Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age

Image result for Oliver Sacks

There isn’t anything I enjoy more in a stress-laden world than a time-out for a good read. Books lend me a purview of how others experience life, lending sagacity and connection with my fellows. Books teach me that I’m not alone.

Courtesy of The New Yorker (February 11, 2019), this morning I came upon Oliver Sacks’ restive short piece, ¨The Machine Stops.” Written in the last weeks of his impending death, the famed neurologist reflects on the fallout of living in the digital age.

Brilliant, cogent, unceasingly eloquent and abidingly compassionate, Sacks specialized in the eccentricities imposed by the brain, most famously in his Awakenings, later turned into one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen.

Sacks laments here the social distancing wrought by a technology that should be bringing us together, reminding me of Tolstoy’s initial response on seeing a film clip for the first time in his advanced years and countering that though this new technology was latent with promise, too often technology had been harnessed for ignoble ends.

Beginning with the ubiquitous cellphone, Sacks complains that he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.”

In short, our digital milieu has decimated a once fecund public and private life, replacing social interchange with inferior virtual substitutes. I remember in my boyhood sitting with neighbors on stoops in Philadelphia on humid summer nights, conversing until the arrival of night’s cool breezes sweeping across the Delaware; houses teeming with porches where we played games, conversed, and shared neighborhood babble. Mornings, I’d grab my ball glove and saunter off to a crowded diamond. Those ball fields, in Philly and afar, lie increasingly vacant in these days of video games:

In similar vein, Sacks continues that he’s “confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.”

0ur personal lives have been turned inside out, our privacy invaded. Think of what Facebook has done with posts you thought were personal to your friends, or that daily invasion of your cell phone space by a stream of telemarketing calls, or the tracking of your computer viewing via cookies.

And then there’s that immense loss for our culture and, consequently, for ourselves in our spendthrift use of our time for trivialities, foreclosing on better priorities such as art, music, literature and science that have buttressed our civilization and refine our humanity, promoting sensitivity, tolerance, knowledge and wisdom. Inundated by media, we traffic in noise. Bored, we may not like ourselves. We no longer know how to sit still.

“Everything is public now, potentially, Sacks writes: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

The punchline of all this arrives for Sacks in his now retreating days of life when he conjectures the worth of a life lived for better values in a context of seemingly burgeoning social indifference:

“. . . it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened. Though I am supported and stimulated by my friends, by readers around the world, by memories of my life, and by the joy that writing gives me, I have, as many of us must have, deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world.”

And yet Sacks stubbornly defies those hovering specters of demise:

“Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.”

I fervently hope along with you that Sacks’ midnight wager turns out right. But to paraphrase Keats, the thought paradoxically lingers in me: does Sacks “wake or sleep”?

—rj

Posted in Reflections, Technology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

My Book Draw-List for 2019

One thing I like about any dawning New Year is the compiling of lists, which come in various genres like resolutions, lead events, best albums, movies, TV programs and, of course, roll calls of individuals who’ve passed before the New Year. Lists look back and sometimes forward.  Booklists are my favorite lists..

Kindle tells me I read 45 books last year and names them. This may not be quite true as some books I pursued were more for looking through than reading such as cookbooks; but then again, I read a few books outside Kindle’s purview last year.

Anyway, I’ve composed the following booklist for this new year to draw-on. I don’t seriously muse I’ll actually read every book here, or even most of them, but at least my list gives me a draw-bag of books I’ve found intriguing in ransacking the Internet, my email, literary magazines, publishing houses, book awards, and the press. A few of these books are re-reads, the highest compliment I can give a book.

Have I omitted books that should be here? Doubtless, though not necessarily intended, since there are so many good books out there. As scripture tells us, “ Of the making of books, there is no end.” By the same token, it’s probable I’ll add from time to time in our new year.

Last year I was working out in my local gym when I met a guy who shared he’d read 2000 books. Now that’s quite a feat, though I don’t know his time frame. I hope he chose his books well. I’ll never come close to his mark, but then I’m not trying to. The fun is in the journey.

