Boundary issues

Friston draws a carefully regulated boundary around his inner life, guarding against intrusions, many of which seem to consist of “worrying about other people.”

…In Friston’s mind, the universe is made up of Markov blankets inside of Markov blankets. Each of us has a Markov blanket that keeps us apart from what is not us. And within us are blankets separating organs, which contain blankets separating cells, which contain blankets separating their organelles. The blankets define how biological things exist over time and behave distinctly from one another. Without them, we’re just hot gas dissipating into the ether.
– Shaun Raviv, The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI

Emphasis mine.

In a recurring motif in your Neapolitan novels, Lila is beset by what you call episodes of “dissolving margins.” As you wrote in My Brilliant Friend, “She said that on those occasions the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.”

… You yourself steer us toward the possibility of collaborative origins, emphasizing in Frantumaglia the “highly composite, immaterial organism” to be found in the pages of your novels, “made up of me who writes and of Lenù, let’s say, and of the many people and things she narrates.”

The quest for Elena Ferrante, as your emphasis on dissolving boundaries would suggest, need not entail deciphering a clear-cut process of co-authorship—quite the contrary. We readers may never know the precise divisions of labor that have gone into the creation of you, the author, any more than we could identify which qualities in a child come from which parent’s DNA.
– Rachel Donadio, Elena Ferrante: Who Is Behind the Pseudonym?

Catholic Celibacy and Cuban Communism

In the early 1960s, two very different regimes attempted to remake humanity:

Still, the revolution was most astonishing not for its radical redistribution of wealth and resources, its abolition of most forms of private property, or its successful confrontation with the empire at its very doorstep. Its deepest ambition went further: to completely reform the individual. Thus the Cuban Revolution promised nothing less than the reinvention of humankind. The revolutionary leadership envisioned the creation of a “new man,” one tirelessly dedicated to the collective rather than driven by individual seIf interest.
Revolution within the Revolution, Michelle Chase.

When Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, bishops from many parts of the world hoped that the church would finally change its doctrine and allow priests to marry. But John XXIII died before the council finished its work, which was then overseen by his successor, Paul VI (one of the popes most strongly rumored to have been gay). Paul apparently felt that the sweeping reforms of Vatican II risked going too far, so he rejected the pleas for priestly marriage and issued his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned contraception, overriding a commission he had convened that concluded that family planning and contraception were not inconsistent with Catholic doctrine.

Opposing priestly marriage and contraception placed the church on the conservative side of the sexual revolution and made adherence to strict sexual norms a litmus test for being a good Catholic, at a time when customs were moving rapidly in the other direction…

The obsession with enforcing unenforceable standards of sexual continence that run contrary to human nature (according to one study, 95 percent of priests report that they masturbate) has led to an extremely unhealthy atmosphere within the modern church that contributed greatly to the sexual abuse crisis.
The Sins of Celibacy, Alexander Stille

Both projects are modern, though they invoke the future and the past as justification.

They are examples of what Michel Foucault has described as biopower:

During the classical period, there was a rapid development of various disciplines—universities, secondary schools, barracks, workshops; there was also the emergence, in the field of political prac­tices and economic observation, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration. Hence there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of “bio­ power.”

Moohairies

A song from 1998, inspired by julio iglesias and the walking scenes from “Hopscotch”. this was the first Pepito song, done with Reason, SoundEdit 16 and SimpleText on an iMac G3.

video: VCV Rack FullScope module, Quicktime screen capture, iMovie, Photoshop.

quasi-public spaces

From my Facebook account, July 23, 2015:

[note: I saw a man, apparently homeless, using a Starbucks cup to justify his occupying space in an outdoor seating area.]

A slow yielding of public to private spaces (an old ebb and flow) led to a tremendous opportunity for Starbucks in the early 1990s: not to sell coffee but to rent public space.

To rent a Starbucks public space you purchase a disposable token (a white Starbucks coffee cup) and place it near your person. The cup contains a complimentary drink. The tokens – cups – are uniform in outward appearance but can be filled with various liquids which are sold at different prices to allow the consumer to signal who they are. The liquids may be consumed.

It’s understandable that Starbucks would attempt to program a discussion of race throughout its chain of “public squares.” The effort failed but I bet they’ll try again, perhaps by allowing regional or individual stores to set the agenda and partnering with established brands.

