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”.

Who Built the Moon?

Who Built the Moon, by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, is one of the most “disturbingly true” little books that one could possibly read. I’m not going to go swat up on the details, which in any case are often far above my head; but the gist of the argument is that the Earth, her moon, and the Sun stand in several proportional relationships–any one of which is so improbable as to be a statistical impossibility. How is it, for instance, that the Moon, at 1/400 the diameter of the Sun, just happens to be 400 times closer to the Earth, so that the apparent width of the two from our surface is identical? As I say, the authors describe perhaps a dozen such “accidental” correspondences.

Then there’s the uniqueness of the Moon when compared to other planetary satellites in our solar system. No other moon is remotely so big in relation to its mother-planet. Likewise, no other planet has but a single moon. If it has any at all, it has several.

The Moon’s distance is just right to stir our oceans with her gravity in a way that would have favored the emergence rather than the destruction of life. So for the speed of her revolutions around the Earth; and while these two measurements are fluid and have changed (increasing and decreasing, respectively) throughout terrestrial history, their rates again seem suspiciously benign–and the deceleration of the Moon, indeed, has inexplicably leveled off and stabilized!

I will risk misstating some of the evidence if I keep on; but the authors also detail why no theory of the Moon’s formation yet proposed is scientifically compelling. They quote one academic wag’s remark, “The best explanation of the Moon is observational error. It isn’t really there.”

What they do not mention at all is the stunning test data of NASA indicating that the Moon is hollow and rings like a great bell in response to heavy impacts!

The intersection of so many “Goldilocks” readings (where values are “just right” for life) can lead to no sensible conclusion other than that our solar system, at least in part, was purposively engineered… but, of course, that doesn’t seem a very sensible conclusion at all to a scientist. The authors politely doff their caps to certain fundamentalist religious explanations without, however, expressing much enthusiasm for them–for the rigid Biblicist account of Creation is, after all, so hostile to science that it hardly has the right to adduce any scientific evidence to its claims. On the other hand, the scientific community has so arrogantly insisted upon its ability to explain everything (in effect making a god of its own method) that the presence of design on this superhuman scale has left it baffled. Pretending that the inconvenient truths about the Moon cited above do not exist, it has largely cold-shouldered Knight and Butler out of any sort of professional exchange.

My own understanding of religious faith tells me, “Do right. Live for higher purposes rather than for lower, and let explanations of the material world fall where they may.” For that reason, this book doesn’t disturb me as I suspect it would disturb many others. What I most prize in it is its further proof that we, as an intellectual community, don’t know nearly as much as we suppose. There are certain facts which our leading academics dare not even admit to themselves. One is reminded of Galileo’s inquisitors….

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.

Postscript: Questions About Catholicism

I don’t need to say that I have had many Catholic friends, and I won’t say that I’ve had more (of the few good friends I’ve ever known) than a random sampling of the American public could possibly account for. I also understand that, while my Catholic friends share many of my own reservations about “the Church”, they don’t necessarily like to hear me review them item by item. That’s human nature. As a Texan by birth and a Southerner by lineage, I’m painfully aware of the foibles and limitations of both groups… but I can get a little irked when I have to listen to an outsider mock a drawl or reduce the Civil War’s causes to racism.

Just let me add this, then, to my previous comments. A professor of physics at Tulane named Frank Tipler wrote a book titled The Physics of Christianity that I lately read… well, kind of read. The degree of physics in the early going seemed rather ostentatious to me and was way over my head; but the point where I actually couldn’t make myself continue (for pride kept me trudging through the formulas that I pretended to half-understand) was somewhere later, where suggestions about the Christian faith—these from a devout man who’s obviously more intelligent than I’ll ever dream of being—began to depress me deeply.

Professor Tipler, you can’t seriously believe that God’s plan for the salvation of the soul is being accomplished by digital technology—that our minds and personalities will be overwritten to chips that can be transferred to an indefinite series of corporeal residences—no, you don’t truly believe that such is the eternity promised in the Gospels, do you? Is that really… it? No higher revelation of the ends of goodness? No reunion with spirits from centuries ago whose creations have awakened us? No admission to such beauty and order as even the Milky Way can only imply in the dullest manner?

