Greetings from the end of a beautiful week at 53.5° north latitude. We are at Day 465 of the COVID-19 pandemic and are nearing the end of the major restrictions here in Alberta. Of course, lots of places in the US are already allowing mass gatherings without masks.
I mean, Ralph Macchio, right? You have to think that he was an Isles fan back in their heyday, so semifinal hockey must be pretty sweet for him. And just a note for the make-you-feel-old file, Macchio turns 60 this November.
Life seems like it will turn back to normal this summer, and if not normal, then at least much less restricted. Several of my friends already have their second doses and the invites for get-togethers are starting to flow. I cannot say I feel comfortable with this though. I have spent so much of the past 465 days in this chair in this basement office that getting out and getting together seem alien to me. The INTP is strong in this one, unfortunately.
The summer equinox will be about thirty-five minutes after I post this entry, and the nice weather and summer mindset have slowed me down. There was a bit of reading with one book finished this week, and one segment finished on my bike, and that is it for updates.
I was able to finish one book this week. Book #20 for 2021 was the 1971 spy classic from John Le Carré, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy". I grew up on spy novels, constantly grabbing Tom Clancy or Len Deighton novels as soon as my dad finished them. Reading a spy novel set fifty years ago with antiquated technology and an adversary that has not existed for thirty years might seem to be a recipe for disaster. However, in the same vein as my comments about "High Fidelity" two weeks ago, good stories are independent of the technological era in which they exist. Rob Fleming making a mixtape or George Smiley ordering accomplishes to use a miniature camera to photograph pages from a book are just actions the characters do. The technology does define the story because the technology is intrinsic to the era the story is set in, but in neither case does it diminish the story. That is because the story is each case is so damn good.
I am not sure what to say about this book. It was really good. I enjoyed it. I am glad I finally read it. You should do the same, but if you do, focus on the relationships between the characters because that is where the real story is even if the Soviet Union and tiny cameras are fictions in their own right.
On a different note, this first copy of Tinker I bought was in about 1994. I never read it for some reason. I moved so much in those days that I packed it away and forgot about it. A couple years later I picked up another copy and eventually realized I had two copies. After that, I bought every copy I found and had six or seven at one time. I finally gave them all away except one. The image below is an homage to how many versions I have owned over the years.
I made a bit of progress on my virtual cross-Canada tour. I was able to get four rides in this week but only 68 km. That was good enough to finish the segment between Davidson and Chamberlain, Saskatchewan. It will be interesting to see if any location on the virtual tour is smaller than Chamberlain. The Wikipedia entry mentions a population of 90 people in 2016, up 2.2% from 2011, but that was down from 108 in 2005. Next stop: Moose Jaw.
Here is the updated progress chart.
Hello again from 53.5° north latitude. Summer seems to have arrived but fall will be here later this week with temperatures forecasted to fall below freezing in a few days. Plus it is getting too dark to read in the car while the kids are at their various activities during the weeknights. Time to get out the winter bike.
Let's get on with it, shall we?
Podcast - Radiolab series on "G"
Radiolab is a great show, but I'm sure you know that already. Earlier this summer, they had a six-part series called G. G is the symbol for intelligence, and boy, would it be great if it was as easy to quantify and articulate a person's intelligence as a one letter moniker might imply. The six episodes did a nice job of outlining how hard intelligence is to define, let alone quantify. Here are some highlights I took away from the series. (Links to the six episodes here - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)
Reading Pile, aka Musings on What it Means to Have an Opinion:
I find it interesting how the reading pile organically seems to organize around themes. Earlier this year, the theme was around capitalism, captured by a half dozen or so posts referencing the topic. In the last few weeks, the themes that have surfaced are around humanism and disconnecting, I mentioned "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari above and quoted from it two weeks ago. I powered it through it on the weekend and came away with all sorts of conflicting thoughts. Are humans really the apex of life on Earth? Are we nothing more than algorithmic cogs in a machine to process information? If we admit that our human fallibility limits our ability to make the best choices, should we concede our decision-making to more advanced algorithms that are external from our bodies? In other words, should we allow some Internet behemoth to tell us what is best?
