On kink, advertising, and climate change.

On kink, advertising, and climate change.

Most Americans believe themselves to be middle class – about 70% of the population. And most people – again, about 70% – believe that they have above-average intelligence. They’re right, of course: most people probably define “average intelligence” as “slightly less intelligent than me,” instead of as a statistical concept.

We are the norms against which we measure the world. To me, my body is normal; my brain is normal; my beliefs are normal. As are yours, to you!

In sexual parlance, kinks are behaviors outside the norm, but what we do is normalized to ourselves. Kink is a horizon, ever receding as we approach.

Some types of touch or activities might never feel enticing to you, just as some don’t feel particularly enticing to me, but as we live and grow, we encompass more within the boundaries of our norms. Until very recently in this country, all homosexuality was considered kinky, and only through numerous acts of bravery – people making their identities known despite living in a culture bent on rejecting them – did the general populace realize that these desires are widespread and normal.

Which is not to say that your increased awareness of the desires held by others, and your ability to recognize shared humanity with the people who hold them, will make the same desires whelm inside of you. I don’t have to want to wield a whip to recognize the sexual ecstasy gleaming from Bartolomeo Manfredi’s painting Cupid Chastised.

In Good Sex, Catherine M. Roach writes that:

Good sex is sex that is good, as in ethically or morally commendable, and good, as in pleasurable.

As to the ethical: good sex is consensual, does no harm, and impacts people’s lives in positive ways.

As to the pleasurable: good sex is hot! Erotic, sexy, stimulating, sensual. It satisfies desire and leads to physical and emotional enjoyment for all partners involved, orgasms all around.

In both senses, sex should do good and feel good. In both senses, sex is good.

This intertwining of the ethical and the pleasurable reflects an ancient and enduring belief that the good life, the life worth living, is a moral one that brings satisfaction to the person living that life. To do good feels good.

Consensual, happy, body-positive, desire-affirming sexuality is a force for moral good. Pleasurable in and of itself, good sex also shields us from advertising, which is designed to sway us toward behaviors that, in aggregate, could cause the collapse of civilization as we know it.

#

Commercial advertising often subverts a pent-up desire for sexual novelty. The thrill of new acquisitions can replicate or replace the psychological thrill of discovering shared pleasure with someone new.

Many – not all, but many – humans feel lifelong desire for new romantic, erotic, or sexual experiences, but traditional American culture does not celebrate ethical polyamory – open commitment to lifelong adventurousness, perhaps in conjunction with nested stability to raise a family – and polyamory is scary, both for the adventurer and especially for the partner(s) who fear being left behind.

And so, instead of having sex, we’re encouraged to fulfill our need for adventure by buying things.

In the essay collection Escape Into Meaning, Evan Puschak quotes a speech that Jerry Seinfeld gave while accepting an award intended “to honor excellence in advertising”:

I love advertising because I love lying.

In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised – because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want.

We know the product is going to stink. We know that.

But we are happy in that moment between the commercial and the purchase, and I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.

Considering this speech, Puschak writes that:

Seinfeld strikes at the essence of advertising, which may be a creative and clever craft, but is exploitative at heart. They manipulate us in gross ways to generate desire, to make us feel need where it doesn’t exist.

By design, advertising aims to make you feel worse. But it also offers an escape: successful advertising lays the kindling for joy, if you are willing to spend money. And so, Puschak writes:

Seinfeld suggests that there’s something to cherish in the perverted relationship we have with advertising: the small period of joy between the purchase and getting the crappy product.

A brief moment of happiness is pretty good,” Seinfeld says. “I also think that just focusing on making money and buying stupid things is a good way of life. I believe materialism gets a bad rap … If your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things.”

Advertising (and by extension, capitalism) only offers us a superficial happiness, and maybe that’s not the most we could hope for, but it’s not bad, either. Superficial joys are still joys, after all. They’re “pretty good” and pretty good is good enough.

Buying new things will not bring you lasting pleasure. Presumably, most people know this. And advertising is not designed to convince you otherwise. Instead, successful advertising aims to accentuate the interstitial joy: that brief nigh-erotic thrill of acquiring something new.

Indeed, even within the realm of sexuality, the physical sensations we receive from new bodies pressed against our own will resemble physical sensations that we’ve already known. Our minds reside within relatively uncomplicated meat-machines; the physical sensations from most sexual encounters won’t be better than what you could accomplish on your own, masturbating. The greatest difference is in the moments of anticipation and expectation – the mental thrills we share.

Indeed, in Bad Sex, Nona Willis Aronowitz portrays the dull absence of thrill that we reap when we objectify other people (a habit so pervasive in our patriarchal, misogynistic culture that even Aronowitz herself slips into it, like when she describes her partner’s “whirlwind hookup with a young blond French girl”).

Aronowitz hires a sex worker to give her an erotic massage:

Considering the circumstances, I was relaxed and turned on. He took his time “massaging” me, which really meant stroking my butt and breasts and, eventually, between my legs. His pussy-rubbing skills were legitimately advanced, and it was clear he was paying close attention, responding to every little moan I made and every time I pressed into his hand a bit more.

And yet I didn’t come. I knew from the beginning I maybe wouldn’t. My clitoris refused to cooperate, even when he understood (bless his heart) that his bare hand wasn’t working and he employed a few vibrators – including the all-powerful Hitachi Magic Wand.

His methods were all fine and arousal inducing, but it felt empty, mechanical. The only time my brain fizzed with true excitement was when my arm grazed his hard-on.

Without the emotional thrill of connection – an exquisite moment of anticipation like Seinfeld’s brief happiness “in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing” – Aronowitz couldn’t enjoy herself. Even though the physical sensations were impeccable. In “I’ll Read What She’s Reading,” Toni Bentley’s essay about participating in Clayton Cubitt’s “Hysterical Literature” video project (in which women have orgasms while reading aloud on camera), Bentley writes that:

I told Katie [who would be ensconced beneath a desk and controlling the vibrator for Bentley] that I was a Hitachi virgin—I never really understood the point of vibrators, particularly if there was an able-bodied man around—so she offered to touch the side of my knee with the wand for a moment before filming as a preview.

Good thing she did that. Jesus. I mean Holy Mary Mother of God. Thus I was relieved in five seconds of my concern about not being able to climax, and I quickly had the opposite problem: How would I last long enough to do justice to [a passage from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady]?

Bentley’s situation was erotic: a sultry mélange of exhibitionism, literature, self-control, submission, and physical sensation. Whereas Aronowitz had only the physical sensation, and it wasn’t enough. She’d purchased a service; she wanted a person. (“Most of the time,” she writes, “a hot one-night stand simply requires being a decent human being.”)

During her erotic massage, Aronowitz didn’t get to linger in “that moment in between the commercial and the purchase” – she understood the pre-arranged boundaries of their encounter, which would not include shared pleasure or mutually-recognized humanity. There was nothing to anticipate. Expecting physical pleasure could have brought her ecstasy; having physical pleasure didn’t.

#

Puschak writes that perhaps the momentary thrill of consumerism is enough. Even if capitalism, in repurposing our desires for sexual discovery, “only offers a superficial happiness,” maybe that’s fine. “Superficial joys are still joys, after all.”

And these joys are sometimes more accessible. You can do capitalism all on your own. Earn some money and feel the thrill of buying things. You don’t get to form human connections, but you also don’t have to form human connections with anybody.

In a world of isolated individuals, I might agree. But we are not alone: there are eight billion of us sharing this planet together. We are inherently connected; the choices we make as individuals affect each other.

In If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, Justin Gregg writes that:

Let’s say you wanted to grab a snack right now. Ten thousand years ago, you might’ve walked a few feet into the forest, stuck your hand into a log, and yanked out a handful of tasty termites. Boom. Problem solved. Snack acquired.

