On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

On a guaranteed basic income.

On a guaranteed basic income.

For several months, a friend and I have volleyed emails about a sprawling essay on consciousness, free will, and literature.

Brain_powerThe essay will explore the idea that humans feel we have free will because our conscious mind grafts narrative explanations (“I did this because…”) onto our actions. It seems quite clear that our conscious minds do not originate all the choices that we then take credit for. With an electroencephalogram, you could predict when someone is about to raise an arm, for instance, before the person has even consciously decided to do so.

Which is still free will, of course. If we are choosing an action, it hardly matters whether our conscious or subconscious mind makes the choice. But then again, we might not be “free.” If an outside observer were able to scan a person’s brain to sufficient detail, all of that person’s future choices could probably be predicted (as long as our poor study subject is imprisoned in an isolation chamber). Our brains dictate our thoughts and choices, but these brains are composed of salts and such that follow the same laws of physics as all other matter.

That’s okay. It is almost certainly impossible that any outside observer could (non-destructively) scan a brain to sufficient detail. If quantum mechanical detail is implicated in the workings of our brains, it is definitely impossible: quantum mechanical information can’t be duplicated. Wikipedia has a proof of this “no cloning theorem” involving lots of bras and kets, but this is probably unreadable for anyone who hasn’t done much matrix math. An easier way to reason through it might be this: if you agree with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, the idea that certain pairs of variables cannot be simultaneously measured to arbitrary precision, the no cloning theorem has to be true. Otherwise you could simply make many copies of a system and measure one variable precisely for each copy.

So, no one will ever be able to prove to me that I am not free. But let’s just postulate, for a moment, that the laws of physics that, so far, have correctly described the behavior of all matter outside my brain also correctly describe the movement of matter inside my brain. In which case, those inviolable laws of physics are dictating my actions as I type this essay. And yet, I feel free. Each word I type feels like a choice. My brain is constantly concocting a story that explains why I am choosing each word.

Does the same neural circuitry that deludes me into feeling free – that has evolved, it seems, to constantly sculpt narratives that make sense of our actions, the same way our dreams often burgeon to include details like a too hot room or a ringing telephone – also give me the ability to write fiction?

In other words, did free will spawn The Iliad?

iliad.JPG

The essay is obviously rather speculative. I’m incorporating relevant findings from neuroscience, but, as I’ve mentioned, it’s quite likely that no feasible experiments could ever test some of these ideas.

The essay is also unfinished. No laws of physics forbid me from finishing it. I’m just slow because K & I have two young kids. At the end of each day, once our 2.5 year old and our 3 month old are finally asleep, we exhaustedly glance at each other and murmur, “Where did the time go?”

tradersBut I am very fortunate to have a collaborator always ready to nudge me back into action. My friend recently sent me an article by Tim Christiaens on the philosophy of financial markets. He sent it because the author argues – correctly, in my opinion – that for many stock market actions it’s sensible to consider the Homo sapiens trader + the nearby multi-monitor computer as a single decision-making entity. Tool-wielding is known to change our brains – even something as simple as a pointing stick alters our self-perception of our reach. And the algorithms churned through by stock traders’ computers are incredibly complex. There’s not a good way for the human to check a computer’s results; the numbers it spits out have to be trusted. So it seems reasonable to consider the two together as a single super-entity that collaborates in choosing when to buy or sell. If something in the room has free will, it would be the tools & trader together.

Which isn’t as weird as it might initially sound. After all, each Homo sapiens shell is already a multi-species super-entity. As I type this essay, the choice of which word to write next is made inside my brain, then signals are sent through my nervous system to my hands and fingers commanding them to tap the appropriate keys. The choice is influenced by all the hormones and signaling molecules inside my brain. It so happens that bacteria and other organisms living in my body excrete signaling molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier and influence my choice.

The milieu of intestinal bacteria living inside each of us gets to vote on our moods and actions. People with depression seem to harbor noticeably different sets of bacteria than people without. And it seems quite possible that parasites like Toxoplasma gondii can have major influences on our personalities.

