Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Month That Was - February 2015

It's been a trying winter, one of the coldest in history, but I have to count my blessings. My house has been nice and warm, my car has never failed to start. I have been lucky to spend my evenings with a fire in the fireplace and cup of ramen. Still, it will be the cusp of Spring before I get away for any travel. In general, have come to terms with Winter, and not just as a counterpoint to green flora or a cost to pay for the beautiful summer. It is nice at times to have a respite from yard work and hornet's nests or other projects around the house. But immoderate winters like the last two (last year was the snowiest, this year the coldest) can really wear on the soul. In such times it's important to get away for a break of sunshine and warmth and I did not do that. That situation needs to be rectified going forward.

I am building ideas for this year's travel and I am torn between doing things I have done before and know I love, versus new experiences. For instance, I would love to do the Bryce Canyon half marathon again, but that's a big undertaking and I would have to spend some time out there to make it worthwhile, but I've already seen all the highlights. If I'm going to expend that much effort, wouldn't it be better to go and see something new, like maybe Glacier National Park?

In any event, I am still making writing progress. That's important. And I still have my health, my friends, my intellectual curiosity, and my sense of humor. So I guess I'm doing pretty well.

Blessings counted.

[Movies] Action Summit
[Cars, Rant] Driverless Cars and The World of Tomorrow
[Books] Book Look: The Lost Domain
[Science] Start Making Sense
[Rant] Something from the Bar

[Movies] Action Summit

Just following up on an off-hand comment I made last month. Here's how I would rank the best action films of all time.
  1. Avengers - Joss Whedon is 2nd to none at action and he is just slightly younger than me so I suspect we had the same reading material as tweens -- Marvel Comics. With The Avengers he was in the element of his life.
  2. Iron Man 3 - Sir Ben Kingsley for the win: "Well I panicked, but then I handled it." Perfect blend of comedy and action.
  3. Thor: Dark World - arguably should be second place with a better finish than IM3, but lacks to top quality whimsy of IM3 at it's best.
  4. Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises - the best non-Marvel properties. Striking for the unfashionable political themes that the action allows you to ignore if you want.
  5. The Matrix - a landmark that kicked off the action film pinnacle.
  6. Spiderman - a revelation at the time about how astonishingly good superhero movies could be and a bellwether for Marvel properties to come.
  7. Cap: Winter Soldier/Iron Man 1/Spiderman 2 - this is where things get murky and I lose interest in ratings...
There will be a cadre of folks who will make arguments for older films Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones, Alien(s), even some Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Willis style films. They certainly match the best when it comes to humanity, but the modern Marvel films excel at pacing, cinematography, editing, and the more technical aspects of filmcraft. These are linearly developable skills that make possible steady improvements over time, like athletic world records. I guess you could say when it comes to action films I'm a progressive.

Honestly, I have to admit this list is probably biased to my personal experience. I have written previously about how the tone and tenor of Marvel Comics from roughly the 70's-ish has come to dominate the blockbuster movie milieu. Beyond that, actually: the whole era of hyper-ironic, self-referential, magic realism that forms a huge part of our pop culture can, I think, be traced to 13-year-olds like me following Spiderman and The Avengers every month. In that sense this list may have been self-fulfilling. Is Marvel-ism ascendent because it is superior or is it just the cultural and economic influence of people like me forcing our opinions on the rest of you? If it's the later, then all I can say is you're lucky we're in charge otherwise The Expendables would be sincere and serious. For a more critical and less Marvel-oriented view of action movies you can watch this video.

Various aspects of culture peak at different times, either because of fashion or technology or just happenstance. For example, today there is fine music being produced as always, but no musical genre is at it's peak right now as say, rock was in the late '60s or the times of the Great American Songbook in the 30s and 40s. I don't believe any form of writing is at it's peak right now, although good writing is happening in so many different forms and being delivered in so many different ways that it's hard to tell. TV peaked just recently -- remember the days when Sopranos and Deadwood and The Wire were running simultaneously? TV is still good, but not what it was. I'm ranting about action movies because they are the aspect of our culture that is at its peak right now. Movies, in general, are not. They are, in fact, mostly awful, but action films are peaking. Even what we would consider an average action film today -- Edge of Tomorrow, for an example -- would have been a revelation 15 or 20 years ago. They may not be great and eternal works of art, but action films are what we do best at the moment. It's probably worth paying attention.

[Cars, Rant] Driverless Cars and The World of Tomorrow

The march to driverless cars is inexorable. Like it or not, they are coming. Now, it's slowly starting to dawn on everyone what an enormous societal upheaval this is going to be. To get an idea, check out this map of the most common jobs in every state. In 2014 commercial driver was the most common in about 29 states. Driverless vehicles will do away with every one of those jobs. Up until recently the notion of losing your job to automation has been a niche thing. A few factory workers here and there, often unionized workers who had at least some sort of cushion. In fact, a lot of displacement via technology has happened in more low-end white collar jobs as when the internet did away with discount stock brokers and bookstores/video rental. Driverless cars will be the first wholesale obsolescence of unskilled labor. I expect:
  • Unending breathless news reports about how horrible it is.
  • Protests, possibly riots. (We have spent far too many decades equating victimhood with righteousness for this not to turn ugly.)
  • Potential power grabs by organizations associated with class conflict and working class populism: Unions, Occupiers, etc. (These will likely fail because they invariably end up collapsing under the weight of internal contradictions. When the anti-elite win, they become what they opposed.)
  • Mad confusion as everyone twists the crisis to support their own causes: higher taxes, lower taxes, less immigrants, more immigrants, etc.
  • The well-intentioned upper middles who still have jobs will call for all sorts of assistance to the displaced, while their robot cars take the kids to soccer practice.
  • In the short run (perhaps not only in the short run), it's entirely possible that some of the displaced workers will be allowed to ride along with the robots as emergency backups, essentially being paid for nothing in the interest of social harmony.
In the long run, the problem remains. The further into the future we go, the less the value of people on the left hand side of the bell curve -- that's harshly put, but accurate. And as flip as I may sound, it is a real problem. It's hard for someone on the right hand side of the curve not to address this without sounding condescending, but I'm sincere. A world where huge swaths of the population are useless and purposeless is a monstrous dystopia, yet it seems to be almost inevitable.

My characterization of it as a bell curve issue implies a relationship to IQ and to some extent it is. High IQ people will adapt better in a world where more and more jobs require abstract thinking and information jockeying. The ultimate key however is a question of skilled versus unskilled. The abstract thinking required of a plumber is not great, but you can't be an idiot and be a successful plumber because the skill level is high, and that's a clue. Skilled blue collar jobs will probably be alright. I can easily envision a robot truck driver; not so much a robot plumber or electrician. Along the same lines, a low-skill white collar jobs is as likely to crash as a low-skill blue collar job -- entry-level jobs in retail sales, for instance, are at risk, as are something like actuaries and claims adjusters, or any information job that mostly involves following fairly well-defined rules and protocols. This is not to say skilled jobs won't disappear eventually, it just seems an order of magnitude further away.

That said, even though it looks bad I don't anticipate the apocalypse; just a painful period of adjustment. I suspect it will all settle in some new, unspoken social compact wherein there is more wealth transfer from the skilled to the unskilled. It won't be in the form of direct welfare since that angers both the givers and receivers. It will be in the form of payments for what is ultimately unnecessary work, or work made inefficient through regulations, or status premiums to hand-made goods, so as to keep people employed and make them feel of value and allow everyone, payers and payees, to maintain a plausible image of reason. Fringe elements will decry this as societal delusion and hypocrisy, but the mainstream will rationalize it because it keeps the peace and keeps civilization going. That is, after all, a hallmark of civilization: rationalizing hypocrisy for the greater good.

I'm getting into futurism now, which is not really my forte. Much of this will occur long after I'm gone. There is always a temptation to see the bad in change and weep for the settled world of the past, but the past was not so glorious, nor is the present. Neither will be the future. It will just be different.

Of course, in the very long run, all jobs will be gone and we'll all be dead brains in jars.

Related: Google's been in the game for a while, now comes Apple.

[Books] Book Look: The Lost Domain, by Alain-Fournier

Also known by the titles Le Grand Meaulnes, The Lost Estate, the Wanderer, The End of Youth, and probably others, The Lost Domain suddenly popped up on my radar when I read somewhere that it was a major influence of F.Scott Fitzgerald and could be thought of as an French equivalent of Catcher in the Rye. It was also spoken highly of by Nick Hornby of High Fidelity and About a Boy fame. Given its pedigree as a hidden influence on some great literature I almost had to read it.

There are really three aspects to the book. First is an idyllic description of rural life in France before the World Wars; a flowery, poetic existence filled with gentle youthful activities and provincial comforts (instructively, to my 21st century senses it seems rather like poverty). This is the world of the narrator, Seurel, who is in his mid teens. Into this mix appears a stranger named Meaulnes --
Le Grand Meaulnes -- an older and larger teen who quickly becomes a dominant force among the youth of the area and a great friend to the narrator. So it is clear this book is of the "stranger comes to town" genre.