These days, you might walk a few feet into the kitchen and grab a banana. Same problem (hunger), same solution (food).

The difference between the two is that the availability of the banana today is shaped entirely by human-made, technological processes that have added unimaginable complexity to the simple act of grabbing a snack. And these processes generate long-term consequences we hadn’t considered.

Our hankering for a snack in the twenty-first century is identical to what it was ten thousand years ago, but our complex cognition allows us to engage in activities (e.g., oil and gas extraction, mechanized farming, soil depletion) on a massive scale, which is transforming this planet into an uninhabitable shithole. Our kitchens are full of foods that come from a global agricultural-industrial complex that is fundamentally problematic to the survival of the human species.

When we seek to sate an instinctual desire for sexual novelty by constantly acquiring new things – robot vacuums and snazzy telephones and single-season clothes – we are making our whole planet less livable.

For human civilization to survive, we’ll have to dampen our lust for consumerism. But we’ll still feel full of all this desire, all this need for novelty. Which is why many people continue to seek out new pornography over the course of their lives, instead of discovering the one ideal fantasy, memory, photography, film or story that excites them perfectly and then having it accompany them ever after in their moments of solitary sexuality. We shouldn’t let Disney movies deceive us into seeking a single destination, a fade-out moment of “happily ever after” – our happiness often depends on continued adventure. As we live, we continue journeying.

#

To many of the humans who lived before us, a banana would have seemed so weird! It doesn’t look or taste like anything that grew in Africa, Europe, or Asia.

To us, a banana is a normal snack.

If you and your partner(s) grant yourselves permission to (cautiously, safely, consensually!) adventure, then more of the world is normalized. Toys, lighting, & music; outfits, role-play, & scenes; groups, activities, & settings: the horizon of kink will keep receding.

And in the process, we might quiet the urges that compel us to wreck our planet. As we journey – reclaiming our desires from advertising – with luck, we’ll feel less need for commercial stuff. We’ll be able to, like Seinfeld, “know the product is going to stink” … but, even better, maybe we won’t even buy it!

When we open our lives to other joys, we can more easily resist capitalist compulsions and perhaps, perhaps, do the right thing regarding climate change. We need to buy fewer things. We also need to still be happy.

On inflation, inequality, and hungry ghosts.

On inflation, inequality, and hungry ghosts.

If people who earnestly believe in ghosts decide to host a séance, they’re no more likely to conjure an apparition than if non-believers host a similar ceremony simply as a lark.

A ring of candles, a drop of blood, earnest believe: none of these will summon spirits. And so the rest of us – the unwitting public who might find ourselves endangered if hungry ghosts were unleashed upon the world – need not fear any gathering of believers. The force of their belief can’t hurt us.

But inflation is a ghost who can be summoned by belief.

Inflation can only be summoned by belief.

And inflation hungers. But this ghost will not pursue us equally. Rather, inflation is like a spirit of vengeance, aggrieved by inequality. Inflation gobbles fortunes while forgiving debts.

Corporate executives – people with the power to set prices – have contributed most to inflation’s summoning. Their belief, within the financial séance, has mattered more. And, as they tend to be more wealthy than the average person, they have the most to fear.

#

Inflation is a rise in the prices of all goods and services. Wages rise, and so do prices, each increasing ostensibly in response to the other.

Consider an example: if the price of apples increased but all other food prices stayed the same, that would not be inflation. That might reflect a poor apple harvest. Apples would become more expensive relative to other goods.

But if, after this poor apple harvest, grocers raise the prices of apples, then notice that people are actually willing to pay those higher prices, and then decide to raise all their other prices too, just to see, and then workers demand higher wages in order to afford their more expensive groceries, that is inflation.

Inflation is a pressure to keep relative prices the same. Which results from belief – in our example, grocers simply believing that two lemons should cost as much as an apple, even after a poor apple harvest, and workers believing that they should be able to afford an apple with the wages of five minutes’ work, just like they could last year.

This distinction – that inflation occurs because people believe one good should not become more expensive compared to another – is essential to understanding the origins of our current episode of inflation. Which has a lot of roots – disruptions to Chinese manufacturing, shipping snafus, embargoes against Russian energy exports – but the story begins with wages.

#

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers realized that they were being unfairly undercompensated. People switched to better-paying jobs. Employers had to offer more money to retain staff. Briefly, it seemed as though workers would become more expensive relative to corporate profits, executive pay, or consumer prices.

Our current episode of inflation can be understood partly as a game of tug-of-war between workers and corporations. Workers insist that they should be valued more than they previously were – in response, their wages increase. Then executives tug back, insisting that workers were already treated well enough – they set prices higher, negating the increase in workers’ buying power.

If a single executive behaved this way, that corporation might suffer. If a can of Coca-Cola cost two dollars while a can of Pepsi cost only one, people might switch to Pepsi. But if many executives coincidentally behave like a cartel, all raising their prices at the same time, then they maintain the séance. Despite needing to pay high wages, their profits rise. So do their personal salaries. They reinforce their belief about the status of workers.

And their belief creates inflation.

See, for example, the New York Times article, “Food Prices Soar, and So Do Companies’ Profits.

#

Increased fuel and shipping costs have also contributed to rising prices, but these didn’t cause the inflation we’re experiencing today.

In our economy, fuel is used for almost everything: powering farm equipment, transporting goods across the country, hopscotching components along the supply chain, even commuting to work. As fuel costs rise, all production becomes more expensive.

You might imagine that if prices were raised to reflect the rising cost of fuel, we’d see something like inflation. But it costs just as much to ship ten pounds of cheap trinkets as it does to ship ten pounds of intricate devices; it costs just as much for a janitor to drive to work as for an executive. Boosting every wage to account for increased commuting costs would compress the percentage gap between executive and worker salaries. Raising the price of all goods to account for increased shipping and manufacturing costs would make formerly cheap products become relatively more expensive.

Instead, prices and wages have increased by a percentage of what they were before. Real occurrences in the world – beleaguered workers bargaining for higher salaries, a shipping crunch when people stuck at home bought furnishings online, a war in Ukraine – caused some prices to rise. Belief lifted all the others.

#

Our current episode of inflation has also been abetted by unhappiness.

Because inflation arises from belief, it always has psychological roots. People with the power to set prices will set them higher if they believe that other people are also setting higher prices. But right now, inflation has also been bolstered by the psychological malaise of consumers.

During an interview with Ezra Klein, economist J. Bradford DeLong offers an explanation for the end of inflation in the U.S. in the 1970s:

And Paul Volcker says, ‘We’ve gotten ourselves into a situation in which people don’t just expect inflation next year to be what it was last year. People expect inflation next year to be what it was last year plus a bit more.”

“ ‘I’ve got to fix this and I got to fix this by hitting the economy on the head with a brick and keep hitting until people understand that no, if they insist on raising their prices, they’ll have no demand for their products.’ ”

In this description, DeLong correctly describes the root cause of inflation as belief. Inflation happens because the people with power to set prices believe that inflation is happening. And DeLong describes a way for inflation to end: convincing those people, the ones who are setting prices, that consumers will stop buying things.

Our current period of inflation began with wages rising – due to the pandemic, people wouldn’t come to work unless they received higher wages. Then executives raised prices. Everyone needs to eat, so consumers have few options if executives raise food prices in concert, but people could choose not to buy a new computer or couch. Raising those prices could have caused a drop in demand, which would have ended the brief kindling of inflation.

But unhappy people are more likely to buy things. I’ve certainly felt this in my own life, spending too much money on stuff I didn’t need when I was feeling crummy.

Incidentally, this is why Facebook (& Instagram, & …) is designed to make users unhappy. The users of Facebook are the product that Facebook sells to advertisers, and an unhappy user is more desirable to advertisers than a happy user. By intentionally cultivating unhappiness in emotionally-addictive ways, Facebook can offer advertisers a premium product: the attention of people who are more likely to buy things as they attempt to fill an empty ache inside.

