Sunday, November 30, 2014

In the World, but Not Of It

In contrast to the solitary traveling and mountain biking that I do the rest of the year, midwinter is the season for non-traveling and sociable road cycling with an excellent club in Yuma. I love having a library card and the public library to use it at. But there is an even more radical lifestyle-adjustment: I bought a television antenna so I can watch football. They actually have broadcast stations here.

In watching television, and especially the commercials, I get the profound satisfaction of feeling that "I am in this country and culture, but am not of it." That is an old saying in various religions [*]. I suppose it is usually a mere platitude for them, but no doubt some religious people really mean it. In any case I would like to apply this platitude to the internet, as well. 

Yes, I use the phrase 'profound satisfaction' too often. But it really is true that, at times, you need to slow down and let the sweetness and significance soak in.

The internet is not the moral and intellectual garbage dump that television is. So I don't really hate the internet. But the repetition that I encounter daily is really starting to bore me. Could I do something better than waste $53 per month on a wireless data plan of 5 GigaBytes? Perhaps the pre-pay plan of Walmart would discipline an internet junkie. There are enough free WiFi hotspots, such as the library, that would still keep me from being totally shut off. I wonder if I am just bluffing?

Afraid that Yuma doesn't look like this. But road cyclists don't look at the scenery anyway.

[*] It is not straining an analogy to bring up the history of Christianity before the Roman establishment co-opted it.  Christians were not persecuted for what they believed in, but for what they didn't believe in or pay lip service to. They were considered dangerous atheists because they wouldn't worship Caesar and the traditional gods; doing so was virtually a loyalty oath to the Roman "system."

Our culture's polytheism worships such gods as the Media, Debt, Consumerism, the democratic "General Will," the President and his Legions spread over the empire, etc. These are what an early retiree will not worship. It is our particular form of radical atheism.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Keeps Bloggers Tied Down?

Surely most internet readers have learned from experience to temper their expectations about websites that are new to them. How many times have you gotten excited about a newly-found website, only to learn that your first half-dozen visits have shown everything that you are ever going to see there? Then, when the sting of disappointment sets in, you just want to grab the blogger by the throat and scream, "Come on! You can do it. Take a step upward." But they seldom do. [*]

What is stopping them? Are they just dummies? Or completely static? Maybe they are afraid of something.

Lately I have been fixating on a simile from Arnold Toynbee's abridged "A Study of History," Vol 1, Chapter IV. Maybe it will mean something to readers:
Primitive societies...may be likened to people lying torpid upon a ledge on a mountain-side, with a precipice below and a precipice above; civilizations may be likened to companions of these sleepers who have just risen to their feet and have started to climb up the face of the cliff above...

...and since the next ledge is out of sight, we do not know how high or how arduous the next pitch may be. We only know that it is impossible to halt and rest before next ledge, wherever that may lie, is reached. Thus, even if we could estimate each present climber's strength and skill and nerve, we could not judge whether any of them have any prospect of gaining the ledge above, which is the goal of their present endeavours. We can, however, be sure that some of them will never attain it. And we can observe that, for every single one now strenuously climbing, twice that number have fallen back on the ledge, defeated.

The problem with most websites is not that they are 'falling back on the ledge.' It is that they aren't climbing the cliff at all.

This non-growth is probably easy to explain for blogs that work for eyeball-income: they think they have already found their maximum audience and income, so why take chances? Any genuine opinion on any non-trivial subject is bound to offend somebody, so the blogger keeps everything light, sugary, and non-controversial. And in return, the readers give the blogger credit for being a "positive" person. (Mindlessness, triviality, and arrested growth are positive traits, apparently.)

Thus commercial bloggers are really no different than a television sitcom or soap opera trying to gain audience market share. What more is there to say about them?

Let's look at the second category, where a bit of hope is reasonable. Consider non-commercial, amateur bloggers. Why should it matter to them if some reader stops reading their blog because a new topic was tried or an opinion was offered that offended the reader? The blogger is not being paid. He can say what he wishes, and if the readers don't like it, well, then don't let the door knob...

