Chasin’ Freshies

There’s nothing here. Neither Mt. Ashland nor Mt. Shasta have much snow and neither resort looks to open anytime soon. That means a road trip is in order! The storm tracks throughout the month have been northerly and neither Utah nor Tahoe resorts are anywhere close to seasonal norms. The snow has been falling in Washington, Idaho (especially the panhandle), and Wyoming. They have the Tetons in Wyoming and that’s our destination: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

My buddy (who does the driving) is coming in an hour and we hope to make it to Idaho Falls tonight. Then an early start and we can hit the slopes Thursday and also get a full day in on Friday. If the predictions are good we should hit freshly fallen snow both days. “When it snows, we goes” is our motto but we’ve been hard-pressed to pull the trigger on a trip because of the paucity of the white stuff so far this season.

It’s New Year’s weekend of course and that means it will be busy in Jackson. Most of the motels are at or near capacity. The mountain report says that only a small portion of the lifts and thus the trails will be open to ski. “Early-season conditions” is the word. But we are desperate and willing to go almost 900 miles just to catch some runs. We already had our ski-legs by this time last season so it should be a challenge at a new park that neither of us are familiar with.

That’s part of the excitement, seeing a new place. The Northern Rockies are spectacular and the Grand Tetons are perhaps as beautiful as any mountain range anywhere in the world. We hope that there will be another following storm so that we can stay on the road and get some skiing in at another spot before we head back home. The forecasts don’t look very promising, unfortunately. Sun Valley is in a dry stretch, so are the Cottonwood resorts, and not much is happening in Colorado, either.

Wish us luck!

 

 

Pendragon

My latest foray into time-wasting is Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain by GMT Games. Pendragon is a card-driven board game set in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era. This is a time of civil unrest as the Pax Romana on the frontiers of the Empire began to crumble after the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180. Britannia was still a province of Rome but barbarian invasions and local rebellions had made it a troubled land and its overseers were increasingly uncertain about the future. Pendragon re-creates the conflicts among the Romanized citizenry, the imperial government, the unconquered tribes, and the many acquisitive foreigners.

I ordered the game when it was in pre-production last fall and it finally got published and printed this fall and arrived in the mail last week. The packaging is beautiful with quality parts, a large colorful board, and extremely detailed rules and player aids. When I say detailed I mean there is a 17-page tutorial to walk you through the game process! It will take me weeks to learn the system but it seems carefully constructed and play-tested. Pendragon is the eighth in a series that GMT calls COIN for COunter-INsurgency. The developer of the scheme and series is listed as Volko Ruhnke but Pendragon’s creator is Marc Gouyon-Rety. It’s not strictly about counter-insurgency but rather asymmetric conflict which of course is of continuing relevance in the 21st century.

One of the things that appealed to me about this game was the lack of solid information about this time and place in history. War games involving Napoleon, WWII, or the American Civil War are very popular and we know a lot about the historical settings, the units involved, their fighting strength and disposition, and the topography and terrain. The conflicts in Britannia 1500 years ago are shrouded in the mists of the past. Much of that time comes to us as fable or legend, King Arthur for example, and we have few first-hand accounts and little written material to study. The Peloponnesian War took place four hundred years before Christ but we have Thucydides to consult. Julius Caesar published books about his exploits in Gaul fifty years before Christ. We have no such comprehensive sources for the Empire’s woes in the British Isles four hundred years later.

Pendragon allows you to take on the role of either the Britons or the barbarians. The Britons are divided into two factions, the ‘Dux’ who represent the imperial army and administration, and the ‘Civitates’ who are the landed gentry, native chieftains and their tribes who depend on Roman support. The barbarians are also divided into two factions, the ‘Scotti’ or Celtic raiding parties from Ireland (Hibernia) and Scotland (Caledonia), and the ‘Saxons’ who are Germanic peoples looking for new lands to settle. The Briton factions seek to preserve the status quo and their prosperity while the barbarians seek plunder, prestige, and the disruption of Roman rule. The Briton factions can come into conflict with each other as the Civitates desire independence while the Dux hope to preserve the Empire. The barbarians can join together to fight the powerful cavalry and militia of the civilized people or they can fight each other while seeking loot, land, and glory.

Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain covers a span of about 150 years and big changes took place in the lives of the many people who inhabited Britain during that time. The collapse of Roman power and the rise of the early kingdoms must have been massive disruptions to the peace and prosperity of the populace. The game includes things like changing victory conditions to reflect the chaos of the times. I’ll admit it is overwhelming. The ‘Playbook’ (which includes the aforementioned tutorial) is 72 pages, and the ‘Rules of Play’ add 44 more. These are 8-1/2 by 11 pages with a two-column format and a typeface with capitals that aren’t quite 2.5 mm high. It takes some doing to figure it all out. But it brings out my inner geek, and I’m interested in the history. There’s a bibliography included in the material and a number of contemporary books listed seem promising.

I may be in way over my head on this, but I’m sufficiently intrigued to give it a shot. It can’t be THAT hard, right? These people can’t be THAT much smarter than me, can they?

We’ll find out.

pendragon

Moodling

Apparently there is an official kind of moodling: an open-source software resource for teaching and learning. That’s not the kind of moodling I mean. I’m thinking more like Brenda Ueland:

So you see the imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.

My wife calls this “piddling” and it has an entirely positive connotation when she uses it. Moodling is about renewing the imaginative part of the mind and allowing ourselves to be creative. Much of life is doing stuff you have to do. It’s hard to maintain a fresh, open, and free outlook when completing tasks. You need to be able to goof off in order to do that.

Unfortunately we live in the world of work. I’m retired, but I used to be part of that world. In the world of work, one must work. And work is often dull and unrewarding. Even people like me who found something that suited them discovered that the actual job had little to do with the idea of the job. I was a teacher but spent most of my time on crowd control and record keeping. That’s just the nature of it despite the best efforts of many. I stuck it out for thirty years mostly because I had summers off! And I did my best to focus on the positive things. I had a good job by most people’s standards and I felt fortunate, but I would not have gone to work unless I got a paycheck. People talk about loving what they do but how many would show up just to do it if they didn’t have to worry about money?

And that’s what it is all about here in the US of A. Money. We have to have it. And moodling is contrary to money-making. You can’t moodle and be a good capitalist. You have to be working and striving and competing. You have to be improving all the time, being more organized and more efficient. That’s what makes innovation and that’s what begets growth and that’s how we get money. So moodle at your peril, bohemians!

But the creative, imaginative part of us needs nurturing. Even if we are CEOs we need to allow for moodling. You can’t solve problems entirely by attack mode. Sometimes you have to un-think about things in order to open new mental pathways and get around conceptual roadblocks. Creative people are good at breaking out of popular, established modes of thought. They see connections between seemingly disparate things. I used to think only some people had this ability, but I met many hundreds of youngsters in the course of my career and I can assure you they—and thus we—all have it.

We mostly don’t get to develop our creative sides. We have to work. We have to make some kind of accommodation with the economic system. We need money for food and rent and cars and clothes and doctors and phones and all the rest. Even if you don’t play the guitar or paint or whatnot you still need your imagination to prosper. And that requires care and feeding just like your muscles and organs do.

The world needs more grace, tolerance, diplomacy, empathy, humility, and kindness. Perhaps the mythological free marketplace that we worship will provide such things with the same alacrity it provides us with cheap jeans. Perhaps not. We’ll have to look for after-market solutions like more moodling. We have to imagine loving our enemies before we can actually do it, right? Thus we need to allow insight, ingenuity, and inspiration, and that comes about not by force of will or increased effort but by just the opposite, a sort of dreamy idleness, much like all children naturally have.

I’m a big boy and I know we have to till the land and harvest the seas to sustain our bodies. And we have to extract from the earth the materials we need to build our societies. But we also have to feed our minds. And if society gives us no time for that because we are too goddamn busy working, and if not working then worrying about work and money, what’s the point? We should not have to be grinding all the time. There should be ample time for resting and reflecting. Without that we can’t absorb all the inputs of all the days and thus we can’t learn and grow, that is imagine and create. We ought to value moodling a lot more than we do.

Gnosis

There was this writer from Argentina named Borges. He wrote poems and essays as well as some weird, mind-bending short stories. He said this once when asked about his personal beliefs:

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity.

Gnosis is a Greek word meaning knowledge. But it has always been applied to metaphysical or divine knowledge. So to be a-gnostic is to accept not-knowledge. That is, knowledge that cannot be tested or arrived at by reason alone. The mystic claims knowledge of god but the ways of the mystic are not necessarily accessible or repeatable. The experience of god, although universal, is still personal. Just because one guy can sit under a tree for 49 days to find god doesn’t mean it will work for you.

