Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Since becoming a dad back in 1995 with the birth of my son whenever I happen upon a rerun of Leave it to Beaver or any other 1950's sitcom that had some omniscient father in the cast I find myself wondering if any such person could ever exist in reality. During the 1970's when I was growing up, shows like Leave it to Beaver and Ozzy and Harriet and even The Brady Bunch were still mainstays of afternoon television. These shows and a few others were usually shoehorned between the last of the melodramatic soap operas but before the evening news. I guess to babysit kids and because the local television stations had to broadcast something.
With the exception of maybe of the Brady Bunch dad, the only thing greater than the near god-like detachment shown by these sitcom fathers was their wisdom and unflappable nature. In fact, while I haven't watched an full episode of Leave it to Beaver in decades I can't honestly remember seeing Ward Cleaver, the dad, ever leave his den or wear anything more casual than a light sweater over his still pressed white shirt and tie. After a quick jump to Wikipedia looking up the entry on “Ward Cleaver” apparently he did leave his den to go to work, entertain guests, and run the barbecue, although I still do not remember these more adventurous episodes. This of course brings up the gross idea that Ward and his wife, June Cleaver, might have actually had a sex life, an idea that totally weirds me out in ways I didn't think possible.
As I came to grips with being a dad back in the mid-90's I must admit that the idea of Ward Cleaver's fatherly perfection lingered somewhere in the background static of my mind. Yes, the fact that he was nothing but a fictional, unrealistic, one-dimensional character was never lost to me but I don't know a real caring dad that doesn't want to do the absolute best for their kids. A nice sentiment but honestly there are two rather huge problems with trying to pursue that course. The first being that Ward and his fellow fictional male television sitcom creations represented a whitewashed 1950's society that never really existed. Sure, back then dads made the money and ruled their households in a similar manner with the wife doing the required marital obeying as she baked cookies and volunteered for some sort of local charity work. The fact that such televisions families never displayed any deep emotions nor conflict probably put real moms and dads under a great deal of stress to measure up. The second problem dealt with the fact that by the 1990's sitcom dads' position as wise masters of the household had long since become a joke. This is where my reality as a dad intersected with my fictional brethren.
My loving spouse, known by the code name Dragonwife, is a complete and total opposite of the fictional June Cleaver who was a meek homemaker that seemed to never leave the house but was forever wearing a nice dress, pearls, and flawless makeup. My wife is a high-powered tax attorney who, needless to say, makes more money in a year than her glorified blue collared husband does in two. I don't have a problem with my wife making more money than me but where it becomes an issue for Dragonwife is that the demands of the job often require her complete attention. This means I have to take up the slack on many mundane household and family-related chores, among them organizing my daughter's four-year old birthday party.
Back in August of 2007, my daughter, code named Darth Wiggles, birthday was coming up quick but at the same time my wife was getting slammed at work. During this period meetings lasted until way after normal business hours along with some hours spent on paperwork at home during the weekend. There was simply no way she would be able to spend any time or effort on organizing our daughters birthday. This is where dad stepped up to the plate to save the day.
Darth Wiggles loved both the staff and her friends at daycare so I figured it would be the best place to celebrate her birthday. In fact, the daycare openly encouraged parents to use their facilities for birthdays since that generally meant every child in a particular class would be included. This prevented hurt feelings when a child, or his or her parents, discovered they had not been invited to the big birthday shindig at some house or kid-themed restaurant. The two conditions the daycare wanted parents to follow was notify them at least a week in advance and to have the celebrations on a Friday near the end of the day. The latter made management of the kids and cleanup easier for the staff who by then were ready to call it week. All it took to make the arrangements with the daycare was a phone call to the director and that part of my task was done.
The next task was to order the birthday cake, which due to my daughter's interests at that time would come in the form of individual cupcakes decorated to look like ladybugs. It took me digging through the old phone book at home and several calls to various grocery store bakeries to find one that could decorate the cupcakes like ladybugs and have them ready Friday afternoon. It turned out Walmart could do the insectoid confections and have them ready for Friday. I'm absolutely no fan of Walmart, I find their business practices and treatment of their lower ranking employees almost criminal, but no one else in the local area could have the stuff ready on the day of my daughter's birthday party. Moral indignation aside, after getting the order placed I was feeling pretty good having done everything needed to make sure Darth Wiggles and her friends would enjoy the upcoming party.
All that changed as I walked into local Walmart to pick up the cupcakes about two hours before my daughter's scheduled birthday party. Thinking back on the the situation, I often wonder if maybe my life isn't a sitcom in another universe with some stand-up comedian turned actor playing the part of me. Because this is where I seemingly walked straight into a sitcom episode playing the perfect bumbling and confused dad.
One of my biggest pet peeves is having to rush, call it a relic from my military days working under the philosophy of what one of my senior NCO's called the “Five P's.” The Five P's stands for “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance” and in truth, it is as near an absolute truth as humans can come. While being pretty self explanatory, the philosophy boils down to the idea that as long as a person plans out whatever activity he or she as to perform frak ups can generally be avoided. During my adult life as long as I have adhered to that truth I have avoided most of the pratfalls that can befall someone like me who I freely admit isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer nor made up from stuff at the deep end of the gene pool. Call the Five P's not only a philosophy of life but a bit of a temporal insurance policy because after talking with the nice lady behind the Walmart bakery counter I quickly realized that I had royally screwed up the situation.
It didn't take much in the way of investigation for me to realize that while my intention was to place the cupcake order with the local Walmart which was directly on the way to my daughter's daycare, I had in fact miss read the phone number on the crumbly phone book page and called the one clear across town. Given the time frame I was working under, I had inadvertently screwed myself and probably ruined my daughter's birthday party.
