Anthropomorphizing AI

Artificial intelligence is hot. Self-driving cars and autonomous robots are here. We converse with Siri and Alexa and Google Assistant. It’s easy to believe that these systems and devices have achieved some degree of human intelligence, perhaps that of a child. They seem almost alive.

It’s good to be reminded that they aren’t.

They aren’t to be trusted, not because they have evil intentions or faulty logic, but because they are still just dumb, program-driven machines. Ask the man who’s Tesla attempted to drive UNDER the trailer of an 18-wheeler. (Oh wait – you can’t, because he was decapitated.) Other tragic, more recent examples: the Boeing 737 Max 8 crashes. It appears that the cause was Boeing’s “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, which is designed to automatically command a plane down if it senses an imminent stall.” This is auto-pilot software that is supposed to be smarter and faster than human pilots. And yet, it relies on input from a single angle-of-attack sensor. Boeing’s solution? Feed the software additional input from a second sensor. And if both sensors are bad?

You can update the software and plug in additional sensors, but it’s still not intelligent , artificially or otherwise. No system controlling an airplane, under any circumstances, should nose dive into the ground or ocean at 400 mph. Common sense, right? That’s what AI is missing. It ain’t human, not even close. It’s not your friend. It doesn’t care if you live or die. Which is why it’s a bit unnerving to see it proliferating throughout technology we depend on every day.

As for me, I will continue to drive my car myself. Even at the risk of missing a text or Facebook post while I’m at it. At least until AI gets smarter than me. Who could have believed that would be so difficult?





The Edge of Weird

A line from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” describing the repurposing of once glorious Clarice:

“They grabbed everything that could be taken from where it was and put it in another place to serve a different use…wrought iron gratings torn from the harem windows were used for roasting cat-meat on fires of inlaid wood.”

Splendor, rearranged “in a different order, no less appropriate to the inhabitants’ needs than it had been before.” And maybe more so.


Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing Short Fiction

In his book Bagombo Snuff Box, Kurt Vonnegut listed these eight rules for writing short fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Great rules – they capture what I’ve heard in countless workshops. If I’d only read these 40 years ago, think of the time and money I might have saved! Just kidding of course; some rules need to be hammered into your head, from every angle, over and over. You never forget how to ride a bike, either, but you still need to steer.

Getting Centered

I woke up this morning in a fog. No, really. When I drew the shade on the kitchen window, I was stunned and somewhat comforted to see the mist shrouding the garage and rising into the canopy of maples arching over the yard. A friend who dropped by last night described it as cathedral-like as we had drinks and cheese and crackers on the deck. Kind of ironic. But you don’t have to be religious to be moved by beauty.

I appreciate company, which puzzles some of my acquaintances who consider me anti-social – or even a sociopath. I’ve looked it up a few times but can’t remember the precise definition. But it’s bad. You don’t want to be called a sociopath. It means you use people – I remember that. It sticks in my mind because it was the part of the definition that seemed least applicable to me. I’m more of an introvert. But then, some people can resent you for that, too. As though, by denying them your attention, you are committing a malicious act.

The fog was unusual. My waking dream was unusual, too. I was with a man – not someone I know in “real life,” but a close friend in the dream. I was responsible for putting him through some kind of tanning bed or booth – actually more like an oven – setting the dials and the time. He wanted me to, and he trusted me, and he thoroughly believed in the benefits of vitamin D. I left him in a little too long. When he came out, half his face and neck were charred black. His t-shirt had melted into what was left of his skin. He was uncomfortable, but not accusatory. I curled up and covered my face and wanted to die.

And then, as they say, I woke up. And walked down to the kitchen and opened the shade. And picked up my phone and read about the high-rise fire in London. And I felt ripped up inside and unable to think about anything but all the pain and suffering in the world, and all that’s asked of me – which is next to nothing in this stage of my life: feed the cat, go to work, pay the bills, vacuum the floor now and then. I did not turn on the radio, as I usually do, but instead visited the Brain Pickings web site for some kind – any kind – of uplifting inspiration, and I read this by Wallace Stevens:

By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.

It seems to me that the exclusion of any power of contemplation is the most destructive phenomenon of our age. Information overload, multi-tasking, call it what you will. You can’t contemplate or reflect or feel centered as long as you’re reacting to “the pressure of reality.” This vague feeling, endemic in modern society, that something is missing even though we have more of everything than we ever had. What’s missing is stillness and silence and the chance to contemplate.

This weekend I’ll be heading back down to Naples to spend another day chopping down knotweed. There’s a huge stand in front of the barn. If I’m lucky, it will take me the rest of my life.

