Sunday, December 30, 2012

Time's "Creature of the Year" Award

How many years has it been since Time magazine switched from their famous "Man of the Year" award to "Person of the Year?" But that's still anthropocentric, you know. The award would be more PC if it were opened up to all species. Coyotes come to mind, especially wily ones.

Since the financial turmoil of 2008 it has become almost common to picture our economy -- actually the world's economy -- as Wile E. Coyote running over the edge of a cliff, finally looking down and realizing the situation, and then disappearing into a shrinking point and a final poof at the bottom of the canyon.

Despite its aging, the coyote metaphor is so perfect that it should get the award for 2012. Just think of all the time and effort you could spend discussing so many issues and problems of our times; it tires you just to think of it. And we are sick of it anyway.

Sometimes the metaphor seems to apply to something perfectly, but the coyote in question just hangs out there, in mid-air, for far longer than he should. The post office seemed like that; but the coyote is plummeting finally. For years Hewlett Packard was said to be living on the profits of outrageously priced ink jet cartridges. Wasn't the "paperless office" of the future supposed to put an end to that? Perhaps it finally is.

As an RVer I keep wondering when rigs are going to revert to their size in 1975 or 1980. But the newer rigs don't seem to be shrinking. Yet.

The coyote metaphor seldom gets used in "education," that is, the diploma manufacturing racket. An article about online degrees by Mish Shedlock got me thinking about how expensive and obsolete our entire system of education is. The debt-slavery of college loans has gotten a lot of attention lately, as well it should. The inflation of college costs has, too. One college issue that is taboo is diploma inflation.

But what really takes the prize for neglect is the one about brick-and-mortar colleges versus online education. Aren't brick-and-mortar colleges as obsolete as brick-and-mortar video stores? Or travel agencies? Many billions of dollars could be saved by governments that can't afford their current level of spending. "Customers" would also save billions. Students could save years of wasted time and misery if they didn't have to live in noisy college dormitories, trudge through the snow to their morning classes, etc.

Most people would agree with this, I'll bet. So why hasn't it happened yet? Entrenched power and the status quo. Perhaps there is a conflict of interest built into the accreditation bureaucracy. If I were a political consultant for the Democratic party I would advise them to fight online education with all their might, since, as the incumbent culture in Academia, they have the most to lose. It would certainly be ironic to see "progressives" trying to stop semi-revolutionary progress in education, but it wouldn't be the first time that progressives were loyal to the status quo for reasons of partisan advantage.

The issue really isn't about whether online education can be better and more efficient than ivy-covered brick walls. It should be obvious to most people that this is true. The question is how to turn this potential revolution into "legal tender", that is, marketable credentials.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Combat in a Snowbird Laundromat

People think of retirement and snowbirding as a low-stress lifestyle. Well it is in many ways, but not in all.

After shopping in the Walmart and putting the stuff away in my van, out in their parking lot, I threw a couple standard plastic bags full of household trash into the shopping cart, and started rolling the cart to one of the corrals in the middle of the parking lot, where I could throw the trash bags into the waste cans. But before I got ten feet, an old biddie started chewing me out, "That's not a garbage truck!", or something like that. I guess she thought I was going to just leave the trash in the cart, instead of throwing it in the trashcan at the cart corral. What gave her the right to assume the wrong thing?

But then I noticed the Old Biddie's license plate: B.C., Bolshevik Columbia. That explains that. Albertans, Saskatchewanners, and Manitobans are the nice Canadians, you know. You don't suppose that I'm displaying the longitudinal loyalties and prejudices of a typical snowbird, do you?

Then there is the little matter of using the laundromat, some of which are open 24 hours a day. I found a new one that didn't threaten me with cramped demolition derby parking; and that's good, because that's what you usually find inside a laundromat in snowbird country. Woe unto you if you grab a cart that one of the Old Biddies thinks is "hers": expect to get a tongue-lashing as bad as you might get if, say, you were to leave the toilet seat up at an Escapee campground.

It would help so much if the aisles were just wider at those dreadful laundromats. But luck was with me: many Yuma snowbirds fly home for a few days over the holidays, and many others don't even arrive in Yuma until after the holidays. So it was pretty relaxed in there this morning. If only the Old Biddie, who was using the dryer above mine, would move 18" so I could get into my dryer. Geez I hate bumping people all the time -- slow moving people who can't twist their necks, can't see, can't hear, can't...

