Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Letting a Landscape Breathe

Why does it always sound like such a left-handed compliment to call something or somebody, "Old Reliable?"

Once upon a time I read everything I could get my hands on about the War Between the States. When they said that Robert E. Lee called General Longstreet his "old warhorse," I felt sorry for Longstreet and felt envious of the reckless flash of Stonewall Jackson. Likewise, how would you like to be the minivan in the garage that gets call "old reliable?" (Next to it sits a useless and pampered sports car that only gets used on Sunday afternoons when the weather is good.) Would a wife's ego be flattered if her husband thought of her as "Old Reliable?"

The term is actually a serious compliment, and its user would quickly wise up if Old Reliable were taken away. Thus I always feel a little guilty when thinking of walking/hiking as a "mere" backup sport for what I really want to do.

And yet hiking misses something. There is a grim austerity to believing that the outdoors is best experienced through walking. And it's a cliche to do so, traceable back to that frustrated Puritan blockhead, H. D. Thoreau.

You wonder why I mine the movies for similes and metaphors! Consider an overlooked classic movie made in the late 1950s, The Big Country, a western directed by William Wyler, starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives(!). But, to me, the real stars were the soundtrack and the California ranch scenery. (At first I thought it was eastern Montana, Wyoming, or South Dakota. We forget that California was still a "western" state in the 1950s.)

What an impact that soundtrack had on me, right from the beginning of the movie! And it was the same with the horses running on that dry, tawny, grassy hill-scape.  Sometimes it enhances the picture to see an excellent rider on the horse.

At one point in the movie Gregory Peck asks, "How'd you like to show me around [the ranch]. Do we ride or do we walk?"

Jean Simmons, the proud owner of the ranch, replied, "Mr. McKay, any ranch you can see on foot just isn't worth looking at." Indeed, she was right, in a big country. Her reply made me smile from head to toe.

For most lifestyles, horses have too much overhead and inconvenience attached to them. How then should campers and outdoorsmen experience a big country? How does he introduce pizazz and motion into his outdoor experience?

Occasionally I do see horsemen on trails on public land, but they are just walking, which doesn't inspire. Perhaps a visit to a BLM office would reveal the location of a herd of wild horses or burros, and my herding dog, Coffee Girl, would make sure that they ran:

Sheer dumb luck allowed me to camp with two groups: an endurance horse racing competition, near Hurricane, UT; and a mule handlers' "convention" near Wickenburg, AZ. In fact, Wickenburg, as a horsemen "magnet", would be a great place to overlap with horsemen, both on the trails and at the nice campground and rodeo grounds in town.

Of course I'm always praising the running of a dog as a way to let the landscape breathe:

You could say the same of the wind:

The essence of New Mexico

Here's a dog and wind:

Coffee Girl in the grasslands near Patagonia, AZ
A fast-running mountain stream can never be praised enough. It doesn't need to be a large stream or a world-famous front cover on National Geographic to be impressive if you look at it from the point of view of a small dog. Remember that, in terms of subjective experience, you become emotionally centered around your horse or dog in the landscape, not the landscape itself.

Scampering across a Colorado mountain stream

The landscape famously gets a breath of fresh air at the ocean shore:.

Little Poodle faces 30-40 knot wind at the tip of Baja

What about wind sports, like hang gliding? Have I done everything possible to search them out and camp next to special events and gatherings? By accident I once camped next to the edge of a hang gliding cliff in Dinosaur National Monument, and woke up to hang gliders setting up, right outside my door. I watched them for hours. Mingus Mountain, overlooking Cottonwood, AZ, would be a good place to try.

I just need to be more patient with search engines and more adaptable with my calendar and location to watch humans interacting kinetically with the outdoors. Kayakers, kiters, wind surfers, hunters, ultra-lights...

