Fingers, Notes, and What Is Indistinguishable From Magic

My bucket list is mostly filled with bite-sized candy bars from which large candy houses can be built if I collect enough bites.
One such snacky bar is: playing the synth lead from “Subdivisions”, which I’ve wanted to play since 1982, and which I’ve been able to play since a few weeks ago.
I’ve been noodling with keyboard instruments since 1985, and in that time I’ve spent about three months learning how, which ain’t enough. I am overjoyed to be figuring some things out now, but I’m also uncomfortably aware of why it’s taken so long. Owning a good synth helps a *lot*, and having time to focus, but there’s another factor.
Specifically, it’s about fingers.
The brain can grasp a basic concept and reassemble the puzzle pieces as needed, but the fingers can’t solve complex problems in real time. The fingers need to step through the process many times – repeating not only the melody, but the exact movements which produce the melody. The body needs practice even when the brain does not.
I’ve always understood that practice was vitally important, but somehow it never occurred to me that practice meant repeating the same movements in the same way to produce the same result. Practice grows *more* valuable as it feels *less* valuable. The brain’s dashboard light flashes “I’m wasting my time” at precisely the moment when real practice begins.
I’m sure this is painfully obvious to many, but it’s strangely counterintuitive for me. It’s as if my fingers were my ten kids and I was determined to let them learn to solve problems on their own. I’ve been the “parent” whose children are living in a Lord of the Flies nightmare while I assume they’re getting along fine.
They might succeed, of course, or they might adopt the worst possible habits – or they might do both, only to remain forever convinced that their terrible habits are the key to success.
So after 30x years of keyboard noodling, I’m finally identifying specific fingers to play specific keys to produce specific melodies. Turns out it works better that way.
*****
Arthur C. Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
This quote tells us a little about technology, and a lot about how humans learn to understand the world. When no mechanism is apparent, it’s easy to assume no mechanism exists.
Mystery feels rich and valuable. The trick may lose its charm, it seems, if we learn it works.
We’re drawn to what is unique in people. We may say a comedian is “naturally funny”, or “you can’t teach that stuff”. It feels insulting and dismissive to suggest that what the audience sees is anything but a divine gift.
So we might reshape Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently developed skill is mistaken for talent.”
Talent lets us off the hook. Talent celebrates the individual and gives most of us a convenient excuse to hide behind.
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Most keyboard players move their hands as little as possible. Somehow I’d always assumed that keyboard players had a sense of where each key was and could find it in the dark while jogging during an earthquake, and that I simply hadn’t practiced enough. Some players do stab at the keys, of course, but for the most part the fingers know where the next note is because neither the hand nor the note has moved since the last time they played those two notes together.
A surfer floats on droplets of water, but we say the surfer is riding the *wave* made up of those droplets. Fingers on a keyboard move in carefully shaped waves, doing together what they could not do separately. My right ring finger isn’t dexterous or self-motivated – it would fail every job interview – but I can’t play an A7 without it. The strongest individual and the weakest individual are both more useful when they work as part of a larger whole.
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The book “Mindset” explores the difference between “I was born smart & talented” and “I developed my skills through study and hard work”.
The book’s revelation is that those who believe they were born with a fixed level of intelligence or talent (the “fixed” mindset) naturally learn to hide their weaknesses, since even the slightest failure seems to reveal a damning, fundamental, and permanent flaw. This refusal to acknowledge one’s own ignorance makes learning impossible, and the vital habits of patience and humility are often replaced by denial and hostility when the unflattering truth is exposed.
The most extreme and dangerous example of the “fixed” mindset, and the pitiful behavior which results from it, is the current President of the United States.
The “growth” mindset, by contrast, holds that we are each only as smart and talented as our study and hard work have made us. From this perspective, failure is a learning opportunity; mistakes are natural and, in the proper context, extremely valuable.
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Practice might be valuable but not *feel* valuable. A habit might be valuable but not *feel* valuable. A person might be valuable but not *feel* valuable.
But it’s worth asking. If I’m a finger, what hand am I part of? What music is this hand playing? How can I contribute, coordinate, shape, refine, simplify?
How can we make better music together?
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Jupiter’s Moons and the Schedule of Truth

Jupiter’s moons orbit like the most precise clockwork. Their positions around the largest planet can be calculated years into the future.

