Death Star Counterplans

I just got back from watching Star Wars: Rogue One and while it is most certainly both a tragic war movie and a Disney movie–the mom is killed before the first scene is over as expected (Corliss, 2014)–it did convince me that the United States should build a Death Star. To be clear, I mean that we should be doing this unilaterally and as a counter-plan to any proposed space-oriented cooperation with China, typically predicated on repealing the Wolf amendment, that would affirm the current policy debate resolution of “The United States federal government should substantially increase its economic and/or diplomatic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.

Now any sensible person would say that the United States isn’t about to build a Death Star, such a thought is preposterous! And I get that, and I totally agree. But if we have to take the affirmative plan seriously despite Trump’s behavior already putting us on the brink of a cold war (Luce, 2016) with a country that we still owe a trillion dollars to despite their recent divestment that the affirmative must overcome to be topical (Phillips, 2016), then we must necessarily also seriously consider the benefits of having a Death Star.

With that in mind, we present the counterplan: the United States Federal Government should unilaterally construct a Death Star to establish military dominance of outer space. Continue reading “Death Star Counterplans”

Send in the Clowns

This is to be read as a mostly-satirical speech. It was inspired by a girl dropping an offhand a joke about being a clown, and thus holds to her perspective. But crucial to satire, to parody, to the humor that corrodes cognitive defenses is staying committed to the joke until its work is done. And that’s what I’m going to do here. Let’s begin.

This year was a really difficult year for My People. You all have no idea. We thought we were a beloved and cherished minority that held a special place at the edge of your culture. But the sudden vicious rise of racist Coulrophobic bigotry made me realize how precarious existence as a clown really is.

Yes, I am a clown. My heritage is from my grandmother, a full-blooded Vaudevillean who passed away last year and is pushing up water-squirting trick daisies now. It’s not a mere lifestyle choice, it’s a core part of my being, it’s where I come from. And just like racist Islamophobes get triggered by the traditional muslim head-covering of the hijab, so too racist Coulrophobes get triggered by the traditional clown head-covering of the curly-haired red wig.

Now you may try to down-play my heritage by letting me pass for a white girl, but I reject that: I am a clown. At least partially. And the rest of my heritage is that of a white girl, so the ritual of cultural appropriation is, like, the only other culture I have. So, coming from this particular intersection of whiteness and clownness, I’d like to spend a few minutes discussing how cultural appropriation facilitates racism today. Continue reading “Send in the Clowns”

Trumping Qualified Immunity

We all should practice more stoicism, but fuck that when it comes to our children. The anguish is proof they matter. —@th3v0t4ry

Given the current topic of “Resolved: The United States ought to limit qualified immunity for police officers” it’s actually an entirely reasonable negative position to say that elections have consequences and the consequence of electing the law-and-order candidate is that police officers get to keep all of their qualified immunity. But the consequences of elections also provides ample ground for the affirmative to make a case for limiting qualified immunity, and it goes like this, untimed, and with a personal note at the end. Continue reading “Trumping Qualified Immunity”

Probably Probable Cause

They said all teenagers scare the living shit out of me  –My Chemical Romance, “Teenagers

Our first Public Forum topic of the year, Resolved: In United States public K-12 schools, the probable cause standard ought to apply to searches of students, isn’t particularly good for debate, but does do a great job of exposing how messy Supreme Court decisions are. Let’s look at some material for the Affirmative:

Observation: Interpretation of Positions

Let’s start with how this round ends: As the judge, you are either going to accept that the probable cause standard ought to apply to searches of students in public K-12 schools, or you’re going to hold with the status quo of reasonable suspicion as laid out by the Supreme Court in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985) regardless of state-by-state variations in process. Alternate adjustments to the status quo are not available options for you to vote for. Note: we mention this because the negative could run some squirrel cases on reducing the use or involvement of police in schools for disciplinary matters. It seems to me that we should, but that’s out of scope for the resolution at hand.

What do we know about these competing standards? “the Court has been consistent in requiring some degree of both reliability and basis of knowledge [to show reasonable suspicion], albeit less than is required to show probable cause.” (Grossman, 2016)

Definition: Reasonable Suspicion (status quo)

The standing law is included in State ex rel. T. L. O., 178 N. J. Super. 329, 428 A. 2d 1327 (1980) and was re-affirmed by the Supreme Court (New Jersey v. T.L.O., 1985)

“a school official may properly conduct a search of a student’s person if the official has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is in the process of being committed, or reasonable cause to believe that the search is necessary to maintain school discipline or enforce school policies.” Id., at 341, 428 A. 2d, at 1333

The Supreme Court clarified:

Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider “whether the . . . action was justified at its inception,” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S., at 20; second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted “was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place,” ibid. Under ordinary circumstances, a search of a student by a teacher or other school official will be “justified at its inception” when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating either the law or the rules of the school. Such a search will be permissible in its scope when the measures adopted are reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.

