Lumps in the gravy

A café at the Alte Opernplatz

I just spent a couple of days in Frankfurt, Germany. I had been stationed there some 50 years ago, and since I was passing through on my way to Riga, I jumped at the opportunity to see how much it had changed. The late 60s, after all, were not all that long after the end of WWII, and Frankfurt, like much of the rest of the country, had been bombed into rubble; the few buildings left standing in 1945 were left on purpose, the allies having singled them out for future headquarters. A lot had been rebuilt when I was there, but although the rubble had been pretty much cleaned up, a lot had not. Whole quarters were still clear of buildings, including the historic Römer, one of the most important sites in German history. A few blocks away, the old Opera house was standing, albeit unused and unsafe, with rows of chest high bullet holes along its walls. There were similar reminders of the war all over town. All of that has now been rebuilt to exacting specs, and the city was eerily unfamiliar within a context of remembered places and new construction.

But the most striking thing was the population. On certain streets it was nearly impossible to find a bratwurst among the curry and halal restaurants. What I found was a vibrant diverse community of people living peacefully together.

Well, that’s not all that odd for Frankfurt. When I was there 50 years ago, we used to joke that it was the northernmost Italian city in Europe, with strong Turkish and Indo/Pakistan contingents as well. Still, Germany?

It is, after all, practically the birthplace of the very idea of the ethnic nation state. Those Mediterranean peoples I remembered from all those years ago had been invited in as guest workers, and Germans were pretty ambivalent about their presence.

Things are very different now, thanks largely to the efforts of Angela Merkel to keep the borders open to refugees from the many devastated parts of the world. There is resistance, of course, and a resurgence of the right, as in many other places in the west, but, at least so far, its impact has been rhetorical for the most part.  I have heard Americans say that Merkel has ruined Germany, by which they mean she has ruined it for people like them, racist xenophobes.  I agree, and I hope it stays ruined for them. Germany, of all places, is something of a beacon of hope in a dismal political landscape.

Which brings me to America. What an embarrassment. We strut and crow about melting pots, but when the chips are down we fold and curl up in a little ball. Not all of us, of course. I am happy to say that more than half the country fully and proudly stands for and lives up to the noble sentiment inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Unfortunately our cynicism has allowed the minority to elect a government headed by an appalling racist and a congressional majority too terrified of the loss of power to stand up to him. We of all people should be an example to the world of compassion, but we’re not.

I mean, Germany. Who would have ever thought it?

Le Juif Errant


For the end of a week in remembrance of the Holocaust, I am offering up this post of mine from a couple of years ago.

the-wandering-jew-1925 Le Juif Errant, Chagall, 1925

When I was a boy, I developed an aversion to the art of Marc Chagall.  Why?  Because some of his work was used to illustrate a catechism we were tortured with in St. Philip Neri School.  I had no way of knowing at the time that St. Philip himself, a notorious iconoclast, would probably have flung the damned book out the window if we found it distracting.  After all, when one of his monks came rushing to him all aglow with the news that the Virgin Mary had visited with him while he prayed, he advised him to spit in her face the next time she disturbed his meditation.  Had I known, I might still be among the faithful, but…

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Modern Living

The latest in my on-going, if informal, technology series. Or, put another way, some more whining about machines.

I have a machine that washes my clothes for me. It is a shiny new (ish) Samsung, the model which was flinging off lids awhile back, probably in frustration at having to deal with unpredictable biological organisms like us humans. As it turned out, my machine was not one of the ones with that problem, although it was the same model number. Those were specially manufactured for Sam’s Club, which had demanded a lower price. They got it.

So as not to leave ordinary, hard working machines like mine feeling ignored, Samsung sent a guy over to bolt some stuff together all the same. And (I suspect just to leave evidence he had been there) he also “installed” a new faceplate, by which I mean he pressed the pre-glued replacement on over the existing control labels. It’s a dandy, striking black and silver against the pure, Caucasian white of the machine, stunning. The only other change I could see was that the setting called Bedding had been consolidated with Delicate.  Keeps those blankets in a low-spin zone, so the machine doesn’t freak out and start stripping off its coverings.

It is a marvelous machine for sure, but it has a little quirk, not serious, but just enough to remind me who’s boss: it keeps time like a computer update status bar.

This shouldn’t be surprising, since it has been many moons since washing machines crossed the invisible line from mechanical gadgets with computers attached to computers with mechanical gadgets attached.  As such, they have their own reality.  For example, when I put in a load and close the lid and press Start, a little LED countdown timer appears with, say, 45 minutes showing.  Long experience has taught me that I need to set a timer upstairs as well, since it’s hard to hear the delicate little jingle Samsung plays to let me know it’s done.  It’s just as well; I swear it’s the same jingle the Mr. Softee truck used to play when I was a boy.  I get a strange craving for ice cream whenever I happen to be in the basement when the washing machine has finished its cycle.

