What happened to “think different”?

I long ago pushed beyond the threshold of “curmudgeon.” This is not entirely my doing, though approaching 70 accounts for something. I have not been “hip” for years. Nor, really, do I have any desire to be an enthusiastic passenger on the Zeitgeist. I do not get excited about “new and improved.” I prefer that things just work.

I’ll pick on Apple for this occasion, though any number of companies would suffice.

Apple, we will recall, made much about “think different,” offering us images of iconoclastic cultural heroes, from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi, to Einstein and, well, Steve Jobs himself. The marketing, always impeccable, would have us believe that buying Apple’s products was an act of self-expression, setting us apart from the ordinary.

And Apple also proclaimed that its products “just work,” unlike the competition’s offerings, which were often a confusing bundle of components from dozens of vendors. Consumers of those products spent many a frustrating hour trying to get devices to “talk with one another.”

But it is in the nature of technology that nothing shall remain the same. There are constant revisions of software, design, and features. Any self-respecting consumer with means must have these, even if what they replace works perfectly fine.

Early on in its journey, Apple embraced music. It was said to be in the company’s “DNA.” The iPod made this so, allowing customers to listen to their music “on the go.” Over the years, especially after the introduction of the iPhone (which combined an iPod with a phone with mobile access to the Internet), Apple expanded its presence in music. Now Apple offers millions of “songs” with iTunes and Apple Music.

Here is where the curmudgeon truly shines, though not in a good way. Apple now tells me what is “trending.” But curmudgeons don’t give a shit about trends, especially music. A trend, is seems to me, is merely an aggregation of consumer preferences and any given time. There is near-zero chance that I will be interested in any one or any thing that is “tending.” Yet, when I open Apple Music, I presented with lists of trends.

Come on, Apple. “Think different” is the antithesis of “trend.” Sorry, Ghandi. Sorry, Einstein. Give way to Taylor Swift and Tech N9ne and J. Cole, the names that appear right now under Apple’s “new music.”

There. I feel a bit better.

Eat ice cream and watch football

My son mentions a book written by a New Yorker writer and medical doctor, Atul Gawande, about the failure of his profession to adequately address and treat the needs of the elderly. One anecdote, in particular, stood out in my son’s description. It concerned a patient who had just been informed that he has terminal cancer. He is asked by his oncologist what he desires most in his remaining days. The patient says, and I paraphrase, “I just want to eat ice cream and watch football games on TV.”

All too often we hear of heroic battles to fight cancer, as if we patients were armed, ready, and able to vanquish the dreaded foe. This being America, we worship those who “win” their contests. Look at him. He survived. As for the “losers,” defeat can be reduced to the absence of will. He or she lacked “the right stuff,” the requisite disposition to effect “victory” over “defeat.”

Cancer, of course, has its own agenda. It begins with its very essence: a mutation, a variation on the norm. A few cells become rogue agents. But the “body” treats them as parts of the whole, and therefore unable or unwilling to eliminate them.

In my case, the cancer had spread significantly by the time it was detected. Besides, as my doctors advised, whether or not you cancer is the product of one huge “crap shoot.” When routine tests found it, it was already too late to do anything about it.

Now what?

Though looks now deceive, I was an athlete, by most accounts. I excelled at baseball, being selected number 666 in the first major league draft our of high school in 1965. The Mets took a chance, though not a very large one. I decided to attend Berkeley instead. I also played basketball. Indeed, the joke in my family was that I would die on the court. That was before arthritic knees cut short my playing days.

I am no stranger to competition, then. I have tasted victory and endured defeat. But winning on the diamond or the court strikes me as vastly different than in matters of life and death. I always believed that I could get the batter out. I knew that better shot selection or a well-timed pass could win basketball games.

But cancer does not behave like a batter or a basketball opponent. If it is to be defeated, it will have little to do with me or my “will to live” and everything to do with the medical profession, its techniques, and its chemistry.

In my case, with this particularly vile cancer and all its many complication, including diabetes and blood clots, all of medicines’ kings and horses may have no answer. Indeed, the odds are not in my favor, regardless of my own disposition.

Yet, even to talk this way invites scorn and disappointment. Don’t you care? Don’t you want to lick this thing?

