Archive for August, 2004

The Thinker

High Speed Tourists

It’s amazing how fast the marketplace can react to change. During our eight-day vacation in Canada we stayed at five different hotels. Every single one of them offered high-speed Internet service. We were connected to the Internet with a fat pipe everywhere we went!

This wasn’t true a few months ago. In a June trip to Raleigh I had to hunt for a hotel that offered high-speed Internet access in the hotel room. I found a few web sites such as this one that helped me find these hotels. As a result the Courtyard North Raleigh got my business. But there was no such access in my room at the four-star Peabody Hotel in Orlando in April, although a cool high-speed wireless service was available in the conference rooms. And the only way I got to the Internet in my hotel room in Denver in March was through a traditional dial up line.

Our electronic life is now too integrated to be away from the Internet for very long. So my wife’s laptop came with us on the trip. A month or so earlier she had installed a wireless network interface card (NIC) in it so she could read her email anywhere in the house. (Curiously she uses it most in the bathroom.) I didn’t think we would have any use for her wireless card on the road. But I was wrong.

A portrait of Internet access at our five hotels:

I booked our room at the Quality Inn in Schenectady specifically because they offered high-speed Internet access. Unfortunately although we brought along the laptop we forgot both an Ethernet cable and phone line cord for the laptop’s modem. But it was no problem: the front desk provided us with a loaner Ethernet cable. Finding the port in our room was the big problem. We eventually discovered it behind one of the beds. Then we had to dig into the Windows 2000 Control Panel and change a few settings. It took about fifteen minutes to work through the logistics.

The Sandman Hotel in Montreal also offered high-speed Internet, but it was pricey: $14.95 a day in Canadian money and the service always started at 3 p.m. We couldn’t resist and they too were glad to loan us a loaner cable. The billing was all handled through the browser. When we opened our browser and tried to reach any page we were first presented with a payment screen. We selected our payment method and were off.

By the time we arrived at the Radisson East in Toronto I figured the gig was up. There were no such ports in our room. However my wife noticed an electronic billboard coming in that proudly announced high-speed wireless Internet service in the conference rooms. Could we pick it up in our room? For the first time in my life I was glad to have a room on the second floor. Her NIC picked up a nice strong signal. Perhaps ethically we shouldn’t have used this connection since we weren’t there on business. To make it work with our wireless card we had to make a couple small changes to our computer again. This time we had to disable a wireless encryption feature. Once done we were off and surfing.

The Quality Inn in Woodstock, Ontario though seemed an unlikely place to find high-speed Internet. It was a couple blocks from a highway and we could see cornfields out of the window. But this was a new hotel and yes they too offered high speed wireless Internet … for $10 CDN a day. We had to call the front desk to get an access code. Again we entered it into the browser’s web page and we were off and surfing.

At the Holiday Inn in Batavia, New York high-speed wireless service was made available to all guests for free. Unfortunately our access was fairly poor. Maybe it was because we were on the fourth floor. The NIC continually sent us messages telling us our connection speed was “low” or “very low”. Every once in a while the signal would drop off altogether. Part of the problem was that the NIC picked up two wireless signals. I don’t know where the other signal came from (another nearby hotel?) But when we told the NIC to ignore the other signal service became more reliable. But the speed always seemed slow and didn’t seem much better than dialup.

In the car my daughter Rosie often was writing with the laptop computer. (We had an adapter for it so it could run off the electrical feed from our cigarette lighter.) What we didn’t expect is how often it would pick up wireless signals when we passed through small towns and cities. Often this connection would last fifteen seconds or less since the range is very limited and we were moving at a brisk clip. But it was encouraging nonetheless. And sometimes we picked up signals in unexpected places, like in front of dirty old garages along distressed looking highways.

So we were very pleased. Here are a few pointers for fellow high-speed travelers. First, make sure your laptop is configured with a wireless NIC and that you know how to modify the NIC’s interface; it can be something of a black art. Certainly bring an Ethernet cable with you too but increasingly you won’t need it or may be able to borrow one at the hotel. Hotels seem to going wireless instead of wired. For a couple years it would be a good idea to have a directory of local phone numbers to access your ISP. But it is clear the days of dialup Internet access are nearly over. Hooray for that. While I suspect you are less likely to find high-speed Internet at Motel 6’s or Days Inn, you can never tell. Increasingly it is becoming pervasive. If you depend on Internet access on the road you may be in for a happy surprise the next time you travel.

 
The Thinker

City of the Young

For this 47-year-old man riding the subway in Toronto is a striking experience. On most trains I am the oldest person on the car. If the people who ride the subway are a representative sample of the city as a whole then this is the city of the young.

It would make a certain sense. At two and a half million people Toronto is Canada’s Big Apple. Most of Canada is rural. So if you are a young person living in Canada and crave that cosmopolitan experience then Toronto is the place to live.

It seems that they came in busloads. The young adults are everywhere. My wife thinks that there are so many young adults here because Toronto is a university town. But I did not see many students on Toronto’s version of the metro (called the TTC: Toronto Transit Commission). Most were 20 something white, attractive young men and women off to what appeared to be secure white-collar jobs in the city.

