Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Local Heroes

He sat in his tux in the gaping hole of broken glass in the storefront of her father's store, a little before dawn of a long night of galas and receptions and paparazzi and other photographers and movie stars and politicians and billionaires, sat there ready to fend off would-be looters or stray cats or owls or whoever else might try to violate the perimeter. She showed up before the cops did, and I watched the two of them, unnoticed, I'm pretty sure, from the black shade under the old oak across the street. I'd been watching them for most of our lives. You couldn't help but stare. They were godlike, even now, pushing 50: just a little bit more good-looking, graceful, charming and witty, both of them, than mere mortals could ever hope to be. She hiked up the skirt of her ball gown as she stepped around little piles of glass behind him, inspecting the damage. She stopped once and touched his shoulder and he shrank involuntarily at her touch. It still seemed she could make him nervous; she, and nobody else I knew of. They spoke for a little while, their voices just a little too low for me to hear what they were saying.

The three of us had gone to the same public schools in this neighborhood in Brooklyn. They were three grades ahead of me, king and queen of the proms, took turns as class president, and most likely to everything. I know now that nobody's lives turn out as expected, but even with huge expectations, their lives hadn't disappointed. She went from the kind of photographer whose pictures are shown in art galleries to a weather girl when arty photography wasn't paying the bills. And although she got the job because of typical weather-girl va-va-voom, amazingly, she subverted the job with feminist irony and wit, and was also actually way above average with the meteorology. Besides the usual reasons, people actually watched her because her forecasts were more accurate than the rest. From weather girl she moved very quickly to local reporter to anchor to network reporter to... what she is, there's only one. She hosts a weekly network news show and frequent specials. She's outspoken about politics. She might become President. And all along, she's made a point of not hiding her very active sex life. She said she made a point of not hiding it because when a man was active in a similar way it tended to make him a hero, and she refused to allow herself to be shamed for something natural and healthy, and more to the point, something a man would be admired for.

She was always very generous with her time and help for people starting out in the business. For me, for example: she hooked me up with my first TV cameraman gig, said, "Okay, I'm vouching for you, Champ, don't let me down," and gave me a smile which made me shiver, and a kiss on the cheek which made my heart pound, and made me want to make sure I didn't let her done more than I've ever wanted anything in my relatively lukewarm life. I guess I didn't let her down. I'm still employed as a cameraman and occasionally lately as a news segment producer.

He became a tennis god right out of high school. He became world famous right away, and rich from product endorsements and commercials. The fame and money had much more to do with his looks than with the quality of the tennis he played, as was the case years later with Anna Kournikova. And just as with Kournikova, if you complained that he wasn't such a great tennis player, you were missing the point.

His tennis career didn't last nearly as long as Kournikova's: he had been a pro for just a year and a half when he severely broke his racquet arm in a car crash. All the bones in his forearm were broken through in several places each. It's not often that an arm fracture is so severe as to require hospitalization. They kept him in the hospital for a week just because of his arm.

And during that week -- how much on purpose on his part, I still have no idea -- pictures of him behaving inappropriately with several female nurses and one female doctor -- not all at once -- became public. He had already been seen out and about with many different women during his brief tennis career.

His arm never healed enough for him to play tennis vigorously again, but very soon it had healed enough so that he could type, and soon he was writing newspaper stories good enough to surprise people who'd had him pegged as an airhead stud. Besides the reporting, he began to publish well-received short stories and novels. The combination of his reporting and his looks lead him pretty soon into the same TV-news world as his former schoolmate.

Neither of them ever had time for a day of college.

Then, in their late 20's, after a decade of each of them having very famously dated a lot of people, it happened: very strangely, he suddenly fell very publicly, extremely awkwardly and embarrassingly, and unrequitedly, in love with her. He sobbed like a baby in front of live TV cameras when he was supposed to be reporting stories, talked about her and cried on talk shows -- which certainly didn't discourage talk shows, the vultures, from booking him. He made about as big a public spectacle of himself as possible without getting himself fired from all of his gigs. She stayed composed, and was about as nice about it all as anyone could be who honestly just didn't like him that way.

The crying and making a spectacle of himself lasted for months. Then finally he got a grip on himself and started to behave more normally again. But it seemed obvious that he never got over her. He kept right on with his extremely busy romantic life. He kept right on with that even during the crying and saying embarrassing things phase. But he never seemed to see a contradiction there.

They both went on being godlike -- Olympian -- in their sex lives. That very night, one of his latest relationships had gone very public, with a just-turned-legal former gymnast. She was dating an actor not much older than the gymnast. The general public reaction seemed to be that whoever they dated was not being used, but was very, very lucky. The young women who'd been with the former tennis god, the young men who'd been with the former artsy photographer -- they all seemed to wander around in a blissful daze, as if they been blessed by supernatural spells most of us can never hope to experience.

