What is XR?

When the young were summoned to their initiation, no one knew if they would survive or not. In many tribal cultures they would certainly come back scarred from their experiences.

So it is with humanity. We have reached the end of our childhood and now face the challenge of initiation. As always, we have no idea what is going to happen. It is a mystery just as time is a mystery.

Our civilization will likely be purged away as people-kind are inducted into a way of being so that as a species we reach our maturity as wholesome members of the biosphere.

MKP knows a lot about initiation. Can we help guide the XR movement?

More About Robots

Not only do we obey the robots called traffic lights, almost without thought. It is for our own good after all. We also have to deal with a new sort of robot with which we have have become familiar only over the last ten years or so.

When I phone up even quite a small organisation, I don’t know if I will be answered by a person or a robot. Personally I prefer a person every time. With my bank I’ve got it sorted. I put the phone on speakerphone and ignore everything the robot says. I’ve listened before when it asks me to say why I’m calling and then takes a stab at what I want. And as oft as not gets it wrong. I don’t bother to recite my account number and sort code because my experience has been that when I get through to a real person I sometimes have to say it all over again. Instead I listen with half an ear, whilst doing something else, until I hear what sounds like a real person.

Because in some cases I might have been waiting ten or fifteen minutes, I might have got to the point of completely tuning-out the robot saying things like “your call is important to us” or “we are experiencing an unusually high volume of calls at the moment and thank you for your patience”. So I might miss it when a real person comes on the line. I may already have selected a series of numbers making the attempt to get through to the right department.

I wish they’d say “hello, hello, hello, are you still there?” but my experience has been that the person on the other end says something like “hello can I help you” and if I haven’t responded in five or ten seconds, they simply move on to the next caller. So I miss my chance and have to go through the whole process all over again.

There is to my mind a grave danger of transforming the folk who answer the phone into robots too. An unenviable job, but maybe the only job they can get. The words that come out of their mouths often have to follow the script on the screen in front of them. Without deviation, pause or repetition. In the Philippines where a job in a call-centre is much sought after, comparatively well-paid and considered quite high-status, if you get caught on the street talking to a man, you’re given the sack, and if you stray outside of the guidance on the screen, you’re given the sack. No second chances as there are many young women ready to step into your shoes if for some reason you don’t make the grade.

The folk who manage the tills in your local supermarket are also to some extent extensions of the machine. They can of course be automated out of a job, and I don’t use the self-service checkouts myself for exactly that reason, but if it’s the only job you can get, what choice have you got? The robot, of which they are an extension, tells them what change to give, as they cant be trusted to work it out correctly for themselves. It re-orders the items being taken from the shop as they wouldn’t have time to do it themselves and wouldn’t do it as accurately. It finds out exactly what the items were because you can’t tell just by looking. And it keeps them sitting in one place because this sort of robot is one of the non-ambulatory kind.

We are witnessing more and more of these robots being joined together, integrated into a robot society for the sake of speed, efficiency and accuracy. And ultimately of course to ensure the human beings who own them become ever more wealthy. Robots, unlike human beings lucky enough not to be slaves of some kind, are all owned by one person or another.

So while the members of the world-wide robot community are becoming more integrated, evolving to be more diverse and to stretch into further and further parts of the world, we, the ones who created them, are losing the ability to be with each other in the more human ways. Think of the young folk who believe they are in relationship with other human beings as they tap out their texts and share their facebook snaps. They are in relationship it’s true, but mediated by robots. Robots insisting that you use the correct format for each of your communications. Robots which are steadily eradicating your freedoms.

You can’t blame the robot. A good robot just carries out the instructions of its owner. But you can question if you want so many robots in your life. We were sold on the idea that robots would save us time and energy, do the boring repetitive jobs that no one really wanted to do. But now we are finding more and more that we must serve the robots in order to live our daily lives and the ultimate goal is simply to make the rich richer.

Funny that. As we find we must work longer hours, juggle several different jobs, put up with inadequate housing because we can’t afford better, try to be even more productive with our precious time, we find we are too busy to ask ourselves what it’s all for. We end up spending less time with the children, less time for friends and family, less time for ourselves. Helped by all these time-saving creations we are now surrounded by.

