“On the verge”?! Is he kidding?

I’m having a hard time believing what I heard recently. The venue was a Congressional session held for the purpose of probing into the NSA matter. For those who have been otherwise occupied with the cares of life, the NSA matter concerns the National Security Agency’s collection of massive data on private U.S. citizens without their knowledge and storing it in a huge facility in Utah. Apparently, Utah is a state where one can build installations taking up a hundred miles or more of land without anyone noticing. Don’t worry; if you haven’t been using a cell phone and no one has called you using a cell phone, you may be in the clear. But that’s only if the reports of microwaves being used for surveillance aren’t true.

While watching a news clip of the afore-mentioned Congressional session, I couldn’t help being reminded of the Muppets. If you scan the slumped shoulders and droopy faces of Congressional members sitting at one of those long, inquisition-style tables, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they must be puppets operated by unseen handlers stationed behind the chairs. They all sound similar, dress similar, look similar, and speak with the same over-deliberation. They’re like a multiplication of the two old men puppets that used to make sarcastic comments from a theater balcony on every Muppet episode. Oh, and they all wear the same style of reading glasses perched on the end of their nose to look scholarly. I wonder how they avoid noticing their sameness. If I looked around and saw that everybody dressed and acted exactly like me, I would get worried.

Representative John Conyers was speaking when I tuned in. Conyers is a Michigan Democrat who has held his House seat since 1965. In case you’re having a hard time placing how long ago 1965 was, it was the last year that high school guys wore button-down collared shirts to look cool, and girls tried to resemble Gidget. The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” was a brand new song in 1965, and the Beatles competed with “Help!” The Congressman looked weighed down by every minute of the generations he has spent in office as he made what I’m sure he thought was an astute comment.

“We are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state.” What????!!!! Did he really say that? We – are – on – – – the verge? If we’re “on the verge” of becoming a surveillance state, Jay Leno is on the verge of becoming the host of The Tonight Show. Young people are on the verge of being interested in technology. The manual typewriter is on the verge of becoming obsolete.

How could he make a statement like that?! Where were his handlers? (Or maybe he really is a Muppet, and his puppeteer was following the script.) Perhaps the fact that Michigan still has a freeway system has given the distinguished representative an outdated perspective. He may not know that other states have saddled their populations with electronic passes that monitor their road travel. Does he know that in many locales every other traffic light is now armed with a camera and that a growing number of streets are also under watch? Mayberry isn’t under siege; Mayberry is ancient history.

And this is the least of it. We pretend to care about our privacy, but we really don’t want any. If we did, social networking would be an idea for a science fiction novel (maybe Fahrenheit 451 and a Half). Instead, most of America awakens each morning in high anticipation of disgorging every detail of what was once thought of as private information. People go to work and unfold intimacies about their romantic relationships as though they were writers discussing wild story ideas. Perhaps in a search for significance, we Americans each stage our own reality show daily, hoping for big ratings.

But when someone like Congressman Conyers (The Vietnam War formally started in 1965. Sorry, I still can’t get over how long this man has been in office. Moses didn’t serve as long. ) soberly declares our nearness to a surveillance state, we pretend panic and cough up phrases such as “It’s like 1984.” And that’s an appropriate thing to say. It is like 1984 in the sense that George Orwell flipped the year of his grim novel’s publication, 1948, to place his story in a frightening future made all the more frightening by its proximity. But 1984 has come and gone, making the title quaint. In a similar way, our feigned concern with privacy has become quaint. The cat’s not almost out of the bag; it’s out and miles away. If people were honest, they’d be expressing their hope that TV producers will be going through the NSA’s info for their next reality show, Utah Nights.

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Prologue: Why a Maltball?

What, you might reasonably inquire, is a skeptical malt ball? Only an allusion to Socrates can provide a full answer. As you may recall, Socrates was the Greek philosopher who gained fame by questioning just about everyone and everything around him. He also gained death by doing this, but we don’t usually talk about that part unless we’re referring to the legendary cup of hemlock, and even then, many of us don’t quite understand why he took it.

But even as he died, Socrates, according to his faithful student, Plato, explained his mission of questioning. He declared that in the next world he would continue his dialogues because he wanted to separate those who really knew something from those who only thought they knew.

And isn’t that what we want do? We’re constantly surrounded by glittering, superficial stuff. It’s hard to get away from it and look up at the stars and ask what’s real. Usually we can’t even see the stars because of the lights stuck all over the afore-mentioned superficial stuff. We live in a world where the music’s too loud, the TV’s always on, and the pace has turned into a grind.

But somewhere in our hearts, there’s that still, small voice, the voice that whispers our secret longing for what truly matters over what only seems to matter. There’s an ultimate reality for everything. At least that’s what Plato said. He had a theory about a world of ideals where all the stuff we know has an ideal version. There’s an ideal chair, an ideal cake (yeah, it’s chocolate), an ideal politician (maybe that’s going too far).

And there’s an ideal malt ball. Snobs would call them “gourmet” malt balls, but I prefer the Platonic title. The reason this malt ball that I’m thinking of is ideal, is the way it differs sharply from regular malt balls. Regular malt balls have a thin coating; the ideal malt ball has a thick coating of marble-patterned milk and dark chocolate. Regular malt balls are puny; the ideal malt ball is over an inch in circumference. Most importantly, regular malt balls are a pop-chew-swallow disappointment; the ideal malt ball is a transcendent experience involving luxurious stages of consumption (such as the way the coating needs to gradually melt in your mouth in a ceremonial manner).

