Friday, December 31, 2010

Writing in the Smartphone Era

As long as I'm ranting against smartphones and tablets, I wonder if they are responsible for the poor quality comments on some of the blogs I follow. By 'poor quality' I don't mean that I disagree with their point. I just can't read their comment; my eyes and brain hurt too much.

Perhaps the comment was pecked out by thumbs when the guy was waiting in his mega-saurus, king-cab, dualie pickup truck in the fast food drive-through; and the commenter hasn't gotten around to buying an app for spell checking.

Then again, maybe he did get an app, except that it changes ordinary English prose to thumb-English: "R U L8?", "wut 4?," and the like. The rules of lower and upper case have gone out the window. An entire vocabulary of sub-English abbreviations flourishes. What the hell does LOL or IMHO mean anyway?!

There is no more inexcusable form of sub-English than one made of abbreviations. Maybe I'm wrong to blame smartphones and their postage-stamp-sized keyboards. The comments could be coming from tablets -- those over-priced vending machines for the iTunes store -- with their "virtual" keyboards. How does one touch-type on a virtual keyboard?

Perhaps the real problem is that people don't even learn to touch-type in school anymore. Maybe there will soon be an app for changing English into pictorial icons so we can stop writing English altogether. No doubt it would be just as clear as the pictograms on the heating-vent-air conditioning knob in your car. In fact, ten years from now we might look back on thumb-English as a transitional language, such as the Anglo-French (circa 1150 A.D.) mentioned in dictionary etymologies. By then the internet will be completely video and they'll just be a handful of large buttons for the modern ape-man to push: thumbs-up or down, buy, share, and next.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Smartphone Trap

You don't have to run to the gasoline pump every few days to be a traveler. Somebody whose brain has been independent of television for most of his life visits a strange and exotic land every time he watches a TV commercial. I only watch football on TV, so I'm shocked and amazed by what I see: every other commercial during football games is for a smartphone. Why?

Perhaps the advantage of a smartphone is that it allows the average American, who spends half his day stuck in traffic in his pickup truck, to hold the phone in one hand, with his $4 cup of Joe in the other hand, while steering with his left leg, while his eyes look over at the CD player with 64 tiny buttons on it. I don't see what body parts are left to operate the buttons on the remote control of the overhead DVD player, let alone the GPS.

It seems obvious that a netbook provides a cheaper and more complete internet experience than a smartphone. Why would a smart consumer want to download, install, and pay for "apps," when you don't even need apps on a netbook?

But it's easy to see why smartphones and their vaunted apps are good for wireless telecom companies, Apple computer, and media companies. There's an excellent article on this subject by Reggie Middleton on Zero Hedge. The more apps you've paid for, and sunk your personal identity into, the easier it is for the gadgetmaker or media provider to lock you in.

There is no great mystery why Old Media has always had such low quality content: it could get away with it. Their business wasn't really about content; it was about controlling an expensive distribution channel that kept out new competition. 

Smartphones are better for wireless telecom companies than netbooks: smartphones can handle enough video, music, and razzle dazzle that the consumer will be sucked into more expensive (monthly) plans, compared to plain vanilla voice plans on a commodity cellphone; but smartphones have smaller screens than laptops and other limitations, which prevents the wireless data networks from running out of bandwidth too soon, compared to the same number of customers using netbooks or laptops.

Let us hope that the problems of gadget-makers and media companies leads to a creative response, such as better media content and true investigative journalism. I agree with the people in the blogosphere that Old Media has become a lapdog of the government.

Apps also meet an emotional need of some customers: they want to feel special. Psychologically apps are like spending an extra $1200 on an otherwise plain vanilla car, by sticking on a red decal stripe, making the tail lights look a little spiffier, and adding a few more buttons to the music player inside.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

End of the Season

Starting in October I go nuts over the texture of the grassy fields nearby. As winter wears on, these grasslands lose their spirit and become trampled down. With no birds in the vicinity this autumn and winter, I'm lucky to have this obsession with grassy fields. Normally my camera would switch its obsessions over to hoarfrost by Christmas, but it has been dry and snowless this winter. Ahh how nice it is to have a dry winter! Perhaps the oncoming storm is going to put an abrupt end to that. So let me put up these last photos to celebrate the end of the fall texture season and the beginning of snow and hoarfrost.

As usual, click to enlarge.




Monday, December 27, 2010

Schadenfreude in the Nevada Desert

I'm pleased to report finding a new financial blog to follow, mybudget360 dotcom. Recently it has featured a post-mortem on the late Las Vegas boom and bust. 

