Monday, December 29, 2014


One of the uses of old age is to develop the "muscles" that can actually improve with age. By that I mean developing the capabilities and habits of Appreciation, Gratitude, and Admiration. Today's focus is on Admiration.

I once used an inspiring speech by an anti-hero, "The Hustler," in the 1962 black-and-white film noir movie starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott, and Jackie Gleason. But before re-quoting it, let's first ask why it inspired at all. Art, according to Tolstoy's "What is Art", is not really about "beauty," as most people mistakenly suppose; rather, Art is the infecting of the viewer/reader with the emotional experience of the artist, by words, pictures, or sounds. And the makers of "The Hustler" certainly did that to me. 

Maybe their trick was to exploit the inherent advantages of an anti-hero. (Does that trick also apply in the blogosphere?) If a goodie-two-shoes, follow-the-rules, smiley-face had made the same speech, I would have merely discounted it as a routine pep-talk, better off inside a Hallmark card or stuck to somebody's bumper.

Most of the scenes were dark and grim and interior, except one: the Hustler (Newman) and his girlfriend leave the urban grit of New York City and head off for a picnic on a slope above a lake. They relaxed on a blanket and took in the view.
The Hustler to his girlfriend: Do you think I'm a loser?
He had been told that he was by the Gambler (George C. Scott), who recognized the young man's talent at pool, but also saw his character flaws. The Hustler started to wonder if it might be true, as he recounted a string of recent mistakes.

Girlfriend: Does it bother you what he said? Hustler: Yea. Yea, it bothers me a lot.
One of his mistakes was showing how good he was and winning a lot of money from some second-rate players, instead of disguising his ability, as a good hustler should. It got him beaten up.

Hustler: I could have beaten those creeps and punks cold, and they never would have known. I just had to show 'em what the game is like when it's really great. Anything can be great. Bricklaying can be great, as long as the guy knows what he's doing, and why, and if he can make it come off.

And when I'm going, when I'm really goin', I feel like a jockey must feel. He's sittin' on his horse, he's got all that speed and power underneath him, and he's coming into the stretch and the pressure's on him. He just knows when to let it go and by how much, because he's got everything working for him, timing, touch... that's a great feeling.

It's like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue is part of me. It's a piece of wood, with nerves in it. You can feel the roll of those balls. You don't have to look -- you just know. You make shots that nobody's ever made before. Ya play that game like nobody's ever played it before.

Girlfriend: You're not a loser, you're a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything.
I then ended my sermon with a rhetorical question: why don't travelers seem to care whether they are good at travel? Why don't they 'raise the high jump bar,' instead of settling for imitating other losers?

Well, there is at least a partial answer to that. But let's ignore it today and focus on the rare winners that can be found from time to time.

Recall, last episode, I was romanticizing the Eurasian steppe and its way of life, and promising to find a bicycle touring blog that went through the steppe. As it turned out, this was pretty easy. Consider this post and photo, by Terry Ward, on :

Click here for a larger version of the picture
(Eyelashes fluttering...swoon.)

This photo by Mr. Ward shows how I would like to live, if transported by some magic carpet or time machine. The Lone Rider of the Eurasian steppe. Off-the-leash. Rampaging and marauding for thousands of miles, sacking the cities of decadent civilizations, with his loyal War Dog at his side. (Of course, I would be on a mountain bike instead of a horse. But the principle is the same.)

In this post, Mr. Ward showed what a great traveler is capable of:

The herds were always carefully watched by herders who were mounted on magnificent large horses. The horses are a wonderful feature of this region as everyone, including men, women and children ride easily on the tallest of horses. I saw a father lift a tiny girl who was possibly as young as three years old onto the back of a long-legged horse and then he smacked the horse on the rump. The girl sat easily in the saddle and held the reins expertly in her tiny hands. When they arrived at her yurt the horse stopped next to a tall pile of dirt, at which place the toddler slid off the saddle onto the top of the mound of dirt and then hopped down its side and entered her home.

