Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A "First" for a Seasonal Migration

OK I admit it: I'm a bit sad to leave Yuma tomorrow. That's probably a "first" during 15 years as a full time RVer. If a place is worth going to, it is worth staying at -- until something goes wrong. Usually the weather becomes uncomfortable, or you've used up your time limit, or you've acquired a noisy neighbor. It's fun to leave when you really want to leave. Otherwise you are just wasting money on frivolous sightseeing -- the thing that some internet-wit or other called "channel surfing with gasoline."

Don't think that I've gone soft  in the head. Yuma itself is not interesting. But I hope to long remember how pleasant it was to get back into club road bicycling. The moral of the story is to stay flexible when "lifestyling".

Once again the upward and northward migration starts. Once again I yearn for some way to start a loose caravan or club of outdoorsy RV campers -- as opposed to mainstream, sedentary, portable suburbanites. Nothing will probably happen until somebody else joins minds with me. My friend Mark, of Box Canyon blog, is probably correct in recommending that I stay flexible if there is to be any chance of success.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Different Seasons, Different Lifestyles

Yuma, AZ. Having just finished my best winter in many a year, it's time to ask 'why'. This winter's experience supports the notion that it is beneficial to live differently in the winter, compared to summer; and not just a change of geography either, but a real change in lifestyle.

For instance, it's a solitary life when dispersed camping for 9 months of the year. More solitary than is desirable. Why people treat Solitude as a sacred mantra has always been a mystery to me. 'Independence' has positive value, but Solitude doesn't.

In contrast this winter in Yuma has been spent bicycling with a club of friendly people. Sometimes we've had as many as 50 people on a ride. It's true that the conversations at food stops are just noisy chatter. But that is all you are likely to get from human beings in the real world. To demand more will just lead to frustration, then to disappointment, and will ultimately be crowned with unpopularity when other people sense your dissatisfaction.

Dispersed camping on public lands in the West gives you an eye-full of great scenery. Maybe scenery continues to interest me even after 15 years of full time RVing because I let it rest, now and then. Yuma is one of the few places in Arizona that isn't attractive. (Ignoring the metropolitan hell-holes, of course.) But I wasn't here to extend 9 months of great scenery to 12. Pretty scenery, like anything else in life, is subject to "diminishing returns" after a certain point.

Is there a good place in the Four Corner states to do road cycling with a club in the summer? (Solitary road riding on highways is too dangerous in my opinion, unless you have residential traffic speeds or bike trails.) I don't really know of any. It seems like you need to "camp" at some boring and pricey RV park, and put up with lots of traffic and hot weather.

My first summer RVing I was a bicycle tour leader for a commercial company. Maybe it's time for Round 2; or some seasonal job like that, as long as the temperatures are cool. It would be nice to hear of other travelers' experiences with seasonal jobs.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Do People Ever Get Better at Conversation?

Quotidiana.org deserves a compliment for choosing a classic essay by Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver's Travels fame) on improving conversation. Actually it is a timely topic for those in snowbird country. It certainly takes some effort to adjust to the prose of the early 1700s, but if you are willing to read his brief essay you are likely to enjoy it. Rather than rehash his essay, let me confine myself to updating it to our times or looking for issues that he overlooked.

Most of the schemes for 'solving the world's problems' are difficult, slow, or even doubtful. What is tantalizing about the sorry state of conversation is that improvement is not only feasible, but almost easy! Just about anybody could become a better talker and listener with just a few minutes of thought about some common bad habits, followed by a moderate amount of willpower and practice.

Snowbird meccas are great places to observe the maladies of conversation that seem to grow worse with age. People can quickly tell when an old boy is cranking up to tell one of his self-centered and interminable stories. The audience can see it coming even before he gets the first sentence out. Then they zone out mentally while nodding their heads, grinning occasionally, squirming irritably, and feigning interest. Who knows how long the story goes on; the audience doesn't regain consciousness until the old boy starts laughing loudly at his own punchline. 

