Sunday, April 17, 2022

Life Turing infowartime



A recent piece in The New York Times—the kind of long-form journalism that, notwithstanding The Paper of Record’s many black sins in its political reporting, keeps me behind the paywall month after month—discusses the extraordinary advances that have been made in artificial intelligence over the past decade and change, with particular emphasis on the ability of cutting-edge “deep learning” software—“Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3,” hereafter GPT-3—to parse language and to compose it. This is not Siri, or Alexa, or any of the consumer-level “assistants” with which we’re familiar, impressive as these may have seemed seven or eight years ago. Indeed, GPT-3 is not consumer-level at all, and its creators, an outfit calling itself OpenAI, are keeping the thing on a tight leash, because it is a vastly powerful tool the existence of which invites all sorts of possibilities for abuse. “The very premise that we are now having a serious debate over the best way to instill moral and civic values in our software,” the reporter concludes, “should make it clear that we have crossed an important threshold.”

Read the piece if you are able—the NYT would like you to pay for the privilege, and you ought to, but for anyone who for moral, political or financial reasons can’t see your way to purchasing it, there are ways to tunnel beneath the paywall (cough, “private” or “incognito” browsing), and the article really is worth your fifteen or twenty minutes’ attention, if not your coin.

“Artificial intelligence” has long been, rather like commercial nuclear fusion, just around a corner never cleared (“nuclear fusion is thirty years away—and always will be”). Indeed, in the 1950s there was much talk about “electronic brains,” referring to room-sized machines that deployed considerably less computational horsepower than the average cellular phone brings to bear without breaking a sweat. Nevertheless, bold predictions were being made, perhaps not entirely without dreams of sweet DARPA research grants dancing in certain academic heads, of “thinking machines” in immediate prospect. Well, you know, the Industrial Revolution had to start somewhere.

Having read “A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust What It Says?” I was moved to retrieve (and blow off its integument of dust) from the bookshelf in the hall a 1997 anthology, HAL’s Legacy, a collection of a dozen-and-a-half essays about artificial intelligence, about the vision of this presented in 2001 (a film I regard as a cultural artifact as profoundly expressing the mythos of its era as Genesis and The Iliad did for theirs) and how it inspired a generation, by now two or more, to pursue the grail of software sentience.

Are they there yet? I don’t think so. But they’re a damned sight closer than anyone could have concluded, based on these 1997 descriptions of the state of the art, that we might be by now. Put another way, progress in the field over the past quarter-century considerably exceeds advances made in military aviation between the Sopwith Camel and the B2 bomber. Seriously.

For far too many years the “Turing Test” was one of the measures of machine sentience. Another was chess, but when Kasparov fell to “Deep Blue,” that metric was tossed. As software continues to mimic and meet the Turing standard, the goalposts continue to be repositioned, and with GPT-3’s latest feats, I imagine that they’re way out at the end of the parking lot, if not into the next county altogether.

GPT-3 is not “self-aware.” For one thing, I’m reasonably sure that there’s not a “self” there. Except…except…how sure are we that there’s really a self here in our spongy grey matter? Sure, we feel that, but unless you’re going to go all “soul” on me, I hope that you will agree that human consciousness arises from a kind of “emergent behavior” on the part of a collective of preconscious subroutines, themselves based on dense electrochemical interchanges among our tightly-packed neurons. Machines will likely never replicate the essence of these processes, but I’m less confident that they can’t arrive at something resembling the product.

It is striking how conservative most of the contributors to HAL’s Legacy were. AI, at that point, was still thirty years away, at least, even to the most optimistic among them (possibly excepting Doug Lenat, whose “Cyc” project, perhaps misconceived, and certainly unrealistic given the input resources of the nineties, looks as though it may have anticipated the kind of deep learning that was eventually realizable between the vast volumes of digital intake now at hand and the wherewithal of the processing power that may presently be brought to bear to digest this).

