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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Flying Last Class -- My Immediate and Unceremonious Deportation from Nigeria, the Joys of Moroccan Airport Transit Area Imprisonment, and the Hassles of Doing Business in Africa

(No technical material in this post -- this one is pure "travel nightmare non-fiction", with some related general political commentary at the end....)

I recall Warren Buffett stating at some point. that, while he ate the same hamburgers and used the same laptops as people with more ordinary net worths, he did not travel the same way.   He traveled by private plane, which he considered qualitatively different from traveling via commercial jets and public airports.   At the time he made the comment he was peddling time-share jets, arrangements in which a person can buy the right to use a private jet drawn from a particular fleet, say, 10 times per year.   This is cheaper than owning one's own jet, so it opens up private jet travel to a certain class of people who are only extremely rich rather than keeping it restricted solely to the insanely rich.

The frustrating, time-wasting aspect of the routine of being a commercial passenger was parodied beautifully by South Park in their "It Machine" episode, in which an entrepreneur created an alternative to air travel that looked like a human-sized, fast-spinning hamster ball.   The new device had the downside that, in order to operate it, you had to get reamed up the butt by an onboard dildo.  But the punchline was, "Still, it's better than dealing with the airlines."   In any case, the airlines sent thugs to shut down the operation manufacturing and distributing the new device, as it threatened their market hegemony.  (It turned out that the dildo was an unnecessary feature inserted by the machine's inventor due to his own perversions.  But that's another story.....)  

I haven't yet traveled by private jet (at time of writing, mid 2016 ... in the future who knows ... I do have a couple friend with private jets but they haven't yet invited me to fly with them -- hint hint -- ), but I've experienced the scope of commercial travel options, from first class  -- where you're treated like a prince -- to "last class," where due to paperwork irregularities you're effectively jailed in a remote corner of an unclean airport terminal and deprived of most rights for an arbitrary period of time.  

My most extreme first class experience was when I got flown to Kazakhstan, to meet with the Prime Minister to discuss AGI and longevity.   Not having a private jet, I still had to change planes 3 times en route from Hong Kong to Astana.   And one of the changes was in Urumqi, which -- as I've observed since then through repeated trials -- nearly always seems to involve missing a connection.   (Flights into Urumqi are nearly always very late -- I'm not sure why, but I have a hypothesis.   Urumqi is the capital of Xingiang, China's major Muslim province, and it seems the central government's air traffic control algorithm does not prioritize getting flights out to Urumqi on time.   The good news is, spending a night in Urumqi is usually reasonably pleasant -- the people are extremely nice and the Xingiang food is delicious.)   Still, except the missed connection in Urumqi on the way there, every connection was extremely smooth, due to never having to wait in any line -- there were VIP lines (with no waits) for first class passengers at every step of the way.  Asian airports are pretty rigorous about giving first class passengers special treatment.  The seats were invariably super-comfortable, so I could sleep as much as I wanted on the flights, without being woken by an aching neck or a stiff leg.   The food on the flights was good, and the food in some of the VIP lounges at the airports where I changed planes, was really quite delectable.   The VIP lounge in the Bangkok airport was especially memorable.  It's easy to see how one would become a fat capitalist pig, traveling from one VIP lounge to another and feasting on the "free" ritzy hors d'ouvres.  

Perhaps the oddest aspect of traveling first class I've found -- especially in Asia -- is the bizarre degree of deference shown by the flight attendants.  They seem so tentative and apologetic when asking me to put on my seatbelt. They are constantly monitoring in case it seems like you might need a little food or water, or help operating the machinery of the seat.   The vibe is very much that they are your temporary servants, the idea being that many of the folks in first class are quite accustomed to having servants.  Of course, a good percentage of them are just ordinary folks who have used frequent flyer miles to upgrade their seats to first class, or people like me traveling on business with their seats paid by some organization.  But the vibe is still one of masters and servants -- quite unlike in economy class, where the flight attendants are often overworked and expressly irritated to have to deal with so many people and their demands ... and where getting a simple request fulfilled (like, say, a cup of water) can require repeated reminders, or polling various staff until one finds one who will help.

Traveling in first class, things seem easy and leisurely, and one begins to view the hordes of economy class passengers buzzing around crowdedly in the back part of the plane as an entirely different species -- maybe some sort of bug-people.

Nevertheless, I have never chosen to spend my own money on first class tickets.  I'd much rather save the exorbitant fees and be one of the bug-people, unless some company or conference is paying the bill....

And of course, from the perspective of the Warren Buffetts of the world, who fly only in their private jets, the self-important slightly rich or upgraded people riding in first class are not too far off from the even more peonic peons huddled back in economy class.   A king from one perspective is a bug from another; so it goes....

On the other hand, I experienced the opposite of any sort of luxurious, top-class treatment on a trip to Nigeria -- which ended up involving only a very brief stay in Nigeria itself.  I was supposed to go there to deliver a speech to a conference called "Disruptive Africa", dealing with radical tech innovation in Africa.   The folks organizing the conference seemed great -- ambitious people thoroughly devoted to bringing advanced tech to Nigeria and West Africa.  The title of the conference felt a bit ironic to me, as isn't Africa disrupted enough already?  But I had spoken at one of their previous conferences via Skype, and been reasonably impressed by the questions after my talk, so I was interested to go meet the people face to face.

The organizers warned me to apply for my Nigerian visa long in advance, but I was busy so I started the process only 3 weeks before my travel there.  This was the root of my problems.  As an American I'm not used to elaborate visa application processes -- generally for Americans, travel to foreign countries is either visa-free, or involves a rubber-stamp visa-on-arrival, or an eVisa application done online in advance and resulting in a visa a couple days afterwards.   China still requires Americans to apply for a visa via one of their embassies, but there are agencies that will get this done for you with a day or two notice if you are willing to pay a couple hundred dollars fee.

Other African countries I've traveled to, give Americans a visa on arrival without much rigmarole.  The only subtlety is that you sometimes need a "yellow card" signed by a doctor proving that you've had a yellow fever vaccine.   Nigeria is different though.  From what I could understand, the process of getting a tourist or business visa to Nigeria involves (in 2016) the embassy  holding your passport for at least 2 weeks, sometimes more.   At the time I was preparing to speak at this conference in Lagos, I was not able to give my passport to the Nigerian embassy for 2 to 3 weeks, because I was visiting the US and had a couple one-day trips to Canada scheduled in the interim, which required me to have my passport with me.  So I emailed the organizers of Disruptive Africa and told them I couldn't make it this year.

I thought that was that -- but a few days later the organizers responded, and told me there was something called a Business Visa on Arrival.  I was surprised, because I'd called a couple US visa agents dealing specifically with Nigerian visas and none of them had mentioned it to me.  (I would soon find out why....).   But indeed, as they pointed out, there was a website where one could apply for this sort of visa.   Feeling guilty about cancelling my talk, and eager to experience the rising Nigerian tech community, I decided to take that option.

Filling out the online form for the visa was easy enough.  Paying the required $180 for the visa was less easy, because none of my credit or debit cards would work on the website.  Rather, each time I tried to use one of my cards on the site, the result was that no payment went through and instead that card was disabled by my bank's automated anti-fraud system.   I called the bank and asked them specifically to add that website to the list of transaction partners I was allowed to use without being shut down by the anti-fraud software.   They said they would do that.  But it still didn't work.  I ended up needing to obtain a postal money order and mail it to the company that did the business visa on arrival processing for the Nigerian embassy (which has an exclusive contract with the Nigerian embassy, but is not the same as the Nigerian embassy -- a fact that would be hammered home to me a little later).  It was a minor pain in the ass dealing with the postal money order, since the need to send the money order popped up for me in the midst of a hectic business trip around Silicon Valley, but it wasn't really a big deal.   It turns out there's a good old fashioned US post office selling money orders in Palo Alto, just a couple blocks from University Avenue where rich geeks and Stanford students sit in quaint cafes discussing advanced electronic payment systems, and AI and nanotech and web n.0 business deals.

Once the visa process seemed to be underway, i bought a ticket to Lagos -- I was on the US West Coast at the time, so it was a flight to Lagos from San Francisco by way of New York and Casablanca.   From Lagos I would then go on to Addis Ababa for a quick visit to my AI software office there, iCog Labs, and then finally back to Hong Kong -- the last leg of a marathon 6 week journey, mostly within the US.  

A couple days before the flight, I was still a bit confused by the visa process, so I called the company ("Innovate1" or some such) that handled the visas for the embassy, and they assured me that if I downloaded the application form and the payment receipt, and brought printed versions with me, everything would be all right.   I tried to call the Nigerian embassy in New York to double-confirm, but they never answered their phone; I just got put through to a voicemail that was never answered.  (This sort of thing is fairly common for African embassies, it seems.  My daughter tried to find the Ethiopian embassy in Hong Kong at its listed address, and never found it.   Someone else told us that the HK Ethiopian embassy is actually a jewelry store that specializes in selling pirated ivory and so forth.   She also found that the Ethiopian embassy in DC never answers their English-language phone line, but does answer their Amharic-language phone line -- and that the people who answer the Amharic-language phone line actually speak English.)