More times than not, the blogger succumbs to the trap of measuring success and boosting his self-esteem by having lots of "readers." (And yes, even I am susceptible to this disease.) The blogger might actually think he is climbing Toynbee's ledge, in the simile above. But for him, 'climbing' means winning a few more votes from the demos, the rabble. The blogger might as well be back in 8th grade, trying to be popular with all the little blockheads in his class, so he can get elected class president. The blogger tries to ignore the unpleasant truth that most of his mighty readers are just moochers looking for a little free entertainment.

King Numbers. Quantity rather than Quality. It's an old problem that goes back to the beginning of democracy. Nobody has ever found a solution to it yet.

What a difference there is between an abstract shibboleth such as "Democracy" and the effects it has on some concrete part of life, not just blogs, but also food, movies, music, sports, or just about anything. The general democratic mindset of pleasing as many blockheads as possible is anti-growth, anti-quality, and anti-life. It is the democratic mindset that will keep the internet in the gutter.

It does motivate me to attempt reading Plato's "Republic" again. I've had trouble with it before. Maybe it was the translator.

[*] Recently I saw a blog take a step upward. My jaw was actually dropping as I read along.  The change wasn't announced with a new format or layout. There was not any statement by the blogger that it was even happening. But it thrilled me to see it happening. I was proud of myself for identifying it. Maybe that is what caused me to wonder why more bloggers don't "step up." The blog was Mish Shedlock's "Global Economic Analysis."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blogs Can Be Improved by Blending with Books

The history of the English language is a subject that has interested me from time to time. It is rare for an Indo-European language to lack most inflections (endings on verbs and nouns), to make modular use of helper or auxiliary verbs ('If she had gone to town yesterday...'), and to lack gender.  With its history of borrowing from other languages and innovating itself -- without some centralized bureaucracy full of language police as in the French model -- it should be capable of much more.

For instance, when is somebody going to invent, and the rest of society cleave unto, a phrase or word that adequately describes 'drowning in trivia.' Trifles, distraction, minutiae, soul-sucking drivel, and other words are pretty good. But we need something better to express the debasement of human dignity and the utter destruction of the human soul that the internet now offers.

Why do smartphones and drivel-blogs take up so much of our time compared to reading classic books? I was just sitting here reading a classic novel, Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities." I am moderately interested in the book. Why then do I feel this magnetic attraction to switch over to the Trivia online? What is the nature of this addiction? Is it just that the internet demands only a short attention span from its readers? It won't be long before the readers can stop reading entirely by nervously flitting from 2-minute-long video snippet to snippet.

In the past I have tried to explain the weaknesses of books:
  • They are non-interactive. Information flows in only one direction.
  • Books are too thick. Reading them is slow and tedious. 
  • Books suffer from the Uninterrupted Prose Syndrome. Is it really too expensive or disreputable to include some illustrations?
If I remember correctly, commenters were not overly thrilled with any of this. Very well then, if I can't explain what's wrong with reading books, let me try to explain the addictiveness of the internet. Even before the internet, 
  • The boob toob viewer had been long-accustomed to feeling a constant state of anxiety and boredom, an endless itch that must be scratched by clicking the channel button.
  • People who are young enough to have grown up addicted to video games, lived in constant "twitch mode", requiring diddling the joystick and hitting some button or key to blast some opponent.
  • Today people must click boxes on their smartphone screen every few seconds, to refresh the screen with the next ad or piece of trivial information. Otherwise they agonize in a state of nervousness and angst.

What I feel is a mild example of the above. What if the reader of a classic book picked off insightful points that the author glided over too quickly, and then illustrated the point with some experience in his life or some person he once knew?

