Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sitting Down for Some Screen Time

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.
-George Santayana

Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.
- Donna Haraway

One cubic inch of nanotube circuitry, once fully developed, would be up to one hundred million times more powerful than the human brain.
-Ray Kurzweil


All afternoon on the trail I could look west toward the massive spine of the Smokies and study its tallest peak. Mulberry Mountain they used to call it. 

*Long, long ago several families settled in a valley beneath the mountain. 

One boy from this clan would leave home every morning and spend his days wandering Mulberry Mountain. After a while, he stopped eating at home and spent more and more time in the woods each day.  When his parents noticed long brown hair growing all over his body, they asked why he preferred the woods.

“I find plenty to eat there, and it is better than the corn and beans we have in the settlement.  Pretty soon I am going into the woods to stay all the time.”

His parents begged him not to leave. He was determined, though, and invited his parents to come along, since there was plenty to eat without having to work for it.

The father and mother considered his offer and consulted the elders of the community. Assembled together, all the people of the community agreed they would go since scarcity had been the result of their hard labor up until that time.

After seven days of prayer and fasting, they left their settlement for the mountain with the boy leading the way.

The people of the other towns learned of this and rushed to dissuade them from going into the woods to live. Messengers from the other towns found the exiles already growing hair like that of animals because they had abstained from human food for seven days.

The clan refused to turn back. “From now on we shall be called bears, and when you are hungry come into the woods and call us and we shall come to give you our own flesh. You need not be afraid to kill us for we shall live always.”

They taught the messengers the songs with which to call them, and the groups parted ways, After returning a short distance down the mountain, the messengers looked back and saw a drove of bears going into the woods.

Ever since the hike that day, when I viewed the place where this all happened, I've been thinking about Mulberry Mountain.  Sometimes I hear the siren call of the wild, and I feel drawn into the woods, as if I could remain there in comfort and plenty with no need or desire to return to society.  The story, too, illustrates the acceptance of change, even to the point of forfeiting one's humanity. 

Several days ago I was venting about the transformation of our culture - people incessantly gazing into their screens.   Later, I learned that at the exact hour I was composing that rant, a poor soul on the California coast became distracted by his handheld device, took an errant step at Sunset Cliffs, and plunged fifty feet to his death. 

There are different ways of forfeiting one's humanity for the sake of change. 

But now I'm willing to give change a second chance.

In an online thread for a National Public Radio story about a screen-free coffee house in Vermont, commenter Luc G tweaked someone who shared my outrage:

...the way people socialize in our hyper-connected world will never go back to the way it was before the ubiquity of 'screens'. Stop looking wistfully into the past and try to discover new ways of connecting with your fellow man.  Communication technology and our ability to socialize with anybody at any time has radically altered the public perception of what is acceptable for social environments, and it will do nothing but continue to change that perception as technology continues to get better. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for moments of quiet contemplation over a cup of coffee, but to say that a coffee house isn't a social space because of screens is completely missing the mark. We have to move and think with our eyes to the future, not the past...

Wistfulness be damned!  Eyes to the future, I've taken a few days to focus on where we are headed.

My attitude has been adjusted. At the very least, we are on the verge of some interesting times.

*Adapted from James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees


Before continuing, it would be helpful to interject a little wordplay into this discussion of "screen" time. 

Consider the word "screen." 

One definition in the old, yellowed dictionary seemed to strike closest to the point:

3. a phosphorescent surface upon which the image is formed in a cathode-ray tube...

But other definitions have more relevance than it might first appear:

2. something that serves to divide, conceal, or protect...

Plenty to chew on with this one. My favorite screens, how do they divide, what do they conceal, whom do they protect?

Then there's what could be the most apt definition of the bunch:

1. a coarse sieve used for sifting out fine particles...

That's digital technology in a nutshell.  By the time something as sublime as the view at Sunset Cliffs passes your screen, it has been broken down to its finest particles, a series of zeroes and ones.  That's all.

Nothing comes through the screen that hasn't been reduced to electromagnetic impulses.


On June 13, 1863 American newspapers were reporting on a crucial event of the Civil War, the Siege of Vicksburg.  On that same date, 8000 miles away in Christchurch, New Zealand a newspaper reported a different struggle for power, a different form of slavery.

The article, Darwin Among the Machines, was attributed to "Cellarius," the pen name of  Samuel Butler (1835-1902).  The English novelist and student of evolutionary science warned that machines were a kind of artificial life-form, constantly evolving and ultimately replacing humans as the dominant species.  Butler explained:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race....

Man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state. We treat our horses, dogs, cattle, and sheep, on the whole, with great kindness; we give them whatever experience teaches us to be best for them, and there can be no doubt that our use of meat has added to the happiness of the lower animals far more than it has detracted from it; in like manner it is reasonable to suppose that the machines will treat us kindly, for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon the lower animals....

A few minutes after reading Darwin Among the Machines, I received my daily email from the Washington Post, linking to an article on "A. I. Anxiety" that profiles "the world’s spookiest philosopher," Nick Bostrom, "a thin, soft-spoken Swede:"

Bostrom’s favorite apocalyptic hypothetical involves a machine that has been programmed to make paper clips (although any mundane product will do). This machine keeps getting smarter and more powerful, but never develops human values. It achieves “superintelligence.” It begins to convert all kinds of ordinary materials into paper clips. Eventually it decides to turn everything on Earth — including the human race (!!!) — into paper clips.

Then it goes interstellar.

