Monday, December 29, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stopped breathing when I read that paragraph.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Wanted: More "David Lean Style" Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Time of Year to Be Realistic about People

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

Good News About Wireless Signals in Rural Areas

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Almost" Dropping Out of the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A RetroGrouch Has a Good Day and a Bad Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Complaining About Torture is Anti-American

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

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

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How to Appreciate a Novel by a Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

In the World, but Not Of It

In contrast to the solitary traveling and mountain biking that I do the rest of the year, midwinter is the season for non-traveling and sociable road cycling with an excellent club in Yuma. I love having a library card and the public library to use it at. But there is an even more radical lifestyle-adjustment: I bought a television antenna so I can watch football. They actually have broadcast stations here.

In watching television, and especially the commercials, I get the profound satisfaction of feeling that "I am in this country and culture, but am not of it." That is an old saying in various religions [*]. I suppose it is usually a mere platitude for them, but no doubt some religious people really mean it. In any case I would like to apply this platitude to the internet, as well. 

Yes, I use the phrase 'profound satisfaction' too often. But it really is true that, at times, you need to slow down and let the sweetness and significance soak in.

The internet is not the moral and intellectual garbage dump that television is. So I don't really hate the internet. But the repetition that I encounter daily is really starting to bore me. Could I do something better than waste $53 per month on a wireless data plan of 5 GigaBytes? Perhaps the pre-pay plan of Walmart would discipline an internet junkie. There are enough free WiFi hotspots, such as the library, that would still keep me from being totally shut off. I wonder if I am just bluffing?

Afraid that Yuma doesn't look like this. But road cyclists don't look at the scenery anyway.

[*] It is not straining an analogy to bring up the history of Christianity before the Roman establishment co-opted it.  Christians were not persecuted for what they believed in, but for what they didn't believe in or pay lip service to. They were considered dangerous atheists because they wouldn't worship Caesar and the traditional gods; doing so was virtually a loyalty oath to the Roman "system."

Our culture's polytheism worships such gods as the Media, Debt, Consumerism, the democratic "General Will," the President and his Legions spread over the empire, etc. These are what an early retiree will not worship. It is our particular form of radical atheism.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Keeps Bloggers Tied Down?

Surely most internet readers have learned from experience to temper their expectations about websites that are new to them. How many times have you gotten excited about a newly-found website, only to learn that your first half-dozen visits have shown everything that you are ever going to see there? Then, when the sting of disappointment sets in, you just want to grab the blogger by the throat and scream, "Come on! You can do it. Take a step upward." But they seldom do. [*]

What is stopping them? Are they just dummies? Or completely static? Maybe they are afraid of something.

Lately I have been fixating on a simile from Arnold Toynbee's abridged "A Study of History," Vol 1, Chapter IV. Maybe it will mean something to readers:
Primitive societies...may be likened to people lying torpid upon a ledge on a mountain-side, with a precipice below and a precipice above; civilizations may be likened to companions of these sleepers who have just risen to their feet and have started to climb up the face of the cliff above...

...and since the next ledge is out of sight, we do not know how high or how arduous the next pitch may be. We only know that it is impossible to halt and rest before next ledge, wherever that may lie, is reached. Thus, even if we could estimate each present climber's strength and skill and nerve, we could not judge whether any of them have any prospect of gaining the ledge above, which is the goal of their present endeavours. We can, however, be sure that some of them will never attain it. And we can observe that, for every single one now strenuously climbing, twice that number have fallen back on the ledge, defeated.

The problem with most websites is not that they are 'falling back on the ledge.' It is that they aren't climbing the cliff at all.

This non-growth is probably easy to explain for blogs that work for eyeball-income: they think they have already found their maximum audience and income, so why take chances? Any genuine opinion on any non-trivial subject is bound to offend somebody, so the blogger keeps everything light, sugary, and non-controversial. And in return, the readers give the blogger credit for being a "positive" person. (Mindlessness, triviality, and arrested growth are positive traits, apparently.)

Thus commercial bloggers are really no different than a television sitcom or soap opera trying to gain audience market share. What more is there to say about them?

Let's look at the second category, where a bit of hope is reasonable. Consider non-commercial, amateur bloggers. Why should it matter to them if some reader stops reading their blog because a new topic was tried or an opinion was offered that offended the reader? The blogger is not being paid. He can say what he wishes, and if the readers don't like it, well, then don't let the door knob...

