Monday, December 14, 2015

There's a factory for everything

The mechanic I go to has a  model car collection. It's accessorized with little plastic car bimbos.


Somewhere, there has to be a plastic car bimbo factory. I often wonder what the workers think in factories where they manufacture weird items for our culture. But then we don't go in for a lot of rhino horn and tiger penis around here, so who's to say what's weird?

I don't think this one was meant to look like she was dumped there. But its where she's hanging out right now.

The shop also has the traditional assortment of girlie calendars. One was up for so long, he finally said: "You know, she's a grandmother by now." He took it down a couple of years later. Interesting observation on transitory beauty.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Contemplating opposites

Consider these gestures:

Open hand, palm forward, middle space: Live Long and Prosper

Closed fist, back of the hand, extended middle finger: Fuck off and die.

I always thought of the Vulcan salute as a nice gesture, but I only realized very recently that it is totally the Anti-finger. You're really giving someone the middle space when you Spock them.

Another reason men like fighting

The action hero is often a man of few words. Granite jawed, taciturn, he lets his fists or his weapons speak for him.

I keep getting activist emails asking me to call various government officials on the phone to advocate urgently for some desirable course of action. I never do, because I really hate pestering strangers. I'll send them something they can read, or not read, but I hate actually speaking to them. I'm sure a lot of guys would rather shoot someone than talk. You know, shoot first, ask questions later. Questioning a dead opponent, you get to provide responses that suit your viewpoint.

Not that I'm itching to shoot anyone. I prefer to avoid them entirely, after offering suggestions that might help them decide to abandon undesirable behaviors on their own. But that's just me. More aggressive types will grab their weapon of choice and go try to settle things.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Killing and dying for what you believe

Praise the heroes who risk their own death to inflict death upon the forces of evil. Praise the people of principle who die proudly rather than submit to the beliefs they know are wrong. Praise the bravest of the brave, who die while performing acts of courage in the many conflicts that humanity has to resolve. Dealing death and receiving it are indispensable parts of a virtuous life.

Sacrifice does not have to be instantly supreme. You can kill or die by gradual steps guided by high principle. You can dismantle civilization a brick at a time, taking time to throw those bricks at deserving targets as you go along. All the while, blows and insults will be raining back on you as part of the grand melee.

The blows need not be actual. Acts of government and commerce can advance various beliefs, forcing compliance or death on whole nations and continents. It takes time, but it's worth it. It all rests on the basic principle that one must willingly kill and die for what's right. One must sacrifice. Let one's own life become more uncomfortable for the sake of taking down our foes. Take pride in your strength and courage to withstand the destruction of a sinful institution, even if the process leaves you poorly fed, unsheltered, bankrupt, maimed or dead. Don't blame the process of killing and dying for beliefs. Blame the opposing beliefs that force you to this extremity. Blame evil. Resist evil. Fight evil.

Don't be overly critical of the very few who seem to live very well, while exhorting the masses to soldier on in hopes of that better day when the good guys finally come out on top. You can come up with many plausible explanations for why they enjoy that status. Maybe a god likes them. Maybe they're just that much smarter and work that much harder than the rest of us. Maybe they really are jerks, but their logic makes sense so we should do what they say.

Species of social insects make war. The defenders fight, knowing that each of them will die. Individual survival does not matter. Colony survival is more important. They don't have flags, let alone coffins. They do not exhibit individuality. They do the right thing, win or lose, because it's their only chance. But it's not a noble fight for freedom. They are not free going in or coming out.

The word freedom is claimed by every person and group to represent their perfect world. Show me a people anywhere on the planet that does not call itself "freedom loving." No one says, "we want to live as slaves and minions for a small minority of overlords who can use us mercilessly for the glory of something or other." Even if they actually do live that way, they dress it up in fine language like submission to the will of God, or a sacrifice for some greater good which might not seem so good to everyone.

Nature is a free-for-all. Cruise through any natural environment and you will find life forms on top of life forms inside of life forms next to life forms, doing their thing and evolving -- successfully or unsuccessfully -- to be able to keep doing that thing, or a thing descended from it. Humans have been the same way, hampered increasingly by our creativity and inventiveness.

At first, creativity and inventiveness conferred advantages in the fight for global domination. Fast transportation and communication, combined with improving weapon technology, allowed certain groups to control large amounts of territory. It's all relative. Humans didn't go right from dugout canoes to aircraft carriers.