I have said this before, and often, but I believe that, unless industrial civilization collapses—a prospect by no means uncertain—machine sentience will arrive among us. It will probably not be recognized until afterward, and with each evidence of its presence the standard of proof, those goalposts, will be picked up and transported across the state line if necessary. And, you know, the machines may talk to us, absolutely passing the Turing test, and we will still wonder “is there anyone home?” But at that point, it may be that posing the same question to ourselves will be appropriate.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Scaling the mountain anew


I grew up reading, as they say, “voraciously,” but my diet consisted largely of trash. OK, science fiction, which was as a rule trashy in those days, and very little else. Looking back, I think the first “serious” novel I ever read outside of school assignments was All the King’s Men, which I took in when I was around fifteen or sixteen. Before I was out of high school I went on a Joseph Conrad tear and, at the instigation of my future ex-wife, began reading Hermann Hesse, few of whose books really stood up to subsequent visits. Another high school friend, learning of this, sniffed “Well, the German novelist you should be reading is Thomas Mann.” I later learned that she personally, with adolescent audacity, had not actually read any Mann, but she was the child of a family far better-read than my own, and had picked up the name and reputation by, so to speak, osmosis (a couple of years later I was talking up Mann to my friend’s mother who, amused, asked me if I’d read Proust. This was, I think, the first time that name had been spoken in my presence. “Whost?” I asked, weakly).

Still, I took my friend’s recommendation seriously and, beginning with The Magic Mountain, commenced early in 1971 to chew through the author’s entire œuvre over the course of the next eighteen months. I have come back to Der Zauberberg at approximately seven-year intervals since that time, and earlier this month completed my ninth go-around, just four years since my last.

I can’t really pin down what it is that delights me so about this book, what has kept me coming back to it since the first time I read it at eighteen. Many readers have been bored: one, in an online discussion thread I look in on, recently called it a “snoozefest.” Not for me. The novel has been a different experience each time I have taken it up. This time out was the third or fourth go-around I’ve taken with translator John E. Woods as my cicerone. My first several sessions were with the 1927 H.T. Lowe-Porter translation, to which I had become so accustomed that the first time I looked over the Woods version I was put off: I missed some of Lowe-Porter’s stately cadences. There came a point, though, early in the century, at which, having taken up her rendition anew, I found it somehow heavy sledding. At this point I purchased the Woods translation and have never looked back.

It has been said of Lowe-Porter that she contrived the unlikely feat of translating Thomas Mann into German. He was always puzzled that his English-language audiences saw him as “ponderous,” because his German readership regarded him as a deft prose stylist. He was content, however, to retain Lowe-Porter as his authorized translator, and kept cashing the checks from Alfred Knopf.

Anyway, I have loved the book anew. The set pieces are glorious, of course, but even the passages that have put some readers off—the debates between Settembrini and Naphta, for example—are so much catnip to me. I took it in at about seventy-five pages to a hundred each day, and enjoyed every session. Oddly, I don’t think I have ever persuaded my high school friend to read it, but I remain grateful to her for putting the novel in my way.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Bucha can’t eat just one

 


I am reluctant to get caught up in the current war fever (or, I suppose, sanctions fever) in large part because I remember how ginned up the spurious casus belli was twenty years ago as the Cheney Shogunate prepared to invade Iraq (aluminum tubes! Chemical weapons! WMDs! “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud!”). Public sentiment was being lashed forward across the spectrum of media outlets, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Hell, a dozen years before that, under Bush the Elder, there was something like the same drumbeat, delivered along a then narrower media spectrum, and even I felt the pull of the (under those circumstances significantly less meretricious) propaganda ringing across the public discourse.

These latter weeks we are invited to condemn and excoriate the Russians for their conduct of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, and you know what? I’m all in with that.

Some context, not qualifications: I recognize that to the extent that this country could ever claim the moral high ground in matters of armed conflict, it surrendered any pretense to the commanding heights with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (initially, it is reported, “Operation Iraqi Liberation” until some Pentagon staffer was alert enough to note the appropriate yet awkward acronym). These latter years the USA has tended to conduct its offenses against human rights remotely, and at retail, which was of course scant comfort to a given wedding party in the Helmand Province when a drone operator near the end of his shift at Langley decided to toss a couple of Hellfire missiles in the general direction of the bridesmaids. So this and sundry other deviations from decency noted, OK? Also, nothing like this level of popular outrage hereabouts when the victims in Africa and the Middle East are slain by other national actors, because They Don’t Look Like Us. Got it.

Nevertheless…

For a number of reasons not really important just now, I was fascinated with Russia/the USSR, first during my childhood in the first decade of the Cold War—I watched Khrushchev’s motorcade traverse my Southern California suburb in 1959—and particularly beginning in 1972 when over the course of a few months I discovered Nabokov (entry to come anon), read Edmund Wilson’s collection A Window on Russia, and acquired a sweetheart whose diction did not betray in the slightest that she was the daughter of émigrés who had herself grown up speaking the language of the Old Country, which was still in use at home.

