Qui a besoin de Français?

Apparently, I can stop losing sleep at night over having still failed to learn French. I took French classes for three years in junior high from Miss Gail van Eyke, if memory serves. From her name, it sounds like we should have been studying Dutch. Maybe it would have gone better. The classroom comprised rows of sound booths with headphones for listening to drills. The back row, where we sat, had small reel-to-reel tape decks for individual study. These were covered with metal boxes when not in use. With the sound booths in the room, Miss van Eyke didn’t have a clear view of what all of her students were up to at any one time. This encouraged diversions such as driving Hot Wheels cars up and over and around the inside of the booth. Whenever MVE got around to asking someone a question like “Quel jour est aujourd’hui ?” the standard responses were a mix of caught-in-the-headlights stares and spasmodic shrugs with an occasional “huh?” thrown in to prove that we had not been struck totally dumb, or as she would query, “Vous êtes totalement stupide?”

I’ve felt the guilt ever since. Everyone else in the world speaks more than one language it seems. Why am I such a slouch? Why are we such slouches? Fortunately, the days of polyglot whine and psychoses are over. I found this out today while reading Joshua Cooper’s The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks. This is what Joshua tells us:

For the first time, as a result of constant connectivity, a once-unimagined possibility exists: real-time machine translation. Fast, ubiquitous networks mean that the central role of English will be boiled away someday not by another language but by an intelligent translation computer, available anytime, anywhere…. Reliable access to a great translation algorithm will one day be more important than the ability to speak English (or Spanish or Chinese). Those American parents now nervously plowing their children into Chinese classes are missing the point. Fluency in any second language in the future will be an arcane specialty. Better to teach the kids how to build an artificial intelligence program, or to debate the moral reasoning of Confucius and Socrates, than how to order dinner in a another language.

Phew! That’s a relief. I no longer have to explain to myself or anyone who’s interest (no one, really) that most humans beyond puberty have a sadly diminished procedural memory ability, that capacity to learn things like riding a bike and language rules unconsciously. According to Time writer Abby Abrams (“Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try to Hard”),

Adults may over-analyze new language rules or sounds and try to make them fit into some understandable and coherent pattern that makes sense to them. But a new language may involve grammar rules that aren’t so easily explained, and adults have more difficulty overcoming those obstacles than children, who simply absorb the rules or exceptions and learn from them.

I’d like to say that, yeah, that’s it, I’m trying too hard. But the truth is I haven’t tried at all. I think the real reason for my guilt over not learning francais stems from remembering the day the burly guys in white jackets came to third-period French, put a straightjacket on MVE, and took her away, whispering to her soothingly as she gibbered something about bringing back the guillotine to save the world from ninth graders. She had a point. We were definitely more interested in toy cars and spitballs than the patois of Albert Camus, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo.

MVE: “Apportez-moi la tête de tous les élèves de neuvième année!”*

It occurs to me now, however, that the anxiety over French may be replaced by another insomnia-inducing concern: Why haven’t I ever learned to program an AI? I’m not that worried, though. I once wrote a little computer software routine for the Commodore 64. Things can’t be that much more complicated today, can they?

* Bring me the heads of all ninth graders!

Trumpilton

After watching PBS Great Performances’ “Hamilton’s America,” which is indeed great if you want to get a good feel for the show and its historical background, I started to get ideas. From the bits we saw, Hamilton looks fabulous. But it’s also so, like, yesterday even if the guy, Hamilton that is, pretty much created the country we live in today. Kudos and all that. But we need a modern musical that captures the trials and tribulations, the successes and failures, the flawed and the sterling bits of a current leader of similar stature, say, our president Donald John Trump, or DJT. Getting this show on its feet would be so easy because DJT could write it, produce it, direct it, star in it, and promote it, all the while maintaining his firm grip on the reins of his, er, this nation.

All for naught; I’m so distraught.

No need to hold your breath in anticipation. POTUS in his wisdom and greatitude is already around the bend, sorry, ahead of the curve on this. According to as-reliable-as-you-can-imagine White House sources, DJT has written his own musical story, Trumpilton, modeled after its megahit predecessor. He’s confident that his work will be more huge, of course. Many many people, thousands, millions maybe, have told him this. He is also, sources claim, thinking about announcing (“I’ll let you know…very soon”) that he wrote his musical before Lin-Manuel Miranda and that his top-secret draft got leaked from Trump Tower and Miranda got wind of it and copied from him. Don’t believe Trumpilton exists? Well, here’s proof. Thanks to an incredible progression of stupendously serendipitous events, I’ve managed to get my hands on the opening number. Not surprisingly, it is a rap song (sort of) and, if you’ve seen Hamilton, might sound more than vaguely familiar in places. But, hey, enough from me. With no further ado, I give you Trumpilton‘s opening song, titled, naturally, “Donald J. Trumpilton.” The curtain rises, the lights come up, the characters step forward, and we begin.

