On artificial intelligence and solitary confinement.

On artificial intelligence and solitary confinement.

512px-Ludwig_WittgensteinIn Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe), Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that something strange occurs when we learn a language.  As an example, he cites the problems that could arise when you point at something and describe what you see:

The definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’ “ – pointing to two nuts – is perfectly exact.  But how can two be defined like that?  The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call “two”; he will suppose that “two” is the name given to this group of nuts!

I laughed aloud when I read this statement.  I borrowed Philosophical Investigations a few months after the birth of our second child, and I had spent most of his first day pointing at various objects in the hospital maternity ward and saying to him, “This is red.”  “This is red.”

“This is red.”

Of course, the little guy didn’t understand language yet, so he probably just thought, the warm carry-me object is babbling again.

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Red, you say?

Over time, though, this is how humans learn.  Wittgenstein’s mistake here is to compress the experience of learning a language into a single interaction (philosophers have a bad habit of forgetting about the passage of time – a similar fallacy explains Zeno’s paradox).  Instead of pointing only at two nuts, a parent will point to two blocks – “This is two!” and two pillows – “See the pillows?  There are two!” – and so on.

As a child begins to speak, it becomes even easier to learn – the kid can ask “Is this two?”, which is an incredibly powerful tool for people sufficiently comfortable making mistakes that they can dodge confirmation bias.

y648(When we read the children’s story “In a Dark Dark Room,” I tried to add levity to the ending by making a silly blulululu sound to accompany the ghost, shown to the left of the door on this cover. Then our youngest began pointing to other ghost-like things and asking, “blulululu?”  Is that skeleton a ghost?  What about this possum?)

When people first programmed computers, they provided definitions for everything.  A ghost is an object with a rounded head that has a face and looks very pale.  This was a very arduous process – my definition of a ghost, for instance, is leaving out a lot of important features.  A rigorous definition might require pages of text. 

Now, programmers are letting computers learn the same way we do.  To teach a computer about ghosts, we provide it with many pictures and say, “Each of these pictures has a ghost.”  Just like a child, the computer decides for itself what features qualify something for ghost-hood.

In the beginning, this process was inscrutable.  A trained algorithm could say “This is a ghost!”, but it couldn’t explain why it thought so.

From Philosophical Investigations: 

Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 8.40.41 AMAnd what does ‘pointing to the shape’, ‘pointing to the color’ consist in?  Point to a piece of paper.  – And now point to its shape – now to its color – now to its number (that sounds queer). – How did you do it?  – You will say that you ‘meant’ a different thing each time you pointed.  And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the color, the shape, etc.  But I ask again: how is that done?

After this passage, Wittgenstein speculates on what might be going through a person’s head when pointing at different features of an object.  A team at Google working on automated image analysis asked the same question of their algorithm, and made an output for the algorithm to show what it did when it “concentrated its attention.” 

Here’s a beautiful image from a recent New York Times article about the project, “Google Researchers Are Learning How Machines Learn.”  When the algorithm is specifically instructed to “point to its shape,” it generates a bizarre image of an upward-facing fish flanked by human eyes (shown bottom center, just below the purple rectangle).  That is what the algorithm is thinking of when it “concentrates its attention” on the vase’s shape.

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At this point, we humans could quibble.  We might disagree that the fish face really represents the platonic ideal of a vase.  But at least we know what the algorithm is basing its decision on.

Usually, that’s not the case.  After all, it took a lot of work for Google’s team to make their algorithm spit out images showing what it was thinking about.  With most self-trained neural networks, we know only its success rate – even the designers will have no idea why or how it works.

Which can lead to some stunningly bizarre failures.

artificial-intelligence-2228610_1280It’s possible to create images that most humans recognize as one thing, and that an image-analysis algorithm recognizes as something else.  This is a rather scary opportunity for terrorism in a world of self-driving cars; street signs could be defaced in such a way that most human onlookers would find the graffiti unremarkable, but an autonomous car would interpret in a totally new way.

In the world of criminal justice, inscrutable algorithms are already used to determine where police officers should patrol.  The initial hope was that this system would be less biased – except that the algorithm was trained on data that came from years of racially-motivated enforcement.  Minorities are still more likely to be apprehended for equivalent infractions.

