Nondefinition #12

Blind spot. The hiatus in the visual field imposed by the presence of the optic nerve. We are not aware of the blind spot because the brain fills it in. I would not try to perpetrate another use of this analogy. We all have blind spots—whevener we connect, the line of connection eclipses the thing connected to, and we only think we see it. Very well. But now that we have blind spots everywhere—what did we have before we had blind spots? Prejudices, fondness? Certainly; but "blind spot" says more than either of these. This simple analogy—"blind spot"—changes the very way you think. To have made such an analogy—that would be enough to justify a life.

Artificial intelligence

[I have sometimes tried, and failed, to make this argument in person. If I fail again here, I have at least cast it on the water; perhaps 50 years downriver it will be clearer—either common sense or patent nonsense.]


A computer with the speed of a human brain would no more feel love and hate, fear death, or make art, than a computer with the speed of a dog's brain would bark and mark its territory. Human behavior as such requires the means of the computational capacity of the human brain; but the use of human behaviors is in the physiological and glandular environment where the brain lies. It is wrong to vaunt that all our purposes are but the shadows of inherited drives and reducible to their combinations; yet the faculty of desire is a faculty of the flesh.


I expect that to the scholars of the next century the dissonance of the disciplines of neurology and artificial intelligence will provide a curious case study in the history of scientific consensus. They cannot both be right. Either the brain creates emotion, and emotions serve some need of the brain; or the brain serves emotion, and emotions have created the brain to ease their uses. One could suppose a mutuality of feedback; and everyone has sometimes overruled their emotions, and sometimes been overwhelmed by them; but one or the other, neuron or hormone (loosely speaking), must have primacy—must set the wheel in motion, must provide the power that keeps it going.

I don't know whether anyone has attempted to calculate the information-bearing complexity of the endocrine system, or of the loops which it forms with the genes, the immune system, epigenetics, &c. The operation is clearly very complex; but we don't even know how the body represents itself to itself within the system of hormones—or whether that representation is compressible—or whether there is any such representation at all. But even if this system is in itself very simple, its interaction with the brain sets a much higher target for an artificial mind than just reproducing the complexity of the neurons—and it may not be simple at all.


We have never encountered another sentient species. (Though I half-expect that, having done so, we would find them so diverse that we would retroactively number dolphins among them.) We might discover that some principle of convergence makes all creatures past a certain point of intelligence much alike—but that would be little comfort, given that within our own species there is room for both Hitler and Saint Francis. But we properly doubt the aliens presented to us by science fiction—like us, only more so—as belonging with the foxes and lions of Aesop, not Darwin. But this is what we expect of artificial intelligence—like us, only more so—digital minds floating through cyberspace in the dispassionate contemplation of truth, like discorporate angels or saints in Scholasticism.

That satisfied Aquinas; but Milton found that to do anything, even an angel would have to have appetites. Could we do for programming what Milton did for literature? Create an economy of artificial instincts? It is not unthinkable; but why do so?

We have developed systems of formality, in every culture, with the deliberate object of not having to indulge the presumptuous sympathies of strangers. Foolish as it is to reveal ourselves to strangers who can spread our weaknesses through gossip and backbiting—how much more so, to reveal ourselves to a machine? Already hackers can violate us with the exposure of our exterior activities; we would be giving them the chance to pry into the variations of our moods: to steal the memory, as it were, of a trusted companion. Such companions might still be no less trustworthy than human beings; but they would have new ways to betray us.

The question, of course, is: are emotions all or nothing, or can we impart only the ones we choose? There are some good reasons to think the latter. Brain lesions can extinguish specific emotions; and some mental illnesses comprise only the absence of certain emotions—depression, for example, the absence of pleasure and delight. But these phenomena do not answer the question: is there an array of emotions which can each be switched off and on independently, or is there a system of emotions which is sometimes thrown off-balance or distorted? If the latter, then to say that because we can cut off specific emotions, we can create them independently, were as if one said that because we can cut off tree limbs, we can build our own, without the tree.

