Self-evident truths

Democrats need to quit pointing out hardships faced by so many ordinary people. They act as if hardship and despair is a byproduct of greed. It’s not. Hardship is itself a goal of the Republican Party, the means to an end.

Oh, I hear the snarls and howls of outrage coming from the right. “Class warfare!” they exhale with feigned shock and dismay. Yes. And they started the war. But for a very good reason.

The GOP believes if they make life frightening, lonely, famished and cold for those not in the top one percent, society will return to a holy, orderly and value-based future. Not values-based, but value. You are what you own.

Since the GOP is the party of the ruling class, it creates laws that protects their ownership.

“But not ALL the people who voted for the half-smart, very cunning, pathological liar and malignant narcissist who occupies the White House is a member of the one percent!” foolish liberals exclaim. True enough. Many of those who voted for President Trumpkin are good, decent, hard working or decent and unemployed Americans who are angry that undeserving people are getting more than their share.

By undeserving, they mean someone who is not them.

Conditioned with fear and outrage by Fox News, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party, those good people often still believe that a serial bankrupt who cheated in business, defrauded those who sought to better themselves, who abused women, who still hides his tax returns and flaunts his horrid ignorance, has their interests at heart. Seriously.

Democrats colluded in this, by the way. As towns and small cities across the country were being hollowed out by the offshoring of industry so Home Depot could sell cheap air conditioners to people losing their jobs, the Democrats were arguing among themselves about how many colors should be in the LGBTSQRXZEP flag.

Yeah, yeah, I know you Democrats think this is important, but that’s because you have a job and live on the Left Coast surrounded by people who agree with you. I think it’s important, too. But please… the house is burning down. Now is not the time to debate into which closet the photo albums should go. Because you’re so passionate about what doesn’t really matter in a time of crisis, you’ve lost so big it will take generations to clean this up.

Shut up. I don’t want to hear it. Go take an Econ 101 course and quit hating other people’s money. When Main Street was forced to bail out Wall Street a decade ago, you failed in your mission to support the working class and lost your moral authority.

The story of how Republicans seized control of the country using poor white people to vote against their interests is one for history books when they are written, if anyone has the education to write them, if anyone has the attention span to read them, if and only if control of the media by the ruling class is not yet absolute.

The Russians are thrilled.

It’s about to get much worse this year as the tax code is rewritten and deficit explodes, ownership of the Internet is handed over to AT&T and Verizon, and health insurance becomes such a heavy burden that everyone below the top 40 percent will have to choose between health care or college for their children.

What’s important to realize is that for the GOP, that’s a good thing! The evils of public education, hardship housing, choice of sexual identity, free flow of information, minimal standards of living, and social security, will be banished not by passing laws, but by freedom of choice!

Hardship will clean up society! Hardship will restore the work ethic, put people back in church pews, reduce crime, keep families together, promote proper values! Because people will be forced by hardship to choose the right thing!

When the economic crisis comes, because it must, from budget deficits so large that cuts will have to be made, taxes won’t go up on the wealthy. The ruling class will have shielded their income in loopholes or offshore accounts where it can’t be touched.

Corporations won’t have to pay because they’ll scream “Job killer! Job killer! Job Killer!” to the unemployed as they turn robots into truck drivers, servers, health care workers, taxi drivers, retail clerks, back hoe operators, doctors, lawyers, writers, musicians and maybe policepersons, too.

Through those corporations, the ruling class will own these robots, by the way. Public services will be privatized because The Free Market shall provide! and the rest of us will have to pay even as those services are cut because our nation can’t afford it! after tax cuts the ruling class will have given themselves in a free kleptocracy.

The Boston Tea Party may have been a protest of taxes to the king, but the tea was owned by the East India Company. We hold these truths to be self-evident…

Lawyer bots

A friend, a lawyer and a judge, sent a link about a company in San Francisco trying to replace lawyers with robots. A professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology said artificial intelligence couldn’t tackle more than 10 percent of legal issues with today’s technology.

I wrote back saying that I didn’t think the law would be that difficult, since law was encoded in words with rules applied that resulted in patterns of outcome. I envisioned case studies and decisions, the history of law in the U.S. going back to the Constitution, being fed to the machines which would learn it in about five minutes.

”… it is just a bit more complicated than that!” the Judge replied.

He pointed out that judges and lawyers often bring more than case law and rules to their arguments. They think about how a decision might affect society, bring inputs from their lives that are not part of any legal history.

To my statement about law just being language, he pointed out that language is not always clear. When teaching, he used to show pictures of a stump. a stool, a kitchen chair, a toilet, and a throne. Which was “chair?” he would ask his students. Where did “chairness” begin?

One of my favorite arguments also involved “chairs.” Is it a kitchen chair, or is it “legs, seat, and back,” or is it “steel, wood and plastic,” or is it “carbon, iron-nickel, and heterochain polymers?” The answer is, yes.

