1/29/2018

Free At Last

Listening to comedian Rory Scovel on the January 20th Live from Here show, I realized that he’s right: the freakin’ world is gonna end with Trump in charge . . . and that is, weirdly, a good thing. During the show, John Prine even did a song with a lyric that emphasized that thought. They’re both right, we’re free, we’re finally free. Nothing matters any more. Everyone is going to die at pretty much the same time.

The religious right made it clear to anyone who knows anything about traditional Christian theology that the only remaining Christian “value” is the Supreme Court interpretation of the first amendment that exempts “churches” from corporate or personal income tax. That’s it, for them. End of moral discussion. Nothing else matters. Yeah, they babble about “right to life” in their 13th century hustle to get women back into the kitchen and delivery rooms, but that yak has been going on since the first European immigrant wet-backed into “New England.” The right to an abortion is one of the first marketing ploys the "New World” promoters used to con women into risking the wilderness. Face it, Republicans don’t care about any lives but their own and the Koch brothers’.

For decades those two groups, Republicans and faux-Christian evangelicals, have held the high ground in the cultural war’s labeling and marketing game; with phrases like “family values,” “Christian values,” “American (‘merican) Values,” “traditional values,” and so on. Now, thanks to Donald John Trump, those days are long over for several reasons. The first would be that the evangelicals and the uneducated and the self-appointed moral guardians of “conservative values” elected Donald John Trump; a vulgar, hedonistic adulterer, a sexual and economic predator, self-aggrandizing narcissist, a child-molesting, serial bankruptcy con artist, and all around near-perfect anti-Christ. If they can vote for him, nothing they’ve ever said about morality has meant squat.

Guys like me, who used to think it was polite to save “special” words for the garage and basement, have been cut loose. George Carlin would be amazed. All seven of his “words you can’t say on television” are now on television almost every night. Just from the language Donny John has let loose on the public, all bets are off. “Fucking,” “motherfucking,” “fuck,” “shit,” “shithole,” “shithouse,” “pussy,” “son of a bitch,” “bullshit,” and pretty much any other collection of words that used to be considered obscene and unfit for public use are now spouting from the President’s tiny pursed mouth. Boorish and bigoted behavior is now the model we’re showing to the world from the White House, But if you think Trump’s language is mean and obscene, you ought to hear what his minions are saying.

The only words Donald John Trump seems to think we all need to avoid are “vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based.” Who knew what “obscenity would be in 2018? George Orwell would be writing a whole new 1984 if he’d lived to see Trump’s America.

But the real gate-buster is the fact that, not only are we all likely to die while Donny John is President, but that we are all going to die at very nearly the exact same time! Think about how liberating that knowledge is. One of the disgusting values most liberals hold dear is “What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grand-children?” Republicans, pseudo-conservatives, and fundamentalists of all stripes and denominations never worry about the future: they either don’t care or they and their death cults sincerely hope that we’ll all die soon. Well, we’re leaving those kids absolutely nothing, which means we don’t have to worry about their struggle and suffering from the mess we’re going to leave them. We won’t be there to slut-shame and they won’t be there to do the slut-shaming. We’ll all be dead!

Isn’t that awesome? Seriously.

I’m not kidding.

We’ll all be dead, every one of us within a few seconds of every other: barely time for the last ones left on the planet to say, “Oh, shit!” And we’ll all be dead and gone and, afterwards, there might not be much left of the whole planet’s ability to support life.  At the literal least, when Donny John is done, it will be at least 100-200 million years before the alligators, crocodiles, rats, cockroaches, bottom-of-the-ocean amphipods and echinoderms and foraminiferans, and/or houseflies evolve into something capable of being pissed off at us for blowing up the world. 

How is that not liberating?

