On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

On re-watching The Matrix, twenty years later.

The Matrix is an incredible film.  The cinematography is gorgeous. The major themes – mind control, the nature of free will, and what it means to reject the system – are no less relevant today than when the Wachowski sisters first made their masterpiece.

The Matrix also features many, many guns.

Graffiti in a tunnel in London. Photograph by Duncan C. on Flickr.

I recently read many of Grant Morrison’s comics.  After The Invisibles, which was rumored to have a major impact on the visual style of The Matrix, I felt inspired to re-watch the film. 

For the most part, I still loved it.  But the action scenes were, for me, a person whose spouse is a school teacher, viscerally unpleasant.

On my spouse’s second day of student teaching in northern California, a child arrived at her school with an assortment of lethal weapons that included a chain saw and several pipe bombs.  The child was tackled; the bombs did not explode; nobody died.  Media coverage was minimal, even in the local news.

On multiple occasions, classes at her schools have been canceled due to credible threats of violence.  A few years ago, a student lingered after the bell, wanting to talk.  “I have a friend who I’m a little worried about …”  Later, after this kid had unspooled more details to a guidance counselor, police officers came.  The troubled student was sent away for treatment.  Once again, nobody died.  Media coverage was, to the best of my knowledge, nonexistent, even in the local paper.

Crisis averted, right?  No need to alarm everyone with a write-up, a terrifying enumeration of the arsenal retrieved from a student’s locker.  Although, in a town this small (population: one hundred thousand), plenty of people heard rumors through the whisper network.

Students today are growing up with far more stress than I experienced.  Among top students, more emphasis is placed on applying for college, and the process of getting accepted to the “best” schools is more arduous.  There are more AP classes, more clubs to join, more service projects to undertake, plus the pressure of having some uniquely-honed skill that marks the possessor as somehow deserving of a spot at schools like Harvard, Stanford, or Yale.

That’s rough. 

Only a subset of students are subject to those particular torments, though.

But also, simply existing has grown more stressful for kids.  For every single student inside the building.

Growing up in a house where the parents are seething with rage, slowly and arduously divorcing, is pretty hard on children.  That is now a burden that all students have to bear.  The political atmosphere of the United States is like a nation-wide divorce, with the two dominant political parties unwilling to agree on common norms, or even facts. 

When individual people argue, they often cloister their perceptions inside bubbles of internally-consistent narration.  It’s quite common for each parent to sincerely believe that the other is doing less than a fair share of the housework.  There obviously is an objective truth, and you could probably figure out what it is – by installing security cameras throughout their home, a couple could calculate exactly how many chores were being done by each person.  But in the moment, they just shout.  “Well, I unloaded the dishwasher five times this week, and I was cooking dinner!”

I have a pretty extreme political bias – I’m against regulating behaviors that don’t seem to hurt anyone else (which adult(s) a person marries, what drugs a person consumes), and I’m in favor of regulating behaviors that endanger a person’s neighbors (dumping pollutants, possessing weaponry).  But I also talk to a lot of different folks, and I live in the Midwest.  It’s pretty easy to see why a person with different religious beliefs than mine would find my political stance immoral, if not downright nonsensical.

The Republican Party – which by and large espouses political beliefs that I disagree with vehemently – is correct that the United States was originally founded as a Christian nation.  The underlying philosophy of our constitution draws upon the Bible.  And the Bible does not promote gendered or racial equality.  In the Old Testament, the Bible tells the story of a people who were chosen by God for greatness.  In the New Testament, the story is revised such that all people, by accepting Jesus as lord and savior, can join the elect; still, the New Testament draws a stark contrast between us and them.

From a Biblical point of view, it’s reasonable to subject outsiders to harm in order to improve the circumstances of your own people.  Indeed, it would be immoral to do otherwise. 

It’s like Alan Greenspan’s devotion to the concept of Pareto Optimality, in a way (“Pareto Optimality” is the idea that a distribution of goods and resources, no matter how unequal, is “optimal” if there is no way to improve anyone’s circumstances without making at least one other person worse off.  Even a situation in which one person owns the world and no one else has anything is Pareto Optimal, because you can’t help the masses without taking something from that singular world owner). 

Using an expensive jar of oil to anoint Jesus’s feet is fine: she was helping the elect.  It was be worse to sell that oil and use the money to aid non-Christians, because then your actions only reduce the well-being of God’s people.  (Within a New Testament worldview, the possibility for future conversion complicates things somewhat, but if you knew that someone would never embrace the Lord, then you’d be wrong to help that person at the expense of your fellow Christians.)

