Dangers of Bookmarks

So you’re a busy person and you don’t always have time to act on something immediately.  Or you have to wait until the next billing cycle to afford something.  Daily life comes at you like a Russian missile, so you need to leave reminders around so that you don’t forget.  For me, those reminders often take the form of tabs.  On my browser I leave at least a dozen tabs open to remind me of things—I’ve got to get those cartons ready for mailing to recycle; thanks for reminding me.  I actually look forward to being able to click a tab closed because that means I accomplished something.  There are so many things to do and time is so rare.  Then the inevitable happened.

I was leading a Zoom meeting and I had to keep track of attendance.  Since I was leading I didn’t want to stop in the middle and write a bunch of names down, so I took a screenshot.  My poor laptop got confused and kept the screenshot on top.  Since the screen shot showed all the open windows (it’s not just the browser that’s open, but all the writing projects in the two different programs I use as well, all in various stages of completion), I couldn’t tell how to click out of the screenshot.  I couldn’t see the actual Zoom meeting or if someone was raising her or his hand.  I tried to keep the discussion going while trying to get Zoom back to the front.  I began clicking any window shut that I could.  Finally Zoom reemerged.

After the meeting I had to examine the carnage.  My browser had been closed and when I reopened it, the option to restore all closed tabs from the last session was grayed out.  I would have to rebuild my tabs from memory.  It was because of my overwrought memory that I’d kept those tabs open in the first place!  Before going corporate, when I could take my time and pay attention, I had a very good memory for things like this.  (As a professor I had time to act on things during the day instead of constantly thinking “I’ve got to get back to work.”)  Now too much is happening all the time.  I’m having Zoom meetings after work when I normally get my day to day business done.  So I’ve added a new task to all the others—trying to reconstruct my lost tabs.  Yes, it’s a classic “first world problem.”  At least that’s what I think it’s called—let me open a new tab and check.

A different kind of bookmark

Complications

That string of ten digits becomes your personal identity.  It’s conveyed by a pocket-sized device that’s so expensive you have to pay for it in installments.  And it’s not a one-time expense.  For a monthly fee that would’ve sent our parents calling on AT&T we carry a compact computer with us at all times and call it a phone because it responds to those ten digits.  The trend is to replace them every two or three years as more and more features become available, many of which, one suspects, are never used.  So, with a notice from our carrier that the card in one of our devices would no longer work at the end of this year, having reached the end of its life, we found ourselves in one of the countless phone stores around the country.

I mused as we waited—buying a replacement phone took two hours out of a Saturday, and that didn’t count driving time—at how complicated life has become.  One of our cars, purchased in 2003, also needs replacing.  My wife and I have to coordinate a day off work to buy one.  It pretty much took a whole day the last time we bought a car.  It’s complicated.  Credit checks, titles, registration, insurance.  And oh so much money.  You can’t, however, live without a car.  Not if you don’t reside in a major city.  You need to get to the grocery store, to doctor’s appointments, the hardware store—and the telephone store.  Many of these places exist in their own carefully zoned commercial habitats and since they have the necessities of life, you need to go to them.  Meanwhile, the internet offers to send them to you.

Ads now tell me you can buy your car online and some smiling stranger will drop it off right at your house.  It’s just that easy!  What they don’t say is all the work that must, I’m assuming, be done in advance.  The insurance, the financing, title transfer, trade in, let alone nothing of the test drive.  Now you have to figure all that out in advance.  Let’s face it—nothing is easy.  If you’re reading this you’re doing it on a highly sophisticated device that may have cost you quite a bit of money.  If it’s a phone it bears your personal ten digits that can be used to reach you at all times and in all places and that, in fact, knows where you are at all times.  Even if you’re out for a virtual test drive.


Eclipsed

Shooting the moon.  It’s such a simple thing.  Or it should be.  I don’t go out of my way to see lunar eclipses, but I had a front row seat to yesterday’s [I forgot to post this yesterday and nobody apparently noticed…].  I could see the full moon out my office window, and I’m already well awake and into my personal work before 5:00 a.m.  When it was time I went into the chilly morning air and tried to shoot the moon with my phone.  It’s pitiful to watch technology struggle.  The poor camera is programmed to average the incoming light and although the moon was the only source of light in the frame, it kept blurring it up, thinking, in its Artificial Intelligence way, “this guy is freezing his fingers off to take a blurred image of the semi-darkness.  Yes, that’s what he’s trying to do.”  