Once you live in Columbia, South Carolina for a while you soon realize that while the city and the general surrounding area doesn't have that big a population it is a sprawling, cancerous mass connected by badly designed roads that are just a degree or two above third-world status. I've driven through some truly big cities and while they all have traffic problems, I honestly believe Columbia has them beat. Of the two interstate highways running through Columbia all it literally takes to shut both down for several miles is for one semi to overturn on one of the slopping off ramps that connects them. Throw in several rubberneckers slowing down to see how bad things are and you can start multiplying the minutes it will take to get anywhere.
Boiling my situation down to simple terms, I had go across Columbia in middle of lunch time traffic to a Walmart just outside Fort Jackson, the local military post. Then take another route that in all likelihood would be even more congested to get the cupcakes to my daughter's daycare before her party was scheduled to start. The stakes involved just wasn't a disappointed daughter and a couple of dozen irate kids upset they didn't get a afternoon sugar buzz. While my wife said she probably wouldn't be able to make the party because of work, I was sure as bears leave steamy piles of poop in the woods that she would be in the classroom mumbling something to herself as minutes ticked by with no cupcakes.
When I ran out of the Walmart I did a quick mental calculation and figured I had just under two hours to pickup the cupcakes and then make it to the daycare. Given the conditions I was dealing with there was chance I could save my sorry ass but it was going to be really close. By all rights I should have been pulled over on the first leg of my warp speed journey to the other Walmart. For reasons I can't really explain, the South Carolina Highway Patrol seems to me to have a heavy presence in the Greater Columbia area, as compared to other parts of the state, but that early afternoon as I weaved in and out of the slower traffic they were no where to be seen. This is where if I wanted to be snarky I could make a comment about there must have been a buy-one-get-one-free deal at a local doughnut shop. But given my previous and unfortunate encounters with the Highway Patrol I will refrain from such attempts at snide humor. Trust me, I've had the misfortune to be know a little over ten Highway Patrol types and while they have a really hard job I consistently say they could tone down the robocop/Nazi-like attitudes. Out of them all, I only knew one Highway Patrol officer that I acted like a human being.
My visit to the Fort Jackson area Walmart was so quick I only have a vague recollection of what the place looked like. No real disappointment since nearly everyone of those huge retail edifices are near carbon copies of each other but I must admit to being a little unsettled as to the fact that my memory doesn't really kick in again until I'm driving out of the parking lot with the box of ladybug cupcakes on the front passenger seat next me. As expected, due to the distance and traffic it had taken over an hour to reach my first destination and as I checked my watch a sense of doom filled my soul as I knew the most difficult part of my trip was about to begin.
My route to the daycare had me on secondary roads that while being four lanes were nevertheless still crowded with people going for late lunches or on the way back to work. So while the actual distance I had to travel was smaller, the nature of the slower traffic came close to giving me a heart attack a couple of times out of frustration. At some point though the traffic magically cleared and I made the jump to emergency warp and literally slid into the daycare parking lot with five minutes to spare saying a silent prayer of thanks that I hadn't killed anyone.
One of the lessons I have truly learned is that when life throws a world of shit your way never let the riff-raff see you sweat. During shit storms, it's best to act like a duck, seemingly all cool and collected above water while paddling your feet underwater as if you are being chased by hungry alligators. Playing the part of the unperturbed duck, I calmly walked into the daycare as if my arrival was just as I planned. Inside, I was greeted by my daughter and her friends like a hero while I saw my wife down the hall talking with one of the teachers. She gave one of her looks that I have come to learn says she knew something was wrong with the situation but just didn't have any evidence to make an accusation.
Dragonwife did eventually ask some probing questions in an attempt to get me to inadvertently spill the beans. But like the mythical father figures from the 1950's I just gave her one of those omniscient smiles and said everything was perfectly okay. Come to think of it, maybe Ward Cleaver and the others like him were doing the same thing all along.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Very rarely do I ever sing the praises of any soulless multinational corporation. Truthfully, I can't remember the last time I said anything positive about such entities, but right now that's beside the point. Given the total crapfest of an era we find ourselves living, the current situation requires that everyone not caught up in the rabid and inbred delusion of “Making America Great Again” should do whatever it takes to preserve some sort of personal hope for the future. For me personally the hope that I am carefully nursing comes in the form of moving beyond our society's self imposed limits on imagination. Americans once dreamed of tomorrow, that something new and better might lift us all up, not just a narrow self righteous segment so fearful of the world and even fellow citizens that they would willingly sacrifice the principles that made the United States special in the first place.
Call me foolish, trust me I'm all to use to that accusation and much worse, but the soulless Boeing Company recent unveiled its new and greatly improved spacesuit, which will be used with its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that should, hopefully, begin manned service in late 2018. No, I'm not talking anything as grandiose as some sort of sudden Golden Age of scientific adventure going back to the moon and beyond, more like a small step towards building an infrastructure that our kids and grandkids can expand. My chief hope is that returning Americans to space might just jolt a few people to consider the future again and not be satisfied with our stagnate reality.
Ever since the space shuttle was retired, right after the completion of the International Space Station, Americans have been forced to buy rides up into orbit from the goddamn Russians. Making matters worse, Putin has made sure we've paid through the ass for the privilege of going into space on a system that hasn't had an upgrade since the 1970's. Don't get me wrong, that last sentence isn't meant as an insult towards the Soyuz spacecraft for two reasons. The first being that the damn thing works and does its job by sending humans up into orbit and bringing them down again safely. The second being that while I do not like Russians, at least they didn't mothball their one access into low Earth orbit before having a working replacement. While I would welcome George W. Bush back in a New York minute, given the insane narcissist now living in the White House, he and his administration are the ones to blame for the fact we're shelling out fifty to seventy million an astronaut for rides to the ISS.