Yes, they are a good-looking bunch. The people of Toronto strike me as amazingly healthy. Less than a hundred miles away in Buffalo one can literally view the bulk of America. But here in Toronto you have to look for the obese. In fact if you see someone obese he or she is likely an American tourist.

It may be that being a city of young people these young adults haven’t had time to grow fat yet. This must be it because the fatty temptations here are everywhere. Coffee and donut shops are pervasive. In particular the donut chain of Tim Horton’s seems to have a stranglehold on the city. Curiously absent is the Starbucks chain. Maybe Tim Horton beat Starbucks to the market.

Many American chain restaurants are pervasive here. You will have no problem finding most American fast food chains like Wendy’s, Pizza Hut or Burger King. But so far there is no sign of a Wal-Mart. In fact one of the striking things about Toronto is just how much small business is present. In America a local shopping center would be full of branded stores. Here branded stores are the exception rather than the rule. In Northern Virginia for example if you needed a drug you would likely go to a CVS Pharmacy. In Toronto there are lots of independent pharmacists nearby. I didn’t see one pharmacy chain store.

Nonetheless Toronto is a big city and has the usual big city woes. The traffic on the expressways looks like I-395 approaching Washington on weekday mornings: lots of stop and go. Their metro system is very clean but aging. It generally gets you where you need to go, although it seems rather unremarkable. Still it feels safe and it is very safe for a big city. Its homicide rate is 1.3 people per 100,000. Washington DC’s homicide rate is 45.5.

Our adventures in the city yesterday included visiting Casa Loma, a castle constructed in the early 20th century as a palace for a very wealthy local businessman. It is a fascinating place to visit. We also visited the Ontario Museum and ended up ascending the CN Tower in the downtown area, reputedly the world’s tallest freestanding structure. Alas, yesterday was a day of high haze and humidity, which made for a rather poor view from the observation level. The subway took us where we needed to go, although we still had to do quite a bit of walking. Our hotel room is some seven miles from downtown Toronto. We had to drive a mile or so to a metro station to connect with the subway. The subway is a bit pricey: $2.25 CND for a trip, but still less expensive than the Washington Metro, which charges by distance.

Today we begin the theatrical portion of our trip. We will be at the Hummingbird Centre in downtown Toronto tonight to see The Last Empress, a Korean opera. Tomorrow we will be on our way to Stratford, Ontario to take in two more shows at this famous city renown for its theater. We should be home on Sunday afternoon.

 
The Thinker

Random observations on Montreal

Montreal is New York City done right. While certainly not as large as New York City it has most of New York City’s charms without any of its drawbacks that I could discern. For example, where are the homeless men in Montreal? They must be here. Maybe it is too cold for them most of the year. Or maybe the police keep them away from us tourists. Or maybe, hopefully, Montreal is an enlightened city and they don’t exist.

New York City feels dirty and smells unclean. Its subway stations are full of rats and trash. Big Apple is a constant ear piercing hell. Despite these drawbacks it is also a place full of amazing energy. I’ve not been to any place on the North American continent that feels so piercingly alive.

But Montreal is civilized. It has a metro, not quite as extensive as New York’s, but reasonably clean and rodent free. Unlike New York’s, which is largely underground, much of this metro system is just at or just below the surface. Rather than riding on rails its trains ride on rubber wheels. This strike me as much more sensible because it reduces the noise level. It is easy to find your way around on the Montreal metro.

Since Montreal is in Quebec and French is its official language I had some concerns that my language might be a barrier. Fortunately I had my daughter Rosie with me to translate, if necessary. But her services weren’t really needed. Those involved in commerce readily speak English well enough to transact business. Most signs are in French and have English translations next to or below them. But unquestionably French is the dominant language here. While Quebecans tolerate English they do not prefer it. This makes it awkward at times since so much of the English culture is embraced. Watching TV in French in Montreal seemed comical at times. Mostly it is the same English programs we see in America that are dubbed into French. It often seemed that the translators didn’t even bother to try to match the lip movements. Even American cartoons are dubbed into French. My daughter Rosie was very amused by Sponge Bob Square Pants translated to French.

Shortly after we arrived Sunday afternoon I went running. Our hotel was on the east side of the St. Lawrence River in Longueuil. I made it my mission to run across the bridge to Montreal and back. It’s quite an intimidating span and I made it most of the way. I could hardly ask for better weather. Montreal was delightfully dry with largely clear skies and gentle breezes. The view from the top of the Pont Jacques Cartier Bridge was spectacular. I could look to the east and see some of the northernmost mountains of the Appalachians. Looking west I had a breathtaking view of Montreal laid out before me.

We only had one full day to try and experience Montreal. I won’t bore the casual reader with details that are easy enough to discover for yourself if you visit. But in brief we spent the morning and the first half of the afternoon at Olympic Park, where the 1976 Olympic Games were held. (Oddly we arrived as the Summer Games were being held in Athens.) The Biodome, the Insectoriam, the huge Botanical Garden and the Parc Olympique Tower were all worth seeing, but are just very nice tourist traps. I was more interested in downtown Montreal. It was there that I hoped I could find the character of the city.