The Washington Post writer attempts to quell such hysteria:

The machines are not on the verge of taking over.

But the writer does concede that:

We live in an age in which machine intelligence has become a part of daily life. Computers fly planes and soon will drive cars. Computer algorithms anticipate our needs and decide which advertisements to show us. Machines create news stories without human intervention. Machines can recognize your face in a crowd.  New technologies — including genetic engineering and nanotechnology — are cascading upon one another and converging. We don’t know how this will play out. But some of the most serious thinkers on Earth worry about potential hazards — and wonder whether we remain fully in control of our inventions.

Besides, for every anxious Swedish philosopher, you can find an hopeful technophile, such as inventor and writer Ray Kurzweil whose books predict an age of intelligent, spiritual machines:

Kurzweil, now a director of engineering at Google, embraces such a future; he is perhaps the most famous of the techno-utopians, for he believes that technological progress will culminate in a merger of human and machine intelligence. We will all become “transhuman.”

The Post article introduces a second Swede, MIT physicist Max Tegmark, who is helping Elon Musk spend $10 million on research to prevent artificial intelligence from going rogue. As Tegmark frames the issue:

“The future is ours to shape. I feel we are in a race that we need to win. It’s a race between the growing power of the technology and the growing wisdom we need to manage it. Right now, almost all the resources tend to go into growing the power of the tech.”

In a recent tweet, Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, was more blunt:

"With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon."

The Washington Post article concludes:

In [Bostrom's] view, we have a chance to go galactic — or even intergalactic — with our intelligence. Bostrom, like Tegmark, is keenly aware that human intelligence occupies a minuscule space in the grand scheme of things. The Earth is a small rock orbiting an ordinary star on one of the spiral arms of a galaxy with hundreds of billions of stars. And at least tens of billions of galaxies twirl across the known universe.

Artificial intelligence, Bostrom said, “is the technology that unlocks this much larger space of possibilities, of capabilities, that enables unlimited space colonization, that enables uploading of human minds into computers, that enables intergalactic civilizations with planetary-size minds living for billions of years.”

There’s a bizarre wrinkle in Bostrom’s thinking. He thinks a superior civilization would possess essentially infinite computing power. These superintelligent machines could do almost anything, including create simulated universes that include programs that precisely mimic human consciousness, replete with memories of a person’s history — even though all this would be entirely manufactured by software, with no real-world, physical manifestation.

Bostrom goes so far as to say that unless we rule out the possibility that a machine could create a simulation of a human existence, we should assume that it is overwhelmingly likely that we are living in such a simulation.

“I’m not sure that I’m not already in a machine,” he said calmly.

Two days before the Bostrom story, the Post had published "Techno-skeptics’ Objection Growing Louder:"

Many technophiles [are] unhappy about the way the tech revolution has played out. Political progressives once embraced the utopian promise of the Internet as a democratizing force, but they’ve been dismayed by the rise of the “surveillance state,” and the near-monopolization of digital platforms by huge corporations...

The dissenters have no easy task. We’re in a new Machine Age. Machine intelligence and digital social networks are now embedded in the basic infrastructure of the developed world...

Techno-skeptics, or whatever you want to call them — “humanists” may be the best term — sense that human needs are getting lost in the tech frenzy, that the priorities have been turned upside down. They sense that there’s too much focus on making sure that new innovations will be good for the machines.  “I’m on Team Human!” author Douglas Rushkoff will say at the conclusion of a talk...

The article rattles off the books authored by digital dissenters -

“You Are Not a Gadget” (Jaron Lanier)
“The Internet Is Not the Answer” (Andrew Keen)
“The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age” (Astra Taylor)
 “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era” (James Barrat)

The story continues:

Technological skepticism isn’t new. Plato told the story of a king who protested the invention of writing, saying it would weaken his people’s memory and “implant forgetfulness in their souls.”

Our thoughts, friendships and basic urges are processed by computer algorithms and sold to advertisers. The machines may soon know more about us than we know about ourselves...on Facebook, we’re not the customers, we’re the merchandise.

Some digital dissenters aren’t focused on the economic issues, but simply on the nature of human-machine interactions. This is an issue we all understand intuitively: We’re constantly distracted. We walk around with our eyes cast down upon our devices. We’re rarely fully present anywhere...

The robot issue leads inevitably to the most apocalyptic fear: that machine intelligence could run away from its human inventors, leaving us enslaved — or worse — by the machines we created.

All this talk from 2015 was nothing new for Samuel Butler in 1863:

The fact is that our interests are inseparable from theirs [the machines], and theirs from ours. Each race is dependent upon the other for innumerable benefits, and, until the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive, they are entirely dependent upon man for even the continuance of their species. It is true that these organs may be ultimately developed, inasmuch as man’s interest lies in that direction; there is nothing which our infatuated race would desire more than to see a fertile union between two steam engines; it is true that machinery is even at this present time employed in begetting machinery, in becoming the parent of machines often after its own kind, but the days of flirtation, courtship, and matrimony appear to be very remote, and indeed can hardly be realised by our feeble and imperfect imagination...

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

He minces no words in the conclusion to Darwin Among the Machines:

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.


Cyborg Blues

I've heard it from the Madman, I've heard it from the Sage:
The years in which we're living are the dwindling of an Age.

Machines will liberate us from the limits we have known,
Polymer and alloy will replace our skin and bone.

Our current form of life will gradually dissolve
As the species, Homo sapiens, continues to evolve.

