Monday, January 30, 2017

The Odysseus to the Laundry Gods

A true story, in some respects...

One of the marginal benefits of working third shift is that my weekend begins on Friday morning as soon as I clock out. So, with the other members of my family either attending school or at work during normal daytime hours, if I feel motivated enough I can use that same time to get certain tasks done without any of the usual hindrances. The one issue with trying to play Friday hero though is that sometimes I simply do not feel up to either the tasks or even driving around to the locations I need to be or the waiting that is involved in all aspects of life these days.    

This past Friday was supposed to be one of those busy chore and errand days, so much that I had taken Thursday night off from work in an attempt to be rested enough that I didn’t feel like a zombie as I ran around town. I was off to a good start Thursday morning having gone to the gym after leaving work and then returning home to replace the bad door latch on the front loading washer.

The workout was nothing to brag about, both my wife and I are just now getting back into the routine with all the home renovation projects fast approaching completion. However, I was rather proud of the fact that I successfully replaced the defective electronic door latch in my washing machine. While the procedure on paper and You Tube video looked amazingly simply, there was one aspect that turned out to be a certified pain in the ass. It involved reinstalling a thin, spring-loaded wire band that keeps the door gasket in place while the washer is in operation. Getting the over a foot in diameter wire back into its proper place around the door gasket proved so frustrating I began to worry I might actually be forced to  call a trained technician despite the fact the guy who made the You Tube video explaining the procedure said it was possible.

Not having the washing machine operational during the normal family weekend laundry cycle would have meant my sorry butt spending the greater part of Saturday at the nearest coin-operated Laundromat. See, while the old door latch definitely needed replacing, if you whispered sweet-nothings to the washer while dancing around on one foot and then promising to make a sacrifice to the laundry gods, it might just engage and allow the machine to run. What this means is that I was going to take the washing machine fully offline in an attempt to fix an irritating problem we all had been living with for about five to six months. Failure could have come in the form or a broken wire band or a torn door gasket, both unfortunate possibilities since I didn’t order a replacement gasket and the new wire band sent with the new door latch was the wrong type. Thankfully, one of the laundry gods smiled upon my sorry ass allowing me to avoid both the ridicule from my loving family and having to spend time at the local laundromat which in all honesty is sort of a recruitment center for the local chapter of the KKK.

With a successful completion of the washing machine repair, I decided just to do laundry and chill out for the rest of the day while I basked in the glory of my accomplishment. I figured my other tasks and errands would wait until Friday morning. Funny thing about the laundry gods, they seem to be just as touchy and prone to bad attitudes as was Poseidon when he decided to screw with Odysseus on his trip home from Troy.

It was about two-thirty Friday morning when my brain’s internal sensors detected a disturbing issue in my lower torso region requiring an immediate run to the bathroom. To avoid further unnecessary and grotesque descriptions, I’ll just say the bathroom was where I spent the majority of the rest of that night and a good portion of Friday morning. Around sunrise the mild body aches I had ignored Thursday afternoon and evening, which I thought were from my visit to the gym, ramped up to about an eight on a scale of ten making me glad I had taken the night off. While quite uncomfortable, the two ailments I was dealing with during those early hours hadn’t truly beaten me. I had taken the required home medication and retreated to the couch to allow my wife to sleep. I figured I had picked up a mild bug from either work or the gym and would in the course of a few hours beat it back enough to at least get the in-house chores done once everyone left that morning.  A few hours after that idea the fever hit followed by the nausea and intense chills.

Before anyone assumes the worst, my wife did offer to stay home with me as I writhed in agony on the couch. At that time, I assuring her I would be fine and told her to go to work. She had several meetings to attend that day and a bunch of paperwork to complete. Had she stayed home, that would have meant her spending most of the day on the phone with numerous callers trying to get as much of her work done as possible given the circumstances. I simply didn’t want her having to explain that the moaning in the background these people would certainly hear on their end of the phone was her sick husband and not someone being tortured for information. Yeah, just call me a considerate and compassionate husband.

