Friday, February 26, 2016

Mental Junk Food in a Town of Health Food

I certainly am mooch-docking in a town of health food, vegetarian, vegan, organic, high-priced, food ideologues.  I have always dismissed food purists. Granted, not all of America is as wacky about food ideology as this town. But doesn't it seem strange how little the subject of mental junk food gets talked about?

The limiting case of mental junk food is television news, especially during presidential elections.

For instance, the moment the word 'Muslim' is mentioned, the word 'terrorist' comes to mind. It was not always so.

Perhaps that is why I appreciated a book by (the late) Maria Rosa Menocal, "The Ornament of the World", about medieval Andalusia (southern Spain). It was certainly a colorful time, with clashes and coexistence between the dominant Arab Muslims, Jews, and backward Christians.  Today many people overlook how advanced and dominant Muslim culture was from 800-1200 A.D. It was through Andalusia that European Christian civilization was awakened from its mental slumber of 800 years.

Unfortunately her book contains a thinly-disguised sales pitch for 'Diversity'. No doubt she thinks like an orthodox member of the European elite in believing that somehow Europe will benefit from the mass migration of Muslims from North Africa and the Mideast. But the example of medieval Andalusia doesn't correspond well with modern Europe and its neighbors to the south. She is trying to insinuate something by a loose analogy.

In her book, the only example of Diversity paying off was the service provided by the Jews in Muslim Spain: society needs some kind of financial arrangements to prosper, but the narrow dogma of the Muslims prevented them from providing that on their own.

Andalusia was set up as the pseudo-caliphate of the far West, by the scion of the deposed caliphate back in Damascus. The usurpers moved their capital to Baghdad after their victory. As a result Cordoba in Andalusia became the far western outpost of the best of what Muslims had to offer. To me, it shows the value of competition, decentralization, and colonization by an advanced culture in a backward region, rather than 'Diversity' as it is understood as a modern bumper sticker slogan.

Even if my criticism is not correct, it is satisfying to do my best to look at the big picture, and protect the integrity of my own mind from those funnels that are jabbed into our eyeballs, through which the garbage of the media-universe flows.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Understanding the Driving Force of a Movement

For a traveler of the interior West, few books are more natural to choose than Wallace Stegner's "Mormon Country." Nevertheless I had never read it until recently, after a friend put it into my hands. Stegner did an admirable job of being unprejudiced about Mormonism per se. Clearly, he was more interested in the human story of the Mormons than theological doctrines, and rightly so, considering the drama of the Mormon story.

Somewhere in the book, Stegner said (more or less), "After the faith had subsided a bit, the driving force was still there." But then he didn't say what that driving force was! That is really the question that interests me. Although the non-Mormon reader today may have no interest in Mormon theology, it was important to the Mormons of the time. Their great efforts were predicated on a theology that convinced them...but of what?

Stegner can be forgiven for not really explaining what the Driving Force was. It is difficult to look back into time and guess people's psychology merely from external actions or their beliefs-on-paper.

Cause and effect become confused here. Was there something unique in the theology that created the Driving Force, or was the theology merely the rationale for real forces that lay underneath?

One clue comes from looking at the geography of their birthplace: western New York state, a land of displaced New Englanders. Harvard didn't believe in God anymore. The thin soup of Deism and Unitarianism didn't meet people's emotional needs, which is really what religion is all about. But perhaps the Puritan DNA was looking to erupt in some new direction, and Mormonism was one of those outlets. (Abolitionism and Prohibitionism were others.)

Mormon culture took on characteristics redolent of the early Puritan settlers of New England, who had suffered persecution in the old country, and had crossed the Atlantic Ocean in an era when that was no small accomplishment. The Puritans had carved their New Jerusalem out of a wilderness; and had established a theocracy and a culture of hard work, cleanliness, and order.

But let's put aside the Puritan-American perspective in looking at the Mormons, and look for something more universal. Consider the psychology of the early days of the French Revolution or the Bolshevik takeover of the Romanov dynasty in Russia. It might seem paradoxical to compare religious eruptions to overtly atheistic revolutions. But the two extremes share more than they think: they are intoxicated by the notion that 'all things are now possible', and that the old world of vice and suffering are to be left behind. They all visualize a New Jerusalem, a shining city on the hill, and a heaven on earth.

Normally most people have more common sense than that. What would intoxicate them with the idea of Utopia becoming real? They needed to feel strong and confident because of some all-powerful outside force: Liberté! Egalité! et Fraternité! in the French Revolution, 'History' and Dialectical Materialism with the Bolsheviks. 