BOOK DRAW-BAG for 2019

Amos Oz: A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow.
Yuval Noah Harari. 2l Lessons for the 21st Century.
Tom Wolfe. Bonfire of the Vanities.
Stephen King. Different Seasons.
Elif Batuman. The Idiot.
Philip Squarzoni. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science.
Diane Ackerman. A History of the Senses.
Annie Proulx. Barkskins.
Brian Doyle. The Plover.
Han Kang. The Vegetarian.
Kim Heacox. Jimmy Bluefeather.
Stefano Mancuso. Brilliant Green: The Surprising History. and Science of Plant Intelligence.
Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate.
Paul Collier. Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World.
John Dewey. Art as Experience.
William Finnegan. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.
Charlotte Gordan. The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley.
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Will Power: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success.
Amanda Palmer. The Art of Asking.
Jalal al-Din Rumi. The Essential Rumi. Tr. Coleman Barks.
Charles Mann. 1491.
Jonathan Brown. Misquoting Muhammed.
Philip Pullman. The Book of Dust.
Michael Connelly. Two Kinds of Truth.
Tony Morrison. Beloved.
James Baldwin. Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaiden’s Tale.
Arundath Roy. The God of Small Things.
Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer. The Farm in the Green Mountains.
Norman Podhoretz. Making It.
Richard Powers.  The Overstory.
Rachel Kushner. The Mars Room.
Jordan. Peterson. 12 Rules for Life.
Patrick Barkham. Nature.
Anthony Doerr. All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel.
Brené Brown. Braving the Wilderness.
Barbara Ehrenreich. Natural Causes.
Colette. Vagabond.
Michael Harrington. Socialism: Past and Future.

–rj

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

An Upstart Poet I Like a Lot

I’ve had this love affair with poetry since my earliest days, relishing metaphors that translate life from prose to camera, the sheer musicality of it, the crossword deliberation it compels, the tension of its paradoxes capturing life’s myriad, inherent subtleties; above all, its ability to mine deep, probing shafts of sub-subterranean memory and feeling I had thought beyond retrieve.

It follows then that I’m always on the lookout for good poets to swell the hosts of poets like Larkin, Wilbur, Pinsky, Levine and others that provide me good company in the winters as well as summers of life.

Just the other day I made a new acquaintance in pursuing my just in-the-mailbox New Yorker and immediately I knew I’d found a friend I wanted to keep.

Maybe you know him already, Gary J. Whitehead, though for me he’s a new artist in town and one I predict will swim into renown among aficionados of good poetry.

Whitehead, a Princeton grad and Teacher of the Year recipient, teaches English and Creative Writing at Tenafly high School in New Jersey and has received numerous awards for his verse.

How lucky can high students get to share class-time with the likes of a gifted artist like Whitehead! He’s published three collections of his poetry thus far with a fourth, Strange What Rises, about to be published.

You’ll find his poetry absent of the metaphysical, yet never banal in its quotidian pursuits captured in poems such as “Making Love In the Kitchen” and “Lot’s Wife,” which are uncanny for infusing metaphor into the prosaic small deeds and events of ordinary life, granting new ways of viewing their ritual component in our lives. In this, he reminds me a lot of the late Richard Wilbur.

I especially like his passion, which is nice to come upon in an often circumscribed aesthetic aloofness among poets. I think passion frequently makes for good teaching as well. Perhaps it’s this passion that churns my emotions into butter whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, just maybe my favorite old-time poet who passed so terribly young and unrecognized.

Let me try this early Whitehead poem (2002) on you and see if it fits. I think you’ll see what I‘ve been saying:

First Year Teacher to His Students

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,

to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver

dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else’s house
in a land you’ve never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret

things await. Be glad, or be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.

Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you’ll never now forget of someone’s lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,

where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas…and all your life it’ll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.

“First Year Teacher to His Students” by Gary J. Whitehead, from Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps. © David Robert Brooks, 2008.

–rj

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

And a Child Shall Lead Them: Healing What Ails Us

Image result for and a child shall lead themI was talking just a few minutes ago with my better half, wondering just how I used to spend my idle hours before the Internet came into vogue. As is, I’m cuffed to a binary lodestone, whether smart phone, iPad, or desktop, dulling awareness, squandering time, exponentially addictive.

Generally, my dawns begin not with photographing sunrises or heading to the gym, but grabbing my tablet, which accompanies me even to bed, for a wakeup breakfast of The Guardian, BBC, CNN, and NPR.

Unsatiated, I imbibe local news back home where I lived for 41 years before moving this past summer, all of this consuming at least an hour. I check for updates several times throughout the day.

I comb Facebook for friend posts, get off text messages as day tumbles into noon.

One of the inveterate things I do is to google this and google that. If curiosity killed the cat, it’s stuffed my brain into info overload.

According to a recent report in Ofcom featured in The Guardian, I’m not alone by any means. 78% of us now have smartphones, rising to 95% of young people, 16-24. Returning from work, we grab a fast meal, throw ourselves into a comfy chair, turning on, say, Netflix, for a few hours more of wasteful indulgence.

Bored and stressed, we moderns seek distraction. We have difficulty keeping company with ourselves.

