Curiosity Killed the Cat 2.0: Is Artificial Intelligence the New Enemy or Ally of the Cat?

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.  Stephen Hawking

[…] we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.  Elon Musk

As this field continues to add new information, I thought I’d occasionally revisit the blog to update it on what is happening. In the past few days, Sophie, the Robot, came on view in the media. the article in Fortune is a good overview to present the rest of the blog’s issues. And, as I often reference cinema to complement my thoughts and Sophie is a bit spooky, and the earlier version below starts with a reference to cinema, here is another prequel reference from Ex Machina that is pertinent.

For the past two centuries, Western man was the first off the blocks in realizing the benefits of fledgling capitalism and the increased use of machines with inanimate power to accomplish what manual labor and tedious repetition had previously accomplished at a numbing cost and with poor efficiency. The premise of this musing came from recent articles that have added to the chorus of articles about Artificial Intelligence, which has been married to automated robotics to provide cheaper and more efficient labor. Those articles were in the Economist and the New Yorker, two vehicles of information dissemination that are themselves threatened by a form of Artificial Intelligence in today’s digitized, algorithmic world and are therefore important stake holders in the discussion. (there are many links at the end of this musing to many related articles)

But, what are the facets of this issue which need discussion? What information needs to be explored, who is controlling that information and what does that control entail and infer? As I often do when relating a topic to AI, it love to link it to cinema (my belief is that all education should value questions more than answers and that the most critical job of an educator is to present issues with many facets to explore…one facet to one person may outweigh another facet with someone else and the cost to society, in all measurements of cost, needs to be understood) . Cinema has been exploring the topic of artificial intelligence from almost the beginning of movie history. Of course, more recently the number of films focusing on this theme has increased dramatically as our own world is so influenced by robotics, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence.AI

Fiction has always dealt with societal issues and AI has been in its cross hairs from the first thoughts about the possibility of society employing AI and what that would mean to us. In fact, fiction is one of the areas that has benefitted greatly from constructing narrative with AI as a theme. Consider the long list of books and films that have AI as the central focus: Karel Čapek was the first to coin the term “robot” in the early 20th century, and Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and Denis Villeneuve more recently have explored the Utopian or Dystopian worlds AI can help create. But, there are other institutions in society that will eventually have to weigh in on whether AI is going to move us towards Utopia or Dystopia.

At this point one needs to explore the concept of ‘intelligence’, the second part of the AI initials. Humans possess a wonderful ability to reason, though we do not always utilize this fabulous tool evolution has provided us, often seeming to act without intelligence. Yet we now control its definition and employ computers that drive decisions and motions from algorithms we have written. That intelligence is using deductive or inductive logic applied to known or implied circumstances, the product of which is a reasoned prediction of what will happen in the future and what we therefore want that future to be. Man is the best animal at understanding his place in the world contextually, realizing self, time and hope. Also, we are capable of creativity and innovation like no other animal. What, though, I argue is even more critical in the human process of reasoning is to have curiosity. Curiosity leads to questioning, which tests hypotheses and leads to ever greater understanding. But, can one have too much?

There is an important factor these past two centuries that helped to define the eras within these centuries. This factor is the pronounced acceleration of the development of our ability to employ machines to do tedious, repetitive and heavy work. The steam engine was the first great assistant, followed by more meticulous machines that exploited its power to run mills, looms and such to replace the hundreds and thousands of human workers that had previously done this labor. In this first technology revolution much upheaval took place, leading to violent reactions, reforms and attempts by traditional individuals and institutions of power to protect their place in society. I mentioned in the last blog how important steel was to this phase of change, spearheaded by the likes of Andrew Carnegie, who became one of those wielders of power. His life overlapped the next era of change brought on by electricity.

Electricity continued this refinement into the 20th century of how labor was further enhanced or assisted in its goals. Then, later, globalization and improvements in transport affected who did the work, based on how the sum of labor costs and transportation affected competition and where the finished products were produced or sent. The shipping container, developed in 1955 by an American, brought on further geographical dispersement of labor and goods produced, which, with the fall of communism in general and the liberalization of its tenets in China in particular, altered the world irreversibly from 1990 onward. We are still adjusting to this change, the we being the common laborer in America in particular, and all the politicians in the world.

Throughout this time the idea of a robot, usually running on electricity, was introduced in the earlier 20th century, which also played out in the fictional ventures of cartoons, comic books, literature and film. Robots continually improved and were gradually ushered and interspersed into the labor force to build cars, furniture and such. Then, with the ideas of Alan Turing about machine computation developed in the Second World War, algorithms were integrated into the management of the machines that did repetitious work. Labor could be further controlled and manipulated within a unique environment, making it cheaper if you could mechanize and automate it.

