No, Technology Has NOT Made Life Better (If You’re Old Enough to Remember the Better Alternative)

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to make medical records readily transferable from one treatment venue to another. Push a button… and the ER uploads the files from your GP’s office. In practice, learning the software is a nightmare for medical personnel, amending and updating it is a hemorrhage within hospital budgets that cannot be stanched, protocol turns out frequently to require the same old paperwork reproduced now from computer files, and the origin of critical errors is often almost impossible to trace. Time and money saved? Efficiency enhanced? What world are you living in?

One is now vigorously urged to liberate one’s investment accounts from paper. Quarterly reports are posted online: don’t forget your password! And just in case the power grid should go down for any reason, you’d better print out a copy of crucial data, or there might be no record at all of your life savings! I’ve been very happy with my TD Ameritrade account… for the most part. But when the lion’s share of my portfolio was shifted to a companion-operation called Amerivest, I continually had trouble finding my money online. I couldn’t remember that I was supposed to log in with the Amerivest username at the Ameritrade log-in box: there was no separate box for the separate entity. Such a simple conflation of procedures apparently needed no explanation to the site’s designers; but to me, whose typical day does not allow time for checking in, the “skipped step” is a perpetual stumbling block. Now that I’ve actually written a few words about it, I’m sure to remember the way in… but how many other such crucial protocols are easily misplaced or obscured because technicians don’t think like ordinary people? The minutes or hours of panic that result may add up to months or years subtracted from one’s time on earth, since our hearts are still flesh and blood.

Your job requires you to employ a certain software program—but the program’s designers have so overloaded it with firewalls and safeguards over the years that it runs like cold molasses when it runs at all. So your organization decides to shift to a different software provider and orders you to learn completely new protocols. Yet the shift will not occur for several months; so the valuable time you spend listening to software gurus explain vital details (as well as dozens and dozens of functions of utterly no interest to you or relevance to your personal tasks) will prove wholly wasted, since you will have forgotten everything when—six months from now—you need to recall it. In the meantime, you do your job a little less well thanks to all the distraction, and the raises that might have helped you keep pace with inflation are poured, instead, into the handsome salaries needed to attract more high-tech gurus to maintain an ever more complicated network.

Where in all this chaos do we find a poster-child for efficiency and competence?

A government mandate requires that you now integrate a, b, and c into your normal professional routine. A government functionary chides you for not fully overhauling your routine in a timely fashion so as to front-and-center a, b, and c. You ask that a, b, and c be settled into a certain available free space… but no, “studies have shown” that a, b, and c are most effective when everything else is organized around them. So, essentially, your thirty years of experience doing what you do must be jettisoned, and you must follow in the footsteps of every other tyro who serves a remote, faceless bureaucracy of power-brokers blissfully unfamiliar with what you do. The “studies” show that the new program of indoctrination indoctrinates better if the surrounding program in which it’s delivered does little but echo its messages. Well, duh.

Yeah, duh. Also know as “efficiency” these days.

Like it? You like this brave new world? You like what’s it’s doing to your nerves—how it bends to your will and rushes in to assist you in tasks that you have identified as important?

My New Year’s resolution to drop f-bombs from my private vocabulary has been bombed to smithereens… and we’re not yet to February! I never used to let loose with anything worse than “damn” and “hell”: now I swear like a sailor as e-life tells me daily, in a thousand subtle ways, that I don’t exist, that my opinions don’t matter, that my contribution isn’t recognized or wanted, and that the fruits of my labor no longer exist. I still run a clean act in public… but secretly, I’m smoldering all the time. It’s the way we’re over-using and abusing all this damn “smart” technology. I’ll leave it at that.

Databases Give Us Quick Answers But Don’t Teach Us to Ask Good Questions

I haven’t much time for this tonight… but the subject of technological sabotage eating away at my daily contentment has preoccupied me lately with maybe a dozen pretty powerful examples.  I’ll save the list for a better moment.

