Sunday, November 22, 2020

Meanwhile, In Florida

 


Over 12 million cases in the U.S. to date, and nearing 200,000 new cases a day.  Over a quarter million deaths to date, and nearing 2,000 deaths per day.  3,700 people out of 100,000 (3.7%, or roughly one for every 27 citizens) have been infected so far in the United States.

And these maskless idiots decide Friday was a good night to pack a Fort Lauderdale sports bar.

Karma: the direct consequence of our actions.  We deserve the sickness we get.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Cats


For about a decade now, I've been observing my two pet cats.

The problem with observing our pets, especially for those of us without training in behavioral biology, is that we tend to anthropomorphize them and to assume that we humans are the center of their feline universe.  To be sure, we're an important component of it, but their world is not necessarily anthropocentric.

A lot of big words.  What I've observed is that although they do recognize their names - as well as the name of the other cat - their minds work in a language-free manner so that although when one hears the word "Eliot," while he knows that it's a reference to him, he does not think "That's me."  He just knows that I've made a sound particular to him and not the other cat or, for that matter, the toaster, the sofa, or the sound of rainfall in the evening.

Imagine what it's like to think without words, without mental symbols to represent things and actions.  Cats are very attuned to sounds - they have truly remarkable hearing - and they've learned that the sound of the pantry door opening around, oh, 7:00 pm means that dinner is about to be served.  They've also learned that when I make the noise that goes "eat," it means that I'm probably going to go to the pantry to get their food.  But they don't assign that particular "eat" sound to the specific action of them consuming their dinner, or to my mental intention of preparing their meal.   It's just a sound they tend to hear before dinner and they've come to associate with part of the mealtime ritual.  Think of it this way - we don't think of the sound of a car engine starting up as an articulated intention of driving somewhere - it's merely the sound of an internal combustion engine.  Same with that "eat" sound that I make or the squeak of the pantry door. They're both just sounds that they've come to associate with the early onset of the evening meal.

So to go a little deeper, since they don't have language or any other mental symbols for the things in the world or of specific actions, they don't have a way to re-telling themselves stories of past events.  There was that night the scary sounds of thunder were outside, and that very scary night the tree came crashing down on my roof, but they have no means of re-creating those events in their minds.  They haven't forgotten it, necessarily, but it isn't a memory that can be recalled and studied in their minds.

So without language, without a way of separating the universe into discretely identifiable objects, and without stories or any kind of personal history, they really don't have a sense of "self."  Chicken-or-the-egg: do they not have a sense of self because they don't have a personal historical narrative, or do they not have a personal historical narrative because there's no "self" to have that experience?  To apply the question to ourselves, what are we apart from the stories we tell ourselves?

Cats are like human infants before self-awareness and ego consciousness develop.  They can learn by repetition and with enough time they realize that certain sounds, including my words, tend to precede certain actions, like feeding or petting, but they don't have a sense of personal history, a narrative that goes, "I was once a feral cat sleeping on random porches until a kind human let me into his house."  Or even, "two nights ago, there were a lot of scary sounds, but it seems calmer tonight."  

They do experience hunger and fear, they enjoy affection, a meal, and a sunny spot in the afternoon, and they even experience an occasional sense of jealousy or unfairness "The other cat is getting a treat but I am not," although of course it is not articulated like that in their minds.      

It's hard for me to even imagine what the feline experience must be like, to feel, to emote, and even to dream (I've heard them vocalizing in their sleep and seen them moving their legs while unconscious, so I know they dream) without words, without mental models, without a personal history, and without ego awareness.  

The lesson here is that for us humans, our sense of self-identity, the ego, our very so-called "soul," is but a mental construct that arises from a language-enabled mind that recalls experiences and sensations and melds them into a personal history, a narrative, and then identifies the constant presence in that narrative as "I."   Language, as William S. Burroughs famously noted, is a virus from outer space.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Random Friday Thoughts

New rule: Every time Joe Biden wins a recount in Georgia, he should get 16 more Electoral College votes. 


Has anybody ever had a run of more consecutive embarrassing moments than Rudy Giuliani in the past month?  First, he gets caught on camera reaching down his pants during an interview in the new Borat movie.


Then he holds a news conference at The Four Seasons.  Except it's the Four Seasons Total Landscaping Company, conveniently located between a crematorium and a sex shop.


And then finally, at another press conference, he starts sweating so profusely that his hair dye starts running down his face.

Good times.  Thanks for the LOLs, Rudy.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Harder They Fall

 

Remember when Donald Trump was seriously proposing that he should be added to Mount Rushmore?

Remember when he was expecting a Nobel Peace Prize?

Remember when he was expecting a second term?

