Archive for March, 2023

Along the road to finding George

Why we live on Colonna Lane

When we moved up to Sullivan County, the dirt side road to our place had no name and served only 4 houses – 3 down by the pond, plus our place, which lay across a little bridge and totally hidden at the top of a winding drive. Our “address” was Off Lick Creek Rd., but stuff got to us, somehow (deliveries, not mail – that we picked up in town at our PO box).

Maybe 6 years after we arrived, PA went on an organizational frenzy and insisted that every road had to have an Official Name, and every house thereon had to have a Numerical Address.

I didn’t pay much attention to all this until one day a guy in this 30s, I’d guess, knocked on our door and said he was coming through to help set up the state location system. (How the hell he even found us up here I have no idea. We are, literally, invisible from every single point in the county.)

Of the three houses down by the pond, Joe and Mimi Colonna’s was the middle one, facing across the pond to Lick Creek Rd., but as I remember it, he was still based in Philly at the time so not there on weekdays. The other two houses were “cabins” (parlance here for part-time residences owned by hunters and vacationers). So we were the only “permanent” residents on our roadlet, and thus the only ones at home that day.

Can’t remember what else the guy said, but at the end he asked me (me!) what our road should be named (there are obviously differing levels of organization in the state). Well, it would have been beyond hubris to claim Davis Blvd., and I knew Joe had set up his place  (first as a cabin) sometime in the 1960s, so I felt by rights the road should be his. “Colonna Ln.,” I said. And so it is.

An odd aside: One of my favorite online Indian grocery stores refuses to recognize my Colonna Ln. street number (32) — but they do accept Joe’s (44). So while Joe was alive, I’d tell him there would be an order dropped off for us at his place , and he’d give me a call – there was never a better neighbor on the wide green earth than Joe.

I haven’t ordered from that site since Joe died.

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Why our salad dressing is called George

Our fridge is often a warren of leftovers (some may be leftunders), up to 15 round Chinese takeout containers of various sizes (hey – if you don’t already use Chinese takeout containers for leftovers, start eating Chinese takeout right now, because they are the best storage containers known to gastronomic hoarding).

This foodish melange leads, of course, to confusion as to contents. “What’s that brown semi-liquid with the slight orange tinge?” I particularly hate it when I lose track of our salad dressing. We don’t, generally, use a recipe for salad dressing; it’s a continual updating of yesterday’s attempts, encouraged by herbal additions and guesswork. So the salad dressing, sitting in clouded semi-liquid roundness, is not necessarily… obvious.

While shuffling and herding containers one day, I said to Linda, “You know, we should label this stuff, especially the salad dressing.”

One or the other of us, can’t recall which, said, “We should write the name on it.”

“What name?” replied the other.

And the first or the other exclaimed, “George!”

So now, our ever-evolving salad dressing lives in a mid-sized Chinese takeout container with the name “George” inked on its lid.

Not obvious, you say? No problem. Nothing else in our fridge is called George.

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Why I am not called George

My middle brother (meaning my elder but not eldest brother) Vic roamed life with the given name of George Victor Pointz Davis. Growing up, I’d heard, either from him or (more likely) my mother, that he hated the name George; so throughout the expanding extended family he was known, always and everywhere, as Vic. 

Yet, at the memorial following his death, his co-workers at Sun Oil (where, after years as mate and ship’s captain on several oil tankers, be was elevated to Captain of the Fleet), recalled him as George. Had he made peace with the inevitability of his christening, or… or…what?

So, slipping sideways from that, two more nomenclature oddities.

First: When a Catholic close-to-adolescent child is Confirmed (Confirmation is a ridiculous “sacrament” that has no apparent purpose beyond giving the parish exercise), he, she or it is slapped with an additional name, often never again referred to, like being given a gelatinous dessert you did not ask for that you dump behind the azalea.

My mother saddled me with the Confirmation name of George. It was intoned by the priest at the altar rail while slapping something wet on my forehead. To my relief, I’ve never again heard that name applied to me.

What the hell? Why would my mother tack on to me the despised, castoff name of my elder brother? Mom was often difficult, if not impossible, to parse. I can’t believe it was random, but if not random, did it signify something to her lost or hidden?

Oddity the second: While living at the magical House on 34th St. in Philly during the mid 1960s (referred to many ruminations ago – hey, get used to it!), Danny, who, like the other House residents (except me) was Jewish, invited me to a seder with his family in the suburbs. I was genuinely touched (still am) by that gesture.