Recently, digitization of information has allowed this manipulation to encroach on all manner of labor: manual, legal, the game of chess, assembly work, insurance actuary decisions, banking and finance calculations and predicting growth rates of economies, agricultural tilling and sowing, transport and vehicular guidance, and  loading, unloading and stocking of product containers in ships, airplanes, trucks, trains, warehouses and stores. Automated machines, guided by AI, take over existing jobs traditional done by humans every day.

There are three major revolutions in industry that occurred over the past two hundred years, and we are poised for this fourth, which is already underway. The first, as mentioned, was spurred by the invention of the steam engine, followed by the use of electricity in nearly all manner of human endeavor, then the third was the information-technology phase which utilized digitization and algorithms. The one that is already happening and is hitting the world in different places differently, is where the economy is integrating robotics and artificial intelligence. This will eventually lead to what is known as the “dark factory.” In these factories all labor will take place through robotics run by AI. They will use less energy, cost less and function 24/7. Companies like Intel are already advertising and promoting the benefits of AI.robot1

Without humans there is less need for lighting, for safety features, for hourly wages, for benefits paid out to employees, etc. When the first part of the Industrial Revolution occurred, with the advent of steam, laborers rebelled and destroyed machines in their Luddite reaction. Marx soon wrote about the impending doom to society brought on by the commoditization of labor, making it a simple, economic factor in the total cost of production. Ricardo predicted doom and gloom if one’s labor was falsely influenced. For him free trade and open competition led to the most efficient economies, even if the dislocation of labor occurred due to improved efficiencies. He was worried, though, that the downward pressure of wages would lead to instability. This did not happen as he opined, as laborers shifted to other jobs that were created for the most part. Yet, wealth did accumulate disparately, with the pie continuing to grow in size, but with the profits benefitting owners, bankers and lawyers disproportionately.

There was a reaction in many regions where some form of socialism was adopted. In these countries or regions, the economic model was regulated and legislatively overseen. Taxation was introduced to make conditions in society more equitable and to allow government to control the direction of the economy as much as possible and to reap the economic benefits of this growth for social projects. The harms that were perceived in those societies allowing the purest capitalism were given over to the purview of the government in many instances, who then passed laws regarding competition, to protect the environment and citizens’ health, and to attempt to ameliorate the volatility of the market. For more than a century during which capitalism grew and society changed drastically, this was a period of much confusion, disagreement and disparity. With only some corrections after the First World War and into the Depression, and later after the Second World War with the tremendous post-war growth, much of capitalism’s economic growth has been spasmodic, volatile and destructive to many, with a small percentage benefitting magnificently. Now we wonder if these conditions might be exacerbated by the use of Artificial Intelligence in manipulating robots to accompany our economy and to move it “forward”.

Now it is also possible for a computer and a camera to make medical diagnoses, or for a vehicle, trucks in particular, using cameras and thousands of computers to run autonomously. Walmart is using the same combination to assist manual laborers in restocking, cleaning and surveillance of its stores. Law enforcement is utilizing AI’s benefits to surveil, identify and assist in prosecution. AI has even been involved in aesthetic pursuits, determining in its limited way what the characteristics of ‘fine art’ and ‘genius’ are in works of art. Computers have even created works of art to rival human endeavors. A computer can even write a speech for a presidential candidate. Cameras armed with AI backup can identify species, uniqueness and patterns, all necessary elements in logical application of reason.

Therein lie the problems facing humans: How do we determine when this assistance is beneficial and when is it harmful? To ask this question in a meaningful way, we need to understand who is benefitting by AI’s implementation and who might be harmed, and, what is the nature of the harm done to anyone. How can we be protected? Who needs to be involved in that decision to determine if AI needs regulation, restriction or prohibition?

There have been presidential and private committees to explore this new era’s potentials. Each country is aware of the impending changes appearing or on the horizon and is either investing heavily in its implementation or is fumbling by fits and starts into the next stage of the world’s economy. Economics, a social science that is highly contentious in its positing of theories and solutions simply because it involves the human mind, is now faced with an immense problem. Many politicians are not ready to take on the problems they see on the horizon for a variety of reason: lack of knowledge, protection of a previous position or out of selfish, short=sighted aims. There will be winners and losers and who has control of the money is the most important factor in today’s world. That has not always protected those with the money and power in the past, when serious revolutions occurred to intercede in society’s control, and all estimates point to a even more contentious struggle as we navigate the cultural and economic waters of the next three or four decades throughout the world.

