Friday, February 25, 2011

"Mr. Watson... Come here--I want to see you"

Philip K. Dick's questioning title, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? isn't feeling quite so whimsical these days.  It's not that IBM's new Watson can dream, or that David Gerrold's Harley really has begun to "think."  It's that our machines are becoming more and more integrated into what we are and what we do.

By that, I don't mean we're becoming part "man" and part "machine," sort of a world of walking Robocops, but that the distinction between the human and the mechanical is blurring.

Pondering this blurring a generation ago, Phil Dick came to believe that the difference between that which is human and that which is not lies in empathy, the ability to imagine one's way into the subjective state of another to the point of being able to 'feel their pain.'  He couldn't find anything else that a human can do that a machine cannot.

That led him (his mind never stopped) to wonder if people who have lost the ability to empathize stop being human--and if a machine that could empathize might not be more human than a biological human who could not.

Perhaps, rather than wondering if Watson is approaching the ability to think (as if posing Jeopardy questions is thinking), we should be asking if we are losing the ability to empathize.

Perhaps it's not a question of machines becoming more human that we should be asking, but of us becoming less.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nostalgia, Or Wishful Thinking

When it comes to being a 'son of the Confederacy,' my credentials are hard to beat.  Three of my great-great-grandfathers fought for the South, one of them taken prisoner during the breakout at Petersburg, VA on April 2, 1865.  He spent the remaining months of the war in a POW camp in Maryland.  His brother-in-law also served, as did quite a number of others in my extended family.

This picture is from A Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes (Volume 3: "The Decisive Battles") edited by Francis Miller (New York: The Review of Reviews, 1911), a set given to me by a great-aunt sometime around 1960.  It shows a Confederate soldier who had just been killed during the breakout.  Notice his lack of shoes, and the bandage or wrapping on one foot.  It was a terrible time, especially for the Confederate troops (though the Union ones couldn't have been doing much better).

When I was a kid in Richmond, IN and we would play Civil War, I generally had to represent the South alone.  Though I did not approve of the cause of the South (my family had become Quaker, part of a long abolitionist tradition), my family heritage kept me from disparaging its soldiers.

By the time my family moved back to the South in 1961, I had become fascinated by that war, and had learned a great deal about it.  I learned more, as we settled into Atlanta and I saw the cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta in Grant Park--and came across, just outside, twin water fountains, one labeled 'Whites Only' (maybe it wasn't there that I saw them--but I do remember them, and remember the shock of seeing them).

The centennial of the Civil War and the height of the Civil Rights movement quickly became intertwined, to me.  The "Forget? Hell!" license plates (showing a tattered old soldier in gray, the Confederate battle flag over his shoulder) were irrevocably yoked in my mind to the death of Medgar Evers and the bombing of that church in Montgomery, AL that left four girls dead and more than twenty people injured.

States rights?  Not slavery?  Today, on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, was a story about a reenactment of Jefferson Davis's swearing-in as president of the Confederacy (and there's also one in The New York Times), an event devoid of mention of slavery.  Pride in the South has led to a re-writing of history.  The reality is that the issue of states rights was married to defense of slavery from the time of the Constitutional Convention; the seeds of the Civil War were sown there in Philadelphia (or even earlier, as the authors of Slave Nation argue)--and not in the establishment of a federal government and diminution of the power of the states, but in the compromises on slavery that satisfied no one.

I respect the memory of my ancestors, but that doesn't mean I have to pretend that the cause they fought for was something other than it was.  Yes, there were other things besides slavery important to the Civil War (most of my ancestors who fought were mountaineers from Western North Carolina, people far too poor to ever have owned slaves), but the war never would have happened, had the 'peculiar institution' not existed.

To me, because the Civil Rights movement and the centennial of the Civil War occurred together, I learned to respect both.  For others, the Civil Rights movement destroyed an imagined America--and they took to a revisionist view of the Civil War as an antidote, as a focus for nostalgia for an America that never existed.

To them, if the Civil War hadn't been about slavery in the first place, then the Civil Rights movement needn't have happened--and life could still be like they pretend once it was.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Writing in the September, 1960 of The Atlantic Monthly, John Kenneth Galbraith described the advent of the "wordfact":
The wordfact makes words a precise substitute for reality.  This is an enormous convenience.  It means that to say something exists is a substitute for its existence.  And to say that something will happen is as good as having it happen.  The saving in energy is nearly total.
Galbraith describes a number of examples of the use of wordfacts in the last years of the Eisenhower administration, but any of us could substitute contemporary examples without ever raising a sweat.  Almost anything Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann, or Bill O'Reilly says has the potential to fall into the "wordfact" category.  A great deal of the writing in America about Egypt over the past several weeks was published with the hope that the words, once in print, would become true in actuality: Peter Pan telling us to believe can bring Tinkerbell back to life.