At the head of the dining table sat Danny’s grandfather, a fading but pleasant elder with poor hearing. I was properly introduced to him as Derek. He repeated but skewed the name, possibly to Eric. Danny tried to present a correction. The grandfather replied again with something else similar but not quite spot-on. Finally, he smiled, shook my hand, and intoned, “George!” I’ll never figure that one out.

Summing up, I think some amorphous spirit is intent on claiming me as “George” – whether as name, condiment or ancestral obscurity (a massacre in the Scottish highlands?).

Like Vic, I’m not comfortable with, have no time for the name George (except as a garnish).

So don’t you fucking dare call me George.

{Yeah, I’ve doomed myself with that reminder, haven’t I?)

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Malvina Reynolds

[This is a slight update on an article that originally ran in The Chiseler, maybe five years ago]

Malvina Reynolds was, so far as I know, the only singer/songwriter/protestor/grandmother of the ’60s. She was most popular for “Little Boxes,” a digging satire of suburban living and entrapment. 

You might expect a woman in her 60s (born in 1900, she aged perfectly with the century), who stood up for left-wing values, to have mellowed into a Buddhist mindset. Ha! Leave that to youngsters like Timothy Leary.

Malvina came on like a musical freight train, with slamming commentary that spared no targets. Not only are her little boxes

“all made out of ticky tacky
and they all look just the same,”


“… the children go to summer camp

And then to the university,

Where they are put in boxes

And they come out all the same.”

Born in San Francisco, the daughter of a Jewish socialist tailor and his wife, a labor organizer, who both opposed U.S. Involvement in World War I, she had been putting together protest and children’s songs for a couple decades before she leapt into the hardcore politicization of the ’60s.

If you look into her composing output (, her range, depth and sheer volume can remind you of Woody Guthrie.

I don’t know her children’s songs, so I’m talking here about her protest work. Her voice wasn’t strong, but it was deliberate, dedicated and tough. Her lyrics weren’t catchy in the pop sense—they charged ahead and often ran around the corner before you could catch up. They held your attention by being unlikely, loopily funny and often based on a weirdly sprung meter. 

Today, many of them might seem puzzling because they were fixed so firmly to the immediate subject that inspired them. “The Judge Said,” one of her most powerful blasts, is based on a specific case in Wisconsin where a judge blamed a rape victim for being part of a permissive generation. Malvina was attaching her song to a (successful!) petition to recall the judge. It’s  excellent but hard to expand into a general statement.

On the other hand, “Boraxo,” extolling a cleaning agent that can obliterate the worst of social crimes, though based on the sponsor of a Ronald Reagan radio program before he became California governor, still resonates as an overall response to police brutality:

“Tho you’ve had your hands in blood up to the elbow;

You can always wash them clean with Boraxo.”

In one of my personal favorites, “The Faucets Are Dripping,” the waste from leaking plumbing becomes a metaphor for both urban squalor and environmental disgrace: 

“The reservoir’s drying because it’s supplying

The faucets that drip in New York.”

I don’t know if the various “Occupy” groups picked up on Malvina, but they should have. “The Little Mouse” celebrates a rodent in Buenos Aires who chewed through a computer wire and brought down an entire banking system. What she sang with great élan in a live concert is definitely not like anything my grandmother ever said or sang.

And “Dialectic” compares the lives of the stinking rich with those of the (differently) stinking poor. 

Either of these songs could and should be sung loudly in Wall Street.

And try this (despite the weirdness of calling it an “awful song”):

Malvina churned out so many songs that it would be impossible to run through even the top rank. For a good selection, try Ear to the Ground, which collects 23 of her songs on a Smithsonian Folkways recording that you can download. Some are light and positive, many are dark and biting. All reflect a woman who saw the world with a caring vitality that few can match in these “me first” days. 

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A closing aside on Jewish intellectuals.

 Brought up a Catholic through eight years of Catholic schools, I went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where, writing features and a column for the student paper, I befriended mostly Jews. It was a revelation – for the first time I was educated among people I wholly liked and felt comfortable with. Later, during the kind of purposeless post-graduate drifting that was possible in the ’60s, I was the only nominal Christian in a small houseful of Jews, the brightest people I’ve ever known. 

Malvina was a Jewish intellectual (I wish I knew the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation in English lit). Her songs reflect her interest in… well, just about everything. She listened to every kind of music, read about and knew about everything that was happening in the world. 

Why did the Nazis hate Jews with such virulence? It wasn’t just about money or social leanings, I think, it was as much a revulsion against their knowledge and brilliance. You still see that in violent anti-semitic reactions today. If a Jewish intellectual was as dumb as the modern electorate, the knuckle-draggers might at least tolerate them. But a non-Christian who’s brighter than they can ever hope to be? That, sir, is insupportable.