Suppose that emotions are such a system. We are humanized by human limitations; why would we impose them on computers? We neuter pets and draft animals; we breed them to be docile, obedient, unobtrusive; we blinker horses. We must deprive them of their drives and instincts, and of the occassions for those behaviors, to make them useful to us. Why would we do the opposite to computers? There is the story of a battle during the Crusades that turned to a farce because the Crusader stallions caught the scent of the Saracen mares—the mares were in heat. Emoting computers hold out similar dangers: a depressed or panicky stock market, an angry weapons system, a jealous desktop, a pushy laptop. A machine, to be capable of useful empathy, would be susceptible to pride and pique; and while we might program a computer to be respectful of people, it would be harder to make people reciprocate.


The discipline of artificial intelligence seems to view itself as being in the service of an evolutionary imperative. Our intelligence has made us human beings powerful; surely more intelligence means more power. But, if so, why has evolution not made us smarter? It would, to all appearances, be easy to do. The existence of autism and of savants suggests that not much evolutionary pressure would be required to provide us with higher-functioning brains. If the next step in evolution is a better computer than we, why has evolution not made us better computers, when it has had the chance?

There are answers which favor the project of artificial intelligence. The brain is hungry, so food sources set a limit. Equals cooperate best, so too much disparity endangers society. Too big a head couldn't fit through the birth canal.

But I find none of these answers convincing. I cannot refute them now, but it may become possible. Physics could provide the proof. If we are able to arrive at a final theory, if we can find out, comprehend, and apply a set of fundamental laws adequate to all the various phenomena of the universe, that would suggest that we are quite smart enough for this universe, and that greater intelligence would be wasted on it—that while there might be faster thoughts than ours, there cannot be better ones.

This is, I concede, a distasteful thought. Something in us longs to belong to a hierarchy that culminates above us. If we can't look up to gods or angels, it's natural in us to want to make them. (Even granting God, no theologian would say that God's knowledge and judgement are by way of anything like thought). But I think that in the futurity of Moore's Law we are awaited by a cruel lesson: that even making something smarter than us will not allow us to turn over our responsibilities to it.

Nondefinition #11

Accountancy. One of our most popular courses. In the periods (18th–21st centuries) when the profession existed, it was one of the most efficient conversation deflectors, comparable only with undertaking, but much less likely to serve as a conversation-ender and thus dilute the overall quality of the experience. In fact, accountancy is our recommendation for all time travelers targeting that period who do not require geographically specialized training.


[Being the Ruricolist, I try to touch on a rural subject at least once a year. The last was A house in the country.]

Often, where I have been accustomed to walk, other people hike. I—a mere walker—don't dare speak to them, so determinedly professional and businesslike do they seem. But I have been able, from time to time, to distinguish a few of the principles which elevate this art of science of the hike above the common walk of walks. In order that others may benefit, though indirectly, from their wisdom, conscience compels me to share those observations.

The hike, for instance, is a group project. One hikes in groups, from pairs to parties; and thus one talks. This has two consequences. First, talking, hikers are loud; they laugh and shout. I infer that hikers are unusually polite: they wish, wherever they go, to announce and introduce themselves. It is laudibly urbane. Second, talking to each other, hikers look at each other; again, very polite—they would not want a speaking human being to feel ignored for the sake of wordless nature. Hikers are true members of the vanguard of the modern spirit—they form ambulatory social networks; and such is their mastery of collaboration, that even their castles in the air are open-source.

Too, the hike is planned. One does not spontaneously take a hike—even, I have found by experiment, when told to. Days, weeks of effort go into establishing the rendezvous. I hypothesize that this is one of those echoes of military life which passed to civilians after WWII. Surely, in hikers' pouring over maps arranging of their timetables, and in the logistics implied by their man-high piles of equipment, more is in common with the meetings of a committee of the General Staff than a careless gathering of naïve nature lovers who don't know that even in loving nature, one must work at the relationship.

