Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Finally, a Success at Reading a Russian Novel

It is always a bit of a triumph when I survive a Russian novel, in this case a historical novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "August 1914". A worthy book.

I'd like to do something I haven't done before on this blog: show what I've been doing most of my adult life when I read a book. What good is a book if the words go into one eyeball and out the other? In order for the book to have any effect on your life, you must retain the best parts of it -- its juicy but condensed nuggets of goodness. And then you can digest and assimilate these nuggets into your own organism.

To mix metaphors, let's look for the book's classic quotes, its pemmican of wisdom, and turn them into building blocks for our own mental skyscrapers in the future. 

Just a few years ago now, baby kaBLOOnie and his siblings being programmed and brainwashed by their schoolteacher father.
p. 107/622:  He had not expected to find much to hearten him at Second Army Headquarters...
Vorotyntsev was still depressed whenever experience confirmed the invariable rule that every headquarters was staffed by people who were selfish, rank-conscious, hidebound...
They regarded the army as a convenient, highly polished, and well-carpeted staircase, upon whose steps medals and badges of rank were handed out. It never occurred to them that this staircase involved obligations rather than rewards...

For the staircase was so arranged as to encourage the ascent of slow-witted men who did what they were told, rather than those with brains and independence of mind. Provided you stuck to the letter of regulations, orders, and directives, you could make as many blunders as you liked; you could be defeated, you could retreat, be routed, run away--no one would ever blame you and you would not be called upon to investigate the cause of your failure. But woe unto you if you once diverged the letter, if you ever thought for yourself or acted on your own initiative; then you would not even be forgiven your successes, and if you failed, you would be eaten alive.
Well, I'll bet this quote registers with anyone who has worked in a large organization, including, perhaps, even the modern USA military. (Of course, as the exceptional nation, perhaps these diseases of headquarters only afflict other countries.) 

The odd thing is that people of different political opinions might experience the same frustrations in a centralized bureaucracy, on a personal level. But only some of them will still believe in a top-down approach to society; that is, they won't apply what they experience on a personal level to an abstract or general level.
p.111/622:  Stimulated by the ride through the warm, dark, still countryside, Vorotyntsev soon experienced the wonderful sense of buoyancy familiar to every officer...when the flimsy threads which bind one to a settled existence are snapped clean, when one's body is fighting fit, one's hands are free, one feels the satisfying tug of a weapon at one's side, and one's mind is wholly concentrated on the task at hand. He had been created for moments like this; he lived for them.

Yes, indeed. But one needn't be a horse-mounted warrior to experience this. A fast moving sportsman can, as well. Such as a bicycle racer, sea kayaker, or sailor. Maybe even an ATVer. On the other hand, a hiker probably can't relate to this quote because they are too much like the slow moving grunts in the infantry. I have written about this mood when I bicycled with the Yuma club in the winter.

p.125/622:  People talked a great deal about loving the peasants; in the Kharitonov family the talk had been of nothing else: what was there to live for if not the good of the peasants? Yet somehow they never actually saw the peasants, one was not even allowed to go to the nearby market without permission from one's parents and afterward one had to wash one's hands and change one's shirt. There was no way of coming into contact with the peasants, no common ground on which to talk with them, because one would be embarrassed and not know what to say.

Well, well, that sort of sounds like a certain poseur in modern politics. 

p193/622:  There had been a time when as a young man he had hotly contested everything, but after his long years of service, frustration had tightened the skin around his cheekbones, and he had learned to be silent--when to shut his mouth, and when to keep it shut.
This is redolent of what I was posting about recently, in the flaws of conversation.

p. 306/622:  Behind the low wall at the back of the yard was an empty lot; beyond it a two-story house with a mansad roof was blazing. One by one the tiles on the dormer window exploded with little pops. At first thick black smoke poured out of the dormer, than all at once several broad, steady tongues of flame broke through.

No one ran to put out the fire.

