Amarillo: Boondoggle on the Staked Plains

In trying to lay out hotel reservations for a long trip recently, I found myself in need of a place to spend the night in North Texas. Not a lot of choices: Amarillo was the obvious one. Yet I hesitated, because I dimly remembered some problem with that city a couple of years back when I was planning stops along the same route. Well, maybe there had been a convention at the time… so I tried again. Rooms at any place nicer than the Budget Super Zero started at $150: sure enough, that’s pretty steep. Must be because there’s literally nothing else by way of hostel or settlement in North Texas, and people cramming in a late summer vacation on their way to Santa Fe or Phoenix or the People’s Republic of California have no options if they don’t wish to drive all night.

Okay, $150. Then I make a few clicks and prepare to confirm, when I notice that the taxes piled onto the already rather whopping bill are… $75! The bill increases by fifty percent to pay the damn taxes! Why, why do you pay so much tax when you pass through Amarillo?

The only reasonable answer I can divine is that the windmill-building and fracking industries are booming in the area—and local government is doing everything it can to cash in on the bonanza while it lasts. After all, if you’re traveling in connection with a major energy-producer, your expense account will readily absorb an extortionate tax (since your company intends to turn around and extort the consumer).

Now, I have my reservations about fracking. The strange incidence of earthquakes in some areas where the procedure is performed (and very unusual near-to-surface earthquakes) is a worry. But at least fracking yields a tangible result that is creating substantial energy-independence for the nation.

On the other hand, if you’ve read my earlier posts, you know that I go downright livid at the thought of windmills. They are not delivering sufficient energy to justify their existence; and by the time better technology exists, we’ll be stuck with thousands of these monstrosities in the heartland whose dismantling will be almost as costly as their assembly. Meanwhile, flatbed trucks are chugging and grinding to transport single blades out into the middle of nowhere, eating up diesel fuel every mile of the way.

On top of all that, I now realize (or am pretty darn sure) that local businesses and municipalities have probably lobbied for these gigantic exercises in futility. Ka-ching, ka-ching. If you still want to tell yourself that you support that endeavor because you believe in natural, renewable energy, then keep singing yourself to sleep with the same refrain… but you’d better keep your eyes firmly shut and the lights turned off.

Aliens, We Need You Fast!

I’ve taken to watching Ancient Aliens sometimes because I like the historical puzzlers often introduced there. What I least like is the lurch to the conclusion that every historical or archeological conundrum may be sufficiently answered by putting a spacecraft from the Delta Quadrant on the ground. The other night I was really annoyed when these two assertions were made within five minutes of one another: a) that life could not have evolved on Earth without the Moon’s stabilizing influence on tides and axial wobble, and b) that ancient texts actually refer to a time when there was no Moon. Wa… wa… wait a minute, now! Who could have observed the moonless period and passed along that information if the Moon was needed for life to evolve? What looked like a Homeric text was quickly flashed across the screen; but Homer only mentions the Moon twice (in similes belonging to the Iliad), so I don’t know what the fleeting Greek hexameters were meant to peddle. I was reminded of how con artists will say they’re from the FBI and then flip out some toystore badge that they withdraw immediately.

Wildly presumptuous conclusions, internal contradictions within arguments, inadequate documentation… these are characteristics not just of offerings on the History Channel, but of pretty much every aspect of our culture (or our post-culture, as I call it). I heard an “expert” of some sort declare on TV the other night that our children grow brighter and brighter by the generation, and images of kids playing on smartphones appeared. If I slip on a pair of Nikes, does that make me faster than a barefooted Zulu?

Indeed, the case for our steadily dumbing down rests on the very proliferation of “devices” among us. They’re smart, all right, those chips and circuits. They do more and more of our thinking for us, to the point that our ability to string ideas together sensibly is beginning to atrophy. I had a girl in one of my classes last spring who had attended a writing class two years earlier as a freshman. I was very happy to see that she’s signed up near the end of her college work, because she had consistently made really sharp contributions in class when barely out of high school. Boy, did I ever miss the mark in that prediction! As a near-senior, she had become a dope and a nuisance, fiddling around on YouTube and tittering with her best friend as I tried to conduct discussions. She had lost all apparent regard for social propriety, for professional obligation, and for dedication to self-improvement—and, oh, by the way, her grammar had grown atrocious. After almost the full battery of undergraduate courses, she was preparing to enter the “educated adult mainstream” a worse writer and thinker than she had reached us.