But that's the heart of much of contemporary political discourse.  'I wouldn't have said it, if it weren't true.  I said it.  Therefore, it is true.'

Towards the end of his essay, Galbraith wrote:
We have come to suffer nonsense gladly, and pompous nonsense far too gladly.  Elaborate rationalizations of failure should not be met by bored silence or even by a fishy stare.  They should be greeted by loud and vulgar laughter.
Though Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have taken this to heart, the laughter still is not loud enough.  Supporters of the clowns still take them seriously rather than slinking away embarrassed, tails between their legs.

And we should not let people off too easily, when they have resorted to "wordfacts."  Galbraith ended his essay with this:
And while dealing kindly with all who confess honest error, we should make a special bipartisan onslaught on any man who defends his mistakes by saying that all the unintended was better than the intended and that it was really planned all along.
What's happening right now in Wisconsin is a case in point of "wordfact" usage.  The new governor, Scott Walker, who is using the "wordfact" of his statements that he is not about union busting while he goes about union busting, has also said that the demonstrations that have shut down Madison are "more about theatrics than anything else."

 We'll see... though I doubt saying it will make it true.  I hope his saying it will result, instead, in a loud, collective Wisconsin raspberry.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Copyright Duplicity

In today's The New York Times, Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro make the argument that copyright has provided the possibility for creativity for 300 years:
Copyright, now powerfully linking authors, the printing press (and later technologies) and the market, would prove to be one of history’s great public policy successes. Books would attract investment of authors’ labor and publishers’ capital on a colossal scale, and our libraries and bookstores would fill with works that educated and entertained a thriving nation. Our poets, playwrights, novelists, historians, biographers and musicians were all underwritten by copyright’s markets.
And they feel that copyright, today, is under attack through "pirates" stealing work, and that:
They are abetted by a handful of law professors and other experts who have made careers of fashioning counterintuitive arguments holding that copyright impedes creativity and progress. Their theory is that if we severely weaken copyright protections, innovation will truly flourish.
Though I have read and like Turow's fiction, this is a self-serving and dishonest argument.

First of all, "copyright" is not the same today as it was in 1710, when the Statute of Anne became law, establishing an author's rights for 14 years, after which (were the author living) rights would revert to the author and could be renewed for an additional 14 years.  Over the past few decades, people like Jack Valenti and Mary Bono Mack, given the Constitutional command that copyright be of limited term, have had the gall to argue that the term be 'forever minus one day.'  We are approaching that.  For an individual, copyright extends a lifetime beyond the creator's death; for a corporation, it holds for a full century after creation.

Copyright, as it exists today, is quite different from what it was 300 years ago.  Until not too long ago, a work was not covered by copyright unless the creator made it so.  Today, the law's sweep is so extensive that we have 'orphan works' whose ownership is unknown, which cannot be used in new works or reproduced for fear that someone might step forward, demanding payment.

There is little profit, for most creative works, after the first few years on the marketplace.  Yes, for some, money keeps pouring in.  But these are few and far between.  The creative incentive is only partially based on money, and is certainly not based on the idea of a perpetual stream of income--unless you are among the very rare, very successful writers like Turow.  I write, and know dozens of writers, musicians, filmmakers, visual artists.  Very few of them would stop what they are doing because their copyright would run out absolutely in 28 years.

Copyright law no longer is made for authors, but for corporations, for those who believe in ownership in perpetuity because they can exist forever (of believe they can).  It is protection for the "I got mine" crowd and has nothing to do, any longer, with the Constitutional instruction “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

It is not "counterintuitive" to argue that looser laws would allow expanded creativity.  Aside from the deliberate swipe at copyright-reform professors and lawyers (a group I am proud to belong to), the argument made by Turow and friends misleads--wait... there is no argument, simply a statement that we are wrong.  The Constitution, as the pertinent clause makes clear, begs to differ.

I know, as I write, that my work would be much easier, that I could do so much more, if I weren't constantly beset by copyright concerns.  I have to be extremely careful that I do not cross 'fair use' bounds; even with older works that may be in the public domain, I check the work out.  When I use a Kindle, I am unable to copy-and-paste, for the machine has been constructed to impede copyright abrogation.  Even some websites make it difficult to copy material (The New Yorker's, for example).

Almost any creator who is working other than in complete fiction (and even those do, though differently) relies on the work of the past.  When we are limited in what we can use (look at what has happened to 'sampling' in hip-hop), our output changes and, in general, is weakened.