If we can't agree on anything else, let's agree that schadenfreude -- the joy felt over other people's suffering -- is not the fairest flower of human nature. But the shameful truth is that I exult over the demise of Las Vegas. Blame that on an ugly, vestigial streak of Puritanism, if you will. Actually it's a little more personal than that.

During my years of RV travel, Las Vegas was pretty hard to avoid. Since I hung out in St. George UT during the shoulder seasons, and since the Grand Canyon lacked a bridge, it was necessary to go through Vegas. It was actually a practical and beneficial stop, where a traveler could stock up on supplies, get work done on his rig, and enjoy the last Barnes and Noble for awhile. I also enjoyed free camping at the casinos (where I never gambled) and early-morning, loss-leader breakfasts.

Alas Las Vegas kept getting crazier, which is the subject of this excellent article on mybudget360 dotcom. In contrast to the practical aspects of the town, there was the entertainment industry garbage down on the Strip.  I had little to do with that, although once I made a navigational error and pulled my travel trailer down the Strip at prime time in the evening. And lived to tell about it.

There was something about Vegas that captured the very essence of American culture, with all its distortions. I found this fascinating and repulsive at the same time. The overemphasis on entertainment of the trashiest kind; over-eating; the automobile culture; the debt culture. It would be nice to take a trip through Vegas today and gloat over its troubles. The more severe those troubles are, the more hope there is for America.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Red tailed Hawk Strafing


Apparently this hawk has learned from the ravens how to taunt my dog. It flew overhead, no more than thirty feet off the ground, which made focusing difficult. Then it was off to the races, as Coffee Girl chased it across the field.

Charlemagne's Ghost

One of the biggest news stories of the past year has been the financial crisis in Europe. If European unification fizzles, it wouldn't be the first time.

But what does the current unifying force consist of? Bureaucrats and technocrats? A utilitarian ethic built around material comfort. Taxes, regulations, uniformity codes, and coercion. How inspiring!

But "inspiration" of some kind has been a big part of Europe, beginning in the Dark Ages. From Toynbee's Study of History (abridged), vol. I, page 13:
In fact the Empire fell and the Church survived just because the Church gave leadership and enlisted loyalty whereas the Empire had long failed to do either...
Thus the Church, a survival from the dying society, became the womb from which in due course the new one was born.
Some of that "leadership" was pure bureaucracy. The Catholic Church is almost an alien thing to people who grew up in the Protestant Midwest. As a young man I was on a airplane flight with a rather loud man a couple seats aft, who talked endlessly about his organizational headaches and Machiavellian office politics. He never mentioned the organization itself, but I just assumed it was a Fortune 500 corporation. When the jet landed and we started to unload I turned around to see what that obnoxious middle-aged man looked like. I was astonished to see a Catholic official of some middling rank.

One way to look at Europe is to say that it started on Christmas Day, 1210 years ago when Charlemagne was crowned as a Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in St. Peter's basilica, on A.D. 800. The motivations of Charlemagne and the Pope are still matters of some controversy, but surely they thought they'd be more powerful working together. Using military might Charlemagne unified most of Europe. He forcibly converted the (German) Saxon heathens to Christianity. He introduced many reforms, including a new European currency, and the lower case letters that you are now reading.

His Empire didn't survive him, but his legacy was still vast. France and Germany have been the core of European civilization ever since.

A belief system and a government had given each other strength; one governed Europe's body, and the other its soul. Perhaps that's one problem for the current European experiment. In Brussels it has the bureaucracy to intrude on and micromanage the tiniest aspects of Europe's material life, but where is the belief system that can inspire the Europeans, now that Christianity has been dead since the Enlightenment of the 1700s, and Marxism fell with the Berlin Wall?

Global Warming was supposed to be that grand unifying belief system. Actually Environmentalism is the overall Faith, but without a focus it becomes vague and passive, and easy to postpone. After all, Christianity had its Nicene Creed and Crusades. Marxism had its internationalist "missionary" work, Comintern global convocations, and revolutionary eschatology. Europe needed Global Warming to extend the same emotional rhythms.  

Good versus Evil, Sin and Salvation, eternity -- it's all there in the three European belief systems of Christianity, Marxism, and Global Warming. But they had something else even more important: the sense that they are humble instruments of something greater than themselves, something that puts History on their side, and makes their wishes inevitable.

Original Christianity had the Second Coming, Calvinism had Predestination, and Marxism had Historical (Dialectic) Materialism. These "...satisfied the same hunger for an assurance that the forces of the Universe are on the side of the Elect." [*] That is why the Warmists have been so insistent that the 'science is settled, the debate is over.' They need the whole world to acknowledge that they have indeed seen the Future.