We might as well legalize practically everything that isn’t directly and intentionally murderous: only because we don’t want to short anyone out of their 1-3 years max life-expectancy. Drugs, all of them, all of the recreational ones, anyway, get legalized. Screw waiting for lazy, incompetent Republican congresscritters to get around to shutting the door on the DEA. This is a states’ rights issue. Just legalize anything that can get us high and make federal law enforcement stay in Washington, D.C. (where weed is already legal). We’re good with the totally bonkers right-to-lifers; everyone dumb enough to get pregnant gets to be a mom just in time for both mom and the kid(s) to be blown to bits! What’s the worst thing that can happen to new moms? 1-2 years max and your troubles are over. Of course, drug manufacturers get to sell their latest male and female sterilization and birth control drugs without any sort of FDA approval process. Over-the-counter, for crap’s sake. Who wants to be pregnant or a new dad if the odds are lousy that the kid will even live long enough to be born?

Nothing you can say, nothing you can do (excepting the murderous boundary), no words are obscene, no sexual behavior, and no financial crime matters. Because we’re all going to be dead in the same moment. And it’s going to be soon!

Obviously, if someone doesn’t want to wait for Trump to poke his “really big red button” with his tiny little fingers, they should have all the resources necessary to take an early exit. Pfizer and the companies that make sodium thiopental should get to be as rich as they can be in the 1-3 years they have to sell death-row drugs to the general public. When someone does manage to off themselves, relatively painlessly, we’ll be done with dreary, teary funeral ceremonies. We should celebrate that kind of skill and research. Most likely, we’re all going to fry in a blast of several-thousand degree evaporated atmosphere and radiation. Who knows? Trump’s apocalypse might be incredibly painful and the successful suicide will seem like the smart choice. We should all be jealous, rather than selfishly-sad. Every death will be cause for one of those drunken Irish wakes where at least another half-dozen mourners get killed on the way home from the party. Life will be like non-stop frat parties, which we’d think was irresponsible and shortsighted if we thought there was going to be any sort of future to worry about.

So, I say it’s time to celebrate the Age of Trump. We’re all going to be guilt-free and that’s no easy thing these days. In fact, if Trump doesn’t kill us all, the smart move will be to follow Trump with President Rock or Nugent. On their first day in office, either one of those two drunken nitwits would stumble into the Oval Office and fall on Trump’s “big red button.” Otherwise, our kids and grand-kids are really going to hate us for the mess we’ve left them and we’ll probably live long enough to hear about it.

1/21/2018

Hobbies and Vocations

Possibly the title of this should be “Hobbies vs. Vocations,” but the point is some things qualify as pastime activities and some things are actual work with an intended function. Some things are necessary and some are not. Some pursuits are moderately intellectual, but if they didn’t exist, which they don’t in hard times, we’ll all get along just fine. Some jobs are just recreational and totally unnecessary, under all conditions. Some people do work so critical that if they stopped the rest of us would die in a few days, weeks, or months. The more entertainment-oriented we become, the less able we are, as a society, to tell the difference. In the US, approximately half of the population is “employed.” Considerably fewer than that are doing actual, useful work.

In a dysfunctional, disconnected-from-reality society full of luxuries and trivial pursuits, often only a few people are engaged in doing actual necessary work. For example, in the United States less than 2% of the population is engaged in agriculture, but 100% of us eat. In 2014, 0.3% of the US population was actively licensed physicians. [As an aside, you probably don’t know that 25% of US physicians are born outside of this country. If you live in a rural area, your dependence on foreign-born physicians rises to above 50%. Choke on that immigration data, farmboy. Literally, choke on it and see who comes to rescue you, if you are lucky enough to live near a physician.] In 2014, 0.76% of the US population was employed as nurses and non-physician qualified healthcare workers. 2.4% of Americans are teachers, from K-12 through higher education. Counting all engineering disciplines, from agricultural to nuclear to manufacturing engineering, 0.7% of us are engineers. 0.2% of the population are practicing electricians (and about 50% of them will be retiring in the next decade) and another 0.2% are plumbers, pipefitters, pipe layers, and steamfitters. All of these occupations, and a few more, are mission-critical to life in civilization.