And a new artificial intelligence algorithm could be used to determine whether a crime was “gang related.”  The consequences of error can be terrible, here: in California, prisoners could be shunted to solitary for decades if they were suspected of gang affiliation.  Ambiguous photographs on somebody’s social media site were enough to subject a person to decades of torture.

Solitary_Confinement_(4692414179)When an algorithm thinks that the shape of a vase is a fish flanked by human eyes, it’s funny.  But it’s a little less comedic when an algorithm’s mistake ruins somebody’s life – if an incident is designated as a “gang-related crime”, prison sentences can be egregiously long, or send someone to solitary for long enough to cause “anxiety, depression, and hallucinations until their personality is completely destroyed.

Here’s a poem I received in the mail recently:

LOCKDOWN

by Pouncho

For 30 days and 30 nights

I stare at four walls with hate written

         over them.

Falling to my knees from the body blows

         of words.

It damages the mind.

I haven’t had no sleep. 

How can you stop mental blows, torture,

         and names –

         They spread.

I just wanted to scream:

         Why?

For 30 days and 30 nights

My mind was in isolation.

On bread.

On bread.

In the King James version of Genesis, Adam and Eve began their lives as vegans.  They ate nuts and fruit.

16895519109_b0b8ea19eb_z (2)Then they ate Yahweh’s special fruit, so he expelled them from Eden.  Yahweh said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”  Adam and Eve would no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they’d have to cook bread.

And Yahweh rubs it in – even if you work hard, and procure food, and survive a while, still you will die.  You humans are mortal.

(To the other deities, Yahweh offers an aside: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”  Yahweh does not mention to the humans that their mortality was curable, His own doing, and His plan all along.)

In the beginning, bread was a curse.

752px-Odysseus_bei_den_LaestrygonenSoon, however, the Western world treated bread as a mark of civilization.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Laestrygonia.  Not knowing that the island is overrun by voracious giants who might slay and eat them, he asks who eats bread there.  In Emily Wilson’s new translation, he says:

I picked two men, and one slave as the third,

and sent them to find out what people lived

and ate bread in this land.

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Bread is alchemy.  Flour and water and a speck of yeast aren’t enough to support a human life, but if you let yeast eat the flour, then bake it, suddenly you have a food that could nourish you for weeks.

In jail, meals are served with flimsy slices of airy white bread.  I’ve eaten one meal at our local jail – the guards let us stay for dinner with the men after class one week, just after one man’s partner was murdered.

(The trio charged with murder – a woman and two men – were incarcerated in that same jail.  The woman was placed into a holding cell adjacent to the dorm where the murdered woman’s partner lived.  He stayed up all night, shouting to her through the wall.  He was telling her to forgive herself.)

We received green beans, spaghetti, a slice of white bread, a cookie.  To drink, our choice of milk or sweet tea.  I’ve been told that our jail has better food than almost any other.

If you fold your spaghetti into the bread, they told me, you get to have a taco.

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When we incarcerate people in this country, we force them to find ingenious ways to deal with deprivation.  Demetrius Cunningham built a practice piano out of cardboard.  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, she describes the jerry-rigged water heaters common at Attica Prison.

At the end of our poetry class recently, a man showed me his ear gauge, a round disc of purple and green.

“I’m surprised they let you keep it,” I said.

“They didn’t.  It’s bread.”

“What?”

toast-74375_1280“Bread.  I made it here.”  He popped it out to show me – it wasn’t quite as shiny as the stuff you’d see on Etsy, but otherwise looked just as nice.  “While I been in, I must’ve went from a quarter inch to, what’s this, over an inch?”

“Bread,” I said, shaking my head.  I felt hesitant to touch it.

“I been making all sorts of things.  You need bread, and some pencil shavings, colored pencil, you know?  I been making flowers, little sea turtles.  I made a whole lot of flowers.  Gifts for people, when I get out.  It’s like therapy.  While I’m making them, gives me something to think about, you know?  It helps. Keeps the mind busy.”

The next week he brought a few of his sculptures to class.  The flowers were incredible, each an inch or two tall, with green stem and leaves, petals in blue and purple.  His sea turtle was only a quarter inch across and intricately detailed.  Like netsuke, except …

“Bread?” I asked him again.