Then a turning point comes. Meaulnes sneaks away on some juvenile escapade, gets lost, and finds himself at a private estate where a wedding is imminent. He is mistaken for a guest and joins in the festivities, which take on the feel of an otherworldly fantasy. In the midst of all this revelry, Meaulnes is lovestruck a beautiful young girl and develops strong bonds of friendship with the groom. Then, suddenly it's over. The groom receives a message that his bride is not going to marry him after all, he flees in shame and disappointment, all the attendees filter away and Meaulnes staggers back home completely changed by his experience.

The next section, the 2nd aspect, of the book takes the form of a quest. Meaulnes cannot remember where this estate was and so cannot follow up on his desire to help the former groom or find the love of his life. With the help of the narrator he leaves no stone unturned in his search to find the girl who bewitched him. They explore the area, make maps, pursue clues in the stories of their elders, until a final clue comes that compels Meaulnes to abandon his provincial life and his narrator friend Seurel, and make his way to Paris.

Without giving away details, let's just say this all ends in sorrow and tragedy and regret. So...yay for love and romance! The book's 3rd aspect, and in truth the overall theme of the book, which is clear from the outset more or less, is the loss of youth and innocence to the cold reality of adult life. A well trodden theme, but perhaps not so well trodden well over a century ago.

It's easy to see the F Scott Fitzgerald connection. The misguided juvenile motivations and obsessions show up in This Side of Paradise, and the tragic hero whose story is told by a well fleshed-out narrator form the structure of Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye not so much; there is little cynicism.

Should you read The Lost Domain? I have to go with a qualified "no". The translated prose is rich and well-coiffed, if occasionally bordering on overwrought, but the Innocence Lost theme has no novelty for even a casual reader and in this case, it feels very distant culturally and chronologically. I could identify quite well with the actions of the characters in This Side of Paradise, but here the small actions, which (I think) were intended to be familiar and build an image of rural life, were not in my realm of understanding. More importantly, the teenagers presented seem overly precocious, filled with profound inner thoughts and a strong sense of solemn purpose. I cannot relate to that at all. In my experience youth equates to thoughtlessness, shallow beliefs, and a near total lack of self-awareness. This generated an underlying feeling of implausibility that I couldn't shake.

Alain-Fournier never wrote another book. He was killed in the trenches in WW1, so if this book came from his personal experience that youthful glee leads to tragedy, he sadly never got to experience the adult joys that balance it.

[Science] Start Making Sense

Mavens of cosmology and metaphysics will occasionally remark on what tremendous progress we have made in understanding our universe. To that I say, "Bah!" What you see as progress I see as a mess. We have "solved" our equations with gussied-up hand-waving in the form of Dark Stuff: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. These aren't actual things, you see. When our formulas and expected values don't turn out to be right, we need to invent something that makes them work, thus Dark Stuff. This is our way of saying "Our equations are failing, so either A) they are outright wrong or, B) there is something out there we can't see that makes them right. We pick (B), and because we are scared of being wrong." Well, (B) might be correct but treating the selection of (B) over (A) as progress is shameless.

The Physics arVix Blog discussed a number of paradoxes that our current theories cannot explain. Some strike me as pretty damning of our understanding. For example:
Perhaps the most dramatic, and potentially most important, of these paradoxes comes from the idea that the universe is expanding, one of the great successes of modern cosmology. It is based on a number of different observations.
What's curious about this expansion is that space, and the vacuum associated with it, must somehow be created in this process. And yet how this can occur is not at all clear.
We know, or at least we think we know, that "empty space" is actually something -- fields and potential energy and so forth. So how does "empty space" get created as the universe expands? Either we have something wrong or there is another Dark Thing doing the creating -- a Dark Creator (careful, don't say God). (As I look through those paradoxes it sure seems like our interpretation and use of redshift causes a lot of problems. Hmmm.)

The latest broadside against convention is that there is now a theory of existence that doesn't require a Big Bang. Clarity: It's not a "disproof" of the Big Bang, but a possible structure of the universe that doesn't require one. Sadly it does imply an infinite universe and so doesn't resolve the issue of Creation requiring either infinity or a brute fact, but the overall effect here is the Einstein and Relativity is coming under doubt. While this is not really a new development, it is starting to gain force. (Tom Bethell wrote a book called Questioning Einstein years ago, suggesting we have failed by accepting relativity to the exclusion of other possibilities. Too bad he can't be as thoughtful about website design.) Just so we are clear, the argument here is not that relativity is wrong. There are tons of experiment outcomes it predicts exactly. The argument is that relativity is unnecessary to explain these outcomes.