Just a footnote, then, about a conversation I had today with a librarian–and it was more of a guilt trip that I was being led along for not linking up my students to an online tutorial about the library’s databases.  Great stuff, those databases… kind of.  Sometimes.  If you have just the right keyword phrase, they save days and even weeks of time.  Take you right to the doorstep.

But what if you have no such handy little golden key?  When I was a very young man, I recall running across a reference in the Gaelic poetry of the sixteenth-century Scottish bard Rory Morrison to a peculiar legend–almost a unique one.  A king was about to execute three men when a young woman approached him and implored mercy for her brother.  Ther king was puzzled by her request, since the other two men were her husband and her son.  Why so much concern for the brother, he asked.  “Because I can get another husband,” answered the woman, “and I can bear another son, but I’ll never have another brother.”  The dazzled monarch released all three men.

This tale is rather precisely analogous to one that Herodotus told of the Persian king Cyrus about two millennia earlier.  Otherwise, it makes no appearance anywhere in the lore of Greece and Rome–or of Germany.  (Of course, Herodotus himself was a Greek… but he heard the story from a Persian.)  It’s one bit of evidence in a long and complicated–but convincing–brief that the Celts were once cultural nextdoor neighbors to Easterners who would become Persians and Indians.

Or I might mention a tale I ran across just last week in the medieval Silva Gadelica.  It has Caoilte relating to Saint Patrick an account about the Fianna’s favorite hunting hill, where the two of them are standing at that moment.  Just to prove his point, Caolite gives a wild yell that summons every game animal from the surrounding forests.  It occurred to me that the short tale would make a very nice footnote to my translation of the medieval Welsh romance Owein, at the point where a one-eyed, one-legged giant bangs a stag over the head until the beast’s bellows bring every animal in the woods.  Both figures are shamanic “masters of the hunt”, fulfilling the same role in a mythic paradigm.

Here’s my point.  How would I ever have happened upon either one of these parallels using keyword searches?  What database could yield the results that wide, serendipitous reading once did for great scholars of myth like Alfred Nutt and Stith Thompson?  Or how many scientists will be struck by the possibility of a new cure or a new cosmic force if they give up messing in the garden or didn’t ride in something like Einstein’s trolley?

Electronic databases can take researches instantly down paths that have already been traveled, and then the travelers can perhaps venture a bit farther.  What they can and will never do is teach minds how to think through sketchy, highly speculative associations rather than through shared words.  And in foreclosing a certain kind of scholarship, they will also suffocate a certain kind of human being.  Our machines will make us think more and more like a machine as their designers are claiming to make them more and more like us.  I’m sure the two will meet somewhere soon–but not on a turf that would have been considered fully human a few years ago.

Hollywood: Feeding On What It Most Hates

I doubt that the creators of War Dogs are remotely aware of the title’s Shakespearean allusion, which is as accidental as every other connection with the past in our post-culture.  You probably saw the commercial fifty times in October.  A couple of punks are getting rich selling arms to the U.S. government that they’ve bought from shady sources all around the world (e.g., Albania, awash in Chinese weapons and ammo after the Cold War).  The central plot is supposedly factual.  The Bush Administration deregulated arms sales in a manner that would allow small dealers to pursue government contracts… and this blow on behalf of efficient spending of public funds and against crony contracting with mega-corporations is–of course–represented by the film as corrupt and incompetent.  The two f-bombing idiots might have stepped straight out of the scenes of at least half a dozen recent Wall Street/Jordan Belfort movies: thinking of nothing but money, doped up for half their waking hours, and aware of what they’re doing only to the extent that they understand themselves to be doing nothing–to be playing a shell game with no pea under any of the husks.

My son wanted to watch the flick over Christmas break, and I have to disclose that I myself didn’t make it through to the end.  I’m really more curious to know what impact this kind of fare has on his generation than to find out how the cartoon ends.  (As a student of cliche, I pretty much know that after twenty minutes.)  When popular culture surrounds you with images of businessmen either boring each other to death in gray flannel suits or snorting coke and plotting how to get at the pensions of widows, how can your impression of reality not be affected?

