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 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)

What intelligence?

How we have prioritized as’ artificial’ as ‘improved’ or superior hearkens back to nothing so much as the advent of sugar substitutes. As we have come to understand artificial sweeteners, so should we think about, as in consider, so-called A.I. The emphasis on artificial has us reeling but in its best light it seems inadvertent – innocently derived from ‘simulated’ – and, whatever the case may be, is not new:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

You always want it to be more difficult to find an example from Orwell than it actually is.

Skins in the game

sidewalk plaque in Charlottesville, Virginia plaque featured chalk graffiti added by local artist Richard Parks.
(Courtesy of Richard Parks)

As if we need reminding (ed: we do!), set aside how much we hate women and remember how racist we are! The discussion about American universities – especially our oldest, most venerable institutions of higher learning – and their deep connections to slavery has barely begun to break through, even and especially at our oldest, most venerable institutions. So, while the public remains largely unaware of the history, we might wonder how universities have for so long escaped scrutiny about the past – about how they were built, how they succeeded, who they succeeded for, and how so much of this was connected to buying and selling people to use as free labor. The NYRB dives into a four new books, and sets the stage rather clearly:

One reason, perhaps, that academic institutions were spared from scrutiny was that they seemed, by design, to be physically removed from the vulgar transactions of commercial life. The trading houses where merchants contracted for consignments of cotton, rum, molasses, and human chattel; the insurance firms that indemnified slave owners for loss of human property; the clothiers that manufactured coarse smocks for enslaved field hands—all these were likely to be found among shops and markets, close to the banks from which they obtained credit and the wharves where human goods were loaded or unloaded for sale.

Think, on the other hand, of our early colleges: Harvard on its bluff above the Charles River, or Yale looking across New Haven Green toward the Long Island Sound, or Brown atop the heights of Providence. Their architecture (ecclesiastical) and setting (pastoral) seemed to say, “We stand above the fray, removed from the workaday world, in a high-minded sphere of our own.” For people like me whose shelves are filled with books about these colleges, it’s not a bad idea to paste a note every foot or so along the edge of the shelf bearing this reminder from the novelist James McBride: “The web of slavery is sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”

And friends, of course it’s not just the Ivies. The preponderance of screaming denials (CRT!) and counter-recriminations (Woke!) arise out of fear and cowardice about facing this history as it bleeds to profusely into our present. Can’t stop the bleeding without finding the wound, cleaning it carefully, repairing as much damage as possible, dressing it and providing all available care for full recuperation. Only then can we attend and check on the healing.

Image via WAPO

Shop ’til you stop

Insightful NYRB review of two new books about life in a slower economy. It’s NOT that things will necessarily be so much worse when we are spending less, driving less, burning less – they won’t be worse. It’s just the transition to consuming less itself we consider to be so painful as to be unthinkable. We’re such babies:

Generations of economists, meanwhile, have insisted on the goodness of economic growth and warned that any significant drop in consumption would vaporize jobs, leaving millions if not billions of people without a means of supporting themselves or their families. (Margaret Thatcher’s well-known phrase “There is no alternative,” sometimes shortened to TINA, refers to the assumed necessity of perpetual growth.) The resulting dilemma, as MacKinnon puts it, is that “we must stop shopping, and yet we can’t stop shopping.”

Rather than dismiss this conundrum, MacKinnon seeks to complicate it. Whose jobs would be lost, and for how long? How could societies and their economies adapt, and what could they gain in the process? How would other species react to quieter, less polluted habitats? To begin to answer these questions, he proposes a thought experiment to economists, entrepreneurs, and others: Say that on a single day not long from now, consumer spending falls 25 percent. What next? Predictions in hand, MacKinnon seeks real-world equivalents, finding disparate places and times where conditions similar to those of his thought experiment have already come to pass.

This approach, which might be called speculative journalism, was memorably employed by Alan Weisman in his 2008 book The World Without Us, which MacKinnon credits in his acknowledgments. To conjure a planet precipitously vacated by humans, Weisman interviewed architects, engineers, ecologists, and others qualified to forecast the fates of abandoned cities, farms, and forests. He then visited deliberately unpeopled places, such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the United Nations–controlled buffer zone between the Turkish and Greek sides of the island of Cyprus. In a kind of reverse archaeology, both Weisman and MacKinnon assemble shards of past and present into plausible futures. The most obvious difference between their thought experiments is that MacKinnon’s became all too concrete: when he was midway through his research, pandemic shutdowns upended the world economy, and the effects of his imagined fall in spending were inflicted on real people in real time.

The Day the World Stops Shopping is neither an economic treatise nor a detailed policy proposal, though it draws on both as sources. It is an enjoyably idiosyncratic tour led by a perceptive, empathetic guide. It assumes that any significant, lasting reduction in consumption will result from accidents and innovations, brought about not by individual households but by loosely coordinated communities, nations, and regions. In this sense, it is both more realistic and more persuasive than any technical argument, for it makes it possible to imagine not only one alternative to endless growth but many.

Lots of important points here, brought us by people who are smarter.

If it woes, it leads

We’re backing into the climate future/present with woes leading the way. It’s the perfect media framing and supports the status quo – yes everything is awful. We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas, let’s see how we can keep cheap gas going a little bit longer. It’s this way, in part, because ALL of the progress is boring. For instance, wide bandgap:

Silicon and silicon carbide are useful in electronics because they are semiconductors: They can switch between being electrical conductors, as metals are, and insulators, as most plastics are. This ability makes semiconductors the key materials in transistors — the fundamental building blocks of modern electronics.