Addicted, each day becomes a round of what Buddhists term Samsara, or the unenlightened repetition of daily round, captured famously in Bill Murray’s stellar performance in Groundhog Day.

And we pay a steep price for all of this in a lifespan never really long enough, missing out on the miracle of life that´s not only ourselves, and won’t happen again, but of those around us enveloped in a cosmos, earthly and heavenly, infinite, yet temporal.

It was Wordsworth, nature poet of a quieter time, who told us “the child is father of the man” in the ¨Rainbow.” What he probably meant is that what we are as children we become as adults in the maturation of habits and sensibilities acquired when children, particularly an early fondness for nature.

I’d extend its meaning to include a child’s sometimes extraordinary ability to show us the way as adults in their frequent exemplar of sensory delight in the nowness of things, each day a renewed cornucopia, at least before the advent of video games.

Maybe you’re getting my drift—that one way out of our electronic matrix is to rethink what we loved to do as children and rediscover it again. I loved studying languages, playing and watching baseball, walking to the library and the adventure of new book, traveling to new places, meeting new people, learning new things, the smell of country air, the touch of bare feet on cool earth in early morning in our garden.

Children teach us not to fret about tomorrow.
To stop if it isn’t fun.
To be curious.
Honest.
Passionate.
Hopeful.
Forgiving.
To savor the moment.
To forgive.
To love.

I hold to action over prayer, but were I a praying guy, I’d surely pray, “Lord, give me the mind of a child again!”

–rj

Posted in Books, Psychology, Reflections | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Plight of Native Americans in a White America

The White Man’s misdeeds in America towards its indigenous peoples are incalculable in number and cruelty. I was reminded of this last week when Karen and I visited the Grand Canyon and learned from the Visitor Center that Yavapai and Apaches once lived adjacent to the Canyon. That is, until 1874, when the government closed the Camp Verde Reservation and forced its residents to trek 180 miles to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. More than 100 Native Americans perished.

Nearly two years ago we witnessed the subjugation of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota that had commenced in 2016. Primarily affecting Sioux residents of America’s fifth largest Indian reservation, encompassing 2 million acres, the pipeline traverses sites sacred to the tribe and perhaps compromises the Reservation’s water purity.

Initially, it appeared the tribe had won when President Obama shelved the plan in late 2016, pending an environmental review, which would take years to complete.

Alas, there came the surprise of Trump’s election win and the inauguration of an administration strident in anti-environmental bias. In January 2017, came Trump’s executive order approving both the Keystone (Alaska) and Dakota pipelines.

The result, several hundred thousand barrels of oil now flow beneath the once pristine landscape.

This wasn’t a first happening for the tribe. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam near Pierre, SD, flooding 56,000 acres of the Reservation’s farms and woodlands. Elderly residents recall their homes being burned prior to the flooding.

Ironically, the Standing Rock Reservation is the birthplace and final residence of Sitting Bull, who fiercely resisted white infringement on Indian land. It was his refusal to submit to the government’s order to remove the Sioux to a reservation that led to the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which the Sioux defeated federal troops led by Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876.

In 1890, he was shot to death at Standing Rock Reservation by Indian agents attempting his arrest. Several weeks later, the army massacred 150 Sioux, perhaps more, at Wounded Knee Creek. Some historians suggest it was an act of vengeance, carried out by the 7th cavalry.

A wise, observant chief, it was Sitting Bull who asserted, “Hear me people: we now have to deal with another race—small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.”

Prescient and explicit, Sitting Bull’s comment lends context to the historical narrative of White infringement on the rights of its native peoples that continues even now.

–rj

Posted in Poetry, Politics, Reflections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Why We Name Our Children as We do.

Image result for babies images

Have you been following today’s trend in baby names? Whatever happened to names like George, Susan, Henry, Robert, Marvin, Kenneth, and Molly?

Names typically follow fashion and fashion, of course, changes just like clothing, hairstyles, and music favorites. We’ve this passion for the new, the trendy. For something that sets us apart. That says, “I am!” We want this for our kids as well.

Among the top five go-get-em names currently (2018) for girls are Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, and Sophia; for boys, Liam, Noah, Oliver, Mason, and Lucas.

It used to be fairly common to name a first born boy after his father, but this has likewise tumbled out of fashion.

Religious folk are still drawn to biblical names like Joshua, Noah, Ethan, Matthew and John, though lots of people simply give their boys these names oblivious of their origin.

Sometimes parents are drawn to names of a TV or movie character such as Noah, Gabriella, Sidney, and Tristian.

