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.

Statistical Obtundity: How Sharp People Reach Dull Conclusions

I heard a certain amiable media commentator make a point a couple of weeks ago that he has often made before (and which, frankly, is becoming a little tiresome and cliché in him and in others). He remarked that people entertain an irrational fear of new technologies, especially those in transportation. Statistically, you’re much more likely to die while traveling from Dallas to Atlanta in a car than on a plane. Furthermore, now that self-driving cars are looming (which was the specific topic under discussion), people are shrinking back in fear and again failing to register that they’re much more likely to die when others like themselves are behind every wheel at rush hour.

I call this phenomenon “statistical obtundity”: i.e., the tendency of bright people to convince themselves that they’re even brighter than they are by juggling undigested stats. Raw numbers can make us obtuse if we’re not careful. The chances seem to rest almost at statistical certainty that a burst of solar flares will not take out our power grid today, or tomorrow… yet the chances are 100% that such a burst will one day occur, and that we’ll lose all electrical power if we don’t secure it in ways so far ignored by policy-makers. The chances are 100% that a super-volcano will one day erupt in Yellowstone Park (which sits atop the caldera of one)… but today is a great day to go see Old Faithful!

Likewise, if a terrorist’s bomb or surface-to-air missile explodes your plane in mid-flight, the chances are pretty much 100% that you’ll die. There is no equivalent situation that arises in driving a car. Because the vehicles are widely spread out and no more than one or two people, usually, sit within each one, no “target” is presented. If a high, long bridge or an undersea tunnel were to be taken out as peak traffic filled it, the situation would become comparable to the exploded aircraft’s—but such precarious choke-points can either be avoided are negotiated at a less popular time by the “paranoid” driver.

You see, the correct comparison is not between airplanes and automobiles: it’s between Heathrow Airport and the Channel Tunnel, or perhaps between a passenger jetliner and a Japanese bullet-train. To put it another way, the plane and the car pose a contrast. One is a sure-fire death-trap IF certain defenses can be penetrated by evil agencies: as a passenger, you’re powerless to control your fate once security has been breached. The other option is perfectly insulated from the machinations of wicked schemers. Even if a tractor-trailer jackknives in front of you or a drunk driver strays toward you across the median, you still have the wheel in your hands and may come out in one piece with quick, cool reactions.

Now that the self-driving car looms in our future as something like a lead-pipe cinch (whatever that means—lead pipes are pretty deadly, too, you know), all bets are off for the car. It will become like the jetliner. A hacker who gains access to whatever GPS is controlling your vehicle’s navigation can sweep everyone into the sea at rush hour. You’ll just be along for the ride and won’t be able to do a thing about it. Apparently, we haven’t yet learned the lesson that trending new technology all appears to be dangerously centripetal: it’s carrying us toward greater centralization—in the name of “efficiency”—where one miscue, glitch, or brilliant feat of sabotage may kill thousands. A flu vaccine is advertised by Big Brother as the means to save dozens or hundreds of lives annually… and only one or two here and there will die because of a peculiar reaction to it. Simply choosing a lifestyle where one’s exposure to masses of people is limited doesn’t win consideration as a serious alternative. Yet there’s always the chance that, by fair means or foul, some toxin will find its way into the vaccine…

I like keeping as much control over my life as I can get. I leave the self-satisfied techno-geeks and faux conservatives to curl up in their blanket of warming stats.

What’s to Celebrate, About THAT President or THIS One?

I think I do a pretty good job of staying away from politics in discussions among mixed company.  If I can do it, why can’t others?  Why do I have to open the mandatory e-mail in my workplace and find a missive congratulating Barack Obama on a job well done?  There was no analagous message wishing luck to Donald Trump.  When I reflect that a few responsible people have been trying over the past decade to get Congress to remedy our exposure to Electro-Magnetic Pulse events with no success whatever at the federal level, and that a single such event could kill 300 million Americans within a year, my blood boils.  Granted, George Bush II was on watch when the alert was first raised: his administration led the charge to do nothing (being preoccupied, apparently, with monitoring all of our private communications).  Under Obama, however, not only has understanding of the impending threat deepened and been more broadly disseminated (no thanks to the mainstream media); the man has actually equipped Iran–one of the two most likely perps of an EMP attack in the near future, based on our observation of missile-development programs–to become an active threat.  Meanwhile, he’s wasted months and months of precious time and treasure-loads of precious resources ginning up concern about climate change.  Manhattan may be under water in 2075!  That’s obviously a far greater issue than the death by thirst, starvation, hypothermia, and rioting of nine out of every ten citizens, possibly by 2020.

A job well done… really?  Define “job”, please.

Contrarily, newscasters on all the FOX sister-stations produce queues of talking heads communicating the hope of “ordinary Americans” that President Trump will “make their lives better”.  The problem, it seems to me (as an American and a Constitutionalist), is that one man should have so much power as to be able to make our lives better or worse.  I don’t want anyone making my life better.  I want bureaucracies everywhere to get their fingers the hell out of my life, so that I may make it better if I have the energy or worse if I commit errors rich in good life lessons.  I want to be treated as an adult instead of a child; I don’t want a new daddy-figure who artificially supplies work for me instead of intrusively choosing my diet for me.