Trust me. I’d love to have a do-over. However, that’s not how life—or death—works. I have no choice now but to consider a very narrow set of options, none of them promising. That bowl of ice cream and a few more football, basketball, and baseball games look enticing.

The month from hell

Yes, of course I’m talking about the improbable election of Donald Trump. Who isn’t? But I have more personal matters with which to attend.

On the day before the election I visited my doctor with complaints of persistent abdominal pains. As doctors do, mine wanted to rule out gall bladder disease. So he ordered an ultrasound. Good news. Nothing wrong with the gall bladder. However, the radiologist noted “spots” on my liver. Next up: a CT scan. Several days went by before I got the results. The doctor called me to schedule a visit for the next morning, and “you should bring your wife.” That last visit was the one we all dread. The tests revealed stage-four pancreatic cancer.

Before I had time to process this diagnosis, if I ever will, I wake up on  Sunday morning after Thanksgiving unable to remember my iPhone pass code. I then tried and failed to make sense out of the newspaper texts. When I tried to communicate with my wife, the mind saw the words, but my mouth could not articulate them. We better go to the hospital.

I was admitted. As it happens, I had suffered a stroke resulting in “expressive aphasia.” I spent the next few days and nights in the hospital. Oh, and by the way, you have diabetes, another consequence of the cancer.

I am now about a month into this, having to wrestle with new challenges. I have managed to keep my blood sugar levels in check, after some trial and error to figure out the right doses of insulin, which I administer twice a day. Pancreatic cancer, which is a particularly “aggressive” variety, continually announces itself with abdominal pain. The same pain that brought me to the doctor in the first place, although much worse these days. So I take medicines trying to stay ahead of the symptoms.

My oncologist gave me a few options, none of them good. Really, the best I can hope for is to “stabilize” the cancer to tack on a few months of my personal life span. That will mean “palliative chemotherapy” about once a week.

But we can’t start on the treatment until we can begin the blood thinners. And we can’t administer those until we have a clear CT brain scan following the stroke. My last one, yesterday, showed little residual effects of the clot. So, I will begin this morning to inject myself with a saline solution manufactured from a pig. One syringe in the morning; another in the evening. (Perhaps it is a ghoulish kind of blessing that I have accumulated an ample spare tire around my equator, giving me acres of mushy surface area for my daily injections of insulin and, now, pig fluid.)

To cover more bases, I have requested a “second opinion” from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. (Seattle is, after all, the center of cancer research.)  That opinion will not change the diagnosis. It may suggest an alternative treatment regimen.

I’ve had a good life. Nothing spectacular. I did not compromise my principles, such as they are. I have a wonderful family, with two beautiful grandchildren who are much too young to make sense out of what’s going on with their grandpa.

I will try to make the best of it in the weeks and months ahead. That will include, with your indulgence, offering my proverbial two cents on the world around us. I think it will help distract me from this ton of shit that was dumped on my personal doorstep.

Baseball anecdotes

We’re down to the wire in the Major League baseball season, with wildcard winners still to be decided. My eyeballs feel the strain, watching as many games as I can fit in with MLB.tv. Exciting stuff, with three or four games to go. It’s nice to be semi-retired with time on my hands.

I played baseball for most of my youth and into young adulthood, though I failed to make Little League. First there was Babe Ruth, then American Legion, then high-school ball, followed by college. From the age of 16 to my mid-20s I was on several different semi-pro teams. That’s a lot of games, and from that history I have a few memories more distinct than others.

The one seared deepest in my head takes us to old Veterans’ Field in Los Angeles, then home to the UCLA Bruins. It’s the bottom of the 12th, and I’m in to hold a one-run advantage for Cal. I don’t recall how a Bruin reached base. But I do recall that Chris Chambliss, UCLA’s first baseman came to the plate representing the winning run. I made the cardinal error of throwing a slider into the left-hander’s sweet spot, low and inside. The ball screamed off his bat, taking just a few seconds to clear the right field fence. I shouted, for the first and only time, “F**k!” (I take some solace in shutting out the Bruins  in Berkeley a few weeks later. A one-hitter, if memory serves.)