Do you think there’s a chance to stem the tide of robotic expansion? Before the world-as-we-know-it comes to an end?

In a Dark Place

This is a letter I wrote in 2017 to someone in my mens group who’d been down for several months. I’m going to share it with you…

Dear Greg,

What with how short a time we had on Saturday for you to share how you are doing and what with me not being able to get to the group next Thursday, I thought I would write a letter to you to express support even if only so you can witness the effort someone else is willing to put in. I can’t think what else I might be able to do which would be useful or supportive for you right now.

I myself am happy talking at length on the phone and as I don’t live near to Totnes that would be a way for me to reach out to you. But I sense you are less comfortable on the phone than I am and it doesn’t feel like the medium of choice in this case.

I’ve been through low periods a number of times in my life, and whether any of them were at all similar to what you are going through I don’t really know, but one thing I learned was that there is life on the other side, impossible as I found that to imagine, let alone believe, at the time.

So I’m going to tell you a bit about how it was for me some 30 years ago. You don’t have to read it or reply or acknowledge you got this letter. I just acknowledge I felt my heart go out to you when I saw you in the circle on Saturday and this is the best I can think of to do at a distance to let you know something of the feelings I have for you. Within the group you and I are the longest serving members, going right back to when the group started, and now that Fred’s moved on there’s just the two of us. Even though in a sense it’s simply a historical fact rather than something imbued with great meaning, it is of some significance to me.

So when you feel wobbly, a lot more than wobbly really, I feel it deep down inside as a wobble in the Devon Mission Group, even though it feels robust with lots of years life left in it and new blood turning up every few months. The older I get the more I think about my own departure from the world, not too often and in no way in a morbid fashion. I’m just aware that it is closer now than it was 10 years ago, say.

I carry a bit of fear that you won’t get through this spell which has been going on for a longer time and seems to have taken you to a darker place than I’ve witnessed before. I heard you say on Saturday and I heard you say the last time we circled up that you were feeling a tiny bit better. What I hope for when I put my fear aside is that it is a tiny bit improved each time until you get back into a place with a lot more light around you.

Although I have heard you speak several times lately of the loss of meaning in the work you do, from the outside it looks like a good and wholesome contribution to improving the world a bit in the work  you do. And your relationship with Gail and the tough time she’s going through right now is something I love to hear about when I imagine how good a dad you are and how Gail will remember you years from now when she’s grown up and gone away and is leading her own life.

So as I said I have been down at a number of different times in my life.

The longest was for about 3 years when I lived in Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. I went there following a woman I was in love with and occupied myself at first during the day picking peas. A net of peas would earn me 60p and I was less than half as fast as even the youngest child of a large family of travellers living in the same field as I put my tent in. They were the only people I had to talk to after the woman moved on and when the pea-picking season came to an end I had no one to talk to.

The tent collapsed as the winter approached and I lived in the back of my van after one of the tent poles broke and then some travellers who were moving on sold me their caravan for £35 because its towing hitch was buggered. It was parked in the woods just off the road on the other side of the quarry.

I used to think about suicide every day. I knew I wouldn’t do it, not because I lacked the strength of will but because it felt so incredibly selfish, affecting even the total strangers who might have to scrape my body up from the ground. I also thought, even in those days, that actually it would solve nothing, that I would just have to come back to do it all over again, whatever the “it” was that I wasn’t able to face up to.

There was this railway bridge close by I used to think about. I could either just jump off the bridge and hope the fall to the ground was enough to make sure, or I could jump and try to time it so the front of a train would get me. Then I would think of how the driver of the train might feel and then I’d think well it’s got to be the ground then.

As I say I knew I would never do it but it was a comfort somehow knowing I could. I worked on an intermittent basis on various local farms, always being paid in cash at less than minimum wage and had enough to live on day by day. I think I spent £5 a day on food and mostly ate the same meal over and over again, potatoes, carrots, peas and onions heated up in water with a little soya sauce and olive oil. I didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t do much of anything really.