Experience has also taught me that I need to set the upstairs timer to 50 minutes instead of 45, since it works on the same basis in reality as I do.  Usually, this does the trick.  The wash cycle usually lasts anywhere from 45 to 50 minutes.  All’s well that ends well.

Except that now and then it takes appreciably more time.  Or less, but that’s very rare.  It seems that it sometimes transpires that it isn’t quite satisfied with the level of cleanliness it has achieved  for my clothes, and runs them through an extra rinse cycle.  When it does this, all bets are off as to when it will actually get done.  My upstairs timer goes off, and I go down to change the laundry, and the washer is chugging merrily away.  Almost smugly sometimes, I swear.  I look at the LED.  It says 15.  Or 8, or some other such number.  Ok, fine, I think, be that way.  I go back upstairs set the time to the new time, and wait.  Now and then, if I’m close enough to the basement door, I hear the little jingle a couple of minutes early, as if to say “Ha ha, just kidding!”  More often, I go down at the appointed time, and there’s still a minute or two left.  I use that time productively.  I stand there and stare at the washer until it stops.

When it finally gets tired of the game and stops, I transfer the clothes to the (somewhat) matching dryer and the little dance starts all over.

Well, ok, you might call this a first-world problem, especially if you’re given to especially trite catch phrases, but it’s symptomatic of what I call Global Robo-Creep.  Everywhere you go in the world except the most destitute reaches of the outermost hinterlands of civilization, more and more computers are doing what used to require humans.  Even simpler machines like parking meters have no job security anymore, replaced by touchscreens and credit card slots featuring arcane instructions designed to use up your allotted parking time before you even get properly started.  And cellphones?  Don’t ask!  Even the !Kung-san of the Kalahari have better 4G availability than you do.  Yes, this is all making life more … interesting, some might say better.  Certainly, in the case of washers and dryers, life is made both easier and more convenient.  But here’s the rub: it’s all done on the machines’ terms.

Yes, yes, of course, I know it’s a cabal of coders who actually animate the machines, and they’re undeniably human, but so was Faust.

How would you like to be on a help line with Faust?  Who do you think would come out ahead?  Hint: it’s not human.

A seam in the multiverse

Strange things happen at my house. Mostly computer stuff: the sound on my desktop refuses to mute when I ask — no, demand — it; printers mysteriously chat with each other in the dead of night and print out seemingly — only seemingly — incomprehensible reports on their meetings; my ebook, charged to within a nanometer of its battery’s capacity, is dead in the morning despite having been turned off, then charges up perfectly and is fine. It’s possible the ebook is an invited non-voting observer in the printer meetings, but it doesn’t seem to attend them all.

Well, ok, I thought, maybe Julian Assange is using my stuff to communicate with Putin, or something. There are oddly slow periods on the internet, and recently my router went on strike and I had to bring in a scab, which is working fine, but some of my other electronics are behaving strangely since the switch. I am willing to admit I can’t fully control my cyber-paramours. But this morning, the insurrection spread to something not even attached to the internet: my coffeepot.

My habit is to freshly grind some coffee at night before I go to bed, and get everything ready so that when I wake, all I have to do is poke a button, and Bob’s your uncle. Don’t laugh, I actually have an Uncle Bob, although he died at the age of five back in nineteen ought something or other. Anyway, this morning I smugly poked the button, ate my breakfast, and went to pour myself a delicious cuppa.

All I got was hot water.

Damn, I thought, I forgot to put in the coffee! It’s happened before, though rarely. So I opened the top, and, what the hell, there sat the filter, and in it was the proper amount of ground coffee, dry, as they say, as a bone. This is where String Theory, multiverses, and what-not come in. The design of the coffeepot is such that the heated water literally has nowhere else to go but through the coffee and into the pot, unless it clogs completely, in which case it would erupt all over the counter. Which it did not do.

You may have read a piece I posted recently about Shakespearean monkeys, in which I pointed out that, according to the theory of probability, there was no reason they couldn’t crank out, say, Henry V the minute they sat down rather than eons later. Similarly, if we are but one universe in a bubbly lather of multiverse, and if these bubbles, each containing it’s own set of physical laws, are bound to encroach on each other eventually, why not now, and why not at my house?

On the other hand, is it possible I inadvertently put the carafe, still full of water, in its place without first pouring the water in the reservoir?


Politics as usual?

With Trump in the presidency and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, liberals, or progressives, if you prefer, are apparently in a rout. We’re certainly behaving that way, with Democrats quibbling over the direction the party has to take in order to win everything back by the next election, temporary Democrats back in their old roles as independents or third party provocateurs, and the legions of newly, if vaguely, defined remnant left posting stern lectures on social media.