I used to call myself an atheist. I distrust dogma, and I particularly distrust theologies (or any -ologies) that rely on elaborate logical scaffolds. To me, a-theism is not a rejection of god, just a rejection of the bullshit people have constructed about god. (I tend to think we made Him in Our image, not the other way around.) But in the end the notion of god is merely unscientific, nothing else. The fact that something is unscientific does not mean it is untrue, merely that it is not amenable to analysis. God cannot be part of an experiment. You can’t prove or disprove the existence of an omnipotent being. You cannot write a testable hypothesis. Since you can’t do that you can’t do science on the subject.

It was Thomas Henry Huxley who coined the word agnostic but he of course did not invent the notion. Humans have wrestled with such questions for as long as there have been humans. I used to think an agnostic was a Hamlet-like fellow who could not make up his mind. Atheists seemed to be sure of themselves, agnostics seemed wishy-washy. I used to think being sure of yourself was a good thing. Now I’m not so sure!

Since science cannot provide answers to questions like “why are we here?” and “is there a god?” or “what happens to our souls when we die?” a guy like me with a scientific-rationalist bent tends to think such questions are irrelevant. And as far as my day-to-day life goes, they are. I don’t think, necessarily, that such questions are unanswerable. They just cannot be answered by human reason. Any answer obtained will be about subjective experiences, and in science you have to have repeatability. This is why popular things like astrology and psychic powers don’t survive scientific study—their claims can’t be reproduced.

An atheist says no and an agnostic says I don’t know. There is a big difference between the two. Theism is the belief in a deity or deities. I don’t believe in deities but I’m much less of an atheist these days. Here’s more from Borges:

The world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny.

I can see the appeal of that. I would counter that the picture of the world that science gives us is far stranger than anything people have imagined. And I’m talking about all the things people have imagined since the beginning of human knowledge. What science shows us about the universe is, in my view, way more bizarre than the ghosts, demons, and monsters of our pre-scientific past. I used to think that because this was so that all that nutty stuff was pointless.

But having such an opinion, that such-and-such is pointless and such-and-such is not is rather pointless, don’t you think? In other words, it’s just an opinion, and everybody has opinions. We pay some people to spout their opinions on TV every night and they don’t have anything to say, really, their opinion is no more truthful or valuable than anyone else’s. This is the problem with opinions. This is why I like science. Your opinion of a scientific result does not change the result! It’s a repeatable phenomenon whether you want it to be or not.

But that criterion, true for everybody all the time, is a tough one. Only a limited set of our knowledge can pass that test. I think that’s a good thing. There’s a lot of stuff out there and winnowing it down to stuff we can really work is to our benefit. It’s not so much about what DO we know but what CAN we know. What kind of knowledge can we be the most sure of?

Just because we can be sure of some things does not mean that the other things have less value. Take love for instance. There’s no certainty in human relationships, they are entirely an act of faith. We spend much of our lives living in this subjective world of hope and belief. Clearly things we cannot be sure of, in the scientific sense, are of great importance to us. I’m guessing there are more people in the world with religious faith and belief in god than there are not.

So even though the probability of The Holy Trinity seems awfully low to me, I choose to believe in the possibility, no matter how remote. After all, I cannot say for sure, so to reject such a claim would be unscientific. I can put The Trinity on a mental back burner but it serves no purpose to dispose of the idea. It’s a powerful thing even if it is not part of my world view. I remember when I first learned of the Michelson-Morely experiment which was an attempt to find the so-called aether that people at the time believed filled empty space. The experiment did not verify the hypothesis. It showed that the aether was not necessary to the propagation of electromagnetic waves. It did not, as I first believed, show that the aether did not exist. It merely showed that such a description of empty space was not needed to account for what was known about nature. The aether may still be there, but it’s not what we once thought it was, so we put it on the back burner.

Here’s the last bit from Borges:

It makes me more tolerant.

I like that.

Hello, Darkness

We are afraid of the dark. We should be. There are a lot of scary things out there. Not that long ago we had to learn to use the moonlight to extend the day. We navigated by the bright stars you could see at twilight before any of the others appeared, the same ones that could still shine through a mist or haze. At some point we lit the world with fire, but it was a pitiful effort against the immensity of the night. Then we figured out artificial lighting.

We got a lot out of it. Safer streets, for one. Encouraging commerce and such. Allowing for travel. Spreading the wealth. All the benefits of progress. Artificial lighting might just be the very thing we need to define progress. How lit up is YOUR country? Ours is WAY lit up! We’ve all seen the satellite photos of our country over the decades and we’ve seen the spread of lighting. Even the vast rural West is lit. Not all of it, of course, there are plenty of places that are still dark. But the tentacles of urbanization and the flagella of interstate highways continue their inexorable march.