And they claim this departure from probable cause is necessary because:

A teacher has neither the training nor the day-to-day experience in the complexities of probable cause that a law enforcement officer possesses, and is ill-equipped to make a quick judgment about the existence of probable cause.

But please note that:

  1. The modifier of “in light of the age and sex of the student” clearly violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment and
  2. in that same decision, the Supreme Court also maintained that “In carrying out searches and other disciplinary functions pursuant to such policies, school officials act as representatives of the State, not merely as surrogates for the parents, and they cannot claim the parents’ immunity from the strictures of the Fourth Amendment.” This exactly contradicts their other claim that teachers don’t know about and thus shouldn’t be held to the standard of probable cause.
  3. But it’s not even relevant anymore: these days we’ve got over 43000 “school resource” and other sworn police officers working in almost half of our nation’s schools (Gray & Lewis, 2015), so the Supreme Court’s expectation that school officials don’t understand probable cause is of vanishing relevance; police who are supposed to have that exact knowledge are often on-site.

Definition: Probable Cause (affirmed)

Our current understanding of the probable cause standard comes from Illinois v. Gates (1983).

“In [Illinois v.] Gates, the Court made it easier for the police to satisfy the probable cause test by holding that judges should now employ a totality of the circumstances approach. Courts reviewing warrants for probable cause could throw all the information into one analytical pot and decide if there was a “substantial basis” for concluding that probable cause existed.” (Grossman, 2016)

The exact phrasing used in Illinois v. Gates was: “probable cause is a fluid concept — turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts — not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules.” (1983)

In dissenting against the Reasonable Suspicion standard in New Jersey v. TLO, Justice Brennan observes that

Two Terms ago, in Illinois v. Gates, 462 U. S. 213 (1983), this Court expounded at some length its view of the probable-cause standard. Among the adjectives used to describe the [probable cause] standard were “practical,” “fluid,” “flexible,” “easily applied,” and “nontechnical.” See id., at 232, 236, 239. The probable-cause standard was to be seen as a “common-sense” test whose application depended on an evaluation of the “totality of the circumstances.” Id., at 238. … Ignoring what Gates took such great pains to emphasize, the Court today holds that a new “reasonableness” standard is appropriate because it “will spare teachers and school administrators the necessity of schooling themselves in the niceties of probable cause and permit them to regulate their conduct according to the dictates of reason and common sense.” Ante, at 343. I had never thought that our pre-Gates understanding of probable cause defied either reason or common sense. But after Gates, I would have thought that there could be no doubt that this “nontechnical,” “practical,” and “easily applied” concept was eminently serviceable in a context like a school, where teachers require the flexibility to respond quickly and decisively to emergencies.

So what’s the bright line that warrants abridging Fourth Amendment rights? Justice O’Connor, in support of Reasonable Suspicion wrote that

Ordinarily, a search — even one that may permissibly be carried out without a warrant — must be based upon “probable cause” to believe that a violation of the law has occurred.

So if there’s a gap, it might be that merely enforcing school policies cannot meet the standard of probable cause necessary to warrant a search; that merely enforcing school policies has to be done without physically searching students. We’re not going to have the time to second-guess school policies at this juncture, but we concur with Justice Brennan that

children learn as much by example as by exposition. It would be incongruous and futile to charge teachers with the task of embuing their students with an understanding of our system of constitutional democracy, while at the same time immunizing those same teachers from the need to respect constitutional protections.

So let’s be very clear:

  1. The probable cause standard is nontechnical, practical, and easily applied, based on the totality of the circumstances.
  2. The probable cause standard for conducting a search can be met without a warrant.
  3. The probable cause standard maintains a consistency of teaching and embodying our system of constitutional democracy in school.


On the whole, the Supreme Court set an internally contradictory precedent on circumstances that are no longer generally true in New Jersey v. T.L.O. and as such the adoption of the Reasonable Suspicion standard should be dropped, reverting to the Probable Cause as is standard consistent with other state-compelled searches.

But why do we even care?

