Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Computer-Generated Future -- Writer's Poke #449

Could a computer write a hit pop song? Why not? The Australian comedy trio Axis of Awesome demonstrated that many pop songs follow a basic four chord formula. If that’s all it takes, then certainly a computer should be capable of reproducing the formula. For all I know, maybe computers already generate all pop songs already.

If computers did produce the music you love to listen to, would it bother you? Maybe pop music doesn’t qualify as “art,” but what about traditional European classical music? Bach and Beethoven and Mozart were all geniuses, right? And their music isn’t just simply the equivalent of disposable plastic eating utensils; it’s the fine china of the music world. If a computer could compose original classical music, that would be a feat indeed, wouldn’t it? Would it at the same time diminish the genius behind the original human creations of the past masters?

The problem with computer-generated music – pop or classical – is that it’s all derivative. But perhaps that isn’t a problem. After all, people like things to be derivative, don't they? Any time a group releases a new album, they always seem to promise that they've learned their lesson -- that the new album will simply deliver everything that their fans liked from previous albums. When an album bombs, it’s generally because the new work goes too far beyond what the fans expect. AC/DC may be one of the most famous examples of a group making a career on giving the fans exactly what they want with each song, and nothing new or unexpected. 

Computers can create successful songs according to formula, and they have the ability to write lyrics – after all, pop lyrics aren’t all that sophisticated, even if some songs do boast a whole team of song writers. And in 2011, the Japanese pop group AKB48 – a girl group with over eighty members – went as far as to create a virtual member, Aimi Eguchi.

Perhaps all that’s left for computer programmers to do is to create a computer-generated audience, or if that’s too virtual for your reality, then they could integrate these simulated people into human-like robotic bodies. The ultimate act of human creation may eventually lead to eliminating the need for human beings altogether.  

Is the elimination of the need for people the end result of evolution, or as sentient beings interested in our own survival, shouldn’t we be fighting against being made redundant?

“I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.” – Claude Shannon

The Failure of Will Alone -- Writer's Poke #448

Does failure result solely from the lack of will to succeed? That’s a rather provocative question, and to fully understand what it means, perhaps it would be a good idea to examine a few examples. Let’s just brainstorm and randomly see what develops.

1. The War on Drugs. Pretty much a failure, right? Why? Too much money in the drug trade; too much consumer demand for illegal drugs.

2. The War on Terrorism. Failure? The use of force exhibited in Boston after the Marathon bombings was impressive, but the lack of intelligence needed to prevent the bombing from occurring in the first place is less than impressive.

3. The War on Poverty. “If people are poor, then they should working harder and do something about it. It’s not my problem.” The lack of success resulted from the inability to overcome an entrenched attitude. 

We like to declare war on problems. No one ever declares peace on problems. “War” indicates we mean business, but unfortunately metaphorical wars lack set-piece battles. The theory behind the set-piece battle is that two sides confront each other directly, and the side left standing is the victor. I’m not sure such set-piece battles have existed in reality since Roman times; regardless, set-piece battles certainly aren’t possible against societal problems.

Although we’d like to fight the battle once, declare victory, and go on with our lives, that’s not the way it works. In my own life, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished to fix my car once and have it fixed forever. Or, when I go buy groceries, how I secretly wish that my fridge and kitchen cabinets will stay stocked from now through the rest of eternity. My will for the fulfillment of such fantasies is strong, but the reality of life doesn’t seem to care about how strong my will might happen to be.

If the will to succeed is fighting a war, it’s actually fighting a war against reality. As far as I can tell, reality always triumphs over fantasy. The desire to live in fantasy is strong, even understandable, but the truth of reality always outlasts any siege of fantasy.

Success, then, has nothing to do with will. Rather, it has to do with acceptance. Accepting reality is the first key to success. Trying to will reality to be different only results in the failure of fantasy.

How can problems best be accepted and addressed in a realistic manner? Why do we often insist on engaging in fantasy battles destined to fail?