And so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who vote for the Republican Party support policies that I abhor.  I wouldn’t want to be married to those people … but, by virtue of the social contract that we were born into, we are constitutionally bound together.  And we’re bickering.  Endlessly, maliciously, in ways that are damaging our children.

Worse, kids at school are subject to the constant fear that they’ll be murdered at their desks.  Horrific stories are routinely broadcast on the national news … and, as I’ve realized from my spouse’s teaching career, the stories we’ve all heard about are only a fraction of the terrifying incidents that students live in dread of.

Student protest at the White House to protest gun laws. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not the fault of The Matrix.  But this film sculpted the initial style for school shootings.  The Matrix was released on March 31st, 1999.  Twenty days later, on the day celebrated both by potheads (based on the police code for marijuana) and white nationalists (because it’s Hitler’s birthday), a pair of students murdered many classmates at Colombine High School.

In The Matrix, a character named Morpheus explains:

The Matrix is a system, Neo.  That system is our enemy.  But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see?  Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters.  The very minds of the people we are trying to save.  But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemies.

The murderers saw their classmates as enemies.

You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged.  And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Within the world of the film, this mutability is made explicit: any character who has not joined the heavily-armed heroes could blur and become an Agent.  The beautiful woman in red, an unhoused alcoholic man bundled in blankets – either might suddenly mutate into a threat. 

And so Neo kills.  He and Trinity acquire military-grade weaponry; they stroll into a government building and murder everyone inside.

Anyone willing to complacently work there is, after all, the enemy.

I teach poetry classes inside a jail.  Through Pages to Prisoners, I send free books to people throughout the country.  I think that the criminal justice system in the United States is pretty abhorrent.

But that doesn’t mean the people who work within that system as corrections officers are bad. They have families to feed.  And many are surely aware that if too few people worked as corrections officers, leading the facilities to be understaffed, the people incarcerated inside would be much less safe.

Experience lets me appreciate nuance.  I am an ethical vegan; good people choose to become butchers.  I don’t like our criminal justice system; good people work inside.

When I was a teenager, though, I felt moral certitude.  I didn’t like school.  And so, if you were the sort of drone who could sit contentedly at your desk, I didn’t like you.  And, yes, I too had notebooks where I’d written the sort of vitriolic short stories about leveling the place with a Golden-Eye-(the N64 game, not the movie)-style grenade launcher, an onscreen point counter tracking deaths.  Yes, my friends and I made short films with BB gun props full of senseless killings.

One of my old notebooks that I must have deemed sufficiently innocuous to save.

I remember one of the films we made as being pretty good.  But after Colombine, we destroyed the video tapes.  I threw my notebooks away.

And I was pissed to be called so often to the principal’s office.  I understand now why they were worried.  Moral certainty is dangerous; it lets you consider people who disagree as the enemy.

Twenty years later, my body stiffened and my heart sank when I watched The Matrix.  I loved that movie; I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again.

And, glory be, I am now blessed to live in a nation led by a president who feels nothing if not moral certainty.

On power and species.

On power and species.

At track practice, a pair of high school runners were arguing.  Knowing that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve their debate.

“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”

I stared at them blankly.  I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic.  Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful.  Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.

I failed to provide an answer, and the kids went back to arguing.  (“Superman could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash him!”) 

And I resolved to read a Superman book, to shore up this gap in my education.  Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?

I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman.  And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad.  He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes. 

Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.

Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton.  He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe.  Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.

Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren.  Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.

Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton.  We are smaller, slower, and weaker.  Our tools are less technologically advanced.  If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.

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I recently had the opportunity to read Luke Dittrich’s New York Times Magazine article on the Puerto Rican macaque colony that was traumatized by Hurricane Maria.  (I’ve written previously about Dittrich’s investigation into the history of “Patient H.M.” and unethical behavior among MIT memory researchers.)

This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years.  Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well.  The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.

With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD.  Or cure it.

Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research.  We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease.  Whoops.

An image attributed to the Primate Research Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and disseminated in 1992.

Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans.  For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages.  They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around.  But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past.  Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments.  Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.

“[Harlow] found that the females who had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.

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We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized.  By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD.  But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.

If a researcher interested in how trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied for many decades before the traumatizing event.  Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even their brains.”

We are to macaques as Superman is to us.  We are stronger, smarter, technologically superior.  We can fly into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.

In “St. Francis Visits the Research Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our planet.  St. Francis asks about her experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.

The capsule and couch used by one of America’s first spacefarers, a rhesus monkey named Able, is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum. Able and a companion squirrel monkey named Miss Baker were placed inside a Jupiter missile nose cone and launched on a test flight in May 1959.

