Monday, February 20, 2017

This City, At This Time

We are down south, but not really in the South.
We are in the big city that is almost another country, but isn’t.
Many, perhaps most, people here speak another language, many languages.

I am high up in a high building.  I can sit and watch the planes come out of the clouds and coast to the airport.
I can watch the boats glide down the bay and wait for the drawbridge to open.
I see the sunset turn the windows blazing red on the tall towers across the bay.

Rows of forty and fifty story steel and glass towers line the water for miles.
All with balconies that almost no one is on, except for me, and a couple of people who sneak out to smoke.
Along the bay these towers are two, three, or four rows deep.
They are building more all over the city; higher ones to peek over the older ones. The noise of construction, the banging, the beeping, the grinding goes on from eight to five, everyday except Sunday.
The money for these buildings comes from all over the world.
The money finds a safe home here. It is safer, at least for now, than it is in Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Russia or China, or any country with oil.

Four blocks away from the bay the houses are one, two or three stories tall.
There are neighborhoods, some are going through transitions as the poor immigrants are being pushed away. Younger, more hopeful, but not yet prosperous people are moving in. 
These neighborhoods are vibrant, with night life going on late.
Cafes overflowing on the streets full of men, drinking and talking, making deals.
Designing businesses, designing designs, writing, playing music.
Flirting with women.

Women too, are now talking, drinking wine, designing, making deals, building businesses
Smiling as the men flirt with them.
The men and women who have come from the other cultures, live in these neighborhoods.  They dress beautifully, they present themselves to the world with a sense of presence and style.
This is a city.  The people have to have a style, a sense of themselves to be a part of it.
But this is not Brooklyn or Boston.  It is warm here.No big coats, sweaters, or flannel shirts,
Bodies are clearly on display, and they look good. Often very good. Certainly to an old man.

Walk around the corner and you have to step over a man sleeping on the sidewalk with his head resting on his backpack.  You won’t step on him because you can smell him a few feet before you see him.
If you pass a dark alley a young man with vacant eyes may step out and ask you, in a voice that you strain to hear, for a couple of dollars, just so he can survive.
He makes you feel uncomfortable and it’s very awkward, as you realize what it must take to ask like this. Even if he is just hustling he can’t be very good at it because he looks so lost and frail, but he still human.  So I give him a couple of dollars realizing that my wife just spend $15 on a glass of wine at the very good, hip restaurant in this transitional neighborhood, and our Uber will arrive in two more minutes to take us back to the tower that overlooks the bay.

In the building by the bay live hundreds of people from hundreds of places, speaking dozens of languages.  Riding the elevator early in the morning you ride down with people going to work. They are dressed in everything including sharp business suits, short dresses and very high heels, fine jeans and fancy tee-shirts, and hospital scrubs.  Everyone is cheerful, everyone is a little more than polite, they are friendly. Many know each other, and like being together.

Half an hour later the elevator is full of people with their dogs. Mostly women with very small dogs.  Many of the dogs are in their own strollers.  One women had four little white dogs in her stroller, all barking in slightly different tones

Later in the day, the old people are doing laps up and back in the pool, many using styrofoam floatations to help them along in their exercise programs.  Inside, in the elevator, as I got on with my three year-old grandson, a man joined us.  He stood about six-foot-five, with broad shoulders and a trim waist. His skin was the color of a frappuccino. He wore expensive business casual. His dreadlocks flowed down below his shoulders.  He spotted at my grandson, who immediately hid behind my legs. The man smiled and said, “Hey, is that Lightening McQueen on those shoes.”  The kid stepped out from behind my leg and spoke in his barely comprehensible english, “Yes, these shoes go very fast.”

Later, as the sun begins to set, it is Happy Hour all over the city. Since it is warm, or hot here, almost everything happens outside.  Families gather on the decks, in their backyards, or together in the neighborhood. They cook old recipes that have come from many different lands and have been modified by each generation that has been here. In the bars, cafes, restaurants, many that line the water ways, the people begin their evenings, sitting, conversing, and laughing. Many gather in family or ethnic groups, but also many in very diverse groups of people who work together, create together or just play together.  This is what helps the city grow, change, and evolve into whatever it needs to be. The world changes from here.

The TVs on the wall show mostly soccer games from Europe or Brazil. There are basketball games of the local team and local colleges.  There is also the news channel, but not the one they watch in Indiana.
On the news channel is our President, raving that he is treated unfairly. He is telling us he is making us safer, and he is the best that there ever was.
The people here who watch him are nervous.  They fear that he will deport their friends for no reason, to countries they have not been since they were six. He will deport these people to make the people living in Arkansas feel safe.  The people in Arkansas, twelve hundred miles away somehow feel threatened by the people in this neighborhood.  They feel that way because the President told them they were dangerous. None of these people look or act dangerous. Well, some of the women might be dangerous, but not in a way that would threaten Little Rock.

