Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Seeking Authenticity in the Natural Experience

There weren't too many mountain bikers around in my time on the Uncompahgre Plateau, near Montrose, CO. First there was muzzle-loading rifle season, and then the archery season. I do feel a little nervous riding my bike with hunters around, but I make the best of it by wearing a flaming bicycle vest. I even got a bright orange safety vest for my dog.

There is something admirable about the bow-hunters, something atavistic, noble, and honest. And quiet. One day a bow-hunter came by my dispersed campsite. I took an instant like to him, and my dog immediately charmed his socks off.  Normally, when I converse, it seems as though it is my job to keep the conversation alive, for the simple reason that the blockhead can't think of anything to discuss, other than 'where ya frum?'

But in this case, I let him do 90% of the talking. He was raised on a real ranch as a boy. He spent some time as a professional hunting guide. He has hunted in Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. And oh my goodness, he had great stories about close calls when cleaning a carcass, with a bear smelling it and circling around. And the one about being trapped between wolves. On and on the stories went. I just sat there and soaked it up. 

He took out his 9 mm semi-automatic pistol, removed the magazine, and let me play with it. This is his personal protection device against mountain lions and black bears. I had just told him about coming within 100 feet of a large adult black bear, a few days earlier. And my stupid dog went after the bear! But the bear ran so fast (and so noisily) through the sapling aspen forest, that she gave up in 5 seconds, and returned unhurt.

When I finally walked back to my trailer, it was the middle of the afternoon. I had been listening to him for 4 or 5 hours. It was an impressive reminder of Man as a Hunter/Gatherer, and the oral tradition of 'swapping lies' around the campfire. There are few examples where male foolishness is more charming. Ultimately it was responsible for the epic and legendary poems and tales that began the tribal literature of many peoples.

In a few days it was time to declare victory for my stay on the un-touristy Uncompahgre Plateau, and drive past a very touristy area, especially at this time of year: the periphery of the San Juan Mountains between Ridgway and Telluride, CO. The leaf-peepers were certainly out in full force, and rightly so, considering the yellow-blazing aspens. They would pull over at the official 'scenic overlooks', walk as far as 10 feet from their motor vehicle, hold up their smartphone, and snap-away at the breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

Although I probably appreciate the scenery as much as any of them, I didn't even bother with photographs. It is not a negative statement about scenery to acknowledge that the buzz starts fading away after just a few minutes.

At any rate an outdoor or 'nature experience', like they were having, does not inspire me. It's not wrong, it's just shallow.

On to Dolores CO, one of my little sweethearts on the annual loop through the Southwest. For the first time since the Fourth of July I was in ponderosa forests again. Even better, the parent rock was sandstone. Sheer bliss it was to mountain bike on packed and troughed dirt trails, with few rocks and roots.

Last year I wondered how many zillion miles of non-technical trails you could have on flatter, non-touristy areas in the West. It would not cost a lot, and it would benefit small towns with weak economies. What is blocking this, other than a lack of appreciation of smooth trails on non-touristy land?

'Non-touristy scenery' does not mean 'boring.' Rivers, wildlife, no fees, no restrictions against horses or dogs, beautiful spacious forests, grass, colorful oak bushes, a perfect altitude and sky... and yet there are no tourists holding out their smartphones here. Real land has balance.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Under the Sway of the Consummate Conversationalists

Very well then, I'll admit it: I am currently under the tutelage of Addison & Steele. It is a bit amusing to see the location of their writing given at the top of each 'post': "From my apartment," or "From X coffee shop," or "Y's Chocolate Shoppe." It is so similar to listing the name of the forest or town at the top of a travel blog post.

Can any modern reader not feel some envy at Addison & Steele's success at having interesting conversations with interesting characters in the shoppes? If you put these authors into a time machine, and inserted them into the average Starbuck's outlet today, what would they think? Surely they would see 300 years of civilizational decline right in front of their faces.

In post after post these authors comment on what makes for pleasant conversation between good-natured people. And they describe the failures, too.

Should a blogger try to emulate their good-natured and polite conversations in those shoppes? Yes, when the blogger is face to face with a real person in a chair. But what about when the blogger is writing?

The 'medium is the message', after all. Writing is different than talking. Writing and reading is a conversation between two minds; the two individuals do not know each other, nor do they pretend to be each others buddies. 

