Thursday, October 29, 2015

Saying Much With Little, to a Foreigner

I've said it before: that in my next life I am coming back as an international traveler. Among other things, it gives you a chance to be a practical linguist. There are people who pick up foreign languages easily. But you needn't be one of those to find the subject of language fascinating. 

In a Walmart parking lot, of all places, I just finished talking to a French family who is traveling in the Southwest with their motorhome, imported from France. Eventually they will make their way to Argentina. I am proud to say that I did not start off the conversation with, "Soooo, whar ya frum? Do you gahs really eat frawgs?" I spoke with the father and his 10 year old son.

Speaking with someone who knows a little English is an intellectual challenge and pleasure. And it takes so much self-discipline! You must not grin at their mistakes, or be over-corrective. You must build their confidence.

Obviously you must speak slowly and repeat frequently, but it also helps to leave space between words, so that they hear words rather than just an uninterrupted stream of syllable gibberish. 

If you are male, you must try even harder. We have ugly, low frequency voices that lack the clear enunciation of the female voice. (Recall your basic electrical engineering: higher frequencies mean wider bandwidth, hence more information. Women have broadband capabilities, one might say.)

In your own speech, you must continually reduce a complete sentence to a phrase of three or four words. You think that is easy?! This challenge is even tougher for someone who reads and writes a lot, because speaking is a lot different than writing. If you are so bumbling as to use parenthetical clauses with the foreigner, all is lost. Perhaps it helps to visualize English without commas.

Another mistake is using complicated verb tenses: "You could have gone there yesterday if it were not for the fact that it was Tuesday." This verbosity should be replaced with "not open Tuesday."

I see that I am falling into the famous pattern, epitomized by the classic quote from Horace, "Fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue." Reducing a negative has the same algebraic effect as increasing a positive. But in a new endeavor, reducing a negative is the fastest way to make progress at the beginning. 

But you can only go so far with that approach. Then you must move into expanding the positive, where your approach becomes somewhat vague, open-ended, and slower. And yet wonderful.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Chasing a Balloon Across a Red Rock Sky

How do they do it? Although it is easy to find the places where balloon-ride companies launch from -- in fact I've camped right there a couple times -- but how do they ever retrieve their balloons and customers after a ride?  I suppose there is more of a serious business to it than what first appears to a customer, or even to new employees.

Coffee Girl and I were returning from a mountain bike ride, when we crossed paths with three young buckaroos in retrieval mode. We made a game out of using them as our pace car. Notice the rectangular openings in the wicker basket. Are those meant to be peepholes for munchkin customers?

At one point we caught the three balloon wranglers, which I'm guessing consisted of a pickup driver and two balloon pilots. They looked just like you would guess: young men, 25-30, healthy and vivacious, who are postponing real employment in the rat race for a brief stint at a "fun" job in a glamorous location. 

It must be easy for the company to find such fellows. Presumably they are barely making a living. But they certainly seemed happy enough. Eventually he will meet some gal who likes him for his virile glamour and sense of freedom. She will then, of course, begin the process of domesticating him, finally culminating in complete regression to a normal life in the suburbs. Ah well, so goeth the way of all flesh...

At one point, the driver had to bring the truck and balloon trailer across a sandy and wet creek crossing. An overhanging branch from a cottonwood tree just missed the propane burners by inches. I wonder what the customers would have thought if they had visualized that, before going on their first ride?

I've never taken a balloon ride. Blame cheapness. But is that so bad? Would it really be that great to consume one more bar-coded delight of the mass-tourism industry? Instead, my dog and I got a kick out of pedalling down the sandy road, pretending that we were chasing the balloon across the sky.

Recall the movie version of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility."  The romantic sister and her kid sister went traipsing off across the soggy downs. And Marianne exclaimed, "There is some blue sky. Let us chase it!"

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Autumn of Experiencing Nature in America

What should an experienced outdoorsman look for in a hackneyed location like Moab, UT? Certainly not the iconic red rock arches and canyons. They are justly famous, but you've seen them a hundred times in jeep commercials, cellphone commercials, nature pin-up calendars, etc. They belong to everybody and to nobody. They certainly cannot belong to you.

But that doesn't mean you should just give up, and relegate Moab to the tourist trade, as I used to do. When the weather was still a little summer-ish, my dog and I started a mountain bike ride before most of the tourists were up. As always, we wanted to beat the heat.

