Monday, February 28, 2011

Water Fountain, Stone Sculpture

Where we have coffee, downtown. The fountain-sculpture was just thawing out.

Flashing Ads on the Internet

Advertisements certainly have their place on the internet. How else would you pay for websites? Government grants? Do everything with volunteers? Guilt-ridden PBS-style beg-athons?

But today I went to an economic/political blog and found a flashing ad in the right margin. I tried to cover it with a popup window, but that didn't quite work. Then I enlarged the font of the website, hoping that would bump the flashing ad off screen. That too failed.

Long ago -- back when "call waiting" was a new high-tech phone option -- somebody told me how he got a telephone call from somebody who immediately asked, "Can I put you on hold?" He responded by hanging up; it made his day.

It's not quite as fun as that when you quit going to a website because of one of those obnoxious flashing ads, but it still counts. It's hard to believe that anyone would put up with them. What does it say of a person or society who does put up with flashing ads?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Non-trivial Travel Experience

Long-suffering readers are probably tired of my complaints against the trivialness of travel-newbies or the romantic escapism of wannabees. OK then,
let's keep it positive. Every now and then a reader runs across an exception to the trivia of travel, and it can occur in the most unlikely place. 

I read bicycle touring blogs. Normally they show pretty postcards of landscapes, punctuated with mind-numbing prose about camping details. Or ride statistics. Everybody has a cycle odometer these days. If they rode  56.43 miles today, as read off the screen of the odometer, they will include the '3' in the hundredths place in their daily post, as if the reader really cares. Now I ask you, folks, what does the hundredths place have to do with the Human Condition or the state of the Universe in general?

But there are exceptions. A bicycle tourer was going through Egypt during their recent uprising. He stayed at a hostel next to Tahrir Square. He actually had the guts (or recklessness) to go out into the demonstrations. Presumably he didn't take his bicycle. His photos are good. His writing is somewhat hard to read, but that's not the point. Here was a real travel adventure. I envy him.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Another Curable Syndrome

Seldom do I willingly repeat myself on this blog, although it must happen. My favorite time of the day tempted me once. Coffee Girl (my dog) and I had finished a nice outing in the morning. After taking a shower, we did what we've done so many times: lied down on the bed for an early afternoon siesta. I wanted to write about it, but surely that would be repetition. What is so bad about that?

Where did I get this sick idea that one is supposed to think of something new, new, new all the time? I ridicule the Constant Travel Syndrome -- and its puerile infatuation with novelty -- at every opportunity. Perhaps it is time to choose a new pinata; call it the Constant Thinking Syndrome. How much good has thinking ever done me? Maybe it's over-rated.

Ironically there was something new about this siesta; completely new for me. I was actually enjoying some violin music for the first time in my life: Beethoven's Romance #1 (opus 40), Romance #2 (opus 50) and the famous violin concerto. Of course we've all noticed our tastes change over time, and it's quite rejuvenating for an old boy to suddenly flare up with a new enthusiasm.

Certain changes in musical tastes are explainable. (Didn't I just say that I was going to stop this?) A lad might be exposed to classical music on National Public Radio at State U. They usually only play symphonic music. But if he learns to love it, his taste might improve soon. (For years I had no interest in Mozart because those blockheads at NPR only played his "Jupiter" symphony. It wasn't until I saw the movie Amadeus that I thought about his operas and concertos, which is where he really shines.) In symphonies there are simply too many instruments washing each other out. Learning to appreciate opera is also explainable since the human voice and life-situations are capable of expressing great pathos. It is also explainable why the female voice is superior to the male, or why adagios are more moving than allegros.

But violin music? I had no explanation, nor did I care to think one up. During the siesta the air in my RV was still disappointingly chilly; outdoors it had felt almost warm with all the sun and exercise; there was a subtle hint of spring out there. Then I felt my dog's hot breath against my cold skin. How nice that she honors the occasion by sleeping on the bed during these sacred siestas. (She refuses the bed at night.) I couldn't really think of anything old or new; you need a brain to do that, and "I" was just skin, ears, and relaxed muscles, feeling her hot breath on my arm, listening to Beethoven's violin music, and relaxing into a head-to-toe stupor.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Opposite Shores of the Mediterranean

Just think of all the chaos in North Africa. It used to be a part of the Roman Empire. It was the home of St. Augustine, essentially the founder of medieval Christendom. Perhaps il Mar Mediterraneo is not as wide as we think.