Others associate a name with someone who’s impacted their life. I named my daughter after a cousin I’ve kept in touch with over a lifetime. Along the same lines, I’ve heard that Barack is increasingly popular.

Then again, sometimes we just like the sound of a name. I’ve always like Allison, Loran, and Natalie, for instance. My sister named her boy Michael, thinking it had a masculine ring to it, though ironically girls increasingly go by this name.

Today, a lot of parents want something unique, or a name their child’s unlikely to share with others. One of the things in this trend is that parents wlll vary a popular name, say rendering Noah into Noe, for example.

Racial and ethnic minorities have their own way of naming. Up to 30% of black girls, inspired by Black identity movements, have “invented” names to sound African such as the polysyllabic Shaniqua or Kadesha. Among boys, Jamal (Muslim), and DeShawn, a syntactical variant of Shawn are common.

Hispanics, on the other hand, though not averse to Anglo names for girls, overwhelmingly choose those terminating in the Spanish feminine –a like Isabella and Valentina.

One last observation related to choosing a name that stands out is the now frequent use of surnames for first names. Take my three grandchildren, Lincoln, Cole, and Hunter as examples. The Chinese have been doing this for years of course, the surname occurring first. One of the most popular boy names these days is Mason.

But what does it matter anyway? As Shakespeare famously put it in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

—rj

Posted in Lifestyle | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on a remarkable book I’ve just re-read

This week I re-read Brad Willis Warrior Pose, a book that has lodged in my memory since I first came upon it two years ago. I read a lot of books, but only a few do I read twice. It’s the highest compliment I think I can render a good read.

Warrior Pose: How Yoga Literally Saved My Life is Willis’ account of his arduous journey from illness to healing, and I mean of both body and soul.

Formerly, an international correspondent with NBC, Willis was at the top of his game, doing what he loved, traveling to the remotest parts of the world, often in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, when life unleashed, as it sometimes does, its heavy, arbitrary hand.

In a freak accident while vacationing in the Bahamas with his girlfriend, a sudden storm erupted and reaching high from a chair to close an obstinate window, he fell to the floor, breaking his back.

Surgery only complicated his condition and ultimately physical pain ended his career.

A modern Job, Willis subsequently was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer and given two years to live.

In a dark night of the soul, he chanced upon yoga and almost immediately found relief for pain and an inner calm.

Two years later, Willis confounded his doctors. His back had healed and his cancer had gone into remission.

Well, that was a good ways back in time. Today he flourishes as an internationally renowned yoga instructor, lending the wisdom gleaned from his arduous deliverance from a cauldron of pain and despair, to helping others through the healing potential of fully implemented yoga for both body and mind.

In re-reading Willis’ inspiring book the following salient passage really strikes home to me for its acuity in summing up life’s essence, given fate’s vicissitudes and life’s relative brevity:

‘I’ve learned that humility and softness are far more powerful than the sharp edges of bravado and hubris of my earlier years. That accepting what is takes more courage than forcing what I think should be. That judgments and opinions, and the need to be right can be great hindrances. That it is always better to give than to receive. Affirm rather than criticize. Serve rather than be served. I’ve also learned to be grateful for the smallest, most ordinary things. The morning light. A sip of water. A breath of fresh air. The privilege of being alive.”

–rj

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Trophy Hunting Looms for Grizzly Bears

Averaging 800 pounds, powerful and fast moving, voracious defenders of their young, grizzly bears are a North American treasure deserving of our awe and worthy of preservation.

Native Americans held them sacred and embedded them in their legends, dances and paintings. Although they hunted them for food, clothing, and jewelry, they saw them as avatars of strength and courage conferring protection as the physical embodiment of spirit helpers. Wearing a bear claw necklace proffered security and good health.

At the turn of the twentieth century, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed Alaska, Canada, and the American West. Unfortunately, by 1975, just 150 grizzlies remained in the lower U. S., most of them confined to the Greater Yellowstone Eco System.

Today, their numbers have increased to an estimated 1900 in the lower U. S. and their range by fifty percent, thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Some 150-200 grizzlies reside in Yellowstone National Park and another 500-600 within the Greater Yellowstone Eco System.

Yellowstone National Park attracts four million visitors annually, with tourists as eager to glimpse grizzlies as they do the Park’s thermal features.

Unfortunately, this great success story is now being used to justify revival of trophy hunting in Wyoming, sparked by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s announced plan (June 22, 2017) to remove the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies from the Endangered Species Act. Management of the bears would be handed-over to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

Despite receiving some 500,000 protests, the Fish and Wildlife Service (USWF) is going ahead with its implementation, pending final determination by the courts.

