High Tech Suffers Another Brain Cramp

Question: why in a state as lean as Florida, and as exposed to hurricanes, has there evolved no more efficient means of evacuation than exhorting millions of residents to swarm along a very few northbound highways? After all these years, why has no more sensible provision been made?

For instance, why could not residents drive to certain designated (preferably elevated) sites in their neighborhoods—shopping malls, schools, churches—and be collected there by local buses at designated intervals? The buses could then take their passengers to the depot of a train whose rails would have been laid expressly for the purpose of shuttling refugees from A to B as fast as possible. Two or three such trains could follow essentially the same route to high, safe ground in northern Florida or southern Georgia.

The trains would probably provide little service except in times of disaster (though I don’t see why they couldn’t be somewhat commercialized; Florida is pretty good at Disney-fying things). They would surely operate at a loss overall, to be sure… but compare that loss to the massive consumption of gas (forbidden to be sold at price-gouging rates), the spiraling civil disorder that approaches chaos in some places, and the real loss of life due to being stranded for days on exposed roadways or persuaded to stay home by highway death-traps. The express-trains-in-waiting begin to look like a much better investment.

For that matter, why is there not such a service ready to go in all major cities? How would New York evacuate in the event of a serious nuclear bomb threat? What would Frisco do if Kim Jong Scum managed to heave one of his Chinese toys past our defenses and the populace had about an hour’s warning?

Why are we relying on cars occupied, most often, by two persons (or even one), to save enormous urban populations from catastrophe within hours on roads that carry two or three lanes of traffic? Why do we prepare for major, foreseeable threats with such cavalier indifference, bordering on insanity?


A Skeptic Looks at Martyrdom

Around the beginning of his fifth book in Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius claims to insert a chronicle of Christian martyrdom in third-century Gaul (today’s France) drawn from the very words of the beleaguered congregants. These passages are deeply disturbing. They are so first of all, naturally, because of the savage cruelty they detail that was unleashed on a peaceful religion simply for its novelty. Slanderous stories had circulated that attributed the most lurid debauches to the Christian order of worship; sons, for instance, were said to copulate with their mothers as intoxicated gatherings deliriously applauded. Since the Christians themselves denied performing such horrendous acts, they and their relatives and servants were all put to torture. Yet the faith of the true believers saw them through the nightmare, according to these accounts. One report has an old man, burned and torn limb from limb before he was briefly released, re-imprisoned for further “questioning” in a better physical state than he had been upon his first arrest. Another has a woman bringing some of her fellow sufferers back to life miraculously in their common dungeon. Several accounts mention victims being surrendered to ravening beasts in the arena as crowds cheered… then being extracted from teeth and claws and held for execution until another day.

Such narrative overplaying of one’s hand is, in a way, just as disturbing as the tortures themselves; for by infusing the tales of martyrdom with obvious embellishments, the scribes leave one wondering how severe the actual martyrdom could have been. How much of the anguish do we owe to the recorder’s Muse? When a story that takes you from A to M lies about D, G, and L, how do you know that C, F, and H were not also fabricated?

The ecstatic state of mind is prone to such misrepresentation, unfortunately. That’s one reason that accounts of mystical experiences often attract the derision of savvy detractors, and are sometimes silently endured by fellow believers who, however, dread seeing a mature belief compromised by childish fictions. It happens in “secular religions”, too. How many people will patiently hear out the UFO report of a pilot or an astronaut after so many New Age visionaries wearing talismans around their necks have been fouling the air with their communiqués from alien ambassadors?

There’s a final point, too, about the Gallic martyrs that bugs me. Some of them appear to want to be tortured a little too much. Being torn to pieces by infidels is perhaps the easiest escape route if you have failed to figure out how to live the good life in a quotidian context. Are telling the truth, avoiding brutal pleasures, working hard for your day’s bread, and setting time aside to meditate on the ultimate purpose of being just not enough for you? Too tedious—not enough fireworks? Could it be, in some cases, that making one’s exit on a pile of smoking timber is not so very different from touching together the two wires of one’s suicide vest?