I figure it was around noon that I became conscious enough to realize I was going to need more drugs to tame my flu-like symptoms enough so I could rest. One problem though, when I tried to stand up I found that some entity had changed the law of gravity. Everything seems to be off about ninety degrees requiring me to literally crawl on the floor towards the bathroom. I actually found the situation quite funny, as did the various fictional and historical characters keeping me company during the point when my fever was hitting the high side of one-hundred and four. Both Jim Kirk and Ernest Hemingway told me stories of some of their wilder experiences as I slowly made my way to the bathroom where I left the ibuprofen and whatever anti-nausea medicine I had taken earlier.

This is where things go really weird because it was around two o’clock when I became conscious again and found myself back on the couch. The last thing I remember was reaching the bathroom and wondering how in the hell I would get the child-proof caps off the bottles.  While I still felt like watery baby poop, at least all my companions had decided to leave and let me rest. Damn Jim Kirk, he was supposed to tell me about the three-way he had with a couple of green Orion slave girls during his first five year mission.

What was even wilder, I found that gravity had returned to normal allowing me to staggering around the house zombie-style.  This was just in time to answer the knock on the front door which turned out to be the FedEx guy trying to deliver a package for my wife. Got to admit, I freaked the Fed Ex guy out when I opened the door, he didn’t quite know what to say when I asked him in all seriousness if he was a real person.

Eventually both my wife and daughter returned home and forced me to go to bed after drinking enough Nyquil to knock out a horse. When Saturday morning arrived I felt good enough to realize just how bad my situation had been the previous day. While I have exaggerated some aspects of that experience it wasn’t until Sunday morning that I felt I could keep anything in my stomach, even then it was a single piece of toast and some ginger ale. About the only moral to this story I can offer is that like Odysseus must have learned, never screw around with the gods, especially those overseeing the laundry.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

In The Days To Come

Nothing signifies the degradation of American governance more than when politics is no longer about the art of constructive compromise but rationalizing corrupt and bizarre behavior. Sorry if I'm just stating the obvious but the particular event I am referring was last Sunday's edition of the NBC's, Meet The Press. It was during the panel discussion phase of the show that two individuals, a lady from the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, and one of the editors from the equally delusional conservative magazine, National Review, twisted themselves into a hyper-dimensional pretzels to explain away Trump's petulant and curiously manic behavior.

Surreal is an overused word for me but that is exactly the feeling I had watching those two on television trying to sound like rational and reasonable adults explaining that Trump's childish and vindictive behavior was essentially going to be the new normal of American life. Making matters far worse, just five minutes before Trump's weasel-like chief of staff was on the same show complaining that President Obama should use his influence to get Democrats, both elected officials and those in the general public, to respect the incoming chief executive. This coming from a man who ran the Republican party while members of that organization regularly questioned every aspect of President Obama's life from his birthplace, to his patriotism, and even his family. It really defies common sense that for someone whose supporters bills Trump as a “man of action” that they would have to resort to whining about the outgoing president needing to make the Democrats play nice because their feelings are on the verge of getting hurt.

Well, that was six days ago and now Trump has taken the oath of office. From here there is every reason to believe things are going to get even weirder than what went on between the election in November and yesterday. As much as Trump's supporters moan with delight when he talks about repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare), or putting tariffs on imported goods, or building a wall along the southern border there will be nasty repercussions to these actions whose effects could easily spiral out of control.

The thing that absolutely sends me into episodes of bewilderment over the collective mental health of this country is that Trump supporters will never admit to the fact when more than likely his populist campaign promises blow up in their faces. Since congressional Republicans do not appear to have a workable alternative ACA, when it is dismantled poor people will no longer have access to health care. That means people will die, pure and simple. Further complicating the issue, folks with ACA coverage that once would have been able to see a doctor will now just go to the local hospital emergency room after their health care becomes a victim of political machinations. This means a massive drop off in decent medical care ultimately causing some conditions to worsen resulting in even more costs later that local hospitals will have to eat and pass down to those who still have coverage.