This is only a graphic instance of a phenomenon that I see repeated year after depressing year. It’s one of the reasons I’ll be retiring soon. I can’t take it. You see, we educators egg this kind of thing on. Instead of demanding that students leave their i-gear and e-gadgets at the door, we require them to spend more and more time online. We tell the public that we’re “preparing America’s youth for the world of tomorrow”… or some such crap. Meanwhile, they think that research is chasing down a keyword phrase. They gather their news from the headlines that Google is pleased to flash before them when they power up. They learn to express allegiance or acquire a following by tweeting cliché one-liners and uploading photos of themselves mugging in front of some cliché venue. They have no depth and no originality… and we’re doing it to them, at an accelerated rate, all because a) we don’t wish to be thought Luddites and “flat-earthers”, b) our administrators are pushing all of it full-force (to ease more of us off the payroll and to elbow more contracts to their buddies and relations in tech), and c) we don’t have to work as hard if the children are punching buttons all period.

Is it any wonder that the line between documentary and cartoon is blurring? I guess the only meaningful question, in terms of our collective future, is whether we’ll be able to shift all thinking competency over to computers and robots before our own spiraling incompetency leaves us as dumb as a baked squash.

 

“Planet-Saving” Scams: The Stupidity and the Outrage

In case I haven’t written enough about this before… let me urge anyone who reads these scribbles to view words and phrases like “environmentally friendly”, “sustainable”, and “renewable” with extreme skepticism when they appear in the context of energy. The California legislature, in its interminable and terminal stupidity, has apparently decided to require that all new houses be equipped with solar panels and that all farms devote 25 percent of their acreage to windmills. One idiot legislator was chirping about all the new jobs that will be created by the heavy-handed mandate; and when questioned about how the consumer will pay the roofing crews who profit from the artificial bonanza, he blithely responded that the federal government would pick up the tab in the form of tax credits and rebates. That means YOU, my dear, and I: WE shall pay for California’s decision to “act responsibly” and “save the planet”. I thought Californians wanted to secede… so what’s holding them up?

Umm, and about “saving the planet”… just a few words. The rare-earth elements with which solar panels are coated—delightful stuff like cadmium and mercury—are so toxic that they can’t even be mined legally in this country. In the Third World and China (i.e., where people will shorten their lives just to eat for what time they have, or where their government doesn’t give a damn if they live or not), the locations where such mining is done are known as “cancer villages”. The life expectancy falls well short of thirty. So the next time you’re congratulating yourself for being environmentally responsible and saving the planet, say a little prayer for the children whom your virtue sent to an early grave… would you, please? And by the way, the panels need replacing every twenty-five or thirty years. Their energy output is not indefinitely sustainable.

As for windmills, every time I drive west or up into the heartland, I’m infuriated. There are quite literally thousands and thousands of the things. The landscape west of Abilene was never lyrically beautiful, but it once had a kind of sublimity that I found uplifting. Now vast tracts of land from West Texas to… yes, California… look like some kind of Siberian gulag for misbehaving fans—or perhaps like an infinite gauntlet of paddles awaiting some class of sinners in Dante’s lower Inferno. I’ve never seen all of the blades turning at once, and few of them ever turn very fast. Imagine the rate at which a turbine would be spinning at the base of a mediocre waterfall, and then compare that mental picture to the pathetic gyrations of these regimented titans. It is simply inconceivable that the horde of creaky monstrosities will pay for itself in less than a century. Each blade exceeds the length of a flatbed truck and must be hauled expensively (using God knows how much gas, by the way) from whatever industrial hub produced it (using God knows how much oil or coal, by the way). And there they sit, thousands upon thousands of them, all but motionless and about as scenic as the smokestacks of nineteenth-century Manchester. So far, though many are perched in prime tornado territory, we haven’t seen the consequences of their huge blades being torn asunder near a population center. And in the very near future—far sooner than a century—when we have discovered some infinitely cheaper energy source, we will face the further risk and expense of having to take them down.