We are entering an Era called "Posthumanist,"
Becoming dots on a screen small and luminous.

Will we recognize it, the day the threshold's crossed?
When what it was we used to be becomes completely lost?

We could test the waters cautiously, as human frailties we expunge.
More likely we won't know our fate 'til the end of a headlong plunge.


Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It's alright we told you what to dream...


Fifty years ago, the science fiction writer Frank Herbert paid tribute to Samuel Butler with something he termed the "Butlerian Jihad."

In a glossary of words found in the Dune series of books, Herbert defined:

Jihad, Butlerian: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. [Orange Catholic] Bible as "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind."

In God Emperor of Dune, a character mentioned the upheaval:

"The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines," Leto said. "Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed."

The Jihad succeeded in purging the known universe of all thinking machines.  Laws against artificial intelligence imposed a penalty of immediate death for anyone owning an AI device or developing technology resembling the human mind.

To retain the powers of computing without violating the commandment, human computers called mentats were perfected.


Now for the flip side to Frank Herbert's Butlerian Jihad. 

Donna J. Haraway is a Distinguished Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department and Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  She might be best known for "A Cyborg Manifesto," which she began writing in 1983.  Early versions were too controversial for publication in The Socialist Review East Coast Collective, and I can see why.  Her flavor of radical feminism makes Adrienne Rich look like Anita Bryant.

Central to Haraway's message is that there's no distinction between machines and natural life:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. The international women's movements have constructed 'women's experience', as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind.

Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women's experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion....

The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense - a 'final' irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the 'West's' escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space.

If Haraway's manfesto was far-out in the 1980s, it rests comfortably upon the bosom of America's politically correct culture, ca. 2016:

Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Perhaps that is why I want to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy.

Cyborgs are not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection- they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential....

By the late twentieth century in United States scientific culture, the boundary between human and animal is thoroughly breached. The last beachheads of uniqueness have been polluted if not turned into amusement parks--language tool  use, social behaviour, mental events, nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal. And many people no longer feel the need for such a separation; indeed, many branches of feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection of human and other living creatures.

Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture. Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science. Within this framework, teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse....

We cannot go back ideologically or materially. It's not just that 'god' is dead; so is the 'goddess'. Or both are revivified in the worlds charged with microelectronic and biotechnological politics. In relation to objects like biotic components, one must not think in terms of essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs of lowering constraints.

I want to give Haraway a fair shake, but I can't get past the suspicion that her writing style is, for whatever reason, an intentional parody of Ivory Tower babble.  Apparently, I'm not alone in this impression.  Mark Cartmill's 1991 review of her book Primate Visions is simply too delightful not to include at this point:

This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor. This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.

But, now, back to the manifesto:

Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of 'Western' idendty, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body and mind. 'We' did not originally choose to be cyborgs, but choice grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction of individuals before the wider replications of 'texts'.

Haraway might be pleased to know that her essay sounds as if it was written by a computer program, but one with really lousy algorithms.  Here's one more bite at the apple:

To recapitulate, certain dualisms have been persistent in Western traditions; they have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals - in short, domination of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief among these troubling dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resource, maker/ made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man.

The self is the One who is not dominated, who knows that by the semice of the other, the other is the one who holds the future, who knows that by the experience of domination, which gives the lie to the autonomy of the self. To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion, and so to be involved in a dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two are too many. 

High-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices. In so far as we know ourselves in both formal discourse (for example, biology) and in daily practice (for example, the homework economy in the integrated circuit), we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras. Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic.

As so it goes.  I have offered an admittedly dualistic presentation of arguments for and against a cyborgian union of humans and machines.  But if it does come to pass, then liking it or not is a matter of little consequence.  It is time to move on from the question of "What if it happens?" to "Could it happen?"


If one entertains the hypothesis that consciousness is an electromagnetic phenomenon, then it is not much of a stretch to expect the seamless merger of biology and technology on the near horizon.

Johnjoe McFadden is Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, and co-author of "Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology." (2014) In his study of the electromagnetic nature of consciousness, McFadden has developed the idea of the cemi field.   As he explained in a 2007 interview:

Put simply the cemi field is that component of the brain’s electromagnetic (em) field that influences our actions. The theory proposes that the seat of consciousness is the brain’s em field.... All the information in scattered neurons will be unified in the brain’s em field. A number of researchers have proposed this much but the cemi field goes one step further and proposes that the cemi field loops back to influence brain activity via electromagnetic induction: the brain’s em fields influences neuronal membrane potentials and thereby the probability of neuron firing and thereby influence our actions. This influence we experience as ‘free will’.

McFadden elaborates on this theory:

This consciousness electromagnetic information field (cemi field) theory may sound far-fetched, but it rests on just three propositions.

The first is that the brain generates its own em field, a fact that is well known and utilised in brain scanning techniques such as EEG.

The second is that the brain’s em field is indeed the seat of consciousness.  This is far harder to prove but there is plenty of evidence that is at least consistent with this hypothesis. Em fields are waves that tend to cancel out when the peaks and troughs from many unsynchronised waves combine. But if neurones fire together, then the peaks and troughs of their em fields will reinforce each other to generate a large disturbance to the overall em field.

In recent years neuroscientists in many laboratories across the world have become interested in the phenomenon of neuronal synchrony. Experiments from Paris’ Laboratoire de Neurosciences demonstrated synchronous firing in distinct regions of the brain when a subject’s attention is aroused by a pattern that resembled a face. When the subject saw only lines then his neurones fired randomly but when the subject realised he was looking at a face, his neurones snapped into step to fire synchronously.