Erecting tariffs on imported goods will cause other countries to do the same to the companies here in the United States that export products and employ over forty million American workers. This is not rocket science, saying “America First” is all fine and good to rile up the semi-educated masses but Trump's personality will not prevent other countries from responding in kind to his actions. Analogies are often clumsy and too abstract for some people but for better or worse global economics is very much like a spider's web. You start ripping at on piece, it will not take much to destroy the whole thing with the result being disastrous.

As for Trump's Wall, well he has already tweeted that taxpayers will be paying for it with his promise Mexico will reimburse us later. If only his supporters would hold their breath on that one a huge problem would be solved after about six minutes. That was mean, but after some considerable thought I find myself coming to a uneasy agreement with some political philosophers that say voting might need to be restricted to people that can pass tests on such things as knowledge of basic government, current events, world affairs, and even history. Yes, there is a terrible history of oppression here in the United States with literacy tests being used to prevent African-Americans from voting. The problem here in the twenty-first century though is that you have Southern rednecks that worry a wall might have to be built along the NORTHERN border with Canada since their immigration policy is so liberal by allowing all those dangerous terrorist types to become citizens. I could give other examples of the idiocy running rampant these days but it should be more than apparent to anyone with a working brain. On a brief, bipartisan side note, yes there are those on the left who more than qualify for membership in the too dumb to vote club.

It was the great talk show host, Phil Donahue who once committed that the United States was edging towards a nervous breakdown twenty or so years ago as America was convulsed by some media scandal. I think it was the episode that involved a second rate female ice skater having her better rival hurt so the former's path would be cleared to join the Olympic team that year. We seem to have left nervous breakdown in the rear view mirror and have gone over the cliff of a nationwide psychotic break with reality.

A certain segment of the American population say they want nothing more than returning to strict interpretation of the United States Constitution. That's all fine but the United States we live in today is not the one the Founding Fathers established. The country is infinitely more complex and the world is a lot smaller and crowded making those fantasies of simpler times a dangerous delusion. But occupying the White House as of yesterday is an individual who is nothing but an image puffed up by clever marketing. True, he is rich but not by developing some new revolutionary product or by creating an entirely new industry. Trump inherited a nice chunk of change and contacts from his father and went on to bankrupt his businesses numerous times. Trump's true talents is to sell his image and package a message that appeals to the worst aspects of a population not educated enough to have even a basic comprehension of the world they live. Yes, they are hurting because of the effects of global economics but instead of adapting to the changes they sit around and blame those easily cast as scapegoats.

In my opinion the most dangerous aspect of Trump occupying the White House is how he plans on essentially dismantling the current international security arrangements. Vlad Putin, while being a murderous thug, is not a stupid man. He will play Trump as the fool he is for as long as possible. History has shown that when the existing international security system is destroyed, or in this case discarded, the vacuum in power will be filled by factions that always sow violence in their wake.

What does that have to do with Americans? The answer to that question is disgustingly simple but yet beyond the comprehension of many. The United States is not some lone, metaphorical island like it was for most of its history. We are tied to the other nations of the planet in ways unparalleled in human history. Call it an empire but even though America's role in the world is dangerously flawed in many ways it has allowed a period of growth and overall peace that is rare. Yes, that growth hasn't been shared with the majority of the populations in both the United States and the world. But the at least liberal democracies have a far better chance for reform than authoritarian countries where things like freedom of speech is heavily curtailed.

What worries me the most is that here in the United States with our politics now about image and rationalizing what would have once been totally unacceptable behavior dealing with issues is done from a narrow dogmatic viewpoint. A trait that do not lend itself to facing threats and even opportunities as the world continues to change. So, in a weird way I actually see a chance that Trump could ultimately produce millions of decent paying jobs that involve complex technical skills. These jobs would be in the armed forces as the United States is forced to fight to save the values that have done so much for the world.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Glacial Home Renovations

Home renovations are proceeding at the expected glacial pace with the biggest problem for me being that the kitchen table is filled to overflowing with stuff and I don't have a reliable place to write. At least we're down to having the kitchen cabinets remodeled and painted to the color my wife wants. The new carpet was installed about a month ago, which was a huge relief since after having removed the old stuff in two rooms, we were walking on rough plywood boards. Other finished projects include repairs to the backyard deck, remodeled master bathroom, and the room over the garage having been transformed into a habitable living space.  
There is actual hope that once everything is either back in its proper place, or thrown away, or donated to charity we might be able to use the dining room again. It should go without saying I am truly sick of having to think about anything to do with home improvements. Thankfully, my lovely spouse has refrained from bringing up the outside projects she wants done to the front and back yard. I am seriously not in the mood, especially with my wife and daughter planning their summer trip to London, England while I stay here at the house.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Who Put The Real In Reality?