Libyan jets have defected to the island of Malta, just a short flight away. That is one of the places I would love to travel to; what a fascinating history they have had. Peruse the article in Wikipedia on that chain of islands and you will be reminded of how close ancient Carthage was to Sicily, Italy, and Europe. What if Hannibal had finally beaten Rome? Would the Christian/Islam split even exist today?

By the way there is an excellent movie, starring Anthony Quinn, called Lion of the Desert. It was the story of Omar Mukhtar, the Libyan hero who fought Italian imperialists before and after Mussolini.

These days, they say that there are more (active and used) mosques in Europe than cathedrals or churches. The numbers of Muslims in Europe is astonishing. I have never thought much about it except to think that Europeans are more foolish in permitting an Islamic invasion than Americans are in permitting a Mexican one.

But I wonder if the political earthquake happening in North Africa and the Middle East is actually a partial result of millions of Muslims moving part time or full time to Europe, and being "infected" with ideas. Then they write home or return home after their work permit expires, and infect the old country with European ideas of democracy and secularism. If this has actually happened, I wonder if anyone expected it to be the outcome of the Islamic invasion of Europe.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Western Myths, Arab Heroes

This weekend the violence has increased against protesters in Middle Eastern countries. On the internet we can watch American "allies" murder their own people. Is it starting to sink in, with Americans in particular, what a sham these Arab protesters are making of our own self-flattering mythology?

The Arab protesters have no weapons. They are just waving flags or sometimes throwing rocks. Throwing rocks. The goons and mercenaries firing back at them have all the high-tech gadgets, shields, helmets, and organization. The Arab protesters might have a metal bucket on their head, if they are lucky.

When the Americans had their own successful war of secession from the United Kingdom, most Americans had muskets that were basically the same as what King George's troops had. We lacked the pretty red coats. But the technological mismatch wasn't that great.

The French no doubt look back at their Revolution as full of heroes, at least initially. What did it take to start a revolution back then: barricade the streets by turning over some carts, and then grabbing a few brickbats and clubs?

These Arabs are vastly braver than the mythologized heroes of Western countries ever were. But comfortable, spoiled, middle-class, college-educated pundits in the West think they have a right to pass judgment on Arab protests.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is Stagflation the Winner?

Oh no! Is it going to be the 1970s all over again? Every time I go to the store I see rising prices. 

The inflationists have been predicting this for a couple years now. But the deflationists have counter-argued that an economy-wide wage-price spiral can't get going like in the 1970s because unions are too weak, too many of our goods come from China, and the housing industry is too weak.

The lessons of the 1970s have been forgotten, I fear. The American people are too sheep-like to protest rising inflation. They'll meekly submit, or be fooled by packaging gimmicks or phony statistics from the government. They'll simply have less to spend on many things, since a bigger fraction of their stagnant incomes is gobbled up by gasoline, home heating and cooling, food, medical care, college, and perhaps state income taxes in states like Illinois. The result will be stagflation.

Not only have oldsters forgotten the lessons of the 1970s, but an entire generation has grown up that has never experienced double digit inflation. You have to be 50 or older to really remember it. There are many bond traders and bond fund managers who are younger than that. 

The will to fight inflation simply isn't there.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Looking for Allies

Since I was falsely accused of misogyny the other day, I have gone looking for allies to prove my innocence. At first I thought of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. Too intellectual perhaps. How about Professor Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady? Hmm...maybe not.

Wait a minute, I've got it: look up the biography of legendary movie director, Joseph Mankiewicz, (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, All About Eve, etc.) on imdb dotcom or Wikipedia. Nobody ever accused him of being a misogynist, that's for sure.

In the justly honored All About Eve, Anne Baxter (who was Frank Lloyd Wright's granddaughter) played a pretty and young stage-actress-wannabee who "showed up on the doorstep" of Betty Davis, who played a famous, but aging, actress on the New York stage. Eve started off humbly, but quickly, to displace Betty Davis. Eve used manipulation and cunning to trick everybody into helping her in her ambition.