Digressing even further, retiring America's only manned spaceflight system was the right decision. Despite the Buck Rogers glamour of the space shuttle, it was a cumbersome system that never lived up to the promise of those who envisioned a relatively cheap and reusable spacecraft that would ultimately allow humans a way to expand civilization to Earth orbit and beyond. If my memory serves me correctly, the space shuttle cost about a billion dollars to launch on each mission and was so technically complicated it's a wonder it ever go off the launchpad. The fact that out of just one-hundred thirty-five missions two of them ended disastrously resulting in the death of both crews is a statement on the inherent danger of that system. I not going soft on George W. but you can't really blame him for bungling the development of its replacement. A shortsighted and incompetent congress and the general sense of apathy from a banal American public carry the majority of the blame for the inability to look beyond the static here and now. George W's biggest fault was that the replacement system his administration purposed looked simple on paper but was criminally underfunded and in truth, was more a haphazard afterthought.
While Boeing's Starliner looks more or less like the old Apollo missions capsule it will be able to take seven people consisting of five passengers and two crew up to low Earth orbit. While the Starliner principle destination will be the ISS, Boeing is working with Bigelow Aerospace to develop its B330 expandable space habitat. A single habitat will have three hundred thirty cubic meters of pressurized volume and be able to support six human occupants. Start linking these habitats together and you are soon looking at some serious living space up in Earth orbit that can be used for microgravity research, space tourism. Add some form of engine and the B330 becomes a spacecraft that can be sent on missions back to the moon and Mars. Needless to say, the really neat thing about the B330 is that it is sent up into orbit in one piece then essentially inflated to its full volume greatly reducing the time for construction and the inherent dangers involved with such endeavors. As far as the space tourism things goes, yes at first it will be restricted to the super rich, all I can say is that you've got to start somewhere and I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Boeing is not alone in the buildup to returning Americans to space. The SpaceX Corporation, lead by Elon Musk, has its own manned spacecraft, Dragon 2, which will sending astronauts to the ISS about the same time as Boeing. Musk's Falcon 9 rocket does have one huge advantage over the models Boeing and its partners launch, namely that they can fly back and softly land back on Earth allowing them to be refurbished and reused, thus greatly reducing the cost of putting people and material into space. That amazing procedure goes a long way to making Musk's ultimate dream of establishing a permanent human colony on the planet Mars possible.
For me establishing a branch of human civilization on another planet or moon is the ultimate reason for pursuing a safe, cheap, and reliable means to get to low Earth orbit. I could name off several reasons why I want this to happen but it all boils down to the idea that I believe our current global civilization is totally unsubstantial. The rampant environmental destruction and resource depletion that is endemic in this era, along with over seven billion humans all wanting, justifiably, a better life for themselves and their children will eventually push the planet beyond its means of supporting our civilization. Whether this means a collapse along the lines of what happened at the end of the Mediterranean Bronze Age or the end of the western Roman Empire or even the extinction of human life I have no idea.
I don't necessarily view any off-planet human society as just an insurance policy for our species continued existence. What I would like to see is something along the lines of what happened with the European colonization of North America. Yes, what was done to the Native American societies that had existed on this continent for thousands of years by European colonizers is a crime that can never be rectified or excused. What the colonization of North America did for civilization was to give the ideas formed during the European Renaissance and Enlightenment a chance to flourish away from the entrenched powers of intrusive religion and hereditary aristocracy. Yes, the development of North America was an ugly affair that chewed up the innocent and powerless but while the ends can never justify the means I do believe the liberal democracies of the world are the offspring of that process.
I believe the establishment of human civilizations on other bodies in the solar system like the moon, Mars, and asteroids could do the same. The sheer fact that survival on incredibly harsh environments would force a level of cooperation and rational thought that can't happen on a planet dominated by ancient hates, powerful wealthy men intent on protecting their positions, and ingrained, willful ignorance by those without any vision. Do I view Boeing as some sort of savior of humanity, of course not, it is a multinational corporation out to protect its shareholders, often at the expense of it workers and society in general. But it does have the scientific know-how and resources to develop the means for something incredible to be born in the coming decades. For that reason I am forced to give them a limited pass on being complete A-holes. Yes, this does open the door to the ends justifying the means but I have never belonged to the group of self-righteous progressives who would rather commit suicide than work within a system that can be reformed and give birth to something far better.
Sunday, February 5, 2017
“You're really going to eat that?” My wife said looking at me as her face morphed into an expression that registered both borderline disgust and sad resignation that she married a man only one step above a primitive and uncultured brute. I paused just long enough to consider her words.
The food item in question was a small portion of my garlic mashed potatoes that had fallen off my fork and impacted on the fake leather bench seat I was sitting. The Italian restaurant we were eating was one of those national chains that will go unnamed, but needless to say the Chicken Bryan entree I had ordered, and which came with garlic mashed potatoes, is one of my favorite meals. So yes, I totally ignored the numerous rules of polite dining etiquette along with simple health concerns and scooped up the errant portion with my fork and savored the delicious flavors without hesitation.
“Remember the rule we had with the kids,” I said once I had swallowed. “It was less than five seconds and I'm sure they wipe down the seats after every customer here.” I further said before craving up another portion of the fried chicken breast careful not to disturb the goat cheese that the chief had spread over it.
“That was just plain wrong.” My wife wearily replied before forcing herself to forget my latest transgression.