The lingering malaise of the pandemic and the scary ways that our world has changed have made people more likely to buy things, even when prices should feel “too high” compared to last year. Which means that the concerted price increases set by executives have kept causing inflation instead of reducing demand.

#

Legal U.S. currency has only a modicum of inherent value, primarily aesthetic. I’ve heard that a high denomination bill can be rolled into a tube and used to snort cocaine in front of potential romantic partners. Some people think that this showy behavior is alluring.

Mostly, though, U.S. currency is considered valuable because we believe it is, together. The value of money is a collective fiction. Like medieval outbreaks of Tarantism, we keep dancing because we fear that we might die if we ever stopped.

Currency intervenes in every exchange. You can’t directly trade a bail of hay for fifteen-minutes’ legal help in the modern world.

Once upon a time, the value of U.S. currency was backed by gold. Like dollar bills, gold has only limited inherent value, primarily aesthetic. Because gold glitters, it was made into jewelry. In the modern world, gold is also a useful catalyst for certain chemical reactions, but during the glory days of gold – to which some disingenuous or ignorant politicians argue that we should return – gold held value because people believed in its value together. Collectively, people believed that a particular weight of it could be traded for a bay of hay, and that a particular weight could be traded for legal help, and this allowed everything in the world to be assessed with the same measure.

The relative value of goods and services is fixed in the short term. Legal help is judged to be just so difficult to produce, so fifteen minutes should be worth the same as a certain amount of hay. Over longer timespans, these relationships can drift: if a team of programmers creates an AI script that provides legal help much more abundantly than human lawyers, each fifteen minutes of legal help should be worth less hay.

But there’s no constraint on how hay should be priced with respect to a currency whose value is created by belief. As long as the relative prices of hay and legal help stay the same, both a bail of hay and fifteen-minutes’ legal help could be priced at a gram of gold, or a tenth of a gram, or a hundredth. In each case, the world functions the same way. Hay can be traded for currency which can be traded for legal help.

But belief still matters. If lots of people harvest hay, then the aesthetic preferences of any one person aren’t important. But if one person buys up all the hay fields, and then that person decides that gold isn’t particularly attractive, that person might demand twice as much gold in exchange for hay. This demand would be temporarily irksome, but if everyone agrees that this hay merchant has good aesthetic taste – maybe gold was never as pretty as we thought! – people will start trading twice as much gold as before for hay, and for legal help, and for labor. The world still works. Gold was only ever a measuring stick. As long as everyone switches together, it doesn’t matter whether the measuring stick is delineated in inches or centimeters. The numbers change – eight inches, twenty centimeters – while the actual size of objects stays the same.

#

Ah, but wait. The world in motion stays the same: a bail of hay is still worth fifteen-minutes’ legal help. But the static world has changed. A dragon, lounging atop his golden horde, had known that he could trade those mounded coins for seven years of legal help. It was a mighty stash.

Suddenly – and all because an influential merchant decided that he didn’t like the look of gold – the dragon can only buy three years of help. The people’s belief crept in like a thief. The dragon’s great wealth was stolen.

The dragon would obviously feel irate.

#

Because money has no inherent value, the terms of monetary exchange are set by collective belief. And in recent months, inflation has been summoned by conflicting beliefs: workers claim that they were undervalued, executives claim that they weren’t.

This is the crux of inflation: whether or not relative values should change. Should some things become more expensive, compared to others, or should all things cost more money?

In my opinion, it’s reasonable for workers to become more expensive. Workers were treated unfairly for decades! And it’s reasonable for certain foods to become more expensive – there’s a war in Ukraine!

But some corporate executives disagreed, refusing to believe that workers or food should become more expensive relative to other things. And then, instead of balking, unhappy consumers kept on buying things.

#

To recap: the beliefs of powerful people caused inflation. Now many of those same powerful people are upset, because inflation attacks their dragonish hordes. If somebody already has a bunch of money – a bank account with ten million dollars of savings – then a world in which all costs and wages suddenly double will see this person become half as wealthy. If somebody else has debt – a credit card bill, a mortgage, unpaid student tuition – then they’ll become half as poor.

Unless inflation goes so far that we entirely unravel our collective fiction – everyone waking from the collective dream that currency holds any value – only wealthy people will be hurt. Inflation hungers after their large, fictitious numbers.

And yet it was wealthy people’s belief – perhaps real, perhaps purported in bad faith – that summoned inflation in the first place.

On AI-generated art.

On AI-generated art.

Recently, an image generated by an artificial intelligence algorithm won an art competition.

As far as I can tell, this submission violates no rules. Pixel by pixel, the image was freshly generated – it was not “plagarized” in the human sense of copying portions of another’s work wholesale. Indeed, if the AI were able to speak (which it can’t, because it’s particular design does not incorporate any means to generate language), it might describe its initial training as having “inspired” its current work.

The word “training” elides a lot of detail.

Most contemporary AI algorithms are not wholly scripted – a human programmer doesn’t write code that says, “When given the input ‘opera,’ include anthropomorphic shapes bedecked in luxurious fabrics.”

Instead, the programmer curates a large collection of images, some of which are given the descriptor “opera,” all others being, by default, “not opera.” Then the algorithm analyzes the images – treating the images as a grid of pixels, each with a particular hue and brightness, and also higher-order mathematical calculations on that grid, such as if there is a red pixel in a location, what are the odds that other nearby pixels are also red, and what shape will that red cluster take? From this analysis, the algorithm finds mathematical descriptors that separate the “opera” images from “not opera.”

An image designated “opera” is more likely to have patches with vivid hues that include bright and dark vertical stripes. A human viewer will interpret these as the shadowed folds of fabric draping an upright figure. The algorithm doesn’t need to interpret these features, though – the algorithm works only with a matrix of numbers that denote pixel colors.

In general, human programmers understand the principles by which AI algorithms work. After all, human programmers made them!

And human programmers know what sort of information was provided in the algorithm’s training set. For instance, if none of the images labeled “opera” within a particular training set showed performers sitting down, then the algorithm should not produce an opera image with alternating dark and light stripes arrayed horizontally – the algorithm will not have been exposed to horizontal folds in fabric, at least not within the context of opera.

But the particular details of how these algorithms work are often inscrutable to their creators. The algorithms are like children this way – you might know the life experiences that your child has been exposed to, and yet still have no idea why your kid is claiming that Bigfoot dips french fries into ice cream.

Every now and again, an algorithm sorts data by criteria that we humans find ridiculous. Or, rather: the algorithm sorts data by criteria that we would find ridiculous, if we could understand its criteria. But, in general, we can’t. It’s difficult to plumb the workings of these algorithms.

Because the algorithm’s knowledge is stored in multidimensional matrices that most human brains can’t grasp, we can’t compare the algorithm’s understanding of opera with our own. Instead, we can only evaluate whether or not the algorithm seems to work. Whether the algorithm’s images of “opera” look like opera to us, or whether an AI criminal justice algorithm recommends the longest prison sentences to people whom we also assume to be the most dangerous offenders.

#

So, about that art contest. I’m inclined to think that, for a category of “digitally created artwork,” submitting a piece that was created by an AI is fair. A human user still plays a curatorial role, perhaps requesting many images using the exact same prompt and then choosing the best, each generated from random seeds.

It’s a little weird, because in many ways the result would be a collaborative project – somebody’s work went into scripting the AI, and a huge amount of work went into curating and tagging the training set of images – but you could argue that anytime an artist uses a tool or filter on Photoshop, they’re collaborating with the programmers.

An artist might paint a background and then click on a button labeled “whirlpool effect,” but somebody had to design and script the mathematical function that converts the original array of pixel colors into something that we humans would then believe had been sucked into a whirlpool.