Millions of us no longer have darkness. We have to travel to see it. The darkness used to be everywhere. Even in cities lit by fire the darkness was nearby—too close for comfort, in fact. But we no longer think about it. At least most of us. A vanishingly small segment of our population lives in proximity to the darkness if not in the midst of it. When we find ourselves in a place where the sky is far from the sources of artificial light we are amazed. We forget how spectacular the night sky is when you can see the Milky Way in all its glory. There are so many stars that you get lost. Familiar constellations are hard to find. The stars have color and depth that you don’t get in light-affected areas. There is a faint starlight that allows you to see even without a moon. It’s a special and memorable experience.

Much of the spread of lighting is due to advancements in technology that have lowered the cost and increased the efficiency. The consequence of conservation is over-use. That is, we need so much less money and energy to light things up so we light more things up. A few smart folks have calculated that artificial lighting is growing about 2% per year.

That doesn’t seem like much. Two percent. If you had a mortgage at 2% you’d be happy. An investment, though, would be under-performing at a mere two percent. But 2% is not trivial. If you think in terms of doubling time, it seems rather ominous. Now a banker would tell you to use the Rule of 72 and divide 72 by two and get 36. That’s thirty-six years. Two percent growth means whatever you have will double in 36 years. Your algebra teacher would probably insist on using the natural logarithm of two, and dividing by 2% (0.02) which would give you 34.7 years give or take. Close enough.

So if the world is this lit up NOW, thirty-five years from now (when I’m 93) the world will be TWICE as lit up! That’s a lot less darkness. Seems like you have to have darkness. Lots of creatures need the darkness. And by creatures I mean everything from bats to bacteria. Maybe we need darkness, too, even if we are scared of it. I don’t know. It seems like this is one of those fixable things. We were really smart and we invented cool things that use less energy and were less polluting. But we didn’t gain anything because we just wanted more of the same thing. We can’t be THAT scared of the dark, can we?

Standing under the stars is one of those things that makes you humble. And you have to have humility, because without it there is no empathy. And without fellow-feeling towards our brethren there’s not much point in social intercourse. You don’t have to love your human neighbors but you depend on them nonetheless, just as the single ant depends on the colony. I know we aren’t ants, but we are certainly social. We all live in this tenuous web we call civilization, and we are all kept afloat by the ties that bind us together.

The encroachment of artificial lighting into areas with dark skies is called light pollution. Over-lit areas, like big cities, are light-polluted. We need light, but we don’t need pollution. One of the groups most bothered by light pollution is astronomers. Observatories have to be on remote mountaintops, or in earth orbit, to escape the effects. They are a small bunch, overall, but they are like canaries in the mine. Darkness doesn’t seem like one of those natural resources you ought to conserve, but I think we ought to. Some things that are big and scary need to stay big and scary. Like the universe. And who says we can’t light up when we are scared? We just don’t have to be lit up ALL the time. We have to keep some darkness around for our own good.

Scary Monsters

I’m not talking about the stuff they come up with for horror movies and whatnot. Or aliens from outer space. We have plenty of real-life scary monsters here in the real world. There’s a fungus out there that inhabits the body of an ant and controls the creature’s movements. The fungus makes the ant climb up on the underside of a leaf and grab hold with its mouth. Then the ant dies and the fungus puts out its fruiting body and sends out its spores so it can infect another poor ant. They call it zombie ant fungus (Ophiocordyceps spp.).

Turns out the fungus secretes chemicals that over-ride the ant’s brain, thus enslaving it. A fungus doesn’t have a brain. An ant does. Brains are supposed to give a creature an advantage! Imagine if trees, for example, could infect you when you were picnicking in the park and make you do their bidding. Turn you into a seed storage vessel and make you go plant yourself and so give birth to the next generation of trees. Your demise does not have to be plotted, it just requires the right cocktail.

I find this a lot scarier than say an alligator, or a lion, or even Godzilla. It’s creepy. Insidious. The mindless churning of enzymes and proteins and organic acids and all of them oozing into thoroughly unsuspecting brains. At what point does your mind go? Would you be aware of your slow, inexorable end? Or would it be like a switch, one day sentient and one day not? I don’t know if an ant is sentient or not, but it is still a complex living thing. And I don’t think more complex brains are less vulnerable. I suspect much of the biochemistry is the same or pretty close.

Perhaps they’ll grow the fungi in labs and feed them ant brains and extract the mind-control goodies and sell them to evil governments. Or maybe they’ll get some good drugs out of it, and by that I mean therapeutic drugs to treat mental illnesses. Although it sounds ripe for recreational drugs as well, lots of such things lead to zombie-like states. The various fungi could evolve into bigger and more bad-ass versions of themselves and large mammals will suddenly become their targets. We’ll have to get inoculated against them and not stand too close to toadstools.

Is the mind just a by-product of the brain? Is the particular collection of structures and tissues and the chemicals that make them up responsible for producing our self-awareness? Or is the mind some transcendent phenomenon, that is, does it exist independently of its holding tank? One of the staples of sci-fi is this idea that consciousness is transferable, it can be extracted from its biological setting and infused into a computer memory bank or into another being. But maybe the conscious mind is just something that happens when there is sufficient cellular complexity. Its basis is entirely physical.

If so then these zombie fungi are the future. I used to think cockroaches would win the evolutionary battle and outlive all the other creatures. But now I’m not so sure they are the fittest. Fungi are chemical factories and no matter how sophisticated your brain is there are probably a few relatively simple chemicals out there that can render you helpless. I suppose it will behoove us to evolve internal chemical defenses against these things. Or fight the fungi with other fungi, evolve a commensal relationship with species that secrete the antidote to the zombifying chemicals. I think that might be tough on our own, we don’t reproduce fast enough, especially compared to the so-called lower species. Time to put the genetic engineers to work.

Plants of course are also masters of chemical warfare. Eat me and die. Or grow near me and I’ll poison you. Curare, for example, is an alkaloid found in tropical plants. Human hunters prepared it for use on darts or arrows to paralyze and kill their prey. It’s not toxic if ingested and doesn’t poison the meat, it has to enter the bloodstream. But it takes control of the poor creatures nonetheless and they die from asphyxiation as it relaxes respiratory muscles and prevents them from contracting.

Just because we are smarter than the plants and the fungi doesn’t mean they can’t kick our asses, brains or no brains. So stay alert out there, my friends, there are lots of scary monsters lurking.

The World is an Obtuse Angle

My pal came up with that one. He was describing this blog. “You know,” he said, “when you’re writing that The-World-Is-An-Obtuse-Angle stuff.” I laughed. It’s a good description, I’m not sure I can say it better. I even thought about re-naming the blog, but TWIAOA is not as neat as HCN, even if it is closer to the mark.

I used to teach geometry, a beautiful subject, but one that school makes a mess of. Imagine learning about Beethoven and only having sheet music. No instruments, no recordings, just humming along (assuming you can read it) while the teacher talks about how beautiful it is. I’m sure you’ll feel it. Yup, you’ll be a fan of lovely, lovely Ludwig van all the rest of your days.

In geometry, an obtuse angle is greater than ninety degrees. An angle less than that is acute. In real life, obtuse means dense, and not in a good way like gold is dense, that is, substantial. No, dense in the sense of slow-witted, with acute being its antonym and meaning quick or clever. Partridge says obtuse is from a Latin verb meaning to beat against, to blunt or dull an edge for example, like on a weapon or other instrument.

And that suits me. I feel like I go through the world with a couple of oven mitts on. I don’t have the sharpest tools for making sense of things. I don’t know if it’s just me or if the rest of humanity is like this. I’m tempted to say that it’s the normal state of affairs for the entire race. My ham-fisted probing of the wonders of nature is on par with my fellow earthlings. We like to think we are clever, with our science and our technology, and we are, I can’t deny it, we are indeed clever. Electromagnetic theory alone, of all our inventions, will continue to keep us busy for generations. We are just like the sorcerer’s apprentice—we can tap into the magic and make it do groovy stuff but we really don’t have a fucking clue about why that shit is the way it is.

But who says you have to? Isn’t an operational definition enough? Why seek why? Isn’t how and what enough? That’s the best we can do, I imagine. We can bang away at the vast chthonic mess in front of us and figure a few things out. No need to get metaphysical about it all. Unless that helps, of course. But I’m suspicious of things that can’t be field-tested. I understand that people seem to need all sorts of celestial mumbo-jumbo to tie it all together and try to make it all mean something. Hey, whatever gets you through the night.

I’m too obtuse for that, though. The believing game is so much harder to play than the doubting game. It’s easy to poke holes. What’s hard is not seeing them in the first place. Maybe there’s a benefit to dulling the senses, one can overlook annoying details while looking for the big picture. It’s like brainstorming, when you ask for ideas from a group without any censoring or evaluation. Some people can’t do it. They say something and the objection comes tumbling out right after. Or they piggyback on another’s idea and shoot it down. It actually takes a lot of mental discipline to do it right, to be free and spontaneous, when it seems like it should be easier. It’s because we are trained to be critics, and the suspension of disbelief is equated with naivete or gullibility.