Typing is a nice outlet for nervous fingers. The reader could type out his little vignette -- maybe just a paragraph or two. Anyone could do that, and it would be constructive. Anything is better than small talk about the weather, Facebook photos of somebody's cat, or postcards.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Success at Reading and Writing Fiction

My "mighty" success at reading a novel started when I was rereading Boswell's "Life of Johnson" for the umpteenth time. Why do I keep rereading this book? Is it because it is a rare example of a book that brings philosophy down from the clouds? It also makes philosophy brief enough for human conversation.

At any rate Boswell mentioned that Samuel Johnson loved Henry Fielding's "Amelia." This is surprising since Johnson stubbornly held to a low opinion of Fielding's work. Nothing quite disposes us to accept advice from somebody else like seeing them make an exception to a general position of theirs.

And so I read and enjoyed "Amelia."  It resembled "Tom Jones" actually: the surprises were a bit outlandish, and it had too much lovey-dovey. So then, why did I enjoy it?

The book is quite a sermon about not blaming "Fortune" for the consequences of our rash behaviour, especially when we are young. It seems odd to use the word 'preach', considering how bawdy and libertine the novel sometimes is. But it does preach indirectly. Perhaps that is the only kind that does anyone any good.

On virtually every page of "Amelia" the author slides in his little zingers of moral philosophy. You could argue that the author makes a mistake in doing so; and that, instead, he should let the readers draw conclusions by themselves. But here I think it worked because his "lessons" are so brief. The reader doesn't have time to get resentful of the author's preaching because the action of the story resumes so quickly.

There are probably other examples of "negative" behavior by an author that actually become positive if brief enough. The same probably applies to what Valium-Capsule-America calls "negative" emotions: suspicions, caution, sarcasm, and others. But there is a huge difference between 1) noting "negatives" enough to take them into a decision, and 2) fixating on them, perhaps with no action or decision in mind, but merely as a bad habit.

Think of the huge advantages that a novelist has over a philosopher or even an essayist. When the essayist hammers away on his point, the readers start to dig in their heels. They think, "I'm so sick of this blowhard and know-it-all."

But the novelist needn't succumb to that weakness. All he must do is get his readers to "suspend disbelief," and consider the characters and situations "real." When that happens, the story appears to do the preaching. The reader has forgotten about the author and his ego. The reader must actively try to educe general lessons from concrete situations, rather than settle for the passive soporific of spoonfed moral lessons.

Recall some advice from Strunk and White's "Style" chapter:

Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than the mood and temper of the author.

...that is, place yourself in the background.
This is why it is wrong for an author to make a promiscuous use of bold and italic letters, exclamation marks (!!!), weird punctuation... lessee, what else... oh yeah, slang, chattiness, vulgarisms, parenthetical remarks, neologisms, foreign phrases, and big words.

Consider what is lost when otherwise excellent authors fail to heed this advice. The Coen brothers are highly regarded as film writers and directors. Count me among their millions of fans. But they could be better. Their characters say things that no person would ever say. Plot twists are too contrived. Weird faces and accents are sometimes fun to see on film, but at other times, they are exxagerated or inaccurate.

Once the audience suspects the scriptwriter is putting Himself before the story, the "suspension of disbelief" is undermined. The audience starts thinking that characters, dialog, and situations are "fake," so nothing really matters anymore. It is so easy to take the audience 'out of the story.' Something as trivial as an "extra" looking at the camera can cause a re-shoot, and rightly so.

Another example of not receding into the background is the novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Despite his enormous reputation he made a lot of mistakes. Some of his characters are transparently autobiographical (but perhaps not so at the time.) Tolstoy obtrudes too many opinions in the story and detracts from the reader's enjoyment. Once again, this disadvantage could be turned into an advantage if the obtrusions were brisk and brief enough.

But I wonder if modern novelists have lost sight of their advantages over philosophers. Perhaps the zeitgeist has decided that injecting moral lessons about living life is too old-fashioned to be intellectually respectable. They want to be "value neutral."  They emphasize quirky, perverted, or mentally-unstable characters, as if madness makes a character more interesting. They probably think it makes their writing look more like the "forefront of research."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Seasons Can Be "Complementary Lifestyle Modules"

Once again I am in Yuma, wondering if there is a business where I can put my brain into cold storage for the winter. 