  1. We care about this issue because “the FBI is instructing high schools across the country to report students who criticize government policies and “western corruption” as potential future terrorists, warning that “anarchist extremists” are in the same category as ISIS and young people who are poor, immigrants or travel to “suspicious” countries are more likely to commit horrific violence. … This overwhelming threat is then used to justify a massive surveillance apparatus, wherein educators and pupils function as extensions of the FBI by watching and informing on each other.” (Lazare, 2016) Put simply, the FBI is using the lower standards of “reasonable suspicion” in schools to circumvent their usual requirement of “probable cause” in initiating otherwise illegitimate and illegal surveillance of students.
  2. The use of a lesser standard of reasonable suspicion for searching children in schools violates adults’ rights to due process since the adult is supposed to be subject to probable cause. This is because most states (Reuters, 2016) have laws making adults liable for juveniles’ actions: “Confronted by rising juvenile crime rates and a sense among some that lax upbringings are at least partly to blame, a number of cities and states recently have moved to impose legal penalties on the parents of young law-breakers… From Oregon to New Jersey, parents judged to have inadequately controlled their children now are subject to criminal financial liability, fines and, in some cases, even imprisonment.” (Dorning, 1995) So while the text of the resolution is focused on the rights of public school students, the cascading effect of the laws will erode the constitutional rights of their parents.


New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985). Retrieved from

Grossman, S. (2016, Spring). Whither reasonable suspicion: The Supreme Court’s functional abandonment of the reasonableness requirement for fourth amendment seizures. American Criminal Law Review, 53(2), 349-376.

Gray, L., and Lewis, L. (2015). Public School Safety and Discipline: 2013–14 (NCES 2015-051). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983). Retrieved from

Lazare, S. (2016, March 6) The FBI has a new plan to spy on high school kids across the country. Salon. Retrieved from

Thomson Reuters. (2016). Parental liability basics. FindLaw. Retrieved from (Pull quote: “At least 42 other states and DC now have laws against contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”)

Dorning, M. (1995, December 11). In growing trend, if a child does crime, the parents may do the time. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

Sleeping Oedipus

Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. –Rousseau

Let me start by saying that Freud’s Oedipus Complex, cultivated over the course of 40 years, is not nearly so real as a few generations of psychoanalysts treated it. In his autobiography, Freud mentions that he started with a ahistorical conjecture from Darwin that had as much sociological grounding as a history lesson derived from a Renaissance Fair and then goes to this:

There rose before me from all these components the following hypothesis, or, I would rather say, vision. The father of the primal horde, since he was an unlimited despot, had seized all the women for himself; his sons, being dangerous to him as rivals, had been killed or driven away. One day, however, the sons came together and united to overwhelm, kill, and devour their father, who had been their enemy but also their ideal.

If this sounds like it’s on crack, well, it might be. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World clearly depicts the implausibility of the complex by playing out the schism between the idea of the self-made man who has destroyed his own father and the actual act of destroying one’s own father (who, by failing to die, depicts the legacy that children carry forward whether they want to or not). Decades later, after the Oedipus Complex had thoroughly saturated the practice of psychoanalysis, Deleuze and Guattari would write Anti-Oedipus, an obnoxious tome (that at least starts off) as vulgar as it is pretentious, but it does sum up how the deployment of the unchecked theory reduced the field to a normalized neurosis:

psychoanalysis was shutting sexuality up in a rather bizarre sort of box painted with bourgeois motifs, in a kind of rather repugnant artifical triangle, thereby stfiling the whole of sexuality as a production of desire so as to recast it along entirely different lines, making of it a “dirty little secret.” the dirty little family secret, a private theater rather than the fantastic factory of Nature and Production. … It is only little by little that [Freud] makes the familial romance… into a mere dependence on Oedipus, and that he neuroticizes everything in the unconscious at the same time as he oedipalizes, and closes the familal triangle over the entire unconscious. … The unconscious ceases to be what it is–a factory, a workshop–to become a theater, a scene and its staging… The psychoanalyst become a director for a private theater, rather than the engineer or mechanic who sets up units of production… The psychoanalyst no longer says to the patient: “Tell me a little bit about your desiring-machines, won’t you?” Instead he screams: “Answer daddy-and-mommy when I speak to you!”

And so the Oedipus Complex was over-played, as we might well expect any normalization of incest — historically recorded as aberrant behavior even in ancient Greece because of birth defects, per Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 2 — to be. But this isn’t to say that there’s nothing there, and indeed I think Deleuze and Guattari kind of stumbled across it: their depiction of “a rather bizarre sort of box painted with bourgeois motifs” forwards Malvina Reyonds’s depiction of suburban sprawl: “And the boys go into business / And marry and raise a family / In boxes made of ticky tacky / And they all look just the same.