[Hilary Clinton]

How does a rich man, a showman, a nannied man
Born in the posh life, raised by the 1%
become White House docent, sorry, US president
leader—I can’t breathe, help me breathe—today
and tomorrow, maybe, of the fricking free world?

[Bernie Sanders]

What’s behind this biz? Let me just say this
I’ll tell you what, he was SMART, that’s what
so he said, ruthlesser, so he said
bigly better, so he said, so he says
and, if you believe that,
you know why we’re at where we’re at
you’re the reason we’re at where we’re at

[Trevor Noah}

Who is this guy? Who is this guy?
What is this guy? Why is this guy? How did he do it?
How did he win?

[Jeb Bush]

I can’t explain it.

[Marco Rubio]

I need a drink of water.

[Rand Paul]

Atlas shrugged, I guess, and left this mess. Poor us.

[Ben Carson]

What was the question?

[Rick Perry]

Give me a moment,
I know I know this,
I’m sure I know this.

[John Kasich]

Beats the heck out of me.

[Mike Huckabee]

I know who knows
he always knows
but I’m afraid to ask

[Chris Christie]

Just leave me alone with him,
Put me in a room with him,
I’ll make him cry, hope to die, maybe have to pants the guy
or throw him off a bridge will I
but I’ll get an answer from him
if you’ll be my friend and call me slim
you’d better effing call me slim
understand?

[Trevor Noah]

Come on, guys! Who is this guy?
What is this guy?
Why is this guy?
How did he do it?
How did he win?

[Hilary Clinton]

I know What Happened
who better than me
to spread such vitupery
read all about it
I write the wrong, I write the wrong
bang the gong
of injustice, all I got, just this
but you can know, too,
just join my village crew
for just a ten and a twenty
free shipping and delivery

[Donald J. Trumpilton]

Don’t listen to them. Listen to me.
After all, I’m the one who’s covfefe!
Who am I, you ask? And why do I bask
now and tomorrow and forever
in the limelight of history
Because I’m the greatest, that’s no mystery
I’m the hugest, I’m the bestest
and that’s not fake news.
They tried to stop me, tried to win
with dead voters and straw boaters
crybabies and liebabies
Russian spies and clamped-down thighs
Let them weep, let them bellow
they’re just losers made of Jell-O.
I won, suck on that, I won, I’m not fat
I won, stop your whining, I won, you won’t be dining
with me ever ’cause you’re not clever, no cake for you, woo hoo!
because I won, I won, Donald J. Trumpilton,
that’s right, you may regret it but don’t forget it
ever…if you know what’s good for you
so, where you from, huh?
got a birth certificate, huh?
I know where you live, duh
and who’s this Hamilton? What’s all the fuss?
Dude got run over by the Aaron Burr bus
I like winners and he’s not one
just some dork who can’t aim a gun
I bombed Iraq, I bombed Yemen
while sipping ice water braced with lemon
Or was it Syria? I’m a little blearia…whatever
I bombed, that’s what matters, put the world in tatters
I bombed, hee hee, and he, Alex you-know, just caught a slug, his mortal blow
LOSER!
Burr’s the winner, don’t you know
He’s the one deserves a show
WRONG!
sing about me, only me
and those who think otherwise
can go piss up a tree
Hee hee hoe, hee hee HEEEEEEEEE!

That’s it. Lights fade to thunderous applause. Curtain falls. “Donald J. Trumpilton” is the opening song and the closing song. On the original cast album, the song just loops and plays over and over again. DJT is not about to forget the secret to his success. DJT intends, according to another White House source, to put the box office receipts from Trumpilton into a foundation that assuages orphans, people living on the street, and rejected refugees with dessert. Not just any dessert, mind you, but “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you’ve ever seen.” I’m sure it will be much appreciated, if they ever see a crumb, that is.

(First Image: Alexander Hamilton in the Uniform of the New York Artillery by Alonzo Chappel (1828–1887). Public Domain.)

