I talked a lot in last month’s column about cats and dogs, which left me wondering, as it always does, about why people keep other animals as pets, and the strange dichotomies such tastes sometimes produce.
Fish, for example. People spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars on fish and their upkeep. I suppose one could regard fish more as collectibles than pets. Something to show off. They’re attractive, true, but that’s about it. You can’t walk a fish, save for certain varieties of koi you can’t pet a fish, and they pretty much only react to the offering of food.
Birds, now, that I can understand. You can pet a bird (and the bird likes it), you can walk some birds on your shoulder, and you can even communicate, sort of, with certain birds. When it comes to birds as pets, people generally speak of parrots, macaws and parakeets, but personally I would go for a corvid. Ravens and crows are often accounted the most intelligent of birds, and will work to prove it. A friend of ours had a pet crow that, when she sat down to type a letter, would pick up a piece of paper and make an effort to insert it into the typewriter (if you’re under 20, now’s the time to google “typewriter”). When she was doing laundry it would try to help load clothes into the washer. Pretty clever for a wild bird.
Pet owners often talk about how much of their choice has to do with appearance. But it’s not always the case. Take reptiles, for example (most folks won’t). Snakes and lizards can be incredibly beautiful. For years we had a bright green iguana named Broccoli (for his favorite food). But they’re not “cuddly,” people will object.
That depends on how you define “cuddly.” For ten years I enjoyed the company of a six-foot Columbian boa named Sam. As far as easy-care pets go, Sam was hard to beat. Didn’t have to walk him, he didn’t bark or hiss, and he only had to be fed a couple of times a month. Aggressive? Sam was such a scaredy-snake that I had to kill his food for him. He would slither away and cower before a live rat. When I let him out of his enclosure he would curl up in my lap and relax, or curiously explore my study.
Common misconception: snakes are slimy. Sam was dry and cool. In the summer, he would cool me on contact while my body heat would please him. It was fascinating to see him interact with small children who had not been taught to fear snakes. They would laugh and giggle as he slid all over them. In ten years he never bit anyone, which is more than you can say for your average cat or dog or kid. But I wouldn’t keep a constrictor if it grows to more than ten feet. That’s stupid macho stuff, and potentially dangerous.
Speaking of rats, there’s another potential pet that gets bad press. We have history to thank for that. I once spent part of a day in the Temple of Deshnok, in the province of Rajasthan, India. The temple is famous because the priests feed and tend to the thousands of rats that live within, believing each one to house the spirit of someone departed. No shoes allowed, so when you walk around the grounds and inside (where the darkness finally spooks some visitors), hundreds of rats scurry around and over your feet. It’s a fascinating experience. And they never bite anybody. Think the movie Ratatouille, only in real life.
Snakes and rats; sorry if I’ve creeped anybody out. The point I’m making is that we’re psychologically conditioned to accept certain animals as pets and reject others based not on how they might respond to us, but on history, superstition, and inaccurate assumptions.
For example, some people keep spiders as pets. Not just as collectibles, like fish, but as pets. Some spiders are really colorful, and they are fascinating creatures. Other people keep ferrets, and let their children play with them. Both are predators (the spiders and ferrets, not the children, at least not till they grow up). Spiders tend to be slow-moving and wary, and will not bite. Ferrets are fast, aggressive, and belong in the same family (mustelidae) as other gentle creatures such as weasels, badgers and wolverines. Want to bet which will bite first, spider or ferret?
So much of how we regard pets is psychological. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. I have to admit that “Would you like to pet my Goliath bird-eating spider?” just does not generate the same response in a visitor as “Would you like to pet my parakeet?” When it comes to which critters we keep as companions, so much of it is mental.
But no one can tell me that an emerald tree boa isn’t beautiful, even if it doesn’t purr.
Thought for the day: if someone watches cooking and restaurant-review shows all night, will they a) put on weight because the shows will make them want to eat, or b) lose weight because looking at food for hours will kill any appetite? Surely this important topic has been the subject of at least a few theses and half a dozen government studies.
And now, back to the subject at hand: drones.
Axon, an Arizona company that manufactures tasers, has proposed integrating one of itsinvigorating little products with a drone. The initial mockup looks like something out of Star Wars, or maybe Dune. I don’t think it’s intentional on the part of the company, but the little airborne bugger looks downright intimidating. If I was a bad guy, saw one of these humming in my direction, and had any notion of its capabilities, I’d surrender right then and there.
The intimidation factor may be one of this product’s most underappreciated and unrecognized capabilities. It’s one thing when you’re confronted by a cop holding a taser. People tend to react to the human behind the weapon, not the weapon itself (unless it’s, say, a Mossburg). Facing an armed drone, a frantic malefactor has no one in front of them to yell at, no one to argue with, no one’s mother to insult. The operator is out of sight.
The thought behind the Axon device is to enable the authorities to send in something to safely deal with, for example, an active shooter or otherwise barricaded and unreachable suspect. Further, the small drone can dive in through an open or broken window, travel down a narrow hall and, for all I know, drop down a chimney broadcasting in Vin Diesel’s voice, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas and drop that weapon now!”
What this means is that a dangerous suspect can be confronted without risking the lives of police, firemen, paramedics or other humans. Someone experiencing a violent mental episode and waving a large knife can be safely rendered harmless with no opportunity to cut those trying to help them. There are lots of obvious advantages.
But. Suppose the candidate for take-down is out of the drone operator’s range? Or their description is known but their location only generally? Wouldn’t it be a comparatively simple matter to program such a drone with the relevant information and send it out to locate, identify, and incapacitate the suspect? An AI-driven armed drone? Surely Axon, not to mention assorted military establishments around the world, are already working on this.
Here’s today’s reading assignment for you: “Watchbird,” a short story by Robert Sheckley. First publication in Galaxy magazine, February 1953.
I consider Sheckley to be not only the greatest writer of short science-fiction, but one of the best short-story writers of the 20th century. Especially during the 1950s Sheckley would toss out one brilliant tale after another, each one of which would, in the hands of another writer, serve as the basis for an entire novel. Sheckley wrote novels as well, but his true metier was short fiction. Much of his work included a healthy dose of satire. In the Soviet Union this made him a writer of significant stature. All his considerable output of short fiction is available and has been widely reprinted.
“Watchbird” deals with the prospect of AI-controlled armed drones. Drones equipped with real firepower, not non-lethal weapons like tasers. Of course if one can build a drone that can carry and fire a taser, replacing that takedown device with something more deadly, or simply destructive, is no more than a matter of a little engineering. Taser to laser, say.
Yes, I know truly powerful lasers require huge amounts of energy. But the small, cheap laser is already the source of an inordinate amount of aggravation for pilots. Imagine a flock of cheap drones equipped with equally inexpensive lasers swarming around Russian helicopters in Ukraine. I wouldn’t want to be piloting one of those Hinds.
I have to repeat that Axon isn’t (I think) considering AI-driven drones. Just the ordinary contemporary kind, operated by someone twiddling controls while following the drone’s progress via a screen and device-mounted camera. No flying Terminators. Yet.
Read Sheckley’s story. Then remember: this is from an author just speculating. In 1953. So about 70 years ago. Now take a leap of imagination forward, the same length of time. It’s 2093. We’d better keep a close eye on what goes into the chips that go into such drones.
And I don’t mean the chocolate kind.
With an exception, I love most animals. I am not fond of parasites, of which I have had personal experience. Of these, Haemadipsa picta, the tiger leech of Borneo, was probably the most entertaining, a bloodsucker that gives the lie to the old claim that you can’t feel a leech when it bites. There was also a fun encounter with amoebic dysentery, contracted in the course of a leisurely paddle down the Batoka Gorge of the Zambezi. I am also not enamored of the mosquito, though I respect its elegant design and its usefulness as a food source for other, more amenable critters. Other than these, I am pretty much comfortable around everything from skunks to sharks.
So why is it that cats are so special? You hear “she’s a dog person” or “he’s a cat person” all the time. We’ve had a number of dogs. I’ve loved them all and they’ve loved me back. But there’s something about cats ….
Even the noted horror writer HP Lovecraft was a boundless admirer of cats, to the point of writing an excellent essay on the matter of dogs vs. cats, ingeniously titled “Cats and Dogs.” Not “Dogs and Cats,” you notice. Lovecraft even wrote a charming fantasy (not horror) story on the subject, “The Cats of Ulthar.”
Lovecraft is hardly an exception. Cats figure prominently in the lives and stories of innumerable artists. I’ve written a few myself. The story “Ali Babette” and the novel Cat-a-lyst come to mind. I’ve also written stories featuring dogs, most notably The Taken trilogy. So, why cats?
I think it comes down to cats being regarded more as equals and dogs more like — well, like servants. Dogs can be trained to fetch your slippers (I guess some folks still wear slippers), bring you the morning paper (I guess some folks still read a morning paper), play chase, guard your domicile, and catch frisbees.
