On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.


Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.


Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”


Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?


Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.


Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On nature.

On nature.

The modern world is a stressful place – some medical doctors advocate “therapeutic” nature walks.  Surround yourself with trees, wildlife, a babbling stream or waterfall, and your body will remember what it means to be alive.

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Image by Steven Depolo on Flickr.

For millions of years, our ancestors needed specific environments in order to survive.  Almost every animal species experiences instinctual urges toward healthful habitats – it would be surprising if our own minds didn’t have a residual response toward landscapes that provide what our forebears needed.  Running water, trees for shelter, grassy meadows to hunt, fecund animal life suggesting a thriving ecosystem.

But people who need to heal are cut off from these environs.

When somebody doesn’t fit in our world, they wind up in jail.  Maybe this person has trouble holding down a job and so forged checks, or counterfeited money, or robbed a store.  Maybe somebody is plagued by nightmares and takes methamphetamine to forgo sleep.  Or shoots opiates to stave off the pain of withdrawal.  Maybe somebody has so much tension and anger that he threw a television at his girlfriend.

These are people who’d probably benefit from a de-stressing stroll through the woods.

Instead, they’re surrounded by concrete, in a clanging, reverberating room with 25-foot-high ceilings, locked doors stacked atop each other, steel tables, boaters crowding the floor (with two tiers of 8 double-occupancy cells, the jail could hold 32 per block … but most have wobbled between 35 and 40 people all year, with the excess sleeping on plastic “boats” on the common area floor.  Things were worst in July, when they were so many inmates that the jail ran out of boats – then people slept on a blanket spread directly over the concrete), toilets overflowing with the excreta of many men shitting their way through withdrawal.

grow posterIn the classroom where I teach poetry, there’s a picture of a redwood forest.  It’s shot from the ground, the trunks soaring up to the canopy overhead, and at the bottom of the poster there’s the word “GROW” above a corny quote from Ronald Reagan.

Stephen “Greazy” Sapp wrote the following poem at the end of class one day; he’d spent almost the whole hour staring at the picture of those trees:

 

GROW

Greazy

 

I want to live to see things grow –

From the fury of a great storm, started from

A single drop –

To the ten foot tree from one tiny seed, one sheet

Of paper as from any other tree

Knocked down by a great storm –

The child who grew from a seed in the spouse

Of the man who held paper from the tree –

Maybe the seed buried in his mind could become

Greater in life than the tree that withstood

The storm, now given opportunity to transform

Into stories – of future, generations who dwell

In the single rain drop in

The forest of days to come –

 

Greazy told me that he loves plants.

(My inclination is to use people’s first names as a sign of respect, but he told me not to – “nobody calls me ‘Stephen’ unless they’re mad about something.  You know, like, my grandma, if she was pissed, I might hear her yell, like, Stephen!  Even the cops.  They pulled up one day, they were like, ‘Greazy, come here, we want to talk to you,’ I knew everything was fine.  They were like, ‘look, man, we know you’re selling pot … but stay up near 17th street or something.  We don’t want you downtown, selling it to college kids.’  But then, another day, they came down, spotted me, said ‘Stephen, get over here!’ I was like, ‘man, I know they’re gonna haul me in.’ ”)

Greazy was in the jail all through autumn, waiting on his trial, and he told me that one day he was sitting in his cell on the fourth floor, watching a leaf blowing around on the sidewalk down below, and he found himself thinking, “Man, I’d sign whatever, I’d take whatever plea they wanted, if they’d just let me out there, get to look up close at that little leaf.”

Another man told me that he felt so starved for the world that he started gardening inside the jail.  He didn’t want for me to include his name but graciously allowed me to share his story.  Here’s a poem I wrote:

 

OUR MAN GROWS AN ORANGE TREE

 

by sprouting seeds in a paper towel,

planting one in dust & dirt

he collected scraping his fingers along

each corner of the concrete walls,

& using an Irish Spring soap box as a shelf

to lift his sapling to the light.

 

Our man only wanted to

oxygenate his air

but soon the whole block shuffles by

checking on the tree each day.

They’re surprised that it survived,

but proud to see it grow

until the warden declares it contraband.

