Sunday, May 24, 2015

How do you know?

With the 2016 presidential primary already underway, I've been thinking about the way people get their information now, and how it has changed since the time before broadcast media.

Before radio, anyone interested in political information and candidates would have to read whatever printed matter was available, or encounter the candidate in person, or listen to another live speaker. Political participation depended on literacy, because no candidate could travel so widely and address large enough audiences to mobilize a useful number of voters.

According to this suspect graph on Wikipedia, voter turnout was quite high between 1836 and 1896, before dropping off sharply at the beginning of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, data on voter statistics from before broadcast media don't come readily to hand, so I have no better numbers to offer. But I don't really care about overall numbers. Think about the methods of communication and how they affect the lives of ordinary citizens.

With the coming of radio, people no longer had to be readers. Later, with the coming of television, they no longer had to imagine the visual aspects of what they heard. As video has developed it has followed in the footsteps of film in providing instruction as well as entertainment, so that an attentive viewer can learn concepts and procedures through multiple senses, and inattentive viewers can think they did. The process of examining and reviewing written words has fallen off, while the absorption, conscious and unconscious, of information that may be wildly skewed, has risen sharply.

The Internet is the descendant of television. According to a Rodale article, video content is expected to comprise 86% of the Internet by next year. Obviously, people would rather see something that walks and talks --and dances -- than read something that sits there and requires them to engage more analytical faculties to absorb it.

Personally, I tend to skip videos and look for something I can read. But I am politically and economically insignificant, being nonpartisan (though left leaning) and dirt poor. But as a canary in a coal mine, I have to chirp out that encouraging people to absorb most of their information through what are basically animated cartoons does not bode well for the intellectual future of the species.

Intelligent people will think about what they've been fed, but they have to fight through the psychological manipulation inherent in the medium to do so. People with less time or inclination to think will be herded. The shepherd and the crook may be one and the same.

As animated content takes over more and more, written information will become harder to find. In the Dark Ages, illiteracy created a wall between the people in power and the people over whom they exercised it. Grubbing for survival, the serfs and peasants learned what they needed from the people around them. No one asked for their opinion about affairs of government. Now, in the era of video serfing, the semi-literate, harried multitudes are simply steered with simple words on paper and a lot of haranguing through speakers and screens.

Even if you dig for the more measured tones and thoughtful presentation of public broadcasting you're getting only a peephole view of the world. And public broadcasting is picking up a lot of corporate financing, which has to alter the content, even if it's done subtly, so as not to alarm the shy, skittish intelligentsia. Because every single human views the world from within the confines of their individual brain, the most rational individual will still transmit and receive through a filter of preconception. These prejudices apply to written material as well as audiovisual.

Written material is superior because it stimulates critical brain activity more effectively than video. You may agree or disagree with material in either medium, but the forced pace of video carries you past each point faster than you can say, "hey, wait a minute." Written propaganda has had plenty of influence through the centuries, and continues to do so. But seeing it on paper and being able to look at it over and over without rewinding allows you to review it, to catch things you might not have noticed before, without sitting through a bunch of the rest of the presentation as you try to rewind to the spot you remember. The emotional impact is more controllable without an animated presenter cranking up the feeling.

Of course information in any medium is only as good as the investigation behind it. So the whole thing stumbles over access. Can a reporter get to information? Has the information been formulated for effect, or is it really unaltered primary data? Has the information been filtered through the editorial bias of the publisher? Since that is almost inescapably true, has that bias rendered the information useless, if not outright harmful?

Many of the details we are given, and encouraged to either enthuse or rage about, are irrelevant to the broader implications of a given event. That's when the reader, viewer or listener has to rise above the thicket of detail to think about major movements and basic principles.


My employer had one of his periodic foaming shit fits yesterday. These typically consist of a disproportionate rage response to a triggering event. Underlying stressors have accumulated until he blows a gasket, usually bellowing impotently about his authority.

When you have to yell about your authority you have none. I can't remember the last time I yelled. Even when I was running the retail concession at Jackson Ski Touring in the early years of the century and had an employee who could be a real punk asshole when he felt like it, I did not yell. I did my best to understand the man's limitations and work with them, to maximize his strengths. It would do no one any good to get in endless pissing contests with him. We developed a functional symbiosis. Eventually, he moved on. I got a new colleague.

I don't have subordinates. I have colleagues. And I AM no one's subordinate. This does not guarantee that my employer does not think of me as a subordinate. He does have power, for all his lack of authority. He can order me to do things, leaving me to decide whether to follow the order, ignore the order or quit. He can fire me. But he cannot command my respect. No one can. Nor can I command anyone to respect me.

Life gets a ton easier when you just do your thing and don't worry about whether anyone bows down before you.