Finally I put on a nice smile and said as pleasantly as I could that I just needed a little space to get into my dryer. (She had her cart parked right up against my dryer. Why not two feet away?) She got a little cross with me and replied that she needed more time to finish what she was doing.

Actually it's funny to see how uncomfortable bourgeois-snowbirdesses can be in a public laundromat. Just think: somebody else used that machine before they did! How insulting to their respectability! 

When I first showed up in Yuma this year, after a 6 year hiatus, it was fun to walk around the stores and feel so young compared to all the olde fossils. But then I noticed they were making eye contact with me as well as small talk, as if they were peers of mine. What an impertinence!

In that laundromat I noticed that one of the female customers -- a blue-haired one! -- looked sort of "interesting." Oh gawd has it come to this?!

A friend once suggested I read "Kabloona" (White Man), a book written by a French anthropologist who lived amongst the Esquimaux around World War II. Once he joked that he never seriously desired to have a harem of Eskimo women. At least, not at the beginning of his stay. But after a year or two, they  actually started to look good to him. Good heavens, is that happening to me in Yuma?

Believe it or not I enjoyed doing the laundry at this place. Yea, it was over-priced, but the machines were large, worked well, and the whole place was clean. A full time RVer sees so many dreadful laundromats that it feels just plain luxurious to be at a good one. The same feeling of celebration couldn't be gotten from many hours and a thousand dollars of Christmas shopping or presents.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sometimes It's Easy Being a Good Sport

There are huge advantages to hiking or bicycling with a group, and yet, it is difficult to make it work. There are plenty of compatibility issues: where, when, how far, how fast? At times it makes you just want to chuck it. But in the case of road cycling one simply must try harder to make it work -- your safety depends on it.

It's too bad more women don't cycle. Cycling requires no upper body strength, and women have strong legs. Perhaps they are bothered by the occasional boorish male motorist; or maybe they don't like the way they look in spandex.  When they manage to overcome such issues and form a girl's club, they always seem to have a great time, chattering away on the bicycles or off.

Male cyclists have a special problem: they don't like getting their butts kicked. Think back to one of the platitudes of your school years: that 'sports build character.' I never really believed that pearl of wisdom back then, perhaps because I wasn't especially athletic. But over time I've come to accept it as profoundly true.

It's easy to scoff at tired platitudes that everybody pays lip service to. But what if that old platitude was replaced with 'As you work towards strategic victory, you must suffer many tactical defeats along the way?' (Granted, it's not terse enough to be a catchy aphorism.)

Nowhere is this reformed platitude brought to life better than for a Yuma cyclist. When you go bicycling here you are likely to get stomped by somebody 10 years older than you. Think of how unique and wonderful that is! Think of them rubbing their grimy, tarry, rear tires right in your face  -- just to piss you off -- and yet, you merrily spin along with a big smile on your face. On the one hand you are furious, which then makes you try harder and more often. But can you think of anything more cheerful and optimistic than seeing graphic proof that you still have a future in front of you?

Each tactical defeat of this type represents a step on the road to strategic victory. There is a pleasure unique to a situation like this: an intense simultaneity of opposites.

One day the all-male group really had the testosterone and endorphins flowing as it spun along at over 20 mph down a rather busy federal highway. Suddenly a cyclist (two bikes ahead of me) caught the edge of the pavement and crashed, with parts of his body a couple feet to the left of the white line. Until the accident occurred, I paid no special attention to the cyclist in question; he was just one more slender, physically fit, fast-spinning, elderly, hard-ass-on-wheels. But he was in his mid-80s!

The club closed ranks quickly and efficiently by warning onrushing traffic, staunching the blood, and arranging for a car-ride home for the poor fellow. Despite the military-like efficiency of our response, there was something "different" about it that I couldn't identify at first. One minute we were a rampaging tribe of barbarians; the next minute we had transformed into something quite different. But what? It reminded me of something.

There was a tenderness in our response like I sometimes show to my 17.5 year old miniature poodle. Clearly the club had a great deal of respect and admiration for our oldest rider. 

Throughout history humans have invented various techniques for dealing with their own mortality. The most ignoble technique is the Big Lie approach of religions that offer escapist psychological crutches. At the other extreme there is the approach that Yuma cyclists use: they are solid, realistic, and determined role models for everybody a few years younger. There is something noble about accepting inevitable defeat (mortality) on a strategic level, while grabbing tenaciously at success on a tactical level. It is the best a human can do, and that counts for something. In fact it counts for a lot.