“Trust me,” I said enjoying the moment, “it's not the worst thing with food I have ever done.”
“Oh, of that I have no doubt.” She said in such a tone that further discussion of me scooping fallen pieces of food would not be tolerated. A fact that allowed me to stroll down memory lane unmolested by snooty, judgmental people.
Never one to take the direct approach in life, after having spent two years in the South Carolina National Guard I transferred over to the active army in 1986. I had already received my training in the Man Portable Air Defense Systems like the old Redeye and early versions of the Stinger missile as my Military Occupational Specialty, so despite the desire to do something different upon going active duty I found myself assigned to the air defense battalion at Fort Carson, Colorado.
Sometime during the summer of 1987 my unit was chosen from the others in the battalion to take part in one of the old and truly enormous REFORGER exercises that moved both men and material to Western Europe. Just to clarify, REFORGER was one of the better conceived military acronyms that stood for Return of Forces to Germany, which was an annual exercise to practice the quick deployment of American and other NATO allied forces to western Europe in the event of a conflict with the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.
While the charted commercial jetliner my unit, and at least a couple of hundred other soldiers were aboard landed in Amsterdam we weren't allowing any sightseeing. But were quickly hustles off by buses to one of the many propositioned military depot sites to draw vehicles like hummers and old jeeps along with radios and other pieces of equipment. From there we convoyed out of the Netherlands and into the northern parts of West Germany, a drive so damn long that I was forced to pull over to the side of the road to relieve myself. Funny thing about that one little incident, everyone behind my little jeep pulled over as well making my team leader, the other guy in my jeep the defacto convoy commander after I got back in the vehicle and floored the accelerator in an attempt to catch up with the main body. Those were some serious tense minutes because of both the level of civilian traffic on the road as well as the nagging possibility that the rest of the convoy, which was long out of sight, might have made a turn onto another road we wouldn't see resulting in us getting seriously lost. Thankfully, we eventually found the main body of the convoy and followed it to our final, rather anticlimactic destination.
For at least the better part of a month my unit bivouacked in an empty field in what had to be the absolute middle of nowhere West Germany. We're talking scores of what was even then ancient army, two-man pup tents lined up in columns and rows so surgically precise it would have made generals going back to Roman times shutter with glee. I've got to admit, if you could ignored the smell of the manure the farmers were spreading around in the surrounding, active farm fields the area had a pleasant, almost nature reserve atmosphere. The daily temperature ran from comfortable at noon and just a little chilly during the night. The woods surrounding the farm fields were a deep green, which had both a calming effect on us all and dampened the greater part of the sounds coming from the vehicles on the major highway that I was told was three kilometers away. Aside from the smell of the copious amount of manure on the ground, I would have called the area idyllic.
Where things went to metaphorical crap was the food situation. Since arriving in Amsterdam, we had been living off a combination of first generation MRE's, horrendous creations typified by meals like dehydrated beef patty and Chicken a la King and “T-rations”, huge unit-sized meals that were packaged in aluminum trays that looked like old fashioned TV dinners.
The MRE's were nothing less than barely disguised attempts at human experimentation to see how badly hunger could force a soldier to consume things that looked like a petrified brown sponge, in the case of the dehydrated beef patty. Yes, I added water to the package to soften up the "meat" but that is a relative term because no matter how long you waited the entree was still an abomination. Concerning what was euphemistically called Chicken a la King, it more resembled the half digested contents pulled from the stomach of a two-day old corpse. Yes, there were other MRE packages that approached the level of being edible human food, but it required a soldier to use all his or her concentration to think of any other subject as they consumed the required calories needed to complete their duties.
One of the most important tasks in any military conflict is to keep the troops properly fed. It ranks right up there with keeping soldiers healthy and properly equipped. The trouble with feeding troops though is that it is damn inconvenient because moving, storing, and preparing food takes time and effort that could be going to the defeat of the enemy, this is where T-rations come into play. The story that I was told at the time was that T-rations would go a long way to solving all those concerns because all it took to prepare them was a large pot of boiling water. In theory, this was supposed to removed the need for specially trained cooks as well as refrigeration because T-ration trays could be stored at normal temperatures like regular canned goods.
It was all a nice idea, but the only real way T-rations excelled were in their utter blandness. Unlike the first generation MRE's, which are memorable because of how bad many of the meals were, I don't remember any of the T-ration entrees. I do have vague recollections of dreaming about pizza and hamburgers as I stood in line to receive my serving of whatever came from those large aluminum trays. While I never personally read anything for certain, I do not believe T-rations lived up to their theoretical potential. For the rest of my active duty time, they seemed to slowly faded away while MRE's continued to evolve and improve.
We did receive a real, fully prepared meal during those weeks bivouacked in that field. One of the pieces of equipment drawn from the depot in Amsterdam was a mobile field kitchen whose proper military moniker escapes me at this moment. If memory serves me right, I believe breakfast was the one meal that we could depend on to carry us through the day. Of course, once all the forces arrived in theater and the actual war games began even that one bright light of our existence ended. Luckily, the war games last just a week, after that things got much better.
The thing about REFORGER exercises was that once you've brought all those troops and equipment across the ocean you eventually have to send everyone and thing back home. That takes time, so once the war games were over everyone was pulled back to rear assembly areas to do maintenance on equipment and wait for their turn to board a plane back to the States. These areas were on even bigger empty fields and consisted of giant circus tents that acted as barracks, mess halls, and even recreation centers made up of restaurants, movie theaters, arcades, and just about anything else designed to help the morale of the troops.
