“Liar” Accusation Further Divides Us

During the Obama years, my father barked, “Liar!” at the television whenever the President gave a speech. Now, our public discourse broadly employs this childlike outburst when we don’t agree. Now, progressives and news organizations participate in a playground name-calling mentality. It’s one thing to say, “misleading statement,” as Kyle Ritchie did in his letter of 6/7 regarding a Hanson column; it’s quite another for this newspaper to place a headline over that same letter: “Columnist trucks…in lies.” To use the word, “lies,” is to accuse someone of being a liar. But most people are not liars. If they believe politicians, many of whom actually do lie, does this make them liars?  It may be that reflexively calling the other side “liars” is the first step on the road to invalidating a lost election.

(As published by the East Bay Times, 6/11/21)


Fuzzy Meanings

Fuzzy Meanings

The other day, I learned that a friend of mine was nigh unto death.  Picturing Julie, her wide smile, her funny “voices,” her lanky frame, her gentle disposition, facing her own departure from this world, leaving behind all of this, was more than I could take.  And yet, how could I not “take” it?  It’s not a choice any of us have.  And, yes,  Julie has lived a few ripples out from my center these last many years.  Still, riding the dusky hills of Cambria, overlooking the glittering sea with her, or currying the horses in the quiet orange groves of Rancho Santa Fe — those memories still breathe a wind of possibility into my mind.  Why possibility?  Because we were young and daring life to bring us anything at all.  We could take it.

We could take the future because there was so much of the unknown about it.  So many years ahead for our supple limbs and our smooth skin!  What couldn’t we handle?  We could love whoever showed up, we could take acid and trip wildly happy through the San Diego Zoo, getting lost in the fern jungles, ignoring the animals and their coming extinctions, dismissing warnings about valuable filters in our brains.  We could stay up all night talking about wisdom.  But now, with Julie staring into the portal of the unknown, it isn’t so easy to relegate death to a concept.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to put my beloved canine friend down.  When her soft curly head hit my lap for the last time, I could not believe it was over.  Wait.  No.  I mean, stop.  Full stop.  Her breath was finished and her bed empty.  No more sound of lapping water.  No more charging at the mailman on the other side of the door.  Now she was on the other side of a different door and I haven’t been able to summon the abstract faith that I’ll see her again.  Nor can I hope to see Julie again.

Then, at a Halloween party last night, I met a young man whose eyes seemed to look into my mind, right through the Renaissance-style cat mask he wore.  Amazingly, we catapulted into a discussion of all the ways we humans try to avoid sorrow and death — the addictions, the constructs.  As the rest of the people faded from my awareness, I wondered, who was this person?  The mystery is behind everything, I told him, smoothing down my petticoat, as I felt that delicious sense of eternity when a total stranger connects.  Here we are, among a gallery of strangers, everyone dressed in costume — vamp, warrior, rich man, poor man — and yet we find a way to meet the real human and talk of things that matter.  I live for these moments!  Disguise or no.  It’s as close as I’ll ever come to hunting.

What do you do?  I asked him.  He seemed willing to keep talking to a middle-aged lady.

I work in A.I.  he said.  Artificial Intelligence.  In particular, the way a computer makes meaning from the human voice.  Voicings, phrase, tone.  All musical terms that I know well, being a musician and a singer.  When I plied him for more on the subject, he elaborated, casting a kind of spell on my imagination.  He described the mechanics of how a machine listens and translates sound into machine components of logic — creating hypotheses, making meanings.  I wanted to write it all down, it was so elegant.

Making Meaning.  That’s what we studied in graduate school, English.  What is the signified, the signifier, how syntax encodes a social order.  Such a human construct — building a box that can do all that with numbers.  That can send back a sound that makes sense to the human.

Actually, I’m terrified of all this artificial stuff.  I didn’t want to tell him, though.  His eyes had a time-lock and I needed to concentrate!  Suddenly I didn’t want to finish my punch.  I wanted to discover what’s just ahead for our civilization.  Here’s this guy, an architect of that future!  My brain was sizzling when he said,  Sometimes, the machines don’t understand and that’s the challenge.  All around me, people were talking loudly about the election, about horrible traffic, about going to Italy, about knitting.

What do you call that?  I adjusted my wig, repositioned my fake cigarette holder.

