What Happened to the Telephone?

I do not think that Alexander Graham Bell could ever have imagined what would become of his invention. What started out as a voice communication between two humans has developed into something quite different: One might even say it has merged in some ungodly way with computers and the internet.

Corporations want to talk to you, to find out what you are thinking, whether of their products or services, or your politics. But they don’t want you to communicate with them—unless to tell them you want to order now. That’s why we all have to go through a diabolically designed automated attendant service which has a computer asking you why you are calling. I find that they frequently omit the option that describes why I am calling them. Sometimes, there is no way to get through to a human.

Most of my incoming calls are tagged as SPAM RISK. That’s because there are firms and charities that want to romance you out of your money. One charity calls me every day: I even recognize the caller’s voice. And this for a “charity” that is not even tax-deductible. I have told him multiple times that I am on a fixed income and no longer contribute to charities. (That’s not exactly entirely true, but it is 100% true for people who try to collect money by making unsolicited phone calls.)

This morning, I received one UNCLASSIFIED call that wanted to ask about my political opinions. I politely informed the caller that I do not discuss politics with strangers because I am suspicious of their motives. That is particularly so as election time approaches. This is a dance I will perform numerous times come midterm elections in November.

It is sad that people have to protect themselves from the telephone. We try to insulate ourselves from callers by using voice mail or by communicating only by texting.

Not at All Cute

As an apartment dweller, there is nothing that bothers me so much as little yapper dogs who bark incessantly. Their owners arrive at a strange kind of belief that the cuteness of their pets despite all other indications pointing at the fact that excitable small furballs are creatures from hell and their constant barking is nothing more than a canine form of mental breakdown.

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC):

Some barking is normal, but when barking becomes excessive not only is it frustrating for owners, but it’s also a sign your dog may be stressed, or their needs aren’t being met. Dogs use their barking as a means of communicating with us when they need things: to go outside, to play, because they are hungry, or because they are concerned about things. There is always a reason for the barking, and it’s our job to figure out what our dogs need.

All well and good, but apartment dwellers do not seem to get the message. When I first moved into this building in 1985, having pets was forbidden. But now it seems that many prospective renters are unable to get by without a small, noisy, outraged ball of fluff.

The barking gets particularly bad when the owners are away, and the dog is left alone to howl in the empty apartment for food, walkies, love, or whatever.

When I go to the supermarket, I am met by a sign that says Service Dogs Only, but inside there are numerous people, mostly elderly women, with their “furbabies” in tow as “mental health service dogs.” It seems that people are ever more dependent on small dogs with objectionable behaviors.

I know the dog owners are really to blame, as the AKC maintains, but why is it that I have never seen a well-adjusted small dog?

Vlad’s Girls

Vladimir Putin’s Daughters: Mariya Putina and Katerina Tikhonova

Although it is well known that Vladimir Putin is divorced and seeing a gymnast named Alina Kabaeva, he has had two daughters by his ex-wife Lyudmila, a former airline stewardess. The girls were born in 1985 and 1986 respectively and are now in their thirties.

Both girls went to school under assumed names and were carefully shielded from the spotlight. Because both are wealthy, after the invasion of Ukraine, they were sanctioned by the U.S. and its allies. It is suspected that Putin has showered the girls with large amounts of rubles, making them suspect as oligarchs in their own right.

You can read up on them and see pictures at this highly entertaining website.

Two Wild and Crazy Guys

Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as the Two Crazy Guys

The following repost is from April 25, 2013. It refers to the Tsarnaev brothers who used pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon that year.

You may recall those two Wild & Crazy guys from Czechoslovakia, the brothers Yortuk and Georg Festrunk, on Saturday Night Live. As they shimmied across the stage in search of “foxes, ” they displayed an exquisite misunderstanding what the United States was all about. In the case of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd, the result was comedy. In the case of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two Chechen brothers from Dagestan, the result was death and disorder.

