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.

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.

Diverging paths: an allegory

Say you’re walking down a dangerous path in a forest, overgrown with thorny vines, progress is difficult.  You’re increasingly fed up with hacking at the vines to eke out a few steps at a time.  Someone has told you this is the path that leads out of the forest, but you’re no longer convinced it’s true.

Suddenly, the path in front is suffused with light, and there’s an easier looking path splitting off to the left.  The first light you’ve seen in days of wandering, so tempting, but on examination, you see that it just leads to a small clearing a few feet away, surrounded by the same thorny vines on the path you’re on.  A nice enough place to rest, but it won’t help you out of the forest.  Still, you’re utterly exhausted, tired of slogging away, unsure you’re any closer to being out of the forest than when you started. Could you be going in circles? You think, I could just live in that clearing, give up trying to find a way out altogether.

Then you notice that all of the light doesn’t come from that side; on the right is another, narrower path leading away.  It is small, but straight, so you follow it for a few steps, until you see that it leads straight over a precipice to jagged rocks below.  It’s a long way down, you think, but a person might just survive the fall, and it’s definitely out of the forest.

Shuddering, you return to the path you started on, with considerable dismay.  It hasn’t gotten any less thorny, has it.

What to do?

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?

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.

A letter to the peeps

Dear people,

You despise the idea of always having to choose between the lesser of two evils, so you don’t vote.  You either lash out at anyone who criticizes anything you say or do, or you stick your fingers in your ears and go about your business.  Your go-to response to disagreement is insult.  You cut off “negative” people and cultivate “positive” ones.   You get mad and get even.

Maybe your parents told you you could be anything you wanted, you could have anything you were willing to work for, that there were no limits. That if you were true to your ideals, things would always work out the way you wanted, and so you should never compromise, for that was weakness. That if you wanted something badly enough, you would get it. The Law of Attraction.

They lied.

Not only that, but you should have seen through it instantly, even as young as you were. All it takes is the realization that there will always be someone else whose parents also lied to them, who wants the opposite of what you want. You should confront your parents with this; they need to be held responsible for raising children to be the adults we now have to deal with in politics.

As always,
Your Uncle Mike

PS: If you’re old and still feel this way, shame on you. You should have learned something by now.

Time and the swelling tide

I was just out walking in the town I live in.  An unseasonably nice day, warm and breezy, like the best days of early fall.  Then it hit me: my generation may very well be the last to experience habitable climates on most of Earth.

It is almost certainly too late to adopt enough changes to avoid disaster.  As for our social preoccupations, they are vexing, for sure, but not nearly on an order of magnitude comparable to environmental issues.  No matter how our current crises play out, how sordid or how sublime our responses to the xenophobia raging across the planet, it will all take its place in history, alongside all the ages, dark, golden, or forgotten.

If there still is history.  If the effluent we keep pumping into the air leaves us with a future, let alone history.

In a way, it’s a self-correcting problem.  Either we correct our course, which seems increasingly unlikely, or we render our planet inhospitable.  In either case, our cultures will change, and our sheer numbers will decrease, in the former case by intelligent design, in the latter by brute force.  The earth will return to its inanthropic cycles, none the worse for wear, to whatever state counts as normal.

We are far too young a species to grasp what that is.  Earth has passed through phases as diverse as completely covered with ice, an atmosphere poisonous to virtually any life, and desiccation more severe and universal than anything since we crawled out from our ancestral apes into the brave new world.  Through most of it, life had yet to occur, much less evolve, and even when it had, it clung tenuously to existence.  At least five times since it’s emergence, life has been almost wiped out.  Even our own species was squeezed through a fine and narrow filter some 60,000 years ago, when genetics point to a breeding population of Homo sapiens of less than 2,000.  Some scholars speculate that it was during this period that our evolving intelligence was given a swift kick to accelerate it, in response to the demographic crisis.

Given how that is turning out, I’m not very optimistic.  I hope I’m wrong.