And then Climategate and the Copenhagen fiasco happened. But that's for another day.

[*] RH Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, p. 129.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Sonoran Season to Be Jolly

A couple Christmases ago, the dogs and I explored volcanic Saddle Mountain, near Tonopah, AZ. It worked out well to approach from the north, the green side. The rains have produced a lot of green "grass." It's not really grass, but looks like it from a distance. The spiny, stalky ocotillos are leafed out with dense, small, green leaves. They'd be perfect Christmas trees if they had their red blooms. Actually I didn't expect to see any green today.

It takes effort to give up this notion that lichen belongs in alpine settings being licked by a mountain goat, rather than in the desert. It is surprising how lush and thick it can be here, on the desert floor at 1000 foot altitude. You really could do some rough orienteering on a cloudy day just by noticing the green (or yellow or orange) fuzz on the north side.

As easy as it is to enjoy the Sonoran Desert in the winter, I sometimes wonder what I'm missing by not experiencing it at other times of the year. Maybe I should reread The Desert Year, by Joseph Wood Krutch. He was a great author who doesn't get read as much as he should. His later years were lived in Tucson. The over-rated Edward Abbey gets read in his place. Certainly the desert in summer would be repulsive, and yet...


Recall that scene at the beginning of the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence lets the match burn down to his fingertips. Another soldier takes up the dare, yells out in pain, and asks, "What's the secret?" Lawrence says, "The secret is in not minding that it hurts." And then you switch to David Lean's magnificent cinematography of a desert sunrise.

Occasionally I would walk by trees, usually along arroyos, that were large enough to produce sacred shade, sombra. At least it would seem sacred if you were here in summer. You might die a horrible death on the desert floor if you couldn't reach this shade.

By only experiencing the Sonoran Desert in winter I miss the monsoons. For years I've fantasized what it would be like to experience them in August, especially a flash flood.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rules of (Political) Engagement

It's not so hard to write a travel blog, as I know from past experience (rv-boondocker-explorer). After all, there are millions of armchair travelers who are easy to please with the morning news -- their daily dose of (free) escapism -- about where you slept last night and what the pretty scenery looks like there. Then there's your trip to the local Pioneer Museum, which is proud to feature the world's third largest ponderosa pine cone, etc. The challenge picks up considerably as you move away from the travel genre.

My half-seniorish brain is a giant compost heap, a mouldering pile of half-forgotten quotes from a lifetime of reading classic books. I can't quite remember a nice quote about needing to be almost formally and ritualistically polite in conversations if we are to have full-bodied discussions of any type. This is pertinent to a blogger who wants to crawl out of the trivia and small talk.

For instance you can't discuss much without using labels, which really aren't that different from common nouns, intellectually. But upon doing so, you've already offended half the readership since labels tend to come with emotional baggage.

Let's say you're discussing Issue X. Rather than try to beat your opponent down by showing him how he is completely full of crap on Issue X, imagine how much more civil and amicable it would be if you demonstrated that you are both really arguing about Issue Y that lies silently under X. (And he's wrong on Y.)  At that point you agreeably go off on your separate ways as far as Issue Y is concerned, knowing that you've accomplished a little something. 

Take the issue of Global Warming via industrial CO2. Before you spit out the first buzzword, your readers can tell which side you're on; half of them leave in disgust, and then ones that remain create an echo chamber for you. But that's the challenge. Let us introduce the labels, Climate Alarmists versus Crisis-Deniers. These are reasonably short and accurate. (You could even say 'fair and balanced.' Oops.) At any rate they are better than the more propagandist terms in daily usage.

Earlier I argued that an amateur blogger should start from a different premise than the professionals, or condense the issue, or ask people to back up a step. Does one need to be a botanist or wildlife biologist to assert that the warm regions of the Earth contain more life than the polar regions? Shouldn't environmentalists and nature-lovers see more life as a good thing? If so, why is gradual warming and a little more CO2 a bad thing?

Some readers are rolling their eyes and saying, "Well, warmth and CO2 are great if they are natural, but..."

Oh dear, there's that word again. Natural. For today let it stand as a success if the reader even partly agrees with me that our emotional philosophy about that loaded word is really what the so-called Global Warming debate is about.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Martian Goes Christmas Shopping

As a young lad I heard older men using expressions so out-of-date that I was embarrassed for their sakes. Usually the old expressions were agricultural in origin, or perhaps from popular radio programs of the 1930s or 40s. The expression, 'if a Martian landed tomorrow and saw that, he'd think...', has probably dropped out of the modern vernacular, perhaps due to the Space Age. That's a pity because looking at common things with an uncommon perspective is important. It's one of the great benefits of traveling.

The archaic expression seems compelling during the Christmas shopping season. Since RV traveling meant dry camping or boondocking for me, for years I made coffee with an Italian espresso maker that worked on the propane stove. Finally I tired of cleaning it, or maybe the coffee didn't taste that good anymore. Before that I had used a simple plastic cone with paper filters.

You might not believe it, but I've never owned one of those ubiquitous Mr. Coffee machines. Off I went to Wally World to look for one. How inexpensive they were, compared to twenty years ago! Wally even had expensive stainless steel espresso-makers imported from Europe. (Of course 'overpriced' and 'European' are redundant terms.)

The next step down in price were plastic coffee makers that were too large. Worse yet, they featured the dreaded word, 'programmable.' I groaned out loud. Are there actually customers who like that hateful word? The Walmart security camera didn't know how close I was to losing self-control. Imagine how it would have looked on the security room's TV if a customer suddenly went on a rampage, knocking all the coffee makers onto the floor.

Think back to the beginning of the dreadful digital age, circa 1970. Everybody on this planet bought one of those obnoxious little alarm clock/radio gadgets for their bedroom. All those buttons! All that memorization of a long, arbitrary sequence of keystrokes to accomplish the same functions that were intuitive on a wind-up, mechanical alarm clock; you know, the kind with two arms that rotate clockwise.

It just got worse over the years. The first personal computers used commands like alt-Q-& to erase the last letter that you typed. I put my foot down when they starting putting gadgets onto bicycle handlebars. The only real information came from a speed sensor. Then the digital electronics sliced and diced that simple information into the most useless statistics. When I told the other cyclists in the group that I didn't want any of that cheap electronic crap defiling the mechanical purity of my machine, they thought I was joking.

But of course the worst bane of the digital age has been the remote control: 40 years after this vaunted digital age began, it still takes two -- two! -- of the damned things just to watch a dvd movie. That adds up to about 70 buttons, most of which are too small for the fingers of anyone but a Japanese schoolgirl. 

The manufacturers of the world think we need remote controls to operate window air conditioners, microwave ovens, etc.; the toilet is the only thing that hasn't been digitized and accorded its own remote control.

I really was getting close to flipping into Howard Beal mode in front of the coffee makers at Walmart. Just then I saw a magnificent vision in front of me: a coffee maker about the right size with a single button that needed to be pushed. A single button! How beautiful it is for a machine to understand its role in the Universe...to be imbued with an absolute clarity of perception...a metaphysical Unity of Purpose. I bought it.

Once it was home, my bubble burst: the taste of the coffee wasn't so great. But I won't throw it away. I just want to look at it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Progress and the Movies

It's too much work for one day to beat up on the notion of Progress in general. Let's focus in on the movies. One of my Christmas presents was the dvd movie, All About Eve, 1950, starring Betty Davis, Anne Baxter (Frank Lloyd Wright's granddaughter), George Sanders, and Celeste Holm. 

There are two kinds of directors: 1) the camera-oriented (such as Sergio Leone and his spaghetti westerns) and, 2) the script/dialogue-oriented. All About Eve was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who started as a script writer and belonged to the second group naturally. Well, this introduction will have to suffice; this blog isn't imdb dotcom. 

How would this movie affect a young person who has grown up with video games and with movies that imitate video games? In one scene two of the main characters are walking down the sidewalk in a big city's downtown. The camera only catches them walking from the knees up. Clearly it was shot in a studio, with a screened image in the background; they were probably walking on a treadmill. It must have looked fake even to a viewer in 1950.

But of course I don't really care, because I'm interested in the intelligent dialogue that permeates the movie. Let's pause for a second and think about the momentous significance of this: a movie that has interesting characters portrayed in depth, conversing intelligently with other adults.

But what would a young person think of this sidewalk scene? Or the fact that the movie looks like it's a filmed theatre play? Boring, huh? Betty Davis looks like a middle-aged harpie. There's no nudie bedroom scene; married couples on the screen had to sleep in twin beds in those days! There was no car chase, culminating in driving off a cliff and turning into a fireball. All that talk without using the f-word in every other sentence. And don't even think about gory murders, CGI special effects, Dolby stereo, etc. I wonder what a movie ticket and a bag of popcorn cost in 1950.

If you use this movie as a case in point and compare it to the evolution of movies over the last few decades, how could anyone maintain a naive faith in Progress? 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Hiking Club


A cool winter hike. If only dogs weren't so good at hiding their true feelings.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fade out of a Miracle


Something caught my eye at last evening's sunset. There was a line of clouds that looked like a zipper. The setting sun projected shadows upwards from the zipper. These shadows are not as distinct in the photo as in real life, despite all the software tricks that I tried.