All of that is pretty funny, especially in retrospective, but I also remember when a quarter-million Americans, now dead from the covids, were alive.

I remember when America was internationally respected, even envied, as a great bastion of freedom and liberty.

I remember when an American passport allowed you to travel the world and not merely identify you as a high-risk subject needing quarantine.

It's one thing not to concede an election.  Okay, he's an asshole - we've always known that.  But not allowing security briefings to the incoming President, not including him in the Coronavirus Task Force planning (such as it is) on how we're going to get a much-needed vaccine distributed to the American people, is another thing.  It puts all our lives in danger.  It's reckless and irresponsible.  It's not the act of a sane man ("I'm a very stable genius") - it's the desperate acting out of a malignant narcissist who's going to make everyone suffer over his pain of rejection.  

If, in his derangement and delusion, our so-called "president" is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution should be invoked and the powers be transferred to the vice president until January's inauguration.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Lindsey

Oy, what a day!  First off, before getting into anything else, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) needs to stay the hell out of Georgia.  The news was abuzz this morning that Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger reported that he had been contacted by Graham, twice, with suggestions that Raffi toss out the ballots of entire counties if signature irregularities could be detected in a sufficient number of them.  Aides to the Secretary were also on the call and corroborated his testimony.  Graham's suggestion is nothing short of voter suppression and as he's doing it solely for his own party's advantage, it's seditious, too.

Graham is what's called a beta male.  Like in dog packs, there are alpha leaders and then there are beta followers, males that are genetically programmed to follow the alpha leader.  For years, Graham's alpha leader was Sen. John McCain, but with McCain's failing health and then death Graham switched over to being a beta to our so-called "president."  As a beta, Graham is out interfering with election results in other states so he can run back to his alpha leader and present his act of fealty ("Look what I did for you, daddy!").

The Savannah River is a 300-mile-long waterway that separates Georgia from South Carolina.  Lindsey Graham needs to keep his lily-livered beta self on the east side of that river and not let the sunset catch his ass on the river's western banks.  Lindsey Graham, stay the hell out of Georgia!

But that was just this morning's news, not my actual life.  Today, the settlement from my insurance claim regarding the tree that fell on my house finally arrived in my bank account, and now that we finally have a scope of work and budget established, I called my preferred contractor to begin the contracting process.  So now I'm waiting on the estimator to arrive.

Meanwhile, knowing that I'm going to be tied up with home repairs for a while, I started some upgrades on the Vinings condo first to get it ready for the market.  I met a plumber at the condo today to replace the water heater and  fix a leaky toilet.  It turns out the utility closet is too narrow for today's standard hot-water heaters, so he has to order a specialty unit to fit in the tight space.  And the 1987 toilet no longer has replacement parts available to stop the leak, so we need to order a new toilet, too.  Good times.

Back home, the news was still carrying on about Graham, who defended his actions in Georgia by saying he had also been in touch with Secretaries of State in Arizona, Nevada, and other states too with the same suggestion.  Saying you committed a crime multiple times doesn't make it any better, Lindsey.  It just makes it organized crime, enforceable by the RICO Act.  

You'll love it in prison, Lindsey.  Lots of alpha males there for you to follow around.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Those Who Don't Know History Are Destined To Repeat It


Daily Reported New Cases In Georgia (Source: NY Times, Nov. 15, 2020)


In 1918-1919, during the height of the First World War, testing for the flu, especially in war-torn Europe, wasn't as prevalent as it is now, and the number of flu cases was largely tracked by the number of flu deaths.  Today, testing in the U.S. and the state of Georgia is more prevalent and we're getting better at treating the flu, resulting in fewer deaths per new case.  

 As a result, the 1918-1919 death graph more resembles the 2020 new case graph, as in Georgia's above, than the death graph.  

Both graphs suggest that the deadliest time of the pandemic is right now, the winter months, which is otherwise flu season anyway and people spend more time indoors trading non-ventilated air and infecting each other.

I attribute the first, April peak in the current Georgia graph to the initial outbreak, and its decline to the shelter-in-place orders eventually issued in most states and municipalities.  I attribute the second, July peak to the re-opening of the economy and "pandemic fatigue" when people just stopped social distancing, as well as to protests, rallies, and other super-spreader events, with the decline caused by a general awareness of the results of the protests, rallies, and other super-spreader events, and voluntary social distancing and more attention to hygiene (hand-washing) and wearing of face masks.  I attribute the current and still-rising peak to school re-openings (secondary and colleges) and the start of winter weather and indoor activities.

This current peak probably won't decline until enough vaccinations occur to develop an immunity.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Meanwhile, In Detroit


I'm a little surprised to be posting from the gaming desk so soon after Wednesday's post about Shadow of the Tomb Raider, but something has to be said about Detroit: Become Human.