Frustrated, I went back inside for our digital camera.  It wasn’t charged up and it would take quite some time to do so.  Back outside I tried snapping photos as the phone tried to decide what I wanted.  Yes, it focused the moon beautifully, for a half second, then decided for the fuzzy look.  I had to try to shoot before it had its say.  Now this wouldn’t have been a problem if my old Pentax K-1000 had some 400 ASI film in it.  But it doesn’t, alas.  And so I had to settle for what passes for AI appreciation of the beauty of the moon.

Artificial Intelligence can’t understand the concept of beauty, partially because it differs between individuals.  Many of us think the moon lovely, that beacon of hope in an ichor sky.  But why?  How do we explain this in zeros and ones?  Do we trust programmers’ sense of beauty?  Will it define everyone else’s?  No, I don’t want the ambient light averaged out.  The fact that my phone camera zoomed in to sharp focus before ultimately deciding against it shows that it wasn’t a mechanical incapability.  Sure, there may be instructions for photographing in the dark, but they’re not obvious standing out here and my freezing fingers can’t quite manipulate the screen with the nimbleness of the well warmed.  There were definite benefits to having manual control over the photographic process.  Of course, now that closet full of prints and slides awaits that mythic some day when I’ll have time to digitize them all.  Why do I get the feeling that the moon isn’t the only thing being eclipsed?


Data Protection

I learned to type on an actual typewriter.  For many—likely the majority—of those my age or older, that was the case.  Schools in the seventies, perhaps anticipating the computer revolution, emphasized that both boys and girls should learn typing. At least my school did.  Those were the heady days of electric typewriters that smacked the paper with a satisfying thwack at the slightest touch on the keys.  In circumstances whose details I simply can’t remember, my mother bought me an old, manual typewriter at a garage sale or something.  One thing is certain—it didn’t cost much.  It worked, however, and I typed away writing stories and plays and even attempted letters to editors.  I’d been writing long before that, of course.  Some of my early fiction was in pencil on school tablet paper and I think I still might have a few survivors from that era in the attic.

The image of the noisy newsroom full of clacking typewriters still conveys a kind of power.  Writers in those days, if they were prominent enough, could bang away at the keyboard, jerk the results out, put them in an envelope and be assured of publication.  Everything seems more difficult these days.  Computers have made writers of so many people that it’s difficult to get noticed.  More important, however, is the fact that print preserved data.  Newspaper was cheap, so perhaps the newsroom isn’t the best example.  Kept dry and in climate-controlled environments such as libraries, books keep a very long time.  Longer than the life of the author, or so it is hoped.

Data backup is now a constant concern.  A couple years back, an unfortunate bump on my own terabyte drive led to a quite expensive data recovery bill with some information lost forever.  Throughout the process I kept thinking, if all of this were printed out at least I’d be able to access it.  So true.  The vinyl market demonstrates that not everyone is willing to put up with the artificiality of electronic media.  Those who promote it tend to shy away from discussing its fragility.  Even now when I have a story published I print it out so that if the data becomes corrupted it can at least be retyped.  My most recent double-backup took an entire Saturday to accomplish.  Who knows what memory-intensive software lies behind each keystroke?  I look at the humble typewriter and tell myself that certain plateaus were perhaps more stable than the majestic mountains with their landslides and crevasses.  And I always found that clacking noise soothing, as ideas were preserved in solid form.


No Words

I read something scary recently.  And no, it was not a horror story.  I work in publishing and we have to keep abreast of developments, so I’ve had a glimpse of the future.  Publishers are now starting to look toward the time when information will no longer be conveyed by the written word.  A picture’s worth a thousand of them, after all.  This new future will convey information by video, or whatever the replacement of video will be.  Perhaps some are looking forward to the Matrix direct downloading model.  Perhaps the computer will be able to simulate the pleasures of reading a book, of browsing in a bookstore, of writing with pen on paper.  Something about the process and discipline of reading has made us what we are.

Star Wars, as others have noted, is set in a world with no paper.  You won’t find a scrap blowing in the wind, even on Tatooine.  Nobody is shown reading.  Plenty of action, but no wizard behind his big book of spells, no princess writing down her inmost thoughts.  Make a recording and plug it into your R2-unit.  Perhaps this is heresy, but compare this to Star Trek.  The episode “Court Martial” has Cogley (Elisha Cook, before he applied to become Rosemary’s landlord) saying to Kirk, “Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something. My library. Thousands of books.”  We always thought even the future would have plenty of reading material.  Now we’re being told the technology is passé. 

The constant emphasis on “data-driven analysis”—mostly in an effort to get more money—seems to mistake the downloading of knowledge for the pleasure of reading.  They’re not the same.  I love movies, as any regular reader will know.  Perhaps ironically, I write books about them.  The thing is, I watch them largely to write about them.  Knowledge downloading is getting the cart before the horse.  I’ve read even nonfiction books wrapped in awe.  An author’s way with words, the phrasing, the craft, the artistry.  These are pleasures.  Sure, images can show an interpretation but there are those of us who will always want to read the book before we see the movie.  Can you get the actors’ faces out of your head if you do it the other way around?  There are those who celebrate this sterile future.  And there are those of us who won’t even go there if we don’t have a book in hand to read, just in case.

Image credit:Bender, Albert M., artist; Federal Art Project, sponsor. Public domain.


Shatner’s Space

We constantly underestimate the power of fiction.  It’s difficult to break into getting fiction published.  It wasn’t always that way.  When the pulps were still a thing often it took a thimble of talent and a handful of persistence.  Publishers were looking for content and those with typewriters were clacking away as fast as they could.  Ding!  Carriage return.  These days it’s harder.  This came to mind in thinking about William Shatner’s trip to space and his subsequent reaction.  As several news outlets said in anticipation of Shatner’s new book, the experience made him feel profoundly sad and not a little cold.  So much empty space and we still haven’t figured out how to travel fast enough to reach our nearest neighbors.  We don’t even know if we’ll like them when we meet them.

Others, in defense of space exploration, were quick to counter Shatner.  He’s not a real astronaut, after all, having spent nine decades earth-bound.  Or so they said.  But I think I understand, as a fellow land-lubber, where he’s coming from.  We’ve only really got one chance on this planet, being the only creatures evolved enough to type, to capture our thoughts—our essence—in words that can be preserved.  And wildlife statistics are showing an alarming decrease in other animals since the 1970s.  If we’re all that’s left and we can do no better than to elect fascists, well, stand me with Captain Kirk.  We look to the skies and see, well, empty space.  And besides, we need to get home because it’s supper time.

Image credit: NBC Television, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The reason Shatner got a free ride to space was, of course, fiction.  Star Trek captured the imagination of my generation and those with actual science ability started to put that kind of future together.  Today we can talk to computers and they still mishear us, often with laughable results.  But if writers of fiction hadn’t been available the show would never have succeeded and what would a Canadian actor have had to do?  Maybe a crime drama or two?  And even those require writers.  It seems to me that we should be encouraging fiction writers with talent.  Believe me, I’ve read plenty who really haven’t got it (often in the self-published aisle) but I know firsthand how difficult it is to get fiction noticed.  It’s like, to borrow an image, being blasted off into a dark, cold, empty space and looking at the blue orb below and wanting to be home for supper.


Bad Dog!

A few years back, it was, when I saw my first video of a robo-dog.  I don’t mean the cute ones that you might fool yourself into thinking, on an off day, might be a real mammal.  I mean the bare-bones, mean-looking robot kind.  If was, of course, being developed by military contractors.  Then just days ago I saw something truly frightening.  In a video from China, one of these robo-dogs with an assault rifle and a ton of sensors mounted on it, was remotely air dropped by a drone and began policing the area.  Knowing that fleets (I’m not sure that’s the right word) of thousands of drones have been coordinated for entertainment purposes, and aware of how much money and tech militaries have, well, let’s just say nightmares aren’t just for sleeping any more.

