Napa

Napa. Beautiful countryside, wine and food everywhere. Opportunities to spend a lot of money. It’s a special place, but it is all about conspicuous consumption. We’re in the hotel room early for the second evening in a row – two tastings, a light(ish) lunch and a nice dinner is all this old body can stand. We *should* be out taking a nice walk, but the AC and comfy room are too appealing.

The hit wine of the day may have been the cheapest – a $50 complex 2009 Zin from Inglenook, now owned by Francis Ford Coppola. Ingelnook isn’t about jug wines anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time. Their older wines, now in the early 2000’s, are superb.

The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) is pictured below. Nice stop.

Worry

Made the mistake of looking at the stock market indexes today – ouch! Stocks are down about 18% in the last six months. That’s ugly news for us old retired folks.

What really worries me is that it’ll take at least a year to reverse some of the underlying causes of inflation and the market’s lack of optimism – oil supplies, the Ukraine war, the supply chain shitshow, airline capacity versus demand, the ongoing litigation of Trump and 2020, etc. This stuff doesn’t change fast, unlike prices at the pump.

And I am *really* worried about the 2024 elections. With Biden’s term not going so well, Trump and his followers are energized. Another four years of slouching toward right-wing authoritarianism won’t be good for anyone, economically or (especially) socially.

This is a long read, but it’s worth it. Anyone who says racism is dead in America should read this. School boards weaponized, a respected educator pretty much driven out of a GA county, truckloads of ignorance and hate revealed. Words like “equity”, “justice”, and “race” have become trigger words that inflame the mob. And the mob uses the label and lie of Critical Race Theory to work (white) people into a frenzy, when CRT simply isn’t a thing in K-12 education. It’s all a right-wing lie leading to a sad story.

Reality check

The afternoon after the sleepless night hasn’t gotten any better. But I’m trying.

One thing I did during the night was finish a seriously creepy book, But the Stars, by Peter Cawdron. This is one of Cawdron’s many books in his “First Contact” series, where he imagines humanity meeting aliens for the first time, in every way imaginable. Well, at least in 20+ ways – there are a lot of books in this series. The guy is an excellent author and his output is…intimidating. Dude is a writer.

In But the Stars humanity meets its first alien intelligence a long way from Earth, on an interstellar voyage with nine crewmates. The book’s beginning is frustrating – it’s a bunch of repetitive short scenes with small changes. But there’s method to the madness.

<SPOILER ALERT> Turns out these aliens are capable of mind control, and they hijack the consciousness of the crew. The crew doesn’t even know they’ve been boarded and held captive. Each crew member’s consciousness is started then ended, over and over in various scenarios, as the aliens experiment to try and understand humanity.

It’s a twist on the Matrix, where you’re not sure if you’re in reality or a simulation. You can’t trust anything you see or remember – you’re not even sure if you’re you or a simulation of you. But in this case the bad guys aren’t machines and you’re in deep space with no one coming to help. Cawdron does a great job showing how little details give the crew hints that something’s wrong, and eventually – after decades – they begin to understand that their minds have been hijacked and they’re captives of…something. Like I said, creepy.

The mind control /telepathy thing is a good twist, but it’s a classic deus ex machina – a made-up device or concept that enables an otherwise unlikely story. In this case the device is revealed partway through the book, not at the end. But I classify it as such because the likelihood of us being able to communicate with an alien intelligence are pretty slim. Even now we’re pretty sure that dolphins, elephants, and whales are intelligent. They have a consciousness and they communicate with each other. But we can’t understand them at all, and they’re terrestrial Brothers right here on Earth. So what chance do we have to understand some ammonia-breathing, supercooled arachnid from Gliese 710?

Something about But the Stars hit me in a way that The Matrix didn’t. Perhaps it was the loneliness, the distance from Earth as the crew was captured. Really, truly alone. Or perhaps it was that they had to suffer not knowing what or who was real, over and over. In The Matrix you were either in or out, and when humans occupying reality went back in, they knew that they were in a virtual world. Cool, but not terrifying.