I was disposed, in the seventies and eighties, to cut the Soviet Union a certain amount of slack. I always thought that Nikita Khrushchev was never granted sufficient credit either there or abroad for attempting to cut the USSR loose from Stalinism. Certainly in our domestic propaganda he was portrayed as the despot’s bloodthirsty successor (rather than blood-soaked inheritor—no one, at the end, in Stalin’s Præsediem had emerged from or survived his inner circle since the thirties with clean hands). There was little to admire in the corrupt and lazy Brezhnev, but he also wasn’t Stalin or even close to it. The Soviet Union’s lesser and greater black sins in the Khrushchev and post-Khrushchev eras are nicely described in Francis Spufford’s commentary here.

I entertained some hopes for a reformed USSR under Gorbachev. I never had high expectations of his successor, a feckless sot who rose to glory for a single moment when he mounted that tank in August 1991 and who, had some Red Army sniper put a slug in his heart on that occasion, would be justly remembered as a martyr today. Instead, he went on to break up the joint for a transient political advantage and spent the next ten years on an extended alcoholic binge before he surrendered the presidency to a successor who was apparently prepared as a condition of his elevation not to ask any awkward questions about the financial irregularities of Yeltsin’s family and cronies. And here we are.

Vladimir Putin, my near-contemporary—I have exactly two months on him—and I agree for different reasons that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a historical misfortune: I because, perhaps naïvely, I believed with Gorbachev that “socialism with a human face” was an achievable goal, that a reformed and relatively humane USSR with, perhaps, the Baltic bone removed from its throat, could join the broader human community while still maintaining a distinct social and economic model, a countervailing alternative to Capital not-Red in tooth and claw. The withdrawal of the Soviet alternative, however imperfectly(!) realized, has freed late-stage capitalism to indulge its bloodiest, most predatory and exploitive  instincts, with consequences the ends of which we have begun unhappily to descry. And on the Russian side, Putin now embodies a bitterly revanchist mindset, consumed with dreams of empire, yearning for the old days of global dread and respect: Oderint dum metuant!

So… for these and other reasons I’m a little reluctant to join in the latest spate of Russia-bashing, but you know, I’m going there anyway, notwithstanding our recent sins in Wogland, because Putin’s casus belli is even more preposterous than the Dauphin’s twenty years ago, and because the war aims, between the documented atrocities and what the country’s official news service has stated as its agenda, are nakedly genocidal (like “fascism,” this is a term that has been tossed around rather casually for a long time; like “fascism”—nakedly arisen in our own country’s diseased political ecosystem—the term is appropriate to what is in fact now Russian state policy).

I have, I repeat, been sympathetic toward Russia since childhood: it fascinated me then as the “evil” mirror image of our own polity. I have Russian friends—one actually returned to the Rodina last year after spending his childhood and young manhood stateside since the end of the former century—who I fear are all-in with the invasion: I’ve been at pains not to engage them since February. It’s accordingly painful to find myself leagued on this occasion with those who have always detested the Rooskies, and also with what I sense to be a kind of opportunistic moral outrage from certain quarters. But the outrage, wheresoever it proceeds, is well-deserved by its object. Whatever the merits or demerits of Russia’s historical grievances—and not every one of these is entirely unfounded—its conduct under Putin has placed the country outside even the most modest standards of civilized norms. Let it be, and let it remain, a pariah state, isolated and despised by the developed world. Let it rot confined within its barbaric imperial dreams. I hope that there’s a route back—Germany, after all, within living memory the very exemplar of evil, is now among the most humane and civilized countries in the world—but I’m not seeing it from here.


Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Life during wartime

On the basis of his, er, intemperate remarks today, Putin seems to be emotionally invested in this clusterfuck to an unhealthy degree. Not a good sign. You know, one thing about the commies was that they possessed a substrate of belief that history was on their side, that the triumph of the Marxist model was, so to say, preordained. IOW, they were going to win in the end, so why take unnecessary chances? Historian Stephen Kotkin, author of a massive biography of Stalin, once noted that when the Soviet archives were (briefly) made available to Western scholars, it was amusing how many of these researchers were surprised to discover that Stalin and his successors were actually…believing communists.

If Putin believes anything, it appears that he believes in Russian greatness and in the vindictiveness of a world that impedes the operation of this—by no means assured—destiny, and the referenced speech suggests that he takes this perceived insult, the threat, to Holy Russia personally. It’s difficult to see anything good coming of this.

