Monday, January 16, 2017

Up the Down Staircase

Up the Down StaircaseUp the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I've read quite a few times and discover something new each time I read it. (I guess in that way I'm like Beetlejuice and "The Exorcist.")

I think what I appreciated the most this time around is how Kaufman uses "found" writing to put this novel together. It's cleverly done, with the student essays, school circulars, memos, letters and other stuff never getting in the way of the plot, and with Kaufman using each different type of writing to move the plot along in a different way. She uses it to great effect to keep you reading, and to keep you guessing as to what's going to happen next. It's probably about the best I've read in the "found novel" genre, if that's such a thing. it's the kind of novel a writer gets to write once, and Kaufman does it well.

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Now Alexa is Making us Dumber

This weekend, I had what I’m going to call an Alexa moment.

I wanted Alexa, that voice-recognizing, music-playing wonder, to regale me with Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” because Alexa is my musical slave and we’re paying $149 for Amazon Prime Music and I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste it.

Alexa, however, had difficulty digesting my request, responding to my “Alexa, play ‘Mas Que Nada’” with the “I can’t understand your question” response.

“Alexa, learn Portugese,” I said sarcastically.

“I have located a lingerie store nearby,” she beamed. “In Idaho Falls. It closes in four minutes  . . .”

My kids giggled uncontrollably while I shouted over them: “Alexa, play ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’ and don’t embarrass me again.”

Alexa obliged.

I could end the story right there, echoing what Alexa O’Brien writes today in The New York Times (and in case you’re wondering, yes she does complain about Amazon appropriating her name for its devices):

“Amazon’s promise is that Alexia is ‘always getting smarter.’ Through big data collection and analytics, she will come to know us in ways we can’t even know ourselves. My worry is that she will make this Alexa dumber. The platform offers endless choices, virtual connections and access to a world of information, but that this major-domo of the ‘internet of things’ may deliver is reductive banter, mindless consumerism and a universe of trivia.”

To quote Brent Spiner’s character Bob Wheeler from the 1980s sitcom “Night Court,” “What a buncha Gloomy Gusses.”

Alexa is not making my family dumber, lingerie-salesmanship aside.

She’s encouraging us to learn things – I will forever remember it’s Sergio Mendes who is responsible for Mas Que Nada, thanks to this foul-up, because I looked it up afterward to make sure I had the right song in mind. And I didn’t ask Alexa to do it, figuring I’d let the fingers to the walking.

She’s encouraging us to think. Our youngest, an NFL football nut, was brought to tears by Alexa’s inability to offer him NFL scores shortly after we invited five Echo Dots into the house after Christmas until he learned that with Alexa, often rephrasing a question can get results. Now, if Alexa is stymied by a request, he carefully considers how to rephrase his question – sometimes even writing it out longhand – before he asks. And when he gets results, he remembers how to ask so in the future, asking Alexa is easier. Maybe this’ll translate into better communication skills overall as we point out to him that often, with human beings, you have to rephrase your questions in order for others to understand you.

Alexa is helping our family expand our musical interests. Time spent huddling around a screen listening to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Ethel Merman and Eddie Arnold can now be spent in other rooms of the house, free of a screen, as they work on homework, we play a game, or we drift off to sleep. My wife has discovered the joy of Glenn Gould playing Bach. I’ve discovered the joys of Pentatonix. And thanks to Alexa’s timing feature which will shut off music after a given time, we no longer have to brave dark, LEGO-infested bedrooms to turn off radios (isn’t that quaint) whose buttons are in different places model to model and difficult to find in the dark.

And there’s a lot out there to discover. “I have to re-think,” my wife has said on more than one occasion, “into not having Alexa play what I know, but finding out what Alexa can play for me.” There’s a lot out there, always expanding the breadth (and possibly the depth) of our listening pleasure, though I have to take Amazon Prime music for having a limited repertoire from the likes of Tak Shindo and Bill Anderson (my musical tastes are pretty peculiar; a favorite wake-up song is “Chicken Fat” sung by Robert Preston).