Old Montreal can be found along the riverfront near Vieux-Port. Hawaii has its Waikiki. This is Montreal’s version. While there is no beach, there are piers that go out into the river and lots of places where you can hear buskers, get a caricature of yourself drawn, or eat at a trendy cafe. I was more interested in the streets a few blocks in from the riverfront. In particular the ex-Catholic in me was drawn to the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal. I never paid money to enter a house of worship before, but it was worth the $4 CAD I paid for the half an hour or so I spent in the Basilica. This neo-Gothic church must look like a toned down version of some of the great cathedrals in Europe. Unlike those cathedrals this one is relatively new, so it gives the tourist some idea of how the great European cathedrals must have looked like in their prime. This basilica is a delight to the senses and was the highlight of my brief time in Montreal. There is much to thrill to: the statues of saints on both sides of the altars and along the sides of the church, the ornate statue of Jesus on the cross behind the altar, the dozens of confessionals along the sides of the church, and the many votive candle displays beneath little shrines of a favorite patron saint. I lit a candle for my ailing mother. The altar itself is lit up in a dazzling array of lights. It makes a logical place for the laser light shows that are held in the basilica on the weekends. Although no longer a Catholic I could be persuaded to attend a high mass here. The sounds of the choirs and the organs echoing through such an ethereal setting would make the experience religious even to this died in the wool Unitarian Universalist.

We had dinner down by the riverfront. We chose the wrong restaurant. A cold front that came through made eating more unpleasant. The ladies were tired. Rosie is not used to being on her feet and my wife’s arthritis made even our limited walking rather painful. A visit to a Ben and Jerry’s revived spirits. We retired to the Hotel Sandman sore but generally pleased with our brief escape in Montreal. We wished we had the luxury of a few more days.

Overall Canada strikes me as something of a bargain for an American tourist. The Canadian dollar is worth about 77 cents. Meals tend to be less expensive than what I pay for their equivalent in the Washington DC area. Even ticket prices seemed very affordable. A historical museum we stopped at offered a family rate of $20 CAD, which is about $15 in American dollars. With those prices and so much to see I will have plenty of incentive to come back to Montreal again. I hope my French will be better next time.

 
The Thinker

In the city of my birth

I was born at St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady, New York on February 1, 1957. There I spent my infancy and early childhood. When I was about six years old my parents moved our family from Schenectady to Endwell, New York, about 140 miles away. That was 1963, some 41 years ago. It has been that long since I have been in Schenectady. Today I am finally back.

Memories of a six-year-old child are typically poor. Mine are no exception. I did not expect to remember much all these years later. Schenectady, and the Village of Scotia just across the Mohawk River, is mostly alien to me. I expected Schenectady to be more like Binghamton, the city near Endwell where I spent my formative years. But it is not quite as hilly as Binghamton. In many ways it is like the Endicott (near Endwell) and the communities surrounding it. It is an area that has long been in decline.

There are lots of communities like this all over the Northeast and the Midwest. If they haven’t been quite abandoned, they’ve suffered from a lot of benign neglect. Many residents have been forced to move elsewhere in search of work. The industries that powered these cities (General Electric, in Schenectady’s case) have largely left for somewhere else. The results are cities with rows of houses, many of them boarded up or in need of serious repair. Many commercial areas are rife with empty buildings.

Most of these houses have wonderful potential. They are large houses with big front porches. They were designed to allow neighbor to meet neighbor. And they still do this. On some porches we saw whole families pass a pleasant evening. These houses were built before garages became popular. Those that have them have a garage in the back of the property in a building actually separate from the house. It saddens me that these once vibrant neighborhoods have been so neglected while new neighborhoods are created elsewhere. It is such a waste. These houses in Schenectady could be probably be refurbished at a fraction of the cost it would take to put up new houses in new developments. Why can’t Fannie Mae or HUD refurbish these neighborhoods a block at a time? Once refurbished, I believe these houses would draw back a vibrant middle class. Then these cities could become reinvigorated. Instead cities like Schenectady are allowed to rot.

The house where I grew up in Village of Scotia (123 North Holmes Street) is still there. Looking at it with middle aged eyes I can make a vague recollection of the time I spent there. I knew approximately where it was on the block. Our old house is actually in pretty good shape for a house on this block. But the house right next to it is in terrible disrepair, as are many on the block. Yet much of Scotia is still charming and does not suffer from Schenectady’s blight. On a block about 25% of the houses seem to be in disrepair or boarded up. Nonetheless the community still has a fairly solid feel to it. Businesses on Mohawk Avenue seem to be working hard to be trendy. Collins Park along the bank of the Mohawk River looked very inviting. They have a few upscale restaurants. The local cinema still is in business. Even parts of downtown Schenectady look like some form of urban renewal is underway. But walk a few blocks in any direction and neighborhoods become ugly and depressing.