Yes, I know REFORGER exercises were not combat and that the five or six weeks my unit, me, and all the others were in the field was akin to a trip to Disney World compared to the hell our guys and gals endured in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But that is the fault of circumstance and the relatively wiser geopolitical leadership of that era, all I can say is that after weeks of either MRE's or T-rations I was ready for anything that approached normal food.
After going through the procedures of finding the area where my unit was supposed to park and then securing our vehicles, we were released and allowed to explore the circus tent where all the recreational stuff was housed. My unit was in no way one of the first troops brought to the rear assembly area, in fact the place was rather crowded, so much that my friends and I all wondered if some of the soldiers came over to Europe just to spend time at that particular spot. Whatever the case, my group of about four or five split up to hit the various food stall with me picking the one that sold huge slices of New York-style pizza.
Part of the reasoning of my choice had to with the fact that for the last couple of days of the war games the MRE's I had drawn for lunch at our T-ration breakfast were the really bad ones. While dehydrated beef patty and Chicken a la King were the champions of gross, dehydrated pork patty and beef stew were only the tiniest bit better, but not enough to really make a difference. Except for a couple of bites of the entree, I had essentially skipped lunch those days and was pretty hungry. The second reason for going for the pizza was that the line in front of the stand wasn't as long as other places. Given my hunger the equation was pretty simple, so about fifteen minutes later I find my way back to the table my buddies and I claimed and sit down with the most beautiful piece of double cheese pizza that existed in the entire universe. Throw in the large Coke that I had bought and I was as close to being a happy camper as anyone can reach in this life. That is when what would seem like a total disaster occurred.
With my elbows resting on the table I lifted that gorgeous and quite hot slice of pizza up from the paper plate. At the exact same time my buddies got back with their own food and jostled the table. Hand/eye coordination never being one of my strengths, this caused me to bite more of the slice than I had planned burning the living shit out of my mouth, which lead me to dropping my food on the floor, cheese side down. You have to understand one important factor about the nature of these circus tents, yes they had plywood floors but because of the traffic of literally a few thousands soldiers fresh out of the field there was plenty of dirty and small pieces of vegetation everywhere. Given how my slice of pizza had fallen, that now included such detritus mixed in the cheese.
A smarter man might have tossed the now contaminated slice and bought another. At first I am sure my buddies expected me to do just that, but I just picked out the larger pieces trash and commenced to devour the now contaminated slice. My buddies snickered a little at first as I tore the pizza slice apart, but then shrugged and forgot about the the whole thing.
My wife and were driving home after completely our dinner and I could tell she was in a pensive mood. “What's bothering you?” I asked knowing after years of marriage how problematic such a question could become.
“I can't believe you ate that bit of food that had fallen off you fork. Do you have any idea how dirty that seat might have been?”
The question was of course rhetorical, but sometimes the universe supplies a way to answer such queries. As chance would have it, as I considered a possible response I spotted a french fry stuck between my seat and the center console. A relic of some quick drive-thru adventure I carefully picked up the fry and held it to my nose in a dramatic gesture. Not yet fully fossilized, I causally tossed it in my mouth and swallowed before answering.
“Yeah, I understand how dirty the seat might have been, but like I said earlier, I'm not worried about.”
Monday, January 30, 2017
A true story, in some respects...
One of the marginal benefits of working third shift is that my weekend begins on Friday morning as soon as I clock out. So, with the other members of my family either attending school or at work during normal daytime hours, if I feel motivated enough I can use that same time to get certain tasks done without any of the usual hindrances. The one issue with trying to play Friday hero though is that sometimes I simply do not feel up to either the tasks or even driving around to the locations I need to be or the waiting that is involved in all aspects of life these days.
This past Friday was supposed to be one of those busy chore and errand days, so much that I had taken Thursday night off from work in an attempt to be rested enough that I didn’t feel like a zombie as I ran around town. I was off to a good start Thursday morning having gone to the gym after leaving work and then returning home to replace the bad door latch on the front loading washer.
The workout was nothing to brag about, both my wife and I are just now getting back into the routine with all the home renovation projects fast approaching completion. However, I was rather proud of the fact that I successfully replaced the defective electronic door latch in my washing machine. While the procedure on paper and You Tube video looked amazingly simply, there was one aspect that turned out to be a certified pain in the ass. It involved reinstalling a thin, spring-loaded wire band that keeps the door gasket in place while the washer is in operation. Getting the over a foot in diameter wire back into its proper place around the door gasket proved so frustrating I began to worry I might actually be forced to call a trained technician despite the fact the guy who made the You Tube video explaining the procedure said it was possible.
Not having the washing machine operational during the normal family weekend laundry cycle would have meant my sorry butt spending the greater part of Saturday at the nearest coin-operated Laundromat. See, while the old door latch definitely needed replacing, if you whispered sweet-nothings to the washer while dancing around on one foot and then promising to make a sacrifice to the laundry gods, it might just engage and allow the machine to run. What this means is that I was going to take the washing machine fully offline in an attempt to fix an irritating problem we all had been living with for about five to six months. Failure could have come in the form or a broken wire band or a torn door gasket, both unfortunate possibilities since I didn’t order a replacement gasket and the new wire band sent with the new door latch was the wrong type. Thankfully, one of the laundry gods smiled upon my sorry ass allowing me to avoid both the ridicule from my loving family and having to spend time at the local laundromat which in all honesty is sort of a recruitment center for the local chapter of the KKK.
With a successful completion of the washing machine repair, I decided just to do laundry and chill out for the rest of the day while I basked in the glory of my accomplishment. I figured my other tasks and errands would wait until Friday morning. Funny thing about the laundry gods, they seem to be just as touchy and prone to bad attitudes as was Poseidon when he decided to screw with Odysseus on his trip home from Troy.