Harari's "Homo Deus" was published in 2015, so it predates the 2016 US election, and all of the revelations about Russian interference in the election. Knowing that, the following excerpt from Harari is particularly harrowing:
On a more sinister note, the same study (from Facebook) implies that in future US presidential elections Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, identify the 32,417 voters who still haven't made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook obtain this priceless political data? We provide it for free.
Humanism is founded on the idea that all humans are equally valuable and that humans should be allowed to make their own individual choices because they truly know what is best for them. Harari repeatedly mentions the notions that the voter knows best, and the consumer knows best.
If humans all have a perfect inner self that knows best, then humanism is the need to ensure that the inner self is fed and actualized. However, if that inner self is not immune to external influence, then the inner self is not perfect but malleable and corruptible. We know from Lanier's book mentioned last week, that social media uses what understanding of psychology and physiology to influence our behaviors and create addictions. We also now know from the Mueller investigation that the algorithms feeding what we see in social media are corruptible. Assuming we do have a true inner self, then we need to find a way to ensure that true inner self is free from influence. Again, see the reference to Lanier last week.
My friend Trent has the opinion that if Amazon, Tidal, Spotify or any other algorithm-driven cloud service can help him find more of what he likes, then of course he is in favor. Learn from my likes, purchases, and actions, and give me more of that. But if that is how I find my next book or music, then how much of that is because of what I already wanted, and how much of that is because of what I was told to like? Then again, what's the difference between Trent or Tidal telling me about a new band? In one case, there are a million voices steering me toward something. In the other, there is only a single voice, but even that single voice is itself influenced by millions of other voices.
In the end, I think it comes down to trusting my ability to decide and knowing all of the influences on my decision-making process. I am beginning to think I have a much better ability to do that if I am not solely reacting to a stream of notifications and feeds, but then again, that thought is influenced by the stream of information that I am currently consuming.
Bring Your Dice To Work Day:
Wednesday lunch hour. Boss fight. We have a plan. We draw out the boss. We attack without mercy. The foot soldiers fall. The boss gets hammered. We grab the box. Success! But wait! I am playing the rogue and I need to stealth away. No worries, I say. I have a +7 on Stealth. Easy peasy. Rolled a 1.
That is the beauty of dice rolls in an RPG. There is no reason why we shouldn't succeed based on our plan and coordination. We have the numbers and skills to overpower, plus we have the ability to trick and deceive, to intimidate and confuse. We will prevail. The failed dice roll probably won't change the ultimate outcome, but it is easy to argue that it make the outcome more memorable. If I would have said "oh hey, let's say I slip and fall 'cause that will add some serious suspense", it would not have had any impact. Contrived emotion and scripted action sounds like a bad television show. Rolling a 1 in that moment makes for a wonderfully memorable experience. The heart-dropping feeling, the laughs from my friends after my muttered f-bomb, the jokes after how the fighter, the barbarian, and the cleric all succeeded buy my rogue failed. All that makes for a much better memory.
The memories are also accentuated by the random comments that stick with the party. We dragged an NPC out from under a gelatinous cube a few sessions ago. His legs were covered by the cube, and he took some pretty significant damage (3d6). We weren't sure if he would live but we used a healing spell on him and ultimately gained an ally. He was unconscious for a while so we couldn't get a name, so there was an offhand comment about "Legless Jack". The name stuck. The DM could have had a name for him, but we as players never asked for it since he will forever be Legless Jack to us.
Here's to more memories coming from the shared storytelling medium of an RPG.
Only one new beer this week. The Surround Sound DIPA from Collective Arts was another fine beer from the brewery that is steadily becoming my favorite. (Sorry Blindman and Alley Kat!) This was a hazy, citrusy beer with a nice bit of pine, and great balance all around. Submitting that to Untappd earned me the I Believe in IPA (Level 23) badge.
A few new words this week, and one repeat offender.
[ ab-joo r, -jur ]
Hello from 53.5° north. It was another amazingly intense week, with meetings, deliverables, and reviews conspiring to consume the days faster than I care to acknowledge as we approach the launch of our new system in November. The work is good, maybe even great to be honest, and the support I get from the organization is amazing. It's just the sheer intensity of the hours that leaves me spent by the end of the day each Friday. But as I am fond of saying, if the worst thing that happens to me any day is that I have too much work, it is still a pretty good day.
