7-20-1969

engine-21847-20-1969

On that day I was 12 year old boy, visiting my Great-Grandfather for what was the last time in Bull’s Gap Tennessee. We had stopped to see him on our trip from  Ft. Bragg in North Carolina to Ft. Wainwright in Alaska where my father was due to be stationed.

My Great Grandfather was 98 and a long retired railroad engineer; frail and recovering from a broken hip and emphysema. He used a walker and like Hugh Hefner wore PJ’s all day, I guess he had earned that.

He was one of those who drove steam locomotives most of his life, with those lonesome whistles that would Doppler through the quiet mountain valleys and open plains sometimes in the night. I haven’t heard that sound in years, it’s a thing of the past — a sound that carried across the nation and helped build our country but one that was plaintive – whenever you heard it at a distance you thought of some bereaved banshee wailing for a ghostly lover. By time he retired most of the main lines had replaced their steam engines with Diesel electric so he had driven them as well, and in the late sixties and early seventies even the back-country railroads had replaced their steam engines.

The world was still black and white then, most periodicals and Televisions were anyway, even though color magazines and televisions had been around a while they were still considered luxuries by the average person. Even magazines that had color photographs were still mostly black and white, the exceptions were Look and Life, as well as National Geographic.

Six years earlier President Kennedy had been assassinated, and a year earlier the Viet Nam war peaked with the Tet Offensive. In Woodstock NY, some were preparing for a concert.

I watched the landing as Walter Conkrite narrated and didn’t realize that I was watching one of the greatest achievements of mankind that would occur in my lifetime. I assumed that Mars would quickly follow the moon landing. My great grandfather didn’t believe it… he thought that they must be faking it somehow.. At bedtime I slept in the smoking porch, smelling the stale patina of years of cigars, and looked out at the moon that was crescent and waxing towards half and… for the first time really had men on it. As I nodded off somewhere in a far off valley a steam whistle wailed.

The Value of Life – What I’ve Been Doing

The Value of Life – What I’ve Been Doing

On my “About Page” I assert that life has meaning and purpose for me at least. I also assert that if you don’t think that it does have value, purpose, and meaning then you should either take your exit or at least take pains to stay out of the way for those who do find virtue in living.

To gain inspiration and to challenge my assumptions I’m virtually auditing a Yale course in philosophy from Shelly Kagan on death with the thought in mind that the unexamined life isn’t worth living as Socrates puts it. So, the posting is light while I virtually attend the lecture series and read the material in the syllabus. (Hopefully I’ll be able to locate much of it online.)

So mom if you are reading, do not worry even though this isn’t like the book on life and death that you once found in my room and worried about… that book was about life and death in the oriental game of Wei chi, this series really is about life and death. Do not worry, the subtle blend of philosophies that drive me are strong, and it would be remiss not to revisit why I hate Plato or re-challenge some of my notions, I will come out the other side stronger.

In my youth I had several near brushes with death, most of them foolishly created by me. Some of them involved daredevil stunts such as climbing the radio tower during a thunderstorm or sliding down a dam on a piece of cardboard.

Those are things I would never do today, because with each passing day the true value of life does become more apparent and that value has led me to caution as I’ve aged; I don’t think I have a hundred years to live  but I want a hundred thousand years to live.

I don’t see an after life or God as having a high enough probability of existence to contemplate those as hopes, so I expect life ends when it ends and that what “I” am ceases to exist. No spirit, no soul lives on past the death of my corporeal form, and I’ve never seen convincing empirical proof that anyone Else’s does either.

How did I come to the conclusion that life has value? It was in one of my near brushes with death. It was New Year’s eve, and cold. Not cold like they think of cold in Buffalo or Chicago, but real cold, death creating cold, such as you find among the gravel moraines where plants and animals struggle to survive for another year of twisted painful existence during the depths of Winter in Alaska.

My friend and I were getting out of Winter, set on a mission to escape the island of Fairbanks gripped in it’s vast ocean of arctic snow with immense depths of cold in the clear dark skies above it. So New Year’s we got a wild hair, packed a few things, and started driving South down the Alcan highway in a beater Vega station wagon with a couple of jerry cans of Gas in the back.

About 250 miles down the road we noted that we wouldn’t be able to reach Tok with the gas we had filled up with so we stopped and poured one of the five gallon cans in, plenty to be sure in the efficient Vega to make Tok near the border of Canada and Alaska. While pouring the gas in I noticed the temperature had sunk even lower than the minus forty degrees it was hovering at in Fairbanks, and that the wind had really picked up. The heater in the car wasn’t keeping things very warm, and even on full blast there were rimes of frost circling every window.

We passed a stalled Semi a bit later, and pulled over to see if they needed an assist. They had reached help on their radio, and waved us off so we continued to Tok. About thirty miles outside the car stalled and would not restart. At first it was a drill for me, checking the cables, the plugs, the ignition coil… after several grindings of the starter and quite few attempts to get it started using a spray can of ether it became apparent that no gas was getting to the engine. The old jerry can of gas we poured in had sat too long, and water had formed in it.