Think of the golden opportunity that is being wasted when a person fails to become a better conversationalist with age! Look at the pathetic efforts that older people take to look young or compete with youngsters on the youngster's terms. Better that they should put the effort into something that they can actually win at. They can and they should!

It actually could be a good thing to have a larger stock of BRIEF anecdotes to draw on as one gets older. A well-chosen anecdote can make a nebulous abstraction vividly concrete. But the opportunity is wasted by the excessive length of the story, and by the old boy becoming befuddled when he forgets some inconsequential detail.

An RV friend and blogger complains about people "talking in paragraphs." Isn't that a great expression? Sometimes the paragraph-spouter has read so many books that their conversational style has changed from spoken-English to written-English, a rather different language.

It's an almost universal complaint that X is boring and self-centered when all he wants to talk about is X. But I've seen other people invert this syndrome to little advantage. They -- let's call him Y -- make it a habit to converse only by asking X questions about something that X cares about, which, naturally enough, is usually just Xness. Can't Y see how pandering this is? And if X realizes the manipulative gimmick that is occurring, Y comes off as being condescending. I've been on the receiving end of this sort of interrogation and have come away feeling insulted.

Besides, if listening to X run on about X is boring, what difference does it make who the instigator is?

The salons and coffeeshops of the 1700s were famous for civilized conversation. James Boswell offered this anecdote in his Life of Johnson (Gutenberg.org):

He [Samuel Johnson] sometimes could not bear being teazed with questions. I was once present when a gentleman asked so many as, 'What did you do, Sir?' 'What did you say, Sir?' that he [Johnson] at last grew enraged, and said, 'I will not be put to the QUESTION. Don't you consider, Sir, that these are not the
manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with WHAT, and WHY; what
is this? what is that? why is a cow's tail long? why is a fox's tail bushy?'
In olden times the pedantic know-it-all was a nuisance that one would run into. He would put the listener in his place by pulling rank: "See here, good fellow, Euripides thought quite the opposite on that subject". Well, classical educations are almost extinct in our society, and gentlemen are completely so. 

As Jonathan Swift suggested, the argument against pedantry in conversation could be broadened to mean any kind of obtrusive, specialized knowledge that puts other people at a disadvantage.

What would Swift say of the smartphone addict today who sits down with others, supposedly to converse, and then goes running to his gadget like a junkie reaching for his needle?!

The single greatest cause of confusion in conversation is pronoun antecedents. What if I had used 'she' or 'her' for both X and Y  seven paragraphs above this one? This kind of muddle happens all the time. It could be averted by using nouns and names repetitively, instead of those troublesome pronouns. Yes, a noun or name is usually a syllable or two longer than a pronoun, but the verbal shorthand isn't worth the confusion. Besides, there are other ways to cut down on syllables. 

So far I might have put the cart before the horse, just as Jonathan Swift did. It's not that people don't understand how conversations could be improved, and it's not that it would take too much self-control. The real problem is that people are not motivated to do so, perhaps because they resent the notion of conversational rules. It sounds repressive. They want to, like, do their own thing, man.

Why don't they apply the same argument to oppose rules/customs when playing cards or ping-pong?

I believe they are making a purely intellectual error in resenting rules about conversation. They are confusing 'form' with 'content.' Without rules and customs how could we have language? We can agree that "c-a-t" refers to the 15 pound animal that purrs on your lap and says, "Meow", without being constrained to have the same anecdotes and opinions about cats. What is true for language could easily be extended to a broader notion of language, called 'conversation.'

Friday, February 8, 2013

A "Woman in Combat" at a Coffee Shop

Yuma, AZ. It was a fresh winter day and a brisk ride to the coffee shop. The old boys were feelin' frisky, indeed. Not too many people get to experience this sort of pleasure, a special one, that comes from temporarily defying inevitability and mortality. Seventy-year-old men came into the coffee shop like a horde of Genghis's pony-riding barbarians. Why shouldn't an old man do what it takes to feel young, even if the same behavior would be immoral in ordinary circumstances? Let's sit at the coffee shop and feel macho and over-confident; and imagine ourselves as the sackers of cities and the despoilers of Civilization.