Spring is Sprung

If you google “spring is sprung,” you’ll find some version of the following little ditty by the prolific author Anon. I was moved to look it up last April by the painful disparity between the calendar and the weather:

Spring is sprung, the grass is ris.
I wonders where the birdies is.
They say the birds is on the wing.
Ain’t that absurd?
I always thought the wings was on the bird.

You can’t tell from the weather: a windstorm two weeks ago, a snow storm last week. Freezing temps that turn my fingers bloodless and numb every morning and evening. It’s light later in the day, but that’s more a trick of the clock than return of the sun. Although I’m thankful for brighter evenings. Laps around the Cobbs Hill reservoir are easier when they don’t usher in the dark. To watch the sunset while tailgating feels like the beginning of something good.

You can’t tell from the unchanging contents of my house or the clothes in my closets, the boxes of forgotten tools in my garage, the sorry state of my kitchen appliances or the piles of paper on my desk. Or the pale countenance in the bathroom mirror. It feels like I exist in a microcosm of Lake Wobegone, “the town that time forgot and that the decades cannot improve.”

Certainly the raw floorboards in the alcove at the base of the stairs, blackened with age and the stain of tar paper, don’t signal a change of season. I’d wanted to have it tiled by now, but the floor moves too much, even with backerboard, so I unscrewed 200 screws and pulled it up. Next time it goes down for good over a layer of Liquid Nails. But meanwhile, as progress is measured, time has stopped.

Is it me? Or is it what winter does to us? Even Attie, my unperturbable cat, seems to be affected, moping around, meowing disconsolately, listlessly draping herself over the furniture. Is it like this every year? Is forgetfulness the major symptom here?

You can’t trust robins and tree buds and croci. This morning I saw the first sure sign of spring – a stink bug crawling across the bathroom floor. Soon their primordial carapaces will be everywhere – lurking on walls and ceilings and windowsills, dotting the shower curtain, crunching underfoot.

I plucked that first harbinger of change from the floor and flushed it down the toilet.

Things are looking up.



If you want to run like a berserker, you need to run with a berserker. That’s my strategy for setting a PR at this year’s Muddy Sneaker.

Muddy Sneaker is a 20K trail race through Hi Tor Wildlife Management Area in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate NY. Lots of  hills and water and, yes, mud. Some years more than others. You never know what sort of conditions you’ll encounter Upstate in mid-April. As the Muddy Sneaker web page promises, “The weather is guaranteed to be a mystery on race day.”

Could be snow, freezing rain, hot and humid. I’ve had opportunities to blame them all for my performance. But the greater mystery is usually…am I in any kind of shape to run the race? Some years I am, others not. Muddy is typically the first race of the season that really tests my conditioning. It tells me, with painful clarity, how much I’ve slacked off during the winter.

This year will be different. Because I’m training with a guy in my age group who consistently bests me whenever we race together. I figure, if I match him pace for pace, mile for mile, in the months leading up to the Muddy, I should be able to hang with him all the way to the final brutal hill – The Demoralizer – and then, perhaps, have a shot.

I acknowledge that there’s a flaw in this strategy. If I trained twice as hard as Joe (which would be impossible, but hypothetically speaking), I would never BE Joe. Behind Joe’s mild-mannered facade lurks the spirit of a berserker. He can ignore pain. He runs every hill. His discipline is iron-clad. He’s followed the same training regimen, on the same course, three days a week, FOR THIRTY-FIVE YEARS. He swims in Lake Ontario at least once a month year-round – unless the ice is too thick to break through or two jagged to walk on. He fasts for two weeks every February, subsisting on a secret concoction of maple sap and lemon juice, and loses 15 pounds in the process.

I can’t do any of those things. But if I run with him, maybe some small shred of the berserker will rub off on me – enough for me to keep him in sight during the first 11 miles of the Muddy and perhaps on his heels up the Demoralizer. Maybe I’ll learn how to flip that berserker switch at the right moment and become something else, something wild and unthinking and impervious to pain. A berserker for an hour or a minute. Isn’t that something we all want to experience? I figure it’s worth running around Cobbs Hill reservoir three nights a week all winter. To see if it’s possible.

And maybe to set a Muddy Sneaker PR.


I Miss John Thaw

Most of what I knew about John Thaw I learned from Inspector Morse. Because they were the same person, although not the same persona. I first knew Morse, the crusty British homicide inspector, and developed a fondness for him – his aspirational love of literature, opera, and classical music. His disdain for contemporary culture. His poor Sargent Lewis, who took the brunt of Morse’s abuse and his superior, elitist attitude. Morse drank too much – loved a good bitter – and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. He struggled to articulate his softer emotions, so when he did, it was heady stuff. When he fell in love, he fell hard. And when it didn’t work out, as was always the case for one reason or other, he took it stoically and buried himself in his work or his books or booze, and returned to his solitary life.