Away from the towers of steel, glass and balconies many of the neighborhoods are crumbling.  Many of the streets are full of potholes and with crumbling houses and littered lots.  They have found a way to distract people from the rubble by painting beautiful murals all over the city.

The schools struggle for funds, and face the huge task of having to educate people who speak so many languages, and have so many needs.  I do not live here so I don’t know the politics, but I’m sure it’s complex, and probably doesn’t work that well.

This is a very American city, but it is not typical, because everyone city is unique. This city will grow unless the sea continues to rise and covers it over.  What it will become is not yet clear.  Like every place around the world, it seems as if those who are already doing well will benefit the most.  Those a step away will strive toward to join in the prosperity, with a few making it. The rest will struggle in the shadows of the towers, living lives of increasing difficulty. This is the way it has been since cities first formed.  The castles were on the top of the hill. The garbage and the sewage flowed down. Why should it be different now?

Perhaps because we don’t need slaves and surfs or peasants any more to support the kings, dukes and earls.  We don’t even need kings, dukes and earls any more, although many people seem to pretend to royalty, certainly in their own mind.

Now we have robots. We have Artificial Intelligence, and sophisticated algorithms that can help run all our lives. We even have democracy, so that everyone can be a part of choosing our future.  
At least we made an attempt at it.  

Like this city, it still needs a lot of adjustments.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Like it or Not, It’s US!

sleepng in the Everglades by DJB

Look at the ‘gators, just sleeping in the sun.  It’s difficult for me to speculate about an alligator’s thoughts, because their ability to think is pretty limited.  But anthropomorphically, they look as if they are just relaxing in the sun, affectionately intertwined.  Their hearts are pure their bellies are full.

These ‘gators, and about a dozen of their colleagues, are laying in a muddy patch near a path through the Everglades National Park.  This is different than the park where the commercial tours run; the ones that also feature a guy who wrestles with alligators. The same tourist attraction they have run since 1955.  Looking over at these lizards it’s pretty clear that they have no interest in wrestling with anyone. They are living out their alligator life, in their protected alligator swamp, seemingly unconcerned about anything more than when to get up and find their next meal.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple any more, not even for them.  Although I doubt those two realize it, they are lucky to be here. In 1955, due in part to people who captured them and put them in shows, but more because people made them into shoes and pocketbooks, and even more  because people drained  the swamps for farms and housing developments, alligators  almost became extinct.  But the government stepped in and protected them and persevered great swaths of their habitat. By 1987, they were no longer endangered.

But now, we may be seeing a government that doesn’t care as much about spending a lot of money to protect swamps and mud holes.  Also, the water that comes into the swamps and mud holes maybe coming in too quickly and getting too deep, and is changing the composition of what kinds of creatures can live there.  In addition the water now contains a lot of strange, man-made chemicals that are toxic to many of the creatures that live in those swamps.

But really, although I do like alligators, as well as great blue herons, ospreys, and piping plovers, and also the southern toads and pig frogs, and every other fish, animal, bird, plant and bug in the Everglades, I care more about my grandchildren, and the kind of world in which they will be living.  I know that if the Everglades, and many of the other estuaries that provide the basic nourishment for the bottom of the food chain become greatly diminished, then everyone’s ability to to grow and find food, all the way up to the top of the chain becomes diminished.

But, really, this isn’t really about climate change.  What these two sleeping reptiles don’t seem to be thinking about is how much the lives of all of us, every creature on earth, have become so much more intertwined over the last hundred years.  What happens in the Everglades affects the lives of people and polar bears in Alaska.  What happens in Washington and Beijing can be a matter of life and death in Syria and Brazil. The way you treat your neighbor affects how I treat mine.  It has become almost impossible to live a life in isolation.  Everyone is connected, whether you want to be or not.

I realize, having walked out on a starry night deep in the desert in Arizona, or up in the mountains of Idaho, that it can feel as if the rest of the world is far away and that I am alone, independent  and self-dependent. But as soon as I want to eat, find water, or to talk to another human being, I will be affected by, and have an affect on, the rest of the world.  Not just the town, the country or the state that I’m in; the world.

This is true because the people of the world are all now in constant communication with each other.   People in Afghanistan were watching the Super Bowl (great game, wasn’t it). People in India were watching Lady GaGa( I didn’t like those shoulder pads). China holds billions of dollars of America’s debt. On my table in Massachusetts is coffee from Africa or Central America, fruit from South America, on dishes made in Portugal. People in those countries are eating bread made from American wheat, and driving American tractors across their farms. Many people are dependent on life-saving drugs made in America, Switzerland, Germany, Israel or India.

People are moving all across the world, some running from terrible conditions, others going to seek better educations and opportunities.  They are inter-marrying, and often their children are moving to new places. This isn’t going to stop, even if one country decides to build a wall.