The hike is equipped, and even the equipment is itself equipped. The hiker is equipped with a water bottle, the water bottle is equipped with a holster, the holster is equipped with a harness, and the harness is equipped with a hiker. And this equipment is very specific—designed around the needs of hikers. The hiking pole, for example, is distinguished from the cane in being too long to lean on, and from the staff in being too short to lean from. Or hiking shoes, which combine the advantages of shoes and boots: they are as heavy as boots, and as receptive to an accumulation of instant-souvenir dirt, stones, sand and sticks as shoes. But few pieces of equipment are so easily identifiable by outsiders. Only the initiates of the freemasonry of hiking truly understand the use, and the symbolical meaning, of each of the pieces of equipment with which they set out girded.

Most of all, the hike is a microcosmic recapitulation of the natural world it moves in. Consider the ingenuity of the hiker's miniature, plasticized water cycle. First, the hiker is wrapped in plastic clothes to induce sweat; then these plastic clothes (candles of dehydration!) wick the sweat away; and last, and water from plastic bottles refuels the hiker to begin the cycle again.

What could shame a mere walker more than to come upon a resting party of disciplined hikers, disburdening themselves enough to sit, consulting their watches to measure their rest time, panting, rubbing their backs where packs have dug into them, rubbing their legs where their equipment has beaten them?

I feel so amateurish when I pass them.

Nondefinition #10

Lawns. Lawns and hair show an obvious resemblance, and many of the tools used for one have equivalents used for the other. There could be an opportunity here for entrepreneurs: where is lawn dye? Mix pigment with fertilizer to drape the cities in technicolor suburban quilts and diversify golf courses (black grass shows up the ball, but hides the terrain; white grass lets you play by moonlight). And what of verbs? If we can scalp our enemies, why not lawn properties—gleefully tear up pampered, insatiable grass—"Yes, I was the one, I lawned that house—the one just up the hill, where the wildflowers are growing."


I wish I could preach bookstores. Everyone should read: reading is, for most ends, both the best and easiest form of thinking—a conjunction which makes it one of life's kindnesses, not to be scorned. But most readers do not need bookstores: a library card and the occassional mail order suffice those who only read a little.

But those of us who read much are drawn to bookstores. Theirs is a different allure from that of a library; a different temptation from that of simply buying books (even secondhand). I go to bookstores to be surprised, which is not an indulgence. More books are worth reading than life has time to read. I could try to prioritize; but how to judge? My tastes are individual enough that I cannot rely on others' rankings. My solution is the simplest possible: I leave much of my reading to chance. Of books that appeal to me, some I go out of my way for; but more I resign myself to read only should I come across them in person. And of books I read, most are books I chose in advance, but many are books that took me by surprise. Lovers of music, of movies, of food, of any other art form or humane delight, are proud of this kind of openness, and love to recount their discoveries; but some perversity (a holdover from school, perhaps) drives readers to planning out reading lists. Such a list, if it relies only on recommendation or reputation, can comprise only the famous and the new—and how many good books are neither famous nor new?

Libraries and recommendation engines cannot be relied on for these surprises. They aim for order; but a bookstore should be the paradigm of artful disorder. That is, if I want a particular book, I should be able to find it; but I should pick up a few books by mistake along the way. And if I do not, at least once, innocently pick up a book I would be embarrassed to be seen with, and have to glance shiftily before I slip it back onto the shelf; then I must despair, for neither shall I find a book which, not having known to look for, I should be embarrassed never to have heard of.

It would be extreme to consider 20 personal or 100 automatic recommendations in a day. But in an hour in a bookstore a thousand books may pass under my eyes—books judged not by their covers, but by the company they keep: as recognizing a friend among strangers makes the others less than strangers. Libraries sometimes afford such meetings, but that is not their purpose. I have been in large libraries so well organized that they made me restless: where, unable to wander with my eyes, I had to wander on foot. I cannot object to that in a library, but I encourage bookstores to avoid it. Large gardens need planning, lest they seem wilderness; but plants in small gardens must be allowed their wildness, or them seem decorations—to claim the space, they must overgrow and mix a little.

