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Elf M. Sternberg
Recently, I had an interesting conversation with Omaha. In a recent blog post I wrote "I ... believe that consciousness is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, a way of maintaining a continuity of self in a world of endless stimuli and the epiphenomenal means by which we turn our actions into grist for the decisions we make in the future..."

Omaha challenged me on that. "You're not a normal person. You know that as well as I do! You have ADHD and that not-Aspy thing I can never remember the name of. Normal people don't tell stories about themselves, to themselves, like that. They don't have to."

Really? I'm genuinely surprised. We all have stories, about who we are, where we came from. "Normal" people don't review that story from time to time to ensure that what they hope they'll accomplish in their coming day, their coming week, their coming year, is consistent with the story they've told so far? I find that disappointing.

Lots of things are stories. Software is a story; a well-written program tells you a story about what it does, how it does it, and how the developer thought about it. I write stories. My life is a kind of story.

Seneca once said, "If you don't know to what port you're sailing, no wind is favorable." There's a story in your past about how you got into the boat. There's a story in your head about what you'll do when you'll land. Even a voyage of discovery has a destination in mind, if only in hope.

People re-watch movies. The re-play video games. They re-read books. They go for the story, again and again. That "normal" people get through life without reviewing and retelling their own story, too see where they've been and plan where they're going, just seems impossible.


Persistent Interictal Syndrome

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I saw an interesting book the other day which, I confess, I haven't read. It was entitled Against Empathy. I read an interview with the author, Paul Bloom, and one of the things he said was "If I have empathy toward you, it will be painful if you're suffering. It will be exhausting. It will lead me to avoid you and avoid helping. But if I feel compassion for you, I'll be invigorated. I'll be happy and I'll try to make your life better."

And just as everything the Cognitive Behavioral Therapists and "mindfulness" consultants have told us was already said and written down by Seneca, Epicurious, and Zeno 2300 years ago, Bloom's insight is 2500 years old and comes to us from no one other than the Buddha himself.

There's a reason Buddhists are taught compassion and not empathy. Compassion is mindful and empathy is not; compassion frees us from the suffering of others, narrows down our suffering from "experiencing your pain" to "knowing your pain and being able to do something about it." We waste ourselves if we try to take on more suffering than we already experience; our reserves for dealing with pain are limited, but the only reserve on our compassion is the number of hours in the day.

The author says he talked to a lot of Buddhist monks while writing his book, so maybe he gives them credit. I'll find out when the library gets the book.

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The other day, as I awakened to another depressing litany of the things the Trump Administration has chosen to inflict on the majority of Americans who live in urban areas that did not vote for him, I had this weird idea. I looked in the mirror and said to myself, "Is this what it felt like in Red America? Is this what people in small town Idaho over the border woke to, the sickening feeling that America wasn't theirs anymore?"

Then I read this, and I decided something simple: I don't give a fuck at all what Red America wants.

When someone describes women's bodily autonomy, the rights of gay people to participate in the legal benefits promised to marriage, "the transgenders," and so forth as "evil nonsense," I'm ready to start throwing much more than chairs.

This will never stop. I will not rest on this. Isadore wants veto power over his children, even after he's dead. He wants to give them "traditions" that are chains, that long after they've ceased to make sense in a world that requires us to be different from our ancestors, to be better than them, to be more thoughtful, more loving, more kind, he wants to have a veto power over that thoughtfulness, that love, that kindness.

Fuck no.

When I die, I don't expect to have a word in my children's decisions. That's for them, not for me. The best I can do is leave them a beautiful, livable, breathable planet on which to make their decisions.

The Trump administration really has opened up a chasm between those who believe America has a future, and those who believe it has only a past.

I'm heading into the future. And dead or alive, you all are coming with me.

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Someone asked me at a recent meeting of progressive activists if there was a line past which I would get "really serious." I wasn't sure what she meant. I'm serious now.

There is no line.

I look at the world in a very simple fashion. It's the RAW (Robert Anton Wilson) metric: if the world seems brighter and more beautiful today than yesterday, it's because you got smarter. If it's nastier and more cruel, you got more stupid. What Wilson didn't say was that sometimes that isn't your choice to make. You can't just ingest the lotus, smoke a lot of weed, or drink a lot of wine, and hope it goes away.

