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Do robots get it?

13 May
female_robot

Image by Rhex Firemind

A story of mine was recently published in the online science fiction journal, Ripples In Space.

It’s about artificial intelligence in a young female robot and a visiting scientist who wants to determine if she is capable of comprehending unconventional thought patterns.

It’s short and you can read it in a flash.

I call it   “Learning”

Click to read. Thanks.

Lanny Morgnanesi

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A kind of Jewish internet flourished in 900 AD

13 Mar
Ancient Babylon

Babylonia

For this reason or that, I’ve adopted the belief that many human habits date back hundreds of thousands of years, to homo erectus, the Neanderthals, and Gods knows how many other hominid creatures.

 

I won’t go much into this now, but one much-more modern bit of evidence – for me at least – is the preserved Italian city of Pompeii, which remains exactly as it was in 79 AD. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the fallen ash froze it in time. When I toured it several years ago, my lasting impression was: These people lived just like we do today!

 

Now something new to me – but historically old – has added to the idea that we haven’t changed much, even if our technology has. This small piece of information comes from a book called, “A History of the Jewish People,” written in 1934 by Max Margolis and Alexander Marx. It was paid for by the estate of one Rosetta M. Ulman, who during her life wanted such a publication written.

book-history-of-the-jewish-people

In chapters covering the years from 175 AD to 1038, there is a great deal of discussion about two highly respected schools of learning that guided Jewish communities dispersed throughout the known world. The schools, Sura and  Pumbeditha, were in Babylonia (modern Iraq). The two heads of these school was held in the highest regard by Jewish residents of Babylonia, Palestine, Egypt and many other locations. Every word from the leaders on religion, scripture, philosophy and life were sought out and followed.

Map-sura-pumbadita

Even the Arabs paid attention and gave their respect.

 

As I read, I wondered how word got from the schools to the communities. No doubt by heralds, messengers, traders and travelers. Obviously, it must have been a slow stream of news.

 

When Margolis and Marx get into a section on a schism between the two schools, however, it seems as if the news had a much faster way of getting out. The leaders of Sura and Pumbeditha were arguing over nearly everything. One highly sensitive issue was what kind of calendar or calculation should be used to set the Jewish holidays. They differed on this, and the result was that one year Passover was celebrated on two different days.

Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel

Margolis and Marx report that the “confusion” was so great “it was even noticed by non-Jews.”

 

My thoughts were: How did the details of this controversy and the two divergent holidays spread so quickly from Babylonia, through Palestine, to Egypt and North Africa, maybe to even to Spain, Greece, Turkey and Persia?

 

Was there a Jewish internet?

 

Information then and now was powerful and important and clever humans, with or without technology, knew how to spread it. What may be lost, however, is exactly how they did it, at what cost and to what extent. Margolis and Marx don’t get into that, but I’d sure like to know.

Sura-Iraq

The ancient school at Sura

Either way, the results were a lot like the results now.

 

We’ve always been the same and probably always will be. If we ever clone a Neanderthal, he may fit in much better than we’d expect.

Neanderthal

Depiction of a Neanderthal

But I would have known that. The bakeries, butcher shops, whorehouses, living room art, sidewalks and curbs and everything else in Pompeii seem to suggest the truth. And now, as more evidence, we have the ancient Jewish internet.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

No one checks, so go ahead and lie: “What Books Are On Your Nightstand?”

22 Mar

Bookshelf

A person I worked with years ago has since become a famous writer. He has a new book out and was interviewed recently by the New York Times. He did well, especially with the question, “What books are on your nightstand?”

Famous writers who are interviewed know this question is coming. From some of the interviews I’ve read, I’m inclined to think the interviewer should actually go out and check the nightstand.

As I read my former colleague’s interview, I thought about me, not him. He played it relatively straight, with just a touch of levity, and came off looking like the serious writer he is. Should I ever become famous and be the subject of an interview, I’m certain I would blow it with failed humor, misunderstood sarcasm and an attempt to show that seriousness is way overrated.

The worst of it would come with the “book on the nightstand” question.

Have you noticed they don’t ask the more precise, “What books are you reading?” In effect, the interviewer gives the serious writer a polite “out.” The books only have to be on the nightstand, not read.

I can hear myself taking advantage of this loophole and saying:

Mario-Vargas-Llosa“You know, prior to the interview I went to a consignment shop and bought this monstrous piece of furniture. I put it next to my bed and filled it with the great literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries –all the books Joyce Carol Oates has read. OK, now ask me that question again”

Even if I forced myself to answer the question properly, I’m sure I would ruin it by injecting too much honesty.