Unfortunately for global domination, with increased mobility and faster communication comes a greater ability to get to know each other. Along with this has come a certain distaste for widespread armed conflict. As the many wars raging at any given time will attest, this distaste is hardly universal. But it's gotten a strong enough hold to give humans a chance to interact a bit more politely and develop a sense that the little planet on which we live is going to serve any group better if all groups view it as a shared resource.

Evolutionary survival often hangs by a slender thread. What snips at our thread right now is the belief in too many people that it's better to destroy the whole thing for the greater glory of some deity or principle than it is to share it with "those people." Noble sacrifice is better than a compromised life. Live free or die. And take as many others with you as you have to. Kill them all. God will sort them out. Crap like that.

A world of truly free people would probably have less institutional violence, because the principle of individual freedom would supersede the formation of institutions that could order groups of people to fight each other. Hard to say whether there would also be less small-scale violence. The principle of respecting another person's freedom would preclude killing them, but the unrestrained expression of an individual's freedom might lead to a transgression that resulted in deaths.

Free people have to remember that they have no right to anything beyond arm's length. Go further and you are infringing on someone else's freedom. Say that you have a right to whatever your strength and guile can seize and you have diluted the principle of freedom to substitute the same old battle of competing would-be tyrants. Is life a mellow wander beside each other or an endless war? Is freedom best expressed by pushing as far as you can before you are forcibly stopped, or by renouncing the need for such things?

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Greatest Generation ruined war

The so-called Greatest Generation ruined war for everyone who came afterward. By trying to get it over with, the combatants in World War II developed such super-weapons that no rational person could advocate for war once these doomsday bombs existed.

The eager fans of warfare nowadays who idealize the Second World War and want to see grand mobilizations of force like that should be allowed to have their own great war, but they can't. The time line that spanned the climax of conventional war and entered the Nuclear Age has already run. Those glorious fireballs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the last and greatest expression of unlimited warfare. They set a standard we cannot afford to maintain, let alone surpass. The days of the grand existential struggle ended. The days of limited war began. Over all hangs the specter of nuclear murder-suicide.

So what's left for the fantasizing adolescent who wants to be a hero with a gun? Your life will be expended in a Police Action, or a surgical strike, or a hobbled, endless march through irreparably damaged failed states. How deeply satisfying.

If the architects of the Second World War had known better, or if we'd been lucky enough to fail at unlocking the deadly potential of the atom, we could have had that bloody and devastating invasion of Japan. If, at the end of it all, we still only had propeller aircraft, oil-fired warships, large but conventional explosives and brave men willing to take these weapons into battle, we could simply take a few years off to mop up the blood, bury the dead, shore up the walls and raise a few more kids before getting back down to the serious clash of cultures that should end with one -- and only one -- victorious.

Without nuclear weapons we could have had World War III with the Soviets. We could have killed Vladimir Putin's parents, so we would have a different person to deal with now. But of course "now" would be totally different. Maybe our forces would have faced the same fate as Hitler's and Napoleon's, leading us to withdraw, if not capitulate. Or we might have teamed up with the Russians to overrun China in a sort of reverse-Mongol-horde scenario.

Alas, we came out of the war under the shadow cast by the upward billow of atomic incandescence. Weary veterans came home eager for peace and a future without massive conflicts and huge slaughter. Those guys didn't know how good they had it, did they? Imagine that: a unified world settling disputes by courteous and rational exchanges of ideas. Crazy.

It obviously didn't work, but you have to give them credit for floating the notion. The warriors of our greatest conflict thought they were settling something for good. They used every tool at their disposal to put that thing to bed. War: been there, done that, done with it.

We insult the memory of people who fought to defeat tyranny and end the need for the wars tyranny breeds when we either practice tyranny or pine nostalgically for a past or future in which we are finally free to bump each other off as we see fit. I offer that for whatever it is worth to a species tearing at itself as it fouls its planet.

Another massacre, the usual exchange

Following another mass shooting, the debate follows the familiar pattern. The advocates of gun control ask why this does not -- finally -- spur lawmakers to action to implement regulations that will keep deadly hardware out of the hands of people who will misuse it. The passionate defenders of guns respond with their usual arguments against restricting access to weapons.

The gun lovers are right when they say that restrictive laws will inconvenience law-abiding citizens far more than they will impede bad people who will get their killing hardware outside of officially sanctioned channels. Evil finds a way.