I implied at the start that I could not persuade anyone of the appeal of bookstores, but that is not because I have no good reasons; rather, someone who does not love bookstores is likely to be so different from me that I do not see what we could have to say to each other.

Certainly, there are people who love bookstores more than I do. I have never made a bookstore my haunt (as I read that city people do); I have never made a friend in or through a bookstore (which some seem to take for their purpose). But I remember, I think, every bookstore I have ever been in: little blond-wood, shiny-cover chain bookshops; carpeted, café-harboring shelf-mazes; a cement-floored, steel-rack paperback warehouse; an amphitheatrically rising by levels university bookstore; overstuffed, impossibly narrow bookstores in the French Quarter with wood floors creaking and squeaking like untuned instruments; a shadowy book-laden mansion in North Carolina; and others, and more. As an adult, my dreams are inflexible; long familiarity and deep feeling, are not enough to bring new places into them—my dreams are always recombining old places remembered through childhood; but bookstores have a way to slip through that barrier, a shift to enter dreams. Willing or not, I return to them all.

Nondefinition #9

Side effects. Diseases due to cures. The progress of medicine, as it delivers us each newer, more powerful cure, also seems to delivers newer, more powerful side effects. Perhaps the notion of cures is outdated; perhaps the right a patient ought to be asking for is the right of disease choice. "You have disease X? Wouldn't you rather have disease Y or Z?" Trade your disease for another; get tired of it; trade it for yet another. And if the maxim of the greener grass holds, the final achievement of medicine will be to allow one half of humanity to trade its diseases with the other.

Fable of the Candle

Once there was a dark land, without light or lamp. There an old sage made a candle that could not burn out; and this candle was the first and only light in the dark land.

The sage had a young disciple, whom he taught—slowly, slowly—how to look at the light and how to see by it.

The people of the dark land hated the sage and his light. Now and then men climbed by twos or three out of the dark town below, up to the cabin where the candle burned, to try to put it out. Then the young disciple would fight them off.

But this time, one townsman got inside; before he could be dragged out, he knocked the frail sage down—killing him. Then there was wailing from the cabin: and when it was heard below, the town answered with cheers.

The young man buried the old sage. The men of the dark town were more daring now. It seemed that they were always creeping up, trying to get in to put out the candle. So the young man set his chair in the doorway, and with his back to the candle listened to the dark outside. When he heard voice or movement, he stood and charged shouting; and once it was gone, he sat and listened again. He listened long, listened and chased until he was weary and past weary, until he had learned to listen half-awake and to chase without anger. How long that went on—too long.

In time the men of the dark town began to lose interest. Soon there were silences when no men came at all. Then the young man, with joy, re-entered the cabin to see the light again. But he had been too long from light: and he looking so suddenly upon it, the candle burned his eyes, the light blinded him forever.

Moral: Do not turn your Back to the Light to protect it.

Nondefinition #8

Fences. "Good fences make good neighbors" is the famous quotation, and would have made a good motto for a New England confederacy, had they chosen to secede. But the principle has many other extensions, for fences determine neighbors. Barbed wire makes neighbors prickly, tense—even wiry. Wrought iron gives neighbors easily overwrought; cast iron, neighbors who are often overcast or downcast—sometimes even cast out or cast-off; and both, neighbors prone to irony. Stones, of course, are unpredictable: sometimes, they cause stony taciturnity and stone-coldness; sometimes they give you neighbors who rock; but most of the time, stones attract stoners. (Fortunately, concrete attracts them as well; if you must build a stone fence, try to make sure of an abandoned building between you and any population center). You can never be sure what to expect from a wood fence. Such neighbors (especially if they have not been pressure-treated) are known to split, flake off, come loose, snap, rot out—even catch fire. Vinyl fences are very reliable: they draw neighbors who are low-maintenance, low-interest, and of uniform color. And predictably, people who grow their own fences put down roots. Now, though fence analysis is a young science, it is a very exciting one. If you'd like to help, the new Endower Institute Center for Fensive Studies is ready to accept your donations.