In his "Skeptical Essays" Bertrand Russell said, "There is a stark joy in the unflinching perception of our true place in the world, and a more vivid drama than any that is possible to those who hide behind the enclosing walls of myth." 

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to Find Something Worth Reading

Isn't it strange how little training we get as schoolchildren in finding stuff that's worth reading? I can't help but think about this enigma now that the euphoria has worn off from my project of breaking the internet blog habit and going back to reading real books.

In olden times idealistic school teachers might have thought it impertinent to guide students towards what they should read; after all, that should be a matter of personal choice for the reader; and they were paid to educate, not to brainwash. But if individual teachers still practice that today, when the teacher's union is an integral part of a political party and teachers are state-paid priests of political correctness, well then, they are indeed idealistic.

In theory teachers and librarians should be just as qualified to aim readers towards certain books as they are to choose academic courses for youngsters. Of course there was a time, circa 1970, when it became an educational fad to "like, let the kids do their own thing, man" when it came to choosing courses. But as one famous educator pointed out: if a middle-aged educator has no more idea of what should be taught than an 18-year-old does, then the middle-aged educator has wasted his life.

Perhaps you are thinking that schools do steer students in a certain direction in English/literature class. But I remember them choosing English novels of the 19th Century, probably because they were the personal choice of school marms.

Some people might get ideas for books from best-seller lists. But I am repulsed by the idea of letting the marketplace choose what kind of mental nourishment should go into my brain. Why should popularity in the arena of books produce any better choices than popularity with fast food outlets? Or music. Should I lose interest in Mozart because raunchy country/western, raucous rock, or vile rap music is more popular?

Without care I will miss an opportunity to take off in a fresh direction; after all, what better time is there than after a long rest? Perhaps I should try science-fiction. But what constitutes a "classic?"

I'm deliberately avoiding my old rut of reading history books. How believable are they, actually? Trying to read fiction isn't so easy. Fiction is dominated by romance, that is, youthful lust and infatuation. That topic might be all-important to a young-blood; but I'm a grown-up now. Actually Fiction's obsession is even more specific than that: most of fiction is just formulaic love triangle after love triangle.

So I'm stuck, reader. I really don't know how to proceed any better than in the past, so the plan will be to stick to classics and rereading books that have worked well in the past.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Real Progress in Batteries?

Hey, I'm excited about what I read this morning about lead-carbon batteries. I've never heard of them before. So far, an RVer has only had two choices: good ol' flooded lead-acid batteries, and expensive AGM batteries.

But it's really nice to read about a third choice. This is an investment article  -- we're not talking about a science lab show-and-tell project here. Do you know of anybody who uses the new lead-carbon batteries in their RV?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Part 4, Beyond Postcards: Drowning in Earth-Cracks

It was an odd and pleasant experience to walk into the "breaks" near Socorro, NM; and of course that means I have to try to explain it. After all, if I don't think about and write about odd and powerful experiences, what should I write about?

I don't know if most readers caught it, but during the discussion of my last post on this topic, history was quietly made: one of the outdoors-blogosphere's most notorious and incorrigible optical-sybarites (grin) admitted that a breathtakingly beautiful, 1200-foot-high, sheer vertical, redrock cliff is not necessarily 1.3333 times as breathtakingly beautiful as an identical cliff that is only 900 feet high.

It is time to be a good sport and move on. I will nobly resist the tendency to be greedy by also trying to get him to admit that:
  • We should stop calling things beautiful when they are just freakishly large, and therefore have been made into a national park.
  • The freakishly large is certainly entertaining, but only in a cheap and vulgar sort of way. National parks are "beautiful" in the same sense that a 16-year-old boy, looking at porn, thinks that a certain human body is "sexy" just because it has anatomical parts that are freakishly large. 
  • The true outdoorsman and nature-lover should play "Gulliver's Travels" on his outings.
In fact I have reread about half of Gulliver's Travels since realizing that was partly responsible for the fun I was having walking up those neck-high, slot canyon-like arroyos. 

But there was another effect that benefited from the topographic features being the same size as the human body. The effect would have been weakened if those slot canyons were drastically smaller or larger than the human body. In that sense, it was almost an anti-Gulliver-ian experience.

