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?

Nah!

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.

Good Riddance Day

On page 14 of the current New Yorker is a brief notice titled Good Riddance Day.  It’s about a promotion in Times Square by a company called Shred-It; they will utterly destroy and recycle any unwanted items people bring to the event.  Actually, it’s undoubtedly already happened, since it was scheduled for December 28.  According to the notice, the event was inspired by Latin American Año Viejo traditions, in which people stuff puppets with bits of paper scrawled with regrets, and no doubt curses, of the passing year, and ceremoniously burn them.

I think it would be a great and useful tradition to start in the US.  God knows we have enough poisonous emotions left over from 2016.  We could work out our own details, befitting our peculiar culture.  Instead of burning or shredding, we could toss bits of paper inscribed with unwanted emotions from car windows on the freeway.  Or we could stuff them into those Smokers Station things outside of public doorways.  For a really modern touch, we could type them up on computers, which would send them randomly to those people we’d like to be rid of as well.

Wait, we already do that last one.  It’s called Twitter.

So over the rainbow: a noir interview

Say, whatever happened to all those characters from Oz?

Glad you asked.

We know what happened to Dorothy: she went back home and became an overworked farm wife, bitterly comparing her tedious life to her great adventure in Oz. After her initial relief at getting back home so easily, Kansas just didn’t stack up anymore. She eventually moved to Chicago and worked in a baby buggy factory, sadly ironic, because, unbeknownst to her at the time, the Wicked Witch of the West had cast a sterilization spell on her. She died penniless and miserable.

That’s so sad!  What about the Tinman? He got his heart, didn’t he?

Well, yes. But as a result, he couldn’t help feeling the pain of all the people around him, and took to weeping almost all the time. The end came when he learned of Dorothy’s fate in Chicago. He just couldn’t stop crying. Finally, with all those wet tears rolling down his face, and into his joints, he rusted clean away, poor thing. Had he only wished for a brain, he could have seen that coming, and taken steps to avert it.

Huh. But the Scarecrow? He did get the brain, right? So, he must have turned out okay.

Yes, and things did look good at first. But, since he didn’t have a heart, he became arrogant, thinking he was better than all those idiots out there. Not a way to make friends, I’m afraid.

But still, he made it, right?

Well, no. His arrogance so infuriated his neighbors that they set him on fire, and, being made mostly of straw, he went up like a roman candle. Proving, if proof was needed, that burning out isn’t any better than rusting, after all, rock stars notwithstanding.

Well, at least the lion must have made it.

Indeed he did.

So, he didn’t die a miserable death?

Nope.

Great!

Not necessarily. See, with no brains and no heart, and no longer afraid, he started bullying everyone around him, and since he was a lion, there wasn’t much they could do. Eventually, the people with brains and hearts got together and figured out a way to capture him.

What did they do with him?

Some brainy people wanted to kill him, thinking it was the only way to be rid of him for good, but others saw an opportunity to study him, so that they’d be ready if another courageous lion happened by. It was the people with hearts who made the difference, because they refused to let him be killed. As a compromise, they declawed him and pulled all his teeth. Now he lives in a cage, because the brainy people are afraid he’ll run away before they get a chance to study him.

Wow. Didn’t the people with hearts try to release him?

No. With no claws and no teeth, how could he survive?

Hipness

There are two keys to hipness, inextricably woven together: image and timing.  Image has a lot to do with the proper air of disdain, not so much that you just look sour, but not so little that it’s invisible.  This is often accomplished linguistically, and that’s where timing comes in.

There are seven stages to the rise and decline of a hip word or turn of phrase:

  1. Someone comes up with a clever neologism.
  2. Her immediate cohort, seeing this, starts using it among themselves.
  3. Eventually, they use it in social media, and it catches on.
  4. It appears in Urban Dictionary.
  5. There are articles in Time or some similar rag on its proper use.
  6. Suddenly, it’s everywhere.
  7. Suddenly, it’s nowhere.

Consider the word ‘mansplain.’  If you used it during the first three phases, you were hip; if it was during the first two you were very hip, but only retroactively.  In phases 4 and 5, you were probably an older person ‘in tune’ with the younger generation.  After that, you’re dead to the younger generation, and in phase 7, you’re either completely out of it, or just being a smart ass.

Unless you use it in a blog, in an eye-rolling sort of way.  Then you’re extremely cool.  You might call that ‘blog-rolling.’

Feel free to use use that.

Saving daylight

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a conspiracy nut, but there’s something fishy in this DST business. We do it, presumably, in order to save an hour of daylight during, well, most of the year, it turns out.

So how did it all begin? Not really with old Ben Franklin, as some people will tell you. Some people will tell you he invented the weekend, or the iPhone, too, but you don’t believe that, do you?

In the US, it started with the Standard Time Act of 1918, which established the time zones across the country, and threw in DST as a kind of bonus (Act now, and get Daylight Savings! Limited time only!). It was the standard summer DST, although why we call it that, since it lasted seven months, is beyond me. At any rate, it was wildly unpopular, and was repealed a year later. Congress used to have good sense, once upon a time.

We thought we were done with it, then. But no. Roosevelt snuck it back in in 1942, called it War Time, and made it last all year, to boot.

Actually, year round sounds fine, kind of like an invisible dog fence, doing its job, unnoticed but eternally vigilant. Whatever its job is, anyway. Something to do with petroleum, apparently. Most evil things are linked to petroleum one way or another.

After the war, it was dropped, and summer DST was optional until the Uniform Time Act of 1966, when congress got fed up with never being able to figure out what time it was where they were going for a big rally, and made it apply to the whole country. States could opt out if the whole state did it. Indiana, where I mostly grew up, would have no part of it, for instance, although wicked conservatives recently forced it on the citizenry there. GW tacked on another five weeks in 2007, and here we are.

I tell you all this history, gleaned from painstaking research (a couple of minutes on Wikipedia), so that you’ll believe me when I tell you that when you add up all the hours saved since 1918, not even counting the 20 years after WWII when it was optional, it comes to 13,170. That’s roughly 550 days, or 78 weeks, which comes to 19 months.

That’s right, just over a year and a half of constant daylight, 24/7, night and day!

So, where did all that daylight go? Is it in some kind of federal light bank somewhere?

Why can’t we draw it out, a couple of hours at a time in the middle of winter, when we need it?