Image credit: DARPA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dogs, until they mostly had it selectively bred out of them, are killers by nature.  The wolf has to be a predator to survive in the wild.  As much as we like bipedalism, it has to be admitted that four legs (or more—imagine the robo-centipede, if you dare!) benefit locomotion quite a bit.  You may get a lower angle of view but a boost for speed.  And if you see a robo-dog, especially one with a machine gun for a nose, running is where you’d want to excel.  But we’ve taken our companion—our “best friend”—and made it into yet another engine of fear.  As someone who grew up with an inordinate number of phobias, I really don’t need one more.  Of course, it’s a truism that if a technology comes from the military it will be cause for alarm.

I’m capable of dreaming.  I can dream of peace and cooperation and what we could build if we didn’t have to worry about the aggressive, the greedy, and the narcissist.  Those who never learned to play well with others but who make money easily and spend it to bend the world to their bleak, bleak vision that lacks a happy ending for all but themselves.  I can envision meeting people who are different without the first thought being exploitation—what can I get out of them?—or fear that they wish to harm me.  Humans are endlessly inventive, especially when it comes to ways to harm one another.  If our creativity could be set toward working for the benefit of all, dogs would be for petting and drones would be for seeking out new ways to solve the problems that beset us all.  Instead we make them into new nightmares.


The Persistence of Streaming

I’ve had to start keeping a list.  If I don’t I’ll forget which movies I’ve streamed.  I suspect I’m not alone in this.  Electronic information is vapid and eminently forgettable.  If you go see a movie in a theater, you’re likely to remember it.  Memory of place and occasion aid the memory of plot and effects, I suspect.  To my knowledge I’ve never had anyone ask if I’ve seen a movie that I didn’t remember, if I saw it in a theater.  Streaming—maybe yes, maybe no.  A few weeks back I found myself streaming a film and thinking “this looks awfully familiar.”  The longer I watched the more convinced I was that I’d seen it before.  When it was over I checked.  I had watched it only a few months earlier.

When you buy a DVD or Blu-ray (or even a VHS tape), the physicality of it serves as a reminder.  Unwrapping the package, handling the case, loading it into your player—these are all keys, hooks upon which memories hang.  As I’ve intimated before, movies are, I believe, our modern mythology.  The idea’s not original with me, but think about how movies are often our frame of reference around the water cooler or with friends.  What did you think of Nope?  It’s a safe way to express our beliefs and aspirations.  Even if it’s not great, it’s helpful to be able to remember it when you want to.  Streaming, it seems, often lacks commitment.  Particularly if it’s from a free site.  (I use such only when the media are otherwise unavailable.)  Maybe there’s a reason it’s free.

Streaming asks little by way of investment, financially or psychologically.  It costs time, of course, and perhaps that’s the greatest siphon of all.  If you’re a busy person time is a commodity.  Spending some of it watching a movie—depending on who you are—isn’t simply entertainment.  Mythology gives us meaning.  I suspect that’s why we value those auteurs who break through the noise and manage to stand out in our minds.  Those who know what it is to captivate an audience.  Those who are really invested in their projects.  Like most books I read, the movies I watch come from a list.  I have a reason for watching them, often related to research.  And if you put the time into it, you want to remember it.  For that, I recommend keeping a list. (Have a written a post like this before?)


Gorilla Thinking

We don’t understand consciousness, but we want to keep it all to ourselves.  That’s the human way.  Or at least the biblically defined human way.  Animals, however, delight in defying our expectations because they too share in consciousness.  Take gorillas, for example.  Or maybe start with cats and work our way up to gorillas.  We all know that cats “meow.”  Many of us don’t realize that this sound is generally reserved for getting human attention.  Cats tend not to meow to get each others’ attention.  According to Science Alert, gorillas in captivity have come up with a unique vocalization to get zookeepers’ attention.  Not exactly a word, more like a sneeze-cough, this sound is used by gorillas at multiple zoos for getting human attention.  Even if the gorillas have never met in person.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

This is a pretty remarkable demonstration of consciousness.  What’s more, it’s an example of shared consciousness.  The same vocalization shared over hundreds of miles without a chance to tell each other about it.  We’re very protective of consciousness.  As a species we like to think that consciousness is uniquely human and that it’s limited to our brains.  Moments of shared consciousness we chalk up to coincidence or laugh off as “ESP.”  Funny things happen, however, when you start to keep track of how often such things occur.  It might make more sense to attribute this to moments of shared consciousness.  In our materialist paradigm, however, that’s not possible so we just shake our heads and claim it’s “one of those things.”

Animals share in consciousness.  We don’t always know what their experience of it is—indeed, we have no way to test it—but it’s clear they think.  I live in a town, so my experience of observing wild animals is limited to birds, squirrels, and rabbits, for the most part.  I often see deer while jogging, and the occasional fox or coyote, but not long enough to watch them interact much.  But interact they do.  Constantly.  These are not automatons going through the motions—they are thinking creatures who have sophisticated ways of communicating with each other.  Ours includes vocalization, so far uniquely so in the form of spoken language.  The great apes—chimpanzees and orangutans, according to Tessa Koumoundouros—also vocalize and do so with humans.  Now we know that gorillas do too.  And we all know that a barking dog is trying to tell us something.  If we took consciousness seriously, and were willing to share it a bit more, we might learn a thing or two.


Yelp Me

Do you remember the Yellow Pages?  Or even phonebooks, for that matter?  (Or wall phones?)  They certainly weren’t perfect, but they tended to be updated yearly (at a great cost in trees).  That meant that they tended to be almost up-to-date.  You’d find the business you sought, and call them to ask for their hours, or directions.  Now we rely on the internet, of course, and the number of businesses that you can find has exploded.  And they open and close with bewildering rapidity.  It took me a couple years of googling to figure out that Yelp was a rebranding of the Yellow Pages.  I also feel sorry for any company that has to try to keep up with the current status of things.  It does seem, though, that Yelp could use some help.

Although it might seem impossible, many businesses still exist without websites.  And if you’re looking for a type of business in a specific city or town, you need to know, first of all, what’s there and what’s not.  The big boxes are never a problem, of course.  When I travel to a new location, however, I want to know what bookstores I’m likely to find.  I’ve done this a number of times recently.  Type in a city name and “bookstore.”  (In the case of Reading, the city name didn’t help at all.)  Yelp helpfully shows up at the top but it lists many establishments that have closed.  Even some of those that are open are virtual and don’t have a store you can wander around.  More than once I’ve come to a place only to discover there’s no longer anybody home.

Independent bookstores have been doing pretty well through the pandemic.  Many people have rediscovered reading.  Since they are seldom crowded, they feel like safe spaces during Covid.  And chances are that people who hang out in bookstores have been vaccinated and will likely be wearing a mask.  The problem is finding such places.  I have to say that Pennsylvania seems to have a healthy population of bookstores.  There are several in the Lehigh Valley and I’ve been pleased with the treasures I’ve discovered elsewhere as well.  Finding them hasn’t always been easy.  One of my favorite used bookstores here in the Valley folded during the pandemic.  Fortunately there are others.  Google maps sometimes work better than Yelp, but nothing beats getting out and exploring on your feet, except sitting at home later and reading what you’ve found.


New Physics

Maybe it’s time to put away those “new physics” textbooks.  I often wondered what’d become of the old physics.  If it had been good enough for my granddaddy, it was good enough for me!  Of course our knowledge keeps growing.  Still, an article in Science Alert got me thinking.  “An AI Just Independently Discovered Alternate Physics,” by Fiona MacDonald, doesn’t suggest we got physics wrong.  It’s just that there is an alternate, logical way to explain everything.  Artificial intelligence can be quite scary.  Even when addressed by academics with respectable careers at accredited universities, this might not end well.  Still, this story to me shows the importance of perspectives.  We need to look at things from different angles.  What if AI is really onto something?

Some people, it seems, are better at considering the perspectives of other people.  Not everyone has that capacity.  We’re okay overlooking it when it’s a matter of, say, selecting the color of the new curtains.  But what about when it’s a question of how the universe actually operates?  Physics, as we know it, was built up slowly over thousands of years.  (And please, don’t treat ancient peoples as benighted savages—they knew about cause and effect and laid the groundwork for scientific thinking.  Their engineering feats are impressive even today.)  Starting from some basic premises, block was laid upon block.  Tested, tried, and tested again, one theory was laid upon another until an impressively massive edifice was made.  We can justly be proud of it.

Image credit: Pattymooney, via Wikimedia Commons

The thing is, starting from a different perspective—one that has never been human, but has evolved from human input—you might end up with a completely different building.  I’ve read news stories of computers speaking to each other in languages they’ve invented themselves and that their human programmers can’t understand.  Somehow Skynet feels a little too close for comfort.  What if our AI companions are right?  What if physics as we understand it is wrong?  Could artificial intelligence, with its machine friends, the robots, build weapons impossible in our physics, but just as deadly?  The mind reels.  We live in a world where politicians win elections by ballyhooing their lack of intelligence.  Meanwhile something that is actually intelligent, albeit artificially so, is getting its own grip on its environment.  No, the article doesn’t suggest fleeing for the hills, but depending on the variables they plug in at Columbia it might not be such a bad idea.


Remember the Doorway

I’m glad it has a name.  And I’m also, relievedly, glad it’s normal.  The Doorway Effect.  I’m sure it’s happened to you.  You walk into a room and immediately forget what you came in for.  I’ve been afraid of some early onset of something because I’ve noticed it more and more, but it turns out that this is a normal brain function.  A recent article by Jessica Estrada explains that our brains are constantly framing.  A large part of that framing has to do with our physical location.  When you step through a doorway that framing changes and some of the residue (what I came in here for) might easily get left in your previous location.  In other words, it seems to be an effect of humans making different rooms for different purposes.  Our thought lingers in the place it was first born.

Photo by Filip Kominik on Unsplash

Our brains are fascinating organs.  Every time I read about how children’s brains form, I wish I’d studied psychology instead of religion.  How we could help our children if we understood what their brains just aren’t capable of doing just yet!  How many spankings could have been avoided if parents understood brain development?  Beating someone doesn’t teach anything.  Instead, we might try to learn how minds use brains.  Young boys can be quite reckless.  One of the reasons?  Their brains haven’t developed enough yet to think through the consequences of their actions.  Yes, they can push limits for other reasons, but their thinking simply doesn’t yet involve adult caution that (hopefully) comes with a developing brain.  One of the real consequences of this, for which I’ll volunteer as a poster child, is religion.

Children’s brains are not developed enough to accept and comprehend religious thinking until they’re about 12.  We’ve known this for many decades now.  And yet, the theology of parents means they try to convince their children of religious truths before their brains are developed enough to sort it out.  Look at Congress and the Supreme Court to see the results of this.  Most people never seriously question their religion.  For many it was instilled in them as children, before their brains could properly process it.  The rest of the country pays for it with laws then enact.  We’ve known about this for decades and have decided that studying religion is a waste of time.  But I digress.  Now I forget what I started to say when I began this post.


Beyond Natural

I’ve read quite a few books about the supernatural.  Often these books, which are mostly written by scientists, tend to show the problems with supernatural thinking.  Clay Routledge, it seems to me, has a healthier approach.  Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World isn’t an apology for the supernatural.  In fact, Routledge is a psychological scientist.  An open-minded one.  The book isn’t an apology, but it does show how natural supernatural thinking is.  This engagingly written study isn’t always easy to read—you have to be prepared to think about death a lot.  But also meaning.  Routledge makes a good case that the human search for meaning is related to our awareness of our own mortality.  We know we’ll die, and we don’t want to believe our existence has been for naught.  That doesn’t make all of us religious, but it does, perhaps, open us to the supernatural.

One of the main takeaways for me is that people misunderstand the power of religious motivation.  Especially in the context of our current political climate.  Many people can’t believe that supreme court justices would decide against laws that slow global warming.  Survey after survey, however, indicates that strong belief in religion means having little or no concern about the world ending.  In fact, for many it is a culmination devoutly to be attained.  You don’t need surveys to learn this.  You just need to talk to Fundamentalists.  I grew up believing this world was a sinful, corrupt place soon to be destroyed.  Further reflection on religion convinced me that this view was wrong, but I certainly understand it.  Too often those trying to find solutions to such problems simply dismiss religion as a motivating factor.  That’s a fatal error.