And why not, I ain't got no use for it, anyhow -- at least not for the next couple months. In fact the intellect is over-rated, as my winter lifestyle will prove. My enjoyment of life will be physiological and anthropological: I will be roadie-cycling with the single best cycling club in the Southwestern winter.

As you can tell, I just finished my first club ride, came home and took a navy-style shower, popped "The Big Country"  into the DVD player, and took a deep sag in front of it. (Notice I did not say 'nap.')

There is a real satisfaction that comes from changing your lifestyle in the winter, rather than merely changing your geographical location. What is the marginal utility of one more location to an RVer after 50 locations, the rest of the year? [*]

But if he can spot some deficiency in his lifestyle the rest of the year, and if he can somehow come up with the complementary pro-s and con-s in the winter, well then, he has constructed the perfect 12 month lifestyle.

In my particular case, I experience more pretty scenery than a sensible human being would need. I know that Life's Little Adventures and Box Canyon Blog won't agree with me on this issue. Wonderful (and unique) people though they be, and as happy with their lifestyles as they are, they still suffer from a serious substance-abuse problem: pretty scenery is their heroin. (grin) Or it could be that they just don't invoke the concept of diminishing marginal utility as the Prime Directive of their blogs.

Thus in the winter I head to Yuma, one of the few places in Arizona that is visually uninteresting, if not positively ugly. Let my eyeballs and camera rest for a couple months.

The rest of the year I disperse camp, mountain bike, and walk arroyos with my dog, who is of course ridiculously happy about it. But unintentionally I live the life of recluse. I've tried various approaches to overcoming that; they were about 5--10% successful. 

Perhaps I will never solve this "problem." So be it. Life is too short to worry about the same old issues year after year. Whatever disappointment I feel in this one department of life can be turned to advantage by showing up in Yuma and riding with the road cycling club. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!

[*] Isn't it strange how the prophets of the RV blogosphere, imbued with all their Higher Forms of Wisdom, can so easily see the folly of the conventional lifestyle with its insatiable demand for one more gadget or one more granite counter-top. 

But they cannot see the pointlessness of one more location, after pushing their geographical "channel button" 100 times per year.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why Do Some Enjoy Reading Fiction?

There is no point in trying to hide it: I am quite pleased with myself. I read a novel, and even enjoyed the ordeal, overall.

Still, there were times when I was bored and frustrated. The only thing that helped me through those episodes was visualizing my suffering as "noble and heroic." The half-facetiousness of this lightened my mood. Fortunately the novel would then become more interesting in a couple pages, and I could take a break from my play-acting. 

This gimmick worked all through the novel. Many times, I kept hearing a voice say, "It's a far, far better thing I do than..." But say, where did that come? Wasn't it from some novel I was forced to read in high school, and therefore, probably disliked? Rather ironic, if true.

And yet there are many people who enjoy novels, effortlessly I suppose. What is their secret? Why don't they spill it to people like me? Maybe it will help to consider one category of successful novel-readers at a time.

1. Novel-readers who simply like the physical act of tediously and repetitively rastering their eyeballs over the printed page, while sitting in a chair all day. Maybe they like the cozy atmosphere of sipping on some hot tea, with a cat purring next to them, and some soothing, non-vocal music playing in the background. There are even people who can read when reclining. To some extent, reading a book for them is "chewing gum for the eyes," although that old witticism applies better to television.

2. Novel-readers who are not crazy about the physical act of reading, but who tolerate it because of the:

a) entertainment value of the stories. They must be easily entertained. Ninety-five percent of the shop-worn plots are Love Triangles, adulterous love triangles, unrequited love, revenge, mistaken identity, rags-to-riches, whodunnit, and violence. If the novel is modern, it will also be replete with lurid and sordid bedroom scenes.

b) what they can learn about how human personalities interact with the challenges in their personal lives. Human situations become a mini-sermon to them; a non-academic, concrete illustration of a philosophical principle.