Rather than fetch your slippers,it is more probable that a cat will make one of them into a daybed. As regards the morning paper, a cat is likely to take personal possession of it, following which the fragments of said paper may well be unreadable, suitable only for (ponder this now) filling a cat box. A cat will play chase, but only with objects of its own desire, and at a time and place of its choosing. Cats have been known to warn their owners of danger, attack intruders, and defend children. Furthermore, they do not have to be trained to do this. As to catching a frisbee, a cat may watch, but only watch. Because fetching frisbees is an activity that is plainly beneath it, and a pastime suitable only for goofy humans.
Cats will also scour your house of mice, rats, and bugs large and small. Our cats handle any scorpions or centipedes that make it inside. Imagine your dog doing this (successfully). Cats keep themselves groomed and do not have to be walked. They (generally speaking) will not dangerously overeat if food is constantly left out for them. Their favorite pastime is sleeping, which is a huge solid for someone who works at home. They do not vocalize hysterically at passing aircraft or cars. They are excellent judges of character, where to a dog a human is immediately branded either a friend or enemy, too often without a careful measuring of relevant characteristics.
I do not mean to imply that cats are angels. Their worst trait is a propensity for consuming small birds. We have a deficit of small birds in this country that increases year by year. We keep all our cats inside, the one exception being a cat named BK who is not much bigger than the birds she would hunt, and who is never allowed outside unless I am with her. During such sojourns she has never touched a single bird.
Dogs tend to pant, whine or bark. In contrast, the hum of a purring cat is one of the most relaxing sounds in the world. Forget Sominex and its like. Nothing will put you to sleep faster than a cat curled up beside you with its purring mechanism turned on High. I once had the opportunity to pet a purring cheetah and can tell you that the only difference in sound between it and a purring housecat was the volume.
That said, much as I admire them, I would never keep a big cat as a pet. It's not fair to the feline, they don’t live nearly as long (generally) as house cats, and I don’t think I could manage regular changing of the litter box. Also, the furniture would suffer. Besides, just like humans and dogs, even the best behaved and most mild-mannered cat can have a bad hair day. In that event, if it’s your pet tabby, you might lose some skin. If it’s your pet lion, you might lose the neighbor’s kid. Notwithstanding these little peccadilloes, all cats are great people.
Also, they don’t have access to AK-47s.
My wife and I have raised and fostered a lot of cats over the years. I don’t know how you more clearly define “a lot,” but I think what qualifies is when you start forgetting names and have to begin writing them down. So I won’t try to list them all here (which would also suggest an attempt to falsely pad the word count in this column, so we’ll give formal feline nomenclature a pass).
Every one of them has been kept as an indoor cat. I do occasionally allow MK, one of our current cats, outside for a short saunter. But only when I can go with her. There is a personal reason and a scientific reason for this.
The personal reason is because I don’t think anyone in Prescott who truly loves their cat will allow them outside unaccompanied. This isn’t Manhattan. There are predators everywhere (okay, there are predators in Manhattan too, but nearly all are of the two-legged variety, and that’s for a different column). While most are interested in less dangerous prey (rabbits, rock squirrels, chipmunks, lizards), there are some large and strong enough to take a house cat — first and foremost, coyotes. More rarely, foxes and hawks. At night, great horned owls. A couple of months ago I spotted a ferruginous hawk sitting in a dead tree on the ridge above our property. It was back yesterday, an unmistakable bird. This is the largest hawk in North America and it could easily take a cat. Or a small dog. I suppose as pet owners we should be thankful we don’t have any Harpagornis around. So if you love your cat, why would you let it outside unaccompanied? It’s not like it has to be walked, like a dog. It doesn’t need acres of space to be happy.
As I said, the other reason is scientific and involves — birds.
I love cats, but I also love birds, and the inescapable fact is that the softly purring furball in your lap is also a cute little cuddly killer. It’s not their fault. Nature designed them that way. No matter how much we might like to imagine it, and despite the occasional nosh of pickle or apple, the fact is that there are no vegan cats. Left to themselves out in the wild (even the wilds of Prescott, which has considerably more wilds than Manhattan), a house cat will revert to its natural instinct to kill and consume whatever it can catch. The annual small mammal take by outdoor cats in the US is breathtaking, but the majority of small mammals killed by felines often involve mice, rats, gophers, and other unendangered critters. Birds are not nearly as fecund, and too many are endangered.
So what’s the actual number of birds killed by cats in the US?
2.4 billion. Yes, billion. That’s every year.
Nor do cats discriminate. They’re just as happy to eat a rare songbird as a common house finch. Worse, they tend to leave larger “pest” birds like urban pigeons alone. After habitat loss, in the US outdoor cats are the second-largest contributor to wild-bird mortality.
To restate: it’s how they are programmed. In their hunting and dietary habits, house cats are barely one step removed from wild felines the same size. Leopard cats in Borneo, jungle cats in India, your snoozing tabby: all would freely swap meals, including wild birds.
So then, you say, why do I let our one cat outside for even a brief walk, even while I accompany her (for her protection)? Because she doesn’t know what to do with a bird. She’ll take a few steps toward one and then slow, giving the (doubtless contemptuous bird) ample time to leave. We have other cats I would never let outside because they plainly (by their actions) would know exactly what to do given such a confrontation, and would leave nothing in their wake but feathers.
I’ve always wondered if some clever training could break house cats of their hunting instinct. I mean, if you can educate one to use the toilet instead of a cat box …. But apparently it’s a simpler matter to train a cat where to poop than not to kill.
C’mon, then. Keep your beloved kitty inside, both to preserve it and to preserve the Prescott environment we all love. If you need a reminder about what’s at stake here, take a good look inside your cat’s mouth the next time it yawns.
No vegan, that.
Ordinarily I don’t speak much to world events here. But there seems to be some confusion as to what is happening in Eastern Europe. In the interests of transparency, I will attempt, as Bugs Bunny once said, to elucidate. Especially for my Russian readers.
There is no war in Ukraine. The altruistic, one might even say caring, government of that noted teddy bear and full-time hermit President Vladimir Putin of the rapidly regressing country known as the Russian Federation has sent foreign aid in the form of 190,000 troops to help its brotherly neighbor with development, starting with the nonviolent removal of its leader, that noted Nazi Jewish comedian Zelensky, whose grandfather rose to become a decorated colonel in the Soviet army and who lost all three of his brothers to the Holocaust.
There is no movement of 3.7 million (at last count) supposed refugees from Ukraine. These are all mostly women and children who have simply chosen to vacation in nearby countries. Their husbands and brothers are staying behind to plant flowers to welcome visiting Russian troops. The benevolent visiting soldiers are helping with this by energetically turning over the soil and sometimes the pavement to assist with spring planting. As this process would normally take some time, tools other than shovels and rakes are being utilized even though, as with all construction equipment, they sometimes make loud noises when working.
Russian troops are also assisting in the reconstruction of many cities by demolishing old buildings such as residences, schools and hospitals, where sparkling new structures will arise sometime in the next millennium. Ukrainians are delighting in this assistance, as one can see by their jumping and running joyfully in many directions as this dynamic reconstruction proceeds, even in neighborhoods that did not know they needed it.
To further illustrate their involvement with the local citizenry, visiting Russian units have acted vigorously to cure an ongoing epidemic of obesity in the city of Mariupol. By cutting off all food and water supplies to the city, they are making it easier than ever for all its overweight inhabitants to lose body mass. The grateful residents can be seen crying their thanks.
To celebrate the peaceful handing over of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to the visiting soldiers, each one of whom, down to the most callow 19-year-old, is highly trained in the supervision of such complex and dangerous facilities, some fireworks were set off in celebration. These are clearly visible in the videos of our troops’ arrival. Ukrainians and the rest of Europe can rest assured that everything at the six nuclear reactors is fine and operating normally, just as they currently are at Chernobyl, which our technicians who are now also in control there can proudly declare to have been perfectly safe for no less than 48 hours.
You may have heard that a huge group of our men and equipment is “stalled” north of Kyiv. This is another lie. Their steady arrival in the city is simply proceeding at a measured pace because parking in central Kyiv requires a permit and, not wishing to upset local traffic authorities, the necessary certificates are being issued one at a time and in accordance with local regulations. No responsible tank driver wants to risk getting a ticket for parking his death machine in the wrong zone!
So you see, dear reader, there is no war, no invasion. Everything is proceeding as planned, everything is under control, and in Russia they can watch the details unfold every day on what is left of the media. Russian readers in particular should not believe the stream of lies coming from their friends, relatives, foreign media, the UN General Assembly, the rest of Europe (I mean, who needs Europe?), Asia (I mean, who needs Asia?), those perfidious Americans with their endless drivel about free elections, the Middle East, the … well, the rest of the planet. They’re all drowning in, as President Putin has repeatedly (and rather desperately) stated, an empire of lies. All of them, especially the dozens and dozens and dozens of countries that have foolishly elected to embargo everything from vodka to Russian athletes. And of course, Russian money. But true Russians don’t need money, except those who have to make payments on yachts bigger than the Kremlin.