Wyoming state wildlife officials are relishing this move and want to allow a twenty-four bear kill this fall, including 14-females.

Trophy hunters would be allowed to kill any bears that stray from Yellowstone National Park.

More than forty years have been invested in bringing back these noble creatures, indigenous to North America, from the brink of extinction. Killing a pregnant bear would obviously eliminate their cubs.

Some fear that bait may be used to make them easier prey.

Ironically, the Wyoming proposal would not allow them to be hunted within one quarter-mile of a highway.

Hunters would pay $600 per bear.

Conservationists fear that actual killing limits would be exceeded.

Doubtless, monetary-minded game officials in Idaho and Montana will want in on the “ harvesting.”

The USWF’s Matt Hogan, former lobbyist for the Safari Club International, the world’s largest trophy hunting organization, has been the leading delisting proponent. Meanwhile, Zinke has announced plans to reallow importing of elephant and lion trophies into the U. S.

Oil and gas interests may also have pressured the delisting, which would open up public lands, i.e, grizzly habitat, for drilling. Hogan was appointed to the task, apparently not disclosing his ties to Anadarko Petroleum and Gas.

Native Americans were never consulted, despite the pleas of many Congress members, including Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders. Consequently, 125 Canadian and American tribes have signed a treaty calling for continuing protection of grizzlies and all animals sacred to tribal communities.

We, of course, know what happened in North Dakota with Trump issuing two memoranda encouraging resumption of the Dakota Access Pipeline just days after taking office, despite vigorous Standing Rock Sioux protests.

As is, an estimated one-hundred grizzlies are killed annually as roadkill, or by confusion with black bears during the hunting season, or by disgruntled ranchers who view grizzlies as livestock predators, and by poachers.

All of this comes even as grizzlies face declining primary food sources such as white bark pine nuts and cutthroat trout, forcing them to seek new habitat and increasing their risk for conflict with humans.

Environment encroachment remains an ongoing challenge along with the long term impacting of climate change on food resources. As Erik Movar of the Western Watershed Projects points out, “The Yellowstone region is one of the last places where grizzly bear still occupies its natural place as the king of the mountains. But the livestock industry continues to push sheep and cattle deep into the mountains, causing conflicts with grizzly bears and other native wildlife in their natural habitats. Turning grizzly bear management over to trigger-happy state agencies without guarantees that the bears will be protected turns back the clock to the dark days when predator killing was the rule and grizzly bear populations were eliminated.”

We know too well that wherever the human footprint establishes itself, wildlife is diminished. Bears shouldn’t have to coexist with humans. It’s the other way around.

—rj

Posted in Environment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amy Lowell’s “A Fixed Idea”: An Exploration in Paradox

A Fixed Idea

What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant; and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.

Amy Lowell

I read the above poem by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) and wanted to share my thinking about it with you.

Lowell wrote some 650 poems, though uneven in quality. She is largely known to us as an early modernist and for “imagism” in particular, inspired by Hilda Doolittle (HD) and Ezra Pound. “A Fixed Idea” appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1910.

I like the poem and think you will too. We’ve all been there. We’ve had a crush on someone in earlier days or found a rare happiness in the coalescence of experience that we look back upon with nostalgia.

This poem, however, centers in paradox. When we can’t let go, reminiscence can give way to pain and even remorse as equally traumatic as remembered suffering.

All of this is very Keatsian, Keats along with Wordsworth an exponent of nostalgic remembrance. No surprise then that in her final years she wrote a definitive biography of Keats.

Many readers infer that “A Fixed Idea” deals with a past romantic love, though the poem can imply more than that as “you” grammatically applies to its antecedent, the fixed idea of the poem (l.1, single thought”), and title. In turn, this lends the poem a universality that augments its appeal.

What isn’t ambiguous is the poem’s pervasive theme of obsessiveness that embellishes the past with a burdensome present. To have known past joy no longer palpable is time’s inexorable consequence. We transcend by letting go:

The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined.

Nostalgia is always a constant of the human psyche, abounding in the archetypal admonition to avoid the fate of those who perished in their folly of a backward glance.

Fundamental to human identity is our ability to reckon our losses, extricate ourselves from the past, and live in the present, asserting ourselves in the cauldron of life’s new challenges that serve to enlarge rather than diminish ourselves. Identity finds itself in “quest” (l. 13), not stasis.

Our poem, written in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, exhibiting two rhetorical sections, octave and sestet, one general, the other amplifying, is an Italian sonnet. In the former, we have recall of past happiness “once kind” (l. 1) and “welcome still” (l. 2).