 

Young_orange_tree

On the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.

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And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

image-20160802-17177-6ogm1s

 

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

On ‘The Theft of Fire.’

Stories are powerful things.  A world in which workers are brought into a country as farmhands is very different from one in which barbaric kidnappers torture their victims to extract labor.  A world in which death panels ration healthcare is different from one in which taxpayers preferentially fund effective medical care.

You’ll feel better about your life if you sit down and list the good things that happened to you each day.  There’s only one reality, but countless ways to describe it.

Like most scientists, I love stories of discovery.  These stories also reflect our values – many years passed before Rosalind Franklin’s role in the determining the structure of DNA was acknowledged.  Frontal lobe lobotomy was considered so beneficial that it won the Nobel Prize – sane people didn’t have to tolerate as much wild behavior from others.  Of course, those others were being erased when we ablated their brains.

Even equations convey an ideological slant.  When a chemist writes about the combustion of gasoline, the energy change is negative.  The chemicals are losing energy.  When an engineer writes about the same reaction, the energy change is described as positive.  Who cares about the chemicals?  We humans are gaining energy.  When octane reacts with oxygen, our cars go vrrrooom!

I’ve been reading a lot of mythology, which contains our oldest stories of discovery.  The ways we tell stories haven’t changed much – recent events slide quickly into myth.  Plenty of people think of either George W. Bush or Barrack Obama as Darth-Vader-esque villains, but they’re just regular people.  They have myriad motivations, some good, some bad.  Only in our stories can they be simplified into monsters.

In Ai’s poem, “The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” she writes that

512px-JROppenheimer-LosAlamosI could say anything, couldn’t I?

Like a bed we make and unmake at whim,

the truth is always changing,

always shaped by the latest

collective urge to destroy.

Oppenheimer was a regular person, too.  He was good with numbers, and his team of engineers accomplished what they set out to do.

My essay about the ways we mythologize discovery was recently published here, alongside surrealistically mythological art by Jury S. Judge.

theft of fire

On smell (again!).

On smell (again!).

1200px-Concentrated_animal_feeding_operation,_Missouri_(2)If you live next to a concentrated animal feeding operation – facilities that houses thousands of farmed animals in fetid conditions – there’s no point in buying perfume.  The smell of animal excrement overwhelms any scent you could wear.  If you’re interested in a romantic dalliance, you’ll have to woo people with your looks.  Or, sure, conversation.  But a charming scent won’t do it.

In other environs, scent contributes to your allure.  We humans choose our mates based on a huge number of considerations, including the way people smell.  Back in 1995, zoologist Claus Wedekind proposed that human females are most attracted to the scents of men whose immune genes differ from their own.

oldspiceDuring college, a friend tried to convince me that the best route to romantic success was Old Spice aftershave.  “It reminds women of their fathers,” he said.  This is, of course, the opposite theory from Wedekind’s – that females would seek out partners whose scents mirror their own genetic lineage.

But this much is uncontested – by overwhelming our sense of smell, air pollution makes humans less sexy.

Stick_insect_WGWe’re not the only animals who use aroma to identify attractive mates.  Stick insects can have a wide range of physical appearances, and multiple species sometimes live in overlapping areas.  Each subpopulation of stick insects secretes a different mix of oily aromatic chemicals from their skin.  These oils protect them from scrapes and dehydration – and help them find mates of their own kind.

If stick insects couldn’t smell, they might mate wantonly.

That’s what happens with fish.

When we pollute water, fish lose the ability to recognize each other.  In the same way that humans near a CAFO won’t notice each other’s scents because they can only smell ammonia and sulfurous shit, fish living near human dumping grounds – whether it be farm run-off, factory effluents, or untreated sewage – find their sense of smell overwhelmed.

fishMany types of fish behave the way my Old-Spice-sporting friend hoped humans would – they seek mates who smell like their forebears.  Which they can’t necessarily do in polluted waters.  And so fish mate across species.  Their chimeric children dissolve the old boundary lines.