It was about two-thirty Friday morning when my brain’s internal sensors detected a disturbing issue in my lower torso region requiring an immediate run to the bathroom. To avoid further unnecessary and grotesque descriptions, I’ll just say the bathroom was where I spent the majority of the rest of that night and a good portion of Friday morning. Around sunrise the mild body aches I had ignored Thursday afternoon and evening, which I thought were from my visit to the gym, ramped up to about an eight on a scale of ten making me glad I had taken the night off. While quite uncomfortable, the two ailments I was dealing with during those early hours hadn’t truly beaten me. I had taken the required home medication and retreated to the couch to allow my wife to sleep. I figured I had picked up a mild bug from either work or the gym and would in the course of a few hours beat it back enough to at least get the in-house chores done once everyone left that morning. A few hours after that idea the fever hit followed by the nausea and intense chills.
Before anyone assumes the worst, my wife did offer to stay home with me as I writhed in agony on the couch. At that time, I assuring her I would be fine and told her to go to work. She had several meetings to attend that day and a bunch of paperwork to complete. Had she stayed home, that would have meant her spending most of the day on the phone with numerous callers trying to get as much of her work done as possible given the circumstances. I simply didn’t want her having to explain that the moaning in the background these people would certainly hear on their end of the phone was her sick husband and not someone being tortured for information. Yeah, just call me a considerate and compassionate husband.
I figure it was around noon that I became conscious enough to realize I was going to need more drugs to tame my flu-like symptoms enough so I could rest. One problem though, when I tried to stand up I found that some entity had changed the law of gravity. Everything seems to be off about ninety degrees requiring me to literally crawl on the floor towards the bathroom. I actually found the situation quite funny, as did the various fictional and historical characters keeping me company during the point when my fever was hitting the high side of one-hundred and four. Both Jim Kirk and Ernest Hemingway told me stories of some of their wilder experiences as I slowly made my way to the bathroom where I left the ibuprofen and whatever anti-nausea medicine I had taken earlier.
This is where things go really weird because it was around two o’clock when I became conscious again and found myself back on the couch. The last thing I remember was reaching the bathroom and wondering how in the hell I would get the child-proof caps off the bottles. While I still felt like watery baby poop, at least all my companions had decided to leave and let me rest. Damn Jim Kirk, he was supposed to tell me about the three-way he had with a couple of green Orion slave girls during his first five year mission.
What was even wilder, I found that gravity had returned to normal allowing me to staggering around the house zombie-style. This was just in time to answer the knock on the front door which turned out to be the FedEx guy trying to deliver a package for my wife. Got to admit, I freaked the Fed Ex guy out when I opened the door, he didn’t quite know what to say when I asked him in all seriousness if he was a real person.
Eventually both my wife and daughter returned home and forced me to go to bed after drinking enough Nyquil to knock out a horse. When Saturday morning arrived I felt good enough to realize just how bad my situation had been the previous day. While I have exaggerated some aspects of that experience it wasn’t until Sunday morning that I felt I could keep anything in my stomach, even then it was a single piece of toast and some ginger ale. About the only moral to this story I can offer is that like Odysseus must have learned, never screw around with the gods, especially those overseeing the laundry.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Nothing signifies the degradation of American governance more than when politics is no longer about the art of constructive compromise but rationalizing corrupt and bizarre behavior. Sorry if I'm just stating the obvious but the particular event I am referring was last Sunday's edition of the NBC's, Meet The Press. It was during the panel discussion phase of the show that two individuals, a lady from the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and one of the editors from the equally delusional conservative magazine, National Review, twisted themselves into a hyper-dimensional pretzels to explain away Trump's petulant and curiously manic behavior.
Surreal is an overused word for me but that is exactly the feeling I had watching those two on television trying to sound like rational and reasonable adults explaining that Trump's childish and vindictive behavior was essentially going to be the new normal of American life. Making matters far worse, just five minutes before Trump's weasel-like chief of staff was on the same show complaining that President Obama should use his influence to get Democrats, both elected officials and those in the general public, to respect the incoming chief executive. This coming from a man who ran the Republican party while members of that organization regularly questioned every aspect of President Obama's life from his birthplace, to his patriotism, and even his family. It really defies common sense that for someone whose supporters bills Trump as a “man of action” that they would have to resort to whining about the outgoing president needing to make the Democrats play nice because their feeling are on the verge of getting hurt.
Well, that was six days ago and now Trump has taken the oath of office. From here there is every reason to believe things are going to get even weirder than what went on between the election in November and yesterday. As much as Trump's supporters moan with delight when he talks about repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare), or putting tariffs on imported goods, or building a wall along the southern border there will be nasty repercussions to these actions whose effects could easily spiral out of control.
The thing that absolutely sends me into episodes of bewilderment over the collective mental health of this country is that Trump supporters will never admit to the fact when more than likely his populist campaign promises blow up in their faces. Since congressional Republicans do not appear to have a workable alternative ACA, when it is dismantled poor people will no longer have access to health care. That means people will die, pure and simple. Further complicating the issue, folks with ACA coverage that once would have been able to see a doctor will now just go to the local hospital emergency room after their health care becomes a victim of political machinations. This means a massive drop off in decent medical care ultimately causing some conditions to worsen resulting in even more costs later that local hospitals will have to eat and pass down to those who still have coverage.
