Sunday, April 22, 2018

Nothing is Tiring

Just finished up a week playing Mr. Mom while the wife was away on a business trip. While no metaphorical monkey wrench flew into the proverbial machinery of the normal routine, it was a long tiring week. What I'm trying to say is that I rediscovered that nothing can be quite exhausting.

Nothing mainly consisted of running my daughter to and from school and various activities, which were usually scheduled during rush hour traffic. But it also included keeping the house reasonably clean and straight, the dogs and cats fed and watered, and doing the bare minimum of yard work. Yes, that last one is a standard practice but thrown in with the other chores made it worse.

Long story short, after a week of nothing I need a vacation. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Netflix's Lost In Space - A review

While the original Star Trek series from the 60's is at the core of my utter nerdom, other television shows from that time added to my sad social awkwardness and skewed world view. It goes without saying that Adam West's campy version of the Batman is one of those shows while the other was the totally off the wall Irwin Allen series, Lost In Space.

For those who are unfamiliar, the premise of the original 1960's Lost In Space, is centered around the Robinson family who were being sent to Alpha Centauri to colonize an Earth-like planet orbiting one of the two main stars of that system. Now to nitpick, Allen never stated which of the two main stars that make up that system his fictional pioneers were being sent. That system is made of Alpha Centauri A and the nearby Alpha Centauri B, both good stellar candidates for harboring Earth-like planets if they happen to orbit the Goldilocks Zone of those respective stars. Yes fellow uber-nerds, I know about Alpha Centauri C, or Proxima Centauri. But it's much farther away from the main two stars and just a weak red dwarf with a nasty tendency to emit massive flares that sterilizes the planet we have detected orbiting it. In other words, as real estate goes it can't even be considered a "fixer upper."

Despite Irwin Allen and his writers lack of stellar specificity in the destination of the Robinsons, I'll give them huge points for cracking an encyclopedia and looking up a real place.

Now in my view, the original Lost In Space suffered from a huge problem that ultimately condemned it to ridicule for me. After initially starting out okay, for a 1960's science fiction show, it quickly devolved into a level of campy silliness that would have been over the top for even Adam West. Delving into all the campy particulars would take something approaching an encyclopedia in length, so I'll just say the evil alien carrot-man that threatened the family one episode crossed a line I personally couldn't accept, even at my young age.

The main problem with the show though dealt with the character of Dr. Smith, played by Jonathan Harris, and the family's robot named "Robot", who were in what seemed a constant battle of wits. Dr. Smith was intended to be the villain of the show but quickly became a fan favorite as the character evolved into a bumbling clown with the Robot working to defuse the situations he created while keeping the family safe. Yes, the show has a bit of a cult following, to say the least, but the stories, dialog, costumes, props, and art direction all lacked a certain seriousness which ultimately made it unwatchable for me. Its one redeeming quality was my total infatuation I had with the actress Marta Kristen, who played Judy Robinson on the show.

Like all things kid related, for me the show faded into the background noise of American television culture. I did see the 1990's movie reboot of Lost In Space on VHS at some point but it didn't impress me. The one memorable aspect of the movie was Gary Oldman's portrayal of the Dr. Smith character. The bumbling clown of the television series was replaced with a diabolical character whose only purpose was to cause as much malicious chaos as possible.

Given my disdain for the original series and my indifference to the movie reboot, I was quite surprised with how much I enjoyed the recently released Netflix version of Lost In Space. In fact, I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I binged the entire ten episode series yesterday and will be eagerly awaiting a possible second season.

Yes. Netflix did away with every microgram of campiness and went straight science fiction bringing the show back into the bounds of believability. Instead of the Robinson family boldly going all by themselves out into the void, as they did in the original series and movie reboot, the Netflix version has them part of a much larger colonist group.

The characters in the Netflix series are far more developed and have been adjusted to fit the sensibilities of 2018. The male lead character of the original series and movie reboot, John Robinson, is no longer leader of the family or even the group as a whole. In the Netflix series, he is a Navy SEAL who was estranged from his wife, Maureen, and their three kids due to his military career. The female lead, Maureen Robinson, is a scientist in her own right and in charge of the family unit on the voyage to Alpha Centauri. I somehow missed the part explaining how John and Maureen reconciled enough for him to become part of the colonist group. Toby Stephens, who plays John, and Molly Parker, who plays Maureen worked their characters into three dimensional human beings with their own strengths and weaknesses.