Meanwhile, the industrial donors to these idiot politicians who sell their “clean energy” programs to you, the idiot public, keep raking in the taxpayer’s cash. We are creating jobs, you know! And meanwhile, as well, those of the emoji generation who need to slap a little icon or bumper-sticker on their conscience to show that they care about the planet as they check their messages and scroll through YouTube have the drive-through fix they crave. At what a cost! But what do they care? Just as long as everyone knows they “care”.

The Dehumanizing Religion of “Progress”

Can a political ideology be a religion? I suggested in my post entry that people who are willing to countenance the murder of their political adversaries in pursuit of a glorious cause are in fact not engaged in politics at all: they are members of a religious cult. But how can a belief system be styled “religious” if acknowledges no deliberate agency in cosmic affairs other than the human? If it recognizes no spiritual reality but only the material version, if it accepts no afterlife other than the bequest of technical learning that allows one’s grandchildren to live longer and better… then where is the religion?

Let me try to state this “faith” as fair-mindedly as I can. Jules Romains, a French novelist whose most successful works were penned almost a century ago and about whom I’ve written quite a lot, authored a manifesto early in his career for a movement he called “unanism”. I can bring its general terms to mind without too much effort–and it’s about as eloquent an expression of the progressivist vision as I have ever seen.

The unanimist (or exponent of “one spirit uniting us all”) sees the human race as fulfilling a kind of destiny into which it has stumbled, but which is now its grand and inescapable calling. We might have continued living in trees and caves… but we didn’t; and once we evolved the ability to manipulate our environment and to organize our societies, we became permanently endowed with the power to perfect ourselves. Diseases could be conquered; violent weather events could be mitigated; hunger could be minimized through agricultural innovation and social discipline; crime could be bred out of us slowly through education; even the inevitable degeneration of our planetary home as the solar system entropically wears out could be averted if only we might reverse certain forces, travel to a new solar system, or create one ex nihilo out of our genius.

In a sense, we would live forever; and individuals might quite literally live for thousands of years with the help of nano-technology and cybernetics. Yet that failing, our species–our human collective–would bear our vision and our values undyingly into the future. And in that certainty within each of us that our efforts had laid one more brick onto the great ascending wall, we would partake of a kind of eternity, even though our personal consciousness would have been terminated somewhere along the way.

If this is not a religion rivaling others on earth today–if it is not, indeed, the dominant religion of the Western political and economic elite and of our educational institutions–then I can’t think why it should not be so. Its faithful may protest, “But the system you have outlined has nothing of the irrational about it! Religion clings to belief in invisible spirits flitting about behind the scenes: this is all science and reason!” No, actually: it’s not. The most basic assumption that we have some high duty or other to continue evolving has no empirical basis whatever. Where would this duty come from? If it was always in our genetic material, then some mysterious Creator must have put it there; but if we just happened to beat dolphins and crows out in the battle to survive, then our “mission” would be to continue surviving and thriving at the expense of anything in our way. We might build spaceships in the future–but we would do so to keep from getting fried when the Sun explodes–not “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (splitting infinitives and dropping sexist referents along the way).

Finally, the whole “grand’ enterprise would end up an exercise in futility–an instance of what the deconstructionists liked to call “postponement”. No matter how many solar systems we might create or colonize, all suns all throughout the cosmos must eventually burn out; or if the universe’s matter collapses upon itself and re-ignites, then we and everything belonging to us or stemming from us must all likewise be melted down utterly. So where is the omega in this quest for perfection if not in a fantasy to which no materialist has a right?

Yet the votaries of progress are willing to kill people who get in their way right here, right now–or at least to crack jokes about such murders and shrug. “Small loss… no big deal.” About the only thing that can make people forget their common humanity to this degree and morph into the glassy-eyed nightmare-robots of a sci-fi flick is cultic fanaticism. Naturally, the fanatic resents his faith being labeled a faith, a belief system, because… because it’s true, damn you!