Clearly, #1 and #2a type readers have nothing to teach me. Only #2b type people could. Next time I need to expand on #2b.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Euro-Vans, Go Home!

Once again I took advantage of a mountain biking event to check out the motor vehicles, used to carry bikes and camping gear around. Once again I didn't learn much, because most people had the bikes on external racks. No thanks.

I didn't see one homemade, plywood cap/shell on a pickup truck. That is my best plan for the future. The commercial caps are expensive, not tall enough (at the stern), lack barn doors (at the stern), and have too many windows. (The first mistake in any vehicular design is too many windows.) Besides, I want to mount furring strips, shelves, and hooks on the inside, just like a cargo trailer. Are you really going to drill holes through a new commercial $2000-3000 cap?

But then I got a little excited about seeing the rebadged Fiat cargo van that Chrysler is selling as the RAM "Promaster." My goodness, where do they put the engine in this ugly, snub-nosed thing? But 'ugly' is OK with me. I knew that it was front wheel drive, and therefore wouldn't be much good for towing. But at least the ground clearance in front looked pretty good.

As the RAM Promaster van drove away, I managed to get a photograph of its rear end, practically dragging in the dirt. Maybe this is how they grade roads in Europe:

Gee, now that you mention it, maybe the "Zamboni" (that smooths the ice skating rink) is a branch of Fiat of Italy.

They can't be serious?! Why don't they go back where they came from? We don't cotton to their kind around here, in the great American West. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Syria and Iran Should Be Very Nervous

The Republican party won a major victory last night. Big deal! They won't accomplish anything the next two years. 
  • Will they roll back the amerikan police state by repealing the so-called Patriot Act?
  • Discuss whether the USA should withdraw from NATO, now that it serves no defensive purpose?
  • Will they make it legal for amerikans to import pharmaceutical drugs, at lower price of course?
  • Do anything to slow rampant inflation in health care and college costs?
  • How about cleaning up the corruption in the banking and financial sector?
  • Will they limit the fanatical Keynesian bubble-brewing of the Federal Reserve?
  • Can they help young people look forward to good jobs or anything brighter than college debt and paying for trillions of dollars of Medicare expenses for aging Baby Boomers?
Of course not. The only thing the Republican party cares about is military spending and finding new wars in the Mideast: new places to kill Muslims or anybody who doesn't like Israel, where 1/3 of the Republican party expects to be Raptured in a couple years.

Obama has become a lame duck. There is only one way for him to regain political stature: he must enlarge the war in Syria and perhaps take on Iran. The Republicans will join him, rather than fight him. But the main reason he will do this is that whenever a president is checked by an opposition Congress, the only thing he can do to be the uncontested, mighty ruler of the Exceptional People is to wage war.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's Raise the Voting Age to 30

Every year I get closer to seeing Democracy as more of a dogmatic faith than a sensible system of government for grown-ups. Universal suffrage is the worst idea that any society has ever come up with.

Consider the 26th Amendment of the U.S. "Constitution." It lowered the voting age to 18. Why? It was probably aimed at redressing some unfairness during the unpopular Vietnam War debacle. People asked how the government could send 18-year-old "boys" to their deaths in soggy rice paddies, when they couldn't even vote on the war, back home.

It is easy to sympathize with that argument. But historically this amendment was obsolete by the time it was ratified, because the military establishment has shifted over to voluntary enlistment. And it seems permanent. 