I’d probably say:

“Look, I get up early and really need eight hours sleep. When I go to bed, I’m tried. I pick up a book and in less than 10 minutes I’m out. Homer’s “Odyssey” is on the nightstand now. I plan to finish it by 2088.”

For me, the other troublesome questions are: “Who is your favorite author?” and “What is your favorite book?”

Most people can answer these questions. I cannot.

I don’t have a favorite color, favorite food or favorite movie, and I certainly don’t have a favorite author or book. The world contains so many varieties of great consumables that I just keep consuming and move on.

Memory also is a problem. I can’t remember which book I liked best. And even if I could, I can’t remember enough about a book to fully understand why I liked it.

I read Moby Dick in college and liked it very much – or so I recall. Yes, I can relate the general story, but I cannot recount specific structure or passages or style or the little stories that fell in between the big one.

When I read Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The War of the End of the World,” I was convinced these monumental works could not have been written without the help of God or muse. Today, it would be impossible for me to go into detail.

Tolstoy_normalMy old colleague mentioned Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” as one of his favorite novels. I think I first heard about this book in a joke by Woody Allen, who said:

“I took one of those speed reading courses and read ‘War and Peace’ in one night. It was about Russia.”

After the joke, I decided to read the book – in considerably more time than one night. My recollection today is that I liked the war parts much better than the peace parts. But overall, for my taste, the book read too much like a soap opera (although I’m sure it was much better in Russian)

One doubts oneself when an opinion goes against the consensus of experts, and they consider “War and Peace” supreme. So I was relieved to learn Tolstoy didn’t think much of it.

This was documented in a journal kept by the founder of the college where I work. This founder, a humanist and early advocate of reformed Judaism, made a pilgrimage to Russian to meet Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired. At the time, Tolstoy was a messianic, cult figure trying to establish a new world order. He resided with his followers and acolytes on something resembling a hippie commune.

Tolstoy received the Jewish intellectual and asked if he had read his work. Of course, said the visitor, who mentioned “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

“No,” said Tolstoy. “Not that crap. I mean my serious work.”

The final difficult question in the standard interview with serious writers is:

“What books are you embarrassed NOT to have read?”

The serious writers save face and stay humble by mentioning one or two or sometimes a single author. I fear I would go on forever.

This is why I prefer the interviewer come to my home. When he asks that final question, I would just point to my monstrous nightstand and we’d be done with it.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

3 Mar

Chinese-students

The reason Chinese students have the highest test scores in the world is because they cheat.

If that is not entirely true, it is at least partially true.

In the U.S., Asian and Asian-American students appear to work harder than their Caucasian classmates. Anyone who has observed this can easily believe the reports of China’s international dominance in reading, science and math. Test results say students from Shanghai lead the world, with the U.S. as a whole coming in 29th.

Why is it then that Americans always win an unusually high number of Nobel Prizes while the Chinese win very few?

Well, maybe we’ve rigged that system – which is something the Chinese seem to have done with the system of international test scores.

Book-Afraid of the DragonA new book has put a spotlight on the weaknesses of the Chinese education system and exposed fraud and cheating. It was written by Yong Zhao and is entitled, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” A full discussion of the book can be found in a Nov. 20 article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books. (subscription required)

Here are three items plucked from the review:

  • It is not uncommon for Chinese test takers to use wireless cheating devices.
  • Sometimes the students just buy the test answers on the open market.
  • When there was a rare crackdown on cheating in Hubei Province, a riot broke out. Two thousand people reportedly smashed cars and chanted, “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.”

This is not to deny that there is incredible test preparation in China. One famous test-prep school starts at 6:30 a.m., finishes at 10:30 p.m. and gives homework. But do these students actually learn anything? There is increasing legitimacy, in both America and China, in the argument that teaching to the test does not a genius make.

In the final analysis, creativity and innovation are sacrificed.

PISA-test-scoresZhao points out that the Chinese invented the compass but instead of using it to navigate the globe, they used it to find locations and burial sites with good fengshui. He said China – which had no Renaissance, no Enlightenment and no Industrial Revolution — was the first with gunpowder but never used it for modern weaponry.

Then there is this business of the Nobel Prize. A quick search of the Internet shows the Chinese have won six while the U.S. has won 353.