Everything seems so compact in Schenectady and Scotia. Everything is close together. The streets are narrow. The houses are close to each other. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where my family worshipped is but a short walk. I don’t know if my father ever walked to his job at the General Electric plant along the banks of the Mohawk River. It didn’t seem to be very far away. I could jog there in fifteen minutes or less without even breaking a sweat.

This is just a surface impression. We are only here for only one night on our way to Montreal to start a week of vacation in Canada. I would need a week or more to get some idea of the true character of the city. There is little in the way of new development, so I suspect it is much as I left it 41 years ago.

Still, there is something about Scotia that still appeals to me. It appealed to my wife too, who admired the tightly knit neighborhoods. I hope that a renaissance happens to my birth city and cities like it. But there is a lot to fix up. The sidewalks on my old block in Scotia, for example, are crumbling and in pieces. I guess there simply isn’t the tax base to fix them up.

Here’s hoping for some urban renewal.

 
The Thinker

Moving the Parents

Last week was a week consumed by parental relocation. It was no small logistical feat to move my parents from Midland, Michigan to Silver Spring, Maryland. It would not have been quite the logistical feat it turned out to be if my mother weren’t in such bad shape. This is the biggest logistical exercise my family has ever had to face. It was also one of our most emotionally draining experiences too.

There are so many minor heroes in this act. But it was a time to be very proud of my far-flung family. I am also grateful for a sterling set of in-laws as well as my nieces and nephews. We all went the extra mile.

My father has borne the lion’s share of the work for many months. He has had to deal with major issues like selling their house and selling/giving away/donating most of his possessions, including some that are very cherished. His workbench, for example, has been a fixture in our family for all our living memory. I was going to take it but last month my wife Terri got a workbench from her office. His workbench was left behind for the new owners, but I already grieve for that which I will likely never see it again. I spent many a weekend or evening with my Dad at his workbench, watching him fix things. It was not his skill in carpentry that he imparted to me. I still seem inept in that department despite all that observation. No, I associate the workbench with quality time with my father. With seven other siblings it was hard to find time to talk with Dad by myself. But I could always find time to talk to him alone when he was at his workbench.

Now it is gone along with many other cherished objects. This is what must be done when you move from a single-family house into a two-bedroom apartment. But downsizing their life was just one of my father’s many chores. There was also my mother, who was nearly a full-time occupation by herself. She frequently had to go visit doctors, and ended up in the hospital a couple times. She was often incontinent and needed help in the middle of the night getting to the bathroom. Dad did all that and more. This is no small feat for a 77-year-old man!

Then there was my sister Teri, Mom’s spiritual coach. Before the move my Mom’s spirits were as low as they have ever been. In her last hospital visit she told me she longed for death. She wanted to be out of her misery. Teri came up for the move to keep my mother in one piece while her world changed around her. Teri fussed over her, loved her, consoled her, cheered her up and distracted her. She even flew down from Midland to Washington with them so they could navigate things like airport bathrooms between flights. And of course she steadied Mom who did not have her walker. My mother picked up a bladder infection from her last hospitalization. It was Teri who recognized the symptoms, gave her some pills she had that helped reduce the pain, and took the initiative to get her treatment at a hospital clinic near my house.

My brother in law Tom deserves a son-in-law of the year award. Tom is Teri’s husband. Tom was Mr. Move It Man. He rented a 24-foot truck and directed the meticulous packing of the truck so that everything fit tightly and nothing was damaged. That truck was filled to the brim by the end. And it was all neatly arranged so that furniture could be dropped off at various households on the route. And if directing all that loading and unloading were not enough, Tom actually drove their belongings 600 miles all alone towing their car on a hitch. And yet Tom was unflappable as always. Teri got lucky marrying that guy. Yet his role was absolutely crucial. I don’t think anyone else could have done it.

My brother Tom also played an important role. He flew out from Boulder, Colorado to spend a few days helping to box and load the truck. In the process he got to see my mother at her worst. Mission accomplished brother Tom had to return back to Colorado to resume the meteorology business.

And then there was my sister Mary. It was Mary who took the initiative to find a new and better home for my parents. She spent months looking at retirement communities in the Washington area before settling on a handful near us for my parents to consider. My parents chose Riderwood. But her role went much further. She helped them find the perfect apartment in the place. It has a northern exposure so my Mom wouldn’t have to deal with bright light. Their living room window looks down on a lovely courtyard with a fountain. There is likely no nicer view in all of Riderwood. Mary also worked through numerous logistical issues such as ordering carpet and the types of kitchen cabinets and counters they would get. Once moving day arrived of course she was there to help and patiently involving my Mom in the process. She spent hours with her just asking her where she wanted various items placed.

On move in day there were an even dozen of us altogether. My parents didn’t have to do much of anything. In addition to Mary, Teri and myself there were two brothers in law: Tom and Mary’s husband John. And there were also the grandchildren: five in total, including my 14-year-old daughter Rosie. The grandchildren were wonderful! My daughter, usually something of a fussbudget, did not fuss and all and cheerfully moved furniture up two flights of stairs. She was joined by four of her cousins, including my sister Doris’s son Vincent, daughter Cheryl, and Mary and John’s son Ryan and daughter Margo.