I was reminded of Starbucks’ trade in public spaces by the below short history of anti-theft devices in medieval libraries:

Do you leave your e-reader or iPad on the table in Starbucks when you are called to pick up your cup of Joe? You’re probably not inclined to do this, because the object in question might be stolen. The medieval reader would nod his head approvingly, because book theft happened in his day too.

From my Facebook account, April 18, 2018:

Basically, Starbucks coffee shops are so prevalent, they’re a quasi-public space.

Meanwhile, there’s very few public spaces being built. So where do you go meet a friend? What public space can you occuppy?

And when you’re in a private space, the rules are different. In principle, the police exist to serve and protect THE PUBLIC but, in practice, they often serve PRIVATE interests – i.e., those of businesses.

We need more public spaces. Not co-working spaces, not chill bars, not coffee shops. Public spaces that faciltate a vibrant civil society. No transaction needed.

And, yes, private companies that provide a quasi-public service (this web site [Facebook] included) should be held to the highest standards – i.e., those of our public sites.

Also, more / better: A conversation about Starbucks, white fear, and being black in public.

postscript

Patrick Skinner, via Twitter:

People in my precinct need more public places to hang out without fear of ‘loitering’. The commercialization of our common spaces & criminalization of sidewalks has made ‘hanging out’ a crime. I support anything that gets neighbors out & active in their streets. They live there.

War Games, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove

In 1998, there were two movies about a natural catastrophe: Armageddon & Deep Impact.

In 2006, there were two movies about magicians living outside the reality-based community: The Prestige & The Illusionist.

In 1964, there were two movies about systems failure and nuclear war: Dr. Strangelove & Fail-Safe.

You’ve probably never heard of the second one even though it was directed by a director whose movies were widely seen (Sidney Lumet) and starred actors with long careers: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman and (!) Dom DeLuise.

Both movies end with catastrophe – nuclear annihilation – because humans (men, really) can’t get it right before the system they’ve built kills them.

Dr. Strangelove came out first and did better. But I suspect that part of the reason why it’s better known is that it was funnier and used symbols more effectively.

War Games was released almost 20 years after both movies (1983). I consider it iconic and I think many would agree (“Would you like to play a game?”).

Like Dr. Strangelove, War Games is not only funny, it works as both a realistic drama and an allegory.

In War Games, the system is a more developed character: it’s physically embodied as a computer (that gets plenty of close-up’s!) and even has two names. The military calls it WOPR but its inventor names it Joshua – after the creator’s dead son!

One day, Joshua, the computer, strikes up a friendship with a real boy who likes to play with computers and… hijinks ensue!

The relationship beween the computer boy and the real boy not only drives the movie, it gets us to a very different ending.

The human boy teaches the computer that some games are not worth playing. The computer then teaches this lesson to the serious adults in the room by giving them a nuclear war scare (simulation).

In other words, in War Games, humanity survives by letting young people lead the way (as Ally Sheedy convincingly argues: 17 year-olds really want to live).

I just saw War Games again last night and I found it to be just as good for the 45 year-old Jose as for the 12 year-old me. Really, it’s excellent.

The comedy is very dry and the jokes come fast. I think it could be grouped with Dr. Strangelove, for sure, but also Robocop, among others.

I’m in the middle of writing a kind of update and I was pleasantly surprised just how much this movie influenced me.

Images “attached” are scenes from Fail-Safe (1964) and War Games (1983)

 scenes from Fail-Safe (1964) and War Games (1983)

Underground

Magicians show you things you don’t know you’re seeing. Prosecutors tell you things you don’t realize you’re hearing.

Movies use a similar ploy: they make you feel smart and perceptive about details they want you to regard as facts.

In other words, they hide clues in plain sight. (Like the Purloined Letter)

This can make moviegoers feel superhuman; like they can see into the future and under the surface of things.

A great movie will exploit this feeling to hide a greater truth under an obvious fiction.

The moment in Black Panther (2018), when the ship flies into the dusty ground of an impoverished nation and emerges under blue skies, above a hidden kingdom of peace and wealth: that was some deep, deep shit.

GIF from the excellent recap: Wakanda Future Do You Imagine?

the normal

I just scanned the most recent issue of “14 y medio”, a banned / clandestine news digest from Cuba.