In some ways, this collaboration is acknowledged (in a half-hearted, transactional, capitalist way) – the named artist has paid licensing fees to use Photoshop or an AI algorithm. Instead of recognition, the co-creators receive money.

But there’s another wrinkle: we do not create art alone.

Even the Lascaux cave paintings – although no other paintings from that era survived until the present day, many probably existed (in places that were less protected from the elements and so were destroyed by wind & rain & mold & time). The Lascaux artist(s) presumably saw themselves as part of an artistic community or tradition.

In the development of a human artist, that person will see, hear, & otherwise experience many artistic creations by others. Over the course of our lives, we visit museums, read books, watch television, hear music, eat at restaurants – we’re constantly learning from the world around us, in ways that would be impossible to fully acknowledge. A painter might include a flourish that was inspired by a picture they saw in childhood and no longer consciously remember.

This collaborative debt is more obvious among AI algorithms. These algorithms need fuel: their meticulously-tagged sets of training images. The algorithms generate new images of only the sort that they’ve been fed.

It’s the story of a worker being simultaneously laid off and asked to train their replacement.

Unfortunately for human artists, our world is already awash in beautiful images. Obviously, I’m not saying that we need no more art! I’m a writer, in a world that’s already so full of books! The problem, instead, is that the AI algorithms have ample training sets. Even if, hypothetically, these algorithms instantly drove every other artist out of business, or made all working artists so nervous that human artists refused for any more of their work to be digitized, there’s still an enormous library of existing art for the AI algorithms to train on.

After hundreds of years of collecting beautiful paintings in museums, it would take a hefty dollop of hubris to imagine immediate stagnation if the algorithms lacked access to new human-generated paintings.

Also, it wouldn’t be insurmountable to program something akin to “creativity” in the algorithms – an element of randomness to allow the algorithm to deviate from trends in its training set. This would put more emphasis on a user’s curatorial judgment, but also lets the algorithms innovate. Presumably most of the random deviations would look bad to me, but that’s often the way with innovation – impressionism, cubism, and other movements looked bad to many people at the beginning. (Honestly, I still don’t like much impressionism.)

#

There’s no reason to expect a brain made of salty fat to have incomparable powers. Our thoughts don’t come from anything spooky like quantum mechanics – neurons are much too big to persist in superpositions. Instead, we humans are so clever because we have a huge number of neurons interconnected in complex ways. We’re pretty special, but we’re not magical.

Eventually, a brain made of circuits could do anything that we humans can.

That’s a crucial long-run flaw of capitalism – eventually, the labor efforts of all biological organisms will be replaceable, so all available income could be allocated to capital owners instead of labor producers.

In a world of physician-bots, instead of ten medical doctors each earning a salary, the owner of ten RoboMD units would keep all the money.

We’re still a ways off from RoboMD entering the market, but this is a matter of engineering. AI algorithms can already write legal contracts, do sports journalism, drive cars & trucks, create award-winning visual images – there’s no reason to believe that an AI could never treat illnesses as well as a human doctor, clean floors as well as a human janitor, write code as well as a human programmer.

In the long run, all our work could be done by machines. Human work will be unnecessary. Within the logic of capitalism, our income should drop to zero.

Within the logic of capitalism, only the owners of algorithms should earn any money in the long-run. (And in the very long run, only the single owner of the best algorithms should earn any money, with all other entities left with nothing.)

#

Admittedly, it seems sad for visual artists – many of whom might not have nuanced economics backgrounds – to be among the people who experience the real-world demonstration of this principle first.

It probably feels like a very minor consolation to them, knowing that AI algorithms will eventually be able to do your job, too. When kids play HORSE, nobody wants to be out first.

But also, we have a choice. Kids choose whether or not to play HORSE, and they choose what rules they’ll play by. We (collectively) get to choose whether our world will be like this.

I’m not even that creative, and I can certainly imagine worlds in which, even after the advent of AI, human artists still get to do their work, and eat.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

On ‘The Dawn of Everything’ and the Future.

Farmers conquered the world.

Not that many of us farm. Modern technologies allow us all to be fed even though less than 1% of the population still does the actual work of farming. But the food we eat comes from farms. Without farms, we couldn’t live as we do.

Indeed, the material luxuries of the modern world would make this place seem like a paradise to our ancestors. So much food, so easily procured! Soft warm clothes – you can buy great digs at Goodwill for a few dollars. Oracular pocket computers – my telephone can prophesize way better than ancient gods. I know when it’s going to rain. I know if the rain will be stopping in 35 minutes.

We have indoor plumbing, hot showers, scented candles – that’s awesome! Think about it: Victorian cities smelled so bad!

I mean, sure – with climate change and rising sea levels, sewers in places like New York City will back up more frequently, and I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a moment to be grateful: the stuff we have access to is pretty incredible. All our technologies and toys.

Wow.

Farmers really nailed it, didn’t they?

#

But before we reached our fabulous present (please continue to suspend your disbelief for a little longer; I understand that the present moment in history feels decidedly less than fabulous for many people), something strange had to happen.

Hunter-gatherers lived pretty well. They ate good food. They spent ample time socializing and relaxing. As best we can tell, their lives had a lot of potential for happiness.

By way of contrast, it was the pits to be an early farmer! You’d work all day; eat crummy food that left you gassy and bloated; die young. Also, you’d feel small – instead of believing that you were probably just as good as anyone else, you’d know that there were kings and such who lived way better than you.

Every now and then, their ruffians might come calling and haul away your food.

#

Just like the recently deposed leader of the United States, ancient kings were big on building walls. But there’s a difference. Because it was so miserable to be an early farmer – a cog in the gearworks of a glorious civilization! – early walls may have been built to keep people in.

In Against the Grain, James Scott writes of early states that, “Do what they might to discourage and punish flight – and the earliest legal codes are filled with such injunctions – archaic states lacked the means to prevent a certain degree of [population loss] under normal circumstances. For China’s Mongol frontier, Owen Lattimore has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions. … Precisely because this practice of going over to the barbarians flies directly in the face of civilization’s “just so” story, it is not a story one will find in the court chronicles and official histories. It is subversive in the most profound sense.

The hunter gatherers had been happy, though! So how did we get from there to here? If early farming was so miserable, why did people do it?

#

In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that a select few prehistoric farming communities were less miserable than the rest. Their arguments are based on sparse archaeological data – in the essay “Digging for Utopia,” Kwame Anthony Appiah presents several examples in which Graeber & Wengrow’s interpretations extend beyond the evidence – and yet, their central conclusion is almost certainly correct.

Many, many groups of humans formed distinct communities over the past ten thousand years. That’s a long time. These people didn’t have access to all the historical knowledge that we have, but they were no less intelligent or imaginative than we are. It would be naive to imagine that every single community followed the exact same political system.

Although Appiah’s review ends with a great line – “Never mind the dawn, Rousseau was urging: we will not find our future in our past” – I agree with Graeber & Wengrow that there’s benefit from showing that cooperation and mutual aid were the underpinnings of successful civilizations in the past. We needn’t be shackled by the choices of our ancestors, but it’s still nice to feel inspired by them. Even one single example of a stable ancient civilization organized around mutual aid would give credence to the idea that a radical reworking of contemporary civilization isn’t doomed to failure.

If prehistoric people did have a variety of political systems, though – some happy, some oppressive – why did we end up with a bad version?

Graeber & Wengrow write:

When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to [societies like] Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality.

All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence, and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization: the sacrifice of our three basic freedoms, and of life itself, for the sake of something always out of reach – whether that be an ideal or world order, the Mandate of Heaven or blessings from insatiable gods.

Is it any wonder that in some circles the very idea of ‘civilization’ has fallen into disrepute? Something very basic has gone wrong here.

#

Presumably, some ancient cultures prioritized happiness (cooperation, sharing, art), while others prioritized growth (acquisition, extraction, war, and work).