Ideas are flowing even more quickly across the world. Some people are trying to finding ways we can all benefit from each other’s knowledge, and improve the lives of everyone, all across the globe.  Others a still pretty primitive, and are spreading ideas about how some people are different and should be driven away, or blown up.

To those who say that if everyone would just take care of themselves, and not hurt anyone else, that’s enough, I have to answer, sadly, that is no longer true.  We now still have to take care of ourselves, but also be aware of how we do it, and how it affects everyone else.  You can’t leave your garbage in the woods.  You can’t burn your garbage in the back yard. You can’t leave the water running all day.  You can’t drive a car that doesn’t run clean. You can’t text while driving that car. Burning down the rain forrest in Brazil affects the air quality in Russia.  Insider trading undermines the trust necessary to financial transactions.  Discriminatory housing practices create tensions and anger that can ruin a city. Not paying taxes undermines the fairness of a society. Corruption and unfairness make doing business much more difficult.  Everyone who feels cheated starts to cheat to protect themselves.

The fact that the rest of the world didn’t care that the Israelis and Palestinians never settled their differences for eighty years has affected almost everyone in the world. It has created the chaos and conflict through-out the region that has now affected almost every country in the world.

If people can’t support their families in Mississippi or Wisconsin it affects me here in Massachusetts, even though my kids have good jobs and my wife and I have just stopped working after forty years.  It affects us if kids in Kansas go to terrible schools and won’t be able to understand the world in which they are living, even if my grandchildren do.  Those Kansas kids will struggle and get angry and who knows who they will blame.

I would love to be able to relax and read a good mystery without feeling that something is going terribly wrong and I need to help fix it.  I would love to just post pictures of my grandchildren playing with ducks, or only spend time telling you how amazing Isiah Thomas has been for the Celtics. — which he has been and I do spend time talking about it. 

To all of you who spend part of the day meditating and being mindful.  And to the others who are reading about how to be wildly successful by focusing on your goals, that’s great, and go for it.  But be aware, that you can’t achieve your goal on your own, and also it’s worthless if the world you are living in is falling apart. If you just take care of yourself you may not notice that the freedoms of other people to just take care of themselves is slipping away. They are not sliding down a slippery slope, they are falling off a cliff, and once they go we all soon will follow.

We all have to be aware of what we are doing and how it affects other people, even, and perhaps especially, the ones who don’t know, who we think of as different from us. We are all in this together.  We will all live together in a better world, or we will all live like the poor people of Somalia, with constant conflict and chaos.  Those are our choices. The choices are becoming clearer each day.

So, as they say at the check-out counter: “Have a great day.”

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Emma Asks a Question

Emma Asks a Question

none of these girls are Emma (Pixabay download)
I’ve written about Emma before: She is six years-old and in kindergarten.
Like all grandchildren, she is curious, brilliant, beautiful, funny, intelligent and amazingly perceptive. More than most, she is very fortunate.
She has two loving parents and six (count them) attentive grandparents. Her aunt and uncle live near by and she gets along well with her cousins. Her parents have good, stable, interesting jobs. She lives in a very nice house, with a nice yard, in a friendly town, with a very good school system. She is secure, happy, makes friends easily and certainly feels free to express herself; a lot.
The town she lives in is only a few miles from Boston. It participates in the METCO program which brings children from Boston to many of the suburban schools for the purpose of exposing everyone to different cultures. It was established in 1968 and has been very successful.
I was there for dinner the other night, and after we all agreed on what, and how much she and her two year-old brother would eat, Emma chirped up and asked the following question:
Why are all the kids who get on the city bus all different colors while the White kids all get on the town bus?
Everyone’s first response was “Wow, that’s a really good question. You really notice a lot of things.”
Her mother, who had finally sat down to eat said “ That’s an important question and the answer to that is very complicated.” She then mumbled something about institutionalized racism, and let the rest of us try to give Emma and answer. My wife, who Emma calls Nanny, told her that not everyone gets to go to a school as good as hers, so some kids come from the city so they can go to her school.
I tried to explain it a bit more by telling Emma, in my best eight year-old language (she’s only six, but you know how precocious our own grandchildren must be) that not everyone is as lucky as she is. Many people never get the chance to live in a house like this, in a town like this, and go to a school like hers. Then I added that “some people don’t give people who are a different color as much of a chance to do everything they want.
As Emma respond to that with a look of total confusion her brother announced that he wanted to play with Thomas (his train) and the usual dinner chaos resumed. I did Keep Emma’s attention long enough to tell her that very soon, I would take her to see parts of the city where some of the kids on the city bus live. That way she could see how it is different, and how they get along. She seemed very interested in taking a field trip like that, especially since it would probably include ice cream. Her brother would love it if we went on the trolley.

