Do You Believe in Evil?

November 10, 2009 § 1 Comment

GoyaFrancisco Goya, The Disasters of War

David Brooks wrote an editorial today deploring what he calls the “rush to therapy” in the case of Nidal Hasan—the fear, by commentators, of inciting anti-Muslim passions and so focusing on the personal aspects of Hasan’s story rather than the ideological ones.

Brooks begins his editorial by talking about the importance of choosing a story to explain life or one’s life, the ferocious need humans have to make sense of the world, and the great power these stories have.

I watched the earliest coverage of the shootings—on Chris Matthews—and this desire not to emphasize the “Muslim connection” was obvious. It did feel like denial, political correctness, etc. And yet, what to do? Brooks writes, “If public commentary wasn’t carefully policed, the assumption seemed to be, then the great mass of unwashed yahoos in Middle America would go off on a racist rampage.”

I don’t know how unwashed they are, or where they reside, but the existence of a great many angry and bigoted people in our country is very real. Hasan’s rage and bitterness led him to take 13 lives. Most of those inflamed by the ideological/religious/ethnic basis of his action will settle for beating a teenager into a coma, or destroying the business of a hardworking older couple.

There’s nothing wrong with TV commentators, who wield so much power over the shaping of stories, being  cautious. What harm is done? Will Hasan be freed with a referral to a psychiatrist?  Will Obama immediately conclude the war in order not to upset potential Hasans?

Or—horrors—will we stop believing in evil? Welcome Satan into our living rooms and tell the kids murder is a lifestyle choice?

None of this is going to happen. Hasan will be in prison the rest of his life. It may be a very short life. The army will pay more attention to the psychic toll of the war, which as Bob Herbert wrote the other day, is affecting thousands of people who will never kill anyone, whose violence will be against themselves and their families, and probably never reach the status of “criminal violence,” though causing no less suffering for that.

The army will not pay enough attention. The loneliness and unhappiness of soldiers who may or may not become a serious danger to others will never be adequately addressed. And my—and others’—sorrow about this, honestly, is not because we think suicide bombers or suicide shooters are lost lambs. It’s not because we care more about not offending people than we do about protecting people.

It’s about what works. It’s about living in a country of people who were born, or whose parents were born, in every nation on earth, people whose religious beliefs cover the spectrum; and at the same time waging and funding wars which inevitably rouse national and religious passions.

It doesn’t matter whether you are for or against our current military policy. For now and the foreseeable future, America will be an aggressive armed presence in the world. Frankly, we have to watch our back, and our back is at home. It made up of people like Hasan and it’s made up of people like the ones who’d like to lynch him—or, if he’s not available, someone with a similar name.

The reason, David Brooks, that we don’t have to go on and on about how evil it is to gun down 13 people at an army base, is that, really, everybody already knows that.

A Divine Image

Cruelty has a human heart,
And Jealousy a human face;
Terror the human form divine,
And Secrecy the human dress.

The human dress is forged iron,
The human form a fiery forge,
The human face a furnace sealed,
The human heart a hungry gorge.

—William Blake

Of Brains and Bots

July 26, 2009 § 1 Comment

weird-china-002Farmer Wu Yu drives his rickshaw pulled by his self-made walking robot near his home in a village at the outskirts of Beijing.

The New York Times has a piece today about the dangers of computers becoming too smart. It was written in response to a group of scientists responding to Ray Kurzweil’s paean to the upcoming age of brilliant machines, when we will all be immortal and the world will be transformed beyond recognition. Oh right, the first half of that sentence pretty much implies the latter half. But transformed in even more ways! His book, The Singularity is Near, is fun and exciting-scary but not entirely plausible. But who can really know? The Times quotes Dr. Eric Horvitz, president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, as saying “Technologists are replacing religion, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.” Yeah, that’s the goofy side of Ray. But the man’s no slackwit.