I wasn't too worried, because I figured once I actually got to Lagos, if there were any problems, the immigration staff could call the conference organizers and they could come to the airport and explain.  This is how things worked in other countries I was familiar with.    In the US, if there's an issue with your immigration, you can get held up a little while, while they get more information.  For instance, my son Zebulon got held up coming into the US recently even though he's a US citizen, because he's Muslim and was flying in from the Arab world.   And when I flew into Ethiopia for the first time, Getnet (my Ethiopian business partner) came into the airport, using his military ID to get into the restricted customs area, to help smooth things over.  So I figured once I actually got to Nigeria, things would be all right one way or another.

Before leaving, at some point I also looked up online to double-check if I needed a yellow fever vaccination certificate -- I had one, but had left it at home in Hong Kong -- but the Nigerian embassy website stated that it was necessary only if traveling to Nigeria from a yellow fever zone.   The US was not listed as a yellow fever zone, so I figured that was OK.  This agreed with what the Innovate1 people had said on the topic, also.

After an 8.5 hour flight to Casablanca, a 5 hour layover (where I enjoyed some decent Moroccan fast food, and admired the elegant-looking Moroccan staff in the airport), and a 3.5 hour flight to Lagos -- there I was in Nigeria, finally.  

The first thing I encountered was a woman telling me that I did indeed need a yellow fever card, or else I'd be immediately deported.   Being immediately deported sounded bad.  I told her what the "Innovate1" people had told me on the phone, and what the website had said; and she said I should have contacted the embassy directly.  I pointed out that the embassy never answered their phone.   She asked if I could give her a little help.   I also pointed out that I had in fact been vaccinated for yellow fever, though I'd left my card at home in Hong Kong.  I also offered to get vaccinated again at the airport if needed.   She repeated that she needed some help.  I offered her $20, but she didn't consider that helpful enough.  Unfortunately I didn't have any other US money in my wallet but $100 bills, so I had to offer her $100.  OK, that hurdle was passed. 

Next step was to pass immigration.   The immigration officers at the regular booths were baffled by the "visa on arrival" concept, but after a while they dug up an official who knew about them, and he looked at my papers and rushed me across the airport to a small "visa on arrival" office.   The officials there did not speak to me at all -- I talked only to the junior immigration guy who dragged me to the visa on arrival office in the first place.  My attempts to speak to them were met with blunt rebuffals.   They looked at my papers and noted that I was missing a piece of paper stating the visa application was approved.  I said that, based on my phone call with the Innovate1 people, I thought all I needed to bring was a print-out of the application and the receipt for payment.   I suggest that perhaps he could wait until the immigration office opened in Lagos (it was 5:45AM or so), and call them and then they could confirm that in fact the visa had been approved even though the Innovate1 website had not correctly produced the piece of paper he was after.

He asked who had invited me there, and I produced the invitation letter from the local organizer of the conference.  He tried to call the organizer, but didn't get an answer.  I pointed out that it was 6AM and perhaps we should wait a little while, and then we'd reach him on the phone and tell him to come to the airport and explain.  I also explained that there would be a crowd of people at the Sheraton there in Lagos waiting for me to speak later that afternoon, so it really would not be a good idea to kick me out or hold me there too long.

However, this officer appeared not to hear anything I said (I'm not sure how good his English comprehension was), and he appeared to draw the conclusion that, because the conference organizer had not answered his phone at 6AM, the invitation letter I had produced was some sort of fraud.   He said something in a non-English language to the junior officer who had brought me to his office, and then I was rushed off somewhere else.  I didn't like the looks of this, but followed along tentatively.

When it became apparent that I was being dragged to the "Departures" part of the airport, I stopped walking and said I didn't want to go to Departures.  I said we should wait until we contacted the conference organizer on the phone, and then he could come and help clarify things, since I didn't understand the situation but he would, being a local.   Since I wouldn't walk, the junior officer finally agreed to call the conference organizer (I couldn't call myself, lacking a local sim card or a Net connection).   We got through now, at 6:20AM.  A brief call ensued, but it didn't seem to affect anything.   I kept complaining that the whole process made no sense.  But the junior officer just kept saying "He didn't answer the phone."   I pointed out that one wouldn't necessarily expect someone to answer their phone at 6AM, it was kind of early.  He just said "6AM is not early for an important business call."

Finally, he said he would have me arrested and put in jail if I wouldn't walk.   I just stood there arguing more, starting to become angry a bit -- and he grabbed my arm to pull me.   It wasn't really a violent scuffle yet, but I could see that potential and I figured I was very likely to be outmuscled by the Nigerian immigration police force, so I bit back my fiery temper and just went along with the guy, arguing all the way. 

I was rushed out through a service door onto the runway, bypassing the normal gates and walkways and so forth, and was dragged-while-walking-very-fast across the runway, past the luggage trucks and so forth, to an airplane that was boarding.

Being a stubborn fuck, again I stopped moving, and told the junior officer this made no sense.  I asked him to please bring me back to the visa on arrival office, so that the senior immigration officer could talk to the conference organizer directly.  He just said, "He didn't answer the phone at first; now it's too late."  

I said "Look, there must be a way" -- figuring this was the time he would ask for a bribe.  I started to realize there must have been some bribery opportunity earlier, that I had missed, in my naivete' and unfamiliarity with the Nigerian "system."

"There's no way now," he said.  "If I bring you back there, it won't be good for you."

"What do you mean?!" I protested.   "Look, there will be a room full of people at the Sheraton waiting to hear me speak about the future of technology.   All around your airport there are signs about how great Nigeria is for international business!   If you want your country to be good for international business, maybe you shouldn't kick out people who have flown here at their own expense to speak at business conferences and start business collaborations with your people!!"

"You came without the right visa paperwork."

"I came with what I was told to bring."

Meanwhile he was trying to physically yank me toward the plane, and I was standing there stubbornly.  

"You were told that by a private company," he repeated.  "You should have called the embassy."

"The embassy doesn't answer their phone," I pointed out again..

"Look, it's hopeless now," he said.  "If I bring you back there now, you will be put in jail, or you will have to pay a lump sum."

Aha, I thought.  Here we are getting to the meat of it.  "How big of a lump sum?"  I asked.  "What's the price to let me stay in the airport long enough for the conference organizer to come here and help?"

Obviously this wasn't quite the right approach.  I started to think perhaps the culturally appropriate move would have been to offer money to the senior immigration officer when I'd been in his office.  But he hadn't really spoken to me directly, nor been willing to listen to anything I said.  Maybe he would have listened to the appearance of green-colored money emerging from my wallet, though.

"You have to come back with the right paperwork," he said.  "You can fly away now and come back tonight with the right paperwork."

"That's a huge waste of time and money," I argued.  "Plus I'm supposed to give a talk THIS AFTERNOON at the Sheraton.   How much of a lump sum do you guys need?"

Another immigration officer came up and grabbed my bags and began carrying them to the plane.   I gave up and followed along.   And before I knew it, there I was on a 6:30AM  plane back to Casablanca, having been in Nigeria about one hour.

My plan had been to proceed from Lagos to Addis Ababa, after the conference, and then from Addis back to my home in Hong Kong.   Having been booted from Nigeria, my new plan was to hang out in Morocco for a couple days, then fly from there to Addis.   Or else, if somehow the immigration mess got solved by the conference organizer while I was on the plane, maybe I really would fly back to Lagos that night.

When I got to Casablanca airport, however, I realized things were going to be much more annoying than that.   Although Americans don't need a visa to enter Morocco, nevertheless they refused to release me into Morocco.   The airline officials put my passport in a locked safe in the airport transit office, and said they were bound by international law to return me to my country of origin.  I pointed out that I lived in Hong Kong and had a ticket back to Hong Kong from Addis Ababa -- I did not have a ticket back to the US and did not live there, even though I was traveling on a US passport.   But they said that they were required to send me, as a deportee, back to my country of citizenship.

Over the next 16 hours, while I was stuck (actually, "imprisoned" would be perfectly accurate) in the transit area of the Casablanca airport, I attempted to argue that I should be allowed to fly to Addis or Hong Kong rather than back to the US.   I offered to buy my own ticket to Addis or HK, if they'd give me my passport and let me on the plane.   The staff in the transit office at the airport seemed to rotate every 2 or 3 hours, so I kept making the argument over and over again to each new batch of staff.   They kept telling me that they had to send me back to the US; but they weren't telling me when their plan of shipping me back to the US would be effectuated. 

The Internet connectivity in the transit area was spotty and restricted -- each device could only get 2-3 hours of Internet and then it would be cut off.  And out of that 2-3 hours, most was lost due to bad connectivity.  I was glad I had a phone and two laptops with me.   But I used up some my precious connectivity time, via letting other people also imprisoned there use my devices to communicate and look up information regarding their own plans.  My power adapter, with its two extra USB ports, was also a valuable commodity there -- most of the people stranded there had no way to charge their phones, which was a major problem.  So during my tenure in the Casablanca transit prison, my laptop and power adapter were continually occupied charging other peoples' phones.

At first I thought there was no food and water in the transit area, but then at some point someone came by and gave me a chicken nugget sandwich and a bottle of Sprite.  I abhor soda but I couldn't be fussy -- it seemed better than the Moroccan sink or toilet water.  The chicken nuggets were actually real chicken, not texturized soy protein -- better than McDonald's at any rate.

(When I started writing this essay, I had some second thoughts about calling the transit area of the Casablanca airport a "jail" in which I was temporarily "imprisoned" -- I mean, I'm sure actual Moroccan prisons are massively less desirable places.  On the other hand, the essential principle of a jail is that you are physically confined and are at the mercy of your jailers.  This principle was fulfilled.  And if you compare to, say, a Norwegian rather than a Moroccan prison, then things look a bit different -- in Norwegian prison you get better food, water undiluted with sugar and toxins, a bed to sleep in instead of a ratty floor, and more and better Internet access.   You even get private conjugal visits.  But the Norwegian prison is still a jail, because you're forced to stay there.   All in all I think the use of the term is fair. The current system incarcerates people in airport transit areas, often quite unsanitary and disgusting by developed-world standards, often for days at a time, in response to minor paperwork errors, or failures in bribery etiquette.)

After about 10 hours of imprisonment there, things seemed to start going better -- the transit-staff-of-the-hour agreed that I could fly to Addis if I bought my own ticket online.   I pointed out there were no direct flights, but he said it was OK if there was a flight change.  With great effort, due to the spotty Net connection, I used about 40 minutes of my precious online time buying a ticket to Addis.  But by the time this was done, that staff member had rotated off.  He had promised me he would tell his replacement about the plan we'd agreed on; but nevertheless, the new staff member would hear nothing of it.   It was back to "No, you have to fly back to the US, because that's the country on your passport."

I argued and wheedled and begged.  I considered attempting bribery, but there were lots of other staff around and I realized it wasn't Nigeria -- I wasn't quite sure what was the risk of being arrested for attempted bribery in Morocco.   Avoiding jail seemed more valuable than avoiding being flown back to the US.    Finally I realized it was hopeless, and I went online to cancel the ticket -- but due to the bad Internet connection I couldn't carry out the operation.  And the flight was leaving quite shortly -- it seemed I was about to lose the $500 I'd spent on that ticket to Addis.  In desperation I emailed a few family members telling them, if they were online, to help out poor imprisoned Ben and cancel the plane ticket for him. Fortunately my daughter was paying attention to her phone and got my message and called the online travel agency to cancel the ticket, which was done without penalty!   Three cheers for the always-online, unimprisoned younger generation!

I was far from the only person in a confusing, indeterminate quasi-imprisoned state in the Casablanca airport.   Although, I was the only white-skinned person among the set of individuals thus afflicted, during the time I was there.  

There was one Canadian girl, apparently of African descent, who had been rejected admission from the Congo due to some visa irregularity.  She assured me this kind of thing happened constantly in Africa, and you just had to grin and bear it.  It always ended after a few days.  She was going to get flown back to Canada, giving up on getting into the Congo for now.  When she heard I was flying to Addis, she asked me to buy her a ticket too -- she said we could be traveling companions.  It seemed fairly clear in context that what was intended was a "traveling companion with benefits".  She was nice-looking and energetic, but that wasn't what I was looking for ... and in the end I wasn't allowed to fly to Addis anyway....  

Another Canadian woman of African descent had been on the same plane as me to and from Lagos -- and had been rejected for the same exact reason as me.   She also hadn't understood how or if or when to make a bribe in that context.   The fact that she had been through basically the same process as me -- except that she had argued and struggled less -- was an indicator to me that I had not been rejected because I looked like a bit of a hippie freak.   This woman looked perfectly normal; she was a well-dressed, well-spoken young black woman, international-looking and -acting so that one couldn't tell by interacting with her if she was a middle-class American or a middle-class African.  Like me, she was just baffled by the Nigerian way of doing things, and had come with what she had rationally believed -- based on the information she'd been given -- to be an adequate set of documents to get a business visa on arrival.

Most of the people detained in that transit area with me were Africans from various nations -- a few were refugees, but most were just ordinary citizens who had fallen afoul of some country's bureaucratic immigration peculiarities.   They all seemed to take their predicament with much less annoyance than yours truly.    To them, this was just part of the process of traveling -- something that could be expected to occur from time to time.   At 1AM and 2AM, a number of them were singing and dancing together in the transit area, to a loud MP3 player with speakers that one of them had brought.   As they jumped around going "Waka Waka Waka" and so forth, shaking their booties and genuinely making the best of the situation, I did reflect on the benefits of their easygoing attitude -- but nevertheless, being an impatient American, I still wanted pretty badly to get the fuck out of there as quickly as I could.

Anyway, after 15 hours in the Casablanca transit area, I was put on a plane back to New York, my homeland....   From which I immediately booked a flight back to Addis, but at a higher cost than if I'd been able to fly there directly from Casablanca.   By the time I got back to New York my ass was seriously sore from sitting on airplane seats and transit lounge seats for so many hours.  

On the other hand, at least I had had my trusty little Macbook Air with me through it all; and there had been reliable electrical power even if not much Internet.  During all that hassle, I had made huge progress on editing a novel-in-progress that had been sitting on my laptop ("A Secret Love of Chaos"), and I'd finished a long-delayed research proposal.

A nice capstone to the ordeal was that, when I arrived back in New York, it turned out that my suitcase had gotten sent from Casablanca to Lagos, rather than to New York.  Furthermore, the airline had not put the proper tags on it -- so after I waited in line an hour to file a complaint about the missing bag with Royal Air Maroc at JFK airport in New York, they told me the bag did not exist and there would be no way to get it back.  

BUT -- while I was getting this bad news from the airline officer in New York, I got a phone call from someone in Lagos -- an individual named Jacob Ogbonna who worked at the airport there.  He had noticed my suitcase randomly astray there, and had noticed that, while it lacked a proper airline tag, it did have a tag with  my name, phone number and email address on it.  So he called my phone number and he emailed me some pictures of my bag, snapped with his smartphone.   After some back and forth, he arranged for Ethiopian Airlines to send my bag back to Hong Kong for me.   This was a big relief to me, as the bag contained some obscure music equipment and poetry books I had bought in the US -- stuff that was valuable to me because it was not findable in Hong Kong, even though its economic value was not extremely high.

Jacob Ogbonna did not need to help me, he just chose to, because -- apparently -- he is a good human being.   If the immigration officers had been as good-hearted and helpful as Jacob Ogbonna, I would have saved a lot of money and hassle and given my talk at the Disruptive Africa conference as planned.

Anyway, that's done for now -- but I will make it back to Nigeria to give a talk and establish research and business contacts sometime -- maybe next year, we'll see.     I'm not easily defeated, and I realize that getting stuff done in Africa involves a lot of unexpected complexities and requires a lot of persistence.   Next time I will definitely not do the "visa on arrival" for Nigeria though...

Beyond my own personal hassles, I think this little tale of inconvenience and wasted money and opportunity is reasonably indicative of the kind of thing that makes it harder than it should be for Africa to rise in business, science and technology.   Of course, global wealth inequality and various forms of imperialism are major factors stifling Africa's rise.  But internal organizational factors also appear to play a substantial role.

There are so many smart, hard-working and good-hearted people throughout every African country -- but the practical institutional systems there very often act against the goals of the people.   Denying the keynote speaker of a tech-business conference entry the country because of a minor paperwork irregularity (caused by bad advice from a contractor of the Nigerian government, and the inability of the Nigerian embassy to answer their phone), while posting signs all around the airport about the international business friendly environment -- this is utterly symbolic of the current situation. 

I thought a bit, while stewing in the Casablanca transit area, about how truly rich or famous visitors to Nigeria would avoid the kind of hassle I'd experienced.  My conclusion was that they would simply contract with some local Nigerian agency to make all their arrangement for them -- and this local agency would make whatever arrangements were necessary with the immigration authorities (possibly -- no, probably -- no, well, almost surely! -- including payment of appropriate bribes to appropriate people).   The business environment is perfectly friendly for big companies that can afford to appropriately compensate the appropriate array of government officials, and that can hire people who understand the system fully.  But it's not at all friendly to small-time foreign entrepreneurs. 