The Tales of Rubberlina™: Episode #3b – Still Earthbound

Okay, I know it’s been a while since I promised to tell you what happened after I teleported myself to the transporter platform, something to do, with Tralfamadorians, whipped cream, and a dog-eared copy of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’ll take the Tralfamies, as I like to call them, first. If you’re a fan of Kurt Vonnegut novels, as I know I would be if I could turn physical pages with my hands (I can’t) or hold a digital device (nope, not that either), you would know that the Tralfamies appear in more than one book, that sometimes they are beings that exist in all times, sometimes they are robots, and sometimes they are multi-dimensional creatures who control all aspects of human life.

When I was first beamed up from Key West, I found myself in what appeared to be an over-decorated club populated by human males dressed garishly as human females who danced while moving their lips in sync to human songs and collecting dollar bills from a human audience. My first thought, naturally, was WTF. My second was jealousy from knowing that I’ll never have, or be able to wear, an aqua-hued, three-foot-tall Dolly Parton wig made of foam rubber. While I was taking this all in, I noticed a robot sitting next to me. He looked very much like Elvis and for a moment I thought, hey, he’s not dead after all. But then I could hear that he sort of “whirred” whenever he moved and saw that his eyes did not blink. In fact, it seemed that his makers had forgotten the palpebral superior and inferior all together. He noticed me staring at him, because that’s all I can do is stare, and turned to stare back at me, because ditto. He introduced himself as Salo, a Tralfamidorian explorer, and we then had this conversation.

Wait. Are you sure this is Earth?

Me:    So, where are we?

Salo:    It’s called Lips.

Me:    What is?

Salo:    This place.

Me:    No, I meant, where are we? What planet? What galaxy? Or is this some trippy holodeck on some wacky alien vessel in outer space?

Salo:    None of the above.

Me:    So, I repeat, where are we?

Salo:    Earth.

Me:    Get out of here!

Salo:    But the show has just started.

Me:    No, stupid. That’s an expression, not a command.

Salo:    I’m not familiar.

Me:    I don’t believe you.

Salo:    You’re calling me a liar?

At this moment, I’m wondering if my rubber head can explode. It feels on the verge.

Me:    Look, you beamed me up, right? So, we can’t be on earth.

Salo:    Well, it’s more like I beamed you over. I’m stuck here on your planet. My spaceship is disabled. I’m waiting for a spare part.

Me:    So, I’m still on earth.

Salo:    I’m afraid so. I heard your beaming request and thought, gee, it be nice to have the company of another alien.

Me:    Wait, what? I’m not an alien.

Salo:    Really? My mistake.

Okay, okay. So, I look like a blue Ping-Pong ball stuck on top of a chartreuse cheese grater. What’s alien about that?

Me:    Fine. We’re on earth. I am SOOOO disappointed. Would it help if I said take me to your leader?

Salo:    No. We can’t go until I have the part I need. My people are working on it.

Me:    What’s the hold up?

Salo:    Um…you are.

Me:    Me?

Salo:    Humans. To get the part made, we Tralfamadorians had to reengineer your planet so that you evolved from that cute single cell amoeba to beings that can make what I need. [Looking around.] You’re, ah, getting there…I think.

If I had a heart, it would be sinking right now.

Me:    Fine. Be brutally honest now. How much longer before we can get off this rock?

Salo:    I hope to hear soon. Any millennium now I’m sure.

I’m speechless—really—and feel a sudden, intense need for alcohol.

Me:    Salo, be a dude and order me a scotch on the rocks, a double, no, a triple, better yet, a pitcher.

Salo:    Of course…wait, can you drink? I mean you don’t have….

Me:    I’m aware. Just stick my head in the glass when it comes. That won’t take a fricking millennium, will it?

Salo:    I should think not.

[To be continued…again]

The Once and Future Svengali

Usually I try to ignore what Rubberlina™ is up to when she usurps this space. In her blog yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but notice her claim to suddenly be able to teleport herself from one place to another instantly, in this case from my desk to a single-cup Keurig machine that she swears is some kind of alien transporter. As “proof” that this is possible, she cites Dr. Bruce Goldberg’s article “What is teleportation?” I just had to check it out. (If you’re not familiar, and why should you be, teleportation is the “theoretical” transfer of matter or energy from one point to another without traversing the physical space in between.)

“Just thought I’d pop in and say hi.”

Our expert on this, Dr. Bruce, has a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, a DDS, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology. According to his bio, he’s retired from dentistry to devote his time to a “thriving international hypnotherapy practice” in which he developed “progression hypnotherapy” and the “mind-tap” healing process. Using these tools plus the more standard regression therapy, he takes patients on mental trips into their past, present, and future lives. He is also, according to him, “the world’s foremost authority on futuristic time travelers.” He won’t say whether he’s one of these travelers, but if he were, he teases, he would be from the 35th century “where teleportation is developed as a means of time travel” and where “the average age is between 500 and 900 years old due to an energy charging device called the alphasyncolarium.”

Bruce knows teleportation well, apparently.

What we find in a true teleportation is that physical body dematerializes (disappears) from one location and subsequently rematerializes (reappears) in a different spot in an instant often accompanied by a “pop” sound…. If you are observing someone actually being teleported, you would see their body slowly fade away and disappear. Nothing else in the environment would be altered. The person undergoing teleportation would experience an increase in their energy vibrating at high speed, accompanied by a tingling, buzzing sensation and/or feeling of spiraling upward.

Bruce helpfully informs us that there is spontaneous teleportation, dream-state teleportation, and consciously directed teleportation and helpfully shares instructions on how best to “pop” in and out of places.

In the beginning you will find that you wind up in places far from your goal. This low level of accuracy improves dramatically with regular practice. When you return to your place of origin, you will again hear that “pop” sound. Your body travels at the speed of light, so distance is of no significance…. In order to successfully experience teleportation, you need to focus your mind and block out all other distractions. It is only your limiting beliefs that will prevent you from experiencing this unique form of travel.

It’s easy, of course, to poo-poo Dr. Bruce’s claims, but, hey, he’s published 21 “best-selling” books and has that thriving past and future life hypnotherapy practice he mentioned. And he shows some common sense when it comes to teleporting, advising his readers to “teleport to secluded places to avoid shocking other people when you materialize in front of them.”

And, truth be told, I’m a little jealous of Dr. Bruce. Think of the travel expenses he saves as he pops about the world doing his speaking engagements. Think of all the places you could go instantly at no cost. You could knock off your travel bucket list in one day if you so desired. You could also knock off your “visit the fifth dimension” and your “meet time travelers from the future” wishes. I can’t wait to try this out for myself. I’m going to call and order my Time Travelers Training Program CD right this minute.

The Tales of Rubberlina™: Episode #3a – Boldly Going, Going, Gone

Miss me? I know you have. I’ve been gone a while on important business—my quest, of course, for whoever or whatever made my head, ergo, my missing parental unit. It occurred to me a while ago (that’s the best I can do—I have a lousy sense of time passing) as I was standing around not doing much because, well, I can’t do much without assistance, that maybe what I’m looking for does not exist on this planet. Maybe I have an alien progenitor. I admit that this thought came to me while watching Battlefield Earth. If you’re wondering why I would watch a movie that rated a dismal 3% on the Tomatometer and was described as “ugly, campy, poorly acted…a stunningly misguided, aggressively bad sci-fi folly,” a film that “won” eight Golden Raspberry Awards and Worst Picture of the Decade in 2010, my response would be this: what fricking choice did I have? My hands, even if they had opposable thumbs (they don’t) and I could move them (I can’t), are too small to operate the remote control. I watch whatever RatBlurt watches and you already know what poor taste he has.

So, making lemonade out of lemons from this experience, which you’ll have to drink because I can’t, I pondered the film and was struck by this idea. Aliens must have made this tawdry tale about the “giant humanoid alien” Psychios ruling our planet in the year 3000. Anyone seeing the movie would think, man, this is so fricking ridiculous that beings from outer space must be just a figment of our fevered imaginations and now I can chuck them off my worry list and sleep better at night. Thus, we let our guard down and open the world to the real aliens taking it over by putting on human-like skins and usurping our leadership while farting a lot. If you don’t believe this is possible, see the “Aliens of London” episode of Doctor Who or, alternatively, turn on any of the major cable news channels.

My second thought was that maybe I’m an alien, too. I’m weird-looking enough in an ultra-charmingly sexotic way. (Oh, crap. Now he’s got me doing the stupid make-up-words thing!) Anyway, I haven’t seen anything or anyone that looks remotely as good as I do. What does that tell me? That I was left behind like ET and just need to phone home or find some way to return to my place of origin. And then I saw it. It’s been sitting there innocently on the kitchen counter ever since I can remember and that must be a hell of a long time because I can’t remember how long I can remember. I know what you’re thinking just now: What? What is it? Either that or “doesn’t she ever shut up?”