The kids who played Judy, Penny, and Will Robinson were required to stay somewhat close to the overachieving wonder kids in the previous versions of the show. Since we're talking about colonizing another planet, it just wouldn't have been reasonable to think any sane selection committee would have allowed teenage slackers with antisocial attitudes to join the group. 

One aspect of the show I have to bring up because of some internet whining about how Hollywood is being mean to white people is the fact that Judy Robinson in the new version is adopted and a child of mixed race. Somehow having Judy from a different ethnic group is the sole reason a few people do not like the show. Apparently in their stunted, right-wing snowflake view that since Judy was a white girl in the previous versions, she must stay that way.

More butt hurt comments have come from those whining that Maureen Robinson is in charge of the family and not her husband, John. I find it incredible that such views not only still exist but are numerous enough that they can be discerned from the overall human internet static.

What I liked most about the new version of the Lost In Space was that they used reason and science to solve the problems they faced. Believe it or not, a weapon only showed up in two episodes and its use did not solve a single problem, in fact it made things worse. For an American television show, where weapons and their excessive use to solve the problems are ubiquitous, I found the new Lost In Space quite refreshing.

The best part of the show in many ways was the new Dr. Smith played by Parker Posey. The original Dr. Smith was a comedic buffoon while the movie reboot Dr. Smith was like a Jame Bond villain, clearly evil but not realistic in many ways. Parker Posey's version is a true sociopath who would embarrass Hannibal Lecter with her ability to lie and manipulate those around her. No, she doesn't eat anyone's liver with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti. But her reality is so distorted that she readily endangered the lives of both the Robinson family and the colonist group as a whole many times. I will not spoil the backstory as to how she was able to join the colonists headed for Alpha Centauri.

Highest kudos have go to Ignacio Serricchio who plays the character Don West. If there was any comic relief it was him who played his character as part expert engineer, Geordi LaForge from Star Trek: The Next Generation and part rogue scoundrel, Han Solo from Star Wars.

As for the Netflix version of the much loved Robot, all I will say is that they pulled a creative home run with how they handled it. Much of the first season revolves around how the family learns to deal with it.

Yeah, I liked the new Lost In Space a lot which quite frankly surprises me. While they do solve all of their problems using science and reason, there are a few questionable assumptions and scenarios I ignored in several episodes simply because we're still talking about a television series. All things considered, it's still a highly family friendly show to watch, as long as you do not get bogged down in male chauvinistic crap and low level racism.

Yes, I highly recommend it!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Underappreciated and Underpaid Heroes

The attitude I've kept most of my life about our society was that while I understood setbacks and outright failures happened, the curve of progress was generally upward. Of course, that was before I started reading some history and come to understand that for a multitude of reasons societies sometimes fail and collapse. Strangely enough, from what I can gather these failures are brought about not by decadence and abandonment of traditional family values, like evangelicals whine and rail about. But by a simple failure to adapt to new situations and prepare for the future.

Sure, societal decadence has a part in the collapse of nations and empires but I've come to believe it's more of a symptom than an actual cause. The best example of this indicator is when a leader has unqualified support from the supposed moral and religious pillars of society but has gone through two wives and was banging a porn star just after his third spouse had given birth. The actual details of that situation are far more sleazy and corrupt that I simply want to delve into, but you should get the point.

Just to be fair, I'll throw in President Bubba back in the 90's and him playing doctor with a young woman in the Oval Office with a cigar. While Bubba certainly didn't entertain the support of the self righteous preachers and moralistic proles, he should have had enough self respect for the office, and his eventual legacy to avoid such sophomoric activity. Bubba was a successful and competent administrator, but once you run for public office, especially on a national level, you have no right to any type of private life.

The fuzzy feeling I get about the mindset societies seem to have right before they begin a tailspin straight into dustbin of history is that they believe shit has gotten as good as its going to get, and that things will not change. This breeds a two-part selfish attitude among both the hoi polloi and the well off Elites. The hoi polloi start getting antsy about what they give to society. While not wealthy themselves, they look down upon on poorer groups feeling they are lazy and trying to take advantage to them. The Elites, well their attitude is that they have theirs, and will go to extremes to not only protect what they have but gather more.

What joins the two in an unconscious suicide pack is that neither segment gives a damn about the future. The hoi polloi have their entertaining distractions and convenient scapegoats while the Elites sit atop their ivory mountains convincing themselves that the rest of society should service their needs. This leads to the hoi polloi supporting taxpayer dollars being spent to pay for elaborate new stadiums for billionaires who hobby in professional sports team ownership but bitching about money being wasted fixing roads. The Elites on the other hand start separating themselves from the rest of society.

Nothing typifies this mutual suicide pack more than the abandonment of the American public school system in general and the horrendous treatment of teachers specifically. Both the hoi polloi and the Elites love to wrap themselves in Old Glory and get weepy when that God awful Lee Greenwood song is played for the one or two trillionth time. But when it comes to actually supporting the underpinning of the nation, an educated citizenry able to distinguish facts from partisan bullshit, they equally balk.

Now understand there are certainly well funded islands in the American public school system, these bastion overwhelmingly exist in white middle class suburbs. Think of these as isolated oases dotting a vast underfunded and criminally ignored desert full of schools dominated by Hispanic and African-American kids. Yeah, there are certainly a number of underfunded schools in white rural areas. But lets get serious here and admit we've instituted something along the lines of economic school segregation because far too many don't really see Hispanic and African-American kids as worthy of their attention or money

The recent uprising of underpaid teachers in West Virginia and other states has shed light on the nature of the public school system. Videos of school buildings looking like something from the latest dystopic movie along with books so worn and out of date Bubba is the current president have been recently shown on the nightly news. If anything exceeds my embarrassment at the thing currently living in the White House, it is the horrific nature of the negligence we are responsible for towards public schools.

Like I alluded to earlier, I've seen semi-literate rednecks get mad when anyone dares to suggest taxpayers shouldn't pay for new stadiums for billionaires. To these individuals their favorite professional sports teams have become something more like a tribal affiliation than just the enjoyment of watching the healthy competition. When it is suggested that overworked and over stressed teachers need a significant pay raise these same rednecks get upset, at best saying they picked that career and should live with the consequences of that choice.

At worst, I have personally heard these moronic mouth breathers whine about conspiracies that say public school teachers are secretly indoctrinating kids into beliefs as varied as communism or Islamic fundamentalism. Those types like to home school or send their kids to “Christian-based” academies.

Even worse is the attitude of the people on the Elite spectrum. Many hold the conflicting views that public school teachers are both incompetent fools who couldn't teach a fish to swim and diabolical agents out to brainwash their lily white offspring into accepting all manner of evil liberal ideas. I heard a former governor of New Jersey and a television business journalist with what had to be a massive steel rod rammed up is butt voice such views.

The answer to the problem of failing public schools the Elites cling to like a convert to a new religion is school choice. Like religious types all through history to them the best idea is to burn down the entire system and instead use taxpayer money to fund private institutions of various types. Now I'm clearly on the side of public schools and the embattled teachers that serve them, but I understand incompetence exists in all professions. The problem with the choice folks is that weak public schools are already underfunded, especially the ones they point to as examples supporting their narrow views.

If they get their way and have their taxpayer funded ticket punched instead of a constellation of for-profit private educational centers taking up the slack we'll get an expansion of the issues facing public schools. In other words public schools, the teachers, and even the kids who can't escape to alternatives get screwed even worse. They all are literally being setup to fail.

The short version of my point is that public school teachers are being screwed. They are criminally underpaid, working excessively long and stressful hours, while being hounded by lazy parents who just can't be bothered to take an interest in their kids education. It's no wonder the burnout rate for them is so high. Top it all off, far too many teachers have to work second and third jobs while having to buy the goddamn supplies they need for the kids with their own money. The actual list of atrocities and burdens teachers have to bare doesn't say anything good about the supposed land of the free and home of the brave.

There is one tiny silver lining that might exist in this nightmare. That some future Edward Gibbon might one day walk among the ruins of our taxpayers funded stadiums and chronicle our fall. Maybe allowing his society to avoid the trap we so eagerly and ignorantly walked into. Being snide here, but the reason I know about Gibbon is because of a great teacher.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Living with Unanswered First World Questions

There was a time I has fairly good at managing the home electronics. This included all the entertainment gizmos and the associated equipment with the home computer like the printer and scanner, back when those were separate items. Hell, my level of expertise even included being able to program the VCR to record certain programs. So, while I couldn't claim the status of a nerdy tech wizard, I at least kept the family electronic ducks in proper order.

Quite honestly, that situation is no longer the case. The home technology thing has moved beyond my abilities and I am beginning to feel about as lost as how old people were portrayed back in the 1980's when they seemed unable to deal with the newer, more sophisticated television remote controls. Now I admit, I was introduced to all that stuff when a VCR was still a gee-whiz device and when the most up to date computer had a hard drive of forty-megabytes. That was during my two-year stint at the local community college where I came out with an Associate Degree in Industrial Electronics. Hindsight being what it is, I should have thought out a more ambitious career path. Needless to say with VCR's now mostly forgotten and being shown off in museums and computer hard drives now ranging in the one-terabyte range, it would have been far better if I had just taken the Industrial Electrician courses.

Still though, you would think something as supposedly simple as the new home wireless printer/scanner/copier/fax machine combos would be something even a technologically lame person like myself could properly manage. Unfortunately, keeping that sort of device up and running is apparently beyond my capability.

This sad story all began a couple of years ago when the quite old HP printer up and died. It had lived a long and useful life but one day, right when my wife needed to print something important, it had what I believe was the equivalent to an electronic stroke. While the little LED showing it had power glowed, all the indicator lights showing status were dark. No problem I thought, we'll just head down and buy one of those nifty new wireless combo printers at Best Buy.

Since the old printer died on a Saturday, my wife and I did a relaxing lunch at a local Italian restaurant before walking into Best Buy. Sure enough, we bought one of those wireless HP printer/everything combos that could also scan and fax documents. Setup was blindingly easy and I had it up and operating within an hour of returning home.

Making matters more convenient, we signed up for the HP ink replacement service since the intelligent little bugger we bought could tell when its ink cartridges were getting low. When that happened, the printer would by itself electronically contact HP ink headquarters and have cartridges replacements sent to us before it ran totally dry. Cool beans, no more wife or kids freaking out over some vital paperwork/homework not being in their hands just seconds after hitting the print symbol on their computer screen.

All was happy in the home office department for over a year. The printer worked great and the new ink cartridges always came before the old ones went totally dry. Then something weird happened, seemingly out of the blue we started getting little warnings that the printer wasn't happy. That it needed to contact HP ink headquarters but couldn't for some reason it wasn't programmed to specify. Nothing was wrong with our internet service and the small screen on the printer said it was linked into the wireless router.

When this happened, I checked everything out, going as far as to reboot both the printer and router. The little screen on the printer would then tell me it was happy and I would then go on my merry way. Finally one day we got a message from the printer that like a petulant brat it wasn't going to work anymore until it talked with HP ink headquarters. Well, given that everyone in my family needed the printer for one thing or the other panic ensued.

Putting on my computer geek thinking cap, I dug out the crappy manual and worked through the vague and badly written troubleshooting guide. But as I just insinuated, the reference materiel the mighty corporate giant provided didn't help. The next step was to peruse the HP printer website in hopes of finding a solution. The information there was more or less the same as the hardcopy manual, it just included more techno babble.

After scrolling through and reading the information on the HP printer website until thoughts of suicide started forming in my head, I broke down and called the actual customer service phone number. Surprisingly, it didn't take long for me reach a person, but the first words out of her mouth was a demand for a credit card number to pay for whatever tech advice she supplied. Now if I wanted to pay a woman to talk to me, the subjects up for discussion would be far different than computer geek stuff. So, I said no thanks and killed the call before things got expensive.

Finally, I surfed various independent computer tech websites and while I did find my problem mentioned, none of the solutions they offered worked. The glorious and nearly new HP printer still refused to print until it could contact headquarters.

About a week passed with no solution with the wife and kids postponing their printing needs until they were at work or school. Everything was cool on the home front but the looks I was getting from them suggested a resolution needed to come fast. I finally talked with a guy at one of the local computer shops and while he happily said they could solve the problem, the cost of just looking at it would be about half the original price of the printer itself.

The other thing about the guy that bothered the hell out of me was the look on his face and the tone in his voice. It reminded me of a lyric from a cheesy country song about a fool looking for a diamond ring at a lost and found in a border town. Without getting deep into the song's storyline, the owner of the missing ring didn't receive a friendly and helpful reception from the lost and found people. Everything about the computer shop guy's manner towards me suggested condescension and that he thought I was a blooming idiot. Given what I feel about the indigenous subspecies of humans that dominate the area I unfortunately find myself living, I thanked the individual and left the shop before either of us spoke our true minds. And in an effort not to confirm to him the true depth of my suspected idiocy, I carefully read the sign on the shop's door on the way out to make sure you pushed it open to get out. Last thing I needed was him silently snickering as I spent several seconds trying to pull the door open.