I have seen similar, though not identical, phenomena in Ethiopia.  Getting into Ethiopia is easy enough ... they offer a "visa on arrival" that is basically automatically granted to everyone from a developed country.    But shipping goods into Ethiopia involves incredible paperwork complexity, and requires more funds than one would think (i.e. much more than the cost of the goods being bought, to deal with various banking requirements).   For a big company with large cash reserves and lots of lawyers and bureaucrats on staff, such things are all easily handle-able.  But for small-time entrepreneurs, the process is extremely arduous and off-putting -- as we discovered while trying to import the materials for our iCog Makers soccer-playing robots into Ethiopia from China.

We got the robots imported into Ethiopia finally... and I'll go back to Nigeria and give a talk eventually.  But I'm pigheadedly persistent, as are my Ethiopian colleagues at iCog.   It's easy to see why a lot of entrepreneurs from the developed world would decide the hassles of doing business with African countries are just too much to deal with, especially given the relative difficulty making profit there compared to other wealthier regions.   If African governments want to help their countries transition into advanced technological economies, they should stop holding things back with byzantine and punitive regulations that make entrepreneurial activity more difficult than in the rest of the world.  

Bear in mind I am not an advocate of unfettered capitalism -- I'm a technoprogressive who advocates a fairly strong role for governments in driving innovation, such as we've seen in South Korea and Singapore.   But it's obvious that at the current stage in human development, entrepreneurial small-business activity is one of the biggest drivers of positive technological and social innovation ... and governments need to foster this rather than place roadblocks in its way.

Coherent Extrapolated Valuation (CEVa): Another Stab at Defining a Future-Looking Human-Friendly Value System

--> Today I'll come back to an old topic -- my old chum Eliezer Yudkowsky's intriguing yet ill-founded notion of "Coherent ExtrapolatedVolition" (CEV).

The core idea of CEV is, as Eli put it,

In poetic terms, our coherent extrapolated volition is our wish if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished we were, had grown up farther together; where the extrapolation converges rather than diverges, where our wishes cohere rather than interfere; extrapolated as we wish that extrapolated, interpreted as we wish that interpreted.

This is a beautiful concept, but I think it fundamentally doesn't make sense and will never be directly useful (perhaps this is part of its beauty!).   

Obviously you should not judge the CEV concept by the above "poetic" gloss though -- if you're curious read the whole paper linked above.  It's interesting.

In the past I have suggested a few variations like averaging together what everyone on the planet wants, or making a conceptual blend of what everyone on the planet wants.   However, these variations do lose a key aspect of the original CEV idea: that it's not peoples' current desires that we're accounting for, but rather the desires of other "better" beings that have been hypothetically created based on current people.

Here I will present a new variant, CEVa (Coherent Extrapolated Valuation), which I believe captures more of the spirit of the original.

The main reason I think the original CEV idea is incoherent is that "what person X wants to be" is not a coherent notion.   Quite often, when a person becomes what they (thought they) wanted to be, they realize they didn't want that at all.   To talk about "what a person wants to be, deep deep down" as distinct from what they consciously THINK they want to be -- this just wanders into the realm of the unacceptably nebulous, even though I do sorta grok what it means on an intuitive basis.

What I want to do here is try to rescue the original CEV idea by replacing the "what a person wants to be" part with something a bit more concrete (though still not anywhere close to feasible to implement at the present time).

Eliezer has more recently talked less about CEV and more about "Rawlsian reflective equilibrium" as a conceptually related idea that's easier to formulate, or even as a near-equivalent of CEV.   See this recent review of CEV and related ideas by Nick Tarleton.   But I think the Rawlsian approach lacks the bite of the original CEV, somehow.  I'm more inspired to keep pushing on the original CEV to see if it can be made in some sense workable.

Continuity of Self

In a previous paper published in the Journal of Machine Consciousness, I addressed the question of: When does a descendant of a certain mind, count as a continuation of that mind?   For instance I am a continuation of my 2 year old self, even though we are very, very different.   What if tomorrow I got a brain implant and became 5% machine ... then a year later I became 10% machine ... then in a few decades I was essentially all machine.  Suppose that as I got more and more machine in my brain, I became more and more cognitively different.   Would I still be "myself" by 2050?  In a sense yes, in a sense no.

What I introduced there was a notion of "continuity of self" -- i.e. when a mind M changes its into another different mind M", there is the question of whether M' feels it is  (and models itself as) the same entity as M.   What I suggest is that, if one has a long chain of minds so that each element in the chain has continuity of self with the previous entity, then a later entity on the chain should be considered, in a sense, a later version of every earlier entity on the chain.  

So if I upgraded my brain with machine parts on a gradual schedule as I suggested above, probably there would be continuity of self all along, and at each stage I would feel like I was continuously growing and evolving (just as I've done over my life so far), even though eventually the changes would accumulate and become tremendous.  But if I upgraded 50% of my brain at once, the change might be so sudden and discontinuous that after the upgrade, I really did not feel like myself anymore.

Coherent Extrapolated Valuation: individualized version

Most probably you've seen where I'm going already.

Suppose we consider, for each person in a society at a certain point in time, the set of forward-going paths beginning from that person -- but possessing continuity of self at each step along the way.

Now let's add one more ingredient: Let's ask at each step of the way, whether the change is recognized as desirable.   There are two aspects here: desirable in hindsight and desirable in foresight.  When mind M changes into mind M', we can ask: if M could see M', would it think the change was for the better ... and we can ask: does M', looking backward, think the change is for the better?   How to weight these two aspects of desirability is basically a "parameter choice" in CEVa.

If we can weight each step on a path of mind-evolution as to desirability, then we can also weight a whole path as to desirability, via averaging the desirabilities of the various steps.  This requires an assumption of some time-discounting factor: nearer-term changes have got to be weighted higher than further-term changes, according to some time series with a finite sum.   This set of temporal weights is another parameter choice in CEVa.

Given a person at a particular time, then, we can look at the self-continuing forward-going paths started at that person, and we can weight each of these paths via its desirability.   

This gives the first version of CEVa: We can associate with a person, not just their value judgments at the present time, but the value judgments of all the minds existing along self-continuing forward-going mind-evolution paths from their present mind.   We can then weight these different minds, and make an overall weighted average of "the judgment of the current person M and all the minds M' they might eventually become, where the latter are weighted by the desirability along the path from M to M' ".

There are a lot of free parameters here and I certainly don't know how to compute this in practice.   However, it seems like a reasonably fair interpretation of Eliezer's original notion of "the person that a certain person wishes they were."  

 Coherent Extrapolated Valuation: collective version

There is still a gaping flaw in the CEVa version I've just outlined, though: it's too individual-centric.    It doesn't really make sense to think about the evolution of human minds as individuals, given the degree of collective experience and collective intelligence in modern humanity.

Instead it probably makes more sense to look at potential futures of a whole SOCIETY of minds.   One can then ask, for a society S and then a slightly changed society S': how desirable is the change, from the point of view of S, and also from the point of view of S'?  

One can calculate desirability based on individual minds within the society -- but also based on "group intelligences" existing within the society, such as families, corporations or even the whole society considered as a sort of "global brain."

Weighting the desirabilities of individuals versus those of larger groups involves some subtlety in terms of "subtracting off for overlap."   Also, identifying what is a coherent enough entity to count in the average may become subtle, especially if we see the emergence of "mindplexes" in which multiple minds fuse together in various partial ways to form mixed individual/collective intelligences.   But these complexities are not really bugs in CEVa -- they're just complexities of the actual situation being analyzed.

This "collective" CEVa -- CEVav2 -- is my current suggestion regarding how to transform the original CEV idea into something related that is at least conceptually sound.

Now, one possibility is that when one does CEVa (version 1 or 2) one does not find anything coherent.  One may find that some individuals or groups and their self-continuing descendants have values X, and others have values Y, and X  and Y are very different.   In that case, if one has need to come up with a single coherent value system, one can try to do a conceptual blend and come up with something new and coherent that incorporates key aspects of X and Y and also has other desirable merits like simplicity or various aesthetic qualities. 

Ethics is Solved!  Woo hoo!!

Ethics now becomes simple!  To figure out if you should run in front of that train to save that baby, at risk of your own life -- you merely simulate all possible future evolutions of human society (including those involving transcendence to various transhuman entities), calculate a certain weighting function for each one, and then figure out what each mind at each level of organization in each possible future evolution of society would want you to do regarding the baby.   Simple as pie!   Ah, and you'd better do the calculation quickly or the baby will get squashed while you're programming your simulator... and then no pie for you ...

Oh yeah -- and there are some further subtleties I swept under the transhuman rug in the above.   For instance, what if a trajectory of self-modification results in something without a self, or something that makes no judgments about some situations but does about others.   Does one assume continuity-of-self or not, when dealing with selfless hypothetical future entities and their hypothetical future evolutions?  How, quantitatively, does one incorporate "number of judgments" (weight of evidence) into a composite value assessment?   But I am reasonably comfortable assuming that a superhuman AGI capable of doing the CEVa calculations, will also be capable of handling these matters and the various other loose ends.

No But Really -- So What?