CaptureIndeed, in his article on stock markets, Christiaens mentions the influence of small molecules on financial behavior, reporting that “some researchers study the trader’s body through the prism of testosterone levels as an indicator of performance. It turns out that traders who regularly visit prostitutes consequently have higher testosterone levels and outperform other traders.”

Now, I could harp on the fact that we designed these markets. That they could have been designed in many different ways. And that it seems pretty rotten to have designed a system in which higher testosterone (and the attendant impulsiveness and risky decision-making) would correlate with success. Indeed, a better, more equitable market design would probably quell the performance boost of testosterone.

I could rant about all that. But I won’t. Instead I’ll simply mention that Toxoplasma seems to boost testosterone. Instead of popping into brothels after work, traders could snack on cat shit.

cat-1014209_1280.jpg

On the topic of market design, Christiaens also includes a lovely description of the interplay between the structure of our economy and the ways that people are compelled to live:

The reason why financial markets are able to determine the viability of lifestyles is because most individuals and governments are indebted and therefore need a ‘creditworthy’ reputation. As the [U.S.] welfare state declined during the 1980s, access to credit was facilitated in order to sustain high consumption, avoid overproduction and stimulate economic growth. For Lazzarato [a referenced writer], debt is not an obligation emerging from a contract between free and equal individuals, but is from the start an unequal power relation where the creditor can assert his force over the debtor. As long as he is indebted, the latter’s rights are virtually suspended. For instance, a debtor’s property rights can be superseded when he fails to reimburse the creditor by evicting him from his home or selling his property at a public auction. State violence is called upon to force non-creditworthy individuals to comply. We [need] not even jump to these extreme cases of state enforcement to see that debt entails a disequilibrium of power. Even the peaceful house loan harbors a concentration of risk on the side of the debtor. When I take a $100,000 loan for a house that, during an economic crisis, loses its value, I still have to pay $100,000 plus interests to the bank. The risk of a housing crash is shifted to the debtor’s side of the bargain. During a financial crisis this risk concentration makes it possible for the creditors to demand a change of lifestyle from the debtor, without the former having to reform themselves.

Several of my prior essays have touched upon the benefits of a guaranteed basic income for all people, but I think this paragraph is a good lead-in for a reprise. As Christiaens implies, there is violence behind all loans – both the violence that led to initial ownership claims and the threat of state violence that compels repayment. Not that I’m against the threat of state violence to compel people to follow rules in general – without this threat we would have anarchy, in which case actual violence tends to predominate over the threat of incipient enforcement.

We all need wealth to live. After all, land holdings are wealth, and at the very least each human needs access to a place to collect fresh water, a place to grow food, a place to stand and sleep. But no one is born wealthy. A fortunate few people receive gifts of wealth soon after birth, but many people foolishly choose to be born to less well-off parents.

The need for wealth curtails the choices people can make. They need to maintain their “creditworthiness,” as in Christiaens’s passage, or their hire-ability. Wealth has to come from somewhere, and, starting from zero, we rely on others choosing to give it to us. Yes, often in recompense for labor, but just because you are willing and able to do a form of work does not mean that anyone will pay you for it.

Unless people are already wealthy enough to survive, they are at the mercy of others choosing to give them things. Employers are not forced to trade money for salaried working hours. And there isn’t wealth simply waiting around to be claimed. It all starts from something – I’d argue that all wealth stems originally from land holdings – but the world’s finite allotment of land was claimed long ago through violence.

A guaranteed basic income would serve to acknowledge the brutal baselessness of those initial land grabs. It is an imperfect solution, I know. It doesn’t make sense to me that everyone’s expenses should rise whenever a new child is born. But a world where people received a guaranteed basic income would be better than one without. The unluckily-born populace would be less compelled to enter into subjugating financial arrangements. We’d have less misery – feeling poor causes a lot of stress. We’d presumably have less crime and drug abuse, too, for similar reasons.

And, of course, less hypocrisy. It’s worth acknowledging that our good fortune comes from somewhere. No one among us created the world.

On computing and word magic.

On computing and word magic.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.
Art by Bryan Alexander Davis.