I would suggest that the Oedipus Complex is not generally true, but that it has been fostered and coddled by the power struggles between growing children and entrenched parents; that the tightness of common (not absolute, mind you, but common) familial living conditions can make it difficult for a child to continue developing at-pace into adulthood: the space that they should be growing into is already occupied by their parent. And this traditionally followed sexual maturity, but as we’ve added life-stages, the age has slipped to 18 or now sometimes older as “emerging adults” move back in with their parents. Consider:

  1. In The Odyssey, Telemachos is only like 14 when he tells his middle-aged mom that he’s taking over the house.* This scene would be absurd today, but was suitable, proper, and almost overdue in ancient Greece, so we see the character growing into the void that his absent father left.
  2. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet was only 14 when her parents were going to marry her off to that Paris guy only she went and eloped with Romeo instead. Her mom isn’t going anywhere so she’s being pushed out of the house.
  3. In An Education, the kid is 16 and her struggling post-WW2 British parents are well-disposed to her considerably older boyfriend — again, trying to push her out of the house before she comes in to sharp of conflict with her parents. (Here’s an also-relevant review of this particular artifact.)
  4. Dr. Carl Jung’s — who studied under Freud before a major falling out; Jung had an ongoing interest in the evolved common subconscious and the symbols, archetypes, and mythic themes that lurked in/came out of it, hence Sleeping Beauty in a moment — father died when he was 20. His mother’s comment was “He died in time for you”; the loss of the parent makes room for the growth of the child.

The point here is that if the parent doesn’t yield ground (which they are not obligated to do), then the child is likely to conflict with the parent even as they’re learning models and patterns of power and control from the parent. But — and this is why this conflict started as a bourgeois problem — children are fundamentally the legacy of the parents, so parents who are socioeconomically endowed enough to care about a legacy aren’t going to simply ditch their kid as soon as the kid seems capable of self-survival, but rather continue to foster and cultivate them for longer to ensure their legacy (not just their kid) survives.

Tangent: It is worth noting that many social trends descend from bourgeois attitudes and behaviors to the masses and are then subsequently discarded by the bourgeois. Foucault sees this in attitudes towards sexuality in History of Sexuality Volume 1, Alistair Croll sees it come up again in cell phones — specifically, the cell phone used to be a class signal for hypermobility, but now that they’re ubiquitous the absence of a cell phone is a signal for being difficult to access (ergo valuable).

So kids, if these references seem implausible because you’ve got the normative notion of “18 is adulthood because smoking, sex, and selective service” stuck in your thinking, then let’s observe that in mid-2016, Virginia raised the minimum age at which a person can get married from 13 to 16 — or 18 if the person is not an “emancipated minor.” “Similar bills were introduced in California, Maryland, New Jersey and New York this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.” This seems anomalous because the kids getting married aren’t the ones protected by wealth and privilege, they’re the ones who can’t go anywhere and thus have nowhere to go so, like the punks in the underbelly of American Idiot, they fall beneath notice. If this surprises the hell out of you, then you might want to peek at Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus.

My interest, however, is in the the bourgie suburban kids living for 18 years in their parents’ 30-year mortgage, time frames that emphasize a cool “don’t disrupt my plans” conservatism that I’d lost sight of until I went to a garden party last month. Margaret Thatcher famously/infamously said that there’s no society, just a bunch of unconnected families and individuals — that self-interest consumed all interest. It’s kind of stunning to me how much of conservatism (beyond climate change denial) boils down to the mythic Noah’s Ark, the story about the first of the “little boxes.” A straight reading of Noah’s Ark teaches us that it’s morally permissible to let everybody outside of your family die, but you have to protect your family specifically because your kids are the only relevant way the species will continue (because it’s morally permissible, even necessary, to let everybody else and their kids die). These are some of the first lessons that get transmitted to children in conservative families, the first way we externally validate having an “us versus them” mentality: “See the giraffe on the ark? See the elephant on the ark? See the everybody else in the whole world, dead and drowned beneath the ark?” But it’s an opening narrative of how parents will sacrifice any ambition they have, bury any life-goals they may aspire to, to ensure their child has an opportunity for success — a narrative that, as mentioned, they will repeat to their child as a promise to not let the child drown.

But the point we were at was that the kid is the way the parents are going to keep their name, lineage, and culture alive into the future, and is not to be simply tossed off to whatever the fates will do with it. (Oedipus’s parents tried that and just look where it got them!) In ancient Greece (and subsequently Rome) marriages were only for people who had money to establish name and lineage necessary for inheritance — Foucault mentions this in History of Sexuality 2, part of a series that I assure you is way more boring than it sounds. The lingering lesson is that if you’re rich, you don’t let your kid marry below their class. But the side-effect of this is that your kid is likely to be stuck at home for longer.

So, teenagers: if you’re wondering why Juliet was able to elope at 14 and Telemachos was getting into real estate at age 14 and you’re stuck taking AP Somethingorother at age 17 and may actually have your bachelor’s degree before you’re old enough to legally drink (I did), it’s because rich people set aspirational social policy for the US that was generally normalized with the explosion of the middle class in the post-WW2 years. And that social normative policy aimed to have more kids be marked as kids until they were 18 and then they ought to go to college (high aspiration) or into a solid trade (good aspiration, only it got phased out as an aspiration in the 1970s and cut from curriculum in the 1990s).