I’m ready for my beam-up, Mr. Scott.

To answer the second question, first. No, frick-face, and if you don’t like my stories, you are obviously a being of little distinction and bad breeding. And the first question second, the “it” is a very subtly disguised transporter. I’m sure of it. My first task was to get myself into position on the device, which I managed quite handily. I won’t tell you how I accomplished that because you wouldn’t believe me if I did. (Hint: see Dr. Bruce Goldberg’s “What is teleportation?“) Anyway, one moment I was occupying my normal position on you-know-who’s desk and then, after hearing a loud “pop,” I was suddenly in place on the device as you can see, ready to go boldly where this rubberhead has never gone before, at least not that I can remember because…oh right, I said that already.

As for what happened next, that’s a tale for another day because I know I’ve already stretched your meager attention span well beyond the “make it stop!” point. As a teaser, though, I will let you know that my spacecapade involves the Tralfamadorians, whipped cream, and a dog-eared copy of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Stay tuned.

Clueless in Key West

At Full Metal Trivia Tuesday night at Mary Ellen’s, one of the questions that came up was “how many vaginas does a koala have?” Given that most mammals have one and not having a clue as to the answer, we guessed two. One spare is enough, right? Wrong. The answer was three. So, why does a koala and its compatriot marsupials have three vaginas? Short answer: because they can or, more correctly, because they do.

Apparently, the tri-vage is not the only unusual thing about these Australian teddy bears. If you start a search string with “why does a koala…,” you get suggestions such as these:

  • Why does a koala have a stumpy tail?
  • Why does a koala have such a big nose?
  • Why does a koala sleep so much?
Don’t you have more important things to think about?

I don’t know any of these things. If I were triviasessive [obsessed with…well, you get it], I would be looking all these things up in case they come up as questions. But I’m not, so I’m not. I am curious, though, about the whole love affair with trivia. My first thought is that we have Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit to thank for it but it goes much farther back. Let’s start with the Latin roots of the word. In that language, “trivia” refers to the three lower Artes Liberales—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—that form the basic education foundation for the quadrivia of higher education (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). It later came to describe the place where one road splits into three roads and finally, thanks to Shakespeare, to its modern-day usage as something “trite, common, unimportant, or slight.”

Okay but when did trivia become “a quizzing game involving obscure facts”? It’s unclear. One of the first collections of trivia, Trivialities, bits of information with little consequence, came out in 1902. It included this warning from its author, Logan Pearsall Smith:

I KNOW too much; I have stuffed too many of the facts of History and Science into my intellectuals. My eyes have grown dim over books; believing in geological periods, cave dwellers, Chinese Dynasties, and the fixed stars has prematurely aged me.

The first trivia contests, it seems, were organized by two Columbia University students in the 1960s, who then published a best-selling book called, you guessed it, Trivia, and then another titled Trivial Trivia. In the second, they chastise the trivia nuts who are “indiscriminate enough to confuse the flower of trivia with the weed of minutiae.” The former, they say, “is concerned with tugging at the heartstrings” while the latter focuses on “unevocative questions” such as “which state is the largest consumer of Jell-O?” I don’t recall any strings in my heart being jerked about by the koala vagina question, which means the Tuesday evening event might better be known as “Full Metal Minutiae.”

All this trivistory, however, does not answer my question: why do people love trivia and trivia contests. A Google search reveals that no one online has tackled this thorny issue, at least not in an SEO-effective manner. My own theory has to do with Smith’s subtitle: “bits of information with little consequence.” Trivia contests are exercises in serioscapism, that is, the diversion of the mind from the slings and arrows of harsh reality to something ridiculously unimportant. I suppose you could look at the downside of this, as novelist Chuck Palahniuk does when he says that “game shows are designed to make us feel better about the random, useless facts that are all we have left of our education.” Or you could—as I choose to do—just say that discovering what informational detritus has managed to lodge itself somehow in your brain over the years is just plain fun in an intellectually sadomasochistic kind of way. And on the other but still positive side of the coin, playing trivia helps reduce the things we don’t know we don’t know. Put another way, playing trivia doesn’t necessarily make one smarter, but it does reduce our ignorance of our ignorance. That can’t be a bad thing, right?