To say that the entertainment media are undermining the morale of Western capitalism is itself a cliche, I know.  It would be far more interesting to spend some time reflecting on how capitalist greed and amorality have created the entertainment industry.  All I feel inclined to jot down for the moment, though, is that I can’t really see any coherent, premeditated conspiracy behind the demoralization.  People tell me that academe is also trying to subvert our way of life, and I respond the same way: I believe the “establishment-bashing” is more accident–more being part of the club (the anti-establishment establishment) than deliberate sabotage.  It’s the sort of ganging together that you observe on any playground.

Hollywood’s case is uniquely interesting to me, however, in that it makes enormous profits off of what its operatives see as humanity’s worst tendencies.  Violence is evil–but a film without violence is a bore and a bomb; so Hollywood creates visions of violence that exceed almost anything perceptible in real life, and then either blames the causes of violence on the “evil class” or celebrates the violent rebel for blowing up that class.  Exploiting the vulnerable is evil… so Hollywood exploits females in sexual displays approaching or surpassing the pornographic and the sadistic in order to paint the exploiters as arch-villains.  You live only by representing the thing that you most hate, so that you may both legitimize it as a real and formidable presence in the world and cast yourself as the constant, faithful crusader against its dark power.  Like the Puritan censor whose job is to smell out smut and send its producers to jail, you keep your nose in the dirt 24/7.  If the dirt should suddenly go away, your perverted vital energies would gnaw themselves into oblivion.

Will we ever take a good, hard look at how we amuse ourselves, how our amusements are leaking into our souls, and how we allow clowns and impersonators to have such influence over our cultural life?

What’s to Celebrate, About THAT President or THIS One?

I think I do a pretty good job of staying away from politics in discussions among mixed company.  If I can do it, why can’t others?  Why do I have to open the mandatory e-mail in my workplace and find a missive congratulating Barack Obama on a job well done?  There was no analagous message wishing luck to Donald Trump.  When I reflect that a few responsible people have been trying over the past decade to get Congress to remedy our exposure to Electro-Magnetic Pulse events with no success whatever at the federal level, and that a single such event could kill 300 million Americans within a year, my blood boils.  Granted, George Bush II was on watch when the alert was first raised: his administration led the charge to do nothing (being preoccupied, apparently, with monitoring all of our private communications).  Under Obama, however, not only has understanding of the impending threat deepened and been more broadly disseminated (no thanks to the mainstream media); the man has actually equipped Iran–one of the two most likely perps of an EMP attack in the near future, based on our observation of missile-development programs–to become an active threat.  Meanwhile, he’s wasted months and months of precious time and treasure-loads of precious resources ginning up concern about climate change.  Manhattan may be under water in 2075!  That’s obviously a far greater issue than the death by thirst, starvation, hypothermia, and rioting of nine out of every ten citizens, possibly by 2020.

A job well done… really?  Define “job”, please.

Contrarily, newscasters on all the FOX sister-stations produce queues of talking heads communicating the hope of “ordinary Americans” that President Trump will “make their lives better”.  The problem, it seems to me (as an American and a Constitutionalist), is that one man should have so much power as to be able to make our lives better or worse.  I don’t want anyone making my life better.  I want bureaucracies everywhere to get their fingers the hell out of my life, so that I may make it better if I have the energy or worse if I commit errors rich in good life lessons.  I want to be treated as an adult instead of a child; I don’t want a new daddy-figure who artificially supplies work for me instead of intrusively choosing my diet for me.

