Monday, November 20, 2017

The (Very) Dark Side of Technology

Just when I thought I'd captured the market on worrying, E. sent me a video that makes my anxieties seem trivial. The video was created by Stuart Russell, a professor at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Future of Life Institute. It was shown earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland at a United Nations meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The video presents a grim fantasy about the unintended consequences of developing weaponized drones that use artificial intelligence. It's meant to scare the sh*t out of us and, for me at least, it worked.

Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, even nuclear war pale in comparison to the dystopian future pictured in the video. Okay, nuclear war can't really pale in comparison to anything, but this scenario is about as close as it gets.

The first drone I saw up close, during the innocent 
days when small drones were only used for things 
like real estate photography.
While technology has increased our ability to do good, some people inevitably seek to exploit it for evil ends. E. and I often speculate about the coming rise of machines and we wonder whether artificial intelligence will take over the world. Sometimes I even imagine that, given the destructive history of our species, machines would do a better job.

The video, though, pictures a world where humans are still in charge, one in which terrorists appropriate technology originally intended for fighting criminals and use it to further their malevolent goals. Professor Russell hopes the video will galvanize the world into action to prevent the scenario it depicts. But he cautions that time is running out.

Watch the video if you dare. And on Thanksgiving day, be thankful that the murderous drones depicted in it haven't been unleashed, yet.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Long before I ever imagined living in a place called Coconut Grove, I heard an unfortunate story about a coconut. It was told to me by Herb, a family friend, and it came to mind recently, as I gazed at the coconut palms still standing on my hurricane-ravaged island.

I was visiting my parents, who lived in Boca Raton. I had arrived a few days earlier from mid-winter Boston after a nasty bout with the flu. Herb, who lived nearby, had come over to say hello. I told him how wonderful Florida's warm, humid air felt and mentioned that I had been especially enjoying evening strolls under the palm trees in my parents' neighborhood.

"Be careful about the coconut palms," said Herb. "A friend of mine was taking a walk and a coconut fell on his head and killed him."

Not a reassuring story for a worrier like me. It had never occurred to me to fret about walking under palm trees. But Herb's cautionary tale stayed with me. His friend's death seemed like a particularly embarrassing way to go — one minute you're living in an earthly paradise, the next you're done in by a coconut.

*   *   *

The island where I live has many coconut palms. As I detailed in my last post, virtually all of them survived Hurricane Irma. So did the bunches of coconuts hanging from each tree, and they have continued to grow and ripen during the weeks since the hurricane. Normally, the landscape crew that takes care of the island removes the ripening fruit before it can reach the stage where a gust of wind or its own weight could bring it down, but with so much cleanup needed after the storm, coconut removal apparently hasn't been a priority. Individual coconuts have begun falling to the ground, causing me to worry that even a gentle breeze might send one flying in my direction.

At first, during my daily walks, when I approached a stand of coconut palms overhanging the path, I would lean my head back to see if anything was about to fall on me. Not a brilliant approach, since anything that did fall would then smash me in the face, an even worse fate than being beaned on the top of my head. So, for the past few days, when in the vicinity of hanging coconuts, I've taken to walking with both hands on my head. This detracts from the impression I'd like to give my fellow residents — that I'm a laidback sophisticate from up north — but I'm hoping it will diminish the impact of a fallen fruit on my skull.

A few days ago, attempting nonchalance, I mentioned the coconut situation to a neighbor and was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who had noticed the coconuts and worried about them. According to my neighbor, the condo's landscape committee had asked the landscape crew to remove them as soon as possible.

This morning, the crew arrived with two bucket trucks and began working on the palm trees. Inexplicably, they've chosen to start by removing dead fronds from the palm trees that line the road through the community even though those are not coconut palms and pose no threat to walkers. Still, I'm not complaining — only a few more days of walking with my hands on my head and I should be able to relax.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lonely Palms

Since I last posted on this blog, our country has been through a lot — winds, floods, fires, political tempests. Although I’ve agonized from afar, nothing directly affected me until Hurricane Irma made landfall on my beloved island just off the coast of Miami.

Landscaped path and our favorite
bench before the storm.
I was in New England as the storm approached. When meteorologists predicted that a category four storm might decimate Miami, I reacted philosophically. E. and I had been lucky to have a winter getaway in such a lovely spot. If our apartment were destroyed, I would be sad, but I would move on. I did worry, though, about friends who were in the path of the storm. The island was under mandatory evacuation, but many of those who left elected to stay with friends a short distance away. They were vulnerable.