It was much later that I met the actor, John Thaw, who was completely unlike Morse in most respects. He was sensitive and vulnerable and not afraid to laugh at someone else’s joke and didn’t have an elitist bone in his body. But his was an incredible actor who persevered for years to rise from his humble beginnings to play Shakespeare on the world stage and earn accolades worldwide. I was amazed that one man lived inside the other and wondered if that wasn’t true for each of us. I liked them both for different reasons.

When Morse died on screen, and Thaw died in real life, I felt like I’d lost two friends, or brothers, or fathers. When I see John Thaw in old Inspector Morse episodes, I want him to be alive again. It tears at me if I let it. And I wonder why. Sometimes I listen to the theme music over and over and wish I was hearing it for the first time.

But of course. The music. How does music work? It taps into your emotional memory. I learned to love Morse when I was married and the kids were small. The weekly broadcast on WXXI, our local public TV station, was one of those evening rituals my wife and I would enjoy after the kids were in bed. We would hunker down (maybe with bowls of rum raisin ice cream) on the living room couch in the blue glow of TV screen and lose ourselves to Morse and the towers and quadrangles and pubs and punts of Oxford. Oh yeah, and the murders that Morse would solve – eventually. That was the other thing I liked about him. He made mistakes, but always seemed to right himself. Or at least accept being righted.

I have the theme looping on YouTube as I write this. Just missing Morse and everything connected with his memory. I suppose I should think of it as a celebration. I’m sure John Thaw would want it that way.


I doubt anyone in Eastman Theater’s Kodak Hall last Thursday evening for Mozart’s Requiem was thinking about Count Franz von Walsegg – the man who commissioned the work – or his mysterious employer, or the mysterious employer’s deceased wife, for whom the work was purportedly dedicated. You can’t listen to Mozart without thinking about the artist, the brilliance of his spirit and the tragedy of his short life. His music is a window into his soul; it brings him to life in us two centuries after his death.

Everyone should be so remembered.

My father and mother, for instance, who instilled in me a love of classical music. They had listened to Requiem, somewhere, at some time. They might have played the LP on Dad’s tube stereo that occupied the corner of the living room at 84 Hillcrest Drive. Or earlier, at the house in Burnt Hills, through the Tannoy duel cone speaker in the “folded horn enclosure” Dad had painstakingly cut and assembled from plywood. He loved classical music all his life, right up until his long decline, when he became preoccupied with the end of things rushing at him, like an upwind wildfire on the horizon. That makes a mesmerizing sound, too.

And my sister. I have some of her albums in my collection, rescued from the converted barn on the property she loved in Italy Valley, New York. The place is too cold and isolated in the winter and the deer flies are murder in summer, but three or four months of the year it’s heaven; in spring, the air perfumed by the ancient lilac looming over the smoke house, by the sweet smell of cut grass and hay in autumn, the view of the valley from the berm of the pond on the hill. After she took the job at the library, she lived in Brighton, but she never moved out the the barn. When she’d escape to the farm on summer weekends, her collection of vinyl was always waiting for her. The mice are feasting on what albums remain on the shelf. They like the cardboard, for some reason.

I thought about them, and others who’ve gone ahead, as Mozart’s Requiem brought the audience to tears and ecstasy. A thousand people, transfixed, channeling their grief into this one shared experience, this moment, a stranger 200 years gone, before applauding and zipping up their coats and venturing out into the chill, alone with their dead.

I went to Salinger’s instead to drink some beers with the living for a while.




Writing the Weird

“The strangeness of the world at large has finally caught up with our capacity for imagination” – Ross E. Lockhart

I believe there’s some truth to the old saw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” As I seem to be somewhat behind schedule in achieving worldwide fame as a writer of fiction during my lifetime, I am pursuing the more modest goal of leading writing workshops at Rochester’s literary center, Writers & Books. Modest in some ways; demanding in others. Critiquing is one thing; demonstrating knowledge of a genre is another. My foray in to speculative fiction a year ago forced me to do some homework so that I could, at the very least, answer the question, “What the heck is speculative fiction?” As it turned out, I never had to, not head-on anyway. No one signed up for my “Writing Speculative Fiction” course the two times it was offered. I changed the title to “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy” and nine people showed up. Apparently, people would rather write in genres they are familiar with than one they’ve never heard of.