A student told me yesterday that you can’t collect water off your roof in these parts for filtering and drinking.  He said that it’s illegal.  A little research suggests that he was wrong in terms of state law.  Nevertheless, he may be right in terms of certain municipalities and subdivisions, which have all kinds of patently unconstitutional restrictions on what one may do.  Government entities on both the micro- and the macro-level are busily gnawing into our basic freedoms.  If you look hard for them (i.e., outside the mainstream media), stories are superabundant about the Bureau of Land Management telling a rancher that he can’t water his cows because of a rat or an owl.  My brother-in-law claims that the county in which I hope to build a retirement home will require me to have an outlet capable of servicing an electric car, even though I have no intent of ever owning such a car.  (I may drive ten miles, perhaps, in a month.)  All of these “do-gooders” are stifling the very resourcefulness and independence that will be needed to confront… oh, say, a major EMP event.  And if such an occurrence were to happen naturally (as it certainly will within a few decades–lead-pipe cinch), then it might ultimately wipe out the human race.  In the meantime, though, our keepers will have nudged us benignly toward vehicles that don’t directly use fossil fuels… and those marginalized voices who protest, like Dinesh D’Souza (a man of color, by the way), will find themselves not-so-benignly doing significant prison time on some trumped-up charge relating to improper completion of complex paper work.

I don’t see the Trump Administration flashing any signs that it will reverse the “job well done” by Barack Obama in these areas.  Trump isn’t abolishing any of the more oppressive and dictatorial departments: he’s just replacing their directors with his partisans.  So… my assessment is that you’re pretty much on your own.  Chacun pour soi.  Filter your own water without telling anyone, grow your own garden and hope that ATF’s drones don’t misidentify it as a marijuana plantation… and, in general, put your hope in your own two hands.  Get over the celebrations: there’s nothing to celebrate here.

Nazis, Judgment, and Picky Details

The Netflix documentary, What Our Fathers Did: The Nazi Legacy, follows EU administrator Philippe Sands on a strange odyssey as he persuades Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter–both sons of high-ranking Nazi officers–to join him in revisiting the past.   Frank eagerly embraces a wholesale condemnation of his father as a vicious animal.  The son indeed seems to have much axe-grinding to do against his father for deserting the family and chasing sycophantically after Hitler’s will and whimsy.  It’s not a great leap to suppose that at least some of Niklas’s righteous indignation at his father’s active participation in the Holocaust is a Freudian resentment.  He admits to a tinge of sympathy when sitting in the cell from which his father was led to be hanged after the Nuremberg Trials; yet even here, he inclines more to believe that Hans (a.k.a. “The Butcher of Poland”) was staging a religious conversion in his final reported words rather than preparing to meet his maker.  That’s a pretty hard verdict to pass on any man, but especially for a son to dish out upon his father.

Sands is the agent provocateur of guilt and resentment throughout the doc, rather like a tormenting angel of vengeance who demands that facts be recognized in their bare truth.  Perhaps he has a right to that role, up to a point: his family was virtually exterminated in the Warsaw ghetto.  He and Franks grow progressively peeved with Horst for seeking to whitewash the memory of his father Otto.  I find these sequences of the film particularly difficult to watch at times.  I want to shout at the screen, “Okay, so Horst wants to believe the best about his father!  Otto von Wachter really did regret much of what he was doing, in all probability, yet really did tell himself that he should continue doing it rather than be replaced by a more ruthless executioner.  And you two are right that such equivocation really is a pretty weak moral defense for the man.  In a way, it’s an additional indictment; for having recognized the evil of rounding up Jews for slaughter, von Wachter is even more guilty than some of his psychopathic comrades.  But why do you insist that the man’s son join you now in spitting on a long-gone father’s grave?  What exactly is the son to gain from that–and what do you gain from it?”

Otto von Wachter, as a historical figure, raises some fascinating moral issues.  He reminds me of Amphinomos, the one suitor of Penelope’s many in the Odyssey who seems to be a genuinely decent human being.  Yet as his name (“split-minded”) suggests, Amphinomos can never quite motivate himself to leave the bad company he’s in, even though Odysseus himself–disguised as a beggar–pleads with him to do so shortly before taking a deadly vengeance.  There’s a point in most of our lives when we have to stop trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and concede that the fruit is not only bitter but–in the case at hand–rotten.  Even if von Wachter had supposed himself to be facing execution should he refuse to obey orders (and very few Nazi officers ever suffered consequences for such resistance, as Hannah Arendt has observed), he should nevertheless have accepted execution.  He should have, that is, if he were a moral hero, or anything other than a moral coward.  Passive surrender to unjust punishment can give very eloquent and influential testimony.