A student told me yesterday that you can’t collect water off your roof in these parts for filtering and drinking.  He said that it’s illegal.  A little research suggests that he was wrong in terms of state law.  Nevertheless, he may be right in terms of certain municipalities and subdivisions, which have all kinds of patently unconstitutional restrictions on what one may do.  Government entities on both the micro- and the macro-level are busily gnawing into our basic freedoms.  If you look hard for them (i.e., outside the mainstream media), stories are superabundant about the Bureau of Land Management telling a rancher that he can’t water his cows because of a rat or an owl.  My brother-in-law claims that the county in which I hope to build a retirement home will require me to have an outlet capable of servicing an electric car, even though I have no intent of ever owning such a car.  (I may drive ten miles, perhaps, in a month.)  All of these “do-gooders” are stifling the very resourcefulness and independence that will be needed to confront… oh, say, a major EMP event.  And if such an occurrence were to happen naturally (as it certainly will within a few decades–lead-pipe cinch), then it might ultimately wipe out the human race.  In the meantime, though, our keepers will have nudged us benignly toward vehicles that don’t directly use fossil fuels… and those marginalized voices who protest, like Dinesh D’Souza (a man of color, by the way), will find themselves not-so-benignly doing significant prison time on some trumped-up charge relating to improper completion of complex paper work.

I don’t see the Trump Administration flashing any signs that it will reverse the “job well done” by Barack Obama in these areas.  Trump isn’t abolishing any of the more oppressive and dictatorial departments: he’s just replacing their directors with his partisans.  So… my assessment is that you’re pretty much on your own.  Chacun pour soi.  Filter your own water without telling anyone, grow your own garden and hope that ATF’s drones don’t misidentify it as a marijuana plantation… and, in general, put your hope in your own two hands.  Get over the celebrations: there’s nothing to celebrate here.

Some Grim But Necessary Observations

One reason I’m very much in favor of simplifying our lifestyle, even though I perceive “climate change” as a boondoggle veiling a power grab, is the ever-lurking, apocalyptic EMP.  We depend far too much on electricity.  It’s probably not good for our bodies.  (I might detail my own physical discomforts after extended exposure to computers at some later date.)  At this point, electric utilities pump our water and operate our refrigeration.  In most homes, they supply heating and cooling to structures designed without a second thought having been given to efficiency.  Automobiles have depended in computerized systems since about the mid-eighties: if everything electrical were suddenly fried… no more transportation.  Even if you could walk to the grocery store, the trucks that deliver its merchandise would cease to run.  And if you were retrograde enough to own a vintage car with minimal electrical dependency, it would still need to be gassed up after a few days… and the pumps at the filling station wouldn’t work.

Defense experts have estimated that 90% of the U.S. population would die within a year if our power grid were destroyed.  In other words, the loss of that grid would equate to a surprise trans-continental nuclear attack, minus the lingering contamination–and with the addition of lethality at peak levels even in rural areas.

Books like Peter Pry’s Blackout Wars: State Initiatives to Achieve Preparedness Against an Electromagnetic Pules (EMP) Catastrophe consequently make for grim reading.  (I’m currently working through this one on my Kindle–using electricity, of course!)  The title of this volume actually hints at a source of optimism not visible in Pry’s earlier books: preemptive action by state governments to secure their section of the power grid.  This can apparently be done legally; and the federal government, while confronting the crisis with all the energy of a deer staring at headlights, has at least not intervened (in the manner of its contribution to border security) to ensure that our pants stay down and our hands remain tied.  Nevertheless, only four or five states have taken effective action at this point.

The kind of pulse at issue need not be administered by a nuclear weapon exploding thirty kilometers above ground, by the way, or by the domino effect begun when certain key power stations are overloaded.  The pulse may be entirely natural.  Solar flares occasionally create major surges.  We haven’t seen a big one since the so-called Carrington Event in 1859, which turned all the telegraphs of New England into smoking ruins.  We’re overdue another such burst–and we have far more than the telegraph at stake now.

Besides equipping all power stations with surge-arrestors (WHY was that not done in the construction phase, as a matter of course???), our leadership should send a very clear message to Kim Jong Un, whose nuclear trials and dry-run nautical missions have left little doubt that he has an EMP attack in mind.  This little lunatic must be reminded that our nuclear submarines will survive even after the continent is plunged into darkness; and he must be warned, publicly and with grim clarity, that a devastating nuclear response directed at all of his hideaways will follow, instantly and irrevocably.  I know what a gruesome remark I have just written.  The prospect of 300 million American casualties, however, requires a strong deterrent.  Mutually Assured Destruction worked in the Cold War, but we were dealing with comparatively sane despots.  Maybe, in this case, the little lunatic’s entourage would pull his cord if it became apparent that he was about to pull theirs.