A Closer Look

Batting Back Blogger’s Block with Current Events

It’s been real hard coming up with decent, original material lately.

None of my current ideas lives up to the usual high standard of trivial blather that the readers of this blog have grown to expect, and which they so richly deserve.

I thought of writing about oil exploration in New Zealand, in light of the Gulf of Mexico being turned into a gigantic pot of toxic gumbo. (I can almost smell the fried sea turtles from here. Yum.)

Not to miss out on the Peak Oil beach party, New Zealand recently granted Petrobras a five-year permit to search for petroleum deposits in the Raukumara Basin off the East Coast of the North Island.

New Zealand has barrels of pristine beaches, like this one at Port Waikato.

What excited me most about this announcement was the solid assurance of Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee that nothing like the Gulf of Mexico disaster could happen here.

“I’m of the strong view,” Brownlee said, “that any of the oil companies who might be interested in pursuing their options will themselves, for the matter of their own liability, want to make sure that they are as safe as they possibly can be.”

I’m sure Brownlee is right. Look at British Petroleum, after all. Left to its own devices by a neutered regulatory agency, BP exposed the entire Gulf region of the States to untold risk rather than invest up to $7 million in preventative measures.

The company lost half its stock valuation as a result of following industry best-practices. But that seems irrelevant compared to the cost of destroyed industries, decimated ecosystems, and lost life.

Perhaps Brownlee’s assurance refers to the invisible hand of the free market and its ability to plug-up any hole with just its pinky finger. He’s right. The invisible hand of the free market is always ready to give us the finger.

BP being as safe as it possibly can be in Tairua.

But enough with stupid cheap-shots and preachy hyperbole. I’ll admit that being a long-time consumer of fossil fuels hampers my credibility as a critic.

But how did this disaster come to be known as a spill?

I doubt people that call it a “spill” have ever spilled anything in their lives.

It’s not like if you were sipping a Martini in a crowded bar and your arm got jostled and vodka and olives continued to flow for three straight months so that drink experts would be called in to suck up the mess and Congressional committees would have to cross examine bartenders and everybody who lived near the crowded bar would be drunk all the time from the vodka fumes. I mean, if that were the case, I’d seriously have to consider moving next to a bar.

I thought of writing all that, but then I thought, “What a bunch of crap. Maybe I should write about the weather instead.”

It’s now officially winter, which means it’s finally colder outdoors than it is inside my apartment. But only a little.

The cold, hard light of the Winter Solstice, June 21. The sun rose at 7:48 a.m. and set at 4:58 p.m.

See, as many of you have probably guessed by my demeanor, hygiene and grammar, I live in a cave.

We all do down here. That’s because most residences in New Zealand do not have central heating.

We get by. We put on our indoor fleeces (as opposed to our fancy, outdoor, doing-the-town fleeces) and we crank up our electric heaters to 3 and we burn architectural elements in our fireplaces.

So the temperature, I can deal with. In the cold and damp, however, there thrives a mold, the national flower of New Zealand, that aggravates my asthma.

This, unfortunately, is also a bunch of crap.

Maybe this week, I just don’t have it in me to write original material. Maybe it’s better for everyone if I just re-print material from someplace else.

Like this partial transcript of a White House Press Briefing about President Barack Obama’s reaction to Gen. Stanley McChrystal disparaging the Administration in a Rolling Stone article:

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 6/22/2010

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:52 P.M. EDT

Q    Were you with the President when he reacted in any way to this story?  And if so, how would you describe it?  Was he surprised?  Was he angry?

MR. GIBBS:  I was — I gave him the article last night.  And he was angry.

Q    How so?

MR. GIBBS:  Angry.  You would know it if you saw it.  (Laughter.)

Q    What did he do?

MR. GIBBS:  I’d rather not talk about it.

Q    Come on. Don’t tease.

MR. GIBBS: Well, I went in to show him the article. He said, “I thought I told you never  to interrupt me when Cougar Town is on.” I told him it was important. “Wait for the commercial,” he said. It was the longest five minutes of my life.

Q    Why?

MR. GIBBS: Because he was wearing his eye patch and he had a snooty looking persian cat on his lap, which he caressed menacingly. When the commercial came on, I showed him the article.

Q    And?

MR. GIBBS:  First he bit my ankle. Then he smashed me over the head with a portrait of one of the presidents. (Laughter.)

Q    Which president?

MR. GIBBS:  I don’t know. It was wrapped around my head and facing the other way. The President laughed at me. He kept saying, “Now you know how I feel when someone interrupts me watching television.” And then he said, “Oh, don’t start crying now. I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Q    How deep was the bite?

MR. GIBBS:  I needed six stitches. They gave me a tetanus shot and they injected me in the abdomen with a Rabies vaccine, just in case. (Laughter.) It was very painful.

Q    But what did the president say about the article? What were his first words?

MR. GIBBS:  The last thing I heard before I passed out was something along the lines of, “I’m going to fix myself a sandwich. You want anything?”