Keep in mind that the problem of AI is not the only problem facing economists and politicians. The Future of Humanity Institute also lists the threats to society found in nanotechnology, biotechnology, resource depletion and overpopulation. This does not take into account the vast problems already surfacing from climate change. If it’s true that the insect population is being debased, that sea level rise is accelerating, that extreme weather storms are going to be more prevalent, that regions of many countries will become less habitable or even inhabitable, then these will increase the pressure to cooperate between and within countries. Without accommodating those who are harmed by these changes, societies will start to fray.

Where Marx was off the mark in his predictions, he was not far off on the descriptions of the harm capitalism could do if unchecked. As mentioned in earlier blogs, Adam Smith, too, was aware of capitalism’s dangers and hoped that the Christian-moral driven, invisible hand of the market would contain destructive abuse. For the past thirty or forty years there has been an enormous production of wealth in the world. But, it has not been distributed evenly or how many would claim as being done fairly. Is it inevitable that we are going to have individuals like Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the Kock brothers making our decisions for us? This tension has entered into many countries’ politics, with the most egregious example being the United States in 2016. Some thoughtful people, reading the figures they have at their disposal from the past half century, argue that a major shift needs to occur. Some have even called for a basic income to be distributed by the government to those impacted by these changes. It is not assured that, like in the previous three technical revolutions when those who lost jobs eventually migrated to some other land or profession to survive, that there will be new, equitable jobs to replace those lost. Even McDonalds and Walmart are mechanizing their labor forces more over the next decade.  Will we willingly go into the Golden Arches or drive up to its takeout window to be “served” from cooking, to paying, to serving, to clean-up without a human being ever having been involved?

An open letter has been crafted by The Future of Life Institute to address the issues facing the world as it incorporates AI. The Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford has a long list of threats besides AI that threaten our society. What then are the recommendations and what information are they using to arrive at their conclusions? We have much to discuss and decide going forward. I hope we’re up to it.




Related articles and links follow:

Article from the above link… The centerpiece of Mr Piketty’s analysis is the ratio of an economy’s capital (or equivalently, its wealth) to its annual output. From 1700 until the first world war, the stock of wealth in Western Europe hovered at around 700% of national income. Over time the composition of wealth changed; agricultural land declined in importance while industrial capital—factories, machinery and intellectual property—gained prominence. Yet wealth held steady at a high level (see chart, first panel).

Pre-1914 economies were very unequal. In 1910 the top 10% of European households controlled almost 90% of all wealth. The flow of rents and dividends from capital contributed to high inequality of income; the top 10% captured more than 45% of all income. Mr Piketty’s work suggests there was little sign of any natural decline in inequality on the outbreak of the first world war.

The wars and depressions between 1914 and 1950 dragged the wealthy back to earth. Wars brought physical destruction of capital, nationalization, taxation and inflation, while the Great Depression destroyed fortunes through capital losses and bankruptcy. Yet capital has been rebuilt, and the owners of capital have prospered once more. From the 1970s the ratio of wealth to income has grown along with income inequality, and levels of wealth concentration are approaching those of the pre-war era.

Mr Piketty describes these trends through what he calls two “fundamental laws of capitalism”. The first explains variations in capital’s share of income (as opposed to the share going to wages). It is a simple accounting identity: at all times, capital’s share is equal to the rate of return on capital multiplied by the total stock of wealth as a share of GDP. The rate of return is the sum of all income flowing to capital—rents, dividends and profits—as a percentage of the value of all capital.

The second law is more a rough rule of thumb: over long periods and under the right circumstances the stock of capital, as a percentage of national income, should approach the ratio of the national-savings rate to the economic growth rate. With a savings rate of 8% (roughly that of the American economy) and GDP growth of 2%, wealth should rise to 400% of annual output, for example, while a drop in long-run growth to 1% would push up expected wealth to 800% of GDP. Whether this is a “law” or not, the important point is that a lower growth rate is conducive to higher concentrations of wealth.

In Mr Piketty’s narrative, rapid growth—from large productivity gains or a growing population—is a force for economic convergence. Prior wealth casts less of an economic and political shadow over the new income generated each year. And population growth is a critical component of economic growth, accounting for about half of average global GDP growth between 1700 and 2012. America’s breakneck population and GDP growth in the 19th century eroded the power of old fortunes while throwing up a steady supply of new ones.