“Yup,” he said, leaning back in his chair.

220px-Robert_Martinson,_Freedom_Rider,_1961.jpgI’d previously read about Robert Martinson making a chess set from bread, but I’d assumed the pieces would look gross.  In “Solidarity under Close Confinement,” Martinson wrote about his experience being incarcerated for 40 days with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s.  He reported that “chess sets and objets d’art could be molded from paste made from chewed bread and dried in the ventilator I gloated over a tiny nest of buttons, string, chicken bones, and chess pieces – an affection I now find difficult to remember.

Martinson was appalled by what incarceration does to people: “Of course, the persons we had become in our cells were difficult, boring things.”  After his release, he studied prisons, hoping that the way we punish people could be made less awful.  He was hired by the state of New York to address recidivism: did any type of programming reduce criminal behavior by ex-felons?

As described in Terry Kupers’s essay “How to Create Madness in Prison” (published in Hell Is a Very Small Place):

51iuyKezuuL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA turning point occurred with the publication of Robert Martinson’s 1974 essay, “What Works?  Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.”  Martinson ran some numbers and announced that rehabilitation programs have no positive effect on recidivism rates.  This was the research that conservative pundits and politicians had been waiting for, and they made Martinson famous as they legislated a drastic turn from rehabilitation to harsher punishments.

With calls to “stop coddling” prisoners, prison education programs were slashed, weights were removed from the yards, the quality of prison food declined, prisoners were deprived of materials for arts and crafts, and so forth.

Even though Martinson really should have realized that this would be the consequence of his publication (and subsequent speaking tour), he was devastated.  After all, he was a firm believer in social justice.  He had risked his life to join the Freedom Riders.  He began to study incarceration because he hoped to improve prisoners lives.  As a result of his research, he’d written that prisons “cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down.”

That’s not what happened.  Instead, we started sending more people to prison, and made the prisons worse.

Which is why Martinson soon recanted his findings.  It was true that the education and counseling offered in prisons weren’t very effective at staving off future crime.  It was also true that the education and counseling offered in prisons were terrible.

If the available “education” is just a guard and some textbooks, is it surprising that few people are rehabilitated by it?  What about counseling – with untrained counselors told to do “whatever they thought best” during five or so short meetings with their patients each year?

Nobody cared about Martinson’s 1979 publication, “A Note of Caution Regarding Sentencing Reform,” in which he apologized for flaws in his earlier work.  By then, the punitive reformers had already gotten what they wanted: a lefty intellectual arguing that nothing works and so prisons should be cheap and miserable.

Martinson was horrified by the damage he’d wrought.  That same year, he committed suicide – in front of his teenage son, he leapt from the window of their ninth story apartment.

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

poemsjaildormWilliam Booker’s poem “Communion of the Saints” opens with,

It’s 6 a.m. in the Monroe County Jail,

I’ve been awake since breakfast,

which was served at 4:21 a.m. …

It took 3 minutes 25 seconds

to eat a tray of eggs, sausage, hash brown,

biscuit and jelly.  Then I lay back down

on my steel bunk and closed my eyes.

His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep.  He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?”  His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’t see anymore.”  This will be another hard day.

2088296214_th.jpgIn Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted.  The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night.  When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.

Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture.  All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood.  Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.

In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,

DF-SC-85-11459I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them.  He did not promise them their liberty.  He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.

Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight.  At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep.  But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.

Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living.  Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.

But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep.  If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.

Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.

Veave_in_jailWrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well.  In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles.  They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside.  They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy.  Instead, they get the jitters.

And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.

“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.

“Congratulations!  You’ll get family Christmas after all.”

“Eh, it’s not so great.  I’ll be back before New Years.”

“Yeah?”

“They say I gotta do probation two yearsI slip, they’re sending me to prison.”

“Can you do it?”

“Two years?  I’m not gonna make it two weeks.  Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”

He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances.  But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.

On reading Natalie Diaz’s “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” with a room full of men in jail for drugs.

On reading Natalie Diaz’s “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” with a room full of men in jail for drugs.