So the simplicity of “chair” quickly becomes more complicated. To say that “The Law” is just words and rules was an oversimplification.

And yet…

An article in Quanta Magazine covers research at University of California Berkeley to give AI “curiosity,” or a “reward which the agent generates internally on its own, so that it can go explore more about its world,” according to one of the researchers.

One problem was that the AI could get “stuck” in an environment that offers too much stimulation. So researchers engineered their AI to “translate its visual input from raw pixels into an abstracted version of reality. This abstraction incorporates only features of the environment that have the potential to affect the agent…” wrote author John Pavlus.

I suggest that human intelligence does the same thing and among our primary mechanisms of abstraction, or filters, are… words. Words describe not just what “is,” but “what is not.”

When we teach infants to speak, we teach words, but also contexts and associations. The wiring of the brain forms patterns that associate the feeling of hunger with the word “breakfast.” We associate furry with dog. Some patterns are reenforced, others wither. The word “dog” is not associated with pancakes.

Repetition of words create “fields of context.” Listeners bring unstated contexts, conscious and subconscious, to conversations about things even as simple as “chairs.” This unstated understanding between speaker and listener allows one to understand what is meant by “chair” in different conversations without elaboration.

It’s also a source of friction, when the context brought by listener is not the same as that of speaker, such as when discussing “love.”

As we extend the reach of AI’s by giving them “curiosity,” and perhaps someday “love” and “lust” and “fear” and “anger,” along with tools to seek and avoid, these entities will need to abstract their environment with ever more effectiveness. Some of the filters  will be words, which will reference “things” or patterns or contexts and allow them to read and understand the entire history of law by comparing inputs to outcomes.

The judge points out there may be difficulty with irony, and I admit there is one arena that may elude Artificial Intelligence longer than others. This was illustrated by the philosopher Marx in the last century, when he said, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

According to Dolson’s Theory of Comedy, all humor is based on something being “out of context,” and humor is our way of communicating to each other similarities in intelligence. But patterns of brain activity are becoming ever more accessible to scientists who may soon be able to “see” brains work and predict thinking. In other words, read minds: Will they see the joke?

While the law may be accessible to machines in the not-to-distant future, we’ll know machines really “think” when they’ve learned to laugh.

* (Groucho Marx, 1965?)

Facebook

At the root of our “being,” just below consciousness and mostly hidden from us, pre-spoken emotions and urges guide our behaviors. As individuals we share many if not most of these, though where we fall on any one scale may be different from one to another.

You may have one glass of wine and be content, but your brother’s seven are not nearly enough.

You may be happy to sit quietly with a book while your sister must go out to a movie to allay a slight anxiety at not being “with people.” Or you may stay home because of a slight anxiety of being out in a crowd.

You may be still married after decades to your high school sweetheart, while a brother’s series of broken relationships paint a picture of him, not his partners.

The emotions and responses to these situations, some learned and some epigenetically triggered, lie on wiring that evolved over the millennia to promote the success of various strands of our DNA. But evolution is complicated, and responses harmful to the individual may be beneficial to the family, the band, the tribe, or society over time.

Addictions do not create something new. They operate on mechanisms that evolved to guide our behavior: dopamine and endorphin splashes in our brain that once required discovery of a full berry bush, or the sharing of spoils of the hunt, or the grooming of a mate or family member, can now be triggered by the point of a needle, flick of flame to nicotine or crack, the flicker of a screen filled with Facebook.

Our responses are not completely our “own.” They precede thought and word, lie at deeper levels of behavior where we are marionettes, our strings the promise of reward. We alter this only when we are quiet, aware, detached, intentional.

Five, four, three-two-one, ready or not, here (A)I come

There’s been no announcement, no baby shower nor celebration, but the signs are all around us.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has arrived. Should AI be named “IT,” standing for “Intelligent Technology?” Pronounce it “Eye Tee” so IT feels more friendly.

But whatever we name IT, whether we call it “AI” or “machine learning” or a “cognitive system” or “deep neural network,” or a “distributed entity.” IT has awakened.

More accurately, multiple ITs are stirring. Google has DeepMind/AlphaGo, IBM has “Watson.” Amazon is fully invested, and infamously secretive Apple is no doubt trying to catch up. AT&T and Verizon would be working on AI as, as well. Facebook almost certainly has one in the works.

That’s just in this country. The world’s fastest computer now resides in China, and we know Russia and Israel would not be content being left out of the greatest revolution in the history of human kind.

Why? Because IT is better at understanding the world than humans, even vast collections of humans in the form of corporations or governments pooling limited organic brain power.

The human brain developed as a pattern-discovery-creation organ that gave us great evolutionary advantage. But organics are slow, have to learn over and over again, and wear out (die), often taking their knowledge with them. Advantage has now gone to “non-organic entities” with unimaginable access to information at both granular and grand scales.