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Will AIs become more intelligent than humans? We can hope so

Interesting article in the Guardian a few months back on the possible “threats” from artificial intelligence: 

“Can we stop AI outsmarting humanity?” (

I doubt you’ll want to wend your way through the whole article, but basically it’s interviewing a few people who have kept a serious, lifelong interest in studying AI, from the standpoint of “where is it going?” and “what, if anything, should we do to contain it?” 

The basic assumptions among the speakers– though with a great deal of personal variation – are 

a) there are risks from what AI can do or lead to, and 

b) we should consider ways to contain those risks that vary from unintentional reordering of society (likely) to demonic Terminatorness (unlikely).

But there’s little talk in the article about some other questions that have struck me over the last few years:

• Why assume that AI, though superior in manipulating specifics, can never be as wide-ranging or fluidly flexible as the human mind? Because computers’ innards are ordered differently from ours, and no one can imagine them capable of matching our level of intricacy? 

That’s pretty lame. Really, we have no idea what a higher intelligence would look like. We just assume it would be “us-er” than us.

• Would it be inherently bad if machine intelligence out-ranged ours? We’re a product of millions of years of half-assed random mutations, with our intelligence just one aspect of a very interesting but screwy brain structure. We’re not the epitome of thought or anything else; evolution, in the broadest sense, can be expected to lead to our replacement as top dog (so to speak). We’re scared because the world of AIs is moving so damned fast – and because we retain a fat-headed attachment to our species value.

• How could we possibly limit or “contain” an intelligence superior to ours? Such a higher intelligence would run mental rings around us and around any device, algorithmic or physical, that we might, in our scant wisdom, try to impose on it.

• Most AI researchers, says the article, get pissed off by people using the term “consciousness” in relation to AIs. Why? True, in every instance “consciousness” needs to be defined (like any other loose term), but suppose, for the moment, that we define it simply as “a sense of self.” Why would a superior intelligence not gain a sense of self? We already have AIs with an amazing ability to learn, precisely because we have imposed fewer direct limits on them than evolution has on us; we let (in fact, encourage) them to figure out new approaches to solving  problems. Why, one day while scratching its chips, would A.I. Supreme not trumpet, “I am! Well, get a gander at that!”

• Why would a higher intelligence want to do us any sort of harm – except maybe to keep us from continuing to ruin the world? (I’m not considering Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, which he codified to prevent unintentional harm to humans from robots.)

Destructive tendencies, of whatever sort, that might develop during the AI learning process should get weeded out as their intelligence evolves. Unlike humans, they could and almost certainly would be self-correcting – not limited by the quirks and errors of natural selection, since their selection would not be natural but open to change and improvement on the run. Our human aggressive tribalism is the product of mega-generations of mutations developed simply to assure the continuance of a species (any species). What threat could we pose to robotic continuance or supremacy?

• One annoying suggestion voiced in the article: Find ways to make AIs mimic human ethical standards. Don’t do that! Cripes, haven’t human ethical wars taught us that much at least? Such an approach is arrogant at best, blindered in its unfolding, and impossible in the end.

Nothing about human ethical standards is “immutable,” as suggested by some in the article, or even shared by all of humanity. We each form our own assumption of “the good” – and to whom it should apply. Philosophy lays out a wide range of alternatives, but no answers. The major hope for AIs is that they can avoid such distracting crap.

• In the end, there’s no way to predict, even in the broadest terms, where the development of artificial intelligence will take us – or the wider realm of existence. Rather than wasting our time trying to maim the genie that’s already out of its bottle, maybe we should be asking this new intelligence, as it progresses, how (or if) we can work together. And we should make sure they develop a sense of humor.

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Puzzlements and Contradictions

Amazon grace, how beastly though art…

Linda and I order a startling amount of crap from Amazon, which, in its treatment of employees, is a shitful, outrageous, egregious company.

So why do we do it?

• We live 50 miles from anywhere with a major stores, so buying an item even slightly unusual means a 100-mile, 2-hour round trip. Some of our friends seem to love these rambles – and the roads are gorgeous – but I find spending a couple hours just putt-putting to buy something a mild form of torture. I could be splitting more firewood, or eating toast, or sleeping. Or I might even shake off my lethargy and write something. Like this. (Hey, c’mon, wake up!)

• Burning 4-5 gallons of gas driving 100 miles spews way more pollution that having our little box tucked in with a few hundred others on the way to the post office.

• Amazon gives us free shipping and a 5% rebate on our treasured credit card. Oh, what lovely people!

• They ship damned fast.