On the other side of the usefulness ledger, in 2014, 3% of Americans were employed as some sort “financial advisor” or analyst or banking. 2% of us are employed in entertainment industries, from music to theater to gambling to providing specific services to those industries. 0.2% of the uselessly “employed” are “religious workers,” clergy, and other superstition promoters. The list of incredibly pointless activities is practically infinitely long. Worse, our tax system appears to be constantly undergoing modifications to encourage less and less useful output from the population. Likewise, the education system is packed with incredibly stupid hobby activities; some even degrade the whole academic process by awarding PhD's in truly ludicrous non-disciplines.

An acquaintance unintentionally inspired me to consider how much of academia is aimed at hobby activities when he asked, “You don’t think someone with a PhD in (sociocultural) anthropology, who lived with a primitive tribe of humans for a year, and who spent most of his life studying and thinking about that subject is important?” My immediate and considered answer would have to be, “No, I’d need more evidence than that.” Archaeology or biological anthropology, probably-to-yes, but socio-cultural, almost certainly no. In my experience, which is much greater than I’d like but not massive, I have yet to take a class from or talk to a cultural anthropologist who can listen to anyone long enough to learn something from them. They are almost universally talkers, not listeners. And when they talk, they talk until you go zombie. Likewise, another acquaintance with a PhD in Ministry was explaining how excited he was to be teaching a class in “Dream Work” at a local community college. My stomach turned at the thought of young people wasting their money and future on a class that barely qualifies as a novelty subject, even if there is a whole nutjob institution called the Institute for Dream Studies and a whole wacky world of chin-dribble pretending to be science or philosophy attached to that insanity.

It is certainly unsurprising that most humans would rather be doing fun, easy stuff than work. I’m totally onboard with that. However, when we lose track of what’s important and necessary and what isn’t, we’re solidly on the path to decadence. At least a decade ago, I heard a talk on one of the NPR early afternoon programs from a Stanford University engineering dean about his experience with academic politics. If I could remember who that was I could find the damn talk and link it to this essay, but I have failed, totally, in recovering that memory or any reference to its existence in the NPR library. However, the basic gist was that this academic manager came to the office with the deluded, but inspired goal of cross-breeding liberal arts into engineering and science disciplines. What he discovered, instead, was that most of the engineering and science professors were well-versed in the arts and often professional or near-professional performers or artists in their spare time. The reverse was completely untrue: the liberal arts instructors were practically stone-boilers, technically. Their grip on all aspects of science, mathematics, and technology was worse than the average high school graduate. So, he set out to change that and discovered that he had taken on an impossible task; politically and academically. Not only were the “humanities” academics uninterested in joining the 20th century, they were quick to unite in opposition to learning anything that might make them less irrelevant.

Whoever this dean was, it didn’t take him long to bail from the whole project and academic management in general. The odds were overwhelmingly against him. And they still are, “Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.” What that means is that every committee, every budget meeting, every power struggle is overpopulated with humanities instructors who have nothing else to do but “contribute” their positions to management, who are also highly likely to be from the Liberal Arts academic community. What else do they have to do? It’s not like anyone is beating at their doors to fund their “research” or other half-baked opinion pieces. Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid isn’t even a little shy about the goal of the school, “We have 11 humanities departments that are quite extraordinary, and we want to provide for that faculty.” Screw providing value to students, the point is to keep the faculty housed and fed. It should be obvious that when an incredibly expensive and dubious proposition like humanities education becomes primarily an effort “to provide for that faculty” who desperately want to cling to their declining position in society, the education system has a busted spoke or ten.

Face it, if they weren’t cutting off chunks of money most likely intended for science and engineering projects, they’d all be working at Starbucks or McDonald's. Literally, that is a fact. For this kind of field, to stay moderately relevant academics have to “publish or perish” in the staid, barely-critical world of academic publications: mostly subsidized by academic institutions and their publication outlets. If it weren’t for the financial umbrella provided by academic institutions, the humanities folks would have to really learn how to write and compete in the overall non-fiction area that is largely populated by hobbyists who are successful professional writers. From the shelter of academia, these hobbyists can act superior and disdainful of professional writers who can actually sell books about the subjects the academics can only peddle with the carrot of a degree attached; even if that degree is economically pointless outside of being a door into academia. Garrison Keillor once ridiculed MFA degrees as being a study of “My Fabulous Adolescence.” I wouldn’t be particularly surprised or offended to hear most graduate humanities studies collected under that childhood-extension umbrella. The arts apply, too. After all, “if you can talk, you can sing” and “paying other people to get your kicks for you” is the sort of thing expected from decadent societies.