Our conversations are never particularly interesting by themselves, and that was true this morning, as well. Then something strange happened: one minute the old boys were enjoying typical banter, and the next minute the mood changed entirely. A cute little lass, about 3, with blue eyes and curly hair, approached my tribe of barbarians, perhaps because she and her mother thought we were funny-looking with our old-man heads sticking out of tight and bright cycling clothes.

What a change! Most of us have 30 gears on our bicycles, but never have we "switched gears" as deftly as at this moment. Suddenly all of these old boys were fawning over the lil' darlin' with such tenderness and obvious enjoyment; and why shouldn't they? Most are grandfathers and a couple are great-grandfathers. I have never had any children, but even I was swept away by the little girl's charm, or rather, by my tribe's reaction to her.

It was alarming to realize that this might have been the first time in my life that I enjoyed fawning over a human puppy. Does that make sense from an Evolutionary point of view? Is something wrong with me?

But never underestimate the human imagination when it's interested in self-exculpation and passing off the blame. I had enjoyed being around children in Mexico during two winters of RVing there. But American children seem like obnoxious, expensive, little nuisances to me. Why this should be so is perhaps the subject for another essay.

Riding with a bicycle club involves sweat, strenuous effort, pain, excitement, and risk -- all the components of a "band of brothers" type of experience. The phrase comes from Shakespeare's Henry V; viewers or readers of the play might be able to tie it to their own experiences:

KING. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility; 
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger: 
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, 
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; 
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Or we can tie the cycling club experience to something more modern.  I actually read a modern (!) book recently. Even more shameful than that, it was a New York Times bestseller. The book was "War" by Sebastian Junger, based on his experiences as an "embedded" journalist with American troops in one of the dodgiest valleys of eastern Afghanistan, close to the mountainous border with Pakistan. His object was to avoid politics and write about the experiences of the combat soldiers.
page 144:  War is a lot of things and it's useless to pretend that exciting isn't one of them...but the public will never hear about it. It's just not something that many people want acknowledged. War is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it...

...war is life multiplied by some number that no one has ever heard of. In some ways twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else.
The soldiers who survived combat had a tough time going back to the "real" world:
Page 233: Civilians balk at recognizing that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up...To a combat vet, the civilian world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all the wrong people in charge.

When men say they miss combat, it's not that they actually miss getting shot at... it's that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.
Page 265: The petty tyrannies of garrison life have returned, and the men do not react well to getting reprimanded by other men who have never been to war. O'Byrne gets yelled at for not sitting in an armchair properly...
All of these things exist in a milder form in a bicycle club. Don't think that I'm glamorizing risk: one of our riders made a mistake recently and got hit by a car going about 40 mph. The rider was 74 years old. He was flown off to the hospital in Phoenix. He survived.

To say that a certain amount of risk is unavoidable and necessary in order to have a non-dreary experience is a different thing from saying that "risk is inherently good and the more, the better."

Recently the American military announced that it will use women in combat situations. In order to protect your PC credentials, you are required to believe that this is progress.  Just think: our little darlin' back at the coffee shop will be old enough to be RPG-fodder in 15 years. Perhaps the war in Afghanistan will still be going on, on some level. (Officially it will be over of course, based on games with semantics.) 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wanna' Be the Successor of the Apple Cult?

Please don't think I'm on some kind of vendetta against Apple. I'm not. But the decade-long run that might be ending for their stock and company is quite unique in the history of the gadget industry. Are you likely to see something of the same kind and degree during the rest of your lifetime?

If you pay any attention to the gadget industry or the stock market, you might be getting tired of articles about the rise/fall of Apple. I am getting several such articles per day and I haven't even asked for them from SeekingAlpha.com . They don't seem badly written. They are the professionals -- I am just an amateur. (Hence, you should never take anything I say about investments as the basis for buying or selling anything.)