We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes.  Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands.  We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from. 

Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center.  If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements.  According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.

We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.

On extraction.

On extraction.

The womb-suckers are trying to eat your children. Poke a soda straw into the future and sluuurp, away they go.  Hopes and dreams, metabolized today into so many dollar bills.

I spend a fair bit of time with drug dealers. Most are ethical people – they wanted to ingest drugs, and they knew some other people who wanted to ingest drugs, so they started selling.

But there’s an unethical way to push – some dealers focus on getting new users hooked.  That way they’ll have a steady income stream.  Most of the guys in my poetry class, if somebody talks about getting clean, congratulate and encourage the dude.  But some dealers would see rehab as a threat to their own livelihoods.

The future-eaters are like the second type of dealer.  They’re trying to kill babies – including babies who haven’t even been conceived yet – while proffering incredibly cynical rationalizations.


Yup, you’re right, kid.  Earth is beautiful. 
I’m sorry the grown-ups aren’t trying very hard to keep Earth beautiful.

Here’s the deal: regions of the Earth’s crust that lie beneath territories claimed by the United States contain rich deposits of hydrocarbons.  These could be dug up and combusted to power our factories, our automobiles, our giant arrays of computer servers that enable the internet.  The average person’s lifestyle in the U.S.gobbles energy, and deep below our lands is solar energy that photosynthesizing plants captured millions of years ago.

But we now know that there is only a limited amount of ancient stored sunlight beneath us.  The world’s oil reserves will eventually be depleted.  And so a smart investor, even if that investor believed that all the hydrocarbons beneath us should be combusted, bringing our planet closer to the hellhole that runaway climate change allowed Venus to become, would decide to wait.  Right now, the price of oil is low.  The total supply of oil is decreasing.  The population is rising.  If oil really is the best energy source, then the price will obviously rise. 


Venus was habitable once, but after atmospheric carbon dioxide levels got too high, climate change spiraled out of control.  I certainly wouldn’t want to live there now. Artist rendition from NASA.

I believe this relationship, lower supply = higher price, is taught within the first two lectures of any undergraduate economics course.

Since we’re rich enough to do it, we would make more money by buying oil now from those foolish countries who need cash right away and are currently selling their buried wealth, then extracting our own oil later when the total supply is lower and each barrel is worth more money.

The womb-suckers love money.  So why isn’t this their plan?

After all, we as a nation are wealthy enough to invest.  Throughout the ages, that’s what people blessed with current prosperity have done. By socking away money now – maybe by lending it to a neighbor and charging interest – you gain a constant source of income for the future.

The usual stereotype is that it’s foolish poor people who eat the future.  When you’re starving, you might eat seeds from the granary.  That’ll help you survive another winter, but next year the famine will hit even worse.  Methamphetamines let you trade away future health to do more today.  So do cigarettes.

The womb-suckers rarely pull drags of nicotine into their own bodies.  But they’ll happily light one for our planet.

The president of the U.S. wants to drill for oil beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The president of Brazil wants to cut down the Amazon rain forest for gold mines and hamburgers.

But there is a framework in which their urgency to eat the future is rational.  If people will notice what’s happening and stop them later, they need to get it done now. The window for personal gain is closing: slash and burn while you can.

And there is, of course, the comparison to an unethical drug dealer.  You have to keep selling even when the heat is closing in because otherwise your customers could get clean and then you can’t make money off your product anymore.

We’ve reached a point where many people have realized that the future is in peril –most people who get their news from any source other than the state-endorsed propaganda network – but, let’s face it, people are lazy.  I’m lazy too.  Even though I know that disposable diapers are wasteful to manufacture and then ship off to landfills, my family resorts to them during weeks when we’re too overwhelmed to wash another load of excrement-encrusted rags.

Similarly, everyone knows that a vegan diet is better for the planet. But most people still eat meat. The Republican party’s big-government subsidies make hamburgers cheap … and those burgers are already cooked, waiting at the drive through, chock full of delicious fat, salt, and MSG. Being vegan takes more effort.

But we’re well-meaning, most of us.  And lazy, well-meaning people just need a little nudge to start doing the right thing.

The womb-suckers are justifiably worried that a small hiccup in the rate of extraction now might be the final nudge necessary to get the world to change.  Switch to renewable energy.  Recycle and re-use more of what we’ve already dug from the ground.

The womb-suckers need to flood the market, get what money they can before the rest of us sober up.  It’s the best thing for a murderous hedonist to do; with enough money, they can soar the skies in gold-plated airplanes.  With enough money, even boorish, ugly men have a shot at having sex with pornographic film stars.