It seemed like our class would bomb last week.  The jail has been over capacity for months, so the blocks are being shuffled around.  Many of the guards seem stressed.  As do the inmates.  And so, although nine people came to class, six ensconced themselves at the far end of the table and wanted to talk amongst themselves.  Only three sat close, intending to discuss poetry with me.

aztecBut I’d brought excerpts from Natalie Diaz’s excellent collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I read her long, brutal poem “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs.”  Everyone was rapt.

Wait for him in the living room

of your parents’ home-turned-misery-museum.

ten, twenty, forty dismantled phones dissected

on the dining table: glinting snarls of copper,

sheets of numbered buttons, small magnets

Your parents’ home will look like an al-Qaeda

yard sale. It will look like a bomb factory,

which might give you hope, if there were

such a thing. You are not so lucky –

there is no fuse here for you to find.

The guys laughed in recognition.  These lines come early in the poem, before the swerve to darkest hurt.

One guy told me that, if you needed to keep a friend safely occupied after he’d had too much meth, “best thing to do, tell him, hey, can you fix this radio for me?  There’s one piece in there that’s broken, but I’m not quite sure which one.

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Image by Clio CJS on Flickr.

“Aw, man,” said a dude who’s been studying the programming language Python during his time inside, “at my gramma’s place, there must be, like, eight dismantled computers I was working on.”

The programmer said it was getting harder and harder to keep clean each time he got out.  “Because it’s showing up everywhere, now.  It used to be, you could stay away from all that by just hanging with different people.  But now, like, middle class people, crowds that used to be all pot and psychedelics, now you go over, they’ve got meth, or they’ve got H … ”

I shook my head.

A man who wrote a jarring poem about the nightmare of his kid shaking him awake after an overdose (“I hear the sound of his little feet running / down the hall, I look to make sure the door / is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear / his joy as he yells, I’m superman. / I do the shot”) agreed.  They could keep sober if the stuff wasn’t there, he said.

“Last time I got out, I’d been three years clean.  I didn’t want it!  Wasn’t even thinking about it.  But I’d made it two blocks, and right there in the Taco Bell parking lot, somebody handed me a loaded rig and said, like, hey, dude, wanna hit this?”

(“I was so terrified of being like my stepdad,” this guy told me once. “He beat me all the time.  But all I managed … I mean … it’s like, I just turned into my real dad.  Never there.”)

“Taco bell … ” I said.

“It’s like right there,” he said, pointing.  Indeed, I walk past that place each week on my way in.

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Jail (gray building, far left) and Taco Bell.

“But it’s not like your time here is gonna make you want it less,” said the programmer.  “First time I got busted, they sent me to this juvenile facility.  That’s honestly the most horrible place I’ve ever been.  You’re by yourself, you have to just sit on a stool in this classroom kinda space all day.  The only book you’re allowed in there is a Bible, but for my first three days, they didn’t give one to me.  So I just had to sit there with nothing on that stool.  And you’re not allowed to sleep during the day.  They try to catch you sleeping.  Like a guard might come to check on you, then open and close the door so you think he’s left, but then come sneaking back.”

A lot of his anecdotes involved sleeping.  It must be awful trying to re-establish a regular sleep cycle after months on methamphetamine.  Living inside a jail or prison  – with schizophrenics in solitary kicking their doors and hollering through the night, minimal access to natural light, overhead fluorescents turned off for only four and a half hours each day – probably makes it harder.  He once told me that a particular state prison wasn’t so bad – everyone felt pretty safe there – except that there were so many little rules that you were constantly worried about being written up and docked good time for an infraction.

“My job there, they had me delivering ice in the middle of the night.  Either you’d load the cart too heavy and struggle to push it around, or else it took hours to finish … and they still expected us to wake up at the regular time.  So I’d practice hiding, like rumple my blankets or whatever so I could still be in my bunk sleeping but the guards wouldn’t see me.”

These men cycle in and out of jail.  Sometimes people outside offer them drugs at the Taco Bell, sending them spiraling right back in.  Sometimes, people outside try to help instead.  But the help often falls short.

Diaz writes,

                                                you have come

to take him to dinner – because he is your brother,

because you heard he was cleaning up,

because dinner is a thing with a clear beginning

and end, a measured amount of time,

a ritual everyone knows, even your brother.

Sit down. Eat. Get up. Go home.