More times than not, the blogger succumbs to the trap of measuring success and boosting his self-esteem by having lots of "readers." (And yes, even I am susceptible to this disease.) The blogger might actually think he is climbing Toynbee's ledge, in the simile above. But for him, 'climbing' means winning a few more votes from the demos, the rabble. The blogger might as well be back in 8th grade, trying to be popular with all the little blockheads in his class, so he can get elected class president. The blogger tries to ignore the unpleasant truth that most of his mighty readers are just moochers looking for a little free entertainment.

King Numbers. Quantity rather than Quality. It's an old problem that goes back to the beginning of democracy. Nobody has ever found a solution to it yet.

What a difference there is between an abstract shibboleth such as "Democracy" and the effects it has on some concrete part of life, not just blogs, but also food, movies, music, sports, or just about anything. The general democratic mindset of pleasing as many blockheads as possible is anti-growth, anti-quality, and anti-life. It is the democratic mindset that will keep the internet in the gutter.

It does motivate me to attempt reading Plato's "Republic" again. I've had trouble with it before. Maybe it was the translator.

[*] Recently I saw a blog take a step upward. My jaw was actually dropping as I read along.  The change wasn't announced with a new format or layout. There was not any statement by the blogger that it was even happening. But it thrilled me to see it happening. I was proud of myself for identifying it. Maybe that is what caused me to wonder why more bloggers don't "step up." The blog was Mish Shedlock's "Global Economic Analysis."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blogs Can Be Improved by Blending with Books

The history of the English language is a subject that has interested me from time to time. It is rare for an Indo-European language to lack most inflections (endings on verbs and nouns), to make modular use of helper or auxiliary verbs ('If she had gone to town yesterday...'), and to lack gender.  With its history of borrowing from other languages and innovating itself -- without some centralized bureaucracy full of language police as in the French model -- it should be capable of much more.

For instance, when is somebody going to invent, and the rest of society cleave unto, a phrase or word that adequately describes 'drowning in trivia.' Trifles, distraction, minutiae, soul-sucking drivel, and other words are pretty good. But we need something better to express the debasement of human dignity and the utter destruction of the human soul that the internet now offers.

Why do smartphones and drivel-blogs take up so much of our time compared to reading classic books? I was just sitting here reading a classic novel, Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities." I am moderately interested in the book. Why then do I feel this magnetic attraction to switch over to the Trivia online? What is the nature of this addiction? Is it just that the internet demands only a short attention span from its readers? It won't be long before the readers can stop reading entirely by nervously flitting from 2-minute-long video snippet to snippet.

In the past I have tried to explain the weaknesses of books:
  • They are non-interactive. Information flows in only one direction.
  • Books are too thick. Reading them is slow and tedious. 
  • Books suffer from the Uninterrupted Prose Syndrome. Is it really too expensive or disreputable to include some illustrations?
If I remember correctly, commenters were not overly thrilled with any of this. Very well then, if I can't explain what's wrong with reading books, let me try to explain the addictiveness of the internet. Even before the internet, 
  • The boob toob viewer had been long-accustomed to feeling a constant state of anxiety and boredom, an endless itch that must be scratched by clicking the channel button.
  • People who are young enough to have grown up addicted to video games, lived in constant "twitch mode", requiring diddling the joystick and hitting some button or key to blast some opponent.
  • Today people must click boxes on their smartphone screen every few seconds, to refresh the screen with the next ad or piece of trivial information. Otherwise they agonize in a state of nervousness and angst.

What I feel is a mild example of the above. What if the reader of a classic book picked off insightful points that the author glided over too quickly, and then illustrated the point with some experience in his life or some person he once knew?

Typing is a nice outlet for nervous fingers. The reader could type out his little vignette -- maybe just a paragraph or two. Anyone could do that, and it would be constructive. Anything is better than small talk about the weather, Facebook photos of somebody's cat, or postcards.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Success at Reading and Writing Fiction

My "mighty" success at reading a novel started when I was rereading Boswell's "Life of Johnson" for the umpteenth time. Why do I keep rereading this book? Is it because it is a rare example of a book that brings philosophy down from the clouds? It also makes philosophy brief enough for human conversation.

At any rate Boswell mentioned that Samuel Johnson loved Henry Fielding's "Amelia." This is surprising since Johnson stubbornly held to a low opinion of Fielding's work. Nothing quite disposes us to accept advice from somebody else like seeing them make an exception to a general position of theirs.