The sestet, however, transitions into antithesis with its extended metaphor, or image, of the persona’s fixation as a nesting bird that weighs upon her heart, impeding her life:

…you cannot know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.

Like all good poetry, “A Fixed Idea” is more than what it seems. In short, it’s precisely our clinging that lies at the crux of human unhappiness, our attempting to possess what, given life’s Protean flux, was never ours to own.

–rj

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Artificial Intelligence: Will It Take Your Job?

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita following the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima)

Recently, my daughter shared details of her trip as an Amazon employee to Las Vegas to attend a tech conference. 8700 people from all over the world gathered there for the conference—its major theme, Artificial Intelligence.

And why not! Artificial Intelligence continues to multiply and accelerate its presence, foreshadowing a brave new world.

Robots today weld auto parts tirelessly.

Tomorrow’s world of driverless cars is imminent.

No more truck drivers.

Or taxi drivers either.

You get on your plane. It hasn’t a pilot.

You’re in the emergency room. Within minutes, a medical database yields every minuscule of medical counsel ever assembled relevant to your illness.

Your subsequent surgery is performed by a tireless robot with steady hand.

Legal counsel is dispensed through a database that’s uncovers every precedent and resolution.

No need to gamble recklessly on Wall Street. A handy software app latent with market prognostication is at your disposal.

Several months ago I read Martin Ford’s mesmerizing Rise of the Robots: Technology And the Threat of a Jobless Future. Selected as Business Book of the Year (2015), this is a book you shouldn’t miss, since it’s not a question of if, but when and how Artificial Intelligence (AI) will arbitrate our everyday world, sweeping into oblivion a ride range of jobs, not merely those of the unskilled or workers engaged in manufacturing (already a dying breed), but even those of highly skilled professionals, whose jobs have long been dubbed impervious to the economics of the marketplace or Wall Street tremors.

Ford is a guy mustering credibility, having twenty-five years of experience designing computers and creating software with prodigious expertise on the economic impacting of innovative technology on the marketplace (see his The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future).

But just what is Artifical Intelligence?

At the bottomlime, we’re talking about the ability of computers to perform tasks traditionally relegated to human beings. Remember world champion chess player Garry Kasparov, defeated by a supercomputer in 1997 in a six game match? Prior to the match, Kasparov had boasted, “l never lost in my life.”

We’ve seen technical innovation before and its fallout. Think agriculture and the impacting of mechanization and bio-technology. At the birth of our nation, with a 3 million population, 90% of us farmed. Today, with some 325 million, just 2% of us do. We got through that revolution because new jobs were created to which we could transition.

In our modern era, we’ve likewise welcomed technological innovation as a harbinger of jobs, frequently at high wages, just for the asking as in our auto and steel plants of the early 1950s.

But then came automation, insidiously gnawing at the fabric of middle class prosperity. You got greater production, yes, but with fewer workers across the board, a trend that’s accelerating.

Net result—the job market hasn’t been able to keep up with a growing work force as population increases, exacerbated still further by rising numbers of former employees joining the queue.

As Ford points out, our present economy needs to create a million new jobs annually just to keep up. Dismally, however, we’re currently running a ten million job deficit as of the first decade of our new century.

Up to now, college educated workers, a good number with advanced degrees and professional portfolios, haven’t felt threatened. As had been vouched many times, the fallout overwhelmingly impacted unskilled, poorly educated workers. Up to now, the axiom’s been, “Go to college and make your future!”, a truism no longer valid, given the volatility of today’s workplace.

As Ford astutely observes, “While lower-skill occupations will no doubt continue to be affected, a great many college-educated white-collar workers are going to discover that their jobs, too, are targeted for elimination as software automation and predictive algorithms advance rapidly in capability.”

Jobs even in medicine may go the way of the pick and shovel as radiologists, for example, find themselves outsmarted by robots scanning images in mega seconds. While today’s radiologists are highly skilled technicians requiring up to 13-years post-high school, they’ll fall by the wayside just like Kasparov in a relative few years.

Meanwhile, many lawyers and paralegals, in an already crowded profession, are discovering that software has replaced them. Corporations, formerly engaged in litigation, traditionally dedicated untold hours to turning-up internal documents establishing precedent, which then had to be shared with the opposing side as part of the discovery process. E-discovery software, however, can sift documents including emails, for relevancy in an eye blink.

In the business world, accountants have been moved to the margins. Today, for example, you and I can resort to software to do our own bookkeeping quickly and accurately.

As for taxes, I just insert my TurboTax CD into my computer drive and, bingo, I can get my return out in an hour max, file it electronically, Fed or State, and
pay taxes due or request a refund. Frosting on the cake, just $45 versus the $300 I shelled out last time I visited the local H & R Block.

