Politics in the age of magical thinking.

It seems to be a human failing to think that trying times call for a redoubling of purity of principle. We see it time and again in history: the trial of Socrates after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the Inquisition in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Self-strengthening Movement in the faltering Qing Dynasty China, the Cultural Revolution in the same country decades later, the list can go on ad infinitum.

And here and now in America, amidst the deepening political crisis, we hear calls to fundamentalist purity from the left.

It has never worked, throughout history, and it won’t now.

Let’s say you’ve got squirrels in the attic. They got there because your house has needed major renovations for quite a while, but you got by with stop-gap measures, because the renovations would involve temporarily opening up the house to the outdoors, and you have to live there while the work is going on.

Now you discover skunks have moved in under your deck.

Do you think it’s sensible to choose this moment to drop everything and start gutting the house?

A rear-view mirror is still a mirror

People say all the time that they have no regrets.  Me, I’m practically defined by them; a man with no regrets is a man with no imagination, as far as I’m concerned, and I say that all too often for people around me, I suspect.  Still, I confess I’m mystified by people who essentially admit they can’t think of anything in their past that could have gone better had they made a different decision.  Equally, I fail to understand the virtue of still being the same person you were 40 or 50 years ago.  As Muhammad Ali said, someone who has the same opinions at age 50 as they had at age 20 has wasted 30 years of life.

Maybe that’s why, now that I’m old, I have this strange compulsion to revisit my life, to retrace my steps.  I’m drawn to places, both actual and conceptual, I passed through on my way here, to physically visit them, to stand in my own footsteps to see — what?

It’s not at all clear what it is I’m looking for, certainly not a glimpse of myself as I was then; that’s a vision that’s all too clear.  Nor is it primarily an attempt to reconstruct what I was thinking, to re-find or redefine whatever it was I thought I was doing, although that would certainly be interesting.  I’m not looking for redemption, or even a rationale.

Part of it is to correct the unconscious revisions I have made to my own history.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reconnecting, after many years, with an old friend or acquaintance, only to find that there are at least two contradictory versions of some common experience.  These things are seldom resolved, though.  We generally each come away wondering how the other person could have gotten the memory so wrong and yet be so sure.  It needs a new term to describe these common events.  How about “memoroid?”  I think that has enough innuendo hanging from it to serve the purpose.

No doubt what I’m looking for is a lot closer to hand and a lot easier to get at than a precisely calibrated reconstruction of the past.  See, I don’t think you can have a realistic assessment of who you are without a clear picture of who you were.

That gets both more and less difficult as you get older.


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.

Hard times for Mr. Softee

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an obituary for Les Waas, who, among other things, wrote the Mr. Softee jingle (it has lyrics; who knew?).

Of course, that sent me spinning ass over elbows into nostalgia. The Mr. Softee truck, with its Pavlovian jingle, was a staple of summer where I lived. I doubt that truck could make more than five miles a day at the rate it had to stop and minister to neighborhood kids, some of them well over the age of majority. I can just smell it. I can feel again the greasy sweat evaporating as I sit in a shady spot somewhere to eat my cone. It was a snack and air conditioning rolled into one. Actual AC was a thing reserved for theaters, and just the fancy downtown ones at that, where movies could cost as much as seventy-five cents for a single feature. We didn’t often get the benefit of that. Cooling off mostly involved sitting very still and hoping for a breeze.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, all kinds of merchants and craftspeople peddled their wares on neighborhood streets, mostly during the warmer months. Come June, there was the slow-rolling truck of the strawberry man, and his chant “strawBERRY, STRAWberry,” and if it weren’t for the siren song of Mr. Softee, that might well have been the most welcome sound of summer. Not far behind him was the vegetable man, as slow or slower, truck packed with stuff pulled from the ground that morning, scales dangling noisily from a home-made rack. And milk trucks, two or three competing varieties; we “took” Roberts, and thought Borden’s was inferior, and of course the opposite was true of the Borden’s loyalists. You kept a sort-of-insulated box on your porch, and every day you filled out a form telling the milkman what to leave. And he did. Years later, when my mother’s health deteriorated, the Roberts man would actually bring in her order and put it into the fridge for her.

It wasn’t just food, either. The knife sharpener rolled down the street once a week or so, and he would also sharpen your lawn mower blades. I’m talking about reel mowers, powered by whomever was pushing them. Sporadically, some gypsies would come along selling whatever, and kids, myself among them, joined the parade, mowing lawns for a buck a pop; in winter we switched to snow shoveling, same rate. A buck could buy you a coke, a burger, and a new baseball, on the rare occasions we ran completely out of baseballs found in the park, their leather covers half off. Duct tape fixed nearly everything.

People flogging brushes, cosmetics, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, and god knows what all would regularly come to your door.  The mail came twice a day, six days a week. I still remember the air of shocked disbelief, almost betrayal, when the Post Office announced that Saturday mail would be cut to just one delivery. It is ironic that today, under pressure from Amazon, stuff gets delivered seven days a week, as many times as it takes to get it done, usually by the Post Office.

Well, it’s about this point in this kind of essay where you probably expect me to go on about how much more simple those times were. They weren’t. We were.

The truth is, much of that time was awful. Racism was not only the rule, but was unquestioned; black people were still getting lynched periodically. Police did exactly as they pleased, and politicians routinely stole elections, and everybody knew it, and nobody did anything about it. Anti-Semitism was considered only sensible. Nativism and religious prejudice were everywhere. My family was Catholic, and we were immigrants to boot. I will always remember the morning when I was eight or nine, when a canvasser for the Republican party came to the door, and before my mother could say anything, started on a spiel about how superior the party was, because it had no Jews, Catholics, or foreigners in it. My mother explained, in her thick accent, that we were two out of three. All of that sank in slowly, over a period of years.