Victorian values

Tumbling rates of population growth are pushing wealth concentrations back toward Victorian levels, in Mr Piketty’s estimation. The ratio of wealth to income is highest among demographically challenged economies such as Italy and Japan (although both countries have managed to mitigate inequality through redistributive taxes and transfers). Interestingly, Mr Piketty reckons this world, in which the return to capital is persistently higher than growth, is the more “normal” state. In that case, wealth piles up faster than growth in output or incomes. The mid-20th century, when wealth compression combined with extraordinary growth to generate an egalitarian interregnum, was the exception.

Sustained rates of return above the rate of growth may sound unrealistic. The more capital there is, the lower the return should be: the millionth industrial robot adds less to production than the hundredth. Yet somewhat surprisingly, the rate of return on capital is remarkably constant over long periods (see chart, second panel). Technology is partly responsible. Innovation, and growth in output per person, creates investment opportunities even when shrinking populations reduce GDP growth to near zero.

New technology can also make it easier to substitute machines for human workers. That allows capital to gobble up a larger share of national income, raising its return. Amid a new burst of automation, wealth concentrations and inequality could reach unprecedented heights, putting a modern twist on a very 19th- century problem.—impacts-on-society


Andrew Carnegie, a life that is a metaphor for today’s world?: A Presbyterian, Scottish immigrant who left poverty in Scotland to become the Richest Man in the World in a time period when the disparity in wealth was among the worst in history.

He loved peace, but built war machines. Wrote about the Gospel of Wealth that promotes civic duty and the “natural order” of an elite controlling economic power. He ruthlessly crushed unions in his business, but gave millions to educate and empower the poor. Stated “the first man gets the oyster the second gets the shell”carnegie_hi_res_720_420_c1_center_top

Andrew Carnegie became extraordinarily wealthy by hard work, keen economic sense, understanding trends and having confidence in his mission. A first generation immigrant, he benefitted from America’s open immigration policies. During the Civil War he understood both the potential for war to make some individuals rich, but his main takeaway from the conflict was the waste of human life and destruction of society’s potential.

His concentrating on the production of steel using the new process discovered in the 19th century is indicative of his creative and innovative skills as a manager and producer: He poured ever-growing profits back into expansion of his business, while allowing Frick to ruthlessly break up unions. He expected his workers to accept that they would earn less when the price of steel dropped. Many of his thoughts and his personal philosophy on life would have been central to the issues confronting us in the 21st century, though he accepted there would always be crushing poverty as part of the natural order, even though he strove to give all individuals the tools and practical advice that would allow each to achieve.

His philosophy focused on hard work, aiding the advancement of the poor through investment in literacy and education, and devoting his resources to the quest for world peace and establishing thousands of institutions for the betterment of society. In this era of Robber Barons, he preached economic prudence while himself living a lavish lifestyle.

If he were around today, his idol would be Bill Gates and his efforts in business would probably involve robotics and artificial intelligence. While a prime example of being part of the 1%, he counseled other men of wealth that they should not leave money to their heirs other than to provide for a comfortable life for them. He felt  that the accumulation of wealth only allowed for you to be a temporary steward of it in order to do good works for society. He relished his power and built the Hague Peace Palace, Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University and many other civic buildings to further the advancement of culture in a positive way.

My next blog deals with the current revolution in society, the marriage of Artificial Intelligence to Robotics. Carnegie was the fulcrum in the change from the Steam Revolution to the Electric Revolution by being the prime producer of malleable and durable steel. From providing the most steel to the companies and governments that needed it, he amassed immense wealth for its production. In his lifetime, nearly every facet of building needed steel to improve society, build new weapons, contribute to transportation and provide the new structures needed in the new architecture. Carnegie’s product allowed 19th and early 20th century man to innovate and take advantage of the potentialities for new approaches in many fields.

He died just after The Great War, profoundly disappointed that his efforts at preventing war were not heeded by the world’s leaders. He would have been even more disappointed to have learned that the world would be back at war by the end of the 30s and that communism was a major force by the end of the Second World War.

Paideia Παιδεία:  It’s Greek to Me

How does a Republic continually build its Community and expect Citizenship from its Members?

Παιδεία is a word used in ancient Greece, spanning their three important phases of development: Greek history is often divided into the three important last eras when their history focused on writing, philosophy and their understanding of the individual within his community. These are the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic eras. During these times, the concept of Paideia was emphasized. Also, during these times the Greeks changed, leaving behind some values and embracing new ones, therefore leading to “new” eras we rightly or wrongly now classify as we do. As with any translation, there are metaphorical and conceptual understandings that go into describing the meaning of a word that need cultural and contextual understandings to apply it properly to a new era. Why would you define an era as new without something changing? We are presently in a changing era which may also be putting us in danger of losing our national soul, though we have been here before.