And during his public freak-out over her 20 years earlier, although she didn't return his passion, they became good friends, and they had stayed very good friends, with that unrequited thing hanging there between them the whole time. Strangely, that kind of made sense.

This evening, this long night of galas and other parties, he had ended up some others of us from the neighborhood, and we all rode the subway together in our tuxes back to Brooklyn, and someone had a football, and he had for some reason been standing in front of her father's old store when someone fired a pass which sailed over his head and was thrown hard enough that it actually shattered the decades-old plate glass storefront. Her dad's appliances and furniture were exposed to the night air and potential looters and stray cats and owls. He immediately took out his phone and dialed 911 and sat down amid the broken glass to guard his beloved lady's father's store. Why had he been standing right there waiting for someone to pass him the ball?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

You Can't Compromise With Extremists

I'm so sick of all these dodos saying, "Both parties need to sit down and compromise and work things out," as if the Democrats and Republicans were equally to blame for Everything. This seems to be more of the damage done by so-called objective journalism, making people unwilling or unable to see that one party may actually be more to blame for some things than the other.

In reaction to the latest Republican helath-care proposal, the one they put together in a completely unprecedented secretive manner and apparently hoped to slip past the Democrats and parts of their own party into law while no one was watching, just what exactly would it mean for the Democrats to "come together" with the Republicans and "work together"? Only causing 11 million people to lose their health insurance instead of 22 million? Something like that?

"Working together" with them -- would that mean re-allowing only some of the toxins going back into our air and water since the Trump administration took over? Deporting only some of the people the Republicans want to deport based on ethnicity or religion? Acting as if only some of the things Trump pulls out of his ass are facts? Saying that maximum sentences are okay in only some drug-related cases? Allowing only some of their anti-LGBT legislation? Acting as if it's only sort of the 1950's?

What the Democrats need to is tell the truth and get out the vote. Not just every 4 years, and not just every 2 years, although even that, sadly, would be a great improvement. No, Democrats need to turn out for every election. Republicans do this better than we Democrats do, and that is why they keep kicking our asses even though there are more of us than of them. We need to vote for President, Senator, Representative, Governor, Mayor, City Council, School Board, Judge, Sheriff, Comtroller, EVERYTHING. There are more of us than there are of them! If we ACTED like it, their right-wing evil bullshit would be left in the past where it belongs.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Taylor Swift

I'm constantly reading about Taylor Swift and some boring thing she's doing, usually something that amounts to getting on some other celebrity's nerves for no Earthly reason I can see, or making a big fuss about something whose meaning I cannot grasp, such as her "girl squads." However, I never had any idea what her music sounded like -- and supposedly, what Taylor Swift is a singer. A recording artist. And I thought that maybe it was time I should know. I felt I owed it to you, my faithful readers, to go where you might quite understandably be afraid to go, to YouTube, and listen to Taylor Swift, and then tell you what it was like, so that you wouldn't have to.

I did this recently with Justin Bieber, and found, to my great surprise, that I actually like his music. But I was afraid to do it with Taylor Swift. I was afraid it would kill me. Quite literally: I was afraid that Taylor Swift's music would sound so bad that listening to it would make me die.

But today was the day that I finally gathered up my nerve, went to YouTube and typed taylor swift in the search window.

And it's worse than I feared: I didn't die. I have to go on living having listened to Taylor Swift records.

But you don't have to. And you can now warn others.

Great Big Fat Guy, Day 606

I've been sick lately. The last few days. I think I'm better now, but I'm still early enough in the recovery that I don't want to say for sure that the flu, or whatever it was, is past. I feel good, but I'm still a little wobbly.

Four days ago, on Thursday -- here come four words I hadn't pictured myself saying -- I quit drinking coffee. I expected that to be a lot harder than it was. On the other hand, maybe the withdrawl was severe, but it just blended in with the overall sickness so that I didn't notice it as a separate thing. My coffe-drinking tastes had been getting fancier and fancier. I have an elaborate coffee-maker made by Cuisinart. I was drinking a blend imported from Itay -- and then, boom, gone, that's history. I feel a little sad about that. Is this permanent? We'll see.