I stopped breathing when I read that paragraph.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Wanted: More "David Lean Style" Novels

It might be fair to describe the David Lean style movies (e.g., Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago) as consisting of a close-up drama of the main characters, usually during wars or revolutions, and with a huge landscape in the background. (Doctor Zhivago was the only one in the list that was pulled down by love triangles, adultery, and all the rest of that puke. And that wasn't really Lean's fault.)

To be a happier novel-reader I need to find books that remind me of Lean's movies. By luck I did. Tolstoy's "Hadji Murat" was written late in Tolstoy's life. The short novel took place in the same setting where young Tolstoy served in the Czar's army, the Caucasus, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Reading this short novel will probably make you feel like the ideal traveler, who learns about radically different ways of life, and not just silly scenery tourism. Of course there is plenty of scenery in the neighborhood, including an 18,000 ft high mountain! The main character, Hadji Murat, was a warrior in one of the Muslim tribes there.

The Caucasus was the southern boundary of czarist Russia, and what a boundary it was, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally! Muslims versus Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Turkic versus Indo-European languages. The Silk Route went through there. It was the eastern edge of the ancient Greco-Roman world: the legendary Jason and the Argonaut looked for the Golden Fleece there. It was Josef Stalin's home country.

The Black Sea isn't the Russian equivalent of North America's Great Lakes. Salty water flows into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean along the bottom, while freshwater flows out to the Mediterranean along the top. The deepest spot in the Black Sea is over 7000 feet, compared to about 1000 feet in Lake Superior.

My goodness, what a map nerd I am! It's time to find some bicycle touring blogs that roamed the Caucasus.

Let's say you are a "Caucasian." Hasn't it always seemed strange to be affiliated with a place-name that you could barely point to on a map? The Indo-Europeans of the Caucasus became important to the world because that is probably where the horse was domesticated. Soon after, they learned to put a chariot behind a team of two horses; one guy managed the horses, while the second guy blasted away with a bow and arrow. They even learned to make lighter, spoked wheels.

What an important region the Eurasian steppe (grasslands) used to be! They connected eastern Europe with China. All of the ancient civilizations, except maybe the Egyptian, were invaded and conquered by horse and chariot warriers. It was the classic battle of Cain versus Abel. 

Anyway, this is the proper backdrop for an interesting short novel. It is so much better than the parlour and ballroom combat of 19th Century novels written for lady novel readers, or the modern novels, dominated by the perverse proclivities of New York City.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Time of Year to Be Realistic about People

There is indeed a silver lining in every cloud. The decline of American culture and society has brought an unexpected blessing: the "Fourth of July" (once called Independence Day) has superseded Christmas as the most ridiculous national holiday. 

Believe it or not, that has made it easier for me to ignore or laugh at Christmas. I saw a car in the parking lot with one of Santa's legs crushed by the trunk of the car. Poor Santa's withered leg dangled out. Now there is a motorist who has the right attitude about Christmas! Don't be sour or critical about it. Limit your comments about Christmas to crisp and good-natured mockery, when it is irresistible. The rest of the time, say nothing. Talk about the weather or the condition of the roads.

The holidays put a lot of pressure on you to make "conversation" with people. You probably find yourself looking down the table and wondering how it could be possible that you all came from the same womb. Just settle for chit-chat and conviviality. It's better than an argument. There is no point in ruining a small Good by demanding a big Good.

Normally I find quotes to illustrate my point, but here I am having trouble finding the quote of James Boswell, when he was complaining to Samuel Johnson about how most conversations degenerated into idea-less small talk. 

Johnson -- normally a gruff old bear -- surprised him by pointing out that these apparently trivial conversations did in fact have some value: they gave people a chance to practice kindness to each other.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Good News About Wireless Signals in Rural Areas