But we really haven’t answered Emma’s question. She did go to the Women’s March in Boston last Saturday. She was a bit overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, but people seemed so happy she was there that she felt safe and a part of what was going on. She had made her own sign on a piece of construction paper that read: “Hello. Are You Good or Bad?” The answer to that question will have a huge impact on her life. We are hoping to minimize the bad.
Still, we are left with the problem of having to explain to a happy, secure, privileged six year-old that she is a member of a flawed species. Even after 200,000 years of some kind of civilization, people still have a great deal of difficulty trusting people who look and act differently, All of our new, amazing technology has not yet lived up to its potential of making life better for everyone.
How to we tell her, without scaring her half to death, that several of her great-great aunts and uncles were murdered in Europe seventy-three years ago because they read the wrong books. How do we explain to her why the parents of her new friends who get on the city bus would like to have a job like her father, but they never seem to get them. And it probably isn’t because they wouldn’t like to work there or they couldn’t do the job. It’s just because…… it never seems to happen.
She knows that all the women in her family, her mother, her aunt, and all her grandmothers, all have or had good jobs, and were all in leadership positions. She expects that this will be in her future; right now it would be running a hair salon.
These questions have become even more important during this time of Trump. It is a time when the President talks about whole groups of people as scary, and that they shouldn’t be let into this country, or they should be thrown out. He Tweets mean things about people who disagree with him, and he tells new lies every day. People on TV are always talking about those lies.
Maybe we just tell her that there are many people right here in America who think that their money is more important than other people’s lives, and she had better learn to make and keep her own money, and the hell with everyone else. If she wants to, she can hire some poor folks as body guards and pay them $8 an hour plus benefits, and they’d be happy for the benefits.
But we don’t want to say that, because we don’t want it to be true. It was easier to tell her about what was happening when we thought these things were getting better. Now we will find away to tell her that we, along with everyone she saw at the march, are working to make the backlash to the backlash happen. And that most people really care about people, and are working to make things better for everyone, all around the world. We will show her that rooting for America is not like rooting for the Patriots, because in life, it’s much better when people help each other than when they try to make winner and losers. (And most people hate the Patriots because they win so much).
We can already tell her that she is doing her part, just by doing what she is doing and being good friends with the kids who get on the city bus. She doesn’t know why that’s such a big deal, and really, it isn’t. But it’s good, and it helps, and it will make things better.
The rest is up to us. We have to be the adults in the room. We have to work hard to get rid of the bigoted, the bullies, the greedy and the liars. We have the resources, the knowledge, the technology and the skills to do so. We just have to put in the effort, and show Emma, and all the kids of her generation, that we care about them, all of them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Therapy for Trump!?