Sands and Frank didn’t appear to be much interested in introducing the younger von Wachter to this perspective, however.  He needed to say the magic words, “My father is burning in Hell…” and he never did.  I’m not sure on what authority the other two are trying to force him into the judgment seat.

And Horst does have a ghost of a point when he says that the circumstances were complex–that you had to be there.  It remains a quibble in this case; but what about the surprising celebration he receives from Western Ukrainians near the film’s end when they find that he is von Wachter’s son?  Decked out in Nazi uniforms themselves for a commemorative event, these men see the swastika as a symbol of their struggle against Stalinist domination.  Today, right now, we’re supposed to be embracing their struggle against Putin’s efforts to revive the evil Soviet empire… and yet, the same voices in the pro-Ukrainian EU denounce anyone who criticizes their open-door immigration policy as a Nazi!

It doesn’t hurt to know some of the picky little details… or rather, it hurts a lot–but it’s good for the soul.  Horst von Wachter needs to face facts about his father; but those who would deplore his “father fantasy” might consider plucking the beam from their own eye on occasion.

Some Grim But Necessary Observations

One reason I’m very much in favor of simplifying our lifestyle, even though I perceive “climate change” as a boondoggle veiling a power grab, is the ever-lurking, apocalyptic EMP.  We depend far too much on electricity.  It’s probably not good for our bodies.  (I might detail my own physical discomforts after extended exposure to computers at some later date.)  At this point, electric utilities pump our water and operate our refrigeration.  In most homes, they supply heating and cooling to structures designed without a second thought having been given to efficiency.  Automobiles have depended in computerized systems since about the mid-eighties: if everything electrical were suddenly fried… no more transportation.  Even if you could walk to the grocery store, the trucks that deliver its merchandise would cease to run.  And if you were retrograde enough to own a vintage car with minimal electrical dependency, it would still need to be gassed up after a few days… and the pumps at the filling station wouldn’t work.

Defense experts have estimated that 90% of the U.S. population would die within a year if our power grid were destroyed.  In other words, the loss of that grid would equate to a surprise trans-continental nuclear attack, minus the lingering contamination–and with the addition of lethality at peak levels even in rural areas.

Books like Peter Pry’s Blackout Wars: State Initiatives to Achieve Preparedness Against an Electromagnetic Pules (EMP) Catastrophe consequently make for grim reading.  (I’m currently working through this one on my Kindle–using electricity, of course!)  The title of this volume actually hints at a source of optimism not visible in Pry’s earlier books: preemptive action by state governments to secure their section of the power grid.  This can apparently be done legally; and the federal government, while confronting the crisis with all the energy of a deer staring at headlights, has at least not intervened (in the manner of its contribution to border security) to ensure that our pants stay down and our hands remain tied.  Nevertheless, only four or five states have taken effective action at this point.

The kind of pulse at issue need not be administered by a nuclear weapon exploding thirty kilometers above ground, by the way, or by the domino effect begun when certain key power stations are overloaded.  The pulse may be entirely natural.  Solar flares occasionally create major surges.  We haven’t seen a big one since the so-called Carrington Event in 1859, which turned all the telegraphs of New England into smoking ruins.  We’re overdue another such burst–and we have far more than the telegraph at stake now.

Besides equipping all power stations with surge-arrestors (WHY was that not done in the construction phase, as a matter of course???), our leadership should send a very clear message to Kim Jong Un, whose nuclear trials and dry-run nautical missions have left little doubt that he has an EMP attack in mind.  This little lunatic must be reminded that our nuclear submarines will survive even after the continent is plunged into darkness; and he must be warned, publicly and with grim clarity, that a devastating nuclear response directed at all of his hideaways will follow, instantly and irrevocably.  I know what a gruesome remark I have just written.  The prospect of 300 million American casualties, however, requires a strong deterrent.  Mutually Assured Destruction worked in the Cold War, but we were dealing with comparatively sane despots.  Maybe, in this case, the little lunatic’s entourage would pull his cord if it became apparent that he was about to pull theirs.