Perhaps the Vietnam draft argument was only part of lowering the voting age to 18. The Media and the advertising industry focused on the huge demographic bulge of Baby Boomers becoming consumers, and after all, voting is just another example of "consuming." Perhaps both parties thought they should get out ahead of the trend, rather than be seen as retrograde opposition. Youth-worship was part of the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I'm not suggesting going back to 21 as the voting age. From a "good government" perspective, it makes more sense to raise it to 25 or 30. What is the rational and philosophical basis for any age limit? Surely it must be connected with most people's idea of being an "adult." Do you think that college students of any age are adults?  Only biologically.

Humans used to grow up faster. Adolescence was brief. A couple generations ago, an 18-year-old would have been earning a living, struggling with the rent, getting married, and having children. They were more adult at 18 than a 28-year-old graduate student is today.

A college student, no matter how old, will never be more than a senescent adolescent. We live in a society of rampaging diploma inflation, guaranteed with government loans. Adolescence now consumes 1/3 of a human lifetime, say, from the age of 10 to 30. Even at 30, many college graduates can only get a part time job at the Dollar Store or as a Starbucks barista. They live in Mommie's basement. Any sensible definition of adulthood must include a person supporting themselves and being responsible for their actions.

There seems to be no end to this trend of lengthening adolescence. At the very least, our voting age should reflect this by increasing, not by being lowered to 18.

In theory the argument I'm giving is non-partisan. But in practice the Democratic party would oppose it the most. The college-town culture that people are brainwashed with at State U is 98% left wing:

  •  the local media in college town. NPR rules the airwaves there.
  •  the old hippie hangers-on who stay in college town all their lives.
  • the PC rules on campus.
  • the biases of left-wing -- and tenured! -- professors in the liberal arts classes that Junior is forced to take the first couple years.
  • the sexual frivolousness of college "women" who are very serious about wanting abortion to, not only stay legal, but be paid for by the rest of society.
  • entire academic departments are set up to promulgate benefits to the Democratic party, such as Black Studies, Feminist Studies, Environmental "Science." Who was the wit who first said that "environmentalism is 'school prayer' for liberals?"

The left wing brainwashing that people get at the university is universal, predictable, and stereotypical. Think of all the people you know who froze their worldview at the level of a college sophomore.

Therefore diploma inflation and the lengthening of adolescence is a huge demographic win for the Democratic party. It might even be more lethal to the survival of the Republican party than Mexican immigration is. 

Perhaps the Republican party will go extinct like the Whigs and Federalists. Imagine the one-party interregnum that will ensue for a couple years before another opposition party is created: the USA will still be bombing, invading, and occupying countries around the globe, with the usual ostensible reasons such as bringing "Democracy" to them. Meanwhile, back in the good ol' US of A, they would barely need elections, since only one party still exists. Would anybody even notice the irony?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ghouls Silently Dancing Along the Ridges

Many people in the USA live along the latitude of 40 degrees north. So did I for much of my life. Typically there was a nasty weather collapse near Halloween. Now living in the Southwest, I should be free of all that.

But not this Halloween. Actually I put it to good use. Blue skies can make scenic areas look too predictably pretty. And insipid. I rather like the moodiness of mesa and canyon country during storms.

Canyons also give you a little protection from blustery winds. Of course if it were raining hard, you would be wise to stay out of the canyon. So I took my dog, Coffee Girl, up some canyons that are parked right outside my camper's door.

I wonder who loves this more, she or I? But this time the experience was enhanced by the stormy weather and the possibility of rain on the walk. It sounds ridiculous to think that a little rain has become some great Malevolence to me, but I guess living in the Southwest will do that to a person.

Good luck put a little more mood into this Halloween. You see, I 'heard voices all night.' I am camped on the route of a 25-hour mountain bike race near Virgin UT. Despite the cold and the light rain, the race went on. They talked with their fellow ghouls sometimes as they rode by my trailer.

What amazing headlights these ghouls were wearing! They were visible a couple miles away, as they rose over a ridge for a few seconds, sparkling like distant and solitary jack-o-lanterns. Then, just as quickly, they vanished into the next dip. They floated along the just-barely-visible landscape, silently and eerily, like angry, wandering Souls of the Dead.