I’m now wishing Alexa had the ability to turn off lights if I ask her to do so. (If I’m willing to pay the money for smart switches, indeed she can. But I’m not there yet; the cost benefit of having Alexa turn off my bedroom light every night at the sound of my voice isn’t at the $60 for the switch threshold.)

O’Brien seems concerned, oddly, that we’re being rude to Alexa somehow, and – again, somehow – that rudeness is, well, rude. She doesn’t explain it well. Here it is, in toto:

And Alexa may not be the only one adapting. We talk to Alexa in the peremptory tone we reserve for barking at chat bots, snarkily dismissing interlopers in our social media feeds, or frustratedly answering staccato telephone menu trees. People do not talk to their dog the way they speak to Alexa.

Not that I want a HAL-9000 AI talking to me – or listening in, waiting for just the right moment to tell my our household AE-35 Unit is about to go kerflooey – but I find O’Brien’s “rude talk problem” amusing. If you think talking rude to Alexa is a problem, then soften your talk, you hard-bitten East Coaster. Maybe Flyover Country is having more fun and learning more with Alexa than you’d like to think. At least we will be, once I get back from the lingerie store.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Recipes Included(!)

Apparently, fiction books featuring recipes is a thing. I don’t know why it’s a thing, but it’s a thing.

That set me to thinking: What kind of recipes would I include in Doleful Creatures?

Aloysisus’ Stream Trout

Go down to stream. Catch trout. Eat trout.

And so on. I don’t see much future in putting recipes in books about anthropomorphic animals.

That caused me to wonder: Who was the first to put a recipe in a fiction book? And why would you do such a thing?

Answers are elusive.

Apparently, Patricia Cornwell has a pork chop gravy recipe folks are lending her book out to get.

I can see doing so if your book – or a character – really focuses on food. But just to slap one into a book? I don’t know. I see a lot of mystery books, for some reason, shouting “With Recipes!” or "Recipes Included!" (Always with the exclamation mark; always a bad sign) on the cover. I have to wonder if the books, let alone the food, are any good.

Or it’s like any other kind of hooptedoodle – great if it’s good, but simply in the way if it’s awful. And that probably has to do a lot more with the book and story than with the recipe.

Then again, there are probably recipes out there better than my books. So I should probably just shut up.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Tainted Election, the “Other” Stuff, and the Myrna Minkoff Effect?

I’ve spent some enlightening time reading (PDF) the “Background to Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution” that made a lot of noise over the weekend, adding fuel to the fire that the 2016 election is “tainted” and ought to go into “do over” status.

Which I kind of, in a perverse contrarian way, hope would happen. Because I’m fairly certain we’d see “President-Elect Trump” change to “President-Elect . . . Trump”.

On what do I base that prediction? Absolutely nothing. Nothing other than a firm belief that those who favor Trump would double down on their votes while those who favor Clinton would double down on their votes, leaving the rest of us who either did not vote or chose to vote for independent candidates the same catch-22 we had before the do-over: Do we choose the iocane-laced cup in front of us, or the iocane-laced cup in front of the Man in Black? Oh, we might see a little swing here and there. But the general outcome I don’t think would change a bit.

And here’s the kicker: I’d support a do-over, if it were done on a short schedule, say no more than a week. (This to avoid the chances of any more Russian influence-peddling. And influence-peddling by the parties, candidates, journalists, et al. Because we already know enough about Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump we don’t need any more electioneering.) And I would pity the folks in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, no matter what time schedule the do-over would take.

The do-over would also have to include ANY candidate who earned votes in the November election. A do-over including only Clinton and Trump would, in my mind, be as “tainted” an election as the one the taint is all about in the first place.

I’d even go as far as to support a week-long Internet blackout before the do-over, in order to ensure the scourge of “fake news” would be checked. Zot me now with your lightning bolts of righteous indignation. But if you want an untained election, you have to remove every possible avenue of taint, and given the proclivity of fake news on the Internet, an internet blackout would indeed remove about 90% of the taint.

But here’s the rub, getting back to the report: There’s little new here as far as the election goes. There’s Wikileaks and the DNC and propaganda on Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik. But other than the boogeyman of a foreign power trying to influence voters by discrediting one candidate over another, there’s little by way of relevatory matter in the report.