I can’t help feeling more intrigued by computers getting smart than worried about it. Maybe that’s because there are already so many doomsday scenarios out there, most of them very plausible, and/or because I’ve always been a fan of intelligence. If we create our superiors and they take over, so be it. Not if they’re nasty soulless machines, sure, but who says that’s likely to be the case? Intelligence without emotion doesn’t really function, as researchers have finally figured out—emotion is the stimulus for thought—and intelligence + emotion without empathy is hard for me to envision. That advanced AI creations might not have empathy for us is entirely possible. We’re not doing so well with chimpanzees and gorillas, are we?

Kurzweil’s thesis is that once computers attain self-consciousness, they’ll be able to direct their own evolution, without our cultural repugnance to the idea, and get smarter by leaps and bounds. I’m not sure about this; intelligence still needs experience to shape it, and with experience comes culture—who says the smart computer will be so interested in making the even smarter computer?

The Times story is not about the dangers of the Kurzweil scenario so much as about the dangers of somewhat-smarter systems; ones that will take over jobs or be exploitable by criminals, governments and corporations. Those are worrisome possibilities, and since they’ll happen (have already begun to happen) before genius computers offer us immortality in their digital arms, they’re more likely to shape people’s response to advances in AI. It’s hard to imagine what would really stop progress, though—without the yuck factor involved in engineering babies or creating animals that are nothing but meat, and without the historical evidence of nuclear experiments, public opposition probably won’t grow fast enough.

People won’t like it when their computers can critique their job performance accurately, and when the first auto-driven automobiles crash, there will be plenty who will disregard statistics that they crash 1/10 as often as other cars, or whatever may be the case. But there are too many very smart techno-freaks out there. And they revere intelligence more than I do, having more of it to begin with.

So get ready for an interesting next 20 years. Climate crash, self-aware computers…this Great Recession, our first black president, whatever you think is new and different about this moment in history—you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And for the here and now: what about robots that eat household pests? Check out this article from New Scientist

My Pleasure Principles

March 15, 2009 § 1 Comment

Ingres, Odalisque

Ingres, Odalisque

I expect that by now many of you have read the New York Times article, “The Pleasure Principle,” about a center in San Francisco called One Taste Urban Retreat Center*, which is dedicated to the art and practice of female orgasm. Men and women live together at the center, learning yoga and mindfulness, but the main event happens at 7 a.m. each day, when “about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation…”

7 a.m.? Don’t they know that female desire peaks in the mid-afternoon? Men are the ones who wake up with hard-ons, and women have to bat them away in order to get coffee. If I had an orgasm in the morning, why would I bother writing?

At the One Taste Center, the men and women avoid eye contact during the orgasm-meditation. It’s not about romance, or interpersonal communication. The men don’t get to climax. Part of me thinks this would be a good place for women who’ ve never had orgasms, even while masturbating, or who’ ve never masturbated, or who can’t have orgasms during sex because of shame about their body. The female body is beautiful and holy and deserves to be serviced in hushed and velvety circumstances. I  can go for that (right now would be nice). But another part of me thinks—what is this preparing you for? Sex with eunuchs?

Women need to know how to achieve orgasm and how to ask for the right stimulation, and men need to learn the techniques and be willing to employ them. Plenty of women also have things to learn about male sexuality, which is a curious and fascinating field of study. I think sex workshops are a great resource for all genders. There ought to be more of them. Maybe in high school, right after the workshop in financial management. But a live-in retreat and a focus on orgasm as ‘meditation’ takes you away from ordinary life, which is, face it, where the best sex is to be found.

I would be happy if men all responded to the clitoris the way I respond to the penis of the man I love and desire: something that turns me on to look at, touch, lick, etc. I can write glorious emails about its beauty. (I’ve tried poems but that just gets embarrassing.) If men worshipped the clitoris the way they worship breasts, all would be well. But they don’t, and I doubt we can change that without intensive genetic manipulation, which is a task best left to future generations.