And so I read and enjoyed "Amelia."  It resembled "Tom Jones" actually: the surprises were a bit outlandish, and it had too much lovey-dovey. So then, why did I enjoy it?

The book is quite a sermon about not blaming "Fortune" for the consequences of our rash behaviour, especially when we are young. It seems odd to use the word 'preach', considering how bawdy and libertine the novel sometimes is. But it does preach indirectly. Perhaps that is the only kind that does anyone any good.

On virtually every page of "Amelia" the author slides in his little zingers of moral philosophy. You could argue that the author makes a mistake in doing so; and that, instead, he should let the readers draw conclusions by themselves. But here I think it worked because his "lessons" are so brief. The reader doesn't have time to get resentful of the author's preaching because the action of the story resumes so quickly.

There are probably other examples of "negative" behavior by an author that actually become positive if brief enough. The same probably applies to what Valium-Capsule-America calls "negative" emotions: suspicions, caution, sarcasm, and others. But there is a huge difference between 1) noting "negatives" enough to take them into a decision, and 2) fixating on them, perhaps with no action or decision in mind, but merely as a bad habit.

Think of the huge advantages that a novelist has over a philosopher or even an essayist. When the essayist hammers away on his point, the readers start to dig in their heels. They think, "I'm so sick of this blowhard and know-it-all."

But the novelist needn't succumb to that weakness. All he must do is get his readers to "suspend disbelief," and consider the characters and situations "real." When that happens, the story appears to do the preaching. The reader has forgotten about the author and his ego. The reader must actively try to educe general lessons from concrete situations, rather than settle for the passive soporific of spoonfed moral lessons.

Recall some advice from Strunk and White's "Style" chapter:

Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than the mood and temper of the author.

...that is, place yourself in the background.
This is why it is wrong for an author to make a promiscuous use of bold and italic letters, exclamation marks (!!!), weird punctuation... lessee, what else... oh yeah, slang, chattiness, vulgarisms, parenthetical remarks, neologisms, foreign phrases, and big words.

Consider what is lost when otherwise excellent authors fail to heed this advice. The Coen brothers are highly regarded as film writers and directors. Count me among their millions of fans. But they could be better. Their characters say things that no person would ever say. Plot twists are too contrived. Weird faces and accents are sometimes fun to see on film, but at other times, they are exxagerated or inaccurate.

Once the audience suspects the scriptwriter is putting Himself before the story, the "suspension of disbelief" is undermined. The audience starts thinking that characters, dialog, and situations are "fake," so nothing really matters anymore. It is so easy to take the audience 'out of the story.' Something as trivial as an "extra" looking at the camera can cause a re-shoot, and rightly so.

Another example of not receding into the background is the novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Despite his enormous reputation he made a lot of mistakes. Some of his characters are transparently autobiographical (but perhaps not so at the time.) Tolstoy obtrudes too many opinions in the story and detracts from the reader's enjoyment. Once again, this disadvantage could be turned into an advantage if the obtrusions were brisk and brief enough.

But I wonder if modern novelists have lost sight of their advantages over philosophers. Perhaps the zeitgeist has decided that injecting moral lessons about living life is too old-fashioned to be intellectually respectable. They want to be "value neutral."  They emphasize quirky, perverted, or mentally-unstable characters, as if madness makes a character more interesting. They probably think it makes their writing look more like the "forefront of research."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Seasons Can Be "Complementary Lifestyle Modules"

Once again I am in Yuma, wondering if there is a business where I can put my brain into cold storage for the winter. 

And why not, I ain't got no use for it, anyhow -- at least not for the next couple months. In fact the intellect is over-rated, as my winter lifestyle will prove. My enjoyment of life will be physiological and anthropological: I will be roadie-cycling with the single best cycling club in the Southwestern winter.

As you can tell, I just finished my first club ride, came home and took a navy-style shower, popped "The Big Country"  into the DVD player, and took a deep sag in front of it. (Notice I did not say 'nap.')

There is a real satisfaction that comes from changing your lifestyle in the winter, rather than merely changing your geographical location. What is the marginal utility of one more location to an RVer after 50 locations, the rest of the year? [*]

But if he can spot some deficiency in his lifestyle the rest of the year, and if he can somehow come up with the complementary pro-s and con-s in the winter, well then, he has constructed the perfect 12 month lifestyle.

In my particular case, I experience more pretty scenery than a sensible human being would need. I know that Life's Little Adventures and Box Canyon Blog won't agree with me on this issue. Wonderful (and unique) people though they be, and as happy with their lifestyles as they are, they still suffer from a serious substance-abuse problem: pretty scenery is their heroin. (grin) Or it could be that they just don't invoke the concept of diminishing marginal utility as the Prime Directive of their blogs.

Thus in the winter I head to Yuma, one of the few places in Arizona that is visually uninteresting, if not positively ugly. Let my eyeballs and camera rest for a couple months.

The rest of the year I disperse camp, mountain bike, and walk arroyos with my dog, who is of course ridiculously happy about it. But unintentionally I live the life of recluse. I've tried various approaches to overcoming that; they were about 5--10% successful. 

Perhaps I will never solve this "problem." So be it. Life is too short to worry about the same old issues year after year. Whatever disappointment I feel in this one department of life can be turned to advantage by showing up in Yuma and riding with the road cycling club. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!

[*] Isn't it strange how the prophets of the RV blogosphere, imbued with all their Higher Forms of Wisdom, can so easily see the folly of the conventional lifestyle with its insatiable demand for one more gadget or one more granite counter-top. 

But they cannot see the pointlessness of one more location, after pushing their geographical "channel button" 100 times per year.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why Do Some Enjoy Reading Fiction?

There is no point in trying to hide it: I am quite pleased with myself. I read a novel, and even enjoyed the ordeal, overall.

Still, there were times when I was bored and frustrated. The only thing that helped me through those episodes was visualizing my suffering as "noble and heroic." The half-facetiousness of this lightened my mood. Fortunately the novel would then become more interesting in a couple pages, and I could take a break from my play-acting. 

This gimmick worked all through the novel. Many times, I kept hearing a voice say, "It's a far, far better thing I do than..." But say, where did that come? Wasn't it from some novel I was forced to read in high school, and therefore, probably disliked? Rather ironic, if true.

And yet there are many people who enjoy novels, effortlessly I suppose. What is their secret? Why don't they spill it to people like me? Maybe it will help to consider one category of successful novel-readers at a time.

1. Novel-readers who simply like the physical act of tediously and repetitively rastering their eyeballs over the printed page, while sitting in a chair all day. Maybe they like the cozy atmosphere of sipping on some hot tea, with a cat purring next to them, and some soothing, non-vocal music playing in the background. There are even people who can read when reclining. To some extent, reading a book for them is "chewing gum for the eyes," although that old witticism applies better to television.

2. Novel-readers who are not crazy about the physical act of reading, but who tolerate it because of the:

a) entertainment value of the stories. They must be easily entertained. Ninety-five percent of the shop-worn plots are Love Triangles, adulterous love triangles, unrequited love, revenge, mistaken identity, rags-to-riches, whodunnit, and violence. If the novel is modern, it will also be replete with lurid and sordid bedroom scenes.

b) what they can learn about how human personalities interact with the challenges in their personal lives. Human situations become a mini-sermon to them; a non-academic, concrete illustration of a philosophical principle.

Clearly, #1 and #2a type readers have nothing to teach me. Only #2b type people could. Next time I need to expand on #2b.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Euro-Vans, Go Home!

Once again I took advantage of a mountain biking event to check out the motor vehicles, used to carry bikes and camping gear around. Once again I didn't learn much, because most people had the bikes on external racks. No thanks.

I didn't see one homemade, plywood cap/shell on a pickup truck. That is my best plan for the future. The commercial caps are expensive, not tall enough (at the stern), lack barn doors (at the stern), and have too many windows. (The first mistake in any vehicular design is too many windows.) Besides, I want to mount furring strips, shelves, and hooks on the inside, just like a cargo trailer. Are you really going to drill holes through a new commercial $2000-3000 cap?

But then I got a little excited about seeing the rebadged Fiat cargo van that Chrysler is selling as the RAM "Promaster." My goodness, where do they put the engine in this ugly, snub-nosed thing? But 'ugly' is OK with me. I knew that it was front wheel drive, and therefore wouldn't be much good for towing. But at least the ground clearance in front looked pretty good.

