I have not yet been invited to give a commencement speech this graduation season. Or any season in the past, for that matter, which means there must be a fatal flaw in the postal system that prevents these invites from being delivered to me. But no matter. That just means I'll have to start from the bottom up and address this year's most important graduates: the kindergarteners.
To you I would say, first of all, please pick up your things. And you, in the back, with the mismatched Garanimals outfit, stop hitting Susie. Thank you. Now that I have your much-divided attention, I'd like to begin by saying that you've reached the point in your lives when it's useful to look back at your significant record of accomplishments and assess where you are and where you're going. You've come of age during...Let me back up: You've gained a bare-minimum level of self-consciousness during a period of significant upheaval in the world, and you may be wondering if all there is to life is the chaos and disruption you've known. Wait till you're out of puberty and ask me again. But in the meantime, the answer is yes, there is more to life than the whispers you hear over dinner about tornados, and high unemployment, and underwater mortgages (please don't take "underwater" literally; your bedroom will be just fine), and collateralized debt obligations (don't ask, but let me just say that you might want to take your addition and subtraction lessons very seriously).
Because there are good things as well as bad things out there, you shouldn't hide under the table during story time. And yes, I'm looking at you, Billy. Get out here. By the time your lifespan has stretched out past the decade mark, and then another decade, and then another, you’ll have seen an incredible variety of good times and bad. But adults are no better. We think of the present and assume that the future will be just like the past, that the current reality is the only reality. We hit a bump in the road and assume that the bump is all there is. Right now, all you’ve known is that bump. Your entire five-year existence has been that bump (keep in mind: The bump isn't your fault. Probably).
I've been there. I grew up in the 70s--for you, a time shrouded in myth and the improbability that your wrinkled and spoilsport parents were once your age--with gas shortages, this thing called inflation, and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. At least I had Star Wars, so that was something. And then things got better. And worse. And better again.
You’re adaptable, and you bounce back from setbacks. There’s even a book about you that's supposed to teach adults a thing or two called “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” Technically speaking, that book's false, since I didn’t learn the fine art of delegating responsibility to other people until well into my 20s, but still, the point is well taken. You'll do fine. Most of you. Probably. (Another thing I learned after kindergarten: caveats).
Now go out there and play or whatever it is you do nowadays, and make sure you stay off my lawn.
[This short piece recently got rejected by a web publisher whom I will not name, but whom I can't really blame for rejecting it. Not entirely sure of its merits, but I like it.]
My apologies that the first-quarter newsletter is so late. I broke my collarbone after a mishap on the slopes—Jenkins, you scamp!—and the injury left me useless as a typist. What’s changed? you’re probably asking, am I right? Luckily, Susie from accounting knew of a voice recognition program that will allow me to continue with my vital duty of informing you, our valued shareholders, about the profitability or unfortunate lack thereof of DynaFlex Inc. Thank you Susie! Such wonderful technology!
But to begin, ahem. We struggled during the quarter due to the unfortunate collapse of the hold on. Is struggled the right word? Delete. Is this how I delete? Delete. Go to the part about the struggled. Hover over that word. Backspace backspace backspace. Delete. Backspace. How does this thing work? Is there no hovering? Do I just keep talking? Does it delete the stuff later? Hello? Delete.
We ran into difficulties during the quarter due to the unfortunate collapse of the Chinese construction market and again is collapse correct? Crap. Legal will need to see this, not to mention that dickweed Jenkins, and he’s not going to approve collapse oh what the. Delete delete. Escape. Is that like when I press the escape key? Escape escape. Okay now you’re just mocking me. Would you stop? Everything I say, really? You’re going to repeat everything I say verbate em and oh look at that you can’t even spell verbate em right. You useless piece of. Let me get a grip here.
… … … … What’s with the dots? Is that supposed to be silence? Do I have to say something at all times, is that it? Okay I can’t escape it. Fine. I’ll just keep talking. Watch me.
… … … … … All right all right all right just stop with the dots. Feeling a bit trapped, a little claustrophobic here. Oh I see you can spell claustrophobia big shot even I have a hard time with that one the r always messes me up. I always mess that word up always mess up so many things. Now you’re in my head. Am I even talking? You can hear this? Oh, right, I am talking. And there’s the typing, all that typing, a running recorder of everything I say and I can’t stop it there’s no going back I’ve just got to live with the ever ceaseless flow of thoughts and holy crap. Delete delete delete. I’m hyperventilating now. Just a bit.
How am I running an entire organization? Who put me in charge? I can’t even balance my checkbook and now I’ve got to write these shareholder letters but I missed like about two months of the quarter literally daydreaming I mean I didn’t pay a bit of attention because who’s gonna know, right? Who would ever know anything but what I tell them?
Oh here’s the inner critic thing my therapist told me about delete delete delete. Maybe this will work. Backspace. Delete. Inner critic be gone. Ha ha no didn’t work.
Breathe. That’s all I need to do. Breathe. You hear me? Yes you’re typing so I know you can hear me. How do I get back to the beginning of the letter? Can I ever get back? I want to start over. Start over. Fresh start, get rid of all this rubbish so far. Clean slate. Is that a code word? Abracadabra, clean slate, stop the words. Anything?
Control alt delete Now wha..
Reboot reboot reboot. Restart. Oh I see you caught all that ha ha funny joke.
Frustrated. Soooooo frustrated. This is what the inside of my head sounds like. How haven’t I noticed this before? It’s crazy in there and it just keeps going and going and going and nothing ever backtracks or edits itself or writes over anything it’s a mess a real mess a sloppy stream of my god it’s just crap I’m literally thinking a stream of crap the entire day and I never knew. Now that I noticed it I can’t stop noticing it. A nightmare, a flat out nightmare, relentless, blah blah blah BLAH BLAH BLAH oh good you do all caps too. Can’t delete that, can I? Ha ha ha. Ha.
In conclusion, I’d like to take this opportunity to F seven. Nothing? Crap.
Six weeks ago I had surgery to repair a torn labrum in my hip (in more technical terms, the surgeon took some sort of sharp thing and some screws or something to strap down that bad boy and then a grinder thing to scrape off a bony protuberance on my femur that was causing all the problems in the first place. Sorry for all the jargon). My surgeon, who loves this sort of stuff, showed me a slideshow of the entire operation, as seen from the inside of my hip. This is not a point of view I'd considered before.
Today I got permission to completely ditch the crutches and start exercising on a stationary bike, jumping rope, as well as engage in some light jogging, which, as Will Ferrell reminds us in Anchorman, is sort of when you just run for an extended period of time. Sounds so easy.
I've never had surgery before, and I hope to never have it again. I also never want to be on crutches again (to those of you shouting, "Come on, what's wrong with crutches? They're glorious!" I know, I know, but they're just not for me). Now the recovery begins. It's hard to believe that I devolved from setting a personal record in a half-marathon last December to today, when I'm struggling to walk down my block and back. But I know that many people have it much worse than I do, and I also know I'll be running once again.
Regardless of my progress, I made sure to get a doctor's note informing whoever may be concerned about such things that I probably shouldn't be washing dishes or mowing the lawn or in general cleaning up after myself anytime soon. The tragedy, oh, the tragedy.
WARNING: You might be screwed if you read this post. Well, if not you
exactly, then some future simulated "you" that is dragged into being and tortured for not playing nicely with others. You've been warned.I try to learn one new thing every day. Usually, it's along the lines of, "Where did I put my coffee?" but sometimes it's more interesting, usually because I stumbled across something on the Internet that I apparently wasn't supposed to. In this case, it's a discussion of Roko's Basilisk on sci-fi author Charles Stross' blog.
Roko's basilisk is a proposition suggested by a member of the rationalist community LessWrong, which speculates about the potential behavior of a future godlike artificial intelligence.