In this, and in many similar experiments, neurone firing alone does not correlate with awareness but the em field disturbance generated by synchronous firing, does.  The simplest explanation is that the brain’s em field is conscious awareness – the cemi field.

The last cemi field proposition is that the brain’s (conscious) em field can itself influence neuronal firing. Like the first proposition, this is easy to prove and is indeed inevitable.

That concept of information encoded as an electromagnetic field is actually a very familiar one. We routinely encode complex images and sounds in em fields that we transmit to our TV and radio sets.

What I am proposing is that our brain is both the transmitter and the receiver of its own electromagnetic signals in a feedback loop that generates the conscious em field as a kind of informational sink. This informational transfer, through the cem field, may provide distinct advantages over neuronal computing, in rapidly integrating and processing information distributed in different parts of the brain. It may also provide an additional level of computation that is wave-mechanical, rather than digital; one that drives our free will. This is the advantage that consciousness provides: the capacity to make decisions.

So, how does this relate to artificial intelligence or "conscious machines?"  McFadden sees no insurmountable technological obstacle to replicating the electromagnetic process of consciousness:

One of the proposals of the cemi field theory is that the cemi field performs field computation in the brain (a process very similar to quantum computing) and this is the major advantage of consciousness that has been selected by natural selection. Computers currently lack this level of interaction and thereby lack the cemi field mediated general intelligence that is provided by field computing. I therefore predict that computers that compute only through wires will never acquire general intelligence and will never be aware.

However, there is nothing magical about cemi field awareness: it could be simulated by a computer with an architecture that allowed computations to take place through field interactions. Such computers would acquire natural intelligence and awareness.

AI pioneer Ray Kurzweil, a modern-day Thomas Edison, has blazed his own trail toward the same destination. Although Kurzweil has had an ongoing feud with UC-Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, he often quotes a statement by Searle:

The brain is a machine, a biological machine to be sure, but a machine all the same. So the first step is to figure out how the brain does it and then build an artificial machine that has an equally effective mechanism for causing consciousness. We know that brains cause consciousness with specific biological mechanisms.

Kurzweil, like McFadden, considers this quite do-able:

My objective prediction is that machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people.... They will exhibit the full range of subtle, familiar emotional clues; they will make us laugh and cry; and they will get mad at us if we say that we don't believe that they are conscious....We will come to accept that they are conscious persons.  My own leap of faith is this: Once machines do succeed in being convincing when they speak of their...conscious experiences, they will indeed constitute conscious persons.

Kurzweil is convinced that such beings will become routine in the 2030s.  Kurzweil observes the speed of technological advancement:

Biological evolution is continuing but technological evolution is moving a million times faster than the former.

And it brings to mind what Samuel Butler wrote in 1863:

We find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom.

Butler suggested that the thinking machines he anticipated would eventually be self-replicating. And Kurzweil expects something similar:

The intelligence we will create from the reverse-engineering of the brain will have access to its own source code and will be able to improve itself in an accelerating iterative design cycle....

From quantitative improvement comes qualitative advance. The most important evolutionary advance in Homo sapiens was quantitative: the development of a larger forehead to accommodate more neocortex. Greater neocortical capacity enabled this new species to create and contemplate thoughts at higher conceptual levels, resulting in the establishment of all the varied fields of art and science. As we add more neocortex in a nonbiological form, we can expect ever higher qualitative levels of abstraction.

British mathematician Irvin J. Good... wrote in 1965 that “the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.” He defined such a machine as one that could surpass the “intellectual activities of any man however clever” and concluded that “since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion.’”

The last invention that biological evolution needed to make—the neocortex—is inevitably leading to the last invention that humanity needs to make—truly intelligent machines—and the design of one is inspiring the other. Biological evolution is continuing but technological evolution is moving a million times faster than the former.

That's about all for now.  I hope I have learned my lesson.  Watching all those coffeehouse people in silent reverie with their smartphones, I thought they were surrendering their humanity.  But now I see it's not that way at all. Just like Samuel Butler said:

Every one should keep a mental wastepaper basket and the older he grows the more things he will consign to it - torn up to irrecoverable tatters.

Or, in the words of Ray Kurzweil:

Waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its nonbiological form, is our destiny.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Song of a Thousand Looms

Let's revisit Liberty Hyde Bailey's unexpectedly impassioned tribute to "The Tones of Industry" ca. 1915:

...The roll of belts and chains
The whirl of spindles
The hiss of steam
The tip-tap of valves
The undertone rumble of a mill...

As I read those words I was thinking of an 1896 speech by Locke Craig, who as NC governor two decades later would recover Mount Mitchell from the timber companies to establish the first state park in the Southeast. The speech, though, was a declaration of Manifest Destiny for the rise of cotton mills in the Old North State. Growing up with some sense of what textile mills meant to this state in the 20th century, I had one advantage over Craig, and that was the luxury of hindsight.

With the exception of the child laborers, these old pictures are reasonable approximations of places I worked - for a mercifully short time! 

Nothing more I need to add. Craig's oratory speaks for itself:

I shall never forget with what emotion I saw and heard for the first time in operation, a large cotton mill.

I have stood upon the dome of Mount Mitchell at midnight, while beneath me the storm thundered in terrific rage and power, the clouds shot electric fire, and the awful artillery of Heaven was unlimbered. The giant oak and granite boulders were uprooted, and hurled booming and crashing into the abyss amid the mighty battle of the elements, as of primeval chaos.

I have stood upon the sand dunes of Hatteras, and seen the stampede of hurricanes from equatorial storm fields, as they swept over the seething, tumultuous Atlantic in unbridled force and destruction from tropics to polar sea.

But, when I stood in that great cotton mill and listened to the song of a thousand looms, and the music of thousands of spindles, it was finer and grander than mountain storm or ocean hurricane.

It was a marching Hymn of universal progress. The energy that wrought the havoc of the storm had been harnessed and trained by the genius of man to do the service of man.

This chorus in the recitative of triumphant industry sounds around the world, to feed and to clothe — to liberate the toiler from ancient bondage — to beat down poverty from its hopelessness and degradation — to bless all God's children to a higher life — answering the prayer: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done."

Friday, December 25, 2015

Cullowhee Free Will Coffeehouse Church

The conversation turned to coffeehouses and it got me thinking.  What started it was riding past a former church turned coffeehouse.  In the pouring rain, my eyes played tricks on me, and I thought the sign said "free will."  So, maybe this coffeehouse still has a church connection, and you pay as little or as much as you like for a cup of joe, a free will offering. Plausible scenario.  A less likely explanation is that they were distinguishing their establishment from all the deterministic coffeehouses.  But when I rode past the sign later, the rain had slacked off and I saw that it actually said "free wifi."  Well, of course.  How foolish of me.

One thing I have learned over the past fifty years is that you might need to explain what you mean by coffeehouse. I'm sure that my introduction to the term referred to a music venue in Greenwich Village where beatniks would go to listen to folk singers.  In that regard, I suppose it would have been possible for a hootenanny to break out at a coffeehouse.  Now, when was the last time anyone used that word "hootenanny?" Without digressing too far down that rabbit trail, here's a helpful factoid from Joan Baez:

 A hootenanny is to folk singing what a jam session is to jazz. 

I first set foot in a coffeehouse in 1971.  In that day, flower children were few and far between, at least where I lived.  And fancying myself a fledgling flower child, how could I not check out the Friday night coffeehouse at the nearby college?  This took place on the second floor of the student center, heady and exotic stuff for a painfully naive high-school kid. If I recall correctly, they didn't serve coffee.  The lights were turned down low, or maybe the place was illuminated by candles, and I do remember the smell of incense.  This was the heyday of the singer-songwriter and the featured performer fit the bill perfectly.  Steve Duncan was extremely tall, slightly mysterious and a striking fellow in his own way.  When it came to picking a guitar and crooning his own compositions he was way ahead of anyone else I had ever heard in person.  While I'd met people who claimed they had rubbed elbows with the newly famous and monstrously popular James Taylor in Chapel Hill, the Friday night coffeehouse was about the closest I would come to that in my corner of the Piedmont. Looking around the room I saw maybe a half dozen other flower children, requisite bell bottoms and bandanas, sitting cross-legged on the floor, getting lost in the songs.  You could say that I was among "my people."  We wore little brass bells.  It seems so laughable now.

My next recollection of a coffeehouse came a few years later and involved someone from that same college.  Charles Hill was a virtuous wunderkind, and I knew him from the drama department.  I was painfully aware that I couldn't measure up to Charles when it came to acting, directing, earnestness or just about anything else. He could play guitar and sing beautifully and was someone who might have been called a "Jesus freak."  It is difficult to think of that term as anything but pejorative, but there was a brief time when certain zealous believers adopted the label with pride.  I can't say for sure whether that was or was not the case for Charles.  In any event, I do recall the time he showed me around a spacious and quite impressive Christian coffeehouse that he opened in a sleepy litle town called Oakboro.  I have no idea what ever came of it, but I'd like to think the seeds he planted there bore fruit.

You need to keep in mind that this was before the coffee culture that has saturated the country today.  I remember (when was it - sometime in the previous century?) hearing from a fellow that had moved from Cherokee to Seattle and he proclaimed that coffee bars were the next big thing. The next two or three years proved that he was correct.  I had seen other big things come and go - there was a time when any little mountain town had upwards of a half dozen video rental stores, but that trend peaked a long, long time ago.  It was interesting to observe the arrival of coffee culture in these little hick towns I've been familiar with the past few decades. There was one coffee shop near the square in Burnsville and I'm not sure it ever grew into the role it aspired to.  A few years ago I enjoyed some especially good times in Marshall.  The shabbiness of the town was very attractive to me.  The funky juxtasposition of Zuma Coffee, smackdab between the French Road River and the Madison County Courthouse, only added to the appeal of Marshall.  Without Zuma, a gathering place for the multitude of old hippie potters and jewelry makers esconced in all the nearby hollers, the town just would not have been the same. 

And as I recollect other places I've enjoyed overpriced cups of coffee, I remember Asheville back when it was still fun to go to Asheville, back before it became known as Ashvegas, dropping by Old Europe for coffee and a decadent pastry.  Apparently Old Europe only hired baristas that were gorgeous, in an elegant sort of way. And, during a leisurely evening of people-watching in downtown Asheville, the other customers coming and going from Old Europe were entertaining as well.

Sadly, we no longer live in those good old days.  I don't know why things have gone down the toilet.  Maybe a chunk of our innocence, innocence we didn't even know we possessed, was taken away by 9/11 and by all the government foolishness that came in response to 9/11. There's that.  And then there's all our damned "devices." 