How can I be so blasé about “a foreign power trying to influence voters”? It happens All. The. Time. Covertly or not. And I still firmly believe the Democrats looked at Donald J. Trump, the most flawed political figure the Republicans could offer, and effectively said, “They’re nominating a dumpster fire for the presidency! We can do that too!” And did.
Here’s what’s more interesting about the intelligence report: Do you support, say, anti-fracking efforts or Occupy Wall Street? So do those self-same meddling Russians.
Not for the same reasons, of course. And here we get the Myrna Minkoff Effect once again: It’s the right message, from the wrong people.

Why would the Russians oppose fracking in the United States? Because their petroleum industry suffered greatly as oil prices plummeted due in part to fracking in the United States and Canada.

Why would the Russians promote Occupy Wall Street? Because railing against corporatism and influence-peddling by corporations in politics fits right in with their world view of the United States as an anti-democratic la-la land where money influences everything above all else – and if they can show that to their own people, their own people become less inured to the fact that Russia is also an anti-democratic la-la land where money influences everything above all else.

So get upset about their election-meddling, even if their election-meddling was on par with that of western journalists (again, the right message from the wrong people) who found plenty to fault Clinton for before Wikileaks even happened (and I don’t mean BENGHAZI!!!1!!!!11!).

Here's a challenge:  Can anyone out there point me to American media reporting on the “other” in the hacking report – I mean anything other than the election? Because it seems just as important that Russia is trying to undermine democracy by talking about fracking, Occupy Wall Street, racial tensions, etc., but I haven’t found any major media outlet discussing that. All everyone wants to talk about is the election -- as if having someone else in the White House will make all these other problems go away. I think it's clear, given the last two occupants of the White House, that problems will keep on coming no matter whose desk they land on.

Will the president-elect exacerbate these problems? Maybe. Maybe not. I'd be willing to give Clinton as much of the benefit of the doubt I'll offer to Trump. Interpret that as you may.

I now have to go into a long list of qualifiers: I am not a Trump supporter. I did not vote for him in November, nor in the preceding primary. Given the chance for a do-over election, I again would not vote for him. (Conversely, I would not vote for Clinton either. I’d be one of those third-party voters who would again vote for a third-party candidate (again, one of the targets of Russian meddling was indeed the third-party voter, so in that way I am also a victim of meddling, albeit a victim whose eyes are open). Neither the Trump nor the Clinton camps have behaved in a way that would convince me to change my vote, especially with the Democrats grabbing at any tiny straw held out to them to delegitimize the vote (and who is to say those straws aren’t being offered by those same damn meddling Russians?

Just A Thought

From T. S. Eliot's Choruses from the Rock

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.

O perpetual revolution of configured stars,

O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beatty wanted to die.

He wanted Montag to take that flame thrower and burn him mid-lecture. And as he writhed like a slug on the ground, some of the gibbering was in relief that he no longer had to live the charade of a fire chief who didn't want to burn books -- or bookworms -- any more than Montag did.

At least that was my feeling reading the book, this time through. And it's been a while since I read it. It's one of those books you read in high school and then put on the shelf and look at it from time to time, satisfied somehow that you read it. A long time ago. So when my daughter took it off the shelf to read it for school, I followed up with a reading once she was done.

And wow. Wow. What a book.

And while it oozes criticism of censorship and McCarthyism, it also oozes criticism of technology and the distractions it brings. The parlor shows, the drugs, the comic books, all meant to entertain without causing discomfort. And Montag revels in the destruction of it all.


A great nuzzling gout of fire leapt out to lap at the books and knock them against the wall. he stepped into the bedroom and fired twice and the twin beds went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain. He burnt the bedroom walls and the cosmetics chest because he wanted to change everything, the chairs, the tables, and in the dining room the silverware and plastic dishes, everything that showed he lived here in this empty house with a strange woman who could forget him tomorrow, who had gone and quite forgotten him already, listening to her Seashell Radio pour in on her and in on her as she rode across town, alone. And as before, it was good to burn, he felt himself gush out in the fire, snatch, rend, zip, rip in half with flame, and put away the senseless problem. if there was no solution, well then now there was no problem, either. Fire was best for everything!

