Thursday, January 28, 2010

The New American Eagle

A birdy with a yellow bill

Spoke to me from Capitol Hill.

It fixed me with a beady eye

and said, "If you get sick, you'll die

'cause Hell will freeze, it surely will,

before we pass a heath care bill."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

So Begins a Year

The cellist's mother died about 12 or 14 hours after the cellist arrived in Maryland.

Recovery from the death of a loved one or any other intense experience takes a year. If you've been through a rough patch, you may be in several overlapping years of recovery.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Bullet Not Dodged

The cellist's mother is dying. It is imminent. The cellist is leaving tomorrow morning on a flight to try to be there before it happens.

The process has lasted for years. It accelerates now. First there were the cystic kidneys, the same disease that will kill my wife. In the nick of time, a donor organ became available. Then it turned out the cystic kidneys had developed cancer. This happens. Chemo failed to stop the metastasized disease. Side effects accumulated. The family members have gone through the wrenching process of trying to come to grips with it.

Tonight she lies in the hospital receiving comfort care only, with a Do Not Resuscitate order. The final bullet cannot be dodged.

Everybody dies. I can't really call any way a good way, but some sure seem better than others. The one thing you can't deny is that you end up dead when your particular process is over.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Sudden Challenge

Several years ago we received a Jotul 118B box stove from someone who was clearing out some excess possessions. We put it in the garage because we already had a Taiwanese copy of a Jotul heating the house from the basement.

Comparing the two, the real Norwegian was clearly of higher quality than the Asian knock-off. When I moved the old stove to the basement in 1993, it seemed massive. It certainly isn't light. But it sounds like tin when you clank the side after rapping your knuckles (carefully) against the Jotul. I could just lift one end of the Taiwotul. I could barely lift one end of the Jotul.

The heavy beast sat in the back of the garage while I found many reasons to avoid coming to grips with it. Then last night as I stoked the Taiwotul at bed time I saw a hairline crack up the side of it. The side bulged very slightly but the crack was only a faint line. I didn't think the plate would split and dump hot coals onto the floor before morning. That didn't stop me from adding house fires to the list of short film subjects in a busy dream queue.

The Taiwotul served me for 20 years. It came with the house, so it wasn't new two decades ago. No hard feelings. The inner plates of the fire box have warped and broken. The chunks that had fallen off in later years had been small enough to blend with the ash I shoveled out every few days. I expected it to give out before much longer.

At least I had a nice day for all these maneuvers. I used a block and tackle to drag the Jotul into the center of the garage and hoist it onto the garden cart. Then I drove out to the hardware store to get a hydraulic jack and a hand truck.

Since the stove is a crucial part of the winter heating system, I needed to get this done. I wasn't completely sure the Jotul had all its parts. Because it is so heavy, it made just as much sense to go ahead and try to install it as it would to assemble it somewhere else and then knock it down so I could move it to where I needed it.

I moved the box without its legs. The box is so heavy, I feared that the mass would bend or break the legs if I leaned the stove too far over with them in place. Once I moved away from where I could rig the overhead tackle I had to do everything with leverage and the jack.

The actual move went smoothly. No one could have helped because the box is too small for two people to grip effectively. Two people couldn't lift it safely anyway.

With the box on the hand truck I installed the front legs. I placed the box in such a way that I could lower it onto its front legs with the back end elevated on a piece of timber. One grunt at a time I was able to lift that end and insert chunks of two-by-four to gain enough clearance for the bottle jack. With the jack I lifted the box high enough to block it up while I bolted on the remaining pair of legs.

The outlet lined up with the stove pipe better than the old stove. I thought I had it made. Then I noticed the light shining through the rusted-out bottom of the connecting reducer. Crap!

I'd already had to make a second trip to the hardware store to exchange a defective jack. Now I sprinted out again to get stove pipe parts to improvise the connection to the chimney.

Again I got lucky as the simplest piece did the trick.

With no manual I had to figure out how the internal parts fit together before I put the top plate back on the stove. Between the Internet and the Taiwotul I figured it out.