Recently, David Brooks used the phrase Paideia to illuminate his column about John McCain and to offer us a beacon to shine on the present condition in these United States. In addition, Mary and I viewed the interview Charlie Rose had at his oak table with Katy Tur regarding the campaign, election and governance of Donald Trump. The two stories are obviously related. What was not emphasized enough in my opinion in either, though, was an examination of the reasons why we have lost the concept of Paideia, or perhaps why we have never fully embraced it in this country. Or, why the American ideal so often emphasizes the individual and lets the concept of community flounder.

Mortimer Adler reintroduced the Greek concept in the early 80s in his appeal to alter our educational construct. For him Paideia was the lessons a society taught its children. How do you prepare your future citizens to participate in the group, to defend its values and to become meaningful contributors while gaining satisfaction from their own lives as they accomplish all these goals. No small ambition. His ideas understandably led him to campaigns describing his desires and to some controversy.

Adler summarized his goals for society’s children: “Here then are the three common callings to which all our children are destined: to earn a living in an intelligent and responsible fashion, to function as intelligent and responsible citizens, and to make both of these things serve the purpose of leading intelligent and responsible lives — to enjoy as fully as possible all the goods that make a human life as good as it can be.”2

The factors to discuss related to this issue are complex. The word, good, for instance, is problematic. The ambiguity involved is immense. And again, what is a good understanding of intelligent and responsible fashion that each of us is supposed to pursue as citizens? Who is in charge of defining Community Ideals, when and how are they taught and what right does the group have to impose these on any one of us? Respect for the Individual as taken by him/herself seems to be the most common trait in today’s American, but where has that gotten us. How can Communal Values and Traditions be valued, defined and protected? Within any society, it must go through transitions due to technological changes, impacts from events or from the evolution of ideas that sometimes have a mind of their own. In doing so, what is kept and what changes, and what results from the two tensions interacting? Where we are in 2017 is a product of these factors fighting it out in all the facets involved in this evolution.

Brooks implies that McCain’s choices make him one of the honorable citizens and that he is practicing Paideia. In the second paragraph Brooks claims that McCain is protecting that which is sacred. Yet, in a recent rare public outcry, John Kelly also used the word sacred to make a plea that we leave the conversations between the Gold Star widows or parents and the president sacred. This is problematic for me on many levels.  This administration and the men in the most senior positions (now Kelly included), with the president himself being the most complicit, are responsible for destroying what has been traditional, sacred and expected.

Historians will dissect the tenure of these men for what damage they did and why it happened. In all the recent attempts over the past two years at unraveling this country’s citizens’ motivations and desires, there are far too few attempts at getting at the source of what we believe and too often look only at the symptoms. It would be useful to listen to Brooks’ appeal for Paideia principles, and to enter into that argument that would follow. There will, unfortunately, be many, many citizens who will withdraw, fight and attack such a direction. This will occur at our continued peril.

In McCain’s speech, where he was awarded a medal for his services to this country and its traditions, he made this statement within it, “The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.” Though this is arguable on so many levels, we certainly have improved the lives of many through liberation and have certainly advanced the principles of capitalism that have changed the nature of economics and individuals in all places it has touched. But, historians have also pointed out when we have meddled in countries’ futures not for their good, but for our own, when we have influenced their economics, values, jobs, environments, lives and future direction out of our own needs. These are all part of the ongoing, ever-present responsibilities as citizens of the world as well as of our own country, to know when we are biting too deep, taking too much, changing the world in a destructive way. When it is not for the purpose of better replacement or to reform, but to simply take, we need to be aware of this and its impact everywhere. Sometimes preservation is better than transformation. What goes into this discussion is to use Paideia pedagogy, which could allow us to be able to understand the difference.

Like in Western medicine, finding a symptom and bombarding it with something to stop the symptom does not often get to the root cause. We must understand ourselves as a people, historically and as we are now. What has transpired that has made us as we are? Is there a common thread to define this present “American”? Has McCain encapsulated enough of our prime principles in his speech (he certainly wants to control his legacy as he fights the final fight of his life)? We must now look to the present constellation of the nine Supreme Court members to help us get in touch with the honorable citizen and start to deal with those who venture outside of the norm in a meaningful way. How will this country’s citizenry react to their decisions and make its own decisions in 2018 and 2020?

Yet, in 2017, too many of those citizens, claiming tradition, privilege, honor, patriotism and such, do and say things that make me cringe. Our traditions and laws, as well as our recent technological innovations, have made us a new nation over the past several decades. We are remembering ourselves in earlier times in sporadic and disparate ways that are probably too tainted to be accurate. Education is not the purview of the federal government, but lies within the states’ control. Now, with many individuals home-schooling, or sending their kids to independent schools that construct their own, unique pedagogy and curriculum, we have many claims to what are our most important traditions and goals, what our history is and what is important to the survival of this country. I am suspect of many of these, but who am I to make such a claim. This, it could be argued, is the very nature of the American experiment.

Ray Bradbury’s singular fear was for the damage television could do to us. He thought the fragmented, commercialized and soul-deadening programming he viewed in the 1950s was the real culprit and that triggered him write Fahrenheit 451. Those issues are nothing when compared to the 21st century siloing occurring as you read. We now have Blade Runner 2049 pondering what it is to actually be human and one wonders what that is when you see the words and actions of the alt-Right, the Richard Spencers, the White Supremacists and others in this land who actually believe they are offering a view of America that is supported by our traditions, history, values and Constitution, of being an American human?. Paideia, where are you.

Our fragmented society must make room for all manner of ideas and ideals, as we always have, and speak through the Paideia lenses of education. Let’s have reasoned discussions about the roles of citizens and government in education, in responsibilities that have government oversight attached, in sustainable options and worthwhile traditions. What are the roots and causes of each. In other words, a continuation of the humanities, of the principles of the Enlightenment that have unleashed scientific rigor, though admittedly have also led to many of the problems we now have.

How does that 18th century individual who thought those thoughts and valued his life get found again and what part of him/her and that world do we want to keep? What part of that world is actually still left and what can we still preserve of it? These are important questions each person should be aware of on some level. It is our responsibility to engage in the past, present and future in ways that allow for the future generation to understand all the segments of history in their boldest italics and in the most complete picture possible. Then we will understand ourselves best, individually and collectively. Then, we will have also preserved the best possible world for the future generations. We are all mutants in this process, human mutants.

Loving Vincent: Songs by Elton John, Opinions from Biographers or Psychologists, Viewing his Works, Seeing Films about his life. What and How do we know about this artist? Now a new film

1024px-Irises-Vincent_van_GoghWhat is for certain is that Van Gogh is among the most popular artists of all time and one whose works now receive the most attention from the auction houses should any become available on the art market. Mobsters have even stolen his work from museums.


One of his earliest works that hint at his bold brush strokes to come.

Millions go to museums in many countries to view his jewels. During his lifetime nearly none of his work was appreciated by the buying public enough for him to make living. His brother and sister-in-law were the most important individuals in protecting his legacy. He died horribly of a gunshot wound, but historians are not in agreement as to what happened to him in those final months: did he commit suicide or perhaps was he the victim of a confrontation with juveniles whom he knew and perhaps protected from their mistake. How did he paint? What impact did he have on the seemingly linear nature of how artists view their opportunities to represent the world as they know and see it? He fascinates us now more than he could have ever imagined in his lonely life.

Van Gogh has his public personae represented mainly by his works, all of which have been embraced enthusiastically today. Yet, he lived a strange, lonely and often alienated life. He did not deal with women well. The locals steered clear of him often and his friends often had issues with him. Yet, he became intimate on a special level with those subjects who sat for him. It is these subjects that will come to life in a new film about Van Gogh that arrived this fall. Van Gogh suffered his humiliation, guilt, torture and alienation mostly on his own, though it appears some historians opine that his last months were noticed by local teenagers who perhaps made him even more miserable. What is the truth?

We now have an inkling of his difficulties through the many attempts by biographers to unravel his life. Fortunately he was close to his younger brother, Theo, and his lifelong letters to him reveal much of the story we know about him. Theo is the one who kept Vincent going in his artistic exploits. There are also accounts of his life through individuals who crossed his path and claimed he was a “strange boy” or was he one who Deborah Solomon claims “transformed the trademark unit of Impressionism, the buttery brush stroke, into a calligraphic, confessional presence. After all that has been written about van Gogh, there is still no agreement on who he was. Whether he was a high-I.Q. aesthete (yes!) or an intellectual simpleton, a frugal-minded bohemian or a miscreant squandering spare resources, whether he was the Ingrate From Hell or an achingly sensitive artist, or whether he was none of these — clearly, it is a sign of his greatness that so many people feel so proprietary about him.” Deborah Solomon NYTimes Review

There was a wonderful biography produced at the centenary of Van Gogh’s death by David Sweetman that is highly recommended. And, another controversial one that came out six years ago by co-authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, whose work contemplated the possibility of teenagers being complicit in Van Gogh’s death, using information dredged up from a 1930 biography. Regardless of your own perspective on Van Gogh, be aware that his life has been picked at and dissected by many individuals since his death.