According to a recent article on Seeking Alpha, by Thurman Dunn, there is some reason for expecting better wireless data and voice in rural areas far from interstates. There is going to be another auction soon of low frequency/long wavelength electromagnetic spectrum:
But things are going to change in 2016. The FCC is gathering up as much of the 600 MHz spectrum as it can get from TV owners (who largely no longer need it). This 600 MHz spectrum is shaping up to be the biggest thing in a long time, as far as cellular service providers go. It has the potential to completely rearrange the playing field in the telecommunications industry.
Recall that frequency (MHz) times wavelength equals a constant, the speed of light. So low frequency means long wavelengths. These long wavelengths are not absorbed as easily as the short wavelengths. Visualize rocks, trees, walls (etc.) absorbing 50% of the signal strength per wavelength. So an obstacle would have to be twice as thick to absorb 50% when the wavelength is twice as long.
AT&T and Verizon dominated the 700 MHz allocation during the last major bid in 2008 (for spectrum below 1GHz),

This could change in 2016. The 600 MHz auction will be, in the FCC's own words, the last major spectrum auction for quite some time.
In contrast, urban hellhole customers need the high frequency/short wavelength spectrum because it can carry more data. Think of it as an interstate highway with six lanes in each direction. These can carry more traffic. 

But out in the sticks there aren't so many customers sucking on the same electromagnetic straw, all at the same time. So we care about 600 MHz, good-penetrating signals. I look forward to the improvement.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Almost" Dropping Out of the Internet

Last month I went through my 5 Gigabyte allowance with Verizon for the first time. In fairness to the great oligopolist of the aether, they did notify me at the 5 GB limit, three days before the monthly clock was to be reset.

This motivated me to go on a complete fast. The month ended with a usage of 5.010 Gigabytes, or something ridiculously close to 5.000. Would the jerks charge me $10 for going over the limit? I assumed that they would, despite the fact that I go under the limit by 1.3 Gigabytes on most months. (And because this is conventional, nobody gets angry about it.)

The three day internet fast felt so morally redeeming! (It's not for nothing that fasting has been a big part of the religious tradition for millennia.) It fired up my ambition to "cut the (ethereal) cord," and save $53 per month. But this is probably just an empty bluff. 

But what if they really did charge extra for the microscopic bit of overage? Wouldn't anger make me carry through with terminating the service? Anger is a "negative" emotion according to Valium Capsule Nation [*]. They fancy themselves positive thinkers, but they are unwilling to see a positive value in anger: it can be a tool that helps you take on something really difficult.

But they didn't bill me for the microscopic overage! Ah well, maybe decisions based on anger are not good, in general. But this one would have been.

Thus I continue to live in sin. No matter how techno-narcissistic our culture becomes, how many gadget ads you see, how many more Gigabytes move around at how many more Gigahertz, there is still no better assessment of the Information Age than that made by Henry David Thoreau, in "Walden":
" with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance...
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."

[*] My term for that motley collection of nambie-pambies, nervous nellies and worry-worts, effeminate New Agers, pop psychology magazine readers, brainwashees of motivational gurus, and people dependent on any kind of religious crutch.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A RetroGrouch Has a Good Day and a Bad Day

It has been quite a few years since I went over to Algodones, Baja California Norte, Mexico to get my teeth cleaned. Thus it was time for a little bit of nostalgia -- I hadn't been to Mexico since the early Aughts.

As I walked into the lobby of the oficina dentista, my heart sank. It had been gringa-ized! Pretty decorations, glossy magazines, nice furniture, and a marble floor. One of the attractions of going to Mexico used to be that it helped you to realize how much of what you pay for in the USA is just worthless overhead.

Ideally you should walk into the dentist's office and find a dirt floor. Then you would sit down on a bale of hay. In front, a burro or two would be snoozing. To kill time during your wait, the customers could throw snacks down on the ground for chickens and roosters.

Then you would go into the dentista's room, and find it full of state-of-the-art dental equipment from Siemens. It used to be somewhat like this idealized picture.

Back in the USA I went to a Ford dealer to ogle some pickup trucks. Much to my surprise I found a white F150, rear wheel drive, regular cab, low-trim-level pickup that had been recently sold to one of Yuma's agricultural firms. I wanted to swoon like a lady of the Victorian era. The truck had roll-up windows and non-motorized seat adjustment levers.

It wasn't a base model: it had the V8 engine, the tow package (for only $400 or so), and an eLocker differential ($450 option).  In other words it had low-cost options that made it more useful as a pickup truck -- a working tool -- for a real guy.