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced” – Soren Kierkegaard 

We, As Humans -- Writer's Poke #447

I’ve been reading student essays for the past fifteen years, and I wish I knew how many times I’ve read students write the following: “We, as humans, ….” Most of the times I just mark out “as humans” and go on reading.

Quite honestly, I probably haven’t given the phrase any deep thought, but the qualification does seem to imply that the “we” the students speak of could be something other than human. What exactly could “we” be, if not human? Perhaps an examination of this question has merit.

Take, gender, for example. One feminist writer described gender as a copy without an original. Essentially, gender is “prescribed” – by culture, or religion, etc. What it means to be “male” or “female” are simply ideas, and all of us pick up on the particular ideas created by the group(s) we belong to.

Assuming this is true, it makes sense to suggest that what it means to be human works the same way. What does it mean to be human? Homo sapiens belong to the animal kingdom, but when people speak of being human, don’t they often imply that being human is different from being animal? To be human, in other words, is to be more than “animal.” Isn’t it interesting that students, perhaps subconsciously, feel the need to clarify the distinction?

Human beings are animals, although I’ve really never had any students focus on this aspect of what it means to be human. To be human means, or so it would seem, trying to escape being animal. When students write “we, as humans,” it’s almost as if they are declaring their commitment to the idea that human beings have the ability – and the obligation – to transcend their animal origins. To be human means not to be supernatural, but natural in a manner generally accepted as being more than animal.

Can you adequately define what it means to be human, or do all attempts at definition fall short?

“No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down the rules of conduct for other people.” – William Howard Taft

Shakespeare Matters -- Writer's Poke #446

In high school I didn’t know much about Shakespeare, and I didn’t care. If we did read any of his work in any of my English classes, I’m sure it was Romeo and Juliet, which is probably one of his most “accessible” plays. I don’t recall if we read it or not, though, as I’ve done a fairly good job of blacking out all memories of English classes from high school.

My freshman year was my last year in Honors English. At that point in my life, I didn’t know the meaning of homework or studying. If I didn’t know something immediately, it probably wasn’t worth knowing, or so I thought. Besides, each English period was a perfect opportunity to work on my novel. I called it a novel, but it was actually just episodic scribbling. I spent an entire year working on my writing, but I have to admit it was crap. I wish I would have had more direction on how to write, but like I said, I wasn’t in the mindset to study craft. That wouldn’t happen until college.

By the time I reached college, I fell into being an English major. This was rather unexpected, as I hadn’t previously enjoyed reading, per se. Other than reading about ten William F. Buckley spy novels, I can’t remember reading any books prior to college. I read a lot of magazines cover to cover, but no books. Certainly not Shakespeare.

If a sign of cultural literacy is being about to identify five plays by Shakespeare, I would have failed the test. By the start of my sophomore year in college, however, I was hooked on books. I was so hooked that I signed up for a Shakespeare class in the summer. As I recall, most of the students in this class didn’t have a serious interest in being there. Some, I’m sure, were English majors, but they were there mainly to knock out a quick class. Who wants to spend three hours every morning for five weeks learning about Shakespeare?

Actually, what could be better than that? Unfortunately, the professor considered himself to be more actor than teacher. He would spend the class time doing “dramatic readings” of each play’s most essential scenes. All his performances did, however, was to remind me of why I hated English classes in high school. In high school, students would be called to read paragraphs out loud, and this could be quite a painful experience to listen to. A lot of high school students, believe it or not, cannot read very well, especially out loud. Their voices are monotone, and they mispronounce many of the words. While my college professor tried to add some passion to his performance, I didn’t find having Shakespeare spoken to me to help my appreciation any.

I have to admit that I had just discovered Cliffs Notes, and although I would read each play, I would immediately read the summary and analysis of the “experts.” For some reason, I guess I still thought that literature could be distilled down into an “answer.” Yes, I had a lot to learn. Shakespeare, or any great author, cannot be captured in plot or theme or symbolism. Reading Shakespeare is an experience, and maybe I wouldn’t realize that fully until I had the opportunity to read his work more thoughtfully as a graduate student.