It was still stressful for my mother. It was a challenge to get her bed out of the truck and in place so she could lie down and rest. But we managed. They are still sorting through boxes and doubtless will for some time. But at one week they are reasonably settled in. And although their payoff has yet to come for all this work soon their lives will be simpler. They are already enjoying their gratis evening meal every night in the Riderwood dining facilities.

My mother’s spirits are better. She is still as fatigued as always, but she is moving on. She is still so obviously depressed (and won’t get treatment) but she at least has distractions. There is the evening meal and new neighbors to meet. A woman just like my Mom, a Catholic with 8 children is just across the hall. Perhaps her social isolation will end and she will discover at the end of life that life can still be good.

My parents and I are blessed with a remarkable family. There are times when I think we are an acerbic, cynical and depressing lot of people. But our hearts are full of love. We were there for our parents in their days of most pressing need. I am sure most adult children would do the same for their parents. This was just another minor miracle driven by love. It feels good to give back in some small measure the love that we received all those years.

 
The Thinker

Connectionless

A brief note … I am in Shepherdstown, West Virginia at the National Conservation Training Center and will be here the rest of the week. I am here because I am a new manager so I must get the official management course.

I find that I have taken internet access for granted. But when you don’t have it you really notice it. That happened yesterday when I woke up to discover that our high speed internet service went down. And because we have a cable company the soonest they can possibly come out to look at the problem will be Wednesday. Twits. This is customer service?

Well it won’t matter. I’ll be here in Shepherdstown instead. But the laptop I hoped to borrow is at home so my wife can get out over a dialup line through work. Instead I am at a kiosk. This is not very conducive to blogging. And with no laptop in my room to surf the web in the evenings I am forced to either watch TV or read books. How quaint!

So I watched TV last night and saw “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”. At the time I thought it was a pretty good movie. But here it is 20 years later and I realized … yech! This is one bad movie! Shatner still can’t act. Spock goes around like he’s been hit on the head with a brick and utters a lot of inane statements. It’s really quite embarrassing to watch it. The prime directive being violated right and left. It seems more to be designed to go for silly laughs than anything else. And what’s with that large cigar shaped spacecraft? And that pointless scene at the end with all of them jumping into San Francisco Bay … it looks so stupid!

Tonight I will skip the TV and just read Patrick O’Brian instead … much higher quality stuff!

 
The Thinker

Who Needs Television?

There was a time (late 1960s and early 1970) when I lived for TV. TV was my escape from monotony. Life at the time was pretty boring. I was living in New York’s Southern Tier. There wasn’t a whole lot to do besides eat, go to school and attend church. Binghamton, New York is not exactly the center of upstate New York culture. It didn’t help that my large Catholic family was somewhat financial challenged. We went to movies maybe once a year. Vacations were perhaps every other year. With one car in the driveway our amusements were limited to anything we could reach on a bike.

Reading the local paper offered little stimulation. We subscribed to The Binghamton Press, which at the time was an afternoon rag. But it was a shallow, uninteresting paper full of brief news articles from the Associated Press. Our suburb was too wholesome to have drug problems. If kids were practicing premarital sex I didn’t know of any (but wished I did). That left two forms of amusement: radio and TV. Radio was out. There were a couple rock and roll stations but the same music was repeated endlessly and the commercials were endless too. At that time there was no public radio. That left TV. TV became about the only entertainment in my life. I looked forward to the autumn TV season the way some baseball fanatics look forward to the World Series. For a couple hours a day at most (and we were generally limited to an hour of TV a night on school nights – my parents were so cruel) I could escape into something else. For reasons I never really understood certain shows were out. Believe it or not we were not allowed to watch Star Trek. (Too racy I guess.) Laugh In was also out. Oddly it was okay to watch All in the Family and M*A*S*H. Dreck like My Three Sons and Hogan’s Heroes were always okay. I’d live for Friday and Saturday nights. Then I could watch quality shows like The Carol Burnett Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They seemed a whole lot more interesting than my humdrum life.

Now we have over a hundred channels to choose from available day and night. And while our daughter still gets off on TV I hardly ever go near it. I’d like to say this is a recent phenomenon but it’s been this way for about the last fifteen years. While everyone in my office was watching Seinfeld I was clueless. (It could be that raising a daughter and going to grad school broke me of the habit.) I’ve never made it through an episode of Friends. I’ve never seen The West Wing (a show I doubtless would love if I could take the time to watch it). I don’t even know when it comes on, or even if it is still on the air. I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation regularly. But I lost interest in all the other Star Trek spinoffs. Even shows I would never miss like Masterpiece Theater and 60 Minutes have dropped off my radar.

The one TV constant in my life had been TV news. I watched The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite religiously. After he retired I would watch it with Dan Rather. But eventually I discovered there was much better news programming available on the radio. From National Public Radio, the public affairs programming locally on WAMU-FM and (a Washington blessing) C-SPAN Radio I can get much better in-depth news than I ever got from Uncle Walter. I won’t put up with commercials. I stay strictly with the public stations. During pledge week I turn off the radio.