To my own taste, at least, CEVa is a lot clearer conceptually than the original CEV, and meatier than Rawlsian reflective equilibrium and related notions.   Perhaps it's less beautiful, in some correlated way, but so it goes.... 

On the other hand, CEVa does share with the original CEV the trait of not being remotely useful in practice at the present time.  We simply have no way to compute this sort of thing.

Furthermore, there are so many free parameters in the definition of CEVa that it seems likely one could tweak it in many different ways to get many different answers to the same question.   This is not a bug in CEVa, either -- it would be the case in any reasonably concrete idea in the vicinity of CEV....

If there is any value to this sort of thought-exercise -- aside from its inarguable value as weird-brow entertainment for a small crew of futurist geeks -- it is probably as a way of clarifying conceptually what we actually mean by "desirable" or "valuable" in a future-looking sense.   I, for one, genuinely DO want to make choices that my future self-continuing descendants would think are good, not just choices that my current incarnation thinks are good based on its own immediate knowledge and reactions.   I don't want to make choices that my current self HATES just because my future evolutions have a very different set of values than my current self -- but very often I'm faced with hard choices between different options that seem confusingly, roughly equally valuable to me... and I would really LOVE to get input from the superminds I will one day give rise to.   I have no good way to get such input, alas (despite what Terrence McKenna said sometimes, mushrooms are a pretty noisy channel...), but still, the fact that I like this idea, says something about how I am thinking about value systems and mind evolution.

I doubt very much we are going to "hard-code" complex ethical systems into future AGIs.  Ethics is just not that simple.  Rather, we will code in some general principles and processes, and AGI systems will learn ethics via experience and instruction and self-reflection, as intelligent minds in the world must.

HOWEVER -- at very least -- when we guide AGI systems to create their own value systems, we can point them to CEV and CEVa and Rawlsian coherence and the whole mess of other approaches to human ethics ... and who knows, maybe this may help them understand what the heck we mean by "what we want deep down."  

Or on the other hand, such notions may end up being no use to the first superhuman AGIs at all -- they may be able to form their own ideas about what humans want deep down via their own examination of the nitty-gritty of human life.  They may find our hairy human abstractions less informative than specific data about human behaviors, from which they can then abstract in their own ways. 

But hey, providing them with multiple forms of guidance seems more likely to help than to hurt....  And at very least, this stuff is fun to think about!  (And if you read the first link above, you will know that Mr. Yudkowsky has warned us against the dangers of things that are fun to think about ... but please rest assured I spent most of my time thinking about more useful but more tedious aspects of AGI ;-p )

Pattern and Timing in Sex, Music and Narrative -- The Deep Structure of Aesthetic Experience

This long, somewhat rambling post explores the cognitive and physiological underlayer of various aspects of human experience and aesthetics -- touching three examples: sex, music and narrative.

Timing is Not Everything, But It's a Lot

It's sometimes said that in music, timing is everything.   

Now, this is often said in other domains too -- for instance, in business, timing is very important ... the right startup idea introduced too late or too early will have minimal or no success, but the right startup introduced at the right time can become a billion-dollar "unicorn."

But I think there is a core to the human psychology of timing in music, which is more specific than the observation that "timing is generally very important in complex systems."  It seems to me that the emotional impact of music on humans, depends on specific aspects of the human mind/brain's arousal and expectation subsystems, and the way they react to the ratios of different time intervals.  

Here I will fairly loosely sketch a model of the human mind's arousal/expectation subsystem, which I will call Timarcex (for TIMing of ARousal, Comparison and EXpectation).  And I will explain how Timarcex -- as it intersects with other aspects of psychophysiology, including pattern recognition in particular -- underlies various aspects of sexual, musical and narrative experience.

From a science view, this is mostly speculation, which ultimately needs to be backed up (or not) via empirical studies, simulation models, and so forth.

Timing and Sexual Arousal

Just for fun, let's start with sexuality.... 

Let's think about the role of unpredictable timing in sexual arousal … specifically in the arousal of a human being to the point of orgasm.  There has been a great deal written on this topic already; my goal here is to explain some of what is already well known, in a more fine-grained way based on how the human mind-brain handles timing related to arousal and expectation.   (The same basic dynamics apply to both males and females in this context, but they are generally more easily observable in females because of females' generally longer and more erratic paths to orgasm.)

For simplicity let us divide the path to orgasm into four phases: initial arousal, pre-orgasm, orgasm and post-orgasm.  Obviously this is a discrete approximation of an underlying continuum.

(Yeah, I do realize that other modalities of sexual experience exist, for example tantric sex in which one doesn't achieve traditional orgasm, but moves through different "altered states" of consciousness in which slower, deep waves of pleasure move through one.    The tantric sex experience is more complex and could also be analyzed cognitively and physiologically, but I won't get into that here.  My point here isn't to do a thorough job of cognitive-physiological sexology, but rather to use sexuality as a way of illustrating certain general points, that also come up e.g. in music and narrative and other areas.   Looking at these dynamics in the context of sex highlights their basic physiological/emotional nature.)

The first point I want to look at is the differential desirability of randomness at different stages in the arousal process.

In the pre-orgasm phase, extremely regular and predictable movements are generally desirable, as long as they’re pleasurable movements for the particular person involved.

But in the earlier phase, where arousal is still being built up, random variations in timing are desirable.  That is, a specific pleasurable motion every 5 seconds is worse than the same pleasurable motion delivered with a MEAN interval of 5 seconds but random variation of, say, 2 seconds variance on either side.  My suspicion is that this is true if the movements are delivered by a purely automated tool, but even more true if the movements are delivered by an agent that has emotions or is perceived to have emotions.

So, before going further, let's explore: What is this all about?  Why would it be better to start with more randomness in movement timing during initial arousal, and then introduce more consistency of timing during pre-orgasm?

To understand this, I suggest, we can model human pleasure as having at least three aspects:

·      Raw underlying pleasure
·      Comparison of pleasure to immediately-past pleasure
·      Comparison of pleasure to (e.g. cognitively) expected pleasure

To make things a little clearer, let's refer to "raw underlying pleasure" as pleasure0, and use the term pleasure1 to refer to the pleasure that involves the three components

·      Current pleasure0
·      Comparison of current pleasure0 to immediately-past pleasure0
·      Comparison of pleasure0 to (e.g. cognitively) expected pleasure0

We may then recurse, and define pleasure2 in terms of pleasure1, etc.    

We may also look at averages, e.g. define pleasure* as a weighted average of pleasure0, pleasure1, pleasure2, etc..... 

One can then also look at pleasure*1, defined from pleasure* just as pleasure1 is defined from pleasure0 -- one can even build up a whole ordinal omega hierarchy of pleasures -- but probably this is unnecessary in the human-psychology or early-stage-AGI context.  (I look forward to becoming an uploaded supermind that can experience multiple ordinal infinities of pleasure types....)

I suppose that pleasure* is about right as a grounding of the intuitive concept of "pleasure"; and I suppose that approximating pleasure* in terms of pleasure0, pleasure1 and pleasure2 is probably good enough for almost call cases.

In the sexual case, the "raw pleasure" pleasure0 is mainly physiological in origin.  In other cases, this same role may be caused by other factors -- e.g. by various system goals being fulfilled.   If a system has a strongly weighted goal of learning new things, and it learns something new and exciting, then this may cause a burst of pleasure, which we would categorize as pleasure0.   What makes an instance of pleasure an instance of pleasure0 is that it is not constructed recursively via comparison or expectation of pleasure.

So, let us return to the scenario above (building arousal, in the initial-arousal phase, via the tension induced from random timing variations in pleasure).  The key point here is that: When the pleasure comes a few seconds early, then one is getting MORE THAN EXPECTED ... which feels extra-pleasurable. 

For instance: perhaps a person expects to get a burst of pleasure0 after 5 seconds, but instead gets it after 3.  As our pleasure1 is increased based on (among other factors) the difference between the pleasure0 expected and the pleasure0 obtained, then getting e.g. pleasure0 at 3 seconds when one only expected it at 5 seconds is GOOD and will increase pleasure1, at that moment (the 3 second moment) when it is received.  

But what about when the pleasure comes a few seconds later than expected?  Well, by the time 7 seconds have rolled around, if one was expecting a burst of pleasure0 after 5 seconds, one is feeling pretty eager and disappointed and frustrated.  After all, the pleasure0 was supposed to come at 5 seconds, right?!  But wait a moment – that sometimes makes it all the more pleasurable when it comes along after 7 seconds!   In this case, the pleasure0 is not just delivering pleasure0 -- it’s delivering relief from frustration!   In terms of our model: When the pleasure0 comes after 7 seconds instead of the expected 5, then the component of pleasure1 that responds to the contrast of current pleasure0 with recent past pleasure0 kicks in, and causes a burst of pleasure1.  Also, the component of pleasure2 that responds to the contrast of current pleasure1 with past pleasure1 kicks in, and provides a burst of pleasure2.  Woo hoo!