Here again, the Mormons had an advantage over other Protestant cults during the Second Great Awakening. The rest of them were too mainstream. Pioneering in the American West was a popular and prevalent idea for many impoverished Americans of that era. But Mormon theology was way out of the mainstream: it was a New Dispensation, a new vision, and not just a tweeking of the Protestant revolution of northern Europe in the 1500s. 

Make an analogy with the stock market: the New Dispensation of Joseph Smith was like a new semiconductor transistor stock in the 1960s, or Amazon in 1999.  Mormon competitors were like today's Intel or Hewlett-Packard announcing a new product line.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Value of Poetry

In rhapsodizing about the RV dump in Quartzsite recently, I finally decided that it affected me so strongly because the metaphor of a shadowy netherworld symbolized the importance of how much truth is omitted or hidden, in the normal day-to-day world. I doubt that the internet has changed this fact of human existence all that much.

Reading Addison & Steele again, I found this quote from Dryden:
Errors, like Straws, upon the Surface flow;
He who would search for Pearls must dive below.
Shame on the readers of the post for not disinterring this for me.

This is an example of the real value of poetry. It lies not in prettiness or entertainment, but in poets' skill as metaphor-smithies.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Why Is It Easier to Appreciate Things, With Time?

Surely I am not the first person to notice that he can now appreciate things that he used to yawn at, or even positively dislike. Perhaps it really is true that 'it is a shame that Youth is wasted on young people..."

For example, the other day I came back from a tour of a historic ranch, in arid Arizona, and rewatched the movie, "Jean de Florette." I liked it the first time I saw it, 30 (!) years ago. But this time I was cooing with pleasure. How do you explain this?

The movie is easy to like -- despite being French: dry rural scenery in southern France, farms and old stone buildings, a musical score inspired by Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" a beautiful girl, and a depiction of a different way to live, about a century ago. Even the story was pretty good, which is the last thing you have a right to ask from a movie.

But such things were true 30 years ago when it was made, and when I first watched it. So what has changed? Earlier in the day, two RV friends and I had visited a historic ranch that dates back to the Arizona territory. It was located in the remarkable "Palouse" of southeastern Arizona. It tries my patience to take an official tour with a docent. Just isn't my style.


We were surrounded by vast grasslands of scrawny and tawny grass. The day was unusually hot for this time of year. Thank goodness there was a working water pump available. The ranch was situated near a soggy bosque of huge cottonwood trees -- los alamos, in Spanish. They are the great water-sponges of the Southwest.




The supreme importance of water sank into my head during this tour. Later, it drastically enhanced my appreciation of "Jean de Florette", since the scarcity of water was an important part of the plot.

Even better, my RV friends were city slickers-turned-agriculturists. (Notice I did not say, 'hobby farmers.') This added another layer to my appreciation, because the main character in the movie had some things in common with them.


We could say that this higher level of appreciation proves that 'the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.' But that is too easy. Instead, let's invoke a word that is seldom used, difficult (but fun) to pronounce, and which expresses a beautiful idea: autochthonous. Used here, it means we can think of appreciation of this movie as a plant that grows from the soil of travel experience, and watered by a natural (if austere) beauty, discomfort, and friends bringing something new to the party.

More generally, as we grow older we draw on deeper aquifers of experience. The result is a better appreciation of many things.


Friday, February 12, 2016

Taking Sensual Pleasures to a Higher Level

The other day, I sat out on the porch of the "Chatterbox" cafe. It was noon on an unseasonably warm day. Already I felt a mild dread about warm weather returning, and on top of that, I was drinking hot coffee.  But the porch was shaded. The gentle breeze felt so cool and reassuring.

Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that I would pop my insulated bib overalls on and lie out on the 'patio' (ramp) of my cargo trailer, with it facing the still-valid Arizona sun. Then, I was asking relief from the wintry air. 

These two experiences were as pleasant as they could be. They were mirror images of each other. Today's pleasure was even more piquant because of the contrast with the oh-so-recent mirror image.

But the pleasure didn't stop there. Recently I posted about the visual metaphor from "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," with the ugly Creature swimming upside down while stalking the beautiful girl swimming on top of the water, with the sunlight rippling the surface. [*] (The camera was underneath the water, looking upwards.)