We call it fuzzy meaning.  Oh, my God.  Fuzzy meaning!  How do rationalists who design supercomputers come up with these phrases that are the epitome of silliness?  The very word fuzzy.  It’s mystery.  Mystery is soft around the edges; the words are unclear, garbled, ragged.  Uneven.  Like a stuffed animal that gives comfort when all else lets you down.  You can’t hold fuzzy up to anything, make it responsible for anything.  It’s elusive.

So, if Siri gets what I say wrong, you call it fuzzy?  Think.  Think.

Yeah.  I wish I could remember all the mathematical and procedural processes the cat man, who owns his own business, told me about.  The systems Siri has to run through to try to attach my utterance to a recognizable file, then run a series of possible scenarios to solve my problem.  So fascinating!  I could spend years trying to decode the description this eloquent man shared with me in mere moments.  We really understood each other.  At least I think we did.  I mean, can I know for certain that when I said Siri, he understood all the weird symbolism and fears I attach to that entity?  (I hesitate to name it entity.)  Can I be sure he got my feeling that, although I crave conceptual mastery, the prospect of Artificial Intelligence making decisions about my crazy, conflicted world  (Have you seen “Her” or “Deux ex Machina”?)  fills me with the most intense dread?  Like almost unto death itself?  When I’m not being abstract, I mean.  When I’m not being fuzzy.  I don’t know if I can take it, after all.


Good Dog, Bela

Dear Bela was a great pal. Before Aurelia and James were born, Bela and I would roam the East Bay hills, climbing a ridge in late afternoon, his yellow fur blending with the golden oat grass. Bela loved to “hunt.” He’d work a hill, banking and wheeling back and forth, in a perfect zig-zag pattern until he scared up a rabbit. Then, the two of them would streak off at top speed, covering great distances while I stood and basked in my animal friend’s joy. Once, in Tilden, I heard a tremendous crashing in the woods and out bounded a great buck, with Bela right behind him. I know I shouldn’t have let Bela do it, but it was exciting.
At Pt. Reyes, Bela would chase shorebirds for hours up and down the long beach. His body stretched out in full stride, his chest surging against the waves, his face full of concentration. Every once in awhile Bela would come check on us, which meant shaking all over us. “Bela, NO!” we’d yell. We could never tire that dog out, but after his first day at the beach, he had to be helped into the car!
I’ll always remember how considerate Bela was. When we took him camping, he’d guard our campsite, but when it came time to sleep, he’d come into the tent and curl up in a tight ball, not making a peep until morning when we were ready to go out! He really tried to do what we wanted him to do.
When I was pregnant, I trained him to wait at the top of the stairs (or the bottom) while I was on them. He’d stare at me eagerly, his tail whirling in its circular wag, but he’d never set foot on the stairs until I reached the bottom. Then, he’d come gallomping down, all excitement and readiness! For what? To go for a walk, of course.
Bela never stopped hoping that each time we went out, we’d take him along. As soon as shoes were being put on, Bela would jump up and stare at us, his face all goofy and happy. Then, at the gate, he’d jump up and do pirouettes in the air, spinning his body around to do full rotations! I even got him to do this whenever he was jumping for a ball; it was so amazing! But, if we left without him, he’d stick his nose through the hole in the gate, as if he could learn something about where we were going.
When I think of Bela, I remember his beauty, his affection, his great intelligence. Sitting on the porch next to him, I’d feel his nose nudging under my arm so he could get me to hug him. Bela could learn anything: in late life, when he was deaf, we taught him to obey hand signals. I remember Bela peering around the kitchen door, I remember Bela chewing his bone whenever we danced, I remember Bela sneezing with happiness whenever he was about to go for a walk. Bela, I’ll always wish I could have given you more; you were a heck of a dog! Thanks, Bela. Good boy!


Drones and Me

Yesterday, as I walked near the Richmond Shoreline, enjoying the filagree of grey clouds tracing patterns across the blue sky, I saw a drone hovering, watching me as I watched it. Words fail to describe the anvil of dread for our children’s sense of the world when skies will be pocked with little glittering cameras, buzzing like bees in a field of daisies. Only our children won’t see the clouds and the “bees” won’t see daisies; they’ll see us.