A critic’s job is not to criticize. It’s to point out something we are missing. Book and movie reviews are avenues for the critic to talk about their artistic criteria and whether or not said form lived up to it. Who cares? It’s just another goddamn opinion. I want a critic that says “hey, you haven’t heard/seen/read this, you ought to take a look, you are missing out on something you might like.” I don’t want “this thing stinks because blah-blah-blah.” I want to be led to something new that will enrich me. I don’t want to be steered away from things, I want to be invited toward them. Remember when you had a friend turn you on to some artist or music that you had no idea about? Remember how joyous that moment was when you got it and felt it and knew that creation would be part of your life? That’s what I want from a critic.

So you have to be sharp enough to avoid getting bamboozled, but dull enough to learn something new. Receptivity is the key, and that’s a function of the heart, not the head. You need a good head on your shoulders so you don’t fall victim to the world and all its asinine schemes. But you also have to embrace inconsistencies and contradictions and immerse yourself in the unknown, otherwise you’ll never be transformed. After all the world is a goddamn obtuse angle: broad, blunt, and hard to see around; you don’t know what you’ll need in your pocket for the next adventure.

All Hallows’

Hallowe’en is a cross-quarter day, that is it falls midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice. This is the northern hemispherical view of things, it’s the opposite Down Under, they are preparing for summer now and take their Christmas in swim togs. But here it is distinctly fall and the cold of winter greets us each morning. I love the winter, you can always bundle up against the wind and frost, you can barely escape the solar onslaught and the stifling air of the summer. Wedged as we are into a slice of the earth that’s not high enough to be alpine nor dry enough to be desert we’ve a unique climate; and winter, though brisk, is mild compared to Wyoming or North Dakota. I like to ski and mostly you have to drive to snow, it falls occasionally in town and a handful of times might it require shoveling.

We like to say that the Winter Solstice is the first day of that season but as you go further and further north (we are at 42 degrees) that day feels more like mid-winter. In fact the early Celts and Britons reckoned the start of the dark season from this time, the solstice told them the sun would start moving back north and the days would lengthen. The Feast of St. Brigid on the first of February, corresponding to Imbolc and Groundhog Day, is the next cross-quarter day after that. There are legends that Brigid could turn water to beer and that is truly an outstanding personal quality, we need more saints like that.

After the Vernal Equinox comes May Day or Beltane marking the start of summer. Thus the Summer Solstice becomes mid-summer. This is logical as the sun reaches its peak on its path across the sky and moves southward from that point. The final cross-quarter day happens on the first of August and acknowledges harvest time. It’s Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon) or Lughnasa (Gaelic) to the old-timers. It’s halfway to the equinox by then and we are back where we started.

There was a time when the phase of the moon was known to every person as a matter of daily existence. Artificial lighting took care of that, and with our automobiles and airplanes we can carry that light around with us wherever we go. The Industrial Revolution did the rest, the calendar is a mere convenience now and is not wedded to our bones like it once was. So few of us need to farm that we can run our lives independent of the sunrises, sunsets, and seasons.

But we kept the lore. We still read our horoscopes and celebrate our holidays. I don’t know what to make of Hallowe’en, it seems to be a much bigger deal than it was when I was a kid. (God forbid I become one of those old cranks who whines about how things were better when he was little; stop me if I ever get there.) But everything seems that way now, probably because there are a hell of a lot more of us—about 100 million more since I left high school, 18 million in California alone! I remember dressing up and trick-or-treating as a kid, it was fun. I remember one year when the Zodiac killer was on the loose, I think it was 1969, the Chief of Police asked all the moms to keep their kids in for Hallowe’en. The Zodiac’s first victims were on Lake Herman Road, just within the city limits of Benicia where I grew up, and his next victims were in Vallejo at Blue Rock Springs Park where I had been many times. That case was never solved.

I’ll admit I’m not much for costuming and never liked having to dress up for Hallowe’en at work. I suppose it was because I already had on a costume, or rather a uniform, and would never dress for life outside of work in work garb. And going out in public requires dressing up as well. All these clothes we wear are already costumes, we just don’t think it so. Our corporate retail masters and their handmaidens, the TV advert people, have trained us to see certain things as clothing and other things as costumes.