For all our confidence in progress and our scientific hubris, it seems we are as susceptible to error and foolish faith as everyone else. We are not that smart after all. We are the most arrogant era of man and yet we are at least as wrong as every one before us.

[Rant] Something from the Bar

One curious aspect of being me is that when I drink I am a happier person. That is not to say I am unhappy otherwise, it's just an observation of how I react to alcohol. As a former bartender, I can testify that there is a great range of potential psychological reactions to drink -- some people get depressed from drinking, some get violent, most everyone gets less inhibited -- in my case I tend to laugh more easily and feel stronger enthusiasms. For example, I might laugh out loud at something I would normally just smile at, or be quicker to express opinions even if they aren;t well thought out. Things I just like when sober, I love after a couple of drinks. It's not the real me, and I honestly don't think I would like to be like that all the time (although, maybe...), but it's not a bad feeling and it certainly makes drinking an attractive occasional activity to me. And if in vino veritas, then it's an indicator that I am deep down a happy person.

Drinking is not a risk to me, as far as I can tell. I do not believe I have an addictive physiology. When I was young I drank a good deal more than I do now. I can vaguely remember long stretches -- say 3 or 4 months -- where I had multiple drinks daily, yet I was never had any problem turning of the switch and doing without. About the only chemical in my life that I have ever had a physical withdrawal reaction from is caffeine, and the reaction consists of a headache for a day and then feeling out-of-it for a while because my body is so used to being caffeinated. But given how I feel when I drink, I can see the attraction of alcoholism to alcoholics. The worries fade, the world becomes a nicer place. I'm sure with frequent and consistent drinking anyone could become an alcoholic, and if you can live out your life with your worries stifled and laughing more, maybe that's not so bad.

There are trade offs, of course, otherwise everyone would be doing it. An alcoholic is effectively useless and a source of pain to anyone who may be depending on him. If you believe, as I do, the core object of life is to have a positive effect on other people, alcoholism amounts to abject failure. Judged from a purely narcissistic point of view, however, alcoholism is not a bad path. In some cases, it may actually optimize total personal happiness over a lifetime. Is it really that much different from whiling away your days in a Zoloft haze?

Tangent: There is endless irrationality and hypocrisy in our attitudes towards drugs (including alcohol). This is no surprise. As human beings there is endless irrationality and hypocrisy in pretty much everything we do. The evolution of societal thought toward rationality is a slow, ten-steps-forward-nine-steps-back process, but it does happen. For the great bulk of recorded history there were no laws or regulations limiting the use of any chemicals. The notion of "controlled substances" are a product of aggressive progressivism -- idealized behavior modification en masse. It's interesting to note how the this trend of prohibition and criminalizing drugs may have peaked in the 20th century. There was (capital P) Prohibition early in the century and the militarized War on Drugs in the later half. I detect a long term shift in this trend. Not just because we have dipped a toe in the legal pot pool. We are beginning to see acknowledgement that many of our drug taboos are too strident. The world is repelled by athletes uses chemical enhancements, but we are also starting to acknowledge that stuff like testosterone and HGH can improve the quality of life in certain circumstances. (Personally, HGH sounds wonderful to me. I hope to be wealthy enough to afford it by the time I'm 60.) The door is even opening for hallucinogenics again, if not quite at Timothy Leary levels of devotion. And I am told there are now shelters specifically for alcoholics that no longer discourage drinking. They offer a secure place to just let them drink their lives away. Changes comes slowly. End tangent.

No, my bigger concern with alcohol is the calories. A couple of beers or drinks and you're looking at 300 calories. Add 300 calories a day to your diet and you'll pack on pounds surprisingly fast. Were I to habitually take a couple of nightly drinks, I would have to knock 300 calories out somewhere else. That means finding the strength of will to forego all the sweets and such that people bring into the office every damn day. I don't think I could, which is pathetic, but realistic, of me. Were I what an economist might refer to as a "rational actor" that would imply that I am actually happier snacking at work than I am drinking at night. But I don't feel that way, so either I am deluding myself about the happiness work snacks bring me, or I am not rational. My money is on the later.

I have now completely forgotten where I was going with this, except as an observation that I should find a way to drink more and thus be happier, although as you read this I suspect you are thinking I need to drink less.