It’s probably just as well. When I do get bored enough to surf the channels it seems a complete waste of my time. First, there are even more commercials than there were when I was growing up. Most commercial channels have 20 minutes an hour (sometimes more) of commercial blocks. But even minus the commercials the content is mostly just not there.

I understand “reality TV” is now all the rage. Oddly enough I have no desire to see “real people” engaged in these strange and pointless contests. The one time I tuned one in I quickly channel surfed away. Why would I want to watch someone eat a bug? Or get fired by Donald Trump? Or try to survive on some deserted island? It’s not like these things are all that real anyhow. Like professional wrestling these “reality shows” are actually usually pretty well scripted.

But the real reason I’ve given up television is that it is a passive experience. I’d much rather talk back. And I’d much rather take things at my schedule, not someone else’s. I don’t want to arrange my life so that Wednesdays at 9 PM I have to be glued in front of the TV. I don’t even want to bother to set the VCR to record shows to see at a time that does suit me.

Instead of TV I have a computer and an Internet connection. Rather than limit myself to 100 cable channels I now have billions of web sites. But like with TV viewing I tend to go to the sites whose content is fresh and interesting. But unlike TV my new channels are pretty much always available. TV channels don’t have hyperlinks.

On the Internet I can talk back. I can’t do that with my TV. Most of the sites I hit are blog sites. Most of the time I don’t leave comments. But I like the freedom to be able to comment when it suits my mood.

What do I use my TV for? It’s not to watch cable TV. Mostly my TV exists to let me enjoy videos and DVDs. My TV is not just a TV anymore. It’s part of a home theater. I have surround sound now. But even with the lure of my home theater most of the time I am surfing the Internet instead. While DVDs are fun they too are passive experiences. I’d rather be reading DailyKos.com, or Steve Gilliard’s Blog, or catching up with my friend Lisa over at Snarkypants, or hanging out with fellow Tolkien fans, or thrashing through the issues and trivialities of life on my forum The Potomac Tavern, or enjoying the latest bizarre amusements in the world on Memepool or Dave Barry’s Blog.

I’m wondering why more people aren’t like me. Why are they watching people eat bugs when there is much better amusement on line? If nothing else, you can only get PG-13 sex on TV. On the Internet you can dine from a fine buffet of X rated amusements if so inclined. Or if virtual sex is insufficient there are endless temptations with online personal sites where maybe, just maybe, you find your ideal mate or find someone who shares your particular erotic kink.

I have to wonder how much life commercial TV has left. Like the mainframe, stories of its impending death are probably greatly exaggerated. But I have to think with its limited buffet and with the unlimited buffet available on the Internet its days are numbered. I’m hoping that twenty years from now network programming will be obsolete. Instead I expect we will get the information and amusement we want from our very fat Internet pipes or from our high bandwidth portable Internet devices instead. If I need to see TV news I’d much rather do it at Naked News anyhow.

To survive perhaps TV will have to find an excuse to become good again. It doesn’t have to dwell forever in mediocrity. Maybe we will get programming for people with an active and curious mind, like me. Maybe instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator TV will pander to those of us who imagine ourselves as full of class, intellect and style.

But those shows are few and far between. Yet if PBS ever does shows like Meeting of Minds again I could be lured away from my computer. How about it, entertainment industry?

 
The Thinker

From Physics to Metaphysics

I read Brian Greene’s book The Fabric of the Cosmos for a number of reasons. First I had at best a hazy idea of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity. For once really wanted to fully understand them. Second, I had heard about string theory (well, really superstring theory) and the uncertainty principle. I was curious to learn a whole lot more. But perhaps the real reason I read the book was that I was hoping that just maybe (in my own mind at least) I could merge the worlds of physics and metaphysics.

Why not? Physicists are hot to validate the grand unification of relativity (the universe at the macro level) with superstring theory (the universe at the subatomic level). It’s their Holy Grail. I can have mine too. Clearly I am not easily intimidated by daunting philosophical and scientific problems, even though I am neither a scientist nor more than an amateur philosopher. I am likely tilting at windmills but someone has to start.

Through Greene’s book I learned that there likely exist 11 (or possibly just 10) dimensions to the universe. Four dimensions we seem to understand as part of the nature of our reality: space (i.e. length, width and height) and time. It is hard for us to conceive of a reality of more than four dimensions because we cannot directly perceive them. But Greene points out that in order for superstring theory to work mathematically and integrate with Einstein’s theories there must be seven more. He generally refers to these dimensions as “curled up” dimensions that are embedded in the energized superstrings. These superstrings vibrate at certain frequencies and in the process take on properties. Some of these properties we can perceive as matter and some of which we can perceive as energy (light, for instance).

But we also know that there is a lot of energy that surrounds us that we cannot directly perceive. We know that the ether of the electromagnetic spectrum surrounds and permeates us. We cannot perceive any but its visible spectrum. We can infer its presence well enough every time we use our cell phones or listen to the radio. Clearly the universe is far more complex than what we can directly observe.