 

Show Me the Way to Go Home

What should have been a nine-hour drive yesterday turned into eleven grueling hours for my wife and me. The cause of this was mostly the complete absence of adequate signage at critical points, or else the ambiguous placement of signs at spots where they might be beckoning you to take either of two exits or turns. At one point, I simply had to stop and ask directions (especially since the skies were clouded up and I hadn’t the slightest sense of where true north lay). The answer I received was a bewildered, “Well, I’m not sure, but… don’t you have a GPS?”

We did, actually—but the roads had changed so rapidly in certain areas that our unit couldn’t handle all the conflicting information. Sometimes the little box reminds me pathetically of that robot in the Isaac Asimov story walking circles on Planet Mercury and going crazy because the elements of its basic programming have been made contradictory. Funny how you almost feel sorry for your unit at those moments (“in 800 yards, turn left—turn right, turn right”)… after you get over being furious at it and then feeling shame because “it’s not the poor thing’s fault.”

What’s really interesting here is how fully we have already surrendered our sense of direction to the machine. For years, I’ve been hearing people say, “If this keeps up, nobody will know how to read a map.” That day has arrived. Maps are obsolete. The notion of inferring direction from the slant of the shadows at a particular time of day has grown bizarre. Even locals in small towns don’t seem to know how to tell you to get from Sunset Boulevard to the Joe Kowalski Sports Complex. “Well… don’t you have a GPS?”

And apparently the various state and local departments responsible for posting signs don’t care much about the situation, either. Seriously, I think we may be very close to the time when these government entities alert us (to nobody’s great surprise or concern) that they will no longer be squandering funds on signage. Just tell your car’s dashboard where you wish to go, and then listen to instructions—or turn over the driving entirely to the vehicle. That’s another stop or two down the road, but it’s surely coming, as well.

And the technophile will mock, “So what? Why does anyone need to know east from west? Unless your plane crashes in the Sahara and you have no bars and no radio, why would you ever need to know which way to go? Even then, after the crash, your best bet is probably to stay put and wait.”

Yeah, yeah… but what happens when you have to pay through the nose for system updates (the refusal to accept which blackmail was the specific cause of our GPS’s inadequacy)? What happens in the event of a solar flare? What happens if the data are simply wrong for any one of a thousand reasons, ranging from accident to sabotage? I don’t like the sound of a world where I must absolutely have a machine to transit from A to B.

Yet we’re already there: that’s what I learned this weekend.

The Dumbed-Down World of Peak Efficiency

I almost feel guilty, as if I’d been remiss in fulfilling a duty. Some of my best students are among those who haven’t submitted papers on time as the semester shuts down. The deadlines were published in my syllabus four months ago, and I also announced them verbally at every class meeting for the past two weeks… but today’s student tends not to read the syllabus and doesn’t soak up merely verbal comments. If the alert isn’t uploaded onto a “device”, then it will fall on deaf ears (so to speak: allusion to a quaint time when human beings acquired information by listening).

I say I almost feel guilty. I also feel really ticked off at my profession for encouraging—and often even requiring—this shift of focus from responsible reading of published matter and listening to formal utterances to a casual, passive peeking at repeated electronic prods. The latest technology is supposed to allow us to “do this for” our students better than ever next year.

Why should we? Shouldn’t a member of the grown-up world be capable of searching a document for deadlines and then remembering them? If pinging the student every hour like some kind of alarm clock when an assignment is due the next day is to be viewed as producing more efficient results, then wouldn’t yet greater efficiency be achieved if I just did the work for all of them and submitted it to myself? Then I would obtain both a hundred percent submission rate and a hundred percent “pass” rate. What efficiency!

Isn’t this exactly where we’re headed, though, as we approve more and more supplemental hardware and software to make life “quicker, easier, and more successful”? How far away are we from merely inserting chips into tiny portal at the base of the student’s skull with immense amounts of “knowledge” ready to be downloaded?

Is a critical mass of the professoriate still opposed to this kind of thing… or aren’t most of us in the Ivory Tower so enamored of looking progressive and so honest-to-goodness dumbed-down ourselves that we can no longer distinguish between successful regurgitation of “knowledge” and the ability to think?