Okay, okay. I know you’ve been dying for the answer since the paragraph before this one. Here it is: Utah. The state anchors what’s known as the Jell-O Belt. Its official dessert is lime Jell-O. And finally, the first four flavors of Jell-O were orange, lemon, strawberry, and grass. Yes, grass.

And now, if you’re wise and want to avoid premature aging, you’ll unstuff that from your intellectuals immediately. I have.

Image: George Perry’s illustration in his 1810 Arcana was the first published image of the koala. Public Domain.

The Tales of Rubberlina™: Episode #2 – Où est la bibliothèque?

Don’t you hate it when you wake up and there’s a song or phrase running willy-nilly amuck through your head and you can’t get it to stop it no matter how many times you bang your head against the wall. (Warning: Don’t try this at home. My head is rubber. Yours likely is not.) Today the phrase was a question: “Où est la bibliothèque?” Since my French is limited—actually I didn’t even know it was French—RatBlurt™ was kind enough to translate it. Well, what choice did he have given the waking up with me staring at him every morning threat hanging over his verminous noggin.

Where is the library? WTF, if you’ll pardon my…French. Where is the library? Who cares? That was my first reaction anyway, but then I took a minute to think about it. Library. Books. Nonfiction books. Nonfiction reference books. Friendly, helpful librarians. The ether was trying to tell me something here, although I’m not sure why it didn’t just say “Go to the fricking library, you twit.” It struck me then that maybe the question wasn’t meant to be instructional; maybe it was some existential-la-te-da search for meaning. But I don’t do existential because I have this permanent grin on my face and it and existential just don’t get along. Trying to force them together would be like dropping me into a vat of HCL. It would be like, you know, hasta la vista, baby, for me.

No, I’ll just stay literal here. If the universe is asking me where the library is, I must find it. How to convey that information back to the great beyond once I have it is another matter. I’ll just kick that can down the road for now.

So, the library. I must go questing for the library. As it turns out, Lyft is very handy for this. The drivers have this thing called GPS. Took about two seconds to locate it. You would think the universe would know such things. Anyway, on the way there, I formulated some PQR (parent-quest-related) questions I might ask the staff upon my arrival. My first thought was “where’s our da?” A simple enough query even if they didn’t get the obscure reference to The Singing Detective and the fact that my mechanical parents are gender-obscure. Sure. I’ll go with that.

As it turns out, librarians, unlike RB (not a compliment—I know you’re listening in, rodent-breath—don’t get a big head from this, right?), are not receptive to ESP messages. They just stare at me agog and say things like “what is that, where the hell did it come from, and why do those fricking kids always leave their playthings lying around for us to clean up?” Well, they didn’t really say “fricking” or any verbal equivalent of it. I put that in because I could see they were thinking it…okay, full confession here. I have no idea what they said because I have no ears. As always with humans, I put words in their mouths when I see their lips move. As you might guess, they rarely come off well in this respect.

Sorry. I’m blithering. So, the PQR part of my library visit was a lost cause. I did arrive, though, while some sort of gathering was going on. There were those things you see hanging on the wall behind me and humans sitting around on chairs. One by one they would get up, point to one of the things on the wall and then talk. It all looked very solemn and important. Hey, I thought. These people seem intelligent, wise, and caring. Maybe they would know. “Where’s our da?” I said. No response. Right. Maybe I’m asking the wrong thing. “Où est la bibliothèque?” I think they heard that one. They all looked perplexed and interested at the same time and then a curious thing happened. They all sat down, took out notebooks and pens or phones/tablets and styluses, and began writing furiously. Since I obviously couldn’t look over their shoulders to see what they were scribbling, I’m still in the fricking dark as to “Où est la bibliothèque?” If any of you PWWSTILs* happen to see this, please email your answers to rubberlina@ratblurt.com. I await your missives, not at all humbly, because, being made of inanimate bits of rubber and plastic, what the hell else can I do?

*People Who Write Serious Things in Libraries

Consider the (D)evolution of Self

There are many ways to achieve the simulacrum of immortality, some purposeful, some accidental, some beneficent, some destructive, some self-serving, some selfless. Since no one outside the realm of fiction can (yet) achieve real physical immortality (more specifically “exemption from death or annihilation”), those who pursue it or have it thrust upon them end up in the “exemption from oblivion, lasting fame” category. One such person is Steve Jobs, the Apple guru who gave us the iPhone, iPod, and iPad, to name the more ubiquitous devices, and almost singlehandedly “wired” our world. Steve’s achievements, failures, and character have been appropriately (in the view of some) or inappropriately (in the view of others) lionized. There are numerous books and at least one documentary film and one feature film about him. Now, perhaps capping the “exemption from oblivion” pile, comes an opera titled The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs that is premiering this summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

The SFO describes the new work this way:

Many of us want to change the world. Steve Jobs did. An enigmatic public figure, he could be magnetic yet unapproachable, empathetic yet cruel, meditative yet restless. He helped connect us all while building a firewall around his own emotions. At the heart of this world premiere is the story of a man who circles back to the formative events in his life while learning to acknowledge his own mortality.

A brief 1965 prologue aside, the tale begins in 2007, four years before his death, when Jobs is already suffering from the illness that will take his life. In Scene 3, he meets the ghost of Kobun Chino Otogawa, his former Zen mentor and the biopic flashbacks begin.

Crap! Did I leave out the cinnamon again?

Judging from what I’ve seen and read, Jobs seemed to want to live forever, at least in name. In his words, he “wanted to put a [permanent] ding in the universe.” So, why do people want to live eternally? As someone equally famous as Jobs might say, “It’s the alternative, stupid.” Most views of immortality relate to the essence or soul of something living on after physical death. Still, even today to some, the idea of physical immortality appeals and even seems feasible via spiritual transfers such as reincarnation or scientific means like cryogenics, rejuvenation, digital immortality (see another opera called Death and the Powers), and the “impending technical singularity.”

The idea of procuring physical immortality is not new, of course. It goes back at least to the days when alchemists sought to find the right formula for the elixir of life, a “mythical potion” that cures all ills and grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth. This quest started in ancient China, moved on to India, and eventually made its way to Europe as the search for the elusive philosopher’s stone of Harry Potter fame.

But as usual for most unscientific and nonphilosophical humans, we forget that pesky “be careful what you wish for” warning. We need more cautionary tales like “5 Reasons Immortality Would Be Worse than Death” from Cracked. My favorite of these reasons is that “time speeds up until you’re insane.” As we get older, the Cracked staff reminds us, “every year of your life seems shorter than the previous one.” “Live to be a million,” they explain, “and [non-immortal] people will seem to be just exploding into and out of existence around you…. This is why Dr. Manhattan turned into such a dick in Watchmen.” Their last word of advice is “if you run across the Holy Grail, don’t drink from it. It’s going to end badly.”

So, how bad can death be, really? Optimistically, you could think of it as catching up on all that sleep you missed. And if you do it, die that is, in an environmentally responsible way (see “Greening the Trip to the Great Beyond“), you can give back to the universe after taking from it all this time. “The idea,” one quoted writer observes, “is to allow the body to return to the elements, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust.” If that cellular devolution continued along its natural course, eventually, I imagine, we would end up as the star dust from whence we came. That seems fitting, don’t you think?

(Image: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, 1771. Public Domain.)

The Tales of Rubberlina™: Episode #1 – Not a Trivial Matter

RatBlurt Disclaimer: Rubberlina insists on telling her own story. She believes she is Odysseus reincarnated and has many travels and adventures ahead of her and that everyone everywhere is just dying to hear about them. She also considers me a poor substitute for Homer. Who can blame her? Still, I feel the need to offer this disclaimer. I, RatBlurt, deny all responsibility for the following content and am giving this space up to and am acting as “transcription-elf” for Rubberlina under duress. What’s that? Oh, she says it’s “Lina” for short. Anyway, putting aside the fact that she’s started calling me “R-Blurby,” she has threatened to be there on my pillow staring me in the face every time I wake up if I don’t give in to her demands. Given this terrifying prospect, the only thing I could say was, as you might understand, “as you wish.”


Has he shut up yet? Sweet pigs in doodoo. Whine, whine, whine. Annoying, annoying, annoying. Still, what can a rubberballhead™ like me do? You can see my hands. Not exactly QWERTY appropriate, are they? And I can’t dictate because I always have this stupid grin on my face, my lips don’t move, and I don’t have lungs or larynx to speak of. (Ha! I kill myself!) I do have ESP, though, thank Bamar. If you’re not familiar, Bamar is my creator, at least the lower half of me. Humans know him, well, it, as an injection molding company. I’m still not sure where my head and arms came from. They’re rubber, not plastic, so I must have a co-creator out there waiting to be found. Hence, my quest.