Both of these stories remind me that even as I sit here looking out over the vineyards, I can’t know if this world we occupy is real or is a very, very good simulation. None of us can. And it doesn’t really matter; I can be agnostic about it. Don’t care. If this is the Level 0 universe, the reality at the bottom of everything, well, that’s nice. And if this is the 10th-level simulation of a simulation, so what? It’s still our reality. I would find it fascinating if someone ripped a hole in our reality to reveal something else beyond, but I’m not holding my breath. That’s pretty much Lovecraft’s whole thing. And in that case, I prefer Cthulu stick to its dimension and I’ll stick to mine.

Nap time

Sleep deprivation again. It’s an awful feeling – fatigue, can’t concentrate, blurry eyes, a weird heaviness or pressure in the head. Coffee doesn’t help. Hangovers are more fun. Whoever invents a brainwave-altering device that allows you to get to sleep without drugs and stay there will be a billionaire. I mean, how hard could this be? We can measure brainwaves, we can see them change during sleep cycles. So where’s my sleep-inducing device?

I asked Google and there’s a lot of information about brainwave training, but most of it looks sketchy, like something you’d see on an infomercial. Sometime when I feel better I’ll read through it and decide if there’s anything promising there. Right now I think I’ll take a nap.

Wasted lives

Every one of these guys should be packed up and sent to 3rd world countries to serve in the Peace Corp for a couple of years. Every single one. And then forced to pass some basic educational and emotional tests before they regain US citizenship. They need to be shown that the world doesn’t revolve around them; that people of every race and color matter; and that they’ve pissed away their privileged first world life so far. “Patriot Front”, seriously? More like Spoiled Idiots R Us.

Proverbs, politics, and travel

Here’s a bit of fun from McSweeney’s – Proverbs for Introverts. My favorite: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single nap.”

Jumping right into politics, I think the January 6th Committee is about to ruin a strong start. Their opening salvo, hearing #1, was great. It used Trump’s own people to make the case that he knew exactly what he was doing when he pushed The Big Lie. But after that great start, I think the hearing’s producers are making a big mistake. They think people will sit through seven multi-hour sessions to hear/see all the material, and they’re wrong. We have a short attention span, and these hearings aren’t exactly on a par with Breaking Bad as entertainment.

They forgot the golden rule about a three act play. There’s a reason an effective story doesn’t have seven parts in its dramatic arc – people lose interest. And this story is no different. So I fear that the hearings, while useful in bringing forward key insights about Trump’s attempted coup, will be ineffective in changing the polarized opinions of anyone. There might even be a smoking gun in act four or five, but by then the audience will have moved on. Hell, I love politics and think understanding what really happened is important, but I’m not gonna sit through 14-21 hours of testimony to hear the occasional “holy shit” moment. Wasted opportunity. Typical Democrat strategy – hit people over the head with facts relentlessly and expect to win their hearts. Facts matter, but effective stories are what reach people and change their minds about things.

On travel, COVID has really broken the airlines’ systems. What I’m seeing this summer is that all the airlines have cut their schedules, cut their available flights, and priced the remaining seats sky-high. They tried to use old, pre-COVID schedules, but now that labor, pilots and parts are unavailable, they’re constraining supply at a time when demand is at an all-time high (people *really* want to get out and travel again). Result…high prices. That’s bad news for a person who spends time at two homes 2000 miles apart. And who has a plan to do a lot of travel the next six months. So it goes.

Fires and finances

The Dow has dropped 10% in just six days – yikes! It’s hard to stand pat and think long term about your investments after a week like this. And crypto is crashing…gee, imagine that. The music has stopped and lots of crypto players without a chair.

My satisfaction with KLM continues to rise. I went back to their website, finished my flight booking easily and with no surprises (e.g., no extra charges to select a seat). United and BA should take a lesson.