As the RAM Promaster van drove away, I managed to get a photograph of its rear end, practically dragging in the dirt. Maybe this is how they grade roads in Europe:

Gee, now that you mention it, maybe the "Zamboni" (that smooths the ice skating rink) is a branch of Fiat of Italy.

They can't be serious?! Why don't they go back where they came from? We don't cotton to their kind around here, in the great American West. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Syria and Iran Should Be Very Nervous

The Republican party won a major victory last night. Big deal! They won't accomplish anything the next two years. 
  • Will they roll back the amerikan police state by repealing the so-called Patriot Act?
  • Discuss whether the USA should withdraw from NATO, now that it serves no defensive purpose?
  • Will they make it legal for amerikans to import pharmaceutical drugs, at lower price of course?
  • Do anything to slow rampant inflation in health care and college costs?
  • How about cleaning up the corruption in the banking and financial sector?
  • Will they limit the fanatical Keynesian bubble-brewing of the Federal Reserve?
  • Can they help young people look forward to good jobs or anything brighter than college debt and paying for trillions of dollars of Medicare expenses for aging Baby Boomers?
Of course not. The only thing the Republican party cares about is military spending and finding new wars in the Mideast: new places to kill Muslims or anybody who doesn't like Israel, where 1/3 of the Republican party expects to be Raptured in a couple years.

Obama has become a lame duck. There is only one way for him to regain political stature: he must enlarge the war in Syria and perhaps take on Iran. The Republicans will join him, rather than fight him. But the main reason he will do this is that whenever a president is checked by an opposition Congress, the only thing he can do to be the uncontested, mighty ruler of the Exceptional People is to wage war.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's Raise the Voting Age to 30

Every year I get closer to seeing Democracy as more of a dogmatic faith than a sensible system of government for grown-ups. Universal suffrage is the worst idea that any society has ever come up with.

Consider the 26th Amendment of the U.S. "Constitution." It lowered the voting age to 18. Why? It was probably aimed at redressing some unfairness during the unpopular Vietnam War debacle. People asked how the government could send 18-year-old "boys" to their deaths in soggy rice paddies, when they couldn't even vote on the war, back home.

It is easy to sympathize with that argument. But historically this amendment was obsolete by the time it was ratified, because the military establishment has shifted over to voluntary enlistment. And it seems permanent. 

Perhaps the Vietnam draft argument was only part of lowering the voting age to 18. The Media and the advertising industry focused on the huge demographic bulge of Baby Boomers becoming consumers, and after all, voting is just another example of "consuming." Perhaps both parties thought they should get out ahead of the trend, rather than be seen as retrograde opposition. Youth-worship was part of the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I'm not suggesting going back to 21 as the voting age. From a "good government" perspective, it makes more sense to raise it to 25 or 30. What is the rational and philosophical basis for any age limit? Surely it must be connected with most people's idea of being an "adult." Do you think that college students of any age are adults?  Only biologically.

Humans used to grow up faster. Adolescence was brief. A couple generations ago, an 18-year-old would have been earning a living, struggling with the rent, getting married, and having children. They were more adult at 18 than a 28-year-old graduate student is today.

A college student, no matter how old, will never be more than a senescent adolescent. We live in a society of rampaging diploma inflation, guaranteed with government loans. Adolescence now consumes 1/3 of a human lifetime, say, from the age of 10 to 30. Even at 30, many college graduates can only get a part time job at the Dollar Store or as a Starbucks barista. They live in Mommie's basement. Any sensible definition of adulthood must include a person supporting themselves and being responsible for their actions.

There seems to be no end to this trend of lengthening adolescence. At the very least, our voting age should reflect this by increasing, not by being lowered to 18.

In theory the argument I'm giving is non-partisan. But in practice the Democratic party would oppose it the most. The college-town culture that people are brainwashed with at State U is 98% left wing:

  •  the local media in college town. NPR rules the airwaves there.
  •  the old hippie hangers-on who stay in college town all their lives.
  • the PC rules on campus.
  • the biases of left-wing -- and tenured! -- professors in the liberal arts classes that Junior is forced to take the first couple years.
  • the sexual frivolousness of college "women" who are very serious about wanting abortion to, not only stay legal, but be paid for by the rest of society.
  • entire academic departments are set up to promulgate benefits to the Democratic party, such as Black Studies, Feminist Studies, Environmental "Science." Who was the wit who first said that "environmentalism is 'school prayer' for liberals?"