While reading Louisa Hall’s Speak, I was reminded of an essay on the connection between golems & computers that I’d intended to write.  Hall acknowledges George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral as providing inspiration for her project, and I’d also hoped to draw material from Dyson’s book for my essay.

I’d been convinced by William Poundstone’s review of Turing’s Cathedral that there would be a lot about words in it: “For the first time, numbers could mean numbers or instructions.  Data could be a noun or a verb.”

Unfortunately, Turing’s Cathedral did not match my expectations.  Not that it wasn’t good.  I simply had in mind a very specific thing that I wanted the book to say: something about words summoning forth the universe, maybe paralleling Max Tegmark’s idea (described in Our Mathematical Universe) that the underlying descriptive mathematics create the world.  His idea was, in effect, “we exist because numbers can describe us.”

Of course, Tegmark is a physicist, a math brain, so it makes sense that he’d propose that numbers would create reality.  Hall, the author of Speak, has a Ph.D. in English, and so, in her book, words do it.

Ales_golemIndeed, within the context of novels, words do create reality.  Her characters exist because her descriptive language make them so.  For some twelve thousand years at least, Homo sapiens have been spinning myths with language.  Creating worlds, and in the meantime reshaping our own.

I wanted to write about that generative power.  Several years ago I filled three pages of my notebook (my handwriting is very small, so this took me several days) with notes for an elaborate analogy between Turing machines and golems, linguistically-created life forms both. And I wanted so badly to cram it into my novel, but there was simply no way for it to fit it in without risking the adjective “sprawling,” which I don’t see as a positive characteristic in literature.

In brief, Turing machines are lent life because their data also serves as words.  Although the commands are written in a partial script (a numerical versus verbal language), each command can also be treated as a thing to be manipulated.  Golems are also given life by the power of a word.  Plus, the traditional golem myth prominently features the compelling power of the word death, which nicely mirrors the Ramayana — can you tell how badly I wanted all of this to fit in my book?  Math and words and robots and the Ramayana!

Art by Philippe Semeria.
Art by Philippe Semeria.

I suppose I have a bit of explaining to do.  Here’s a summary of the golem story: Clay man was built. Clay man was inscribed with the word truth (in Hebrew, “emet”) on his forehead. Clay man, computer-like, would follow instructions with no flexibility or human intuition. This led to problems, clay man had to be killed, a letter on his forehead was erased (leaving the Hebrew “met,” death or dead), clay man was a man no more.

And here’s a summary of the original invocation of the Ramayana, also featuring the word death: A brigand was robbing and killing to support his family.  One day he was about to kill some monks and one asked, “Your family shares the money you bring home, do they also share your guilt?”

Obviously, I think they should — prospering from evil should transitively mark you with that evil, which in my opinion is the wellspring of the argument that reparations should be paid even now, many years after the end of the most egregious abuses — but the brigand went home and asked his family their opinion and they said, “No.  You do the killing.  Your soul is tarnished.  We simply eat the food you bring.  We are still good.”

The brigand didn’t like the sound of that so he gave up killing (and abandoned his family) and became a traveling bard.  He was chosen by the gods to sing the most glorious epic myth, The Ramayana, but to summon this story from wherever myths live he needed to chant the hero’s name.  This chant would apparently infuse his mind with all the necessary details and plot twists and whatever.  His job was to say “Rama Rama Rama” until, bam!, he knew the story well enough to rattle it off in metered verse.

But he said he couldn’t.  He’d done all that killing and whatnot, remember?  So he told the gods, “It would be an honor, but, no, I am too impure to speak his name.”  Couldn’t chant Rama.  So the gods instructed him to chant “death death death” instead (in Sanskrit, “mara mara mara”), and the syllables bled into one another and, “mara mara ma ra ma ra ma rama rama rama,” he found himself chanting the name by accident and the story came to him.

To the best of my knowledge, computers cannot be manipulated this way.  As far as I know, trying to trick your computer with a palindromic pointer might cause the wrong area of memory to be modified, which could cause further instructions to be mistargeted, and the entire hard drive could be made fubar… but maybe it’s my ignorance that gives me this suspicion.  Maybe computer scientists know secret power words to summon forth the magic.