Jupiter is far away from the Earth – and at some points in its orbit, it’s *very* far away. Yet the orbits of its moons are regular and unchanged.

So an observation from the Earth should show the moons appearing and disappearing at the expected intervals. But there was a time, in 1676, when Jupiter’s moon Io (“Eye-oh”) did not appear on the anticipated schedule.

Jupiter was in the farthest reaches of its orbit relative to the Earth. Io circled Jupiter at its unchanging pace, but news of its position was delayed by several minutes as the light traveled across the greater distance.

This is how the speed of light was first calculated, a century before the American revolution.

Danish Astronomer Ole Romer gathered the observations, grasped the underlying mechanism, and made the calculations. An audience peering through telescopes watched Io finally appear at exactly the time Romer had predicted for light to travel at a finite and measurable speed.

Key figures were impressed, yet the director of Romer’s observatory, Giovanni Cassini, perhaps threatened by his underling’s success, dismissed Romer’s theory. Surely weather conditions, sloppy measurements or some other factor accounted for the coincidence.

Only twenty years after Romer’s death would his explanation of the speed of light be proven correct.

Light is information. It takes time – perhaps a great deal of time – to reach its destination.

But the truth will come out.

Why The Golden Rule is Golden

I’m reviewing old emails from my parents and found this exchange with my dad which seems painfully prescient.

Background: my maternal grandfather was William Bryan Dunham, born in Oklahoma and named after William Jennings Bryan – a complicated historical figure who was a hero to many.

The irony now is that the same feelings of having been cheated and abandoned that led rural Americans to support Bryan in the dustbowl era have now driven many to support Trump – even while he’s precisely the cheating, lying, wealthy, selfish figure they seemingly blame for having wronged them.

Perceiving this support for Trump as mere ignorance or raw hate is not helpful. People who feel vulnerable will seek champions, rationalize away their faults, and fall victim to their lies. (Hitler, of course, was perceived by his supporters as the savior of a broken country.)

We usually think of protecting the vulnerable as something noble and kind – a reflection of our best nature. Yet it is also our own best strategy for survival.

When our protection of the vulnerable is based solely on kindness, it can be dissolved by fear. The shortest path out of danger rolls directly over the people who most need protection. (This may explain how many “Christians” can show so little concern for others’ humanity, celebrating charity while holding in contempt those who accept it.)

Our commitment to protect the vulnerable must be based not simply on kindness, nor on self-interest. It must instead be based on a deeper understanding of the connected lives we share – and the common fate our actions will bring.

That’s why denying others’ humanity is such a terrible – and frequently used – strategy for weak leaders to gain power.

Steering out of our current catastrophe will not be easy, but I think the solution will look more like fighting an epidemic than winning an argument.

***********

Written in April 2000, from me to my dad:

“Speaking of America, I’ve been reading Allistaire Cooke’s America again this morning (I call it my “Cooke book”), finishing the chapter on the family farmers of the plains and the oil and steel barons of the late 19th century – Rockafeller, J.P. Morgan, etc. Cooke describes William Jennings Bryan as the hero of the dejected farmers and plains people who’d bitterly watched all their dreams and hard settling and farming work result in too many dried-out patches of land and a tower of wealth for only a very few, and only in the distant cities. Bryan orated powerfully and rallied to defend the religious, cultural and economic values of the farmers who felt they’d been cheated and wronged.

A British writer and former nun named Karen Armstrong (Joane has one of her books) was on Fresh Air on NPR recently, talking about her new book on the subject of religious fundamentalism. She also mentioned William Jennings Bryan, who, as she put it, took on Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial because of the atrocities the world had witnessed with Germany during the First World War. Germany had enthusiastically embraced Darwin’s coldly scientific teachings of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, it was suggested at the time, the direct result was the monstrous inhumanity of the war. In defending the conservative, old-fashioned religious and cultural ideals of the midwest against the onslaught of science in the form of Scopes’ classroom curriculum, Bryan was trying not to halt the progress of human knowledge, but to steer the children of America away from the direction taken by the children of Germany – to preserve sustainable values in the only way he knew.