I’m going to downgrade those few superior but scatterbrained students for being too slovenly to look up due dates and retain them—and I’m going to do so because I want them to prosper as human beings. I hope they will feel ashamed of their oversight when, inevitably, they contact me and demand an explanation for not receiving their A. I hope they’re still capable of feeling such shame. If so, then they may yet have a bright future ahead of them.

Baseball: A Tidy Morality Tale of Degradation Through Technology

Baseball season officially begins tomorrow. I love baseball… but not as I used to. Or, rather, I still love the game, but I don’t much care for the way professionals play it now. It used to be so much more tailored to the pastoral motions of a country lad swinging a scythe or an axe, with all the body’s members working in concert and clever hands getting every last bit of possible acceleration out of a handle. Now it belongs to big, muscular men who hurl their equipment around like barbells in the weight room and are carefully insulated from flying debris by special gloves, special pads, special flaps and guards. The finesse is gone. The higher skills are gone. Even the fielders’ mitts are virtual butterfly nets. The whole dance has grown comparatively predictable and boring.

The late Ralph Kiner was the only commentator I ever noticed awarding proper credit to the altered bat for the game’s degeneration. Bats were once a yard long, with little tapering. Hitters (or “strikers”, as the nineteenth century knew them) used their sticks to balance as a tightrope walker does before they actually carried a saber-like swipe straight into the pitch, smacking it with spread hands whose fingers were as cunningly positioned along the handle as a flautist’s on his melodious instrument. Even when I was a boy, Mantle and Mays still had very level strokes and could make split-second adjustments with their feet and hands.

Wooden bats were always cracking and shattering, though—and replacing them cost money. High schools and colleges were only too happy to shift to aluminum models in the Seventies that could be used all year long and were hence much kinder to the budget. As the metal alloys employed were refined, the new-age bat was reshaped to proportions that wood couldn’t possibly have imitated (though big league models would come ever so close by the Nineties). Barrels grew massive and handles toothpick-thin. Length also diminished to allow yet more mass to be packed into the barrel. In turn, this meant that loss in the acceleration of the longer bat’s sweet spot had to be supplemented by placing the hands all the way down on the knob—and also (as soon became apparent) by recruiting taller boys with longer arms. Tall boys seldom have quick, clever feet. Fortunately, fine footwork wasn’t required for the evolving swing: the lower body grew almost stationary, allowing the upper body to wale down on the pitch from high over the rear shoulder and put maximal backspin on the ball in the (ever less likely) event that contact was made. A backspun ball will climb very high; and if a really tall boy hits it really high on a slightly windy day, it will end up sailing over a fence. Otherwise, and especially for shorter boys, it becomes a simple pop-up—a “can of corn”.

So thanks to technology, baseball became a big boy’s game, and then a big man’s game. The steroids scandals of the Nineties might never have happened if bats had not shifted shape so as to reward blunt upper-body strength. Now we spectators have become so used to seeing the home run as the only alternative to the tedious pop-up (or the weak ground ball—the consequence of a steep downward swing that comes too early and meets the ball on its upward follow-through) that nothing else in the game interests us. We prefer the annual Home-Run Derby to the All Star Game that it precedes; and certain “innovators” are seriously suggesting, even, that we cut extra-inning affairs short by staging a home-run shootout the way soccer breaks ties with penalty kicks.

For those who care, this is quite a fascinating morality tale. A massive, across-the-board degradation of skills among players, strategy among coaches, and even patience and taste among spectators was all set in motion by a seemingly benign adjustment in the bat’s building material at lower levels of the game. We practically never see the entire range of consequences that will follow from technological change: the variables are too numerous and human behavior too complex. Yet once we have embarked upon the changes, we can almost never work our way back up the road after rethinking our selection. Indeed, we can almost never rethink it, because the new ways too quickly reprogram our entire outlook. We become trapped in the devastating folly of supposing our lifestyle better and better merely because it’s not that of our grandparents. We have no idea what we’ve lost; and, in our Lilliputian cocksureness, we scoff at the notion that we have lost anything at all.