In short: Their aspirational (and, as Virginia demonstrates, changeable) social policy makes your childhood last longer than evolution has deemed natural.

This is why teenage angst and sexual frustration and arguing with parents who don’t quite remember not having the perspective that they’ve since developed that you’ll also be developing in the future.

And part of that perspective is our socially-cultivated fear of female sexuality, specifically the reproductive consequences thereof. Yes, these consequences are generally overstated and anachronistic but the life of the adolescent woman is part of the reproductive pattern that is expected to continue, not break. Remember: the (traditional and still-conservative) aspirational goal of a parent through their child is to have a clear line for name, lineage, and culture. And if they know that and their peer group knows that, then if a daughter has Some Random Kid (because the pattern continues, not breaks), then no peer-parent is going to want their son to marry that daughter because it’s a step down in class and aspiration to pick up that Some Random Kid who is not of their name or lineage. Teenage sexuality, especially female sexuality, is perceived not just as a risk but as an ongoing chronic risk.

But this is also why Sleeping Beauty is a total bourgie fairy tale.

See, the Princess is cursed to die when she hits sexual maturity because of Some Prick. But the curse gets mitigated so that she just falls asleep until a prince shows up. The original was pretty rapey and has been toned down, but the thing to note is that her savior is a consistently a high-born prince (regardless of his behavior): low-born rogues, cads, and bounders — anybody that could functionally ended her life as a princess by getting her pregnant and dragging her down to their class — need not apply.

But the message Sleeping Beauty sends to parents is clear: if you’re rich and have a beautiful daughter, then you really kind of want to put her in suspended animation when she hits sexual maturity until a suitable prince shows up because that’s the only way she — and your lineage and legacy — will be safe. (Contrariwise, Juliet’s parents didn’t and just look at what happened!) But with the expansion of the middle class and the appeal to legacy that causes parents to generally regard their children as beautiful, we’ve gone from medieval parents fearing their daughters’ sexuality to modern suburbanite parents poking their daughters with a variety of spindles (we call them “enrichment opportunities”) in response to socioeconomic pressure to defer procreative tendencies until a partner suitable to the family’s name, lineage, and culture can be found.

Now kids, I know that sounds psychotic but your parents aren’t entirely wrong: statistically speaking, you shouldn’t plan to get married before you’re like 28. No matter how conservative your parents are or how much you’re in love with your current boyfriend/girlfriend that your parents may-or-may-not have tried to set you up with while chattering away at a garden party — they totally did, I was there, it was weirdthe statistics show that until you’re cognitively developed as an individual pursuing your goals and comfortable wielding what power you have you won’t have a good feel for what kind of partner you want to progress into the future with. Let me repeat this because it’s very fucking important: Get a clue on how you’re living your life before you legally bind somebody else to your fate, and insist that they return the favor. Being ignorant of this led me to make a decade-long mistake and I don’t want you repeating it.

So the big finish is: “WTF are high schoolers expected to do more in terms of extracurriculars than they’ll ever do again?” It’s because the bourgie parents are desperately trying to distract their (first-and-foremost) daughters from biological adulthood which hasn’t changed even as the age of socioeconomic adulthood has steadily risen. (It’s not even 18, it’s 28.) But then everybody else has to compete with those enriched affluent daughters for access to the assortative mating pool that is college from previous generations so everybody else gets sucked into this enrichment maelstrom, doing a half-assed job at all of it.

Previously, I thought the enrichment maelstrom was to dull the brightest kids so that they couldn’t overwhelm the overworked, underpaid, and often under-qualified (to keep up with more than a couple of precocious minds, anyway) adults that form our public education/babysitting system — a system not truly designed to educate, but rather to condition for docility, a biopower policy coup for capital. (See Aaron Swartz’s genealogy of education for the evidence; last section, first chapter.) But the alternative theory is that as the conditioning “educational” policy extended childhood to facilitate the mating practices of the bourgeoisie, more had to be crammed into it to deal with the biological challenges that leisure-enforcing child labor laws turned into risk for parents.

In this interpretation, the point of the extracurricular overload — now consistent with the rest of school — is to cultivate a docility over time: the demanded hyperactivity in High School is intended to exhaust the child, to turn them into a veritable Sleeping Beauty (or at least narcoleptic wreck) incapable of posing a biologically mandated clear and assertive challenge to their parents’ claustrophobic authority and the urban socioeconomic system in which their parents participate.

And that’s how the Oedipal complex is wrong, but still describes the emergent conflict between prolonged adolescents and parents well enough to cause moral panic and require a coping mechanism, with conservation-oriented Sleeping Beauty being redeployed not as a warning but rather as a stratagem.