Given that 2016 was such a terrible year filled with hate, injustice, war, ignorance, and just about every other human failing we could all probably use a period of rest and decompression in an effort to regroup and reclaim our basic humanity. The trouble with that idea though is that we have a massive, speeding train heading straight for us with impact scheduled for the morning of January 20th. So, with that in mind I figure why not just go ahead and introduce another nugget of mental angst to screw with peoples minds in these trying times.

Without going into a long and drawn out preamble, mainly because I'm tired and unable to think of one, I'll propose a simple question. What would you think of the possibility that our entire universe is one super sophisticated computer simulation? Yeah, for you pop culture and Sci-fi movie fanatics like me I'm sort of talking about a Matrix-like existence, but for my purposes lets not pussy foot around with one foot in the base reality—or real world. Let's go full Tron and say our universe, galaxy, planet, houses, cars, and every thing we see or know is nothing but a complicated software program. Totally freaky I admit, one that has actually caused a bizarre but momentary sense of claustrophobia when I first read some serious information on the subject.

While philosophers like Plato have been playing with the idea for literally thousands of years scientists started taking the concept at least semi-serious when available computing power began expanding exponentially. You have to understand that while a simulation containing a fake universe with at least one planet containing seven billion sentient software entities going about their lives is mind blowing, scientists use computer replications to predict the weather, business trends, cellular interactions, and many other elements of the world. Those who are discussing the idea that our universe and existence is a simulation are just taking things to the next level.

It is Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom who is following in the tradition of Plato by suggesting three propositions concerning simulated universes.

  1. The fraction of human-like civilizations that do not commit species suicide and go extinct is close to zero.
  2. The fraction of posthuman civilizations that might want to create a super sophisticated simulations of their primitive ancestors is close to zero.
  3. The fraction of people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is close to one.

The basic premise of Bostrom's idea is that a posthuman technological civilization would have enormous computing power. Even if only one such civilization was interested in figuring out how their barbaric ancestors avoiding extinction they could literally run millions if not billions of simulations to figure out how we survived long enough to reach their hyper-advanced level. So, if we accept that idea there could be an untold number of simulations being run making the odds that you, me, and the other seven billion humans on this planet existing at the base reality infinitesimally small. Now don't worry, while Bostrom is a respected philosopher and scientist on many other far out subjects not everyone is buying his supposition about the state of our existence.

Critics of Bostroms's anthropic reasoning have pointed out that “simulated” humans couldn't be conscious as compared to humans living in the base reality. They contend conscious or sentient behavior is far too complicated to simulate and when you throw in seven billion other humans the task would simply be impossible. This is really a good point, but this is assuming everyone human on this planet is actually sentient. It has been pointed out numerous times a great majority of humanity simply likes to go with the cultural flow they are born and never change. The prime example being the religion people are born along with such things as nationalism, political affiliation, and even basic cultural assumptions. The point being that after a certain point free will doesn't seem to extend beyond the choice of whether or not people will choose Italian or Chinese food for dinner on a given night.

The first reason assumed for the development of these hypothetical simulations would be as a sort virtual recreation of the human past that would allow far future historians and anthropologists insights on the lives of ancient peoples. I admit, the prospect of viewing the development of Bronze Age Minoan civilization would be utterly fascinating for me. There is simply so much missing from the historical record from that period to compare it to the mythical Atlantis wouldn't too far off the mark.