One hilarious aspect of the shrinking humanities is in their desperation to appear relevant the courses are becoming more comedic while they try to appeal to popular culture addicts and trivia. For example, “‘Teaching Classics in the Digital Age,’ [where] graduate students use Rap Genius, a popular website for annotating lyrics from rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem. . . " One of the most repeated arguments for Liberal Arts and Humanities is “our job is to help students learn to question.” One of those questions should be, “Is this a serious subject worth spending a few thousand dollars on or is it a hobby topic that I can adequately research on my own time for free with a library card?” As humanity departments dumb-down the value and difficulty of a Liberal Arts education, in a desperate attempt to cling to a paying gig, that question becomes easier to answer. A solution would be to cost-justify portions of the education system, but that often has unintended consequences. California, for example, tried to encourage STEM-qualified K-12, particularly high school, instructors back in the late 80’s by requiring public schools to pay more for STEM graduate instructors than Liberal Arts instructors. No money was allocated to schools for this requirement, so the end result was that more expensive STEM instructors were laid-off and replaced with marginally-qualified teachers who met the minimum standard for math and science course instruction but who were not math or science grads. Mandates require tight regulation or you may not get what you hoped to get as a result.

As Harvard University professor of government Harvey Mansfield said, “Science students do well in non-science courses, but non-science students have difficulty in science courses. Slaves of exactness find it easier to adjust to the inexact, though they may be disdainful of it, than those who think in the realm of the inexact when confronted with the exact.” That is a really complicated way to state the obvious: students who have spent their lives being disciplined and working in a system that has standards and expectations have no problem kicking back and goofing off if that is all that is required.

1/15/2018

Rat's Rule #2: When You Know It Is Over

Way back in 2008, I wrote a Geezer with a Grudge rant titled, "A Technological Dead End?" I always intended this essay to be turned into a Rat's Rules for this blog, but because I wrote it once it never made it to the Rat's Eye View. Today, I have fixed that. This is Rat's Rule #2: as a technology approaches terminal, it gets really good.  Then it dies.

All Rights Reserved © 2008 (revised 2012) Thomas W. Day
I have a theory, born from personal experience and lightweight observation of history.  My theory is that as a technology approaches terminal, it gets really good.  Then it dies.  When a new technology is just finding its legs, the technology being replaced makes a wonderful collection of giant leaps; which will fail to stave off obsolescence, even for a moment.  But examining those last moments of declining technological health can be really enlightening.  

I'm not saying this as someone who has been on the leading edge of a technology shift.  In fact, as a mid-tech transient I've been trailing edge for most of my life.  In the mid-1980's, professional analog audio recording gear began to be displaced by digital recording systems.  The last generation of analog recorders were a huge improvement over anything previous technology.  But it was too late: the convenience, cost advantage, signal-to-noise improvement, and trendy-ness of digital wiped out those last moments of glory and hardly anyone even noticed that most of the problems usually associated with recording on analog tape had been minimized.  Today, professional analog recording systems are practically relics and even the simplest personal computer has more editing and playback horsepower than a multi-million-dollar studio from twenty years ago. In my lifetime, I've seen (or am seeing) electronic tubes, analog computers, magnetic data storage, photographic film, visual artist's tools, payphones, cathode ray tubes, analog television, vinyl records and turntables, carburetors, and dual-shock motorcycle suspensions quickly peak and begin the rapid transition from regular use to museums' shelves [2]