The saddest part -- after the actual slaughter of innocents -- is the passionate devotion gun lovers display toward the tools of killing.

Gun control attempts to solve a behavioral problem by regulating equipment. The guns themselves do serve a function, but the problem lies in the willingness to use them in a certain way. The mental and emotional climate moves steadily toward a more paranoid population. You can't call it a society, and it's certainly not a community. It's just a bunch of people living in forced proximity, getting on each other's nerves.

We are learning to fear each other and to broadcast our opposition to the multitude of viewpoints we know conflict with our own.

I've certainly gotten to the point where  I automatically distance myself from anyone with a coiled-snake sticker on their car. Many of them are nice enough, even treating me with great courtesy when they pass me on my bicycle. But the signal flag is flown by misguided libertarians who want to be free to use their wiles to claw their way up in a culture based on personal advancement to the detriment of everything else.

The coiled snake can appear by itself or in a group of stickers ranging from one or two more to a multicolored collage of xenophobia. The accompanying stickers can say things like "Shoot protesters," "Imagine No Liberals," and worse exhortations to take positive action to rid the world of viewpoints the owner of the vehicle feels should be eradicated.

The libertarian Utopia is a wild land dotted with the personal forts of sovereign citizens. That might be better for the environment. As humanity devolves through isolation and the collapse of collective culture, our life spans will shorten and our population will drop. Eventually, we will settle into equilibrium with our environment.

On the other hand, if this pure application of philosophy gets diluted by personal weaknesses and alliances, you just end up with a species choking on the pollutants released by its job creators and feeding each other hot lead. We're pretty close to that now.

Monday, September 07, 2015

In from the cold, shut out in the crowd

What could be sadder and lonelier than to retire from espionage? The initial relief at being able to relax vigilance must be followed almost instantly by a sense of isolation and loss. Even if you know people who are still behind the scenes, the code of conduct forbids you to share their inside knowledge.

Whatever secrets you possessed grow stale very quickly. And whatever truth you may have thought you possessed might have been manipulated by the even more secret society inside what you thought was the inner circle you inhabited.

In a world of nations, overtly warring or not, national interests are going to require covert operations. But covert operations are antithetical to democracy. One has to hope that the secret-keepers for a so-called free country really keep the best interests of the clueless citizens at the top of their priority list.

The only way for the outside world to learn inner secrets is for someone on the inside to betray the confidence with which their fellow secret-keepers entrusted them.

Secret societies really mess up the world.

Secret societies are everywhere. Every agglomeration of humanity has its inner mysteries ranging from inside jokes to downright arcane and creepy rituals of dominance and submission. For many, the secrecy is accidental, easily overcome by sharing a welcome packet of essential starter information. Others require indoctrination and promise special rewards for loyal service. Insiders get to do things based on their perception of superiority.

Secrets make you special. Revocation of them demotes you to ordinary. And ordinariness just isn't cool.

Growing up in the land of dreams

The wealth and income gap in the United States is a real and damaging thing. The top bracket blames the lower echelons for being greedy and lazy. Many of the members of the sinking middle class blame a variety of villains projected for their benefit by the propaganda wing of the top bracket. Self-styled progressive thinkers point the finger at greed among the wealthy and ruthless business leaders.

My life began when the middle class was supposedly at its height. America was a prosperous and busy nation. But that middle class work force was mostly white, mostly male. Bloody battles were being fought, mostly in the South, to advance civil rights for African Americans. Women were struggling to be able to pursue their potential, unfettered by gender prejudice. The definition of a good life was expanding rapidly beyond just a white guy with a good job, a nice wife and a couple of kids, in a nice neighborhood.

During that same time span, a generation was born and raised with access to vividly depicted fantasies on film and television. These children of the fantasy era emerged into the work force in waves, each one more thoroughly indoctrinated than the one preceding it. One should hardly be surprised if a smaller and smaller percentage of each of them dreamed of some repetitive job in a factory when much grander adventures seemed so easily entered.

One day in about 1990, a scruffy man came into the bike shop where I worked. He said he worked for one of the traditional American bicycle companies. He regaled us with tales of drunks, druggies and derelicts working the production line. Maybe this was just the end of a  long decline or the last precipitous drop as the company struggled with a changing retail landscape. But it reminded me of stories I was told by a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus in 1980, about sabotaging a Coast Guard cutter to which he was assigned, so that he and his buddies wouldn't have to leave the harbor and all its pleasures ashore. They liked the paycheck, they just didn't care for the actual work. They imagined a more pleasurable life for themselves and placed no value on the mission of the Coast Guard or their role supporting it.

