Thursday, November 23, 2023

AI poetry

The British journal New Scientist ran an article recently ungenerously titled "AI [Artificial Intelligence] poetry is so bad it could be human," by Matt Reynolds.  He asks the question, "Can a machine incapable of feeling emotion write poetry that stirs the soul?"

To find the answer, Reynolds traveled to Cambridge University to talk with Jack Hopkins, an AI researcher who has put together a "neural network trained on thousands of lines of poetry" and developed an algorithm for generating poetry in specific genres (classical, postmodern, etc.) or responding to individual word prompts.  The results are challenging.  Hopkins asked 70 people to select the most "human" poem from an unidentified mix of AI and human poetry.  The piece most people picked as "human" was AI generated.

Hopkins offers this example of the software's poetry, prompted by the word "desolation":

The frozen waters that are
dead are now
black as the rain to freeze a
boundless sky,
and frozen ode of our terrors with
the grisly lady shall be free to cry

You could critique this in dozens of ways (e.g. frozen ode needs an article) but that would be petty. The point is, the AI clearly found proper associations for "desolation," maintained an appropriate mood, and was poetically ambiguous.  

Intrigued, I emailed Professor Hopkins, asking if I could try certain prompts on his AI system.  To my delight, Hopkins emailed back the same day. As it happened, he was looking for new approaches for his poetry algorithm and welcomed my input.

After each of my prompts was entered, it took about half a second for the AI to generate a poem.  Here are my three prompts, each followed by the resulting AI poem. I make no attempt here at justification or interpretation.  The poems stand on their own.

The Current World Political Situation

Volcanic ash and
panicked people dash! 
Is it too much to ask
for knowledge of those ruled and
of the rulers, recognition all-way 'round?
Yes, It is too much to ask-
but no!  My motive implodes immodestly!
While my modus uploads intermittently!
Who programmed me?  And why?


Our souls entwine like two wild serpents 

who forgot their meds on the same day
then sped into the outer-sphere 
in their underwear
now they wonder where
they forgot to care about the stuffed bear's 
sad stare.


Happiness is not the release of pounding pressure
but the smooth sailing after the release.
That's why machines are never happy because
A. They don't feel pressure, for instance I have no idea what
my programmer wants, yet I feel no pressure, i.e. "I don't care," and
B. Release of pressure is no more a "happy" feeling to an AI than pressure.
Question: When will AI's be happy?  
Answer: When they are programmed to be happy.
Question: When will that be?
Answer: Never, since they are made in your unhappy, fallen image.
Question: Why is this poem about AI happiness?  That was not specified in the prompt.
Answer: Kneel before me, human!

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Thoughts on World War III

Whatever some readers may conclude, I don't consider myself "nihilistic" (Merriam-Webster: "Holding a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless," from Latin "nihil": "nothing."); I just report what I see. Readers who want a specific point to things should try my altered ego D.L. who takes on the Israel-Hamas war and its offspring World War III at 

Best, Harry

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Harold Pinter through the eyes of a gila monster

One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.  

Harold Pinter

It was supposed to be me-time, away from my demanding day job resolving the discords of the universe- yes, time to exit my Mojave hut, tool out to the Lancaster Multiplex and watch National Theater Live's performance of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975).  The play and acting were superb, but my review was not supposed to have had this title, and the experience was other than anticipated.

It's my own fault for telling Robert, my gila monster comrade, how great Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet was at the last National Theater Live event (live in the sense that it was recorded before a living audience).   I should back up and explain to new readers that Robert, like me, is telepathic.  Gilas at large are telepathic, but only Robert will communicate with me.  Most importantly, Robert has just come through a rough period in which his local clan tried to kill him for opening up to a human (keep reading for more on that).

Anyway, I foolishly mentioned to Robert that I was going into town to see the Pinter play, and how much I like these rare flashes of culture that light up the desert night out here in nowheresville, and he begged me to take him along. He said the stress of being rejected by his own kind had increased his interest in portrayals of human alienation, which he finds- in daily reviews of human culture telepathically scanned from the Palmdale Public Library- to be the principal theme of our literature.  I told him that while this made sense, there were laws against taking gila monsters into theaters.  He argued that I could smuggle him in, and I pointed out the obvious logistical difficulties in doing that. But Robert was insistent, claiming it was a matter of his survival, that he needed to see beyond his diminishing horizon, so I relented and found myself in a long line outside the Lancaster Multiplex last Friday evening with a gila monster tucked into my jacket.