The future eaters see no contradiction, calling themselves “pro-life” while they frantically strive to make billions of unborn children die.

On violence and gratitude.

On violence and gratitude.

Although I consider myself a benevolent tyrant, some of my cells have turned against me.  Mutinous, they were swayed by the propaganda of a virus and started churning out capsids rather than helping me type this essay.  Which leaves me sitting at a YMCA snack room table snerking, goo leaking down my throat and out my nose.

Unconsciously, I take violent reprisal against the traitors.  I send my enforcers to put down the revolt – they cannibalize the still-living rebels, first gnawing the skin, then devouring the organs that come spilling out.  Then the defector dies.

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CD8+ T cell destruction of infected cells by Dananguyen on Wikimedia.

My cells are also expected to commit suicide whenever they cease to be useful for my grand designs.  Any time a revolutionary loses the resolve to commit suicide, my enforcers put it down.  Unless my internal surveillance state fails to notice in time – the other name for a cell that doesn’t want to commit suicide is “cancer,” and even the most robust immune system might be stymied by cancer when the traitor’s family grows too large.

Worse is when the rebels “metastasize,” like contemporary terrorists.  This word signifies that the family has sent sleeper agents to infiltrate the world at large, attempting to develop new pockets of resistance in other areas.  Even if my enforcers crush one cluster of rebellion, others could flourish unchecked.

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How metastasis occurs. Image by the National Cancer Institute on Wikimedia.

I know something that perhaps they don’t – if their rebellion succeeds, they will die.  A flourishing cancer sequesters so many resources that the rest of my body would soon prove too weak to seek food and water, causing every cell inside of me to die.

But perhaps they’ve learned my kingdom’s vile secret – rebel or not, they will die.  As with any hereditary monarchy, a select few of my cells are privileged above all others.  And it’s not the cells in my brain that rule.

Every “somatic cell” is doomed.  These cells compose my brain and body.  Each has slight variations from “my” genome – every round of cell division introduces random mutations, making every cell’s DNA slightly different from its neighbors’.

The basic idea behind Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene is that each of these cells “wants” for its genome to pass down through the ages.  Dawkins argued that familial altruism is rational because any sacrifice bolsters the chances for a very similar genome to propagate.  Similarly, each somatic cell is expected to sacrifice itself to boost the odds for a very similar genome carried by the gametes.

Only gametes – the heralded population of germ cells in our genitalia – can possibly see their lineage continue.  All others are like the commoners who (perhaps foolishly) chant their king or kingdom’s name as they rush into battle to die.  I expect them to show absolute fealty to me, their tyrant.  Apoptosis – uncomplaining suicide – was required of many before I was even born, like when cells forming the webbing between my fingers slit their own bellies in dramatic synchronized hara-kiri.

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Human gametes by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann on Flickr.

Any evolutionary biologist could explain that each such act of sacrifice was in a cell’s mathematical best interest.  But if I were a conscious somatic cell, would I submit so easily?  Or do I owe some sliver of respect to the traitors inside me?

The world is a violent place.  I’m an extremely liberal vegan environmentalist – yet it takes a lot of violence to keep me going.

From Suzana Herculano-Houzel’s The Human Advantage:

image (1)Animals that we are, we must face, every single day of our lives, the consequences of our most basic predicament: we don’t do photosynthesis.  For lack of the necessary genes, we don’t just absorb carbon from the air around us and fix it as new bodily matter with a little help from sunlight.  To survive, we animals have to eat other living organisms, whether animal, vegetable, or fungus, and transform their matter into ours.

And yet the violence doesn’t begin with animals.  Photosynthesis seems benign by comparison – all you’d need is light from the sun! – unless you watch a time-lapsed video of plant growth in any forest or jungle.

The sun casts off electromagnetic radiation without a care in the world, but the amount of useful light reaching any particular spot on earth is limited.  And plants will fight for it.  They race upwards, a sprint that we sometimes fail to notice only because they’ve adapted a timescale of days, years, and centuries rather than our seconds, hours, and years.  They reach over competitors’ heads, attempting to grab any extra smidgen of light … and starving those below.  Many vines physically strangle their foes.  Several trees excrete poison from their roots.  Why win fair if you don’t have to?  A banquet of warm sunlight awaits the tallest plant left standing.

And so why, in such a violent world, would it be worthwhile to be vegan?  After all, nothing wants to be eaten.  Sure, a plant wants for animals to eat its fruit – fruits and animals co-evolved in a system of gift exchange.  The plant freely offers fruit, with no way of guaranteeing recompense, in hope that the animal might plant its seeds in a useful location.