What we do know is that he produced fabulous work, work that sought to capture the world in a unique way. One biographer wrote that heDe_zaaier_-_s0029V1962_-_Van_Gogh_Museum seemed to want to marry his effusive written descriptions to those he savored in his mind’s eye. Van Gogh’s own truth in what he found in nature and the human condition came out on canvas is that distinct style that is only his own. He grew up around the pre-Impressionists and Impressionists, but he accused them of elevating cleverness over substance. His bold units of color, delivered in swirls or leaning soldiers across a field, boldly stated his purpose in paint. That method will influence the major artists of the 20th century to make even more bold pronouncements. His work on the common man, Van-willem-vincent-gogh-die-kartoffelesser-03850like this painting of potato workers, demonstrates his appreciation of authenticity in his work.   Nearly always working from life, there is the famous, notable exception when he painted The Starry Night from memory.

Now there arrives on the scene a new work on his life, that film that was mentioned earlier. This film, the first involving over a hundred artists and 65,000 hand-painted oil canvases and utilizing the technology that is now available in animation, is another unique expression of art. It is called Loving Vincent. The teasers so far are amazing in that it attempts to tell the significant moments and aspects of his life through the individuals he painted, the thoughts that he had, but, more importantly, through the visual prism similar to the one with which he saw the world. It is stunning for that alone. Here is a short clip about how this amazing film was done.

loving vincentIt will be analyzed for its use or not of color, for its perspective on the psychological nature of the man and for the opinions it finally crystallizes into the words used to defend the director’s opinion of Van Gogh. I recommend that you enjoy it for its visuals and attempts to get into the man’s mind, similarly to the recent works on Queens Elizabeth and Victoria. Both of these females have many skeletons that have been exhumed by historians and they are certainly not the figures born out on the screen by Claire Foye, Judy Dench, Emily Blunt or Jenna Coleman. Victoria was easily one of the most difficult figures to influence the 19th century’s history and that is saying something. We are still affected by decisions made by about a dozen monarchs in that era, and not in a good way. But, add this one to the list, but please know that you are being given some rose-colored spectacles to add to the Romanticism we tend to use when looking back at when the world was so “great”.800px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

If you wish to get deep into a portrait of Van Gogh, click on this portraitSelf-Portrait_with_Grey_Felt_Hat_-_My_Dream to open another webpage that allows you to drag a marker and see the painting as close as each brush stroke.


A successful career: Looking forward to one or looking back at one completed..that is the question

What does one want from a job?: For my Millennial friends out there, this means a cultural, philosophical, political and economic exploration that could take a lifetime, but you also can’t take a lifetime to find the answer, can you. Most would love to have the question settled in their twenties. I wish you luck and offer you some thoughts.

As each culture approaches work in a significantly different way, it is useful to examine those countries that have had some success. That success, though, may be measured in different ways and what you personally define as success needs to be part of your question as what is most important about the job you do.

In Japan, workers take pride in work, whether it is an elevator operator or greeter/assister on the subway. They honor and respect their superiors and colleagues, though the term karoshi is also associated with this culture and that is a serious problem, leading many to suicide. denmarkDenmark is often ranked among the most happy of countries for its culture, which includes its attitude to work. A word they use to describe their success is hygge. Danes don’t work overtime or on weekends. They spend time with friends and family and pamper themselves and each other. They also accept one of the most onerous tax structures in the world. In other words, they keep community and individual needs in constant balance while continuing to be among the most creative of the world’s creatures. Canada is a seemingly happy place, though one Canadian offers a new slant on happiness at work, co-working and collaborating while living in Bali. Bali is a special Indonesian island that is primarily Hindu, but of a particular sort. While there, one will notice Balinese bowing to the god in others, living a life of communal understanding and taking life at a tolerant and slow place. That terrorists attacked it some years ago is the most disparaging of contradictions. Take a look at Roam as a unique example of what some foreigners have done to take advantage of Bali’s welcoming lifestyle.

Our own culture has long touted the Protestant work ethic as central to our “success”. Again, going back to those Millennial friends and their aspirations, be careful of all our country’s promises. In measuring culture, one has to take into account the incarceration rates, polarization and difficulty in describing a national value structure, willingness (or not) to tolerate alternate viewpoints and bringing collective problems to a collective bargaining place in search of solutions. The Swiss canton-style democracy is laudable. They have 26 of them and give each strong powers based on inclusive democratic principles. Yet, Orson Welles berated them for not being more exciting. How does a society best address its problems while protecting its traditions and values?