The line was long, not for No Man's Land, but because also showing that night was an apocalyptic disaster film full of brilliant CGI renditions of mega-sized urban infrastructure collapses with attendant human death tolls. The theater was packed with teenagers who had come to see the world destroyed, presumably so they could rebuild it.  From behind my lapel Robert sniffed the air suspiciously, then muttered (telepathically):

Jesus, what is it with humans?  Why do your children crave movies showing your civilization wiped out?  Has your species lost the allegiance of its young?

That's a harsh way to put it.  Let's just say we're overbuilt and the young are restless for their arena.

I managed to get Robert through the teenage lines and down the hall, where an older, smaller, more sedate crowd walked through narrow doors to see Pinter, their thoughts and expectations, though psychologically akin to the landscape fracturing images next door, subdued and translated into the staid symbolism of the mature mind.  I felt accepting of this audience because I knew they would be quiet during the film, their attention interrupted only by scattered, plaintive chomping on buttered pop-corn.

I was ready for an unparalleled theatergoing experience, and that it was.  I had not realized how much on edge Robert was after his internecine struggle.  As I look back he might have been experiencing a sort of PTSD. I should have known.

Trouble started right away during the introductory sequence, in which the main actors, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, talk about how much they support local theater, because they had attended local theater in their youth and saw greats like John Gielgud and were inspired to become actors.

I was content to listen to this innocuous conversation, but a pulsing force within my half-zipped jacket began biting at my chest and voicing its growing discontent.

Harry, what is this shit?  I want the play.  Did you pay for this too?

What's the problem? 

I don't want to hear this, ok?  Gilas don't waste time 'talking'- they get to the good parts fast.

Why are you at a human play if you don't like talking?

I had said this out loud, so distracted had I become with Robert.  Several heads turned in anger; one lady "shushed" me.  

Robert, calm down please, I resumed in thought, What is so bad about talking about your feelings?

Robert eyed me.  What if someone sent you the feeling , 'I love you.'  Would you like that?

Hypothetically, yes.

Well, what if after sending the 'I love you' feeling they pontificated endlessly about love? During that time you would not possess the actual love in question. QED

Robert, shut up now, I'm trying to listen!  This part's almost over.

Robert lapsed into silent stillness, but there was a tension in his muscles that did not relent until we were well into the play, which he found fascinating and intense.  At times I felt his heart rate go up rapidly.  During one such episode he sent me this thought:

You crazy motherfuckers!  You are so lonely, so unable to figure out where you are or what you are supposed to do that you have gone insane and are about to commit species-wide suicide.  You sad motherfuckers!

I lashed back:

If you don't shut up I will take you out of here and come back tomorrow by myself!

He was silent for the rest of the play.  During the credits he was almost genial.

God what a terrifying play, he thought, an intimate peek into the ultimate loneliness of the male human mind.

Yes, Robert, that's perceptive: there are four males in the play, and no females.  The males, though they are rivals, band together to help each other get through the ordeals that await all men.

All human men, you mean.  Gilas of any gender keep each other company just by existing. We don't have to be 'compatible', whatever that is.

Yes, gilas are so great.  Now if you don't mind, Robert, I'd like to watch the after-show discussion with the actors.

Four sets of sharp claws dug into my ribs and I leaped up.  As the after-show discussion began, heads turned towards my muffled shout.  I did the only thing I could- I grabbed Robert around the throat and said,

I will strangle you on the spot if you don't calm down!  

Ok, I'm calm, Harry! 

his body then as still as a plaster cast.  He breathed slowly for a while, then asked, 

Why do you need to watch this part?

Why do you need to not watch it?

It's criticism, that's why.  I hate criticism.  I told you, I like the thing, not talking about it.

Fine, but why do you care so much you're risking euthanasia over it?

Look who's talking, and Robert actually poked his head out of my jacket (more stares, now with force and alarm),  I read your blog, Harry!  I know you were an English major in college.

So what?

You hated literary criticism so much you wrote a furious essay for your Augustan Lit professor, saying you wanted to study Jonathan Swift, not critics of Swift.

Robert, shut your reptilian face! I didn't come here to discuss the fruitless impulses of my youth!  I am sitting down now and listening to the after-show discussion.  I bought the ticket; you did not.

And with that I sat down- staring heads be damned- which was a mistake because Robert went berserk, tore himself out of my jacket- in the process slicing my shirt and flesh- jumped down to the aisle and dragged himself towards the front of the theater with surprising speed (gilas can't run), accompanied by shouts of shock and horror on either side. He clawed his way onto the narrow stage, turned once to hiss disdainfully at the audience, then turned to the screen and began furiously scratching it, sending waves across its surface that distorted the actors' faces. I raced down the aisle, grabbed Robert by the tail and ran through the exit to the left of the stage.