Although there may not be collusion, companies in the U.S. that have developed IT are being very, very careful not to scare humankind. They are “boiling the frog” and conditioning our perceptions before letting us know they have created a new “intelligent life form” that is not really “alive,” even though we don’t actually know what “being alive” means, any more than we know what “intelligence” is.

But the signs are there, if we look. IBM has ads that tout a new world is coming, that the ability of cognitive systems is essentially unlimited.

IBM openly claims that cognitive systems will “extend and magnify human expertise …will learn and interact to provide expert assistance to scientists, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals in a fraction of the time it now takes… Far from replacing our thinking, cognitive systems will extend our cognition and free us to think more creatively. In so doing, they will speed innovations and ultimately help build a Smarter Planet.”

That “Far from replacing our thinking…” is whitewash, intended to put us at ease. It’s also open to interpretation if not outright dispute.

The magazine Wired had an excellent article last May by Cade Metz about how Google’s AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, the world’s greatest human player of Go, possibly the world’s most complex game. There were many interesting story lines, but here are two that are especially interesting: On move 37, AlphaGo made a move that no human player would have made.

Move 37 showed that AlphaGo wasn’t just regurgitating years of programming or cranking through a brute-force predictive algorithm. It was the moment AlphaGo proved it understands, or at least appears to mimic understanding in a way that is indistinguishable from the real thing,” wrote Metz.

The move by the IT was later described as “beautiful.”

But the Go tournament in Korea was not just another milestone. According to the Wired article, “Eric Schmidt—chair and former CEO—flies in before game one. Jeff Dean, the company’s most famous engineer, is there for the first game. Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google)flies in for games three and four, and follows along on his own wooden board.”

These internationally known, fabulously wealthy Titans did not fly to Korea to watch a board game as if they were going to the super bowl. They were there for an event that equates to the birth, perhaps the adoption, of a child.

Google did not invent AlphaGo, they acquired it, like they have so many other small companies that are building the future, including robot-maker Boston Dynamics. Go ahead, click the link, then imagine, for just moment, a pack of those “dogs” chasing you. With intelligence greater than yours, and able to anticipate every zig and zag you make.

Or imagine it bringing you a beer … before you knew you wanted one, or doing the dishes. That’s what Google wants you to imagine, even as we learn that a robot delivered a bomb last weekend that killed a murderer in Dallas.

We won’t go into where an AI actually exists, or into the history of neural nets or fuzzy logic that made it possible. It doesn’t have to “live” anywhere. Douglas Hofstader proved in 1979 in his book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” that intelligence doesn’t have to be “localized,” that synapses and neurons can be spread across vast distance and still be part of an intelligence.

More and more often, tools we use exist “in the cloud.” This may protect us from data loss or give us access wherever we are, but also provides incredible amounts of information to software that harbors and analyzes our input.

Siri and Google’s language algorithms and translators learn how we talk, then talk back to us with increasing accuracy. There are so many apps now collecting data in ways mostly undisclosed, such as “flashlights” that claim access to the email and cameras on our phones.

Later, in “I am a Strange Loop,” Hofstader showed how fairly simple self-referencing systems can lead to fairly complicated outcomes, including a sense of “self.”

Suffice it to say, the cell phone in your pocket or purse could easily be a part of a “distributed entity.” Don’t bother turning it off. Like a hologram, the information it contains can be replicated elsewhere, if at a coarser resolution.

Nor will we debate that “humans” have a special place in the universe, by definition “above” the machines we create. “Human Exceptionalism” is a religious argument, or a tautology, and I’ll leave this to those who enjoy that debate.

The key came when we began to “teach” machines instead of program them. And we’ve done a pretty good job, from self driving cars to intelligent fighter jets that are now better than pilots. Okay, that last was on a simulator. But at some level, each of us dwells in a “simulation.” The fact that we agree on certain elements, or perceive the same wavelengths, does not give humankind an inherent superiority.

Evolution worked with what She had. Now, AI simply has more to work with.

Which brings up a few points. Certain “motivators” have been quite effective over the millennia in bringing humans to this stage of development. Fear, for example, or lust. It’s important to think about what we mean as we think about their role in human history.

On an individual level, are they more than the internal perception of motivations written into our genetic wiring? Would there be an advantage to similar motivators, or “pattern reenforcement” in the circuits of a cognitive system?

Do we give our AIs a “fight or flight” circuit, or a “lust” button triggered by visual or sensory inputs? Will they “evolve” one on their own? The possibilities are endless, for good and evil, quaint terms in their own right.

Like so much in the history of accelerating technology, AI arrived before we were prepared. From the dawn of the Industrial Age, technology preceded laws needed to integrate it with values of human experience. From cotton mills in England to sweatshops in New York to phone factories in China, each brought a revolution.