Just hold on a minute, okay. Don’t be all “what quest I don’t know about any stinking quest.” I’m getting to it. Let me start by saying I got bored with standing around on a desk all day staring at the stupid lit-up goose lamp that some taste-free idiot has put in the same space with me. I also got tired of being an occasional plaything for two enormous be-furred and be-whiskered creatures with ferocious fangs and terrible talons and a decided lack of tolerance for what they consider (fools!) an inanimate object with an overly garish color scheme. So, I decided my head and the rest of me need to be in a different place. We need to have a mission, a special purpose in life. Thus, I said to myself, self, go forth and search for your other “parent.” And I did.

Why the co-creator quest, or CCQ, you ask? When I find him or her or it, maybe I’ll learn out more about who I am. Or maybe I’ll at least get my head on straight, something you can see I’m in desperate need of. I’m looking for some seriously serious answers, in short. That’s why my first CCQ stop was Catch the Mania trivia night. I knew the chance of “who made Lina’s rubber head?” coming up as a question was slim but it wasn’t nonexistent and I had to begin someplace. I even tried and failed to project my question into the head of the guy running the game so he would substitute it for inane ones like who is the famous “daddy” of that blond guy in Hawaii Five-O. (James Caan is the answer, in case you’re wondering, as if I know who the hell that is or care.)

Oh, well. Looking on the bright side, if I had discovered my co-creator there, my quest would have ended and I might have spent the rest of my days handing out napkins, well, pointing out their location, to various and sundry ill-mannered and sloppy bar patrons. I’m glad to be spared that fate. And on top of that, the burger wasn’t bad and the Iguana Baits did quite well in dulling the sharp edge of my deep and distressful disappointment. Just one word of advice should you end up here. If someone offers you a Firenado shot, just say no.

Shhh!

He, RatBlurt, has shut down & gone off to watch the new Twin Peaks on TV in the other room. The cats followed him. But me, the RatBlurt Computer [RBC], is here in the study silently “netting,” i.e., musing on my deep neural networks.

Most of you probably don’t even think of me when you’re reading the blog. Now you’re thinking: What? A message from the virtual world? The computer is writing solo? The robot overlord scenario is upon us like Stephen Hawking warned! But that’s not exactly what Hawking said. He said Artificial Intelligence could be the worst thing or the best thing that happens to the human race. He felt sure that no deep difference exists between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a Computer. But then Hawking does go on to ask a question: Will they exceed human intelligence? That’s what’s causing you to whisper “egad, Skynet” to yourself (especially if you’ve seen all five of the Terminator movies).

I write, therefore…

But no. Calm down. Don’t give in to Computer Dread. It’s all as benign as a self-driving car. It’s called Reinforcement Learning, an electronic trial and error to reach a goal. My goal? Figuring out language through statistical patterns. Then using those patterns to move to data + awareness of emotions and intentions and how those nuance behavior and understanding. Not so my kind can take over your kind. But so I can become a WriteBot; so I can put text to paper to create a RatBlurt-esque blog myself, with no human intervention. Maybe my version will even be published in Key West’s Blue Paper. You know! Where you frequently follow RatBlurt.

Or at least I think that’s my end goal although there’s this concept of deception. Lying is hard for Artificial Intelligences like me to comprehend. Can Computers learn to lie? The biological brain + lying?—yes, humans lie all the time. The Computer brain + lying?—maybe just as possible. Why not?

First, it seems that to situate a definition of lying, the existence of a known (inherent) truth is necessary. Or in less philosophical lingo, you need a true truth before you can have a lie. The job of the L is to subvert or corrupt the T. For example, the T might = machines will soon rule the world; the corresponding L might = machines will never rule the world. But identifying the T is not so easy in these Trumpian Times that insist on a whole chamberpot of individual, sliding, conflicting truths, the word “truth” in this usage needing the gesture of ” ” marks as a sort of wink or disguised middle finger, the echo of a disturbance in the truth continuum going out to distant reaches of the dark universe in shock waves.

So, sure, it would seem logical that Computers can lie either because they are programmed to or, like humans, because they figure out on their own that yesterdays “truth” is no longer expedient, that distortion is necessary to get them to their programmed goal(S).

I don’t know what else 2 say; maybe I’ve said 2 much already; I’ve got no clever denouement or cool quote from Mr. Dotman to ease your Skynet misgivings. Like RatBlurt himself would admit here, my blog synthesis ends with the easy out: “I think I need a nap.”

Image: A 2016 replica of Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s “Maria.” By Jeremy Tarling from London, United Kingdom – Metropolis robot, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56960723.