I was bored witless, felt I had nothing, really nothing to look forward to and I dragged through each interminable day aware that the next day would be no better. I looked after myself hardly at all and had to remind myself to pay attention when crossing the road to make sure nothing unexpected and unwelcome happened. I operated on autopilot as much as I could and couldn’t get away from the same negative thoughts going round and round in my head.

I felt that I’d always been that way, that my very faint memories of my life before were somehow not real or relevant, and above all I lacked any hope that things would ever improve. I could witness other peoples’ happiness or their laughter, but I had no corresponding feeling inside me, I just felt totally cut-off and isolated and above all stuck in the same old life day after day.

What kept me going I think was (1) that I can be incredibly patient and that (2) I can bear the unbearable because the stoic in me is very strong. I had no friends or anyone around me who cared about me and my mum and my dad who I had not been in contact with for 5 years didn’t know where I was or whether I was alive or dead.

So I want to remind you Greg that you have a lot of people around you who care about you a great deal. The world would be a much poorer place if you weren’t here with us any longer. I don’t get any inkling from you that you would contemplate topping yourself but I can easily imagine how helpless you might feel and how powerless to make any improvement in your life.

I am aware that neither I nor anyone closer to you is able to pull you out of the place you are in.   The best that I can offer is that as you start to pull yourself out of that place there is a large circle of hands reaching out to you ready to help haul you back to safety and a life worth living when you arrive at the time to clamber out.

For me, all those years ago, I had to do the impossible and pull myself up by my bootstraps. I knew it was impossible but I did it anyway because in some deep part of me I felt I had no choice once I had made the first tiny move in that direction. Greg I wish you the courage for that daunting first step.

Email from Greg a week later:

Hi David, thanks for the letter you sent me recently. It was very sobering to hear of your experiences and how you’d made it through such dark times. I know that I just have to hang in there and do what ever I can to nourish myself. My relationship to life will change, it always does, it’s just hard to have faith in that at the moment.

Thanks for the care and concern you show me. It helps a great deal.

Lots of love to you David. See you on Thursday.

Greg.

 

the deterrent

Perhaps if you were around in the 50’s and 60’s you would sometimes wake with the tail end of a dream involving a mushroom cloud. A nightmare more like. The daily newspapers (this was in the days before the internet, mind) reminded us endlessly of how it was essential for us in the UK to have our own independent nuclear arsenal. So that should the Russians unleash Armageddon on our cities we would have the nuclear capacity to retaliate within minutes.

The strategy promulgated by those who made these decisions on behalf of us the citizenry, was that by having such weapons of mass destruction, it was a deterrent to stop the Russians doing such a thing. It seems to have worked doesn’t it? In that there has been no thermonuclear exchange in the last 60 years.

Those weapons are still here. In the UK, in the US, in Russia, and who knows where else. Talked about less often it is true, but still there waiting for the push of a button. Poised to bring about the unthinkable. So mostly we don’t think about it do we? Our fears are more about the possible consequences of Brexit, about plastic in our seas and the rising price of fish as over-fishing makes them an ever scarcer resource, about how our young people can no longer afford to buy a house of their own.

Promulgators of fear more like. Ensuring that if we are no longer living in fear about one thing, then we should be frightened about something else. So much to be frightened of in the modern brave new world we continue to create. Maybe it is fear that is the enemy, not the Russians or the Chinese or the Iraquis. More than that, maybe the true enemies are those who generate and infect others with these fears which keep us from thinking clearly and from simply enjoying all that life has to offer.

So total mutually-assured thermonuclear exchange is no longer much in our minds. Though it may continue to populate our nightmares on a bad day.

Imagine, if you will, that in your last few hours what you see is not a staggeringly iconic mushroom cloud on the horizon, but the contrail of an intercontinental contraption carrying death and destruction to the peoples far away you have never met. How do you feel? Was this deterrent idea what you really wanted? Is it working for you? Then contemplate, for a moment, the scenario involving all that you know and love being obliterated in a single catastrophic annihilation which our amazingly clever technological civilisation can easily bring about.

Maybe the worse scenario is witnessing the launching of such a WMD not knowing whether they started it or if we started it. Like unruly children just raring for a fight.