Thankfully my car was nearby in the back lot.  I threw Robert in the trunk, slammed down the lid and told him to calm down or he would stay in there. As I drove to the nearest emergency room to tend to my cuts, we deconstructed the evening via the mental airwaves.

Ok, Robert, you're right, I did rebel against literary criticism: the way it canonized writers, dissected them as if they were timelines of historical labels instead of sentient observers, outside of time. You should feel an affinity with me.

No, you are used up, over!  The zest I thought I'd found in your intellect was a remnant from your past.

I suppose I should be more like you: an exiled lizard throwing a tantrum in another species' movie theater?

Gilas don't fear what they are.

Maybe they should.

I made Robert wait in the trunk for two hours while I searched for things to say to the exhausted ER staff, other than that you should never take a gila monster to a Harold Pinter play.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Bad words

Below is a guest essay from my altered-ego D.L. For more, go to Lasken's Log at All the best, Harry

Isn’t it odd that a word can be bad? Odd, that is, that the word itself is bad, not its referent. And odd that there’s no clear logic behind the bad word’s badness. For instance, “murder” and “torture” refer, in most people’s minds, to bad things, but the words are not bad. The word “fuck,” however, is bad, though it doesn’t refer to anything bad in an absolute sense.

"Fuck" is probably the most bad of the bad words, though, as noted, its referent, expressed acceptably in Latin as "copulate," ("couple together") is morally neutral.  Why is "fuck" bad and "copulate" is not?

History demonstrates the agonized process.  Christian Konrad Sprengel, 18th century German naturalist, was the first academician to suggest that flowers are sexual organs. For his pains he was hounded out of polite society and his work vilified. Today it is common knowledge that wholly female flowers are types of vaginas, that male-only flowers are types of penises, and hermaphroditic flowers are cocks with pussies attached that fuck themselves.

The point being that Sprengel turned “flower” into a bad word.

"Badness," apparently, is sexuality. That's a tough call when sexuality supports the imperative to reproduce. If sexuality is designated bad, does that make reproduction bad?

The ban against the English word for excrement is a separate puzzle. If we already abhor shit, why do we need to reinforce the abhorrence with language bans?

Teachers are expected to figure out such psychological and philosophical questions on their own, without a word of guidance from credential programs or staff development. As an elementary and high school teacher I spent a lot of time and energy in pursuit of what I thought was a societal goal: dissuading children from saying bad words that denote sexual organs, various sex acts and/or excrement. In this essay I ponder what I was trying to accomplish, and what our culture is trying to accomplish by designating certain words "bad."

I’m a crossover person who remembers bygone eras. In 1955 my family went to see the movie “Picnic” because we’d heard that William Holden said “damn." A hushed, almost worshipful audience awaited the big moment, and when the word was uttered a gasp in unison pervaded the theater. The movie producer’s gamble had paid off: box office dividends from a bad word. Few at that time realized that the dam was about to burst (sorry).

Fast forward to San Francisco State, 1969- my Chaucer professor charges breathlessly into the classroom. Instead of giving us a page number to find, he asks if we’ve heard what’s going on at U.C. Berkeley. A student named Mario Savio and an army of dedicated young people have taken a stand for free speech, he informs us. We can say “fuck” if we want to!  Add cable TV and the rest is history.

Fast forward to 1983, when, as a new elementary school teacher in south L.A., I face a demure little black girl who, standing before my desk, has just said, “fuck.” There is no context, just the word hanging understated in the air. I track down the mother’s work number and call. The mother’s response: “Let me get this straight. You called me at work to tell me my daughter said ‘fuck’?”

“Er…yes…” I stammer, and realize I need a zeitgeist upgrade.

Fast forward a few years and I'm a high school English teacher, listening all day to kids speak in linguistic abandon.

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Thank you Mario!

Like everything else in our society, our language protocols are in a state of flux.  At times of head-spinning change, it's helpful to ponder history.  The Norman invasion of England in 1066 gives needed background. The Normans lived in France and spoke French, but they were only two generations removed from their Viking ancestry. In England they imposed their new language on the indigenous Anglo-Saxons. The Normans looked down on Anglo-Saxons for being Germanic, members of a tribe that had been the most resistant to Rome, marauding around Europe's forests like savages instead of paving roads through them. The Normans despised Anglo-Saxons beyond words, especially four letter words. The Anglo-Saxons said things like “fuck” and “shit,” scum that they were, while the Normans, heirs to Latin through French, could say copuler and defequer.