Let’s visit Concord’s municipal ball field, which has since been replaced with city offices. I’m starting a playoff game against Richmond’s team. Two runners get on in the top of the first. The next batter for Richmond has a neck as thick as my thighs. He wreaks power. My manager bounds out of the dugout to have a little chat with me. He tells me that whatever pitch I throw to this guy, make sure that it’s not over the outside part of the plate so that the batter with the thick neck can extend his arms. Next pitch, precisely into the forbidden zone, from which the ball was launched over the armory outside the left-field fence. Three runs, just like that. (More solace that afternoon, as I settled down, pitching near hitless ball the rest of the way, with our team winning 15-3.)

Back at Cal’s Evans Diamond. I had pitched one inning the night before in an exhibition game with the Oakland A’s in the Coliseum. Three up, three down against Rick Monday, Joe Rudi, and Tom Reynolds, though Monday’s line drive nearly knocked over our second baseman. At Cal the next day, I was to start against Santa Clara, in what became my weirdest performance ever.

The visitors hit the hell out of the ball in the first couple of innings. Fortunately, all the batted balls found leather, and I escaped unharmed. It was the third inning, I think, when after a few more line-drive outs I completely changed my mechanics, adopting techniques of a fellow pitcher. Amazing. I wound up throwing a shutout with lots of swings and misses.

Now on to Stanford’s Sunken Diamond. I take the mound in the bottom of the first for visiting Cal. The Cardinals’s (as they were then called) leadoff hitter happened to be my battery mate in high school. He did not waste a moment, propelling my first pitch over the centerfield fence. The next time I faced him, he drilled a line drive off the outfield fence for a triple. There was no solace this time, as I lost that game, though I got Bob Boone to pop out.

Finally, I’ll return to high school. I had pitched a no-hitter the previous start. Fast forward to the top of the seventh (the last inning). I had yet to give up a hit and recorded two strikeouts. Just one more out to go. I induce the next batter to swing and miss at a curve ball in the dirt. Unfortunately, the ball got past our catcher. It bounced against the wooden backstop right back to him. He had more than enough time to throw to first base to nail the batter and record the final out. Ah, but his throw sailed over the first baseman’s head and into right field for an error. Now you’re guessing what happens next. I’m going for my second, consecutive no-hitter and need just one more out. However, the next batter shows no mercy, lining the next pitch over the shortstop for a solid single. I threw my glove down in disgust, which made the headlines of the local newspaper’s next edition. So, I settle for a one-hitter.

We have but a weekend left in the MLB regular season. The Mariners are hanging on, just two games shy of a wildcard berth. My beloved Giants, who mysteriously forgot how to win games in the second half, after sporting baseball’s best record in the first, cling to the second wildcard slot in the National League, with St. Louis just a game behind. The team that drafted me out of high school in 1965, the New York Mets, holds the first wildcard position. There is a very real possibility that the Giants will travel to Citifield for the one-game playoff between the two wildcard winners.

Divided loyalties, to be sure. Mercifully, no Trump in this post.

Resentment

I’m not alone in ascribing the seemingly recent eruption of far-right nativism to economic insecurity. After all, the Great Recession wreaked havoc on the global economy, which would seem to underpin hostility toward those perceived to be responsible for a decline in one’s fortunes.

The conventional wisdom is that the economic losses suffered by working-class people throughout the developed world explain the rise of this new right. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are estimated to have been lost due to free trade pacts in recent decades, with industries like manufacturing absorbing much of the pain.

That’s created an ocean of angry and frustrated people — primarily blue-collar and primarily white — who are susceptible to the appeal of a nationalist leader promising to bring back what they feel has been taken away.

But, the rise of Trump and populist parties in Europe cannot be explained by economics. The explanation, according to this very important Vox piece, from which the above quote is taken, lies with white, mostly Christian, men feeling displaced by “others,” especially those with darker skins.

Zack Beauchamp, the author of the linked essay, references dozens of research papers that demonstrate the politics of resentment. A very large segment of the American population, essentially most Republicans and nearly every Trump supporter, fears immigrants, blacks, and government “elites” who, they believe, enabled the demographic changes.

This research finds that, contrary to what you’d expect, the “losers of globalization” aren’t the ones voting for these parties. What unites far-right politicians and their supporters, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a set of regressive attitudes toward difference. Racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia — and not economic anxiety — are their calling cards.