I’ve been…not dismayed, really, but a little nonplussed to observe, in some of my internet hangouts, the intemperate responses from participants who do not ordinarily raise their voices. I can understand this, and do not fault their responses, being concerned merely that it partakes a bit of 12/7 or 9/11 war hysteria. Certainly I share the outrage, even if I am disposed by temperament not to shout.

A great many internet generals have sprung from their armchairs demanding vigorous action against the beastly foe, beginning with a no-fly zone, proceeding to NATO troops in Ukraine, and all the way up to nuke them before they nuke us. Myself, I recognize that I’m neither a military nor a foreign policy expert, and have some confidence—as I certainly would not have two years ago—that there are competent, if fallible, people making decisions on the basis of information to which I am not privy.

It does seem to me, though, that the West has reached an inflection point, if you will pardon the expression, with respect to its relations with a viciously revanchist Russia that has now begun, in Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, to fizz with rabies. Short of war, and even—even—at risk of war, we need to isolate and strangle the regime which, even though we helped midwife it thirty years ago, has figuratively and literally spread poison among its perceived foes for most of the present century, and the leader of which has proclaimed his hostile intent in unmistakable language.

None of what I say here is by means of excusing the USA’s sundry moral atrocities times past, but if we are not to live going forward in Putin’s world, Putin needs to be, in his own translated phraseology, canceled, one way or another.

 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Looking back, December 1971: homeless, stranded and cold


Very, very cold.

Half a century ago I was a few months into one of the greatest adventures of my young life, a Homeric struggle in terms of personal mythology, although at the time it appeared to me more in the light of a hole into which I’d fallen, or dug myself, and from which my extrication was by no means assured.

I had, two years earlier, applied for admission in 1970 to the University of California’s Santa Cruz campus. I learned later that I’d made every cut except the last, which meant that by the time I was turned away all my alternative choices—in those days one’s single application to UC permitted secondary and tertiary campus options—had all filled up, and I was remanded, to my horror, to the University’s Riverside campus, in those days the Siberia of the UC system, supplanted these latter years by its Merced campus.

I was not ready for prime time. I might have not done much better at Santa Cruz, but I flamed out in spectacular fashion at UC Riverside by my second quarter, following the conclusion of which one professor told me that he regretted giving me a failing grade—“Unfortunately the University doesn’t allow me to assign anything lower.”

Following this I was, I suppose, poised to go feral for the second time in five years, and still might have absent a couple of lucky breaks fore and aft, but in December 1971 I had been reduced—had reduced myself—to a state of discreet homelessness. Determined upon another assault of the citadel (really, went my thinking, what had I to lose at that point?) I had parked myself at UCSC, dwelling, in a fashion that would be impossible today, in the interstices of the campus residence halls, most nights in a narrow storage closet, not quite long enough to accommodate me at full length, which I shared with a couple of upright bedframes. This arrangement kept the rain off, for which I was grateful.

I had found weekend employment with the campus food service, a contractor called “Saga,” and took part of my wages in meals, which meant that I generally had no solid fare between Sunday evenings and Saturday mornings. This grew old fast, to judge from the written accounts I left, but one becomes accustomed to these things. Mind, this was not some whimsical regimen of asceticism: I needed my weeks free to hitch back to UC Riverside now and then in order to negotiate freeing my transcript from its grip. That’s a story for another time, perhaps, but I was ultimately to prevail in this unlikely enterprise, so yay, me. In the interim, though, I was near-starving.

So, in early-mid December the campus closed down between academic quarters, meaning no dishwashing for Rand and no four squares on weekends. I imagine that I could have survived three weeks without grub, but it was not an attractive proposition, and I reasoned that between the two components of my bifurcated nuclear family I could probably cadge some room and board, especially board, without wearing out my welcome at either venue. And so I prepared to depart.

I don’t know, or can’t remember, why I delayed my departure from Santa Cruz until afternoon, but I parked myself on Highway 1 with a mind to arriving in Southern California by evening.

It didn’t work out in the event. For one thing, the first ride or two slotted me onto California Highway 1, the “Pacific Coast Highway,” rather than onto the inland and more heavily-traveled Route 101. A couple of subsequent rides left me at dusk in the middle of Big Sur, with little traffic southbound.

I might mention that the previous month I had lost my cheap sleeping bag in a rainstorm on this same stretch of highway: it had become utterly soaked overnight, my attempted shelter having proved inadequate, and I was obliged to leave the sodden thing draped over a nearby barbed wire fence come the morning.