Then Irma’s track veered and Miami suffered only a glancing blow from the hurricane’s outer bands. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not that those outer bands were completely insignificant. They still brought category one winds and a storm surge that covered the island as well as downtown Miami and Coconut Grove. But this year, everything seems relative. Compared to the havoc Irma had caused in the Caribbean and Maria later brought to Puerto Rico, Miami’s mess seemed small and reparable.

To be sure, there was damage on the island, according to friends’ reports — trees and foliage destroyed, the seawall partially collapsed, some apartments flooded. But the buildings did fine overall and our apartment was untouched. Power was restored after only one day and the AC worked fine. I breathed a sigh of relief. E. and I could return to Miami for another winter.

Trees gone as well as
our favorite bench.
We arrived a few days ago on a gorgeous afternoon. The summer humidity had eased and soft breezes blew across Biscayne Bay. At first glance, everything looked as lovely as ever. Then we took a walk around the island. Even though we knew what to expect, we were still shocked. The palm trees had survived but the beautiful old sea grape trees were gone. Flowers and shrubs — gone. Our favorite bench — gone. Most of the beach — gone, along with the wooden stairs leading leading down to it. Only the adjacent tiki (chickee) hut survived unscathed — the Seminoles and Miccosukees knew how to build to withstand hurricanes.

Seawall collapse.
On our little isle you’ll find three high-rise condominium buildings and, at one end, a small four-story hotel. The hotel is owned separately from the condominium property and the current owner has allowed it to become run-down in recent years. The part of the seawall maintained by the hotel owner had deteriorated, so when Irma hit it simply gave way. The collapsed area is now barricaded off and completely impassable, so E. and I couldn’t make our customary full circuit of the island. Instead, we had to turn around and retrace our steps.

A minor inconvenience, to put it mildly. But one whose very insignificance made me reflect on how fine the line is between normal life and total catastrophe. In an instant, the clear path of one’s life can disappear, swallowed up by illness, terrorism, natural disaster, or random accident. For today, at least, I’m grateful for what I still have — family, friends, and a spectacular view.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The High Points of the Republican Convention

People will no doubt be discussing the high points of the Convention and arguing about them for days — after all, one person's high point is surely another's low. Take Ted Cruz's non-endorsement of Donald Trump during his Convention speech. To a Trump supporter, Cruz's snub brought the political discord to an all-time low, yet to a die-hard Never-Trumper it may have been the Convention's finest moment.

Melania. Photo from the L.A. Times.
I'll let the pundits ponder all that. I'd rather focus on the Trump women and the impact of their convention speeches. I don't mean the bruhaha over Melania's plagiarism or the daughterly love displayed by Tiffany and Ivanka. While all that was mildly interesting, let's get real — the most fascinating aspect of their appearances, the absolute high points, were their ridiculously high stiletto heels.

I'm amazed that they managed to walk to the podium in those heels and stand tall during their speeches with nary a whimper of discomfort, let alone a grimace of pain. You may find my focus on women's shoes highly superficial, but I beg to differ. What could be a more important subject than women's continued subjugation to their footwear?

Tiffany. Photo from Hollywood Life.
Admittedly, I'm one of those unfortunate women whose feet have never felt good in high heels. Were I to walk a few steps in Melania's Christian Louboutin's, let alone a mile in her shoes, I would be crippled for life.

I didn't expect things to turn out that way. My mother loved wearing heels, the higher the better, so much so that her Achilles tendon shortened and made it uncomfortable for her to wear flats. As a girl, this seemed to me the height of sophistication and I always assumed I would follow in her footsteps.

Alas, I inherited the dysfunctional feet of my aunt and grandmother. By the time I was a teenager, I had to give up my dream of spike-heeled glamour in favor of sensible, low-heeled, round-toed shoes. Luckily, I came of age in the late sixties, when the women's lib movement made sensible footwear all the rage, so I was able to camouflage my disability within then-stylish comfortable designs.