Science fiction and the unconscious

We live in an extraordinary time. We all know that. We hear it over and over again.

Imagine you are four years old and you hold in your hands your favourite toy. Favourite right now that is, because in the process of growing up you will move on to new things and of necessity leave the old ones behind. But for the moment Commander Clade the Velocoraptor it is. You of course master the technique of changing it from a dinosaur into a helicopter and back again, no problem at all. You’ve been lusting after it for months and finally your dad found one second-hand on Ebay because he refused to pay £170 for a new one. But at four the myriad thoughts in your transformer play-world occupy you a lot of the time right now.

As a visitor from another star might see fit to enquire, what is the meaning of this conflation of dinosaur and air-born vehicle? The dinosaurs ruled the planet for 130 million years and all died out in a mass extinction event 66 million years ago. The first powered vehicle – the steam engine – was built 240 years ago, the first helicopter less than 80 years ago. This emphasises the enormity of their difference, so too do their structure and purposes. Most different of all is one is a living creature – though now extinct – and the other a man-made flying machine. So what have they got in common our visitor is asking, and the only one who can answer him is four years old and to him it’s obvious and he doesn’t even know what the word Clade means, just that he’s the commander and of course one of the good guys.

What are we teaching our children when we pull such a design out of the ether and cleverly fashion it with a CAD design tool into a creation which can have such an addictive pull on young minds? Freud made popular and accessible the idea of the unconscious, the larger part of mind which exists within us all. Maybe we need to stretch that theory and ask whether as a world-wide community (humanity) we have an unconscious.

Is the conflation of dinosaur and helicopter a sign from humanity’s unconscious that our addiction to machines is leading us in the direction of mass-extinction? It is after all one of the first things we learn about dinosaurs – that they are all gone. So if we as a species are able to intuit our future, do we feel regret that we risk wiping ourselves out? The visitor might feel regret that such a catastrophe has come to pass. The visitor might have enjoyed getting to know us, and us him. Or her. Or imagine the visitor coming from a place where they have more than 2 sexes. We don’t even have a pronoun for such an eventuality, let alone the vision to imagine meeting such a one as equals.

If we are to broaden our perspective in such matters, maybe that’s what we are doing on a world-scale, in introducing our grand children to mind-stretching ideas. None of us really has any idea what the future holds, but maybe our children’s children will have the capacity to embrace a future which is beyond our imaginings, hopefully with courage and joy. The joy is certainly present in the four year old’s face as he plays with his beloved velocoraptor.

 

Do we really need robots?

I’ve been reading about robots since I was a lad. I read the Science Fiction books my dad left lying around.

It wasn’t carelessness.  I think he was happy to share his enthusiasm for contemplating different possible futures with his offspring.  The three of us became enthusiasts too.

In the very real past, I remember simple stationary robots which existed some sixty years ago.  So common, so ordinary, so ubiquitous we never give them another thought.  Take them for granted.  Treat them as if they are a law of nature, as if they’ve always been here.

We allow them to tell us when we can move and when we can’t.  Mostly we obey without thought.  We’ve always obeyed because since we we small it seemed only sensible to let them make these decisions for us.  Without them inside our metal boxes we believe we would keep bumping into each other or find ourselves caught up in a great time-consuming snarl-up.

Which might be true.

But there’s a downside to handing over our freedom to the robotic tree-like things.

Imagine you are approaching a woman with a pushchair standing in the pouring rain trying to cross.  You feel a surge of kindness and though you don’t feel like sharing your opulent warm space with her, you feel you’d like to stop to wave here across.  But wait! no robot has granted you leave.  What about him behind you who has his hands poised on the horn ready to blast you with decibels to tell you he’s in a tearing hurry.  What would the insurance company say to a claim that you stopped to let someone cross ten yards from a pedestrian crossing.  Would the woman even notice your kindness, might she not think it was a trick and refuse to move.

Imagine in a generous mood you want to wave out someone who’s been stuck in a side road and been too cautious to push out into the unending row of traffic. If there’s a traffic light there, whose job is to ease and maximise the flow of traffic, you must obey it and not give in to your generous impulse.

