How to be a proper fool

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round

To be the best, most complete fool you can be, follow these steps faithfully, in the proper order

  1. Read voraciously, everything you can get your hands on, sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter, just be a sponge.
  2. Apply your best critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Seek out the most knowledgeable people in every field, make their acquaintance, and don’t be shy about disagreeing with them.
  4. Examine the world’s religions, from the simplest animism to the most convoluted monotheism.  Talk to both believers and infidels, converts and apostates.
  5. Travel as extensively as possible, “trying on” various cultures, sorting through the good and the bad aspects of each.
  6. Avoid making pronouncements about your conclusions, realizing your remarks will be misinterpreted at best, and turned to evil ends at worst.
  7. Having done all of that, isolate yourself from others, to avoid contamination of your insights.
  8. Practice deep meditation and introspection.
  9. Realize that after a lifetime of learning and accumulating wisdom, you have shared all of this with no one, from a false modesty arising from a deep-seated fear of being wrong.
  10. Die.

 

My dear young people

It seems we Boomers will most likely be the last generation to live out their lives in a relatively comfortable habitat.

Nothing personal. We did it all for greed and convenience. Mostly convenience; nothing galls us more than having to move when we’ve settled in. Truth to tell, we didn’t even think very much about the consequences, except now, toward the end, when it’s no doubt too late. Even now, we expend far more of our energy shifting the blame to someone else than trying to fix things.

But don’t give us all the credit; we didn’t pull this off on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, if we have destroyed more than others, it was only because we were standing on the shoulders of past generations. Even the earliest farmers, whom we find so idyllic in our post-modern romanticism, advanced by slash-and-burn, with a good dash of never-look-back thrown in at the end. Where humanity is concerned, it seems a kind of fever descends upon us at the first glint of personal advantage. Nothing can stop us. Not empathy, not self-interest, not religion or science. We easily slip in and out of all those noble sentiments we build our castles on.

On second thought, that’s not fair. We do not cast aside our values. We twist them around until they are only recognizable to ourselves, until they not only do not stand in the way of our acquisitiveness, but outright demand it.

You are understandably upset. We’re like the bigger kids who stole your lunch, then ate it right in front of you while your stomach growled. I do see that. But what you don’t understand is that you would have done the same, because you are made of us, you are us, spit and image. In fact, in the coming crisis, you will do the same. It has already begun. Our current president, Donald Trump, is, I grudgingly confess, one of us, but look at those faces at his hate fests; people of all generations are there, yours included. Their faces reflect the whole range of emotions from greed to anger to fear and back again.  They’re like a mighty mirror, too bright to look at for long, too huge to ignore.

In the end, though, it comes down to this. We have made a proper hash of things, as blind as God himself to the consequences.

We are so sorry. But we have to go now. There’s money to be made of the carnage.

Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.

 

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.