We started going downhill; not far, maybe 300-400 feet. I was shocked at how chilly it was getting. In fact, I wished I had gloves on! At the bottom of the canyon I was amazed to find a "crystal house" of dew, that is, preternaturally dense dew, glazed onto grasses in a little swale. 

It reminded me of the ice crystal house in Dr. Zhivago. The movie was filmed largely in Spain. The dew here and the ice crystal house there are one form of homologousness. I smiled when thinking of the larger one, between the Southwestern USA and Spain. (Extra credit points to the reader who can supply the magic quote from Thoreau's "Walking", involving ice crystals.)

The dew was so thick that I could barely see the plant that was hosting it. And on all sides of us were red cliffs and deserts. There are no tour buses coming to this spot. Its magic belongs to me -- but not for long! Thirty minutes later, it was gone, evanesced into the aridity of Utah. (Extra credit points to any reader who can supply the famous quote from MacBeth.)

On another ride, we got close to Tourist Central, Arches National Park. I am proud of my principles, and wouldn't sneak over the boundary. There were cars backed up for a mile to get into the park and see the famous red arches. What will they see other than something they already expect?

But on some un-famous land, where campers and bikes and dogs are allowed to be, I saw something that really grabbed my eye: the early morning sun was reflecting off one red surface and illuminating a not-so-red surface with its red light. (There is probably some classic quote out there that mentions 'reflected glory' or 'dressing me in borrowed robes.' What am I thinking of?)

If I've said it once...the skin is not only the largest organ in the body, it is also the most under-rated sensory organ. I hate heat. Finally it is time to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of sitting in a chair outdoors, and doing nothing but feeling the tender touch of chilliness on your skin, while you boldly face the sun, and feel that it is your ally instead of your enemy. Not a puff of breeze. Not a single flying insect.

During the recent holiday, I saw and visited with young families camped in my area. Here Junior and Pops are investigating who-knows-what, as the red humps of the park hover in the background.

It is so sad to realize that the young lad won't be able to do this kind of camping when he is even his father's age, let alone mine. But he will be able to pay who-knows-how-much for a motel room in Moab, and then park in a 5 mile long line at the entrance gate of the national park.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Escape From the Jurassic Mudpits of Moab

You would think that a lot of experience at camping would toughen a fellow up, considerably. But rain and mud have a way of humbling me. Nevertheless, for the fourth time in two days, I narrowly escaped getting stuck in the mud, thanks in part to actually taking advice from a local expert about mud on certain roads in the Moab area.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Taking advice. It is certainly good news to become a 'wise old man' who is willing to finally do so. And yet, it is hard to break the changes down that happen to a person who becomes 'older and wiser.' Perhaps a person becomes humbler and more cautious with each misadventure that happens in life. It finally seems inconvenient, expensive, and stupid to have to learn everything the hard way. Misadventures have lost their romantic charm.

There was another reason for my narrow and successful escapes. I had a pair of rubber-bottomed boots in my van. Rather than rashly bulling my way through the mud, I put the boots on and walked it first. So simple. There is nothing subtle about the difference between ground that is merely wet versus pure gooey muck that swallows a tire. Your judgement from the driver's seat is nothing but visual, and that just isn't good enough.

But learning isn't just a matter of getting control over your behavior and temperament. Sometimes one makes a purely mental/intellectual error, quite apart from moods and emotions. It is easy to fail to distinguish 'raining' from 'being rainy.'  When it is merely rainy, things are pretty sloppy outdoors, but still walkable with those wonderful rubber boots, praised above. With a raincoat and a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sprinkles off your face and eyeglasses, you can be comfortable enough on a short walk. It is also a chance to allow yourself to be infected by the attitude of your dog, who of course could not care less about mud and sprinkles.

I have come close to throwing these rubber-bottomed boots away, a dozen times at least. They take up a lot of room in my rig. Besides, it has become 'common sense' to downsize things that do not get used frequently enough to justify themselves. But 'frequency' is not the only thing that matters -- some things you need badly when you do need them.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Beating the Over-priced Pickup Cap Syndrome

Every now and then I like to give the readers a good laugh as I scheme against the pickup truck bubble. If it weren't for the weaknesses of the newer vans [1], I wouldn't even be tempted to think about pickup trucks as tow vehicles for (non-fifth-wheel) travel trailers.

We are probably down to the last couple years of availability of basic, regular cab, low trim level pickups, aimed at farmers, ranchers, or the city water department. I want to avail myself of that opportunity before it disappears from the automobile industry, as so many other choices have disappeared.