Planning a career in journalism? Not so fast! Machines can now generate news stories using raw data with tools such as Quill platform. Research and correlation can be performed quickly, helping to eliminate fake news. (https://www.techemergence.com/automated-journalism-applications/)

How do you prepare your kids for such a world? The traditional resort has been getting a college degree, desirably in a STEM area, enhancing employment opportunity and long-term security.

If you think getting a degree in engineering or computer science can save you, think again. The number of graduates in those fields exceeds by 50% the number of jobs currently available, one big reason being the off-shoring of corporate computer needs. Call up Express Scripts as I’ve had to on several occasions recently and you get India.

Shockingly, some 50% of today’s college grads end up in jobs that really don’t call for a college degree. Many can’t find work at all and live at home with Mom and Dad.

Unemployment or under-employment is rampant among today’s college graduates, with up to 50% of students affected. Since fewer job opportunities exist, college graduates are increasingly showing-up in unskilled areas like sales or even fast-food restaurants, replacing non-graduates. All of us know such young people, perhaps even our own.

The one exception to all of this may be in health care, where a substantial need for physicians will exist to serve a growing population, among them the elderly. The problem is that many doctors shun the rural areas or family medicine. Today’s graduates prefer big bucks specialization, given the considerable expense incurred to get their M.D.

At the same time, problems remain in today’s health care industry. Many health job opportunities are in home care, comprising the largest portion of service jobs, replacing manufacturing as today’s leading employment sector. The sad truth is that home care workers currently average a paltry $20,000 a year, though this could change if the several entities comprising the service sector unionized.

Education, which has been largely immune to the newer trends imposed by AI, is undergoing transition, with online courses proliferating, reducing the need for professors and campus costs, etc.

As I write, I’m enrolled in an edX course, a consortium of elite institutions. I can tell you they’re first rate. Mine is from Harvard and for a small fee I can earn a certificate to up my resume. All of this is part of a burgeoning educational movement called MOOCs.

Their pragmatic success ultimately lies in whether employers will ultimately give them regard. They don’t replace degrees.

All of which may be moot. Short on revenue, an increasing number of universities are offering actual online degree programs as a way of increasing revenue, reducing overhead, and just plain keeping their heads above water, something that Ford doesn’t touch upon. If this catches on, America´s campuses will be severely impacted. With fewer students, you´ll have fewer faculty and administrators.

Case in point, I used to supplement my income by teaching courses on Saturdays, morning and afternoons, for twenty-one years at the local community college. When I started, I’d average nearly 30 per class. Then came the web and online courses, making it more convenient for students to study at home and on their own time. By the end of my tenure, I could barely get the ten student minimum. Ultimately, we cancelled afternoon sessions.

For the community college faculty at large, they shortly were opting to teach online classes to replace their own depleted campus courses. This led to replacing a good number of adjunct faculty, some with Ph. Ds like myself and needing these jobs far more than I did. I believe that digitalization of higher education will not only continue, but increase, conceivably becoming the norm.

“Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive as new technology is assimilated into business models,” Ford writes.

Nationally, it will polarize us into fractious entities of haves and have nots, privileged and resentful. Our last election results mark only the opening round of this polarization and civic strife.

The pot boils over even more when you add the triple threat of global warming, diminished resources, and aging population to downward consumer spending.

How do you compete with robots anyway? They always show up for work, don’t take breaks, vacations or sick leaves, haven’t any need for a paycheck or retirement benefits, don’t unionize, and will work for you twenty-four hours a day without complaint.

Tesla has a new plant in Fremont, CA. 160 robots produce 400 cars a week. Hard to beat!

But there’s a good side to some of this. While low cost, off shore entities have drained our manufacturing sector into virtual extinction, a good many of these jobs are returning to us, simply because AI has sharply curtailed production costs.

For example, textile and apparel exports rose 37% just between 2009 and 2012, amounting to 23 billon (New York Times, 9/20/2013).

Yet what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander. Increasingly, even these returning jobs don’t need you and me!

Despite our recovery from the 2008 economy bust, most new jobs are low-paying service jobs, replacing millions of middle-class jobs wiped out in the fallout. Many of these jobs are in retail or fast food entities, subject to increasing automation in the future through robotics and self-servicing. Going to a $15 an hour minimum wage only speeds up the process.

Or let’s put it another way. In 1998, the U.S. business sector produced 194 billion hours of total labor. By 2013, the value of the business sector economy, adjusted for inflation, came to $3.5 trillion, or a 42% increase in output. By the same token, just 194 billion hours (the same as in 1998) were required to yield that increase.