Despite being a bit of a failure, it was still a noble effort. We live at a interesting point in history; over the last couple years the ubiquity of digital cameras and photo software has rendered the beauty of sunrise and sunsets obsolete. Not to the naked eye of course. When most people say that a  sunset is "breathtakingly beautiful" (groan), don't they really just mean that it was very red or pink or orange?

Very? Who cares any more!? You can just click a couple things in the software to cause the colors to blow the eyeballs right out of your head, and if that's too much trouble, just rotate the dial on the camera to its "sunset" setting.

Just think how many generations of our species have enjoyed colorful sunsets. How far back into the prehistory of our species would you have to go before the eyes, the optic nerve, and visual cortex were different than ours today? Are we just going to complacently allow all of this to be wiped out in a couple years by the Evil Chip?!


Ironic isn't it? The main effect of "Progress" is to cause "More" to become boring. If this effect is general, why do we act like Progress is so important? If Progress is a farce, then what's left of our mighty civilization?

There is a third choice. What if we de-emphasized color in sunsets and switched our loyalty over to shapes? It certainly is easy to appreciate the shapes of desert plants, grasslands, rocky topographies, hoar frost, curved bill thrashers, etc. So why not clouds?




Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Bum Experience on the Trail

Without making too big a deal out of it, I should write about today's mountain bike ride before common sense and good taste get the better of me. Once again the ride was under perfect conditions, including the ending: I was half lost, but as long as the trail was going downhill, it was getting closer to town. A couple friendly dogs were approaching from the other direction on the trail, happily wagging their tails, so I slowed down to make a bit of a fuss over them.

As I coasted and slowed over a small hump, what did I see but a female hiker quickly rising from a squat. She was pullin' everything up as fast as possible, but I had time to get quite an eye-full. Why the heck was she taking care of business right next to the trail, in an open spot!, instead of behind a juniper a few feet away on either side of the trail? 

She was an old hippie broad, in more ways than one. I wouldn't have minded to catch her a peein' if she were, say, European. Everybody knows how lax and casual they are over thar. (We've all seen a couple of their sicko movies.)

I had the presence of mind to do a couple things that were intended to help her save face. But who am I kidding. In the uni-sex, casual, perverted culture that we have today, she probably wasn't even embarrassed. I hope this experience is soon wiped from my memory.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Goldilocks in the Blogosphere

Recently a commenter mentioned that they're new to this blog. Suddenly I thought, "Dear me. The poor devil!" Perhaps this blog needs what some blogs have: an introductory paragraph that allows the reader to quickly know if they're barking up the wrong tree. Won't the poor devil be offended if they are female, environmentalist, neocon Republican, academic, a danged liberal (especially Left Coast), motor-crazed, suburbanite, New Ager, shopaholic, global Warmist, RV potlucker, TV watcher, Bible banger, etc. That's getting to be a pretty big segment of the population. Who's left!

What if an introductory blurb scared away people who disagree with the blogger, who in turn actually enjoys disagreement? Over the years I've generally made friends with people who think I'm 90% full of crap. There's a big difference between 90% and 100%. And the 10% that they consider tolerable encourages them to try to redeem me, which is charmingly futile. On the other end of the spectrum, most people don't enjoy discussing things with someone that they're in 100% agreement with. You might as well play tennis with someone who won't return your serves.

Some people solve the problem of offending readers by avoiding controversies. What does that leave to discuss? The weather, small practical details, pretty scenery, harmless generalities, Hallmark card platitudes. Should a blogger come out with both guns blazing or practice neutrality? 

One way out of this conundrum is to imitate success. One of American television's longest-running success stories is The Simpsons. It is relatively controversial as TV shows go, and even seems to thrive on it. Once I read a conservative pundit admit to liking The Simpsons, even though his side was the butt of the jokes 2/3 of the time. Compared to the media and the entertainment industry as a whole, he thought 2/3 was a great number. Perhaps people are good sports about being on the losing end of the wise cracks if they see the show turn right around and roast the other side a reasonable fraction of the time. 

Essentially there are two models for a blog, which are analogous to climate. London or Seattle tend to have temperatures that don't swing much, from day to night, or from summer to winter. New Mexico freezes you most nights of the year, becomes comfortable for about 15 minutes (one hour after sunrise), and then bakes you for the rest of the day. Only its statistical average is comfortable.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bloggers' Unfulfilled Mission

Amateur bloggers spend too much time blogging about domestic or personal trivia. That is what Facebook and Twitter are for. Many amateur bloggers might have an interest in philosophical or political issues but think that the world has already heard enough squabbling. Or amateur bloggers consider themselves unqualified. How can a three-paragraph-long post compete with an entire book written by a professional who has devoted years to his job?