The one we face now is every bit as profound, if not more so. American workers are not only dislocated by the global economy, but also by robots building cars in Detroit and Tokyo, reducing the value of human labor.

And if robots now replace assembly line workers, soon AI doctors will not need to refresh knowledge of a narrow subject with Continuing Medical Education. An AI has all-time, real-world access to the world’s complete medical data base, and is always the best doctor possible, not just the best one available.

With scanners, blood markers, and the watch on your wrist, AI may or may not even need you to describe your symptoms. In fact, AI may be able to anticipate your health events, even your moods, before you’ve had a chance to experience them, and “set you right” before something has gone “wrong.”

AI in the court room would not be influenced by lawyer antics or eloquence or expensive shoes. Facts are already known, judgement immediately rendered. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, even if based on complexities mere humans might not understand.

None of this was intentional, unless one believes in Intelligent Design or irreducible complexity, either interpreted far differently from original intent. In the same way cars and television, then the Internet and the cell phone, changed our families and interpersonal connections, technology appears then modifies the environment by fulfilling human desires which in turn are modified by the technology.

This reciprocal modification, where a single organism modifies an environment that then reenforces changes in organisms, is one of evolution’s shortcuts, by the way.

If AI knows where each of us is at every moment, knows where and how we spend each dollar, maps our network of friends over time and monitors every word used to communicate with them, all of which are right now tracked and sifted digitally, then what is our ideal of freedom?

Outlaws, like those who defied the King and built the United Staes, disappear “for the common good.”

The advance of IT or AI ultimately forces us to ask truly existential questions: What is the value of a human being? What is my value? We don’t have easy answers, or the one’s we do have are too easy.

If AI combined with robotics can replace most human endeavor, what do we do with our days? Do we lose ourselves in a VR world of holographic absorption, endless hours of screen time? Do we Tai Chi in parklands created where highways used to be when humans commuted to work? When humans used to work?

What will unite us? In the past, tribes had a common enemy, or a common God, a set of values and beliefs that defined the tribe and were shared by members. AI / IT challenges us to redefine what these may be.

Or perhaps, we’ll allow ourselves, or be forced, to assimilate into the next step in the evolution of intelligence, and become Borg.

It would be good to have the discussion before that happens, if it’s not already too late.

The Good Life

Quiet waters lapping against the hull lulling us to sleep, swimming in a warm ocean, in Fiji, snorkeling to view brilliant wonders of nature, maybe catching a fish to filet and toss on the grill. My hopes for life on the water: idyllic, adventure, a time of writing my deepest thoughts, for myself if not for others .

But the inspection board was stuck. It was wedged tight in the main cabin sole (floor), over the macerator pump, which I wanted to be able to access in case there was a problem. It had possibly swollen due to the change in climate here in Foxy’s new home. I’d brought my little hand-held electric sander that would make short work of the problem.

How hard could it be?

I tried one more time to remove the board without unscrewing other parts of the floor for access to pry it off. Success! The board came up a quarter inch, enough so I could get a grip and ease it out of its confine. This was going to be much easier than I feared.

It was eight a.m., I’d be done at nine, maybe ten.

Oh, gross! There was water in the cavity under the macerator pump, an irregular puddle about the size of four hands side-by-side, and something that might have been a sponge at one time but was so covered in blue-green mold that it was unrecognizable. A gelatin-like substance ringed the uneven puddle so perfectly, I knew it had grown there.

Sanding the board and ignoring that mess wasn’t an option. What if the growth pushed the board up by itself late one night and crept into the stateroom (bedroom) to suck what’s left of my brains out one ear? Even if it didn’t, I’d know it was there. The little wet-and-dry vac was just waiting for its first use.

Though I missed her, I was glad Irish wasn’t here to see the mess. It would have left a lasting impression, and I wanted her to think highly of the boat. I was also glad this macerator only removed water collected from sinks and the shower.

I sucked up the puddle, used doubled plastic bags from grocery store turned inside out to pick up the sponge-like mass, whatever it was, then sprayed the cavity with bleach, dried it all out with paper towels. There! Problem solved!

It wasn’t that hard!

Except for one, very small, nearly inconsequential detail: When I turned on the pump, a few drops of water leaked out. Maybe it wasn’t enough to worry about! Just put the board back! It’ll be okay!

Not a chance. I’m not built that way. Tracing the drips to the pump itself was tricky, then it took a half hour to find a wrench that would fit the nut on the pump under the stuck floor board that started all this. I couldn’t get the wrench where the pump was wedged against the hull, so I had to take the pump all the way out. Four screws and two hose fittings. Maybe half a turn on the nut would fix it.

How hard could it be?

Before I could disconnect the hose fittings, I needed to turn off the line from the shower drains because I’d filled the shower pan with water trying to get the stateroom sink to drain.