Crackling, the smoke and flames consumed the abandoned wealth, the now useless products of German ingenuity and German labor, and the fiery voices hissed and groaned. All was now lost, they said: chaos and hatred were come, and the old life was gone forever.
page 460/622:  Instead, he was thinking how hard it was for the Tsar to choose the right advisers. Evil, selfish men were more self-assertive than the good and loyal ones; it was always they who tried hardest to show off their false loyalty and their pretended abilities to the Tsar; yet how was he, a mere man,to acquire the godlike insight needed to see into the dark corners of other men's souls? Thus it was he who became the victim of his mistaken choices, and his self-seeking appointees were gnawing like worms at the strong tree trunk that was Russia.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Yukkie Reality Under the World of Appearances

The other day I went to "Poop Central" in Quartzsite, that famous modern equivalent of Cloaca Maxima of ancient Rome.  I expected to pay 80% as much to dump a 5 gallon porta-pottie as you would pay to dump a 75 gallon tank in a Class A motorhome. That's how things work in this country. Much to my relief (bad pun), the cost was entirely reasonable.

I brought a flexible sheet of plastic along, to make a funnel out of, in order to dump the porta-pottie into the 4" hole without spillage. It was strange the way they brushed me off, just as a busy auto mechanic dismisses the emotional anecdotes of a female motorist who is describing her car problems. The worker at Poop Central pulled up a manhole cover, and told me to just hurl it in.

What? Hurl it in? What was going on down there, anyway? After a couple seconds my eyes adjusted to the shadowy netherworld under the superficial world of appearances, and I saw a milk crate a couple feet below. Why would a milk crate be there?

Have you ever had somebody responsible for an RV dump explain to you what ridiculous things people hurl down a 4" hole? It clogs things up. It is one of the reasons that it gets harder to find an RV dump every year. Soon free ones will be a things of the past. What an elegant solution it was to catch those solid objects with a milk crate, lift it up now and then, and throw the solid trash in a dumpster.

I found this experience a bit amusing. It is one more example of how little we understand of the world as it really works. Nobody lives on farms anymore, but food magically appears at the grocery store. Few people have seen a tree made into a 2 X 4, or toured an automobile assembly plant. How many people appreciate all the steps needed to convert the black gook called petroleum into gasoline?

Today we walk into the customer lobby of the Economy-in-General, fill out some annoying paperwork, whip out a credit card, and watch television to kill time, while somebody else deals with ugly, yukkie, physical reality.

Perhaps a better connection with the realities of the world is one of the benefits of travel. Imagine a Manhattanite who has gotten interested in growing herbs and flowers in a couple pots on her roof patio; then she drives through wheat fields in Saskatchewan for the first time, and sees a bulldozer-like tractor pulling a harrow a hundred feet wide. Or a land-locked midwesterner squatting on a dock -- as I did once -- and being awakened in the middle of the night by the horn of a tugboat, who guided oil freighters into a giant refinery.

In the case of Quartzsite, its claim to fame, its world-class status, is poop-on-wheels! How fitting that I had this experience here.

Ahh dear. If only it was easier to have thought-provoking experiences when traveling. If only there was more freedom and trust between visitors and locals, between professionals and amateurs. And fewer regulations and restrictions. We could better learn how the world works, and what other people have to do for a living. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Conversational Extremes at the Quartzsite Gab-fest

The trick is to avoid eye contact. When walking on the sidewalk of a large city, people learn that you must avert your eyes from winos, junkies, and panhandlers. Quartzsite is not a big city, but the same principle holds. If you slip up -- even momentarily -- at the laundromat, the old boy will notice what license plates your vehicle has, and start in with whar-ya-frum, and then move on to story after story about what happened to him, there, 38 years ago.

At another time, in a crowded bakery, a line of annoyed people were held up by an old boy cracking "jokes" with the bakery worker. When he wasn't succeeding well enough at holding her up, he would look around and try to spot some new victim who made eye contact or seemed slightly amused at his bullshit. That person would soon regret it.

I tell ya... there are worse things than death; like out-living your usefulness, and becoming one of these old men in Quartzsite.

It is easy to enjoy the solar critical mass around Quartzsite. The stores are quite good. Only the solar panels themselves are over-priced. Most of the ancillary equipment is readily available and reasonably priced. Batteries are sold at loss-leader prices.