The gist of these last is that Democrats have lost control because they have drifted too far from their principles, and what is needed is retrenchment, a purge of whatever the self-appointed Guardians of the Left consider apostasy. They point to the Tea Party as a Republican movement back to the fundamentalist right, and see this purge as the reason for the party’s success in last year’s election. It worked for them, they say, so we should do the same.  Yet how many of us engaged in this lofty debate have actually read the 2016 Democratic Party Platform?  Certainly not those people claiming that there’s no difference between the two parties, the two candidates.

But is it even true that Republicans prevailed because of a purification of ideology? The truth is that most people couldn’t care less about ideology, or if they do, they fear it.  They are political pragmatists, and this explains the otherwise incomprehensible shift of many voters from Obama to Trump.

Today’s Republican party is actually a loose coalition of theocrats, libertarians, corporatists, and outright fascists. These groups have very little in common except a fear and hatred of the left, yet they voted, all of them holding their noses, for Donald Trump, a man who not only lacks a coherent ideology, but very likely doesn’t even know what the word means. A demand for ideological purity by any one of these constituencies would have resulted in a rout of Republicans instead of Democrats.

Yet, we hear from the Sanders wing of the Democratic party that that is exactly what we must do in order to win in the future, that what we need is to purge all that is not leftist dogma. Throw out the doubters, the apostates, go with an unabashedly socialist program, and “the People” will rally round.

It is not at all clear why “the People,” who went in unexpected numbers for the Republican party, would suddenly decide socialism was a great idea. Fear of socialism, or what they thought was socialism, was pretty much the glue that held the right-wing coalition together long enough to vote. We love to cite the fact that Clinton got over 3 million more votes than Trump to show the bankruptcy of the system, but neglect the obvious conclusion that the Democratic coalition, yes, the current Democratic coalition so abused by leftist purists, was sufficient to beat Trump if the vote had not had to be filtered through the electoral college.

If the United States were a parliamentarian democracy, like the vast majority of European nations, retrenchment would make sense; go with a pure (and therefore exclusionary) message, get as many votes as you can, then join a coalition to have a share of the governing system. But we’re not. Like it or not, the US is a kind of hybrid beast, a republic in which the executive and legislative branches are elected separately.  The only possible result of a less than plurality vote is a loss, and therefore coalitions must be made before the elections, not after.  If we want to prevail in the next elections, we have to find ways to draw in as many of the electorate as possible, not ways to exclude as many as possible.  And we have to find a common denominator for decent people to rally around, a glue.  Donald Trump is doing his level best to give us that.  Not only are his actions so far unacceptable to most Americans, but he’s exposing Republican cadres as spineless sycophants.  Let’s not sacrifice this gift on the altar of ideological fundamentalism.

The king is dead! What king?

In 1478 BCE, give or take a year, Hatshepsut ascended to the throne of Egypt, her recently deceased husband, the Pharaoh Thutmose II, leaving as heir only his infant son, Thutmose III. Thutmose II, the son of Thutmose I by a secondary wife, married Hatshepsut, the daughter of the same Thutmose I (bear with me here) because she was T. I’s daughter by his primary wife, and thus had a stronger claim to the royal lineage. T.II thought, apparently, that this would cement his position permanently.

It worked, sort of. The only thing is, Hatshepsut was a much better leader than her husband, and when he died after a decade or so, she took control and refused to let go, even after T. III got old enough to rule on his own. I always thought of Thutmose III as being kind of like poor old Prince Charles, whose mom refuses to step down so he can be king.

In any case, Hatshepsut finally kicked the bucket around 1458 BCE, having had an illustrious career as only the second female pharaoh that the Egyptian chroniclers would admit to, and Thutmose III finally got his shot. But his Aunt Hattie’s reign must have stuck in his craw, because eventually either he or his son Thutmose IV (AKA Amenhotep II; are you still with me here?) set about obliterating as much of the record of her accomplishments as he could. This was no mean task, since royal memoirs in those days were literally carved in stone.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and the Republican Congress (nice transition, eh?). It will not do for a man of Trump’s boundless ego to succeed someone who, well, succeeded. So, in cahoots with the congress, which has been doing its level best to make Obama a failure, and failing at that, Trump will try to see to it that any vestige of Obama’s success be obliterated.

The process has already started with an executive order cancelling unspecified parts of the health care act, and will soon continue with more executive orders.

Care to take any bets the congress will suddenly stop whining about the “imperial presidency?”

We well might ask how effective this kind of exercise is. Did it work in ancient Egypt? Ironically, two and a half millennia later, Hatshepsut is not only remembered, but honored as one of the most effective pharaohs Egypt had.

I suspect Obama’s reputation will be restored much sooner than that.  His accomplishments may not be carved in stone, but I predict it won’t be long before people start pining for the good old days when he was in charge.

It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.