The days continue to shorten and if you want to believe we have already started winter then be my guest, you’ve got a cultural precedent to follow on this cross-quarter day. The fall here has been spectacular and unusually long, I’ll hate to see it go despite my enthusiasm for winter. The shoulder seasons are never long enough, often the autumn that’s slipped in after the hot summer seems to last mere days and not weeks. As the sun marches away make a point to note its position on the horizon at rise or set. Keep an eye on that spot. Or note its place in the sky at noon and the length of the shadows. Check again around Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and by New Year’s Day you’ll be seeing it come back around. The ancients had to do these things to survive, but we can do it just to enjoy the celestial show.

AlphaGo Zero

I suppose it did not surprise people that a computer could be programmed to beat a human in chess. Chess has a finite set of pieces on a fixed board with strict rules of movement. There are only so many positions. There are a hell of a lot of positions, but still a finite number of them. Give a computer enough computing power as well as a database of chess games between grandmasters and it can figure out the optimum move for every situation. Ultimately even world chess champions succumbed to the machine.

The next challenge was more complex: the ancient Chinese game of Go. Go has more possibilities. It has a larger board, more pieces, and more alternative moves per turn than chess even if its rules are simpler. The game is primarily played in Asia and does not have much of a North American presence. Nonetheless computer programmers took up the challenge and, of course, created a program that could beat the world’s best players. That program was called AlphaGo. AlphaGo started with the rules of Go and 100,000 actual games from expert players and “learned” to imitate the tactics needed from that information. It also “learned” by playing against itself and developed its own schemes from those outcomes.

The next step was to see if the machine could learn all by itself. AlphaGo Zero was the next iteration of the project. This time the programmers gave it the rules of Go and nothing else. No database of games to “learn” from. AlphaGo Zero, using the rules, played against itself and discovered, by trial-and-error, the optimal strategies for winning. The idea was that if a machine only learned by imitating humans then it would be limited to concepts humans had already discovered. The computer would not come up with anything new, it would just be better at the game because it could master all the moves tirelessly and faultlessly.

But AlphaGo Zero “learned” new things and discovered new ways to win and in fact routed top-rated human players easily. AlphaGo Zero works by using a tree search to find the best move. It doesn’t play out every possible outcome, it instead prunes the branches by selecting the most promising ones. It “learned” this from all the previous games it played against itself. It then “remembers” the outcomes of all those pruned tree searches and can use that information again to make optimal “decisions” for the next set of moves.

When I want to draw a straight line I use a ruler. It’s a tool to help me complete a task. When I need to calculate something complex, I use a calculator. AlphaGo Zero is another such tool. Computers are better at data mining than people. They don’t get tired or make mistakes, and the mountains of data available today are beyond the scope of any purely human effort. Now it’s looking more and more that computers are better than people at making the best decision when many, many decisions are possible.

This isn’t scary. It’s exciting. Think about musical notation. A master musician can look at a sheet of music and hear the whole thing in his or her head at a glance. The notation actually frees the mind to see the larger pattern. It’s the same with algebra. The symbolism is powerful, it reduces complicated procedures to almost effortless manipulations. You don’t have to “understand” each step and that saves time and energy. So computers and thinking machines—what we call artificial intelligence or AI—can save time and energy and free humans to work on the things that humans are best at.

So what are humans best at? What can humans do that our technology can’t touch? I don’t know. I imagine most folks would say things like feel and express emotions. A computer could be programmed to simulate human emotional responses, and in fact I suspect that some existing AI systems could pass the Turing Test and fool a user into believing it was interacting with a real person. But that’s not the same thing.

People live in a subjective reality. We experience the world in our own particular way and since no two people are perfectly alike there are a hell of a lot of realities out there. Computers don’t have that problem. If they use the same algorithms to solve the same problems they ought to get the same results. But we aren’t wired like that. Our internal algorithms are fuzzy and inconsistent. We are easily confused, self-contradicting, and frequently irrational. Artificial intelligence is an obvious boon to humankind as it can take on tasks too big and too important (air traffic control, for example) that we mere mortals would eventually screw up. I say we get these machines in as many places as possible and free us from things we don’t need to do anymore (I can’t wait for self-driving cars!).

Then we can spend our time being silly, chaotic, and creative. We can love and laugh and goof off. The sooner this happens, the better, in my mind. I realize that Go and chess are mere games and thus not fully representative of the messy complexity of nature. But machines can do a lot to help us with the mess and I say let’s put ’em to work.