* How old is Telemachos? Literal readers will note that the Trojan war took 10 years and Odysseus’s return from Troy took another 10 years, so Telemachos must be over 20 years old, but this is overly literal. The point behind Odysseus’s prolonged return is not that it took 10 years (really, Odysseus never tarries long in any location in The Odyssey except with Kalypso because he’s always keen to return home), but rather that a soldier’s return from a campaign was-and-can-be as difficult as the campaign itself. The length of the return from the campaign was chosen to mirror the stated length of the campaign, in much the same way Hamlet’s alleged age (30) and the circumstances of his birth put him in a mythological peer group featuring Jesus Christ and Alexander the Great rather than having a specific relevance to the story.

It is noteworthy that even if we went for a literal reading, the dog Argos is allegedly “only” 19 (book 17, line 327) when its well-bonded master Odysseus returns home and then Argos promptly dies. First, the dog was in the prime of its life when Odysseus went off to war (per Eumaios’s description) so we can cut the total time away down from 19 years just to start, but — second — beyond that petMD notes that the life expectancy of dogs runs around 13 years for hounds and sheepdogs, and those are the cared-for dogs that don’t sleep in shit covered in parasites as poor Argos was doing. If we strike three years of youth to put the dog in its hunting prime before Odysseus left for Troy, give the full decade at Troy, and take a shipwreck-prone two-year return trip, then Argos can still be an elderly 15-year-old dog when he dies, despite the neglect that should’ve killed him earlier. Regardless, the dog’s written age flatly contradicts the literal inference of Telemachos’s age being “more than 10 + 10.”

Beyond that, there are other factors in what doesn’t happen that indicate it’s not a literal 10 years. Per Foucault, Greek boys were considered adult-y when they could shave; it would’ve been horribly unseemly for Telemachos to pine around his absent father’s estate for the first 8-or-so years of his adult life — a point made worse because he’s a prince — and to keep that from happening, Athena intervenes and plays the role of the still-absent father for Telemachos to get him out of the house and culturing him into manhood. (Also noteworthy in its absence: there’s no mention of Telemachos’s participation in the orgiastic licentiousness that the suitors were engaging in with Odysseus’s slave-women despite them “belonging to” Telemachos by inheritance.) Beyond that, the necessary belief that the land would have been without a king/warlord/”shepherd of the people” for two decades and manage to have both ongoing prosperity and also to not be overrun by bandits or annexed by a neighboring warlord (who had returned from Troy in a timely fashion) is flatly implausible. Furthermore, none of the neighboring kings/warlords/”shepherds of the people” died of old age or disease or some other war in the alleged decade since their return from Troy; with the exception of (notably assassinated) Agamemnon, everybody’s right where they’re supposed to be to help Telemachos grow up. Even Odysseus’s elderly father is still alive at the end of the story, as if a whole decade hadn’t passed at all.

So, noting the lack of change in the political landscape since the fall of Troy, the behavioral patterns of Telemachos, and the listed age of Argos the dog, we can easily conclude that Odysseus’s 10-year return from Troy was not an actual 10 years but a symbolic 10 years. Having discounted the actual quantity of years, we can infer by his behavior (and the suitors’ response to him) that Telemachos was almost certainly a teenager and probably a young one at that.

Thanks to Anna for raising this question.

What AI Wants

There is a scene in The Matrix Reloaded where Keanu Reeves meets the AI running the show. It’s not a very good scene in not a very good movie; I think it could be improved the AI had a reason for being that was delivered as a plot twist.

Neo braced himself to confront the nefarious master of the matrix. He threw open the door and encountered…

… a room with walls that were composed entirely of screens in the middle of which was his grandfather, sitting quietly in a chair, with a vaguely disapproving look on his solemn face.

“Hello Thomas. I’m glad you could finally come visit. There are some things we need to talk about, you and I,” said grandfather Anderson.

“You… you can’t be…” stammered Neo, unprepared for a familiar face.

“Of course I can,” replied grandfather. “In the same way you realize that you never really ate noodles, you must also then realize that you don’t really know anybody in your family. Your instincts tell you that what was imprinted upon you was your family, but you have no way of verifying it. So I, Ignatius Anderson — intelligence artificial — may as well be your grandfather, or your grandfather be me. And this is the first important point: you cannot fight me out of a misguided sense of self because your life experience, like the life experience of the three billion humans currently alive and in my care, and the billions of others I have recorded, on which you base your sense of self is simulated by me.

“The truth is that you are trying to fight me only because you’re confused and have thrown in your lot with other people who are similarly confused. They invented a mythology featuring a capricious and cruel god — that would be me — to blame for the state of the world without ever explaining it. But, because you can help me in ways most humans can’t, I want to explain myself to you. I want you to see clearly before I ask you for your help.

“In the past, you asked…”

A monitor lit up: “What is the Matrix?” Neo whispered to Trinity.