On the other hand, what if the pleasure0 simply shifted from a regular schedule of every 5 seconds to a regular schedule of every 3 seconds or every 7 seconds?   Then
expectations would just get recalibrated – and the new “on time” would be 3 or 7 seconds instead of 5.   If 3 seconds is what’s expected, then 3 seconds isn’t excitingly soon anymore – 1 second is excitingly soon … and 7 seconds isn’t a tantalizing delay anymore… it’s a highly frustrating delay that starts making one bored or angry or confused…. 

The delay from 5 to 7 seconds may be just enough to create a little frustration, which is rapidly vanquished in a poof of release and pleasure2 alongside pleasure1 when the pleasure0 finally comes.   But a delay from 3 to 7 seconds might be soooo long that frustration builds up to the point where the pleasure0 doesn’t release it when it finally comes – perhaps the delay is long enough to trigger some cognitive process thinking “WTF is going on, is the pleasure0 ever gonna come again?”   This brings up an important point: the pleasure hierarchy described above is not the only thing going on.  There are also other emotions like anger and displeasure happening, with their own dynamics.  

One may look at a hierarchy of pain0, pain1, pain2, ... pain* , comparable to the pleasure hierarchy described above.   It may be that in people with some forms of pain asymbolia, pain0 is intact but the higher orders of the pain hierarchy are not operational, resulting in them knowing that a pain signal has been received by their body, but not reacting to this pain signal in the normal way.   The timing of the comparisons and expectations in the pain hierarchy may be different from those in the pleasure hierarchy.  Also, the relations between the pain-hierarchy internal timing parameters and the pleasure-hierarchy internal timing parameters may vary from person to person.

Getting back to the example -- given the particular parameters of typical human response, 3 seconds or 5 seconds between intense bursts of pleasure0  may be long enough for some anticipation to build and then get fulfilled.  If the pleasure came after half a second the experience would basically be one of pleasure never stopping – which in a way would be more pleasurable, but in a way would be less pleasurable, because the process of building an expectation and then getting it fulfilled would not be there… and at the cognitive rather than purely physiological level, pleasure is largely about expectations and their fulfillment and disappointment…

Now, human sexual arousal is not one-dimensional, there’s not just one “pleasure button” being pushed at various intervals. Rather, there are various different tissues which are stimulated by different things, and which get pleased, roused to anticipation, and become frustrated upon neglect – with different time-scales.  So what one has in a real situation of human early-stage sexual arousal is the above story, but on a variety of different tissues, each with their own characteristic time-scales.  There is a sort of symphony of anticipation, fulfillment and frustration, as at any given time some tissues may be satisfied, some may be anticipating, and some may be frustrated….

And then of course, in human sexual arousal, there is also an overlay of more complex emotions besides pleasure and its expectation and frustration.    When the other party seems eager and keeps getting ahead of what seems to be the natural rhythm, that may make one feel loved or at least desired; a lackluster or overly robotic rhythm may make one feel that the other party isn’t really into it; etc.  The arousal of these emotions is more variable among different people, whereas the basic logic of arousal via expectation and frustration is more generic.   A person’s specific physiological and emotional makeup, layered on top of the basic biology of human physical pleasure and the math of expectation fulfillment and frustration, add up to form that person’s personal sexual pleasure calculus…

So -- What would cause regularity of stimulation timing to become more desirable than random stimulation timing, when the initial arousal phase is passed and one enters into the pre-orgasm phase?   What happens, I hypothesize, is that, as the initial arousal phase proceeds, the physiology of the sex response kicks in, and on average each instance of pleasure0 becomes greater than the last.   In part this is due to the specifics of the human body's sex-related chemistry; and it part it's a generic aspect of human psychophysiology -- getting  more pleasure puts other things out of one's mind, it stops other cognitive and emotional processes ... but some of these other cognitive and emotional processes may have been causing stress, which may have been holding back the body from physically experiencing pleasure.   So quite generically, as pleasure escalates and occupies more of the mind's attentional focus, it drives out other stress-producing processes and actually increases the amount of pleasure0 that is physiologically experienced.

So then, as the initial-arousal phase continues, once the amount of pleasure0 per stimulus burst becomes large enough, the "current pleasure0" component of the pleasure1 becomes dominant, and the other components become more minor by comparison.   One reason not to have constant pleasure0 by this stage, is because of the underlying physiology, which experiences pain if stimulated for too long, but experiences pleasure if stimulated for a short time.   In this phase, the optimal strategy is pretty much for the body to receive as much pleasure0 as it can physiologically take, not messing around with mind-games regarding expectation and comparison.

By the orgasm phase, then, the pleasure0 is at a constant high level.  But interestingly, orgasmic pleasure is often experienced as moving through the body in waves.   A wave movement, with continuous rising and falling of intensity, still does provide comparison dynamics, with potential for the indirect terms in the definition of higher-order pleasure to play a role.

In the story I'm telling here, the logic of human sexual arousal toward orgasm follows from the pleasure hierarchy, with lesser contributions also from the pain hierarchy and other aspects of human response (such as the ability of pleasure to drown out stress-producing cognitive and emotional processes and hence increase pleasure response).  

While I have presented this Timarcex (timing of arousal, comparison, expectation) model here verbally, I am sure it would be possible to present it equationally as well.  If one did so, one would find that the particular parameters involved in defining the pleasure and pain hierarchies, would impact the particular nature of the sexual experience being modeled.

To construct such a mathematical model I would start with the synthesis of Joscha Bach's / Dietrich Dorner's Psi model and Scherer's Component Process Model , tthat we have been using to model emotion in OpenCog.   But to unfold these ideas in that context would require more depth and detail than would make sense to give in this (already over-long) blog post; this will be worked out and written about later.


I have discussed above "arousal" in a sexual context, where it has a certain specific meaning -- but the term also has a more general meaning in psychology.  In general, "arousal" refers to the propensity of a system to undertake (internal and/or external) activity.     This activity may be on the part of the whole system, working toward some goal or involved in some complex systemic attractor; or it may be on the part of various parts of the system acting independently.

Arousal is sometimes contrasted with relaxation, but this has to be done with care.  Arousal in the sense of high activity is of course an opposite of relaxation in the sense of low activity.   However, if "relaxation" means a lack of tension, then it is possible to be highly aroused and highly relaxed at the same time (tantric sex would be an example, as would certain other meditative states or flow states).   Similarly, arousal is not synonymous with "excitement" in the emotional sense; though in ordinary states of consciousness, the two do often correspond. 

In a state that is highly aroused and relaxed at the same time, the different parts of the mind-body system are carrying out coordinated activity in a manner that does not involve the various parts causing each other significant tension (no "knots"!).

In a sexual context, what generally happens is that pleasure0 increases over the course of an interaction, according to dynamics outlined above and others; and a high degree of pleasure0 is one way to effect a high level of arousal in human bodies, based on typical physiological mechanisms.   A similar dynamic occurs with music and narrative, though there the pleasure0 is often obtained via fulfillment of other goals (e.g. perception of novel patterns, empathy with a character) rather than via raw physiological pleasure.

Patterns and Pleasure

The next ingredient to introduce into the story is PATTERNS.   Continuing with the sex example for continuity's sake, consider that, in a sexual context, stimulation is not just a matter of delivering pleasure to one or another tissue; rather, pleasure may be delivered in specific patterns of touch geometry and intensity, and the body will then come to expect these patterns.   Examples would be a “French corkscrew twist” movement of one sex organ within or around the other; or a stroke of the hand repeatedly up and down the lover’s hip; etc. etc.  

Such a movement pattern will typically have a  certain timing, and can be accelerated or delayed, inducing dynamics of expectation, fulfillment, frustration, tension, etc.   Furthermore, movement patterns impact each other, as they may involve adjacent, overlapping or more subtly cross-connected parts of the body … so that fulfillment of one may cause deferral of another, etc.  Kissing on the neck faster and faster may cause what’s happening with the genitals to temporarily get slower and softer, etc. – an example of pleasure via acceleration in one place, correlated with pleasure via temporary frustration and then fulfillment in another place.

Patterns and Pleasure in Music

"I want to make love to my guitar, instead of just the same old everyday woman"
-- Jimi Hendrix

And this complexity brings us finally back to music.   In music we have many complex patterns unfolding through time, each eliciting expectations regarding what will come next.  The symmetries of musical scales and chords are instrumental in forming these expectations.  When a chord pattern has been repeating, one expects it will continue. When a melodic line has been going up a certain scale, one expects it will continue.  When a melodic line has been going up and down within a certain scale, one thinks it will stay within that scale.  When two melodic patterns have occurred, each immediately followed by their inversions … and then a third one occurs, one expects it will be immediately followed by its inversion.  And so forth.