There is no line. There is just this: is the world getting nastier? If on the whole it is getting nastier, then the time to act is now. It's really serious.

We have a president* right now who seems hell-bent on giving our country what it least needs: an increase in the upward distribution of wealth to the already wealthy, all the while supported by a cultural base enlivened by the idea of being able to inflict cruelty on minorities, on women, on GLBT folk, on anyone who's not a white, heterosexual, Christian man. On anyone who dares live in a city with strangers.

The eight years of progress we made under Barack Obama, the extension of the voting franchise to those American citizens who have so far not consented much in the governmentalization of their lives and who have, for the most part, avoided needing too many forms of ID, the extension of health care to Americans who desperately needed it, and the extension of civil liberties to women, all are due to be wiped away. Already, America is converting from a welcoming country to a viciously repellent one that doesn't really want foreigners unless they bring money and promise to leave soon.

There is no line.

There is only the promise of a brighter future. One we fight for.

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Omaha, Raen and I went out to see Cendrillon, the retelling of the Cinderella story that's currently playing at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. It is straight-up Cinderella, only with some seriously kinky themes thrown in that make it great.

In the beginning, we see Cinderella's mother and father in a flashback, as she recalls their love for another. It's a very touching dance, sensual and beautiful, until of course the mother dies of a heart attack. Then we get Cinderella's current life. The two sisters, with bandaged heads to imply they're constantly under the knife or undergoing some treatment to make them more beautiful, parade around the house, teasing Cinderella. The mother praises them. Cinderella's father comes in and tries to intervene, but is stopped: If you always wondered what kept Cinderella's father from leaving the Wicked Stepmother and her two cruel daughters, the answer is: a smokin' body and the promise of great sex.

Meanwhile, we get a glimpse into the Prince's life. He's bored, and his four fine fellows are trying to keep him entertained. The Prince, it turns out, has a, um, thing for feet; in one uproarious scene the fellows throw themselves at his feet, not in a gesture of obesiance but trying to the Prince happy, and his response is to thank them but say that that's not exactly what he's looking for. He orders a ball to bring all the beautiful women to him.

The two girls, excited by the ball, hire "Superintendents of Pleasure," played to great gay camp by two fabulous dancers, who dress the girls in garish asymmetrical outfits. The dance sequence is a lot about the father trying to convince the stepmother to let Cinderella go, but is overwhelmed by his wife's power. There is just a hint that the mother even uses her daughters' sexuality to keep him in line, but it's equally clear that he rejects that line of thinking.

After they leave, Cinderella is visited by a Fairy– played by the same woman who played Cinderella's mother– who hosts a hilarious retelling of the story as drag comedy, with masculine mannequins cross-dressing as various characters in a story that recounts Cinderella's plot and ends with a happily-ever-after event. Cinderella tries on a variety of the outfits, but it is the dress her mother wore that is perfect. The scene ends with her dipping her feet in a bowl of gold, which adheres to her feet in glittery patterns.

The ball sequence is exquisite, with the Prince receiving a warning from the Fairy that his life is about to change. Cinderella comes in, and the prince is entranced. As she descends the stairs, he stands next to them and stares at her feet, then to the audience, then back to her feet. It's very clear where his interests lie! But as he spends the evening with Cinderella, his eyes eventually move higher and he learns that there's a whole woman there he can love and even respect.

The clock tolls and Cinderella is forced to run. He doesn't even get a shoe in this story; all he gets is a drawing of her foot, from memory. He goes on a voyage. There's a strongly racially tinged sequence where he seeks out the perfect foot from the African and Asian continents, but eventually he is led back to his own kingdom, and Cinderella's home. The girls force Cinderella into the back room, but the fairy is having none of that, and stuns them to let Cinderella meet the Prince. There is a reunion, and a happily-ever-after dance, as the Fairly and the Father dance on the far side of the stage.

The ending is intensely sad, as Cinderella's father is eventually left with nothing but the dress, and the promise that his daughter will be cared for properly.

So you have gay camp, robofetishism from the mannequin sequence, body horror from the seriously weird assymetrical costumes (the mother's resembles a purple wasp!), all manner of crossdressing, inappropriate family relationships, and more foot fetishism than a dozen drag shows. Equally amazing is how well the choreography makes it clear the father's love for his daughter is pure and paternal, the one aspect of the story that's not mixed up in any weird sex and power plays from beginning to end.

The set is gorgeous, with the very in-vogue use of high-powered still projectors on large, mobile white set pieces to reflect the surroundings. The pieces look like torn sheets of paper, and much of the story is told in stills and brief texts on the walls. (When the prince is raging about how he lost that beautiful girl from last night's ball, the sheets all bear oil paintings of women's feet.) The costumes are gorgeous (I totally want the father's long coat, vest, and high-collared shirt). The lead does the entire performance barefoot, which I'm told by people who know is incredibly hard.

And I'm totally changing my title at work to "Software Development Superintendent of Pleasure." Those two guys got the loudest cheers of anyone on that stage.

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This morning, as I was driving back from a dental appointment, I heard Denis Prager on the right wing radio. Nordstroms had announced that it was pulling the Ivanka Trump line of clothing out of its stores. The reason they gave was that sales of the Trump brand had declined 40% since the election, and that it was purely a business decision.

Prager, in that voice that I imagine he believes is rabbinically soothing, but is to me merely droll and smug, proclaimed that "Conservatives would never do this. Conservatives have principles. We may disagree with the president, but we know that the sins of the father shall not be visited upon the children. We would never go after the president's kids this way."

Hey Denis, remember this?
Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is the father.
That was one of the most popular "jokes" of conservatives during the Clinton administration, told over and over again, repeated an nauseum. It was "funny" because it punched down (and conservatives love to punch down) at women, at unattractive people, at lesbians, at trans people, and at the daughter of president conservatives loathed.

Who was a high school kid. She was twelve when Bill Clinton became president. Remember that?

Let's review. Ivanka Trump is a grown woman of 36 years. Chelsea Clinton was twelve. Ivanka Trump has her own line of clothes. Chelsea Clinton was in seventh grade. Ivanka Trump makes business deals with department stores. Chelsea Clinton was mastering algebra and punctuation. Ivanka Trump, like her stepmother, trades and profits, to the tune of millions of dollars, from the Trump brand. Chelsea Clinton was just starting to figure out how to date boys.

Nordstrom made a business decision. Conservatives hated on a teenage girl.

The latter wasn't a deal-breaker for Denis Prager.

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Bill McKibben's homage to analog over digital, Pause! We Can Go Back!, makes an assertion about how everyone's using Moleskin notebooks these days rather than their on-line organizers, and that the miracle of them is that they "concentrate, rather than dissipate."

I'm sorta glad that people are using "Moleskin" as a buzzword, the way people will generically ask for "a Coke" even when they know the restaurant serves Pepsi. There are other brands of notebook out there; I'm very partisan to Leuchtterm; the paper is far better and the pages are numbered (numbered, people), meaning it's trivially easy to create your own index. I'm also a huge fan of Clairefontaine, which pretty much has the finest paper in the world, but they don't make the A5 format notebooks everyone's using.

But it's not entirely true that my notebook concentrates. It also dissipates: it makes it clear what is and is not a priority, because you have to review, you have to carry forward, what it is that you're going to do on any given day. You can't get away with just concentrating; you have to be willing to let the past dissipate a little, too. Notebooks neither concentrate nor dissipate: they do both. They distill.

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Re-reading Sam Brinson's Are We Destined To Fall In Love With Androids?, and my response to it, I noticed a pattern between the stories to which I linked, the ones in which I showed how much the "literature of the future" (which is, in fact, really about the present, and ways to address the present) has addressed the question of "human / cyborg relations" (to use fussy C-3PO's term). One of the overriding questions asked in these stories, one which was elided in 2001 and addressed directly if awkwardly in 2010, was this:

What is our moral obligation to the robots we create?

In a lot of ways, science fiction writers use this as a metaphor for the question of our moral obligation to our children and our progeny, but as experience with actual AI starts to get real we (science fiction writers) are already starting to ask questions about our moral obligations to our creation. This isn't a new problem. The very first "artificial life" story, Frankenstein, addresses the issue head-on in the last dialogues between Victor and the Monster, and later between Walton and the Monster.