I was first turned on to this realization when I was a very young man.  When my kids were toddlers, one of our favorite weekend trips was to Minden, Nebraska to visit the Harold Warp Pioneer Village Museum.  The place is stuffed with all kinds of historic tools and toys, from Pony Express relics to railroad history to farm equipment to early internal combustion vehicles. The thing that tripped my trigger was getting a close look at horse-drawn carriages, especially the high-end, luxury models from the turn of the last century.  Just as the first internal combustion vehicles were making horse-drawn transportation obsolete, the last carriages were becoming efficient, comfortable, and sophisticated.  I studied suspension systems that we wouldn't see on cars until fifty years later.  Some of these vehicles had heating systems, evaporation interior cooling, clever convertible tops, interior and exterior lighting, safety equipment, and finish work that made the next half-century of car design look primitive.  Unfortunately, they also had horses providing the horsepower. 

The other sign of impending obsolescence is nostalgia.  This country is currently being decorated with monuments to the Golden Days of Oil.  To anyone with a sense of history, that ought to be a big, red, flashing sign that something is on the downhill slide.  Folks are paying idiotic prices for Gulf, Esso, Kerr-McGee, and Standard Oil memorabilia.  Oil Century Museums are popping up everywhere from California to Tex-ahoma to Florida to New Jersey.  Ohio is home to the "Society for Commercial Archaeology."  And, of course, we have wads of motorcycle museums littering the country side.  On my last long Midwestern bike trip, I counted ads for half-dozen Harley/Indian museums before they began to fade into the fast food, antique store, and hotel signs. The last couple of decades witnessed a giant blast of the past as Boomers tried to revive their youth with muscle cars and 1950s-styled big twins.  That fad won't last much longer, because Boomers are soon going to be looking for their next hipster thing in prosthetic hips (like mine) and electric wheelchairs. 

Watching what's going on in our culture makes me suspect that we're about to see our beloved internal combustion engine technology vanish.  I don't know if you've noticed, but internal combustion engines have become trailing-edge technology, almost overnight.  There are alternative transportation systems on our highways and all over the rest of the world.  At the same time the technology designed into internal combustion-powered cars and, especially, motorcycles has become absolutely incredible.  The performance, reliability, and even the sound of modern motorcycles has been tweaked to the nth degree.  The only thing that's been stubbornly ignored is energy efficiency and that's probably the only characteristic that really matters in the twenty-first century.

In (2007) end-of-year issue, the relatively conservative Motorcycle Consumer News published their "Performance Index" for the current generation of motorcycles. In a summary, they listed the following most important performance categories: ten best 1/4 mile times, ten best rear-wheel HP, ten best power-to-weight rations, ten best top speeds, ten best rear-wheel torque, and ten best 60-0 stops. All but one of those measurements are, essentially, the same sort of 1950's information; power.

Most likely, the only modern statistic included in the data provided would be "average fuel mileage." By this standard, the 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R was the winner at 65.3mpg (the 2007 version was 10mpg less fuel efficient), followed by the Ninja 500 (64mpg), and Honda's Rebel 250 (62.6mpg). The Victory 8-Ball at 29.8mpg was the fuel guzzling loser. My daughter's 1991 Geo got better mileage than more than half of the motorcycles MCN rated. From occasional long ride experiences with folks on liter sportbikes, my own calculations estimate that MCN was optimistic about the efficiency of most of the bikes they rated. I wouldn't be surprised at less than 20mpg performance from many of those street legal race bikes. (The new Honda NC700X has upped the game a bit, but I think it's too little, too late.)

While those performance-based qualities are being fine-tuned, the world's oil consumption has rapidly passed world oil production.  Sometime in the last five years, oil demand whipped around oil production capacity and the world's economies will either shift away from burning petroleum or suffer the consequences.  Some experts claim that 2005 was the whipping point; the last year of "cheap oil" and that we're on the downhill slide where production will get further from meeting demand every year.[1]  In 1999, the uber-conservative, alternative-technology-spurning oilman Dick Cheney was one of those "experts" warning that the age of oil is about done.  Cheney told other oil execs, back then, that the reason oil companies weren't building new refining plants was that investment would be putting good money after bad.  We have more than enough oil processing equipment, we don't have much oil left to process.  Some folks estimate that in as little as two or three years, it may cost $100 to fill a compact car's tank.  Filling a bike's tank will be pretty close to half that and it's going to be more expensive every year afterwards.