Walking into those slots, upwards towards the mountain range, was like "drowning." Ahaa, that's it! Perhaps, as a youngster, the reader has had the experience of walking out into deeper and deeper water in a lake or ocean. It wasn't such a big deal until the water was up to your mouth or nose. Then you became fearful of every small wave that assaulted your safety. Your feet were still touching the lake or ocean floor, but there was so little force on your feet that you really could not move along anymore.

Something similar happens when you are sea kayaking. Let's say you are in one of the Great Lakes on a windy day. The waves might be only 3 feet high from trough-to-crest, but your eyes are only that high above the water. So, in the trough, you look around you and see only a wall of water -- all sight of the shoreline has disappeared. You are so puny compared to the immensity of the energy in all those waves. It can be frightening for a landlubber.

This example illustrates how important it is to outgrow the nature-porn of national parks (and other tourist traps) and focus on your mood, your susceptibility, and the intensity of the subjective experience when you're adventuring outdoors.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Snowbirds, Don't Ask THAT Question

Yuma, AZ. You don't have to be in a snowbird town more than a couple hours before somebody pops the question. Yep, that question. I've tried everything:
  • boycotting the question in a obviously jocular manner; 
  • ignoring the question, and immediately changing the subject to, say, the weather or the condition of the roads;
  • groaning out loud; 
  • pausing for a noticeable period of time, then sighing, before finally giving a desultory and halting answer. (This is aimed at making them feel guilty.)
I've tried 'em all. I've even tried just answering the question in a brief and neutral way. Nothing works.

What question am I talking about? Aw come on, in a snowbird capital like Yuma? There's something about the body language that usually gives the culprit away, but sometimes they blindside you.

"Soooooooo, where 'ya from?" My entire body locks up in a wince. The worst culprits are those who insist on taking a deadpan answer as a challenge. You can just see the wheels turning in their little head: they simply must discover that their third wife's ex-step-sister-in-law once had a neighbor who taught school in the town you just mentioned, and that you have heard of her.

When they finally discover this tiny linkage, pertaining to a metropolis of 2.4 million people or a corporation with 173,000 employees, they insist on trying to turn it into a conversation. Honestly, I'm more interested in whether 'itz gonna get windy today.'

Well, maybe that's not the worst. There are actually people in a snowbird capital like Yuma who don't know what a full-time RVer is; nor do they understand how tedious it is for us to explain 'how we get our mail.' 

The best solution is to do laundry or go grocery shopping at a place that's open 24 hours.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Internet (Blog) Dieting

An internet dieter does not have the advantage that food dieters do when they finally step on the scale. Perhaps there is an app out there that keeps track of the hours you are on the internet. Nevertheless, at the risk of fooling myself, I claim to be making progress with my internet diet.

When wireless internet access got better around 2005, I really thought I was done with book-reading, and that the internet would be my main venue for reading in the future. But experience has shown that most blogs are too trivial and repetitive to waste much time with. Of course the internet is still good for many things other than reading blogs.

Ever mindful that one can't cut back on a vice without replacing it with something else, I've gone back to reading books, which thankfully has become much easier the last few years. For one thing, reading is now easier on the eyes.  This is crucial to older eyes on winter evenings, especially when they are camping in an RV without electrical hookups.

The software lets you change the font size, and the displays have gotten better. I read books on my netbook in various formats. Lately I've been emphasizing "Kindle for PC". Something as trivial as softening the background color to off-white makes life quite a bit easier for the eyes.

Out of curiosity I once selected the double margin option: I had to laugh about that one. Old ways die hard, and reader-software wants to emulate dead tree books even when it doesn't make sense. What good are narrow columns? All they do is make your poor ol' eyes do twice as much rastering. I really like reading across the long wide line of the netbook's display, which is a horizontal (16:9) rectangle. I'll bet most eReader users still read in vertical rectangle mode as a carryover from the dead tree era, despite it making no sense from an eyestrain perspective. 

It's a great advantage to a traveler to escape carrying a heavy box of books around, finding decent used bookstores, and needing multiple local library cards. How convenient it is to just go to (and other places) and download a free classic book, which is about all I read. 

When a person is trying to get back into books, it seems efficacious to read entertaining books, or even books that you've read before or seen a movie of. For instance, I just finished "Last of the Mohicans" and "The Count of Monte Cristo". They fit the program at the moment.