During the mid-seventies, I became an early-adopter of orthotics. They saved my feet, although of course they could only be worn in the most utilitarian of shoes. By the time women's heels began to climb back into the stratosphere, I wasn't tempted. I'd come to appreciate comfort over beauty. Yet, I'd never quite gotten over my regret at not being able to wear stilettos. In the late-nineties, Sex and the City fueled my fantasies of the life I might have lived if only I'd been born with different feet.

Ivanka. Photo from the New York Post.
These days, images of fabulous footwear are everywhere — from the film stars on the Academy Awards runway to Robin Wright as the House of Cards' ice queen in heels. So, I wasn't really surprised when the Trump women strode onto the stage wearing dangerous-looking, sexy five-inch heels. Still, was this appropriate for a Republican gathering? Shouldn't they have worn something a little more staid?

Maybe, but truth be told, I was jealous. All three women had the air of females who had never had a foot pain in their lives. If they couldn't empathize with aching feet, I wondered, how could they possibly relate to the average voter? I was caught in a paradox — I simultaneously disapproved of the Trump trio and envied them. Never mind that along with eschewing high heels, I don't like wearing makeup, nail polish, or even Spanx. It's not as if there but for high heels go I.

Perhaps I should forget footwear and focus on the upcoming election. I'm looking forward to the Democratic Convention. But while I wait for it to begin, I can't help but wonder — how high will Chelsea's heels go?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Older, But Still Walking

I took a walk yesterday morning. It was a beautiful day, but cold, the temperature barely above forty degrees. So, I bundled up in a parka warm enough for a blizzard, a thick scarf, gloves, and of course my special sunglasses with wind shields. Do I look a little odd in those glasses? Yes, but if it's cold and windy, or even a bit breezy, without them my left eye will start tearing in a nanosecond and soon I'll be crying a river. They aren't prescription lenses, however, so while I may not have tears streaming down my face, I can barely see where I'm going.

I realize that, like me, some young people suffer from dry eyes, which paradoxically can cause excess tearing. They may also resort to special glasses like mine. But since I developed dry eyes later in life, I regard the glasses as a sign of approaching decrepitude. Next thing you know, I'll barely be able to walk.

Come to think of it, only a few weeks ago I was barely able to walk. I sprained my big toe while standing on my tiptoes to give my son, Aaron, a hug. He's not even that much taller than me, but all it took was a slight hyperextension of my toe to produce a piercing pain. Luckily, Aaron was just leaving for the airport after a lovely visit, so I didn't have to face the indignity of hobbling around in front of him for days, all because I hugged him too enthusiastically.

Was this toe mishap yet another sign of encroaching old age? A quick google of my symptoms indicated that I most likely had a mild case of turf toe, an injury common to young athletes, especially those who, like football players, constantly push off with their toes, especially on astroturf. So, okay, this could happen to anyone. But, it happened to me when I wasn't doing anything remotely athletic, except over-bending my slightly arthritic toe. Even if it didn't occur because I'm older, it certainly made me feel old.

I'm able to walk normally now, but every once in a while I get a twinge, a reminder that I could re-injure my toe all over again. Maybe that's a good definition of life over 65 — a time when the most trivial of injuries seems destined to lead to total disability and inevitable demise. Stating the obvious, my demise is inevitable, but while I once assumed that I'd bounce back from even serious illness, now the most minor ailments convince me that it's all downhill from here.

Yesterday, though, I felt hale and hearty enough to brave the elements and walk for several miles. My toe didn't throb even once and my glasses did their job admirably. I passed several wild turkeys during my perambulation and none of them attacked me. All in all, it was a delightful outing. I may be older, but I'm still walking.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Would It Help?

I recently saw the excellent film, Bridge of Spies. In the movie, which is based on a true story, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer, James Donovan, who defends Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy. A couple of lines from the movie particularly resonated with me. Given the title of this blog post, you won't be surprised which ones.

When Donovan meets Abel shortly after his arrest. Abel seems calm and unconcerned about his dire situation. Donovan, perplexed by this, asks, "Aren't you worried?" Abel replies, "Would it help?" This exchange becomes a humorous refrain throughout the film. Later, Donovan asks more pointedly, "Do you never worry?" Abel's reply is still the same.

These exchanges are oddly endearing and signal a growing respect between the two men. To me, they also signal an unattainable state of mind. If only I could make a decision not to worry and stick with it for more than a nanosecond.