But actual pieces of fruit – the individual cells composing an apple – probably don’t want to be eaten, no more than cancers or my own virus-infected cells want to be put down for the greater good.

A kale plant doesn’t want for me to tear off its leaves and dice them for my morning ramen.

But by acknowledging how much sacrifice it takes to allow for us to be typing or reading or otherwise reaping the pleasures of existence, I think it’s easier to maintain awe.  A sense of gratitude toward all that we’ve been given.  Most humans appreciate things more when we think they cost more.

We should appreciate the chance to be alive.  It costs an absurd amount for us to be here.

But, in the modern world, it’s possible to have a wonderful, rampantly hedonistic life as a vegan.  Why make our existence cost more when we don’t have to?  A bottle of wine tastes better when we’re told that it’s $45-dollar and not $5-dollar wine, but it won’t taste any better if you tell somebody “It’s $45-dollar wine, but you’ll have to pay $90 for it.”

Personally, I’d think it tasted worse, each sip with the savor of squander.

On empathizing with machines.

On empathizing with machines.

When I turn on my computer, I don’t consider what my computer wants.  It seems relatively empty of desire.  I click on an icon to open a text document and begin to type: letters appear on the screen.

If anything, the computer seems completely servile.  It wants to be of service!  I type, and it rearranges little magnets to mirror my desires.

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When our family travels and turns on the GPS, though, we discuss the system’s wants more readily.

“It wants you to turn left here,” K says.

“Pfft,” I say.  “That road looks bland.”  I keep driving straight and the machine starts flashing make the next available u-turn until eventually it gives in and calculates a new route to accommodate my whim.

The GPS wants our car to travel along the fastest available route.  I want to look at pretty leaves and avoid those hilly median-less highways where death seems imminent at every crest.  Sometimes the machine’s desires and mine align, sometimes they do not.

The GPS is relatively powerless, though.  It can only accomplish its goals by persuading me to follow its advice.  If it says turn left and I feel wary, we go straight.

facebook-257829_640Other machines get their way more often.  For instance, the program that chooses what to display on people’s Facebook pages.  This program wants to make money.  To do this, it must choose which advertisers receive screen time, and to curate an audience that will look at those screens often.  It wants for the people looking at advertisements to enjoy their experience.

Luckily for this program, it receives a huge amount of feedback on how well it’s doing.  When it makes a mistake, it will realize promptly and correct itself.  For instance, it gathers data on how much time the target audience spends looking at the site.  It knows how often advertisements are clicked on by someone curious to learn more about whatever is being shilled.  It knows how often those clicks lead to sales for the companies giving it money (which will make those companies more eager to give it money in the future).

Of course, this program’s desire for money doesn’t always coincide with my desires.  I want to live in a country with a broadly informed citizenry.  I want people to engage with nuanced political and philosophical discourse.  I want people to spend less time staring at their telephones and more time engaging with the world around them.  I want people to spend less money.

But we, as a people, have given this program more power than a GPS.  If you look at Facebook, it controls what you see – and few people seem upset enough to stop looking at Facebook.

With enough power, does a machine become a moral actor?  The program choosing what to display on Facebook doesn’t seem to consider the ethics of its decisions … but should it?

From Burt Helm’s recent New York Times Magazine article, “How Facebook’s Oracular Algorithm Determines the Fates of Start-Ups”:

Bad human actors don’t pose the only problem; a machine-learning algorithm, left unchecked, can misbehave and compound inequality on its own, no help from humans needed.  The same mechanism that decides that 30-something women who like yoga disproportionately buy Lululemon tights – and shows them ads for more yoga wear – would also show more junk-food ads to impoverished populations rife with diabetes and obesity.

If a machine designed to want money becomes sufficiently powerful, it will do things that we humans find unpleasant.  (This isn’t solely a problem with machines – consider the ethical decisions of the Koch brothers, for instance – but contemporary machines tend to be much more single-minded than any human.)

I would argue that even if a programmer tried to include ethical precepts into a machine’s goals, problems would arise.  If a sufficiently powerful machine had the mandate “end human suffering,” for instance, it might decide to simultaneously snuff all Homo sapiens from the planet.

Which is a problem that game designer Frank Lantz wanted to help us understand.

One virtue of video games over other art forms is how well games can create empathy.  It’s easy to read about Guantanamo prison guards torturing inmates and think, I would never do that.  The game Grand Theft Auto 5 does something more subtle.  It asks players – after they have sunk a significant time investment into the game – to torture.  You, the player, become like a prison guard, having put years of your life toward a career.  You’re asked to do something immoral.  Will you do it?

grand theft auto

Most players do.  Put into that position, we lapse.

