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Category: Humans

Better Than Human
There was a time when cars had nothing to say. In those days they just sat there until needed, quietly and without complaint, leaking oil onto your driveway. My 2007 Civic is of a different breed.

Among other things, it is deeply concerned about whether I have fastened my seatbelt. When I have not, it lets me know with an unpleasant noise: seven too-loud beeps, followed by fifteen seconds of silence, then the beeps again. The sequence continues until I comply with its wishes or until the car is turned off. It has other, different warning sounds as well — about headlights left on, emergency brakes unreleased, and doors ajar. Those noises are equally insistent and annoying,

I don’t want to seem ungrateful that my vehicle cares so much about me. After all, any one of my oversights might result in a severe inconvenience…or even my death. I am not yet ready to say that I can no longer take care of myself, but these conveniences spare me the need to try. That’s a good thing, right?

My only complaint about the Civic is the harsh, slightly judgmental tenor of its reminders. I don’t like being crabbed at, even if it’s for my own good. I suppose the unpleasantness is meant to make me act, if only to end the pain. I can honestly say that I would respond anyway. Even without the crabbing. Probably.

My kitchen appliances are also full of helpful hints and reminders. They are more considerate of my feelings, though. My microwave, which is about the same age as the Civic, can be a bit abrupt, but my new washing machine is a model of politeness. It signals that my wash is done with a lovely chimed rendition of “Clock Town Day.” Hearing it, I find myself looking forward to the rewards of a properly folded basket of laundry.

Come to think of it, the younger generation of machines (unlike their human counterparts) are noticeably better mannered than their elders. Some of them — the ones endowed with a capacity for spoken language — are disarmingly gracious. My Waze app (I’ve chosen the voice of a British woman named Natalie) is unfailingly positive. There are never any recriminations for a wrong turn or a piece of advice unheeded. She simply moves on to the next turn.

Natalie isn’t a nice person in the normal sense, of course. Neither are Siri, Alexa, Watson, or any of their ilk. They act nice (albeit a tad robotically), and I like that. Someday, with the proper programming, they might be able to simulate genuine niceness. I can even imagine them becoming likable, especially when if they lose their stiffness. Newer versions may come to possess an enhanced sensitivity to my needs, my desires, even my moods. In fact, they could someday be preferable to actual human beings.

You heard me. Better than human beings. Better conversationalists, better confidantes, better companions. And the drawbacks of actual humans would be absent. There would be no fights, no falling outs, no estrangements. And they would do exactly as they are told, always and without question.

Come to think of it, though, that might be a problem — that there would be no problems. No eccentricities to put up with, no flaws to forgive. Real friendship carries with it the willingness to accept the other in spite of the warts. Even if we could program our robot buddies to have a few flaws, I don’t think we would put up with them that way. We couldn’t resist the temptation to remove the warts and save ourselves the trouble.

I think I would tire of a perfect companion. Even if the likeness to a sensitive, interesting friend were seamless, it would be hollow. I would be entertained, perhaps, but essentially alone. In that world, I might even find myself longing for the company of my old Civic. It's crabby, annoying, and a terrible conversationalist, but loyal and thoughtful. To a fault, is all.
Save My Ceipt
Yes, I save my receipts. Most of them, anyway…especially if you count the ones I find in my coat pocket. Sometimes, I don’t throw these away until the next time I wear that coat. And sometimes, not even then. If that is not saving, what is?

I know some people who save all their receipts and preserve them neatly in a special drawer or a little box that is always in the same place no matter what. That’s very admirable, I’m sure, but to me this is not so much saving as hoarding, and it speaks of someone who cannot let go of even the most trivial possessions. I don’t really want to know what perverse personal need is being filled by this obsession, but I question the assumption that such people are “well-organized.”

I wonder…when these people go out for a dinner, do they actually keep the “customer copy?” I’ll bet they do — even though they’ve eaten the dinner and looked at the bill and added it all up three times, just to be sure. They probably even keep that other slip that restaurants give you (whatever it is) and put it in their special place in a nice neat pile with all the other little pieces of paper.

I do recognize, in a broader sense, the need to save one’s receipts. You might need some help remembering exactly what product or service you purchased or who sold it to you or how much you paid. Any mature, grown-up adult who has reached his majority might reasonably need to have this data on file. Such information is also helpful for enforcing guarantees or qualifying for refunds. I heartily endorse this modest level of anality.

A word of warning to young people, however: no matter how careful you have been in maintaining your filing system — no matter how particular you have been in keeping those documents safe and ready to secure some important benefit — no matter how anal your attention to stuffing them into that tattered folder that you refuse to replace…the one you actually need will not be there.

And that is sad. Sad because all that focus and care that you devoted to saving your receipts ended up being for naught. What is sadder still, though, is the thought of all those other receipts — the ones that were successfully preserved — who will ever be called upon to fulfill their destiny. They have waited dutifully in that file, sometimes for many years, looking to the moment when they are that proof of purchase that saves the day.

But no. Though they have remained steadfastly legible and in chronological order with all their forgotten companions, their day in the sun will never come. Their destiny is to remain in that folder — unread and untouched — until they are no longer relevant.

But I will continue to save them even then. I feel as though I owe them that much at least — even if it’s in the breast pocket of that old windbreaker in the back of my closet.
Truth Ache
The truth has been taking its lumps recently. As recently as the late 90s there seemed to be a consensus, at least in this country, about what was a fact, what was conjecture, and what was total bullshit. Those days are gone now, and made-up stuff competes in the same league with provable truth for believability. Maybe it was always a phantom, this consensus, but if it ever existed, that tacit agreement ended with the advent of the Information Age. How ironic.