Erecting tariffs on imported goods will cause other countries to do the same to the companies here in the United States that export products and employ over forty million American workers. This is not rocket science, saying “America First” is all fine and good to rile up the semi-educated masses but Trump's personality will not prevent other countries from responding in kind to his actions. Analogies are often clumsy and too abstract for some people but for better or worse global economics is very much like a spider's web. You start ripping at on piece, it will not take much to destroy the whole thing with the result being disastrous.
As for Trump's Wall, well he has already tweeted that taxpayers will be paying for it with his promise Mexico will reimburse us later. If only his supporters would hold their breath on that one a huge problem would be solved after about six minutes. That was mean, but after some considerable thought I find myself coming to a uneasy agreement with some political philosophers that say voting might need to be restricted to people that can pass tests on such things as knowledge of basic government, current events, world affairs, and even history. Yes, there is a terrible history of oppression here in the United States with literacy tests being used to prevent African-Americans from voting. The problem here in the twenty-first century though is that you have Southern rednecks that worry a wall might have to be built along the NORTHERN border with Canada since their immigration policy is so liberal by allowing all those dangerous terrorist types to become citizens. I could give other examples of the idiocy running rampant these days but it should be more than apparent to anyone with a working brain. On a brief, bipartisan side note, yes there are those on the left who more than qualify for membership in the too dumb to vote club.
It was the great talk show host, Phil Donahue who once committed that the United States was edging towards a nervous breakdown twenty or so years ago as America was convulsed by some media scandal. I think it was the episode that involved a second rate female ice skater having her better rival hurt so the former's path would be cleared to join the Olympic team that year. We seem to have left nervous breakdown in the rear view mirror and have gone over the cliff of a nationwide psychotic break with reality.
A certain segment of the American population say they want nothing more than returning to strict interpretation of the United States Constitution. That's all fine but the United States we live in today is not the one the Founding Fathers established. The country is infinitely more complex and the world is a lot smaller and crowded making those fantasies of simpler times a dangerous delusion. But occupying the White House as of yesterday is an individual who is nothing but an image puffed up by clever marketing. True, he is rich but not by developing some new revolutionary product or by creating an entirely new industry. Trump inherited a nice chunk of change and contacts from his father and went on to bankrupt his businesses numerous times. Trump's true talents is to sell his image and package a message that appeals to the worst aspects of a population not educated enough to have even a basic comprehension of the world they live. Yes, they are hurting because of the effects of global economics but instead of adapting to the changes they sit around and blame those easily cast as scapegoats.
In my opinion the most dangerous aspect of Trump occupying the White House is how he plans on essentially dismantling the current international security arrangements. Vlad Putin, while being a murderous thug, is not a stupid man. He will play Trump as the fool he is for as long as possible. History has shown that when the existing international security system is destroyed, or in this case discarded, the vacuum in power will be filled by factions that always sow violence in their wake.
What does that have to do with Americans? The answer to that question is disgustingly simple but yet beyond the comprehension of many. The United States is not some lone, metaphorical island like it was for most of its history. We are tied to the other nations of the planet in ways unparalleled in human history. Call it an empire but even though America's role in the world is dangerously flawed in many ways it has allowed a period of growth and overall peace that is rare. Yes, that growth hasn't been shared with the majority of the populations in both the United States and the world. But the at least liberal democracies have a far better chance for reform than authoritarian countries where things like freedom of speech is heavily curtailed.
What worries me the most is that here in the United States with our politics now about image and rationalizing what would have once been totally unacceptable behavior dealing with issues is done from a narrow dogmatic viewpoint. A trait that do not lend itself to facing threats and even opportunities as the world continues to change. So, in a weird way I actually see a chance that Trump could ultimately produce millions of decent paying jobs that involve complex technical skills. These jobs would be in the armed forces as the United States is forced to fight to save the values that have done so much for the world.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Given that 2016 was such a terrible year filled with hate, injustice, war, ignorance, and just about every other human failing we could all probably use a period of rest and decompression in an effort to regroup and reclaim our basic humanity. The trouble with that idea though is that we have a massive, speeding train heading straight for us with impact scheduled for the morning of January 20th. So, with that in mind I figure why not just go ahead and introduce another nugget of mental angst to screw with peoples minds in these trying times.
Without going into a long and drawn out preamble, mainly because I'm tired and unable to think of one, I'll propose a simple question. What would you think of the possibility that our entire universe is one super sophisticated computer simulation? Yeah, for you pop culture and Sci-fi movie fanatics like me I'm sort of talking about a Matrix-like existence, but for my purposes lets not pussy foot around with one foot in the base reality—or real world. Let's go full Tron and say our universe, galaxy, planet, houses, cars, and every thing we see or know is nothing but a complicated software program. Totally freaky I admit, one that has actually caused a bizarre but momentary sense of claustrophobia when I first read some serious information on the subject.
While philosophers like Plato have been playing with the idea for literally thousands of years scientists started taking the concept at least semi-serious when available computing power began expanding exponentially. You have to understand that while a simulation containing a fake universe with at least one planet containing seven billion sentient software entities going about their lives is mind blowing, scientists use computer replications to predict the weather, business trends, cellular interactions, and many other elements of the world. Those who are discussing the idea that our universe and existence is a simulation are just taking things to the next level.
It is Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom who is following in the tradition of Plato by suggesting three propositions concerning simulated universes.
- The fraction of human-like civilizations that do not commit species suicide and go extinct is close to zero.
- The fraction of posthuman civilizations that might want to create a super sophisticated simulations of their primitive ancestors is close to zero.
- The fraction of people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is close to one.
