Friday, July 31, 2015

tectonic disaster

Passed along in email was this quietly-spoken and apparently well-researched New Yorker article about the tectonic disaster looming over the West Coast.

It is both persuasive and too huge even to be depressing.

before the words

The most interesting things are the things before the words.

Assuming anyone might enter this oxymoronic playpen, then, as I hear it, there are soothing, compromising, self-affirming voices raised.

"Words may not be much, but they're all we've got." The wheedling and the attempt to apply some balm to a fiery challenge -- the cry for absolution and forgiveness ... oh, it is so compassionate. No one wants to be lonely. Human beings are social creatures. Are we not to be forgiven this small transgression? We try. We are frail. We are imperfect. We ... yum, yum, yum.

In one sense, "we are not perfect" camouflages another less soothing suggestion: "We are spineless." But even this cannot wrap up the case. Criticism is as cheap a date as praise.

The most interesting things are the things before the words. Isn't it true? Isn't it laughing at the fumbling petitioner seeking to bolster and buttress all these words that create ever more distance from what is most interesting?

Is this a playpen worth entering? Since, like a block of implacable ice melting before the eyes, it cannot be escaped, I think maybe it is. Better to fail at something true than succeed at something as strained and bland as baby food.

All this strikes me as beyond wheedling confessions of weakness. What is interesting doesn't care if anyone is weak or strong. What is interesting plays its music and locks the lips within and without. No lock, no key, just interesting music.

Isn't it worth making this peace?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"You think white is one color...."

Budget cuts and a declining attendance has put the last Roman Catholic priest in Antarctica out of business.
Father Dan Doyle, who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, would spend summers on the remote continent and serve the population in the area of about 2,000, the BBC reported....
He served a daily Mass, performed last rights and even a few baptisms. There are some religious constraints by living in the most remote corner of Earth. For example, you cannot be legally married or buried on the continent because no one country stakes claim on the land.
And Doyle once told an interviewer:
You think white is one color.... But white is a thousand colors when you get inside a glacier and it’s all around you.

the Spanish hunting dog

Here's a blog focusing on the Galgo or Spanish hunting dog:

The Spanish greyhound, or Galgo, was traditionally used for hunting by royalty and was so revered that to kill a Galgo was a crime equivalent to murder....
A Galgo that is too old or too slow or too weak or just not into a crappy game of chase-the-hare tends to meet a brutal death because they have shamed the hunter.  This is tradition.

making things "better"

Was there ever a time when the longing to make things "better" was not in play? And if there was, would that be "better?"

Last night, I got hooked on "The Dead Poets Society," a 1989 movie about an English teacher at a tony, WASP-y boarding school in 1959. The teacher inspires his students from within a rigorously regimented system that freely admits its attempt to send its students out into a world they were bound to rule. Everyone is white. Everyone wears a tie. Many come out of rich or wannabe-rich families. But ... they are kids, adolescents who, whatever their circumstances, are as confused and uncertain as any other raging-hormone, trying-to-be-a-grown-up teenagers. Peter Weir, who was responsible for "The Last Wave," a movie I consider one of the gutsiest (if not the gutsiest) movies I ever saw, directed.

What held my attention was the fact that I too came from such a cossetted environment -- an all-boys  school at which everyone was pretty smart and pretty well-heeled and terribly white and yet, because they were kids, were largely unaware of their privilege. There were classes in Latin. There was a "chapel" each morning at which Christian values were enunciated. Grace before lunch. No matter that the smartest kids in my class came from Jewish families, a man of parts should know something about the prevailing persuasion of his country. There was a compulsory Bible class. There was tennis. And there was a good education ... but who could know that: Collegiate School was just the way things were ... wasn't it?

High school was the time when my single-parent mother was busy being an alcoholic, a universe I was drawn into and wounded by. No matter: School was school and we wore ties and people were destined for Ivy League colleges. My mother sent me to dancing school.

I desperately wanted things to be "better" somehow but of course I didn't know what better might consist in. Like me, my hang-with group of friends had family difficulties as well. We were wowed by Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," and yearned for the kind of freedom that seemed to be written in those pages. Maybe that would be better.