So: no sleeping bag, no rides in prospect, impending night and falling temperatures. I had a shirt, a sweater and a light jacket, nothing like enough for the bitter cold that was in prospect. I trudged down the highway, and presently caught up with, or was caught up by, a trio of teenagers similarly ill-equipped for the conditions. They presented themselves to me as “runaways,” although I imagine they were merely highschoolers on a lark. In any event, we proceeded along Highway 1, few cars passing and none prepared to pick up four passengers. Presently we arrived at a tiny settlement proclaimed by a highway sign as “Pacific Valley.”

Pacific Valley appeared to consist of a gas station and a coffee shop, neither of which were open for business. It included as well, however, an open shed enclosing a working generator, and this the teenagers and I huddled around for the rest of the night: warm air was emitted from the front end, and hot exhaust, almost certainly with a major carbon monoxide component, from a hose or pipe at some distance from the machine. One of the teens parked himself beside this, and passed out at intervals: the rest of us would drag him away until he came to, whereupon he’d reposition himself against the spew.

Dawn broke. Out came a bearded character in an army jacket with an embroidered stars & bars on the shoulder. He looked at us: “Out,” he grunted. We cleared out. We’d survived the night.

I can’t recall how I eluded my companions—perhaps they reconsidered and headed north again?—but I secured a ride by myself with an eccentric character who, as I dimly recall, hated the Hearst family. And I remember seeing whales breaching off the coast.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Cinema Geographica

 

he kid brother and I recently riffed together on the notion of film titles modified with countries/cities/states swapped in. Before we were through (Rand: “Do you suppose that we might be high-functioning autistics after all?” Greg: “I’m thinking”) we came up with about a hundred and fifty of these. Here they are:

India Heat of the Night
A Fish called Rwanda
Sweden Lowdown
The Hungary Games
Greece
Where the Buffalo Romania
Mali’s Game
The Yemeni Below
The Long Dubai
Heaven Kuwait
Brexit at Tiffany’s
Citizen Kenya
Who’ll Stop Bahrain
The Big Chile
Ghana with the Wind
Laos Horizon
Babes in Thailand
Norway Out
Johnny Qatar
Saudi, Wrong Number
The Unsinkable Malawi Brown
Belize Rider
Desperately Seeking Sudan
Angola’s Ashes
Oman for All Seasons
The Curious Case of Benjamin Bhutan
Chad Day at Black Rock
The Man in the Iran Mask
Fools Russian
Benin Black
Nepal Joey
3:10 to Uganda
Somalia Came Running
Japan’s Labyrinth
Sudan Impact
Taiwan Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Hello Delhi
The Big Lebanonski
Beirut Force
The Empire Strikes Bactria
His Gaul Friday
Burundi World in Haiti Days
They Died with Their Bhutan
Dutch Soup
Kiev My Regards to Broadway
The Browning Persian
The Ireland of Dr. Moreau
Romancing the Estonian
The Brest Years of Our Lives
Mexodus
Iran Silent, Iran Deep
The Belarus of St. Mary’s
Raging Bolivia
Blazing Saudis
The Ballad of the Chad Cafe
Finn Harm’s Way
Guinea Shelter
Tunis of Glory
My Brilliant Korea
Andorra’s Box
Picnic at Hanging Iraq
Thebes Highway
Algeria the Wrath of God
Wait Until Dakar
Our Man Finn
The Spain Mutiny
House of Sand and Prague
Two for the Rhodesia
True Brit
The Longest Dane
Aruba Runs Through It
Once Gabon a Time in the West
Djibouti and the Beast
Moldova, Darling
On a Clear Day Yukon See Forever
What About Zimbabwe?
The Maldives Falcon
The Men Who Stare at Croats
When Harry Met Saudi
Apocalypse Palau
Senegal and Sensibility
Glasgow on the Hudson
Night of the Uganda
There’s Something About Mauritius
Ride the Wild Serb
Balkan the Wild Side
Bringing Up Babylon
The Odd Kabul
Bell, Book and Canada 
Chariots of Éire
Doctor Chicago
Suddenly Last Sumer
Who’ll Stop Bahrain
Monty Python’s Armenia of Life
Das Botswana
The Swissfits
Viet Home Alabama
Ukraine Man
No Country for Old Yemen
Children of Paraguay
7 Faces of Dr. Palau
The Bride of Palestine
Provence Upon a Time in America
Same Thai, Next Year
The Hound of the Basquervilles
Two Mules for Sister Sarajevo
The Eritreahouse of the August Moon
Travels with My Antilles
The Greek Gatsby
Istanbul Durham
Ankaraman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Athens of an Ending
The Talented Mr. Tripoli
Crete Expectations
The Little Murmansk 
To Serb with Love
Seoul Survivor
Howl’s Moving Castile
Tomorrow Navarre Dies
Prague and Prejudice 
East of Edinburgh
Boys Don’t Crimea
The Bruges Brothers
King Congo
Zagrebel without a Cause
Hot Fez
Rome Alone
Bataan Begins
Qatar’s Way
Quebec to the Future
Return of the Jeddah
Godzilla vs. Mecca Godzilla
Dunekirk
Lyon in Winter
Dublin Indemnity
Belfast Times at Ridgemont High
Perth of a Nation
Rocky Harare Picture Show
The Legend of Tarzana
Amsterdam Yankees
Ghent Shorty
Kilauea Bill
A Clockwork of Orange
I am Curious Yellowstone 
Coeur d’Alien
The Three Muscat-eers
Quito the City
The Belize of St. Mary’s