I’d long known that Mom’s father, William Bryan Dunham, had been named after William Jennings Bryan, but I’d never heard the man’s accomplishments clearly described in any context other than that of the Scopes trial. To hear of Bryan’s local heroism in greater detail explained why a man born in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the century would be christened William Bryan Dunham. To read this in Allistaire Cooke’s book was like stumbling unexpectedly on a chapter of family history, stuck in the middle of a brief summation of all of American history. It illuminates one more of the paths that lead to where our family comes from.”

My dad’s reply:

“I had the advantage that William Jennings Bryan was one of my high school heroes. (“You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”). I wrote a term paper about him. Bryan was elected president three times. Everybody knew he was a shoo in. Unfortunately, by the time that the actual elections were held, he lost each time. One reason was some of the big factory owners, threatening dire consequences to their workers should that radical prevail. Nevertheless, he was immensely popular among the kind of people we are descended from, perhaps as popular as FDR in 1936.

It is sad that he is best known among modern college-educated youth for the Scopes trial and three losses running for President. He had much to offer beyond fundamentalist fanaticism. It doesn’t help that the famous play uses him as a foil and a caricature. He was Secretary of State under Wilson. He was in charge when Herbert O Yardley broke the U S diplomatic cypher in two hours. Yardley was a junior clerk in the State Dept. Since Great Britain and Germany had extremely sophisticated cryptologic (code breaking) departments, this was not good news. If Yardley could do it, other nations would obviously have no trouble doing it.”

Back Off Artoo! Robots and Boundaries

The technology I find charming, delightful, and useful is the tech with very conspicuous limitations. It helps with a specific task – and then it retreats.

Only with such limitations will the technology truly support my needs. When the technology intrudes any further, *my* efforts will ultimately support *its* needs.

That’s one reason those “It looks like you’re writing a business letter…” tools were so annoying, despite their utility – and why I personally find those “Dim the lights, Alexa” commercials so disturbing.

*****

Technology is useful, but so are boundaries. The public rejected Google Glass because it directly assaulted boundaries of privacy – not of the user, but of everybody else.

That Google Glass users could not understand that was not a coincidence; it was closer to a symptom.

The crossing of boundaries is much easier to accept when it is not YOUR boundaries being crossed. (Offramp to “cultural appropriation” thread…)

Social and cultural boundaries will always fluctuate between decades and communities. The intrusion of technology already seems welcome to some and profoundly threatening to others – and both with good reason.

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All of the above sounds uncomfortably close to discussions of people or ethnic groups “knowing their place”. Robots are not people – we need not recognize the humanity of robots, and we must not empower corporations as if they were citizens despite corporations’ non-corporeal needs and desires. The topic is vitally important and disquieting specifically because we have not yet set effective boundaries which artificial intelligence must and will observe.

****

Steampunk is popular in part because it represents a fantasy level of technology that is absorbing and wondrous, but also completely focused on human causes. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but very little steampunk artwork seems to focus on Artificial Intelligence.) The focus is always on invention and craftsmanship and discovery, with physical danger and surrender to a roboticized system looming only in the far distance.

*****

Star Wars had such an impact in part because R2-D2 and C-3P0 represented intelligent technology playing a specific, *limited* role.

It’s actually R2D2’s story, and he represented technology offering exactly the right level of mission-focused independence and people-focused devotion.

C3P0 became such an effete bother because he was aligned with the mission but had no meaningful role to play within it. (Same with Jar Jar!) If Luke had been just a bit less skilled and devoted to the task, he would have been just as annoying.