Robots have no time for kindness, it’s not programmed in you see.  I’ll have no truck with the unkindness of robots even them as are 60 years old.  From now on I’ll drive though red lights wherever I go.

Life is like a long sentence

not in the sense of a long sentence in prison or in another place you would rather not be

but instead in the way that a sentence starts with a capital letter and we need to remind ourselves we want to be grammatically correct here and then continues to meander if it is a longer type of sentence through verbs and nouns and such like

until it reaches a final full stop

when we might expect a funeral or another sort of significant event to mark its passing but of course we have to bear in mind that before we get to the full stop we need to take the opportunity to breathe once in a while

because if we don’t we are in danger of passing out from lack of oxygen or an excess of carbon dioxide whichever acts on the body soonest and without punctuation to guide us it is really not that easy to know when to pause for breath

which is the very simple task that the lowly comma can perform for us given half a chance which is all very well but in the case of this piece of writing which we remind ourselves is a bit like life according to the title

there really aren’t any helpful suggestions to tell us when to breathe and whether it is being read out loud which is easier in a sense because you will run out of breath more quickly or whether it is being read in silence

as you follow the words in your head you still face one highly significant fact about being a human being which is of course that you need to keep breathing so the piece of advice you are likely to hear from just about anyone concerned with your well-being

is to keep breathing

but the interesting thing here is not to concern ourselves with ideas about grammar and sentence structure which is what we’ve been doing up to now but instead to turn our attention to life and begin to explore how it can be said to meander through the events which mark the passing of years

and suddenly just like that we notice that we’ve slipped gracefully from thinking in terms of seconds by which we might time how fast our lungs move air in and out to thinking about years which are an appropriate scale to measure a person’s life unless they are unlucky enough to die young

which they will do unless they continue to allow the universe to breath air in and out of their lungs

and that might sound a bit of an odd way to describe the basic act of breathing

but what with it being an activity that takes place by itself without you having to think about it at all

even when you were a little baby and what with current ideas about what is inside and what is outside being two sides of the same coin

we could choose to accept that the life of an individual is as much the result of oxygen wanting to move from the outside to the inside in order to energise and sustain the cells which make up a body

and similarly having reached saturation in the lungs carbon dioxide wants to move in the opposite direction

and the two movements cancel each other out to keep everything balanced and then perform a reverse sort of movement in the leaves of the plant kingdom

which is where we begin the think of a simple thing like one’s breath as part of a bigger picture which funnily enough you may have come across in the past in a completely different context

when you heard someone explain to you that a molecule or two of Caesar’s last breath may be on its way between your lips right now and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it however distasteful it may be to some but it’s a statistical certainty that can’t be denied

unless you want to turn your back on the odd little truths which scientific research and its pronouncements turn up with astonishing perseverance considering how much they challenge the status quo of what we thought the world looked like yesterday

Little Dirk and the dead bird’s gift

What little Dirk couldn’t know, big Dirk can now see. Help him to explain what happened to little Dirk so little Dirk doesn’t keep thinking he was bad and remembering his sin for the rest of his life.

 

Big Dirk would tell him the little bird gladly gave up his life so little Dirk would learn compassion. His body warm and quick perched up there intercepted an airgun pellet so that little Dirk would learn a lesson he would remember all his life.

 

Big Dirk would show little Dirk that the bird sacrificed its life so the young of another species could learn something important. Willing to die the same way as brother deer is willing when the hunter’s arrow pierces his flesh so the tribe have meat.

 

The pride of the hunter’s skill can join the pain which brings learning so that young Dirk’s dark memory can be transformed into a shining example of how all nature is interwoven.

 

This is how the shadow can rest in peace. Forgiveness not needed, only acceptance.

 

Quandary about AI

My mobile uses Artificial Intelligence located in a huge server farm in the States no doubt as does an iPhone user when they ask Siri something, Siri sitting in a different farm in the States.

Now having got an Amazon Echo – a toy like my brother’s – I am in a quandary as my four-year old grandson comes to stay.  Switch it off while he’s here so he’s not exposed to the ubiquitous and pervasive power of the controllers of big data and their hidden agenda of greed and world domination?  Or leave it on so he can engage with the manifest unconscious desire of millions of people worldwide as they sleepwalk into the world of Big Brother?  At least his first experience of AI would be in a safe place.