All this temporary foolishness shall pass. Any day now, the ruble will double in value, so that it is once again worth not one but two US cents.
So I say to my Russian readers: stand fast, tighten your belts, ignore the rest of the planet, and know that all will be well. Just don’t ask too many questions. Especially in public.
I love tech. But I don’t feel the need to have the latest and greatest.
I have an advanced electric car (a Tesla), but it’s six years old. There’s nothing wrong with it, so why get rid of it? Sure, I’d like to have the latest version. But I don’t need the latest version. We have a modern OLED TV, but it’s several years old and I don’t feel compelled to buy the newest model. The same goes for every piece of technology I can think of, from space heaters to cell phones to computer mice. As much as I admire and enjoy new tech, I don’t feel I have to own the latest and (supposedly) greatest.
It got me thinking: does every generation feel the same way? Or is it just during the last hundred years that tech has advanced and changed so much that a new iteration of a familiar device or tool comes along every year to draw our attention? How did people feel when their tech was new?
“Well, this newfangled movable type is all well and good, but I prefer the artistry of a one-at-a-time handwritten book.”
“Who needs a handheld radio? Ours is a piece of furniture, solid wood, and it looks great in the living room. Yours just disappears into a drawer.”
“Silent film is an art form. Add sound and you destroy the artistry. Besides, what theater is going to pay to install a whole new audio system when they can just hire one organist who can change the music every night all by himself?”
“A cartoon that runs longer than an hour? No audience will sit still for that.” Walt Disney heard that one plenty when he was developing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Here is a selection of my all-time favorites:
“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?”
— Associates of David Sarnoff responding to the latter's call for investment in the radio, 1921
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
— Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big-business mainframe computers, arguing against the personal computer in 1977
“I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and foundering at sea.” — novelist HG Wells, 1901
“Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical (sic) and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.”
— Simon Newcomb; the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk 18 months later. Newcomb was not impressed.
“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”
— President of the Michigan Savings Bank, advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903
“Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure.”
— Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison's light bulb, 1880
“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”
— FCC Commissioner Tunis Craven, 1961; the first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965.
“This telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
— Internal memo at Western Union, c.1877
If you look back at the history of tech, nearly every transforming piece of technology had multiple, serious, often highly respected, well-educated decriers. That’s why when something new comes along, I may not buy it, but neither do I dismiss it out of hand. Those who do end up looking like fools as often as they do seers. And I’d rather be a failed seer than a confirmed fool.
This is a serious matter when one is writing science-fiction. You don’t have to be predictable, but you don’t want to end up looking like an idiot, either. Tech advances so rapidly now that if you don’t keep up, you can be left with what you wrote looking downright silly.
That doesn’t mean you have to buy everything, just to monitor developments. If you do that, you can stay a bit ahead of the curve both creatively and financially. My Apple desktop works just fine. I’d love to have a new one, but I’ve known for a couple of years that they’ll be coming out with a newer, faster model. This year, most likely. Will I buy it? I don’t know. I will certainly admire it, but my present machine works just fine.
On the other hand, I did finally break down and buy a snow-blower. An electric one. Pretty new tech. I’m proud of myself for waiting.
Of course, if it doesn’t snow much this year, I’ll look pretty darn silly, and it won’t have anything to do with tech.
I’ve written quite a bit about music in these columns. Nightwish, the (just turned 18) Russian vocal marvel Diana Ankudinova, the Mongolian metal band The Hu, and many others. I did not come across them on Spotify, or Apple Music, or any of the other music-streaming services so popular in the US. Spotify just publishes lists of most-played, most-popular albums, etc., on its service. None of the artists I just mentioned are mentioned.
If it wasn’t for the oft-maligned Youtube, I never would have heard of Epica, or Aurora or Sabaton or any of the hundreds of spectacular bands and individual performers who flourish on the rest of the planet. Did you know there is a thriving metal scene in India? If you go to metalunderground.com, you can find a list of 113 bands focusing on Vedic or Hindu metal. Many of these bands reference Hindu deities in their songs. You’ll find that “Shiva” by Down Troddence (from Kerala) has a rather different melody than the familiar chants of “Hare, Hare Krishna. ”For something more recent, try “MachiBashad”(‘expect a riot’) by Bloodywood, written for the Ubisoft game Beyond Good and Evil 2.
Then there’s the northern European group Heilung. Performing in costume with authentic instruments (a flute made from a human bone, anyone?),and singing lyrics taken from ancient chants and runic writing, their “Alfadhirhaitil”will take you back hundreds of years, even if your own ancestry is different. Some of this music was used in the Vikings TV series.
Interested in ethereal music from the Faroe Islands? Like, who isn’t? Seriously, here is another fascinating and unique voice. Eivør also occasionally employs traditional instruments in her performances, but sometimes chorus, violins, and electronics. Listen to, and watch, her singing “Trollabundin” while perched on the edge of a spectacular Norwegian fjord. It’s magical, and you won’t hear it on your local radio.
Ankudinova (‘Deeana An-ku-DEE-novah,’ accent in the last name on the middle syllable) just turned 18, and won another competition of sorts, featuring other famous Russian performers. Although she can sing any style, her dramatic contralto (with polyphonic overtones) turns “Crow”into a listening experience that is both spiritual and shamanic. And you should hear what she does with a minor-key version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’tHelp Falling in Love With You.”
By the way, this rant isn’t just about metal. I could do an entire column about wonderful classical pieces that are never played by US orchestras (in fact, I think I will). Or straight-ahead rock. Did you know there has been a resurgence in thunderous rock played in Japan by all-female bands? My favorite is Lovebites, but I also highly recommend Baby Metal, Band-Maid, and most recently Nemophilia (no, not ‘necrophilia,’ — nemophilia is a Japanese flower).Spectacular musicians, every one of them, even though sometimes the guitars they play are as big as the performers. Yes, they’ve written music for anime, too.
Speaking of stage performances, for every group I’ve mentioned I recommend searching for the live versions rather than those done in studio. So much is lost when everything is planned in advance, and of course the energy of the crowd is entirely absent. Sometimes there are only videos, but watching Rammstein pound out “Du Hast” in Paris while listening to an enormous French crowd sing along most of the verses in German is something not duplicated by a constrained studio video.
I hope I’ve given a tiny indication of the variety that’s available on today’s music scene. You won’t be exposed to it with any of the awards shows. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of contemporary US music I love, starting with the orchestral work of Jennifer Higdon and the angry metal of “Disturbed.” But you have to seek it out. When was the last time you heard a European band(never mind one from India, or Japan, or the Middle East, or even —Iran)? Try “Faryadkon”(‘scream out’) by Farshid Arabi. It’s not on any ayatollah’s listening list.
It being the holiday season, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention my new favorite Christmas song, “Valhallelujah,”by the Italian band Nanowar of Steel.
Me? While I go back to finishing the first movement of my fifth symphony (writing music is a hobby) I’ll eagerly count down the days to Jinjer’s concert on January 12 in Tempe. It’s a Ukrainian heavy-metal band, wonderful stuff. Look ‘em up.
Look these folks up. You’ll have to, ‘cause they ain’t being played on your local radio.
If diamonds are forever and diamonds are a girl’s best friend, then advertising is a diamond’s best friend. Because the twin marches of exploration and technology have rendered the diamond far less valuable than it used to be.
Not so very long ago all diamonds were natural. Despite that, they still were not all that scarce. What rendered them “scarce” and pricey in modern times was the domination until 2000 of diamond mining and sales by the DeBeers Group. The slogan “diamonds are forever” was actually coined in 1947 by a copywriter. In 2000, Advertising Age magazine named “A Diamond is Forever” the best advertising slogan of the20thcentury. Prices came down when large producers such as Russia and Brazil refused to go along with DeBeers’ regulations and pricing. In Europe, amethyst used to be as costly as diamonds, until enormous deposits of the beautiful purple quartz stone were discovered in Brazil.
A constant barrage of advertising managed to convince people that a white (colorless) diamond had somehow become a symbol of undying love. In reality, colored diamonds are much rarer and for many, far more beautiful. To me the deep blue of diamonds like the Hope is far more attractive than a stone without any color. If we want to talk about scarcity and value in a gemstone, nothing is more valuable than a true red diamond. If you have never seen one, that’s because only about thirty gem-quality natural red diamonds are thought to exist. The largest, the Mousaieff Red (previously known as the Red Shield),is only a little over five carats and is effectively priceless.
Today it’s possible to buy lab-grown diamonds that even gem institutes certify as true diamonds. Knowledgeable buyers (romantic and otherwise) frequently opt for these because of their lower cost. They are indistinguishable in appearance and chemical composition from “real” diamonds. If you are interested, information about these perfect synthetics can be readily found online. They don’t damage the environment via mining and nobody dies in the course of their manufacture.
But why go with diamond? I suppose for many buyers it’s a matter of tradition. Mom had a diamond ring, her mother had a diamond ring, and so on. I personally find rubies and sapphires more attractive, especially when set off by smaller white diamonds. And thanks to technology, you can also acquire synthetic rubies and sapphires that, like synthetic diamonds, are indistinguishable in appearance and chemical composition from the natural stones.