The left wing brainwashing that people get at the university is universal, predictable, and stereotypical. Think of all the people you know who froze their worldview at the level of a college sophomore.

Therefore diploma inflation and the lengthening of adolescence is a huge demographic win for the Democratic party. It might even be more lethal to the survival of the Republican party than Mexican immigration is. 

Perhaps the Republican party will go extinct like the Whigs and Federalists. Imagine the one-party interregnum that will ensue for a couple years before another opposition party is created: the USA will still be bombing, invading, and occupying countries around the globe, with the usual ostensible reasons such as bringing "Democracy" to them. Meanwhile, back in the good ol' US of A, they would barely need elections, since only one party still exists. Would anybody even notice the irony?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ghouls Silently Dancing Along the Ridges

Many people in the USA live along the latitude of 40 degrees north. So did I for much of my life. Typically there was a nasty weather collapse near Halloween. Now living in the Southwest, I should be free of all that.

But not this Halloween. Actually I put it to good use. Blue skies can make scenic areas look too predictably pretty. And insipid. I rather like the moodiness of mesa and canyon country during storms.

Canyons also give you a little protection from blustery winds. Of course if it were raining hard, you would be wise to stay out of the canyon. So I took my dog, Coffee Girl, up some canyons that are parked right outside my camper's door.

I wonder who loves this more, she or I? But this time the experience was enhanced by the stormy weather and the possibility of rain on the walk. It sounds ridiculous to think that a little rain has become some great Malevolence to me, but I guess living in the Southwest will do that to a person.

Good luck put a little more mood into this Halloween. You see, I 'heard voices all night.' I am camped on the route of a 25-hour mountain bike race near Virgin UT. Despite the cold and the light rain, the race went on. They talked with their fellow ghouls sometimes as they rode by my trailer.

What amazing headlights these ghouls were wearing! They were visible a couple miles away, as they rose over a ridge for a few seconds, sparkling like distant and solitary jack-o-lanterns. Then, just as quickly, they vanished into the next dip. They floated along the just-barely-visible landscape, silently and eerily, like angry, wandering Souls of the Dead.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Mesa Minders

OK I admit to feeling a naughty grin when I looked down on the mesa where some Lazy Dazers are camped. My dog and I were on a mountain bike ride on a higher mesa popular with my breed, near St. George UT.

They are down there somewhere. I thought I saw them.

Zooming in, I can see somebody's rigs, left-center and slightly to the right of center.

An allegory popped into the mind: do you remember that episode in the third season of the original Star Trek, called "The Cloud Minders:"  a community of exalted intellectuals, musicians, and poets live in a city called Stratos that is levitated in the sky. They do nothing but pursue intellectual and aesthetic pursuits all day. Meanwhile, down on the planet's surface, live the miners who do all the grunt work that allows the elitism and luxury of Stratos to exist. 

As I looked down on the Lazy Dazers and grinned naughtily -- and haughtily -- the allegory grabbed control over my mind. Why was it so powerful? It was not caused by the visual stimulation alone, impressive as it was. Maybe it was a (musical) leitmotif that kept playing in my head.

And yet, what was so special about that leitmotif? In fact I didn't even know if it was used in the "Cloud Minders" episode. (I had heard the leitmotif in another Star Trek episode with a classical Greek theme.) Maybe that is why all this came together and affected me so strongly. 

I was being given the opportunity of combining outdoor scenery and exercise with an allegory from somebody else's story, and then combined that with some music from another context. My imagination was being teased and provoked into working. "Imagination" basically means combining things, making comparisons, or forming connections. Perhaps you could take this experience as a template for getting the most from an outdoor experience. Even better, it just seemed to happen by itself; these outside factors just seemed to impose themselves on me. 

Finally we made it to the edge of "Stratos." Here Coffee Girl looks down onto the squalor of the Lazy Dazers lowly earthbound camp.

The Lazy Dazers use a certain approach to nature that is well-intentioned, but mistaken. Every day, they visit the scenic freakishness of nearby Zion national park. Is that the way to give Nature a chance to make its maximum impact on you?

I never go with them, probably because I look "down" on their approach. I can't see the difference between what they are doing and a 7-year-old who wants food to be exciting. For him that means going to a Dairy Queen and pigging out on one of their lacto-globular sugar-bombs.

