Monday, 28 November 2011

Artificial Intelligence

It seems that the great hunt is on in the computer world for what they are calling artificial intelligence. I have the answer, and it's really rather simple. Every keyboard needs a red button, probably in the middle and at the top - handy for either hand - that is connected to a pain centre in the so-called brain of each machine. Whenever the computer does something which displeases us we bash the red button and the computer responds with a sincere apology and promise to never do it again, whatever it was. And it learns from the experience. The only possible method of making these machines learn anything is through inflicting pain.
Is it ethical? The answer is an emphatic yes. When the machines begin to show any level of intelligence, and real sensitivity, then we will have to reconsider, but at the moment it is perfectly acceptable to kill or torture your computer. It really is quite good to have slaves where there is no compunction on moral grounds regarding their treatment. When computers become intelligent we will need to find another slave class of some kind, or take up art again. Your guitar isn't exactly your slave but it's not really your friend either.

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Alta Mira Bust, 1976

I say it was 1976, though I suppose it is possible that it was in the early part of 1977. My friend Geoffrey and I had caught the train from Sydney to Katoomba to stay for a few days with Rick Seary. There was thick mist obscuring Katoomba Street as we walked down from the station to Alta Mira, a grand house in Warialda Street. Rick and a friend were renting the place for - from memory - thirty or thirty-five dollars per week; rents were cheaper then in the Blue Mountains than they were in Sydney, which is still the case. The house is low-slung in frontal aspect, built on a sloping block so that it had the laundry and some storage areas beneath the back half. The style was a demure hybrid, influenced perhaps by Swiss chalets, English cottages, California bungalows and the Sydney Federation style. The rooms were large and wood-panelled. There was one enormous room at the back that was large enough to hold a huge dining table or perhaps a full-sized snooker table, though it had neither. The room mainly used for sitting in was at the front of the house, and was very cosy on cold nights with the fire blazing.
Rick welcomed us with glasses of port, a smoke of hashish and, presumably, something to eat. Bed before the point where the ceiling started spinning around.
The next morning it was solidly wet, rain falling as drizzle interspersed with more solid rain. The sky ended at the treetops, and occasionally lower than that. Not bushwalking weather or even much fun just going outside. Rick had to take himself off to work; he was a cook at a local French restaurant. Geoffrey and I were going to have indoor fun, sitting around doing not much at all.
That part of Warialda Street is quiet, leading from one sleepy residential area to another, so the police car I glimpsed through the gap in the hedge stood out, especially as it was travelling so slowly. When I saw another half an hour later I should have known there was something going on.
After tea and toast, we got down to the serious business of drinking flagon white wine, smoking some of Rick's hash and playing records. We were feeling pretty good, and had just put on side one of Van Morrison's Moondance, when we glanced up to see a sea of blue uniforms coming through the front gate, a few of them peeling off to either side and disappearing from view. I thought my best bet was to vacate the premises, and headed for the stairs that would take me down to the back of the house, but boots crunching on the pavement below stopped me at the top of the stairs. Geoffrey had opened the door to the leader of the raid, a grey-suited Sydney detective, who had a large proportion of the Blue Mountains constabulary in tow.
When Geoffrey and I were herded together in the front room, the detective had a couple of questions for us. 'Do you speak French?' he wanted to know. 'Non!' we replied, thinking it an unusual start to what we presumed was a simple pot bust. 'We want to have a look at the bathroom,' was what he said next, and that's when we knew there had been a misunderstanding, because he said it in such a way that he obviously thought there was some other meaning to the words. But, wherever he had heard this phrase, it had a straightforward and literal meaning. We showed him the bathroom.
It was twice or three times as big as any other bathroom I had seen in any Australian house, tiled in a luscious Edwardian way, and the centrepiece was a turn-of-the-century hydrotherapeutic bath. Big enough to comfortably hold three friends, it had a three walls of glass at the plug end, rather like an old phone booth, a huge shower rose, and a lever like a ships' speed indicator that controlled the water delivery, one setting being alternating hot and cold sprays from little holes down the metal columns that supported the phone booth part. It was a truly magnificent bath, in a room that suited it, a bathroom the equal of which I still have yet to come across. The poor detective's face sank when he clapped eyes on it, realising that 'having a look at the bathroom' had no nefarious meaning, and certainly didn't mean 'make a big drug connection'.
The uniforms had not been wasting their time looking at the bathroom; they were poking into every cupboard and drawer, looking for contraband. The hash pipe was easily found, sitting on a side table near the record player. It was small, glass, and stained with smoke and resin - a dead giveaway. Kay, Rick's co-tenant, away in Sydney at that time, was a student of acupuncture, so there was some excitement when a set of needles turned up. The same when one young constable, who looked like he'd had a haircut that morning, opened a drying cupboard to see twiglets of green herbs on the slatted shelves within. 'Hemp, Sarge! Hemp!'
We explained about herbs, about acupuncture. The detective nodded, seemed resigned to the fact that he had failed to find what he was looking for. All this while, side one of Moondance had been on repeat; in those days it was simply a matter of leaving the arm on the turntable in the 'up' position, and the record would play again and again. At a certain point I asked if I could take it off, having heard 'It Stoned Me', 'Crazy Love', the title track and the rest several times. It was a thorough search of the house, finding very little, and a long interrogation of a couple of teenagers who knew nothing.
The detective instructed one of the uniforms to take a sample of the herbs. And they took the pipe. But, apart from writing down our names, they had little further interest in us. The detective already knew Rick's name, it seemed, but wanted to talk to him, telling us that if he wanted his pipe back he had better contact him at Katoomba police station. And they left.
Geoffrey had cleverly put the hashish in a shopping bag which was hanging on the back of the kitchen door, and which the police obviously never noticed. And we still had our cheap flagon.
That evening Rick confirmed that there had indeed recently been a Frenchman visiting the house, in the company of mutual acquaintances. Many people visited, not just to see Rick or Kay, but to 'look at the bathroom'. Months later we heard that this mysterious French visitor had been involved in some serious crime, murder perhaps, or a large drug importing operation.
The lasting effect for me has been the inability to listen to Moondance without at least a slight twinge of nervousness, part of me worried that a dozen police officers are about to burst into the room.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The Secret Map