How do we find ideals? How do we actually touch truth? We do it by refusing the regular malt ball. We do it by not being satisfied until the ideal malt ball is beautifully coming apart in our watering mouth. We have to wear that armor of the mind, skepticism, so we’re not fooled by the phony. We have to view our world the way an ideal malt ball views its world – skeptically. Imagine the dullness our spiritual palates would ignorantly endure if it weren’t for – that’s right – The Skeptical Malt Ball!

A Thing about Machines

A Thing about Machines

by Charles Bey

     “For as long as I have lived, I have never been able to operate machines.”  These words, uttered by food critic Bartlett Finchley in the Twilight Zone episode “A Thing about Machines,” turn out to be the character’s epitaph.  The story’s plot focuses on Finchley’s ongoing “mortal combat” with his machines.  A TV repairman, completing the latest of innumerable jobs at the Finchley home, reminds the critic that his anti-machine rap sheet includes kicking in a TV screen and throwing a radio down a staircase.  These offenses against the machine population are in addition to his destruction of a chime clock whose chiming drove Finchley over yet another edge.  He declares that “there is a conspiracy in this house” meaning that the machines are out to get him.  After losing his secretary over an argument about the efficiency of her electric typewriter, Finchley enters the climax in which every machine he owns orders him out of the house.  The electric typewriter pecks out the words “Get out of here, Finchley,” while the television and the disconnected phone echo the sentiment. Even his electric razor, when Finchley tries to run upstairs, blocks his way with a menacing buzz.  Finally, Finchley’s Rolls Royce runs him down, or rather runs him into a neighbor’s swimming pool in which he apparently drowns.  And so ends another tale of the bizarre from that shadowy realm “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”

     But wait a minute!  Let us not dismiss poor Mr. Finchley so easily.  It’s simple enough to write him off as a technology-hating nut who finally gets his comeuppance.  Before we do that however, let’s ask ourselves some questions.  Question one: Do you own and use a computer?  If the answer is yes, think about some of the experiences you’ve had with it.  Still think Finchley was crazy? I am willing to go on record stating that computers are naturally endowed with independent (and often malevolent) intelligence.  Their intelligence is supposed to be artificial; they are not supposed to be able to do anything they are not programmed to do.  Their builders and their owners are allegedly their masters. Perhaps many of us comfort ourselves with this pleasant self-deception.  If you really think about what you’ve experienced though, you know this is about as true as the proposition that a person is only as old as he or she feels.

     The computer owner will experience far less frustration with his or her “machine” if all operations are executed under the proposition that the computer is inhabited by a surly personality that sometimes tolerates requests and other times irrationally rejects them.  Is there any other explanation for a document easily saving to the desired depository one day and then shooting into an undesignated slot the next?  And what about those weird things that happen when an errant finger inadvertently glides lightly over a random key, somehow causing the entire screen to turn into a psychedelic kaleidoscope?! Don’t they always tell you that you should never worry because you “can’t break it”?  Try telling that to someone who’s been laboring on a document for hours and then witnesses it exploding inexplicably into an unintelligible jungle of chaotic fragments!  Or what about the way the menu screen can morph into a fun house mirror with the wrong touch? Has your computer ever refused to open a saved document for no particular reason (example: Microsoft is not responding)?  You know it has. You are forced to wait until your computer is in a better mood.  

     The other day, I showed a friend a problem I was having with my computer.  It was refusing to allow more than one Word document to be open at one time.  My friend calmly suggested that I click to minimize the dominating document, and when I did, the second one magically appeared.  But the moment he was gone, minimizing did nothing, and I have been unable to open more than one document at a time since! Bartlett Finchley at least received the mercy of conducting his battle with technology at a time when computers were room-sized boxes attended solely by bespectacled men attired in white lab coats!  Imagine how a single laptop might have shortened his life. 

     But computers are not the only mechanical entities possessed with the power of self-direction.  Let’s not forget that the late Mr. Finchley’s car tried to run him over.  Haven’t there been real-life accounts of self-accelerating cars?  Yes, there have.  And there are other ways cars torment their owners.  Have you ever taken your car in for a problem that disappears while the mechanics have it and instantly reappears when you’re driving it home?

    Cars have ample assistance in their quest to aggravate and wear down.   Their powerful ally is GPS.  How many times have you programmed one of these devices to find a large hotel, and instead found your personal corner of The Twilight Zone?  What about those occasions when you program it for a destination that it then claims does not exist?  The most disturbing aspect of this is the insistence of GPS owners that the obvious passive-aggressive behavior is acceptable. 

     They’re afraid to admit what they know in their hearts: every GPS has a mind (and yes, it’s a dark mind) of its own.  How else can we explain the exasperated voice tone in which it expels the word  “Recalculating” when we ignore its instructions at any point? No other explanation makes sense, right Mr. Finchley?       

     Recently, I visited someone in the hospital who was on a breathing machine.  Every now and then the machine emitted an ear-piercing flurry of beeps.  After we had undergone probable hearing damage, a nurse came in to check it.  The high pitch of the deafening sound had made its way all the way out to her station.  She explained that the beeping is designed to take place when the patient’s breathing becomes uneven in any way.  But when we asked her what the irregularity was in this case, she admitted there was none.  Apparently, she revealed, the machine has certain quirks, causing it sometimes to beep without cause, just because it feels like it.  See what I mean?   

     Wasn’t it Jefferson who warned of government being a dangerous servant and a fearful master?  Let’s join Bartlett Finchley in applying those words to the brambly world of modern technology. Our world is more peril-fraught than his. Technology no longer even pretends to serve us; it now owns us.