I should have known that I didn't drive past the Free Will Coffeehouse Church this evening.  Of course it was "free wifi."  What coffeehouse wouldn't have free wifi?  Why do you even need to put it on your sign?  Sure, let's say it is a flaw in my character (and what a deeply flawed character I am) that causes my feelings of revulsion, disgust, anger, sadness, and grief when I look around any coffee emporium of the present day and see everyone staring into their palms, absorbed in their virtual lifelines.  They look so unhappy. They look so incapable of being present in what I stubbornly continue to call the "real world"  In the past, you might have shared some small acknowledgement of mutual humanity with the person at the next table, even something as subtle as a nod or a half-smile. But that's just soooo twentieth century!  I can't imagine the dreadful consequences from overstepping boundaries and doing anything that might interrupt anyone's wifi reverie these days. 

But don't take it from me.  I'm long past the point of being taken seriously on any front.  Consider this from a story aired on All (Politically Correct) Things Considered in 2014

"To walk into a place and see people looking at their screens with a blank stare, it takes away just kind of the community aspect of it — of you being in a place with other people."

No, those aren't my words.  Those are the words of Jodi Whalen, owner of August First Bakery in Burlington, Vermont, the same town that elected a socialist mayor named Bernie Sanders. And August First is a screen-free coffeehouse, an oxymoron of epic proportions.

I love the comment thread on this story, beginning with Edward Milhouse.  Is it safe to assume that he is someone who traded in his Volvo for a Prius and owns at least one pledge drive coffee mug? 

Edward Milhouse > Siara Delyn  • 2 years ago 
In Europe, it's actually considered poor manners to eat and run. In Italy if you spend less than an hour at dinner, you're looked on as a boorish tourist.

Seth Lustig > Edward Milhouse  • 2 years ago 
Spend less than an hour, hunched silently over a glowing screen, glowering at any group that has the nerve to be boisterous or talkative? I think not.
The intent here, I believe is to *bring back* some of the social aspect of a coffeehouse.

Edward Milhouse > Seth Lustig  • 2 years ago 
True, but at the same time most social conversations nowadays occur on-line. People are socializing and having discussions like crazy, it's just in text form on a screen with people in multiple locations simultaneously. If someone can't meet you at the coffee house, you can still chat with them on your phone while you're having coffee.

And on and on and on it goes.  I suppose if you had a "social conversation" with Edward Milhouse today he could tell you exactly why Bernie WILL be elected President in 2016.  Luc G's response to Edward certainly makes the case for why I am off-base, out of step with the times: 

Luc G > Edward Milhouse  • 2 years ago 
I think your comment speaks to something I've tried to ask people to consider: the way people socialize in our hyper-connected world will never go back to the way it was before the ubiquity of 'screens'. Stop looking wistfully into the past and try to discover new ways of connecting with your fellow man.  Communication technology and our ability to socialize with anybody at any time has radically altered the public perception of what is acceptable for social environments, and it will do nothing but continue to change that perception as technology continues to get better. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for moments of quiet contemplation over a cup of coffee, but to say that a coffee house isn't a social space because of screens is completely missing the mark. We have to move and think with our eyes to the future, not the past.

ianfrancism > Luc G  • 2 years ago 
You're all thinking about this way too hard. She can do whatever she wants with her coffee shop. She doesn't need your suggestions because she is doing great business by getting rid of the computers. If you wanna hang out at a coffee shop in Burlington with your computers or tablets, theres no shortage of coffee shops you can go to.

truth seeker > Edward Milhouse  • 2 years ago 
You are right, unlike restaurants coffee shops always made money when people sat did some work, in olden days people used to read news papers and books for hours at a time. She could just keep a time limit for her customers, or charge them for sitting for more time.

Lord, is it any wonder that I can't take being around liberals anymore?  I should be thankful when they're staring into their own palms and not engaging with me.  By the way, Jodi Whalen didn't make August First screen-free solely for the purpose of saving civilization as we knew it. Banning screen time was good for the bottom line, because it kept customers moving rather than pecking away at their devices all day:

"We saw a lot of customers come in, look for a table, not be able to find one and leave," Whalen says. "It was money flowing out the door for us."

So, maybe August First is the exception that proves the rule.  (Actually, I'm not sure an exception proves a rule, but let's not get started on that.)  And let's face the cold, hard fact of the matter - it's the pot calling the kettle black when I spend too much screen time in private bitching about people who spend too much screen time in public.  Guilty as charged!

Even so, given a choice between a free wifi coffeehouse and a free will coffeehouse, I'll take the latter every time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Wasn't Made for These Times

Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation...tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego. His anxiety subsides. His inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.
― Jean Arp

[The modern age] knows nothing about isolation and nothing about silence. In our quietest and loneliest hour the automatic ice-maker in the refrigerator will cluck and drop an ice cube, the automatic dishwasher will sigh through its changes, a plane will drone over, the nearest freeway will vibrate the air. Red and white lights will pass in the sky, lights will shine along highways and glance off windows. There is always a radio that can be turned to some all-night station, or a television set to turn artificial moonlight into the flickering images of the late show. We can put on a turntable whatever consolation we most respond to, Mozart or Copland or the Grateful Dead.
― Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Sometimes I feel very sad
Sometimes I feel very sad
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
-Brian Wilson

Yesterday, I stopped by the Golden Arches for a Big Mac. After settling into a not-so-cozy booth, I began to marvel at the amount of noise that we are expected to accept as normal. Layered atop the white noise hum of the ventilation system and lighting, an urgent assortment of beeps, buzzes and other incessant alarms wafted from the kitchen, while a jived-up butchery of an old Christmas carol rattled from above and Wolf Blitzer brayed his joyless bray from the flat screen TV. The other diners glumly devoured their meals while gazing listlessly at the devices burbling in their palms. Maybe it is time to start carrying earplugs. One could complain about the canned music being piped into a favorite fast-food joint, Chinese buffet, or most any other restaurant. That is, if one wants to be outed as a crank, and be told there's absolutely nothing that can be done to change the musical offerings.