Odds ‘n Ends

First of all, I only yesterday discovered that the origin of the phrase, “the whole nine yards,” dates back to World War II.  Seems that the P-51 Mustang had nine yards of fifty-caliber bullets servicing each of its machine-guns… so when you let loose on a target until nothing more was coming out of the cannon, you’d shot “the whole nine yards”.  Wow.  I had no idea that the phrase was older than I am.  Odd that I never heard it until about the eighties or the nineties.  Could it possibly have been resurrected and popularized by some movie about fighter-pilots during the war?

I’ve also wanted to respond to an incredibly long and thoughtful commentary on one of my posts concerning Islam and Christianity… but I can do little more for now than just acknowledge the “want”.  The subject of the Trinity would require a book-length treatise from me, as it has indeed elicited many a book from theologians infinitely better educated in the matter than I.  And then, once I’d finished, the best-educated of the well-educated would be calling me an apostate, I’m pretty sure.  The thing is, I don’t have much confidence in education on such subjects.  It tends to immerse one in “bibliolatry”–abject attention to what appears in revered or honored texts–rather than to put one in touch with an inner voice that speaks a logic of humane goodness.  I have no firmer conviction on the subject of religion than that God judges us by our susceptibility to this voice, and not by our conformity to the circumstantially conditioned and institutionally processed arguments of “scholars”.  Is it not in that sense that one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven?

At any rate, the Trinity to me says that, though God is inscrutable and unimaginable to such as I in His full glory,  I can nevertheless be certain of His will in specific terrestrial cases through the action of a “spirit”–of inspiration–that reaches me, often in spite of my selfish or short-sighted objectives, often also in spite of the values projected by my social circle or culture.  I know that it’s wrong to kill children: I KNOW it’s wrong.  That’s why I don’t have to sift through arguments that equivocate the murder of children as fully predictable collateral damage during drone strikes.  I also have the example of God as He choose to squeeze Himself into a mortal body and a mortal lifetime–a position which, paradoxically, rendered Him incapable of completely grasping Himself at times (cf. Christ in the garden of Gethsemane).  I have no doubt that I’ve just typed a load of heresy in the eyes of some!  But Christ himself says that they alone are not forgiven who fail to recognize, not him, but the Holy Spirit.

Some people are okay with God’s ordering a vast slaughter of the Israelites after the Golden Calf incident.  That’s not a god I recognize–I’m not “hearing it”.  “Oh, so you get to pick and choose any attribute of God that pleases you, do you?”  No… but I am obligated to reject those attributes, at least as projected by certain literally interpreted scriptures, which I know conform to the cultural conditioning prevalent during a document’s composition rather than to the immutable law of goodness.  You don’t kill children.  Period.  Not in the service of God.  Never in the service of God.

Finally, if my high school friend is reading… I wish we had been much better friends in high school.  That was my fault.  But I really do find it horrible and suffocating to be reduced to what I look like, how I measure, the income of my parents.  An average kid, average height and weight, brown coloring, a voice no one could hear, a family that registered “nothing” in the community…. that’s what my classmates saw in high school.  I graduated a year early just to escape the phone-booth claustrophobia of it all.  I would no sooner revisit the scene of that misery, even half a century later, than I would return to a concentration camp and ask bystanders to pick up where the SS or the KGB left off.  I’ve spent most of my life blotting those years from my memory.  Why would I revive them now?

To think that there are people who actually want to be known first and foremost by the color of their skin, or their sexual preference, or their obesity, or… why wouldn’t you spend you life trying to break free of the “prison of circumstance” rather than adding bars and bricks to it?