She will try to help him, and she will fail.  And he will also fail himself.  The drugs will make Judas of them all – safe only when locked up, “happy” only when fucked up (the guys told me, “When you’re on meth, it can feel like ecstasy.  But, man, coming down … ”  Another finished his thought: “That’s why you gotta have more, to make sure you don’t come down.”), her brother can only be betrayed.

You will pour your thirty pieces of silver

onto the table and ask, What can I get for this?

On correspondence.

On correspondence.

1280px-Plasmid_(english).svgDNA plasmids are small loops of genetic information that can change the behavior of bacteria.  With the right (wrong?) plasmids, you could take innocuous E. coli and make it very dangerous.

As best I could tell from a few minutes spent skimming the USPS documents describing “hazardous, restricted, and perishable mail,” it’s not actually illegal to ship plasmids.  Many biomedical researchers have long assumed that it was illegal, though.  Not that we didn’t do it.  But we always took steps to sneakily circumvent the laws we assumed existed.

Plasmids are dangerous, after all.  Why wouldn’t there be a law?

DNA is very stable.  Its stability is probably the whole reason it exists.  Most scientists assume that life began as self-replicating strands of a molecule called RNA, which is very similar to DNA except more prone to falling apart.  Each of our cells is like a tiny factory – proteins are the machines, RNA are blueprints, and DNA is a file cabinet.

(K says this analogy is no good because a file cabinet is an “archaic technology.”  I have several early drafts of my novel – plus the entire three-year run of Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave – in a file cabinet next to our bed.  I wonder, am I an archaic technology?)

DNA is so stable that it can be dried out and shipped across the country without coming to any harm.

To send plasmids through the mail, we would draw a circle on a piece of filter paper, dab a liquid solution of it onto the paper, then slip the sheet into the center of a catalog.  The catalog would look harmless, like junk mail.  Whomever received it would flip through, find the filter paper, cut out the circle, and immerse it in water.  Voila!  The plasmid is ready to change bacteria into something new!

The good people at the post office never notice.  The only snags are undergrads – a sophomore who was working with us happened to open the mail.  Our advisor asked later, “Where is that plasmid?  It was being sent by the ______ lab.”

“We got a package from them … but it was just an old catalog.  I recycled it.”

Oops.

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Pink_Elephants_on_Parade_Blotter_LSD_DumboAs it happens, numerous psychoactive chemicals can wig out a human brain at concentrations low enough to dissolve on paper.  Somebody sends a saturated sheet through the mail – you cut it out and, instead of using it to transform bacteria, you get high.

Apparently this works well with suboxone – which can be used either as a treatment for or a substitute for heroin – and the THC analogs marketed as K2, spice, or synthetic marijuana.  LSD has long been sold dissolved on blotter paper with goofy cartoons.

And so the Indiana Department of Corrections recently decided to ban all correspondence to inmates that isn’t handwritten on blue-lined white paper.  No greeting cards, no photocopies, no drawings.

636292511138908937-20170430-144345
Photo from Pat and Steve Cole / St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago, IL.  I first saw it in the Indy Star.

A Chicago-based church sends greeting cards to many prisoners over the holidays.  This May, the entire batch of Easter cards they’d sent to Indiana prisoners were returned with a brief note explaining the new mail policy.  Even now, it’s unclear what the policy actually is.  The only regulations for offender correspondence available from the Indiana Department of Corrections are dated September, 2015.  Even these guidelines are vague, mentioning that all decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

For the correspondence writing workshop I run, I often send printed materials.  Because these are being mailed on behalf of a non-profit corporation, they are supposed to go through – only private mail is supposed to be axed by the new policy.

Or so we’ve been told.

When our corporation sends letters or packages sometimes they go through, sometimes they do not.  The fate of each letter depends on which guard happens to be working in the mail room when it arrives, obviously.  The policy is sufficiently vague that each enforcer will interpret it differently.

A letter’s fate also seems to depend on the identity of the recipient.  If you receive a package while in prison, I’ve been told, the guards are supposed to open it in front of you, show it to you, and then have to either give it to you or explain why you can’t have it.  But with so many and such vague rules, the guards should always be able to think of a reason to bin it.  I’ve noticed that many of our packages that get returned for flimsy reasons were sent to people with long lists of disciplinary infractions.

