year odyssey toward the achievement. But if this is the way home, what is home supposed to look like once we’ve emptied every pocket to get there? We might ask, is the journey worth it? In a way, yes robotaxis can work. But… is this actually an achievement, or just the most expensive movie of all time?

Note how the writers/riders describing their self-driving taxi rides were mostly meh about the futuristic experience.  Sounds familiar.

Image: A Waymo driverless car arriving in front of the Painted Ladies on Monday. Credit…Andri Tambunan for The New York Times

The Palo Alto System

Courtesy of the Review – subscribe and invest in media, whatever it is you read. The NYRB works for me – a review/discussion of two new books about the history of Silicon Valley. You’ll never guess the rationale behind the creation of Stanford the University. Wait – yes, sure you will:

Stanford wanted to breed stronger horses, faster. There was a clear business rationale: at the time, horses were essential for transportation, agriculture, and war. He proposed transforming horse production in the same way that the production of so many other commodities was being transformed during the second industrial revolution: with modern techniques and technologies. This modernizing mentality, as Harris demonstrates, was visible everywhere in California, which has been “a high-technology zone from the beginning of Anglo colonization.” Because there were never enough wage workers, the state relied particularly heavily on “labor-saving machinery” in agriculture, which by the 1860s had overtaken mining as its main economic driver.

The Palo Alto Stock Farm turned out to be a big success. The principal innovation was the Palo Alto System, which involved teaching horses to trot when they were young. That way, Stanford and his operatives could identify the promising ones early, train them intensively, and then use them as studs to produce more promising colts, thereby transmitting talent via superior genes. “Instead of optimizing for adult speed, they optimized for visible potential,” Harris writes.

The Palo Alto System didn’t stop with horses. It became the guiding philosophy of the university that Stanford carved out of his estate in 1885. Harris focuses in particular on David Starr Jordan, the university’s first president, whom Harris credits with bringing the Palo Alto System “out of the barn and into the classroom.” Like many self-styled modernizers of the period, Jordan loved eugenics. Under his direction, Harris argues, “the small, young university became a national center for controlled evolution.” Young white people with potential would be identified and intensively trained, in the hope of staving off racial decay.

One of the features of the Palo Alto System as it applied to horses was an obsession with quantification. As the system migrated to humans, this quantifying impulse turned toward intelligence testing. Lewis Terman, a psychologist who joined Stanford University in 1910, helped popularize the notion that intelligence could be expressed in a single number, such as an IQ score. He was especially interested in high-IQ children. “Budding geniuses needed to be identified and elevated,” Harris writes, “while young degenerates needed to be corralled where they couldn’t dilute the national race or turn their underachievement into social problems.”

And… once again, here we are. Racism continues to be our fundamental foundation, regardless of region. There is no realm in which the wealthy can’t channel their profits into their hatred. Great job, everybody.

Image: Palo Alto Stock Farm (Photos: Stanford Archives)