Ah yes, ancillary equipment. The standard universe of electrical connectors and crimping tools from auto parts and hardware stores tops out at 10 gauge electrical wire. But I like to use fatter 8 gauge wire for my battery charging. Surprisingly the hardware store in Q had 8 gauge ring terminals. But how do you crimp them?

At one of the solar stores, a young man told me that I could crimp these bigger ring terminals myself, with a hammer and a flat blade screwdriver (and a big rock laying on the desert). I didn't believe him. But back at camp I tried it, and it worked well.

What a pleasure it was to hear something from another human being that isn't drivel, small talk, stories about the past, jokes, and popularity-seeking. There are times, such as the examples above, when I feel I am too harsh and demanding with other people; and when they disappoint, too surly and grouchy.

The example with the young man at the solar store was such a relief to me! In fact, I am easy to please with practical tips or non-trite general information. I like being pleased by other people's information, when they actually have some!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What If You ALMOST Need a Generator?

Long-suffering readers know that I like to poke fun -- gently I hope -- at campers who are Gandhi or Thoreau wannabees. They also know that I am not a solar purist. A rational and professional camper uses technology up to the point of diminishing returns. (Or more correctly, the point of diminishing marginal utility.)

And yet there are solar purists who make it work for them. People who have vans or motorhomes probably don't count, since they can always charge their house batteries from their engine battery on a cloudy day. So let's only discuss trailers.

A trailer-puller can connect their tow vehicle to the trailer, and run the engine. But that charges too slowly, perhaps 7 or 8 Amps.

So what do you do when you finally admit that even Arizona is not sunny every day, and that you occasionally park under trees, or near the perpetually cloudy Coast? Buy a windmill? Never heard anything good about them. Besides, you need to supplement a solar system with a secondary system that doesn't depend on the weather.

You could always suck it up and pay to camp at some place with electricity. But let's not give in to defeatism. We will remain loyal to the Cause.

What is so bad about good generators?, such as a quiet-running Honda 1000 watt inverter generator. Well of course, there is the $850 cost.
  1. You must put it inside at night, worry about it walking off, or increase your insurance. Lifting a 30 pound device into a vehicle is asking for a back injury. You must be careful.
  2. Do occasional maintenance, and drag a gasoline can around. Invariably you will forget to fill the gas can when you fill your vehicle.
  3. Find space for it. (probably in a plastic tub, that won't leak oil.)
You must also get a 30 amp, three-stage, battery charger. Of course you need one of them to plug into shore power, although it could cost less.

So I tried an experiment:
  1. Hook an inverter to the battery of the tow vehicle, and run the engine.
  2. Run the output of the inverter to a battery charger for charging the house battery.
Obviously I run the van's engine when the inverter is sending 500 Watts to the battery charger in the trailer. I use a common outdoor 25 foot long extension cord to connect to the charger in the trailer.

The furring strip screwed to the bottom of the plywood keeps the whole thing from sliding off. I added an external fuse to the positive line of the inverter and the charger.

So far, so good. Remember, this is only to be used occasionally, as an alternative to buying a generator. (About 20 days per year.)

I did learn not to take the nominal ratings literally [1].  So I downsized the battery charger to a Samlex 30 amp charger [2]. Initially it eats 500 Watts from the inverter. After 15 minutes it has charged four flooded golf cart batteries to the point that they are going into the second stage -- so called "absorption" stage -- of charging, and the power falls gradually. I plan on shutting everything down after 20 minutes total.

You might consider this solution a bit of an extravagance: the pure sine wave inverter did cost $250, after all. Perhaps a modified sine wave inverter would have sufficed, and cost $100 less. But I have had mixed with results with these. 

And the new inverter will be my backup inverter, and perhaps be able to power a 110 VAC tire inflator or powerful tools with it. If it were really necessary, you could get double duty out of your house inverter, if you made it easy to remove.

[1] A 45 amp IOTA battery charger was too big for a 1000 Watt pure sine wave inverter (Xantrex ProWatt SW 1000), even though the nominal ratings would suggest otherwise.

[2] I always buy electrical controllers, inverters, etc., from DonRowe.com in Oregon. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Contradiction and Talking for Victory

I am going to continue with the subject of civilizing conversation because this is the only time of year when a backwoods camper snowbird desert rat actually talks to other human beings.