So, what does one do when all avenues have been exhausted and you have family members getting frustrated? I admitted defeat and we bought another printer. This time a really simple Epson that while being wireless as well didn't have a complicated replacement service for the ink cartridges.

With the HP printer/combo now a glorified boat anchor it became yet another fixture in the dining/storage room my wife uses to keep her junk. Without elaborating, the dining room in our house has only rarely been used for its intended purpose. In truth, I tend to block out its existence and only say something about its cluttered nature when we have people over and they ask. I half-jokingly tell them we're taking an online course to become professional hoarders.

Months went by with the HP printer/combo becoming my white whale. Far more times than I want to admit, I'd power the damn thing back up and go through all the supposed solutions as well as performing various half-assed experiments in hopes of a miracle occurring. The only problem though was that during those frustrating attempts, I felt as if the answer was hovering just a few centimeters in front of my face. Like I was trying to put the proverbial round peg into the square hole with the correct orifice right beside it. Anyway, nothing ever worked with me finally welcoming the offer of one of my son's girlfriends to take it back to her house so her little brother could use it for parts.

A truly weird thing happened just a few days after my son's girlfriend left with the HP. My wife, who signed us up for the automatic ink cartridge replacement got an email essentially saying the technical issue with the printer had been resolved. Long story short, it appears that the girlfriend's little brother was able to get the printer back into operation.

Of course my curiosity was killing me, so much that I contacted my son at college to get him to ask how that little bastard untied the Gordian knot. Well, like they say about an emergency for one person not necessarily meaning anyone else was required to feel any urgency on their part, days if not a week passed without the answer filtering down to me.

That's pretty much when my white whale up and smacked me with its giant tail before swimming off forever. My son and that particular girlfriend broke up. The relationship, for reasons I have no idea about, ended badly with the two apparently going to extremes never to see each other on campus again. Needless to say, that also meant I wasn't going to learn how her brother fixed the HP printer.

A great deal of time has passed since I gave up any hope of learning the mysterious answer to HP printer problem. The wireless Epson printer that replaced it is like the little steam engine that could. It keeps printing and scanning without whiny complaints that it can't talk to home. So, long story short I came to accept my technical inadequacies, in fact there is some thing to be said about not being in charge of setup or fixing any electronic issues that might arise. My wife now calls on our daughter when there's an electronics-based issue or she screws up somehow. Yes, it sort of makes me feel like the VCR up in the attic, but there are worse fates I guess.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Let's Hear it for the Kids

Thirty years ago I held a much different position on assault weapon ownership than I do now. Back in the 1980's when I was in my early twenties, my chief desire was to complete my manhood by purchasing some awesome weapon worthy of the action movie heroes of that time. Flush with army enlistment bonus cash, it didn't take me long to fulfilled that idiotic wish. Funny thing, after wasting a nice chunk of change on ammo, I found an assault weapon was a cumbersome possession and rather boring.

The Finnish made Valmet assault rifle I bought in 1986 was eventually sold to finance my purchase of scuba gear sometime around 1990. And while I did retain a live-and-let-live attitude to others still engrossed in their mutated dreams of assault weapon glory, they did so without me hanging around. Still though, my position during the 1990's was that if a person wanted to own an assault weapon my interpretation of the Second Amendment at that time said that was their right.

The various mass shootings that followed didn't really shake my position. The tipping point came from a conversation with an individual who had literally wrapped his entire identity and self worth into the ownership of his various assault weapons. This conversation occurred before the Lord of the Rings movies came out but it was like talking to the creature Gollum. About the only things this person didn't do as we talked was whisper the word “precious” as he intimately stroked his favorite AR. Throwing a little more kindling on my judgmental fire, no, this particular individual never served in the military.

But it was the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school that shook me to my core. Twenty little kids died horrific deaths because a mentally disturbed man, Adam Lanza, was able to get his hands on his mom's AR-15 and other weapons. Excuse me for this thoughtless comment, but I can't decided if that woman, Nancy Lanza, got what she deserved by being her son's first victim that day or that maybe she got off easy by being able to avoid responsibility for the deaths of those kids.

In a testament to the deranged nature of individuals lost to the obscene nature of what has come to be called “gun culture”, it wasn't long after the Sandy Hook shooting that the parents of those dead kids began having to suffer through a grotesque smear campaign. Truly sick individuals, backed by certain pro-gun organizations, began spreading propaganda that the shooting never happened. That Sandy Hook was a “false flag” operation whose goal was to take the Precious from all those people who believed that evil Federal government commies were on the verge of imposing a tyrannical regime.

After what seems like an endless string of mass shootings, these same pro-gun organizations have cowed nearly all our elected leaders from taking even the smallest steps to avoid these massacres. They propose we turn our schools into prisons and our society into their fantasy version of the wild old west or life on the frontier in colonial America. What I find extremely funny, in my usual dark sense of humor is that when I owned my Valmet assault rifle, most people looked at me like I was crazy for possessing such a monstrous white elephant. Now, gun manufacturers and the culture in general have promoted those weapons to the point they are now accepted as something akin to normal for civilians to own.

This is where I make my ubiquitous statement that unlike most of the chickenhawks and arm chair general whining about liberals like me, I spent a total of twenty-one years serving in the active army and National Guard. So anyone upset with my position really needs to kiss my pale white ass. The alternative being that such individuals who absolutely love guns find some courage and go to the nearest Armed Forced recruiting office. And if you have served but still feel an unhealthy affinity for weapons that are designed to shred human tissue more than outright kill, seek counseling. 

The situation might be a little different now since the shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School. The kids that survived that massacre have found their voice and appear to have started a movement that will not be scared into silence by the even the Big Boy of the pro-gun group. Personally, I do not hold any real idea that the Stoneman Douglas kids can make a huge difference. If the murder of twenty kids between six and seven years old didn't shock the American public and the politicians into action, I have a hard time seeing how the deaths of teenagers will be any different.

Where things could be different this time is if the Stoneman Douglas kids can truly mobilize their contemporaries to vote while shaming their elders into action. I saw several of the Stoneman Douglas kids speak on television yesterday. They are articulate and clearly driven by the justice of their cause. That in itself isn't much to go on, but enough to have me entertain a small spark of hope.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Galactic Musing

One of the few advantages I had growing up in a semi-rural area of coastal South Carolina was the relative darkness of the night sky. Up until the early 1980's it was possible to step into my grandparents' backyard at night and be able to see the wispy Milky Way stretching across the vault of heaven. For a science/science fiction nerd like me the sight of all those stars made any human-made art, both religious and secular, pale into utter insignificance. Adding to that sense of wonder, with just a pair of WW2 surplus binoculars, I was able to see Jupiter as a tiny disc with its four major moons as pinpricks of light dancing around it.

It was during those quiet nights of observation, I would wonder about what planets might circle those nearby, but impossibly distant stars. Better yet, fed from a growing number of science fiction novels and movies I imagined all manner of strange intelligent species that just might have individuals looking up into their own night skies and ponder about who they might share the galaxy with. This during a time long before the actual discovery of exoplanets and with some astronomers still speculating that planetary formation might be quite rare in the greater universe. 

Literal decades have passed since I have been able to satisfy my innate desire to stargaze. The culprit being light pollution caused by massive urban and suburban sprawl. In fact in the mid-1990's my wife bought me a fairly decent telescope with hopes that I would use it in our own backyard. But after a couple of tries it became apparent that light pollution from homes, street lamps, and even the nearby city made any acceptable viewing impossible. Yes, I looked into joining the local astronomy club but I couldn't juggle the demands of a newborn baby, required overtime at my civilian job, and National Guard duties with the nights that group got together.

So that telescope ended up being stored in the attic and more or less forgotten about until it wound up being sold at one of my wife's yard sales. She never could understand the concept of how light pollution screwed with nighttime viewing. Then there was the nasty fact that suburban inhabitants start to get nervous when they see someone in their backyard with a telescope. Most people are so disengaged from the natural world they find it exceedingly difficult to understand that looking at the stars is an actual pastime.

At least my wondering about other intelligent species on planets circling nearby stars has been answered to a certain degree. Decades worth of SETI scanning of nearby stars strongly suggests that there isn't a technical civilization in our immediate area. Carl Sagan pretty much quashed the idea that there could be two intelligent species with a similar level of technological achievement existing “close” to each other. That a whole host of factors would assure that one species would be far more advanced than the other. That means that while there could be an intelligent species existing on a planet orbiting any number of Sun-like stars in our stellar neighborhood, they're probably still figuring out how to make fire, at best.

Yes, there is a remote, non-zero, possibility an incredibly advanced alien civilization might live nearby but there isn't any evidence of their existence. No Dyson Swarms of solar collectors orbiting the home star soaking up free photons, no laser beacons flashing out “here we are” in an attempt to get noticed, and no simple radio or embarrassing television broadcasts leaking out to the galaxy. You can endlessly speculate about hyper-advanced technologies like the fictional subspace for communications or that they are hiding from us using cloaking devices to avoiding upsetting the primitive and irrational hairless primates. But along those same lines you might as well hypothesize about a real Santa, Toothfairy, or Easter Bunny.

Don't get me wrong, while UFO's are a total nonstarter with me, I fully believe that alien civilizations do exist somewhere in our galaxy right now. The last reasonable article I read suggest that after crunching the numbers the nearest one is probably under two-thousand lightyears away. I don't have any idea how many stars exist within that distance of Earth, but within just fifty lightyears there are 133 of various magnitudes.

But even with suburban stargazing ruined for me, there is a way I can get my dose of awe and wonder about the universe. Occasionally amongst my aimless drifting on the internet, I will find a picture that metaphorically blows me away. One of the best is below and it's a panoramic view of the Andromeda galaxy. It's a spiral galaxy like our own and is “only” two-million lighyears away.

I can look at this picture and once again wonder about intelligent creatures two-million lightyears away sitting in their home looking at photographs of our galaxy wondering if anyone lives there. Before anyone flips out, yes, the light we see from the Andromeda galaxy took two-millions years to reach our eyes and electronic detectors. So we're essentially looking that far back into the past. But with that much real estate you got to wonder that at least one of those stars hosted the evolution of an intelligent species. 

Click on the picture to enlarge.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Another Long and Brutal Century

Despite my political beliefs being securely in the middle to hard left, it might surprise some that I am not popular with that crowd on the blogosphere. There was a time back during the worst of the Iraqi War and the Bush/Cheney years that I was part of the progressive “in crowd.” We all agreed that the Iraq War was strictly a neoconservative ploy to gain access to that country's oil as well as making it a secure geopolitical chess piece to counter Iran and China. I based my opinions not on propagandist rhetoric but some actual knowledge.

See for decades we've spent billions on orbiting spy satellites with high precision instruments such as cameras that can take a clear, readable picture of a car license plate from space. Those same satellites are also equipped with detection equipment not far removed from the stuff NASA uses to remotely detect the composition of planets, moons, asteroids, and all the other neat stuff out there. So on one hand you got super cameras that lets us see what people are doing on the ground. Like loading and moving really dangerous substances like chemical weapons. And on the other hand, those gadgets that lets us get an idea what a highly secure factory might be trying to brew up because making weapons grade nuclear material ain't like churning up homemade ice cream. So long story short, the massive goose egg that became the promised Iraqi hidden stockpile of WMD's is highly problematic for anyone except those who watch Fox News.

Where progressives and I quickly parted ways is when they began crowing about the “end of the American Empire.” Oh there were times you could feel their absolute giddiness when they proclaimed about how the evil United States was about to be chased out of all the countries both the government and American corporations oppressed. It only took me asking a couple of times just what was supposed to take the place of the American Empire before I became personae non gratae to those I otherwise agreed with.

Yes, I fully understand that the United States played holy hell with its principles in the ninetieth century as it jockeyed for position with the established European colonial powers. And during the Cold War the United States almost bathed in blood by paling up with dictators, death squads, and soulless corporations in an effort to blunt the Soviet Union which was engaged in the same game. My problem came from how progressives seemed to believe that there was some nascent global brother and sisterhood just off the geopolitical stage who would take over once the American Empire collapsed.

I fully agree empires are a huge pain in the ass since they are oppressive, in that the dominate culture tends to wipe out those they control. This can be accomplished by forced assimilation or actual genocide and while the former isn't as openly criminal as the latter, it still doesn't say much about our species ability to get along. Empires also present another problem in that they all become decadent over time and eventually collapse. All anyone has to do is read about how everything went to shit in western Europe after Rome fell and how once a ruling Chinese dynasty lost its heavenly mandate all that advanced culture and civilization was quickly trashed. Yes, people eventually picked up the pieces and moved on, but I've actually wondered what such a system says about human intelligence.

