Political science

May 15th, 2017

When the King is mad
Does that mean the whole country
Must also go mad?

Traveling so far

May 14th, 2017

Traveling so far
Nine time zones across the Earth
Turns you upside down

Context

May 13th, 2017

The title of yesterday’s post was ripped right from the news of the day. Out of context the words could seem confusing. But a search on the Web for the phrase “goddamned steam” would quickly tell the reader what I was talking about.

Since some readers seemed nonplussed by my unexplained use of that phrase, I find myself wondering whether my post violated some implicit contract between writer and reader. Of course we all know that anyone reading this blog can simply find the context through Google (or Bing or DuckDuckGo, to be non-denominational about it). But should they be required to?

Thinking back on it now, I think my decision to leave the topic unexplained was a kind of invitation. There were no words I could have used to convey my feeling of sheer horror and embarrassment, my sense of a world gone completely mad, when I first encountered this phrase in its original context — and realized that it was not, in fact, some sort of parody. I guess I wanted my reader to better understand that context by inviting her to see it for herself.

It’s possible that we will look back on this insane time in our nation’s history and single out the day the phrase “goddamned steam” was first uttered in public. That might turn out to be the moment when it became undeniable that we are dealing with a blend of insanity and stupidity far more toxic than anything we could have imagined.

Goddamned steam

May 12th, 2017

You can’t make this stuff up. I mean, seriously, you just can’t friggin’ make stuff like this up.

Words fail me.

Both exciting and humbling

May 11th, 2017

I am looking around at the people here with me at JFK airport, all of us waiting for our flights. Folks are sitting around, eating, chatting, looking at their phones, essentially waiting for the next thing to happen.

Watching this scene, some part of my mind is thinking about the fact that we have not, in any meaningful way, evolved biologically as a species in the 30,000 or so years since the Cro-Magnon era, when people were already creating the earliest known virtual realities, in the form of cave paintings.

On the one hand, we are rapidly evolving as a species in the sense that each generation is handing to the next ever new and exciting forms of technology-enabled virtual tools: Writing, agriculture, fast transportation, theater and cinema, computers, the Web, SmartPhones, wearables, and whatever comes after that, as marvelous as they may be, are all extrinsic to our essentially unchanged biological selves.

I find it significant that none of this is due to a biological shift. If you were to take a typical Cro-Magnon child and place her in a modern environment, she would be just as likely to thrive in today’s technologically evolved world as any child born into the 21st century.

To me, that is both exciting and humbling.

Welcome to the new politics

May 10th, 2017

This time Trump is making a rather elaborate and careful point of making sure that we know he is lying. That is, in fact, the main purpose of the very particular way he fired FBI Director Comey.

To be precise: Trump wants to make sure we know, without any doubt, that the firing was the direct result of the FBI Director asking for more resources to look into the Trump-Russia connection less than a week ago. And he also wants us to know that he can give a ridiculous reason for the firing — a “justification” so absurd and self-contradictory that nobody in their right mind would believe it — and still get away with it.

This is Trump as Tony Soprano with the baseball bat. His message is clear: I can swing this bat any time I want and smash the heads of my enemies. And there is nothing any of you can do about it. You are all my bitches now.

Welcome to the new politics.

An actual patriot

May 9th, 2017

We don’t seem to have too many patriots in the U.S. these days. Yet today I read about recent statements by Stephen Colbert that, for once, give me hope for my country.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up to a rapacious conman who is systematically destroying your country from within, who is pushing hateful policies guaranteed to cause terrible suffering and tragedy for millions of hard working citizens, and for the worst of all possible reasons: Simply to line his own pockets with cash.

As an American, I am proud of Stephen Colbert for his courage, his unflinching willingness to expose villainy and vile behavior, and for his unwillingness to pretend to show respect to a shameful public figure who has taken crudity, hate-mongering, offensiveness and downright disgusting behavior to a new level.

Stephen Colbert should be given a Medal of Freedom for his valuable service to our country. Unfortunately, we will first need to wait until our country has an actual President to pin it on him.

Splendid isolation

May 8th, 2017

I give a lot of credit to airline flight attendants in coach class. They have a very stressful job, and are dealing with a lot of grumpy people. In my experience, flight attendants in coach have been very professional and expert at dealing with a situation that isn’t pleasant for anybody.

But I must say that my flight from Frankfurt to NY had one perk: I got an enormous amount of work done. Lufthansa’s policy of providing an electric outlet at every seat didn’t hurt. And the fact that I had an aisle seat in a half empty plane didn’t hurt either.

The delight of finding an empty seat next to you in coach class never gets old. Sure, you are still uncomfortable, but you are not actually suffering.

And on this flight, that feeling of delight fueled a surge of creative energy. For six hours it was just me and my trusty MacBook computer, working happily together in splendid isolation.

Today, despite my jet lag, I am still riding that wave of creative energy, and still getting loads of work done. With any luck, I’ll be able to ride this wave all the way to the next flight.

A moment of sanity

May 7th, 2017

The world experienced a moment of sanity, as a sane, articulate centrist candidate, who actually expressed something of substance about the issues during debates, won an election against the creepy right wing extremist. I was beginning to think that only happens in Canada.

Of course here in America we’ve moved beyond such prosaic concepts as electing a sane, articulate centrist candidate, who actually expresses something of substance about the issues during debates. Perhaps because we have our own special brand of creepy right wing extremists.

I guess everyone has a moral line they won’t cross to win an election, even Marine Le Pen. Sure, her party has ties to white supremacists and still carries the stink of Vichy, and sure, she has a loyal following among vocal antisemites, racists and xenophobes. But she never bragged about grabbing pussy.

Maybe that would have gotten her more of the vote. Apparently that’s what it takes for creepy right wing extremists to get elected these days.

When we all change, the change is invisible

May 6th, 2017

I saw a really spooky scifi/horror movie recently in which everybody in the world starts to change in a deeply disturbing way. I guess you could say it’s a sort of variation on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

The characters spend much the time in a complete panic. Fear, recrimination, despair, paranoia — all of these negative emotions come bubbling up to the surface like a volcano.

But then at the end, after the change is complete, everyone feels fine again. and nobody notices anything amiss. After all, everybody is now normal.

I thought of this movie when I listened yesterday to Philippe Quéau speak about virtual reality at the FMX conference. He argued, from an anthropological perspective, that for us to understand the meaning of a mode of communication such as VR, we need to understand how it changes us.

Part of his point was that “being normal” is the thing that is most invisible to us. Yet it is not in any way fixed.

Each new technological advancement changes the definition of what it means to be normal. Yet after the change is complete, most people lose the ability to notice that anything has changed. They simply feel normal.

Standing outside of the assumption of normalcy to look at how a technology changes us does not make you a luddite. Yet the moment you start doing that, a lot of people wrongly assume that you are anti-technology.

The ability to take such a critical view — to not make the mistake of thinking that what feels normal is an indication of absolute truth — is essential. Without it, we may find ourselves very unhappy with the future that we are helping to create.