Does Shakespeare matter? Yes, very much so, but it would take me about ten years of dedicated study to fully (or maybe just partially?) understand why.

Almost 500 years later, William Shakespeare is still considered to be the greatest writer (in the English language) of all time. What is your experience with Shakespeare, and does he “matter” to you?

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” – William Shakespeare

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Symbolism Response -- Writer's Poke #445

Murders are rare in Rochester, Minnesota. To my knowledge, only one has occurred in the past two years, and it took place in my neighborhood – about a ½ mile from my front door.

My neighborhood loops in a circle, and the backside of the circle is a crappy road surrounded on both sides by brush and woods. A few houses sprinkle these woods, but it’s basically an isolated spot.

Sometimes in the summers, we’ll walk the loop. I’m not paranoid, but every time I walk this section – even before the murder – I find myself wondering what I’d do if a car drove up, and the occupants inside started to mess with me. Would I stand and fight? Would I try to flee into the brush? Or would I just stand and wait to see my fate?

I feel safe where I live, but I try to be conscious of my surroundings at all times. When the young man was murdered – apparently the victim of a drug-related crime – no police officers swept our neighborhood looking for the suspects. In fact, we noticed no additional level of police presence in our neighborhood whatsoever. If I hadn’t happened upon a newspaper that week, I might never even have known that a murder had taken place.

Stories like the Rochester murder aren’t heavily reported. Reporters from CNN don’t stand next to the memorial and report live from the scene where the victim was “brutally and senselessly murdered.” No one shares pictures of the victim on facebook.

I don’t know why some crimes should be treated differently than others. Some crimes seem to take on symbolic value, and the criminals behind such crimes apparently commit their acts out of a knowledge that symbolism matters. It will get the attention of the masses. It will be labeled “senseless” and so on, as if a crime with a motive behind it is any less horrible.

Some American cities experience scores, if not hundreds, of murders every year. Never have I heard of such a city being placed on “lockdown” so that police can find the killers, and yet it’s a safe bet that most of these urban killers live in the same neighborhoods as the people they’ve killed. What makes the lives of these urban victims – or the victim of the young man killed in Rochester – any less valuable to police and media attention? Since when should the symbolism behind the crime count for more than the crime’s substance?

What is the appropriate police response to a criminal act? Should symbolic acts of violence elicit a greater police response?

“The toilets at a local police station have been stolen. Police say they have nothing to go on.” – Ronnie Baker

I Dream of India -- Writer's Poke #444

One of my fantasies is to visit India in July.

I dream it to be, well, hotter than hell. The upside to that, of course, is less tourists.

I dream it to be dirty, and I dream it to be crowded, and I dream it to be poor. On the other hand, I dream it to be the opposite of those things, too.

I dream of India because I have never been there, and I honestly have no idea what it’s like.

Why dream of India? Fair question, dear reader, but do you have control over what dreams invade your sleep at night? Neither do I, and neither do I have control, really, over what I dream about when I’m awake.

It’s a cliché to say that life’s a dream, but behind the cliché is at least some truth. While I dream of India from miles away, other people have taken the leap to experience their dreams in person. What do they see when they arrive in the place once only dreamt upon? Does the reality live up to the dream, or is the reality simply an extension of the dream – experienced as life, but actually no different from the dream itself?

How does one “experience” the dream? I’ve been places. Not India, but other places. My experiences in these places are now housed in memories. If memories are not enough, I have pictures on my computer to show me that I was there, and these pictures compete with memory. Both inform my experience, but both are incomplete, often providing alternative narratives of what I would like to designate as “reality.” Maybe I should go back to these places to see for myself, but going back is impossible. Perhaps, then, I should just go to sleep. Let the questions of memory and experience and reality fade into nothingness – until the visions of India rise out of nowhere once more, tempting me to create stories of reality from my places of fantasy.

Where do your dreams take you?

“Without a dream you’ll not get anywhere.” – Kofi Annan

Liftoff -- Writer's Poke #443

I like to think I’m special, but if forced to examine what makes me special, I might have to be honest. I’ve had a lot of breaks and opportunities. You have, too, right? People that have had a chance to explore their specialness have been blessed with a luxury that other people all around the world have been denied.