I would rather live in the former sort; I assume most people, if given the chance to experience both, would make a similar choice. (Graeber & Wengrow include several examples of well-educated people who experienced both self-interested European-style capitalism and cooperative “savagery” preferring the latter. “By far the most common reasonshad to do with the intensity of social bonds they experienced in Native American communities: qualities of mutual care, love and above all happiness, which they found impossible to replicate once back in European settings. ‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.”)

But the borders of a political system that prioritizes growth will steadily expand if able. Whenever there’s a meeting between a growth-valuing and a happiness-valuing society, the former is likely to attempt to commandeer the land and resources that had been used to support the latter.

North America was populated before Europeans arrived. The land was intensely managed: Graeber and Wengrow write that “What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour-intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.

But the land was being managed according to ideals other than maximum short-term agricultural extraction and population growth. The original human inhabitants of this continent believed that it would be both morally and ethically wrong to extract everything possible from their surroundings – future generations and other animals also held valid claims to the land – and so their civilizations sought to thrive sustainably amid natural abundance.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, as Matt Siegel relates in The Secret History of Food, people “described great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of each other, downing giant oaks from their weight and covering the forest in four inches of droppings. John Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun, and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.

Despite this well-managed abundance, many Europeans still starved to death when they first arrived on this continent. They starved “not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of skill and acquiring it. In unwillingness to heed the advice of the Natives, whom they saw as ‘uncivilized savages.’ Pilgrim John Smith recounts, for example, coming across waters so thick with fish that their heads stuck out above the water, but being unable to catch any for want of nets. ‘We attempted to catch them with a frying pan,’ he writes, ‘but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.’ ”

This sort of extravagant abundance is now gone, because the encroaching civilization prioritized extraction. Enough of the Europeans survived to gain a foothold on this continent, after which natural resources would not be managed, but consumed.

The rivers were sullied; the great flocks of birds were killed.

(The other day, my family was driving near a highway where a flock of perhaps a thousand starlings swelled and tumbled through the air – it looked magical. I cannot imagine what a flock of a billion birds would be like.)

#

The standard measure of our economy – the single magical number cited by politicians and talking heads to let us regular TV-watching folks know how our country is doing – is “growth.”

This magic number doesn’t assess how much we have – although politicians occasionally mention “per capita income” or “per capita output,” which could be rough proxies for that, as long as you neglect our slight (ha!) disparities in distribution – nor how happy we are. Instead, we boast or fret over the rate of increase.

But there’s a limit to growth. I loved the game Universal Paperclip, which I’ve discussed previously, because it elegantly depicts what goes wrong when we attempt ceaseless expansion.

We could prioritize something else – happiness, perhaps – but that would require a massive cultural shift. The ideals of growth are ingrained on both sides of our current political spectrum.

In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson discusses climate change and the conflict it presents: the freedom to do what we want now (chop down forests; extract & burn fossil fuels) versus our descendants having the freedom to do what they want later (visit old-growth forests; encounter wild animals; have a stable climate; survive). We now know that we can’t both have these untrammeled freedoms. Someone – either us or our descendants – has to make sacrifices.

Nelson discusses Naomi Klein’s interactions with people who are unwilling to change their current lifestyle: those who demand the freedom to eat lots of meat, crank their air conditioning, purchase & dispose of whatever plastic products they want.

Those people “are right, Klein says, when they say that climate change isn’t really an ‘issue.’ Rather, she says, ‘climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideals are no longer viable.’

These ideals – shared by people on both the right and left, Klein explains – involve a paradigm of civilization based on progress and expansion rather than one based on an apprehension of and respect for natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence, and the material, planetary parameters that make human life possible.

But it does no good for you to personally refrain from extracting & burning fossil fuels if someone else goes ahead and does it. Our planet is interconnected: the politics of Brazil will affect us all. Clever people are prioritizing growth and expansion.

In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that the Earth was already a poor habitat for humanity; if climate change makes our planet less habitable, so be it. He believes that there’s no limit to the growth of knowledge – or, therefore, to the economic growth possible for a knowledge-bearing civilization – so why should we slow down now?

(Despite his background in physics, Deutsch ignores the hard limit imposed by entropy – all processes in our universe consume order and excrete chaos, There will be no possibility for further action – not even thought – once the initial order has been consumed. Believe me, I’m all for scientific research: if the lifespan of our sun is compressed into a twenty-four hour day, the current time is about 10:58 a.m., humans have been around since about 10:57 a.m., and the sun will become too hot and evaporate all our water by 7:36 p.m. For humanity to carry on, our descendants will have to find a way to leave this planet by then – but humanity won’t carry on infinitely. And we’ll be unlikely to carry on at all if we recklessly wreck the planet before 11 a.m. instead of giving ourselves the full day to work on solutions!)

If a subset of our population agrees with Nelson & Klein, and another subset agrees with Deutsch, those who agree with Deutsch will win – win, that is, in the sense of having done what they want to the world. Sprinting ahead during the first minute of what’s likely to be an eight-hour long marathon, overheating, and expiring at the side of the road.

As a running coach, that’s something I generally counsel people not to do.

#

Europeans arrived on North America. They prioritized growth. They took land from the previous inhabitants.

The vast flocks of pigeons are gone.

#

In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber & Wengrow make a persuasive case that many cultures intentionally avoided the emergence of severe inequality or permanent bureaucracy. “Sometimes indigenous property systems formed the basis for differential access to resources, with the result that something like social classes emerged. Usually, though, this did not happen, because people made sure that it didn’t, much as they made sure chiefs did not develop coercive power.”

Mutual aid and cooperation were intentional goals around which societies were structured.

Unfortunately, although this sort of political structure might be good at producing happiness, it’s inefficient. I volunteer with several organizations that operate on the principle of consensus decision-making; these deliberations can be quite arduous!

Over time, the cultures with more efficient political systems are likely to grow faster – even if they’re less happy – and gradually displace the others. This is the same logic of invasive species: the plants labeled as “invasive” in any habitat tend to begin their growing season earlier and spread more easily, allowing them to replace whatever had been there before.

Capitalism has a lot of flaws, and unfettered capitalism can certainly get stuck with massive inefficiencies through monopoly power or the like, but capitalism is typically more efficient than mutual aid.

Graeber and Wengrow write that:

Both money and administration are based on similar principles of interpersonal equivalence. What we wish to emphasize is how frequently the most violent inequalities seem to arise from such fictions of legal equality.

This equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations.

As anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council, resolving inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.

It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.

As money is to promises, we might say, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of maths and violence.

#

I would have preferred for Graeber and Wengrow to continue this discussion of efficiency, which helps explain why we inherited a political system that produces less happiness than the cultures of many of our ancestors.

Hunting and gathering yielded ample calories for ancient humans to build stable, complex societies. But in these societies, little would have been interchangeable; people might engage in different activities each day, each season, each year. The food they ate might vary considerably from one day to the next.

(In Against the Grain, Scott writes “Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time. The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average. This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet. It would be hard to exaggerate that variety. Not only might it span several food webs – marine, wetland, forest, savanna, arid – each with its seasonal variation, but even when it came to plant foods, the diversity was, by agricultural standards, staggering. The archaeological site of Abu Hureyra, for example, in its hunter-gatherer phase, yielded remains from 192 different plants, of which 142 could be identified, and of which 118 are known to be consumed by contemporary hunter-gatherers.”)

Farming produces equivalence. A farmer can specialize in a small set of actions, raising a small set of plants and animals. Bushels of wheat can be easily measured. There are definite losses in terms of health, happiness, and leisure time, but farming makes political organization more efficient.

Indiana’s forests are filling up with garlic mustard, not because it’s the best plant, but because it grows efficiently.

#

Among the superpowers of the modern world, some have vaguely democratic political systems (although perhaps it’s foolish to lump plutocratic representational systems like the U.S. into this category), and some use dictatorship (like China).

I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces suggesting that the Chinese political system can’t succeed over the long run because it stifles creativity; for instance, an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why China Can’t Innovate” claims that Ph.D. students in China receive an inadequate training because “the governance structures of China’s state-owned universities still leaves too many decisions to too few people.”

In the long-run, yes, free societies can produce more creative solutions to their problems. Graeber and Wengrow present compelling evidence that the indigenous free peoples of North America created a much greater variety of political systems than the oppressed peoples of Europe.

In the short run, however, dictatorships can be more efficient. (With the obvious possibility that a dictator might decide to do something counterproductive, as Vladimir Putin is demonstrating.)

Civilizations collapse – or devour each other – in the short run.

On work.

On work.

If you’re living in a capitalist society, having money is great! Money gets you space to live! Money gets you food to eat! And if you ever think of something else you want, money lets you buy it! Right now! Wham!

Hooray for money!

Except that the actual process of getting money can be pretty miserable.

Most people get money by finding a job. At the job, somebody will tell them what to do. They do it, they get paid.

The pay, in the United States, tends to be quite low. Working forty hours a week for fifty two weeks a year, the US minimum wage would net you less than twenty thousand dollars. Even if the US minimum wage were lavishly raised to $15 an hour, you’d still only get about thirty thousand dollars a year.

To keep the US economy going, we’ve relied on desperation. If people had other options, they wouldn’t do dangerous, difficult, or demeaning work for so little pay.

Until recently, though, most people felt like they didn’t have other options. And so they took terrible jobs, hoping to scrape by.

Now, things are looking different.

In the US, lots of people chose not to re-enter the post-pandemic labor force. Among people who did return to work, huge numbers have been quitting.

In China, many young people are advocating for cheaper ways of living. Instead of working long hours at an odious job in order to have enough money to buy fancy things, maybe it’d be better to work less and take joy in simpler pleasures. Of course, this is a rather anti-progress sentiment, so references to the “tang ping” or “lie flat” movement have been deleted from the Chinese internet to quell the ideology.

Even among people who are lucky enough to be paid for doing something fun – and, honestly, among the professional classes, a lot of work is fun, lots of tricksy little puzzles to solve – there’s often an imbalance between how much time we spend working and how much time we spend on family or other sources of lasting joy. This is, roughly, the main argument in the essay by New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo, “Even With a Dream Job, You Can Still Be Anti-Work.

There are lots of ways to find fulfillment in life. And, yes, work can definitely provide that satisfying sensation of having done something worthwhile with your time! Especially if you’re lucky enough to be paid for doing something you love. My spouse loves to teach. Manjoo loves to research big ideas. I love to write!

But the work that many people find themselves doing – trading away their time so that they’ll have enough money to meet their needs – doesn’t feel rewarding. And even a good job can suck up too much time. Caretaking, conversation, art, travel, philosophy, religious practice – these are also excellent avenues to a fulfilling life, except that they don’t draw a salary. Most people aren’t lucky enough to be able to use their time in those ways.

So: work can feel lousy for the people doing the work.

Boo!

And it gets worse. Because there’s another big problem with work: in a capitalist society, much work makes the world worse.

In the US, for instance, our recent economic miracles are advertising companies: Google and Facebook. Their founders have become absurdly rich; a huge number of people have found well-paying, intellectually-stimulating jobs working for these companies. But their money comes from hurting people! Our world would be better off if all those people’s work wasn’t being done.

Very occasionally, advertising benefits a person. An ad might make you aware of something that improves your life! Maybe you’ve always wanted a little automated rake that cleans your cat’s litter box. (I saw an ad for one of those on the YMCA television while I was lifting weights.)

Or maybe you’d like to go out for Indian food, but hadn’t realized there was an Indian restaurant in your home town. Good thing you saw their ad!

But more often, advertising harms us. An effective advertisement instills a sense of absence that some company’s product can supposedly fill. Huge amounts of money are spent creating and distributing ads for beer, for cruise ships, for fast food.

Which people, exactly, do we suppose are unaware of the existence of beer? And would the newfound knowledge help them?

Especially in the face of climate change, our society will have to change. In some fields – manufacturing, advertising, drilling – we need for people to work less. We need for less stuff to be made, used briefly, and shunted off to landfills. The work makes our planet less hospitable.

I used to do biomedical research. I stopped; it seemed that if I did my job well, I too would help wreck our planet. New discoveries are much more likely to yield slight, expensive extensions to the ends of wealthy people’s lives, rather than any additional happiness for the majority of our population.

We already spend inordinate amounts of money on frantic efforts to extend the end of life, even though studies have shown that “the less money spent in this time period, the better the death experience is for the patient.

This sort of work is good for the economy. But it’s bad for people. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where everyone thought that the latter mattered more?

On Gamestop and counterfeiting.

On Gamestop and counterfeiting.

In high school economics, you may have learned that the Federal Reserve controls the money supply.

When inflation is low, the Fed prints money. They unleash this money by purchasing bonds. When people have more money, they’ll spend it, so inflation rises.

When inflation is too low, the Fed contracts the money supply. They sell bonds. Cash leaves circulation. With fewer dollars in hand, it’s more difficult for people to buy things, and inflation slows.

This is a nice theory. It’s logical and the math works well.

The only flaw is that it isn’t true.

#

The Federal Reserve doesn’t control the money supply – banks do.

If you walk into a bank and apply for a loan, you might expect for them to check how much money they’re holding in deposits, how much money they’ve lent already, whether there’s any more on hand for you to borrow.

That won’t happen. They’ll investigate you, certainly, to assess whether you’re likely to default. But if they like the look of you, you can walk out of there with money.

The bank creates this money. They claim that it exists, and then it does.

I first learned about the distinction between who theoretically controls the money supply (the Federal Reserve!) and who actually controls it (banks!) from economic historian Robert Skidelsky in his book Money and Government.

Skidelsky includes an instructive quote from the investigative report Where Does Money Come From? by Josh Ryan-Collins, Tony Greenham, Richard Werner, and Andrew Jackson:

The theoretical support for deregulation was based on the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics, in which banks are mere intermediaries.

This does not recognize their pivotal role as creators of the money supply.

Since the 1980s, bank credit creation has expanded at a considerably faster rate than GDP, with an increasing amount of bank credit creation channeled into financial transactions. This is unsustainable and costly to society.

As we were taught in high school, increases to the money supply accelerate economic activity.

And our economy is booming. But you might not have noticed. See, banks have been greatly expanding the money supply, but they’ve been injecting all that cash directly into the financial sector.

Investment banks, hedge funds, and the like have been blessed with easy money, and there’s been dramatic inflation in this segment of our economy.

#

Brokerages lend stocks.

This is another way to create money – brokerages might lend more stocks than actually exist. At times, this may be inadvertent – if I own a stock, my brokerage can lend it to someone who’d like to short sell it.

When the short seller puts the stock up for sale – hoping to profit if the stock falls before they’re obliged to return it – someone who uses a different brokerage might buy it.

And then that brokerage might also lend it to a short seller – they have no way of knowing that this particular share has already been lent.

All this lending creates money – with each additional sale, the short seller is pulling the stock’s share price out of thin air, subject only to the contract with the brokerage that a share must be returned later – without anyone necessarily intending to break the law.

#

When I read poetry with guys in jail, they’ll sometimes mention what they’re in for. Not everyone is telling the truth – according to police reports, somewhere near half are there on domestic assault charges, but out of some thousand men I’ve worked with, only three have said they were in on a domestic, and they all told elaborate stories to explain away the charges.