The point is to open up to possibilities and partial-overlaps, and thus experience motion outdoors -- unless it involves an engine, of course! Let me leave you with one more image from a classic movie: in Roman Polanski's "Tess", the leading character is down on her luck and slogs across an open field in "England" (actually it was shot in northern France). Wintery, morning gloom, muddy road...trudge, trudge, trudge. 

Then there's the sound of a hunting bugle. Out of the fog appear 20 baying hounds and English gentlemen on horseback, chasing a fox or whatever. How bleak and dreary the landscape seemed at first, until dogs, horses, and men breathed life and motion and purpose into it!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wet Deserts and Creepie Crawlies

Yuma, AZ. I saw two of these creatures in a sandy desert on a rainy day. The body is 0.25--0.35 inches long. But the color really leaps out at you. Any guesses?

The photo above shows the color as too burnt red. In reality it was more scarlet red, such as this:

That's the head coming to get the cameraman. This thing, or rather, its color really amused me.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Time to Drop Verizon Wireless Internet?

Would it pay off to drop my Verizon Wireless internet connection? I'm talking about more than the $53 dollars per month. The main benefit would be the killing off of the bad habit that the internet has become. But there's more: without worrying about internet coverage, North America will be a much bigger and better place to camp.

Does the reader know of anyone who has done this, and whether they are happy they did?

There would still be wi-fi in town or at country stores. I really like the camping-style of coming to town once per week to do the usual errands. Internet usage would just be one more errand. It would be fun to look forward to it. Access once per week would be adequate for paying bills, catching up on the news (mostly just entertainment trivia), and reading websites and blogs (more trivia).

Once per week would be adequate for a little bit of internet shopping.

Nor would dropping Verizon Wireless internet service mean that my computer lies fallow all week. I can still write my blog, although the posts would only be once per week. But maybe it would be a good thing to let an idea marinate in brain-juices for a whole week, before posting.

An offline computer is still good for reading a backlog of eBooks, and for listening to a pile of old music, and for editing photographs. But would I find new stuff easily enough when using wi-fi at, say, a noisy McDonalds or laundromat in town?

For now I'm holding off on this idea because of the fear that I'll "cheat" by driving into town, which would quickly destroy the nominal savings, especially for a rational accounting of the true costs of driving -- say, 50 cents per mile. If that's not bad enough, you'll also squander money for coffee or food.

Once again, I'd like to know if the reader has any direct or second-hand experience with this idea.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Success in Finding a Worthwhile Blog

Do our habits and attitudes carry over from "old" technology to newer tech? For instance, many people (and most men) do not like to shop. They already know what they want when they go into a store. They want to find it quickly, buy it, and get the hell out of there.

But what happens when the reluctant shopper has to go to a search engine on the internet? How can he not growl at the 3.6 million hits for his search? That's as growl-able as going to a flea market at Quartzsite in January, and sifting through a ton of unsorted detritus piled up on a table.

Recently I've been complaining a lot about wasting time on the internet, reading repetitious trivia. And yes, I have considered the possibility that some of this problem is self-inflicted. Perhaps I would find something fresh and worthwhile to read if I stopped being so impatient with those search engines.

Where are the blogs that are reminiscent of the periodical essays of the 1700s? So I used "periodical essay" as my search phrase and soon ended up at http://essays.quotidiana.org/, an excellent collection of essays from the last couple hundred years.

But what about new essays of this type? Why do blogs chase the number of "pageviews" or the longest list of "friends and followers", who are just trivial readers of the blog's free daily trivia? The internet would be a much better place if bloggers showed the manly grace of Samuel Johnson when he concluded The Rambler, his first series of periodical essays, in 1752: 
I am far from supposing, that the cessation of my performances will raise any inquiry, for I have never been much of a favourite with the public...
I have never complied with temporary curiosity, nor enabled my readers to discuss the topic of the day.
The average internet blog of our era does nothing but pander to temporary curiosity and the hot new meme of the day. Three days later, the meme has dropped into oblivion.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"The Artist": Clever and Charming

I'm about to praise a fairly new movie, but in order to appreciate it fully, let's invoke some words from Samuel Johnson, in Adventurer #67: 
Happiness is enjoyed only in proportion as it is known; and such is the state or folly of man, that it is known only by experience of its contrary.
Thus we must contrast this enjoyable movie with the cultural sinkhole that Hollywood has become.