Human potential. I strongly believe in it, but I also recognize that most people do not live in circumstances that allow them to realize their potential. I’m sure that many – probably all –  kids born on May 24, 1973, have talents, skills, perspectives, etc., which make them every bit as special as I am. How many of them have already died before figuring out what made them special? How many continue to live in developing countries, spending most of their energies finding ways to survive from day to day?

At this point in my life, I don’t feel like I’ve reached my potential. I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be in that regard. I keep studying, and I keep thinking, and I keep working, but my ever-visible goals remains in front of me – always just beyond my reach. From this life of privilege I’ve enjoyed, I still feel as though my life’s mission is on the launching pad, but when will I be given the green light to take off?

My life has been in the countdown stage for a long time now, and perhaps the blastoff moment is near. Or, perhaps the mission will be delayed, again, and I’ll remain on the launching pad for a little while longer. I’m simply thankful that I’ve made it to the launching pad; most people, or so it seems to me, never even have a chance to dream about exploring regions beyond hand-to-mouth existence.

Has your life experienced liftoff?

“For NASA, space is still a high priority.” – Dan Quayle

Monday, April 15, 2013

Frank and Louie -- Writer's Poke #442

Frank and Louie is a two-faced cat. Or, to put it another way, Frank and Louie is a cat with two faces. Seems pretty freaky when you first see it, but my thought is simply this: Does it know how to use a litter box, and does it use its litter box each and every time it goes to the bathroom. If so, then that cat’s alright with me.

We’ve been keeping our cat, Turkey, locked up in the basement because she keeps peeing on our beds when she’s upstairs. She’s literally lived in a barn for the first few months of her live, and I suppose you can take the cat out of the barn, but you cannot take the barn out of the cat.

Last night I felt pity for her and I let her out of the basement. She was good all day yesterday, but this morning as I was running around getting ready for work, she peed all over my comforter. Maybe it was a relief for her, but it didn’t provide me with the same feeling. Needless to say, Turkey is now back the basement and will be for the foreseeable future.

While she’s in the basement, she uses her litter box religiously. That is, she’s very devout about using her litter box. Or, maybe I should just say she doesn’t have any problems using her litter box. Liberate her to the rest of the house, however, and she takes on this carpe diem attitude of “I will pee whenever and wherever the mood strikes me.” I guess she just doesn’t want to make the effort to go down stairs. Maybe the basement scares her?

Why are pets worth the trouble?

“Those who’ll play with cats must expect to be scratched.” – Cervantes

Friday, April 12, 2013

Lying About -- Writer's Poke #441

So how often do you lie? And what do you lie about?

1.      “How are you today?”

“I’m fine, thanks.” Maybe you’re not fine at all, but the social convention is to say that you are. It’s a friendly gesture, and it’s almost the equivalent of shaking hands and saying “hello.” But if you say you’re fine when you’re not, are you lying?


2.      “Do I look good in this dress?” or “How do you like the meal?”

“You look good” or “It tastes good.” If these responses are not true, what is the benefit to telling the person the truth? Is it worth hurting someone’s feelings? Sometimes we lie to protect people we love from being hurt. Is this really a bad thing? After all, we know when the people we love want to know the truth, and we also recognize when they don’t want to know the truth, don’t we? The above questions may be examples of when people don’t want to know the truth, or at least don’t mind if we lie to protect their feelings.


3.      “Are you hiding any Jews in your house?”

“No.” Think about World War II for a moment. Many people were willing to risk their lives to protect the innocent lives of others. Obviously it was dangerous, but if they believed they had an absolute moral imperative to always tell the truth, all a Nazi agent would have to do is ask a simple question, and the gig would be up. This is a much stronger version of example number 2. It’s possible, then, that a lie can save someone’s life.

What is the last lie you told, and what purpose did it serve? Have you ever told a “purposeless” lie (e.g. “Gee, why did I just say that when I know it’s not true, and there was really no purpose for me saying it?”)