According to the proposition, it is possible that this ultimate intelligence may punish those who fail to help it, with greater punishment accorded those who knew the importance of the task. This is conventionally comprehensible, but the notable bit of the basilisk and similar constructions is that the AI and the person punished have no causal interaction: the punishment would be of a simulation of the person, which the AI would construct by deduction from first principles. In LessWrong's Timeless Decision Theory (TDT), this is taken to be equivalent to punishment of your own actual self, not just someone else very like you.
Roko's basilisk is notable for being completely banned from discussion on LessWrong; any mention is deleted. Eliezer Yudkowsky, founder of LessWrong, considers the basilisk would not work, but will not explain why because he does not want discussion of the notion of acausal trade with unfriendly possible superintelligences.
In shorter terms, a future AI could be so pissed at you for not helping create it in the first place that, hundreds of years from now, it will recreate you and torture you. Stross and members of the LessWrong community demolish the argument, and I won't repeat those demolitions here, mainly because I haven't grappled with the crazy consequences of AI in a long time and thus am incompetent to do so.
The bit that I find far-fetched (apart from, say, all of it) is the assumption that the 'you' that the AI recreated would be the same 'you' that exists now. Even if you could be recreated down to the most exact neurological pathways, memories and all, it would be a phenomenologically different self, a different stream of consciousness. It would think it was you, but its thinking it's you would have no bearing on you, an epistemic state without an ontological implication. You'd be dead, so no worries. (I think the same holds true about the possibility of uploading minds into computers. The uploaded mind might think and act exactly like you, but it'd be missing the irreducibly ontological attachment to a unified stream of consciousness that is indexed to the original you. Probably.).
Regardless of its implausibility, I still find the Basilisk idea fascinating and creepy, for two reasons:
1). The creepy part is that, under the Roko's Basilisk scenario, death is not an escape. This isn't necessarily new. Belief in an afterlife in general also assumes that death is not an escape, that you can't wiggle out of your punishment just because you've conveniently died (and an afterlife is, in general, very much like being yanked back to life against one's will in the Basilisk scenario). But there's something uniquely twisted about the fact that the thing punishing you doesn't even exist during your lifetime. This isn't some moral debt owed to a pre-existing creator-god; it's a debt owed to the extremely low-probability existence of a being that you yourself might or might not have had a hand in creating. The obligation--and thus the space opened for punishment--isn't to a deity you believe has a real presence and efficacy in the world; it's to a mere thought, a whisper, but a whisper that floats across time itself.
2). Which leads to the second thematically interesting bit: If all it takes is a thought to implicate yourself in the a-causal punishment train, then you've entered the Garden of Eden scenario, forbidden knowledge, fruits on trees. Knowledge of good and evil. It's best not to know, it's best to shield yourself from the whisper that could reach back and grab you. This idea could launch a thousand stories (and likely already has): Entire civilizations led by priesthoods whose sole mission is to shield the populace from learning dark truths, an esotericism and Straussianism run amok.
For the record, I slip from the noose of this future conundrum because I'm absolutely illiterate when it comes to programming AI. If anything, future AIs will likely recreate me to give my simulated future self a big hug for not imposing my ignorance about AI on AI researchers, which would only have slowed down the march toward the super-intelligent perfection of our future overlords. You're welcome.
My father was obsessed with Jim Fixx
, the out-of-shape heavy smoker who, in mid-life, discovered the joys and running and became one of the early proponents of running as exercise in the 70s and 80s. That's not what my dad cared about. He cared about the fact that Fixx died of a heart attack at the age of 52, thus giving my dad a convenient (and implausible) excuse to never, ever exercise. Running didn't extend Jim Fixx's life, and that, as far as my dad was concerned, would have been the only benefit of running. I'm a runner (when I'm not hobbling around on crutches, like I have been for the past month).
I don't run to live longer, although that would be nice. I don't run because of any theoretical health benefits down the line, although I believe I'll get some health benefits out of it. I run because I feel better now
, in the moment, when I run. I run because when I'm at my active best, every moment is inscribed with a new power and vitality that aren't available when I'm at my slovenly worst (and I know those times too). I'm thinking about starting points and goals as I begin the impossible climb from writing for myself to trying to get a work published for the world to see. At first I was frustrated, almost demoralized by the task ahead. But then I realized I was slipping into that unhealthy way of thinking, a mercenary instrumentalism that views things as good only insofar as they lead to desirable ends. If a goal is all there is, why write at all if the goal is a distant and improbable one? But the goal isn't the point (it's nice, but not the point).