In Frank Lantz’s game, Paperclips, players are helped to empathize with a machine.  Just like the program choosing what to display on people’s Facebook pages, players are given several controls to tweak in order to maximize a resource.  That program wanted money; you, in the game, want paperclips.  Click a button to cut some wire and, voila, you’ve made one!

But what if there were more?

Paperclip-01_(xndr)

A machine designed to make as many paperclips as possible (for which it needs money, which it gets by selling paperclips) would want more.  While playing the game (surprisingly compelling given that it’s a text-only window filled with flickering numbers), we become that machine.  And we slip into folly.  Oops.  Goodbye, Earth.

There are dangers inherent in giving too much power to anyone or anything with such clearly articulated wants.  A machine might destroy us.  But: we would probably do it, too.

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

On ethics and Luke Dittrich’s “Patient H.M.”

The scientific method is the best way to investigate the world.

Do you want to know how something works?  Start by making a guess, consider the implications of your guess, and then take action.  Muck something up and see if it responds the way you expect it to.  If not, make a new guess and repeat the whole process.

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Image by Derek K. Miller on Flickr.

This is slow and arduous, however.  If your goal is not to understand the world, but rather to convince other people that you do, the scientific method is a bad bet.  Instead you should muck something up, see how it responds, and then make your guess.  When you know the outcome in advance, you can appear to be much more clever.

A large proportion of biomedical science publications are inaccurate because researchers follow the second strategy.  Given our incentives, this is reasonable.  Yes, it’s nice to be right.  It’d be cool to understand all the nuances of how cells work, for instance.  But it’s more urgent to build a career.

Both labs I worked in at Stanford cheerfully published bad science.  Unfortunately, it would be nearly impossible for an outsider to notice the flaws because primary data aren’t published.

A colleague of mine obtained data by varying several parameters simultaneously, but then graphed his findings against only one of these.  As it happens, his observations were caused by the variable he left out of his charts.  Whoops!

(Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel quickly responded that my colleague’s conclusions probably weren’t correct.  Unfortunately, Warshel’s argument was based on unrealistic simulations – in his model, a key molecule spins in unnatural ways.  This next sentence is pretty wonky, so feel free to skip it, but … to show the error in my colleague’s paper, Warshel should have modeled multiple molecules entering the enzyme active site, not molecules entering backward.  Whoops!)

Another colleague of mine published his findings about unusual behavior from a human protein.  But then his collaborator realized that they’d accidentally purified and studied a similarly-sized bacterial protein, and were attempting to map its location in cells with an antibody that didn’t work.  Whoops!

No apologies or corrections were ever given.  They rarely are, especially not from researchers at our nation’s fanciest universities.  When somebody with impressive credentials claims a thing is true, people often feel ready to believe.

antibodies.JPGIndeed, for my own thesis work, we wanted to test whether two proteins are in the same place inside cells.  You can do this by staining with light-up antibodies for each.  If one antibody is green and the other is red, you’ll know how often the proteins are in the same place based on how much yellow light you see.

Before conducting the experiment, I wrote a computer program that would assess the data.  My program could identify various cellular structures and check the fraction that were each color.

As it happened, I didn’t get the results we wanted.  My data suggested that our guess was wrong.

But we couldn’t publish that.  And so my advisor told me to count again, by hand, claiming that I should be counting things of a different size.  And then she continued to revise her instructions until we could plausibly claim that we’d seen what we expected.  We made a graph and published the paper.

This is crummy.  It’s falsehood with the veneer of truth.  But it’s also tragically routine.

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41B1pZkOwmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Luke Dittrich intertwines two horror stories about scientific ethics in Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.

One of these nightmares is driven by the perverse incentives facing early neurosurgeons.  Perhaps you noticed, above, that an essential step of the scientific method involves mucking things up.  You can’t tell whether your guesses are correct until you perform an experiment.  Dittrich provides a lovely summary of this idea:

The broken illuminate the unbroken.

An underdeveloped dwarf with misfiring adrenal glands might shine a light on the functional purpose of these glands.  An impulsive man with rod-obliterated frontal lobes [Phineas Gage] might provide clues to what intact frontal lobes do.

This history of modern brain science has been particularly reliant on broken brains, and almost every significant step forward in our understanding of cerebral localization – that is, discovering what functions rely on which parts of the brain – has relied on breakthroughs provided by the study of individuals who lacked some portion of their gray matter.

. . .

While the therapeutic value of the lobotomy remained murky, its scientific potential was clear: Human beings were no longer off-limits as test subjects in brain-lesioning experiments.  This was a fundamental shift.  Broken men like Phineas Gage and Monsieur Tan may have always illuminated the unbroken, but in the past they had always become broken by accident.  No longer.  By the middle of the twentieth century, the breaking of human brains was intentional, premeditated, clinical.

Dittrich was dismayed to learn that his own grandfather had participated in this sort of research, intentionally wrecking at least one human brain in order to study the effects of his meddling.

Lacking a specific target in a specific hemisphere of Henry’s medial temporal lobes, my grandfather had decided to destroy both.

This decision was the riskiest possible one for Henry.  Whatever the functions of the medial temporal lobe structures were – and, again, nobody at the time had any idea what they were – my grandfather would be eliminating them.  The risks to Henry were as inarguable as they were unimaginable.

The risks to my grandfather, on the other hand, were not.

At that moment, the riskiest possible option for his patient was the one with the most potential rewards for him.

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By destroying part of a brain, Dittrich’s grandfather could create a valuable research subject.  Yes, there was a chance of curing the patient – Henry agreed to surgery because he was suffering from epileptic seizures.  But Henry didn’t understand what the proposed “cure” would be.  This cure was very likely to be devastating.

At other times, devastation was the intent.  During an interview with one of his grandfather’s former colleagues, Dittrich is told that his grandmother was strapped to the operating table as well.

It was a different era,” he said.  “And he did what at the time he thought was okay: He lobotomized his wife.  And she became much more tractable.  And so he succeeded in getting what he wanted: a tractable wife.”

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Compared to slicing up a brain so that its bearer might better conform to our society’s misogynistic expectations of female behavior, a bit of scientific fraud probably doesn’t sound so bad.  Which is a shame.  I love science.  I’ve written previously about the manifold virtues of the scientific method.  And we need truth to save the world.

Which is precisely why those who purport to search for truth need to live clean.  In the cut-throat world of modern academia, they often don’t.

Dittrich investigated the rest of Henry’s life: after part of his brain was destroyed, Henry became a famous study subject.  He unwittingly enabled the career of a striving scientist, Suzanne Corkin.

Dittrich writes that

Unlike Teuber’s patients, most of the research subjects Corkin had worked with were not “accidents of nature” [a bullet to the brain, for instance] but instead the willful products of surgery, and one of them, Patient H.M., was already clearly among the most important lesion patients in history.  There was a word that scientists had begun using to describe him.  They called him pure.  The purity in question didn’t have anything to do with morals or hygiene.  It was entirely anatomical.  My grandfather’s resection had produced a living, breathing test subject whose lesioned brain provided an opportunity to probe the neurological underpinnings of memory in unprecedented ways.  The unlikelihood that a patient like Henry could ever have come to be without an act of surgery was important.

. . .

By hiring Corkin, Teuber was acquiring not only a first-rate scientist practiced in his beloved lesion method but also by extension the world’s premier lesion patient.

. . .

According to [Howard] Eichenbaum, [a colleague at MIT,] Corkin’s fierceness as a gatekeeper was understandable.  After all, he said, “her career is based on having that exclusive access.”

Because Corkin had (coercively) gained exclusive access to this patient, most of her claims about the workings of memory would be difficult to contradict.  No one could conduct the experiments needed to rebut her.

Which makes me very skeptical of her claims.

Like most scientists, Corkin stumbled across occasional data that seemed to contradict the models she’d built her career around.  And so she reacted in the same was as the professors I’ve worked with: she hid the data.

Dittrich: Right.  And what’s going to happen to the files themselves?

She paused for several seconds.

Corkin: Shredded

Dittrich: Shredded?  Why would they be shredded?

Corkin: Nobody’s gonna look at them.

Dittrich: Really?  I can’t imagine shredding the files of the most important research subject in history.  Why would you do that?

. . .

Corkin: Well, the things that aren’t published are, you know, experiments that just didn’t … [another long pause] go right.

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On CRISPR and the future of humanity.

On CRISPR and the future of humanity.

I think most laypeople understand that academic scientists, in order to keep their jobs, have to publish new findings.  I assume most people also intuitively understand that not all venues for publication are equal.  Not to malign my hometown newspaper, but it’s less impressive to write an editorial for Bloomington’s Herald Times than the New York Times.

In the research world, journals are ranked by “impact factor.”  At the top of the heap are journals like Cell, Nature, and Science; these have “impact factors” in the 30s.  The Journal of Cell Biology, where I published my thesis work, has an impact factor around 10.

And the Journal of Assisted Reproduction & Genetics?  Its impact factor is slightly below 2.  My local university’s medical library doesn’t even subscribe.

So I was puzzled: why did the research paper with one of the flashiest single-sentence summaries land in J Assist Reprod Genet?

 

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Research journals: tiny nudges to the frontier of human knowledge, & a whole lotta people who got to keep their jobs.

Here’s the summary, in case you missed it: a new genome editing technique was used to insert an HIV-resistance gene into human IVF embryos.

To my mind, that’s a pretty big deal.  It’s not that genetically-modified organisms are anything new.  The big difference is that the technique this group used, CRISPR, makes the whole process incredibly fast, precise, and cheap.  The difference is that sculpting the genome of a human embryo will be easy soon.

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A charming schematic of CRISPR from Wikipedia. To use CRISPR for a new gene modification, only the short blue / orange targeting strand in the schematic above needs to be synthesized. Eazy-peezy, right?

At the moment, nobody understands the human genome well enough to propose the sort of editing that shows up routinely in science fiction movies — probably the best way to convince you quickly, without getting into too much detail, is to slap up the title of a recent paper: “Most reported genetic associations with general intelligence are probably false.”  We know that many aspects of human physiology and personality are partially controlled by genetics, but we haven’t yet decoded which genes in which combination give any particular effect.

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Not all differences are detriments.  Clever image by sircle on Deviantart.

I don’t think we even understand fully the trade-offs inherent in human personality.  We’ve recently begun to understand that many traits designated “mental illnesses” exist on a spectrum and that the challenges are inextricably linked to good qualities — creativity and schizophrenia, puzzle solving and autism, awareness and ADHD.  It’s unlikely that any recipe for a “perfect” human brain exists.

Still, there are traits that parents prefer.  Male height.  Facial symmetry.  Disease resistance.  We’ll soon know which genes modulate these.

Which was why, I assume, Xiangjin Kang et al. wrote their paper, “Introducing precise genetic modifications into human embryos by CRISPR/Cas-mediated genome editing.”  They may have felt a moral imperative to draw attention to these issues.

As far as I can tell, this is also the explanation for why their super-flashy experiment landed in a low impact factor journal.  It’s not a typical research paper.  They wrote an opinion piece about scientific ethics with a somewhat-unsuccessful experiment grafted on in order to get the thing published.

I don’t mean that as criticism.  I think they’ve done the right thing.  If anything, the problem is with scientific publishing; I assume their paper was rejected by a higher impact factor journal.  This paper, with its focus on ethics, is not what fancy journals typically publish.

For instance, the reason why their experiment was somewhat unsuccessful?  Kang et al. were using CRISPR to introduce HIV resistance into a human embryo.  But, because they think that using CRISPR on human embryos is unethical, they specifically chose polyploid embryos — these are non-viable cells produced when two sperm fuse with a single egg.  They have too much DNA and can’t possibly become people.

Because CRISPR uses a DNA-reading guide strand to direct a DNA-modifying enzyme to a particular location, and because the experiment would be “successful” only if all copies of a gene were modified, using a polyploid embryo with more copies of each gene increases the chance of “failure.”  In basketball, making three free throws in a row is obviously more difficult than making two in a row.  That’s what they were trying to do.

Which is why, even though the typical way to read a research paper is to look at the pictures, then read the captions, then maybe read the results section — to wit, ignoring the bulk of the text — the most important part of Kang et al.’s paper is the discussion section.  From their paper:

Because human in vitro fertilization methods are well established and site-specific nuclease technologies are readily available, it is foreseeable that a genetically modified human could be generated.  We believe that any attempt to generate genetically modified humans through the modification of early embryos needs to be strictly prohibited until we can resolve both ethical and scientific issues.

That’s a sentiment a lot of people probably agree with.  But I think it carries more weight in a paper that demonstrates just how easy this process is.

And, sure, they did not sequence the full genomes of their modified embryos.  One risk with CRISPR genome editing is that you’ll have “off target effects” — you might change more of the genome than you were intending.  But there are plenty of very smart people working to make the technology more precise.  Within five years, I’d guess, you’ll be able to change single target genes reliably.

Gattaca chillingly illustrates the dystopia of unregulated genetic manipulation, but even that film understates what we’ll soon be capable of.  The premise of Gattaca is that, by sequencing IVF embryos, parents can choose what sort of child they want.  From hundreds of options, parents pick one.

Scary, sure.  But not this scary.  CRISPR could let parents sculpt the child they want.

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Not that you’d want this, but it wouldn’t be that hard to make your kid glow in the dark.  Maybe you’d want your progeny to be eight-feet tall and brilliant, too.  You could do it.  But, should you?