David Grace responded to one of my posts about Therapy Bots with this question:
I had no idea the tech was so advanced. But here’s the Big Question, the Acid Test — Can the latest and greatest Freud-O-Bot successfully treat Donald Trump’s problems? Can it do that? Can it? If not, then we still have a long way to go.
My first reaction was to think about how difficult it would be just to get Trump to consider discussing anything with a therapist of any kind. Part of the reason I feel that Trump is so frightening is that he thinks he knows the answer before he knows the question. Almost all of his responses are attacks. He takes no blame or responsibility for anything. In his mind, he has never done anything wrong. Also, he never seems to “think slowly.” He just reacts, defensively, emotionally and aggressively.
But then I realized that as President he will be constantly criticized, and he will realize that he does not have the love and admiration that he so desires. He won with a minority, and he is quickly losing many of them, He will lose more as his lack of knowledge, experience, bad judgement and temperament become more obvious. He is finding that his “attack Tweets” only bring him more ridicule. This will bother him. At that point he may be open to some professional help.
As a Psychologist, I cannot ethically diagnose anyone whom I have not personally evaluated, and I have never met with Mr. Trump. If I did, I could not, and would not, discuss my findings in public. So this comes with a clear disclaimer :all I have to go on is how he acts on TV, in his rallies, what I have read, and his Tweets. The following is all just speculation:
Mr. Trump shows tendencies of having a narcissistic personality disorder. He also exhibits symptoms of ADHD. Several of my colleagues think he suffers with a bipolar disorder. He also seems prone to paranoid thinking and is easily drawn into conspiracy theories. Of course, when you are obnoxious, aggressive, and sue hundreds of people, it is likely that many people will turn against you.
I have treated several people with similar personalities and temperaments. Some of them were also very successful in business, as they also had a lot of energy, a desire to win at all costs, and were unconcerned about the damage they do to others. These people were some of the most difficult people to treat, especially when, like Mr. Trump, they were surrounded with many sycophantic lackeys.
Part of the difficulty is that people like this, when asked to explain their feelings, motivations, reasoning or actions, respond as if they are being attacked. They get hurt, which quickly turns to anger. Even the slightest whiff of criticism provokes a powerful defensive response. They quickly manufacture lies in their own defense, which they just as quickly believe. Yet, their need to be appreciated and admired is so strong that they never go away. They keep coming back, trying to convince their therapist of their perfection. The thought that they are not only unloved, but disrespected by someone who knows them well, is very disturbing to them..
However, these people can treated be successfully. Their therapist has to be able to hang in there long enough to prove to the patient that he/she will not abandon them, even when they show that they are vulnerable and insecure. That is a very difficult task, for both the therapist and the patient. I suspect it would be for Mr. Trump’s therapist, especially since some of his delusions of grandeur have been confirmed.
That is why, after some reflection, and in response to David Grace’s question, I think that a therapy-bot would have a much better chance of success than any live, actual person, no matter how skilled a clinician the live person may be.
When Lee Sedol, the world champion GO player, lost 4 out of 5 matches to the Google A.I. machine Alpha Go, he explained that he wins most of his matches like a poker player. He figures out the psyche of his opponent and he wears him down, or he intimidates them. Once they feel they are falling behind they can never recover. He could not do that against the A.I. bot. The bot didn’t get tired. It didn’t get flustered. It just kept improving it’s algorithm.
Any live therapist would have an emotional reaction to Trump; probably a mixture of astonishment, frustration and disgust. It’s unavoidable. A bot is immune to that. IF, and this is a big IF, Trump would stay in treatment with a bot for a year, it would be fascinating to see the results. The machine would be able to consistently point out his inconsistencies, his fantasies, his lack of reality testing, his bad judgement, his insincerity, and his insecurity. The bot would be connected to a Watson type computer and could immediately refute his lies and distortions, using real facts, without any partisan influences. It could read all of Plato, Jesus, Maimonides and others in under ten seconds, and point out unethical and immoral behavior. It could explain “conflict of interest” at a third grade level, so Mr. Trump could understand.
The machine doesn’t have any need to liked. The machine can’t be bullied. The machine won’t get furious and walk away. It would just keep learning more and more about how Trump operates, and it would do a better job of zeroing in on his flaws; questioning and sympathizing, as only a bot can.
I think there could be a good chance he would remain in therapy with the bot if it were shaped like a young woman with long legs, long hair, large seductive eyes and big breasts. He would continually try to win her (its) approval, and admiration. He would have to learn to live with the limitations — no sex with your therapist, even with a bot.
Given the skill level of Artificial Intelligence programmers today, I think such a bot could be created in a few months down at our local state.technical school (MIT). As soon as I hear from Kellyanne that she can get Trump to participate I’ll call Joichi Ito at the Media Lab and get the project started. I wonder if this kind of service will be covered by the new Republican, Unaffordable Care Act.
I think it’s worth a try. I hope Kellyanne is reading this.
N.B.: This is mostly (not completely) written in jest. However, having Donald Trump take over the office of President of the United States is not a joke. Even if you drank the Koll-aide and think he was a marvelous choice, it is becoming more apparent that he does not have the knowledge, temperament or experience for the job. He is impulsive, secretive, and seems to lack any consistent moral or ethical standards. Two of his appointees have already recused themselves due to plagiarism and corruption. We are facing a very dangerous situation. Pay Attention!