The posters are here.


Sunday, May 2, 2021

The scary month of May; hinges of fate


Although nearly half a lifetime has elapsed since the last disaster I associate with this month, I still incline to tiptoe during the interval each year between April and June, because the darkest and direst episodes in my life have occurred in May. One such occurred half a century ago.

1971 was…eh, not the best year in a life less than abundantly provided with such years by that point. By mid-January my sweetheart had presented me my walking papers; by March the University of California had begun to get pissy about the considerable arrears that I’d accumulated fee-wise, and the professors of all three classes that winter quarter had flunked me out, at which point UC and I severed all relations save that of creditor-debtor, and the University notified the good people at Selective Service of my availability for the struggle against international communism then being conducted in Indochina. By the end of the year I found myself discreetly homeless, although I flatter myself that an onlooker would not have so identified me, and also near-starvation, eating just four meals a week.

So no, for these and other reasons, things weren’t going well for me by the first of May 1971, and that evening I stumbled into a personal contretemps I don’t propose to relate here, but which involved me in a spirited beat-down administered by uniformed public employees and the subsequent withdrawal of my freedom of movement for the better part of a day. That I somehow contrived to talk my way out of this fix while leaving only the faintest of audit trails—more, and I would certainly never have enjoyed my alleged career; less and I would likely not have completed college—seems remarkable at this remove.

Actually, I used to retail the anecdote rather casually, because it certainly had its droll and entertaining elements. I was twenty-one, about thirty months later, when I lightheartedly related it to a new girlfriend who startled me by appearing appalled by the tale, at which point it struck me for the first time that I might not really want the incident following me around forever after.

Still, I recognized at the time, in the aftermath of 2 May 1971, that I probably needed to order the course of my life in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of ever again landing in such a plight, and in this I’ve largely succeeded.

As to the “audit trail,” those ghostly glimmers of my indiscretion were sufficient to persuade some University of California bureaucrats (and I learned that year that a Department Secretary can be mightier than a Dean) to consent to allowing me a second bite at the apple, and that has made all the difference in my life. Another such hinge from that summer: I sat brooding at loose ends on a median of a then sparsely-traversed street in Southern California when a passing carload of high school acquaintances spotted me, stopped, and invited me to accompany them to the graduating class’s “one-year reunion.” There I fell into conversation with a classmate whose chance remark set me on a course that ultimately brought me back into UC’s good graces.

And had even one of my professors—I’m thinking in particular of the one who told me afterward that I was taking up space at UC that ought properly to be given over to “someone serious about receiving an education,” and who regretted assigning me a failing grade (“I’m only sorry that the University doesn’t let us give a grade lower than F”)—had only one of them given me a “D,” I could not have made it back in. Thanks, Dr. H!

The following decade, in my mid-thirties, weekends late in May occasioned, in the first instance, consternation and grief as a decisive blow was landed upon my domestic arrangements, and a year later a descent over the course of a day into chasms of wretchedness—the abrupt emotional implosion following a year of insupportable stress—such as I hope never to experience again.

I’ll allude to one other hinge of fate: in 1966 a customer at a Southern California coffee shop spilled a drink. I wasn’t there, and although the immediate consequences were unhappy, reverberations from this trivial incident changed the course of my life profoundly for the better. At fourteen I was going rapidly feral: I would likely not have completed high school on that trajectory; I would certainly not have made it to college. The entire course of my adult life has followed upon that deflection, of a few ounces of beverage making for a slippery floor. Funny old world.

But May 1971: fifty fucking years! Geez.