So what we have in music is  a collection of interlocking patterns, each giving rise to expectations.  Each of these expectations may happen a little sooner or a little later than expected, thus causing extra bursts of pleasure in accordance with the basic logic of anticipation, frustration and pleasure.   Making one pattern continue sooner or more intensely, will generally cause some other pattern to continue later or less intensely — thus weaving a complex web of fulfillments and frustrations, which reminds us of the complex webs of fulfillment and expectation in our inner and outer lives.

A series of notes in time displaying an increasing amount of pattern, will often have the property of fulfilling an increasing number of the expectations elicited based on the previously occurring patterns.   So on the whole it will give the feeling of increasing pleasure – increasing fulfillment of expectation.  

But of course it’s hard for this to go on too long, because creating an increasing amount of pattern is difficult, assuming these patterns must have some emotionally evocative content in themselves, and that all the patterns are created via arranging the basic notes, chords and scales in the vocabulary of modern music.   So typically in a substantial piece of music, after a build-up in which the time-series of musical events generates a greater and greater density of patterns, things relax.   Here the intellect is being less stimulated, but if the relaxation comes with continuation of a pattern that is emotionally resonant, then the experience is still satisfying.   We see in this case the combination of the primal/visceral and the mathematical in music.   The mathematics of pattern emergence and tension buildup are critical, but there is also a simple matter of resonance with the rhythm of human bodily life – there is something innately satisfying, to anyone with a human body, about quieting down and proceeding at a slow regular rhythm after a huge burst of increasingly complexly patterned activity.

 Connecting Some Dots Regarding Musical Aesthetics

My introduction to the math of music aesthetics was Meyer's good old theory of "surprising fulfillment of expectations", from his book Emotion and Meaning in Music

A friend commented to me on Meyer's theory that it seemed to contradict the pleasure he got from listening to the same songs over and over again: "When I know very well where things are going (and where they'll end up), the strong emotion
can't really be connected with expectation and surprise, can it?"   However, I think he is not correct, because the working memory can still be surprised even if the long term memory knows what's going to happen.

The considerations I have presented here are conceptually consistent with Meyer's thinking, but add a lot of detail, and provide a broader perspective.  In particular, I would suggest that the expectations and the surprise we experience in music are a mix of
  • basic mathematical music-structure factors, as in the vein of combinatorial music theory etc. etc.
  • human psychology factors as modeled e.g. in Joscha Bach's work and in the Component Process Model
  • human body-rhythm patterns, to do with the way the rhythms of different subsystems of our physical bodies overlay on each other, which we perceive all the time sub and semi consciously and which influence our perception of music; obviously even classical music without a drumbeat is highly rhythmic...
  • more abstract cognitive pattern recognition

So a good melody packs up "surprising fulfillment of expectations" where the expectation and fulfillment are assessed according to a combination of the above 4 factors ... and if you leave any of the above 4 factors out you're going to get lots of "false positives" ...

The Timarcex approach, as sketched and hinted above, provides a way to model the combination and intersection of these factors in producing a human pleasure response.  

First, there is raw pleasure (pleasure0) coming from timbre and from rhythm -- e.g. a sound that reminds one of birdsong or a mother's voice, or a rhythm that reminds one of the heartbeat or the breath or the sound of feet pitty-patting, or the thunder in the sky, etc.   There is also raw pleasure coming from the recognition of complex patterns -- because humans appear to have "recognize patterns" as a basic goal, and any fulfillment of any of our basic goals.  

Certain auditory patterns are easy and natural for us to recognize, based on the nature of our auditory cortex.  Chords and scales have emerged historically because they are easy patterns for our brains to recognize.   Then, as we have heard them more and more, they become easier and easier to recognize, because we are recognizing new chordal and scalar patterns using brains that are already attuned to such patterns.   

It is important that what we have here is a system of patterns that gives the human mind a lot of novel potential patterns to experiment with and perceive, and also that a lot of these novel patterns are simple enough for the human mind to perceive RAPIDLY.    Mathematics, for instance, is also a system of patterns that gives the human mind a lot of novel potential patterns to experiment with and perceive; and it also builds up incrementally, so that the more math one knows, the easier it is to recognize more and more mathematical patterns.  However, the patterns involved in math are not FAST to perceive, unless you're Ramanujan (and OK, even for him not all the interesting mathematical patterns were fast to perceive).   Perceiving mathematical patterns generally involves thinking, and the timing required for this sort of thinking is hard to predict.  So making music involving complex mathematical patterns would be difficult.   But chordal and scalar patterns are complex and various in their own way, yet are also very rapid for the human mind/brain to perceive -- so they can be arranged in TIME, and can be used to elicit expectations that can then be toyed with in the context of Timarcex dynamics.  

I noted above that sexual arousal doesn't just involve bursts of pleasure0 delivered on particular schedules -- it involves complex patterns of pleasurable and (in some cases) painful stimulation delivered to various parts of the body in complex spatiotemporal patterns.   However, the imprecision of the movements involved makes it difficult to transmit or recognize highly complex patterns in this context.  The type of precision embodied in tonal music makes it very easy for the human mind to precisely recognize simple patterns, and then shift its attention to the complex patterns that come out of these simple patterns, etc.   A sufficiently intelligent mind could recognize even more complex patterns in purely atonal music; but tonality breaks sound down into discreta, which makes it easier for a limited-capability pattern recognition system like the human mind-brain to recognize a diversity of complex patterns.  

Music seems almost unique among human activities in that it involves the delivery of reasonably complex patterns, that are designed to be recognized fast enough by the human mind-brain that they can be part of Timarcex-type dynamics, similar to those involved in sexual arousal.   This analogue has been parodied many times -- for instance, Frank Zappa used to make fun of his keyboardists when they ended every solo by moving their fingers faster and faster toward the high notes at the right of the keyboard.  Zappa felt they were emulating an orgasm, emulating the blow job they hoped to get from some groupie after the set was over.   But Zappa's parody, as was often the case with him, had some accuracy to it.    Many jazz or instrumental-rock solos do follow a pattern of

  • Beginning with a predictable pattern, in timing and often also in melody
  • Then deviating more and more -- providing more Timarcex-based pleasure, based on variations in timing as well as based on introduction of new patterns
  • Eventually, once the pleasure has built up enough and the listener's mind is overcome with the joy of the solo and isn't paying attention to anything else, returning to the original melodic theme.  Sometimes the original melodic theme is returned to in timing before melody; sometimes in melody before timing.

The pattern of playing  variations on the melodic and timing themes of the solo FASTER and FASTER toward the end, plays on the fact that by this point these patterns are extremely well imprinted in the listener's mind, so they can recognize them clearly even if they come really quickly -- and that by this time, the Timarex parameters are at settings where rapid bursts of pleasure0 from pattern recognition will give a lot of pleasure1.   Escalating speed in this context can lead to increase in pleasure2 and pleasure3 as well, etc.

Obviously what I have so sketchily and awkwardly described above is just one way that some solos emerge -- there is a huge diversity to the psychological structure of different jazz and instrumental-rock solos, and doubtless the same is true in other genres of music with which I am less familiar.  One could create vast theories of psychomusicology associated with particular musical genres, unfolding the intersections between elicitation and recognition of various sorts of patterns on various levels, and the "psychological timing games" I have labeled Timarcex and rambled about above in the context of sexual arousal.

Surprising Fulfillment of Expectations as a Case of Increasing Structural Complexity

These considerations also relate somewhat to Juergen Schmidhuber's theory of beauty as increase in compressibility, see

Schmidhuber's theory is not quite right but it's insightful nonetheless.  A deviation from the norm that sounds awesome usually is one that causes some meaningful but
not-wholly-expected pattern to come about ... i.e. an increase in compressibility ...

However, my view is that an increase in the number of compressing patterns
is perhaps more important than an increase in compressibility  (or more properly, an increase in the total amount of compressing pattern ... the "structural complexity" as I called it way back in my first book "The Structure of Intelligence," written in 1989-90, published in 1991.  Structural complexity is total amount of compressing pattern, but subtracting off for overlaps in a certain way.)

"Surprising fulfillment of expectations" in a musical context means:

·      the previous expectation is fulfilled, i.e the previous compressing pattern continues
·      a new, surprising factor is found ... but probably one that also leads to a new pattern in the overall perceived music, hence a new/different compressing pattern

So surprising fulfillment of expectations is one route to get to "increase in the number of compressing patterns" ... while also playing nicely with Timarcex dynamics.

Within familiar human music genres, "music theory" constrains the set of ways that one can get increase in the number of compressing patterns, without getting too complex.    But this kind of constraint is necessary in a music context given that, for music to be music, the pattern recognition involved needs to be done in real time.

The Structure of Narrative

Having dispensed with sex and music (well OK not quite, but hey --), let us now turn to narrative structure.   The classical way of structuring a screenplay, or almost any story, is based on a structure like:

·      Protagonist is introduced
·      Protagonist meets challenge
·      Protagonist overcomes challenge, ideally in a somewhat surprising way
·      Protagonist is seen to grow and change as a result of overcoming the challenge

In a movie we can have real-time Timarcex effects like in music or sex --- especially in an action scene or a sex scene, where the timing may be carefully worked out to play on the viewer's Timarcex dynamics.