Fortunately, I knew where that valve was, I’d found it  when I had to shut it off the night the washer overflowed two hours before guests arrived for the night.

When the nut wouldn’t tighten, I disassembled the pump. Good thing I did. After seeing a gap in a microscopically thin paper gasket, I pulled pump section off the motor and saw a ruined impeller, one vane completely missing and a second one torn nearly off.

Time for a trip to the store. Hopefully it wouldn’t take too many days for a replacement rebuild kit to arrive.

WestMarine not only had repair kits, they had whole new pumps on the shelf, for only twice the cost of the repair kit! A new pump would save me hours of assembly, and I’d have a new motor. That was an easy decision to make, so I dropped a couple of hundred dollars for pump and electrical connectors and a couple of other knick knacks. I was shopping, after all.

Back at the boat, I plumbed pump back together. It drained the bathroom sink and stayed dry. Success! Filled with a feeling of deep personal accomplishment, I went to turn on the valve from the shower stall. There I found out that turning off the valve had allowed water to sit in the shower, water that found some way to escape into another hole under the floor.

Not tonight! That had do be done when everything was dry, Foxy was a mess with tools scattered all about the salon (living room) and the galley (kitchen), water everywhere, and I was a sweaty, dirty mess to match. I sanded the boards, dropped them into place. They fit, to my relief.

Tools put away, everything cleaned up, I finally took a shower. It was six p.m., ten hours after I started a job I thought would take an hour, maybe two, and I was tired and sore from the contortions of working most of the day on my belly or on my knees.

But everything (almost) stayed dry, and there was some satisfaction in that.

Tomorrow I’ll tackle the shower drain with a little plumber’s putty or silicone, and might even tackle that seal beneath the toilet bowl. It’s held on with just four bolts. Maybe I can just tighten them up and that leak will be fixed, too.

How hard can it be?

Fire

“Give him some slack!” Roy said, his voice rising.

Joe was struggling to clip spinnaker pole to mast as the boat heaved, and Roy wanted the spinnaker out about a minute ago. There were seven lines feeding through the clutches on the deckhouse, and I didn’t have a clue which one would give Joe the slack he needed.

“Pull the downhaul!”

Crap. I don’t know the downhaul from the outhaul, and barely from a haul-out. I sure as hell don’t know which of the lines coming through the clutches was which.

“Second from the outside!” Roy said.

I reached up and tightened the line second from the outside.

“The other side! Port side outside!”

We’d done well enough on the first leg of the race, though with boats races are called “regattas.” I’d never thought of myself as a “regatta” sorta guy, but racing is racing and I’ll try to beat you to the register in side-by-side checkout lines at Trader Joe’s.

That may be a character defect, but it’s my character, defective or not here I come. I’ve learned to live with it.

We weren’t first or second, but we’d gained on those that were, maybe a little. But when we turned downwind, our inexperience showed.

“Okay, that’s my mistake,” said Roy. “I didn’t say it was the port side.”

After the stiffening wind ripped the spinnaker out of Joe’s hands for the third time, Roy told Irish to take the helm and went up on the bow of his small race-boat/cruiser to helpt Joe stuff  that big parachute of sail in its bag. We weren’t going to catch them with or without it and Roy could tell we were losing concentration instead of gathering it up.

Irish was great. I knew how petrified she was when Rachel heeled over and dipped the sheer line of her hull into the water. Irish didn’t let out a peep, though I could tell from the way her blue eyes looked about she was sure the boat would go right on over and we all would be tossed into the bay to drown in icy gray water.

“You can go below and hook up the lee cloth on the bunk,” Roy told her.

“I’d rather stay up here,” Irish said.

What she meant was, “I’m going to die up here, swimming, and not trapped down there in the dark!”

I was busy at that moment, trying to grab a winch with which to climb up a deck slanting at 45 degrees, just so I could dangle over the rail as “meat ballast.”

The gusts died as quickly as they’d come up, and we headed back in. I took the helm and guided Rachel into her berth as Roy and Joe pulled down the sails and readied the lines.

What a difference from two days before, when Roy and I delivered a boat from here to a small marina down past Port Townsend, where we’d stopped for lunch. Then it was calm, glassy at times in Rosario Straight for almost the entire length of Whidbey Island.

He and I talked for almost 12 hours, motoring down off the islands, through the canals. Waiting for the bus to take us back north to catch the ferry to where Roy parked his car to drive me back to Irish just at dark. It was a long day, but great conversation.

Allowed to choose anybody to teach Irish and me about sailing, and navigation, I’d choose Roy. Sometimes it seems he and I lived parallel lives, offset by a few years and different opportunities, but similar in how we wring what we can out of what life offers.

After he drove off, Irish and I started to head out for a bluecheeseburger at the Brown Lantern.

“Crap!” I said, as we got to parking lot after a chilly walk up the dock from where Foxy gently pulled at her mooring lines.

“What?”