You must be brave enough to look into the abyss and appreciate how truly dreadful most movies are...

...the formulaic date movies, obligatory bedroom scenes, boring computer graphics, the F word in every other sentence, MTV-style of cut-cut-cut action trash...

I really didn't know what to expect when I picked this DVD at the public library. It looked like some kind of furrin' or independent flick. During the opening credits there was mention of several French corporations or government funding agencies -- now that was a scary way to start a movie! (But actually, it was a Hollywood movie.)

It was a black-and-white, "silent" movie, with no spoken dialogue but with a fun musical soundtrack throughout, and a few sound effects. (Such was Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights", made in the early days of "talkies.")

This was a risky movie.The movie challenged the audience to adjust to a past era. How much "retro" would a modern audience be able to play along with? How many of the nuances of a silent film would even be noticed? One scene was reminiscent of the way Judy Garland used to move her head when she was confused or curious. 

The climax had quite an effect on me. Then I realized it was really the soundtrack that was doing it, rather than anything I saw on the screen. I've heard this music before, but where? Finally I realized that it was borrowed from one of the soundtrack-composer-Greats of a few decades ago. What seemed most curious was that cognitive dissonance itself -- and not what was heard or seen -- was the true source of pleasure.

Another odd experience at the movies might be related to this. The only time I ever misted up (heavily!) at the end of a movie was when watching Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" -- you know, the one with the blind girl. To a modern viewer there is a compound layer of cognitive dissonance when watching this movie: he must adjust to a silent movie, firstly. But in addition, the leading character was going through her own cognitive dissonance with being able see after a surgeon restored her vision. Putting yourself in her shoes makes you almost disbelieve how you normally perceive reality.

Perhaps the specialness of these two movies is related to the tricks an outdoorsman can play on his own mind:
  • tricks such as ignoring what your eyes tell you, while emphasizing the texture of the ground as it feels to the naked paws of your dog; 
  • thinking of bird sounds or the kinetic rhythm of its wingbeats, rather than how pretty the bird is; 
  • visualizing the topography in terms of watersheds rather than highways and towns;
  • visualizing the topography in terms of interdigitated ridgelines, as a type of "negative arroyo";
  • or dwelling on the motion of a normally static animal, or vica versa
It is one of the reasons for railing at the passive consumption of postcard scenery. In order for the world to make a big impression on us, we need to be knocked out of, not just daily routines and ordinary locations, but also, the normal patterns of cognition.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Update -- Why Do Some People Dislike Apple So Much?

iSchadenfreude is everywhere! It is another bad day for AAPL stock due to a slowdown in the Apple pipeline of orders. AAPL bears are rejoicing -- they want to see the stock fall down through $500 because of the psychological significance. Even though I am an Apple hater, I will try to take a philosophical look at the anti-Apple syndrome.

First of all, why should any of us hate Apple? Is it just envy? How can we not be grateful for the innovations that Apple has brought forth, with some even benefiting the consumers of rival products? And what about all the jobs? (Some are even in the USA.)