The basic premise of Bostrom's idea is that a posthuman technological civilization would have enormous computing power. Even if only one such civilization was interested in figuring out how their barbaric ancestors avoiding extinction they could literally run millions if not billions of simulations to figure out how we survived long enough to reach their hyper-advanced level. So, if we accept that idea there could be an untold number of simulations being run making the odds that you, me, and the other seven billion humans on this planet existing at the base reality infinitesimally small. Now don't worry, while Bostrom is a respected philosopher and scientist on many other far out subjects not everyone is buying his supposition about the state of our existence.
Critics of Bostroms's anthropic reasoning have pointed out that “simulated” humans couldn't be conscious as compared to humans living in the base reality. They contend conscious or sentient behavior is far too complicated to simulate and when you throw in seven billion other humans the task would simply be impossible. This is really a good point, but this is assuming everyone human on this planet is actually sentient. It has been pointed out numerous times a great majority of humanity simply likes to go with the cultural flow they are born and never change. The prime example being the religion people are born along with such things as nationalism, political affiliation, and even basic cultural assumptions. The point being that after a certain point free will doesn't seem to extend beyond the choice of whether or not people will choose Italian or Chinese food for dinner on a given night.
The first reason assumed for the development of these hypothetical simulations would be as a sort virtual recreation of the human past that would allow far future historians and anthropologists insights on the lives of ancient peoples. I admit, the prospect of viewing the development of Bronze Age Minoan civilization would be utterly fascinating for me. There is simply so much missing from the historical record from that period to compare it to the mythical Atlantis wouldn't too far off the mark.
But one question that has never been answered for me by those promoting this idea is how could you program supposedly sentient simulated beings to retrace the same historical path. It is readily stated by evolutionary biologists that if your could rewind time to previous ages there is no guarantee that life would evolve like it did the first time. We're talking about intelligent dinosaurs, if you exclude that nasty asteroid impact, or maybe a world dominated by a different subspecies of human like the Neanderthals or Denisovans. Then again, maybe enough historical records survive in the forms of video, still pictures and written word for a posthuman civilization to accurately reconstruct eras along the lines of Star Trek's holodecks.
I think the most likely use of historical simulations of the past would be for comparative analysis. Essentially seeing how screwed up, or better, events would have played out if for instance Rome never fell, or Napoleon was totally victorious in his quest to conquer all of Europe. The possible permutations of simulated history are nearly endless. The question then returns back to whether or not simulated humans are sentient. If such a simulated Earth could be engineered forcing the people that live on that planet to endure experimental totalitarian regimes and war-like empires would be highly unethical to say the least.
There is also the question as to what simulated people would call the creators of their reality. Needless to say they would have the power of life and death not just over one person but of entire civilizations. Just pondering the scope of those god-like abilities makes me uneasy. Lets reverse the question and say, that somehow a simulated human discovered the true nature of his or her existence. That they are just a small segment of software on a vast computer whose ultimate purpose might beyond their limited comprehension. This hovers far too close to religion, which is something I really do not want to touch. I would be remiss not to mention that given our own advancements in computer hardware and software, we could be close to having the ability to create such simulated universes ourselves. Yes, that could mean a possible line of simulated universes nested within other simulated universes.
Needless to say, there is no proof that we are in fact living in a simulated universe. It has been pointed out though that our universe does seem to be based on hard mathematical laws. This could just be an example of the multiverse theory that contends a near infinite number of universes exist and we just happen to be the one whose physical laws allow for intelligent creatures to evolve and eventually measure the basis of reality. As to oppose to living in a universe where different physical laws were established that prevented the formation of stars, heavily elements, and eventually life.
Fermi's Paradox has also been mentioned as a consideration in the real or simulated universe discussions. Given that planets have now been proven to be normal occurrences around other stars and that the conditions that led to life on our world almost certainly existed on at least a few of them intelligent life should be fairly common given the size of our galaxy. Even limited to traveling ten percent the speed of light, it would take a moderately adventurous alien species two millions years to colonize or explore the galaxy. Wait you say, biological creatures like us are not made for long duration space travel, that the distance between stars is so great interstellar travel is simply impossible. That is quite likely, so eliminate the biological component and just send unmanned probes controlled by artificial intelligence that voyage to another star, use local resources to build more of its kind before sending them out on their own voyages. At the very minimum, the galaxy should be filled with mechanical Jim Kirks boldly going where none have gone before. Where Enrico Fermi comes into play is that he asked the question over lunch to his colleagues who were talking about the subject of Little Green Men just where in the hell was everyone? It has been pointed out by those suggesting we live in a simulated universe that our Divine Programmers did not include aliens in our software package. Which sucks for people like me, but at least that we don't have to worry about Klingons or the damn Borg from showing up in orbit one morning.
You might ask where do I stand on the question of whether we live in a simulated universe? Well, contrary to my wife's concerns, I haven't lost all my marbles and say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I tend to feel that way about many subjects that have little or no scientific evidence to back them up ranging from Bigfoot to God. It's not that I reject outright their possible existence, its just that for me personally the jury is still out. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Bigfoot is a myth given the number of gun nut goofballs that are running around the forests of North America. By now someone should have shot one of the hairy bastards and brought in in for all the television news cameras and his fifteen minutes of fame.
The true nature of human existence will probably forever elude our species while we are limited to our current form. It's taken the invention of things telescopes and microscopes as well as particle accelerators and massive computers to get us to our present level. Maybe it will take us creating our own simulated universes filled with sentient but software-based humans to grasp our place in the greater scheme of things. If that comes to pass, I just hope we have enough ethical concerns to prevent them from electing a narcissistic twit to the most powerful office on that particular Earth. As long as I am waxing philosophically, if the Divine Programmers wanted to be seriously cool, they could email me the winning numbers to next week's Powerball Lottery.