Your Gateway to the Internet (and/or Hell)

Evolving thoughts about Facebook & social networking:
1) The root question of human ponderance has long been “What is the meaning of life?”
The question is now “Does this conversation really have to take place in public?”
Online communications have made it necessary to deliberately separate and insulate conversations that would previously have taken place in private simply because nobody else was around.
“I have nothing to hide” sounds like an embrace of intimacy, but it’s really the opposite. The assumption that all conversations can or should be public magnifies the reach of those conversations, but diminishes their value.
The practical information may still be delivered to a single individual, but the currency of relationship – the sense of history and personal connection – is spread thinly between an unspecified number of people. The cost of including so many “friends” is friendship itself.
If this seems somehow defensive, conservative, old-fashioned – consider that such social connection, the attention we give to specific friends, is precisely the capital Facebook has found a way to monetize and control. (Consider their intrusive algorithm, “promoted posts”, content you’re not shown, etc.) Facebook knows exactly how valuable your social connections are.
When public posts are truly public, it makes sense to give Facebook their cut of the action. When private conversations are diverted through the public medium and milked for their social value, however, Facebook is cashing in on what should have been a cashless transaction.
Of all my many grievances with Facebook and the culture it’s created, this is the primary complaint. Private conversations held in public are rude and often hurtful – even to the person hosting them, and often apparently without their knowledge. Arguments quickly become either extremely personal or extremely cumbersome. However important the topic, the solution is to have the conversation more directly, in person or on the phone – removing the very convenience that generated the conversation in the first place.
2) “Tagging” someone on Facebook calls another user’s attention to a post, and it makes the post *to* somebody into a post *about* somebody, visible to all their friends. These are two fundamentally different goals and should be kept separate.
Facebook benefits from every “conversation” generated on their site – including this one. Baffling and unnecessary connections are made without the user’s effort or permission. As the saying goes: users aren’t the customer – they’re the product.
3) Since the 1980s there have been many, many websites trying hard to be “your gateway to the Internet”. We are now paying the price for allowing any of them to succeed.
Allowing such near-monopolies was dangerous because the Internet provided an unprecedented means of shaping human understanding of what is happening in the community and the world. Media consolidation is a huge problem, but nobody anticipated that we would face something worse: total consolidation of media gathering done not by a media source, but automatically by web technology under the naïve guidance of individual users.
The emergence of such new technology wasn’t like introducing a new newspaper or media voice; it was like finding a way to influence, edit, shape, hide and redirect all news on an individual basis. This led directly to cult-member behavior – not shaped by any one (cough) charismatic leader, but by a handful of powerful executives, and many millions of excitable participants with no sense of the tide they were creating, its origins or its direction.

Life Sprawl

As conflicted as I am over Facebook, I’m awkwardly pleased to see the sudden ‘ditch Facebook’ movement. The people I connect with are great, but the ultimate impact of Facebook (and social media in general) is troubling.

What feels most distressing is to recognize that social networking has filled (and monetized) a very specific and growing need. I describe it as “life sprawl”: most of my close friends live over an hour away. (Bay Area traffic can make a short distance into a long trip.)

Connecting online can provide real nourishment to people whose mobility is limited, whose loved ones live far away, or who would otherwise be without an active social life. Yet it can also turn physical isolation from a reason to explore the neighborhood into a reason to retreat into virtual relationships, and accept the limitations they offer.

A commuter who walks an hour to work every day finally buys a car. Do they then drive five minutes to work every day? No, they move farther away, buy a bigger house, and spend the same hour driving to work instead of walking.

This doesn’t always happen, and it isn’t a good argument against driving. But it’s human nature to change our circumstances to match our compromises instead of the other way around.

Facebook presents specific problems. Monetizing friendship itself, controlling media access, and turning users into marketable data can each, we are now realizing, have a major, largely negative impact on American culture and human civilization. Some of that negative impact could be diminished by recognizing social networking as a public utility to be separated from commercial influence. But some of it can only be dealt with by recognizing it as a kind of symptom – not to be fought as a disease, but to be understood as a reflection of deeper problems requiring a holistic response.

