Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

4.20.2017

The Mind Is Built for Collaboration


To repeat the beginning of my previous post, The Self Is a Society:
Interconnection and interdependence are unavoidable, independence an illusion. Cooperation is self-interest.

Those ideas are foundational to all of my thoughts about morality and ethics, politics and justice. At the heart of the "credo" paper I wrote at the culmination of my Master of Divinity degree was the idea of a relational theology, that we know God and the divine through our relationships--to self, others, and creation. I've said on numerous occasions that one of the big problems I see in U.S. society is the cult of individualism.
I repeat myself mostly because what follows belongs in that post, is a continuation of the ideas it contains, I simply came upon it after that was finished (to be fair, it was published 3 days after I published mine). It speaks pretty clearly for itself.
Cognitive science shows that humans are smarter as a group than they are on their own

As individuals, the amount we know about the world is miniscule. . . .

Even within our domains of expertise, ignorance is a fact of life. . . .

So how is society able to accomplish so much if each of us knows so little? The answer is that we divide up cognitive labor. We each have our narrow area of expertise, and we each make a small contribution. By combining our knowledge, we can tackle complex problems. . . .

This ability to jointly pursue complex goals is central to what makes us human. An influential evolutionary theory contends that our large brains developed to cope with the increasing size and complexity of our social groups. As our social groups grew, we developed the mental machinery to share knowledge, which in turn allowed us to respond to our environment in more complex and adaptive ways. Research in comparative psychology supports this story. One of the key skills that sets people apart from other primates is the ability to share intentions with others and jointly pursue goals.

The mind is built for collaboration, yet we lionize individual achievement. We imagine our heroes toiling in isolation, mastering all necessary skills, and solving critical problems before moving on to their next world-altering pursuit. This is a myth. Great accomplishments demand the ability to share knowledge and work together to solve problems. . . .

Our conception of intelligence should place more emphasis on how much an individual improves a group’s ability to solve complex problems. . . .

The myth that we can do it all alone—that we can master the world solo in all its detail and complexity—may be comforting, but it is not only wrong: It is also counterproductive. Rather than hiding from our individual ignorance, we should accept it and celebrate our collective wisdom.
Since that is largely an addendum to a previous post, I'll add a couple more thoughts related to the ideas of collective consciousness and learning from each other.
Medieval Medical Books Could Hold the Recipe for New Antibiotics

I am part of the Ancientbiotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists from multiple universities and countries. We believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could be found in medical history. With the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.

To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past. . . .

During our eyesalve study, chemist Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of a new therapy for malaria after searching over 2,000 recipes from ancient Chinese literature on herbal medicine. Is another “silver bullet” for microbial infection hidden within medieval European medical literature? . . .

With our database, we aim to find combinations of ingredients that occur repeatedly and are specifically used to treat infectious diseases. To achieve this, we are employing some common tools of data science, such as network analysis, a mathematical method to examine the relationships between entries. Our team will then examine how these patterns may help us to use medieval texts as inspiration for lab tests of candidate “ancientbiotic” recipes. . . . 
And (I'm in more of a consuming and digesting mood today than creating):
Earth Day And The March For Science

 . . . It's like we're giving up the Industrial Revolution to China or some other country. The people who own this [green] technology will end up owning the world just like in the Industrial Revolution. And whether anyone likes it or not, the world is heading in that [renewables] direction. So it makes no sense from a business perspective. For solar and wind the market numbers are stunning. So why aren't we owning it?

Earth Day is about that, too.

India, Oman, Italy, Morocco and all these other countries that are moving in the direction of [renewable energy systems] are interested in promoting environmental, climate and technology education. Why are they doing this? Because they want investments. They see all of it in terms of jobs for the future.

So whether you're talking about health or jobs or landscape values, mining coal and burning oil is just so 1800s. It's like refusing to give up the horse and buggy for the car. If you want to create the next generation of Carnegies, Rockefellers and Edisons you have to go this way — or you are going to lose. . . . 
And, finally:
How (And When) To Think Like A Philosopher

As an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy — a purportedly useless major, except that it teaches you how to think, write and speak.

The skills I was learning from working through papers and arguments extended well beyond the coursework itself, yielding habitual patterns of reasoning that made me a more discerning scientist, a more careful writer and a better thinker all around. Within and beyond philosophy, I was learning to spot poor arguments, uncover hidden assumptions, tease out subtle implications and recognize false dichotomies. . . .

In a new article published in Aeon, philosopher Alan Hájek presents a "philosophy tool kit," sharing some common philosophical moves that apply both within and beyond academic philosophy. . . .

If these thinking tools are so useful, why do we need special training to acquire them? Why aren't they built into our cognitive machinery, or acquired through our years of experience evaluating claims and arguments in everyday life? . . .

Here's a second (and more speculative) hypothesis for why many habits of philosophical thinking might not come naturally. The hypothesis is that some tools for critical evaluation run counter to another valuable set of tools: our tools for effective social engagement. These tools help us make sense of what someone is saying by encouraging us to interpret underspecified claims in the most positive light; they help us coordinate conversation by establishing common ground. . . .

If this is right, then some forms of critical evaluation and philosophical thinking are hard because they force us to suspend other habits of mind; habits that serve us well when our goal is to engage or persuade or befriend, but less well when our goal is to arrive at a precise characterization of what's true, or of what follows from what. The trick, then, is not only to acquire Hájek's philosophy tool kit, but to know when to use it.
It doesn't take more than a rudimentary bit of reflection and introspection for me to conclude I instinctively err on the side of too much philosophical thinking and not enough social, and probably explains why I'm so often described as things like devil's advocate, contrarian, and pedantic. Hmm. Interesting.