In the years to come, one of the greatest dangers to America will be the failure of immigrants from cultures vastly different from our own to adapt to the prevailing culture of the U.S. Even the mother returned to Russia, leaving several arrest warrants for shoplifting in her wake. The streets of America are not paved with gold. They are fraught with dangers not understood by people who have been influenced by our popular culture without understanding the particular demons that we in the States have to contend with in our daily lives.

After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, my parents took in two sets of refugees. The first was a mother and son who thought that, now they were in America, everything would be golden. That ended badly when Feddike, the son, was sent to a juvenile correctional facility. Next was Lászlo, a young man in his twenties, who also quickly fell afoul of the law—whereupon my mother and father resolved not to take in any more refugees from the Mother Country.

I do not mean to imply that immigration is bad, but that American culture sends misleading vibes to the rest of the world. People who are not thoughtful and who think that just being on American soil is the solution to all their problems are more likely to go astray. No, they must be ready to roll up their sleeves and start working long and hard toward their goals.

The Tsarnaev brothers should be an object lesson to American officials that they have to probe more deeply than mere external circumstances when opening the doors of the henhouse to potential predators.

Through Russian Eyes

Russian Troops in Ukraine

If you were old enough in 1962 to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, you will recall that feeling of dread about the world possibly ending in a nuclear holocaust—within mere days. That showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev was all because Russia had supplied Cuba with missiles to be pointed at targets in the United States.

Today, I had the unique experience of seeing the war in Ukraine through Russian eyes. I am a member of the European History Meetup Group which gets together several times a year at the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library in Hollywood. According to Bronislav Meyler, the Ukrainian-born moderator of the group:

Let’s kick off our next program with a discussion about Russia/Ukraine historic relationship. The program will try to focus on the last thirty years of relations between the two states. Historical perspective will not be excluded just for the simple fact that the two nations shared (and still share) almost one thousand years of common history.

The fact that this meeting was held almost in the center of the Russian community in Los Angeles brought a number of Russian-Americans to attend. It is interesting to see how Russians think of the NATO threat. They view the nearness of NATO in the Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia; Poland; Slovakia; Hungary; Bulgaria; Romania; and Turkey much the same way we viewed the threat of Russian missiles less than a hundred miles from the United States.

Where the Russians view NATO as a monolithic threat, I see them as a relatively disunited group that would have insuperable difficulties agreeing on where to eat lunch. But the threat of Ukraine, which has been tied in historically and culturally with Russia since the 17th century, possibly joining NATO was for Putin possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It is always valuable to see the other side’s point of view.

So I Goofed

Putin at Kremlin 2022 Victory Day Parade (Reuters)

I had thought that Vladimir Putin was going to make a major announcement at today’s Victory Day celebration in Moscow. In fact, other than making a number of the usual comments regarding the United States and NATO, Putin did not make any major announcements. He did not declare victory. He did not declare war. He did not brandish his nukes.

He is still keeping tight control over Russian media. By now, most of his people know that he his fighting Ukrainian Neo-Nazis that have threatened Russian security (by not wanting to be invaded?).

In a way, all he is doing is doubling down on his mistakes. Is he waiting for an elite Spetsnaz team to assassinate Zelensky? Does he think he could win by converting all of Ukraine to microscopic rubble?

At some point, I still suspect that Vlady will reap the whirlwind. But when or how is not something I can venture to guess.

Victory Day?

Gosh, I Hope No One Throws a Firecracker at Them

Monday, May 9, is the anniversary of Russia’s winning the Great Patriotic War—or, as we know it, World War Two. The news media have been speculating for weeks that Vladimir Putin will make some sort of announcement of victory tomorrow. Or, he just might decide to declare war on the “Neo-Nazis” that have been depriving his troops of anything approaching victory.

There will, of course, be a big military parade. But does Putin have enough working tanks and armored personnel carriers to impress the crowds on Red Square? I am eager to see what that madman plans to do for an encore.

I have young friends who for the first time in their lives are afraid of a nuclear confrontation. There may be one, but only on a small scale because it would cause widespread outrage around the world (but not in Russia). Perhaps Putin has more to fear than my young friends. His Ukraine invasion made the Rodina (Motherland) look not only bad, but downright cheesy. It would be no surprise if the FSB replaced Putin with a new stooge and put Vlady in a psychiatric nursing home “for his benefit.”