And so it is in the place that used to be America. I've come to terms with the fact that the town I called home for 30 years no longer exists, or exists only as a rapidly fading memory. Home it is no more. And so too for the good ol' USA, supplanted by the politically correct America 2.0, a foreign and dreadful place indeed. One of the most cogent descriptions of these times was uttered by the prophet Isaiah, 2700 years ago:

How terrible it will be for those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness, who substitute what is bitter for what is sweet and what is sweet for what is bitter!

How terrible it is for all of us. Is it any wonder that Americans are gulping down all the oxycodones they can get their hands on, legally or not? I seek my own exile from this increasingly repugnant modernity via ever-deepening solitude or by binge-watching reruns of Death Valley Days and Adam 12,  but I can understand why record numbers are using opioids to achieve permanent exile. Who could blame them?

Someday, when I'm king, every schoolchild will know the name of one particular American genius. Pending coronation, I'll have to make the most of this online soapbox to rescue him from unwarranted obscurity. Almost 25 years ago I came across a passage from one of his books, and though I misplaced the quote and forgot his name, the idea stayed with me and kept coming back when I would work in the garden. Finally, last week, I rediscovered the author and the book, which was published one hundred years ago. Here's that elusive quote:

It is possible to hoe potatoes and to hear the birds sing at the same time, although our teaching has not much developed this completeness in the minds of the people.

I can attest to the truth of this statement from Liberty Hyde Bailey contained in his 1915 book, The Holy Earth. And while I am happy to locate the quote once again, I am equally glad to get acquainted with the author and his work. Bailey (1858-1954) was for many years a botanist at Cornell University where he played a crucial role in bringing attention to Gregor Mendel's work on plant breeding and hybridization. Bailey was instrumental in starting agricultural extension services, the 4-H movement, parcel post and rural electrification. Despite earning the sobriquet "Father of American Horticulture," despite writing more than 65 books, despite his visionary perspective on rural life, I suspect that very few people know anything about him today. I didn't.

The Holy Earth is a delight to read, although contemporary readers might find his language and his ideas rather dated. The opening sentences of the book illustrate my point:

So bountiful hath been the earth and so securely have we drawn from it our substance, that we have taken it all for granted as if it were only a gift, and with little care or conscious thought of the consequences of our use of it; nor have we very much considered the essential relation that we bear to it as living parts in the vast creation. It is good to think of ourselves—of this teeming, tense, and aspiring human race—as a helpful and contributing part in the plan of a cosmos, and as participators in some far-reaching destiny. The idea of responsibility is much asserted of late, but we relate it mostly to the attitude of persons in the realm of conventional conduct, which we have come to regard as very exclusively the realm of morals; and we have established certain formalities that satisfy the conscience. But there is some deeper relation than all this, which we must recognize and the consequences of which we must practise. There is a directer and more personal obligation than that which expends itself in loyalty to the manifold organizations and social requirements of the present day. There is a more fundamental co-operation in the scheme of things than that which deals with the proprieties or which centres about the selfishness too often expressed in the salvation of one's soul.

Nevertheless, quotable passages are found on almost every page of the book:

We shall produce a much better and safer man when we make him self-controlling by developing his sense of responsibility than when we regulate him by exterior enactments.

The direct lineage from Liberty Hyde Bailey to a modern writer who has explored similar themes, Wendell Berry, is unmistakable. I was not at all surprised to learn that Berry contributed the foreword to the centennial edition of The Holy Earth:

[Bailey] gives to our cant phrase ‘quality of life’ a gravity and a happiness that most of us have forgot even to try for, exceeding the capacity of our language of novelty and the news, but reachable if ever again we should decide to try.

As much as I would like to delve into an examination of Bailey's take on agrarianism, that will have to wait for another day. Staying with today's riff on sounds, here's another page from The Holy Earth, where Bailey suggests that a capacity for silence is an antidote to the stresses of modernity.

Man listens in the forest. He pauses in the forest. He finds himself. He loses himself in the town and even perhaps in the university. He may lose himself in business and in great affairs; but in the forest he is one with a tree, he stands by himself and yet has consolation, and he comes back to his own place in the scheme of things. We have almost forgotten to listen; so great and ceaseless is the racket that the little voices pass over our ears and we hear them not. I have asked person after person if he knew the song of the chipping-sparrow, and most of them are unaware that it has any song. We do not hear it in the blare of the city street, in railway travel, or when we are in a thunderous crowd. We hear it in the still places and when our ears are ready to catch the smaller sounds.

There is no music like the music of the forest, and the better part of it is faint and far away or high in the tops of trees. The forest may be an asylum. "The groves were God's first temples." We need all our altars and more, but we need also the sanctuary of the forest. It is a poor people that has no forests. I prize the farms because they have forests. It is a poor political philosophy that has no forests. It is a poor nation that has no forests and no workers in wood. In many places there are the forests. I think that we do not get the most out of them. Certainly they have two uses: one for the products, and one for the human relief and the inspiration. I should like to see a movement looking toward the better utilization of the forests humanly, as we use school buildings and church buildings and public halls.