My employer's problem is that his kids never rebelled. He's got these great authoritarian rants saved up that he never got to spew at them. Since a certain kind of employer considers his employees to be so junior that they are actually juvenile, the incoherent bellowing about attitude and respect transfers neatly.

My bluntness is an expression of efficiency. To me, the shortest distance between a stupid idea and the trash heap is a straight flight launched with a sharp kick. I get away with this often enough to lull me into believing that my employers actually understand how my mind works. Then a blowup happens and I have to remember to let them do what they want. I will simply wade through it, climb over it or walk around it, and hope it goes away. If it doesn't, it becomes the new normal.

If I thought all their ideas were stupid you could accuse me of being an arrogant punk. However, I understand how they fit into their particular community. I oppose only the ideas that will do them -- and us -- a harm they have not considered. Ultimately, they have the power to institute the harm. After whatever token critique I attempt to offer, my next responsibility as an employee is to do the foolish thing they command, or at least stand back so it can play out in all its collapsing glory. If all goes well, it will cause no outright harm, only inconvenience. At worst it brings the whole place down. Then something new can arise.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Basics of Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theory boils down to one essential principle: Everything supports the theory.

Lack of evidence is some of the best evidence. It proves how high and deep the conspiracy goes, because they can cover it up so well. So lack of solid evidence proves concealment. If you can't find it, it's just really well hidden, because WE KNOW IT'S THERE. It DEFINITELY EXISTS.

Evidence against the conspiracy is disinformation. Scientific explanations of phenomena are junk science. It's all just public relations produced by shills working for the conspiracy.

Any unexplained event or phenomenon is not the work of natural principles you are unfamiliar with. It is ONLY the work of sinister forces.

Anyone who disagrees with the conspiracy theorists is a dupe. Yet unswerving belief IN the conspiracy does not make you THEIR dupe. No, you are one of the intelligent faithful who see through all the smoke and mirrors and pesky "science" produced by the conspiracy to cover up their heinous schemes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Habit change equals habitat change

Raking the garden beds today, I noticed that the ones that had been underneath the piles of snow I'd blown from the driveway had many little rodent nests and burrows in them.

When I used to have the driveway plowed, the snow was all pushed along the driveway, creating an artificial glacier beside the garage. Nothing lived in that. It was very dense and tightly packed.

Even in previous years since I've been clearing the driveway with the snowblower I had not noticed this much nesting activity -- possibly because I was not the one clearing the garden beds. But I think the combination of deep cold and powdery snow created a need for nesting shelter and an ability to create it in the snow piles I made.

They might also have been driven to camp out because I used the garage more and had treated it with a lot of peppermint oil in the fall to discourage occupancy. And the rate at which I used firewood in this deeply cold winter meant that they couldn't hang out in the wood pile for long.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Burning Desire

It's been a long, cold winter. The wood pile is almost gone.

At times like this, those of us who heat with wood start to rate everything around us on the basis of combustibility. Scrap lumber, dead stuff from the forest, and old, broken furniture are obvious candidates. But when every BTU counts you start to look at every possibility.

Dried cat barf? Wood stove.

Detached cat dingleberry discovered in the middle of the floor? Wood stove.

Swept-up wads of shed pet hair? Wood stove.

Bacon fat? Wood stove.

Chunks, chips and sawdust from the woodshed floor? Throw it in.

Chunk of cheese get away from you in the back of the refrigerator? Some good heat there. Dried-up leftover cake frosting works, too.

You can find many devices to turn old newspaper into fire logs. Paper and cardboard don't last long unless you increase their density by layering them tightly, but sometimes a brief, joyous flare is all you need.

The other day, my parents visited and brought a basket with some oranges in it. I looked at the basket and thought, "great, more crap in the house." Then I thought, "hey, that'll fit in the wood stove." I didn't burn it, but somehow I feel better knowing I could.

Don't burn pressure-treated lumber or particle board. Don't burn plastic or glossy paper. Don't burn glues, solvents or petroleum products, pesticides and other nasties.

I don't put anything too weird into the catalytic wood stove. Its updraft design does not have a solid floor in the fire box. But the old Jotul in the basement is a classic iron box with a door on the front and a pipe out the back. It will take anything that fits.

Those dried cat barfs under the bed? Leave them. That's April's fuel.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The uselessness of mockery

What self-dramatizing murderers did to the staff of Charlie Hebdo was completely reprehensible. But it illustrates the limitations of satire as a tool of persuasion.