With this visual image in mind, the experience was transported to a higher level -- from the purely sensual to the aesthetic realm. This made a noticeable difference. I'm glad that I've finally come to appreciate, and actively shop for, visual metaphors from the movies. It is possible to find examples from the world of cartoons or even sculpture.

What a shame that visual metaphors are so hard to find in the world of (still) photography! It may be possible that many photographers don't even know that they are supposed to aspire to visual representations of ideas or fundamental components of the human condition. 
________________________________

[*] As usual, lots of good movie trivia is available at imdb.com

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Other World Under the Glistening Winter Desert

Just about everybody has had a powerful, subjective experience -- say, an automobile accident or illness -- and then been crushed by the indifference of their listeners. Usually the listener starts squirming away in just a few seconds, even if they know you quite well.

And yet I persist in using odd, and rather subjective, experiences as the starting points of personal essays. It still seems like a good idea, as long as I move briskly away from the anecdote to seek out the more General.

The oddest such experience of recent days was getting a glimpse into the world underneath a Quartzsite RV dump. The winter sun is low in the desert. It almost glistens off the desert pavement. The air is chilly. The desert seems so clean: no bugs or creepie-crawlies. Perhaps that is what made the experience memorable: first, surprise; and thirdly, the contrast with the world above ground. And 'secondly'? Ahh yes...

It took several seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. You think you see something, but you aren't sure. During that time, the Imagination runs riot. This is the origin of a human's appreciation of so many things: religion, poetry, metaphysics, hope during revolutions, fears about the future consequences of important decisions we are making at the time.

Recall your Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: 

"In reality a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever." 

"A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea."

“Whatever is fitted to excite the ideas of pain and danger, whatever is terrible, is a source of the sublime; that is, it produces the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling."
The idea of a shadowy netherworld is quite universal. It manifests itself in so many ways:

1. Children playing, and sometimes doing nasty little things because they 'fly under the radar screen' of the adult world.

2. The great appeal of gangster movies, gunslinger cowboys, or pirates.

3. The shadowy truth that lurks under the trivial chirpiness of normal, socially acceptable conversation. Important things lie hidden, like the proverbial iceberg.

4. 'The rest of the story' about that used car, after listening to the 'positive thinking' of the salesman.

5. The rest of the story about so many things. The politician yammers endlessly, but what is the real angle? What are they really trying to pull off? Who is pulling the strings behind the scenes?

6. You've just had a great piece of luck, or a great success. What ironic disaster is setting up in the background...right then... to nail you a year later?

I've gradually learned to appreciate classic visual representations of ideas. Creating these opportunities is what a real photographer should do. I got a chance to enjoy a classic image of the Underworld for the first time: the famous scene from the "Creature from the Black Lagoon." The camera was under the water, looking up at a beautiful girl swimming. The commentary track mentioned that the girl was a body double (stand-in) for Julie Adams.


Julie Adams, from IMDB.com
Why they would need a body-double or an anything-double for Julie Adams, I cannot fathom. Perhaps she wasn't a good swimmer.

The camera showed the Creature swimming up to the girl on top, while imitating her swimming stroke, and getting closer...and closer. Remember that they were wearing three-dimensional glasses in the movie theaters at that time.

The last classic image of the Underworld, I can not show you, and wouldn't even if I could. Much of the action of Carol Reed's "The Third Man", a film noir classic, takes place chasing through the underground sewers of Vienna. At the end of the movie, one of the characters is shot in those sewers just before he could escape. His fingers reach up through the sewer grate, wiggling, weakening, like dying worms.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Can Retro-grouchery Get You a Better Truck?


It's Super Bowl season. What would the ancient Greeks think of the NFL player who dances in the end zone after scoring a touchdown? No matter how proud a modern secularist and rationalist is about their superiority to superstition, don't we still believe in hubris? We start to get nervous about feeling too pleased with ourselves, and especially, if we show it in public.

For instance my van (tow vehicle) recently passed the 250,000 mile mark. At first I thought about celebrating this achievement by posting about it. Then I decided to keep my big trap shut, lest I jinx myself.

But by now, the gods have probably moved on to other things, and they won't notice if I do a little dancing in the end-zone about this.  Of course, when a person considers a new vehicle, all they can really do is stack the odds in their favor with statistically-valid generalizations. It still comes down to one lucky or unlucky specimen in a general category. But it is still worth mentioning my good luck with this Ford Econoline 250 van (1995), just as an illustration.

Why not choose a new van or truck with the same mindset as before? Why mess with success? But this should not be interpreted to mean 'Stick with Ford.' The more modern Ford engines are not similar to the engine in my old Ford van. But some of the semi-modern GM engines are!


