Monday, February 22, 2010

Let Sleeping Cats Lie

I don’t know why my airline charges an extra $125 each way when my cat travels with me. Since he must remain in his carrier under the seat in front of me for the entire trip, he really is no different than any other piece of carry on luggage. Unlike the screaming kids all around me, he is zonked out and silent from the tranquilizer I trick him into eating prior to departure. At the very least he should be given frequent flier miles. With 4 trips to Mexico, he has already logged over 18 thousand miles. Yes, Osito (Little Bear) is a jet setter.

It seems like he has a very exciting life. Just last year he discovered the joys of amputating the tails of gecko lizards. (Before you get upset you should know that he doesn’t actually tear the tail off. When geckos get caught by the tail they self amputate and while the predator fixates on the gyrating dismembered tail, the lizard scurries away and soon is sporting a new one.)

Yet despite his far reaching adventures, he still spends most of his life asleep. I worry about this. When I spend a lot of time sleeping it means I’m either sick, bored or depressed, or some combination thereof. I worry that perhaps I’m not making his life exciting enough. So I populate his world with various toys meant to spice up his life. I have imitation stuffed mice on strings that I run around the apartment pulling along for him to chase. I get tired of running back and forth between the two rooms of the apartment at about the same time he loses interest in something that is such a poor imitation of the real thing. I guess he knows that the mouse isn’t really running around on its own. Probably the string connecting it to me gives the game away.

Sometimes he will fetch little foam rubber soccer balls that I throw for him. It looks cute when he carries the ball back in his mouth. Unfortunately his favorite time to play fetch is right after I go to bed at night.

You might wonder why I should feel so responsible for my cat’s emotional health. It’s because I am the one who is controlling everything else in his environment. Since I don’t let him outside, his whole world (apart from the Mexican jaunts) is confined to a 700 square foot apartment. When you think about it, that’s a remarkable constraint. Male cats in the wild range over a territory up to ten square kilometers. They hunt a variety of small game or scavenge for almost anything edible if they are in areas of high human population. That’s a lot different than a bowl full of brown kibbles every day at the same time.

But research has found that animals in nature often sleep when there is nothing else pressing. If they aren’t hungry, thirsty, or horny they sleep. Better to be hidden away in the den than thrashing around in the open like a mobile buffet for larger predators. So maybe I shouldn’t worry about how much my cat sleeps. Maybe it just shows how well I have provided for him. (Not the horny part; he’s neutered.)

I think I will end this article on that optimistic note. Now that it is finished and I have nothing else pending, I think I’ll take a nap.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Digital Graffiti

In the old days disgruntled souls would tag everything with spray paint. Everywhere you looked you would see anonymous initials and slogans –“Gilroy was here.” If he was here he must exist. He must be a cool guy cause he can hit and run with his iridescent art before anyone can catch him. Graffiti hasn’t disappeared; it’s on the internet. Today’s equivalents of brick walls, delivery vans and subway trains are Facebook, Twitter and any place where users can leave comments. Like graffiti artists, these users often represent themselves through assumed identities with cunning screen names – the Artful Dodgers of cyberspace.
Pundits of digital graffiti see a brave new world of social networking, as if sitting alone and anonymously in front of the bluish glow of an electronic display can somehow be considered social. Look, it’s not that I don’t get it. There is no denying the huge potential of instantaneous, worldwide communications free of any gatekeepers. Using Facebook, YouTube and the like, protesters in Iran were able to bypass government censorship and the world could see what was really happening.

But somehow I don’t think it rises to the same level when you broadcast to the world that you’ve just made a particularly brilliant pairing of a Chilean Merlot with your grilled marinated Kobe steak drizzled with a light raspberry reduction. Trillions of dollars of technology infrastructure for this kind of essential information? Some would say yes. They will go on and on about how it enables people to form far flung friendships and enhance their social well being. But then again some people argued that graffiti was an art form that allowed the disenfranchised an outlet for creative expression.
Unlike spray paint, digital graffiti does not deface anybody’s property. So what’s the harm? Other than possibly clogging up bandwidth that might otherwise be put to better purpose, it seems innocuous. But consider this: if everyone has a microphone, who is listening? The social network engineers provide tools to assemble our own audiences. Twitter and blogs have followers (very few for this particular blog),  in Facebook and chat rooms you have friends lists, and Google’s new Buzz even gives you a list of followers automatically. If someone has 489 “friends” on Facebook, what exactly is a friend? I’m reminded of the Pez collection one of my real friends has displayed all over his house. You just line them up for the sake of collecting as many as you can. Chances are your online friends are listening no more intently than the Pez characters.
Yet we have the illusion that there is an audience out there and that what we say, anything we say, has value. So if you’re bored at the office, inquiring minds want to know about it. If you’re headed out to the gym, your family and friends need to be informed. If you’ve just thought of something witty, you mustn’t deprive your admiring fans. The problem is that the buzz is so loud I can’t hear anything I might really care about. It’s like the graffiti that used to obscure the subway map.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Who is the Bitter Old Queen?