No power mirrors, leather seats, eight speaker stereo, or premium cup holders. I'm still waiting for the hot new trend in the $60,000 pickup truck market to be a telescoping thermometer probe that RAMS up your wazoo, takes your rectal temperature, and then adjusts the power to the heated leather seats. In contrast this pickup truck oozed integrity, one of the rarest qualities in modern America.

So I was smitten. Now I must find the right way to add an aftermarket locking differential to a used pickup truck. (It will probably be too difficult to find a used truck already equipped with one.) People in four-wheel-drive (Jeep) clubs are good for advice. One recommended a local shop that had installed an economical "True Lock" locking differential in his Jeep. Even though his Jeep was four wheel drive, the locking differential made all the difference. Imagine what it would do for an economical, rear wheel drive pickup truck, pulling a little trailer, on muddy roads during the monsoon season!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Complaining About Torture is Anti-American

I haven't read everything that there is to read about the Torture Report, the big news story of the day. So at the risk of making a mistake, based on pure laziness, I would still like to point out what isn't being said: everybody is ignoring the fact that the American CIA didn't practice beheading.

Beheading is shocking and barbaric. Only medieval Muslims would practice that. America is the sort of country that aims at higher ideals. We are a civilized and Christian nation. We restrict ourselves to torture.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Appreciate a Novel by a Woman

I am here today to tell you that all things are possible in this old world of ours: I have just enjoyed a novel by a woman novelist: Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre."  My goodness, one of the Bronte sisters, just the sort of book a school marm would have approved of, and thus would have been hated by most (male) youths. A freakish event like this must be explained somehow.

Actually the idea of reading this book came from my enjoyment of movie music scores. Dario Marianelli seems to have carved out a niche for himself in writing piano-intensive scores for movie renditions of Jane Austen or Bronte novels, such as the recent Jane Eyre movie. It certainly makes sense for the piano to be the main instrument here.  

In explaining why this book was enjoyable, let's start with what it doesn't have. (Recall the Latin poet, Horace, and his "Fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue.") This novel is not built around a love triangle. Surely we can agree that there are too many love triangles in the world of literature.

Nor does "Jane Eyre" suffer from the Glorification-of-the-Fool Syndrome. There is an insidious idea that floats around in literature. It shows up worst in a movie like "Forrest Gump." This idea glorifies the retarded or simple, the senile, the diseased, or the demented. Modern novelists, at least, think they are on the forefront of research to explore the depths of human depravity. Too often intelligence is linked with diabolical characters, e.g., Hannibal the Cannibal. The idea seems to be totally missing from literature that a character can be intelligent, at least half-wise, kind, and interesting.

But the main characters in "Jane Eyre" are admirable, yet imperfect. Jane is intelligent, tough, cautious, forward-thinking. She doesn't act rashly based on pure emotion. And yet there is a woman's heart underneath her tough skin. It is how I remember and imagine my ancestral females.

 I want to admire women. If I can't succeed with modern woman, then at least women in the past can be admired. Remember that in our depraved culture, 90% of advertising has been aimed at women. It is only to be expected that their minds and characters have collapsed in modern times.

It was just dumb luck that this enjoyable experience of reading "Jane Eyre" coincided with a woman showing up in my roadie bicycle club. It has been years since I have ridden with a woman. But she is fast and dependable on her bike. Despite being a married woman who is no spring chicken, her voice sounds almost girlish. As I ride along in single file, and hear that pleasant girlish voice, it is impossible not to inwardly smile.

Jane Eyre does not suffer from the Scarlett O'Hara syndrome. Nor is Jane beautiful, although some men find her attractive enough. It is true that the heroine of a movie is usually visually stunning. That seems to be necessary for commercial success, and after all, movies are meant to be eye candy, not mind candy. 

But there is something about a beautiful heroine in a book that makes the novelist look like a hack, writing for money. I don't really want that kind of trite entertainment. A novel should offer some enlightenment to a reader, and not just popcorn-munching entertainment. How can it do that without moral integrity?