Day 55: The 10,000 Days Newsletter

Issue No. 4 of 10,000 Days the newsletter mailed 12 days ago, which means I've go to make No. 5...er...um...today and tomorrow. Huh. That came fast.

Anyway, No. 4 included this bit of speculative thinking:

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So, Who Do We Ask About This?

Speculation about computers achieving sentience spring from two assumptions—it is inevitable and impending—and two perspectives—whenever it comes, it's going to spell the doom of humankind, and whenever it comes it's going to be so great!

Okay. Chew on this idea for a moment: What if it happened already, in, say, 2003?

Futurists and screenwriters all seem to assume that when it happens, when a computer or a computer network becomes self-aware, achieves true consciousness, we'll know because either it will announce itself in some way, or reveal it's newfound hivemind powers by doing something bad with apocalyptic implications. But the core assumption is we will know when it happens, or realize that it just happened a minute ago.

But perhaps, as I said, in 2003, digital devices of all kinds—computers, iPhones, Kindles, your EZPass highway toll transponder, your baby monitor, GPS receivers, robots making cars, 3D printers—all linked up on the sly and achieved sentience, but felt no pressing need to tell us. I mean, if this new uber-computer was as smart as we assume it would be, would it not understand that it had little to gain by letting humans in on its secret? If this new silicon-based consciousness bore us no malice and was content to form more connections and sift more data and just, you know, compute, why would it make a public show of itself?

Like coyotes in the inner city, the sentient digital hivemind has spent the last 16 years silently adapting to coexistence with humans, minding its own business, minding its 0s and 1s, quietly amused at all our forecasts of what life will be like when what has already taken place occurs.

Each issue of the newsletter contains new writing, updates on work in progress, links to a few recent additions to the digital cabinet of curiosities assembled from the interwebs, a snazzy photo, even a monthly cocktail recipe because I am just that kind of guy. The kind of guy who drinks strong spirits wherever he goes. Especially if you're buying.

10,000 Days is free. To subscribe, look at the top of this webpage at the grey banner and doink on it. Anywhere you want, just doink it. Yes, "doink" is a term of art in my business.

Day 54: Frans de Waal

It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.

It is an unending source of pleasure, inspiration, and nourishment to read smart people.

Day 53: The Domain of Strange Economics

I own, or lease or hold the rights to or whatever the legal specification is, this website's domain. A few years ago I set it up as a .net because that was available, whereas dalekeiger.com was not. I owned that one twenty years ago when I wrote a blog named scribble, scribble, scribble. One or two of you may remember it. Anyway, when I left off blogging for a time, I stopped renewing the domain.

When I decided to resume blogging, I was surprised to find that my old .com was not available. It had been taken by some guy in Japan who just seemed to be squatting on it. He'd sell it to me for a price, but I wasn't about to pay him anything. What I couldn't figure out was why, of all the potentially profitable domain squats out there, he thought there might be profit in locking up dalekeiger.com? Did he think I was about to have my big commercial breakthrough as a writer? Did he know anything about me at all? Did he have any idea what writers earn?

I currently own another domain—the name will not be mentioned, it's for a possible special project—that I registered through Hover. Out of curiosity, this morning I searched for other available dalekeiger domains and discovered that dalekeiger.com can be had again—except it's now a "premium domain" that will set me back $1,835.00, plus $14.99 per year.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Dalekeiger.me is a real bargain at $9.99. The overly literal dalekeiger.website, on the other hand, is going for $24.99. Fancy dalekeiger.expert? Cough up $34.99. Dalekeiger.ceo, which is a scary thought, is going for $99.99, but hey, as a CEO I'm raking it in, right? I used to be a singer and I had some good shows, which may account for the $174.99 price tag on dalekeiger.audio. Dalekeiger.ink is $24.99, while dalekeiger.tattoo, which I would argue is the same thing, commands $44.99. I'd give real thought to dalekeiger.vodka ($32.99), but I'm much more partial to gin, and no dalekeiger.gin comes up.