These are snapshots, widely separated in time. But in college in the 1970s the sense was very strong that we were preparing ourselves to go get an income. Students chose fields they thought they would be good at or perhaps enjoy, but many favored traditionally lucrative areas like business or law. There was a little carry over from the mostly synthetic moral underpinnings of the counterculture, and some sense that environmentalism might be important -- if only it paid better -- but mostly it was about making your pile.

The 1980s were only too happy to bolster those fantasies. Smart, sharp people deserved to be winners. The dignity of labor had already lost its luster. Work meant long hours in an office, not a reasonable span in a production facility with time to breathe built into the schedule. You want to work a menial job? Work it, pal. I want to see shovels and mops moving. You want more money? Find the time and energy to get another menial job, loser.

The United States has two main contenders to be the national religion: money and work. We worship the trappings of wealth and the no-nonsense human sacrifice of toil. A person can work admirably without gaining wealth or be enviably wealthy without working. But anyone in the mid range, particularly the lower mid range, who does not labor to exhaustion is a contemptible slacker.

It's a pretty lousy set of standards. But did it evolve naturally from the failed experiment of widespread education and more even distribution of the rewards? Did the middle collapse simply from wanting the wrong things? Sure, we're misled by fictional portrayals of all sorts of things. Yes, the imbalance of wealth and power needs to be corrected. But that won't last if the majority of people don't know what to do with themselves once they've got it.

Developing nations have the advantage of a visible slope to climb. A lot of obstacles stand in their way in the form of environmental degradation and government corruption. No one knows if they'll make it. But say they do. Then what? Aside from an aggressive space program so we can export our craziness across the galaxy, what's worth getting out of bed for, every day? We could reach the maximum sustainable lifestyle long before we figure out efficient interstellar travel.

I feel that the future should be built on tolerance of diversity coupled with diversity that works to be tolerable.

It's hard a to write a rule or two, because they're vague and subject to flexible interpretation. Then you write another and another for clarification, until you end up with thousands of lines of code just to cover all the potential variations. Laws are a programming language for the unruly computer made up of billions of human brains. Unlike a machine, we cannot be compelled to receive a fraction of it, let alone take it all in and abide by it. It goes against our nature. Some people might like to be programmed, but then who is in charge?

If we restored manufacturing in this country, who would work there and how well would they work? Was erosion of wages a result of more people vying for them? As reality and the dream move farther apart, what could sustain morale in a work force? These are the questions that will immediately follow any reform of the distribution of compensation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The most powerful four letters in the English language

A little exchange on Facebook got me thinking about the F-word. It doesn't take much to make me think about the F-word. I'm pretty fond of it.

Starting with the unvoiced, soft sound of the f, passing through the vowel u at whatever speed your mood dictates, the word then ends on the unvoiced hard cut of the k sound, reinforced by its preceding c. The word goes from soft to hard, yet traditionally describes an act that goes from hard to soft. Perhaps that paradox is part of its power.

Would the person who took exception to my use of those four powerful letters have objected if I had said, "Who gives a YHWH?" Maybe not as much. Vulgarity crosses more lines than blasphemy.

In writing, camouflage helps. Internet postings are full of euphemistic alterations like f***, f@^&, dashes, cartoonish $^%%#^ substitutions. How about etbj? Foreplay, if you will. Quickie encrypters have already staked out gvdl. 621311 is old news to anyone past about the sixth grade.

I first encountered the most powerful weapon in the verbal arsenal when I was about 8. My older brother came back to the table in a restaurant to report that he had seen something terrible on the wall of the restroom. He seemed pretty shocked. I developed an immediate need to go see. I said pee, but that was just cover.

The word might as well have been inscribed with a scrawl of satanic fire instead of scratched into the stall divider with a sharp implement and left to rust in the caustic spray of misdirected urine. It was clearly a powerful talisman I could use to smite my enemies. It was like taking delivery of the first atomic bomb. Here was a word that would vaporize all other words, and billow upwards in its terrible majesty until it was the only thing the senses could detect. It was a thunderclap of a word.

People who believe that anyone and everyone should have access to automatic weapons will still take exception to the use of the f-word in conversation. That's how powerful it is.