Terrorist gunmen opened fire on a room full of unarmed people in retaliation for cartoons the killers deemed offensive. People who will do such things are a direct result of the human belief that killing and dying are glorious and admirable ways to express the highest devotion to the best ideals. It's a perversion of the concept of genuine sacrifice. But lots of people are fooled by fakes. The belief is real. The death is real. Does it matter if the logic is flawed? If it FEELS like a blaze of glory to them you'll never convince them that it is really the explosion of a flaming asshole.

People who have no sense of humor cause most of the problems in the world. They are also frequently laughable. The more seriously they take themselves, the more they invite ridicule. They create their own hell by trying to demand respect. But how many people will give up a heartfelt belief because someone made fun of them?

Terrorism takes many forms. Almost none of them are true combat. The targets are undefended, for the most part. Terrorism is part performance art, part temper tantrum.

We used to laugh at the idiot who gets stuck holding the bomb when it goes off. No one wanted to be that idiot. Now it's a career path.

People who like to kill other people will not give it up because someone drew an insulting picture of them or got a roomful of people to laugh at jokes about them. They will seethe and simmer and stir up a bunch of similarly nasty people to inflict pain and damage to show how tough they are. How tough are they if they can't take a joke? It doesn't matter: they're armed and dangerous and totally into it.

Well-expressed ridicule of asinine ideas may help divert uncommitted people from them. And it's addictive. But it has to be a gateway to serious discussion. Continual mockery without mercy ends up feeding the problem more than fighting it, pretty much no matter what the problem is.

That being said, we need intelligent satirists making humorous critical observations. We need to be able to laugh at people in power to remind the people in power to laugh at themselves. We need to be able to laugh at them so we don't do something worse. We're better off with people who beat a joke to death than with people who beat other people to death. But the people who measure worth in terms of killing and dying are a tough audience, a stone cold room where you don't want to bomb, because they'll bomb you back.

You may say it takes courage to stand up to such people, and that it needs to be done. Unfortunately, the kind of people who shot up Charlie Hebdo are psychopaths who are completely unimpressed with philosophical arguments and noble gestures. Homicidally self-righteous people aren't just bullies to face down. And the bigger players who manipulate the actual perpetrators don't care about world opinion either. They're convinced they have a winning strategy. It certainly is a formidable one. They're using psychological handles that go back many thousands of years, to the dawn of consciousness and the first awareness that each and every one of us dies. Rather than find in this knowledge a sense of unity with all life, the manipulators have always seen a way to gain power by exploiting people's fear.

The cartoons and commentaries might give some of us a moment of relief from the craziness. We who are capable of laughing share a few as we shake our heads and go, "that's so true!" For a moment it seems like a universal truth.

The one universal truth is that someone will always disagree. When you discover another one, let me know.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


This formation on a rotting piece of beech tree reminded me of my little wildcat Pandora, who died in 2001. She ruled these woods.

She arrived as a kitten. The established cat, a one-eyed rescue named Moose, received her with good humor. She made it clear that our tiny house was too small to contain her energy. She got her kitten nickname, "the terrorist," because she would playfully but relentlessly attack the two dogs, the elder cat and us.

Her tutor in fierceness was a vagrant cat someone brought us whose coloring was eerily similar to Pandora's. We named this newcomer Scarlet, but soon changed it to Snarlet because she could not shed her feral ferocity. Somehow, Pandora managed to absorb Snarlet's combat and hunting skills while still maintaining a sweet nature.

When I found myself single again in my shack in the woods I had a lot more time to pay attention to the dog and the cat that had been left to me. Pandora spent most days and many nights outside. Even in the coldest weather she never used a litter box. She might spend the day indoors by the wood stove, but she'd be dancing by the door when I got home from work. She'd go outside no matter what the weather was doing, take care of business and come back in.

In milder weather she would spend the day outside. I would see no sign of a cat when I pulled in from work. Then she would appear. If I was in the car she would hop up on the hood before I could open the door. If I was on the bicycle she would materialize beside me. She would do the same thing whenever I took a walk in the woods. She wouldn't follow me if I went very far up the mountain, but she would go as far as our property extended. It probably just coincided with her attention span and the kind of terrain she felt like dealing with.

How much was luck and how much was skill? She never lost a fight,  except to her final illness. She spent days and nights in the forest with coyotes, foxes, fishers, bobcats, bears, owls, hawks and roving dogs. She seemed like a superhero. I heard some hair raising noises some nights, but there she'd be in the morning, paws folded contentedly under her, waiting for me to open the door.

It was about this time of year when she died. In dim light I still sometimes see a dark patch on the floor where I found her barely alive that evening. We rushed her to the vet to see if we could pull her back to us.

If you look at the tree formation from a different angle it doesn't look the least bit like a cat. It gives me a moment of remembrance and then breaks the illusion. The forest remembers and lets go. Even the wood itself will crumble before long.