“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” – V. I. Lenin

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Click -- Writer's Poke #440

Sometimes change is thrust upon us, yes, but I'm much more interested in the changes we initiate ourselves.  

Why do we initiate change in our lives? We can walk in the same direction for years, but then all of a sudden, we decide to walk in a different direction. It’s likely that there’s a build-up leading up to the moment we make the decision, but the moment itself “clicks” us in. After the clicking moment occurs, it will take another series of events to ever cause us to change direction again.

Sometimes the clicking moment occurs because we’ve experienced a significant event. For example, I stopped biting my fingers this year; that wasn’t one of my planned goals, but after getting a bad infection and having to visit the ER at 2 a.m., I discovered it wasn’t all that difficult to stop.

Most clicking moments don’t include a visit to the ER in the middle of the night; most changes we make originate from more subtle origins, and sometimes the reasons behind the “click” aren’t immediately clear.

Have you ever experienced a “click” and although you recognized the change in yourself, you didn’t fully understand why it occurred? Were you curious enough to examine what led up to the clicking moment, or did you take the time to create a story for yourself that explains why you changed?

“Every now and then, I strike something that just goes click, you know, in my head. As Gertrude Stein used to say, it rings the bell, and I fell this is great.” – James Laughlin

Friday, April 5, 2013

The X-Men Effect -- Writer's Poke #439

The Chinese have a saying, “May you live in interesting times.” It’s supposed to be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, I suppose, because at least you’ll never be bored. A curse, perhaps, because you will always need to be alert to both dangers as well as change – no matter how positive those changes might be.

I heard another saying on the radio yesterday, but I didn’t catch where it originated. Maybe Russia. Anyway, it goes something like this: “May you get the life you want.” Again, the idea behind the saying is that it can be both a blessing and a curse. If we are in charge of our lives, then we need to be careful, very careful about what we want. For as the world-famous philosophers The Pussycat Dolls remind us, “Be careful what you want ‘cause you just might get it.”

This reminds me of one final saying, which I’ve always assumed to be taken solely as a blessing: “My cup runs over.” That’s from Psalms 23:5, and yes, it’s about definitely about blessings. But on a literal level, who likes it when a cup overflows? The first thing you have to do is clean up the mess, right? In other words, you can even have too many blessings – or at the very least, you need to invest in a larger cup. 

Take stock of your life. Do you live in interesting times? Do you have the life that you want? Does your cup run over? For me personally, I would answer yes to all three questions. Even so, life remains challenging, stressful, and at times, a bit overwhelming. I’m glad for my blessings, but I’m also still trying to figure out how to handle the costs involved.

How do you deal with blessings?

“Why has God given me such magnificent talent? It is a curse as well as a great blessing.” – Albrecht Durer

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Only Way Is Through -- Writer's Poke #438

If you visit Jamaica, you might end up at Dunn’s River Falls. And if you do, I won’t think any less of you. The idea behind this attraction is neat enough: Start at the bottom and climb your way to the top. Is it worth $50 a person for the experience? I’ll leave that up to you and your budget to decide; keep in mind that the cost includes the ride there and back, which can be a fun adventure in itself. However, it doesn’t include a lot of “hidden” costs…

Other than the high price of admission, the problems with Dunn’s River Falls are many. First, prepare for it to be insanely overcrowded. On days when cruise ships are in port, as many as 7,000 tourists will be trying to make their way to the top with you that same day. In other words, you will be holding hands with strangers from top to bottom, and you’ll probably be more preoccupied with people than you will be with the “amazing experience” you would be having if you were by yourself or with a small, intimate group. As long as you’re not tempted to think about how nice the Falls would be to visit without shiploads of people, maybe this won’t be an issue for you…