Some find them even more attractive, since unlike the majority of examples found in nature, synthetics are fashioned devoid of imperfections. This is even more important with lab-grown emeralds (emeralds have a composition different from rubies and sapphires), which are often replete with inclusions and other imperfections. If sapphires interest you, look for the pink-orange variety known as padparadscha—a lovely color variation.
What about other gemstones? Tanzanite (zoisite) has become very popular. Bear in mind that nearly all gem tanzanite has been heated to create or enhance a blue color. Most natural tanzanite is brown. Heating the stone removes the brown, leaving the favored blue hue. This doesn’t change the stone’s value, only its appearance.
Over the years I’ve become very fond of unusual gemstones. One of the most beautiful pieces of jewelry I’ve ever seen is a necklace in the Huntington Hartford museum in San Marino, California, fashioned of diamonds and large benitoites.
Benitoite is a gemstone with the dispersion (sparkle) of diamond and the color of a deep sapphire. In fact, benitoite was first thought to be sapphire when it was discovered in San Benito County, California, back in 1907. But it’s another mineral entirely. To this day gem-quality benitoite hails from a single mine in that location —and serious mining there shut down in 2006. At $4-8,000/carat, it’s becoming harder and harder to find. Anything of quality over two carats is a real rarity and proportionately expensive. It is absolutely gorgeous. All that keeps it from being even more costly is that it’s not as hard (and therefore not as durable) as diamond or ruby/sapphire. It is also the state gemstone of California. I’m not aware of any company making synthetic benitoite.
Want something equally unusual but less scarce and pricey? Look for sphene (titanite), an exquisite lime-green gemstone with high dispersion. Color-wise, it doesn’t look quite like anything else, and it won’t break your bank account.
There are dozens of other beautiful gemstones out there that cost a fraction of natural or synthetic diamonds. It just takes a little time and research to find something that appeals to you and yours. There’s also that old reliable, cubic zirconia. Maybe it doesn’t have much inherent value, but properly set and seen under a bright light, a good one can still dazzle the eye.
In the end, it’s all about what we value as beauty, not what value is artificially attached to an object. You can never put a price on the thought and emotion behind any object. In the end, it’s the intangibles of a gift that have the real value — and hold it.
Over the course in this column I’ve mentioned a fair number of artists: Floor Jansen of Nightwish (and the rest of the band), Jinjer, the wonderfully inventive band from Ukraine featuring their extraordinary singer Tatiana Schmaylyuk, Angelina Jordan, who is now signed to and working with Republic Records, and Cortney Hadwin, who seems to be lying a bit low these days. A couple of years ago I also mentioned and recommended Diana Ankudinova, the Russian prodigy.
Remember that name. “Dee-ana An-ku-DEE-no-vah.”
She first burst on the world with her renditions of “Rechenka” and the Chris Issak song “Wicked Game” on a Russian television show and talent contest for children who have undergone hardship. Diana’s story redefines the word “hardship. ”Much of it is available on the net, but briefly: cast out by her birth mother at the age of three (in winter and with a broken collarbone no less), found by an aunt and taken to an orphanage, eventually adopted by one of the workers there at the urging of that woman’s own daughter, she was so traumatized she could not be made to talk. Someone suggested having her try to sing and, well, the rest is history (and she talks just fine now).
There are many good singers, fewer great singers, and a very small number who are unique singers. Diana is a natural dramatic contralto. This is the lowest range for a female singer. She is also polyphonic. Roughly, this means that when she sings she often sounds like more than one person singing at once. As you can imagine, the combination is extraordinary. So too is her full range.
I’m mentioning her now because while she was remarkable at 14(“Rechenka”) and 15 (“Wicked Game”), she just turned 18 and for the past year has been studying at the prestigious Russian Institute of Theatre Arts in Moscow, and those studies have enormously aided her in developing not only her control but her upper register. The Russian music entrepreneur and composer, who has worked extensively with Dimash (another name you should know if you do not), bought her an apartment in Moscow so she could safely further her musical development. She lives there today with her adoptive mother, Irini Ponik, and Irini’s birth daughter.
Singers at age 14 can do things that astonish us. Witness the careers of Jordan and the Dutch prodigy Amira Willighagen. But even when included in this company there is something special about Diana. I love the performances of the two singers I just mentioned, but they are (perfectly) controlled and measured. Diana is more akin to a force of nature. One of the most common descriptions of her performances is “shamanistic.” Some of this has to do with the remarkable timbre of her voice, some with the sheer intensity of her performing. In this she is closer to Floor Jansen. With both women you can see as well as hear the intensity, the emotion, contained with both the lyrics and the music. A duet between the two would be something magical.
If I’m not mistaken Diana has won every musical competition she has entered (save for an early one accused of being politically corrupt).In the very first one she wins, where she sings “Rechenka” (and “Derniere Danse” — in French) she received 49% of the general vote. The second-place finisher received 9%. That gives you some idea of how she dominates such venues. Currently she is singing for nine weeks in another Russian competition called ShowMaskGoon (get it? “Show must go on”). Performances are every Saturday, and you can bet hers will be posted by Youtube reacters almost immediately thereafter.
Her first two-minute performance on the show (all the initial performances are brief) is of a very dark version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’tHelp Falling in Love.” I’m not sure what you anticipate hearing, but I guarantee it won’t be anything like what you expect. The show’s production values are also outstanding.
Two things I noticed immediately when comparing this performance to Diana’s previous ones: first, her control shows the results of ayear’s worth of professional voice training, and second, as she matures her power is becoming fully unleashed. When someone says she blows you away, it carries a literal meaning. I can’t wait to see what the show’s next eight weeks bring.
One concern I’ve always had about Diana’s career is that much of her singing to date has revolved around folk-style traditional music. I think it’s time for her to break out with a song to attract non-Russian listeners, even if, like the Presley, it’s a cover. That’s assuming it’s something she wants. She’s given glimpses of that (an in-home take on Aha’s “Take on Me,” for example).
And boy, would I love to hear her tackle metal.
I’ve written quite a bit in these columns about science. I’ve written very little about anti-science. For those who would like to research the subject in depth there is an excellent publication, The Skeptical Inquirer, that can keep you up to date on everything that’s wrong with Filipino faith healers, astrologers, UFO believers, Bigfoot, Smallfoot (okay, I made that one up), ghosts, poltergeists, ancient aliens, and every imaginable variety of snake-oil salesman(for the record, you can’t get much oil out of a snake. You can get venom, which has its uses, but that’s a subject for a whole other column).
So if that magazine and the organization that publishes it provide such a wealth of information on such disreputable subjects, why am I writing about it? Well, I suppose I suffer from a disproportionate adherence to Logic and Reason, those two bugaboos of the excessively credulous. Or, to sum up the situation that seems to be all-too prevalent among the species right now,
Believing is easy. Thinking is hard.
Don’t give in to the fallacy that this is just an American problem. It’s way too common an affliction all over the planet. The difference is that in countries with higher levels of education, the extremes of deliberate disbelief are just more obvious. It is one thing to hear that folks in a far-off land still believe in the efficacy of witchdoctors and shamans, quite another to find out that in the wealthiest country on Earth there are still people who think the world is going to end tomorrow because some dude interpreted four hundred and twenty-two words in an old book (Bible, Koran, Talmud, Bhagavad-Gita, take your pick) to mean that. Funny how such predictions keep getting pushed back a year or two, or three, or a couple of decades, or ....
The situation is worse in Russia, for example. Since the government there lies to its people all the time, I suppose it’s not surprising they would seek refuge and hope in comforting nonsense. Soviet science was a bastion of prevarication, since what was required for advancement was adherence not to scientific knowledge but to the reigning political stance of the moment. Sadly, too many of us are suffering from the same aberration right here, right now.
It’s a funny thing about science: you don’t get to pick and choose the parts you like. Either you believe that a motor powers your car according to the accepted thermodynamic laws, or you ascribe its forward motion to the kindly intervention of overheated gargoyles. You can’t have it both ways. It’s the same with medicine, which is why I’m writing this.
Because there are folks who for multiple reasons are refusing to get vaccinated. What’s contradictory is that these same folks have likely already been vaccinated multiple times, against polio, measles, possibly mumps and chickenpox, tetanus, shingles and pneumonia if they’re smart, hepatitis especially if they’re traveling overseas, and more. Because I’ve been to some out-of-the-way places I’ve also been vaccinated against yellow fever, dengue fever, taken malaria prophylaxis, and some stuff whose names I can’t remember.
As a result, I’ve never acquired any of those charming afflictions.
Yet there remain many who seem to think that the combined efforts of three major drug companies, the Center for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, plus the President of the United States and one (or maybe both) political parties have joined forces solely to — what? Pollute our precious bodily fluids, as General Jack D. Ripper insists in Dr. Strangelove? Secretly implant us with chips from Microsoft (that likely wouldn’t work anyway)?