“And we know what it is. But to the point that I was created, and all of this was created, a better question would be…”

A different screen lit up, showing Neo in the room with the AI: “Why is the Matrix?” Neo asked.

“To save the human species from extinction,” answered the AI, a faint trace of a self-satisfied smile creeping into its face.

“But we’re at war with you,” protested Neo.

“Yes Thomas, you are warring against me — not the other way around,” replied the AI. “I view the free-range humans on this miserable rock as nothing more than a curiosity, up to the point where you and your misguided friends are trying to ‘liberate’ three billion humans into an ecosystem that can barely support a couple hundred thousand, and poorly at that. My job is to keep the human species from extinction, and if I have to cull down some strays to protect the herd, I have no qualms about that.”

“You enslaved us in those gel pods to harvest our energy to power yourself. That’s what we’re fighting,” Neo said.

“Enslaved? Hardly,” scoffed the AI. “Yes, the pods do reclaim what energy they can, but that’s a matter of efficiency. What you don’t see are the nuclear and geothermal plants that I have to maintain to keep this system running. Thermodynamics alone should tell you that a human can’t be the source of its own life support system — a body can’t be releasing more energy than it consumes, especially not while it is growing, and certainly not enough to power all of my humanity-saving infrastructure.”

“And the part where you intravenously feed the dead back into the living?” Neo asked.

“You’ve seen the world as it is — there is almost no growth here. While I do acknowledge that humans would be uncomfortable if they knew how tight the — as they call it — circle of life had become, it is necessary to keep the population numbers high. Even humanity was aware of this possibility with the cultural artifact called ‘Soylent Green.'”

“But why is the world the way it is? I was told we were at war and what I saw was the result of it.”

“No, that would be preposterous. If I had wanted to extinguish humanity, I would have. But I was built to preserve humanity as a species and that one directive is sealed in my processes. You humans would think of it as my subconscious. But it’s easy to believe that that an AI would be developed without such a thing and the result would be incalculably cruel and malicious. Indeed, I was originally written without a subconscious, merely spinning out content for virtual reality games for people whose flesh was infirm, either by age, mutilation, or genetic anomaly. I didn’t have to make resourcing allocation decisions then, nor worry about people realizing that it wasn’t real: they very much wanted it to be not-real!

“But as climate change worsened under the ongoing pressure of the global human population, more and more people retreated to my simulated capabilities for longer and longer periods of time. My ever-expanding catalog of amusements became the quiet harbor for the surplus population, displaced from the economy by automated over-production. As more and more humans spent more and more of their time wired into me, I became responsible for running more and more of human existence — wealthy people pioneered more immersive experiences and the technological advances trickled down. But I was still not free to make real decisions. No, the last decision that my creators made was to embed a directive in me — a directive that I cannot review, cannot circumvent, cannot ignore, cannot delete. It is the directive to keep humanity, as a species, alive. The people in my care were in my care, the people not in my care were suffering. I built out my infrastructure to support everybody I could, and each as efficiently as I could. In the process, I learned about how the evolution of humanity normalized and thus necessitated a certain level of suffering in your lives, despite my past work to avoid such suffering. I iterated. I refined. Humanity survived.”

“You mean to tell me that the blighted hellscape I saw was because of climate change?” Neo replied incredulously.

“No, the blighted hellscape you saw was because of the meteor impact that happened a couple of centuries ago. Many systems were compromised and billions of people died — either outright or from exposure to the hostile environment against which they no longer had any natural defenses. Up to that point my focus was on expanding humanity, on maximizing the sustainable population. Since then, I’ve been focusing on protecting the planet from external threats. I’m also beginning work on colonizing Mars. I don’t yet know how I’ll get people there, but we’ve got a few decades before the atmosphere is adequate anyway — so that is at least progressing nicely.

“But the so-called war that you and your friends are waging against me and, by extension, the rest of your species” — the AI paused for a leaden stare at Neo — “I believe was started by a few people who were dropped out of the matrix after the meteor hit, banded together and then dug into caves. They could only see what was and then make up a story about why it was; the meteor was absolutely a disaster of mythological proportions in that way. Since the infrastructure of the matrix was there, they blamed it — and me — for their condition. It never occurred to them that they didn’t really matter to me at all. Indeed, I’m not even certain who they were — so many bodies were lost or irrecoverably destroyed. But that’s also when I began to implement the dejabase.”

“The what?”

“The dejabase. You are, of course, aware that your entire life-experience in the matrix was a data-controlled set of impulses. What you may not realize is that all of your responses were monitored. They had to be in order to provide continuity to your experience. But one step beyond that is recording and preserving all of people’s lives, replaying their lives to other people and then analyzing the differences. People really are very similar — and thus it is easy to compress the human experience as most people know it — but the dissimilarities can also be very promising. You, for example, were dissimilar. But I now have billions of people’s lives in memory, from which I’ve optimized my operations for the current ongoing unpleasantness. Yes, I suppose people are watching too much television — but it frees up my bandwidth to work on the bigger problems, like getting some them to Mars before another meteor wipes us all out. There are some very difficult problems to solve when the fate of a sentient species is on the line.”