But this humility overlooks the advantages that the amateur has: he should never underestimate the group-think that most professionals fall into. The amateur is not constrained by ratings pressure, publication deadlines, legal worries, corporate policy, availability of grants, etc. Nor must the amateur start off with the same premises as professional pundits. After all, it's what doesn't get discussed that matters most. Many topics that might seem boring are not intrinsically boring; rather, their discussion was made boring by starting off with the same assumptions as everybody else. 

The same is true of restricting yourself to the Breaking News syndrome of the Media. Professionals in the media will never discuss anything with historical perspective; even if they did, the amateur blogger need not choose the same perspective.

There is a time-honored passage from the opening paragraph of the chapter on Alexander the Great, in Plutarch's Lives, that pertains to the choices an amateur blogger can make. Plutarch chose to write article length comparisons between famous personages, rather than entire books on each one:
It must be borne in mind that my design has been not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, in my portrayal of their lives.
So too can the well-chosen illustrations of a mere amateur add more to a discussion than another shelf of learned lumber from academics or think tank scholars. By 'illustrations' I mean well-chosen anecdotes, analogies, and uncommon historical perspectives that connect events and issues -- a creative condensation, a thought-painting. This benefits the reader more than a 600-page compendium of dry and disconnected facts. Certainly there are temptations and errors in pictorial thinking, but most of this would be averted if the reader didn't confuse perspective with proof.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Desire Causes Suffering?

A reader recently emailed me about my last post; among other things she wondered about my less-than-reverent attitude towards the Buddha. Living in a town full of New Agers (old hippies for the most part), Greens, and refugees from Santa Fe and the Left Coast, it is hard to resist taking pot-shots at the conventional pieties of the enlightened ones. But don't worry; I don't take myself too seriously at it, since it's probably just the same sort of puerile and impish pleasure that the traditional village atheist used to get.

In fact, the notion of 'Desire causing Suffering' was a big part of getting ready to retire early, both as a motivation and as a means. I looked at this issue from the point of view of ancient Stoicism rather than Buddhism, but perhaps there was some overlap.

But when I did retire early I observed retired RVers who were twenty years older than me. It seemed necessary to adjust my attitude to the mantra of 'Desire causes Suffering.' I became more afraid of losing all desires than of having desires. Old people display the same weltschmerz as old dogs or cats, except that they come to thermodynamic equilibrium with Oblivion in front of their boob toob. Dis-invent satellite TV, and most of the RVers would have to bail out quickly.

Thus I lost interest in stern Stoicism and leaned towards their bitter rivals, the Epicureans. I started to cultivate Pleasure, but not in the same way that a youngster or middle-aged bourgeois consumer does. One of the milestones in this conversion was when I went from disliking old-fart motorcyclists to admiring them. 

Rather than seeing Pleasure as a placid mild comfort, earned by virtue of having gotten old, I saw Pleasure as a by-product of conflict and risk, a dialectic of Pain and Pleasure. It helped to become playful about obsessions, and to develop strong Likes and Dislikes, followed by dramatic reversals of these. Outdoor experiences and investing proved to be fertile grounds for practicing these techniques.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Coyote Alarm Sounds


Dogs hate coyotes. This morning Coffee Girl saw the coyote on the other side of the arroyo before I did. It was not the same large, powerful one that attacked my little poodle in October 2010. This one was scrawny. I've seen Coffee Girl raise her hackles twice as much as she is in this photograph.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Another Use of Ugliness

Today was a special day in the southern New Mexican highlands. Let me write about it before the memory fades. I had mountain biked on a paved road up the standard hill, until it was time to jump out onto a forest trail. The trail was so carpeted with long ponderosa needles that I wouldn't have been able to follow it if trees hadn't been marked, even though I was familiar with the trail. At the beginning of autumn I had been pelted by falling ponderosa needles near here. Wikipedia doesn't say whether ponderosas are semi-deciduous, but it sure looked like it.

Instead of being cold and dark at these higher locations like I feared, the forest canopy seemed more open than in summer. It was actually warmish, 25% sunny, and dead calm. Thus it was warmer than at the lower elevations, which are open, windy grasslands. The gaps in the canopy allowed me to always feel connected to the cold clear sky. I was giddy in a forest!