4.15.2017

The Self Is a Society

Interconnection and interdependence are unavoidable, independence an illusion. Cooperation is self-interest.

Those ideas are foundational to all of my thoughts about morality and ethics, politics and justice. At the heart of the "credo" paper I wrote at the culmination of my Master of Divinity degree was the idea of a relational theology, that we know God and the divine through our relationships--to self, others, and creation. I've said on numerous occasions that one of the big problems I see in U.S. society is the cult of individualism.


I'm sure these ideas in one form or another are present in most of my posts. Three that stand out as particularly complementary to what follows, though, are:

  • Cooperation Is Self-Interest - " . . . Milinski's evidence, published in 1987 in the journal Nature, was the first to demonstrate that cooperation based on reciprocity definitely evolved among egoists, albeit small ones. A large body of research now shows that many biological systems, especially human societies, are organized around various cooperative strategies. . . . " And " . . . Entities cooperate because it increases their fitness—their chance of passing on genes to the next generation. Even from the supposedly pure self-interested perspective of hard biology, the best strategy is often not pure competition but cooperation. . . . "
  • Morality & Empathy: A Chain of Associations - " . . . So. Punishment can be for the good of everyone or it can be about revenge (or both), and group interaction--whether in the form of religion, the internet, or other--is likely to accelerate and amplify that effect. How can we keep a beneficial morality as our framework? Consider: What makes you feel disgust? . . . "
  • Cross-Pollination - " . . . That metaphor of seed cross-pollination elegantly captures much of what I hope to get across in so many of my posts on this blog.  Why competition, while a good ingredient, can't be our foundation.  Why we need to take care of each other.  Why cooperation is self-interest. . . . "
Now, on to today's addition to the theme. We start with more examples from biology, an article from NPR by David George Haskell sharing the core ideas in his new book The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors:

Life Is The Network, Not The Self

By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. In some species, the network changes through the seasons, starting in spring with bacteria that resemble those of the soil, then shifting through the growing season to bacteria that can process the complex mix of nutrients inside a leaf. Fungi inside the leaf protect against herbivorous animals, encourage growth, and confer drought resistance to the plant. Bacteria also promote growth by processing nutrients, cleaning wastes, signaling to plant cells, producing growth hormones, and combatting pathogens.

The leaf network is also a place of tension, its members caught in the evolutionary struggle between cooperation and conflict. Pathogenic bacteria and fungi continually threaten to overwhelm and destroy the leaf, a tendency held in check by a combination of plant defensive chemicals and competition from other microbes. The leaf community contains the seeds (or fungal hyphae) of its own mortality: When leaves weaken, fungi engulf the leaf and start the process of decomposition. This rot isn't always a disadvantage for the rest of the plant. Death can prune shaded leaves, stopping them from draining the plant community's energy. . . .

Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. . . .

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the "self," but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship. . . .

When we gaze at a maple leaf, we now see not an individual made of plant cells, but a thrumming conversation, an embodied network. The "self" is a society.

I want to repeat that because I love the language:

The fundamental unit of biology is the network, a plurality.


Keeping that concept in mind allows me to proclaim what follows with full confidence. I was asked once, years ago, if I felt there was something wrong with my being privileged, why I wouldn't fully embrace and enjoy all the benefits that come from being a straight, white, Christian male in our society, and the response that immediately popped into my head was, "Not if others have to suffer for the sake of my privilege." From Current Affairs:

It's Basically Just Immoral to be Rich

Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person. The same is true if you possess hundreds of millions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. Being extremely wealthy is impossible to justify in a world containing deprivation. . . .

Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others. . . .

What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.

Many times, defenses of the accumulation of great wealth depend on justifications for the initial acquisition of that wealth. . . .

But there is a separate question that this defense ignores: regardless of whether you have earned it, to what degree are you morally permitted to retain it? The question of getting and the question of keeping are distinct. . . .

It’s one thing to argue that you got rich legitimately. It’s another to explain why you feel justified in spending your wealth upon houses and sculptures rather than helping some struggling people pay their rent or paying off a bunch of student loans or saving thousands of people from dying of malaria. . . .

Of course, when you start talking about whether it is moral to be rich, you end up heading down some difficult logical paths. If I am obligated to use my wealth to help people, am I not obligated to keep doing so until I am myself a pauper? Surely this obligation attaches to anyone who consumes luxuries they do not need, or who has some savings that they are not spending on malaria treatment for children. But the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have. . . .

We can define something like a “maximum moral income” beyond which it’s obviously inexcusable not to give away all of your money. . . . everyone who earns anything beyond it is obligated to give the excess away in its entirety. The refusal to do so means intentionally allowing others to suffer, a statement which is true regardless of whether you “earned” or “deserved” the income you were originally given. . . .

Of course, wealthy people do give away money, but so often in piecemeal and self-interested and foolish ways. . . .

The central point, however, is this: it is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.

When the self is society, then taking care of society is taking care of the self.

As an example that John Green somewhat famously shared, in terms of being taxed for public education:
Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order.

We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education.

So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don't personally have a kid in school: It's because I don't like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.
On a related note, the principle applied to a current topic in the news from the magazine America: The Jesuit Review:

The United Airlines debacle isn't about customer service. It's about the morality of capitalism.

Here is why United Airlines kicking off and countenancing the assault of a paying customer is a big deal: It helps to reveal how corporate America often puts rules before people and how capitalism often places profits before human dignity. (I am speaking not only as a Jesuit priest but as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, someone who considers himself a capitalist and a veteran of several years in corporate America.) . . .

When we watch the video of the event something in us says, “That’s not right.” Pay attention to that feeling. It is our conscience speaking. That is what prompted the widespread outrage online—not simply the fact that people who have been bumped from flights share in the man’s frustration but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity. If corporate rules and the laws of capitalism lead to this, then they are unjust rules and laws. The ends show that the means are not justified.

Someone in authority—pilots, stewards, ground crew—might have realized that this was an assault on a person’s dignity. But no one stopped it. Why not? Not because they are bad people: They too probably looked on in horror. But because they have been conditioned to follow the rules. . . .

Is this a “first-world problem”? Yes, of course. Most people in the developing world could not afford a ticket on that flight. But it is very much a “world problem” because the victims of a system that places profits before all else are everywhere. The same economic calculus that says profits are the most important metric in decision-making leads to victims being dragged along the floor of an airplane and eking out an existence on the floor of a hovel in the slums of Nairobi.

The privileging of profits over people leads to unjust wages, poor working conditions, the degradation of the environment and assaults on human dignity. . . .

What is the solution, then, to a system that gave rise to such treatment? To recognize that profits are not the sole measure of a good decision in the corporate world. To realize that human beings are more important than money, no matter how much a free-market economist might object. To act morally. And to respect human dignity.

Because, when I am my network, a system that regards individual wealth accumulation over the care of other parts of my network is a system, ultimately, of self-harm.


Finally, a recent example of a network spontaneously working, surprisingly to many, to benevolent rather than destructive ends, with a complex set of dynamics like coalitions and negotiations in the mix:

When Pixels Collide

Last weekend, a fascinating act in the history of humanity played out on Reddit.

For April Fool's Day, Reddit launched a little experiment. It gave its users, who are all anonymous, a blank canvas called Place.

The rules were simple. Each user could choose one pixel from 16 colors to place anywhere on the canvas. They could place as many pixels of as many colors as they wanted, but they had to wait a few minutes between placing each one.

Over the following 72 hours, what emerged was nothing short of miraculous. A collaborative artwork that shocked even its inventors.

From a single blank canvas, a couple simple rules and no plan, came this:



Each pixel you see was placed by hand. Each icon, each flag, each meme created painstakingly by millions of people who had nothing in common except an Internet connection. Somehow, someway, what happened in Reddit over those 72 hours was the birth of Art.

How did this happen?

While I followed Place closely, I cannot do justice to the story behind it in the few words here. There were countless dramas -- countless ideas, and fights, and battles, and wars -- that I don't even know about. They happened in small forums and private Discord chats, with too much happening at once, all the time, to keep track of everything. And, of course, I had to sleep.

But at its core, the story of Place is an eternal story, about the three forces that humanity needs to make art, creation, and technology possible. . . .

It's not a simple process, but from even the most unlikely networks cooperation can emerge in ways that benefit the entire pluralistic organism.

4.06.2017

Prophetic?

Wanting is only human. Humans are only wants. My purpose is to see tiny seeds of wanting that I can magnify and satisfy. Then, because I am human, too, I will want stuff. The cycle is so beautiful. I will belong.
There but for the grace of God go I.
A statement often used in reference to misfortune. I'm lucky that's not me. Many nations would use it to support their social and economic welfare programs; I'm willing to pay my share to take care of others because in different circumstances I might be the one in need.

Except, I've also seen it used to describe an underlying attitude in the American psyche toward wealth. As this quote attributed to John Steinbeck says:
Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
Kurt Vonnegut goes into at more length in Slaughterhouse-Five:
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, 'It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.' It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: 'if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?' There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.

This attitude and these quotes come to mind in response to a book I recently read, MARTians by Blythe Woolston. A short description of the teen book reads: In a near-future consumer dystopia, Zoe Zindleman must choose from limited, bleak housing options, including a converted strip-mall refuge that offers safety and proximity to her new place of work, ALLMART. I want to share it specifically for the long quote about politics at the end of my review, which also tells you a bit more about the book. Here's what I wrote:

This is a book of ideas. A slight character story overlaid on a world of big ideas. Amusingly sad; sadly amusing. Consider, for instance, its beginning:
Sexual Responsibility is boring.

It isn't Ms. Brody's fault. She's a good teacher. She switches channels at appropriate moments, tases students who need tasing--zizzz-ZAAPPP!--and she only once got stuck in the garbage can beside her teaching station. She was a teeny bit weepy that day, but no drunker than normal . . .
Zoe lives in a near future world where capitalism and corporatism have run amok. In school, we learn not only Sexual Responsibility but also Communication, Math, Corporate History, and Consumer Citizenship. Her high school, though, is suddenly closed. She and her peers are graduated early, and each assigned an appropriate future--including some straight to penitentiary. Zoe gets to choose between entry-level positions with AllMART and Q-MART. She returns home from school with her new diploma to find her mom is forced to move for work, leaving Zoe behind to finish attempting to sell their house. The last occupied house in their remote suburban subdivision, the other occupants having preceded her mom in the quest for employment. Zoe is the last girl living in Terra Incognita.

She finds the buses have stopped running to her area. Luckily, she is taken in by a former neighbor, who has found a home with other lost youth in an abandoned strip mall near work. So she is able to start her new life as an AllMART trainee. Which, she quickly discovers, is life as an AllMART "human resource," basically owned by the company and immediately in debt for her uniform and other work necessities.

Zoe's life is an extrapolation from dynamics currently at play in our world. Those things have been exaggerated, but they are far from invented, and the book is full of sharp social commentary. Zoe's story, while poignant, could have been longer, deeper, and fuller. That social commentary, though, is hilariously, depressingly spot on, and makes this entirely worth reading. Consider:
Governor: Congratulations, students, yes, congratulations. I'm pleased to announce that you are all, as of this morning, graduated.

My brain does the math: impossible. This message must be intended for another classroom, another school. We here in 2-B have another year and a half before we are fully educated and ready for the future.

Governor: In the interest of efficiency, your school . . . (glances at her phone) . . . Frederick Winslow Taylor High School, is closing permanently as of this date. Each student in attendance will have a personal appointment with the homeroom technician who will provide an e-tificate of graduation and a referral to an appropriate entry-level position. We are extremely proud of all of you on this occasion. Welcome to an exciting future.

----[later]----

Sallie Lee: Hello, viewers, this is Sallie Lee, Channel 42 News, the news you can use, with today's Big Story. Today we have a special guest, our Governor. Governor, today you privatized what was left of the public school system. (Looks directly at the camera.) Congratulations, graduates!

(Governor smiles, says nothing.)

Sallie Lee: Thanks to innovations like that, you have been able to balance the state budget. Congratulations, Governor! That's an accomplishment.

Governor: (Glances at her phone, smiles.) A balanced budget means nothing. I'm not stopping until the budget is zero. Zero is the only balance point that matters. There is no reason to take money away from people who earn it and then provide services they may not want. Why should I steal from your bank account and make your consumer choices for you? It's nuts. (Looks directly at the camera and shakes her finger.) I don't believe in government.

----[later]----

Chad Manley: . . . The real story tonight comes to us from the campaign trail, where the Governor is rolling out a new jobs program.

Governor: Jobs. That's what people want and that's why they vote for me. A vote for me is a vote for jobs. Jobs. Job creators. Today we are here to cut the ribbon on a new facility, one that will provide jobs. And not just jobs--we are putting criminals to work. This empty, useless building . . . (The Governor waves.)

Hey, I know that building. It is Frederick Winslow Taylor High School, where I spent 2,942 hours in Room 2-B. I guess it is empty and useless now.

Governor: This waste government property is going to be put to use as a guano-mining facility. We--our corporate partner is Bats of Happiness--have already seeded in the colonies of bats that will be producing black gold. By next week, the facility will be fully staffed, putting prisoners to work as productive citizens.
End review. The book is also the source of the quote at the top of this post.


Sharing the Governor's approach to politics is, as I said, the motivation behind and heart of this post. That's why I've put it in bold.

It's what I fear might be prophetic, given today's political landscape. Why do I think that? Many reasons. Here are a couple of recent articles that say more.

The first:
Forget Fascism. It’s Anarchy We Have to Worry About

It’s not Trump’s ability to marshal the forces of repression that should terrify us. It’s his inability to marshal forces to conduct even the most basic governance. Trump really is a presidential Joker. He knows how to wreak havoc, but he doesn’t seem to know how to do, or seem to want to do, much else. . . .

Of course he wants to accrue power, which may be what misled us into thinking he was a potential fascist. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to know how to do anything with it other than to promote himself and puff his ego, which means that everything crumbles around him. And of course, like most strongmen, he wants to do harm to the less powerful — to wit, immigrants and the poor — but it may be no accident that even his attempts at strong-arming turn out to have the opposite effect: chaos. . . .

Republicans never had a viable plan, not just about health care, but about anything, be it tax reform or energy or education. That is why their only remedies are less regulation and more tax cuts.

There is a good reason for this, and it isn’t incompetence, though there is plenty of that, too. Republicans may talk tough. They may tout the idea of conservative, market-driven solutions to our problems, but somehow, serious solutions never get presented because, frankly, Republicans don’t have any interest in them.

When you come down to it, Republicans are really anarchists dedicated to undermining government in the furtherance of an economic state of nature where the rich rule. What we saw these past few weeks was not the failure of Republicanism, as so many pronounced on Friday, but its logical and inevitable conclusion. Republicans are great at opposing things, destroying things, obstructing things, undoing things. They are really, really terrible at creating things because they have no desire to do so.

And now they have an anarchist-in-chief, someone who shares their government phobia . . .

There is, however, a method to this madness. Anarchism isn’t nihilism. By undoing government, anarchism undoes the only protection most Americans have against the depredations of the Trumps of this world and against the often cruel vicissitudes of life, like health crises. Take away government, and you strip away those protections. But take away government, and you also enable Trump and his fellow plutocrats to further enrich themselves because there would no mechanism to stop them. This has long been the Republican way: greed disguised as a fear of government overreach. Joker Trump and his Republican cronies are bent on deconstructing government to leave the rest of us defenseless against them.


The second:
Steve Bannon Wants to Destroy the "Administrative State." Neil Gorsuch Could Be the Key.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, White House strategist and former Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon laid out what he called the administration's "three verticals." These priorities included national security, economic nationalism, and "the deconstruction of the administrative state"—in other words, the evisceration of decades' worth of rules and regulations and the agencies that enforce them. 

One of Bannon's biggest weapons in his battle against the federal bureaucracy? It may be Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's nominee for the US Supreme Court.

"Judge Gorsuch's record points strongly in the direction of Bannon's ominous phrase, toward weakening the ability of agencies to protect our air and water, as well as worker safety and compensation," says Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center.

The Trump administration is attacking the regulatory state through executive orders and other executive branch efforts to stymie federal agencies. But Gorsuch—who seems like to be confirmed despite a Democratic filibuster—could help kneecap the system in one stroke if the right case comes up on the docket. . . .

Gorsuch's position on Chevron is more in line with the views of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito. This means if Gorsuch is confirmed, and the right case comes before the court, Chevron could be seriously endangered. The effect of this would be that already overburdened federal judges, instead of deferring to agencies on regulations covering everything from consumer protection to immigration, would essentially take on the job themselves if these rules become the subject of litigation—a situation Scalia himself once suggested would lead to "chaos." Much of the process of issuing and enforcing regulations could grind to a halt—an outcome that would surely please Steve Bannon. 
So it may not come to pass. Will hopefully not come to pass. But current events are making Woolston's imagined future less imaginary than when her book was published in 2015.


Speaking of prophetic predictions about the future, this article also recently caught my eye:
The Smartphone Is Eventually Going to Die, and Then Things Are Going to Get Really Crazy

 . . . Still, all those decade-plus investments in the future still rely on gadgetry that you have to wear, even if it's only a pair of glasses. Some of the craziest, most forward-looking, most unpredictable advancements go even further — provided you're willing to wait a few extra decades, that is.

This week, we got our first look at Neuralink, a new company cofounded by Musk with a goal of building computers into our brains by way of "neural lace," a very early-stage technology that lays on your brain and bridges it to a computer. It's the next step beyond even that blending of the digital and physical worlds, as human and machine become one.

Assuming the science works — and lots of smart people believe that it will — this is the logical endpoint of the road that smartphones started us on. If smartphones gave us access to information and augmented reality puts that information in front of us when we need it, then putting neural lace in our brains just closes the gap. . . .
I mention that one in conjunction with what preceded because it brings to mind another book, a recent classic of teen literature, M.T. Anderson's 1999 book Feed. A short description: In a future where most people have computer implants in their heads to control their environment, a boy meets an unusual girl who is in serious trouble. It contains sharp social commentary about rampant consumerism that has been internalized in more ways that one.

Here's what I wrote in my review:

I read this book when I was first getting into the world of young adult literature, and I've been recommending both it and Anderson ever since. Except I recently realized my memory of the book's specifics were rather vague, so I decided to give it another read from my current perspective. It didn't disappoint.

Anderson's range is amazing, particularly his ability to use entirely different language for each setting (see: Octavian Nothing), and the language used by the characters in Feed is our immediate guide to his future United States. The book begins:
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, "I'm so null," and Marty was all, "I'm null too, unit," but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we'd go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel and go dancing.
Anderson doesn't patronize his readers with omniscient narrator explanations, but lets us naturalistically experience the setting through the story and Titus's voice. He does this with his development of language as something living, from new slang to today's profanity becoming acceptable and more. Most importantly, the characters' inability to articulate their thoughts illustrates the impact of life with the feed, of having an Internet-connected computer implanted in their brains from birth, so there's no reason to learn and internalize facts or vocabulary because the feed is always there to fill in the blanks.

Of course, a feed costs money, so the price for having one is a constant (internal) bombardment of customized advertisements from the corporations who provide and maintain everyone's feeds. I said, "Do you mean . . ." I stopped, and tried, "That could be taken to mean that . . . you know . . . we . . ." My feed was like, "Tongue tied? Wowed and gaga? For a fistful of pickups tailored extra-specially for this nightmarish scenario, try Cyranofeed, available at rates as low as--" There is no escaping the influence of the feed. Except for those too poor, who are then excluded from jobs, status, and just about everything. Feed is a stark, yet realistic vision of the future with an anti-consumer perspective and something to say about privilege and class.

But I get to this point in my review and realize I haven't even mentioned the story, which it most definitely has. A very good one, made all the more powerful and believable because of the language and setting I've gone into above. I'll let Titus describe it for you:
I told her the story of us. "It's about the feed," I said. "It's about this meg normal guy, who doesn't think about anything until one wacky day, when he meets a dissident with a heart of gold." I said, "Set against the backdrop of America in its final days, it's the high-spirited story of their love together, it's laugh-out-loud funny, really heartwarming, and a visual feast." I picked up her hand and held it to my lips. I whispered to her fingers. "Together, the two crazy kids grow, have madcap escapades, and learn an important lesson about love. They learn to resist the feed. Rated PG-13. For language," I whispered, "and mild sexual situations."
A reread has only confirmed to me that this is one to recommend. (A listen actually, to the meg youch audio production; very, very well done.)

End review.


A few years ago at a library convention I saw a panel discussion titled "Bleak New World: YA Authors Decode Dystopia." One of the panelists was blogger, journalist, author, and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow. He enthusiastically riffed on the idea that Dystopias have future settings to help us get enough distance from our surroundings to realize that they are cautionary tales about the present.

Sometimes it's hard to be optimistic and idealistic about the future.

3.30.2017

Shadows & Light

What follows are various quotes I like from books I've recently read.


"Not all knowledge comes from the mind. Your body, your heart, your intuition. Sometimes memories even have minds of their own."

― Kelly Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon


"She turned [the heart] around and around, looking for chinks and crevices. There was a memory here. A beloved person. A loss. A flood of hope. A pit of despair. How many feelings can one heart hold? She looked at her grandmother. At her mother. At the man protecting his family. Infinite, Luna thought. The way the universe is infinite. It is light and dark and endless motion; it is space and time, and space within space, and time within time. And she knew: there is no limit to what the heart can carry."

― Kelly Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon


"Her self-respect had suffered a head-on collision with love, a clash that generally only ends one way. Love does not fight fair. In that moment her pride, the gut knowledge that she was right, even her sense of who she was, meant nothing, faced as she was with the prospect of being unloved."

― Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree


"I sort of like the idea of someone keeping a dossier on me. It's like outsourcing your own diary. Let someone else do the writing while I focus on the living. Genius, right?"

― J.C. Carleson, Placebo Junkies


"The only certainty of being truly alone with your thoughts is that whatever you're thinking is probably wrong."

"I'm not ready for any more reality at the moment. I'm already at a toxic saturation level; I'm this close to overdosing on the truth."

"We all have our fantasy lives, don't we? There's a fine line between delusional and ambitious, it occurs to me. We're all just hoping for a better reality."

― J.C. Carleson, Placebo Junkies


"'No matter how old we get, we somehow can never convince ourselves that whatever trial we're in the middle of is only temporary. No matter how may trials we've had in the past, and no matter how well we remember that they eventually were there no longer, we're sure that this one, this one right now, is a permanent state of affairs. But it's not. By nature humans are temporary beings.'

'You're saying I just have to ride it out until it goes away.'

'Not at all, my dear. I'm saying you have to strive for a solution and trust that eventually there will be one.'"

― Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray


"If left unused, conversations can grow rusty over time. The opinions and feelings we've expressed before, when left to their own devices, can grow sluggish and curmudgeonly. They become too used to sitting alone and unconsidered, and if you ask them to move, their joints can ache, or parts of them can crumble away. Sometimes you can return to an opinion you've not visited in years and find it's died and rotted away without you even noticing. Sometimes a feeling we assume we'll have for ever can abandon us and leave a gap we don't notice until we suddenly feel the need to call upon that feeling."

― Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray



"Robert was silent for a moment, watching his daughter try to coax the ladybird off the rug and onto her finger. He wanted to warn the bug away; the finger of a five-year-old girl is a safe place for no one."

― Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray


"There's nothing like forgiveness for making a person feel guilty. There's nothing like understanding for making a person feel undeserving. Because if someone is willing to forgive a weakness, they deserve better than to have put up with it."

― Janina Matthewson, Of Things Gone Astray


"Family isn't blood, necessarily; it's a thousand little choices we make every day. We choose to trust each other and forgive each other and go to the pasta place for dinner even though some of us would rather eat sushi."

― Rebecca Podos, The Mystery of Hollow Places


3.28.2017

Just Saying



You say, "Regulation;"
I say, "Protection."

You say, "Obstacle to profit;"
I say, "Concern for the common good."

You say, "Business first;"
I say, "People first."

3.16.2017

Kernels that Cannot Be Condensed

I honestly feel I never have much of a response lately to the question, "How are you doing?" Most of the time, I don't really know. It has much to do with, I'm sure, our two little boys at home (21 and 40 months old). And I've just come across a wonderful summation of that feeling:
I don't know myself as well as I used to, says a middle-aged friend raising two young children. But he does know. He just isn't thinking about it as much anymore.
It's from a book: 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. The book is a collection of aphorisms that hint at a story. Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages, she writes in one of them. Here a few others I'm particularly fond of:
I like writing that is unsummarizable, a kernel that cannot be condensed, that must be uttered exactly as it is.

-----

The true nobility put their inferiors at ease--by being kind to them? No, by dismantling the system for a moment.

-----

The first beautiful songs you hear tend to stay beautiful because better than beauty, which is everywhere, is the memory of first discovering beauty.

-----

Talking with someone who reveals nothing, I hear myself madly filling the emptiness with information about myself.

-----

Many bird names are onomatopoetic--they name themselves. Fish, on the other hand, have to float there and take what they get.
I like the wisdom and insight those contain. Here's my review, which shares a few more.



One of the aphorisms from the middle of 300 Arguments reads:
Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages.
And they are that, quotable. Reflections, insights, memories that each capture some truth about life. They are aphorisms, each a self-contained, poetic, miniature essay.
I used to write these while playing hooky on what I hoped would be my magnum opus. Assigning myself to write three hundred of them was like forcing myself to chain-smoke until I puked, but it didn't work. I didn't puke.
Yet, while they are each self-contained and complete, they are arranged in a sequence that tells a story. They are dots that can be connected to get a sense of a person behind them. While some are purely general,
Shame needs an excuse to feel ashamed. It apologizes for everything, even itself.
others convey common experiences with specific memories,
In ninth grade I was too afraid to speak to the boy I loved, so I mailed him a black paper heart every week for a year. I wasn't afraid of him; I was afraid of my feeling. It was more powerful than God. If we'd ever spoken it might have burned the whole place down.
and still others simply capture personal moments and feelings:
The most fervent kiss of my life was less than five seconds long more than ten years ago with someone else's husband. It still hasn't quite worn off.
Most are confessional on at least some level, particularly when connected with those surrounding them. Many echo, complement, and supplement previous thoughts from different perspectives. Themes emerge: desire, loss, ambition, writing, intimacy, vulnerability, suffering, marriage, parenthood, and mortality among them.

A person emerges: a passionate artist who has succeeded on at least some level as a writer, who has experienced many relationships before finding contentment in becoming a wife and mother, who has struggled with chronic illness, and who is reflecting on all of it from the perspective of a premature, voluntary end of life.

It is a book that asks if unfulfilled yearning is enough, in and of itself.
There were people I wanted so much before I had them that the entire experience of having them was grief for my old hunger.
And it is a book that hints at the hints of fulfillment a particular person has found.

And it accomplishes all of that in a spare, minimal, efficient, and original manner. It is quite a writing feat.
On the page, these might look like the stones of a ruin, strewn by time and weather, but I was here.

2.22.2017

Threshold, Day 1


On the tip of my tongue.
In the corner of my eye.
Just out of reach.
Pressure building.
Thoughts not quite coalescing.
Waiting for things to bubble to the surface.
Cogitating. Percolating. Accumulating.

Always tired. Always drained. Lacking the energy to form words. To form concepts. I have been consuming and consuming; trying to fuel new fire. My belly feels full. Ideas and feelings wanting to emerge. Thoughts not quite coalescing. There are things to be said; I don’t know yet what they are. Maybe, just maybe, taking time to sit and write will give them an opportunity to escape that intuitive, associative realm they currently roam.

Maybe there’s too much wanting simultaneous release to fit through the threshold available.

A poem I like:
Wander Through the Pages
Karla Kuskin

So I picked out a book
on my own
from the shelf
and I started to read
on my own
to myself.
And nonsense and knowledge
came tumbling out,
whispering mysteries,
history’s shout,
the wisdom of wizards
the songs of the ages,
all wonders of wandering
wonderful pages.

From I Am the Book, poems selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Yayo
I want to find a way to display this in the youth section of my library.
I haven’t found where or how yet.
The thought of it is not quite coalescing.
I’m letting the idea cogitate, percolate, accumulate.
Waiting for materialization to bubble to the surface.

I’m ready for my own nonsense and knowledge to come tumbling out.

"Like" does a disservice to my affection for the poem. It’s a significant understatement.

I printed the poem out in an extra large font and put it on a bulletin board in my previous library. My current library doesn’t have any bulletin boards.

Lots of windows, though. Windows are good.

And not just nonsense and knowledge for my own sake. I’m supposed to be contributing to a blog on my library’s website. Content for writers. I haven’t had anything to say for quite a while. I need to write about writing for readers of the blog, in addition to writing for myself.

My figurative belly may be full; my literal one is not. Lunch, then more.


Later:

Discovering the Writer Within: The 40-Day Writer’s Workshop
Barry Lane and Bruce Ballenger

It happened to be on the shelf when I browsed the library earlier, looking for inspiration, for material that might prompt a post for the blog.

Day one: "Begin writing, starting with the four words below. Write quickly, without thinking too much about what you want to say before you write it. Write for ten minutes. Time yourself.

"When I write, I . . . "

When I write, I try to imitate writing I enjoy. In style, tone, approach, organization. If I liked reading it--and, presumably, others did as well--then there are things I might learn from it. It might inform my writing choices. It might teach me.

Of course, there are plenty of things considered “good writing” that I’m not inclined to imitate. As I said at the beginning, they are the things I enjoy.

I enjoy a slight sense of ambiguity. A tension that needs resolving. Just enough left unsaid to be vague and a bit confusing. Episodic. Themes that skip back and forth over each other without transition, circling and merging over time to gradually come into focus. Ideas that keep cycling back, gaining more layers and nuance each time around. Connections.

I like to synthesize. So, when I write, I like to lay out pieces that need synthesis to fully make sense.

When I write, I have to work to not be wordy and convoluted. I’ve read too much academic writing. I like shades of grey, qualifiers, complexity, nuance. I like to consider ideas from many perspectives. But convoluted ideas don’t necessarily require convoluted grammar and linguistic construction. They still need to be conveyed as directly and simply as possible. My instincts are to do the opposite, so I have to work to make it so.

I like precision of communication. I like that words are inherently imprecise. I like to play with the tension between the two.

When I write, I miss my sense of smell that has abandoned me after a lifetime of sinus issues and illnesses. That’s one less area of description for me to draw upon.

When I write, I tend to be abstract. I love ideas. I don’t think in detailed, concrete terms. Physical descriptions aren’t really my thing. They don’t stick in my memory, in the meanings I take from events and interactions. It’s the impressions, ideas, emotions, and insights that I remember. The exact specifics are extraneous. Which makes them difficult to write.

When I write, I can largely let myself get a flow and keep going, though I can’t entirely keep myself from skipping back to reread and making minor edits. Not enough to get stuck, just new ideas that have popped into my head about the old words I haven’t entirely moved on from.

When I write, I make regular use of the thesaurus.

When I write, I enjoy the feel of language. The rhythm and cadence. The way words can flow.

I think part of me wants to be a poet. My idea-centric, analytical mind grew up avoiding the form--as so many people do--so I don’t have a tool set to build from. But I have read much poetry in recent years that I find myself wanting to imitate.

When I write, I am never at a loss for words. Keeping things brief is my struggle. Most students, when assigned a page count for their work, have to work to stretch things out. Maybe cheat the font and margins a decimal place bigger. I’ve always been the opposite, trying to figure out how to cut any of my precious words I can’t stand to part with, cheating the decimals smaller.

So I have exceeded my time limit.

But other duties call, so now I must stop.

2.14.2017

Going on Record as a Nut Job

A still life

As a skeptical librarian who holds verifiable facts in high esteem and has a fascination with the irrationality of the human brain, I generally scoff at conspiracy theories. Particularly in light of what I consider the silliness of the nonsense spouted by the right about President Obama and Hillary Clinton, I've tried very hard to make sure I'm not caught up in a filter bubble echo chamber of extreme, fake ideas about the current administration. So I have this thought that appeals to a side of me that I believe must surely be detached from reality, as much as it makes a certain kind of sense to me. I'm at best agnostic about the truth of it. But since the current administration is all about alternative takes on events and the head honcho is a spinner of tales, here's a story. Take it or leave it as you will.

It's hard to believe that Michael Flynn's resignation is a solitary act related to a solitary incident. It seems much more likely that he acted on orders and is now taking the fall in the hopes of stemming further investigation into events. Parts of the infamous dossier have been verified, and key players have refused to discuss it--which could possibly be an indication that they don't want to undermine an ongoing investigation they believe might bear fruit. I'm looking at a headline right now that reads Russia: The Scandal Trump Can't Shake. So, clearly, I'm not the only one who thinks something doesn't smell right about all of it.

But I don't really think it's about bedroom activities (or bathroom activities in the bedroom, if you prefer). I have no doubt in my belief that he sees his position as, first and foremost, a vehicle for advancing his business interests. That, more than anything else, is his top agenda. There's a way that ties into the Russian blackmail theories. He's surely, over the course of his career as a real estate magnate, done some illegal things. Things like bribing officials to get permits approved and other "greasing of the wheels" to eliminate red tape. He's also, I'm sure, found ways for his money to influence government officials to have them work to further his ends. That would surprise few people.

But government bureaucracy isn't the only power in the game. There's the competition, of course. And there's the underworld. The Russian mob, for instance, is very active in New York City, his base of operations. Now, just suppose for a minute that he's done business with that particular power. It's a matter of record he's done legitimate business with Russian interests, so it's not that much of a stretch to suppose he's done illegitimate business with shady Russian interests as well. Deals on the street that are mutually beneficial. Deals that could make him complicit in things like smuggling, drugs, extortion, sex workers, and the murderous fallout of such business. Not the primary actor, necessarily, but a partner who has aided the transactions. What if that's the nature of the blackmail material? That he's not worried about scandal, but jail?


So who am I to conjecture so? No one. My reality is as far removed from this as possible. I have no relevant expertise. I have done no investigation. I'm not even going to bother tracking down the things I've read that have sent my mind in this direction. Things like his flippant lack of concern that Putin is a killer because we've got killers too. Or that the last-minute leaks about the non-existent investigation into emails that were influential on the election came NYC police, NYC FBI agents, and NYC former mayors. Things that could make a pattern if other connecting items secretly exist. Things that make a good story. Because that's all I am, just a guy who loves fiction.

But what if this isn't?

2.09.2017

"The Battle Is Fierce"

Here's one not mentioned in the parenting manuals: When, midway through changing from clothes to pajamas, your three-year-old curls around himself, looks down adoringly, and says, "I love you, penis."


Not long ago, I was looking through a chest my recently deceased mom had inherited from her parents. In it was a collection of precious personal artifacts. Legal documents like birth certificates and marriage licenses, but also childhood toys and memorabilia. One item was a book that must have been my grandpa's:

What a Young Man Ought to Know
by Sylvanus Stall, D. D.

Two apparent series titles are listed on the cover and one inside:
  • Purity and Truth
  • Self and Sex Series
  • Pure Books on Avoided Subjects
Copyright 1897


I grabbed it at the time as a curiousity, and have just taken a first look at it. I might have to give it a read sometime. I'm sure it would provide a combination of amusement, insight into the past, and interesting advice. It appears to offer a mix of encouragement to strict moral purity, acceptance that we are sexual creatures, frank talk about sex, health, and sexual health, relationship advice, and character advice.


The chapter titles:
I.  Equipment for Life.
II.  Personal Purity.
III.  Physical Weakness.
IV.  Evils to Be Shunned and Consequences to Be Dreaded.
V.  Evils to Be Shunned and Consequences to Be Dreaded. (Continued.)
VI.  Evils to Be Shunned and Consequences to Be Dreaded. (Continued.)
VII.  The Reproductive Organs--Their Purpose and Their Prostitution.
VIII.  The Right Relation to Women.
IX.  Marriage--A Divine Institution.
X.  Who Should Not Marry.
XI.  The Selection of a Wife.
XII.  Importance of Great Caution.
XIII.  Early and Late Marriage.
XIV.  Weddings.
XV.  Hindrances to Be Avoided.
XVI.  Helps to Be Used.
There is, for instance, a 20-page section on the topic of "emissions, or wet dreams" and tactics for avoiding them. And there are repeated exhortations to exercise, eat right, and sleep well. Sexually Transmitted Diseases get extensive coverage.



But it's not all morality and physicality. Paging through I noticed this bit:
You will need not only a wife, but you will need also a COMPANION. In such an alliance you should seek intelligence. A woman who is ignorant and stupid, or one who has simply learned to drum on the piano, to paint a few horrible pictures, and do a little embroidery, cannot properly be regarded as one suited for this important relation of life.
And this from the final chapter caught my children's librarian eye:
No young man or young woman can afford to read fiction before they are twenty-five years of age. There is too much that is indispensable for intelligence, for laying of foundation principles for study, for business, health and morals, that need to be read first. If fiction is begun before a correct taste is formed and foundation principles laid, the best books will never be read at all. The habit of reading rapidly for the simple sake of the story will destroy the power, and even the wish, to read thoughtfully and seriously. The power to concentrate thought will, as a consequence, never be acquired. A vitiated taste is the inevitable result. If it is important that the body should be fed upon the most nourishing food, the same is also true of that upon which the mind is to be fed.
Yes, it could be most interesting reading indeed.

2.02.2017

Silence



Silence amounts to consent
Silence assumes support
Silence accepts the status quo

It was silence that authenticated the emperor’s imaginary new clothes




Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.
 ~ Charles de Gaulle

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
 ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Oppression can only survive through silence.
 ~ Carmen de Monteflores

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
 ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.
 ~ Ella Wheeler Wilcox




What Psychology Teaches Us about Opposing an Unpopular President
Trump’s best hope is to convince opponents he’s more popular than he actually is.
Social scientists say that an “unpopular norm” exists when people perceive a view or behavior to have popular support when it is actually opposed by the majority. . . .

In a situation where the ruling minority asserts, falsely, that it represents the desires of the majority, what can politicians and citizens do to ensure that the true majority sentiment is represented?

Most critically, the majority position must consistently broadcast that theirs is the more popular view. The key factor driving unpopular norms is the misperception of public opinion. Wherever possible, reliable data on the true majority sentiment should be brought to the table and emphasized relentlessly. . . .

The true story of the public’s perception of Donald Trump is not one featuring an easily distracted nation accepting outrageous behavior, but instead of widespread rejection of an incoming president and his agenda.

Second, the majority must be deeply committed. . . .

In practical terms, this means not just maintaining one's views but also working to spread them through grassroots campaigns, contacting legislators, organizing for candidates and ballot initiatives, and engaging in effective protests and persuasive conversations with other citizens.

Additionally, the majority must never “move on” by assimilating to the reigning minority, thereby losing sight of the political injustice inherent in minority rule. . . .

People will change their opinions to align with what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the majority view. . . .

But unpopularity is the Trump regime's — indeed every unpopular regime's — greatest weakness. . . .


Satyagraha