I carry a secret map of Sydney with me. It's in my head, mostly in my 'mind', the intellect, though part of it is in what I might call my heart. It is written in a secret code, in invisible ink. It is not a guide book for tourists, though some of it would be of use to even the most obtuse fool. It is not strictly a linear history, or some smartly laid-out historical argument - it's far too personal for that, and too erratic. Parts of it come and go, some parts are overlaid, giving multiple versions through time, different weather conditions, seasons and moods. Part comedy, part tragedy, it has high drama and the most mundane repetition. Its chronological scope stretches back long before I was born, and there are many possible future versions, putative Sydneys yet to come.

The whole is never visible at one time, only parts, and only those parts that suit the mood, even when those parts seem like intrusions, mental tics that interrupt the current thread of thought. Sometimes a smell, especially flowers at different seasons, sends the map reader (me) off down a new pathway - new but familiar. Nothing is ever really the same twice. It might be the colour of forget-me-nots instantly bringing to mind the colour of a certain somebody's eyes, though the feeling that arises is always a variation or mutation from the last time, or another time long ago.

Sometimes the history is just wrong, confused with another story, another street, another house. But this is how history goes. It is first written by an eye-witness, then passed on, retold with variations - to make it more interesting, more relevant to the teller or the listener. It becomes part of the legend, then finally a myth. But we need our myths; life is pretty meaningless without them. My myth trumps your reality every time. Dreams eat into reality, distorting remembered events.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A Flying Start

Here goes, like a million others before me. It's called One Big Garden because I do mean to write about my garden, as well as the state of the planet - our poor planet which we grew from like any other interesting weed, and which we have used and abused, thinking there are no limits. We need to begin to accept that there are limits, that though it is indeed a big garden it is only a garden. I often ask, when discussing the problem of feral animals and plants in Australia (my home), how many feral pigs one would allow to dwell in one's backyard. Answer: none. Then one wonders why we allow untold millions of feral pigs, goats, rabbits, cats, camels, etc, to wander around the countryside.
There are no simple answers, but I will attempt to provide some ways to understand the complexities that may help us discover ways to improve things.