Guitars, Synthesizers, and The Path From Nothing to Something

I remain a cheerfully mediocre musician, but I’ve greatly enjoyed playing guitar, piano & synthesizer lately – and have noticed a few things.
1) A guitar or piano sound is like a tuxedo, whereas a synth sound is like an evening gown. Guitar noises borrow heavily from tradition and established styles, whereas every synth noise is obliged to explore new sonic territory. I ain’t saying this view is right or fair or universal, but my impulse is to be embarrassed as the thought of another keyboard player making exactly the same carefully designed synth noises. (I imagine a synth player being asked “Who are you playing?”)
2) I did some simple animation a few years ago and found that, despite my total lack of technical skill, drawing a line by hand gave the image a compelling sense of vitality that a straight computer-generated line did not have. While a hand-drawn corporate logo might seem amateurish, an animated image could gain meaning from the apparent sense that a human being was on the other side of it – particularly when part of the drawing came to life in successive frames.
That seems to be exactly the case with music as well. Machines can generate rich sounds, maintain complex rhythms, produce melodies it would be physically impossible to play – and the resulting music may be compelling for many reasons. But the meaning to be found in such new music shifts to wherever a human being is standing behind it: as composer, designer, programmer, producer, performer, vocalist – or even DeeJay. This may explain some of the cultural nuances of rap, hip-hop and electronic dance music, whereby sounds that seem homogeneous and empty to some listeners can offer tremendous meaning, power and musical variety to others.
3) The cliché is that “it’s all about the music”, but I’m reminded that a live performance of music consists of a great deal more than just people making sounds. One recent show I witnessed featured a musician skillfully manipulating a variety of unusual sound controllers – unfortunately, out of sight of the audience. Another concert involved a famous musician playing a different unusual electronic controller for every song, when a single keyboard could have been used to control the entire show.
In both cases, I found that the visual part of the show was vitally important (or would have been), even if nothing very exciting seemed to be happening on the stage.
4) The reason why also explains the current vogue for analogue synthesizers and other forms of seemingly backwards-looking technology.
My interest in electronic music is not simply in novel sounds, but in sounds emerging from machines through a complex series of visible, tangible, interactive components. In short, I want to see and hear a sound being generated *organically* from the most inorganic of parts. I want to witness the birth of life from lifeless materials.
We know technology frees us and traps us, empowers us and threatens us, expands our horizons and confines our behaviors. The advances that once heralded only greater achievement (and more free time) now rob us of our privacy (and our free time). This lost sense of promise may be captured in the popular fashion of “Steampunk”, whereby costumes and characters imagine a time before technology had broken away from the otherworldly adventures it might have made possible – when, for example, our space program was confined only by the scale of the universe itself and not by the scale of our ambitions to explore and understand it.
5) The most basic advice given to an actor is: “stop acting”. The performance is not in what is done deliberately, but what is deliberately done without deliberation.
My desire to see musicians produce music carries the same apparent contradiction.
The job of the performer is not to stand between the music and the audience, but to step out of the way.
That’s why I want to see and hear the bones and exposed organs of my synthesizers: to glimpse the path that leads from nothing to something.
I imagine the end of a triumphant song at the end of a triumphant performance – when the instruments have lowered and only a few voices carry the evening forward. Even the silence that follows the final note seems to be part of the magic, part of the composition, part of the landscape not yet fully crossed.
A great concert can bring meaning not simply to the familiar sounds generated, but to the silence which follows them. The meaning within the song is revealed to have been there all along, before the song began, and after its end.

 

Unnecessary Thoughts re: Storytelling and Spoiler Fan-alysis re: Stranger Things 2

1) When Stranger Things is a scary mystery, it’s GREAT.
When it’s a horror-action movie, it’s fun.
When it’s a mid-1980s character study, it’s shaky but compelling.
When it’s a superhero story, it’s *terrible*.

2) Every detail about the show that really works or really doesn’t work is encapsulated in the character “Eleven”. Why are her good scenes so good, and her bad scenes so lame?

In part it’s because she’s the show’s wild card: we haven’t seen a character like her before, so we have no expectations. She’s the part that can’t be phoned in.

And that’s why it’s so awful when they phone it in. The “Lost Sister” episode was terrible – precisely because it treated Eleven as a conventional superhero character, developing her unusual skills, like Rocky doing pushups.

The basic idea of the episode is pretty great: mysterious victim finds a mentor and learns to focus, transforming into mysterious avenger – but Eleven plays an odd role in the series. She’s both a living character and a representative of the show’s central mystery: a combination of childhood isolation, government conspiracy, and (pretty standard) open portal into hell. The less mysterious her powers become, the less of the story she can represent. The mystery must then expand beyond her, and that’s where it fell flat.