Perhaps you thought this couldn’t happen – the traditional definition of a “species” is a population of organisms that can produce fertile offspring only by mating with each other.  But the traditional definition is wrong; scientists don’t actually know what a species is.  Whatever boundaries exist seem porous.  The Neanderthal genes carried by modern Homo sapiens show that humans also mated with other species, at least until we drove our relatives into extinction.  Chimpanzees are the closest we have left, sharing 98% of our DNA, but now they’re endangered too.

Although – maybe that’s fine.  Not murdering our relations, or endangering the chimps; maybe it’s fine for multiple lineages to merge back into one.  I hate to find any virtue in pollution, but dissolving species boundaries doesn’t sound so bad.

Contemporary biology textbooks claim that species boundaries arise whenever subpopulations cease interbreeding.  For the “Advanced Placement” biology test, students are expected to know that speciation can be triggered by migration, or a geographic impediment like a new highway, or even cultural barriers.

A strong preference for certain types of scent might qualify as a cultural barrier.  Or tropical birds that want their mates to look or dance a certain way.  And so would anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.  Except for the gene flow provided by pale-skinned rapists, those biology textbooks imply that epidermal melanin concentrations marked a species boundary until the 1960s in the United States.

In the contemporary U.S., parental wealth creates a similar mating barrier.  In many parts of the country, children born to rich, well-educated parents rarely even chat with children born to poor people, let alone marry them.  This phenomenon has persisted for only a generation or two, which is certainly too brief to create a species division, but shows no sign of abating.

Marrying somebody who shares your interests seems fine.  My spouse and I seem to be fairly similar people.  And yet – should I be alarmed that my own choice inches us closer toward the world of Metropolis?

 

Feature image: “Character study, strong smell” by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

I’ve never bought meth or heroin, but apparently it’s easier now than ever.  Prices dropped over the last decade, drugs became easier to find, and more people, from broader swaths of society, began using.  Or so I’ve been told by several long-term users.

This is capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  People want something, others make money by providing it.

And the reason why demand for drugs has increased over the past decade can also be attributed to capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  It takes a combination of capital (stuff) and labor (people) to provide any service, but the ratio of these isn’t fixed.  If you want to sell cans of soda, you could hire a human to stand behind a counter and hand sodas to customers, or you could install a vending machine.

Vending_machines_at_hospitalThe vending machine requires labor, too.  Somebody has to fill it when it’s empty.  Someone has to fix it when it breaks.  But the total time that humans spend working per soda is lower.  In theory, the humans working with the vending machine are paid higher wages.  After all, it’s more difficult to repair a machine than to hand somebody a soda.

As our world’s stuff became more productive, fewer people were needed.  Among ancient hunter gatherers, the effort of one person was needed to feed one person.  Everyone had to find food.  Among early farmers, the effort of one person could feed barely more than one person.  To attain a life of leisure, a ruler would have to tax many, many peasants.

By the twentieth century, the effort of one person could feed four.  Now, the effort of one person can feed well over a hundred.

With tractors, reapers, refrigerators, etc., one human can accomplish more.  Which is good – it can provide a higher standard of living for all.  But it also means that not everyone’s effort is needed.

At the extreme, not anyone’s effort is needed.

1024px-Sophia_(robot)_2There’s no type of human work that a robot with sufficiently advanced AI couldn’t do.  Our brains and bodies are the product of haphazard evolution.  We could design something better, like a humanoid creature whose eyes registered more the electromagnetic spectrum and had no blind spots (due to an octopus-like optic nerve).

If one person patented all the necessary technologies to build an army of robots that could feed the world, then we’d have a future where the effort of one could feed many billions.  Robots can write newspaper articles, they can do legal work, they’ll be able to perform surgery and medical diagnosis.  Theoretically, they could design robots.

Among those billions of unnecessary humans, many would likely develop addictions to stupefying drugs.  It’s easier lapse into despair when you’re idle or feel no a sense of purpose.

glasshouseIn Glass House, Brian Alexander writes about a Midwestern town that fell into ruin.  It was once a relatively prosperous place; cheap energy led to a major glass company that provided many jobs.  But then came “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ “  Wall street executives purchased the glass company and ran it into the ground to boost short-term gains, which let them re-sell the leached husk at a profit.