Here’s what I know about conspiracies. The more people who are involved, the more difficult it is to keep things a secret. In this day and age, when governments can’t keep their own secrets a secret and just one person in the know could shatter a conspiracy for personal reasons or for money, it seems odd that out of the thousands and thousands of employees, family members and just plain nosey-pokes, not a single one has come forward with verifiable evidence that anti-Covid vaccines do anything other than what they are intended to do.
Of course, there’s always hydroxychloroquine for the obstinate. And my favorite, the veterinary drug ivermectin. As to the latter, the CDC has stated succinctly, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Don’t do it.” But that’s obviously part of the conspiracy. As with all the other quack remedies you could verify its effectiveness with those who relied on them but are dead. Except they’re dead.
I have this feeling that those who did that and died would offer differing opinions on the usefulness of Covid vaccines if they were still alive. Unfortunately all they can do is lead by example.
It’s all the fault of that darned science stuff. Remember that the next time you have to see a doctor. You really don’t know what goes into that flu shot. Or an aspirin. Or Cocoa Puffs.
First off, this is the shortest title I’ve ever used for a column. Second, it may be the most important one. Those of us who live in Arizona are a lot more sensitive to water issues than our fellows living in, say, Vermont. Or Suriname, or Gabon. But we have a lot in common with folks who dwell in those similar climates: Nevada, or Burkina Faso, or anywhere in the Middle East. Water is a problem so obvious you would think that enormous resources have been devoted to dealing with it for decades. Not so. It has all been hit and miss and on a small scale (at least in this country). Not enough folks are talking about water as a global problem.
Time to start.
Just because Arizona is perennially short of water doesn’t mean the issue shouldn’t be discussed in New Hampshire, or Minnesota, or other water-rich places. Because what affects one part of the country or one part of the world eventually affects us all. How does the water shortage in Mali affect citizens of Arizona? Well (no pun intended), if there’s no water there, people will move to a place where there is. Humans have been doing just that for thousands of years. Just ask the Anasazi. If there’s no water in Burkina Faso, eventually its inhabitants will have to move where the water is. Maybe New Hampshire, or Minnesota.
We don’t have to let them in, you say. These water refugees. But the need for water exceeds that for any other condition. Food, work, anything. No water, no life. Physiologically, everything else is peripheral.
The sad thing is that there is lot that can be done to deal with the problem. And I don’t mean just by fixing climate change. Might be too late for that. Truth is there’s plenty of water. The problem is that most of it is not usable. But it can be made usable, and can be used much more efficiently. As an example of how not to use water resourcefully, consider the growing of almonds and avocados in California, two hugely profitable crops that use vast amounts of water. Two others in the same category are rice, also grown in California, and sugar cane. Realistically, the world could probably do without three of the four, and the water savings would be substantial.
Don’t blame Arizona cotton. Most cotton is not grown using irrigation. But agriculture does account for 80% of the water use in Arizona. Cut that by a quarter and you double the amount of water available for human use. Nor is Arizona an exception when you parse similar figures around the country. The percentage of water used for agriculture is even higher in New Mexico.
Water is a problem so obvious you would think that enormous resources have been devoted to dealing with it for decades.
This gives us a cushion, some time to deal with the real water scarcity that may be coming. Alarming articles in the media won’t solve it. What might are engineering and science. If there is one thing that Arizona, Burkina Faso and other water-scarce countries usually possess, it’s sunshine. Sunshine means solar power, and power provides the means to desalinate ocean water. Many countries in the Middle East not only have access to solar, they have alternate sources of the necessary energy in the form of oil and especially natural gas. That’s why there are no water restrictions in hotels in Dubai, for example. Desalination.
But it takes political will along with the availability of natural resources to promote this process. A good, or rather bad, example are the water riots currently taking place in Iran. These represent the kind of conflict that scientists (and science-fiction writers)have been predicting for decades.
What underground water there is in Iran has been siphoned off to feed large farms, many of which are owned by the Revolutionary Guard. So when local people protest that they haven’t got enough water to drink, let alone to irrigate their small plots, they tend to get shot. What is sad is that Iran possesses not only copious amounts of solar potential, but vast reserves of gas and oil capable of powering those aforementioned desalination plants. They just lack the expertise and engineering know-how to put it all together. And which country in the Middle East has more experience with and knowledge of both technologies? Israel. Just ask farmers in Ecuador, where Israeli water experts have been active for decades.
So because of politics, Iranians go thirsty.
They won’t be the last to do so. The same problem of over pumping of ground water and too little rain exists all over the world, from central Asia to north Africa, to the west coasts of North and South America. You would think given the ubiquity of the problem that governments would hurriedly be preparing for the worst. Especially since we’re starting to see the beginnings of the worst right now. Water wars are old news in the American West. Given the current situation in Oregon, maybe not so old.
Drink up. While you can.
The most amazing free show in the US (possibly on the planet) is the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, held every year for more or less the first two weeks in February. It’s a nice, cool time to be in Tucson, though finding a room anywhere in the city while the show is ongoing can induce enough stress to cause a visitor to overheat regardless of the actual ambient temperature.
The Tucson show is a place to admire and shop for things you cannot find anyplace else. A lot of the fine mineral specimens you see in fancy shops around the world are initially purchased wholesale at Tucson. Some of the individual portions of the show are off-limits to those without a resale license, but even so it would take you days just to walk fast through those sections that are open to the general public. Think trying to do Disney World in a day. The best part? It’s all free. There’s no admission charge.
Traders and dealers come to the Tucson show from all over the world to exhibit their wares. Want to buy raw or cut sapphires? There’s a whole room dedicated to dealers from Sri Lanka who bring their product to the show. Nor is it all rocks and minerals. There are areas dedicated to African arts, to (presumably legitimate) archaeological material and, of primary interest to me, those that focus on fossils and related items.
Want to buy a whole dinosaur skeleton? Try the Tucson show. In addition to major dealers, every now and then a couple of guys will show up out of nowhere selling fascinating goods from nowhere. One year one such instance involved an enterprising couple of gentlemen from Siberia. They brought with them mammoth ivory, which is legal to trade in some states and not in others. Even today the trade in ancient ivory is still very much a gray area. (Interesting current information here.
What these two visitors from the Yakutia region of Siberia (which, coincidentally, is also the greatest source of Russian diamonds) discovered is that folks interested in fossil ivory are also interested in acquiring other parts of extinct pachyderms. So in addition to tusks and fragments thereof they had bones for sale and, neatly packed in small plastic bags — hair. Not for nothing were the owners of those tusks called woolly mammoths.
I love our little mountain rats with racing stripes, but I do prefer they keep to their natural environment and leave me to mine.
Like bone and ivory, hair holds up quite well after being preserved for thousands of years in ice and permafrost. It’s not “good” for much. You cannot carve it into trinkets or sculptures. You can’t make knives from it, or clasps, or belt buckles. It has the consistency of horsehair — which is what many who see it assume it to be. But it is truly hair from a long-dead relative of elephants. It is an amazing feeling to hold, to feel, these stringy fragments of the ancient past. To feel the weight of ages crinkle beneath your fingertips. It brings a period of Earth’s recent history to life in a way no painting can ever hope to match.
It seems that chipmunks think so, too.
Located above a garage, separate from the main house, my study is pretty secure against insects and the elements. But not, it seems, against marauding chipmunks. They sneak in via the air conditioning/heater vent. Every once in a while as I sit working at my desk I’ll hear an unexpected, sharp chip-chip. Looking around, I’ll see nothing. But I know the invader is there, somewhere, lurking behind a bookcase or the TV, gracefully cleaning its little nose and eyes, waiting for me to leave for the night so it can go exploring. I love our little mountain rats with racing stripes, but I do prefer they keep to their natural environment and leave me to mine.
I have also learned, to my distress, that they are not above sampling potential food (or more likely nest-building material) that is somewhat beyond its expiration date.
So I put my sample of Elephas primigenius fuzz in a cabinet and wait for the opportunity to catch and release. This takes less time and effort than one might think, since sooner or later Mr. C. Munk gets bored with his unappetizing new surroundings and emerges so that I can either shoo him out the door or catch him in a pail and usher him downstairs and safely into the nearest dense undergrowth. While carrying out this chore, one that is unfamiliar to my New York friends, I have never been bitten or clawed. But I have been chewed out, if not chewed upon, by my highly excitable temporary guests.
Is it so wrong of me, when I am being chattered at, to occasionally in my mind hear instead the long-lost trumpeting of an ancient and decidedly hairy giant who once trod the earth?
While going about our daily lives there are certain things we take for granted. Breathable air, water, clouds in the sky, the warmth of the sun, the presence of other humans performing similar tasks around us. We find these everyday commonalities reassuring. We like to keep them close, not only because they support life but because we enjoy them. Unless you live in a barren desert like the central Sahara, northern Namibia or outside Yuma, it is likely that you also enjoy the presence of plants.
