Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Announcement: I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I’m on one side, and technology is on the other.

For the record, I have an iPhone 6, a Samsung Galaxy tablet and a MacBook Air laptop computer. I send text messages and “chat” with tech support to shoot all kinds of troubles. After years of resistance, the Colemans now have cable television. So nobody can say that I’m sour on gadgets or progress.

What tastes foul, though, is technology designed to boss me around. One exception is the navigational feature (“GPS”—Global Positioning System) on my iPhone. A woman’s cheerful voice tells me where and when to turn, thus keeping my eyes on the road and not on scribbled directions. She repeats herself incessantly, but wins points for not being as snarky with me as I am with her.

Driving around Oniontown the other day, I heard on the radio about Google’s plans to extend the GPS from my car all the way to my living room. My inner curmudgeon grimaced.

Welcome to “ambient computing” and the surprisingly affordable “Google Home” computer. This “personal assistant” can recognize all voices in your household and do each individual’s bidding. “Call Joe,” you can say, and your buddy Joe will answer—as opposed to your sister’s boyfriend of the same name. Google Home has no keyboard and resembles an egg. At 5.62” tall, it’s almost cute.

But give it access to your contacts, calendar, favorite websites, etc., and the trouble begins. National Public Radio’s Aarti Shahani described what sounds like a nasally relative moving in and interfering. In “virtual” fashion, Google Home will “follow you and study you and tell you what you need before you even ask.” Shahani promised that my assistant will be “all around [me] all the time.”

In a word, “Whoa!” I treasure my wife Kathy, but don’t want to be around even her “all the time.” After thirty-three years of marriage, my relationship advice is, “Learn how to be silent together and give each other space.”

The smart variety of eggs (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Granted, my message is beige compared to Google Home’s. It can warn you that your flight is late. It can define mysterious terms like “covfefe.” It can bark out the Browns versus Steelers score.

But what could possibly be wrong with getting instant answers? Who would object to eliminating inconvenience? Why not let technology “tell me what I need before I even ask”?

I guess there’s no harm in confirming right away that Cleveland is careening toward another loss, but inconvenience is a great teacher. Human experience would be impoverished without it.

The other day, for example, unbeknownst to my iPhone, Kidds Mill Road was closed. When I took Methodist Road instead, my navigational lady went berserk. To save my sanity and hers, I pulled the plug.

In the end her ignorance proved my blessing. I passed the Jughandle and made a mental note to stop soon for pizza and a beer. Further down Route 18 stood a family of three silver silos. Daddy was a massive wonder of the farming world, dizzying to behold. As usual, amazement appeared on a detour.

And the inconvenient detour’s fraternal twin, chance, is generous beyond measure. Most of what shines in my life has come to pass not by design, but luck. Kathy and I are married due to an impulsive high school classmate’s matchmaking improvisation. Thanks, Denise! Thanks, God!

No, Google Home isn’t for me, nor is Google Lens, available soon. Just point my Samsung Galaxy at flowers and Google Lens will speak their names. Or point it at a restaurant and get reviews.

Software already exists that will translate spoken German into English, thereby saving me the trouble of digging out my college flash cards and exercising my brain.

A route to bother and amazement (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These marvels aren’t all bad, but as a collection they make me uneasy. If we don’t learn to wait for answers, smile through detours and make up our own minds, where will patience, endurance and wisdom come from in matters of life and death?

Most important, can ambient computing “tell us what we need before we even ask”? Please. What I need makes so little sense that I trust one voice above all others to guide me, and it doesn’t come from an egg.

American Lament

American Lament

Dear Friends,

I just posted an essay called “American Lament” on my buzzkill of a second blog, Matters of Conscience. This primary blog, A Napper’s Companion, will probably be quiet a little longer–until I can write about beauty again.

I alert my Nappers to this lament because I know some of you will be interested. But I’m not encouraging or asking anybody to read. This was something I felt compelled to write.

Peace and love,

John

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Grandson Cole

Post-Election Letter to My Daughter

Dear Friends,

I’ve written a letter to my daughter that some of you might appreciate and posted it on my other blog, Matters of Conscience. Although what I have to say is ultimately hopeful–I think!–it’s dark enough that I don’t want it casting gloom here on A Napper’s Companion.

Please click here if you would like to read the letter.

Peace, love and best,

John

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Elena and Killian–in his Halloween viking fur!

Announcing a New Blog: Matters of Conscience

Dear Friends:

I’ve been thinking for a while of starting a second blog in order to keep my buzzkill social and political posts from skunking up A Napper’s Companion. Today I finally took the leap and set up Matters of Conscience.

It’s a work in progress, so if you’re interested in reading, please be patient as I work out the kinks. If you’re not interested, then please know that I value your opinions and made this move especially for you.

You may notice that I removed a couple of posts from this blog and sent them to the new digs. If you’ve been meaning to check out a post and can’t find it here, please try Matters of Conscience.

Peace and love,

John

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The “cover” photograph for Matters of Conscience

Oniontown Pastoral: A County Tour

Oniontown Pastoral: A County Tour

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Prescription for discouragement: a look out at the soybean field behind St. John’s Lutheran Church and a dose of E. B. White’s wisdom

When I get discouraged about the civilized world, I often turn to E. B. “Andy” White, essayist for The New Yorker and Harper’s and author of Charlotte’s Web. White was not only a great prose stylist, but the last century’s most devoted naysayer to change.

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E. B. White at his Maine farm in 1977 (Credit: Getty Images)

He frowned upon atomic energy: “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”

He rejected conventional wisdom: “Many of the commonest assumptions, it seems to me, are arbitrary ones: that the new is better than the old, the untried superior to the tried, the complex more advantageous than the simple, the fast quicker than the slow, [and] the big greater than the small.”

And he challenged orthodoxy—and got my mind working just the other day: “Our whole economy hangs precariously on the assumption that the higher you go the better off you are, and that unless more stuff is produced in 1958 than was produced in 1957, . . . you are headed for trouble, living in danger and maybe in squalor.”

I agree, but wondered, “Is growth necessary for a healthy United States economy?” Actually, I hoped the investigation might lead to existential insights—my habitual trajectory of thought.

The Internet ambushed me with economic principles. Turns out experts disagree so diametrically that Andy could be heard laughing from the curmudgeons’ bleachers in heaven.

I also received a wave of nausea for my research efforts. In 2014, Forbes printed Peter Ferrara’s “Why Economic Growth Is Exponentially More Important Than Income Inequality,” which presents dizzying statistics and a blueprint for our technological future.

The author rhapsodizes over futuristic physicist Michio Kaku, who claims, “When you need to see a doctor, you’ll talk to a wall in your home, and an animated artificially intelligent doctor will appear. You’ll scan your body with a hand-held MRI machine, the ‘Robodoc’ will analyze the results, and you’ll receive a diagnosis that is 99% accurate.”

My AI doc better be more skillful than my smart phone. Siri, my allegedly intelligent assistant, can’t locate a Dunkin Donuts. Why should I trust a virtual endocrinologist with my pancreas?

More to the point, why would I ever confide in a wall? In 1955, White grumbled at his telephone company “for having saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators.” My misgivings about healthcare via hologram will seem similarly quaint in eighty years.

Still, I have a quick response for Ferrara and Kaku: “I’ll pass!”

Give me Andy instead. He was never a churchgoer, but he held a divining rod for the sacred. And he would have delighted in the county tour parishioner Dave, a retired cow veterinarian, took me on last week.

We wandered a 4-H Club show, where I visited Jocelyn and her prize-winning cows and greeted pigs, goats, a llama and an alpaca.

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St. John’s Lutheran Church’s very own Jocelyn with Dilly and Luci

We browsed at McCartney’s Feed and Hardware, which is packed with implements exotic to my city eyes and operates without cash registers. The clerks make change directly out of their pockets.

