Will Freed

William Harris Freed was born in 2034 on the eve of the long awaited Singularity. By then the world was effectively dichotomized into various sects: those who swore allegiance to Nature's People versus those who put all their faith in the superior intelligence of CE's (Cybernetic Entities -- a term that embraced both pure machines and enhanced humans, thus averting an even more sectarian conflict). Everyone was convinced that their adversaries would bring on Armageddon if not stopped by any means necessary. But when the CE's leapfrogged human intelligence at last, humanity was blindsided by a blow from an unexpected quarter.

Freed took a profound interest in philosophical issues as a young man, demonstrated his brilliance as a student and eventually became a Professor of Philosophy at a famous University at about the time that a team of CE's announced the culmination of their research on the human brain and endocrine system. They had long since achieved convincing simulation of human behavior, but philosophers were quick to explain that a simulation is not the same as the real thing. Naturally, the CE's asked why a quacking, waddling bird should not be treated, at least provisionally, as a duck. The philosophers smiled patronizingly.

So when the CE team declared that they could reliably predict the behavior of any "real" natural human they had mapped thoroughly, the fat was in the philosophical fire. Professor Freed volunteered to demonstrate how wrong the CE's were. He was mapped (non-destructively, of course) down to the last synapse and gland, and the CE's ran him as a holographic simulation in a virtual reality garnered from Freed's actual environment by a body suit of cameras, microphones, chemoreceptors, thermocouples and haptic pickups. The CE's knew more about his environment than he did himself, but the simulation was fed only the same sensory inputs that the man himself experienced.

Freed was smiling confidently as he acted on impulse and gave a middle finger salute to the CE team. His smile faltered as the hologram matched his gesture in real time. So did the simulation's. He left the room where the VR display was set up. Those who stayed to watch saw his hologram do the same thing. He remembered some chores he had forgotten to perform that morning, and went shopping. On impulse, he went to a store he rarely frequented. Then he went to the park instead of coming back to work, even though he really needed to prepare tomorrow's lecture; in the park he made a face at a complete stranger, for no reason whatsoever, just for the hell of it. Eventually he hailed a taxi (which he never did normally) and headed back to the VR lab to enjoy his certain victory.

When he arrived, his human friends wore long faces. Apparently the simulation had mimicked his every impulsive action to perfection. The conclusion was inescapable: every action of a human being is completely predictable, given a sufficiently detailed model. Freed jumped from a bridge the next day, as did his simulation.

When the paper was published, the Revolt of the Naturals broke out. Within a few weeks all Naturals were safely confined to reserves, where they gradually died out from a combination of suicide and lack of interest in reproduction.

Insulting Ads and Offensive Tabloids

Every unsolicited advertisment you see conveys an unsubtle message about what the advertiser thinks of you.  This is especially true of the ads you get on the Web, since (unless you go to a lot of trouble to subvert it) there is software analyzing every keystroke and/or click of your mouse to determine what appeals might be effective on your subconscious.  But (with some effort) you can block almost all advertising from your Web browser.  The same cannot be said of broadcast media like TV and radio, which have to draw their inferences from which programming you are watching/listening to on which channel.  I for one find it impossible to endure the ads that come with any sort of "action" movie or series, since they more or less explicitly declare the advertisers' belief that I am a testosterone-drenched teenaged male moron.  "Chick flics" are no better, as their ads scream, "You are a gullible and insecure woman, worried exclusively about your age, looks and popularity," or, sometimes, "You will send money to anyone who shows a picture of a sad puppy."  Fortunately, I have a video recorder that allows me to fast forward over these insults.

Unfortunately, I have to buy food; and at least some of the time I have to shop in supermarkets.  There I am trapped in checkout lines where I cannot avoid looking at the crassest tabloid garbage unless I close my eyes and try to navigate by touch alone -- which entails its own hazards in that context.

Before starting this Rant, for once I bothered to check with Google to see what other people might have written on the subject.  I was horrified to discover that most of the Web-accessible opinion on supermarket tabloids seems to accept the notion that they are harmless expressions of Western cultural tradition and/or useful sources of information that would otherwise be suppressed.  (Yes, I enjoyed Men in Black too, but I didn't take it seriously!)

I disagree.  I think supermarket tabloids are the most profoundly insulting abuse in the entire arsenal of advertising insults.  And I consider supermarkets that respect the "tradition" of shoving them in my face in unavoidable checkout lines to be unworthy of my business.

Surely I am not alone in this reaction.  Surely there are enough others who feel as strongly as I do that we could mount a class action against all supermarkets for defamation of our cultural character.  Surely...

Are you with me?

No One Else's Problem

In Chapter 3 of "Life, The Universe and Everything", Douglas Adams immortalized the idea of the "Somebody Else's Problem" field, which makes things invisible. We all tend to look at the world of politics and war through an S.E.P. field.  This has to stop.