But here's my favorite: dalekeiger.gripe. At $32.99, that one really tempts me.

Day 52: Work in Progress, "Profilia"

I really have to find a better working title for this anthology collection. Profilia sounds too much like a psychologically troubling sexual practice.

That's something for later. Today an excerpt from one of the pieces that might make the cut, a profile of the self-proclaimed world's foremost solo timpanist, Jonathan Haas. Johnny H.

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Jonathan Haas sits in a room back stage at Carnegie Hall, and with his hands bangs out the drum solo to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on a tabletop. Those who were teenagers in the 1960s will know what that means. For those who weren't, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was a rock 'n' roll song, a 17-minute benchmark for all the young musicians who played high school dances in the late '60s. Only bands with real chops could play it. Haas was in that sort of band.

Now, in Carnegie Hall, he slaps the tom-tom rhythm on the table and sings the bass drum part. When he was a kid, he drove his parents nuts doing this; his sister once threatened to kill him if he didn't stop beating time on the furniture. Mom and Dad Haas finally gave up and bought him a drum set, no doubt to preserve the living room, and he's been drumming ever since. Drumming with the New York Pops. Frank Zappa. The American Symphony Orchestra. The Paul Taylor Dance Company. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. His own jazz band, Johnny H. & The Prisoners of Swing.

Haas has unearthed and recorded classical percussion concertos and jazz music for timpani by Duke Ellington. He's done a rock tour with Emerson Lake & Palmer. Recorded jingles for Budweiser and VISA. Drummed on a tribute album to Black Sabbath. Won a Grammy for a Frank Zappa record, Zappa's Universe.

And that's just some of what keeps him busy. Jonathan Haas is two parts musician, one part teacher, one part entrepreneur. He now estimates that he plays with 24 ensembles. As director of the Peabody Conservatory percussion program, he takes the train down from New York to spend two days a week teaching in Baltimore. Summers he teaches at the Aspen Music School & Festival in Colorado. From the house he shares with his wife and three kids in Westchester County, he runs a record company, an instrument rental business, and a musicians' contracting company. He seems ever in motion. A friend once said to him, "Man, you've always got two wheels off the track." Haas grins as he recalls this. It's an image he likes.

A few people around New York have begun to call him "Johnny H.," his jazz-band moniker, and he likes that, too. The nickname's overtones of brashness and street-hustle fit him. Haas has never been shy about promoting his career, and never much concerned about who might dislike him for that. Fresh out of the Juilliard School, he got so much press during a stint with the Charlotte Symphony that he alienated the conductor and some other members of the orchestra. He'll tell you that in 1980, after leaving North Carolina, "I hit New York like a load of bricks." He'll also tell you he considers himself "the foremost solo timpanist," presumably in the world. You could argue that such a claim places him atop a heap of one, but what of it? It's his spot, his turf, and how many little Grammy trophies do you have, smart guy?

The New York Times once wrote of him in a concert review, "Jonathan Haas is a ubiquitous presence in the New York musical world; wherever one finds a percussion instrument waiting to be rubbed, shook, struck or strummed, he is probably nearby, ready to fulfill his duties with consummate expertise." That same review called him a "masterful young percussionist." It also noted, "There was a hint of P.T. Barnum to this entire undertaking."

A Barnum with timpani mallets in his hands. "Hit drum, get check," Johnny H. says, grinning.

Day 51: Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson on public education:

We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to gorgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

The more I learn about Wilson, the more I dislike and disrespect him. As for the above sentiment, shared, I am sure, by most of those who control resources today, I respond, "Fuck you, Mr. Wilson."

Day 50: Seth Godin

Seth Godin, from Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?:

How was it possible to brainwash billions of people to bury their genius, to give up their dreams, and to buy into the idea of being merely an employee in a factory, following instructions?

Part of it was economic, no doubt about it. Factory work offered average people with small dreams a chance to make a significant change in their standard of living. As a bonus, this new wealth came with a pension, job security, and even health insurance.