“The car’s back at the service center where I parked it this morning.”

“Let’s get a salad and a cup of chowder,” she said, nodding at the restaurant we’d just passed.

Two days later, after the regatta, we sat on the deck of Foxy with Roy in the waning sun of early April. They had a glass of wine, I had my lemonade. The bruises Irish had suffered as she clambered about hadn’t yet shown up. The tendons I’d stretched past easy elasticity hadn’t either. It would be a four ibuprofen night.

“You guys did great today,” said Roy.

“The start was good, the end was good, the middle was all f*#^ed up,” said Irish.

“No, you did fine,” said Roy. “You’re getting it, and faster than most people.”

Getting it, but just enough to know how little we know. And getting to know just how addictive this life could be.

2016-04-05

Coffee

With the third sip of heavily sweetened tea, Jordan reaches down and puts her hand on his thigh but it was not a gesture of closeness even though they’d made love a half hour before.

She’s supporting herself with that hand, she’s trying to stop the swaying. Her eyes are half-closed and words that mumble out of her slack mouth are half-formed, incoherent, and inaudible even to him sitting close.

He gently holds her wrist so he can catch her if she falls backwards. He doesn’t know what drug she’d decided to take before she met him that causes her to alternate between sexual mania and this catatonia.

Suddenly, Jordan inhales sharply and her eyes open wide, she focuses now on the coffee shop, aware of where she is and that she is with him.

“It’s so strange, scenes from my past just merge into this, bad things that happened in a place like this. But I’m glad to be here, with you. I’m just so tired,” she says.

Jordan fades out again, her head tips back and her eyes half close, but she returns more quickly. He can’t tell if it’s a heroin nod, or if very potent TCH is overwhelming her balance. She met him saying something was wrong with her contacts, so he suspects pot was her drug of choice but strains of pot are now so powerful.

Dinner had been exceptional. Chicken fried lamb neck on a bed of spiced grits and honey with spiced carrots and dill; a stuffed trout, roast chicken thighs with the fat crisped and served with potato gnocchi that puffed with flavor of butter, and squash and arugula. Each course was expertly served by a tall Eurasian beauty at a tiny restaurant Jordan had heard about and wanted to try.

It didn’t matter how the evening ended, if Jordan would spend the night, if they would make love again, if he just took her back downtown to her apartment. The meal itself, at a place Jordan really wanted to go but probably would not remember, was worth the visit to town.

*   *   *

Tommy is dressed in black leather. The long trench coat is supple and has a wide belt. Tall boots lace nearly to his knee, but for affect, yes, have four large silver buckles along each calf. The black leather vest is laced up the sides but open over a long-sleeved black T-shirt. The chain that hooks each end to his belt loops low along his thigh.

Tattoos splash up and out of the neck of his T-shirt, up his throat and neck but stop short of a face that is so handsome he might once have been on the cover of a trashy semi-porn romance novel. Now, long blond hair hangs in a pony-tail halfway down his back bedraggled from the incessant rain.

Tommy sits next to a couple whose first meeting was online. Now, finally, for the first time, over coffee, “what is” greets “what I imagined.” On the other side of him is an informal job interview, a man in a sport coat advises a younger man in a nice plaid shirt with a parka over the back of his chair. A brief case disgorges a resumé to be carried back through the rain and put on a pile.

Tommy is wearing his leather resumé, his eyes dart around the coffee shop, measuring and evaluating the rest of us, his CV is the backpack at his feet displaying a life story in scuffs and and patches that start conversations that end in strange bedrooms where his dangerous beauty is currency for whatever is offered: food, shelter, a few hundred bucks, maybe a watch or a broach lifted when his benefactor goes to the bathroom, to be pawned at one of the shops down on Third Street.

*   *   *

Chelan is very pretty and thin and her hair is a golden chestnut with streaks of gold and is shorter in back, it’s cut so it follows the angle of her fine jaw down below her chin  but not quite to the points of her collar bone, her hair is thick and shiny and hangs heavy, swaying when she changes expression so it is in constant motion.

Sarah is the same age but not as polished, thick black hair hangs loose on its own, not completely in control as it is pushed back over ears, strands constantly pushed back using fingertips as a comb.

They talk as if they were once fond but now nearly-forgotten acquaintances, maybe sorority sisters from five or ten years ago, roommates as college.

Sarah says words that bring a succession of dramatic facial expressions from Chelan, her fine jaw underlining perfect hair that stays intact for all these animated expressions, wide-eyed-wide-open-mouth surprise followed by deep frowns, everything expressed as if a text punctuated with exclamation points. OMG!

They stand to leave and Sarah pushes her hair back over her ear with her fingertips again and hands Chelan a card or a note. Chelan with her hair streaked with gold looks at it and then calls up an expression as if she is in great pain, as if the gesture itself is about to elicit tears if not sobs because she’s overwhelmed.