In contrast, talking takes place between faces and personalities. It is great when two people, face to face, put each other at ease, and win each others goodwill, and then go on to share conviviality, rather like dogs disporting with each other at the dog park.

But if the written word did nothing more than imitate the spoken word, wouldn't it be missing a real opportunity to 'add value'? Wouldn't the written word simply devolve into an exchange of routine pleasantries and platitudes? Where is the challenge, the getting to the (sometimes grim) truth of the topic of conversation? Would anyone learn anything?

Still, there has to be an upper limit to the bluntness of a writer. The reader is still a human being. Perhaps, when I have finished Addison & Steele, I will have evolved to a kinder and gentler writer. Certainly long-suffering readers have complained that I was too frank and blunt, at times. Very well then, I confess my guilt.

But some of the discrepancy results from much of the internet readership confusing a blog with the personal trivia of Facebook or the low-key chit-chat of a television studio. They seek smooth, inoffensive distraction and escapism. But a writer is not supposed to have the amiable, cheery personality of a chubby TV weatherman. Blogs should emulate -- in an abbreviated form -- the best of what the world of books has to offer.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reviving the Periodical Essay

Awhile back I asked for suggestions from readers in finding 'eclectic' blogs, and was pleased to receive some. With hindsight I should have asked for 'modern periodical essays'. Periodical essays were popular in the 1700's. (The link to Quotidiana in the right hand margin contains personal essays.) A couple of the best known series were those of Addison & Steele and those by Samuel Johnson, Diderot, etc. The modern internet blogosphere should be rife with periodical essays. It is an enormous opportunity that is being missed.

Let's characterize a periodical essay as the short work of an observer and thinker who is 'grazing on the open range' of personal experience and human history. Typically the periodical essay begins with an observation that seemed odd enough to stimulate curiosity. The train of thought then broadens to the general, with some historical perspective.

I am reading the first series by Addison & Steele, "The Tatler", written about 1710 AD. (And 'CE' be damned.) Although the English novel didn't quite exist then, newspapers did, and the "The Tatler" offered a popular alternative to newspapers.  A modern reader, reading Addison & Steele for the first time, will be surprised to find the prose style remarkably modern. In fact, they helped to create the modern prose style.  A generation later, Benjamin Franklin imitated the style of Addison & Steele in his program of self-education.

Why are these essays so appealing? Partially it is their brevity. It is so salubrious to read for a few minutes, as a break from more physical activity; and the shortness of the time in the chair prevents the reader from becoming sullen.

Secondly, starting the essay from personal experiences or observations keeps the essay's feet on the ground. It lends honesty and authenticity to the train of thought, rather than the author regurgitating something read in another book. It also avoids the endless circle of wordplay by philosophers or meta-physicians.

Let's look at an example from The Tatler, vol 3 (from Gutenberg). The essays frequently grew out of conversations  in coffee houses or chocolate shops. A rather argumentative fellow named 'Minucio' was carrying on once:
But Minucio replied with great vehemence, and seemed so much to have the better of the dispute, that this adversary quitted the field...

I sat till I saw the table almost all vanished, where, for want of discourse, Minucio asked me, how I did? To which I answered, "Very well." "That's very much," said he; "I assure you, you look paler than ordinary." "Nay," thought I, "if he won't allow me to know whether I am well or not, there is no staying for me neither." 

Upon which I took my leave, pondering as I went home at this strange poverty of imagination, which makes men run into the fault of giving contradiction. They want in their minds entertainment for themselves or their company, and therefore build all they speak upon what is started by others; and since they cannot improve that foundation, they strive to destroy it.
Sigh. If only an essayist have given me some advice, when I was young, about the vicious habit of contradiction. And if only I had taken it! The essays are full of sound advice about the conduct of life, but not the aphorisms or issues that you might pickup in the Bible or ancient philosophy. In theory, a novelist could do an even better job at treating the conduct of life because they might be more likely to persuade the reader, since the reader is emotionally involved with the characters of the novel. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Appreciating Intellectual Pleasure and Applying It

A person can actually learn to enjoy intellectual pleasures, although it is rare to do so. There are plenty of folks who work with their brains, but that is a different game because it is mainly about making a living, and an outlet for ambition, with a certain amount of ego-gratification. By intellectual pleasure I mean a more disinterested appreciation of something that is beautiful simply to think about, after a certain amount of time and struggle for the thinker.