You won’t be surprised that the stories are about struggle.

It reminded me of feedback I got recently about a TV pilot I’m writing, set in a Cuban island, with a Cuban protagonist.

The advice came from a good friend, with experience: “There’s so much struggle. You have to give the protagonist some success earlier on.”

I did. But it’s worth noting that middle-class Americans (the idealized audience for TV entertainment) simply don’t understand what life is like for most everyone else.

Moreover, struggle is not depressing, per se. Struggle is not a defeat. Struggle is the baseline – the foundation for comedy, desire, nostalgia, hope, frustration, etc

The extent to which TV is cast from the perspective of people who expect the glass to be full is remarkable. Even when the show depicts suffering, this bias colors the tone: the pain is tragic, all-consuming, debilitating.

In reality, the pain is constant but so is the perseverance. And ingenuity. And passion.

Actual Science Fiction

A hundred years from now half the cops will have psych degrees and we’ll look back on today like a horror show.

(the movie “Bright” is not actually science fiction.)

update may 2, 2018

Ben Taub:

According to David M. Kennedy, one of the nation’s leading criminologists, American policing is practiced more as a craft than as a profession. “The kind of thinking that should go into framing and refining what a profession of public safety should be has still not been done,” he told me. Officers are deployed as enforcers of the state, without being taught psychology, anthropology, sociology, community dynamics, local history, or criminology. Lethal force is prioritized above other options…

There’s no training on how to de-escalate tense scenarios in which no crime has been committed, even though the majority of police calls fall into that category…

“This is how situations go so, so badly—yet justifiably, legally,” Skinner said. Police officers often encounter people during the worst moments of their lives, and Skinner believes that his role is partly to resolve trouble and partly to prevent people from crossing the line from what he calls “near-crime” into “actual crime.” The goal, he said, is “to slow things down, using the power of human interaction more than the power of the state.”

Spanishes

Free advice, actually worth a lot.

I’ve been married to a Mexican for almost 20 years and I’ve slowly learned that Mexicans communicate in a way that is very similar to the Japanese.

They do not want the person with whom they are speaking to lose face. They do not themselves want to lose face. Both cultures use context heavily to shade the meaning of their statements so as to convey the truth without hurting the listener’s feelings or fully exposing their own.

In their cultures, this is polite.

In Cuban culture, we say exactly what we’re thinking before we’ve even finished thinking it. This is not impolite because no statement is viewed as final but rather a part of a collective unfolding.

It can be madenning for a Cuban to hear a Mexican say one thing when they mean another. Likewise, it must be madenning for a Mexican to hear a Cuban declare an ultimatum as their first statement.

I have to get to work now but I suspect geography, architecture and traditional cultures play significant roles in this drastic difference between two Spanish-speaking peoples who once traded roles as the Seats of the Spanish Kingdom in the Americas.

Facebook is made out of…

very good critics point out that Facebook is engineered to be addictive.

but they seldom recognize that the pleasure being meted out is OTHER PEOPLE.

for example, in today’s Quartz newsletter:

“…this move was surely carefully designed, with product managers realizing that users who abandon social media are unlikely to return, while a cut-down dose of its drug might keep feed junkies hanging around longer, searching for that scrolling high. Ask any dealer—cutting the product is a better scenario than having users overdose and turn up dead.”

yes, this is true. many of the technologies our society is investing in right now (via ad revenue, stocks, attention) are about behavioral control.

but, again, the high is OTHER PEOPLE.

Facebook replaced email and blogs by combining them. they didn’t invent some new pleasure. ultimately, any technology that BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER will prosper. those that isolate people will perish.

(why the ALL CAPS?)

update january 17, 2018

Zeynep Tufekci:

Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together. We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite. And Facebook gorges us on them—in what the company’s first president, Sean Parker, recently called “a social-­validation feedback loop.”

Invasions

One of the charms of Star Wars was the contrast of robots and serfs, space ships and lords. High technology and feudalism.

If you follow US politics (don’t, it’s a really really bad season), you’re seeing the beginnings of something quite similar: a 21st century version of medieval culture and power dynamics.

Instantaneous access to every fact – and any fiction disguised as fact. World-ending weapons in the hands of a cabal propping up a cult.