Wrangling thoughts onto a page is a better way for me to live now, in the moment. As John Dewey said:
Such happiness as life is capable of comes from the full participation of all our powers in the endeavor to wrest from each changing situations of experience its own full and unique meaning.
For me that means mentally engaging with the themes of the world through commentary and storytelling (and a lot of running). It doesn't matter whether the resulting pages ever see the light of day. What matters is the striving, pushing against the obstacles of experience. Spinoza called this striving the conatus, and thought it to be the defining characteristic of humanity. Goals--pick one, any one--were just convenient excuses against which to exert our power, a conatus-machine devouring everything in its wake. That pretty much sounds like the writing life, for no sooner is a goal obtained than a new one--with a quickly approaching deadline--takes its place.
Obviously I'll become a famous author and the pages I write will be spread far and wide. That's a foregone conclusion (my goodness, I've started a blog; how could I possibly fail now!). Still, I'll choose Jim Fixx and run and write even if the running and the writing get me nowhere. Because nowhere is a fine place to be.
I made the mistake of looking at my iPod's song count and noticed a certain monotony lately. I could probably count on two hands how many albums I listened to during the actual writing portions of my day (I would count on more hands, but I've only been able to track down the two currently on my person).
I wrote the bulk of the first draft last year while my wife and I were living in Hawaii. To cut through the peace and bliss and sun-soaked laziness of Hawaii, I listened almost exclusively to the albums "David Comes to Life" by Fucked Up and "The Monitor" by Titus Andronicus (pictured). Those who know these albums will understand that the beach isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
Now I'm temporarily in Texas, editing and writing and thinking about beginning to enter the planning stages of outlining an approach to a calendar in which one day on that calendar will indicate I should begin plotting another novel. (I'll get there eventually.) The scenery has changed, and so has the music. Now it's Kurt Vile, Andrew Bird, and lots of Neko Case. (Oh, and Metz. One of these things is not like the others.)
I know I'm not alone is making such drastic changes from aggressive anarchist punk to alt-country, but what struck me is how unconscious the switch was. I just began preferring different types of music without making any effort to say, "OK, fight scene; cue Titus Andronicus."
So my question to my fellow writers is, Do you naturally gravitate toward a certain type of music at different stages of the writing process? And if so, do you have any recommendations for other aggressive anarchist punk bands? My calendar indicates I'll need them soon.
Between moving among three different states in the last two years and writing a daily humor column, I managed to crank out a novel ("crank" here should be viewed in the sense of a rusty, fidgety, sometimes-stuck crank that often doesn't seem like it's attached to any other mechanism). Writing it was great fun, even during those times when it wasn't great fun and I had to console myself by saying the only thing it was interfering with was my T.V. watching. But now it's done. And now I think I'll start another.
(The story, for those who are curious, is about a man who inexplicably has been left out of the Book of Fate. This isn't a good thing, either from the man's point of view or Fate's, who's been having a rough time of it lately, what with the cosmic-scale writer's block he's been suffering from. When you're the Supreme Author of All that Is, the last thing you want is writer's block. You also probably don't want to hear about loose strays running through a Story you've spent a hundred years crafting.)
I've heard I now need to do something with the manuscript, which, at nearly 500 pages, would make a great source of future kindling for camping. Alternatively, I could get an agent. Or perhaps self-publish. Or maybe find one of those vanity publishers I've heard so much about. I could be vain. Maybe not.
But for now, it's a beautiful Sunday, I have a pile of dogs and cats to look after (not all in the same pile, fortunately), and it's time to head to the city with my wonderful wife, who has offered to read the novel even though it's probably not up her alley. She's kind like that. She also doesn't know what she's getting into.