On many levels, Detroit may be one of the best game I've ever played.  On the other hand, it also provided one of my worst experiences in four years of PC gaming.

What was so good about it?  For one, incredible, ultra-realistic, cinematic quality visuals.  Rendering human faces is one thing that many video games can't seem to accomplish well, but this game has highly believable faces that can accurately express the subtlest of emotions.  Which brings me to the second good thing - the quality of the acting.  On top of the totally convincing CGI faces, the voice acting was superb.  And the writing brought it all together - without a good script, all those finely rendered faces and good voice acting would have been squandered.

SPOILERS AHEAD:  I don't think most of my readers, few that they are, are computer gamers, but if you are and are considering playing Detroit: Become Human, STOP READING NOW!  I'm about to ruin the experience for you.  But it's not a spoiler to say up front that the game basically follows three different characters, all androids physically indistinguishable from humans, who become sentient, Westworld-style.  The three characters all have separate story lines that eventually, toward the end of the game, intertwine, largely based on decisions and choices the player makes earlier in the game.

What it is not is an open-world role-playing game.  The story sticks to a very precise script and there are few if any superfluous side missions to bog down the narrative just to pad the playing hours (the game can be completed in a brief 12-15 hours).  It's not a combat game - the characters don't collect and upgrade weapons.  In fact, there is no in-game crafting at all.  

What it is is an immersive, cinematic experience, three compelling stories that don't exactly merge but do interweave toward the end.  Playing the game is like binge-watching an excellent, 12-episode television series, but one that can change based on your in-game choices and actions.

In short, you start to really care about the characters.  The game is emotionally manipulative, pulling you in with the feels and showing you the psychological vulnerabilities and emotions of the characters. This was especially true, at least for me, in the story of a young nanny droid and the human child she bonds with as they escape first an abusive father and then an intolerant society.  "I'll never leave you," Kara, the nanny, reassures Alice, the vulnerable child, and even though it sounds corny when I write it here, in the game, just like in a movie, with the acting and the background music and all the other dramatic devices used, it's quite affecting.  You really want them to escape safely and to bond and be together, even though one isn't biologically human.

Last Wednesday, I started playing the game and quickly became thoroughly engrossed.  Each story line was interesting and emotionally resonant, and I really cared about the characters.  I avoided reading any online walkthroughs or tips on how to get the best possible ending, just as you should stop reading right now if you're going to play the game  (last SPOILER warning). So imagine my reaction, when due to a selection I made during one action sequence, Kara and Alice get captured by a Detroit SWAT team and sent to a "recycling center," an obvious analogue to the Third Reich's concentration/death camps. When the SWAT team burst through the doors and the game prompted me to either press 1 for "run" or 2 to "play dead," I chose what I thought would be the hero's route and pressed 1, but Kara was immediately caught, handcuffed, and separated from Alice.

And here's where I got really mad at the game and feel that for all its strengths it was also one of the worst games I've ever played.  Over many long minutes and with an excruciating level of detail, Kara searches the "recycling center" for Alice and finally finds and consoles her, only to be systematically bullied and humiliated by their human captors.  "I'm scared," little Alice says, and "I don't like it here," and Kara keeps trying to comfort her, saying "It's all going to be okay."  But they're stripped down, struck with rifle stocks, and generally dehumanized (even though Kara isn't biologically "human").  I kept looking for some in-game route to sneak out and escape but nothing succeeded for me, and then I was expecting some sort of last-minute, here-comes-the-cavalry rescue from another story line, but that didn't happen either.  Finally, out of options, the two are executed, but not off-screen or in a fade-to-black, leave-it-to-the-imagination style - the "camera" follows them into the gas chamber, lets you see the gas fill the room, the two cough and struggle, and then finally collapse before the final fade.

YOU BASTARDS!  They killed Kara!  They made me care about and sympathize with the two, and then made me watch them die in the cruelest and most explicit way possible, all because I chose 1 ("flee") rather than 2 ("play dead") during an action sequence.  Who does that?  YOU MONSTERS! They even cut away to a shot of the two bodies laying in a landfill with dozens of other victims around them.  Will Kara suddenly reboot and rescue Alice?  No, they dead, and it sucked.

I still played through to the end of the game after that, hoping for some redeeming event, but I felt slightly nauseous and unsettled and didn't really enjoy the game very much after that.  I didn't feel any satisfaction or sense of completion at the end of the game, and frankly, was disappointed that I had wasted a dozen hours being first manipulated and then brutalized for caring.