These attitudes, while learned, are deep-seated. They go back generations, and dwell within each of us in varying degrees.

I consider myself a tolerant individual. I would never deliberately offend those who are different from me. Yet, I must admit, based on past experiences, that I have feared “others.”

I’ll retreat to my high-school days at Mt. Diablo, in Concord, Calif. Of 2,000 students over four grades, there was a single black student, one or two of mixed raced, and a small population of Hispanics, some of whose families preceded the arrival of Western caucasians, the dominant segment of both the school and city’s residents.

During the summer of my junior year, while pitching for the local American Legion baseball team, I was chosen by the manager to start a divisional playoff game against Richmond. We were the visitors.

Now, despite having spent my first five years in that city, I was not prepared for the experience. The home crowd for that game was comprised of mostly African Americans. And they were vocal. This 17-year-old pitcher succumbed to playoff pressure. I walked the first five or six batters I faced, before finally calming myself down. Upon reflection, I suspect that much of my anxiety stemmed from fear of those who were different, namely black people. As I said above, my own experience was overwhelming white. It was somewhat of a shock, then, to face a hostile crowd who happened to be mostly dark-skinned.

There was another incident. I travelled on a school bus with a contingent of Mt. Diablo students to attend a football game against rival Pittsburg. That city had, and probably still has, a significant percentage of African Americans. The high school’s student body reflected the wider demographics.

Now, I don’t recall whether or not there were any incidents, but I do remember feeling afraid, an attitude shared by most everyone on the bus, all very white. I regret that fear now, certainly.

I concede that the reaction of far-right groups and individuals may be instinctual, as it likely was in me 50 years ago. However, I cannot condone xenophobia or racism or Trumpism.

Such attitudes, however, must be overcome, not embraced and fueled by political leaders and their associates. Trump is not healthy. He poses a very real danger. As the New York Times‘s editors wrote in their endorsement of Hillary Clinton: “[We believe] Mr. Trump to be the worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history.”

Mr. Beauchamp, the Vox writer, offers some hope:

The forces of reaction, of ethno-racial supremacy, have been defeated in the past, and can be defeated again. The key to doing it is to refrain from surrendering on core values — to reaffirm Western societies’ basic commitment to tolerance and to craft policies that promote that commitment rather than back away from it.

The future shouldn’t belong to the Front National and its ilk [including Donald Trump]. It should belong to the people they’re afraid of.

Stuck in Memphis

So I upgraded my iPhone 6S to the iPhone 7. I did this through AT&T, under its annual upgrade program. The phone was shipped from Ft. Worth, TX, on 9/14 and arrived at the Memphis Fed Ex hub on Thursday, 9/15. The phone was scanned in at 11:45 a.m., local time. It was scheduled for delivery to my place the next day, Friday, the 16th by 8 p.m., my time. Here’s what I saw when I clicked on the tracking information:

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-4-55-44-pm

As you will surmise, the iPhone seemingly never moved after 11:45 a.m. in Memphis. Also, the delivery date was scratched. The new language: “No scheduled delivery date available at this time.”

I called Fed Ex on Monday, the 19th to find out what happened to my phone. Would you believe this? I was told that the package had been “lost.” The representative told me that an investigation would commence.

I then called AT&T. Things got really interesting and a bit nightmarish. After making my way through layers of AT&T representatives, I finally spoke with someone named “Jordan.” I explained all of the above. He asked me to start a three-way conference call with Fed Ex, AT&T, and me—which I did.

Fed Ex confirmed that the iPhone was lost. Now what? The Fed Ex representative told the AT&T guy that he, as the shipper, should file a claim with Fed Ex and that Fed Ex would pay for the loss, at which time AT&T could send me another phone. Well, the AT&T rep said nothing doing. I quote: “We don’t file claims.” Period.

I said, “I just want my phone!” The Fed Ex person said that if I were to file a claim the claim would be “denied” by Fed Ex, unless AT&T issued me a “waiver.” The AT&T guy said, “What’s a waiver?” At this point, I’d been on the phone for about an hour, stuck in the middle of the battle between Fed Ex and AT&T.