Despite the imperial system being dangerously flawed, its been the most common form of political organization for the last 2500 years. On average, empires are quite stable with most lasting several centuries, more than enough time for the cultures of conquered peoples to fizzle out. In general, empires are toppled either by external invasion or when the ruling elite get stupid with them splitting up into factions and pissing it all away in civil wars.

This dovetails into the why empires turn out to be rather useful. Empires provide something very crucial for the development of civilization and that is stability. Contrary to many who believe primitive humans lived in some sort of agrarian utopia, there is ample evidence that we've been killing each other since our ancestors decided to climb down from the trees. Admittedly, while we were just small bands of hunter-gatherers roaming the wide open planet, the killing was small scale. That changed once we started farming and settled down into permanent villages.

Being as simple as possible, farming and villages meant larger populations that had to eat. When the spring rains either failed or flooded everything destroying the crops, well you either starved or formed a raiding party to steal from the next village. Generally speaking the village still able to feed its people didn't take kindly to raiders, so they resisted. Sure, some villages traded peacefully but if you believe all was goodness and agrarian harmony, I have a used bridge in Brooklyn I'll sell you real cheap. We're talking basic human nature folks, it's ugly and brutal with a disturbing tendency for monstrous behavior even in the good times.

After the initial slaughter, the elites of new empires like to settle down and enjoy the finer things in life. Happy elites like good food and expensive trinkets that might have been grown or made hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away. So they do things like provide armed garrisons all through their territory that keeps a lid on bandits so goods can be bought with currency they back and transported on roads they built. This allows commerce to expand lifting everyone up over time. We're talking centuries here folks, not some ancient version of the Marshall Plan.

An imperial population that feels safe and is well fed has time to create art, write books, establish schools, explore the planet, and try to expand human knowledge. Are there losers, injustice, and oppression in this equation? Yes on all counts, but this is the system that has been handed down to us from decisions made thousands of years ago. You can debate whether civilization was a good idea or not, but truthfully it's a mote point.

As far as the American Empire is concerned, yes there is considerable blood on our hands. The trouble though that the world today is built on the foundations of the Pax Americana, which took over after Pax Britannica couldn't handle the responsibility anymore. Here's where I really get trouble because I believe that for better or worse we and our British cousins have been pushing the world millimeter by millimeter towards something outside the usual imperial system. Never strictly out of some idea to help all humanity and with more than a strong dose self-righteous advancement. Nevertheless I feel that since the end of World War Two there is some vague inkling in wiser circles of thought that we have to abandon the idea of empire.

Even with its deep imperfections, the global system that's been built in the years since WW2 had done more to raise up all people than any other time in history. Other than slowly pushing reforms, you would think the men and women in government would be wise enough not to screw with its basic foundations. That, of course, is where things start to go sideways.

The Iraq War was nothing less than the neoconservatives sticking a match to a powder keg. You'd have to be a moron not to understand that the entire Middle East is a political Frankenstein's Monster built from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire after WW1. Once the fighting was over France and Britain divvy up the territory forcing bitter enemies into artificially created countries.

Going into Iraq on a shoestring crusade to either find nonexistent WMD's or spread democracy to countries with no relevant political institutions to support such governments will be something future historians wonder about for centuries. Throw in progressives believing the fall of the existing international system would bring on some delayed Age of Aquarius and you begin to wonder whether or not fantasies like Santa Claus and the Toothfairy need to be actively discouraged to get kids to understand the truth about the world sooner.

Now we have an idiot in the White House who has a hair up his butt to trash the entire global trading system by instituting tariffs on industries that truly aren't significant in the twenty-first century. If this escalates, which both the Chinese and Europeans say it will, we could be looking at history replaying itself leading up to another Great Depression made worse by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930.

The last thing humanity needs is another round of empire building. The stakes are way too high now with human population pushing eight billion and with emerging nations like China and India wanting their own places on the global scene. With the United States now lead by a man with a penchant for porn stars and not reading the daily intelligence briefing, navigating the difficult years ahead, even when that bastard is out of office, will be a monumental task.

Long story folks, we've totally screwed the international and domestic pooch both by reckless crusades and unrealistic and unworkable idealism. The Twenty-First century is going to be another long and dirty slog like the previous one. And despite the ugly flaws of the current international system, what might replace it will more than likely be much worse.