Fire cleanses. Even the cleansing fire of the nuclear attack on the city he flees comes as a relief to him. It's a final cleansing spectacle that might possibly bring an end to the madness of the normalcy of the world he knew was ill.

And Rad Bradbury, famous luddite who rented a typewriter over nine days for a total of $9.80 to write this novel, I'm sure would be even more appalled at the state of technology, with computers and screens not limited to our homes, but appended to our bodies. And the surveillance state. And, more importantly, our willingness to be surveilled.

I read the last sixty pages at a gulp, all the time colliding with Bradbury's remarkable prose:

Millie was not here and the Hound was not here, and the dry smell of hay blowing from some distant field put Montag on the land. He remembered a farm he had visited when he was very young, one of the rare few times he discovered that somewhere behind the seven veils of unreality, beyond the walls of parlors and beyond the tin moat of the city, sows chewed grass and pigs sat in warm ponds at noon and dogs barked after white sheep on a hill.

Oh how the coastal elites of today, just as the city-dwellers in Montag's unnamed city, might look down their noses on those who live and work in the countryside. Not knowing, not caring that they might be more free, or at least have an opinion different than their own and reacting with disdain and bad humor when they discovered they do -- even if they bothered. Which those in Montag's city did not.

The country may be messy with farms and dogs and cows and leaves and mud, but to Bradbury, it feels more real. Montag might have had a much harder time burning a farmhouse -- then again, he may not have had to burn it at all, had he and Millie lived in one.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017


I am not a conservative.

Nor am I a liberal.

I’m a little bit of both, sagging somewhere in the middle.

What I don’t like is hypocrisy. From anyone. To see Congressional Republicans shutting down an independent Congressional ethics group in favor of a Congressionally-controlled panel, for example, makes me cringe.

Update: Those of us who don't like this news have a powerful ally -- in the form of President-Elect Donald Trump.

So, too, does the liberal butthurt over the “Russian hacking,” which I’ve already written about at length.

Posit: If Wikileaks and Julian Assange, using information provided by Russia, Russian intelligence agencies, or Russian-friendly groups, had brought down the candidacy of Donald J. Trump rather than Hillary R. Clinton, would I be hearing anything from the left on Russian hacking, meddling, Assange-right-wing-shilling and the like?

If you said anything other than “token hand-wringing about a foreign power trying to influence our election” I will laugh out loud. In your face. And then take a deep breath and laugh out loud in your face. Again. Because it would be the right whining about shilling meddling, and whatnot, and not the left. The left would not be whining because their person would be the President-elect. That’s the SAME REASON rank and file Republicans aren’t whining. Because it’s their guy on the way to the White House.

Same goes for trusting our so-called intelligence agencies. The left was in an uproar when CIA claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction turned out to be bilge oil. NOBODY TRUSTS THE CIA, they hollered. And hollered for years. Now that the CIA made a “discovery” in their favor, the CIA is suddenly trustworthy again. 

Posit: If there were a government program already established to track legitimate visa-holders based on their country of origin because that country supported or tolerated or winked at terrorism, what would the left do with it?

If you said something other than “use the program itself” I’d like you to read this.
Yes, President Obama dismantled the program after it fell into disuse. In 2011. Three years after he took office. And after it was used by the first Clinton administration and augmented after 9/11. But it was there and there wasn’t anyone in power or with influence who was unduly upset enough about it to do anything about it until just now.

Now am I being unfair picking on the left for their hypocrisy? Yes. Because there’s plenty the right has done as well that stinks just as bad or worse. But here’s the thing: I could go on at length about all sides of the political spectrum stinking it up and NEVER COME TO AN END OF THE EXAMPLES. We get the government we deserve, even when we’re righteously indignant about the government that might yet come to pass.

So what to do? Preserve that righteous indignation. But use it constantly. Don’t damp it down when your guy (or gal) is in power. Because chances are your guy or gal is going to do something that stinks, and if you don’t smell it, you dealt it, bro.