The teacher in "The Dead Poets Society" urged and pushed the students. "Carpe diem!" was the rallying cry. Seize the day -- follow your dream. But the problem was that it was not exactly clear what the dream was outside of being somehow, amorphously, better. We were privileged, but I imagine we might have felt the same yearnings and the same confusions if we had not been what today I call "privileged." Looking back, as the movie forced me to do, I am somehow embarrassed by the riches I enjoyed and yet how can a kid know what is rich and what is poor? A kid sucks up what is put on his plate to suck up. This is what is and that's all.

In my own defense, I remember speaking with the representative of a prospective college -- one of several I met with when the time drew near to pick a college. And when he, like other representatives of other colleges asked, "Why do you want to go to college, young man?" something in me snapped. I was sick to death of parroting, "Because I want to learn, sir." And so I said instead, "Can I tell you the truth?" "Sure," he said as if any admission I might make would be something he had already heard a hundred times before, whereas for me it was a terrific act of courage. And I said simply, "I don't know what else to do." And there it was ... out in the open ... and I felt a lot better, if no less uncertain and confused.

I didn't much like wallowing in the past, as last night's movie invited me to do ... or perhaps "insisted" is a better word. But I watched as a matter of some discipline that said, "own it!" I watched and watched and tried to get a perspective on the privilege that had been mine ... all pink and well-educated and knowing how to dance.

And then I relaxed, somehow. Yes, I have wanted in a hundred hundred ways to be "better," but the characteristics and clothing in my life's closet are just the characteristics and clothing in my life's closet. Smart, dumb, privileged, neurotic, strong, weak, wise and incalculably asinine ... it's just the clothes I am stuck with. I am like a tenant farmer, tilling the soil beneath my feet and there is no "better" way. There is this way ... with occasional modifications. Comparisons are unnecessary. Doing harm is probably not a good idea, but I am bound to do it. Praise and blame are not the point.

Carpe diem? How could such a thing be possible when the day itself has dawned long before I ever set to work to make it somehow "better?" Don't bullshit me with "karma." Just lend a hand and, in the kind of heat that we've been experiencing around here lately, try to stay cool.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn't dance as once.

But there is music.

Good, better, best ... get a life.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"The God Delusion"

Passed along in email for those not yet overstuffed with such argumentation, was this British film, "The God Delusion." I suppose, in some senses, it is satisfactory as it points out the grotesqueries of Abrahamic persuasions. The geographically-limited, western-religion observation, "nothing east of Suez" pretty much applies to the film, but you have to start somewhere, I suppose. I found the film's intellectual adroitness a bit tedious, but that's just me and the depredations referred to are no fucking joke.

Is there anything -- rationality or theology included -- that cannot be turned to galling bullshit or offer up a bit of useful truth?  I doubt it. The question I find most useful for either construct is probably, "If you're so well-informed or deeply and credulously imbued, how come you're not happy?" I guess my premise is that if someone's happy, there is no reason to be getting others to agree or applaud or even demur: What the hell -- happy is just happy, isn't it?

So ... FWIW:

dreaming of "Tajikistan"

Suddenly, the Romantic ignorance and excitement came flooding back, plump as a wet cotton ball -- a sense of delight at the possibility of going to a place I had never been before, if only in a second-hand capacity.

Yesterday, my younger son said that two men from his National Guard platoon would be detailed to a security assignment in ... wait for it! ... Tajikistan. My son said that he had offered to go. Whether he will or not is up in the air ... a short assignment next month ... a couple of weeks ... but still ... "Tajikistan!"

On the one hand, my parental concerns for an offspring revved their motors. It was so far from home, so far from a place where, with luck, I could protect and defend him. But that is the nature of being part of a military unit: No parents are allowed to participate. Weep and writhe, sure -- but not participate.

And then the old Romantic idiot kicked in and, like my son himself, I felt the warm winds of excitement and adventure and ... Tajikistan ... wowsers!

Of course my son saw the matter from behind lenses I was not wearing. This was an adventure, a grown-up, can-do, real-world assignment, even if he didn't know what the assignment consisted of. He would be among others assigned to be armed grown-ups fulfilling a mission no matter what the environment.