As Swift pointed out in his essay, all human beings are capable of making big improvements in their conversational habits, and with only moderate effort. Consider how easy it is easy to break some of these bad habits compared to giving up smoking. And yet millions of people have succeeded at giving up smoking. When you consider the advantages of improving conversational habits, relative to the effort involved, and look at it from a rational economic cost-benefit perspective, it is hard to think of any project more worthwhile.

Referring back to the list in the previous post, today's sins are:

#5. The Chronic Contradictor.

#3. Talking for Victory.

These have been paired up because they overlap. You could even think of #5 as the short term or tactical version of a more persistent #3.

Years ago I read good ol' Ben's Autobiography and learned that he learned the policy of non-contradiction from a Quaker friend, during his early years in Philadelphia. Although it seemed like a good idea, it had no effect on my behavior. Thus I continued both bad habits for years. A long-suffering friend told me once that I "always had to get the last word in..."

But that has changed over the last year. I actually think it was Addison & Steele's essays, The Tatler and The Spectator, that converted me to a gentler and more civilized approach. What's this?, a that book has something to do with living a better life?

Perhaps some of the credit goes to getting older. At some point, the Shortness of Life transitions from being a platitude and cliché, to impart some sobriety and urgency to a fellow's conduct.

Ben observed something in a good friend of his once:
He had some reason for loving to dispute, being eloquent, an acute sophister, and, therefore, generally successful in argumentative conversation. He had been brought up to it from a boy, his father, as I have heard, accustoming his children to dispute with one another for his diversion, while sitting at table after dinner; but I think the practice was not wise; for, in the course of my observation, these disputing, contradicting, and confuting people are generally unfortunate in their affairs. They get victory sometimes, but they never get good will, which would be of more use to them.
A contemporary of his, in England, could have learned a thing or two from Franklin. Samuel Johnson was prone to 'talking for victory', even by the admission of his obsequious biographer, James Boswell. But this wasn't always Johnson's tendency. Perhaps he changed as he aged. On their trip back from the Hebrides, Boswell witnessed this anecdote:
Speaking of this gentleman, at Rasay, he told us, that he one day called on him, and they talked of Tull's Husbandry. Dr Campbell said something. Dr Johnson began to dispute it. 'Come,' said Dr Campbell, 'we do not want to get the better of one another: we want to encrease each other's ideas.' Dr Johnson took it in good part, and the conversation then went on coolly and instructively. His candour in relating this anecdote does him much credit, and his conduct on that occasion proves how easily he could be persuaded to talk from a better motive than 'for victory.'
I just love that phrase, 'to increase each other's ideas.'  Perhaps we should stop thinking of conversation as a rapid ping pong match between opponents, and think of it as team volleyball, in which the first person bumps the ball up to the front row, and the second player sets it up to the third player, who then spikes it hard over the net. There is still an opponent, of course. But it is the other team, not an individual.

We can eliminate a team of humans as the opponents by making an inanimate idea (or situation) into the opponent. Let's visualize conversation as the famous barn-raising scene in Amish Pennsylvania, in the movie "Witness." And consider what Maurice Jarre added to the conversation with his music that so perfectly translated 'uplifting' into sound. 

But don't think I've gone nambie pambie. I consider it 'improvement' on the other guy's idea to mention an example where his point is most-true, as well as least-true. Or translate it into better words. Or ask for a clarifying example from the other person. I am not talking about passive, unqualified, obsequious echoing of their opinion.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Old Men Talking Their Victims to Death, in Quartzsite

A commenter pointed out that another category was needed for the list in the previous post: the One-Upper. I invite you to read his comment in the previous post.

And I overlooked the most ubiquitous of all conversational rogues: the Interrupter. At least these people are pretty easy to forgive. They are a bit like a dog who barks when nervous, but not at other times. Let the Interrupter calm down after a minute, or let them see the look on the face of their victim, and they will soon correct themselves.

There is a marvelous bit of acting by John Goodman in the Coen Brothers' "Barton Fink", showing him to be the victim of an over-eager, know-it-all, intellectual playwright, who won't listen to the John Goodman character tell his story.