In his book, Zhao quotes a professor at Beijing University who says that since 1949 there has not been a single Nobel laureate among the 1 billion people educated in mainline China:

“No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college. . . . This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.”

It’s been said that Zhao wrote his book to convince the U.S. not to discard an education system that emphasizes fresh ideas and the spirit of individualism. It’s for certain he doesn’t want us to be suckered in by reports of China’s high test scores.

Standardized tests and teaching to those test is a growing America practice due to current government policy, but Zhao and Ravitch warn:

If the West is concerned about being overtaken by China, then the best solution is to avoid becoming China.

 

My own opinion is that the Chinese are a lot smarter than Zhao lets on. For one, I think Chinese mariners of old did a lot more global navigation than his statements suggest. And with respect to gunpowder, in some circles China might be considered highly moral and civilized for preferring firecrackers over canons.

I’ve been amazed by both the ancient and the modern Chinese mind. Its effectiveness should never be underestimated or said to lack creativity. If the American mind has dulled – and there really is no evidence of that – it is because it has become too comfortable. Fortunately, the Chinese economic miracle has given it some discomfort.

If it is napping, it will surely wake, and soon.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The Greek gods knew our shortcomings, especially how greed numbs the brain

25 Jan

zeus-greek-mythology

A new piece of furniture was coming in, so an old piece had to go out. It was a beat up bookshelf filled with dusty volumes. As I removed them, I noticed Homer’s “Odyssey,” which I had not read.

So I cracked it open, not knowing that a passage would foreshadow a later incident.

The early pages had much to offer, and I made these three observations:

  • It’s nice to live in a world where gods favor noble pursuits, but since even heroes can lose the favor of gods, Greek mythology really is no different from real life.
  • Odysseus had a son, whose teacher and counselor is named Mentor. Now I know where that word came from.
  • In one scene, the gods sit around complaining about humans. Zeus says, “Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man.”

Two days after reading this, I saw both ignoble qualities on vivid display.

They appeared in a news item about a woman whose acquaintance I had made and whose mansion I had visited. The article said she and her family had been arrested and charged with $20 million in insurance fraud.

According to the grand jury, their home had been set ablaze not once but three times. After the fires, and after four burglaries, the woman would claim loses of millions in jewels and other valuables.

That’s enough to draw suspicion. Nevertheless, 25 days before the last fire, the coverage on jewels in the home was increased to $11 million.

The news report said investigators seized six Ferraris, two Rolls Royces and millions in other assets. They also found jewels on which claims had been paid.

Now that’s folly.

Among those arrested were the woman’s daughter, who was a former district attorney, and her second husband, a former deputy sheriff. The first husband was a foreman of some sort. She apparently worked as a clerk in her daughter’s law office.

The lot of them must have given Zeus a headache.

I first met the matron at a charity event held at her house. It wasn’t one of those grand old houses. It was one of those incredibly large new houses. Snobs and old money, of course, cast aspersions at such dwellings, but it nevertheless was amazing to look at. The owner, not being the Katharine Hepburn-Philadelphia Story type, fit in with the place. She was a rough and tumble political type with a voice like Marge Simpson and hair so big it needed its own room.

I attended the event with a portrait artist. Our hostess took an interest in the artist and asked about commissioning a painting. It was explained that the portrait might cost between $10,000 and $15,000. The homeowner never followed up with this particular artist, but later hired someone to paint a ceiling mural that had family members looking down from a heavenly perch. I’m not sure what she paid for the mural, which burned, but insurance records show she sought to collect $950,000 on it.

I try to think the best of people but couldn’t resist speculating that when this woman talked about the portrait with the first artist, she had something in mind beside art. It could be that a portrait didn’t quite fill the unstated need. Indeed, upon reading the full story behind the arrests, one might conjecture that insurance fraud was at the root of everything this women did, that it was a firm mindset and an inescapable preoccupation.

As she found success in this preoccupation, did her inner levels of greed and folly increase?

Seems like they did. I might add that after each blaze, investigators found cans of flammable hairspray near the fire’s point of origin, and a security system showed the owner left the house shortly after each fire started.

Does greed also dull the imagination?

The artist and I actually saw this woman again shortly after one of the house fires. We felt so bad for her. We commiserated and consoled her. How unfortunate, we said.

Zeus must have been laughing, as well as planning the coming denouement to yet another sorry episode in humanhood.

Let’s end with Homer.

“Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

4 Jan

Rockefeller-finger

Former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a presidential candidate and the grandson of one of the most successful capitalists in history, once commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a Marxist, to paint a fresco in the lobby of the RCA building in Manhattan. In that fresco Diego included a portrait of Lenin.

Rockefeller’s father, thoroughly embarrassed, had the artwork removed. With the money left over from the commission, Diego moved to other locations and painted the fresco over and over until his money ran out.

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

This incident is documented in a book by Richard Norton Smith called, “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.” It also is shown in the 2002 Selma Hayek movie, “Frida.”

For younger readers who may not remember Rockefeller, he was the first divorcee to seek high office. He may or may not have been the first nationally known politician to die (at age 71) while in bed with a woman who was not his wife.

A Republican, Nelson was a big government spender and probably would not be accepted by his party today. He possessed enough courage and arrogance to flip the bird to a news photographer, as shown in the photo above.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

In the Old West, without GPS, if they wanted you, they’d find you

16 Nov

Cormac McCarthy

Everyone knows we’re being tracked. You leave a trail with credit cards, cell phones, cookies and social media. Cameras take pictures at traffic lights.Auto dealers hide GPS devices on the cars they sell. Even U.S. passports have a chip embedded in them.

But in the Old West, in the days of the horse and buggy – mainly because of the horse and buggy – it also was easy to track people. People back then left tracks, the old-fashion kind.

Blood MeridianI point this out after reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.” In it, a band of characters travels endlessly across vast expanses of plains, desserts and mountains. They always seem to find each other. Their enemies always seem to find them, and they their enemies.

There are some major skills involved here, as Cormac suggests. But the basics are hard to miss. In today’s times, we forget about giveaways like smoke from a cook fire, dung and urine from animals and humans, the simple imprint of foot, hoof and wheel. Either way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that after crossing the dessert everyone is going to end up at the well or creek. A great place to wait for your prey.

While it is frightening to think that today’s phones reveal where we are and where we went, it’s also a scary thought that you could ride or walk for days and nights, in the heat and cold, possibly without water and food or even clothes, across the harshest terrain, and the person trailing you will find you and kill you in the most brutal fashion.

This lesson, among others, I learned from Cormac McCarthy and the book they call his masterpiece.

No country posterIf you don’t know McCarthy from his many novels – almost all of them filled with horrific violence – then you might know him from the films made from his books. Perhaps the most famous is “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Some see McCarthy as the equal or near equal of Faulkner. While I was amazed by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m embarrassed to say I had overlooked McCarthy, then and even after. I only came to know him after briefly watching a so-so TV movie with an unfamiliar name – one I don’t even remember — and hearing several pieces of brilliant dialogue.

I admire a good sentence and these were unlike anything I’ve heard on TV – with the possible exception of “True Detective.” They came from deep within some dark, mysterious, knowing soul.

I checked and found they came from Cormac McCarthy. And so I went on to read “Blood Meridian.”

If you read it, or even just look at it, you’ll notice some things right off. First, there are no quotation marks (even when there are quotes). Cute, but only idiosyncratic. Next, there are all these words you won’t understand because they are archaic and rarely appear anywhere. Doubly troubling are the passages in un-translated Spanish – the common tongue of Cormac’s characters, who are American, Mexican and Native American.

But the most obvious and disturbing thing about McCarthy is the violence. Nearly every page is covered in blood. I recall thinking that while the writing was terrific, the plot line had to come from a thoroughly sick and disturbed mind.

Glanton gang
Then I began to listen closer to the tone, attitude and motif phraseology of his characters. I came to realize this was not made up. This was all true. It was history, and the writer must have relied heavily on journals and first-hand accounts.

While McCarthy is not in the habit of discussing his work, I searched for confirmation of my theory and found it on good old Wikipedia:

The majority of the narrative follows a teenager referred to only as “the kid,” with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion . . . .

 

. . . McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. Critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850.

 

Unlike many people, I try not to look for meaning in creative work. Beauty alone is enough for me, and “Blood Meridian” is beautiful. The best art is an open presentation of depth that allows the consumer to add the meaning. It really doesn’t come with it.

Still, my favorite parts of the book are the philosophical pronouncements of the character known as “the judge.” I sense he sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy at a cocktail party. The judge accepts violence. In total, what the book does for me is calm my frustration at man’s inhumanity, convincing me – if only for a short time – that violence is NOT inhuman, but rather perfectly and intrinsically human.

I’ll end with a passage and invite comment.

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Lanny Morgnanesi

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