So what can an amateur expect to accomplish by writing about stocks, or Apple stock in particular? Some of the professional analysts seem like young whippersnappers who spend too much time playing with a spreadsheet program. They take the published financial results, subtract off This, add That, divide by Whatever, until they reach column ZZ in the spreadsheet. Then they present a slick-looking graph with too many curves and illegible legends. With all that math it looks scientifically-respectable and professional.

But the more quantitative a financial analyst tries to be, the more he drives the car by looking in the rear-view mirror. Would a quantitative analysis, based on past numbers, have caused you to be optimistic about Apple Inc. and its stock during the first year of the iPod, a decade ago, and made you rich?

Let us leave the spreadsheets to the professionals and ask ourselves what they are overlooking. What considerations or interpretations are outside their "jurisdiction?" Let's apply this to the Apple Cult. 

By chance I happened to read a book about non-mainstream religious sects, cults, and alternative religions. Most were founded around that seminal era of 1820--1830, or later. The book was "the new Believers", by David V. Barrett. He accomplished the difficult feat of discussing each sect with as little prejudice as possible. For instance he does not start off with the idea that a non-mainstream group is inherently crazy because they aren't "average" and conventional. Nor is he out to bury religion in general. When history gives us  a semi-solid -- and usually lurid --  fact about the group, he tells it bluntly, rather than trying to sugar-coat the history of the sect.

According to Barrett and others, the crucial time in the life-history of a new religion is the death of the founding Prophet. (Chapter 6, "When the Prophet Dies") Can they hand off his or her authority to a successor without losing momentum or fracturing into a dozen pieces? The founding prophet typically squirts charisma out their ears and eyeballs. Charisma is tied up with Authority and believability.

Why should the Successor be as charismatic as the founding Prophet? Maybe the founding Prophet doesn't even want him to be, lest the Successor upstage the Founder in reputation and legend, and then feel impudent enough to alter the religion. Or perhaps a powerful and charismatic underling would never get that far up in any pre-existing hierarchy in the first place; he would make too many enemies and rivals. Thus the Founder can only choose from cautious "committee men". If safely bland, their annointment as successor might not split the religion. This type of person is unlikely to provide any new "visions".  In that case, the best the new religion can do is coast along with the momentum that the Founding Prophet created. The religion might not even want the gift of prophecy to be given to He who Follows.

The usual course of evolution for a new religion is from "prophet" to "priest", and from a visionary individual to a committee of administrators and bureaucrats.

Another possibility is that a competent -- but non-charismatic and non-visionary -- successor will walk the new religion back to the mainstream.

Now think about poor Tim Cook, Steve Jobs's successor. No matter how expertly he manages headcount, supplier relations, finances, or anything else, he will come off as mere caretaker, a mediocrity. No small success, nor a long sequence of such, will matter to the iFlock. Only blockbusters will! And how many form factors are left? The video/movie content industry is wary of Apple. Verizon and ATT are sick of paying tithes. Competitors are everywhere.

Tim Cook took a big step towards the mainstream when he introduced the mini-iPad. If he chases the larger screens of the iPhone to 5 inch "phablet" status, he will be following the industry -- he won't be parting the Red Sea, like Charlton Heston. There will be endless criticism that the visionary, Jobs, would never have done that. It would be boring and trivial to take the "tech" news literally. But it really adds perspective to look at the mythology that lies just under the surface.

Clearly the "magic" (Authority) of Steve Jobs has not been transferred to his successor, as happened from Moses to Joshua, and from Joseph Smith to Brigham Young. Tim Cook is seen as a mere mortal, born of woman. If this is the final result, it will be a missed opportunity. Steve Jobs was not killed like Socrates, Jesus, and Joseph Smith, but he did die relatively young. In that sense, a myth was begging to be born, such as what happened with entertainment industry stars who died too young in airplane crashes or by drug overdoses.

Another way of walking the Apple Cult back to the mainstream of the electronics industry is falling profit margins; the fear of that is what has spooked investors the last few months.

But what if Cook did try to have a "vision", that is, came out with a high-risk, high-gain device that flops? The criticism will be even more severe.