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Exotic to my eyes, anyway: a “boot jack”

And Dave took me to the farmland he owns with wife Anne, where I got a primer on round bales and found out that cows can sleep out under the stars.

Andy would have pronounced the tour medicinal. Even now, his commentary on the wondrous land and skepticism about progress persist in my imagination. “A 99% accurate Robodoc might increase longevity,” he might ask, “but will the extra years hold any savor?”

While pastoring in my beloved Oniontown, I’ll honor E. B. White’s words and devote myself to “living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

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In Defense of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In Defense of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Blogger’s Note: The scope of the opinion piece that follows is narrow. I have views about nearly every tangential topic imaginable, but I’m speaking here only to The New York Times‘ recent editorial board opinion about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statements about Donald Trump.

If you’re looking for the normal fare served by A Napper’s Companion, please feel free to order another entree. 

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Credit: Wikipedia)

Spirits of the coffee drinkers at Brew Ha Ha are merry this noontide, but I’m negotiating with a troubled heart. Former teaching colleagues Alice and Mary and I reacquainted and dissected one of our national obsessions, November’s presidential election. Since they left an hour ago, I’ve been palpating available Internet information and opinions in hopes of easing my suspicion of a terrible prognosis. The possibilities paralyze my brain and sour my gut.

The New York Times normally steadies me, but, oh, my precious, the editorial board has just poked at my gag reflex with this opinion: “Donald Trump Is Right About Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Whew! Pause. Breathe.

In a recent interview with Adam Liptak of the very newspaper that smacked her knuckles, Ginsburg had the impudence to say, “I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president.” A couple of other remarks added color to her opinions and probably set off editors’ subjectivity detectors.

Asked if she also thought that the Senate should act on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Court, Ginsburg practically got hysterical: “That’s their job.” Please, somebody get this woman into a straightjacket.

The board’s assessment is terse: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg needs to drop the political punditry and the name-calling.”

Okay, she did call Trump a faker. Bad Justice. Bad Justice. But punditry? Rising from my nausea are a litany of questions, summarized by one: “Where does punditry end and truth begin?”

Other words pose essentially the same question. “At what point does objective neutrality deny the obvious?” “When is bullshit given the full weight of fact?” And “When is denigration mistaken for discussion?”

Yes, these are dangerous questions. Whoever successfully lays claim to facts and truths has hold of power and moral high ground.

But these are perilous times. At least in politics, the historically accepted rules of engagement have been trodden under wingtips. I’m hardly the first to observe that even the pretense of civility and fair play in governmental chambers and circles is gone. And reality, fluid in the best of social climates, is now nothing but fog. Where are the brakes?

Americans who share Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion about Donald Trump aren’t so much despondent about the candidate himself, but about the destination of “I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear that I will execute the Office of President of the United States.”

Trump will, indeed, execute the Office, and felled in the firing squad’s aim will be the languishing assumptions about how we Americans communicate with each other and come to agreements and define the world we live in. This is my dread, at least.

Adding insult to injury, the just, charitable identity we have struggled to embody—the “lamp [lifted] beside the golden door”—may give way to the hateful, fearful “angels of our nature.”

Our society has already taken many steps down a rancorous, violent path. Do we honestly suppose that we’ll find remedies to what ails America if we crown a man who delights in riling followers into stampede?

Pause. Breathe.

Am I being alarmist? Hyperbolic? Gosh, I hope so. But I don’t think so.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg knows that “the exception proves the rule.” Supreme Court Justices should keep their noses out of political controversies. Good rule. Good good rule.

But what Donald Trump says he would do as Commander in Chief—bluster though his every word may be—requires the assassination of what is most honorable in the people and the deportation of the Constitution Justice Ginsburg is sworn to interpret and uphold.

She was obliged to break a generally wise rule. She gets a pass.