Huntley, Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite, who used to dispense versions of reality that had been researched by people whose job depended on getting it right, are long gone. They have been replaced by anyone with a a computer. Some of those people are trustworthy (ahem) but many offer nothing more than suspicions of truth that are decorated with shiny objects spun from pure imagination. And yet, a lot of our fellow citizens choose to accept these fevered hypotheticals as gospel.

How do we explain why these people — many of them well-educated — come to believe assertions for which there is no good proof? Assertions, in fact, that are easily disproven? How did these folks find their ways into this alternate “reality?” Are they fated to be gullible or do they choose to be? What, exactly, is their trip?

People who live in the provable reality are understandably concerned about these questions. For one thing, people who inhabit that alternate universe actually vote in this one. Their decisions, in and out of politics, directly effect us — mostly for the worse.

There have been attempts to answer these questions. Last spring, there was a flurry of articles about the The Authoritarian Personality. Psychologists have been looking at this phenomenon for decades, but it has resurfaced as a popular topic over the last year. The mind in question there was not mind of the authoritarian himself, but of his followers. Among their attributes is a tendency to accept whatever they are told by their leaders. They don’t even look for proof. In fact, they prefer the simplicity offered by utter acceptance of authority. Often, they prefer superstition over observable fact because mystical explanations do not require proof.

This analysis rings true, but we are still left to ask, Why? What makes people be this way, in spite of the obvious danger to their own well-being? How did the poor schmucks of the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate ever get to the point of absolute, unquestioning obedience?

Another analysis that’s popped up over the last year points to distinctions between conservatives and liberals, not just as as matter of politics, but across the cultural board. On the right (so the theory goes) faith and intuition are given a standing above actual evidence. These “conclusions” are not mere errors of judgment, but illusions. Perception itself is influenced by a need for consistency and order. Anything that disturbs that state is rejected — not because it’s wrong, but because it’s upsetting to the status quo. And that would mean chaos.

That’s why it’s been such a hard road for truth. It can make a dent in the chaos, but it takes time and patience and work to pull it off. Make-believe, by comparison, has it easy.

Until the rent comes due, that is. And the rent has to be paid in this universe.
UsToo
Something big is happening with women right now, and it gives me hope. The #MeToo phenomenon, which started in Hollywood among the beautiful and famous, has now spilled out into the wider world. Three female U.S. senators shared their stories of harassment with the media yesterday. A cohort of Miss Americas have posted accounts of their experiences. More importantly, there appears to be a new willingness among the rest of us to talk about these things — with each other and with the world at large.

I’m still not sure where I fit into this movement, if that’s what it is. I can only say that these stories of abuse and humiliation and the leveraging of fear have had an effect on me. They make me feel uncomfortable. I presume they make others feel uncomfortable too, and I am beginning to think that this a time when we need to feel that way until the problem is solved.

What is heartening about these revelations is the mutual awareness, solidarity, righteousness, and resolve exhibited by these women. That is such an admirable and positive collection of human traits. Their response has its roots in the same fundamental tradition that undergirds all free societies: equality for all of us. To me, this unity represents one of the most promising forces for good at work in our society today. It opens a door that maybe, just maybe, might lead to a more enlightened society — something that this shrinking, increasingly afflicted planet so sorely needs.

That’s a lot of expectation to load on the back of a cause that’s just barely cleared the runway, but I can’t help myself. Tina Brown, a past editor of the New Yorker and other high-end publications, presented a compelling analysis of the phenomenon during an interview on Charlie Rose. She traced its genesis back through the Weinstein charges, to the worldwide Women’s March, and finally to the Access Hollywood tape. Brown thought that that incident, especially since it did not result in stopping Trump from being elected, was the proximate cause of the persistent outrage we are witnessing now. It goes back further than that, of course, including to the episodes around Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, and Bill Clinton. By her reckoning, though, the “pussy-grab” video was the event that activated so many women to rise up and fight back together. But is this culmination of the history of the Women’s rights push strong enough to pull the rest of us along with it?

One reason that I am so hopeful about that possibility is that the women’s movement is the most purely egalitarian cause I can think of. I will dare to say that feminism itself is not just about equality for women, but for all of us. If anything can lift us up and transform us into a truly enlightened society, this is it.

So yes, I’d like to help, but what can a man do? We are certainly getting a clear picture now, for those who didn’t know already, of what we are not supposed to do. Ideally, men should already be there, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. But what else? Finn Wolfhard, the 14-year-old lead of Netflix’ Stranger Things, may have given grown men a clue by firing his agent. The man is alleged to have committed sexual assault against two young men, so Wolfhard cut him loose. The point I take here is that I need to be willing to act, just as Wolfhard did. If it is in my power, I need to stop the jerks, or at least try. That is what so many of the men (and yes, women) of Hollywood failed to do when they had the chance. Shame on them, shame on us.

It is important to recognize that whatever we set ourselves to do, it will not be easy to reverse a culture that his existed since history began. Dominance, control, abuse, and cruelty toward women has been going on a long time. Subjugation of human beings in general, no matter what their gender, has been with us from the beginning, and it will take a whole lot of solidarity and resolve to put even a small dent in that kind of tradition.

But that shouldn’t stop any of us. Maybe my hope and optimism are misplaced, but if humans are destined to continue as a viable species, we’ll need a more holistic concept of what it means to be human. Focussing on gender or ethnicity or any other minor differences we might use to divide ourselves will only undermine our humanity. Every person is different, but so what? We are all parts of the whole. Time to get it together, people, and take a cue from the women. MeToo? UsToo!
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee