Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Spurt of Appreciation for Living Geology

In a Star Trek episode in Season 3, some aliens moved at extremely accelerated speeds, so fast in fact that the Enterprise crew couldn't even see them. They could only hear an insect-like buzz when the aliens went by. It also worked in reverse: to the aliens, the Enterprise crew were frozen, static.

That captures the disconnect between a human observer and geology. I have always wanted to be more knowledgeable and interested in geology, but something got in the way.

While camped on the edge of the ponderosa forest near Springerville AZ, recently, I was lured to the road that climbed a large volcanic knoll (aka, cinder cone). It was an easy hike. What a grand view you can get from a few minutes of hiking and a couple hundred feet of elevation gain! That is especially true near some kind of boundary, in this case the ponderosa forest/grasslands boundary at 7500 feet.

From my cinder cone I could see 15 more cinder cones in the Springerville volcanic field. Since they were in the grasslands, they had a weird tawny mammary appearance. I didn't photograph them because they weren't really impressive in the usual trivial postcard sense.

But the view offered something more important: the ability to imagine geology. Instead of the eyes glazing over with boredom when you read a series of words like 'Pleistocene', or see a sequence of numbers like 2.4 millions years, etc., I was able to grab onto the scene mentally. Why, the newest volcanic cinder knolls were only a few hundred thousand years old.

More helpful than the newness was the sheer number in view at one time. What if I were standing on this same volcanic cinder cone, and looking to the east? That is where the newbie would be likely to pop out, because of the westward drift of the continental plate. How quickly would the baby volcano be born? It would probably glow red at night.

Imagine hot red splat shooting off into a cold, dark sky. How high? Then it falls back down -- as a still warm rock? -- and builds the cinder cone's height, to be hiked up and enjoyed by some other human, when my own bones have mouldered back into the soil. Food for grass.

Could I stand on this cone and see several other cones glowing at once? Ahh, wouldn't that be grand! And would I actually be in danger from their expulsions? 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Ideal Tow Vehicle Fantasy

I actually went for a test drive, the other day, of a 2014 Nissan Frontier pickup truck. Much to my surprise I was allowed to put my mountain bike in the cargo bed, and learned that the short (5 foot) beds of the more popular crew cab models are not long enough for a mountain bike with a front bag. Good grief -- what could you use a 5 foot bed for? The 6 foot beds of the non-crew-cab models would work for a mountain bike, but only 10% of the used Frontier markeplace is non-crew-cab.

Still, it was worth having this experience just to savor the fantasy of my ideal pickup: it would actually be a van built on a small or medium pickup platform. That is,
  1. rear wheel drive with 6000 pounds of towing capacity.
  2. no direct fuel injection and no turbos.
  3. high ground clearance and big tires. 
  4. a non-open rear differential, be it a traction control system that applies brakes to the slipping wheel, or locking or limited slip (mechanical) differential.
  5. six drive gears or more, and I don't mean with 2 of the 6 as overdrive.
  6. stripped and utilitarian in the cabin.
The small pickup truck has virtually disappeared from the North American marketplace. You could look at this and say, So What? The only customers who want small stripper pickups are auto parts stores, the phone company, the city water department, etc. And they can buy one of the small vans that have appeared the last couple years, such as the Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200, and a couple others. 

But these small vans have low ground clearance, and so are virtually useless off-pavement. Since they have front wheel drive, they are useless for towing.

In fact, Nissan sort of made my ideal "pickup" when they morphed their full-size pickup, the Titan, into a humongous van, their "NV". But I already drive a full-size Ford Econoline van, and am sick of it.

So I am stuck with a sterile fantasy.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Composing Music at a Noisy Fast-Food Outlet

From time to time I fantasize dropping my over-priced wireless internet plan. It is the sort of fantasy that soon melts under the heat of rational scrutiny. Why, all one has to do is consider the cost-shifting from "expensive" internet in my trailer to more expensive driving-to and snacking-in the places that offer "free" wi-fi internet.

Here I am, in a fast food outlet, sucking down senior coffee and "free" wi-fi. I probably shouldn't complain: there is no raucous pop music blaring out of speakers over my head, nor is there the increasingly-common giant television playing some news channel.

But there is another source of noise pollution. There always is, in a city. A couple tables away, a man helps a woman fill out some routine application. He has been talking non-stop for a half hour now. How I am starting to hate the sound of his voice!

What is it about him that makes me want to go over there and strangle him? Besides being non-stop, his voice is effeminate, but there must be more to it than that. Maybe it is the self-importance he projects. He acts like sticking her birthday in this box, and her street address in that box, are great missions.

What do you think his official job title is? Something or other "manager"? Maybe it is "XYZ Account Executive". Did he actually go to college to qualify for this intelligent, Information Age, white-collar work?

There must be something deeper that I resent. He seems to positively glow in his petty task. Maybe I envy him, and that is the source of the anger that is welling up in me. Recall the old story from classical days: 'Is it better to be a discontented Socrates or a contented pig? The answer was, Socrates, because he understood both sides of the issue.'

Contrast this college-boy's job with that of a "mere" blue-collar mechanic that I have stumbled onto lately. The mechanic owns and runs the business with his wife. He is the only mechanic in town, but he charges less than other mechanics in the small city where I am right now. What skill and knowledge he must have to fix so many different cars  made over the last 30 years! And how crucial his work is -- most people's lives simply stop when their car does.

But back to the paper-pusher, who is still talking, by the way. Just before I ran out of the fast food outlet screaming, I popped on some noise-reducing headphones and played some music that I hadn't listened to for awhile. I had been worried that I was tiring of it. But not today.

What instant relief! I enjoyed the music like I was hearing it for the first time. And yet, the paper-pusher's voice did come through, despite the music. At first I was disappointed that my inexpensive noise-cancelling headphone had such mediocre performance on the human voice.

But in fact, it was an advantage. It was like his obnoxious voice had become a member in a small musical ensemble. The ugliness of his noise pollution made the solo piano "background" music seem as powerful as an aria sung by the dying soprano just before the curtain comes down on a Puccini opera. It probably helped that I typed away on a keyboard while all this was happening.

People without musical talent might sometimes fantasize coming back in their next life as a great pianist like George Winston, or as a composer of movie music, like Gabriel Yared or Jan Kaczmarek. If the fantasy stops there, it is sterile. 

But if we imagine that appreciating music is also a valuable talent, and that it is more than a passive act of reception and consumption, then we can choose to listen to the right music at the right time, after certain activities, and overlay it with acoustical competition -- even an ugly one. It becomes our unique "composition" and give us more pleasure than any of its component parts.