The rich get richer.  And those who seem to need love most … get nothing.  If you’re disliked, they can sever you from the world.

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

On goals and Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Falling.”

It’s easy to get caught up in goal-oriented thinking.  Television commercials for the University of Phoenix tout how much better your life would be with a degree.  Romantic comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall end with the beginning of a relationship.  We strive for a big house, a beautiful family, a flush bank account.

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Adam Alter discusses some of the flaws in goal-oriented thinking in his recent Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.  Most humans are happiest while striving for a goal, but reaching goals can leave us feeling empty.

Consider the protagonist of Jack Vance’s The Demon Princes, who hunts down the villains who killed his family.  After defeating the last, he falls into melancholy.  He describes himself as feeling “Deflated, perhaps.  I have been deserted by my enemies. The affair is over.  I am done.

We will either fail to reach our goals … or succeed, only to find that our goals have failed us.

The advertising companies that Adam Alter discusses in Irresistible know that goal-oriented thinking will leave us feeling empty, but that is precisely why they nurture these thoughts.  Striving for ever more Facebook or Instagram “likes” keeps people logging in, which lets the company keep making money.  The corporation’s profit model relies on people feeling unfulfilled.

Most of the corporations shilling things through your telephone want you to feel unhappy.  Contented people spend less.

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41BPcuTxX-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_We read Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” in jail.  This poem is a gorgeous paean to process-oriented thinking, opening with the line:

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.

Gilbert then describes a “failed” marriage, one that ended in divorce.  But even though the eventual outcome was separation, he and his wife shared many happy years.  They had engaging conversations over lunch.  He would wake in the morning and marvel over her sleeping form in bed.

Each afternoon I watched her coming back

through the hot stony field after swimming,

the sea light behind her and the huge sky

on the other side of that.

Gilbert knows that he was blessed to have lived through so much beauty.  He thinks it’s absurd that other people will say his marriage failed.  It ended, yes.  He fell short of a goal.  But he (appropriately) enjoyed the process.  He has many years of happy memories, and he would be a fool to let the divorce poison his recollection of them all.

The men in jail have also lost many loved ones, either because they’ve drifted apart over time or, tragically often, because their partners have died.  They’ve loved Jack Gilbert’s poems: several dudes teared up at the image of Gilbert finding his second wife Michiko’s hair in a potted plant after she died.

And the men in jail are in jail.  From a goal-oriented perspective, their lives, so far, have been failures.  No one wants to end up there.  When we read Pattiann Rogers’s “The Greatest Grandeur,”  I suggested we write our perspective on the best of the world.  They looked at me confused.  I said, “Well, she’s writing about why nature makes her believe in God.  I’m an atheist, but I think the world can be beautiful.  So could you write about, I dunno, what makes you want to go on living?”

Three dudes tossed down their pencils.  “That’ll … I’ll need to think about that one for a week or two,” one said.  His brother died last year.  His son cussed him out and moved away.  Three weeks in jail, he’s still going through withdrawal.  He can’t sleep more than an hour at a time.  The highlight of his day is running in place in the cement-walled fourth-floor “rec yard” until he feels sufficiently sick & drained to still his brain, “but they haven’t taken us to daytime rec more than, what, two times a month?  There’s a good dude here at night, though.  We had night rec three times this week.”

Oops.  So maybe that wasn’t the best writing prompt.  But one man wrote a beautiful poem about linked cycles of growth – a tall tree starting from a small seed, his own son begun from an even smaller seed, and the poem itself originating as the seed of an idea inside his mind.  In his poem,

tree-220664_1280                                      the tree that withstood

The storm now given opportunity to transform mere

Feet into stories

Our growth – the process of transformation – is what matters.  We all die in the end.  Maybe this alone should be enough to persuade us against goal-oriented thinking.  We need to enjoy life as we live it.  Otherwise, we’re striving toward nothingness.

Gilbert ends “Failing and Falling” with the beauty of our struggle:

I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,

but just coming to the end of his triumph.

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On Liu Xiaobo, monster hunter.

On Liu Xiaobo, monster hunter.