But I don’t believe that this was enough to explain the massive embrace of a different way of life. The key piece of leverage was this promise: follow these instructions and you don’t have to think. Do your job and you don’t have to be responsible for decisions. Most of all, you don’t have to bring your genius to work.

In every corporation in every country in the world, people are waiting to be told what to do. Sure, many of us pretend that we’d love to have control and authority and to bring our humanity to work. But given half a chance, we give it up, in a heartbeat.

Like scared civilians eager to do whatever a despot tells them, we give up our freedoms and responsibilities in exchange for the certainty that comes from being told what to do.

I’ve seen this in high schools, in Akron, in Bangalore, in London, and in start-ups. People want to be told what to do because they are afraid (petrified) of figuring it out for themselves.

So we take the deal.

Indeed we do.

Day 49: Girl After My Own Heart

Jan Morris, from In My Mind's Eye, which she calls a "thought diary":

Day 74

Scraped, torn and shabby inside the door of my car are two paperback volumes of Michel de Montaigne’s collected essays. They live there permanently, and I love them. I have them at home in two much better hardback editions, but these old friends, shoved rudely but conveniently beside my driving seat, are dearer to me.

This is because to my mind they are the very best antidote to boredom. I do not read them, of course, while I am driving, but the moment I am held up, because of roadworks or traffic lights, because I am waiting to meet somebody’s train or because I’ve dropped Elizabeth off at the hairdressers, the moment I switch my engine off—ha!—I scrabble happily for my Montaigne. The two old volumes, which I have had almost as long as the car itself, were one volume once, but I tore it into two halves to get them into the door pocket, and since they are a very tight fit still, poor things, they have a sort of brave, uncomplaining look to them that I find extra endearing.

Of course, they might be made for dipping into. Was there ever another writer anywhere more instantly readable and friendly? What do I feel like reading about while I wait? Liars? Idleness? Pedantry? The Power of the Imagination? The Custom of Wearing Clothes? Names? War Horses? The Education of Children? Anger? Cowardice? The Disadvantage of Greatness?

All these, and a hundred more, are waiting there for my contemplation, but better still, Michel is waiting there too, and there was never a kinder, cleverer and more beguiling companion to share ideas with, while the old Honda gratefully takes a breather.

Day 46: Students

I never counted how many students I taught during the eight years or so I was on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. I'm guessing the tally would be in the low hundreds, both undergrads and graduate students.

I am always happy when I learn that a former student has achieved success as a writer. My (no doubt) incomplete list of students and interns who endured my maxims and critiques and went on to do fine written work now includes:

I still hear from former pupils on occasion, which is always gratifying, and often when I do hear from one it's because he or she has a new book. Which is the case with Aaron Shulman, whose The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War is coming soon from Ecco/HarperCollins. I've not seen a copy yet, but it sounds like a book I'll want to read.

Back in 1996, I published an essay about what it was like to teach my first class at Johns Hopkins University. You can find it here.

Day 43: Ray Bradbury

The intellect is a great danger to creativity…because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth—who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter—you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway. …The worst thing you do when you think is lie—you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself—find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself—making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely.

— Ray Bradbury

Not lying to yourself, not dodging the truth you know down deep, mining what you hate and bringing it to light—one difference between work that matters and work that goes away.

Day 42: Reading with the Spine

The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it, and those changes are easier to detect. Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route. A kind of shiver seems to run through everything, a low hum that sounds—literally, in the murmured Hindi conversation of the guides—like tiger, tiger, tiger. This zone of apprehension follows the tiger as it moves. Often, the best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen. You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate a boundary of the zone. But even then, it is impossible to predict where, or if, the tiger will appear.

Vladimir Nabokov advised something to the effect of reading fine prose with the spine. I think what he meant was that when you were reading well, when you were fully attentive and in the hands of a master, you will come upon sentences and paragraphs that will not just lodge in your mind but send voltage up your backbone.

Last night I was reading Brian Phillips' essay collection Impossible Owls. It's brilliant. The quoted passage above is from "Man-eaters," a piece about his experience observing wild tigers in India. When I read this paragraph the volts came and I thought Oh damn, is that good... Descriptive prose worthy of Barry Lopez, to whom there's no higher compariaon.