I wish that we might take our friends to the forests as we also take them to see the works of the masters. For this purpose, we should not go in large companies. We need sympathetic guidance. Parties of two and four may go separately to the forests to walk and to sit and to be silent. I would not forget the forest in the night, in the silence and the simplicity of the darkness. Strangely few are the people who know a real forest at dark. Few are those who know the forest when the rain is falling or when the snow covers the earth. Yet the forest is as real in all these moments as when the sun is at full and the weather is fair. I wish that we might know the forest intimately and sensitively as a part of our background. I think it would do much to keep us close to the verities and the essentials.

On the other hand, Bailey was no luddite.  He shared with his contemporaries an optimistic faith in mechanical progress, expressed in a curious chapter of The Holy Earth entitled The Tones of Industry, which features a Whitmanesque catalog of noises:

One of the clearest notes of our time is the recognition of the holiness of industry and the attempt to formulate the morals of it. We accept this fact indirectly by the modern endeavor to give the laboring man his due. The handworker is more or less elemental, dealing directly with the materials. We begin to recognize these industries in literature, in sculpture, and in painting; but we do not yet very consciously or effectively translate them into music. It is to be recognized, of course, that melody is emotional and dynamic not imitative, that its power lies in suggestion rather than in direct representation, and that its language is general; with all this I have nothing to do.

Meunier has done much with his chisel to interpret the spirit of constructive labor and to develop its higher significance. His art is indeed concrete and static, and sculpture and music are not to be compared; yet it raises the question whether there may be other bold extensions of art. The primitive industries must have been mostly silent, when there were no iron tools, when fire felled the forest tree and hollowed the canoe, when the parts in construction were secured by thongs, and when the game was caught in silent traps or by the swift noiseless arrow and spear. Even at the Stone Age the rude implements and the materials must have been mostly devoid of resonance. But now industry has become universal and complex, and it has also become noisy,—so noisy that we organize to protect ourselves from becoming distraught. And yet a workshop, particularly if it works in metal, is replete with tones that are essentially musical.

Workmen respond readily to unison. There are melodies that arise from certain kinds of labor. Much of our labor is rhythmic. In any factory driven by power, there is a fundamental rhythm and motion, tying all things together. I have often thought, standing at the threshold of a mill, that it might be possible somewhere by careful forethought to eliminate the clatter and so to organize the work as to develop a better expression in labor. Very much do we need to make industry vocal. It is worth considering, also, whether it is possible to take over into music any of these sounds of industry in a new way, that they may be given meanings they do not now possess.

At all events, the poetic element in industry is capable of great development and of progressive interpretation; and poetry is scarcely to be dissociated from sound. All good work well done is essentially poetic to the sensitive mind; and when the work is the rhythm of many men acting in unison, the poetry has voice.

The striking of the rivet
The purr of a drill
The crash of a steam-shovel
The plunge of a dredge
The buzz of a saw
The roll of belts and chains
The whirl of spindles
The hiss of steam
The tip-tap of valves
The undertone rumble of a mill
The silence intent of men at work
The talk of men going to their homes,
— These are all the notes of great symphonies.

Nor should I stop with the industries of commerce and manufacture. There are many possibilities in the sounds and voices that are known of fisherfolk and campers and foresters and farmers. Somehow we should be able to individualize these voices and to give them an artistic expression in some kind of human composition. There are rich suggestions in the voices of the farmyard, the calls of wild creatures, the tones of farm implements and machinery, the sounds of the elements, and particularly in the relations of all these to the pauses, the silences, and the distances beyond. Whether it is possible to utilize any of these tones and voices artistically is not for a layman to say; but the layman may express the need that he feels.

Wow.  Even though I will continue my efforts to simultaneously hoe potatoes and hear the birds sing, others, such as the subjects of the 2008 documentary People Who Do Noise, might find inspiration in Bailey's celebration of the musicality of noise.  Whatever. 

Perhaps it is possible to appreciate a silent night AND to make a joyful noise, although I'm not sure McDonalds is the best place for either.

For now, while I ruminate over that one, the last word goes to Bailey:

The earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and to do our best, living with each other and with all creatures.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Keeping Quiet

Near Newfound Gap in the Great Iron Mountains
Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

This one time upon the earth,
let's not speak any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.

The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.

What I want shouldn't be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren't unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,

if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.

Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I'll go.

-Pablo Neruda, from Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Nature is Imagination

Along Ramsey Cascade Trail, GSMNP

"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.  Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all.  But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself."-  William Blake, 1799, The Letters    

Monday, November 2, 2015

"A Way I Know"

Cullasaja River, October 2015

From The French Broad Hustler, April 23, 1908

The Cullasaja.
(By Charlotte Young)

I wish you knew a way I know
   Along the Cullasaja.
There, everything to quietness
   And happy thoughts persuade you.

The river sings its own wild song
   Around the rocky turnings,
There honey-suckles light the banks
   With red and yellow burnings.

Along the cliffs the ferns uncurl,
   And trails the pink arbutus,
And here the wood thrush lilts a song
   As sweet as any flute is.

I wish you knew a way I know
   By dreaming flowers and river,
The little cares that hurt you so
   Would float away forever.

--Charlotte Young  [1878-1985]