Naturally, the other women in the movie were first to catch on to Eve's tricks. Halfway through the movie she moved on to male prey: the playwright, the director, and the theater critic. The playwright told his wife that Eve was innocent of the wife's suspicions: as proof, Eve even cried when a certain issue came up.

What a priceless and wordless reaction the playwright's wife had to this. What a look she gave her husband.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Curmudgeon on Valentine's Day

Being able to ignore national holidays is not the smallest advantage of an independent lifestyle. Still, they give opportunities for thought, especially when they are as weird as Valentine's Day. Look at how the marketing hype panders to women, with the jewelry, chocolates, restaurant events, etc. Isn't this just a bit slatternly, 40 years after women's lib?

Valentine's Day is a perfect example of how 'there is no new thing under the sun.' Women always have and always will run a sexual extortion racket to their own advantage. Believe it or not, I don't really blame them for this. Biology and evolution have dumped a lot of overhead on the females. Males get most of the pleasure from reproduction, while women get stuck with the consequences. So there is a rough justice in women using their weapons to get even.

Their imperiousness used to irk me when I was a young man. Old age has moderated this. Getting a female dog has had an even bigger effect. It was amusing to watch her thrash males twice her size. The big dummies just put up with it; you needn't think too hard about why. (Recall the old English proverb, "Dogs don't bite bitches.")  I'd never been on the winning side of the battle of the sexes before -- gosh it was fun!

Young males are just slaves of physiology, which makes them subservient to females. But why do older men still pander? By the time a man is middle-aged and his hormones have settled down, you'd think he would start to wonder if it was time to put away childish things. The male obsession with sex lasts for, what, 15 or 20 years. Female beauty is even briefer.

Why shouldn't a man just accept this fact and use it to his advantage? How much good did it really do him to make such a fuss over women? Did the benefits outweigh the costs? Maybe it was just a testosterone-drunk delusion. But many old men remain stubborn. They go through their entire lives being cleaned out financially by women. The reductio ad absurdum of this is a group of senior singles who act like junior high school kids around each other.

Hopefully the reader has not written this essay off as a pitiful addition to the misogynist genre.  I can't find the quote at the moment, but somewhere  somebody (Samuel Johnson?) says that the benefit of experience and wisdom is largely learning not to overpay. To say that most men overpay for women is not "anti-woman"; rather, it is a positive message about getting wiser and saner with age.

If women must be deified on a national holiday, let it be on Mother's Day.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wolf at the Door, conclusion

Update: on the bicycle ride home today I stopped by the German Shepherd's house in the barrio that I ride through. He had almost completely recovered from his crash with the car! Then he confronted me like he was auditioning for a bit role in Stalag 17. He was off-leash, so I called Animal Control.

During the recent sub-zero night there was an element of playful adventure and even drama. But the dominant mood was one of anger. I was furious about being so weak and letting winter cold beat me. This became so noticeable that there had to be something larger at stake.

In Lawrence of Arabia a newspaper reporter asked Lawrence what he liked personally about the desert. It's clean, he said. Keep in mind that Hollywood scriptwriters will put a western movie in Dodge City, Kansas, with Rocky Mountains in the background. The desert is not clean, but winter cold is. Perhaps it can fascinate us because of the clarity that it brings to life; it condenses issues into a manageable view...

Or maybe it's a crystallization of larger issues, which are ordinarily too vague...

A big part of life is the willpower to say No to an outside threat, although we sometimes fail to identify it as a threat.

Some people might be tempted to use the sacred mantra of 'simplicity' to describe the clarity of winter cold, but I hate that word. 'Simplicity' sounds too much like emptiness to me, too meditative, passive, and Buddhist. Breathe in, breathe out. Screw all that. I prefer intensity and focus...

Recently my dog, Coffee Girl, and I were walking to town on one of the many fine winter mornings that we've had this year: cold, calm, dry, and sunny. A German shepherd was running loose. Although not one of my favorite breeds, this individual was a fine-looking dog. At first I was alarmed, but soon the shepherd was acting curious rather than aggressive. He ran reconnaissance loops in the road, attempting to keep close to us as we walked away.

A car came down the road, but the German shepherd didn't pay the slightest attention to it. On one of his loops he smashed into the driver's door of the car. He did manage to limp off.