Silicon carbide differs from silicon in that it has a wide bandgap, meaning that it requires more energy to switch between the two states. Wide bandgap, or WBG, semiconductors are advantageous in power electronics because they can move more power more efficiently.

Silicon carbide is the senior citizen of WBGs, having been under development as a transistor material for decades. In that time, engineers have started using younger upstart WBG materials, like gallium nitride, or GaN. In the 1980s, researchers used gallium nitride to create the world’s first bright blue LEDs. Blue light comprises high-energy photons; gallium nitride, with its wide bandgap, was the first semiconductor that could practically produce photons with the sufficient energy. In 2014, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for that innovation, which became ubiquitous in devices like TV screens and light bulbs.

Lately, researchers have started using gallium nitride to improve power electronics. The material reached commercial fruition over the past few years in adapters for charging phones and computers. These adapters are smaller, lighter, faster-charging and more efficient than traditional ones that use silicon transistors.

“A typical charger that you buy for your computer is 90 percent efficient,” said Jim Witham, chief executive of GaN Systems, a Canadian company that supplied the transistors in Apple’s gallium-nitride laptop chargers, which were released last fall. “Gallium nitride is 98 percent efficient. You can cut power losses by four times.”

Keep going, science.

Moving on from Cheap and Plenty

Waste – where does it all come from, where does it all go? In a closed system (Earth), a little of it goes everywhere and all of it goes nowhere. We ‘deal’ with waste by putting it out of view, all the while we make more stuff, want more stuff, buy more stuff, sell more stuff, invent fake stuff to buy and sell, even if it’s a ponzi scheme [Narrator: It’s a ponzi scheme].

Now comes the lament that the good days of cheap goods and easy access to them is coming to an end. It is but a scare tactic. And from the perspective of waste – and not only that – were those days so good? The ethos, such as it is, of disposable _____ (goods, culture, food) creates a self-fulfilling emptiness. We could argue that cultivation of these seeds of despair have bloomed and blossomed, and as we feast upon them, they only serve to further famish. Why? What’s the mystery? From wanting nothing issues the inability to figure out what is wanted, what is meaning, what’s it’s all for. As the noted philosopher Jethro Bodine reminds us, “naught from naught equals naught.”

We shudder at the very thought of empty shelves or infringements on long commutes, when fewer shelves and shorter drives represent a signal turn for the better. But gladly to rush into the arms of division and destruction only to maintain the misery fix, we’re only the worse and will fight to keep it.

These failings are ours, but within them lay great tools of rebuilding – not more new things, but better new selves. All of our many advantages were not achieved just to make money off of money, but to make music – whether that means actual notes and tones to you or not – to enjoy and enjoin.

How to channel the urge to exploit? Realize every instance of the act reserves a double portion for the actor and we won’t need to worry with saving the Earth (closed system) when we get serious about saving ourselves.

Two good shoes and all.

What can you see from your car?

Or truck.

Other cars, lane lines, hopefully*. Traffic lights, parking lots. Some trees, a pedestrian*. A cyclist**.

A sidewalk – don’t stop looking at your phone.

Without a shift in perspective, it’s readily seen how none of this changes until people get out from behind the windshield. And no one will make you – that’s not how this works, at least not here, not yet. The costs could sway your decision-making, you could think about doing something differently. Not because you have to, but because you’re curious. You don’t live out in the country, but you also can’t quite walk to the store, much less to work. Still, you want to check out the view, have a look at the street from up close, from the other side of the windshield.

The prospect of seeing other drivers, reifying our fellow road-users, in recent parlance, into something other than the abstractions that we experience, which allow us to disconnect what we are doing from the consequences of doing it. That abstraction is what has to go. And if it’s only that, maybe we won’t feel like we’re losing so much.

See how fun this is? Fiddling with ways to trick ourselves into doing what’s best. So very child-like, this dependence on unsupportable habits to maintain, to remain in, abstract suspension, protected from the outside and other people, things that don’t actually mean us harm. “But I need to get from here to there,” though I don’t want to re-consider here or there. Just want to stay wrapped in this steel cocoon.

Conveyance. Economic drivers. These notes for later betray an urgency beneath the wheels, outside the windows.

Happy American Day

April 9th is the day Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the US Army, received the surrender of Robert E. Lee, a renegade US Army Colonel who was a leader of a violent rebellion against the United States which killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Grant offered generous terms to Lee and the other traitors making up his army. Six days later President Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, DC.

The reality of the past is unchanging, as immutable as time proceeds only in one direction. But our perceptions of it, our understanding of its meaning and the stories we tell about it are perpetually in flux. Humans are story-telling creatures. Many of the great artifacts of human intellection are analytic, mathematic, visual. But at the deepest and most penetrating level we understand the world through stories, narratives. The production of these narratives become histories in themselves.

Nowhere is this more viscerally apparent than in the century of valorization of the traitors who led the pretended state called the Confederate States of America. This even goes down to the deep valorization of Southern military culture and the Confederacy’s top generals. This goes for Lee himself, a very skilled tactician but a highly conventional commander. This applies equally to the denigration of the commanders and common soldiers of the North whose reputations were downgraded as an offering to the wounded pride of the South.

Measured words from Marshall, but a great appreciation of the rehabilitation of Grant’s reputation at the link. For some reason(!), we really don’t commemorate this day, I guess some still don’t want to talk about, much less admit the truth about the outcome. But it is not in doubt, and would do everyone a world of good to get better acquainted with the endemic sore-loserdom that followed this day and cuts a raggedy jib even unto today.

Also highly recommended if you’ve never read it, The March, by E.L. Doctorow.

Image: Stacked weapons at Appomattox, 1865.