In short, no job growth took place in the fifteen subsequent years, despite a 40 million increase in population!

Along these lines, Oxford researchers have projected that approximately 47% of current total employment, i. e., 64 million jobs, will potentially disappear through automation over the next decade or two.

Fewer job opportunities at meaningful wages can only exaggerate class alienation with a plutocracy of the wealthy, lessen consumer spending, and downgrade the quality of family life. Further, it poses a gargantuan challenge to a growing elderly population in a world of accelerating health costs, including for Medicare, along with declines in social security revenues and retirement provisions increasingly subject to corporate and state ransacking to reduce costs.

Ford thinks that in light of these sobering facts, we may need to resort to a basic, or guaranteed income, for everyone. Finland has already begun the experiment.

The money, of course, would have to come via an uprooting of our traditional way of taxation, perhaps much higher taxation of high income. Of course, the recently passed new Republican tax bill moves in the opposite direction in regard to corporate income and the 1% at the top owning most of the wealth. Out of necessity, we may resort to something like a value added tax.

As another way out, several states like California are considering tax measures affecting deep pocketed corporations implementing technology that replaces workers. If they accelerate profits by replacing workers with automation, then that profit residual will be taxed and redistributed to the needy.

Meanwhile, AI continues to advance prodigiously, with Silicon America committed to its imposition—ironically in a race among themselves (i.e., Google, Apple, and Amazon) as to who will get there first and best.

Ford says that AI is likewise proving indispensable to military intelligence and, ominously, to authoritarian regimes bent on controlling dissent through surveillance.

It’s even conceivable that our future, or at least that of the next generation, will feature a leap to AGI, or artificial general intelligence, i. e., computer intelligence dwarfing human intellect, with still further inner directed incremental advances enabling these machines to improve their capabilities, perhaps writing their own software, or implementing evolutional programming to enhance their design in what we might call recursive improvement. Ultimately, these machines would not only be smart, but get ever smarter.

Chillingly, we may be headed for “singularity,” a term borrowed from astrophysics to depict in its new context an artificial intelligence largess replacing humans. In fact, machines and man may even merge, fulfilling many a science fiction scenario.

In 2014, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking wrote that the advent of AGI in which machines could think on their own “would be the biggest event in human history, machines capable of outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-maneuvering human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand.”

All of this in a world facing the exponential threat of global warming, increasing population, diminished earth resources, declining employment opportunity. Putting off dealing with climate change to meet our immediate needs will eventually serve only to exasperate the human crisis. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are breaking now.

So where do we go from here?

While Ford may give us the sobering details contributing to our demise, he’s wanting on long term solutions, save for looking seriously at a guaranteed base income, which of itself, only adumbrates our dystopian future.

Even here, he doesn’t assess how government at all levels can exact revenue, not only for a guaranteed income, but for other pervasive needs such as refurbishing infrastructure, combatting global warming, maintaining already costly entitlement outlays, etc., from an obviously declining tax base. Imposing high taxation on corporations and individuals can only go so far without potentially harmful reverberations.

We might have options. Take offshoring, for example. Ultimately, even these bastions of virtual immigration, India and China, are likely to face automation. Nevertheless, an estimated 130 million of the smartest of the smartest will remain with the help of AI tools to perform informational tasks for Western firms at reduced cost. That is, unless we take restrictive measures.

The social-political implications of artificial intelligence are staggering. As Arend Hintz, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Michigan State University comments, “In our current system, automation pushes people out of jobs, making the people who own the machines richer and everyone else poorer.” (Scientific American, July !4, 2017).

Again, it doesn’t suffice to exfoliate on the emerging social displacement via a barrage of stats without exploring preventative measures to offset the monopoly of artificial intelligence by a relative few controlling production to the demise of the many.

In short, can democracy survive in tomorrow’s world?

Then too, experts have shared their plausible anxieties as to potential malevolent applications of this technology, given human history and the misuse of power.

If artificial intelligence is itself a by-product of human induced evolution, can we impute a capacity for the ethical in this machinery destined to replace human cognition? We might then get a level playing field.

Even then, this implies cooperation among all earth’s people, something that would surely be an anomaly when the United Nations hasn’t succeeded in accomplishing this. What could happen is simply, and dreadfully, machines in the image of man warring on one another.

When you come down to it, the problem isn’t really artificial intelligence, but what humans might do with it.

But whatever. If you can bring yourself to read this book without being pummeled into depression, then this book is for you, enlightening as it is sobering.

I suggest you read it twice.
—rj

Posted in Books, Technology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment