Saturday, March 29, 2014

More on the injustice of uncool

Over at Sadly no, in the post Cool Schmool Cerb takes Greg Gutfield to task for claiming that hipsters are using cool as a weapon to fight those nasty right wing conservatives,  I have some thoughts of my own on that issue.

I don't know when cool became cool.  It certainly became a nationwide obsession in the 1950s.  My guess is that after a huge number of Americans got a first hand taste of combat in WWII and Korea, the idea of being 'cool under fire', i.e. a soldier apparently unbothered by incoming gunfire, gained a large amount of cultural capital.  Certainly, in combat, the ability to attack or face an attack without becoming enraged or terrified, is a survival trait, it's something commanders ask of their troops, troops ask of their commanders and soldiers ask of each other.  I think that got changed through a decade of war movies and fiction into the idea that being calm and confident and purposeful in all situations was the ideal, and that over the years was further was changed into the idea that being visibly excited about things was 'uncool'.  Furthermore I think there is a difference between cool and hip.  The term cool is often applied to novelties in fashion or technology, when a more exact phrase would be 'aesthetically pleasing' or 'new and exciting'.

Gutfield gleefully switches back and forth between definitions of cool as he tries to make whatever point it is that he thinks he's making.  It's OK, to examine change with a skeptical eye.  The economy and society that supports Gutfield at the trough of wingnut welfare is a contrived and delicate thing.  Changing any one of a number of factors might mean that his employer might find it more expedient to toss him out on his ass to fend for himself than to continue to employ such an unpersuasive hack.  Some things that might make an employer consider that?  breaking up broadcast monopolies like Clear Channel, bringing back 'balance' laws in broadcast news', making news organizations criminally liable for spreading untruths, the list goes on.  But at some point one has to draw the line, how much harm is he willing to perpetrate or promote, to earn a living?

To, broaden the scope to Americans in general; there are many of us in a similar situation, in that the only thing that keeps us in our station is the lack of meaningful examination of the American economy and way of life with an eye towards constructive reform.  How many of us could afford meat at every meal if all meat produced or imported had to face meaningful environmental, sanitary, and animal care standards that were diligently and vigorously enforced?  The American experience is as nice as it is for some people, because other people have to do without or cut corners that the rest of us really think they shouldn't.

Gutfield is sad that conservatives are labeled 'uncool'.  He should be pleased as hell to be 'uncool', it's a far more gentle adjective than he and the reactionaries on the far right deserve.  It's uncool to work for people who are deliberately trying to disenfranchise American citizens, to destroy regulations on pollution, on, workplace safety, on electoral fundraising, on financial malfeasance.  It's uncool to start foreign wars to benefit the bottom line of big defense contractors and oil companies  And it's uncool to attempt to pay for all of that by gutting the already threadbare social safety net and to blame poverty on the poor while perpetuating the abuses that impoverish them.  But besides uncool, its also, lying, mendacious, malicious, malevolent,  pernicious, deceptive, perverted, and sometimes treasonous.

And ultimately, I think that's why we've seen a never ending war on 'hippies' since the sixties.  They had the temerity to point out, that the American dream wasn't equally accessible to all Americans.  They pointed out the game was rigged in favor of older white christian men, and that every other group was part of a hierarchy of lesser Americans whose influence and power diminished with every step away from white, straight, wealthy, christian or male ideal.  They saw that the rules would have to change so that everyone could participate meaningfully in culture and politics and the economy and the academy.

And the for all that conservatives claim to want a meritocracy, that everyone be judged and rewarded on the basis of their capability and contributions, the establishment of a true meritocracy is their worst nightmare.  The last thing that the low level shills and propagandists of conservative America want is to have to compete with each other on the basis of results.  They are employed as cheerleaders and demagogues to rally the faithful and castigate the unrighteous and to faithfully parrot the alleged merits of unrestricted capitalism (and highly restricted voting) to America.  Their job is far more about reassuring their employers than it is about making a convincing argument for lower taxes on millionaires.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Singular Societies

I missed the Q&A with the folks from Ray Kurzweil's Singularity Institute, so I'm posting my questions here.

The singularity sounds different every time it is described.  If we define it as a the emergence of a distinct society based on blurring the line between human and machine intelligence, will that society will emerge spontaneously once a certain level of technology has been achieved, or would it have to be consciously created by people attracted to that idea?  Will there be only one singularity society or multiple?  Will that or those culture(s) eventually encompass all of humanity or just a fraction, and how might those proportions shake out?  Where will this begin first and where will it be most eagerly adopted? Will there be push back against singularity (sub)culture from society as it currently exists?  Will a singularitean society/(sub)culture(s) acknowledge legitimate criticisms of human-computer integration and address valid concerns?  Will the effects of global climate change endanger the emergence of the singularity? why or why not?

For extra credit, show your work.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Futurism Part II: The Electric Boogalooening

 I wish I could make sweeping predictions about a golden age to come.  Sadly, I don't see it happening without more than a few growing pains.  The 22nd century will look back at us and be astonished by our greed, our pollution, our deliberate blindness to the problems we thoughtlessly create. 

The world is changing in unexpected ways and the country today, is not the country we were led to believe we'd have when adults first told us about the future.  But to look at the world today with it's almost unimaginable changes from the dark days of the cold war, and conclude that it's terrible and getting worse, is willful ignorance.

Which is not to say that we don't face serious problems, of course we do, mostly related to climate change and resources depletion, but that's never what these reactionaries are upset about.  Civil rights, gay marriage, government regulation, imaginary gun control, the black dude in the white house and Obamacare, and a laundry list more of resentments that add up to they don't get to win just by showing up anymore.  I'm not even sure there is a way to wake them up and have them see the world without the blinders of prejudice and resentment.

Sometimes it takes a shock to the system, to wake us up and change our lives.  Some people see the shock and double down.  My aunt lost her leg to diabetes, and rather than take that crystal clear warning sign to heart and begin to exercise and diet and monitor her blood sugar, she didn't change a thing because "doctors don't know anything". She died two years later when gangrene took her other leg.  So some of us aren't going to make it to the other side of our current energy and food and water crisis.  Some people will sit in coastal houses even when the storm surge rolls in.  Some will use their last drop of water to irrigate their desert lawns.  Many more will survive because their loved ones and neighbors have dragged them kicking and screaming into a future where recycling and renewable energy are a way of life instead of quaint environmentalist hobbies.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In the 21st Century We Will All Have Flying Cars

I love the idea of becoming a futurist. Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others all got to leave an indelible mark on the way their times imagined the coming decades.  I love the idea of painting a picture with nothing but Utopian optimism as if resources would be dedicated to building a future for the betterment of mankind with no tawdry commercialism marring the perfection of cloud piercing skyscrapers with ads for light beer.  I love the idea that we'd all drive around in flying cars powered by itty bitty fission reactors on the way to our office jobs where we'd use slide rules to plot our business class flight to the moon.

I love the way 20th century futurists would imagine 20 lane elevated freeways filled with aerodynamic bubble cars traveling at 200 mph under a flawless blue sky.  I turned the pages of Popular Mechanics and OMNI magazines, jaw dropping at each fabulous new supersonic passenger jet, or Single Stage To Orbit reusable rocket.  I love the way those landscapes never feature so much as a gas station, or a road crew, or traffic jam, or smog.

I love the optimism, the vision of cooperation, the sense that 20th century progress would free us from the perils of communism, and the specter of hunger, greed and want.

But there are still futurists working today.  Ray Kurzweil has made a career of predicting the coming 'singularity' where computing is ubiquitous, inexpensive, and possessed of superhuman intelligence; leading inexorably to a fusion of of biological and machine intelligence which will empower us all and free us from the petty limitations of biological incarnation and inevitable death.

My experience of the 21st century has been a bit of a letdown by those standards.

Because, as it turns out there are no flying cars.  There are technological curiosities that manage to be both airworthy and street legal, but they only prove to demonstrate that the conflicting requirements of air and ground travel, basically preclude the existence of a practical and cheap flying car.

Nuclear power, is still limited to aging and dangerous fission reactors that threaten to poison us all with their all but eternally dangerous waste products.  Fusion is a sideshow, perennially 20 years from commercial power generation.  Forty years have passed since the energy crisis and gas guzzling muscle cars blanket the highways like they never left.  Oil companies and coal companies still dictate our nation's energy policy.

The computer revolution's early promise has been squandered.  The efficiency gains in finance and manufacturing that could have given us full employment and 20 hour work weeks have only served to enrich the already wealthy, and convince the rest of us to work twice as hard or our job will be the next to move across the Rio Grande or the Pacific.  The power to deliver the sum of human experience cheaply to our desks, and our pockets, has been prostituted to sell us boner pills.  Internet service providers and social media have colluded with the darkest parts of the national security apparatus to create a series of interlocking panopticons where our commercial transactions, our medical records, our browsing habits, and even our movements are stored away for the perusal of paranoid authoritarians and their favorite commercial catspaws... I mean contractors.

But the situation isn't hopeless, just less hopeful. We probably won't finish out the 21st century with thriving cities on the moon, but with a little luck, we might have some here on earth.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Marxists (or people who aren't Tea Party Republicans) and their obvious perfidy

Over at Sadly no, BBKF  re-posted an American Thinker comment that claimed that "As Marxists have proven over the centuries they are the lowest of the low." and went on to claim that Democrats were engaged in wholesale election fraud.  Leaving aside the unproven, deliberately provocative, allegations of imaginary election fraud, by broadly painting democrats and liberals as Marxists, he's trying to suggest that Marxism is inherently bad, and that liberals and democrats should feel bad, and stop trying to obstruct the goals of Tea Party, the Republican party and by implied extension of all true Americans.  But...

Property and ownership are customs, they aren't inherent in any physical object, much less for abstract concepts.  Customs can change.  Animals claim territory so it's not just a human invention, but they also share territory, and they are at the mercy of any other animal or group of animals capable of running them off.  Capitalists claim ownership of mines, of farms, of factories, but the only thing that makes that even as valid as a bird's claim to a nest, is the collective will of society to enforce those rights.  Society can also exercise its collective will to abrogate some or all of those rights.  Laws and taxes can change. 

Lots of people forget that.  When a society or population has had enough of the concentration of resources and power by the wealthy elite far beyond the dreams of avarice while a broad plurality of the population have to curtail their ambitions of a good job and a house and a family, or go hungry or homeless, that society can and should re-examine the social contract that makes that hoarding possible, and if necessary, re-distribute resources in a more equitable fashion.

There's nothing inherently moral about our current system of property and capital.  There's nothing inherently immoral about systems that strive to curb the excesses of hoarding and monopoly.  Every time a new tax is implemented or adjusted, legislators and regulators are adjusting the rate at which capital can accumulate, and way resources are allocated.  I'm not against hyper capitalist billionaires buying everything and running the world economy for their sole benefit because of my deep commitment to make sure everyone has an equal share of our world's prosperity.  I'm against hyper capitalists buying everything because that road leads to riots, famine, bloodshed and revolution.

Marxists aren't the lowest of the low, billionaires aren't the lowest of the low*, the lowest of the low are people that defend the inequalities in our country and our economy because they hope to someday make a buck off of it.

*put a billion dollars in my stock portfolio and I too, would probably throw my weight around politically and legally.  Anything that empowers people, will also empower assholes, but that doesn't mean the rest of us should have live at the mercy of the whims of billionaire assholes.

Wishful Thinking

Over a decade ago, I spent a most of a year in Antarctica, at McMurdo Station.  Spending a year in Antarctica is a great way to spend some serious time in self discovery, With that much time and isolation it was hard not to spend time thinking about my life and who I am, and what I thought I was doing right and what I thought I was doing wrong.  I won't lie and say that I completely re-invented myself and finished that year as a much changed and improved person, but I did learn some things.  One of the things that I learned there was that wishful thinking is very poor insulation.  It may be a bright sunny day, but that doesn't mean the temperature is above zero or that the wind chill isn't down around minus twenty.  On those days, anyone who wasn't dressed in their issued extreme cold weather gear was not going to stay outside for long, or was going to have a bad day. 

A hundred years or so ago, wishful thinking sent Robert Falcon Scott to the south pole with five men and enough food for four.  All five of them died.  Wishful thinking doesn't make problems go away, doesn't make obstacles disappear, doesn't put food on the table and won't insulate enough to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. 

So when I see people put their faith and trust in wishful thinking, and act as if wanting a thing to be true were the same as that thing being true, that puts me on my guard.  Because someone so in love with their ideas that they can't see the reality around them, is dangerous to themselves and anyone around them.

For example the climate change denialists desperately want the climate to not be changing, they want to ignore rising levels of atmospheric CO2, they deny there's a correlation with human activity and global climate change, they deny rising sea levels and melting glaciers and they pretend everything is peachy when there is open water at the north pole.  Because acknowledging the fact of climate change and the human cause of it means it's time to make some changes in the way we live, the way we work and the way we play.  It means serious investment in renewable energy, in conservation, in recycling and agriculture.  It means stopping or greatly reducing coal mining and oil drilling and fracking.  Because the worst effects of global climate change are always a decade or two away, the wishful thinker always has time for one more excuse why they shouldn't have to change today, or why someone else should change first.  But really that's just an argument by people in a leaking life boat about whose turn it is to bail.

Monday, March 3, 2014

An Introduction

My nom de blog is Helmut Monotreme.  I am an opinionated middle aged bald white guy.  I wear glasses and sport a short full reddish beard.  You now know everything that can be known about me from a glance.

Since like four people have asked me to start my own blog, I have.  This is it.  Here I can share all of my insights with the world, or the fraction of it that comes here to read what I write. 

I am politically and socially liberal.

Through a lifetime of failing to live up to my potential I have gathered a small amount of wisdom which I will occasionally share here.  How occasionally is a good question, as I have a bad habit of starting things and not following through. 

I'd rather define myself by my aspirations than by my accomplishments, since by that measure, I could be Emperor of Mars and Protector of the Asteroid Belt, Kupier Belt and Oort Cloud, rather than another guy who got into IT in the 1990s when all it took to get in the  business was a willingness to beat on a computer with a hammer until it started working.*

Seriously though, I think of myself as a bicyclist, a downhill skier, a snowboarder, a SCUBA diver,  a computer gamer, a motorcyclist, an avid reader, an atheist, and a guy with way too many hobbies, far more than I think of myself as a database programmer (except for when I'm actually working.)

Thanks for reading and I will try to make it every bit as worth your while to read, as it is for me to post my thoughts here.

*Back in the 1990's when I worked for the local giant public university's computer repair shop, I would occasionally have to straighten out a cheap-ass computer case in order to bend it back into true enough to hold a motherboard and sit with all four feet on the floor.  I usually waited for another of my co workers to bring a customer back into the shop area before beating on the computer case with a large rubber mallet.