That water was now ice plugging the gas line, and there wasn’t any way short of warming to a much greater temperature than -60 that the car would start again. We were on a frozen arctic plain with the wind howling, thirty miles from civilization in Tok with an effective wind chill of -90 or so.

My friend got a bit hysterical, talking about how we had to start a fire, how we had to build a shelter… he ran to the stunted growth of twisted bushes and scraggly twisted trees lining the tundra sagged road and started gathering wood in the howling wind.

Inside, I knew that would never work … the wind was too strong, no jury-rigged shelter would keep it out, and a fire would not keep us warm with the wind rushing by hard enough to lean into.

It was tearing, clawing, biting, pulling, — sucking warmth and life from us every second we stood in it. My friend had read “To Start a Fire” by Jack London as all children in Fairbanks do, and seemed bent on re-enacting it even so. No fire would serve to save our lives in that bitter clawing cold, at best we would alternately burn one side while frostbiting the other.

I gazed up at the stars to think what we should do, and I realized at that very moment that there were even greater depths of cold in those interstellar voids, that all heat and life and warmth, the very twinkles of stars that I was seeing, and the organization of the the iced and dirty pavement beneath my feet were all exceptions in the universe. They were natural, self ordered from the empty of chaos, but in the intergalactic void they were the un-natural and abnormal in the vast cosmos.

With order, heat, life, and warmth at such paucity and rarity in the universe it immediately became intensely valuable to me. At that moment, “I” as an individual was remade by that realization.

We survived only through reason and understanding of human physiology and thermodynamic physics. I grabbed my friend and shook him, marshaling my most convincing, calm, and confident voice I explained to him how we were going to live.

We opened the back of the car then, took off our winter parkas and snow pants, and opened our suitcases. We put on two extra pairs of socks, and our sweaters. We put on an extra pair of pants each. We then put our arctic gear back on, and climbed back into the car for shelter from the vicious razored wind. We ate cashews periodically and watched the frost thicken on the inside of the windows as the wind howled with great fury outside.

The arctic seems demonically inimical to life at times, but it’s not really, the arctic just is what it is and somehow that makes it even colder when you think on it.

Three hours later I saw the gleam of approaching light in the small hole I scraped in the frost on the windshield with my keys. So we survived, and I found that life has immense value.

Maoist Machinations

Maoist Machinations

The World Bank has been feeding the Maoist cadres of Chairman Prachanda (or Prachandra, both spellings appear ) in Nepal as part of the peace accords, but ceased that today when they found that the numbers were being inflated in a scam. Former PM Prachanda is unavailable for comment as he’s suddenly fallen ill.

More at Kantipur online

Hurricane Gulch Alaska

Hurricane Gulch Alaska

Hurricane-Gulch-AlaskaHere’s a photo of Hurricane Gulch Alaska, it’s not the greatest quality since  it was taken through the window of a moving train. I had to get this because on our many spur of the moment roadtrips to Anchorage in my youth it was traditional to always stop midway across the highway bridge to take a leak. The name comes from the powerful winds that blow through constantly, so you had to pick the right side or you would end up with a mess. Click on the thumbnail to see the larger version.

Natal: Coming to an Office Near You?

Natal: Coming to an Office Near You?

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In an earlier post I speculated upon the future uses of Microsoft’s new full body motion detecting system, Natal, which is coming for the X-Box. I took the sensor from the X-Box, and speculated on what could happen if this moved to offices and factories in combination with other budding technology, such as Pixelwalls or Pixelspaces.

Here’s a snip:

So why the excitement? Part of it’s because this does draw in people who are challenged by the GUI, the Gamepad, the joystick, or the mouse. It changes the playing field, and it changes the way we will interact with computers. What happens when this type of IO crosses verges? Steven talks about one he’s familiar with in the video, and you see an interactive fashion / shopping application as well. Think bigger than that. Combine it with another technology. This is where the wild assed speculation starts. Think of your office or factory computers – think not of monitor screens, but of pixelwalls with ability to run multiple apps in multiple virtual screens painting your cuby walls, and then think of public space pixelwalls.

There will be new art using this, and it will be interactive. There will be new interactive industrial uses, and there will be home uses. There will be breakthroughs in how we live our daily lives. Sometime over the next twenty years you won’t have to go to the computer to use it, you will be able to use applications, input to them, and view media by popping it up on the nearest pixelwall. With hand motions and speech you will likely be able to do everything you do today with a keyboard and mouse, and you will be able to take multiple views with you to any room in the house that has a pixelwall and sensors. If there are public pixel walls and network in public locations, you will be able to take all your media with you, and combine your virtual world with other people’s virtual worlds in the public square.

Now here’s the update on what could be the greatest I/O device since the Mouse:

In an interview with CNET News this week, Gates talked about a world in which depth-sensing cameras such as the one Microsoft is adding to the Xbox allow people to control their PCs, game devices, and televisions. (See a video from the E3 conference below.)

Speaking about all of the technology Microsoft has cooking in its labs, Gates said: “I’d say a cool example of that, that you’ll see… in a little over a year, is this (depth) camera thing.” Gates said it was not just for games, “but for media consumption as a whole, and even if they connect it up to Windows PCs for interacting in terms of meetings, and collaboration, and communication.”