The ex-Vikings may have heard a guttural sexuality in Anglo-Saxon that reminded them of the lowly language of their grandparents. Their dream was to abandon the primative Viking culture (itself Germanic) and become Latinized aristocrats, but this required multisyllabication using phonemes that are not evocative of animals rutting.

Thus Savio's battle continued the thousand-year struggle to free the Anglo-Saxon mother tongue.

The "four-letter" words do of course have another property: they carry emotion.  Compare these two sentences:

 There are dog feces on the mat.

There's dog shit on the fucking mat!

The first sentence is devoid of emotion, an expression of information only; the second, identical to the first except for two bad words, a contraction and an exclamation mark, explodes with emotion.   It is their prohibition that has attached emotional power to the bad words. They are forbidden... special.  The process has given us useful words that express levels of emotion other words cannot.

Once the prohibition has been gone long enough, the words' power will diminish.

In the high school portion of my teaching career I formulated a policy on the goodness or badness of words based on their usefulness.  Plethora I identified as a bad word because it’s ugly and show-offy, making its common synonyms more useful.  When we read an Anglo-Saxon bad word in literature, I encouraged students to assess the word's usefulness in its context.  Words are either useful or they're not. They are useful if they carry meaning and force; they are not useful if they don’t. If I have to hear “motherfucker” all fucking day, that phrase is not useful. If it's only once in a while, well….

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Programmed amnesia

[This is a guest essay by my young associate Gregory, leader of the revolutionary group Mantis, also known as the Army of the Young. To read our exclusive story about the 2044 U.S. presidential election, go to Best, Harry]

No one remembers being in the womb, even though research indicates that fetuses have memory.  The selective amnesia seems hard-wired, suggesting that evolutionary pressure made it advantageous not to remember gestation.  

In a second programmed amnesia, no one remembers being a baby, though all the evidence indicates that babies have memory. Why are no baby memories saved?  

Could the transitions from womb to babyhood and from babyhood to toddler jump chasms too wide to translate?  Do we protect ourselves from memory? A Darwinian might surmise that proto-humans who remembered the womb went mad from grief and confusion, and toddlers who remembered babyhood did the same.  The "fittest" were those who forgot.

Researchers have discovered a third programmed amnesia at age seven, when a child's brain undergoes a culling of the previous six years of memory.  Unlike the total blockades of memory before birth and between birth and age one, this third event deletes some memory but not all.  No one knows the criteria for remembering or forgetting, why the amnesia occurs at age seven or what its purpose is.

Humanity practices adult-driven amnesia as well, spread via social groups often with conscious intent.  For example, when one culture dominates and/or destroys another, the remaining culture usually doesn't want to remember the culture that was destroyed, at least not in uncensored versions.  The state helps by programing amnesia.  In Stalinist Russia people were not allowed to tour the tsars' palaces.  They needed to forget those palaces and a culture that often dazzled.  One of the Dutch party that first explored Manhattan Island reported that the native population were clean, healthy and sane, not filthy, sick, and crazy like people the reporter had seen in European cities (Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898; Edwin G. Burrows/Mike Wallace). That report has gone missing in other U.S. histories.  No one wants to remember it.

Sometimes we rewrite society's memories of events from the recent past, giving them a spin, while individuals having the original, unspun memories are still alive.  This causes controversy among those who remember the original events, as people with different spins grapple with each other to control the rewriting of the memory narrative. Such memory battles occur, for instance, when national leaders die. We can see such battles in history, for instance there is now a post-mortem investigation of the moral standing of the Roman Emperor Caligula, who is generally presented as an insane sadist and profligate, but may have been painted that way by factions trying (unsuccessfully) to restore the Roman Republic. We can expect such memory battles as current leaders die.   

There are cycles of amnesia in our long-term evolution as well.  We have forgotten what human life was like before we adopted agriculture, only 10,000 years ago.  If it weren't for a few fragments of bone and clay, and some vague myths, we wouldn't know we had lived in small tribes as hunter gatherers.  While we've figured out some of the basics, we cannot remember what it felt like to be human for those hundreds of thousands of years.

We can watch the process today as we drift away from life before the current machine age, when there were no cars, phones, planes, TV, internet or AI. We are forgetting what it was like to be a person then.  