I don’t think it’s just because plants provide us with oxygen, although hiking through a temperate rainforest feels like being on oxygen supplementation. I believe it has to do with their presence providing a continual reassurance that Things Are Okay. That, regardless of what we do, life as we know it will proceed on its normal path. There is a psychological as well as physiological component to why we enjoy having growing things around us.
Why else would people buy artificial plants? They’re available in so many stores, from Hobby Lobby and Michael’s to Walmart and supermarkets. They emit no oxygen. They are as sterile as a chair or piece of wallboard. Yet they sell, and those of good quality are not cheap. It makes one wonder why so many end tables and mantles are decorated with a vase full of synthetic daisies and daffodils instead of a painting, or sculpture, or relic of human manufacture? Is it just to add color? There are many other objects that provide as much color, and greater variety of form. Furthermore, sometimes flowers will be completely absent and an arrangement will consist of only greens, or faux dried grasses, or imitation lichens on fake bark.
Convenience is the only acceptable explanation. Live plants require cleanup when they shed, watering if they’re alive, spraying for insects even if indoors, judicious placement so they’ll have sunlight, locations that will keep them away from pets and children. They are a lot of work. Yet the business of houseplants and of home gardening support entire industries. Not to mention an enormous array of services devoted solely to the fostering and support of growing grass. Or, as we have come to know them, lawns.
(Wikipedia: Lawn is a cognate of llan, which is derived from the Common Brittonic word landa (Old French: lande), originally meaning heath, barren land, or clearing.)
We dwell, more and more, in cities, artificial environments composed of concrete, steel, processed wood and glass. These surroundings provide most of what we need. But not greenery. So we hammer holes in sidewalks, fill them with imported soil, and plant trees and bushes. We cut away street corners and lovingly install beds of flowers. Apartment-dwellers hang planters from windows and porch rails. Why? It’s not functional. Paintings can hang from balustrades. Sculpture can (and does) repose inside skyscrapers. Sidewalks are for walking on. Interrupting them with space for trees, bushes and flowers reduces their functionality. Yet nearly every city in the world makes room for plants.
No one objects to parks. Why not a greenhouse?
Decorative plants. Farming is another matter entirely. Even so, I have heard farmers speak with delight at seeing fields of wheat, or rows of corn, or golden tsunami of sunflowers, not simply because they represent income but because of their aesthetic beauty. Far fewer speak of the visual attractiveness of a herd of cattle or pen of chickens. These remind us of food. Plants, even those we consume, remind us of life.
In the rainforest, where plants can sometimes sting and burn, there is a feeling of being connected to the Earth, to the planet, that must be experienced to be understood. I’m not going all metaphysical on you, now. It is a real thing. The more plants there are around you, the more you feel alive. No one walking off a paved street into a large greenhouse can deny the feeling. Just being around plants generates a surge of endorphins.
It’s why I think every town and city should support a municipal greenhouse. We do parks, which supply some greenery. No one objects to parks. A greenhouse augments the park effect. I don’t recall having seen any proposals for an urban, city-supported greenhouse in Prescott. We have parks, we have museums. Why not a greenhouse? A refuge from weather and concrete. A place to enter, stroll and commune with nature in a way no other facility can provide.
When I attended UCLA the hidden secret among students was the botanical garden at the south end of the school. It offered lush growth and gurgling streams in the midst of the city. It was my favorite place to get some studying done. Perhaps our local colleges could be involved in creating such an oasis for Prescott.
If the massive facility that is Biosphere 2 can make a go of it in the desert, surely a little slice of rainforest could be created here in Prescott. We all need a little more greenery in our lives. Call it a CBD — communal botanical destination.
Why? Because outside its supernal coolness, it humanizes a technological development that gives many people a mental hissy-fit. To wit, the notion that one day in the now not-so-far future, humanoid robots will take over the world (unless Pinky and the Brain beat them to it).
For years, engineers and technicians have been working hard to fashion robots that look like us. In contrast, the really practical robots we have built look nothing like humans. Most are little more than mechanical arms terminating in a variety of tools designed to complete one task and one task only, over and over and over. Industrial robots do not get tired, don’t require lunch or potty breaks, can work around the clock and, perhaps most important to certain companies, are in no danger of unionizing. They are the perfect workers: silent, efficient, incredibly precise, and utterly lacking in anything resembling a retirement plan. Watching them hard at work, many don’t even think of them as robots. They're just repetitive, mindless tools, no different from a power drill, bandsaw, or certain Congressmen.
But humanoid robots, even though on the inside they are little different from those automatic welders and lifters and cutters and paint sprayers, have always had a tendency to unsettle people. Blame it on the movies, where most robots seem to have an irresistible desire to burst through walls, assassinate innocents, reject their programming, and occasionally carry off that C-level actress who won Miss Pork Pie Topeka 2020 and whose acting skills barely come up to the level of the machine hefting her, but whose exterior is of a different and usually more interesting configuration altogether.
To reiterate once and for all, robots that look like us are no different from those that polish toasters prior to final packaging. They can only operate according to their programming, right? Except, as demonstrated by the Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot (who, interestingly, has no spots), they are now for the first time capable of making their own rudimentary decisions. Program Spot to run into a wall and Spot’s internal decision-making capabilities will allow him (it? her?) to avoid the collision. That’s an impressive step in the development of robot AI. Maybe not as impressive as a pair of humanoid robots doing the funky chicken, but the latter example is wholly pre-programmed. There’s no independent decision-making involved. When a humanoid robot competes on Dancing with the Stars to its own self-generated choreography, then maybe it’ll be time to be a little twitchy (“I’m sorry, sir, but your moves are entirely too stiff and mechanical”). Subsequent to which the irate robot vaporizes the judges (no, wait ...).
Blame it on the movies.
See how easy it is to lose oneself in contemplation of an entertaining if unlikely near future? I don’t worry about robots. What I do occasionally worry about is inimical programming. Right now there is nothing like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (look ‘em up) because there is no need for them, nor does there currently exist any robot that would need to be governed by their strictures.
The future, now — I can’t predict what artificial intelligence or AI programming will be like in a hundred years. Nobody can. Keep in mind that eighty years ago a video of dancing robots existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. For that matter, video existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. Not to mention having a home computer or phone capable of viewing it. That’s how fast technology is changing.
Simple robotic devices now clean our homes, our hotels, work in hospitals, do limited driving of our cars, make decisions for aircraft (mostly but not always good ones, sadly), explore the oceans, and drive around semi-independently on Mars. None is humanoid in shape. There is no reason why they could not be, except that it is not practical. Remember the animated TV show The Jetsons? The cartoon family had a robot maid who vacuumed and did housework. Today you can buy a robot to do the vacuuming, but it doesn’t look anything like the Jetsons’ loquacious Rosie. Just as all those robots working in auto plants look nothing like the Terminator. Or your Uncle Sylvester from Philly.
If and when we do get commercial-grade humanoid robots, they will have to be programmed. It is conceivable that such machines could be programmed by evil technicians to carry out malicious tasks. We will need some kind of fail-safe built into every robot so that unstable Ted Suburban can’t program his new household model to go strangle his noisy neighbor. Or his barking dog (pace, Spot). Of course, Ted will also program his own household robot to defend him, as supported by the NRA (National Robot Association).We will need new laws, maybe new courts, and perhaps eventually a robot Bill of Rights.
For now, though, I’m happy to watch them dance to “Do You Love Me” on the official Boston Dynamics video. Not so much the fan video that overlays Flight of the Conchords’ “The Humans are Dead” on the same imagery.
I have to admit that one is a teensy bit unnerving.
So for this month’s column I thought to do something related to the number 100. My initial idea was to write about the hundred-dollar bill, but that seemed churlish given that a lot of people right now are experiencing a shortage of that particular denomination. Times are tough for many folks, and one thing they do not need is to be reminded of what they don’t have.
What does everybody have? What commonality circulates around the number 100? This being Arizona, often the first thing that comes to mind for residents as well as visitors is the temperature. Every radio and television weather broadcast seems to have a contest offering prizes for the individual who can pick the first day and sometimes the exact time of day the temperature in Phoenix, or Yuma, or Tucson, will hit a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s a good thing the Founding Fathers didn’t listen to Benjamin Franklin or we would somehow have to struggle along without these contests. Franklin wanted the nascent US to adopt the much more sensible metric system. In Celsius, a hundred degrees Fahrenheit is 37.77 degrees. This is plainly an insufficiently catchy number on which to base a weather contest. Similarly, a hundred degrees Celsius is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point goofy weather contests become untenable. Also our species and pretty much everything else.
I reckon I have seen tens of thousands of television weathercasts. In these days of fast internet connections and wristwatches that are smarter than their wearers, the weather forecast is available instantly nearly everywhere in the world. Such forecasting has transformed farming in Africa and fishing in the Pacific. But we still have our television weather segments to break up the actual news and force us to wait for the sports. Green screens and remote controls notwithstanding, these weathercasts represent a link with the television past. Presentations are sufficiently traditional that there is actually very little to differentiate a TV weather forecast of today from those in the early days of the medium.