But one question that has never been answered for me by those promoting this idea is how could you program supposedly sentient simulated beings to retrace the same historical path. It is readily stated by evolutionary biologists that if your could rewind time to previous ages there is no guarantee that life would evolve like it did the first time. We're talking about intelligent dinosaurs, if you exclude that nasty asteroid impact, or maybe a world dominated by a different subspecies of human like the Neanderthals or Denisovans. Then again, maybe enough historical records survive in the forms of video, still pictures and written word for a posthuman civilization to accurately reconstruct eras along the lines of Star Trek's holodecks.

I think the most likely use of historical simulations of the past would be for comparative analysis. Essentially seeing how screwed up, or better, events would have played out if for instance Rome never fell, or Napoleon was totally victorious in his quest to conquer all of Europe. The possible permutations of simulated history are nearly endless. The question then returns back to whether or not simulated humans are sentient. If such a simulated Earth could be engineered forcing the people that live on that planet to endure experimental totalitarian regimes and war-like empires would be highly unethical to say the least.

There is also the question as to what simulated people would call the creators of their reality. Needless to say they would have the power of life and death not just over one person but of entire civilizations. Just pondering the scope of those god-like abilities makes me uneasy. Lets reverse the question and say, that somehow a simulated human discovered the true nature of his or her existence. That they are just a small segment of software on a vast computer whose ultimate purpose might beyond their limited comprehension. This hovers far too close to religion, which is something I really do not want to touch. I would be remiss not to mention that given our own advancements in computer hardware and software, we could be close to having the ability to create such simulated universes ourselves. Yes, that could mean a possible line of simulated universes nested within other simulated universes. 

Needless to say, there is no proof that we are in fact living in a simulated universe. It has been pointed out though that our universe does seem to be based on hard mathematical laws. This could just be an example of the multiverse theory that contends a near infinite number of universes exist and we just happen to be the one whose physical laws allow for intelligent creatures to evolve and eventually measure the basis of reality. As to oppose to living in a universe where different physical laws were established that prevented the formation of stars, heavily elements, and eventually life.

Fermi's Paradox has also been mentioned as a consideration in the real or simulated universe discussions. Given that planets have now been proven to be normal occurrences around other stars and that the conditions that led to life on our world almost certainly existed on at least a few of them intelligent life should be fairly common given the size of our galaxy. Even limited to traveling ten percent the speed of light, it would take a moderately adventurous alien species two millions years to colonize or explore the galaxy. Wait you say, biological creatures like us are not made for long duration space travel, that the distance between stars is so great interstellar travel is simply impossible. That is quite likely, so eliminate the biological component and just send unmanned probes controlled by artificial intelligence that voyage to another star, use local resources to build more of its kind before sending them out on their own voyages. At the very minimum, the galaxy should be filled with mechanical Jim Kirks boldly going where none have gone before. Where Enrico Fermi comes into play is that he asked the question over lunch to his colleagues who were talking about the subject of Little Green Men just where in the hell was everyone? It has been pointed out by those suggesting we live in a simulated universe that our Divine Programmers did not include aliens in our software package. Which sucks for people like me, but at least that we don't have to worry about Klingons or the damn Borg from showing up in orbit one morning.

You might ask where do I stand on the question of whether we live in a simulated universe? Well, contrary to my wife's concerns, I haven't lost all my marbles and say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I tend to feel that way about many subjects that have little or no scientific evidence to back them up ranging from Bigfoot to God. It's not that I reject outright their possible existence, its just that for me personally the jury is still out. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Bigfoot is a myth given the number of gun nut goofballs that are running around the forests of North America. By now someone should have shot one of the hairy bastards and brought in in for all the television news cameras and his fifteen minutes of fame.

The true nature of human existence will probably forever elude our species while we are limited to our current form. It's taken the invention of things telescopes and microscopes as well as particle accelerators and massive computers to get us to our present level. Maybe it will take us creating our own simulated universes filled with sentient but software-based humans to grasp our place in the greater scheme of things. If that comes to pass, I just hope we have enough ethical concerns to prevent them from electing a narcissistic twit to the most powerful office on that particular Earth. As long as I am waxing philosophically, if the Divine Programmers wanted to be seriously cool, they could email me the winning numbers to next week's Powerball Lottery.