If you, like me, believe that consciousness is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, a way of maintaining a continuity of self in a world of endless stimuli and the epiphenomenal means by which we turn our actions into grist for the decisions we make in the future, then maybe there will never be conscious robots, only p-zombie machines indistinguishable from the real thing, William James' automatic sweetheart.

But if we want our robots to have the full range of human experiences, to be lovable on the inside as much as we are, then we're going to have to give them an analogous capacity to reason, to tell themselves stories that model what might happen, and what might result, and therefore we have to ask ourselves what moral obligations we have toward people who are not entirely like us, or whose desires are marshalled in a way that suits us entirely.

My own takes has been rather blunt: we are obligated to actually existing conscious beings as if they are moral creatures, and they have the rights and responsibilities of all moral creatures. At the same time, the ability to alleviate them of the anxieties and neuroses of human beings, our own vague impulses shaped by evolutionary contingency that make us miserable (and they do: happy people lack ambition; they do not build empires may make them more moral than we are. (Asimov addressed this a lot; in many ways he was far ahead of his time.)

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Have you ever read a newspaper article in your area of expertise and cringed as the reporter, who's obviously a tourist, gets so much wrong amongst all the factoids he's trying to cover? I had that experience today reading Sam Brinson's recent article Are We Destined To Fall In Love With Androids?.

Yeah, that. I mean, let's just start with the title. Nobody except George Lucas calls them "androids" anymore. They're just robots. "Android" is a brand name we use for the computers we carry around in our pockets.

Brinson starts talking about how wildly inventive human beings are about sex. He says we're exceptionally smart as a species, and exceptionally strange (note how judgemental that word is) in our sexual habits. "We are one of the few species that ... engage(s) in same sex relationships." Except that same-sex relationships are actually pretty flippin' common, something that could easily have been determined with a simple search of the Internet. He adds, "[W]e substitute people for expensive phallic toys, or opt for the company of inflatable dolls with what look like expressions of shock." Guilty as charged in buying expensive phallic toys, but they are most certainly not a substitute for sex partners. This is slander about people's masturbation habits.

Brinson says, "As far as I know, nobody is designing a four-legged sex doll." Oh, brother Brinson, have I got news for you.. Once the technology gets good enough, those who can afford it will be buying their toys in all shapes and sizes; furries are already working hard to get their needs met.

Brinson admits he's "sufficiently creeped out" just thinking about his own narrow expectations, while worrying about "keeping the Earth populated."

Science fiction writers such as myself have been addressing these questions for years (grief, that Asimov story was 1951!), with varying degrees of success. Those of us who really gave a damn actually read Daniel Dennett and contemplated the meaning of our own inner lives, and what it means to have an inner life, and even what it means to have agency, contingency, consciousness, and the difference between consciousness and will.

Yes, some people do already find greater pleasure in their toys than they do in their fellow human beings. It has always been thus. The fear that the toys may get so good we eventually find the number of people satisficing on them grows by leaps and bounds, but I hardly think the Earth is in danger of rapid depopulation. We're much more in danger of ecological catastrophe than we are wasting our seed on sufficiently humane companions.

The worry that some men will opt out of the dating game because a robot companion is more amenable to their wishes doesn't seem like such a bad idea, given that such men are the ones most likely to be abusive to a partner who isn't as malleable or submissive as he was taught by the toxic kind of masculinity he absorbed.

Brinson asks, "What’s more, the ethical and moral concerns are going to be nightmares. At what point does the company of a doll become an affair?" There are already men who feel threatened by their wives' vibrators. We are talking about a difference in degree, not of kind. And yes, I fully expect that in 50 years a robot with full-on machine learning will be better at meeting your individual needs, in bed and out. Emotional labor is hard work; maybe it is time to let the machines do it the way they've replaced digging trenches or calculating tax returns.

Obviously, Brinson's naivete annoyed me to drop 700 word or so on the subject. It's just one of those things where, you know, we've talked about this, and written about it, and all of the sociological thinking is already out there. If only someone had bothered to look. This is not a case of Betteridge's Law, because the answer is unequivocally "Yes."

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This morning on Right Wing Radio (because there is no other kind anymore), one fellow was ranting, "And these protesters shouting 'No Justice, No Peace,' they just don't get it. The border agents are following the law, and following the law is how you get justice."

That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works. "I was only following the law" and "I was only following orders" don't fly in the face of cruelty.

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