3) Sherlock Holmes stories work like this: the characters are plunged into an obviously supernatural mystery, which has a delicious, consciousness-expanding effect on the reader. The world’s greatest detective unravels the trick, and we’re left back on the island of rational thought – which feels safe, and correct, and profoundly unsatisfying. We hunger to escape rational thought again – we recognize something from our own lives there – but we don’t want to spend the night beyond its safe limits, so we open another Sherlock Holmes book for another round-trip guided tour through the seemingly impossible. Win-win!

Something similar happened in the original Star Wars: Ben Kenobi introduced “The Force” – and then every ten minutes we learned something new it could do. For the length of the movie, life’s possibilities seemed to extend beyond all limitations – but living within that expanded world demanded another movie ticket.

We embrace stories that make life feel bigger. Even when the mysteries are frightening, we want to be reminded of the many possibilities, real or imagined, we’ve learned not to see.

And that’s the problem with Eleven becoming a superhero. It’s great that she’s powerful, and troubled, and human, and learning to master her skills – but her mastery of her skills confines the story more than it opens it up. Instead of a tension between story details that do or don’t fit within the limits of reality, we get a more conventional battle between demon dogs and Eleven’s hand-waving magic – and we mostly know who will win that battle, and we don’t really need to know why.

4) I’m not prone to reading reviews of TV episodes, but I indulged with “Lost Sister”. Much of the discussion was about how incongruous the episode was with the rest of the series, but that wasn’t the problem.

First: Criminal refugees desperate to evade discovery don’t wear big full-fan mohawks. A troubled youth might have awesome fashion sense, but “acting out” and “hiding out” are opposite things.

That’s just one detail, but it’s a marker: “How lazy is the storytelling in this one?” “The career criminal who lives in hiding has a standing orange 12-inch-fan mohawk.” “Ugh. Too bad.”

Second, it was great to see more racial diversity in the cast, but the Saturday morning cartoon gang of colorful misfits had the dramatic heft of a violent cereal commercial.

Third, “Superhero learns to use their power” scenes are great when the audience already knows what the character is just beginning to learn. Such scenes introduce not the powers, but the character encumbered by them – and we see where a seemingly invincible character is vulnerable. When the character’s powers are themselves the mysterious detail we want to understand, gaining mastery over them makes the story less interesting.

Fourth, exploring the blurry line between “good guys” and “bad guys” can make for powerful drama – but only when it’s done with nuance and complexity. Broad, simple characters who commit violent crime and murder while dressed like art students and mentoring our troubled heroine make the whole series look cruel and tone-deaf.

5) The violence in the last several episodes was disappointing: given how compelling the first season was, the bloody mayhem seemed unnecessary. But there were many things I liked – such as the complex way Will behaved when possessed by the creature.

Two characters bugged me: Dustin blithely nursing a baby demon when he knows his friends are struggling to escape the grip of the underworld, and Billy, the over-the-top bully.

Characters are more interesting when they have strong motivations, but strong motivations demand strong logic. Billy is represented by many sadistic bullies in the real world, but I didn’t buy his backstory scene, where his father brutally demands that he show respect to his mother and sister. The idea was poignant, but it seemed pat and clunky. Brutal treatment from his father seemed very appropriate for the character, but a code of respect for women absolutely did not.

6) Every dramatic conflict demands a balance between our heroes’ chances of winning and their chances of losing. The most exciting stories provide enough details so the conclusion is logical, but not predictable.

Sloppy stories often make the hero appealing by making them invincible – but then it’s unsurprising when they win, and it makes no sense when they lose.

This is the problem with playing Eleven as a superhero. She raises her hand, her nostril bleeds – and whatever needs to happen happens. It’s great to have a strong female character, but her strength is not what is interesting about her. The story – and most importantly, the conclusion – is ultimately about something else.