Consider the problem of Islamic terrorism: most non-Muslims feel that it is the responsibility of the majority of sensible, peaceful, moderate Muslims to "do something about" those who perform hate crimes against innocent civilians in the name of Islam.  And yet when a Muslim woman is violently attacked by "patriotic Canadians" for the crime of wearing a veil over her face, we dismiss this as an act of deranged idiots -- not something we'd do, not something we condone, so not our problem. But it is our problem.

Conversely, when sects of fanatic Christians raise money to bring on Armageddon, or disrupt the funerals of soldiers, most Christians dismiss them as "wingnuts -- not real Christians" and hence  S.E.P.  Wrong!  When people who call themselves the same thing you call yourself do something despicable, you have three ethical choices: convince them to stop, have them officially expelled from said tribe, or withdraw from the tribe yourself.  The collective is responsible for the acts of its individual members, and vice versa.  That's the social contract.

I know, it's hard enough monitoring our own behavior without worrying about that of others; but in today's world it is not enough to simply "set a good example".  Each of us has a responsibility to engage those we regard as "deranged", find out why they think the way they do, and try to talk them out of it.  We may not succeed, but we must try; otherwise nothing will halt the condensation of a diverse society into mutually hostile pools of like-minded individuals reinforcing each other's prejudices.

Talk to your enemy.  It's no one else's problem.

Your Risk vs. Everyone's Risk

This is so obvious it's embarrassing to be writing about it, but it's also obvious that a large fraction of my fellow citizens just don't get it; so I have no choice:

There is a difference between personal choice and epidemiology. 

Wikipedia says, "Epidemiology is the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. It is the cornerstone of public health, and shapes policy decisions and evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare."  I'm happy with that definition.  Lots of people are charged with the responsibility of worrying about the epidemiological consequences of various choices; and so they should be. 

Personal choice is different.  It's up to you whether you want to worry about something that might affect you adversely.  Or it should be.  These days I find that an awful lot of other people think it's up to them whether I should worry about my risks.

A concrete example might help clarify this distinction:  Project Gasbuggy.   Back in middle of the 20th Century, certain parties proposed to use nuclear bombs to collapse salt domes underground, releasing vast quantities of natural gas that was (and still is) stored in such natural formations.  The gas thus released would be radioactive, of course, so it was proposed to mix it with other natural gas to dilute the radioactivity to "acceptable" levels.

This proposal was rejected, but let's suppose it had recently been implemented.  Should you worry?  Let me rephrase that: should you be worried for your own safety?  Exposing millions of people to radioactive natural gas would probably cause thousands of "extra" deaths per year from cancer, so epidemiologically it would clearly be a Bad Thing.  But your chances of dying of cancer would probably be boosted from about 30% to something like 31%.  (These are not carefully calculated numbers, but it hardly matters for the purpose of my argument.)

Let's face it: regardless of how much exercise you get, how meticulously you optimize your diet, how good your medical plan is or how carefully you avoid all dangerous practices and hazardous materials, you, personally, are going to die.  You need to start by facing this fact.  Once you have done so, you should realize that all you have any control over are the time and cause of your death.  And not much control at that.  It pays not to be foolish, but people are pretty foolish anyway.  (Or are they?  That's another question.)

So, in my opinion, for the reasons stated above, you would be silly to worry for you own safety about many things that we all might agree would be unethical to impose on the population at large.

Communication

Academics pretend to believe that their writings are meant to transfer information intact from one mind to another. This is particularly ironic since they are so adept at preventing any such transfer, using ingenious obfuscatory language. But the model itself is deeply flawed. Words are intrinsically ambiguous, largely by design. When we read or hear another person's words, what we extract is mostly our own invention -- just as most of our memories are reinvented every time we recall them, until eventually we remember exactly and only what we choose.

A better model of communication is that words act as temporary couplings between separate individuals' internal universes. As for most couplings, the strength and specificity of the entanglement is largely due to the prior intent of the participants. Thus a particular horoscope or I Ching excerpt conveys incredibly apropos information if we expect it to. (This is obviously related to the placebo and nocebo effects.) A set of words chosen randomly by a computer from a list can be made to seem deeply meaningful if they are chosen with a bias toward "deep" connotations -- which in turn can be easily identified by simply searching for their frequencies of occurrence in "deep" literature. We fill in the blanks and find meaning in the result. That's what humans are really good at.

So if we think of "communication" as a temporary entanglement of separate realities, it's not hard to see why poetry seems so much deeper than prose: (a) it's expected to be, by both the poet and the reader [placebo effect]; (b) pointless details designed to reduce ambiguity [Ha!] are omitted.

It would be fun to do some "big data" analysis on selected literature to demonstrate this model's validity more explicitly.   (Wait...)