Or compare their approach to nature to an adolescent boy who masturbates twice a day while looking at genetic freaks in Playboy magazine. Meanwhile, a couple desks away from him in the classroom, there is a nice, average-looking, young woman that he won't even give the time of day to.
(Must I add the disclaimer that this post was written in the spirit of raillery, at the expense of people who are doing so many things right that they can afford to be good sports about getting zinged a couple times? They are having a wonderful time together, and I am envious.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Time Travel in Utah's High Country

On a recent mountain bike ride near Richfield UT, they caught me sleeping. I was focusing on choosing a path between the rocks, when my herding group dog, Coffee Girl, took after a herd of sheep that we had almost stumbled into. But she was eventually scolded into returning to me, and the sheep weren't too rattled.

Hey wait a minute, weren't we only a couple seconds from an ambush by giant white dogs, screaming out of the sagebrush to protect their herd?

But none came. As we sidled up the ridge, the size of the herd became more apparent.

Where were the dogs and the human shepherd? Eventually we spotted him. But he seemed to only have a couple border collies to help him.

I waved at him so he'd notice that my dog was now on a leash, but he didn't respond. Maybe he didn't speak English, or even Spanish. Maybe he was a Vasco, that is, a Euskal from the Basque country. I'm a bit skeptical about Great Pyrenees dogs being hostile to humans, but I wasn't so sure what they would think of my "coyote," Coffee Girl, even on her leash. So we kept our distance from the shepherd, and he was spared a dozen questions from me.

We kept climbing on this rocky ATV trail. Half the time I had to dismount and push the mountain bike. You don't want to be naive about ridges. Why are they ridges in the first place? Because they are erosion-resistant volcanic rock, surrounded by easier-eroding sedimentary layers.

I was feeling inspired by the romance of the Basque High Country, and made a rare decision: to go for a loop route instead of the more typical out-and-back. Yes, loop routes are 10 times more likely to get you into trouble, especially since I don't bring a GPS or maps, or even study maps at home all that much.

We were helped by being on the Paiute ATV trail of central Utah. And I did find a loop back home, although it took 5 hours. But along the way there were those moments of Doubt and Foreboding Doom that make an outing interesting. I'm not being facetious. False summit after false summit. I yearned to hear a noisy ATV or to see the dusty contrail of a pickup truck, because that would signify that we had finally succeeded at finding the quick road back home!

Back at camp around sunset, my dog and I heard the tinkling of a single bell. Sure enough, out on the road in front of camp, the herd of sheep was moving along, and rather briskly at that. I thought there were about 300 sheep in the herd, but was later to learn it was 1200! The herd moved almost noise-lessly as a dense pack, with barely a baah out of them. 

Was the bell on an "alpha" sheep? Was it meant to help the herd, shepherd, or the dogs follow the herd? Or was it meant to help on foggy nights?

Once again we saw the shepherd. Instead of only two border collies he had a small herd of border collies and blue heelers. Is that a walking stick in his hand? He certainly needs one. I guess they don't use those long shepherd's staffs with the rounded crook at the end, anymore.

And yes, three Great Pyrenees. How noble of Purpose they are!

This pastoral experience enriched a wonderful and difficult day of mountain biking. It made it about more than just eye-candy and aerobic exercise. It helped me appreciate, what?, 8000 years of anthropological changes: our development from hunter/gatherers to a pastoral phase with domesticated herds, to agriculture and settlements, then to cities and long-distance sea trade, to industry, and finally to our current phase, such as it is.  


Let's do a movie quote from Sydney Pollack's 1994 remake of Bill Wilder's "Sabrina": the money-man, Linus (Harrison Ford), has taken Sabrina (Julia Ormond) to his "cottage" on Martha's Vineyard. They take in the view from the oceanside window. Sabrina hands Linus her camera:

Sabrina: "Don't take a picture. Just look."

Linus looks through the view finder and describes what he sees, "Ocean (yawn), ocean, ocean, quaint little fishing village...lighthouse. A guy is going into a lighthouse. There's a job for you. What must that be like? What kind of guy takes a job keeping a lighthouse?"

What kind of man, indeed. And what kind of man becomes a shepherd in the modern age? Is our shepherd (in the photo) out there all night? In the past they must have been. Imagine how cold it must have been, and how solitary. It is easy to see why there was a link between the religious and the poetical imaginations.

After a night of shivering, the shepherd awoke in the mountain fog upon hearing the tinkling of a single sheep's bell. He knew the herd was close and safe.