Instead of working at the glass company, many young people moved away.  Those who stayed often slid into drug use.

In Alexander’s words:

Even Judge David Trimmer, an adherent of a strict interpretation of the personal-responsibility gospel, had to acknowledge that having no job, or a lousy job, was not going to give a thirty-five-year-old man much purpose in life.  So many times, people wandered through his courtroom like nomads.  “I always tell them, ‘You’re like a leaf blowing from a tree.  Which direction do you go?  It depends on where the wind is going.’  That’s how most of them live their lives.  I ask them, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’  And they say, ‘I don’t know.’  ‘You don’t even love yourself, do you?’  ‘No.’ “

Trimmer and the doctor still believed in a world with an intact social contract.  But the social contract was shattered long ago.  They wanted Lancaster to uphold its end of a bargain that had been made obsolete by over three decades of greed.

Monomoy Capital Partners, Carl Icahn, Cerberus Capital Management, Newell, Wexford, Barington, Clinton [all Wall Street corporations that bought Lancaster’s glass company, sold off equipment or delayed repairs to funnel money toward management salaries, then passed it along to the next set of speculative owners] – none of them bore any personal responsibility. 

A & M and $1,200-per-hour lawyers didn’t bear any personal responsibility.  They didn’t get a lecture or a jail sentence: They got rich.  The politicians – from both parties – who enabled their behavior and that of the payday- and car-title-loan vultures, and the voters of Lancaster who refused to invest in the future of their town as previous generations had done (even as they cheered Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who took $6.1 million per year in public money), didn’t bear any personal responsibility.

With the fracturing of the social contract, trust and social cohesion fractured, too.  Even Brad Hutchinson, a man who had millions of reasons to believe in The System [he grew up poor, started a business, became rich], had no faith in politicians or big business. 

I think that most politicians, if not all politicians, are crooked as they day is long,” Hutchinson said.  “They don’t have on their minds what’s best for the people.”  Business leaders had no ethics, either.  “There’s disconnect everywhere.  On every level of society.  Everybody’s out for number one.  Take care of yourself.  Zero respect for anybody else.”

So it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality.  The whole culture had changed.

America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.

Instead of treating people as stakeholders – employees and neighbors worthy of moral concern – the distant owners considered them to be simply sources of revenue.  Many once-successful businesses were restructured this way.  Soon, schools will be too.  In “The Michigan Experiment,” Mark Binelli writes that:

In theory, at least, public-school districts have superintendents tasked with evaluating teachers and facilities.  Carver [a charter school in Highland Park, a sovereign municipality in the center of Detroit], on the other hand, is accountable to more ambiguous entities – like, for example, Oak Ridge Financial, the Minnesota-based financial-services firm that sent a team of former educators to visit the school.  They had come not in service of the children but on behalf of shareholders expecting a thorough vetting of a long-term investment.

carver.JPG

This is all legal, of course.  This is capitalism working as intended.  Those who have wealth, no matter what historical violence might have produced it, have power of those without.

This is explained succinctly by a child in William Gaddis’s novel J R:

I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

220px-JRnovel.JPGFor many years, Gaddis pondered the ways that automation was destroying our world.  In J R (which is written in a style similar to the recent film Birdman, the focus moving fluidly from character to character without breaks), a middle schooler becomes a Wall Street tycoon.  Because the limited moral compass of a middle schooler is a virtue in this world, he’s wildly successful, with his misspelling of the name Alaska (“Alsaka project”) discussed in full seriousness by adults.

Meanwhile, a failed writer obsesses over player pianos.  This narrative is continued in Agape Agape, with a terminal cancer patient rooting through his notes on player pianos, certain that these pianos explain the devastation of the world.

You can play better by roll than many who play by hand.”

220px-AgapeAgape.jpgThe characters in J R and Agape Agape think it’s clear that someone playing by roll isn’t playing the piano.  And yet, ironically, the player piano shows a way for increasing automation to not destroy the world.

A good robot works efficiently.  But a player piano is intentionally inefficient.  Even though it could produce music on its own, it requires someone to sit in front of it and work the foot pumps.  The design creates a need for human labor.