Those of us who find the word irresistible must seem like the performers you see juggling torches and chainsaws. But really, by taking the f-word out of the deepest bunker and turning it into a simple syllable of emphasis we help to increase its benign uses, like generating electricity with nuclear power instead of just using it to wipe whole cities off the map. Maybe that hasn't always worked out super well, but at least they're trying.

I held onto the word for a couple of years before I used it in combat. Some other fifth grader was teasing me about something, and finally I snapped. "You fuck!" I yelled at him, from many yards away. I had just crossed Main Street under the eye of the kindly crossing guard, a gentle woman I liked. I was so shocked at my own transgression that I avoided the official crossing for weeks. I made my own way across the street -- which was also US Route 1 -- and proceeded to school on back streets on the other side.

When I finally gathered the courage to return to the official crosswalk, I apologized to the guard. She didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't explain, only blessed my luck and vowed to be more careful with the heavy weapons in the future.

As it happened, the future was two schools later, at a private school for boys, where you'd better have a full arsenal of profanity and be ready to use it. My parents were right: that school taught me a lot of valuable lessons. I lost nearly every fight and had no real friends, but if those are the lessons you need to learn, learn them.

Profanity can become a verbal formula you repeat to soothe yourself in the face of frustrating circumstances. You know, like prayer. Prayer and profanity are the feeble twin consolations in the face of the insoluble dilemmas that life among our fellow humans assaults us with. And profanity is much more effective with the petty annoyances.

Maybe with enough repetition and mainstream acceptance, the f-word and its lesser kin will lose all their power to harm and to heal. They're still racy enough to attract attention in many contexts. And they have their literal meanings to bolster their metaphorical application. It seems like a good recipe for self-perpetuation.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Slave owners shape our history

The yet-to-be United States declared its independence from Great Britain only after southern plantation owners were assured that all this freedom and equality would not apply to the brown people they owned or the lifestyle and economy based on slavery.

The fledgling United States needed a constitution. Southern plantation owners signed on only when assured that the slavery question would at least be pushed way down on the calendar.

In 1861 the slavery issue's heated tensions came to actual warfare. As a result of that war, slavery was abolished. Segregation and suppression continued, aided by laws and beliefs based on principles of racial inequality.

By the end of the 19th Century, a few people had amassed vast fortunes that depended largely on cheap labor and favorable legislation. While the workers were technically free and compensated for their efforts, institutions like the company store and payment in scrip were just a couple of factors contributing to income inequality, insecurity and poverty among workers. The wealthy enjoyed a very close relationship with the elected government.

During the 20th Century, American society showed some signs of improvement in the treatment of workers and minorities. By the end of the century, however, those trends were beginning to reverse. It has only become more obvious as the 21st Century has advanced. A few people control most of the money. The world is their plantation. Their purchased legislators and judges solidify their gains. Restive populations are turned on each other, told that the threat comes not from the concentration of wealth but from the differences of the people around them.

Wealth is measured in dollars. Dollars are measured in numbers. Numbers have no empathy.

Humans have emotions. They measure in feelings, and can be steered by them. In fact, they can be steered by little else. Even supposedly rational people are only rational because they like how it makes them feel.

When wealth is the ultimate good, decisions are made by the numbers to increase wealth. If a bunch of poor people have to take a hit for it, they're a necessary loss, the same as the killed or broken heroes we sent to war to defend our way of doing business. We praise you, valiant warriors. Now get lost.

The wealthy feel better when they're getting more wealth. The impersonal numbers click higher, incapable of feeling the euphoria they inspire in the humans who get to claim them. The owners control society, while the vast majority who make up that society get shoved around by forces they don't have time to understand.

If you have a fantasy of dropping out and setting up a homestead where you can live off the grid and let the whole mess of civilization fall apart, think again. You will go down fighting to defend your little chunk of arable land and potable water from the thousands of desperate people who would want a piece of it for themselves. If that sounds glorious to you, or even doable, you're an idiot.

Like all the ills of human society, the problems of economy could be solved by cooperative effort. So, like all the problems of human society, they will remain unsolved while we argue and let evolution decide for us. It's worked for millions of years. Why stop now?

Civilization was the result of evolution. The collapse of civilization can certainly be the result of further evolution. Here's the thing about evolution: it doesn't care if you live or die. It doesn't care if anything lives or dies. So if we choose to let ourselves slump into a mucky pit of industrial waste, blood and feces, evolution will log that decision and reflect those changes as impersonally as a corporate ledger shows an uptick in profits when thousands of workers are laid off.

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.


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.