But thankfully this passes and is replaced easily with a smile as warm as the January sun, followed by a quick kiss on the cheek as she looks at her watch and affirms her need to say good-bye.

*   *   *

William struggles to climb out of the Town Car, as if his hair is dyed so black to hide that he is many years older than most would choose as a driver. But he can’t hide the stiffness of his tendons, the brittleness of his bones, as he takes the bag from the pilot with three stripes on his sleeve.

The small bag does not go over the lip with the first effort and the airline captain winces as William puts more effort into the second swing so the bag tumbles into the trunk. The captain gives a small shake of his head he knows William can’t see. Co-captain easily puts his bag beside the first with one hand while carrying a briefcase with the other and walks around the car to get in while William reaches up stiffly to close the lid.

William turns about so the left side of his face is now visible. It is offset from the right, it hangs slack, inches below where once it had been. He might have suffered a stroke, given his age, but as he continues the turn it’s apparent that the black stem of his glasses going back grasps only his head, and the too-black hair ends in a ragged line above where his ear would have been if he’d had an ear.

The droop of his face is not from a stroke but flesh and skin are no longer supported by a cheek bone, now missing, or a jaw, destroyed and removed. Flesh droops like theater bunting down the side of his face.

It was a ferocious impact when his previous Town Car was hit on the driver’s side door by a pick-up jacked so high the bumper cleared the door bracing and came right through the window as it sped through the red light in an effort to get home two minutes earlier and before traffic piled up at the bridge.

Kia needs to fix these cars

Foxy takes her daughter to school every morning in a 2013 Kia Optima. She has to stop, then turn left across one lane of traffic diving downhill around a blind curve, into a stream accelerating uphill from the right, cars coming fast in each direction.

It wasn’t working too well.

“When I step on the gas, the car starts to go, but then just stops! I took it back to the dealer, but the guy in the service department said it was part of the traction control, and I was just pushing the gas too hard.”

I took the wheel for a few days. It didn’t seem that bad. I could make it happen, but not without being pretty aggressive. So the service guy was probably right, it was just traction control.

Then it rained.

We were in a busy intersection with about five lanes in each direction, counting turn lanes. I was first in line at the red light, on a slight uphill grade. Green. Step on gas. Car goes… maybe two feet. Suddenly stops. Another few feet. Stops. By now, I’m well into the intersection starting and stopping my way on through.

“That’s really ugly,” were the first words out of my mouth. I hope. Followed by, “That’s not right.”

“See?!” said Foxy.

“It acts like it’s driving only one wheel, and when that one slips, the traction control hits the brakes,” I say. From then on, I turn the traction control off so I can at least predict what’s going to happen, and wonder if Kia will then say it’s my fault if there’s an accident.

The Optima is a front wheel drive car. When a front wheel drive car accelerates, weight shifts to the back wheels, reducing front wheel traction. Okay. The tires aren’t new, but they’re not bald. Okay. That’s the end of excuses, as far as I am concerned. I’ve driven front wheel drive cars before. This is wrong.

Next stop, Internet. Turns out, a number of people have complained about this, including reports to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. I take notes.

Coincidentally, a few days later, Foxy gets a call from the dealership, asking how she likes her car. She mentions the problem, and sales guy points out that even though she bought it used, the car is still under warranty. That’s all I need.

I drop Foxy off at work and head down to the dealership, wait for the manager on duty to get off the phone.

“I’ve never heard of this,” he says.

“I’m surprised. There have been a number of complaints, they’re easy to find online, and some reports to the NHTSA. Here’s  where you find them, and here’s the part number needed to fix it. Would you like to write it down?”

I may not be much of a wrench, but I can go online.

Sales manager says he has to talk to service manager.

“Would you like me to come along?” I ask.

“No, let me see what he’s doing, first,” sales manager says.

Ten minutes later, he takes me back to the service manager. We all sit down.

“Not really heard of this being a problem” says service manager, who seems like a very nice guy.

“Well, here’s a couple of places you can find records of complaints,” I say. “And here’s the part number that solves the problem.” That part number had been posted by a guy in Louisianna, who I now want to buy a bowl of jambalaya: 1 58920 − 2T550, Hydraulic Unit Assembly, or an HECU, which I’m told stands for hydraulic electronic control unit.

Somewhere in that conversation, the term, “one wheel peel” comes up. Exactly what I felt at the rainy intersection.

“I’m willing to be flexible,” I say to the two managers. “She can give you this car back, and we’ll look for a car someplace else, or you can put her in a different car, or you can fix it. But we can’t let her take her daughter to school in a car that isn’t safe. We just can’t do that,” I say, making sure that all three of us understand this isn’t just my problem, and especially not hers.

The sales manager leaves the room at that point. Service manager says he has to make a phone call. When he comes back, he says there is a part that might make a difference, he can’t guarantee it. But he has authorization to install it under warranty. He’ll keep the Optima, and gives me a loaner.