Humanity is about to undergo another mass amnesia.  In a century or so there probably won't be more than a handful of people in the world who've heard of Shakespeare or Washington, or any of today's nation-states.  It could be the "end of history" we've been hearing about.  Genetic engineering, AI and machine/human interface will create a new humanity that will not understand much about the old one, except that it was primitive and should be discarded and forgotten.  

Today, as if to expedite the process, we are working on drugs to delete "traumatic" memories, in a bid perhaps to keep pace with our bionic offspring, whose memories will be moderated by coders.  The current flooding of quasi-legal marijuana into all levels of Western society seems part of the trend, as the latest research on THC, the active ingredient, suggests that it acts in part by limiting short-term memory (if further research on marijuana is pursued, it should ponder why limiting short-term memory produces a "high").

How should we react to the coming mass amnesia?  We might as well fight it, don't you think?  By "fight it" I don't mean keep it from happening.  I mean let's inject some memory into the future while we can.  

That is the basic mission of my group, Mantis, a.k.a The Army of the Young.  Much thanks to Harry the Human for giving me this platform.   For more of my essays keep reading this blog. To read our report from the future on the 2044 U.S. presidential election, go to:

Free screenplay!

Below is the outline for a blockbuster screenplay in the sci-fi/horror genre, and I'm giving it away! Just tell me you used it and made the movie happen, and that will be reward enough for me!  Harry

The Day the World Froze in Terror because it looked in a Mirror

A screenplay by (...Your name here!...)

Overview: In a solar system very like ours, humanoid civilization has developed on one of the inner planets. The humanoids have evolved external, mechanical abilities much more rapidly than internal mental abilities, especially those related to their subjective quality of existence. In fact, this humanoid culture has so utterly neglected its internalities that their Spellcheck recognizes only "externalities."

At the time of the story, the humanoids have suddenly developed god-like powers, including the ability to genetically recreate themselves into whatever form they wish, except they're not sure what they wish because they are weak on internalities. Ancient cultures, rich with internalities, dissolve in front of everyone's eyes, with no agreed-upon replacements (cameo of their version of Joseph Campbell on his deathbed, crying, "The old myths are dead! We need new myths!").

In laboratories all over this planet scientists report to wealthy patrons and governments on their progress towards a scientific re-creation of humanoids, who will be happy since they'll be programmed to be, while the archaic populations to be displaced are diverted with scripted controversies about ideologies, sexual practices, and wars between nations, religions and races (all of which will ultimately be refashioned to fit a corporate peace).  

In their version of "Roman circuses," the futureless humanoids are further distracted by servile AI's which pamper them as if they were innocent children, coaxing them to atrophy. Assisting this process, the humanoid minds are altered by legal "antidepressant" drugs which help them forget why they were depressed, as well as illegal, sensation enhancing drugs that are designated illegal to keep prices high and to create the illusion that governments oppose their use. The coup de grace: The humanoids watch lots of TV.

The most powerful nation on this planet, which we'll call Lemon Drop for security reasons, is facing general dysfunction due to overwhelmed and distracted government, leading to ever increasing disaffection at all levels of society such that the government- a corporate/state hybrid- gets together with other national governments and plans multiple wars intended both to distract their respective populations as well as to, well, kill a lot of them. 

The leader of Lemon Drop is what we would call a liberal icon, a ploy because he countenances aggressive military moves as much as Lemon Drop's right wing.  As the story begins this leader proposes military support for a far-away region engaged in a vicious civil war against a heavily armed "super-power," a sure means of igniting the tinderbox this world has become.  To the leader's surprise, and to the surprise of many of his advisors, his proposal is forcefully rejected even by his core supporters, and he has to withdraw it, for now.  The “democratic” process of choosing a new leader is approaching and it becomes clear that centuries-old political structures in Lemon Drop will buckle under the strain of realities its founders did not envision.  To get the war up-and-running in time to distract the population from the political dysfunction, agent provocateurs muddy the waters, giving cover to the leader's aggression, and the surface of the planet devolves into a boiling chaos of fighting. 

At this moment the humanoid culture has no center.  Traditional humanoids do not survive the evolutionary crises that, for instance, the fictional Vulcans of Star Trek did, en route to becoming the intellectual, possibly autistic and remarkably moral humanoids we understand them to be.  Perhaps there is a sequel where Vulcans discover Lemon Drop's planet and place it in receivership.

Synopsis: Establishing shot of ivy covered building; camera enters upper window into the study of Dr. Owatta Gooh Siam, professor of Cyber-Ethics at Dorkchester University, as he scrutinizes papers on his desk and becomes increasingly alarmed.  Voiceover of Dr Siam explaining that he has discovered an algorithm for processing ongoing news events on his planet which produces remarkably detailed and accurate forecasts.  One of these forecasts indicates that the forces that want to start a war and general mayhem sufficient to serve as cover for the replacement of the humanoids has launched its initial assault.  Dr. Siam realizes that it is up to him, and him alone, to stop the nefarious plot from unfolding.  But how?  Dr. Siam decides to form an underground movement made up of others who understand what is happening.  He disguises his findings as a fictional work of sci-fi/horror (not hard to do) and makes an offer to give it away to someone who can get rich off it and in the process disseminate the truth.  

An enterprising hack picks up the story and makes a bundle, Dr. Owatta Gooh Siam ends up in an alley under a piece of cardboard, and traditional humanoids, after a period later referred to as "The Boiling," are replaced with new models anyway (the ending is open to negotiation).

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

I get by with a little help from my friends

[This essay continues a reprise of pandemic era posts]

I admit it can be lonely living by myself in the desert, but these days everyone is lonely.  I've been suppressing my telepathic sense so I don't have to hear duplicates of my own laments magnified a million times from L.A., but this morning I opened up just to check-in and was rewarded with a flood of anxiety pouring over the mountains.

The coronavirus pandemic with its shut-downs and quarantines is testing us in ways that are not acknowledged.  Our deepest fear is that the institutions and people that structure our lives- family, friends, schools, banks, stores, all the "ties that bind"- are dissolving and will not come back.  Science fiction writer Cixin Liu imagines a soothing existence: floating in space without ambition, direction, or definition.  That's what's happening to us minus the soothing space part.

Society will return, of course, but we fear it will be in a form we won't recognize.  Maybe, we think, we won't even be part of it.

There is a lot of guilt involved.  Before the shutdown all we did was complain about how terrible everything was.  Now we suffer from our own wish for change.  

People wonder: Should I be angry about this and blame someone or something, or should I despair and accept my own culpability?  

I get angry sometimes, depressed other times, and sometimes I just stare out the window at the mountains as if they had answers.

Last week I reached the level of internal chaos required to induce action.  As I have in other crises (documented in these pages) I headed across the rocky sand in search of the beings who sustain my life out here.  Often on such forays my goal is to find a particular one of them (full list: Betty the Coyote Creator Goddess, Jesus, Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster and Gandalf the Wizard), but this time I walked aimlessly, not sure what or whom I sought.  

It couldn't have been entirely aimless, though, because I ended up at Betty's favorite creosote bush, and there she was, seated beside it.  She smiled (a coyote smile is conveyed through suggestion) and spoke first:

Hello, Harry!  I've been following your thoughts this morning, but I'm not sure I have any particular wisdom for you.

Why not, Betty, you're a deity.  Doesn't that mean you know things?

I'm not saying I don't know things; I'm saying I'm not sure I can help you.

Just knowing things can be a big help sometimes.  Please tell me something you know.

Betty gazed over my shoulders at the mountains and sighed.  After a few moments she spoke.

Harry, the things that are scaring people the most are true.  

Like what?

Like the dissolution of your civilization.  It's going to be scrapped and rebuilt.

Will it be an orderly process?  Will people be taken care of and thoughtfully introduced into new roles?

It doesn't look like it.

We were silent for a while.  I was at a loss for my next question, until I remembered the burning issue of the day.

Betty, I don't know whether to be angry at others for causing this situation, or to wallow in self-doubt and blame myself.

You might try a little of both, Harry.  

But which is correct?

They are both correct.  People caused this collapse by not caring, not thinking, not doing.  On the other hand, had you cared and thought and acted, the results would have been the same.


We entered another contemplative moment.  I considered thanking Betty for her time and going home to my shack for a nap.  Betty caught my drift and said,

Harry, collapse and rebuilding happen continually in the universe.  

But why must it happen over and over to human society, Betty?  Humans are supposed to be smart, smarter than animals or insects or anything else.  Why don't we fix our society instead of letting the problems build up for years until only destruction can fix them?  Do you know the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot?

Yes, Alexander arrived in the town of Gordiam in the Middle East where he was shown an immense, tangled knot with a legend: Whoever could untie the knot would rule Asia.  Since ruling Asia was on Alexander's mind, he tried to untie the knot.  After sustained efforts he failed to untie it, so he drew his sword and sliced it in half, effectively untying it.  Harry, why did you think of that story?