But spec fiction is real – it’s a thing – and I managed a bait and switch in the one-day spec course, twisting the conversation and writing exercises toward the speculative. A good time was had by most. And then, after another year dwelling in the spec world and drilling down, following clues and currents, exploring rabbit holes and rat holes along the way, I found myself in the sub-sub basement of spec, a smaller and darker chamber carved out of the bedrock, called The Weird. Strange as it may seem, that’s a thing, too.

Weird Fiction

According to Wikipedia, “Weird fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction originating in the late 19th and early 20th century. It can be said to encompass the ghost story and other tales of the macabre. Weird fiction is distinguished from horror and fantasy in its blending of supernatural, mythical, and even scientific tropes.”

Think Poe. Think Lovecraft.

Contemporary weird author Jeff VanderMeer and his wife Ann VanderMeer are perhaps the leading curators of weird fiction today, having published a massive anthology (The New Weird) of short weird works spanning the last 100 years. The Weird Fiction Review is also one of their projects. This (which includes Lovecraft quotes) is from the introduction to their site:

[Weird fiction] represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a “certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” or “malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature”—through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition.

The Weird can be transformative—sometimes literally—and it entertains monsters while not always see them as monstrous. It strives for a kind of understanding even when something cannot be understood, and acknowledges that failure as sign and symbol of our limitations.

Usually, the characters in weird fiction have either entered into a place unfamiliar to most of us, or have received such hints of the unusual that they become obsessed with the weird. Whether It exists or not, they have fallen into dialogue with It; they may pull back from the abyss, they may decide to unsee what they saw, but still they saw it.

The Weird in a modern vernacular has also come to mean fiction in which some other element, like weird ritual or the science fictional, replaces the supernatural while providing the same dark frisson of the unknown and the visionary.

The New Weird

I like weird. It suits me. Especially the “new weird,” which seems to me to be exactly the right fiction for the world we live in today. The new weird was born in the 1990s and explores a broader range of metaphysical questions, pondering the mysteries of the universe. It’s about the existential impact of confronting the unknown, which may be horror, or awe, or some other transcendent experience.

The introduction to the anthology The New Weird defines the genre as “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.”

Robin Anne Reid, from Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Overviews, put it this way: New weird fictions “subvert clichés of the fantastic in order to put them to discomfiting, rather than consoling ends.”

Fiction that Reflects Today’s World

If the world seems surreal to you these days, that’s because it is. Weird fiction is a consequence:

“Weird fiction tends to be fundamentally concerned with eliciting an effect of disquiet, displacement, and alienation in the reader… Instant access to information, images, video, and other media from all over the world has given the author two things that I think contribute to the New Weird’s even greater tendency to experiment than its forebears: 1) more source material, ideas, and perspectives from cultures that differ from one’s own, and 2) more competition in the sense that it is easier than ever to be exposed within a few seconds to the horrors of the real world, which the writer must both distill and transcend.” – Christopher Burke

The world is weird. You can’t escape it. But you can embrace it. And if you happen to be a writer, it’s a rich source of raw material, which, more than ever before, is truly stranger than fiction.

“The Ill Wind that No One Blows Well”

I’ve taken up the french horn. When I pick it up to play, my cat slinks out of the room, her ears flattened to her head. Proof positive that cats CAN be trained – at least to avoid pain.

The horn was originally my brother’s. When he upgraded later in life, he passed it along to my father, who used it to make sounds that entertained my niece when she was very young. But it’s not an easy instrument to master, especially with dentures, and it ended up in his upstairs closet, where I found it, in its original case, covered with dust, wedged in between two rusting file cabinets, a week after he died.

I added it to my collection: two trumpets (also originally my brother’s), two ancient trombones (I don’t remember how I came by them), two serviceable saxophones (a tenor and a soprano), a cello (my mother’s), a viola (the one instrument I actually played back in the day), and a set of entry-level congas.

I don’t acquire as much as accumulate. I’m the shore – stuff washes up on me. Ninety percent of everything in my home came to me from deceased relatives. The rest from living relatives. I mentioned this to a friend who knows me too well and she nodded and observed, “you’re passive.” I objected. “We’re not talking about relationships with people,” I said. She shrugged. “People, things, whatever.” I proved how active I could be by making her lunch.

I’d been thinking about learning (or relearning) how to play one of the instruments in my collection for a long time, and – inspired by the second movement of Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major – I decided on the french horn. In the last several months, I’ve nearly mastered Lightly Row. Notes in the higher register give me trouble – I have to press the horn to my lips with such pressure that it’s pushing my incisors out of place. And yet, there is something gratifying about making such a racket.

My brother is an accomplished player and is pleased that I’ve taken it up. We’re an ocean apart but I hope, some day, we’ll sit down and play together. A duet perhaps. I have a two-part score for Lightly Row. If only I can keep my teeth til then.