By 'success' I meant sticking with tried and true and hopefully more durable technology, rather than getting suckered into more complex engines that only get 20% better fuel economy. Trucks and vans get lousy fuel economy because they weigh almost 3 tons, have a frontal profile the size of a barn, and are non-aerodynamic. It is a fool's game to keep adding complexity to engines to improve the fuel economy by 1.5 mpg. We are already past the point of diminishing returns. But Congress likes to write laws that try to enact popular environmental sentimentalisms, the entire culture is disconnected from physical reality, and career bureaucrats at the EPA need something to do, so we get modern engines with:
  1. Overhead cam engines, higher rpm, timing belts with expensive replacement, or timing chains with plastic tensioners, four valves per cylinder, and four camshafts instead of one.
  2. Variable valve timing.
  3. Cylinder deactivation. A V8 collapses to a V4 under low-load conditions. Why doesn't vibration tear the engine apart?
  4. Two turbo-chargers. Oh goodie, vrrooom vroom! Thousands of dollars to repair.
  5. Fuel injectors inside the combustion chamber!
  6. Fuel injectors upstream as well as in the combustion chambers.
  7. Active (closing, sliding) shutters in front of the radiator that make things a little more aerodynamic.
  8. Plastic air dams on the front bumper, which smash into the ground.
  9. Automatic engine shutdown when you are idling at stop lights, guaranteeing an earlier demise of the starter motor.
  10. Active suspension that jacks up or lowers the body, depending on your driving conditions.
  11. Aluminum pop can bodies. Bet those will really hold up to getting dinged in the parking lot by the adjacent car.
  12. Electrically heated transmission lubricant, for the first three minutes of a drive.
  13. A toy-like spare tire. 
  14. Future technologies? How about new improved outside mirrors? They could rotate at highway speeds to become more aerodynamic and improve your overall fuel economy by 0.12 mpg. When combined with new mandatory anti-collision cameras, they would retract the mirrors in parking lots so the battleship-on-wheels actually fits in the parking space. Furthermore, the side-view cameras would automatically turn off when a law enforcement officer approaches your side window. 
It's not that any of these items is intrinsically bad. But they will cost you when you buy the vehicle, and they give Murphy's Law many more opportunities for making your life miserable. 

But let's be fair: EPA requirements haven't yet forced automakers to use hollow plastic crankshafts, made from recycled grocery bags.
 
It is a good idea to avoid getting a vehicle the first year or two that is has been redesigned. Of course, that is just the time when the hottest "spokesperson" at the Detroit Auto Show will demonstrate getting in and out of the car, while wearing a tight mini-skirt and stiletto heels; and the year that the vehicle qualifies to win the Motor Trend Truck of the Year; and the year that its commercial is chosen Favorite Super Bowl commercial.

Soon the hot new vehicle might have a recall.  Fan-boys will be bitter and disappointed. But a new model has a lot of wrinkles to iron out. When are people going to learn not to be an early adopter!? 

That certainly wasn't the case with my 1995 Ford Econoline van. Even better, it was just a year or two before Ford switched to the overhead cam Triton engines. (Recall their exploding spark plugs.) My van had ye olde "pushrod" design, with a camshaft in the engine block itself, and no vulnerable timing belt or long timing chain to worry about. If you want a pushrod design now, you must go with a GM "small block" engine. (Or a Chrysler Hemi.)

I am leaning in the direction of a 2008-2013 Chevy Silverado (or its GMC doppelgänger), with a (Fourth generation) 4.8 liter V8 Vortec engine. Unlike the 5.3 liter engine, the 4.8 eschews cylinder de-activation. (But I think it does have variable valve timing.) Also, the 4.8 liter engine is usually paired with the old-fashioned four speed transmission. The newer transmission with 6 gears might be desirable, but only if they don't have "double clutch" designs; these lack (fluidic) torque converters.

(As an added plus, it is fairly common for the GM trucks to have a locking rear differential. The RPO code in the glove box is G80. This is a good way to obviate the need for a four wheel drive tow vehicle.)

In 2014 GM went over to their Eco-tec engines with fuel injectors inside the combustion chambers, fed by high pressure fuel pumps. (I don't even want to think about it...)

I am not an automotive engineer, a good auto mechanic, or a "car nut". So don't be bashful about pointing out errors in this write-up. I'll quickly edit your corrections into the post.