Just a reminder: you can’t predict the future – so pixelwalls or pixelspace might be arrived at by different means, and full body motion sensing devices might combine in a different way than I’ve predicted.
I use “Pixelwall” as a self-explanatory word, but think in terms of wallboards that interconnect that are coated with plasma, LED, OLED, or LCD or some other type of display media, perhaps it will be wallpaper instead and come on rolls. The point is that at some time in the near future we won’t have monitors, we will have walls that can display multiple views and applications in multiple formats.
Life size views of scenic venues could be piped into your home, the view of the construction site could be piped into the Foreman’s office, the uses are many. With speech command and full body motion sensors as the new “human input devices” it takes humans out of chairs, and puts them in a truly compute anywhere environment.

Here’s a video demonstrating some of the gaming applications for this controller, now put it in a full surround computing environment at work… the possibilities become near endless.

UPDATE: The Futurist predicted some of this.

Obama: The Fail Part II, Nothing

Obama: The Fail Part II, Nothing

I’ve been among those saying that there’s plenty to slam our President on without making stuff up as some kookspiracist bloggers are prone to do, and you don’t need to wish him to fail. In my previous post I noted that President Obama is failing at least for his first six months in office citing just the facts.

This RNC video summarizes his first six months on the domestic issues in a hard hitting political ad:

Also note you can add Caving to Iran to the list of indefensible foreign policy blunders.

Health Care Reform Costs Visualized

Health Care Reform Costs Visualized

1000 Pennies is at it again, this time showing how much health care reform will cost in visual terms.

60

60

The NRSC has launched a new Youtube ad, 60, which highlights the power the Democrats control now and how the Republican hopes of the balance voters effects coming into heavy play in the 2010 elections. With Campaign kitties low and donations to the actual party thin, expect the Republicans to focus mostly on the Senate in the coming election. The demographics of balance in the Senate are much easier to achieve for the diminishing minority party than a large comeback in the house.

Expect spirited house battles, but also expect that they will recruit self starters there who can go it mostly alone. Who knows, there could be a budding Gingrich out there somewhere.

Carwash Terror

Carwash Terror

carwash-KaseyKasey gets terrified when the rollers go over the car in the carwash…

Of Kings and Queens and Freedom

Of Kings and Queens and Freedom

american-flag1.jpgDriving across the plains a couple years back I was musing while returning home from visiting my son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Rolling through the countryside across gentle hills and through green valleys I marveled at this land and our people. There were a thousand vistas along the way that would make a perfect home for either you or me.

Verdant vales and lush fields, corn across the plains, and wooded hills streamed past as I drove. A hundred, a thousand, a million perfect views of freedom, of happiness, of new places to build a house with a view, a farm with a windmill, a ranch with horses, a cottage beside a stream.

The American dream, the vision of freedom, is still here and alive in the United States, and it walks quietly and steadily beside us, a future vision of things to be. Here is where the dreams are made and where dreams become reality.

Foreigners misunderstand America, and what freedom here really is. They do not understand how our constitution protects individuals, not classes or groups. They neither grasp the laws designed to limit government, nor the responsibilities and duties that we free individuals must carry. The tree of liberty is fed with tyrant’s blood and that is just one of many responsibilities that we all know.

The ultimate effect and genius of our government is that each person is a sovereign individual; a king or a queen in their own right. It’s no mistake that fathers in America oft call their daughters princess, although there is neither title, divine right, nor grant of nobility to do so. We are each of us noble in America, and in America we write our own grants of nobility as we walk this land of 300 million kings and queens.

So foreigners misinterpret our easy grace with freedom and our ability as ego, they mistake our declarations as braggadocio, and they see this brawling country of three hundred million souls and fear our great powers.

What caused all my marvel while speeding through the plains wasn’t just freedom from kings, freedom from repressive religions that would have no other, nor freedom from dangerous philosophies. Instead it was the sheer wonder at everyone’s ability to gain their dream in America.

american_flag1.jpgThere is a new dream in america, or one simply born anew from ashes at the start of this century. It’s a dream of a world where all are free, where all are nobles, where everyone looks everyone else in the eye, and no person bows their head to anyone. The dream of a world where everyone is free, where energy and ability to achieve are in every person’s hands — a new century and a new millennium of freedom for all.

There are dangerous tyrants in the world who would block that, there are apologists and serfs to dangerous ideologies who will fight us from fear or from greed of money or power. Do not waver as you hear their seemingly reasoned whining plaints about why we are evil to think in such a manner. Remember instead that there’s no such thing as a little freedom, and that capitalism and the dream to achieve, to create, to design, to improve, to build, is a primal force of human nature — in the end and over time it will win all as surely as the sun does rise.

Here we are free to achieve, and here we acquire the means to do so. Here we are free to create, to speak, to disagree, and to celebrate — and so you should celebrate on this day of independence from tyrants and philosophies of divine rights; for you are a king or a queen in your own right and by your own light. So as the rockets flare tonight decide on what your kingdom will be, what you will achieve, and cherish your will to be free.