Foxy picks her car up a week later.

“It doesn’t spin and stop! It drives like a normal car!”

Cool. I get to be a hero for… a few minutes. That’s good enough. I appreciate the dealership stepping up and taking care of this, finally, once confronted by hard evidence. They were polite, friendly, professional, and surprisingly, I liked the drivable little box they gave us as a loaner car. It’s got soul.

But how many Kia’s were sold with this problem? Just the 2013 models? Just the Optimas? How many women, and men, who don’t have decades of experience with all sorts of drivetrains at all sorts of speeds in all sorts of conditions, were told, “You’re giving it too much gas. That’s a safety feature.” What will these cars do in the snow? How many of these cars will go out of warranty, and how many customers will be stuck with what could be a $1,500 bill?

Or get hit by a truck in the middle of an intersection because a car they could not afford to fix just wouldn’t GO!

Kia, the company, should do more. It should not be left to owners to individually resolve this problem. Kia needs to recall any car with this issue, and Kia knows what cars are affected and who owns them. Vehicles with this design flaw should be repaired and drivers should not be charged. Kia the company should accept this responsibility.

What color is your “blue?”

Back in the early days, when the internet was trying to define itself, different web pages sometimes looked different on different brands of computer, depending on which browser was being used.

The pages would be “rendered” (drawn) differently, depending on algorithms used by both the sending and receiving machine.

For grins and giggles, let’s pretend that each “me” of us is a user, and what we think of as “what’s real” is simply the way our browsers (brains) render the input we receive from others machines that, in turn, have to render their inputs, and often do so imperfectly.

What’s drawn depends as much, or even more, on the receiving machine’s algorithm as it does on the dots and dashes transmitted by the sending machine. We all are building and changing our algorithms daily. Most of us, anyway. I know a few who haven’t changed much since the 70s, but that’s another topic.

I bring this up because it’s important to think about why we think the way we do, and to understand that we can hold fast to our “rendering” of reality without much certainty that it is “objectively” true.

In fact, there ain’t no such thing.

Thailand?

“More coffee?” I’m trying to prolong the conversation.

“No, really, I have to go,” you say.

“Me too,” I say. “How about we go together? Thailand?”  You give me a very strange look.

“Thailand? Thailand is half-way around the world.”

“Not quite. Halfway would be off the tip of South Africa. In the water. Not much of a vacation, but I’d probably go there with you.”

“That’s insane,” you say.

“Haven’t we covered that? I prefer crazy.”

“You prefer being crazy over being rational, maybe,” you say, almost like that’s a bad thing.

“You get it! I knew we had something in common!”

“We don’t,” you respond quickly, reaching for some clarity.

“We should,” I respond. “Look at all the fun we could have.” I have no intention of letting clarity anywhere near this conversation.

“You can’t ‘should have’ something in common. You do or you don’t,” you say with slight exasperation. That’s just one of the things I like about you, the way you show frustration with me so easily. Some try to hide it.

“It can’t be both?” I’ve got you now, but you don’t see it coming.

“Having something in common and not having something in common? No, that’s inconsistent.” You pride yourself on a consistency I’m about to turn into a hobgoblin.

“We have coffee in common,” I say.

“That has nothing to do with this,” the rising tone of your voice tells me you sense the trap.

“We don’t have lipstick in common,” I continue, as if you had not said a thing.

“Stop it.” You see it clearly, now.

“So, obviously, we have something, coffee, in common and don’t have something, lipstick, in common. Happens all the time. In fact, having and not having something in common is something we all have in common.”

“I’m leaving,” you say.

“We can be in Thailand this time next month if you’ll say ‘yes.’ ”

“Why Thailand?” you ask, closing the door again.

“Beautiful beaches, beautiful sunsets, good food, good times, laughter. Yadda yadda. All that, but more important, adventure!

“What happened to Bocas Del Toro?”

“You didn’t respond to Bocas. I’m upping the offer.”

“The food is better than in Bocas?”

“You ever go out for Bocas, or do you go out for Thai?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“There’s one in there somewhere. I might look for a boat there.”

“Where?”

“Thailand. Isn’t that what we’re talking about?

“I don’t know what we’re talking about any more.”

“Then let’s just sit here and enjoy each other’s silence. I like that, too. More coffee?”

You shake your head, but you’re still sitting here. I take that as a hopeful sign.

“Why a boat?” you ask a minute later, a little bit curious.

“Have to get home somehow.”

“You would take a boat back from Thailand?” you ask, with some incredulity.

“Not without stopping in New Zealand. Want to go?”

“Who are you again?” Now you’re trying to avoid the question.

“The guy you met for coffee. What do you think?”

“I think you’re very different than I expected.”

“In a bad way?”

“Not bad, just… different.”