Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lately On My Mind: Living 700 Years, Computer Agonies, E-books, the Giant Men of Seattle, Chilling Out on Nantucket. And Losing a Son.

“Where are you?” an old friend and reader of this blog e-mailed me. “You all right?”

It had been over a month since I had posted anything. I was pleased that somebody had noticed.

I e-mailed her back that, yeah, I was still vertical and breathing, except that my computer wasn't. It had crashed. Well, that was only part of the story. I was also struggling with whether to acknowledge something deeply personal to Barbara and me: the loss of our son Mark in a fatal car accident. Also, if I did, I wasn't sure how.

A blog devoted to the loss? Continue to write nothing at all? Or a short acknowledgment just so readers would know, as part of a normal blog?

Barbara and I ruled out the first because we really didn't want to go deeply into the loss all over again. Considering that six months had passed, the second seemed like it was being unreal. We decided on the third option. Why? Because, after six months of silence about it on this blog, it is time. It is time that we acknowledge the loss and begin the long and painful process of acceptance.

An important part of that, Barbara and I both agree, is resuming a normal life, to the extent that is possible after such a loss, the worst that can befall a parent. This loss happened. We must accept it and move on while continuing to love and honor Mark and never, ever forgetting him. It will be impossible for us to forget him, certainly not with all the pictures we have of him around the house.

Normal for me is getting back to my blog. My nature is to bear witness to things that happen around me and to do so in words and pictures. Barbara's nature is to stand with me and let me be me, for good or ill. She is with me as I write these words and when I publish a photo from the recent Memorial Golf Tournament held in honor of Mark and as a benefit for his family, wife Erin and children, Connor, Seamus, Liam and Riley.

The event was so well-attended that two golf courses were needed to handle the response, and many were turned away. Kettlebrook Golf Club in Paxton, Mass. and Wachusett Country Club in West Boylston, Mass. were the two sites for the tournament. Wachusett Country Club hosted the dinner that completed the day, serving over 400 friends and family. What a wonderful tribute for a sadly missed son, brother, husband, father and friend.

At Mark's Memorial Golf Tournament, Barbara manages a smile while posing with our oldest grandchild, Connor, 10.She and our daughter Misha were both were volunteers for the Memorial Golf Tournament. Misha  flew out from Seattle for it.
Now, with Barbara's approval, I go on with this blog as I normally would.

One good thing about my computer crash is that I was forced to appreciate what a big role the computer plays in my life. I realize now that I routinely spend hours on it almost every day, doing e-mails, browsing the net, and doing the kind of reading that has been done on paper for a couple of centuries.

Yet with newspapers, books, and magazines, dying a slow death, I still clung stubbornly to my daily New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the weekly New Yorker magazine, and other paper relics. Everywhere I go, I have The New York Times or some other paper product tucked under my arm. I live in fear that I will be stuck somewhere with nothing to read. My son Greg tells everybody that the NYT is my “blankee.”

He is right, but will not be for much longer. I am in the process of breaking my addiction to print on paper, which has ruled me all my life and which has been with us for five centuries. Now I have a new blankee. It is a Lenovo laptop computer which I am taking with me more and more. I am writing this on it.

Ours is a spanking new – and revolutionary -- era of reading on electronic devices, including cell phones. And now we have the online subscription. Rupert Murdock, whose News Corporation owns The Wall Street Journal, believes that readers should pay for online content. Very soon, The Wall Street Journal will be charging for its online content.

Having spent most of my working life in traditional publishing, I am being forced to turn my back on it and get with the times. In addition to my new laptop, I have also embraced the wild new and rapidly growing world of E-books. My novel, “State Kid,” will be available on Google Editions, Google's new E-bookstore, when it opens later this summer. Amazing to me, it will be available worldwide and can be read on all devices. To check it out, click here.

An old dog like me does not learn new tricks easily. An old brain, comfy with decades of the old ways, mightily resists anything new. But the unadulterated truth is that unless an old brain is fed new information and ways of doing things, it declines at an ever faster rate.

It is use it or lose it. No learned neurological journal can tell you to do anything more important for a healthy brain. What makes the human brain so responsive to intellectual stimulation is its elasticity. When you do everything by rote, an unchallenged brain coasts and tends to lose agility. But present your brain with new information and ask it to solve new problems, and it stretches – and maintains or even expands function.

Knowing this, when our son Jon spent several hours at the house setting up a new computer system for me -- he's a software engineer-- I tried hard to understand what was going on. He is shown here at work.  He was creating a laptop and desktop system that talked to each other and that Barbara and I could both use. He patiently explained how the system worked, like a teacher dealing with a slow learner.