One…Singularity Sensation

A Review of the Future

The New York Times ran a story last Friday about the venture-capitalist aspect of the Singularity. The article describes the Singularity as a time

when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.

…(when) human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.

The apparent contradiction that life in the Singularity is unpredictable yet it will surely improve the lot of humanity doesn’t evoke much cognitive dissonance among its zealous popularizers, like inventor/businessman Ray Kurzweil who seems to believe the application of science is always good, not the mixed-bag it really tends to be.

For example, one can argue that advances in medical and agricultural science have dramatically reduced suffering associated with starvation and illness. That’s good. One could also say that healthier people living longer thanks to better nutrition and medicine has contributed to overpopulation with all its attendant conflicts for finite resources and apparent irreconcilable differences with the environment. That one’s not so good. See? Mixed-bag.

So people who believe in the advent of a super-intelligence that will sweep away such complications ignore history, or maybe they assume that history doesn’t apply to them.

The latter possibility vexes me. The Times reports that Singularity University charges $15,000 for a nine-day course that “focuses on introducing entrepreneurs to promising technologies.” I don’t have a problem with elites charging other elites lots of money to develop new markets for innovative tchotchkes. But that high tuition made me wonder: how much am I going to have to shell out to get in on this Singularity action?

And will it even be worth it? Like, what if the Singularity comes up with a way of converting our consciousness into data and uploading that data onto some kind of gigantic iPod, except it’s called an iBod to avoid copyright infringement and instead of us carrying an iPod, the iBod will be carrying us?

And say the Singularity forgets to make the battery on this iBod very durable so that after a year or two, the whole iBod is fried? What happens to us? Do we die? If so, do we at least get a refund?

And what if our iBod dies after we’ve synced it up to our computers, which version of us will be us: the one that fried on the iBod or the one on your “Favorites” list on your computer that you like to play when you have people over for drinks?

And what if we’re the last person in line at the Singularity Store and by the time we get up to the counter, not only has the Singularity Store run out of iBods but everybody else, including the cashier, has already uploaded themselves onto their iBods? Who are we supposed to complain to? What are we supposed to do then? Read a book?

And what if only the very smart and very rich are able to upload themselves onto their own fancy expensive iBods? What is everyone else supposed to do then? With my brains, wealth and charm, I’d be lucky to get one-week summer-share on a Commodore 64.

As you can see if you’ve bothered reading this far, and I really don’t know why you would, that Times article had me quite worried. I wanted to evolve to the Singularity, but I wasn’t sure if I had enough money. There was only a couple dollar in my pocket. Perhaps if I made myself as smart as Ray Kurzweil, I would be allowed to progress to the Singularity. I had to go out and learn something.

An Education

That’s when Jacquie and I decided to visit Highwic, a historic site and one of New Zealand’s finest Gothic timber houses. This place was a real test of our cognitive abilities with lots of sly puzzles for us to solve.

For example, just beyond the cashier as you enter the house, you come across a table, a kind of tiny gift shop, part of which looked like this:

We almost passed this table without noticing the problem.

“Wait a minute,” Jacquie said. “Decoupage isn’t fun. It’s tedious and boring.”

“That has to be the answer.”

I was so excited I told the cashier who was markedly less impressed than I had been. She stared at me.

“It’s ok if you don’t understand,” I said. “Not everybody can progress to the Singularity.”

“Hey, I know where we can learn stuff,” Jacquie said. “Let’s go to the toilet.”

So we went to the toilet. We spent a lot of time there. Then we saw this sign posted on the actual toilet itself.

The sign says: You are welcome to use this bathroom for washing your hands and using the mirrors. The toilet must not be used under any circumstances. It is a heritage toilet, for display purposes only. Thank You

We were so proud of ourselves because even though we didn’t see the sign until later, we hadn’t used the heritage toilet anyway. We figured it out on our own.

“We’re two-for-two!” I said.

What we had more trouble figuring out though was how to work the heritage enema.

I hope there won't be any heritage enemas in the Singularity because no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't figure out how to use it. The bedpan, however, was a cinch.

At that point we decided to quit while we were ahead. We’d learned enough for one day. The future was still far off into the future, so there’d plenty more days to figure out how to use the heritage enema. In the meantime, we decided to enjoy the rest of Highwic.

Highwic was founded in 1862 as a private residence for Alfred Buckland, who started off as a farmer and rose the ranks of Pakeha society to become an even wealthier farmer. He had 21 children with two successive wives. The house stayed in the family until 1978 and the family stayed in the house until later that same year.

A closeup of the dollhouse. For some reason, I took about a dozen pictures of the dollhouse.

The doll house included an exact replica of the heritage bathroom.

The grounds include a fernery and a billiard house. Above is the billiard house now overgrown by ferns.

We were pooped by the end of our tour. The future was looking good. Our brains were brimming with lots of information. Highwic even inspired us with an idea to make our flat as homey as the one Alfred Buckland lived in.