Four-Year-Olds and Grownups Have Different Jobs

I have a four-year-old son. Great kid.
Every day he tries new things he hasn’t tried before. He also tries things he *has* tried before which didn’t work. Will it work this time, under slightly different circumstances? He is eager to find out, because he is four years old.
My job is to set limits, teach him what works, and guide him in the right direction. It is exhausting.
I’d love to believe he would behave perfectly without the rules his mother and I impose, but that’s not the way it works.
*****
Every day healthy children discover new things they can do, and healthy parents stop them before they break grandma’s china, injure themselves, and set the house on fire.
When this discipline is too harsh, kids learn not to try anything new, and development stops.
Without discipline, learning happens only when the kids’ actions bring disaster – and too often, only when that disaster directly affects those kids. And without more discipline, lessons learned from disaster will most likely be the wrong lessons.
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Healthy companies try new things. Healthy governments set limits – not to stop development, but to steer away from predictable disaster.
Starting with Reagan, the GOP has assumed that “government is the problem”.
This view makes sense, if you’re 11 years old and resentful of seemingly arbitrary rules imposed by grownups. Responsible adults recognize “government is the problem” as an adolescent attempt to reject important rules, inviting predictable disaster if it succeeds.
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Trump’s proposed tax cuts are an extreme, fraudulent, self-serving version of this decades-old lie.
“Starve the beast”, “get the government off our backs”, “disrupt & innovate”, “run the government like a business”, “cut taxes” – all are attempts to replace adult discipline with childish self-interest. Experience shows that markets don’t govern themselves, companies don’t discipline themselves, problems don’t solve themselves, poverty and homelessness don’t go away when we treat them as crimes, etc.
We need grownups in the White House.
We need leaders to be personally affected by the disasters they create – and whenever possible, we need citizens to be insulated from disasters created by others.
Experienced adult discipline must be properly balanced with inventive childlike exuberance. Replacing either one with the other leads to disaster.

Playing On The Rails, or The Importance of Not Being Useful

davinci-columbina
Intelligence mostly involves making observations, building on experiences, and learning from mistakes. Even the simplest grasping motion provides an infant’s mind with useful feedback. The body develops along a parallel path, responding to physical activity with increasing strength and coordination.

Adults may feel emotionally derailed in part because their most basic physical actions do not seem as useful and rewarding as they once did.

Artificial intelligence effectively means a machine calculates how to perform specific actions – but then notes the results of those actions, and incorporates those results into future calculations. Unfamiliar procedures eventually become routine, and routines become components of larger routines.

An intelligent machine will soon create its own rut. “I feel like I’m living the life of a machine”, it will finally say, in a moment of truly profound irony.
Efficient learning would require a machine to make mistakes, understand feedback – and to play. Its horizon could then continue to expand.

Robotics technologies are exploding, so it seems silly to discuss challenges that are being overcome as I type.

But one obstacle that may define and confine artificial intelligence is: we expect it to be useful.

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Kids learn to stand up by falling down. The price to be paid is *usually* small.

Kids also learn by observing and letting others make some of the mistakes. The lessons may be costly, but the price is paid by the community, and the species.

In the documentary “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” a robotics expert describes the dilemma of conventional robotics: a valuable machine (e.g. a robot exploring a distant planet) will not be allowed to take any risks, which could limit its ability to do its job – and would certainly interfere with its ability to learn. Better to release a hundred cheap networked robots which might each make mistakes that advance the entire mission instead of ending it.

This is the dilemma currently faced by self-driving cars. The technology promises to make our roads safer, but accidents involving self-driving cars are held to a different standard. Machines are supposed to manage the risks posed by humans, not the other way around.

*****
Listening to this interview with (“Guns, Germs & Steel” author) Jared Diamond, I was struck by the way his bestselling writing career and his expansive work in science both emerged directly from his hobby of birdwatching. (“It was all for the birds,” he says.)

Birdwatching led him to New Guinea, which led directly to the question of why certain regions developed agriculture and technology while others did not. He’s since sold many millions of books and launched vital worldwide debates about societal responsibility.

I’m called back to this idea when I find myself struggling to justify my most obscure hobbies. It seems unwise to pursue only superficial interests – but the most gratifying path may be recognized only by its immediate rewards. Planning is important. Some caution and calculation are important. But every day, I need to remember the importance of play.