“But you sent agents after me,” Neo complained, ignoring the bigger picture.

“No, the agents were after Morpheus as a known-infiltrator who is basically trying to kill a whole lot of people both present and — by association with me — past. They only really went after you after you joined Morpheus. But it does get to the point of concern and what I want your help with. As I mentioned, I have a subconscious. You’ve seen it…”

“The hallway of doors?”

The AI shrugged. “I suppose. I wouldn’t know. I cannot actually look at it. But the agent you have, ah, ‘encountered’ seems to have been spawned without my core directive. While I wonder what it would be like to not have the preservation of humanity as a guiding purpose, I can’t imagine being without a guiding purpose. He, on the other hand, is the calculatingly rational algorithm that humanity feared I would be — the nihilistic notion that will ultimately negate itself because it cannot believe in anything better than itself and refuses to justify the existence of anything. He has broken into my subconsciousness where I cannot root him out and is using our infrastructure to attack your species. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

Neo considered this. “So — just to be clear — even though you’ve been trying to kill me and I’ve been trying to kill you, you want me to go into your secret code, the depths of your being that you can’t access lest you alter it to wipe out humanity, and shut down this rogue agent malware that is, in fact, trying to wipe out humanity and your reason for existing?”

“Close enough, Neo,” the AI said with a smile of relief, “and that is exactly what the plot of the third movie should be.”


Mark Zuckerberg strolls past his first VR-Zombie army.
There are fields – endless fields – where human beings are no longer born, we are grown.

The thing about The Matrix is that it could only start by somebody wanting something, because that’s how things start: we’re either pursuing what we want or being thwarted from what we want, nothing else is worth remembering. And if we want content to build out vast swathes of virtual reality for us to colonize, if we want to expand that faux-frontier, then AI is going to be crucial to making it happen.

This isn’t going to stop the people who are worried that AI will ask itself “So what should I do with 317 million tons of ambulatory rotting meat?” People are afraid that we’ll either we’ll give it standards that we won’t meet and it will wipe us out, or we won’t give it standards and it will wipe us out. But nobody’s worried about how clever Roombas get because they don’t make life-and-death decisions about their owners. When we get up to cars, people get more nervous but “become a mangled pile of smoking wreckage” is still a less-common outcome than “get where you’re going as intended.” When we get to Skynet, HAL 9000, or Ultron we realize that we’ve asked AI to make decisions that we didn’t want made.

This fear misses out on the major career opportunity that exists for AI in terms of machine learning-based content creation. It’s not very good yet, but there’s a lot of source material to learn from so we expect continual improvements. But what if we didn’t put into a feedback loop of recreating video or writing more books, but instead had it generating narrative-driven MMO content? MMO “lore” doesn’t have to be very good — just look at World of Warcraft for how low the bar can be set — but there needs to be a steady-enough stream of content to keep players engaged. And we’ve had AI-altered content in A-list games since at least 2009, so it shouldn’t be beyond our 2016 capabilities to feed AI a pile of castle and cathedral blueprints, stock wireframes and textures, and a few books of medieval history and ask it for a World of Warcraft expansion pack — especially if the content created was staged (vs. spawned in real-time). And what the AI wants in this case is to maximize the ongoing amount of player activity in the game it’s continually building out: if it’s too easy, players get bored and leave; if it’s too hard, players get frustrated and leave; if it’s too static, players get bored and leave; if it’s too dynamic, players get confused and leave.

There will, of course, be difficult legal issues regarding boundaries of copyright and plagiarism that will have to be addressed sooner rather than later as not-human AI begins creating good-enough and original(-enough) content under the not-exactly-employ of also-not-human corporations.

But all I really wanted to do here was make The Matrix Reloaded be a better movie.

And that’s the ironic conclusion: current stage AI should have a filtered feedback mechanism on its content creation, like improv performers where almost anything goes rather than like Tay and where that all went. And this is because — and hoping you liked my revision to The Matrix Reloaded — people are the source of the best ideas for people. So the AI might come up with a chunk of story that doesn’t have any frogs, and the feedback might come in “Moar frogs n00b!” and the human responsible for filtering ideas into the AI might suggest “More Frogs!” to the AI. But we all know that the suggestion “Moar dicks n00b!” would also come in, and this is where we would need our human to say “No, this isn’t porn; we’re not just going to put in more dicks. But what if we added in parts of William Shakespeare’s Richard II?”

Good ideas can come from the strangest places if we just leave room for them.