But I'll bet you too have run into Interrupters who don't calm down and back off, but rather, keep interrupting forever. I simply don't know how to explain that. Are they insisting on being the dominant one? Their problem is quite serious.

To continue with the previous post, let's consider item #1 on the list: the garrulous old man who is constantly telling his long-winded stories.

The other day I went into Quartzsite for an errand. The old fellow came out to help me. I became nervous after looking at him for 2 seconds. (But imagine how often that alarm sounds in the minds of shopkeepers when they see a certain demographic of customer walk in, at this time of year.) Why did his body language or facial expression produce such dread? At any rate, I knew I was in for the treatment. The question was, how to sneak away without being too brusque.

He turned out to be not too bad. He actually paused in his soliloquy and let me ask a question or two. Therefore, to a therapist who works with this type of dysfunction, he is a soft-core patient who is merely in the early stages of the disease that good ol' Benjamin Franklin admitted to, as he sat down to write his "Autobiography":
By my rambling digressions I perceive myself to be grown old. I us'd to write more methodically... 'Tis perhaps only negligence.
The shame of it was that he was talking about a topic that was potentially important to me, and if handled right, could have saved me a great deal of worry and expense. (The story was about his dog getting bit by a rattlesnake.)

There are more talkative old men than him in Quartzsite at this time of year. Consider the bright side of this situation: they could operate as rampaging feral gangs, brutalizing their victims one after another, and in unspeakable ways. But in fact they normally operate as lone predators.

It's strange.  When I was a boy, (uh-oh...) both grandfathers' stories amused me. I can't remember them being long-winded. There really are benefits to old men telling stories if they are brief. Doesn't a world traveler have examples that could second the point that the other person was making? How about anecdotes that start out similar to the anecdote just told by the other person, but which end in the opposite direction? An old man has experienced profound changes by being a 'time traveler'. He can help his younger conversationalist escape the tyranny of the Here and the Now.

There is so much to be gained if only the old man would stop thinking about his own pleasure in talking, and think about the other person.

Of course, one must be patient with society if you expect much improvement in this department. Until then, other methods might be used. Why can't someone develop a chemical spray and a handy belt holster, analogous to bear repellent, so that when you see a garrulous geezer coming, you can blast him and keep yourself safe? It might be a best-seller at the Big Tent. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Frustrating Civilized Conversation

When thousands of campers are congregated in a town like Quartzsite, and have the opportunity for campfires and conversation, it would be nice to believe that it leads to better conversations than usual. But maybe that is just primal-ism and romanticism.

The retrogrouch in me yearns for conversations in olden times, when there was more formality and a tighter consensus about the rules of proper behavior. Come on now, admit it, don't you feel a little of that when you watch the polite rituals in the movies called historical 'costume dramas?' But the standards of yore haven't survived a couple hundred years of democratic leveling.

But maybe this presents an opportunity to reconstruct rules of conversation from a blank piece of paper. And this time, we will do it right. Shouldn't the aim of conversation be good will, a bit of entertainment, and subtle education? If we get good at this, we can enjoy full-bodied conversation about non-trivial subjects. Imagine conversations that make us go away feeling consciously grateful that our distant ancestors developed human speech. (and a brain to run it all.)

And yet, civilized conversation is undermined by bad habits and muddy ideas. We can all recognize our own shortcomings in the following list. But I am here to tell you that progress and improvement are possible, and will give an example at the end.

1. Old men and their long-winded stories. 

2. The Frustrated Comedian/Entertainer. Wearying people with your wit. Essay by Swift.

3. The Frustrated Lawyer or Theologian. Talking for victory.

4. The Quibbler (aka, a frustrated mathematician or theologian.) Interrupting the other person's point by quibbling over details.

5. The Chronic Contradictor.

6. The Frustrated Psychologist/Social Worker. She blasts you with her mental probe beam from Star Trek. And she wasn't even invited into your head!

7. The Frustrated Scholar (aka, the know-it-all who can't keep his big trap shut.) You know the type.

I already discussed some of these topics in a previous essay. So I will finish this post next time by keeping some of the items above as mere bullet points. Still, this post is turning into a book, and I run the risk of showing too much #1 and #7. So let's finish this another day.