For my part, the greatest intellectual pleasure comes from trying to look beneath the surface appearance of things in order to see the Cause. Even better, I like to visualize the conflict of large trends and fundamental belief systems. I always visualize this photograph of my first dog, taken in his middle-age, some years ago.

Taking in the Big Picture, after bagging another Colorado peak.

Retirement and leisure certainly help this process, as does getting out of a metropolitan ant hill. Perhaps tuning out the daily trivia of the mainstream media is the most important aid. The key is detachment from the mob.

Old age is under-rated in this process. No doubt, there are 20-year-olds who have more perspicacity than me; neverthleless an old kaBLOOnie can do a better job than a younger kaBLOOnie.

Travel is helpful. The hackneyed notion that travel broadens your perspective is certainly true.

This is probably why I go on about my frustrations with the trends in the automobile industry. It is after all one of the bigger expenses in a (non-house-owning) travel lifestyle. The motor vehicle affects where I can camp and how I will live. What causes these trends, and how ridiculous can they get?

Trend #1: Awe of and subservience to big government.

The foundation myth of the current American Imperium is the "Good War", World War II. A good story should end with a big bang, and in this case, that was literally true with the mass slaughter of Japanese civilians by Washington's nuclear bombs. The Manhattan Project that produced these weapons was certainly a spectacular case of a government program that succeeded. Why, it's like government simply willed it into existence. Gee, I guess that means that politicians are almost gods who can command the powers of nature, just by increasing federal spending.

The Apollo project was a faint echo of the Manhattan project. Apollo didn't have to do anything radical. It was a bit like starting a government boondoggle that aimed to be the first to the Poles, or the first to climb Mt. Everest. Still, getting to another heavenly body and returning resembles the god-like. It was the last hurrah of the Cold War.

Trend #2: The post-industrial economy.

Fewer and fewer workers in the USA are concerned with making anything physical. Work means sitting in a cubicle, subtracting column DG from column A in a spreadsheet, and then dividing by column ZQ, and believing that it means something. The same could be said of playing around all day on a word processor, sticking catchy graphics in it, attending meetings, yakking on the telephone, playing with the "planning software", etc.

As a result, the average worker is disconnected from physical reality.

Now let's combine Trends #1 and #2. It is completely "natural" for the modern citizen of the USA to believe that politicians and bureaucrats can develop better fuel economy and greater safety at the same time, even though more weight helps one of these, and hinders the other.

Citizens believe that the political establishment can simply write a law or regulation that creates a miracle. Trade-offs don't matter anymore. It is just a matter of having nice sentiments.

They have completely lost track of the concept of diminishing marginal utility in automobile design. As the reductio ad absurdum, consider improvements like "active shutters" over the radiator, or lowering the ground clearance of the vehicle to the point of scraping on common roads and driveways. 

Is four valves in each combustion chamber enough for you? No? How about eight? Does the average voter think that Moore's Law from the microelectronics industry will actually apply to automobile engines?

There's high pressure fuel pumps for direct injection engines -- as if replacing the low-pressure fuel pumps didn't cost enough! But the valves get dirty with direct injection engines, as GM has proved. So Toyota's new engines will have fuel injectors inside and upstream of the combustion chambers. Oh goody, more parts, more electrical connectors, higher prices!

But have you seen the fuel economy improvement of all these mandates? It's about 3 miles per gallon.

Speaking of the Apollo project, imagine if NASA had started on their way to the moon by building lighter and lighter balloons. Every new attempt would have succeeded a little bit. But each billion dollars of improvement would have yielded smaller and smaller returns on the investment.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Watching the Automotive-Bubble Drive Home

I really don't know what to believe about the liquidity bubble built by most of the world's central banks since 2009. I have become numb, and simply shake my head in disbelief.

But a recent article on Zero Hedge got me thinking about a more concrete manifestation of the liquidity bubble. They think the motor vehicle bubble is ready to pop. In particular, there are millions of leased cars and trucks that will be turned in soon, creating a glut of 3-year-old used cars and trucks.