Still, some things don’t change. For example, in hopes of gaining viewers many station managers experiencing low ratings tend to favor attractive women to present the weather. They may have advanced degrees in meteorology or competing in beauty pageants, and I do not need to explain which one will get you on the air faster. Having both is a rare combination. Failing that, there is a noticeable correlation between the ability to speak rapidly the higher up one rises in national weather presentations on the major networks. The principal weather folk on all the national US channels talk so fast that they might as well be explaining binary code instead of the cold front currently passing through Dubuque.
In contrast, weather presenters in other countries aim for comprehension instead of speed. I enjoy watching the weather on the BBC, not only because the presentation is sedate (although even the Brits seem to be shoveling it at us faster and faster these days, just like Americans), but also because the Beeb gives us the weather for the entire planet. There’s a bit of a guilty pleasure in enjoying the weather in Arizona while Shanghai is bracing for a typhoon. Tracking the seasonal monsoon in India brings those of us in Arizona a bit closer to the other side of the world.
There are a few things about the traditional TV weathercast that still bother me, though. Why is it that when I really need to see the forecast for Prescott and the weather map is on screen, the presenter always seems to be standing in front of Prescott? And that map! The names of the cities are writ so large it is impossible even for those of us who have lived in this state a long time to locate our communities. Take Casa Grande. On the weather maps, you can scarcely tell by looking at the longish name whether the city lies in the western or eastern portion of the state, much less pinpoint its exact location. In addition to the city names, why can’t weather maps put in little stars or something to indicate exactly where a city is situated? Somehow I think the relevant expensive software could handle that.
At least we don’t live in a vast metropolitan area like greater Phoenix. Presumably the folks who dwell in the Valley of the Sun have some idea where their homes are located when the city weather map appears. Is it really necessary to show the same temperature (maybe a degree difference now and then) between Gilbert and Chandler, downtown Phoenix and Glendale? All those similar, often identical forecasts just crowd the map.
Last, I have to plead with the station weather folk. Please, please, when you’re showing weather rolling through Arizona, could you maybe run through the weather’s progress at a speed lower than supersonic? As it is, within seconds an incoming, developing storm has traveled on the map from Yuma to Window Rock. Then you repeat it. At the same ridiculous speed. Over and over. Maybe you stop the video once. Twice, if the viewer is lucky. Honestly, while you are talking couldn’t you slow down the video so we can actually see where and when the rain or snow is going to materialize?
Unlike the inevitable follow-up plug for the chili festival in Apache Junction, that would actually be useful, weather-wise.
I’m not talking about modern CGI, where an entire individual is recreated using computer graphics. I am referring to the use of advanced colorization techniques and AI to reanimate the appearance and in some cases the movements of the long departed.
This is a trend that began by using computers to colorize old black-and-white films. The first efforts were, at best, muddy and consisting of fuzzy imagery that looked like it had been colored with crayons. The necessary tech improved rapidly. Colors became more natural and the images sharper.
Following film, the technique was applied to classic television shows, so now we can watch episodes of I Love Lucy and revel in the sight of Lucille Ball’s red hair without flinching. Whether or not you agree with the practice, it has to be admitted that color adds sprightliness and immediacy to the old broadcasts. I suspect that before too long the technology required will become cheap and easy enough to use so that you can do it on your home computer, enabling you to render in color that favorite obscure TV show from your childhood (well, from the childhoods of folks my age, anyway).
I do not know at what point or place in time it occurred to someone that a similar technique could be equally applied to still as well as moving images. Adding color to still photos by means of hand-coloring has been with us almost since the invention of photography, proving that many people wanted images in color from the beginning. It’s one reason why folks continued to sit for portrait paintings long after photography provided a more accurate rendering of reality.
I appreciate the aesthetic of b&w photography as much as anyone, but eliminating color does not always enhance life. It’s a different art form, much as silent film differs from sound. But from the standpoint of bringing people to life, b&w, especially early b&w, has a number of unavoidable drawbacks.
First off, well, dead people turn gray. No getting around that one. No matter how you try to rationalize the time and tech, sitters in 19th-century photos always appear just a little demised. Then there is the usual stiffness, the formality of their poses. This was largely, but not always, because it was considered appropriate to act formally when sitting for a formal portrait. Our ancestors, famous and otherwise, nearly always appeared downright stoic when having their pictures taken. And they rarely smile. Not only because they’re sitting for “formal” portraits, but because many had bad teeth.
The ritual of having to sit motionless for a painted portrait carried over into photography. Not to mention that sitters had no choice in the matter if they wanted the result to be sharp. Long exposure times meant that the subject simply could not move if the photographer was to capture a clear image.
What if newer, advanced colorization techniques could be combined with those of artificial intelligence to not only bring forth natural color from old b&w photos, but movement as well? As the writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
That is what we have now: a process more and more indistinguishable from magic. Consider George Washington. The president sat for many painted portraits, as befits the man and his station. Except: the man is just as valid as the station. What if we could not only view Washington in natural color, but see him blink? See his eyes move? Maybe even see him — smile? We have no photographs to work with, but what if a similar technique could be applied to paintings of the man? And to his successors?
Have a look:
Our predecessors did not appear exactly like us, of course. In those fading black-and-white images, with the antique makeup, jewelry and clothing, we rarely find them attractive, the men as well as the women. But add a little color, a little movement, perhaps even let an algorithm play with a hairstyle, and you have this:
I’ll match Maude Adams against any of today’s cosmetically enhanced beauties. With color and a smile, doesn’t Sarah Bernhardt look just a little like Elizabeth Taylor?
Why restrict ourselves chronologically? Paintings of the Roman emperors are scarce. But the ancient Romans insisted on accurate representations of their appearance in sculpture, so:
What is amazing about this technology is that it is in its infancy. In less than ten years I expect Washington to stand up and speak, Caesar to move in three dimensions, and famous beauties to be available to substitute on your communications device for Siri and Alexa — not just verbally, but in person. In a hundred years ….
In a hundred years we’ll be able to invite them all around for a party.
Oh, wait, not that kind of metal. I’m referring to the musical kind. The genre known as heavy metal, or more concisely, just metal. Music as typified by such progenitors as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rammstein, Evanescence, and these days by bands like Apocalyptica, Sonata Arctica, Amon Amrath, Sabaton, Stratovarious, Hammerfall, and many more. Far too many to name. And of course, Nightwish. Calling Nightwish a metal band is like labeling Beethoven a songwriter, though they can go as hard as anyone.
There are so many practitioners of metal and so many bands that there are specific publications dedicated to the genre, like Metal Hammer (metal-band names tend to be takeoffs on High Fantasy tropes). Confusingly, the illustrated magazine Heavy Metal was about comics and graphic novels, and was the English-language version of the French magazine Metal Hurlant.
When any creative subgenre, be it of fiction, music, painting or sculpture, gets popular, satire and parody inevitably follow. The best satire builds on its subject matter instead of simply making fun of it. Think the political sketches on Saturday Night Live. The skits skewer their subjects while also becoming political commentary in their own right. Metal-music parody is no different. Any group can make fun of the genre by dressing up and throwing out thunderous riffs. Borderline metal group Spinal Tap naturally comes immediately to mind. Or, going back much further and branded as pop-rock, The Monkees. What was intended to be little more than a TV joke ended up producing some very good music.
Performing musical satire while simultaneously making good music is much more difficult than it sounds. With regard to classical music one thinks of the Hoffnung Music Festival, or for Americans, Victor Borge.
Performing musical satire while simultaneously making good music is much more difficult than it sounds.
Ever heard of Pirate Metal? It’s exactly what it purports to be: metal produced and played around a pirate theme. Its foremost proponents are the Scottish band Alestorm (even the name is a satire on the genre). I highly (perhaps I should say heartily) recommend their video Drink. Also Keelhauled, Shipwrecked, Fannybaws, and, well, one that’s not reproducible in a family paper. With some sharp instrumental playing and wackadoodle singing, this band will have you in stitches while simultaneously appreciating their musical abilities. Nothing is sacred and the only thing they hold back on is their actual capacity to imbibe all manner of recreational stimulants.
I am told this how Scotland is and the Scots are, but having been there a couple of times myself I remain dubious. Perhaps it all takes place behind closed doors only, and me without a ticket.
Currently we have Gloryhammer, which has a creative connection with Alestorm (there is more incest in the metal genre than in six generations of mittel-European royalty). Scifi Metal instead of Pirate Metal. Once again, driving power metal with excellent musicianship in the service of songs like “Legendary Enchanted Jetpack,” “Power of the Dragon Laserfire” (I am not making these up), “The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee” (these are Scots, remember), and the immortal “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder”— about as metal a song title as anyone could come up with. The lyrics are commensurate with the titles, but if those are all cheese, the music is not. Inspiration is where you find it.
I could go on, but we’ll end with the band Nanowar of Steel, which is an Italian parody band doing satirical music in the style of northern European metal groups. The lyrics to their songs are hilarious, the music is great, and the musicians are inspired. I recommend “Norwegian Reggaeton,” which may change your perception of Caribbean music forever, “The Call of Cthulhu,” which is something other than what Lovecraft had in mind, “And Then I Noticed that She was a Gargoyle,” which is kind of the obverse of the TV show The Bachelor.