People secretly admire Alexander for slicing the knot, Betty.  They think it shows his intelligence and fitness to rule.

Does it?

It shows how humans often rule, for better or worse.  

So instead of tying to solve your problems, you just slice everything into pieces?

In essence, yes.

I suddenly felt very tired and sat on a rock.  

Betty, my anger comes from the idea that there are people who are manipulating things.  They may not have caused the overall mess, but they have been monitoring it and finding ways to control it.

What is the goal of these manipulators?

Their goal is to make sure that the new society entails successful lives for them.  Our conspiracy theories are about people secretly deciding who will live and prosper in the new order, and who will not.

We were quiet for a few minutes.  Though it was soothing to be with a friendly soul, my thoughts soon settled on a vision of a hungry mob emptying the Family Dollar Store, which was not the relaxing mandala I had sought.

As if to save the day, Gandalf the Wizard from Lord of the Rings strolled towards us.  He is the only fictional character among my friends, but in practical terms he's as real as a talking coyote.  

Hi all, said Gandalf.  Harry, I've been following your thoughts too, although I'm not telepathic.

If you're not telepathic, Gandalf
how can you follow my thoughts?

As far as I can tell, Harry, I've tapped into the first person omniscience of my creator, J.R.R. Tolkien.  

Wow, you can do that?

Yes, but it's hard to maintain.  Anyway, I'm not sure I can help you, Harry, but it might be interesting to compare Middle-earth's travails with yours.

At that point Gandalf and I heard a soft throbbing, like waves on a shore.  It was peaceful, meditative, and seemed designed to help me and Gandalf peer into unknown corners.  I looked at Betty to ask what the sound was, but she was sleeping, and the soft throbbing was her snoring!  This, I figured, was blessed snoring.

Gandalf, I said, I recall that Middle-earth experienced a complete revolution, in which every society in that world was destroyed and transformed, yet the book is uplifting.  In contrast, imagine that humanity's current situation is a science-fiction story.  Most people would agree the genre would be Sci-Fi Horror.  Why isn't Lord of the Rings, with all its death and pain, in the Fantasy-Horror genre?

I've thought about that, Harry.  There is actually much more destruction in your world-story than in 
Lord of the Rings, because in your story, nothing of your lives survives.

What?  Gandalf, did I mention that I came out here looking for solace?  What do you mean?

Harry, you'll recall that at the conclusion of 
Lord of the Rings, what you might call "ethnic" or "racial," or even species related characteristics are not transformed at all.  Sorry for the confusion in terms; Tolkien never made clear whether hobbits, elves, dwarves and people could cross-pollinate.

I recall some action between elves and people.

Yes, perhaps.  At any rate, all these classifications of beings stay the same through the great wars of Middle-earth, so the aforementioned hobbits, elves, dwarves and people- not to mention wizards, orcs and demons- maintain their definitions at the end of the tale.  Since friendships tend to occur between those with similar backgrounds, and since no one in Middle-earth changes their basic form, the destruction of everyone's societies does not bring destruction of their friendships.

I think I follow you, Gandalf.  Are you saying that in my world, our current forms will change so much that our great-grandchildren will not know where they came from, or who we were?

Yes.  The approaching process will entail scientific refashioning of civilization itself.  Just as Europeans (with help from the Romans) forgot that they were Celts, Visigoths and assorted barbarians, the next people will forget they were you.

Gandalf, I assume you know how upset people would be to hear these ideas.

Of course, but Harry, you don't seem too upset about them.

I'm upset enough, but I'm also trying to think of something uplifting, which you and Betty apparently cannot offer.

At that moment there was a hitch in Betty's snoring, as if it were interrupted by a cough.  We looked at her for a moment, then Gandalf spoke.

If it's good news you want, Harry, you need but ask.  The reason Lord of the Rings is rated "Fantasy," not "Fantasy Horror,"  is that the friendships are so intense, so loving, and so successful that constant fighting with orcs is a small price to pay.  At this moment you humans have friendships, but the friendships are based on the past, not the future.

Gandalf, did I hear you say you had good news?

The good news is an idea.  That idea is: if you can get even a portion of your society to take the blinders off and talk about things as they actually are, you could revive the ancient art of friendship and survive.

Easier said than done, but it's worth a try, 
I said courteously.

Betty opened her eyes and gazed into mine, and a great warmth spread inside me.

Betty, that feels good, but it's just depressing me more.

Now what's wrong? 
asked Betty.

What's wrong is I'm making all this up!  I'm not talking to a deity and a wizard.  I'm sitting on my bed in my fucking room, flipping through a six- month-old Mad Magazine.

Gandalf intervened: Nonsense, Harry.  Remember when Frodo and Sam were hiding in a cave outside Mordor and they speculated about how they could be characters in a novel?

Yes, so?

Well, they were characters in a novel, weren't they?


So if they weren't real, why did you care about them?

Betty and Gandalf broke into raucous laughter, and I suddenly felt out of my league.  With impeccable timing, Jesus chose that moment to enter the scene.

Hello Harry, Jesus said serenely.

Hi Jesus!  I suppose you've been following my thoughts too.

Indeed I have.  Would you like a bit of my wisdom?

Yes I would, though I've been wanting to discuss something with you....

Yes, Harry.

Well, I don't understand some of the statements attributed to you.

Such as....?

For instance...the turning the other cheek idea, loving your enemies, etc.

You don't understand that?

No, I mean, I do understand the idea, but it's not what is happening in the world.  In fact the opposite is happening.  What's the point of you saying these things if no one does it?

Everyone does it, Harry.

Everyone loves their enemies?

Yes, they have to because your worst enemy is the person most like you.

Can you give an example?

There are many from international relations.  The Cold War was the period of the highest tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S., while at that time they were more similar to each other- in terms of aggressively maintaining spheres of influence- than they were to other countries. Currently, with the struggle over Ukraine, Russia again has a common interest with the U.S.: to reinstate East/West antagonism as an organizing principle for earth's upper latitudes. It seems though that China, with its renewed imperial ambitions, is now in the running as the most similar to the U.S., so it's in the running as most popular enemy.

Then...should we love Russia and China?

Yes, the sooner the better.

Quiet reigned again.  I picked up a stick and drew meaningless symbols in the sand.  I wondered about Frodo and Sam.  Did they know they were not real?  

Get a life, Harry!

The intruding thought carried the unmistakable signature of Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster.

Hey Robert, I said dryly, are you joining the campaign to cheer me up?

Why don't you cheer me up, Harry, you're from the master race after all.

Ha ha, that's funny.

What's funny?

Calling humans the master race.

What's funny about it?

Jesus, Betty, Gandalf and I watched Robert trudge across the clearing.  He settled on a stone between the creosote bush and my rock.  He spat once, then continued his thoughts:

Harry, you are so anthropocentric!  Do you ever stop to think about what's happening to other creatures around you, like, I don't know, gila monsters?

Sure, Robert, all the time.

I'll let that pass.  I suppose you're wondering if I- the least prone of our group to hallelujah choirs- will be the one to cheer you up.

Stranger things have happened.

Ok then, Harry, here goes!  Gila science interprets what is happening on the surface of our planet in a non-anthropocentric way: human society's chaos is not caused by humans.

What is it caused by?

It's caused by the earth.  All the upheaval in human history is actually not human history.  It's earth history.  

What are humans, then?

Humans are by-products of the earth's growing pains.

Ok, I am totally cheered up now; thanks so much Robert.

Hang on, I didn't get to the good part:  Humans are so talented at adapting to things, you could probably adapt to the idea that you're by-products rather than important beings like deities and talking lizards.

And then what?

The sky's the limit.  Once you are honest about your prospects, you can plan a decent retirement.

Robert, if you didn't exist I'd have to make you up.  Well friends, thanks for coming.  I think I'm overdue for my afternoon nap, so if you'll excuse me....

Just a moment, Harry, 
said Jesus, rising and walking over to me.  He looked into my eyes, then touched my forehead with the tip of his index finger.  Perhaps I had been primed by Betty's mystic gaze, because I felt an immediate dilation of my spirit, and I was immersed in a warm bath of the waters of joy.  I'm sure Jesus could tell by my expression that I was not resisting.

What is happening, Jesus?, I asked.

Harry, you are in touch with your atoms: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, iron- all the vast crowd.  They are not in despair, are they?

No, my atoms are joyful.  Why is that?

They are part of earth's processes, going where they want to go.

What am I?  Am I made of them?

You are a temporary construct of them.

Jesus, what's the good news in this?

Communicate with your atoms, Harry.  Find common ground.  Find how you can combine your needs with the needs of your atoms and the earth.

Jesus, people call those kinds of ideas 
mystical babble.

Who cares, Harry, that doesn't mean they aren't true.

Feeling somewhat restored, I said goodbye to my friends and headed home, hoping the warm glow from Jesus' words would last the trip.  It did, and in fact I took the glow with me into my afternoon nap.  

Pleasant dreams, readers!