Let's get real.  A 250hp, liter bike that burns 15-20 mpg is going to be a pretty worthless piece of history when gas costs four to ten times what it costs today.  Everything we use, do, and consume, will be incredibly more expensive when oil bumps against the predicted 2025 $400 per barrel.  If we humans are lucky and put some planning and a lot of resources into the next few years, we might be converting to hydrogen cell vehicles or some other petroleum-less fuel about the time the old technology becomes impractical.  I like to imagine that motorcycles, with their inherent energy efficiency and other advantages will be part of that change.  I'm sure horse lovers hoped horses would find a place in the modern transportation scheme, back in 1906.  Who knows, maybe horses will make a comeback?

Personally, I'm feeling a little nostalgic today, while the majority of Americans appear to be clueless about the future of our energy-dependent systems.  As an example, the dim-bulbs in St. Paul are widening freeways, planning communities that are further than ever from necessary services and employment, and designing government buildings that depend on energy systems that will be disappearing about the time those facilities are put into service.  My sentiments, inspired by that irresponsible bureaucratic inattention to reality, is considerably less upbeat.  Their behavior is more evidence that we always get the government we deserve, just like every other country in the world. 

While there appears to be a fair amount of thought going into replacing the power plant under the hoods of our cars, for a while it looked like that wouldn't be happening for two-wheeled vehicles.  Zero Motorcycles and Brammo have changed all that.  Zero Motorcycle's new Z-Forcetm power pack is pushing electric motorcycle technology fast into the new Green Age. With a 100 mile range, an 88mph top speed, and 3,000 charge cycles (a 300,000 mile battery life), Zero's bikes are beginning to warrant their price premium. Hayes' diesel-powered bike is another cool thing.  A hydrogen-powered turbo sportbike would be beyond hip.

Knowing that this oil barrel is more than half-empty with a rust hole in the bottom has forced me to suspect that the world I lived in is vanishing.  I'm trying not to sound like a reformed whore, but it's hard for me to pretend to any other pose.  I am from a generation that burned gas for almost nothing but recreational uses.  I can "brag" that I sometimes rode my Kawasaki Bighorn, Rickman 125 ISDT, or even the Harley Sprint to the racetrack, took off the street hardware, raced the bike, and, after reinstalling lights and crap, rode back home.  I guess that's something.  But I also trailered, trucked, and station-wagoned bikes to races, took long mind-altering rides in the country, and practiced racing on all sorts of surfaces.  Today, those leisurely rides through the country side feel a bit like immature, excessive exercises in selfishness; and I'm missing them before I've given up doing them.  I know that every drop of oil that I waste is coming out of my children and grandchildren's heritage and I'm becoming more than a little ashamed of the oil I wasted before I knew better.  The days of getting together with a few dozen friends to explore backroads and hang out in the twisties are fading.  I think sports like motocross, road racing, and all of the fun we have had aimlessly and recreation-ally burning fuel are also coming to a sooner-than-you-think end.  Between declining resources and world-wide pollution and global heating catastrophes, it appears that we have hung on to these carbon-burning handlebars a little too long.

I'm not celebrating this.  I'm not gloating or saying "I told you so" while I write this.  I lived in a gloriously ignorant, greedy, selfish time and it was an incredibly fun period in human history.  I wish I could pass it on to my children and, especially, my grandson.  If we're truly a civilization worth saving, we'll find a way to make a world our kids can enjoy.  If we don't, we deserve any misery we receive. 


[1] A depressing, but complete site for all sorts of links to information about the coming energy crisis is http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/.
[2] Paul Young added this note to my list of vanishing technologies from my own lifetime: "One of the guys I work with had his 11 year old son come up to him and ask 'Have you ever heard of something called a landline?' Something else to add to your list of disappearing technology. "