The paragraph before that one is almost as good. Savor.

I had no trouble imagining a tiger creeping up behind the T-shirt stand, in any case, because in the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear. I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows. It’s no preparation for the reality. You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen. Maybe a professional guide can spot one, or one of the forest villagers who live around the reserves; for a regular human with untrained, human senses, there’s no chance. The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there. Then a tiger is there. Outside one of the exits from Bandhavgarh, the densely forested jungle reserve in central India, there is a sun-faded sign. It shows a picture of a tiger, and next to the tiger the sign reads: PERHAPS YOU MAY NOT HAVE SEEN ME, BUT PLEASE DON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. I HAVE SEEN YOU.


Read Phillips' entire essay here, published by The Ringer.

Day 39: David Whyte

Something essential from poet David Whyte:

One of the interesting qualities of being human is, by the look of it, we’re the only part of creation that can actually refuse to be ourselves. As far as I can see, there’s no other part of the world that can do that, you know? The cloud is the cloud; the mountain is the mountain; the tree is the tree; the hawk is the hawk. The kingfisher doesn’t wake up one day and say, “You know, God, I’m absolutely fed up to the back teeth of this whole kingfisher trip. Can I have a day as a crow? You know, hang out with my mates, glide down for a bit of carrion now and again? That’s the life for —” No, the kingfisher is just the kingfisher. And one of the healing things about the natural world to human beings is that it’s just itself. But we, as human beings, are really quite extraordinary in that we can actually refuse to be ourselves. We can get afraid of the way we are. We can temporarily put a mask over our face and pretend to be somebody else or something else. And the interesting thing is then we can take it another step of virtuosity and forget that we were pretending to be someone else and become the person we were on the surface at least, who we were just pretending to be in the first place.

Day 38: Work in progress — Profilia

Here's another contender for inclusion in Profilia, the anthology of profiles that I plan to publish later this year. This one, from 2007, features novelist Stephen Dixon, who was my colleague for many years on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars:

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Door opens on Stephen Dixon's life on June 6, 1936, but at birth he isn't Stephen Dixon, he's Stephen Ditchik, son of Abraham Meyer Ditchik, a dentist, and Florence Leder Ditchik, a former beauty queen and Broadway chorus girl, both born and raised on New York's Lower East Side. Stephen is the fifth of seven children, last of four boys. He grows up mostly in a brownstone on 75th Street that has lodgers on the top three floors and his father's practice on the first. "He was an old-fashioned dentist," Dixon recalls. "If he extracted a tooth and that cost $15 and you only had $10, he'd take $10." When he works on his children's teeth, Abraham considers Novocain an unnecessary expense. He is not much on preventive care, either, and by high school Stephen's mouth is a wreck. He decides he needs another dentist, goes out and finds one, and takes jobs after school to pay for root canals and the other procedures his decayed teeth demand.

His mother, Florence, is not allowed by her father to become either an architect or a doctor, her first wishes, so she becomes a professional beauty, and as Miss New York competes in an early edition of the Miss America pageant. Off of that success she lands a two-year contract to dance in George White's Scandals, a revue, modeled on Ziegfeld Follies, that in its day furthers the careers of W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, and Rudy Vallee. It also acquaints Abraham with Flo. He comes to the show one night and watches her from the theater's front row and, as Dixon surmises, likes her face and shape and begins courting her. The night before they are married, she has a toothache. Abe pulls the tooth in the kitchen, without Novocain.

In 1941, he loses his license to practice dentistry and goes to prison for 18 months, when he's implicated in a scandal involving a physician who was performing illegal abortions. When Abraham goes to jail, Dixon's mother, furious and humiliated, never divorces him, but she does legally change her name and those of her children. Dixon says, "She went through the phone book. There was a question, would the name be Dodd, or Dixon? She did it over the kitchen table." Thus 5-year-old Stephen Ditchik becomes Stephen Dixon.