But more important than the mechanics of reading is a change in attitude, such as being less demanding of the author and easier on myself. But patience seems to be the primary virtue when reading. It's something I never really had until recently. Where it came from, I really don't know.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Part 3, Beyond Postcards: Gulliver Goes "Break" Dancing

Earlier I posted about learning that I lacked the 'right set of balls' for exploring some BLM land near Socorro, NM. Something else happened that day.

It was an area called the "breaks," which I take to mean interesting topographies carved out by side streams of the Rio Grande. It was a fascinating area. It made me regret not seeing the Missouri Breaks in Montana before I gave up on going north in the summer, after the cost of transportation got so high. 

As always, I doted over the vertical sidewalls of the arroyos:

Although only 12 feet tall, this sidewall was as vertical and red as any cliff in XYZ National Park that is gawked at by 4.6 million visitors per year when doing the obligatory "auto loop tour." (Wasn't it Edward Abbey in "Desert Solitaire" who griped about a new loop being added to the park where he was a seasonal ranger?)

Conglomerate is a surprisingly durable material:

Further upstream I saw a 'first' for me: a miniature mesa caused by a plant and differential erosion:

The 3-dimensionality does not register well in this cursed 2-dimensional medium, but the ground under the cactus was 4 inches higher than the surrounding ground, presumably because the roots of the cactus offered some fiber-reinforcement, thereby slowing its erosion.

Soon the arroyo split finger-like into smaller and narrower streamlets, which Coffee Girl and I walked unworriedly towards the mountain range that would soon put an end to the "breaks':

The walking was "unworried" because it is topologically impossible to get lost as you walk upstream. Sometimes I actually try to get lost by jumping out of the arroyo and crossing over several others. But they will all come back to the same point, although it might be a quarter-mile down the road from where you started.

Along the way there was every shape you could imagine, if you are willing to put the effort into such small shapes. I tried to imagine what they would look like at different sun angles. Each of these features would be world-famous if it existed in some national park and was 100 times larger. Consider what a hackneyed postcard this one would be:

Imagine the crowds, the brown signs, safety warnings, and guardrails if this were in a national park and if it were 700 feet high instead of 7. It would be on calendars, coffee cups, tee-shirts, and screen-savers. Every now and then there would be a suicide from it that would make Yahoo news. The notoriety would redound negatively to the park service and soon it would be locked off with a razor wire fence and surveillance cameras.

Eventually the arroyo streamlets devolved into narrow slot canyons, which of course caused my claustrophobia to kick in. Long-suffering readers have heard me praise phobias and obsessions, not to the point of debilitation of course, but at least to the point of "flavor enhancement" of the experience. A phobia will keep you from being complacent and settling for an experience of trivial visual entertainment. 

The small, slot canyon-like streamlets, eventually narrowed to shoulder-width and shoulder-height. I could just see out of them as I walked through them and Coffee Girl ran on the high ground just outside them, her usual preference.

It was starting to seem like I had arrived in a BLM version of Gulliver's Travels. But there was one thing that was getting in the way of making the most of this opportunity: the conventional notion of 'beauty', the postcard mindset, was undermining my efforts to appreciate the small things that I was seeing here. The postcard mindset calls things 'beautiful' when it really just means 'freakish and large'.

At one point I called my dog over to the vertical edge of the slot canyon-like streamlet, grabbed her, and lifted her down to the bottom. She doesn't like to be carried or lifted, so she scratched frantically at the slot's sidewalls -- so much so that it caused a dust storm in the slot. There was no wind. The dust just hung there, obscuring the slot, which became fatally glamorous in my (slightly claustrophobic) mind. Sun and dust. I couldn't see the slot anymore. But Coffee Girl plunged forward, valiantly, into the unknown...

We all know how some people talk around babies, how every grandparent talks around the world's cutest grandkids, and how most pet owners talk around their beloved fur-balls. Can we agree that, although all this is natural and expected, we can be glad for not having to listen to too much of it?

There must be zillions on non-dog-owners who think that people like me are just doing the same with their dog. I'd like to convince them that something else, something far more important, is happening; that my central nervous system is reaching out to the dog, to its paws and nose and happy running; and that my eyeballs are ceasing to be my main sensory organ.  

The dog has become a bridge to the rest of the world around me. Once pulled outside the sharply-defined and puny object called "me", the central nervous system just keeps expanding until, as the old saying has it, I don't know where "me" ends and the rest of the world begins.