Since I think the used truck market is even more over-priced than the new truck market, their prediction is mouth-watering, even more so considering that circa 2013 trucks are likely to be as good as trucks ever get. Of course they could start making smaller pickup trucks, but don't hold your breath.

Have you seen the ridiculous numbers that CAFE, the government-imposed fuel economy requirement, is demanding in the years ahead? What are they planning on doing?  Much of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. For each incremental unit of complexity that is added to modern vehicles, you are going to see the fuel economy improve by 0.3 miles per gallon here, and 0.2 there.  

But I enjoyed thinking about this article on the day that the masses head back to their hamster wheels. At the McDonald's of a crossroads town in a touristy area, you can watch the most amazing parade of motor vehicles, trailers, and toys. Why, I almost felt sorry for the poor losers who had huge pickup trucks pulling house-sized fifth wheel trailers, because other people had super-crew pickup trucks pulling fifth wheel trailers with three axles.

It's a wonder that we aren't seeing three-row pickup trucks by now! Or how about quartz kitchen counters in motorhomes, now that granite counter-tops have become so common and declassé.

Think of all the trends in the automobile industry, during a long lifetime, that came out of nowhere and went crazy: giant fins in the post-Sputnik era that were supposed to make the car look like a jet; muscle cars in the late 1960s; Pintos and Vegas after the oil shock of 1973; minivans in the 1980s so that baby-boomers wouldn't feel like their parents driving a station wagon; truck-based gas-hog SUVs in the early 1990s that allowed Mom to avoid a minivan; and now the super-crew, four-wheel-drive monster pickup truck that allows cubicle-bound, suburban husbands to feel like real men. 

Well, I don't want to deprive anyone else of what they like. But for my part I want the pickup truck market to crash and burn. I will be there to salvage something at a decent price.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Earth's Best Dandruff

Every backcountry traveler or camper has had a nightmarish experience with wet clay roads. But do you know about "anti-clay", that is, a surface that is as miraculous on the positive side as wet clay is on the negative?

It is easy to be ignorant of what causes wet clay's amazing properties. It would be so nice to learn about things when they make huge impressions on you -- that is the very time when you are motivated to learn. 

There might be a really good source of popular science out there, but I haven't found it yet. (And extra credit to any reader who has any ideas on this.) I am familiar with Wikipedia and "How Things Work". They both help. But the Wikipedia articles on a scientific topic quickly degenerate into the algebraic patois of the specialist, which makes for excruciating reading.

What I need to find is popular science, written by an educated layman or generalist, with a minimum of info-mercial intrusions.

But let's get back to "anti-clay," that is, the most wonderful surface in the world to be traveling on, especially in wet weather. That surface is decomposed granite, the ground that I am camping on, now.

It is miraculously well-behaved. If it appears loess loose, you can still mountain bike or drive right over it. In size, it is 2--6 mm. It is rather sharp at the corners, that is, block-shaped rather than oval and rounded like the gravel in streams. Therefore it interlocks when under the pressure of feet or tires.

Decomposed granite, my favorite surface for mountain biking, camping, or driving on. Ordinary "dirt" at the top of the photo.

Among its miraculous properties, the parent rock or its dandruff is easily worn into smooth troughs by the tires of mountain bikes and other vehicles. This makes for glorious mountain biking. The ultimate miracle is not turning into soup or sticky muck when it is wet, as anyone who drives a rear-wheel-drive vehicle can attest.

The opening paragraphs of Wikipedia's article on "Soil Mechanics" are pretty good. 
Soils that are not transported are called residual soils—they exist at the same location as the rock from which they were generated. Decomposed granite is a common example of a residual soil. 
But I am not really complaining about how hard it is to find popular science articles about topics that interest me. It causes an intense interest to pop up in my fevered brain. It is fun to obsess over traction-enhancing technologies, such as the locking differential.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Trump, Denali, and Ohio

Donald Trump is following in the recent tradition of GOP presidents and candidates. Indeed, he has already proven that he is the most qualified candidate: he thinks that re-naming a mountain in Alaska with its traditional Indian name is an insult to Ohio, despite the fact that 'Ohio' itself is derived from the Iroquois word for 'great river'. 

Perhaps we should rename the state of Ohio after a congressman from Connecticut.

The anti-intellectualism -- or rather, non-intellectualism -- of the modern GOP can be a source of merriment, but actually it is a serious issue for a later post.