Second, expect the locals to hold you upside down and shake you until all of your money falls out. Yes, you pay $50 to climb to the top, but at the bottom of the Falls, guides magically appear, and they will eagerly offer their assistance and encouragement. They’ll even offer to take your picture, hold your valuables, etc. Well, maybe “offer” is the wrong word. They provide their assistance to you whether you want it or not, and at the top, it’s very well understood that you will show them appropriate appreciation. Anything less than $5 per person would be seen as an insult – that goes without saying, although they won’t be too humble to tell you how much to tip.  Look at it from their perspective. After all, all tourists are rich. They could afford to make the trip to Jamaica, and they could afford to pay for the excursion. Obviously, they can afford to be generous with their gratuities to the hard-working locals. And maybe you don’t have any issue helping the local economy. Just go into the climb knowing that you will be paying the salary of your guide. Apparently the $50 you paid earlier goes to a company, and these individuals at the Falls are simply “independent contractors.”

Finally, know that when you make it to the top, you’ll only have 15 minutes to enjoy the rest of what the location has to offer. So you will most likely just want to walk back to the van that will take you back to your cruise ship. Your van guide warned you not to be late, and out of respect for your fellow passengers, you want to make sure you arrive on time. Keep in mind, however, that while it was a straight shot in to the Falls, you will have to walk the gauntlet to get out – nobody bothers to tell you this, but I just did, so remember me, okay? A maze of vendors and shops stand between you and your van. And guess what? There are no exit signs and no maps to point you in the right direction. For the most part, black faces will be moving immediately in front of you, and you’ll be trying to do your best to follow the white faces just ahead of them, hoping that they are moving in the right direction. For all you know, you’re all  moving farther away from the van, but all you can do is move forward. The only way is through.

If you like mazes, consider it part of the $50 experience you paid for. Just keep in mind, again, that the vendors do not receive any of that money, and they will look to you to feel obligated to buy their merchandise. After all, you don’t want their families to starve, do you? You’re not that type of tourist, are you?

How do you handle traps?

“Man is the only varmint that sets his own trap, baits it, then steps in it.” – John Steinbeck

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Happy Accidents -- Writer's Poke #437

Serendipity, by definition, implies “happy little accidents,” and no one plans for accidents, right? Accidents, by definition, just happen.

The serendipity of success, however, isn’t quite as accidental as it may seem. Success may be serendipitous, but if it is, most of the time there’s an underlying element of planning involved.
Successful people, in other words, work to be successful. They plan to be successful; they are motivated to be successful. Could someone accidently trip over success? Perhaps, but how likely is it that such success is long-lasting? Not very likely, I would say.

So how did the painter Bob Ross have so many “happy little accidents?” He had them by actively painting. He wasn’t seeking mistakes, but if he made them, he turned them into opportunities. Some people might immediately stop painting and start over with a new canvas. Ross didn’t. He simply incorporated the mistake into the painting, and the painting was inevitably all the better for it. 

This is a life lesson we could all benefit studying. First, be active. Second, learn from your mistakes. Third, appreciate the mistakes, and incorporate them into your success.

 What happy accidents have you learned from lately?

“Any time ya learn, ya gain.” – Bob Ross

That Smarts -- Writer's Poke #436

I used to have a simplistic view of what it meant to be smart. If you knew a lot of stuff, I thought, then that probably meant you were smart. Then I started to understand that knowing a lot stuff didn’t mean much. To be smart, you had to know what to do with that knowledge. You had to be able to apply it in useful ways. Knowing stuff, and knowing what to do with what you know – that’s what makes someone smart. 

What if you know a lot of stuff, but you can’t express that you know it? Or, maybe you can even apply your knowledge in unique ways, but not in ways normally acknowledged by standard measures. Can you still qualify as being “smart”?

When we’re in school, how smart we are is generally measured through our ability to test well. Tests are generally in written form, and so as long as you are able to translate your knowledge into standard responses, you’ll be able to demonstrate just how smart you are. 

Actually, I don’t have a problem with this. For the most part, traditional tests probably do an adequate job measuring smartness. Over the past number of years, however, different folks have come along to suggest that our notion of smartness is incomplete. In fact, some people have been labeled as mentally retarded when they actually were smart in alternative ways, as demonstrated through alternative testing measures. 

What does it mean to be smart?

“Be smart, but never show it.” – Louis B. Mayer