The people with the power and the money, however, the few whose works have put them in the 'big time,' are those with the influence and the platform to make sure that copyright protects them--and to hell with those coming after, who might want to build on their work or use it as part of a new creation.  They may use The New York Times to claim they are crusading for all creators but, when it comes right down to it, they are in it only for themselves--and for the corporations which will handle their copyrights once they are dead.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Poboye Konate, Maskmaker

When I lived in Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, West Africa, I got to know a maskmaker from Oury, near Boromo on the paved road between Ouaga and Bobo-Dioullasso.  He spent a lot of time in the capital, and had a shop--more of a stand, really--near the American embassy where he sold the masks his family makes (mostly under his direction).  I was introduced to him by Carol Thompson, now curator of African Art at the High Museum in Atlanta and author of African Art Portfolio: An Illustrated Introduction.

Poboye Konate made masks and all sorts of other things.  He was an expert at reproductions (or "fakes," as they sometimes become)  and once laughingly told me he had sold a bronze flute that looked to be ancient to an art scholar who was completely taken in--Poboye had made the flute purposely to fool him (he didn't like the man).

I bought a number of masks from Poboye, including one that I had commissioned, asking for a reproduction of one whose picture he had shown me, a mask whose "original" (I only bought reproductions) had been important to his family and that had, he told me, been stolen:

He made this one, he told me, using the type of paints he would have once used for an "original," that is, for a replacement mask for one used in ceremonial dancing.  They were locally made paints, something rarely seen, by that time.  The ones he made for tourists generally looked like the paint had faded away a generation ago and the wood had cracked and warped.

Over time, I bought a number of other reproduction masks from him, including these:

The Bwa-Bobo style that Poboye often worked within has been much copied.  On the streets of New York, I used to see sloppy versions of the Oury masks for sale, the triangles uneven, the circles stretched to oval.  One seller admitted to me that they were made--hurridly--in Haiti.

You can see the difference in the paint in these from the first mask.  For them, Poboye used store-bought European paints--just as he now did for the "real" masks for the dancers.  I do have a couple of masks that he faked for an antique look, one of which hangs in my living room.  But my favorites are these, masks made by a master craftsman as replications of masks that might actually be used in a ceremonial dance, of masks that Poboye often made as well--but only to order and never for outside sale.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"All Above Average"

Michelle Kennedy Hogan has a neat post in response to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.  She writes:
I’m afraid the Tiger Mother is too results oriented and if we’ve seen anything, it’s that the high-pressure of children may produce results, but it also produces children who don’t want to go home. I don’t view my children as a job I have to complete but instead as people I like to be around. If that makes us dreadfully average, well then so be it.
Chua wants her children to be number-one in everything.  Not only is that an unreasonable goal (not everyone can be number-one in anything), but it makes the children losers in the quest for a satisfied mind:
When my life is ended, my time has run out
My trials and my loved ones, I'll leave them no doubt
But one thing's for certain, when it comes my time
I'll leave this old world with a satisfied mind. (Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes)
 That's a much better goal than having been number-one in things that no one, ultimately, is going to care about or remember.

It was interesting for me, as a teacher, to look at Hogan's blog.  She's an advocate of what she calls "unschooling," home schooling, but not "uneducating."

As I have been editing, this week, the chapter in Beyond the Blogosphere on education, I'm particularly attuned to those who have chosen to opt out of the educational system American society provides.

My problem with home schooling is not its lack of effectiveness.  With a dedicated parent/teacher involved, it can provide superb education.  Thing is, few parents have the skills, temperament, and time to give their children what's needed.  Most have to rely on organized educational institutions.  What's unfortunate is that these have failed to the point where the individual parent, even if they want to keep their students in school and help out, can't have an impact.

The tragedy for the society as a whole is that the rest of us lose the contribution people like Hogan could be making for all.  Yes, some of them, like Hogan, write books, blogs, and articles to help others at home schooling, but home schooling isn't the answer to our problems with our schools.  It leaves too many with sub-standard education.

Somehow, we need to make the Hogans of the world welcome in our schools.  They can provide a counter-balance to the testing mania and the competitiveness that is destroying the effectiveness of public schools as venues of education for everyone.  We can have as many great and trained teachers as possible, but our schools will still fail when parents concentrate on making their kids number-one... for that always comes at the expense of others.

The reasons our schools are failing is much more complex than this, of course, but real parental involvement, as much more than just bodies organized and directed by school officials, can make a great deal of difference.

That, unfortunately, will never happen while schools and teachers continue to be judged by the numbers.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Fish and Green Cheese

Stanley Fish believes that academic work's value lies in the process, not in its connection with the validity of its content.  Or so it seems.