But me -- I had first of all needed a map to tell exactly where Tajikistan was. I had only the vaguest of ideas. And where it was was another of those confluence points of many cultures, where traders and cultures mingled and squabbled and traded goods in the past. A small, poor country with an economy centered around cotton and aluminum and some drugs ... a place that depended on the many Tajiks who had gone elsewhere and sent money back to relatives left behind. A land bordering some of the biggest players on the world stage at present: China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan ... with a history of Russian invasion that had left behind an educational system that meant over 99% of the population was literate, but also found those capable of higher education dismissing the opportunity because there were so few job opportunities that required advanced smarts. A place of beauty and poverty and religions (heavily weighted towards Islam) pretty much getting along.

I read up on the history and wondered how hard it would be to learn a little Tajik, the focal language, or Russian, a language employed by many. My son didn't see mixing and mingling as part of the assignment or even a very useful pastime. He was doing a military thing in his head. When I suggested that the military man who does not scope out his environment and its customs is a half-trained soldier, his eyes took on a dismissive glow. No matter: My parental habits may fret, but the idea that my children might visit other lands -- lands beyond the barriers of Atlantic and Pacific oceans -- has been a long-held dream I could not finance.

In earlier times, I had had dreams of visiting Tierra del Fuego and Afghanistan (before the American invasion that followed the Russian invasion), and the Orkney Islands ... places far away and foreign and utterly outside my ken. Those pipedreams had receded, or so I thought until yesterday, when "Tajikistan" provided a whole new possibility and sense of excitement and wonder. Not knowing there are others on the planet who live quite different lives in quite different ways is a gaping bit of ignorance in my opinion.

Anyway, I dreamed yesterday, rolling around in a half-formed idea the way a dog might wriggle and roll in the beach sand.

"Tajikistan."

Imagine that!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

intelligence, artificial and otherwise



More than 1,000 tech experts, scientists and researchers have written a letter warning about the dangers of autonomous weapons.
In the latest outcry over "killer robots", the letter warns that "a military AI [artificial intelligence] arms race is a bad idea".
Among the signatories are scientist Stephen Hawking, entrepreneur Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
The letter will be presented at an international AI conference today.
Does anyone else sense, as I do, that this apparently-heartfelt letter is a little like the mother who, as she prepares to leave home, counsels her children, "... and while I'm gone, do not stick beans up your nose?"

You just know someone is going to find a way and an excuse for "improving" things.

And then there's the question of whether, given the sometimes stumbling and sometimes horrific uses to which the intelligence in hand is used, creating an artificial intelligence makes a whole lot of sense. Wouldn't you first want to learn the uses to which current intelligence could be put before you added another stratum of intelligence on top? Is a naturally-occurring intelligence somehow lacking? How? And wouldn't it be worth correcting that first ... and then get out the Tinker Toys?

the price of small chores

Yesterday was a day of doing. Today is a day of paying the price.

The front stoop, whose black paint was flaking and peeling, got scraped and repainted. I did half and, much to my delight, my younger son did the rest. Then the same son roped in a friend and they stacked the fire wood that was piled in the driveway.

Since I do few Mr. Fixit chores any more, the painting part seemed a simple task. And it was ... but it did not account for my weaknesses, which, these days, are stronger than my strengths. Today I ache all over and probably will for a while. I had tried to make a bargain with my inabilities -- I'll just do a little now and then -- and the inabilities replied, "Sorry -- no deal."

Well, the stoop has a refreshed look and my wife got some impatiens for the flower cups built into the concrete ... pink ... which will look nice against the black paint. But in the meantime, my pain pills have gone missing and I could use one. I guess I'll practice being content with the sort of joke passed along in email yesterday:
Three old Indian women were discussing the travails of getting older.
Mvskoke woman said, "Sometimes I catch myself with a jar of mayonnaise in my hand, while standing in front of the refrigerator, and I can't remember whether I need to put it away, or start making a sandwich."
Seminole woman chimed in with, "Yes, sometimes I find myself on the landing of the stairs and can't remember whether I was on my way up or on my way down."
Cherokee woman responded, " Well, ladies, I'm glad I don't have that problem. Knock on wood," as she rapped her knuckles on the table, and then said, "That must be the door, I'll get it!"
I don't mind being a wimp; I just don't like being reminded.

Monday, July 27, 2015

California's drought....

A California conundrum, perhaps ... passed along in email: