The Fundamental Truth (2015Jul30)


Thursday, July 30, 2015                                           12:00 PM

I wasn’t always an atheist. I used to have the fervor of a potential priest—I’ve always taken life far more seriously than is good for me. I’m not very different—I get mad when I see bullying, I feel bad when someone else is hurting, I try not to be selfish—basic stuff.

Fundamentalists made me just as irritable then as they do now. Even as a child I could see the willfulness of it—trying to insist on certain magical things being literal without the need for any questions—or even the right to ask a question at all. That is so obviously the behavior of someone trying to be a bully—to strengthen their autocratic hand.

True religion is little different from true humanism—simplicity of purpose and purity of intention. If I were a religious leader today, I’d be declaring war on the fundamentalists, the creationists, the science-deniers, and the anti-evolutionists—these people seek to make a circus sideshow of a community’s core. Why does fundamentalism grow in a time of hyper-capitalism? Because they both work on the same properties—lust for personal power, increasing the client-base, and destroying the competition.

And fundamentalism suits the capitalist mind-set because they both pose a threat to humanism and true religion. The values of humans—security, safety, self-determination, and self-expression—have no place in either capitalism or fundamentalism. In fact, all those things (with the exception of self-determination) become marketable commodities under capitalism. Fundamentalism adds spice to self-expression by making parts of it ‘forbidden’ or immoral—making it more marketable—while offering imaginary safety and security that have nothing to do with the real thing.

Fundamentalism comes on strong right when capitalism needed it—until we began questioning simple statements of fact, business leaders were helpless in the face of scientific testimony. In the space age, only an idiot would question an accepted tenet of the scientific community—now, we do it all the time. And it’s no coincidence that petroleum magnates, like the Koch brothers, so willingly embrace the madness of fundamentalism—it is of a piece with their willingness to befoul the planet for profit. And they can only do this if they maintain that all the scientists are wrong.

Capitalism has jumped into the ‘fact’ fight with both feet. They regularly invest in laboratory studies that are intended to produce foregone conclusions to counter the real science being done elsewhere. How sick is that? And, of course, they have their legal cat-and-mouse game of hiding information under the guise of ‘intellectual property’—a very fancy way of saying ‘I ain’t tellin’. But the link to fundamentalism is the most cold-blooded aspect of modern capitalism—they are not satisfied with despoiling the planet and enslaving the 99%—they have to mess with our heads, too. Bastards.

Personal Day (2015Jul29)


 

Artist: Winslow Homer (American, Boston, Massachusetts 1836–1910 Prouts Neck, Maine)
Oil Paintings by Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
“Camp Fire” (1880)
“Searchlight on Harbor Entrance, Santiago de Cuba” (1901)
“Rainy Day in Camp” (1871)
“Harvest Scene” (ca. 1873)
“Moonlight, Wood Island Light” (1894)
“Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River” (1905–10)
[courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC]

 

Xper Dunn plays 5 Piano Covers – July 29th, 2015:
“How About You?” Music by Burton Lane
Lyrics by Ralph Freed (© 1941)

“The Last Waltz” Words and Music by
Les Reed & Barry Mason (© 1967)

“Sunday In New York” Words and Music by
Carroll Coates & Peter Nero (© 1963)

“Rain” Words and Music by Eugene Ford (© 1926)

“Rag-Time Cowboy Joe” Words by Grant Clarke
Music by Lewis F. Muir & Maurice Abrahams (© 1912)

Pulps and Piano (2015Jul27)


Monday, July 27, 2015                                             9:29 PM

After my exciting trip to play a fancy concert grand at WestConn, I’ve had some more-intimate experiences with the freshly-tuned piano in my living room, which I’d like to share with you here:

[The following two book reviews were posted to Amazon on July 27th, 2015]:

Book Review: “Armada” by Ernest Cline

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I’ve just finished reading “Armada” by Ernest Cline. There’s a new-ish school of fiction that suits science-fiction specifically, which I think of as the jump-the-shark approach. Scalzi’s “Redshirts” is a good example—the premise is based on the old insider-joke about Star Trek (the original TV series): the away-team member who wears a red shirt is the character that will be sacrificed to add suspense to the episode. In the Scalzi book, the hero finds himself thrust into what he considered a fictional setting—eventually discovering that his fate is being controlled by some outside ‘programming director’ who has misunderstood the exact role that Star Trek plays in our entertainment, and in our reality.

The hilarious “Galaxy Quest” (1999), again, posits a Star-Trek-like classic TV series which an alien race have mistaken for historical non-fiction and subsequently built themselves a real starship, complete with transporter and a parroting computer-voice. They come to Earth to ask the aging star of the series to be a real captain on their starship—mayhem and comedy ensues. It’s great fun—I’m a fan of jump-the-shark, when it is done with wit and competence.

Ernest Cline’s “Armada” takes a page from “The Last Starfighter” (1984) in which an ordinary teenager obsessively plays a video game that simulates space battle, only to discover that the machine is a testing device to locate talented recruits for real ‘starfighters’ struggling to defend the galaxy from evil. But Cline goes beyond jump-the-shark to ‘multiply-referential jump-the-shark’, including a backstory that involves most sci-fi movies and video games of the past forty years being both training devices for potential warriors and orientation for the whole planet’s population—preparing them to find out that much of popular science-fiction is, in fact, non-fiction.

In doing this, Cline gives the reader a survey of popular science fiction and gaming culture from the premiere of the first Star Wars through to the near-future setting of the story. He pre-empts criticism of recycled plot-lines by cataloging the many ways in which his character’s story reflects the plot premises of the many films, games and stories from which he borrows.

Such ingenuousness gives the story great humor and zip—the protagonist’s interior monologue is not unlike our own interior critique of the story we’re reading. And in the age of remakes, one can hardly criticize Cline for re-doing the concept of Last Starfighter—that movie is thirty years old, familiar only to old farts like myself—and the pixel-screened arcade game of that old classic is as a stone spear-head in comparison to today’s MMO-game-players and the globally interactive worlds they now inhabit.

My disappointment stems from my inability to become absorbed in the story. While much ingenuity is displayed in the references to pop culture and other attempts to add a sense of realism to a highly coincidence-crammed story, the story itself never lingers long enough to give any one scene or character as much depth as is needed to balance out the fantastical aspects of the book. Worse, not a single turn of plot manages to rise above the cliché. While I hesitate to spoil the story, I can assure you that you will not be surprised. Amused, perhaps, but hardly surprised—or engaged.

This style of storytelling comes close to reproducing the suspense and excitement of an action movie—and as with action movies, death can be a stumbling block. Deaths, whether of individuals or of whole populations, are seen through the lens of ‘the mission’, rather than engaged with as dramatic events, as in a ‘chick flick’—and such insularity against this most deeply human aspect of any story has caused many an action thriller to fall flat. The audience is unable to ‘will its suspension of disbelief’ in the face of too much superficiality.

Conversely, young readers and sci-fi newcomers will no doubt find this a much fresher experience than I did—over the decades I’ve become a really tough audience. When the cultural references become central to the story, there is an unavoidable difference in the reaction of older readers, like me, who may find it all too familiar, and younger readers who experience a sort of ‘revelation’ from the massive download of new ideas and connections. Forty years of sci-fi cultural remixing may blow the minds of today’s teens, but it’s just old, familiar memories to someone with gray hair.

Cline’s previous novel, “Ready Player One”, was likewise criticized for a lack of dimension in a NY Times book review, while USA Today wrote, “[it] undoubtedly qualifies Cline as the hottest geek on the planet right now”. So there you have it—“Armada” is another Cline book that may act as a dividing line between we sci-fi ‘grandpa’s and the younger audience coming on. I still give it five stars, just because it is head and shoulders above a lot of what’s out there.

Book Review: “Idempotency” by Joshua Wright

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“Idempotency” takes a difficult computer term as its title because the ‘tech’ in this techno-thriller is an imagined method for allowing a person’s mind to be led through a simulation of an alternate life and to return from the virtual experience without losing one’s sense of their original self. It is a concept almost as thorny as the actual definition of the word.

Fortunately, the plot manages to simplify all of that into a cyberpunk-like tale of suspense, cyber-hacking, secrecy, and madness. There is still some imbalance, as in the fact that the supposed protagonist turns out to be more of a victim, while several other extraneous characters fight over his fate. There is also a great deal of vagueness as to who’s hacking who—or who’s spoofing who. The near-future society-building is sprawling but diffuse—dystopian vistas are suggested but never fully drawn, leaving the background of events somewhat muddied.

I found the writing slightly opaque—but I can’t honestly say whether that is a failing of the author’s or my own. Sometimes, stuff just goes over my head. In my experience, science fiction writers and readers have to find their intellectual level—and there are some writers who are simply beyond my ken. Then again, I found the ‘villain’, an unstable, bitter fundamentalist, to be almost over-the-top simplistic—and unbearably grating—insanity-level religious extremism makes me crazy in real life, so much so that I find it hard to take even in a fictional character.

There’s originality here, though not a lot of it. Bottom line—I finished the book. These days, that’s a winner, just for that—but it didn’t inspire me to sing its praises. Still, the young Mr. Wright is just getting started—I look forward to his next effort.

Pro-Iranians in Congress (2015Jul25)


Saturday, July 25, 2015                                            9:34 AM

There’s nothing as stupid as a man—or a woman—except for a kid. Kids will walk into traffic without a grown-up to stop them. But there’s no one to stop us grown-ups from doing our stupid stuff.

The Iran nuclear agreement is a good example. Diplomats worked on this deal for years—it represents a consensus among ten or so different countries. After it was finally hammered out, the UN voted unanimously in its favor. Imagine how difficult it is to get that many countries to agree on anything. The fact that it took two years to get there speaks to that a little bit.

The only thing that can screw it up now are the Anti-Obama-ists. I won’t call them Republicans, because the Republicans are a political party—these are just a bunch of idiots who hate anything to do with Obama. They have an ad on TV denouncing the nuclear agreement that ends with the tag line: ‘we deserve a better deal’. No, they deserve to be horsewhipped. Where is their two years of effort, unanimously approved by the UN? Those bastards want a war—some ‘better deal’.

Without this deal, all of Netanyahu’s dire predictions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions could be realized in a matter of months. That’s their ‘better deal’—but they don’t talk about what happens without the deal—they just want to carp about how Obama’s deal isn’t good enough. They are entitled, ignorant, treasonous assholes.

We’d all be better off if Obama was some evil arch-villain. Then there would be some benefit to every idiot in the USA being knee-jerk opposed to every single thing he did. Unfortunately, Obama is good and brave and just, relatively speaking—which makes the Republican party the ‘arch-villain’. The Republicans are somewhat upset about the fact that an egomaniacal billionaire sociopath is their presidential front-runner. Having made their platform a support structure for ignorance and hate, they’re upset now because this monster is what their constituency is most approving of.

Repent, Republicans! You’ve become the party that wants to cancel health insurance for millions, the party that wants to bomb Iran and make a nuclear wasteland of the Middle East, the party that wants to insult the people who, let’s be honest, do all the hard work. You might secretly have a few sensible thoughts—you might secretly even agree with Obama on a few things (God forbid). But the way you’ve worked it up to this point, you’ve created a constituency that approves of a clown in an expensive suit—a self-declared clown, no less. You’ve created a stupidity super-storm.

Now a word for you Democrats in Congress—the GOP has been treasonously anti-presidential, but you guys have done a grand job of pretending you don’t have a president. While the opposition has boldly begun trashing the Iran deal without reading it, you’ve all been quiet as mice, saying that ‘you haven’t finished reading it yet’. Well, it’s been a week—time’s up, cowards—time to start supporting the President’s effort.

And just to remind both parties—you can still bomb the hell out of Iran in a few months, if that’s the way things shake out. All you’re really doing by refusing this deal is saying that your political strategy trumps any potential effort to make the world a safer place, to keep the kids in our military from dying over your pique.

People say that America isn’t a true democracy, what with the party-controlled primaries and the electoral college—and I suppose the fact that our Congress is a collection of the country’s biggest morons is proof of that—how the hell did we ever wind up electing these jerks? Our political parties pretend to offer leadership—but the current leadership reminds me of the ‘cool kid’s leadership of a house-party being given while the parents are out of town—the intended result seems to be to trash the place. Who stops the grown-ups from being stupid? Optimally, shame would do it—but our current politicians have never heard of it.

Starry Skies Sounding  (2015Jul21)


Tuesday, July 21, 2015                                             8:06 PM

Whilst casting about for titles for today’s crop of piano improvs, I supposed the heat of summer made me conscious of how summer is caused by our hemisphere leaning more towards our star, Sol, than during the rest of the year. So I’m using famous stars’ names for titles today: Polaris (Ursae Minoris), Sirius (Dog Star), Algol (Beta Persei or Demon Star), and Sol (Sun). Don’t expect the artwork to correspond to the title stars—I just used a general Astronomy theme for the videos.

I’m astronomically inclined due to both last week’s New Horizons flyby of Pluto (successful after a nine-year voyage) and the anniversary, yesterday, of the first moon landing. But who am I kidding? I’m always into astronomy, space flight, science fiction, all that stuff. In time, my fascination became leavened with the realization that outer space is not the old west—pioneering in the twenty-first century is a long game, generations long, given the distances and the difficulties.

Plus, once you’re up there, you need a heat shield just to get home again—if you thought it surprising that a sandstorm’s winds can scour the flesh right off your bones, just imagining mere atmospheric friction turning you into a piece of overdone bacon. Still, I love NASA, I worship astronauts and cosmonauts, and I’ll never lose the thrill of ‘boldly going’ somewhere where the gravity is a balmy zero.

One exception is the final video, “Sol (Sun)”, which uses some handheld video of our neighbor Sherryl’s garden—it’s kinda jumpy, so my apologies if you find it unwatchable. If you can hang on, there’s some very pretty flowers—even a couple of bees and butterflies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015                                                4:05 PM

Oh, What A Busy Day!   (2015Jul22)

Claire drove me to the DMV this morning at the crack of 10:30 am—and we didn’t get out until 11:30—just wait ‘til those people see my Yelp review. But then we went to the Eveready Diner, which I would highly recommend—if I did Yelp reviews. Not that I have anything against it—I just don’t get out much—and I don’t have a cell-phone. I’d have to acquire a life before I acquired the modern habit of sharing it, interface-wise, on the fly—like the kids do. Plus, I’d have to start wearing my glasses all the time, trying to interface with those small screens and keyboards. Someone will eventually roll out the new ‘senior model’ I-pad—about a foot and a half square—with a full-size, ergonomic keyboard for a ‘kickstand’.

When we returned I went next door to visit with Sherryl—her garden has been the subject of some recent videos, but she showed me her biannual hollyhocks (nice perfume) and some other amazing flower whose name eludes recall.

[insert flowers pictures here]

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Hollyhocks (I think)

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Sherryl told me three times and I still forget the name…

This time, I took video as well as stills, and I found, upon editing it just now, that it looks much better at half-speed—it reduces my hand-shakey-ness and lets the viewer get a better look at the flowers. I would have loved to retain the soundtrack if it had just had the bird-calls and bee-buzzings, but all that cool shit was drowned out by the whine of landscaper power-tools and passing traffic. Changing the speed ruins the audio anyhow—so it all works out. I think it’s a pretty fair tour of a summer garden in full glory. Now all I have to do is figure out how to use twelve minutes of garden tour for a five minute music video—maybe I should just go play some more piano….

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Nah, that way lies madness. I’ll edit it down to just the best parts and see what’s left—maybe I can distill its essence into five minutes. Like I said—busy day. Whenever I go over there with a camera I end up with hours of post-work here at the computer—today, for instance, I got over forty good photos along with the video footage.

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Back in pre-digital days, most of my shots didn’t come out the way I wanted, if they came out at all. All the things my daughter, the photographer, has learned to do so painstakingly by hand are mostly done for me when I set it to ‘Auto’. A camera’s ‘auto’ does a lot—focus, light-level, aperture, who knows what-all else, and although I can’t adjust these factors artistically, as a professional photographer does, it still lets me take a great picture. In the old days, I’d pay good money to get a roll of film developed, but I’d be lucky to get two or three photos I really liked. So that’s another effect of digital—I have much more experience with a camera than I would have in earlier times—we all do. Photographs now are not only free (the big plus) but we get instant feed-back from the camera’s digital display—telling us when to take a second try at something we messed up.

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I like being older—because of such things. Someone who’s never used a Brownie and waited weeks to get back terrible black-and-white prints that cost money—a younger person just can’t appreciate what a wonder a digital camera is. Like me with light-switches—I had to be taught what a wonderful thing they were—I had to be taught that they weren’t always part of the walls of houses—I grew up thinking they were nothing special, just something that was always there. I was in my teens before I saw an electrician wire a frame-house under construction—I suddenly understood that a house has a nervous system, so to speak. I was even older when I learned specifics of the history of Michael Faraday, Joseph Henry, Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, et. al. And even so, I’ll marvel at the parade of history, but a light-switch is still just a light-switch to me—yet a digital camera will always be a small miracle.

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Hope you like the music!….

In Geeks We Trust (2015Jul19)


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Sunday, July 19, 2015                                              6:06 PM

Some people get whiny when their cell-phone service isn’t perfect. It’s a mistake to take instantaneous light-speed communication with anyone else on the face of the Earth for granted. For thousands of years of civilization, no one could speak to anyone who wasn’t within shouting distance. And that’s still true whenever there’s a power outage, a natural disaster, or if you travel too far from where people make money.

The electromagnetic umbrella of cell-phone coverage does not blanket the Earth. It doesn’t even blanket where all the people are. It only covers where there are people making and spending money. Some people purposely vacation where there is no cell-phone coverage, to hide from people who abuse the privilege—but those people are usually involved in over-intruding on others, when they’re not on vacation, so most of us aren’t driven to such an extreme.

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When we lose cell-phone service because of a storm, we don’t think of it as a deadly threat—we wait for someone to fix it. But if it didn’t get fixed, we’d be in a bit of a mess. The further we travel down the road to wireless everything, the more resounding the thud when Mother Nature or some other cause brings down the network. When we began using computers in our office, back in the seventies, we kept paper back-up records of everything. The computers broke down sometimes, and we had to be able to go back to the old paper records to continue doing business.

After a while, we stopped doing that. Not only were the records a huge storage problem, but the volume of transactions we were doing on a daily basis had grown far beyond what could be done by hand in the same amount of time. We were doing business faster using computers than we could have physically done by hand on paper. Suddenly, our digital back-ups became important—even vital. Hard drives can die—and without a digital back-up to restore from, an entire business can disappear—all the records of sales, bills, and payments gone—poof.

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Now we’ve invested in digital to the point where even an individual can find themselves in big trouble through the sudden loss of a cell-phone. To a large degree, they’ve replaced wallets, address books, calendars—they’re even starting to replace credit cards recently. We don’t just talk on them, we exchange memos, agenda, travel info, we have meetings with small groups, we get directions, we store passwords and account info. Pretty much anything that used to involve a piece of paper or the use of a reference book or map or required memorization—it’s all been digitized down into that one little gadget.

Back-ups became as important a part of our personal lives as our businesses—enter the ‘cloud’. A cloud is a place where you rely on someone else to make reliable back-ups of your stuff. If you lose your phone, you can get a new phone and replace everything from your cloud. Clouds are billed as ‘conveniences’, but this belies the enormous trust and reliability implicit in (1) trusting someone with all your personal info and (2) relying on them to do a better job of keeping your data safe than you could do yourself.

For most people this is natural—they don’t know from back-ups and would have, in the past, simply accepted the fact that they lost all their data whenever they lost their phone. But my background goes back far enough that I still talk about ‘computers’—I’m old school. I spent most of those old days worrying over my own back-ups, in the office and at home. My home PC is fully backed up, in duplicate, on CDs (for the older files) and external hard drives (a more recent, easier and cheaper alternative due to the plummeting cost of digital media storage).

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But even for me, the cloud offers something important. One rule of safe back-ups is to always have one copy off-site. A cloud allows me to have another copy of all my personal data files in a place other than my house—in case it burns down or something. For now, I’m not doing this—clouds are expensive and new, which makes them unreliable. And this idea that new technology guarantees trust is ridiculous—I’m never getting behind the wheel of a vehicle that can be hacked—that’s insane. And I’m never going to trust my data to a cloud until clouds have some kind of industry oversight or government regulation. If information is the new currency, then where’s the Federal Reserve Board for my personal data?

I don’t want to get all survivalist about it—but those people are correct when they point out the fragility of our existing infrastructure. The more complex the system, the more vulnerable it becomes. Our digital technology gives us great speed and convenience, but our trust and reliance on its uninterrupted, secure continuance is based on wishful thinking rather than any proof that the digital industry has the gravitas of a life-supporting industry. They are more like kittens, easily distracted with a laser-pointer.

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Hacking can come from friend and foe alike. Parents can hack their kids. Kids can hack their schools. Government can hack us all. And black hats can hack the government. Businesses, without any actual hacking, can take your life story and sell it as demographic research to marketers and retailers. Online services can take tacit ownership of your intellectual property through draconian EULAs that users never even read before clicking ‘I Accept’. Banks and phone companies and credit cards can stick little charges in your bills, hoping that you won’t look close enough, or care enough, to complain. Insurance companies routinely refuse claims, or make you jump through an exhausting number of hoops, knowing that a certain percentage of people will just throw up their hands and walk away. We’ve been ‘hacking’ each other for long before computers got involved—they’ve just added another layer to the conundrum.

Yet we willingly place our trust in anything that’s got silicon chips inside. I can see where it got started. People used to have to trust nerds—we were the only ones who could tell you how to work a computer. But it’s not like that anymore—except in the basement of development labs working on new tech. Everywhere else in business and consumer electronics, the nerds are no longer in charge—or they own the company, which amounts to the same thing—a billionaire becomes a businessperson, nerd or not. Just ask Bill. And there is one thing we know for sure about business—it can’t be trusted with the public welfare.

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As digital becomes more important in our lives, we see many bad side-effects. We see poor driving—make that dangerous driving. We see a lack of social interaction and a rise in online addiction. We see misuse of mega-data collected for one purpose and used for a hundred others. We see online stalking, online bullying, and online terrorism. We see ubiquitous surveillance. We see the markets being manipulated by micro-traders. Drones and hackers range from the harmless to the bloodthirsty. What we don’t see is regulation and oversight.

I want to keep the Internet free and open to equal access—but that’s the only thing I want to see remain in its wild state. Everything else should be managed and regulated with the same stringent requirements as money or medical records. I know that such an initiative would just draw all the lobbyists out of the woodwork, trying to tie us all into a tighter-still knot of commercial peonage, rather than acting as the civil service I’m suggesting. But there’s little enough accountability in business and government today—the digital industry should have at least a taste of it. After all, we aren’t that far from a day when we’ll all die without it—shouldn’t we take it a little seriously?

We can’t take a bottle of water onto a commercial airplane—but we can take a laptop, cell-phone, i-whatever—and we’re not all agreed yet on whether those things can crash the flight electronics of certain planes. Does that make any sense? Electromagnetism is invisible—we’re always tempted to think of it as harmless. We’re lucky there’s thunder—or we wouldn’t have the sense to fear the lightning.

CuriousOnes