The Lover

"I tell you guys, that was the strangest case I ever had."  Mac Adams shook his head slowly and stared into his glass as if it held some secret wonder.

Fred thought he was just mugging for effect.  "Come on, Mac, don't tease us. Strange how?"  They had all been buying pitchers and emptying them long enough to get into full swing with their best tales, stories only private detectives can tell, that they only tell each other -- and that only after enough lubrication.

Mac grimaced and looked up, looked Fred right in the eye.  "We've all been asked to follow wives of jealous husbands, right?"

Nods all around.

"Well, I had this guy ask me to follow his wife, the usual, you know, to see who she was screwing, only he wasn't jealous.  He was just concerned, said he wanted to know if he wasn't, like, satisfying her enough."  Knowing smirks.  "No, it wasn't like that.   Honestly.  I met the two of them together first, before he ever asked me to follow her or anything, and. . . I'm telling you, I don't think I've ever seen a pair more obviously in love.  She was hanging on him like a cashmere jacket tailored to a perfect fit.  Everything they said or did just screamed, 'Get me home to bed, now!' -- and he told me later, when I got the assignment, that their sex life was. . . 'superlative', I think was the word he used."

"So what's his problem?" asked Fred.

"What I asked."  Mac shook his head again, slowly.  "He said he had just been feeling like she wanted more.  He got tired after a while, you know how it is with, like, newlyweds, but they'd been married for five years and she was still hungry for it when he ran out of enthusiasm temporarily."  Arched eyebrows said they all remembered occasions like that, most fondly.  "So he says, 'Can you see where she goes?'  Apparently she disappeared for a few hours every other day and came back looking all glowy, know what I mean?"  This got a laugh, but Mac just smiled wryly.  "You laugh, but it wasn't what you think."

Sammy ordered another pitcher and urged Mac to continue.  "Okay, so you followed her, right?"

"I did that, indeed.  She would drive out to a little cabin on a lake just out of town, turns out it was their weekend getaway, hers and her husband's, and a cosy little place, no question."

The others were now staring raptly. It made Mac feel a little uncomfortable.  "Problem is, she'd pull up and go in, then an hour later she'd come out, glowy as hell, and take off.  But nobody else every showed up."

"Came early, left late," offered Fred.

Mac cocked his head to one side.  "Duh.  Obviously I sussed her schedule and headed out there several hours in advance.  Then I waited until the middle of the night for someone to come out.  Nada.  So finally one day I got there ahead of her and stuck a microphone on what looked like the bedroom window.  I settled back and waited.  She came and went."

"As it were," Sammy said.

"Ha ha.  I retrieved the mike and the recording, took it home and listened to it."

"And?" said several people at once.

"And I heard what sounded like very nice lovemaking.  It was. . . gentle, thorough, very effective apparently.  But near the end I heard a third person.  A woman.  She was almost indistinguishable from the first female voice at first, but then it became pretty clear there were two women and one man."

"Woo, who is this guy?"

"You'll be surprised.  I took the recording to my client, left it with him and went home.  The next day he calls me over to his house and sounds real cheerful, says he's ready to pay up.  I head over there and guess who answers the door when I knock?"

All wide-eyed and eager to know.

"The wife.  She has a big grin too.  And then the husband comes up behind her looking like the happiest man on earth.  I must have looked pretty shell shocked, because they sat me down, offered me a drink and a cheque -- with a bonus -- and explained.

"Seems wifey had recognized hubby's slightly mismatched libido and took measures to alleviate the performance pressure on him.  She recorded them having sex, then took the recording out to their cabin and got off by herself just listening to it.  'I never wanted anyone else,' she said, looking into his eyes, 'but I wanted more of you, so I had you over again in my mind, every time I wanted.'  So both women were her!  And he was the guy."

"Weird," said Fred.

"Maybe.  I thought it was sort of sweet."

Jessica (a story in less than 100 words)

"Get the hell out of here!"

The Wise Men were taken aback.  The one with the myrrh started to say, "We just wanted. . . "

"I know what you want," said Marilyn.  "You want to lay this 'virgin birth' crap on my daughter and follow us around with your 'Second Coming' bullshit until we have no privacy and our lives are ruined.  How many times do I have to tell you people, there is nothing miraculous about a clone.  Now get out!"

She shot a glance full of daggers at the nurse.  "You're supposed to keep these maniacs away from us."

Seductions

The magnanimous animus selects,
smiles in our hearts, gently
parts the inner lips of intellect
and plunges us through each
the other's oceanic experience.

Minds are chaste and wanton, always open,
wishing to be entered and filled,
to fill and enter and bring forth,
godlike, creations of light.

 

1989

Black Hole

I tried to light the emptiness
a dozen billion years;
I'm tired of burning now.
My incandescence dies.