Friday the 13th

I’m not superstitious by nature, I’m too much of a rational materialist for that sort of thing.  Math and science have more impact on my mind than rabbit’s feet and black cats. I was born on a Friday the 13th (November 1959) so I tend to think of it as my lucky day. But luck is like beauty as it’s in the eye of the beholder. If wildfires wipe out your neighborhood but leave your house standing, that’s good luck for you and bad luck for your neighbors. So I prefer to think in terms of random variation.

If you hit .400 for a month you stand a good chance of hitting .200 in a different month. Guys don’t hit .400 for a season very often and they don’t hit .200 for a season very often, either. They tend to swing back-and-forth between those extremes and even out somewhere north or (mostly) south of .300 for the year. That’s random variation. If you bat ten times in any weekend series and hit five balls as hard as you can you might wind up with five hits or five outs. It’s not entirely up to you or your skill level. Once the ball leaves the bat you have no control over it and the baseball gods take over. That’s random variation.

We don’t like random variation. We like to think we make our own luck. That’s true to some degree. A batter has to practice and keep improving his skills, and he has to make good decisions in the games he plays. He has to swing at pitches he can hit and he has to make solid contact. But he can do all that and still go 0-for-10 and be the goat.

In America if you are down on your luck you don’t get much sympathy. Poor people are considered weak and foolish. Their lot is their own doing and has nothing to do with luck. If they were just smarter or worked harder they would see their lives improve. The American success ethic has no place for randomness. You are a winner or you are a loser and that’s that.

But nature is not like that. And we humans are as much a part of nature as the birds and the fishes and the trees. When a volcano erupts and spews gas and lava over the landscape some living things get buried and some escape. That’s mostly a random phenomenon. The village or forest that gets immolated is not lacking in courage, fortitude, brains, or heart. It’s just unlucky. Your genetic package is not under your control. The assortment you get from your parents is the result of random variation, the outcome is not anyone’s doing.

With so much randomness around you’d think we’d be more focused on process and less focused on outcomes. But we are an outcome-oriented people. We like to assign credit and blame for things even if those things are too big for any one person to get the credit or the blame. Presidents get credit for a good economy or blame for a poor one but they may have nothing to do with it either way. Economies are very big systems with a lot of inputs and despite all the Nobel Prizes folks really don’t understand them. It’s not science as you can’t run proper experiments and thus you can’t test your hypotheses. And when economists get tangled up with politicians all bets are off. Politics is about as irrational a business as humans can come up with and people who are good at it know that feelings and attitudes are way more important than facts.

Facts are over-rated anyway. We are believing and doubting creatures. We believe some things and doubt others and most of the time it has little to do with actual events. We are products of our upbringing and environment and it is really hard to see the world in any other way but the way we’ve always seen the world. Prejudice, or perhaps I should say bias, is more important than objectivity. In fact objectivity is impossible for humans, as no matter how hard we try at least some of our preconceived notions will be part of our world view.

So what is one to do? I think the key is to recognize our inability to see the facts in a situation and accept that we are opinionated as hell. What we can do is try on some of those other opinions and try to see where they come from. They come from somewhere, they are not entirely random or without foundation. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes you might see the world a little differently than you did before and that is, in my mind, progress. I think the most beautiful thing in the world is empathy. When you can feel what another person might be feeling even if you’ve not had the experiences of that other person you become a larger version of yourself. You enrich your own humanity.

Empathy can only come about through humility. We have to recognize our own weaknesses and limitations. We have to accept that sometimes it is luck that gave us what we have and not our checklist of virtuous behavior. The mystic believes that god is in everyone and that anyone who accepts that fact cannot hate another person or be indifferent to their suffering because that would be an affront to god. I think that might be the hardest thing in the world, to see god in everyone. Too hard for most of us I expect.

For us ordinary mortals, those of us without the necessary spiritual equipment to see god everywhere, we could try something a little easier. How about seeing that the process is more important than the outcome? That random variation doesn’t discriminate and thus we are all subject to it. That bad luck could be just around the corner no matter who you are, and that most of us don’t “deserve” it when it happens. How about letting go of opinions? That’s all they are, opinions. They aren’t universal truths or bits of wisdom or guidelines for ethical living. They are just opinions. We love our opinions and think they define us. They don’t. They come and they go and we change our minds and then we rail at others for changing theirs. Seems pretty stupid, don’t you think?

One thing I know is true: we are all the same. Forty-six chromosomes made out of the same stuff, DNA. We are different, the DNA says that too, but the differences are not as great as the similarities. That’s one of those things worth keeping: what divides us is a lot less than what we have in common. That’s biology, man, and you can’t argue with that.