I had heard before that parthenogenesis can naturally occur and, apparently, does in an almost infinitesimal number of cases. If the Holy Spirit’s fertilizing a human egg turns out to be a metaphor for a freakish but entirely explicable reproductive anomaly, then… then there’s really no role for the supernatural to play, is there?

And indeed, Professor Tipler, you argue repeatedly that miracles are merely rare occurrences rather than physically impossible ones. But the universe’s very birth from nothing is a physical impossibility, from the standpoint of human reason (I didn’t understand your case to the contrary). If our faith cannot assert that ultimate reality contains events and powers inconceivable to our temporal intelligence, then for what do we need faith?

To me personally, this one is especially obnoxious: that Jesus retained his purity because, thanks to biological parthenogenesis, he was born as sterile as a mule. Do you not grasp, Professor—you whose mind encloses so many mathematical truths that leave me at the starting gate—that a eunuch can incur no moral credit for having mastered sexual impulses? If a sage or spiritual guru never feels anger because he has undergone a lobotomy or never knows fear because he has destroyed his sight and hearing, then he’s no teacher at all and has mastered nothing.

In a Catholic context, I’ve noticed that certain behaviors tend to receive more attention than the state of mind in which they are performed. Frank Tipler, a very devout Catholic, represents some of my greatest apprehensions on this score. He has explained (at least to his own satisfaction) a universe whose physical laws permit the fulfillment of every biblical promise in terms we can understand (or might understand if we were gifted physicists). In his zeal to defend God’s realm, the Professor seems to me to have exiled God from that realm and redefined its parameters to suit the human hand and footstep.

Just as excusing the utopian crusade to create permanent peace all over the earth could well lead to a dystopian, Orwellian hell, so the project of envisioning the life of the soul through computer chips and the abstemious discipline of moral guide through hormonal privation is… well, horribly depressing. It’s cultic. It makes me want to weep for so much intelligence so abused.

As the Titanic Sinks, the Captain Worries About Flu Season

Since the subject of climate change arose the last time I wrote… why, may I ask, does the scientific community not apply its collective genius to solving crises that will certainly occur, quite possibly before the twenty-second century, and that may very probably become extinction events? As the ship sinks beneath us, why are we logging onto the Medicare site rather than looking for life vests?

We know that Yellowstone National Park sits atop the huge caldera of a smoking super-volcano. The giant has already exploded once in recent geological history: that’s why we have Yellowstone, with its vast mountain basin and restless geysers. The thing remains a ticking timebomb. Its next eruption will most certainly decimate life in neighboring regions almost instantly, its spreading umbrella of ash will plunge North America into nuclear winter within days, and its long-term effects over the ensuing decade might well wipe out most terrestrial life on the planet.

This eruption will happen, sooner or later. Do we have a plan on the drawing board for diffusing the pressure when magma starts to swell the chimney of a super-volcano (for there are several of these monsters around the globe)? Nope. Nada. So let’s just continue expending our time and resources on talking about how to keep Manhattan’s streets above water if the polar icecaps shrink.

Also a lead-pipe cinch to occur is a major asteroidal collision with Planet Earth. We don’t know “when”… but we do know that our Moby Dick is already silently cruising out there in the Asteroid Belt. Again, as with a super-volcanic eruption, the plume of ash following upon such a strike would envelope the world in a thick cloud within months, and virtually no eatable crops would grow anywhere for years. Most life would be exterminated. And the plan for averting the collision is… well, not even on any official drawing board at the moment.

But we’ll think of something when Moby Dick surfaces and we have about six months to Contact. The scientists will think of something. Let’s not pull them off the important work of trying to re-draw Florida’s coastline on the basis of certain computer simulations fed certain assumptions about climate change.

Query: why are extinction-risk events whose eventual likelihood sits at one hundred percent less important to the government-funded scientific establishment than the possibility of manmade climate change and its conjectured inconveniences? Could it be because designing a system to de-pressurize super-volcanoes or re-direct a looming mega-asteroid would not require intrusion into the life of every citizen, whereas the answer to climate change always seems to involve new government agencies and regulations that minutely monitor our individual activities?

The good news, I guess, is that if Big Brother’s encroachments worry you, his gluttony spells its own demise. All you have to do is dig a deep bunker and stock it with enough canned and freeze-dried food for ten years. Then, after the deluge, you’ll emerge upon a wasted, windswept landscape that will offer more freedom than you ever dreamed of… and far more than you could ever want.