Even so, I’ve had plenty of nights of sex without orgasm that I wouldn’t want to have missed. The crazy heat, the tease, the turn-on of precipitous action is quite lovely. Having one’s breasts worshipped isn’t bad either. And in general I’ll take a man I love, a man I think is sexy, a man whose cock I worship (except when he’s being, excuse me, a prick) over an Olympic gold-medal cunnilinguist any day.

In my experience the best way to motivate a man to make love better is to a) arouse him, b) make sure he cares about you, or at least wants you to stick around, and c) appeal to his competitive instincts. If you let him know your last boyfriend was a virtuoso with his tongue and hands, he’ll apply himself with vigor. If you sigh and moan when he gets it right, he’ll keep it up.

Men are funny that way. Sort of like women, except with women you have to be more indirect.

On else, you could offer this incentive (from the Times article): “a baby-faced 50-year-old Silicon Valley engineer…said that the practice of manually fixing his attention on a tiny spot of a woman’s body improves his concentration at work.”

You see? I’d prefer a man who joined the Center because he wanted access to all those naked lower bodies and then went mad with desire and had to be restrained by brawny bouncers, chained in the cellar until the wild lust had worn itself out…

I guess I’m not the meditative type.

* I’m not going to make any jokes about the name of the One Taste Urban Retreat Center. That’s what comments are for.

I read the news today, oh boy…

March 10, 2009 § 1 Comment

Warthog. n.(wôrthôg, -hg) 1. A wild African hog with two tusks and warty excresences on its face. 2. A person who always eats the best bits. 3. Inspiration for name of school in famous children's story  (slang) Banker

Warthog. n.(wôrthôg, -hg) 1. A wild African hog with two protruding tusks and warty excrescences on its face. 2. A person who always eats the best bits. 3. Inspiration for name of school in famous children's story 4. (slang) Banker

From The New York Times, March 10, 2009, explaining the huge jump in the stock market this morning, “That hint of hope came in the form of a memorandum from the chief executive of Citigroup, Vikram S. Pandit, saying that the bank had turned a profit in the first two months of the year, and that its quarterly performance to date, before taxes and special items, was the best since the third quarter of 2007.

Mr. Pandit gave no indication of how much special items, like write-downs or credit losses, would be…”

Does anyone else feel the slightest twinge of mistrust? This nugget of questionable news made bank stocks rise in the double digits. A sweet profit for somebody. Think of the possibilities for a person with advance notice of this memo. Think of the temptation to write it.

Think of all the money people will lose when the market changes its mind tomorrow or Friday.


In its weekly grammar column, The Times castigates itself for its cornucopia of errors, having apparently decided this approach is cheaper than hiring more copyeditors. Today’s column concerned metaphor abuse, citing a sentence that contained this specimen “…a stew of programs, some with warts and all.”

I find that strangely evocative. Is it really an error? I’m sure I’ve had warts in my stew. Middle School cafeteria, maybe? Not that I’m complaining. Pretty soon we’ll look back on these days nostalgically. The few ancients will tell stories: “Once upon a time, children, you could still get warts. Real warts, served up hot in a stew. You can’t imagine how tasty they were: chewy, protein-rich, and no two exactly alike…

“But never mind; dirt’s good enough for us. We can live on dirt thanks to our genetic modifications derived from stem-cell research. Of all nations, America produced the most aborted fetuses in the early part of this century, giving us an unbeatable technological edge, and ending the old argument about whether sex is good for anything. It’s a shame we had to let it go.

“Now, children, what your older siblings told you that made you cry and have nightmares is in fact true—if a 2009-era person saw you, he’d crush you underfoot or spray you with nasty chemicals. But they were primitives, greedy, stupid and mindlessly destructive. They didn’t understand the elegant efficiency of the human-insect hybrid with built-in wifi capability, access to communal memory farms and daily upgrades. They didn’t even appreciate wart stew, for god’s sake; I used to have to tell my husband it was chipped beef. Beef? T bones on the grill, filet mignon with béarnaise? Forget about it. Eat your dirt.”

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