We spent most of the weekend at a family reunion. The common ancestors were my wife's mother's father's parents, so my daughter's great-great-grandparents. It wasn't a huge amount of people, 60 maybe, but it was a good time. We went to Vermilion, which I was the only one of our family that had ever been there. On the way home, we stopped to see the pysanka in Vegreville, and the ... sausage ... in Mundare. It was good to connect with a bunch of family, and it resparked a lifelong interest in genealogy. And we got to see ... the sausage. (I mean, seriously, what is up with that? ) Plus, we got some seriously good Lobby Waffles at the hotel.
This week's reading pile was focused on finishing "A Choice of Gods" by Clifford Simak. Who is Clifford Simak, you ask? If you don't know, then you are in the same situation as me. As the Wikipedia entry on Simak indicates, he was a masterful science fiction author, and was the third individual named as a Grand Master of Science Fiction after Robert Heinlein and Jack Williamson (again, who?).
Reading science fiction from 1972 caused me some trepidation because the science could have been simplistic, naive or outdated. However, this was a story about human transcendence and the meaning of our relationship with our planet. It just also happened to have some robots and deal with travel into space. It was pretty clear that Simak deserved the accolades and the title of Grand Master since this story was incredibly readable 47 years after release.
I was struck by Simak's empathy to the "Indians", as he called him. Their desire for a life connected to nature was never seen as a weakness or a sign of inferiority. Rather, it was a choice to be connected to the earth and to nature as partners and not owners. The Indians were able to reconnect with nature after the Disappearance of most of the human race, and they were clearly better off for it.
We had only a few hundred years of the white man’s way and they had been far from good years. We never fitted in, we never had a chance to. It was a relief to shuck off all of it and go back to the flowers, the trees, the clouds, the seasons and the weather, the running water, the creatures of the woods and prairies—to make them a part of us again, more a part of us than they’d ever been before. We learned something from the whites, that we can’t deny—we’d have been stupid if we hadn’t. And we used these white man’s ways to make the old way of life an even better life."
Simak also offers a subtle commentary on the human need for technology that seems like it was written for today and not 1972.
But we no longer are a technological race. We lost technology when we lost the manpower and the knowledge and the machines broke down and there was no one to start them up again and no energy to run them. We don’t mourn that lost technology, as I think you know. At one time we might have, but not any longer. It would be a bother now. We have become competent observers and we gain our satisfaction from our observations, achieving minor triumphs when we are able to reach some solid understanding. Knowing is the goal, not the using. We aren’t users. We have somehow risen above using. We can rest content to see resources lying idle; we might even think it shameful to try to use or harness them."
And later, a less subtle commentary on technology:
A technological civilization is never satisfied. It is based on profit and progress, its own brand of progress. It must expand or die. You might make promises and be sincere in the making of them; you might intend to keep them, but you wouldn’t and you couldn’t.”
Knowing is the goal. That is a pretty remarkable sentence of a mere four words.
I'm really happy I read this story, and really happy I have discovered a great author. Some of Simak's earlier works are available at Project Gutenberg, if you are so inclined. I know I am.
The Freakonomics episode "How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War" was quite thought-provoking. The thread was from World War I, to the creation of the supermarket, to World War II, to industrialized meat production, to consumerism as a vital propaganda tool against the Soviets, but then with a less laudable outcome of obesity and even to the use of corn to create ethanol for vehicles. There is a great quote in the episode about the need to "make agriculture green" which is ironic, funny, and depressing all at once.
Finally, some good news on the new music front. The Tidal weekly mixes are really starting to bring in some great music, and it is easy to get down a real rabbit hole for hours on end. Last week, I came across "A Song For Our Grandfathers" by Future Islands, which is probably my favorite song of 2019. I am playing it endlessly. So much good music, so little time.
It was a busy week for new beers. I found a collaboration pack from Parallel 49 that had a number of unusual offerings. There was a habanero peach gose (a very surprising combo), a brut made with yuzu citrus that was quite good, and one brewed with gin botanicals that I wasn't really a fan of. In addition, I had the West Coast Pale Ale from Granville, which was also citrusy without being overpowering. That added two badges on Untappd - Fields of Gold (Level 4) and The Great White North (Level 85).
All of the new words this week came from "A Choice of Gods", with the exception of horchata which came from a Vampire Weekend song.
canted (past tense) · canted (past participle)