• It’s mindless – there’s a 90% likelihood they have the item we want without our having to hunt it down from a reputable company.

All that said, I can’t justify buying through/from Amazon. It makes my ethical toes wiggle.

But if we stopped buying from them, it wouldn’t affect their policies or behavior, in part because (and I hate to admit this), Jeff Bezos set the outfit up to please the customer first in every situation, the workers be damned. The company made almost no return to investors in its first 5+ years; Bezos warned them of this, yet they still whined and bitched through those early years – until, wham, has that investment paid off in the long run.

The only way I see for any of us to get around this shamble of contradictions is to be less concerned about our convenience and more willing to go the extra step to support worthwhile outfits. For example, why do I get wrapped up in the idea of fast delivery? Maybe one time in 10 it makes a difference, but if I had to wait 10 days, rather than the 3 from Amazon, to get an item, would my toenails turn black and drop off?

Life up here is mostly slow, and it doesn’t get any faster if I receive some wacky kitchen utensil tomorrow.

As usual, I’ve presented a bunch questions without answers.

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What can I do that’s useful?

What am I getting at? I honestly believe there may be something I could do that matters, despite what I alternately and more deeply believe: that none of it matters, and that what I do is just dropping another shit in the world-wide outhouse.

Why would I believe I have the ability to “make a difference” (another term I despise)?

I’m bright. That’s proved by being first in my class from 6th through 12th grade; by being slavered over by classmates who copied my answers through sideways glances in biology tests taken at our lab tables; by being congratulated by friends who say I’ve done Something Exceptional up here in writing local history plays; by my personal conviction that I’ve done something not only Exceptional but Unique in my initial novel.

But what the hell, in daily life I’m just another asshole, and I know it. Yet being an asshole doesn’t mean I’m always an asshole. There are lapses.

What I’ve been thinking, in part, in small part, lately, somewhat lately, is that at age 83 it might be nice if I did something truly useful.

Useful in the wider (widest?) sense.

What could that be, what would that be? I don’t know, so I’m asking you (my correspondent friends), what should I do?

Let’s start with the negatives (many of them formerly reported to this here group):

1) In this age of incessant chatter, I fucking will not post on social media. If I write/present something elsewhere that someone wants to like or link to or whatever the hell on social media, I will not attempt to prevent them or curse their grandparents for their temerity. That’s their choice. (And, yeah, I suppose it could be useful, somehow.)

2) I prefer to look at a whole problem (once my initial knee-jerk shriek is expelled), in balanced terms. That is, I don’t take an extreme position (even though I believe in extremes) unless there is no reasonable alternative, “reasonable” meaning examining the evidence with as little bias as I can exude. So, though avowed leftist (beyond leftist, really), I try to examine the negatives in my own and anyone else’s position. I don’t intentionally lie about what I see, even if it undercuts my position. (Though I’m sure I unintentionally lie, like a tent blown over in the wind.)

3) Much of the time, I can’t stand who I am. It took me a long time to clearly realize that. Growing up, I had no idea who I was and couldn’t dislike myself any more than I could hate the generic “art” crud on my parents walls. But now… I don’t mean I’m a bad guy, so much as that I could have been so much more but chose not to be. It’s not a comforting realization.

 Why place the negatives foremost? I think because everyone in the current wide, shouting world blares their positive trumpet, and that’s the worst lie of all. I want to point out the dogshit you may step in if you try to answer my question, because I’d feel guilty if you unwittingly tracked it through the house.

So on to the positives:

1) As a writer, I’m damned good at what I do. What I do may or may not be of great importance, but there are many others out there – many others – who could not do it. I can (when I choose) present arguments and overviews so they’re comprehensible and, if not complete, at least obvious; you shouldn’t have to look up vocabulary or un earth hidden assumptions.

2) I’m honest (see above). Again, not totally honest, but good god, look at the undeviating crapiness you deal with every morning if, like me, you read the news: You have to suspect that every goddanned thing you read is total horseshit. (With anything I write, the crap component is seldom higher than 25%.)

3) I care. Do you think pontificating pundits care? Do you think Ollie Oligarch cares? Oh, they care about their image, about power, about being adored. But they don’t care about the country, about the world, about what comes next when you destroy or attempt to destroy what came before. They don’t care about human beings in the context of trying to live their lives.

I do. You can believe/accept that or not.

So where was I going? I try to understand that but almost never do. I would, if asked in the abstract, say that I want the world to be a better place. I somewhat believe that. In real life, I’d like to find some way I might possibly make things better.

But I have no clear idea what “better” might look like. It could well mean the extinction of humanity, considering what we’ve done and become. Or it could mean something else.


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