Now let’s get back to metaphysics. Metaphysics is “The branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.” Metaphysics is largely pure speculation and tries to give order and sense to that which lies just beyond science. Arguably a lot of it is nonsense. Most Westerners would probably say that most religions (except their own), horoscopes, palm reading and the like are nonsense. But if you read enough (and I’ve read quite a bit) there are certain areas of common agreement in the metaphysical world that seem almost scientific in nature. I’ve alluded to some of these in other blog entries. For example near death experiences and the high degree of commonality among these experiences have been well researched by academics like Raymond A. Moody, PhD and MD as well as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, MD. Many of us, including myself, have experienced deja vu. These experience suggests to me that time itself may be an illusion. There are even scientific studies into the psychics that are damned convincing.

Eastern religions have promoted various planes of existence for the soul for millennium. Perhaps the best established of these is the seven planes of existence from the Hinduism and Buddhism traditions. According to these mystics, each plane of existence has its unique attributes and purpose. For example after death we arise to the astral plane where we hang out again until the Masters can figure out which new body we need to inhabit to learn new important spiritual lessons we haven’t mastered. Eventually we are reincarnated and go back to the earthly plane. Assuming we get our karmic lessons right at some point after death we arise from the astral plane to the mental plane, the home of “masters” and “spirit guides”. Maybe at that level we exist to help others trying to complete their karmic experiences. This level maps quite well to many religions versions of heaven, including Christianity to some extent. Both these levels and the experiences anticipated map well with Moody and Kubler-Ross’s research into near death experiences. They also map well as past life regression research by well established clinical hypnotherapists like Michael Newton. Beyond the mental level are the Buddhic, Nirvana, Para Nirvana and finally the God Head levels.

I find a couple interesting things in this aspect of metaphysics.

First, most describe ascending from one plane to the next as moving to a higher “vibrational level”. This is true regardless of how many levels of consciousness a particular spiritual practitioner or guru seems to be promoting.

Second, at least classically there are seven planes of consciousness described. Superstring theory talks about eleven dimensions. Subtract four that amount to our earthly experience and that leaves seven that should exist. Curiously there are seven levels of consciousness promoted by the Hindu-Buddhist philosophies. Subtract one for the existence we can perceive (or for the 11th dimension which according to Greene may not exist) and we get close to or hit the number of dimensions required to validate superstring theory.

Lastly, Greene talks about how superstrings have various properties including very definite differences in vibrational rates. Maybe it means nothing, but both physicists and metaphysicians seem enamored with vibrations and energy levels. Perhaps some of those “curled up” dimensions that Greene and fellow physicists allude to can be mapped to planes of existence?

No doubt most physicists would be surprised by or laugh at my attempt at a comparison here. And I am sure that magazines like The Skeptical Inquirer have published numerous articles on why such theories are bunk. On the other side of the equation there are many in the metaphysical world, particularly those vested in a particular religious faith who will deny any reality outside of their faith’s.

These are thin threads I am suggesting. But there are some commonalities here that should raise eyebrows on both sides of this divide. Both sides are really rushing toward the same goal. The grand unification theory sought by physicists is but a way station toward understanding the mind of God (if God exists). Similarly, the religious and philosophers among us must at some level require the assurance that all those things they are saying are true can be proven objectively true.

All I’m suggesting is I see some threads that perhaps can stitch these two seemingly dissimilar worlds together. I invite those more learned than me to continue this effort. I think we need to wrap our minds around the true nature of existence. If there are curled up dimensions in subatomic particles that can be inferred this strikes me as a wholly fantastic idea. I find it no more fantastic those eastern religions thousands of years old were talking even then about planes of existence that also cannot be seen. Perhaps both sides are speaking a sort of common lingo. My job may be to put them in touch.

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The Thinker

Light blogging this month

It will be tough to find time to blog for the remainder of this month but I will blog when I can. Too much real life is intervening.

For the bulk of this week I will be helping my parents move into Riderwood, a retirement village. Most of next week I will be in course for managers in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. On the 21st we leave for a vacation in Canada, arriving back on the 29th.

 
The Thinker

Grieving for the living

In the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World there is a poignant scene. It occurs when the HMS Surprise is rounding Cape Horn, which is known for its turbulent seas. A mast breaks and falls into the sea. A sailor up in the rigging falls down into the ocean with it. He desperately tries to swim back to the ship. The mast, which is still tethered to the ship, is acting like an anchor that threatens to pull the Surprise down into the ocean. It must be cut in order to keep the Surprise from sinking. But in the process of cutting it the sailor cast overboard has to lose his life. The poignant string music of Ralph Vaughan Williams‘s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis perfectly captures the mixed feelings of the moment. We see shots of the drowning sailor (popular with the crew), sailors crying in the hull and the grim Capt. Jack Aubrey cutting away the last bits of rigging holding the mast to the boat.