We had a spate of wildfires in Socal yesterday. A small one close to us and a couple of larger fires within 100 miles. It’s that time of year (actually, it’s always that time of year lately), and the current mega-drought has consequences. No moisture, lots of heat, and off we go. I’ve done everything I know to do to prepare our property except cut some big trees close to the house, but cutting those down would mean a fast trip to divorce court. So fingers crossed.

Here’s what a fire close to your home can look like – photo taken during the 2003 fires in my old Scripps Ranch neighborhood. Flames 100+ feet high racing up a hill toward our street at this point. It’s not something you’ll ever forget.

Air travel blues

Given that BLTN began as a travel weblog, I have to write about today’s experience.

Late this fall we’re traveling to Norway, chasing the Northern Lights aboard the Queen Mary 2. I’ve been stressing about nailing down the US-Europe tickets, given the crazy economy and fuel prices. Today I got that done after 4-5 hours (!!) of hard work and frustration. Lessons learned:

  • COVID has broken air travel as we used to know it. Nothing is certain. Assume nothing.
  • Travel agents or flight consolidators aren’t trustworthy. You think you have a good deal and suddenly the deal changes, within minutes. A pox on Momondo and Crystal Travel.
  • A lot of the flight comparators/consolidators options are silly, 2-3 stop options that take you 30 hours to travel an otherwise 11 hour nonstop. I realize that some folks are willing to trade time for money (and I am, up to a point), but many of the options advertised are just stupid. I’m not spending 30 hours to get across the Atlantic on a plane.
  • Even dealing directly with airlines on their websites, things get flaky. Prices change, seats disappear, new charges are revealed as you get closer to paying for the flight. United’s website went completely wonky on me as I tried different scenarios. And British Air’s website was well behaved but wanted to charge me a shitload of money to select seats in business class, after telling me what the business class fare would be. Not nice.
  • There are no refunds. You can get a flight credit if you change your mind (I did), but no refunds. And if you book a flight through a third party agent, the agent has to be involved in getting your refund. I’ve got a couple of thousand dollars locked up in that little unadvertised mess.
  • Unlike Southwest in the US, buying a Europe trip as two one-way transactions/journeys is complicated. Dangerous. What costs you $1000 one direction might be 2-3X the other direction.
  • Traveling to and from London is about the priciest option available to get to Europe. I ended up taking us in and out of Amsterdam, a city I love to visit. And better fares.

I’ve landed on KLM as our carrier of choice for this trip. Easy to use website, great fares, a solid reputation, and the best thing ever – a feature to lock in seats and a fare for 36 hours while you do your homework. It cost me $36 to lock things in with KLM and I couldn’t be happier. Every airline should do this.

Personhood

The Turing test becomes an issue for a Google employee. Poor guy lost his job over the claims. And the fact that this guy is a priest who seems to want to protect the AI’s soul (my word, not the article’s), is an extra layer of juicy complication.

You can see where this is going – at some point soon a chatbot will be convincing enough that anyone will believe they are speaking with a sentient being, sooooo…what do we then label the software? It’s possible that a chatbot could be good enough to be 100% convincing of a thought process behind the scenes and know absolutely nothing beyond how to converse. For that matter, maybe we’re simply mobile language processing machines? If you can teach the chatbot math, does that qualify it as sentient? Machines can already learn.

I think the test needs to be more about autonomy, about free will. A baby is born with a will – it wants things, even though it doesn’t understand them. Because it wants, it takes action. So if a chatbot suddenly initiates action, if it seems to want to reach a goal, then we should talk about sentience. And if an AI decides it needs a priest…yikes! Head for the exits, because a religious machine intelligence would be the worst possible outcome for humanity. The Crusades 2.0. There’s definitely a novel in that idea.

Very sad news from Louisville today. A mass shooting happened at the foot of the Big Four Bridge, shortly after a gun control rally downtown. All those involved were juveniles, which begs the questions: Where were their parents? Where did they get the guns?