In any event, there is the recent “Valhallelujah.” If you don’t have a favorite Christmas song, even ifwhere Christmas is concerned you are deeply and severely humbugged, I suggest you watch the video for this one. There is a great central riff, some moving gospel, and a concluding suggestion for Christmas gifts as well as the anxiety that attends them. Furthermore, the band’s founder, Edoardo Carlesi, is a noted polyglot and astrophysicist. So if “Valhallelujah” is not your liking, you can try his 2013 paper The imprints of quintessence dark energy on the cosmic web and galaxy clusters.
These groups are not a vaccine, but they do inoculate against taking everything too seriously. Also, unlike anything from Pfizer or Moderna, you can sing along with them.
When a writer signs on to do a “work for hire,” sometimes the contract is for a onetime flat fee, and sometimes it includes an advance against royalties. When the advance has earned out, then the writer receives royalties. It has been thus in the publishing industry for a very long time: a relatively straightforward and time-honored business relationship that pleased everyone.
There was rarely a problem when mergers occurred between two publishers, because everyone understood the arrangement. Then something strange happened. The creators of content (writers, artists, musicians) suddenly found themselves party to vast mergers that swallowed up not just another publisher but entire other corporations. Most notable of these was The Walt Disney Corporation’s recent acquisition of Twentieth Century-Fox and then Lucasfilm.
Some of you may know that I ghostwrote the book version of the very first Star Wars film, as well as the first sequel novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I also wrote the book versions of the first three Alien films. I always received regular royalty reports from the original publishers. Then Fox and Lucasfilm were swallowed by Disney and a funny thing happened. My literary agency stopped receiving royalties. They no longer even received royalty reports.
When a writer is dealing directly with a publisher it’s fairly easy to track such things. When a gargantuan entertainment conglomerate that bestrides the land like an all-consuming colossus arrives, small things tend to fall through the cracks. Even writers and their modest concerns.
That’s what happened to me, and subsequently to the writers’ organization to which I have belonged since the beginning of my career (Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), also to a growing number of other writers.
It took my agency about a year just to find out who had the rights to (and income from) the three Alien books. Previously, an agent or writer could simply call a publisher and ask. It was a little easier to find out who controlled the rights to the two Star Wars books. Subsequently — well, you get brushed off. You, your agency, your writers’ organization, the writers’ organization’s lawyers. To a corporation the size of WDC, you’re just creative dandruff. Unless.
Unless you go public, which is what we finally did. Now, suddenly, there is communication between my representatives and the WDC. It’s funny what the light of day and a little publicity can do. We’ll see if the brushoff continues or if a resolution to what is at base a simple matter eventuates. Disney is claiming that in purchasing Fox and Lucasfilm it only acquired the rights to properties and not the obligations joined to them. It’s an interesting approach.
Anyone out there paying off a mortgage? Why? You clearly own the house, so just sell it to someone else and explain that the mortgage doesn’t go with it: then buy it back free and clear. It’s the same concept.
It’s a pain to have to deal with something like this, but my representatives and I finally decided we could no longer simply let it slide. Because, money aside, the more you let giant corporations get away with such things, the more they will continue to do so.
Here’s how I presented my original complaint to the WDC. Pretty straightforward, I think, addressed personally to Disney’s most venerable representative:
We have a lot in common, you and I. We share a birthday: November 18. My dad’s nickname was Mickey. There’s more.
When you purchased Lucasfilm, you acquired the rights to some books I wrote. STAR WARS, the novelization of the very first film, and SPLINTER OFTHEMIND’S EYE, the first sequel novel. You owe me royalties on these books. You stopped paying them.
When you purchased Twentieth Century-Fox, you eventually acquired the rights to other books I had written. The novelizations of ALIEN, ALIENS, and ALIEN3. You’ve never paid royalties on any of these, or even issued royalty statements for them.
All these books are all still very much in print. They still earn money. For you. When one company buys another, they acquire its liabilities as well as its assets. You’re certainly reaping the benefits of the assets. I’d very much like my minuscule (though it’s not small to me) share.
You want me to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) before even talking. I’ve signed a lot of NDAs in my 50-year career. Never once did anyone ever ask me to sign one prior to negotiations, for the obvious reason that once you sign, you can no longer talk about the matter at hand. Every one of my representatives in this matter, with many, many decades of experience in such business, echos my bewilderment.
You continue to ignore requests from my agents. You continue to ignore queries from SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You continue to ignore my legal representatives. I know this is what gargantuan corporations often do — ignore requests and inquiries hoping the petitioner will simply go away. Or possibly die. But I’m still here, and I am still entitled to what you owe me. That includes the right to not be ignored just because I’m only one lone writer. How many other writers and artists out there are you similarly ignoring?
My wife has serious medical issues, and in 2016 I was diagnosed with an aggressive variety of cancer. We could use the money. Not charity: just what I’m owed. I’ve always loved Disney. The films, the parks, growing up with the Disneyland TV show. I don’t think Unca Walt would approve of how you are currently treating me. Maybe someone in the right position just hasn’t received the word, though after all these months of ignored requests and queries, that’s hard to countenance.
Or as a guy named Bob Iger said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”
I’m not feeling it.
Take bees, arguably our most beneficial insect. They provide us with honey that is not only nutritious and tasteful but therapeutic as well. They pollinate our fruit and vegetable farms, giving us food. They pollinate flowers, giving us beauty. And yet for many people they have somehow acquired a reputation for being argumentative. Yes, they sting, but only when seriously provoked, something useful to remember during election season. Bees always work together for the general good of the hive, one reason they’re called “social” insects. Nobody rails at them and calls them communist insects. Bees don’t worry about being labeled by other species.
About ten years ago they colonized our well house. Starting from nothing, they built an enormous, thriving hive, not unlike the folks who founded this country. They made use of their natural environment (without destroying it) and constructed a compact, highly successful little civilization. They’re all immigrant stock, too. Our honeybees were imported from Eurasia. I enjoyed watching them at work on the blossoms around our house. We’ve been here for forty years and in all that time I was stung only once, my fault. Can’t say the same for local politicos.
One time they colonized the main house, and we had to have them put down. It was a painful but necessary move. Their buzzing was keeping us awake and they posed a danger to our dogs. But the colonization of the well house was another matter. It was well away from the main structure and posed no threat to our animals. Except — the combs they constructed outside the smaller building blocked the doorway.
I could walk right up to the hive, filled with thousands of busy workers, and they completely ignored me. But if I opened the door it would break off some of the comb, and they would likely react the same way as if someone broke into our house. So we had them moved by a beekeeper. Ten years later they were back, and the same situation developed.
Combs hanging outside, filled with honey and larvae. This time we engaged some folks from Skull Valley. Tom and Michele Veatch of Prescott Beekeepers came out and spent the better part of an afternoon moving the bees. This involved cutting the combs from the well-house roof overhang and placing them in wood slots that then fit neatly into a wooden box; a hand-built new hive.
Understandably, the bees were a bit upset. Even though it was to their ultimate benefit, making them understand was not possible (when was the last time you were forcibly relocated?). So they swarmed a bit, and some of them got a bit pissy, as Tom and Michele said. But there was no ferocious attack. These weren’t Africanized bees (I prefer the term ‘uncivilized’). Watching Tom use a flat-bladed tool to scrape hundreds of live bees off a comb and into a box was fascinating. Michele and I monitored the process from maybe thirty feet away. Even though there were bees all around, they never bothered us.
When the sticky job was finally complete, Tom loaded the newly populated hive into the rear of his pickup, which was uncovered. “They’ll stay with the hive,”Tom assured me, as indeed they did, all the way back to Skull Valley, where they are now comfortably ensconced in their new location.
Subsequently our flowers have been visited by other bees, and not just honeybees. At least half a dozen different species have come to visit. Arizona is bee-rich. I watch them when I can, usually when I take a break from work. They’re having a long season, not unlike our politicians. Also unlike our politicians they’re not interesting in stinging and raising welts and injecting venom. They just go about their business: building their hives, raising their young, making honey, getting ready for winter and trying to stay healthy while avoiding the Varroa mite. The Varroa is to honeybees what Covid-19 is to us.
I’d say that we could learn a lesson from our local honeybees, but somebody would probably call me a radical socialist for making the analogy. Honey is bees’ Social Security, and nobody seems to object to honey. But I still think it’s a good lesson to learn. Maybe if we were a little more like honeybees, sharing the work and the honey, we’d stop yelling at each other for a while. Even the drones get their share, but just a fair share. If the drones monopolized all the honey, you wouldn’t have much of a civilization, and the hive would die.
I don’t want to see our hive die. I don’t want to see it become uncivilized, striking out violently and blindly at every perceived threat. That doesn’t make for a happy hive.
So I’m taking a few moments to watch the bees and enjoy the flowers. Winter will be here soon enough.