This is an insightful book.  Although based on science it is neutral toward religion.  Or I should say, the supernatural.  Routledge demonstrates that even scientists, when tested in controlled circumstances, subscribe to some supernatural beliefs.  They may be more abstract, such as the idea that things happen for a reason, or that we’ve been put here for a purpose (the teleological argument), but they are nevertheless present.  To be human is to be a meaning-seeking creature.  We may not be the only ones.  Whether or not that’s the case, our drive for making sense of all this tends to move us toward the supernatural.  Routledge ends with a plea for us to listen to one another.  Pay attention, and care for, those who believe differently.  We have a lot more in common than we have views that separate us.


First Images

I awoke to an image from the James Webb Space Telescope.  Looking at the universe at it was 4.6 billion years ago is a humble and terrifying experience.  Our universe is so incredibly vast and we are tiny.  As we on this planet bicker and kill and destroy, out there something truly wondrous looms.  Those tiny pinpricks of galaxies.  Our own galaxy so massive that we can’t comprehend it.  Our own midsize star large enough to hold more than a million earths.  Our own planet big enough that no human being can see it all in a lifetime.  What in the world are we fighting for?  This image is just a patch of sky about the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.  How many grains of sand would it take to fill the visible sky?

Many people argue that such things are a waste of money.  Yes, there are very real, human-created problems right here on earth.  The siren call of space, however, has the potential to save us.  If we look into that immense universe just out there and realize that we are part of something larger than ourselves, we can stop fighting and hating and electioneering.  Keep looking up instead.  Costs, after all, are relative.  Our entire economic system is arbitrary.  We decide what’s valuable and what’s not.  We make rules that allow individual human beings to control the lives of countless others based on nothing more than agreed-upon principles.  Food could be freely distributed.  Medicine could be given to the sick.  What’s required is perspective.  If looking at the universe doesn’t provide perspective, what can?

I often wonder about life in those distant galaxies.  Given the sheer numbers it’s practically impossible that life evolved only here.  We’re told that teleological thinking is wishful and naive, but looking at the way life behaves I have to wonder if that’s true.  Life may be seeking goals.  If it is, than intelligence may be among them.  We’ve got billions of years and billions of lightyears to work with.  And when I look at the headlines I find those of the James Webb Space Telescope to be the most hopeful of all.  Galaxies are all about possibilities.  Stars being born where the outcomes may be better than one gender assuming it’s better than another.  Or that the “right to bear arms” means  stockpiling assault rifles to kill others in a fit of pique.  No, this money’s not wasted if only people might listen and pay attention to the stars.


Internet of Nothings

In the vast internet of things, it’s surprising that you can’t order some specific things.  This became clear to me recently when there were two separate things I was looking for.  I know these things exist.  You can find them on the internet, but they are not available in this area.  One of them is very mundane.  Lath.  You see, the previous owners of the house wired up the attic, which is handy.  To do so they had to break through the plaster and they removed several sections of lath.  Like a squirrel digging for a forgotten nut, they did this several times, leaving holes in the wall with exposed insulation.  One of my projects since moving in has been to plaster over these holes.  The gaps are so large, however, that you need lath to replace the discarded pieces.  

Our local big box hardware stores don’t carry it.  If you find it in a large urban store, they can’t deliver it to a local branch, and shipping isn’t available for this item.  I realize drywall has triumphed—I prefer it myself—but doing the entire attic is a major expense.  I just want to plaster up the holes.  No lath, no how.  At the same time I began to look for Top Ramen soy flavor for quick lunches.  It is the only inexpensive vegan option with the much coveted flavor pack.  I know it exists and that it is available in Ithaca, New York, the last place I bought it.  Although the brand is in our local grocery stores that variety is not.  It’s listed on Amazon, but as unavailable.  (Amazon, by the way, insists that you want to buy a lathe if you type in lath.  If it finally accepts “lath” it’s clear it has no idea what it is.)

So I went to the website of the Top Ramen parent company, Nissin.  They list the product as available.  They don’t ship themselves, not to small customers, but they helpfully tell you stores nearby where you can buy it.  Their vegetarian varieties are “not available in your area.”  Not even Amazon can get them.  This to me seems odd.  Nearly every day I read about the greatness of the internet of things.  Anything can be had in this market.  If you’re looking for something specific, whether it be thin strips of cheap wood or thin noodles without beef broth for your lunch, you can’t get those in an area within about 250 miles of one quarter of the US population.  Of course, I have until lunchtime to sort this one out.