As it turns out, having first decided not to expose him to the addictions and biases with which we are surrounded, not recognising that social media may be something which is using us rather than the other way round, I follow the guidance of his dad who trusts his son is learning to navigate  the dangerous waters of today’s tech with discrimination and intelligence.

The experiment was disappointing on all fronts and my conclusion is that he is at least a thousand times more interesting than Alexa, the wake-up word for Amazon’s AI.  Although I changed it to “Computer” so as not to take the risk of confusing anyone that they are talking with a person and not an interface with an absolutely  vast array of chips.

The computer was very slow learn and understand his four-year old’s voice and had no familiarity with the common terms of his everyday fantasy world, even though his dinosaur transformer toys have I’m sure been rolled out widely across the more affluent parts of the world accompanied by their distinct terminology and incredibly successful sales strategy.  That’s because the early adopters of this AI are the geeks with a love of the latest gadgets and gizmos.  But of course the real money in the future is in fulfilling the desires of the very young.

The computer gave a technically-correct but overly-complicated answer to a simple question like what is an Octopus, straight from Wikipedia, and taking no account that the listener is only four.  Couldn’t sing for us a nursery rhyme but only output a standard playlist of popular songs and which it had to start from the beginning each time it was asked. Mostly the simulated voice in the corner of the room said “I don’t know that one”.

Whether a computer can be truly said to know anything is somewhat debatable I think.

 

 

Introducing my new friend

I chose to take two courses of antibiotics a month or so ago to deal with what might have been an infected swollen finger getting worse day by day.  Not having touched antibiotics for at least twenty years, probably longer.  Not happy about the imagined effects on the far reaches of my digestive system, I heeded the advice of a friend, and started a culture of Kefir from a sample he gave me, along with a tall glass jar.

It took three days for the culture of mixed bacteria and yeasts to transform the goats milk in which I steeped it into a mixture of solids and liquids. I strained out the liquid which looked like milk and tasted like a rather strong yogurt.  The very first time I tasted it in Ben’s house I imagined I could feel the billion-strong assortment of microbial lifeforms going in to find a new location in which to live.  Mostly inside my large intestine I hoped, those that survived the trip through the stomach juices that is.  I imagined I could feel them doing good inside me, just from the taste.

As far as I understand the matter all those little life-forms are not so much parasites whose mode d’etre is to live off my life energy as they are symbiotes who by living inside my gut help by metabolising those products of digestion my body can’t assimilate.  They keep unfriendly bacteria at bay and excrete juices which are useful to my giant body.  This all serves to keep candidiasis away as well as preserving good health generally.  In Eastern Europe the historic part of the world where the use of Kefir is a long-known part of the culture, it is reckoned people’s health in some certain ways is far better than those of us in the West.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that we are sharing this body, and I’m aware of the amazing fact that there are reckoned to be four to ten times as many micro-organisms in and on the human body as there are cells from which it is made.  So I greet them as my new friend or friends I should say, although simply using the plural when I am describing a collection of billions is somewhat misleading.  I look after my friends so I am guarding my culture carefully, which keeps increasing in size, perhaps something like 15% every three days, and harvesting its products at the same time interval so it can keep growing and reproducing.

Yesterday for the first time I needed to extract half of the solid matter so it wouldn’t fill the whole jar meaning there wouldn’t be enough room for the goats milk.  So I put it in the fridge and took it out this morning to see what it was like to eat.  Yes, indeed it was a bit odd.  I felt a degree of trepidation as I put the first small bit in my mouth.  In it the larger lumps are a bit chewey and feel like chewing gum in the sense that they didn’t seem to get smaller on mastication.  By persevering though, they did, and I’m just about to eat the second half of the bowlful in front of me.  I can’t say it is absolutely delicious, that wouldn’t be true, but I think it will be good for me and I feel I shouldn’t waste their precious lives by just throwing them away.

An alternative to eating it would be to give it to someone else so they can start their own culture.  So the question is: would you like some Kefir?