9 days ago, I turned 56. Jesus, I sure got old fast. 56?! When did THAT happen? Anyway, I haven't felt like exercising as much, and I don't know how much is laziness, how much is health issues which can be addressed -- by, for instance, no longer ingesting something which was delicious and comforting and every morning like a big brown steamy hug -- and how much may be things like depression, and how much is just natural, because it's just me getting old. I know, I know, there are inspiring stories of people who are running Iron Man triathlons and being fashion runway models at age 95, and they always say: if THEY can do it, YOU can do it! But lately I've been wondering whether it's just bullshit to think that anybody can do anything that anybody else ever did. I mean, hey, good for those 95-year-old supermodels, bless their hearts, really. But maybe the chances most of us have of doing what they do are about the same as their chances of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I would like to win the Nobel and also be super-buff at age 95. But realistically, I may only be capable of doing one.

Something to think about.

Hit it, Katy!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Computers and Language

So-called artificial intelligence programs are still a long way from tackling language. And by language I mean languages which are spoken by humans, like English or Japanese. "Computer languages," sets of instructions followed by computers, are not the same as human languages. It has not been demonstrated yet that the languages which we speak can be reduced to such sets of instructions. If they can, we're still a long way away from doing it. If they can't, then, in my opinion, that would be one of the reasons not to worry about the machines eventually rising up and killing us all. If a computer was capable of having a conversation with me which was indistinguishable from a conversation with a human, then I'd be startled. And possibly a little spooked as well. I would include written conversations like those in chat rooms.

Math is exact and language is not. Often times letters, the symbols used to record some languages, have been used as mathematical symbols. Roman numerals are one well-known example of that. But while the symbols used in language and math may be the same, what they refer to is not. X + IV = XIV means exactly the same as 10 + 4 = 14, and any number of different systems of notation can be used to express exactly the same thing as 10 + 4 = 14. However, many times the simplest sentences are untranslatable from one language to another. And very many, perhaps most sentences cannot be exactly translated. Furthermore, in many cases, perhaps most, the best translation is a matter of opinion. Highly-qualified experts in linguistics and literature routinely disagree about whether this translation of a poem or novel is better than that one.

As long as we're talking about translation made by humans, that is. With all of the astounding advances made in computing, the best computer translation programs still routinely produce results which are comically bad and far inferior to any work done by any competent professional human translator. The same goes for original written compositions by computers compared with those written by ordinary lit students.

Computers are far beyond humans now when it comes to playing chess. (And if recent headlines have not misled me, computers are about to pass us as Go players as well.) But computers play chess differently than humans, by crunching enormous amounts of data. How do we humans do it? Well, we don't know yet.

Perhaps human intelligence would be less mysterious if the possibility were more often considered that it involves things which aren't reducible to math. Perhaps researchers sometimes resist considering that, because one of the things it would mean is that we're not, in fact, on the brink of developing artificial intelligence. Well, actually, many people think that we're already well past the brink, and that artificial intelligence has already existed for some time.

No doubt, information technology has produced many amazing things, and continues to do so with no end in sight. Maybe there's no reason for me to object to calling some of those things artificial intelligence. I don't go around angrily telling IT people to stop using the term "computer language."

But as I've said, a computer language is a fundamentally different thing than a language spoken by humans. And artificial intelligence, if we want to use that term for things which already exist, and why not -- I mean, people are using that term for things which exist, whether we approve or not -- is still fundamentally different from what human brains do. Playing chess, computers win. Writing poems, computers still have not given us any competition. Perhaps the things needed in order to write great poems are quantifiable. But perhaps they're not.

And perhaps the latter possibility is too often overlooked.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Bad Mental Habit of Anachronism

The Roman roads were not "the Internet of the ancient world." Clipper ships were not "the Internet of the 19th century." I really dislike this tendency on the part of some historians, and some pseudo-historians and sort-of-historians, to say that something was "the (insert 21st-century thing) of (insert earlier era.)" That does not help people to understand what the earlier era was like.

In the ancient world, yes, the Roman roads did improve travel significantly. But it still could take months or years for news to travel from one part of the world to another. But most people didn't travel much at all, unless they were soldiers, which could be a very unpleasant way of traveling.

There were no newspapers in the ancient world. To say that the Roman Acta Diurna were daily newspapers is again a disservice to anyone trying to understand the ancient world. They were daily announcements, but they were not newspapers. More like signs, put up in a public place in Rome, with a little bit of information or misinformation which the government wanted the people to receive. The earliest thing in Europe resembling a news periodical was the Notizie scritte which began to appear in Venice in the 16th century. It only appeared monthly. In 1631 a weekly news publication, La Gazette, began to appear in Paris. The earliest daily newspaper of which I am aware was the Daily Courant, which began publication in London in 1702. And none of these early European news publication was affordable to the general public. Newspapers aimed at the general public didn't begin to appear until the 19th century.