After I saw the film, I found myself imagining the life of a spy. Clearly, not being a worrier would help. Spies, after all, live in constant danger of discovery, arrest, or even death. Not only would worrying not help; it might create a self-fulfilling prophesy, since any outward sign of anxiety — worried glances, furtive looks, trembling hands — could give them away.

I'm a fan of the AMC series, The Americans. Watching it, I'm often amazed that the Russian spy couple, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, can make it through five minutes, let alone their entire lives, without being (literally) consumed by worry. The "otherness" of the characters is partly what I love about the show. There couldn't be people more different from me than the Jennings, unless perhaps undercover narcotics agents or Formula One race car drivers.

As surprising as it may seem (to me at least), many regular people (and one I actually live with) aren't worriers. They care as much about their friends and family as I do, but if they're concerned about an issue whose outcome they can't control, they're somehow able to put their worry into a secret compartment (secret to me, anyway), and get on with their lives. Why worry if it won't help?

I'm so not one of those people. Even when those I love are healthy, I worry that they might get sick. If someone I care about has a job interview, I worry that he or she will be rejected. If I'm planning a long drive on a beautiful day, I worry about brake failure and sun glare. Okay, not really. Well, maybe just a little.

My guess is that a person like Rudolph Abel could no more choose to worry than I can choose not to. Still, this being New Year's, I'm tempted to make a resolution to worry less in 2016. But would it help? Not likely.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Good Walk Unspoiled

The other day, I took a walk to the pond near my home. The foliage, though past its peak, had a muted beauty. I admired the yellow and rust tones, filtered through a soft light, and breathed deeply the sweet smell of drying leaves. I walked through piles of leaves, crunching them underfoot.

A day earlier, I had taken the same route to the pond. Just before I left the house, though, I'd started listening to an NPR broadcast remembering Tom Magliozzi, the Car Talk host who recently passed away. The program consisted of clips of Tom laughing uproariously at one thing or another, mostly his own jokes. I didn't want to stop listening, so I grabbed my iPhone and earbuds and set off on my walk.

I ambled through the lovely autumn foliage but barely noticed it. My mind's eye focused on Tom and I felt surrounded by his laughter, scarcely aware of the trees, the leaves, or the car that almost hit me because I didn't hear it driving up behind me. I've never been good at multi-tasking, so my inability to simultaneously listen to a radio program and take in the beauty of autumn shouldn't have surprised me, but it did strike me how easily I distract myself from being in the moment.

I'm a news junkie and I listen to the radio while washing up, folding laundry, or cooking dinner. I read the paper during breakfast, read a book with my lunch, and talk with E. while eating dinner. Unlike me, though, E. is capable of simply eating. I've actually observed him doing this at breakfast. He simply sits at the table and eats. He doesn't read. He doesn't watch television. He doesn't engage in conversation with me. He just eats (and, I assume, thinks deep thoughts, perhaps about cereal). Amazing.

But, back to my walk, the one without earbuds. When I arrived at the pond, I saw familiar sights — mallards floating on the water, two by two; a great blue heron fishing among the cattails; an elderly couple sitting on a bench. Then I spotted something different in the middle of the pond, a crowd of small creatures, flashing white as they swam to and fro. As they approached the shore, I thought they looked like little ducks. Out of some fuzzy corner of my brain flashed the word merganser.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When I got home, I searched "merganser" on the Internet and in short order found the bird I had seen, a hooded merganser. I felt pleased to have spotted a new bird on the pond and even more pleased to have half-known its name. But the thing that made me happiest was finding photos on the web that let me know for sure what I had seen.

What is it about attaching a name to a bird that gives me such satisfaction? Possibly it's because I'm generally not very good at it, so when I make an identification it feels like a hard-won accomplishment. Certainly, naming is a very human preoccupation. The hooded merganser, after all, gets along swimmingly without ever knowing my name, or its own, for that matter.

Which brings me back to where I started — a gorgeous autumn day, when nature's beauty is on display, oblivious to whether I or anyone else takes note of it. While I'm pretty unlikely to give up all the things I do to distract myself during the course of a typical day (did I mention crossword puzzles?), I'm not planning to bring my earbuds along on future walks. And I won't check the number of steps on my Fitbit until I get home. Or look at my email. But if I'm walking with E. or with friends, all bets are off. I can't not talk.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.