I gave the young woman driver the dirtiest look that I could manage. But that was just in reaction; it probably wasn't fair; she had slowed down. I wonder what she thought as she drove away: maybe that there was more danger on the other side of the windshield than she had thought, and that the cocoon of comfort that a driver lives in most of the time is not Reality.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Wolf at the Door, part 2

One thing that I've learned about being cold is that you reach a point where you just can't put on enough clothes to help. You must move. The only thing possible in a small RV is doing push-ups. I tried that, and with good results. Normally I use closed-cell foam pads underneath my hands for comfort's sake; on this minus 2 F morning, the foam took on a compression-set that recorded an impression of my wrists and palms.

I couldn't do push-ups for the next five hours until sunrise, so I popped Lawrence of Arabia into the DVD player, hoping that the desert scenery would warm me up, at least psychologically. It didn't work.

There was only one more card to play: going into the campground's shower room and taking a 30 minute, scalding hot shower at their expense. But this seemed unsporting and unmanly, so I declined.

What is the appeal of "cold survival" stories? Is it in our DNA? It has been a big part of living for much of the history of our species. Recently I watched the Imax version of the Mt. Everest disaster, circa 1990. Recall, that is the disaster that Jon Krakauer wrote about in Into Thin Air. The survival story of Beck Weathers is hard to top.

There have been other great stories over the years: Jack London's tales of Alaska; the Ice House in Dr. Zhivago; the book and movie, Alive; Robert Falcon Scott's diary as he froze to death in Antarctica; and of course Richard Byrd's Alone.

Besides what is general to our species, I wondered if my sucker-hood for cold survival stories was due to more individual hang-ups. I do remember walking home for about a mile, into a fiercely cold west wind, when I was about 10. After finally reaching home I went to the bedroom, lied down, and began shivering uncontrollably. Most children are familiar with shivering, but only when they have the flu. This was something different. I remember getting no sympathy from my family, which surprised and disappointed me. 

A child can have scary and solitary thoughts with an experience like this. Inside the house, all is routine and safe. But just outside the window glass, it was still a dangerous world; one without Modernity, Safety, and Comfort; an alternate Reality and an ancient one. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wolf at the Door

I woke up at 1 a.m. last week. Something was different. I was just too cold to sleep, despite wearing a winter parka to bed, as well as boots, polartec pants, and a warm skull cap, all underneath two layers of warm sleeping bags. The catalytic propane heater was set on high; those things are fine for a mobile RVer who chases the warmth in winter, but in a real winter they must be supplemented with an electric heater that blows the air around a little. For the first time the electrical heater also needed to be clicked on high.

I made breakfast, not because I was hungry, but just for the heat from the stove and for an excuse to stand and stomp my feet.

The water pump wouldn't turn on of course. (I never use water hoses from the campsite spigot in winter.) But tonight was a first: the toilet froze. It was necessary to boil water on the stove and then pour it into the toilet to thaw the trap door. The water that I spilled on the bathroom floor soon froze.

The thermometer said it was 37 F inside the RV; but it wasn't on the floor. The local weather station reported minus 2 F outside. Well what do you know! I never thought an RVer could survive in a little cracker box in sub-zero temperatures.

Will the Boonie survive until sunrise? Tune in next episode for the thrilling conclusion.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Eric Margolis Audio Clip

It's probably true that a blogger is getting lazy and isn't adding that much value if he slips into being a mere retailer of other people's original content. Still, sometimes I can't resist. Finding a needle in the internet haystack does have a certain amount of value.

Here is an audio clip by Eric Margolis, a writer who actually knows something about America's Raj in southwest Asia and the Middle East. You won't hear about him in the mainstream media.

You can just push the play button to hear the audio clip on your computer. You don't have to have some gadget like an iPod.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Politics in the Movies

You probably wouldn't believe me if I claimed there was already a movie about the Egyptian uprising. OK, that would be an exaggeration. But movies can sometimes express the nature of political maneuvering better than thick, scholarly books that bury the essence of things under a mountain of extraneous details. There is no excuse to do so, because politics is not terribly intellectual or complex. It is irritating to wade through 500 pages of verbiage to get at the point of the whole thing.

For instance, in Braveheart a rebellion starts up in Scotland, against the English king. The lairds of Scotland had lands and titles in both Scotland and England. They played a duplicitous game regarding the rebellion, and it came across so clearly in the movie.