Finally, it was decided that the Fed Ex rep could hang up and that AT&T would continue to deal directly with me. I was told then by the AT&T guy that the matter would be turned over to their “DMDR” department, whatever the hell that is. But then the guy (I’m still dealing with Jordan) said that DMDR was not the right department and that I would have to deal with AT&T’s “Ecom” department, presumably standing for “Electronic Commerce,” but who knows?

Oh, and get this. Jordan told me that a “supervisor” from Ecom would be contacting me within 24 and 72 hours! Well, I have received no call, nor a phone, certainly, as I write this, 5:20 p.m., my time.

Ridiculous!

____________

UPDATE (Sep. 24, 2016):

By the way, if I ship something of value I pay for package insurance with the carrier. AT&T must do the same. So, despite Fed Ex’s losing the iPhone, AT&T’s insurance would cover the loss, which is why Fed Ex told AT&T to file the claim.

Talking to learn

I graduated from Berkeley in 1969 with a degree in history. But, as the song says, I don’t know much about history. I suspect that my failure to fully understand the dynamics of the Hapsburg Empire or the rise of the Robber Barons had much to do with the university system.

Imagine that you are one of a thousand students sitting in a vast lecture hall. The professor stands before a lectern at the front of the room. If you’re lucky, the professor is mildly entertaining, bringing some life to the past. For the most part, or at least for me, the lectures were, well, boring. Lots of words with little relevance, as we used to say. In my four years at one of the best universities in the world (and at the time I attended, Berkeley was ranked at the top) I never got to know a professor, save one, who volunteered to be my undergraduate advisor.

To be sure, I was an athlete first and a student second or third. My Big C jacket was more important to me than the stacks of books on my desk, which I rarely opened. That I graduated at all was a small marvel. But graduate I did.

Then a few years later circumstances led to me to California State University at Hayward, as it was called back then. Having taken a philosophy of education course for a teaching certificate, I became hooked on philosophy. And I learned, perhaps for the first time in my post-secondary academic career. What was difference?

My philosophy classes were much, much smaller than my Berkeley lectures. Often there were just a half-dozen students studying logic or Bertrand Russell or existentialism. Also, the professors were more engaged with their students, perhaps because there were so few of us. And, of course, I was a bit more mature, having exhausted my baseball-playing days, and better disposed to absorb the subject matter.

Yet, I think the most important element in my learning was my interactions with both my fellow students and my professors during and, especially, after classes. There were lots of discussions, and philosophy invites thinking and talking and writing.

Harry Brighouse is a philosophy professor who blogs on the Crooked Timber site. He recently posted a piece on the importance of classroom discussions, in which he limits his own speaking to a quarter of the period, encouraging and facilitating conversations about what he’s said, what the textbooks say, and what students are thinking. He writes:

So they need to discuss intellectual issues in class, both to do the learning of the discipline-specific content and skills that can only occur through discussion – through practical application if you like – and to get habituated to doing the same outside of class. They need, I think, to be told explicitly why classroom discussion is such an important part of the class, and that they should discuss the material with friends or classmates outside of class – not just when they have a test, but all the time, instead of discussing the much less interesting things that make up small talk. (And, just as a general matter, I have become much more explicit over time about everything I want them to do.

Most of his students, he reports, experienced the “factory model” of learning, what I encountered at Berkeley. As he describes it:

[They] have been taught, since middle school, on a kind of factory model – you go to class, you learn things, you regurgitate them on tests (or, very occasionally, in papers) and then you either (if you are poor or working class) go to your job, or (if you are middle or upper middle class) devote yourself to being a semi-professional athlete, or musician, or actor, or debater, or whatever.

Though I attended one of the elite universities in the world, I learned a great deal more at Hayward, a few miles down the road. My grades were certainly better at the latter. And I’ve kept many of my philosophy books and discarded nearly every history text, of which there were hundreds, all told.

I should close with an anecdote from my philosophy days. There was a fellow student by the name of Ira. We began a discussion, really an argument, one day. It lasted through a couple of quarters! The topic, as best as I can recall, was: Which comes first: thought or language? I argued the former, he the latter. Our months-long conversation took place over coffee, in between classes, in our respective apartments, or at any time we accidentally bumped into each other. As”philosophers” we could pull this off, respecting each other’s person and point of view.

I wish that more of us philosophized as Ira and I did. I think the world would be a better place.