One of the more emphatic critics of Apple is Karl Denninger, who recently said:
There are plenty of people who hate the linkage with iTunes that comes with Apple products...
Everyone on Wall Street wants to talk about ecosystem, but what they're really talking about is a walled garden -- and the wall has razor wire and broken bottles embedded in the top.  It's a prison, which appeals greatly to Wall Street types but it only works for consumers so long as the illusion of free choice and beauty persists. 
The underlying problem for Apple is that the company has stopped innovating.  Love him or hate him (I'm in the latter camp for those who don't know better) Steve Jobs was one of those guys who could make teens scream and then buy all the crap he produced, irrespective of how good it really was...  [emphasis his]
For my part, I became furious at Apple after it tried to "take over" the music library on my computer. I naively downloaded something from another blog. Then a box came up and said that I needed to download Apple's QuickTime player, which I soon did. Fortunately I was able to uninstall that piece of crap, so that my music wasn't wiped out. (I won't mention names, but you're able to guess, perhaps? Grin.)

Can we at least all agree that Apple is less of a technology company than a consumer cult? The average fanboi thinks that he deserves to get all the hot babes at Starbucks just because he has shown up with an iPhone a half a millimeter thinner than a commodity Android phone, or because his iPad has more rounded or more square corners, depending on whichever is de mode this year. 

Contrast that to a no-nonsense consumer who wants the most benefit for his hard-earned dollars. The fanboi cult doesn't seem to care about that -- such concerns are only for the uncool. It angers us consumer-nerd types to see marketing and media have so much control over human behavior.

Much of the credit for weakening Apple's aura of invincibility redounds to Samsung and its Galaxy phones and tablets. Windows Phone 8 hasn't really reached critical mass yet, and of course we don't know whether it ever will. But let's be optimistic, since it is in the interest of the cellphone carriers to promote and subsidize Windows Phone 8 in order to take the iPhone (subsidy) down a notch.

There is hope that the next generation of Atom chips from Intel will do a good job running real Windows 8 (not RT) on a tablet. At a good price, and with a keyboard docking station, you'd think a device like this would quickly dominate the field. So much for the iPad's days of glory.

Update: I've really been enjoying articles by Ashraf Eassa on Seeking Alpha.com, a financial website. Today's article about the Pro (non RT) version of the Microsoft Surface Tablet was quite informative. The moral of the story is: don't be an early adopter and get sucked into those sub-Windows RT tablets based on ARM chips. Wait for lower-power Intel chips and lower prices to appear on the Pro (Windows) tablets. This might take a year or two. Don't think for a moment that a chronic early-adopter will listen to this advice. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Great Charnel Houses in the Cloud

I want to follow up with some suggestions about conquering the Uninterrupted Prose Syndrome, by making verbiage "breathe" with some kind of pictorial illustration, gotten somewhere. (Let's ignore the fact that music might be even better for this purpose, since it's probably more technically difficult to get it into the blog post.) 

So off I will go, searching for shareable photographs in the great charnel houses for internet photographs, such as publicDomainPictures.net, Picasa, or Flickr. Blogs that have a Creative Commons License, such as a commenter's blog, are also worth a serious look.

Oops. There is a likely problem that we must address before rolling up our sleeves. Recall the controversy that good ol' Leo Tolstoy got into in the Colorado arts scene, one summer not so long ago. (grin) By invoking his arguments on "What is Art?" (free on Google Books), I am not trying to con you with an "appeal to Authority," as it might appear at first. A "big name's" theory is not necessarily correct. But can we agree that his is at least worth considering, before making up your own mind?

In short, Tolstoy thought the conventional world of Art was barking up the wrong tree in pursuing Beauty or the Pleasure to be gotten from viewing Beauty. Tolstoy thought that Beauty is just the pompous, but empty, term we use to describe whatever is de mode amongst the smart-set.

He finally answers the question in Chapter 5:
...that whereas by words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.

And it is on this capacity of man to receive another man's expression of feeling, and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art.

Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.
Now, I'm not going to use this as an excuse not to go looking for paintings and photographs that I can borrow to help my own blog posts breathe; but much of the art world only cares about Beauty, which in the final analysis, is nothing more than what sells to a bourgeois matron looking to fill empty spaces in her McMansion's living room.

Where can I find a world of illustration that isn't concerned about beauty, but can be used to transfer the emotional content of the thoughts being expressed, per Tolstoy? I'll bet it's the world of cartoons! (Such as they used to put in Barron's or The New Yorker.) Nobody can accuse them of being pretty, since they are just crude line drawings of poor verisimilitude. 

Consider an example. Last post I complained of the tedium of reading uninterrupted prose. Think of how much of human life through the ages has been captured by that one word, 'tedium.' So are artists too busy to bother with something so fundamentally important to the human condition? But just try to imagine a photograph or painting that expresses Tedium. Even if an artist were clever enough to think of one, they wouldn't do it because it wouldn't be beautiful enough. (That ugly word, again.)  Perhaps music could do a better job. Consider Eric Satie's Gnossiennes #1. (I am extremely grateful to a long-lost commenter who once suggested I look into Satie.)

But I can remember a couple cartoons from 20 years ago (!) that expressed tedium/futility in a way that knocked me off my feet.

Aw gee, now I have another internet search project: to find a (shareable) charnel house for cartoons in the cloud.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Letting a Book Breathe

Now don't be suspicious or skeptical if I boast of progress in my de-internetting project by reading adulterous love triangles. Thanks to getting a library card from the Yuma library, I picked up the late-1940s movie, Anna Karenina, starring Vivian Leigh. She was good in the role and, let's face it, agreeable to look at. It served as inspiration for a rematch with Tolstoy's novel. It took about 40 pages for the main characters to start the soap opera, proper, after which I just rolled my eyes and put the book away. Ahh but wait. Maybe things are different when re-reading a book. 

Let's try to learn something from rewatching a movie. Years ago I learned the trick of focusing away from the center of the screen. Without any special effort, you probably would be focusing dead center, where the action is and the leading characters are. 

Perhaps this could work for re-reading a novel? For example I am merely skimming the main chapters in Anna, all ghastly soap operas, while slowly and carefully reading the "sub-plots," some of which foreshadow The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one of his later novels that is shorter and lacks a pukey romance or love triangle. There is also a marvelous scene outdoors on a farm when "Levin", Tolstoy's alter ego, is doing some strenuous farm work of the kind typically done by peasants and never by aristocrats, such as himself. (Part 3, Chapter 5.)

How that scene opened up the novel (!) and 'let it breathe,' as the DVD commentary tracks are fond of saying of movies that finally move from interior sets (or city-streets) to the countryside. And they are right. The audience really does start to suffocate when watching too many scenes inside a house, especially with the parlor-snakes going at each other.

If this is a general and valid principle, why do book-publishers give us novels with 700 pages of uninterrupted prose? Fiction is the worst case. At least History books try to alleviate the tedium by offering blocks of illustrations every few hundred pages. How generous of them! Usually the photographs are just portraits or group poses. 

The uninterrupted-prose-syndrome starts early in life. Children's books are nicely illustrated on almost every page, with the prose almost functioning as elongated captions of the illustrations. Children's encyclopedias are also nicely illustrated. That's about all I read as a child, and I still like article-length buckets of words, rather than giant holding tanks. Then you move on to grown-up "B" encyclopedias with lots of photographs, while more prestigious encyclopedias such as Britannica don't deign to illustrations.

Tabloid newspapers usually offer a lot of illustrations, while the New York Times does not. In so many ways, we are taught that tedious uninterrupted prose is the right way to be intellectually respectable. 

In the old days it was expensive to illustrate books. But in our day there are oceanic quantities of photographs at Picasa, Flickr, etc. I've never borrowed a photograph, from such places, that illustrates a point I was writing about. Why not? Just think of all those digital cameras, more every year, more pixels per photograph, cameras on the front and back of smart phones and tablets, etc. What is it all good for unless somebody uses them?

Publishers and media companies buy photographs from Getty Images. How nice it would be if amateurs' photos and paintings got used in blog posts and eBooks, rather than languish in graveyards on the internet.