I’ve been pondering that question all my life and I’m no closer to an answer today than I was as a lonely college kid standing at the rail of the Panther Hollow Bridge at three in the morning crashing from Dexodrine and wondering why I shouldn’t just jump to clearly establish once and for all that I will never be able to fly. Was that the moment I became a bitter old queen? Of course I wasn’t old then and I would not have known what you meant if you called me a queen.  No, the title, Bitter Old Queen, came quite recently.
I was chatting with some friends during happy hour at the Blue Moon in Rehoboth Beach six or seven summers ago when we overheard a group of young gay men making disparaging remarks about all the old farts in the place. It pissed me off, not the fact that they were hostile to older men but that they obviously included me in that category. Didn’t those pretentious pretty boys realize that we are the ones who made it possible for them to be openly gay without fear? Where the hell were they when we were getting our heads bashed in during the Stonewall Riots? Life was so much more difficult for us; we were the pioneers and they are just ungrateful beneficiaries.
“You sound like a bitter old queen,” one of my friends said. Well that caught me up short. He was right. I had to remind myself how tedious I used to think old people were. They were always complaining about young people. Things aren’t like they used to be, they would lament.
I also had to admit that my generation was the one that coined the phrase “never trust anyone over thirty.” I recall how suspicious we were one day when a grad student came and sat with us in the student union. A grad student! for heaven’s sake. Funny how the tables have turned. Maybe this is what payback is all about.
As to paving the way for today’s young gays, that part is true. (OK, I personally was never in danger of having my head bashed in but it makes a good story and I know of people who really did get hurt.) So give us old farts some credit. It is equally true that the pre-Stonewall generation courageously laid the ground work for my generation and they didn’t even have the spirit of the counter-cultural revolution to buoy them up. Each generation benefits from the previous one and, in turn, has a responsibility to leave a positive legacy for the next.
So, young people, we hand the torch to you. Carry on the great battle. Make us proud. Push the envelope to the next level. But if you so much as even intimate that I’m old or bitter, I’ll teach you a lesson with a bitch slap you’ll not soon forget.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Robot Love

Ever since Robbie the Robot, we humans have been fascinated by machines that can look and behave like we do. Most scientists agree that Artificial Intelligence is, if not already upon us, only a matter of a short time until it pervades our lives. Is it fantasy to believe that  a computerized robot could soon be your best friend? Sega, the Japanese toy manufacturer, says they’ve already done it. Ema, short for Eternal Maiden Actualization (gag), is a 15 inch tall battery-powered companion for lonely men. She even kisses on command. (Lonely, desperate, and sadly mistaken about interacting with real women.)
Toys aside, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to believe that clever programmers can create systems that respond as we do to various stimuli in our environment. A touch sensor in the hand registers the heat of the stove, the hand jerks back, and the machine vocalizes “ouch!”. In fact as far back as 1950, Alan Turing (a brilliant English mathematician and computer scientist who was convicted of homosexuality, chemically castrated, and stripped of his security clearance  – a short-sighted blunder on the part of the British “intelligence” authorities) hypothesized a test of computer intelligence. It worked like this: A human at a terminal engages in two conversations. One is with another human on a hidden terminal, the second is with a computer program. The object is to determine which is which. With good programming it turns out to be a lot harder than you would think.
But what about face to face? Remember HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey? When he said “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave,” you felt like it really pained him to betray his human friend for the good of the mission. And as his circuit boards were pulled out and he began to regress, he admits that he is afraid. Can a computer be afraid? Can a machine be programmed to feel human emotions?
Yes, in a way. Well, more accurately, a machine can be programmed to display behavior that we associate with emotion. But then so can a psychopath. Is there more to human emotion than saying the words, striking the postures, maybe even shedding a few tears? Perhaps not. Maybe all of that is just behavior that has suited our species in the Darwinian sense. Maybe when we listen attentively to a friend in need, it’s nothing more than a pragmatic strategy. We help them, someday they help us. Like a parrot saying “Good morning” but not really meaning it. (Apologies to parrot lovers.)
Most people emphatically reject such a notion. But then, what else can we do? What a blow to our egos if we are not separated from the animal world because we think, feel, love and all the other supposedly unique human traits. What if a run-of-the mill computerized robot can do all of those things just as well as we can?
If that’s true, then my search for the perfect lover is almost over. I can buy him at Kmart in the near future. But that’s just a little bit more cynical than even the Bitter Old Queen can embrace.