That’s the way things are done in Russia.

A Gas Station with Nuclear Weapons

Was this the same Russia that manhandled the Nazi menace at Stalingrad, Kursk, and all the way back to Berlin? Stalin was no more a sweetheart than Vladimir Putin, but I feel that—after some initial losses—he made better wartime decisions.

In an interview with Salon.Com, Colin Clarke had the following assessment of the war in Ukraine:

One of the big stories I see, in terms of international relations and diplomacy and statecraft, is the concept of great power competition. With that language we are thinking about the United States, China and Russia. The war in Ukraine shows us that Russia does not belong in that conversation anymore. Russia is not a great power, it’s essentially a gas station with nuclear weapons. The Russian military has performed so poorly, far worse than anyone could have expected, including many defense planners in the United States, who built the Russians up to be 10 feet tall.

We must never forget, however, all those nuclear weapons. Granted that most of their ICBMs may be pretty dodgy, but even one or two direct hits on a major U.S. population center would be truly horrifying. Living in Southern California as I do, I am sure that L.A. would probably be one of major targets of the Russian nuclear warheads.

The Neverending Story

If your prime source for news is the boob tube, prepare to be not only misinformed but bored out of your skull. Under the pretext of imparting late-breaking news, you will have to put up with endless repetition—to such an extent that you will be unsure that this is an entirely new mass shooting or the same old one that everyone is deploring. Those bodies in the streets in the Ukraine—are they new, or the same old bodies? I mean, how can you tell?

This is particularly a problem when there is a BIG STORY, such as the Ukraine War, the January 6 Insurrection, the New York subway shooting, or Donald J. Trump’s latest con.

I am going to propose something radical to prevent you from not only wasting your time but getting so tense that you can’t sleep. It consists of one word: WAIT.

Avoid being tied to the 24/7 news circle jerk from the corporations that run the major news channels. WAIT and READ when the news becomes available in newspapers, or, even better, weekly or biweekly or monthly periodicals. The best news stories I ever read were typically in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. By the time the story reaches the print media, some of the dross that takes up so much time is shaken out and you are able to better understand what is happening.

Avoid getting your news from YouTube, FaceBook, or most other Internet sources. There, the news is more frequently coated with a thick, indigestible layer of opinion like a fried chicken leg that is all breading. You want to understand what is happening, not what some Internet influencer wants you to think. Avoid getting stuck in some Internet news bubble. You’re here to learn, not to get force-fed by someone who has an axe to grind.

The Pause That Doesn’t Refresh

We as a species are particularly susceptible to our technologies. Each commonly used technology is associated with a series of behaviors. I am particularly aware of what the smartphone has done—particularly since I have chosen not to adopt this particular technology. (Tiny screens are not kind to my aging eyes.)

I thought I would mention some of the behaviors I have observed, beginning with this basic root behavior:

When using a smartphone, stop everything else you’re doing.

On the roadway, a particularly annoying corollary is the tendency to play with your smartphone when stopped at a traffic signal, yield or stop sign, and to not move until other motorists beep at you.

In the supermarket parking lots in my neighborhood, approximately 30% of the spaces are occupied, not by shoppers, but by smartphone users checking e-mail, FaceBook, or other social media applications. This makes it more difficult to find parking spaces at busy times.

In the aisles of a store, one finds shoppers stopped dead in an aisle while fingering their smartphones. I have to come up behind them and say BEEP BEEP to get them to be aware of their surroundings.

As a corollary of this corollary, you frequently finds smartphone users annoyed to be interrupted in their use of their digital drug. It is as if they now have earned the right to stop dead in their tracks and that people who attempt to “disturb” them in the exercise of this right are being rude.

I am reminded of the bad old days when half the population smoked most of the time. It was inevitable that when I sat at a restaurant counter, a human chimney would sit next to me burning a particularly foul rope. That, too, was a right that was assumed. Fortunately, no more.