He attended a conference recently:
The subject was originalism — that brand of interpretation that demands fidelity to original meaning, identified either with the standard definition of words at the time of drafting and/or ratification or with the intentions of the drafters.
Never mind that there was no unity of intent or interpretation, even at the time of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.  What was important was that:
a set of intellectual problems had been tossed around and teased out by men and women at the top of their game.
By this logic, any proposition can be the basis of academic discussion.  And why not?  It's the process, the discussion that's important.  Who cares about 'truth'?

I wonder how Fish would have felt had the proposition been that the Holocaust never occurred, or that the moon is made of green cheese?

Imagine the panel topics at a Cheesist conference:
  • Factors that make the moon appear white to the naked eye: perspectives on atmosphere and sight.
  • Reconciliation of the mass of cheese and the mass of the moon, as measured from earth.
  • Thinking to the future: the moon as a source of nourishment.
  • Ontology of the moon: cosmic cow or random chance?
By Fish's definition, these would be legitimate topics, as long as they were rigorously discussed by smart people.

My reaction to Dr. Fish (Dr. Pangloss writ anew?) and to this type of academic debate was expressed best a long time ago, by Francois Voltaire, in the last line of Candide:
"Excellently observed," answered Candide; "but let us cultivate our garden."
Without something of the real world behind it, discussion is meaningless.  Intricacies of process notwithstanding, debate alone is not sufficient.  At some point, it has to turn back to the world, to the garden.  If not, one might as well argue over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Everybody's Right

An accelerant doesn't cause a fire--but it can sure make it burn.  But even a lot of it, as anyone who has tried to start damp charcoal with lighter fluid, might not be enough.  On the other hand, when conditions are right, a small amount might be a sufficient catalyst for a massive blaze.

Frank Rich references Evgeny Morozov's 'mischievous fact' that a minuscule number of Iranians had Twitter accounts when so much ballyhoo was made over the impact of social networking after questionable elections there.   The fire soon went out, but I doubt that had much to do with the penetration of Twitter, one way or another.  Damp coals just aren't going to light.  If they had been dry, on the other hand, even that small bit of Twitter might have been enough.

In one respect, the analogy I'm using is poorly chosen.  The death of Mohsen Bouterfif in Tunisia is a grisly reminder of the power of actual accelerants.  But his action of self-immolation certainly hastened a revolution that was probably on its way, anyway.  Twitter and Facebook were simply more oil on the flames.

On the same day, February 6, 1010, that Rich's column was published, complaining about the arrogance of those who praise social networking for uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Thomas Friedman wrote, also in The New York Times:
Add in rising food prices, and the diffusion of Twitter, Facebook and texting, which finally gives them a voice to talk back to their leaders and directly to each other, and you have a very powerful change engine.
Friedman is right, but so is Rich, when he rakes Piers Morgan over the coals for claiming social networking as “the most fascinating aspect of this whole revolution.”  Still, Morgan, surely, was reflecting only his momentary focus, not expressing "implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism" (though he may have that, too).  Give the poor fool a break, Mr. Rich.  Not everyone has a week between columns for careful reflection.

A week ago, I posted a little piece about the importance of the vehicle in creating the impact of the information.  Unlike Malcolm Gladwell, I can't see the two as separate (how can you tell, as I love to quote from Yeats, the dancer from the dance?).  I just can't see things so simply:
How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.
Not exactly.  To be interested in one is to be as interested in the other.  Ranking them serves no purpose.  Charcoal and accelerants do not exist in separate universes, coming together by chance.  You can't study one without having to study the other--if you want the complete picture, that is.

Yes, Gladwell is right, but his view is just as narrow as Piers Morgan's.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

More on Founders, Bachmann, and Slavery

What with everything I've had to do recently, I've not progressed as quickly as I would like with Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life.  I wish I'd gotten a bit further through it ten days ago, when I wrote about Michele Bachmann's contention that the American Founding Fathers had fought against slavery.

Not according to Chernow:
James Madison led congressional opposition to any interference with slavery, unfurling the banner of states' rights.  Although Hamilton had cofounded the New York Manumission Society, he, like Washington, remained silent on the issue....  In fact, virtually all of the founders, despite their dislike of slavery, enlisted in this conspiracy of silence, taking the convenient path of deferring action to a later generation.  (623)

We rewrite history all the time as we discover new information and develop new attitudes.  Chernow, for example, makes too much, perhaps, of what he sees as Washington's private discomfort with slavery--not to the point of excusing his public attitudes, but in trying to keep modern readers, to whom slavery is unacceptable in any form at any time, from rejecting any admiration of the first president.

What we can't do is rewrite history in the face of the facts as we know them.  The Founders did what they did, and didn't what they didn't.  We can't change that, no matter how we might wish otherwise.  Yes, we can increase our understanding of their actions and words but, again, we can't change them... as Bachmann was trying to do.