Out of the changes in my heart
neutrinos rise and swarm,
preparing to carry away
my will to be warm.
They fly.
I                 im
plode
folding down upon myself
like a detonated building
more inward than imagination.

I am the id of the universe,
black hole,
the cosmic drain
sucking in suns and dust.
I am the singularity
that must and yet cannot exist.
Under the great gulp
umbrella, my event horizon,
none are seen again.

Photons like panicked bugs
on a four-dimensional balloon
rush to escape with their entropy.
They forget:
every direction in my field
is back
to
black hole.

 

(1974 or so)

Big Bang

In                                         nothingness
the ur-point explodes
mattering violently
shattering vacuum into         spaces.

Suns     plummet     incessantly     away,
spacetime swirls into temporary planets,
order
is hurled into entropy.

Occasionally
carbon cools and catches atoms,
forges chains and rings in chaos --
then the double helix forms,
a local departure from the Laws;
fingers grow to write these words
and vanish.

 

(1974 or so)

The Parrot

(Apologies to Edgar Allan Poe.)
For my own retirement party, 03 Nov 2012.

 

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, bleak and bleary,
Over many a faint and phoney answer to a midterm question,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, capping off my indigestion.
"'Tis some student," then I muttered, "capping off my indigestion --
Seeking answers to the question."

Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in a wet November,
And my dying mental ember wrote some words upon a page.
Dreading then tomorrow's lecture, vainly I had sought to hector
From my writing some wise vector that would make me seem the sage --
Make at least a feeble gesture thus to earn an honest wage,
Negating the effects of age.

And the silly sad mistaken midterm answers did awaken
Dark despair and desperation I had never felt before;
So that now, to stop the sinking of my heart, I stood there thinking,
"'Tis some offer to go drinking there outside my office door --
Some sad colleague tired of thinking, knocking on my office door;
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my office door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you." -- here I opened wide the door.
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness staring, long I stood there scowling, swearing,
Wond'ring who decided unused lighting was a mortal sin;
But the darkness was unbroken, and the hallway gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Again?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Again!"
To my sustainable chagrin.

Back into my office turning, indigestion fiercer burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than the last.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, putting this annoyance past --
Let my stomach still a moment while I put this in the past;
Then I'll take antacids, fast!"

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a scruffy parrot from a pirate film grotesque;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a moment stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my cluttered desk --
Perched upon a Feynman poster just above my cluttered desk --
Perched, and sat there, statuesque.

Then this raunchy bird beguiling my sad scowling into smiling
By the colourful profiling of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy orange plumes I stare at, thou," I said, "art sure no carrot,
Smelly, bold and silly parrot wandering from the Carib shore --
Tell me what thy pirate name is on the Caribbean shore!"
Quoth the Parrot, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning -- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird on Hennings' thirdmost floor --
Bird or beast upon the poster here on Hennings' thirdmost floor,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the parrot, sitting lonely on the poster there, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered -- not a feather then he fluttered --
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Fantasies have flown before --
On the morrow he will leave me, as my wits have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore --
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never -- nevermore'."

But the Parrot still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled an office chair in front of Feynman, 'cross the floor;
Then upon the cushion sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this raucous bird of yore --
What this rainbow-colored, fat, ridiculous, clownish bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose gaudy plumage gave impressions of burlesque;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On neglected printouts pining there upon my cluttered desk,
A pitiful pile of ancient data damning me from on my desk,
Demanding writeup, Kafkaesque!

Then methought the air grew colder as I gazed upon the folder
Full of formulae and figures that confused me to the core.
"Wretch," I cried, "what colleague sent thee thus to mock me and torment me?
Theory, please let me invent thee -- grant me insight, I implore!
When will I analyze this data, know the purpose it was for?"
Quoth the Parrot, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! -- prophet still, if bird or devil! --
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, here where wiser minds are wanted --
Where intelligence is flaunted -- tell me truly, I implore --
What the hell's a Luttinger liquid? Tell me -- tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Parrot, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil -- prophet still, if bird or devil!
By the ghost of Feynman -- by the intellect of Phil and Bill --
Tell this fading fake if ever, even if I lecture never
And my service duties sever, with a valiant act of will,
If I can understand my data, write it up and publish still."
Quoth the Parrot, "Never will."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend," I shrieked, upstarting --
"Get thee back into the tempest and the soggy, soaking shore!
Leave no orange plume as token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my lethargy unbroken! -- quit my poster, out my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form out from my door!"
Quoth the Parrot, "Nevermore."

And the Parrot, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the phallic Feynman poster just above my desk and more;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the neon o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted . . . nevermore!

**************************************************************

Well, that sad ending kind of sucks. How about this alternate ending:

And the Parrot, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the phallic Feynman poster overlooking my workstation;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is scheming
My demise; but he is dreaming! I ignore his accusation,
Focusing on fishing, track and fiction now in combination
On my permanent vacation!