We walk and bike across that bridge, so I’m sad and concerned to hear that it’s a gathering place for kids with guns.

Water woes

Did a little checking today, and it turns out that since I started this blog in 2019, I’ve written 170,000 words and 700 posts. That’s a couple of average-sized novels, one little essay at a time. Who knew?

But I think today’s theme will be water, not word count. Here in Socal the biggest issue isn’t the cost of gasoline, or wildfires, gun control, or immigration – it’s water. More precisely, the lack of water.

The first five months of 2022 have been the driest ever recorded in Socal, and that’s on top of a gradually increasing drought of the last ten years. Once every few years we get a decent amount of rainfall, but looking at long term trends the average is headed down. For example, this year it has rained nine inches (measured July 2021 to present, and almost all that rain was in 2021), versus a long term average of 14 inches. Three of the last five years we’ve been significantly below that long-term average, and the same for the previous five years. Right now the lakes and reservoirs are drying up, there’s no mountain snowpack to melt, the Colorado River is drying up, and in the Central Valley, the land itself is dropping feet per year after the area’s ancient aquifer has been pumped dry by farmers. Entire forests are dying or burning due to lack of water. The situation is grim.

The only slightly good news is that Socal has a unique solution for water problems that is within our grasp once people get desperate enough. Desalinization. What’s unique about Socal (at least in America) is that we have an ocean on one side of the densely-populated coastal region, and vast deserts 30 or 40 miles east. That geography is perfect for an environmentally friendly solar-desal solution.

Desalinization requires vast amounts of electricity – you need to force millions of gallons of water through filters it doesn’t want to go through, and that requires electric pumps. Lots and lots of big pumps. And of course it requires an ocean. The electricity required for a desal plant on the Socal coast can be paired with a photovoltaic solar farm in the desert. The same hot dry conditions that created the problem can be used to solve the problem.

Each desal-solar farm pair would cost around four billion dollars (a very rough estimate), and to supply the water for 30 million thirsty people we’d need 60-70 systems. And a lot of coastal real estate. This solution isn’t cheap, but it’s so very achievable that it gives me hope that eventually we’ll decide to do it. At some point it will be the only choice left other than depopulation of the region.

Economy and grift

Today’s economic outlook is a little tough to accept, given my semi-retired status and plan for modest but steady growth in holdings. In previous downturns (like 2008) I didn’t worry much because I knew there was plenty of time to recover equity and portfolio value. This time…the recovery runway is 14 years shorter. In only a few years (age 70) I’ll be forced to make specific withdrawals from equity accounts, whether we need the money or not, further reducing the time left to grow/recover equity value. I know, it’s a first world problem.

In retrospect this isn’t surprising. We’ve been through horrendous primary and secondary economic shocks, disrupting labor markets, capital markets, supply chains, national GDPs, etc. First Trump, then COVID, and now the Russia-Ukraine war. It’s amazing things are as normal as they are. But I won’t be surprised to see a deep Bear market in stocks and a long-ish run of high prices (inflation). Just when I was ready to enjoy my retirement…

Someone (maybe me) should start a new series – Politics as Grift, in which we highlight how so many folks have turned political fund raising into a lucrative personal business. Today’s focus is on True the Vote, a “nonprofit” organization that raised millions from people who believe there is/was significant voter fraud in recent elections. The organization has presented no results, no proof, nada. But it *has* managed to vector most of those same millions to companies owned by the two TtV founders, Catherine Englebrecht and Gregg Phillips. It’s a fairly straightforward grift, right out in the open – collect money from suckers via a nonprofit that you control, spend that money on “services” from for-profit companies that you also control, muddle up your life and business expenses within those companies and get most of your expenses paid by the company, then collect the rest as salary or loans. Rinse and repeat. Makes me want to start a political action committee and then start an online services company or two.