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Dancing with Emma

Dancing with Emma

(not Emma, just a free download)
Six year-old Emma (not her real name) came bounding home from kindergarten. She greeted me with a big hug and then, holding my hands, she climbed up my legs, planted her feet into my chest and did a back-flip to the floor. Next, she grabbed my hand, pulled me to the computer and clicked on a page of a children’s book to show me how well she can read. She typed out “I love you. Come and play with me tom…” she began to ask me how to spell “tomorrow” but the word popped up on the screen, so she just had to push a button to complete the sentence. “Print ” she said, and a copy of her invitation slid out of the printer.
Next, she opened a program that showed the two of us on the screen as it took a video. She tapped the keyboard and mirror images of us dancing appeared. She tapped it again and tiny red hearts fluttered between the two of us. Another tap produced blue birds flying in circles around her head. With a push of two more keys we are watching the video she had just made and she asked me what song to play in the background. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine” came instantly to my mind.
Emma is my granddaughter. She is growing up in a world that constantly offers her new possibilities. She is delighted and excited, unaware that at her age it was amazing for me to see Howdy Doody through a friend’s window, after climbing up a four floor fire escape. She has TV, Apple TV, On Demand, an iPad, with many learning apps, games and videos, and an Echo She rides in a car that changes lanes and parks itself. She also has books, blocks, paints, markers and crayons.
Emma is fortunate to have loving parents who have a good relationship, good jobs, and a supportive extended family (not just me). She is living the upper-middle class American life, with too much stuff, and too many choices. Still, she seems to handle it well. She has been learning the old skills, such as reading, coloring and pumping a swing, and also the new ones that I struggle with, mostly with technology. Of course, when she gets hungry, cranky and tired, nothing works to her satisfaction.
My granddaughter was born three years after the first iPhone was sold. YouTube was already showing 14 billion videos a month. Since her birthday the CSRP-R gene editing technique has been developed, which will eventually eliminate many birth defects, and perhaps help her design her own child. Nanotechnologies are being developed which will deliver medicines directly into cells. There have been improvements in battery technology, solar collectors, and more wind farms have been built which will offer new sources of energy. The Internet of Things has connected our houses with our shopping, our calendars, our friends, or banks, and music. Both Google and Amazon have learned more about us than we know about ourselves. Several of Emma’s friends were conceived in a petri dish and have two parents of the same sex.
But also, the polar ice caps continue to melt at an increasing rate. Refugees are fleeing war, poverty and drought and overwhelming the more developed countries. Reacting to that, many of those countries are retreating behind nationalistic, xenophobic governments. There is a terrorist attack somewhere almost every week that receives a great deal of attention, and keeps everyone fearful. The threat of cybercrime, hackers and international cyber-warfare seems to increase every day, especially as the new U.S. President seems to enjoy being provocative.
What guidance can I give to Emma besides just “be a kid and have fun?” which I think is still the most important advice a GrandPops can offer. There are so many things she probably won’t have to learn that were so necessary for my survival. She won’t have to learn to write, as she can already type, or even dictate, to a machine and it will write it for her, in any font, color or style she chooses. She adds emojis to clarify the emotion. Or, she can just make a video and skip verbal communication altogether.
I had to learn arithmetic. Then came calculators. Now Emma just asks Siri or Alexa or Google to give her the square root of 2345 (48.3252, I just asked). She can jst ask for any information: who the President was before Lincoln? or how far it is to the moon? What is a quark? These things would have taken me hours, or even days to find — if I knew where to look.
By the time she is old enough to get a driver’s license she probably won’t need to drive. She can ask her electronic assistant, (R2-D2?) to order a self-driving Uber. By then the “assistant” will know her schedule and have it waiting for her.
Will she go to college? What will college be like by then? Will most of it be on-line and channeled right into everyone’s homes? Will her classmates be from all around the world, and they will meet in small groups by putting on a Virtual Reality headsets? Will the “class” be taught by her electronic assistant? Will people still go to an actual college campus for two years just to leave home, network, have parties and consensual sex?
What will she do after college? Half of the adult women she knows are doctors, work for Google, or a bio-tech company. The other half stay home with their kids, wear Lulu Lemon all day, drink wine and make organic snacks. Will she seek a job growing genetically modified crops to feed the world, or make an augmented reality app which inspires children to grow up and take care of their grandparents? Perhaps, by the time she is fifty, everyone will be working only six hours a week and receive a guaranteed annual income. The rest of the work will be done by robots, and most of the decisions will be directed by algorithms and artificial intelligence. I think about this as Emma and I dance to the rhythm of a beatbox app that thumps out a strong base line.
All of this could happen within the next five to fifty years. It’s difficult to tell how fast it will come. Some of it will work and some won’t. It’s exciting. It’s frightening. What is clear is that the transition won’t be smooth. People resist changes, even when they would be beneficial.
Will this be a world that offers freedom and prosperity to all? A world in which everyone will have the security, education and skills to be creative, caring, and healthy? Will most people find ways to live the lives they choose; lives that are fun and fulfilling? It could be a world in which people will feel connected and enjoy being together. We are social animals. We feel better in supportive relationships.
I have too many doubts. I have worked closely with all kinds of people for my entire career. I have seen how some people quickly take advantage of other people’s weaknesses. Emma has already told me that some of the girls in her kindergarten class are mean to other girls. Some girls always push to be first. Others boast about having new things that other kids don’t have. She has also told me that she was frightened when one boy pushed someone down. Another boy got so angry that he threw a block across the room.
I know too well that humans have limitations. We are still a primitive species. Almost all of us are basically good and kind, but we can change quickly if we feel threatened. We have evolved to be very sensitive to all possible threats. That’s how we have survived. We have to recognize immediately if whatever is rustling in the bushes thinks we are a friend or food. One wrong reaction could mean we won’t get another chance. Humans are irrational. We count on our emotions to guide us.
It makes me wonder if all of this new technology and easy access to all kinds of information will be shared equally, or if it will be proprietary, and sold to those who can pay for it. There is the hope that these algorithms can help people make better decisions about what to eat, how to spend money, how to resolve conflicts, and will help everyone enjoy the benefits of scientific advances. There is the fear the the same technology can be used to manipulate people, influence their thoughts and divide everyone into classes of exploiters and exploited. This seems to be what humans have done for centuries.
How do I explain my concerns to a six year-old as we dance to Ariana Grande, and she askes why I don’t let her watch the video? I have done a pretty good job of passing my values down to both of my children, and they, and their spouces, are all good parents of their children. I want my grandchildren to be caring, curious and creative. I want them to be open to new ideas and new people. I want them to be able to experience the satisfaction of working to make the world a better place for everyone. And yet they have be aware that there are people who would take advantage of them, and others who could harm them. They have to learn whom to trust and whom to drive away.
Emma will have so many more choices than were available to me. Choices of how to live, where to live, who to be with, how to communicate, places to travel, where to work and how to work. Hopefully, medicine will be better; many more diseases will be treatable or eliminated. I’ve read that Emma’s life expectancy is 103.
Despite all of the new technologies, new discoveries, and new realities, there is one skill that we need to teach all of our children, a skill that we can’t allow machines to do for us, and that is critical thinking. This ability is what will determine who survives and thrives. More than even our children have to learn how to determine what is real from what is distorted. They have learn how to get as close to the truth as possible, especially when it shows that something they believe is wrong. They have to be able to evaluate which, of all these new technology offerings, is really useful for them, and which are manipulative or just distractions. We all have to realize that we are emotional and what really separates us from all of the new technology is that we care.
How do I teach Emma to be open and curious, yet questioning and skeptical? I want her to feel that the world is fascinating, friendly and fun, and yet to realize there are real dangers. She shouldn’t be frightened, but she needs to be aware. I want her to have the confidence in her own skills and her own judgement, so that she knows how to take care of herself.
So we start with the basics. She should learn to trust me, her parents and others who really care for her. She should understand why we tell her not to eat too much candy or jump off of tree limbs. She should know why the moon and sun appear to be the same size, but they’re not. Learn how to meet new people and assess what’s going on, like when she asked, “What’s it called when you say something that’s not true, but you think it’s funny? Oh yeah, sarcasm.” She needs to learn what it means to have a friend and to be a friend.
As she demonstrates good judgement we can let have more freedom. She can learn that making mistakes is important, because that is part of the way we learn.
As she develops her own skills of critical thinking and cause and effect, she can see that life can be fun, fascinating and satisfying. She can make her way through the world and decide where she wants to go, what she wants to do and with whom. Good values, good judgement and behavior are what constitute a worthwhile human being. The more Emmas there are, the better the world will be.
Hopefully, she will remember how much her GandPops cares for her, and she will keep in touch with him. She can show him what’s cool, and we can dance.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Someone Wanted this Ship