In the late summer and fall of 2015, hundreds of lawyers were detained by the police.  Many were sent to prison.  Several were tortured.  They had been defending the wrong clients.  Some had said the wrong things.  Most were outspoken advocates for free speech, constitutional rights, and democracy.  The Chinese government considered their work seditious.

The American journalist Alex Palmer was able to speak with several of these human rights lawyers and their families – you should read his article about their plight.  The most heartbreaking passage describes a meeting with two of the imprisoned lawyers’ wives:

I met Wang and Li in a wood-paneled coffee shop on a blistering summer afternoon, a little more than a week before the first anniversary of the crackdown.  The worst part of their husbands’ sudden disappearance, they agreed, was trying to explain the situation to their young children.  Li, whose son was 2½ when his father disappeared, tried at first to maintain a veneer of normalcy, telling her son that his father was on a business trip.  But over the course of the year, as the family visited detention centers, police stations and lawyers, the boy came to realize that his father had been taken to prison.  He asked his mother why.

‘‘I explained that he is a lawyer,’’ Li told me.  ‘‘He has to help others. Because he helps others, he has been taken away by monsters.’’  Wang put her hand on Li’s back as she continued. 

‘‘ ‘Why doesn’t he come back?’ my son asked.  ‘Are there too many monsters?’  I said to him, ‘If you be good and grow strong, you can help your father fight the monsters.’ ’’

She paused and took a sip of tea. Li’s husband often came to Liang’s office to work, and the books he had left behind still cluttered Liang’s shelves — and as she spoke, Liang [the lawyer struggling to free Li’s lawyer husband] kept his eyes down, fiddling with a pen.

‘‘He asked if others are also helping fight the monsters,’’ Li said.  ‘‘I told him, ‘Yes, many people.’ ’’

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There are approximately 300,000 lawyers in China.  Of these, a few hundred were willing to take human rights cases.  A tenth of a percent of all lawyers.  A vanishingly small percentage of the 1.4 billion people living in the country.

It’s not clear how many monster hunters we will need.

*

This summer, Liu Xiaobo, a devoted monster hunter, passed away.  Liu was an outspoken advocate for democracy and justice – and therefore spent much of his life in prison.  He won the Nobel Prize – an empty chair addressed the world in his stead.  He was a poet – every year on June 4th, in honor of the students who were murdered in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he wrote another elegy.

His poetry is banned in China.

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*

Liu’s elegies and other poems have been translated into English by Jeffrey Yang, which you can find here.  When we read his poems in jail, the men loved “Greed’s Prisoner” – they loved it, but it hurt.  From the poem:

He controls your pen

makes you write endless letters

makes you desperate to find hope

One man in our class hung his head in shame and said, “I’ve done it.  I’ve seen all of us done it.  We call the old lady, where’s my lawyer, what’d you write him, where’s my commissary, we’ve got to get it done.  We … we forget that they’ve got their world out there, too.”

the moment he sees himself brimming with righteousness

you already possess nothing

We, in the United States, briefly, distractedly celebrated Liu.  He stood up for his convictions!  He fought for truth and justice no matter the cost!

This is easiest to applaud when we do not know the costs.  But Liu knew.  His choices did not lead only to his own suffering – when the government imprisoned him, they were torturing his wife too.  She could be tortured without their needing to touch her.

Liu offers his love alongside repentance.

Beloved

my wife

in this dust-weary world of

so much depravity

why do you

choose me alone to endure

LXB

*

Liu Xiaobo’s ordeal is over.  Liu Xia’s is not.  And the monster hunters are a long, long way from winning.  Instead of justice, China prizes growth.  More wealth.  More power.  Longer lives for the lucky wealthy.  Flashier technologies to occupy our minds.  Forests cleared for more farms, more high-rises, more roads to drive new cars across.  Wetlands drained.  All other animal life pushed toward extinction.

Which should not surprise us.  In the United States, we prize … growth.  More wealth, more power, longer lives, fancy toys.  Our countries will get along fine.  Speaking of the current president of China, 45 said “He is a good man.  He is a very good man.”

He wants what we want.

*

To be good and grow strong enough to fight the monsters, we have to want something else.  We must choose less money, less consumption.  But that is okay.  We can choose less money and still have more happiness.

So, please, take a moment to slow down.  Perhaps you’ll have time to read a poem.

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