I am trying very hard to understand it all. This is a healthy brain meal Jon is offering me, but I have little appetite for it. I'm like a kid who doesn't want to eat his spinach. These days I'm eating my spinach, don't like it, but am making some progress.

I managed to get this blog up. In the process, I was able to crop and edit the photos, though I lost the files twice and had to photo-search them. I see that look on your face, Jon, but I promise you that I'm going to get there – and before age 120. Well, maybe age 700.

Which brings me to a guy named Raymond Kurzweil who is 62 and firmly believes that dying is a very bad idea. He wants to live to be around 700. Wild fantasy? Not to Mr. Kurzweil. He is deadly serious. He would take issue with the word “deadly” here.

He is super smart. In 1965, when he was 17, he built a computer that composed music. A couple of years later while he was at M.I.T., he developed a computer that determined the most appropriate college for individual high school students. He sold it for $100,000, plus royalties.

He has since made millions selling his inventions. He developed the first print-scanning system converting text to speech and allowing the blind to read. He invented software for securities traders and e-readers for digital publications. He has conquered his own diabetes by changing his diet and reprogramming his body with supplements. And much more.

He thinks the pace of technological change, which he says is increasing exponentially, is going to change everything for humankind. In just the last few decades, it has already dramatically altered human existence. He believes that in the coming decades this headlong multiplying change will inevitably spell the end of the human era.

Don't misunderstand. He is an optimist. He is convinced that we human beings can use technology to overcome mortality and thrive in a post-human world. By the 2030's, he is convinced that we will at least be able to achieve mental mortality by a computerized backing-up of the brain. “In 25 years, a computer as powerful as today's smartphones will be the size of a blood cell,” Mr. Kurzweil says.

He has become a leading spokesperson for richly-financed Singularity University in Mountain View, California, which is working furiously to be a midwife to the human being-machine age. Some of the world's smartest and richest people have embraced Singularity, including the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

The Singularity Movement is significant enough for The New York Times to have published an extensive report on it on June 13. To read this report, click here:

Meanwhile, I'm preparing for the day when I become part man and part machine. Already, I run around the tennis court with the help of titanium knees. An artificial arm or two for me would be no huge leap. It would almost be a natural next step

Nikki, the girl next door whom I watched grow up and who is now a junior at WPI, is planning a career in prosthetics. This summer she is doing volunteer research on rats. She says that she foresees the day when she will be fitting me with manufactured arms, legs, and other artificial appendages as the need arises.

We both have a good laugh over it. But the reality is that I could very well be in her office in the not too distant future looking for a robotic arm or leg. The only original human part that I insist on keeping is my brain, though I know it could use a good upgrade. The rest can be manufactured. And this is exactly what the Singularity Movement has in mind.

When Nikki starts supplying me with new manufactured body parts, I'm going to ask her to make me tall. I've been a shrimp all my life and I have never felt completely comfortable with it. I am 5-6. As if that were not bad enough, I'm shrinking. I used to be 5-8.

I still put 5-8 on personal forms. When I have my picture taken with my daughter Misha, who is taller than I am, I have her scrunch down or I get up on a rock. Dammit, I think, it's not fair.

Unlike guys like me, tall guys get the best jobs, make more money, get promoted faster and higher, and have to bat the girls away. Not surprisingly, since both girls and bosses love them, they have great self-esteem.

For the most part, I manage to put my lack of physical stature out of mind. However, on a recent two-week visit to Seattle, I got an unexpected reminder. It happened at a Starbucks where I had taken to going for breakfast and to read the papers.

There I was minding my own business when, from day one, I was subjected to a parade of tall men. I sat in the same spot each morning and this affrontery passed right before my eyes, interrupting my reading and reminding me of how tall I wasn't.

When I said something to a couple of Starbucks staff, both women with 14 years working in that location, they didn't believe it. “Just watch,” I said. “You'll see.” I brought my camera the next few days and began taking pictures of these Seattle giants. Here are just a couple, along with one of short old me joshing with one of the giants.
Soon when the Starbucks staff saw a giant guy, they looked over at me – after a week of sitting in the same spot, I had become a regular – and said, “Another one.” Or they would flick a quick fingerpoint and smile. I smiled back. Point made. They later said they were shocked that in 14 years on the job, they had not noticed these Seattle giants.

After the giants became a topic of conversation (I tend to cause trouble wherever I go without adult supervision), I learned from another regular, a college professor, that there was a simple explanation. He said that in Seattle's early years, there had been a large influx of Indo-Europeans, mostly from Scandinavia. Like the men of Scandinavia today, they were white and unusually tall.