Imagine you are riding in a large ship. A Ship that is moving slowly, but steadily through the water, under control, but not spectacular.
The elites are up in the top cabins, drinking white wine and eating cheese, thinking everything is fine and feeling that they have earned their place.
You and your struggling friends, who do not write software, and did not get fancy degrees at elite colleges, are stuck under the waterline, looking out of the few portholes. You’ve been given a few cases of stale beer to share, but are otherwise ignored.

You’ve had enough. You get pissed-off. It’s time to do something about this situation.
So what do you do? “Let’s take down the whole damn system” yell you and your friends. We don’t care what happens. We want change! Anything will be better than this! You drill holes in the sides of the ship.

Where does the water come in? Who drowns? Who gets in the lifeboats goes home and dries off.  Who then goes off to design and build a better ship?

The old captain, a captain from the old school, goes down with the ship. “She deserved it.” She had her time.  We want ours! “ you say, as you struggle to keep you head above the in-rushing water.

Soon the new ship gets launched.  You survived, and so did some of your friends.  You have a job now. It is back down in the bottom of the boat. This time you will be given oars to keep you busy. The new captain, the guy behind you with a whip, will keep you motivated. He has left the elites  on the shore. That makes you happy.  The top decks are now loaded with a new group that is older, richer, meaner, and more controlling that the last group. They are fighting with each other because they don’t know how to run the ship.  Most of them want to turn it around or make it go backwards,

This new group likes to stand on the high decks and piss on you and your friends. They tell you to be happy because you are better off than the Blacks and the immigrants who they threw overboard.  You have a job.  just keep rowing, and watch out for the lash.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Repeat: Redux

Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard” popped up on Pandora. I hadn’t heard it for a while so I pushed the “repeat” button. It brought back a rush of memories, strangely memories about my mother.  She didn’t like Lou Reed, she was a Ray Charles fan. But it wasn’t the song that reminded me of her, it was the repeat button. My mother was almost ninety when she died. During the last few years of her life she told me often that she was tried of seeing the world repeat itself.  She would say, “I was born when there was a war in Bosnia, and I will die during a war in Bosnia.”  She outlived that conflict by a year.

As I enter my later years I am beginning to feel as if I have gone through this kind of wash and rinse cycle too many times before.  However, this time seems more disappointing because we are part of a time of exciting changes.  New technologies have brought enticing and exciting changes to the way we live.  We are now have access to anything we want to know any time we want to it.  If you don’t think that is an amazing benefit to us old folks just ask us the capitol of South Carolina, or who played Carla in Cheers; you know, the curly one, you know….