A guy said that his wife was all bruised because he had to resuscitate her from a medical emergency. Another guy told me that he and his girlfriend were “talking loudly,” some neighbor called the cops, and they saw him throw a towel at her. A third said they busted him for domestic violence after all he’d done was chuck a television at the wall (although this guy had been telling me for weeks that he was in on possession of marijuana).

My point being that I’m never quite sure how much credence to give these stories.

Still, I’ve worked with several guys who said they were doing time for increasing the money supply. In practical effect, what they’d done was the same as a bank lending money it doesn’t have – the money supply increases.

Here’s some money that previously didn’t exist, and there will be repercussions if an investigator can prove that it happened.

A guy was printing bills in his basement. Another passed bad checks. Somebody claimed he was there for credit fraud, but I doubt he was busted for the sort of thing the Russian hackers were doing, trawling the internet for unsecured connections – more likely, he’d lifted somebody’s wallet and got nabbed using their cards.

When individuals get caught at this, we bring the hammer down. Bad check guy caught four years (and the prosecutor was originally trying to get him to plea for twelve, he told me).

#

The stock for Gamestop, in and of itself, is worth very little.

The company doesn’t pay a dividend. And the company is failing. They have to pay rent, they have to pay the salaries of living, breathing human employees. They have to maintain an inventory.

They depend on consumers’ willingness to get in the car, drive somewhere, and make eye contact with a living, breathing cashier in order to buy a thing.

But game systems can be bought online. The games themselves can be downloaded. The stylish figurines of people’s favorite characters are cool, and can presumably be sold at a markup in shops since they look more enticing in person than they would as tiny pixelated photos on a telephone screen, but these are heavy and bulky and awkward to ship to the store and keep on the shelves.

I agree with the hedge fund guys who think there’s a high probability that Gamestop was going out of business. That Gamestop might’ve gone under even without the Covid-19 pandemic, and that things look even worse now – the new Gamestop executive’s plans for bringing in money all relied on turning the shops into social spaces, but now nobody’s socializing, and certainly not inside small, poorly ventilated strip mall outlets.

Several hedge funds borrowed lots of shares of Gamestop and sold them, hoping that the price would fall before they were required to return them.

Their positions – short tens of millions of shares of Gamestop – were known. And so people intentionally raised the price of the stock.

The hedge funds were (and possibly still are) contractually obligated to return those shares to the brokerages that they were borrowed from. They’d have to buy shares even if the price became absurd.

So lots of regular people realized they could make a quick buck by buying the shares and then selling them to the hedge fund at a ransom price whenever their loans were up.

#

And, yes, when people drove up the price of Gamestop to grift money out of the short-selling hedge funds, that was collusion. Which would be illegal if done in private, but I don’t think there’s any problem when it’s been done entirely on a public forum.

What the banks and brokerages have been doing – creating money by lending things that don’t exist – isn’t illegal. Perhaps it should be – the practical effect is the same as when somebody starts printing money in their basement – but it isn’t.

#

If the hedge funds are contractually obligated to buy shares of Gamestop, then is this a good bet?

Should you jump in, too?

I don’t think so.

Please note that I’m not a particularly savvy investor – I’ve put my family’s money in Canadian agriculture, air conditioners, coolants, all sorts of things that will presumably accrue value if the planet Earth becomes less hospitable – nor have I studied contract law. I’m a trained economist and reasonably logical thinker, but not an expert.

I do own a single share of Gamestop – I bought it because I appreciated that people wanted to flip off the hedge funds – but, honestly, I don’t have much personal stake in this.

I do think that the financial sector has been creating large, needless drag on our economy. I’m vaguely anti-capitalist. I believe strongly in a global wealth tax and guaranteed basic income. So I’d like for the hedge funds to go bankrupt.

But I don’t think they will.

The hedge funds have contracts, but their contracts aren’t with me – even if they’ve borrowed my share of Gamestop, they didn’t borrow it from me, they borrowed it from my brokerage.

And my brokerage is run by some reasonable people wearing business suits. They know that the Gamestop company itself is troubled. They would probably rather have money than shares of GME.

I think it’s very risky to gamble on a contract between people who aren’t you. The signing parties of the contract could renegotiate it – as a bystander, I can’t influence their negotiations at all.

Still, there’s a chance that some of the short sellers will tank. So although I wouldn’t recommend buying a bunch of shares of GME, it seems prudent to convert some of your retirement savings to cash, just in case the short sellers have to unload a few of their long positions to cover and the prices of those shares fall. You might have a chance to buy other stocks at a discount soon.

Again, I’m not an expert, nor a savvy investor. That’s just what I’m doing.

#

Usually, nobody notices when banks or brokerages create money. We simply assume that they have sufficient holdings to cover whatever they’re lending out.

They often create phantom shares of stocks, and then, when the short sellers resolve their contracts, the phantom shares blip back out of existence, leaving behind only some money – not coins or bills, mind you, but an increased number on a ledger – to indicate that they ever existed.

Account values are like the contrails in a bubble chamber that tell us whether elementary particles briefly existed after a high-energy collision between nuclei.

But Reddit readers’ collusion is causing the contrails to ossify. I don’t have a sell limit set for my single share of Gamestop. Millions of shares are held by people who think short selling ought to be illegal and are planning to let mounting interest payments undermine the hedge funds that were doing it.

#

The turbulence here is obviously unrelated to Gamestop.

The issue isn’t even short sellers – financial markets are obviously irrational, but short selling does push stock prices toward fair valuations for their underlying companies. Which isn’t necessarily helpful, or sufficiently important that we, as a people, should reward the people who do it will millions of dollars.

And the issue isn’t hedge funds.

Rather, it’s whether we want a world that conforms to the fictions we teach in high school economics – the Federal Reserve controls the money supply! – or if we want the world we have now, where guys in my poetry class landed in jail for printing money in their basements but bankers and brokers are rewarded lavishly for printing money in their offices.

I’ve written about this previously, here and here, but the ramifications are much more visible now.

And I should mention that, although I think these behaviors ought to be illegal, I’m not saying that bankers have necessarily done anything wrong.

Brokerages, in this whole mess, presumably weren’t trying to break the law. Each brokerage may have thought they had real shares in hand when they lent them.

But they didn’t.

#

As it happens, we could easily prevent situations like this from arising again.

I have a rather dour view of Bitcoins – they’ve not as anonymous as people think, and the system is incredibly wasteful, creating more greenhouse gases by design than other forms of currency – but blockchain technology would make the stock market less awful.

A blockchain is like a bunch of stickers plastered to the side of a suitcase – it’s an ordered list of where something has been. You could use blockchains to prevent food-borne illness – for each tomato used for ketchup, you could track its journey from fields to processing plants to restaurants. A blockchain is simply a long list of prior addresses.

With shares of stock, you could track whether that share has previously been lent to a short seller, preventing a single share to be lent twice – which is how brokerages inadvertently counterfeit shares – before the first contract has been resolved.

#

The problem, of course, is that people who are currently wealthy benefit from being allowed to create money.

It’s convenient to own a money printer – you get to buy what you want and donate to charities and feel good about yourself.

And it’ll take a bit of work – not much work, as I described above – to shut the money printers down. Still, any effort at all is hard to muster when the people who currently have power would like to keep things as they are.

On currency

On currency

The value of money is a useful fiction.

As with most fictions, the story that we tell about money helps some people more than others. 

Money, in and of itself, is useless.  Gold, cowry shells, slips of paper with pictures of dead presidents.  The story makes us want these things.  We tell ourselves that these items can “hold value.”  Instead of lumbering about with all the goods we want to barter, we can carry a small purse of coins.  As long as everyone believes the same fiction, we can trade our apples for some coins, then later use those coins to pay someone to help us dig a well.

The story that money has value is most helpful for the people who already have money.

If everyone suddenly woke up from the story, and decided that coins were worthless, the people who grow apples would be okay.  In some ways, it’s less practical to pay people with apples – coins don’t bruise or rot – but it can be done.  Similarly, the people who dig wells would be okay. 