Today their genes walk tall in Seattle. Here I make fun of one of them.
Next, with Barbara's sister visiting for a week, Barbara let me know that it was OK if I got lost. The two sisters wanted to talk and do girl things. I would just be in the way. So I called my old friend Bill who lives in Nantucket and invited myself for a visit.

He regularly tempts me to visit with talk of long bike rides all over the island, sightseeing walks around the town, swimming, and long breakfasts with The New York Times. When I take him up on it, he gets an attack of amnesia and I somehow always end up doing things like hauling wood.

This time Bill was a man of his word. The two of us biked for miles. We hung out over breakfast at my favorite spot downtown, The Bean; we went swimming and walking on the beach; Bill and his wife (and my friend) Tracy took turns cooking great meals; they even gave me their own bedroom.

“Where are you two going to stay?” I asked, without offering to give up my my bedroom, formerly theirs.

“Oh, don't worry,” Bill said, “We'll stay with friends.”

That sounded good to me.

Bill doesn't talk much, which is one of the things I like about him. In fact, I sometimes have to pull things out of him, such as his checkered past as “Surfer Bill.” That's what locals called him when he was a kid spending summers on Nantucket. And this time I found out, purely by accident, that he was also a model. That's right, a model.

Not only that, he is proud of it. Here he is shown with an old photo of a young, handsome Surfer Bill modeling swimwear for a magazine spread. And you know what? It's catchy in the Bill Murray family.

Here is daughter Surfer Maggie with her surfboard and also at her recent graduation from Northfield Mount Herman in western Massachusetts, where Bill also went.

She goes straight from graduation to surfing. Is there something not quite right about that?

However, Maggie can be forgiven. She's her dad's daughter. And she deserves a break from school before she goes off to Simmons College in Boston this fall. Also, at one movie night at home, she suggested that we watch “Across the Universe.” It's a terrific movie.

It's also a movie that I had never seen or even heard of. Basically, it's a story told through popular 50's and 60's songs by groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The settings and dancing are spectacular.
I invited Maggie to join us for a second movie night. She decided to go out with her friends instead.

Imagine that. Choosing her friends over Mom and Dad and Honored Guest!

Early one evening Bill, Tracy, and I went out to a nearby beach to watch over a friend who was training to swim in an Iron Man competition. Here is a shot of Bill walking down to the beach and a picture of Tracy in the water with a beautiful expanse of beach behind her.

Here are a couple of Nantucket scenes, one of the cobble-stone residential street just up from the center of town and the other of a couple looking out on the water.

Nantucket is surely a beautiful place to go when you have to go somewhere and someone there is willing to take you in.

There is an art to being a house guest. No one, certainly not me, can be sure of being able to pull it off. Leave too soon and I unnecessarily give up my place as Honored Guest and the great meals, choice room, and the catering to that goes with the title. Overstay and I'm history. I'll never be able to invite myself back.

So this is what I try to do. I try to leave just before I start to go bad and the hosts start asking what that smell is. When they start looking at you, the next thing they will do is ask you to cook and clean. That's when you know you are no longer an Honored Guest and they want you out.

Did I pull it off? I was wondering myself when a letter addressed to Barbara arrived from Nantucket. It was the official Vacation Report Card for “Georgie” (my name as a kid) from Tracy to the adult in my house, Barbara.

Here's a summary:

Attitude: “full of laughs and outgoing” and “happy (took credit for the good weather).” “Made own bed daily.”
Activity: “Transitioned well from ferry to chair on deck” and “Biked to town and back on own!”
Physical: “Good appetite. Ate without complaint”
Sleep: “Napped as usual” “Says it's 30 minutes; Bill says 45 minutes”
Comments: “Played well with others”

Tracy praised me for being understanding of Bill when he forget to give me the lunch she had made for me to take on the ferry back to Hyannis. She said I was a very good boy to call him on my cell phone so he could drive like a maniac to the ferry with the lunch. He handed the lunch off to me seconds before the ferry pulled away.

(Between you and me, this is a total fabrication. I blame other people for everything. Will someone please help me?)

Barbara thought it was a good report card. She said I could go to Nantucket by myself again – if, and this is a big if, if I am a good boy.

So long and keep moving.

P.S. I am now thinking ahead to the post-human era when I will be part human (my brain) and part machine (everything else). Nikki, I've decided that I want to be tall. I want hair that is thick, curly, and dark. Do I have to keep my face? I want a face more like Robert Pattinson. I want to be tall, dark, handsome, and extremely mobile. Will that be doable? How soon do you think?