Technology has opened the gates to new discoveries in science that were unimaginable twenty years ago.  What we are seeing is how complex we are, as is the world we live in.  There are no simple answers to anything, a lot of what we thought was accurate is only partially so.  There are many debates about which parts are true, which will be resolved through more research, but until then we are kept wondering and looking. It’s a fascinating time, unless you are bothered by unfinished details and ambiguous results.

Yet, many of the innovations which are being applied to solve so many problems are also being used to tear us apart and create deep divisions.  It has become very difficult to tell the difference between a half truth and a total lie. Information comes rushing at us so fast that it is difficult to sort out what’s real.  One trait we humans have is to see confirming evidence for what we already believe.  That makes us feel more comfortable to think that we have it right.  It also leads us to hold fast to ideas that are not true.  We get angry at those who disagree with us, or show us that we are wrong. When his half-truth contradicts my half-truth I know he’s an idiot.

For almost forty years I was a psychologist in beautiful Lowell, Massachusetts. I opened my practice just as the first of the Wang Towers was being built.  Does anyone remember the Wang 1200 WPS? it was at the beginning of our transformation into the digital age. You could type a page, and move the words or paragraphs around.  You could delete things and put them back.  Amazing!  But Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992.  It couldn’t keep up with the development of computers by companies like Digital Equipment, and IBM..  Digital was acquired by Compaq in 1998.  Compaq was taken over by HP in 2001. By then everyone was getting connected to the Internet, and soon we all had the capability to go mobile and stay connected every minute of the day.

This history of companies rising and falling in Lowell is not new, it dates back to Lowell’s founding.  The mills were new technology in 1840, used to turn cotton into cloth.  The looms were first run by women who came from the farms of New England.  When they felt exploited by low wages they were replaced by the German immigrants, who were replaced by French Canadians.   Eventually the mills moved south for cheaper labor, and now most of our cotton clothes are made in Asia.  You’re probably aware of that.

For a while it looked like the digital revolution would be different than that industrial revolution. Instead of long hours and harsh conditions that came with the industrial revolution,  the digital age was eliminating many of the harsh repetitive jobs and offering thousands of new ways to make our lives easier.  At work, at home, and at play, little bitty chips will do more and more of the repetitive, mundane tasks of our lives, such as shopping, banking, cleaning, turning out the lights, playing music, setting appointments, meeting new partners, even driving, drawing and drooling. Surely all of this will help us improve our lives, make better decisions, and understand and appreciate each other better. 

Well, yes and no.  

Remember that exactly one hundred years ago the new engines and mechanical marvels of that industrial transition helped bring about the biggest, most meaningless waste of human life in history: The First World War.  We don’t want to go through that again.We don’t want to be blaming innocent scapegoats for all of the disruptive changes. We don’t want modern day Luddites attacking the machines, or being afraid of new knowledge. We know that once new genies are out of the bottle there is no way to put them back.

As those thoughts raced through my mind I heard the words from Lou’s 1989 song and they caused me to shudder.
“Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em
that's what the Statue of Bigotry says”

As a psychologist I have seen every day that people don’t make changes easily. When things are changing all around us it leads to uncertainty.  Uncertainty causes anxiety.  Anxiety creates resistance.  There is always a backlash. It seems as if it is in our genes.  Whenever human beings are threatened they lash out.  I have seen so many patients who have turned their lives around, but then, when hit with an unexpected stress, such as a lost job, a break-up, an illness in the family, they revert to their old, dysfunctional ways. They get angry, they go back to drinking, they don’t show up for work.  They mess up their lives all over again. That seems to be what the whole world is going through now.

But the backlash doesn’t have to destroy everything.  In fact it can’t.  The world will keep rolling on creating new and better.  We will have better medicine because of Watson making diagnoses.  We will have self-guided electric cars that will reduce accidents, eliminate traffic and reduce pollution.  We will have algorithms that keep us healthy, help us make smarter decisions, and foster better, clearer communication. We will keep blending the white, black, tan and brown skin tones until it is difficult to tell the difference. Maybe we will invent even more genders.

But right now, we have to deal with the backlash.  We have to find ways to spread the benefits to everyone.  We have to help everyone choose the changes that they find useful, and not just be sold crap they don’t need or want.   We need to find ways to expose manipulation, fear and false prophets.  Under stress it is easy to get people to trade freedom for security.  People will hold on to what they know, even when it doesn’t work any more.  That’s why so many cultures aren’t here any more. I want my children and grandchildren to live a world that can deal with reality.  I want them to have a world that values all people equally.  I want them to live in peace — a wish that has been repeated in vain for five thousand years.

Transitions are never easy. To paraphrase George Santayana, it helps to learn from the past so as not to repeat it.  Or to quote Mark Twain: ““History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Let’s not go back to The Dirty Boulevard, except to listen to the guitar riffs.