Our popular imaginary for the last ~15 years has been so busy re-staging the 9/11 attacks, (suppressing the invasion of Iraq), that it has failed to express the emerging dystopia.

Every blockbuster ends with the literal destruction of the world, rather than its substitution with a deadly simulacrum.

In short, we’ve had too much of this:

And not enough of this:

A call

Payphone outside bodega in poor neighborhood. White man, late 60s, white hair, white beard, white t-shirt, faded denim jeans. He’s holding a white sheet of paper, crumpled, yelling into the phone. Utter frustration and despair.

Wheels of fortune

Smart people become irrational around technology.

We want absolutes, purity and simple answers; whether it’s being anti-GMO or bullish on AI, the impulse is the same: to eliminate doubt.

We can’t.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you religion not reasoning. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The geniuses on Wall Street needed to be bailed out by the working stiffs on Main Street. The brilliant minds of Silicon Valley can’t figure out how to house elementary school teachers.

Here’s a responsible, pro-technology manifesto: Make society less brittle, invest resources in redundancy rather than trick shots, refuse to pay for silver bullets.

Instead of trying to cheat death, make dying dignified and gentle and graceful.

We should ridicule men who would rather become machines than confront their fundamental, ineffable weakness. That we err, that we die, is our fortune.

Fortunes (fortuna) are made of calamity. (Quite literally in the case of the big short, aka, “betting on the blind side”.)

Learning to lose is our one chance at immortality.

I was reminded of this when Facebook reminded me of a post I’d made four years earlier:

The basic point being that no matter how much we may want to predict the future, software won’t and can’t. “David X Li copula function” is a simple warning / proof. It applies to all fields.

Below is a medieval illustration of a wheel of fortune:

And a contemporary wheel of fortune:

Pleasure and power

Casamigos, Doritos marketing collateral, 2018

A consistent theme in the marketing of Mexico’s grastronomic culture is the erasure of Mexicans.

When Mexicans do appear, they are cast as laborers – honest and authentic producers, but never as consumers.

Mexicans cannot be shown to be enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Why not?

Learn more about Casamigos, Aunt Jemima and Juan Valdez.

The same is true for the fruits of Mexican labor – e.g., “California avocados” – but you already know this. Of course, what applies to Mexicans can similarly be said of producers in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, etc.

Update, july 2017

a gxg rule, unintended consequences

gender fluidity is top of mind. it’s been neglected. it’s revolutionary.

so every discussion of people from latin america must recognize gender fluidity.

ok, then, let’s make it so we can actually talk about the issues.

out loud.

In a recent Twitter discussion about the term “Latinx”, a wise commentator suggested using the vowel “e”, instead.

As in las Comadrites, las Amiges, las Latines.

I find it a much, much more interesting future language and recommend you all consider it as well.

we have already invented so many wonderful things, we can keep going.

To me, Latinx is unacceptably anglosaXon for a term that is supposed to all-inclusive. If you can agree on the pronunciation, it switches Spanish-language conversations to an Anglo-Saxon register. worse, it makes it appear as if gender fluidity is only an issue from an American-speaking standpoint.

It’s unintentional, OK, but it does what it does. Let’s not.

Living with doubt

Real Americans reject fake news. Chain restaurants advertise authentic recipes. Products in automated hypermarkets are touted as organic. Intricately staged and highly edited shows are marketed as reality television.

When a candidate calls for “law & order” in a time of unprecedented peace, the chaos he and his supporters fear is at least partly spiritual. (In addition to being racist.)

The death of God, the complexity of modern institutions, globalization, the plasticity of digital media, the dismantling of colonialism and patriarchy have all contributed to an explosion of doubts.

But the greatest cause of uncertainty for these voters is almost certainly the result of greed. Over the last 40 years, the wealthiest have effectively campaigned to increase the amount of risk and insecurity that others must bear; so that a tiny minority can enjoy more certain returns on their investments, the vast majority must endure greater uncertainty.

This is the terror that drives so many Americans to support Trump. (Expanding social security would probably convert most Trump voters – and maybe even some Trump supporters.)

In this time of uncertainty, the gravest danger we face is to become fundamentalists – not just in our politics but also in our tastes.

It may be that learning to live with doubt is an essential capacity for today.

Rejecting authoritarianism then is not just a political obligation but also a cultural one.