But the people who owned coins would be worse off – previously, the things they owned could be traded for other, inherently useful goods.  And people who had made loans would be much worse off – they would have given away money at a time when it could be used to buy things, and when they receive the coins back, they’ll be worthless.  No recompense for past sacrifice – only loss.

So people with current wealth benefit most from the fiction that money has value.

This is, as far as I can tell, the only real virtue of Bitcoins.  This form of currency is not anonymous – indeed, it works through the use of “blockchains,” a permanent ledger that records everyone who has ever owned a particular piece of money.  Bitcoins are a little like dollar bills where you have to sign your name on it in order to spend it.  And they’re excruciatingly bad for the environment – it takes energy to mint a real-world, metal coin, but nothing like the amount of energy that’s constantly wasted in order to verify the ledgers of who owns which Bitcoin.  Ownership is determined by vote, and the system was designed to be intentionally inefficient so that it’s difficult for one person to overwhelm the system and claim ownership of everybody’s coins.  And it’s unstable – it’s difficult for someone to outvote the system and take control, but not impossible.

Those all seem like bad features.  But Bitcoins are now incredibly valuable – in the years since I explained all these flaws to a high school runner who’d begun investing in Bitcoins, his $500 investment has burgeoned to be worth $24,000.

The only “good” feature of Bitcoins is that the system is designed to reward past wealth.  The total money supply approaches an asymptote – new Bitcoins are added to the system more slowly over time.  If the currency is successful, this will impose a deflationary pressure on prices.  Today, a certain amount of heroin might cost 0.1 Bitcoin – in the future, that same amount of heroin might cost 0.01 Bitcoin.

This deflationary pressure would cause the value of current holdings to increase.  By simply buying Bitcoins and hoarding them, you’d gain wealth! 

But this only works for as long as people keep believing the fiction that Bitcoins have value.  And the more people who buy and hold Bitcoins, as opposed to actively using them as currency, the less believable the story will be.  Anyone who “invests” in Bitcoins is wagering that other people will behave in a way that maintains the fiction, even though the person who is making the wager is actively undermining the story.

When we immerse ourselves in stories, we often need to temporarily suspend our disbelieve, but that particular set of mental gymnastics is too twisty for my mind.

Modern money barely exists.  Before, we spun stories about the value of coins – now, the fiction lends value to certain strings of numbers.  In addition to the Federal Reserve, any bank can create money by making a loan and claiming that a certain amount of currency has been added to one account or another.

This has allowed our fictions to become more intricate.  In 2008, the banking crisis threatened to make wealthy people much less wealthy – they had purchased certain financial assets that seemed valuable, and then these assets turned out to be worthless. 

It’s as though there was a certain new Magic card that everyone assumed was great, and a few rich kids bought all the copies of it, but then people finally read the card and realized it was terrible.  Now these rich kids are holding hundreds of copies of a worthless piece of cardboard.

This would be sad for those rich kids.  But, lo and behold, it was fixable!  If everyone can be forced to believe, again, that the item has value, then it will.  The story needs to be chanted more loudly.  If I paid $50 for this card last week, then it’s still worth at least $50!

That’s what “quantitative easing” was – governments around the world agreed to buy worthless items in order to convince everyone that these items had value.  This way, the wealthy people who had initially bought them wouldn’t have to suffer.

In the years since I’ve been teaching in our local county jail, I’ve struggled to comprehend the disparities between the way we treat poor people and wealthy people who made mistakes.

For instance, stock traders stole $60 billion from state governments across Europe – the trick was to have two people both temporarily own the stock around tax time, then they lie to the government and claim that they both had to pay taxes on it.  Only one set of taxes were actually paid, but they lie and claim two rebates.  Money from nothing!

From David Segal’s New York Times article:

A lawyer who worked at the firm Dr. Berger founded in 2010, and who under German law can’t be identified by the news media, described for the Bonn court a memorable meeting at the office.

Sensitive types, Dr. Berger told his underlings that day, should find other jobs.

“Whoever has a problem with the fact that because of our work there are fewer kindergartens being built,” Dr. Berger reportedly said, “here’s the door.”

They stole billions of dollars, and the question at stake isn’t whether they will be punished, but whether they can be forced to return any of the money. 

By way of contrast, many of the guys in jail are there for stealing $10 or so.  A guy did five months for attempting to use my HSA card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes.  Another violated probation when he stole a lemonade – “In my defense,” he told me, “I didn’t even mean to steal it, I was just really fucking high at the time.

Two weeks ago, a dentist visited the jail during my class.  I go in from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 – at about 4:15, a guard came to the door and barked somebody’s name.

“Med call?” somebody asked.

“Shakedown?” asked another.

The guard looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, then said “Dentist.”  And suddenly six guys started clamoring, “You got time for extras?  I gotta get on that list!” 

The man whose name had been called jumped out of his chair and sauntered to the door.

After he’d left, the guys explained the system.  “You can get dental, like real dental, but you have to put your name on the list and they only come like every five, six months.  So there’s no hope unless you’re gonna be here for a while.  And it’s kinda expensive, you pay like fifty for the visit and another ten for each tooth they pull.”

Apparently that’s the only service – pulling teeth.

“They do good work,” said the older man next to me, “I got these bottom two done here.”  And he tilted his head back and opened his mouth.  But I grew up wealthy – it’s hard for me to assess quality by eyeballing the blank gap between somebody’s teeth.

About twenty minutes later, the guy came back.

“Which ones you have them do?” somebody asked him.

“I had ‘em get these bottom three,” he said, although his voice was slurry because they’d loaded his mouth with novacaine.

“You idiot!  You didn’t have them get the top one?”

“No, man, that’s my smile!  Gonna find a way to save that tooth.”

“Man, see, how come I couldn’t be on that list?  I would’ve had ‘em pull a whole bunch of ‘em out.  Wouldn’t give ‘em no that’s my smile bullshit.”

As it happens, I’d gone in for a cleaning at my dentist just the day before.  And I’ve had braces.  Invisalign.  I suddenly felt rather self-conscious about my own perfectly clean, perfectly straight, perfectly intact teeth.

“So who was it, that lady doctor?”

“Naw, was the Black guy.”

“What?  Fuck’s it matter that he’s Black?”

“Nobody said it matters, it’s just, there’s three dentists, there’s the lady doctor, the Black guy, and then that other guy.  There’s just three, is all.”

“Oh.”

Our man was out eighty dollars after the visit.  Could’ve spent ninety, but he was holding out hope for that last one.  And they didn’t let him keep the teeth. 

I’m not sure the tooth fairy ever visits the county jail, anyway.

On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.

#

Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

Featured image: artwork by Tao Lin on Flickr.

trip

I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip.  I read ten pages before a business card fell out.  I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later.  The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc.  I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.

In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them.  For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine).  At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.

That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all.  First, formulate a predictive model about how something works.  Then, perturb your system.  If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong.  If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model.  Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).

In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show.  Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?

Maybe you’d learn something from that.  But, honestly, 0.5 mgs per kg of psilocybin is a more powerful perturbation.

(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin.  He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose.  The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse.  He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there.  Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)

As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans.  He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away.  But he was wrong.  He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.

He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share.  And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs.  He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.

good dayLin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs.  If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).

And those business cards?  They made convenient bookmarks.  Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.

This seemed like a great advertising strategy.  Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.

I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.

Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter.  I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.

When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring  at the camera from atop a camper’s bed.  MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.

And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.

P8011600.JPG

But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …

P8011599.JPG

… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.

The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone.  When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old.  She soon became pregnant.  As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs.  I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not.  Some are quite frequently not sober.

During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to.  His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “

Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.

Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore.  The murder occurred in August of 2012.  Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.

I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation.  That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father.  That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.

I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.