I have no particular criticism to aim at the current president regarding his handling of the Egyptian uprising, since if the other party was in the White House they might have already sent in the Marines while they gave speeches promising freedom and democracy to Egypt. But the president is practicing the political art of duplicity.

Any president of either party considers it unthinkable that America should go back to being a Republic instead of the militaristic, meddling, bullying empire that it is. Did it ever occur to any of these imperialists that European powers gave up being empires 50 or 60 years ago and lived to tell about it. Look at the bloody mess that France went through in IndoChina and Algeria. But today does anybody in France, besides the military lobby, really feel that they're suffering because they're not an empire anymore?

America was famously stupid about not learning anything from the French experience in IndoChina. A few years later the French "lost" the Algerian war of independence. It led to a remarkable movie, the Battle of Algiers. Watch it and you will think it was made yesterday about the American Empire's troubles in today's Middle East. An American viewer can be affected by some other country's imperialism.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Disguising Inflation

Most of my grocery shopping is done at an Albertson's that is a five minute walk from my RV park. They made quite a fuss out of rearranging the store recently, moving things from one aisle to the next. It wasn't a remodeling or an improvement; just a reshuffling.

Over the years I've memorized the prices pretty well. The store actually has great loss-leader sales, which are the only things I buy. It has always surprised me that a security guard doesn't block my entrance into the store. During all the commotion of the great reshuffling I noticed that some of the prices had gone up 25%. Or had I noticed them? Maybe my memory was playing tricks on me. Say, wait a minute, I still have a good memory. Something else was going on, and it smelled fishy.

The last few days the news media has actually done a little honest-to-goodness investigative reporting about repackaging at the grocery store. For example the food company can reduce the size of the product from 16 ounces to 14, put a dimple in the bottom of the jar, and keep the overall physical size and price the same as before. This is the first time in a long time that I felt respect for the news media. Now if only they'd stop swallowing every lie from the government about inflation, the "Recovery", global warming, progress in Afghanistan, etc.

But back to my Albertson's store: isn't reshuffling the food from one aisle to another just a scheme to knock the consumer out of the routine that their brain uses to memorize food prices? Very clever of somebody at Albertson's headquarters. Come to think of it, my local Walmart did a major reshuffling recently. I wonder how much of this is going on all over retail America. Maybe some of the guys at the corporate headquarters should go to work at the Federal Reserve or at the Commerce department.

People who have iPhones love to brag about their "apps", which by and large are just pretty toys that help the consumer squander money. How about an app that actually saves money? Is there an app that helps someone keep track of grocery store prices so that the consumer knows how bad inflation is getting?

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Internet's Prague Spring

Update: An editorial has recently popped up on CNN that overlaps with this post.

When Egypt shut down the internet, the blogosphere reacted with surprise and indignation. Why so? Did they think the internet was sacred or untouchable?

Forget about Egypt for a minute and think of the stereotypical cartoon of a revolution in a South American kleptocracy. When the junta finally reaches the tipping point, they send troops to the national radio or TV station and proclaim victory. Then they send troops to the presidential palace where they kill anybody still there. In all likelihood the deposed dictator absconded in a private jet, a few hours earlier, with a suitcase full of gold bars and his beautiful wife, 28 years his junior.

But it isn't just dictatorships. Freedom-praising democracies have controlled radio and television for many decades, in the name of the "people" of course. The most egregious example is the BBC in England. I used to think this was such a contradiction in the English tradition of liberty. Actually, the BBC is to the Information Age what the established Church of England was to the Reformation. There are other examples that contradict the vaunted liberal traditions of the West, such as the speech codes at universities, or movie censorship.

It is so easy for governments to claim temporary emergency powers; then the "temporary" becomes permanent merely by quantitatively easing the definition of "crisis." That is why it is pure hypocrisy for neo-con super-patriots to utter a word of praise about freedom and democracy.

People were living in a fool's paradise if they thought the same patterns weren't going to occur on the internet, just because it's newer. Some day these first few years of the internet will be looked back on as we today look back nostalgically on the Wild West.

But back to the Egyptian internet shutdown: it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the technology used was, not only paid for by American taxpayers, but was purchased from technology companies who make a living on contracts from the American departments of Defense or Homeland Defense.