So what? So stop telling me that there are no mentions of Jesus in any ancient newspapers, that's what. The Acta Diurna were not a newspaper; no copies of any of them have survived; they weren't made and distributed in big stacks of papyrus copies. That would have been an extremely extravagant expense. They were scratched into stone or metal, a few words a day. One copy. Occasionally somebody would copy something down from one of them and send the copy to a governor.

It's hard to imagine what earlier eras were like. Often it's very difficult for us to remember earlier times in our own lives. I've noticed this in the records of earlier eras: people who lived most of their lives without the telegraph, for example, or passenger trains, took them completely for granted once they had been available for a few years. (Available to their privileged classes, that is. The difficulty of imagining the lives of those less fortunate seems to be another constant feature of human consciousness.) I'm 55 years old. I know that in my childhood there were 4 channels on TV, 3 commercial networks plus PBS, and that there was no Internet, and that very few people could afford computers, and that computers much simpler than the simplest of today's pocket calculators were as big as typewriters, or bigger.

I know this, but it's hard to really remember what it was like, and how much different things were back then. I know things such as that Presidential candidates could say one thing to one crowd, and something completely different to another crowd later the same day, and it was much harder to nail them for it if there wasn't any audio or video of either speech, and often there wasn't. So, for example, when Hunter S Thompson tells me in his book on the 1972 Presidential campaign, during which I turned 11, that Hubert Humphrey did that sort of thing constantly, I have to take his word for it. (I do take Thompson's word for that. But why should you? Well, that's a tough one.)

Ah, but I'm going to have to explain to many of you what typewriters were.

They were not the Internet of the mid-20th century. There was no Internet back then.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Comey Vs Ryan OnTrump

Today, James Comey said:

"It confused me when I saw on television the president saying that he actually fired me because of the Russia investigation, and learned again from the media that he was telling privately other parties that my firing had relieved great pressure on the Russian investigation. I was also confused by the initial explanation that was offered publicly that I was fired because of the decisions I had made during the election year. That didn't make sense to me for a whole bunch of reasons, including the time and all the water that had gone under the bridge since those hard decisions that had to be made. That didn't make any sense to me. And although the law required no reason at all to fire an FBI director, the administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray, that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple."

That's the kind of comment that earns you a reputation for honesty.

Today, Paul Ryan said:

"The president’s new at this. He’s new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI and White Houses. He’s just new to this."

That's not.

What Comey said was surprising, not because it's news to anybody that the President is a pathological liar, one of the biggest liars most of us have ever had the misfortune to encounter. It's surprising because so few of the leaders of the US and so few of the leading journalists covering US politics are coming right out and saying what we all know. It was also surprising because Comey is a Republican, and almost all of the Republicans are still doing what Ryan is doing: saying ridiculous things to try to cover up what everybody can plainly see: that the President is a liar, a crook, a bully, a sociopath and utterly unfit to hold any public office.

The Republicans are wasting so much time, saying so much weasel-mouthed infuriating garbage like Ryan excusing the President's behavior with comments like "He's new to this," letting things get so much worse and worse, before doing what we all know they are going to have to do: remove Trump from office. Unless they actually put that off until after the 2018 mid-term elections, when, if they still haven't done it, presumably enough of them will lose their seats to Democrats that removing Trump from office won't be up to them any more.

For years now, Republicans in elected office have failed to do the most important thing political leaders are supposed to do: lead. They've been following the base, and this has shown what following the base does: it makes the base stupider. It seems clear that the only thing which will cause the Republicans to impeach and remove Trump is Trump's approval rating sinking to a certain point. Now, if they were real leaders, and explaining to their constituents how horrible Trump is and how important it is to get rid of him, that would surely make Trump's approval ratings sink quickly. But that would be leadership. That would be integrity. That would be country over party. That would improve the party, give it some dignity. That would be the sort of thing Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt did. But of course, today's Republicans are just about exactly the opposite of Lincoln and Teddy. One of the last times I can remember a Republican elected official leading instead of following was during the 2008 Presidential campaign, when John McCain was taking questions at a campaign event, and a woman in the crowd said some birther nonsense about Obama, and McCain corrected her. I don't like John McCain very much, but unlike Paul Ryan, he does seem to have at least some principle and backbone.

Although today, at the hearing where Comey was testifying, McCain was very interested in Hillary's email, and at one point addressed Comey as "President Comey." McCain insisted that Comey was setting a "double standard" because the FBI investigation into Hillary's possible improper behavior with her emails was now closed, and this investigation into the Trump administration was not.

Yesterday McCain seemed very troubled by the state of the Trump administration. It seems we can't be sure which McCain we're going to get from one day to the next. He may not be the man to turn the GOP toward leadership, toward integrity, and toward doing the right thing with Trump.