So today, I went back to fix things.  I didn't want that sequence to be my final, lasting impression of the game.  I opened it back up at that earlier action sequence (sort of like selecting a scene in a DVD), and played dead rather than flee.  It worked, and Kara and Alice escaped the raid alive.  That unlocked several other sequences I missed on my first playthrough, since those two characters were not then in the script.  The suspense was terrific, as now I knew exactly what would happen if they were caught again.  But even then, once they finally made it to their final destination, Alice, the child, passed away peacefully in  her sleep due to other wounds she incurred, leaving Kara alone and devastated in their new homeland.  

While that didn't suck as much as the extermination-camp ending before, it still wasn't the emotional catharsis I needed to absolve all my feelings.  So I played the last chapter through again, a third time, carefully avoiding the situation wherein Alice got injured, and finally was successful in achieving the "happy" ending with Kara and Alice and their protector friend Luther all safe and happy and alive in their new homeland at the end of the game.  All the other major characters made it to the end with their own happy endings as well, so all was good.

TL/DR:  Detroit: Become Human is one of the best games I've ever played, one of the most artistic and well written and best produced.  It's totally engrossing and emotionally riveting, and it's a testament to the game how strongly I reacted to that death scene, but good gosh, was it really necessary to engage in that level of Holocaust porn to punish a player for fleeing instead of playing dead?  How were we supposed to know?  Anyhow, if you want a very different kind of game from the usual level-based, open-world RPG overstuffed with pointless side quests and forgettable NPCs, you may want to give Detroit a shot.  Just be sure to pick "Play Dead" when prompted!

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Meanwhile, In Georgia


As you can probably imagine, living here in Georgia, I'm currently subjected to a lot of advertising telling me how to vote in the upcoming Senate run-off elections.  I'm subjected to even more appeals for campaign contributions.

As a quick reminder, now that most of the smoke has finally cleared from the November 3 general election, Republicans have won 50 of the 100 seats in the Senate to the Democrats' 48.  Only two seats remain open, and they're both here in Georgia.  If the Democrats win both, the Senate will be tied and Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris will have the tie-breaker vote.  If the Republicans win either one of the two seats, they will have the Senate majority, and Moscow Mitch McConnell will continue to be the majority leader and effectively strangle any legislation Biden and the House of Representatives propose.  It will be four more years of the congressional stalemate and legislative gridlock we've been experiencing for a decade now.  It will be four more years of bitter partisanship.

I'm not optimistic about the Democrats' chances.  Both Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are fine men and good candidates, but despite the fact that Georgia finally flipped blue and elected Joe Biden over you-know-who in the presidential race, it's still a pretty red state with a solid Republican majority. Biden got the lead because you-know-who is such a rotten, deplorable candidate that a sufficient number of Georgia Republicans just couldn't get themselves to vote for him, despite their party affiliation.  They voted against the incumbent, not for his challenger's policies and legislative agenda.

In one race, Awful Kelley Loeffler is running against the Rev. Raphael Warnock.  The wealthy Loeffler is the very picture of vested interests and corruption, the personification of what was supposed to have been drained from the swamp.  The Rev. Warnock is a humble and direct man of the people, and the head preacher of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s old job.  Based on personalities alone, it should be no contest and Warnock got the most votes in the general election.  But Republican votes were split by a contentious race between Awful Loeffler and the clownish Doug Collins, who combined got 46% of the vote compared to Warnock's 33%.  Assuming that most people who voted for Collins will vote for Loeffler in the run-off election, you can see the gap that Warnock has in front of him.

In the other race, Jon Ossoff is running against Republican incumbent David Purdue.  Purdue has his own ethics and corruption issues to deal with, but he's nowhere near as cartoonish a villain as Awful Loeffler.  Purdue managed to get 49.7% of the vote, just short of the 50% he needed to win outright, while Ossoff got 48%. In order to win, Ossoff needs some combination of the following three things to happen: 

  1. A significant percentage of the Republicans who voted for Purdue change their minds and party affiliation and vote for his Democratic opponent; 
  2. Despite record turnout and Stacey Abrams' heroic voter-registration drive, Ossoff can find enough additional voters to make up the difference; or 
  3. A sufficient number of Republicans are so sick of politics, burned out from you-know-who's shenanigans to Moscow Mitch's obstructionism to Purdue's own corruption, that they don't bother to show up and vote.
It's not impossible but it's a tough road for Ossoff.  Still, if I were a betting man, I'd favor Ossoff's chances over Warnock's.  

The Democrats' pitch to us Georgia voters is we have to turn out and elect their candidates to give President-Elect Biden the Senate majority he needs to accomplish the legislative agenda we elected him to achieve.  The Republicans' pitch is we need to prevent a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress in addition to the White House to prevent, um, socialism?  One appeal is based on hope and the other on fear.

It will say a lot about us as a state and as a nation which appeal resonates the most with voters.