Once lit, the stove showed its quality right away. Superficially nearly identical to the old stove, this one draws better and more quietly. It heats quickly, despite the thickness of the metal and the intact inner plates. Within a couple of minutes it had heated the basement enough to allow the Monitor, which had done repeated long burns during the day, to shut off.

I didn't get anything else done with the day, but I can't complain. I would have been in a fix without a spare stove hanging around.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Smart People are Bad

It wasn't obvious for the first few thousand years. Smart people seemed to make things better. They invented new tools for hunting that could be used as weapons when tribes disagreed. They figured out how to use medicinal plants. They devised languages to convey information from person to person and generation to generation. They invented ways to protect ourselves from the weather, and travel farther with less effort. They gave the gifts of their intellect to people who hadn't thought of those things yet.

No one foresaw that this apparent rising slope of continuous improvement could be the greatest threat to species survival. But so it is.

Smart people invented weapons that enable smaller, weaker people to defeat larger, nastier ones. That works until the larger, nastier ones get the new weapon technology. Or various factions of smaller people decide to throw their weight around, enhanced by technology.

Smart people figured out how to harness various forms of energy. This led to coal mines. Coal mines used to be tunnels that swallowed up hundreds of lives, so smart people figured out how to destroy entire mountains to make a huge, open hole from which to extract coal. Coal is then burned to produce smoke. This smoke contains particles, acids and CO2, all of which destroy the environment surrounding the giant gash that formerly was a forested hill and the fume-belching power plant some distance away.

Smart people invented comfortable clothes that make living in cold climates much more pleasant for those with sensitive skin. They invented motor vehicles, fast ships and aircraft. It's great to be able to get around quickly. We can go visit Aunt Gladys on the other side of the globe and deliver shocking, awesome blasts of hellfire to enemies of our nation from high in the sky or far out at sea. And enemies of our nation can deliver their opinion to us by a number of incendiary methods.

If we could count on smart people to get us out of the jam their smart ideas have created, all would be well. Unfortunately, they have a poor track record in that regard, largely thanks to the larger number of less thoughtful types who are the primary beneficiaries of civilization's amenities. The vast majority of consumers of technology could not and would not have invented it, even if they learn to operate it (and bitch about it) after it has been developed.

It all came to a head on September 11, 2001, when some cave dwellers used a partial skill set to fly some jetliners just well enough to destroy a landmark building and do permanent damage to the national psyche of the United States. We are told by both the cave dwellers and the American intelligence industry that those attacks were just a down payment. The cave dwellers hope to use far more devastating weapons in a future attack.

We are told that the cave dwellers base themselves in the freest lands on Earth: failed states and lawless border lands where the rule of law is enforced by local chieftains and their armed henchmen. Libertarian paradise indeed. The cave dwellers do not establish schools and universities where someone might learn to develop advanced technologies. They use whatever they can piece together, whatever they can keep operating under the challenging conditions of their rustic existence and their fugitive lives when they venture into more scrutinized, civilized nations. Once they have destroyed their enemies, will they be able to maintain a high standard of living? Or will they bid a willing farewell to the technology they no longer need, which they could never have built for themselves in the first place?

If smart people had not invented weapons of mass destruction for their own purposes, these thieves of technology, these suicidal murderers, could not hold those weapons to our heads. They would be forced to fight more openly.

Meanwhile, civilization fouls itself with the waste products of its own rich diet. Anyone willing to take less sees it grabbed and gobbled by someone all too willing to take more. All this was invented by well-meaning smart people.

If small, smart people had not invented ways to hold off big, dumb people, big dumb people would have made small, smart people extinct long ago. No one would miss them if they had never been allowed to flourish. Anti-intellectualism, relentlessly pursued, would have brought stability that attempts at universal education never will.

Getting back on that track will be unpleasant and possibly completely catastrophic. It certainly won't be any fun for those trying to enjoy a few pleasant years before extinction, especially when the reaper shows up for them. Because so much firepower has been built in the last century, the superstitious idiots who want to use it have plenty of it to use, as soon as they manage to get their hands on it. And even of they don't, the needs of the "the economy" demand that we continue to despoil the planet anyway.

All this brought to you by human intelligence. We know so much, but so many don't seem to know any better.