I know how that crew felt. I am going through similar feelings now with my mother’s decline. It is increasingly clear that she is in or is reaching her last stages of life. She may surprise us and live for years but her spirit is gone. She is at a point where I think she welcomes death as an escape from her earthly turmoil. She is 84 and a victim of congestive heart failure. She recently returned from a hospital stay not appreciably better than when she entered. My Mom is severely depressed. She spends most of her waking hours in her room watching TV. She tries to sleep but for the most part doesn’t succeed. She is at the point where she can’t do much of anything without assistance. She used to be able to navigate to the bathroom by herself. My Dad is there to assist her for pretty much every activity in her day.

Since her fall last autumn we have been trying to get them out of Michigan. They have a perfectly nice single-family house. But it has stairs. It is not very accessible. My mother’s sister (who is weary of helping out during her emergencies) lives in town. Her closest offspring is 400 miles away. Fortunately my Dad, age 77, is doing quite well and is able to keep up with her. But we know her condition is taking a large physical and psychological toll on him. So they finally sold their house and will be moving on Monday to the Washington area. Their new residence will be a retirement community called Riderwood near Silver Spring, Maryland.

We’ve been planning their move for months. Final preparations right down to the wallpaper for their new apartment kitchen have been haggled over and decided. We even have a wheelchair rental planned for my Mom. If we can get them to Riderwood life should be simpler for them. But it will still not be easy.

If my mother’s recent hospitalization weren’t enough the move alone may kill her. She grew up in a clapboard house in Michigan less than thirty miles from where she is living. The things she cares about most are in Michigan, including what remains of her family. Michigan is comfortable and familiar. It feels like home. Always a deeply shy woman about the only people my mother can related to these days are her increasingly few siblings and her children. Taking her away from her siblings may crush what remains of her spirit. She knows their lives need to be downsized and she knows the burdens on my Dad are hard for him to bear. But she leaves Michigan in a couple days with the crushing knowledge that if she returns it will be as ashes in an urn to be placed next to the graves of her parents.

At Riderwood both my sister and I will be in commuting range. We are hopeful that her new neighbors (including a devout Catholic across the hall) will revive her spirits. Perhaps she will find even at this late stage in life some joy and something to live for. But from reports I am getting she wishes she could just die and be done with life’s burdens.

My aunt thinks she has less than a year to live. She is probably right.

We, her sons and daughters, are bending over backwards to pick up her spirits and to facilitate this move in the best way possible. My parents will be spending Monday with us. My sister Teri will fly with them to help my mother navigate airplanes and restrooms. (A car trip would be too taxing.) Then we have to move them into their apartment in Riderwood, and try to get her established in their new home. But my gut feeling is that my mother will remain miserable. Getting out of her bed and using her walker to get to the bathroom may prove too vexing for her. Her short-term future may be a Washington area nursing home, not Riderwood.

She seems trapped in some sort of inexorable death spiral. We will do our best to change the situation and her spirit. But she doesn’t appear to want to change anything. She feels hopeless. She is withering: losing body weight, losing muscle mass, becoming stooped and increasingly unable to do anything by herself. Yes, I’ve talked to her many times about depression. She has always denied she is depressed and has refused repeated offers to get therapy. However I was successful in getting my parents to get some counseling together. That seemed to have some effect, as they were able to agree they had to sell the house and move on.

Those of us who love her are of course deeply affected by her condition and her attitude. We so desperately want to make things better for our Mom. We want to see her happy and smiling again. My mother’s life is all about giving of herself. But from her perspective there is nothing for her to give anymore. Even cooking, her main joy in life is largely behind her.

I realize I am involved in a grieving process for my mother. She has not died but to some extent she is already dead. All of us want her to be like she was: happy, humming, putting together some tasty creation in the kitchen or tending to her flower garden. But that part of my mother is dead. What remains is a severely depressed woman scared witless by the impending end of her life but unable to stop this train that she is on. We offer words, we offer comfort, we offer food but not much penetrates. Perhaps listening to her will help but I am not sure she has anything she wants to say. She wants to totally withdraw.

I would like to think there is something called “the good death”. But I don’t see it happening for my mother. I suspect it doesn’t happen that way for most people. We can do as much as we possibly can for our mother but I don’t think any of it is going to penetrate. We come into this world alone, but must we elect to leave this world alone too?

We on the periphery of her life bite our nails, grieve and mourn for our mother who is still with us. As we watch her go we feel her terror. We know her issues are issues we will have to grapple with someday. For myself her experience only feeds my own fears about my dying. It seems so unfair for anyone to die. We know death is the price of living yet to watch the process with someone you love just makes me apprehensive and angry with the gods. Death should not have to be so wrenching.

Williams’s Fantasia perfectly describes how I feel: Anxious, poignant, resigned and hopeless. I am mirroring my mother’s own feelings. I try to stay busy and keep with the tasks of the day, but her dying hovers over me constantly. Now that she is moving closer it will become an even closer and more personal experience. I need to go through this experience; it too is a part of living. Yet it leaves an acrid taste in my mouth.

I am left hoping I can find the personal courage to give my mother my best in her last days. She needs to feel the love we always feel for her. Yet I know when her passing comes will be both a traumatic blow and a relief that she (and we) are free at last.

 

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