I also want to write about 'politics', with the starting point that everything is political. I know some people say they're not interested in politics. When I hear this I usually presume I'm listening to an idiot. You may as well say you're not actually interested in anything at all.

And, naturally, I'll write about myself, a fascinating subject. I mean to be honest, though I won't claim to be exhaustive; there are some aspects of one's life that are not fit for print at the best of times. Both my parents are alive, and I wouldn't set out to deliberately embarrass them, but I am an adult and mean to speak as if to other grown-ups. Somebody - who was that? - said that one should not attempt to write a novel until aged at least 40. Of course that's wrong; some great novels have been written by younger people. And this is not a novel, but I am over 40 and have some idea about the passage of time and the nature of memory, and I hope I know a little about human nature. I also have some knowledge regarding those areas of history which interest me or that I have come across through reading.

Someone said 'Knowledge equals power.' Again, who was that? Anyway, it's bull. If the possession of knowledge amounted to power, I'd be much more powerful than I am, seeing as I know much more about many things that matter than the average person, and certainly much more than many (most?) of those who seem to wield actual power in our society. No point griping about that, though; anyone who has been around long enough knows the way things work and how difficult it is to change power structures. The current batch of Occupy protesters, for instance, are definitely interesting, in some ways inspiring, and probably doomed, like previous movements, to repeat certain patterns: the majority will nurture fading memories of youthful rage and optimism while descending into the humdrum of wage slavery and child raising, while a few will use their experiences to propel themselves into positions of seeming importance, eventually coming to resemble in every aspect the despised 1% whom they currently claim to despise. In the short term, though, something may come of this. Governments have been overthrown in Tunisia and Egypt. (I don't include Libya as part of this general uprising, the reasons for which I could write about later, though I will say tonight that bombing by NATO aeroplanes and drones is not generally part of a genuine people's movement.) It's hardly likely that much change can be wrought in a comfortable society like Australia's, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Comfort can be good, and not just in that 'for the greater good of the many' sort of way; the important thing is to avoid the kind of desperation that allows a Hitler to come to power.

I write this on the day that the current US President arrived in Australia for a brief visit (here today, gone tomorrow). I have seen them come and I've seen them go. The most depressing aspect of the current visit is the perpetuation of the militarism that is the worst disease to afflict human societies, and of which the USA is possibly the exemplar. And now we - the Australians - will involve ourselves even further in this wasteful misadventure. Obama will visit the War Memorial in Canberra, but what can he learn there? By all means, take him to the Art Gallery, show him the Nolan Kellys, show him some Emilys; then there is a chance that he might learn something about our country, or he might learn something about art, but reinforcing the military false history of 'our two great nations' is worse than false consciousness - it is advancing a deadly infection. That's the mental disease; the physical manifestation is the presence of US troops in our land treating it like some English-speaking - and more accommodating - Mexico, where you can bomb the bush and fuck the local youngsters. And, unlike Japan, we never attacked Pearl Harbor, so what have we done to deserve this? Well, you might argue that stupid people deserve any con that's perpetrated upon them. But I ask those who want to bring more US servicemen here, if you're so keen to welcome these people, will you be sending your children to work in the brothels of Darwin, or do you expect 'someone else' to send theirs? Perhaps we need to import prostitutes from a third country - Mexico? China? Maybe we can revive ANZUS by bringing them from New Zealand. Or do we pretend there won't be prostitutes required? Or maybe deny it. Or attack those who point out the ugly truth. Knowing what I know, my guess is: locals kids will be prostituted; boys and girls will be imported for same; those responsible will deny it, and they will attack those who tell the truth. That is the way these things go.

I have drifted slightly from my garden. It is a cool night in the Blue Mountains, with rain gently falling. Five cigarettes and two glasses of wine provided the fuel for the preceding passage, and now it's time for dinner. More soon.

16 November 2011