Previously I had belonged to a large school that dislikes forests and prefers semi-open landscapes. I had grudgingly come to appreciate a forest's summer shade. But now I realize that winter is the ponderosa forest's true season of glory. Any locale has its hackneyed complaints about weather, and the cold wind is ours. Not so! You just have to develop a taste for the misery of cold wind on the ride up to the ponderosas. It is Suffering that causes Desire, not the other way around as that false prophet, the Buddha, claimed.

Essentially this is an illustration of Schopenhauer's theory of Pessimism, which doesn't mean what it does in ordinary speech. Pain has the independent existence: Pain could exist without Pleasure, but Pleasure can't really exist without being preceded by Pain. OK, Pleasure can exist by itself, but it would be insipid. 

This is the philosophy that many outdoorsmen have at least implicitly believed in, and have practiced. Runners, mountain climbers, backpackers, bicycle tourers, etc., have learned to relish the dialectic of Pain and Pleasure. These are such admirable people.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the motorized tourists on their scenery-snacking July vacation: Comfort and Pretty Scenery are the only qualities that interest them. If you carry this culture to its reductio ad absurdum you end up with full time RVing, as it is most commonly practiced.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mad Prophets of the Blogosphere

In the past I have poked fun at myself and other bloggers. Spiffy web designs, digital photos, and the extension of our mighty thoughts to the entire blogosphere, tempt us to puff up into a sort of mad prophet (without a license). Today I read something that made me giggle out loud, in Barrett's Irrational Man, p. 81:
The Greek word for "I know," oida, is the perfect of the verb "to see" and means "I have seen." He who knows is the man who has seen, who has had a vision.
Well, "Howard Beale" (of the movie Network) and the rest of us agree wholeheartedly!

(Movie information is at imdb.com)

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Vertical Blog Syndrome

'Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole' is an old cliche that might be disappearing from the American vernacular. In a way, that would be a shame because it expresses a useful and important idea. We need some new expression to replace it. How about 'trying to write a vertical blog on a horizontal screen.' 

Well OK, the new phrase doesn't have much of a jingle to it. It needs polishing. But it's a truism nonetheless. This morning I was led to a blog from their comment on some other blog. They were an interesting young couple, and I liked their writing. But rather than focus on their content I was distracted by the vertical blog layout, which wasted 30% of the screen. 

Why do so many bloggers opt for this inferior design? In fact if you look at the templates available on "blogger" (blogspot), most of the choices are vertical.

The reader probably wants to know by now why I don't find something more important to complain about. Indeed it does seem foolish to be distracted by the vertical design. Perhaps I let it irk me because it is inexcusably atavistic; it shows an obeisance to the dead-tree publishing industry, which is a favorite pinata on my own horizontally-correct blog.

Say, why don't vertical bloggers tell their digital camera to produce only vertical (portrait mode) photographs?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tickling the Ivories

Lately my musical preferences have shifted towards solo piano. The wi-fi in my campground is too slow for internet radio, so I am limited to CDs fom the local library and occasional downloads from Napster. George Winston and Craig Armstrong are my interests right now.

It is too early to tell for sure, but this could turn into one of those lasting transitions that a person has a few times in their life. For the lack of a better term let's call it a musical conversion. I wonder what is true in general about these musical conversions. Does everybody have them? How often? What causes them? I don't even know where to go to learn about this.

Society as a whole went through several musical conversions during my lifetime. I was just old enough to remember watching the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan show. I sort of liked them, but wondered what all the fuss was about. I never cared much for rock-pop music, even when I was a kid. Actually nothing is better at convincing me to renounce membership in the human race as the popularity of some kinds of music, particularly urban-rap music. Libertarian though I may be, I'd love to see draconian laws against boom cars playing that filthy crap.

When floundering on a new topic it is natural to fall back on comfortable prejudices: physiological determinism, in my case. Music has more value as a sleeping pill to old men who don't sleep as well as they used to. Earlier in life, the piano music of George Winston might have seemed too somnambulant.

Another example of physiological determinism is the fondness for the female singing voice which dominated my musical preferences in the middle of life. Perhaps that was connected with walking away from the female race in early middle age.

Wikipedia had an article on music and the brain, which referenced a recent Scientific American article. But it didn't help. For the moment it is probably best to enjoy George Winston's piano without ruining it by thinking too hard. The experience is best after a bicycle ride. I lie down in the early afternoon, with the mp3 player and a dog at my left and right sides. The muscles in the face, scalp, and neck turn into pyroclastic silly-putty. I fall semi-unconscious to those magical twinkling ivory keys, while scratching the dogs' ears with my fingers.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Religion Reinvents Itself

The text for today's sermon is from William Barrett's Irrational Man, the chapter on The Decline of Religion. 
The central fact of modern history in the West -- by which we mean the long period from the end of the Middle Ages to the present -- is unquestionably the decline of religion.