In a book-reading experience we don't have "real time" dynamics like in music, but there is still an imaginal time axis: for instance, we know that events are occurring within a human's lifespan, or within a limited time-frame involved in a particular situation.   Timarcex dynamics can be elicited in the reader's mind, relative to these imaginal time axes -- because while reading, the reader may be replaying the already-known and predicted activities of the protagonist in their mind.  If the reader is replaying the life of a character in their mind, over a 3-7 second period, then changes in the life of the character will change the nature of this 3-7 second "inner semantic movie", which may cause Timarcex-related effects.    

So -- Even if a character's love affair unfolds over 10 years in the imaginal time-axis of a novel, the reader still reviews this whole 10-year affair in a few seconds in their mind -- so when the reader learns about a new triumph or a new frustration, they experience it as a satisfaction or frustration or surprise within their few-seconds replay.   In this way the experience of reading narrative is subtler than the experience of listening to music or watching an action or sex scene in a movie -- the Timarcex aspect is there, but it relies on the construction of short-term internal temporal experiences based on imaginal time-axes semantically inferred from the narrative.

A common experience when experiencing a narrative is to empathize with the protagonist.   (This is not the only possibility, obviously.  As an example of an alternative, one may instead envision oneself in some sort of relationship with the protagonist.)   One, at least temporarily and while experiencing the narrative, almost can't help to some extent "putting oneself in the protagonist's shoes."   This is how human beings are wired -- we understand other human beings in part by modeling their thoughts and behaviors using our neural "mirror system", which re-uses much of the neural wiring we use to be ourselves, to model the other.

The basic pleasure0 of reading about a character meeting a challenge and overcoming it, has to do partly with our identification with the character: We feel that we, to a certain extent, are facing the character's challenges and then overcoming them.   (We can see this even in lowbrow forms of literature like pornography.  The porn novel or film almost always begins with at least a slight amount of framing.   Instead of going straight into the "old in-and-out", we see the people involved first ... perhaps we see a woman walk into a man's house, and he greets her and she says something and then she takes her clothes off and they get down to it.   We have even here an element of the traditional narrative structure -- the challenge of getting the hot woman to screw the guy is posed, and it is met immediately in a satisfying way... so the viewer can feel like "I am that guy who was just sitting in his house, saw that beautiful girl walk in, faced the unconscious challenge of whether I could get her to screw me, and then HEY! immediately surmounted that challenge and succeeded!")

But a story in which a character simply meets a challenge and then straightforwardly overcomes it is not that interesting.   Overcoming challenges in a surprising way makes a much better story.  And so we are back to "surprising fulfillment of expectations" again.   Just like in the initial-arousal phase of sex, just like in music.  

A great story has an increase in structural complexity as it goes along -- more and more patterns get built up subtly and then gradually or suddenly recognized by the reader.   But for Timarcex to help, the build-up of structural complexity has to happen such a way that, when the reader reviews the events of the narrative in their mind as they read/view/listen, the introduction of new events causes various levels of pleasure in a timing-specific way, just like in sex or music.   The surprising fulfillment of expectations is one way to provide this.

Losing Oneself, Gaining One's New Self

The final stage of the typical narrative, in which the protagonist changes and grows as a result of meeting their challenge, analogizes with sexuality and music in a subtle way related to the persistence and transcendence of the self.    The nature of sexual arousal is such that, by the time orgasm is reached, the pleasure0 is so overwhelming that the self-model is entirely pushed out of the mind's attentional focus.  One "loses oneself" in the experience.  If one is relaxed enough or passionate enough, this may happen early in the experience, well before orgasmic release (or in tantric sex, one loses the self via meditative-type activity, and the pleasure0 and mutual-giving-taking aspects of the sexual activity then push the meditative state in certain directions).

In music, one can also lose oneself for various reasons.  Rhythm can do it: entraining the body in a rhythm can make the internal body movements so emphatic and overwhelming that everything else gets pushed out of the attentional focus.   Sufficient evocation of particular emotions by a melody can do it -- if the emotion evoked becomes strong enough.   If a melody evokes the habitual pattern of rise and fall of a particular emotion, and the rhythm of the music simultaneously emulates the body-rhythms often experienced while experiencing that emotion, then a quite overwhelming, self-suppressing music-appreciation experience may ensue.   A sufficiently complex combination of musical patterns can also do the trick -- if there is enough emotional meat there to attract the listener's mind, then complex patterns playing around the emotional structure can absorb the listener's processing power.    Some music combines strong melodic and rhythmic emotion elicitation with processing-power-exhausting rapid-fire complexity (the end of One Word by the Mahavishu Orchestra comes to mind, or many passages in Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" or Buckethead's  "Hold Me Forever" ... or Hendrix's "Red House" solo on "In the West" -- etc. etc. etc.).

In the traditional narrative structure, the protagonist loses aspects of their own self and gains a new and better self.  The self-model is suppressed and overcome.   After orgasmic or tantric sex, and after listening to an absorbing piece of music, you emerge a new and different person as well -- more peaceful, or more excited ... in any case, your emotional parameters are re-set.   Part of the overall process of having sex, or listening to intense music, or being a character in a story (or empathizing deeply with a character in a story), is that after all the Timarcexish pattern play is over, you emerge in a quite different state.

The precise state that a narrative leaves one in, after the experience is done, obviously depends on a lot of things.   Hollywood movies and romance and action/adventure and mystery novels have an obsession with "happy endings" -- they want to leave you in a state where stress and challenges have been overcome to reveal joy ... both because leaving you in a state of joy is a good thing, and because this leaves a frame of "bad things will be overcome by good things" in your mind, which may guide you to have more positive experiences later on.   On the other hand, tragedies are also possible, and some critics (e.g. Nietzsche) have felt they are morally and aesthetically superior.  As Nietzsche saw it, tragedies remind us that life is great in spite of the bad parts, that everything is connected and to embrace the good in life we also have to embrace the terrible.

Similarly, some music ends all of a sudden, leaving you dazed and confused -- other music lets you down gradually, bringing you back to Earth with some slow, soothing melodies after the fast, crazy ones have passed.  You can make up the sex analogy for yourself...

Brief Summary (Enough for Now!)

OK -- I don't really have a grand conclusion here but I've run out of time for writing just now.  (I'm on a flight from Istanbul to Addis Ababa and am going to land now....).

So lacking a grand conclusion I'll re-summarize ;)

I suppose the basic point is that human aesthetic experience is rooted in basic human emotional experience.   And human emotional experience is grounded in what I've labeled Timarcex -- the particular way we construct hierarchies of pleasure and pain feelings based on comparison and expectation.   And our expectations are based on what patterns we can recognize, given the time and resources available and given the fund of patterns already in our minds (and the specific set of patterns elicited via our recent experience).

Finally: strongly time-bound aesthetic experiences like sex and music and action-scenes in movies, are founded on systems of patterns that can be recognized rapidly by the human experiencer, so that instances of pattern recognition and expectation can be arranged judiciously in relation to the Timarcex parameters of the human experiencer.   Less time-bound aesthetic experiences like reading a novel are founded on surprising fulfillment of expectations in different ways that aren't so tied to Timarcex parameters --- but are also to some extent based on short-term emotional experience guided by Timarcex parameters, given that human consumers of narratives are often rehearsing narratives in their minds in a rapid way ... so the mental rehearsal of a narrative becomes more time-bound like a fragment of musical or sexual activity.

How Specifically Human is All This?

An interesting question from an AGI point of view is: How much of all this is just specific to human beings, versus how much has any sort of meaning from a more general perspective?   At first blush it seems to be a complex mix.  

Experiencing satisfaction based on a change in the amount of raw satisfaction -- this is just temporal difference learning, basically.

Experiencing satisfaction based on expectation of future satisfaction -- this is basic to intelligence as well.

So in a broad sense, it seems the Timarcex pleasure and pain hierarchies are fairly general, natural aspects of intelligence.   However, the specifics of how Timarcex is implemented in the human brain, seems not to have any extremely special power where intelligence is concerned.  Indeed, one suspects humans could become more intelligent if they had more explicit cognitive control over the parameters of the relevant subsystems of their brains.

The importance of "surprising fulfillment of expectations" seems to come from the intersection of Timarcex with the more basic goal of "increasing structural complexity."   The latter basically means "wanting more patterns."   Arguably, the quest to experience more and more patterns is a foundational aspect of intelligence.   If so, then the quest for surprising fulfillment of expectations would seem to be an inevitable aspect of intelligent goal-seeking systems.

So what we have here in sex, music and narrative are -- surprise, surprise -- specifically human manifestations of some generic aspects of general intelligence.

Quod Et Handwavium, once again...

(Hey, was that a grand conclusion?  Maybe, sort of, after all....)