Monday, June 22, 2015

American Stubbornness and Confederate Pride

I'm not signing any petitions demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from anywhere it currently flies. It needs to go away, but fundamental American resistance to public coercion always supersedes better judgment. Look what the South did when the federal government told them to ditch slavery. They seceded from the Union and opened fire on Fort Sumter. Reproving petitions elevate the flag issue to another Great Cause.

Southerners like to say that the war was about states' rights, but if the issue had been the right to wear green pants and a pink shirt rather than the right to own other human beings we would probably have avoided a bloody chapter in our nation's history. Note that I did not say we would have avoided an ugly chapter. Depends on the green and the pink, I guess. However, the slavery question did mesh with other aspects of the power of a federal government versus that of the states. This nicely obfuscates the basic question of racist slavery for those who wish to dance around it.

Say for argument that the Civil War had been about green pants. Say you had secession, warfare, a region of the country declaring itself a separate nation with its own flag. In due course, the Union wins the war, the South has to vary its wardrobe and the nation tries to reunify. But resentful adherents of green pants want to remember what they stood for, and how valiantly they fought. They incorporate the Green Pants banner into their state flags and keep their memories of the glorious campaign alive. In a weird way, the South was not part of the United States, and yet, having been once and future states, could they really be considered separate even for the time when they tried to break away? So their flag is sewn into our tapestry, like it or not, because to the green pants people of Dixie that was life for several years in their history. Whatever they seceded over, they came back.

Of course it wasn't about green pants. It was about an evil institution. Like most evil institutions, you can find stories from that time that are heartwarming and show kindness. But the system was not designed to warm hearts and foster kindness. It was designed to exploit a race deemed inferior, bought and sold like animals. Regardless of whether the southern states were on their way to doing away with slavery on their own, when pushed they chose to declare war rather than hurry their own emancipation bills through their various legislatures. That call to arms is quintessentially American. Don't tell me what to do or I'll tell you where to go. And I'll back it up with hot lead. People will dig in when they think someone is trying to force their hand, even if it's in a direction they were already thinking about going. And of course they weren't all thinking about going that way.

One of the hardest things to do in this day and age is wait for enough people to evolve to the point where we might all agree to do what's needed to live together peaceably on a healthy planet. But waiting and advising is all that will work. Even if you exterminated everyone who looks like trouble, if you left two people at the end there would be an argument over something, sooner than later.

Proud displays of the Confederate flag should go away, but the Confederacy can't be forgotten. The Civil War was a national tragedy that more or less ended the most obvious aspects of a national disgrace. But the official end of slavery left us with way more than four score and seven years more of racism and strife. It's been seven score and ten, so far. Remember that many abolitionists did not believe that African Americans were equal, only that they should not be owned. Once freed, the grateful darkies were supposed to nip off back to Africa to take up where they left off. They weren't supposed to assimilate into society, become educated and improve their lot. If they couldn't go away, they should at least have the decency to be well behaved. And that was the mild point of view. Where the enmity ran deeper, the hostility was virulent. While that hostility is not quite as overt and widespread now as it was a mere 60 years ago, a little is still too much, and there's way more than a little.

It will be many more years -- if ever -- before there's a national consensus on what the Confederacy was about. So many versions of any story spin up over time that it becomes impossible to untangle all the myths and legends, no matter what the subject. Its flag is a visually striking banner, brightly colored and boldly designed. Then there's the rebel yell. There's a lot to attract the merely high-spirited, not just the mean-spirited. And in a way, by taking the south back into the union, we tacitly agreed to take their heroes in the great and bloody war, who began as Americans and -- if they survived the conflict -- ended that way as well, whether they liked it or not. But you can't spend too much time reliving the details of the actual war, because that was a horrific waste of lives made necessary by stubbornness and pride. You can't go into it without acknowledging that someone was right and someone was wrong. If you tell yourself that the wrong side won, what stops you from saying we should fight again? If you admit that southern surrender was for the best, how can the war not be a complete bloody waste of lives?

The thing that seems to give humans the most trouble is figuring out when to stand up for what they believe and when to question those beliefs and abandon them. When is a fight the good fight and when is it wrong-headed and cruel? Those are decisions people have to make for themselves. You might force them to comply with your view, but if they don't agree it simply goes on the score card for later reckoning.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Myth of Happiness

What most people define as happiness is really just self satisfaction. Some may achieve it through counter-intuitive means, like self sacrifice, but they are still conforming experience to self image. Happiness as a discrete quality may not actually exist. Cheerfulness, ebullience, optimism, these are not happiness. Contentment is a form of happiness, but it can slide into complacency. And they're all still just forms of self satisfaction.

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.

Authority

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.