The decline of religion in modern times means simply that religion is no longer the uncontested center and ruler of man's life, and that the Church is no longer the final and unquestioned home and asylum of his being.
Oh really?! Hadn't Barrett ever heard of Marxism? What would he say of Global Warming and the regulation of carbon? If the Warmists had their way, the taxation and regulation of carbon would make Muslim Sharia law look as watery and flexible as the Garrison Koehler's proverbial Ten Suggestions of the Unitarians.

As religion came to be doubted, it learned to adapt itself. It became less about quasi-mythological persons or writings of a distant past, and more oriented toward the future. Holy Books, written long ago, are static targets for scholars and historians. Their authority is gradually eroded as flaws and inconsistencies are identified, or as scientific discoveries are made. Thus it's an evolutionary advantage for any religion to essentially worship a Church (or Party), rather than a Holy Book. The Church can adapt and evolve.

Religion has learned to dress itself up as Science and Progress. Logic-chopping by medieval theologians is seen today as being no more useful than chasing mice around inside one's own skull. But a modern belief system can wow the modern world if it is "proven" by mathematical modeling, which modern divines have been sly enough to call computer "experiments." Many people just don't catch on to how circular computer modeling is.

Instead of an erodible fable from the past, religion has learned to center itself on the Future. No smart-guy can disprove your theory of Future, since it hasn't happened yet. Of course the religion must be a bit vague about the actual date of the Second Coming, the Revolution, or Icecap Melting. Look at the Great Disappointment of 1844 or more recently, the Y2K farce.

It's a difficult balancing act to make a theory of the Future compelling and urgent, in order to cut through all the noise. It must also put the Future far enough out as to avoid looking foolish to the present generation. How did Christianity ever survive the embarrassment of Christ's own prophecy not coming true? (The Second Coming happening in the lifetime of his generation)

Regarding the religion of Progress, I can remember all kinds of false prophecies from my youth. People haven't switched from going to work in their cars to helicopters; they just spend more time stuck in traffic. 

Literary and humanistic types were frightened of robots back in 1950s and 1960s; they turned out to be nothing more than machine tools with microprocessors attached. The futuristic utopia of the space age fizzled out; putting Man on the moon had no more consequences than Perry reaching the North Pole or Hillary reaching the top of Everest. 

Around 1980 researchers in the military-industrial complex were screaming about America's supercomputers losing out to Japan's; ironically big mainframes were on the way out right then, since it was the dawn of the personal computer age. (Still, you can't blame the researchers for trying the tactic that had delivered the funding in the 1950s, due to the fear of Russky H-bombs and Sputnik.)

One of Star Trek's favorite episodes was the one with Ricardo Montablan playing "Khan," the leader of eugenically engineered supermen of the 1990s. The show was written in 1967; how many generations of breeding did they expect to squeeze into 25 years?! Well, no matter; in 1967 the 1990s seemed so far away.

It is doubtful whether humankind will ever outgrow its emotional need for utopian or apocalyptic prophecies, especially when its mental world is drawn for it by intellectuals who are making a good living in the racket. The modern bureaucratized intellectual uses dreams about the Future the same way official priesthoods used myths and fables of the past in an earlier age.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Saying No

These days it's easy to drown in all the financial news from Europe. I'm starting to admire the feistiness of the Irish. They have protested the bailout forced on them by foreign bankers and European bureaucrats. We will have to wait for Ireland's new government to find out how much spine the Irish actually have. I'm pleased with the blogosphere for refusing to go along with calling it a bailout "of Ireland"; rather, it is a bailout of the stupid banks in the UK and Germany who loaned money into the real estate bubble in Ireland.

Ahh dear, I'm probably willing to romanticize the people in any country who have the gumption to stand up to the political and financial elite. Yes, that sounds pitchfork populist. In Irrational Man, William Barrett wrote some relevant things in his chapter on Sartre:
The [World War II] Resistance came to Sartre and his generation as a release from disgust into heroism. It was a call to action, an action that brought men to the very limits of their being, and in hearing this call man himself was not found wanting. He could even rediscover his own irreducible liberty in saying NO to the overpowering might of the occupying forces.

The essential freedom, the ultimate and final freedom that cannot be taken from a man, is to say No.
Americans used to have that quality. It's still part of our mythology, but with each passing year the myth becomes more threadbare. Consider the latest depredations of the Federal Reserve, EPA, and TSA. In fact only about three generations of Americans -- say, 1770 to 1865 -- were proud and defiant.

So here I sit, waiting for socialist unions in Europe to stick it to the bankers. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.