One of the great weaknesses of the pickup truck as a tow vehicle for a full-time RVer is that the silly thing is semi-useless unless you put a cap/topper/shell on it. [2] The typical installed price of a fiberglass cap is well over $2000. Even worse, it is 75% glass. [3]

A semi-tall driver who likes to store his bicycle inside will not enjoy getting into the back of the pickup truck, compared to a van. The van is three times more convenient. The best you can do with a pickup cap is get one that is tall or flared at the back of the truck. Now we are talking a $3000 installed price.

I am open to the idea of building a home-made cap out of plywood and wood/aluminum framing. But today, let's consider another possibility: a simple wooden spacer between the pickup's bed rails and an inexpensive cap, perhaps purchased used, from Craigslist or the local newspaper.

Here is an example seen on the streets of Moab, where you should see many good ideas for vehicles that actually get used outdoors. (Oddly, you mostly just see standard vehicles with bicycles dangling away on external racks.)

The pickup cap in the photo is just a standard, potentially low cost cap, from the used marketplace. But it sits on a 2X8 or 2X6 wood spacer. There are no fancy angles or cuts in this wooden spacer; everything is 90 degrees. I would use lighter wood, such as 1X6 or 2X2.

This design is not perfect, but it would get a person on the road in a hurry. Eventually you could add some kind of aerodynamic wedge at the top-front of the cap, to smooth out the air flow. Also, this fellow did not close off the 8" gap between the top of the tailgate and the rear door/window of the cap. I would probably do so by getting rid of the glass rear door/window, by replacing it with a plywood one that extends down to the top of the tailgate.

The result might be a not-so-great-looking, inexpensive pickup cap that can be finished quickly, and which lets you store tall things without ducking and groveling.

[1] Higher prices, few used ones available, fewer options with four wheel drive or locking differentials, tighter wheel-wells and smaller tires, uni-body frames that can't twist, cramped engine compartments, and low ground clearance. 

[2] We are not talking about slide-in campers.

[3]  Lots of glass might be desirable to people who take the cap off when they don't need it, and who never get used to driving with the outside mirrors alone. But a full-time RVer or a long-term driver of a cargo van is used to driving with the outside mirrors.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Asymmetric Warfare When Playing Chicken

While detesting the neo-con/Israel-first/Republican/Rapture Christian doctrine of permanent war, I still have an interest in being an 'armchair general' or military strategist. Yes, it is inconsistent, but if consistency is your hobgoblin, you are at the wrong blog.

The world seems to be beating Washington's pants off lately, with a Russian/Syrian/Iraqi/Iranian axis building up in the Mideast, and China becoming more assertive about its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea. One way to see these developments is as a growth in a new type of asymmetric warfare, aimed straight at the least trusted government on planet Earth.

Do any readers know of any good articles or books about asymmetric warfare? The Wikipedia article is a good place to start. They give several famous examples in history.

What if the world is learning to exploit the fragility and hollowness of the American economy to play 'chicken' with Washington, and to win? Washington's rivals around the world have more weapons than they used to have. They now have Permanent Zero Interest to exploit. If instability starts the American consumer tipping into a recession, the Federal Reserve can't lower interest rates like they used to -- the rate is already zero.

The presidential election cycle is another weapon for America's rivals. Anything that freezes consumer spending tends to tip the country over into a recession, which means that the party that occupies the White House will probably lose it to the other side. 

Losing an election is not something that you can be a 'good sport' about, anymore. Washington's laws, regulations, subsidies, taxes, loopholes, contracts, court nominations, and economic favors are simply too important to surrender to the other political party. The truly private economy rots into insignificance. 'What's good for Washington is good for America.'

Permanent bubble-blowing is an integral part of America's economy, as is high unemployment -- properly measured -- and even higher under-employment. That means ever-increasing vulnerability because everybody besides Federal employees is hanging onto their job (and their ability to make loan payments) by their fingernails.

An oil exporter such as Russia should win a game of chicken with an oil-importing country like Washington. During threats of war in the Mideast, the price of oil will go up, to Russia's advantage.

But it seems that Washington's rivals are just learning how to exploit these vulnerabilities. In general, this is a development that much of the world can be cautiously optimistic about. 

But I have a lot to learn about this subject, and won't be offended if commenters point that out to me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Murphy's Law Has Loopholes

Obviously the world doesn't need to see any of my photographs of the Moab area, with all the tourists running around with iPhones. Still, I like to take a few photographs on a mountain bike ride, perhaps just as an excuse to stop and enjoy certain spots. I did so here.

Just then I noticed something weird happening on my face. My prescription sunglasses had just fallen apart. Actually it was just that one screw in the frame had come off. Can you believe it? With all the crap that I bring along and never use, I didn't have the little screwdriver and a couple spare screws that you need to fix eyeglasses.

What if I were a rock climber and this had happened? Or a sea kayaker? Is this why 'four eyes' used to get draft deferments?

At any rate I was able to mountain bike back to the van with only one lens, and the other eye closed. My three-dimensional vision was messed up, and it is surprising that I didn't goof up on the Utah slickrock.

But just think. I've been wearing eyeglasses for 50 years, and this is the first time that something like this happened outdoors, on some kind of outing. Why doesn't it happen frequently? Anything could damage a pair of eyeglasses: going over the handlebars on a bike accident; stepping on your eyeglasses when sleeping in a tent; a rambunctious dog chewing on them, etc. 

And there is no Walmart optical department in Moab. That means that you will have to go to a real eye-doctor. The receptionist will probably inform you that a new state law requires you to get a $150 eye exam whenever the customer merely needs a new nose-piece or tiny screw for his existing eyeglasses.

When I came home I easily fixed the sunglasses once I had found the little screwdriver and pile of spare screws. The last time I went to the Walmart optical department, they used Loctite threadlocker on the tiny screw, so I did that too.

Looking around the trailer I wondered if there were other things that are miraculously immune to Murphy's Law. There are.
  • the propane stove,
  • screws sunk into wood. They never rattle loose, despite the washboard roads,
  • the Shur-Flo water pump,
  • roof vents, and Fan-tastic fans,
  • Rubbermaid storage tubs made out of 'LDPE,' low density polyethylene. The opposite applies to Sterilite tubs made out of 'PP', polypropylene.
  • mountain bike tires and tubes. I can go for years without a flat,
  • and LED lights, I suspect, although they are new enough to be unsure of.
Since most people spend quite a bit of money and worry on repairing automobiles, it seems counter-intuitive to claim that most of an automobile seems immune to Murphy's Law, but let's not forgot just how many parts there are.

You could say the same of animals' bodies, including human bodies. It isn't Murphy's fault that people squander their youthful, healthy years while hoping to "really start living" at a retirement age that is past their biological expiration date.

If you want a challenge, make a list of the things in your life that seem curiously immune to Murphy's Law, and then make the opposite list, of things that seem invented just to exasperate you. Can you explain the common property of the items on each list? Things can't end up on the 'good' list or the 'baddie' list at random. There must be explainable principles at work.

On the 'evil' list I would put zippers at the top, closely followed by those hateful butane flame throwers that you need to start the stove. Regarding the latter, why don't I just use matches? They seem pretty immune to Murphy's Law.

'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars...'

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nibbling Away at Moral 'Perfection'

I have an ON again/OFF again involvement with achieving moral perfection. Mostly off. Even though I am getting started 40 years later than Benjamin Franklin, it still 'counts'.

And it isn't as silly as it sounds. What should a person work on as they get older? Sleeping 8 hours per night, without waking once? Growing lush dark hair on their head? Running a 4 minute mile? Living the dissolute life of an international playboy? Good luck with all that.

The fact is that wisdom about the conduct of life, self-control over our own behavior, and having a broader perspective on the human condition are just about the only things that we can improve at, with age. And that is good news! These are the things we should have been emphasizing our whole lives, instead of running around, taking care of frantic busywork.

So how does one proceed on this noble quest? There is something to be said for a 'bottom up' approach, quite the opposite of the approach of long-winded philosophers. It is too likely to be fruitless to read shelves of books, contrasting and comparing different sects of philosophers.

Of course we must not drown in microscopic "practical" details. The concrete example that we work on should always be looked on as a possible member of a category, and an illustration of a general idea.

Let's come down from the clouds and get our hands dirty with real life. All of my life I have noticed outdoorsmen volunteering information about how frustrated they get with themselves because it takes so long to get organized in the morning. And they always forget something! It is funny to hear people complain of the same frustrations, despite all the differences between them.

In fact, people are tempted to just give up on this issue, and shrug it off as inevitable. But actually it is quite explainable. The problem is caused by slovenly habits after the outing. They come back indoors, feeling relaxed and happy. It seems so easy and 'natural' to dump their equipment, hither and thither, on whatever horizontal surface is convenient and empty.  Entropy in motion.

Why not store all the junk necessary for Sport X in one and only one box, labelled 'X'?

This combines with overcoming another moral vice: the Early Bedtime Syndrome. I am always complaining about it. But it really isn't intractable: too much reading or movie watching in the evening is bad -- more physical activity, even with the most mundane chores, is good. So rather than rounding up my stuff in the morning to get ready for a mountain bike ride, just do it in the evening. In the morning, there should be virtually nothing to do.

Lately I have been working on this vice, and the results have been gratifying. Yes, this is a humble sort of accomplishment, but on the other hand, it has been dragging on, maddeningly, for years and years; and finally killing it off makes me feel that other longstanding and idiotic vices are curable. Young Ben would be proud of me.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The "Awakening" When Coming Back to a City

I have written before of how thought-provoking it can be to come into a city after a lengthy spell in the backcountry. The greatest difficulty in doing a good job at this is to belittle it right from the beginning: "Oh this is just some kind of thought experiment. It isn't practical. I don't want to waste time by acting like a kook, in his own little mental playground..."

Recently I experienced a special version of this. I was visiting a small metropolis that was big enough for a tumescent growth of big box retail stores on the edge of town. The Republican party's debate was in the news. As tempting as it might be to throw mud-pies at each specific runt in the debate, it is more important to ask something more fundamental: if Democracy were so great, and if Americans were so suited for it, how could a country as large as the USA and with all its achievements and deep pool of talent, produce such a pitiful list of candidates?

Something is fundamentally wrong with our 'system.' You only think of things like that when you come in from the backcountry. But here is the hard part: try to hold onto this fresh and independent thinking as long as you can. Keep looking at the situation like you are seeing it for the first time. 

What would Washington, Jefferson, or Madison think if they were stuffed into a time machine, and watched a modern debate of presidential wannabees? In what ways have Americans changed from what we started as?

Try as you might, in a couple days you start to backslide into 'normal' thinking.

Have you ever watched the movie, "Awakenings", made in the 1990s, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams? It takes place in a long term mental hospital which had a lot of people whose central nervous systems were damaged by a childhood disease. They were apparently doomed to live out their lives in a catatonic state.

But a researcher-turned-clinical practitioner came to the hospital and began experimenting with large doses of a new drug. And it worked, spectacularly! But then the patients starting slipping back into their catatonic non-existence. It was a real heart-breaker to see that happen.

It feels somewhat the same to see it happening to myself on the second or third day back in civilization. In regressing to normality, real human life decays into a template that makes little sense. But, as a consolation, you can appreciate this relapse as something Thomas Hardy would have called "a negative beauty of tragic tones."

But if Hardy is too dark for your taste, then focus on the upswing of this kind of "Awakening", and hope that it becomes more frequent or more intense.

The most cheerful attitude is to switch metaphors, and see this type of experience as one that permanently transforms an individual. Consider its similitude to Arnold Toynbee's "Withdrawal and Return", in one of his chapters of "A Study of History." (Extra credit to any reader who finds the chapter.)

Friday, October 2, 2015

Are the Uni-power's Glory Years Over?

Most people probably don't talk about geopolitics and world events with family members. Who wants to have an argument with your own mother about politics? Perhaps that is why I still remember when my mother talked about the dissolution of the Soviet empire circa 1990: " all seemed so easy!" 

After all, most of her life had been spent during the "Good War" and its aftermath, the Cold War with the USSR. It must have seemed strange to her to realize that the world had suddenly become something quite different from what she had known.

So too it must seem to people, say, 35--45, whose adult years have been spent during the era when Washington DC was the great Uni-power, the mighty Hegemon of the world. It was a time with no "first world" military opposition. Washington could take over any country it wanted, on the flimsiest -- and phoniest -- excuse. The financial cost meant nothing -- they just borrowed whatever they needed.

I was astonished when the news came out that Russia was becoming overtly involved in the Syrian civil war. I'd gotten used to the Russians being "non-players." Surely Putin must be taking advantage of the presidential election year in the USA. The financial markets and the real economies are falling these days. The president in Washington can not risk making this worse by having a major confrontation with Russia. The best he can do is make it look like this is Washington's idea, and that the Russians are doing our dirty work for us.

If the Russians behave well, they might get eager cooperation from the Shia axis from Lebanon, to Syria, a Shia-dominated Iraq, and Iran. Just imagine the enormous and deep hatred of Washington that must exist there and elsewhere in the Mideast! The outcome could be a Mideast, or even a world, that has learned how to fight back against the open-ended cruelty of Washington.

It isn't often that 'world news' looks hopeful. For the sake of all those miserable people in countries destroyed by Washington, let this be one of those times.