The point of this blog is to take into account what your true goals are in work, where that must take place geographically, with whom this will take place (including perhaps a life-partner who shares these views) and whether that choice is sustainable in all that word’s potential meanings. That is the question, to quote I Robot. You must always factor in all the options that make work worthwhile.

In the lifetime I’ve spent teaching, there have been many times when I stopped to contemplate where I was at the time. Sometimes it was in front of a class of kids, where one or more looked up from the discussion or presentation and asked that pointed question that made it all worthwhile. As a teacher I believed that asking questions is the best way to understanding: Telling someone what they need to know is the expedient way that leads only down a narrow path. Sometimes it was late at night that I was questioning myself while in front of the pile of paperwork that I so rarely managed as I should. Sometimes it was with Mary in a vineyard in the Alsace in the fall, or walking home from the opera with huge, floating snowflakes wafting through the night air to alight on their final homes where they offered us a stunning sight of white outlined trees and buildings as a nearly spiritual culmination to a wonderful day in life. Sometimes it was sitting on a wall in Sicily with local fare about to be consumed for lunch with three thousand years of history surrounding us. The job and choice of lifestyle put us in each of those locations.

My quest for understanding, wisdom and knowledge continues leaning headlong into their pursuit, even though the path to supposed wisdom coincidentally offers both myriad opportunities and obstacles….and often more questions. In my more senior moments, I get to revisit a book, article or film that has grown fuzzy in my recollection, but at least my reinvested grasp of their content remains true to the prior conclusions. What I have come to firmly believe from the process, though, is that exposure to all manner of approaches throughout the world allows for a better understanding of how humanity can approach problems and look for fair solutions. Fairness and sustainability are necessarily the 21st century monikers of society. Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Der_Wanderer_über_dem_NebelmeerThe 19th century Romanticist standing on a mountain seeking solitude and solace is now one that needs the cooperation of government to attain that solitude, unless he/she cossets oneself in a protective cocoon somewhere and shuts out the world. That is not recommended.

Whether we, in the United States, have found the wisdom to choose the correct method in defining, discussing, educating and supporting the path to vocational satisfaction is a question I feel the rest of the world wonders about us also at present. In the past we have offered both a beacon for others, but Medusa’s snakes more recently. Some of the social measurements in which we either lead the world or are positioned in the upper levels of the rating charts are not claims with which we should make proud or patriotic pronouncements, as these are truly utterings or examples of our ignorance.

In my journey, both the intellectual one and the geographic one over a lifetime, I truly believe our satisfaction in working and interacting with each other must be married to both individual and community goals. Therein lies the problem here in America I believe. Our nation is the birthplace of the most recent characterization of what early Protestants felt was a justifiable work ethic. The early European economic models supported by governments and industrialists proclaimed the capacity of capitalist, big “L” liberal tenets to be the pillars on which society best functioned. The hard-working mountain man, or prairie farmer, fisherman or any other individual who made his living from brawn, long hours and acquired manual skills felt satisfied if Mother Nature or God looked at him favorably and the fruits of his labor gave him a just and honest livelihood.

Somewhere in that earlier model religion tempered man’s goals in acquisition. The 18th and 19th century American was the Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan or any other white-hat, white-skinned wearing version of our earlier heroes. Of course, they were always white, at least until Mark Twain, but that is another blog. In terms of our edifying community goals, we had always put forth the images of hard work, sacrifice, family unit and reliance on the services of system of some sort to provide justice and security.

The early 20th century brought the disparity of Teddy Roosevelts, Henry Fords, Andrew Carnegies, John Rockefellers, Thomas Edisons, Ernest Hemingways and Jim Thorpes. We lumbered into the 1950s meagerly addressing our race issues, though at least addressing them in our yin and yang way. We stumbled on our economic approaches at that time, I feel. Our constitutional crises up through the 40s and 50s left us electing one president four times, bringing the flag into the classroom and God onto our money. We also erected a lot of Confederate monuments.

In the complex Post-War America, though, the great fear was the Red Scare. From 1917 forward the West tried to comprehend the impact of communism and socialism on the world. Those who supported it wanted a redistribution of resources based on a new model and social paradigm. Those who were established with traditional values in ownership, religion and values felt the most threatened. The rational, secular views of many communists, many professing atheism, was a certain threat to organized religions of any stripe.

Now we have edged into a world where one can at least speak of socialist solutions without losing a job or being blacklisted or perhaps even incarcerated. Bernie has invigorated that discussion. How we define the social solutions and still accommodate that latent libertarian independence is our challenge. I am not sure if we are up to it at this point in 2017.