My mother asked me one day, when I was in high school, why I was so surly all the time, when I used to be so cheerful. Why, indeed.

The Golden Age of anything, they say, is when you were young. Ignorance didn’t hurt, either.

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?

Oh, Mr. Einstein, you’re such a kidder!

So, here’s the deal:  my cousin Bert, who lives on the planet Schnipplefarq, and I have devised an experiment.  We have carefully synchronized our watches to Cosmic Mean Time.  I will leave Earth at a prearranged time in my spaceship, which travels at exactly one half the speed of light, making a bee-line for Bert’s house, where he will wait with his notebook to write down the results.  In my spaceship, I will have two items: a red laser pointer, and a high tech bean shooter capable of shooting a bean, also at exactly one half the speed of light.  At a pre-determined time, I will simultaneously point the laser at Bert’s house and press the button, and launch a bean, also at his house.

Since the speed of light is constant, according to Mr. Einstein, and the speed of the bean is relative to the speed of my spaceship, they should arrive at the same time.  Bert will have long since given up, of course, forgetting that our carefully synchronized watches will be way off, since time for me and my watch will pass more slowly than for him and his.

What should happen is that my red pointer light will arrive on time, but magically blue.  Bert, by that time, having decided that I’m hopelessly forgetful, will have put away his notebook and gone back into the house for a quick shot and a nap.  So he won’t notice when the bean also arrives at the same time, having increased to infinite mass due to travelling at the speed of light.  Which is just as well, since Bert, his shot glass, his comfy chair, and his planet will be annihilated by the collision.

Now, you might think what I find bothersome about all this is that time slows down for me, or that a bean could acquire infinite mass just by going real, real fast, but no.  Oh, it’s true that while I’m zipping along relative to Bert, he’s also zipping along relative to me, and why wouldn’t our time distortions cancel out, or that infinite mass would by definition have to include everything else out there, but that’s not it. It’s the concept of speed.

See, we happen to live on a planet that is way, way larger than we are, which gives us the illusion that it’s stationary, so when we think of speed, it’s relative to the great blob of  stuff under our feet.  If we go six mph, we mean six miles of earth has passed beneath us during an hour.  But the earth itself is not standing still.  It’s rotating at about 1,036 mph, and orbiting the sun at about 67,000 mph.  As if that’s not enough, the sun is moving through the galaxy at about 447,400 mph, and the galaxy is moving … well, you get the point.  You are really moving many, many thousands of miles per hour.  Plus six.

All of this speed, of course is relative to something else, us to the earth, the earth to the sun, and so on.  This means that it could be said that when we are moving six mph, the earth is moving that same speed relative to us.  Put another way, two cars, each going 30 mph relative to the earth, might be going anywhere from 0-60 relative to each other.

So what is the speed of light relative to?  According to Mr. E, nothing!  Or rather, itself.

Okay, let’s see.  If I wanted to measure the speed of light, I could count the number of some units of it that pass by during some time interval, like counting power poles from a train to figure out how fast it’s going.  That might be waves, but that’s dependent on frequency, and you get tautological pretty quick doing that.  Or it could be particles, but counting photons is worse than trying to figure the number of water molecules passing in a stream.  You’re left with bursts of light.  So you do that and get a good number.  Then Cousin Bert (still alive for the nonce) does the same thing, with the same bursts, while zooming past you at cosmic speeds.  And gets the same number.

What?  I don’t even know what speed means in that context.

Don’t even ask what would happen if I got the velocity upgrade for the pea shooter.

Family values and me

For many people, family means refuge, a warm, inviting place where they will always be welcome, where there will always be unconditional support. Throw in a strong religious conviction, and they just add God to the list of familiars they can always count on.

For me, family was always about suffocation. Religion was there, a very strong presence, and stifling. The two together seemed absolutely crushing.

This had nothing to do with lack of love and support. That was always there, too, in abundance. It’s just that the totality was overwhelming, with no room left for the kind of soul-stretching I yearned for. I spent hours looking out doors and windows, dreaming of escape.

How to account for the difference? Hard to say, but I suspect it is rooted in the style of upbringing. Mine was very rigid and inflexible, and the same can be said for my religious upbringing: twelve years of Catholic school, ironically much more flexible than my father’s idea of what was appropriate for children. Still, the razor-wire was there all the same, just a bit further out.

These days, only three of us remain from the family, siblings. We live thousands of miles apart. We get along very well. Words like love and support are bandied about so often nowadays that I don’t trust them; basically, we live our own lives, and are interested in each other’s lives, and would undoubtedly rally to each other in case of a crisis. Let’s leave it at that.

As for religion, I’ve left it far behind. The still faithful erroneously think that’s because of a grudge against God. True, anger and rebellion initially caused me to examine the tenets of Catholicism, but once the cat was out of the bag there was no going back. Occasionally, protestants of various flavors tell me the problem is Catholicism, that their particular variant is more loving, more forgiving, etc. They miss the point. Nowadays, I’m no more angry at God than I am at Santa for not bringing me Christmas presents.

God, in the form of an omnipotent creator who nevertheless tinkers with his creation at the request of believers, is an insupportable idea. Once you start questioning dogma, and persist at it, this is inescapable. God was created wholly in the image of man: spiteful, loving, patronizing, generous, egomaniacal, vengeful, forgiving, take your pick; it’s all there to reinforce your decisions wherever your personal inclinations lead you.

Do I miss any of that? Rarely. The more I think about things like eternity and immortality, the more I realize we’re already there.