There’s still room for pessimism here – Gaddis is right to feel aggrieved that the player piano devalues skilled human labor – but a world with someone working the foot pumps seems less bad than one where idle people watch the skies for Jeff Bezos’s delivery drones.

By now, a lot of work can be done cheaply by machines.  But if we want to keep our world livable, it’s worth paying more for things made by human hands.

On animals that speak, including humans.

On animals that speak, including humans.

Prairie-DogsWhen prairie dogs speak, they seem to use nouns – hawk, human, wooden cut-out – adjectives – red, blue – and adverbs – moving quickly, slowly.  They might use other parts of speech as well.  Prairie dogs chitter at each other constantly, making many sounds that no humans have yet decoded.

Ever wonder about the evolutionary origin of human intelligence?  The leading theory is that, over many generations, our ancestors became brilliant … in order to gossip better.  It takes a lot of working memory to keep track of the plot of a good soap opera, and our ancestors’ lives were soap operas.  But Carl knows that Shelly doesn’t know that Terrance and Uma are sleeping together, so …

Tool use is pretty cool.  So’s a symbolic understanding of the world – who doesn’t love cave art?  But gossip probably made us who we are.  All those juicy stories begged for a language to be shared.

Many types of birds, such as parrots and crows, spend their lives gossiping.  These busybodies also happen to be some of the smartest species (according to human metrics).  Each seems to have a unique name – through speech, the birds can reference particular individuals.  They clearly remember and can probably describe past events.  Crows can learn about dangerous humans from their fellows.

When I walk around town, squirrels sometimes tsk angrily at me.  But I’ve definitively observed only a single species using its capacity for speech to denounce all other animals.  From Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech:

9780316404624_custom-3522b1f2a1f684ab94261905a4d4c9ddf86ca882-s400-c85There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.

Without speech the human beast couldn’t have created any other artifacts, not the crudest club or the simplest hoe, not the wheel or the Atlas rocket, not dance, not music, not even hummed tunes, in fact not tunes at all, not even drumbeats, not rhythm of any kind, not even keeping time with his hands.

This claim is obviously false.  Several different species do create artifacts – either speech is unnecessary for this task, or else other species of animals can speak.  Or both.  In any case, this claim is so easily rebutted – all you’d need is an example of chimpanzees drumming, let along cooking – that it seems a strange conclusion for Wolfe to make.

Don’t get me wrong: humans are pretty great at thinking.  I’m more impressed by mathematical than emotional intelligence, which makes it easy for me to think that the average human is way brighter than the average elephant.

In all likelihood, though, humans have been pretty great at thinking for hundreds of thousands of years.  The cultural evolution that produced the Atlas rocket and skyscrapers was a very sudden development.  For most of the time that humans have been on the planet, our behavior probably didn’t look so different from the behavior of orcas, chimps, or parrots.

Throughout The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe mocks the various theories about human language presented by Noam Chomsky.  (I’m ignoring Wolfe’s claims about evolution, which he says can’t be tested, replicated, or used to elucidate otherwise inexplicable phenomena – in his words, “sincere, but sheer, literature.”  Here and here are two of many recent experiments tracking evolution in progress.)

tom-wolfe-400I often found myself nodding in agreement with Wolfe.  For instance, I’d hope that a linguist making broad claims about human language would learn as many languages as possible.  I think that contradictory evidence from the real world holds more weight than pretty theories.  From Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech:

In the heading of the [2007 New Yorker] article [“The Interpreter: Has a Remote Amazonian Tribe Upended Our Understanding of Language?”] was a photograph, reprinted many times since, of [Dan] Everett submerged up to his neck in the Maici River.  Only his smiling face is visible.  Right near him but above him is a thirty-five-or-so-year-old Piraha sitting in a canoe in his gym shorts.  It became the image that distinguished Everett from Chomsky.  Immersed! – up to his very neck, Everett is … immersed in the lives of a tribe of hitherto unknown na – er – indigenous peoples in the Amazon’s uncivilized northwest.  No linguist could help but contrast that with everybody’s mental picture of Chomsky sitting up high, very high, in an armchair in an air-conditioned office at MIT, spic-and-span … he never looks down, only inward.  He never leaves the building except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees … more than forty at last count … and remain unmuddied by the Maici or any of the other muck of life down below.

But Chomsky being wrong doesn’t make Wolfe right.

9780262533492In Why Only Us, authors Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky make some suspicious claims.  They argue that human language stems from an innate neurological process that they’ve dubbed “merge,” akin to the combination of two sets to produce a single, indivisible result.  {A} merged to {B} yields {C}, where {C} contains all the elements of {A} and {B}.

This sounds pretty abstract, so an example might help.  Berwick & Chomsky think that a verb and a direct object would be combined into a single “verb phrase” that is treated as a single unit by our brain.  Or, even more complexly, the word “that” leading into a subordinate clause would produce a whole slew of words that is treated as a single unit by our brain.  (In the preceding sentence, the phrase “that is treated as a single unit by our brain” would be one object.)

Robert C. Berwick and Noam ChomskyBerwick & Chomsky’s idea is that complex sentences can be built either by listing the final units in a row or using that hierarchical “merge” operation again, i.e. putting a verb phrase inside a subordinate clause, or one subordinate clause inside another.  Leading eventually to the tangled, twisty syntax of Marcel Proust.

But as far as I could tell (their book has a lot of jargon, and I read it while walking laps of the YMCA track with a sleeping baby strapped to my chest, so it’s possible I missed something), they don’t discuss the difference between two ideas being placed at the same level of interpretation, such as two independent clauses joined by an “and” or “or,” versus a dependent clause adjoined to an independent clause with “but,” “which,” “that,” or what have you.  I couldn’t identify a feature of their argument that suggested why some adjacent words would be processed by a human brain is this special way but others would not.  I could certainly address the way this happens in English, but an evolutionary argument ought to apply to all human language, and I know so little about most others that my opinions seem unhelpful here.

Some of Berwick & Chomsky’s ideas don’t seem to hold even in English, though.  For instance, they claim that:

there is no room in this picture for any precursors to language – say a language-like system with only short sentences.  There is no rationale for positing such a system: to go from seven-word sentences to the discrete infinity of human language requires emergence of the same recursive procedure as to go from zero to infinity, and there is of course no direct evidence for such “protolanguages.”  Similar observations hold for language acquisition, despite appearances, a matter that we put to the side here.

But we’re very confidant that spoken language arose long before written language, and the process they describe isn’t how many humans interact with spoken language.  There are definite limits to how many clauses most people can keep in mind at any one time – indeed, much of Why Only Us would sound incomprehensible if read aloud.

Is it reasonable to compare human written language with the spoken language of other animals?  The former is decidedly more complex.  Sure.  But the language actually used by most humans, most of the time, seems much simpler.

When I write, I can strangle syntax as well as any other pedant.  But when I actually talk with people, most of what I say is pretty straightforward.  I get confused if somebody says something to me with too many embedded clauses, or if words intended to operate together on a “structural” level aren’t in close proximity – Berwick & Chomsky spend a while writing about the phrase “instinctively birds that fly swim,” which sounds like gibberish to me.  Just say either “birds that fly instinctively can swim” or “birds that fly can swim instinctively” and you won’t get as many funny looks.  Except for the fact that I don’t think this is true, in either phrasing.  Syntactically, though, you’d be all set!

Colorful_Parrots_CoupleIn any case, all you’d need to show to demonstrate a linguistically equivalent behavior in other animals would be two parrots discussing the beliefs of a third.  This would be the same recursion that Berwick & Chomsky claim produces the “infinity of human language.”

Given that other social animals understand the (false) beliefs of their compatriots, I’d be shocked if they didn’t talk about it.  We just haven’t learned how to listen.

Humans are great.  We’ve accomplished a lot, especially in these last few thousand years (which is incredibly fast compared to evolutionary timescales).  The world has changed even in the short time that I’ve been alive.  But the unfounded claims in both The Kingdom of Speech and Why Only Us made me feel sad: with so much to be proud of, why should we humans also strive to distinguish ourselves with supremacist arrogance?