Don’t show me nothing but people who died in a blaze of glory for their faith; for death comes in a few hours, or maybe a couple of days, even in the most protracted of tortures. Show me, as well, a few people who lived long and righteously in the shade of worldly obscurity. Of the two, the latter is the tougher act to replicate.

One Last Plunge into the Ivory Sewer

For the umpteenth—but final—time, I begin September by asking myself why I ever became a teacher. I know the answer well enough. “We’ve been over this a thousand times,” I say to my pining soul. “You’ve always loved to read, write, and speculate, and you got academic awards in your youth for doing those things well. When you were in college, you kept retreating to areas where you’d found success. Then, when it came time at last to find a job, you were fit for nothing else but pedagogy and pettifoggery. A journalist? We tried that major: they sneer at good writing—takes up too much space. A lawyer? Never! Arguing for pay that the kettle is blacker than the pot hardly qualifies as seeking truth. A government position—living high and wide on taxpayer dollars for shuffling papers? And besides, by the time you came along, white males weren’t exactly receiving serious consideration for hire.”
And so I became a teacher. To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with students (well, almost always, to be really honest)… but nobody ever told me how very secondary that was to the job. First and foremost, flatter and fawn upon your bosses. Do their bidding with a smile. Laugh at their jokes, fight for their ideas in committee, and clap vigorously from the first row when they deliver public speeches.

On a related matter, be the boss’s “pet”. Make yourself highly visible. Stay on campus from dawn till dusk, even though serious grading, lesson-planning, reading, and reflection can only be done at home. Don’t even attempt thoughtful work at the office: it will impede your being seen. Make frequent trips up and down the corridors of power as if you were on urgent missions—but always detain a passing dean or VP to remark how brilliant you think the new curriculum revision is.

Go to conferences in Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco, Boston… and maybe London or Madrid. Soak up coffee and doughnuts like a Hoover for junk food, and get yourself on the program with some five-page paper about Aphra Benn’s lost diaries that you cooked up from a note in a previous paper about Aphra Benn’s perhaps having kept a diary. There’s nothing you can say or hear at these gatherings that couldn’t have been (and isn’t being) disseminated over the Internet without the cost of airfare and hotel—but you need to be seen.

So how did I get myself into something so antithetical to my nature that the fanfare of the new school year quite literally makes me faintly nauseous? I know, I know… but that thousand-times-recycled answer is really no answer at all. The truth is a failure of character: I was too cowardly to fling myself into something for which I had no apparent aptitude or no previous training—architecture, agriculture, marketing—in order to escape from Hell. And so I have spent almost forty years—pretty much my entire adult life—drifting through Limbo, neither saved nor damned: a psychic zero.

No more. This is the last year. Whatever I have left of life will not be passed in this egotistical, futile maelstrom.

Technology Should Be Less Centralized, More Do-It-Yourself

I’ve asked myself this question for years, and I know that there must be some perfectly sound engineering reason beyond my comprehension for why it cannot have an encouraging answer… but why, well into the twenty-first century, can we do nothing whatever with flood waters except clean up after they trickle out of our streets and houses?

The first and greatest crisis in the aftermath of a catastrophe like Harvey is the absence of potable water. The power that pumps water through our taps from treatment plants is down, the water in wells is polluted with chemicals swept out from city streets, and stores that sell bottled water are of course closed for the duration. Air-conditioning doesn’t work, so unevacuated citizens are naturally parched; and even in the best of circumstances, no person can survive without water for more than six or seven days.

Yet the rainwater that created this nightmare was essentially clean as it fell, and the least bit of filtering would likely remove whatever noxious urban chemicals it might have picked up in the clouds. Before it was threatening death on the ground, it held the promise of life in the air.

Floods or not, in 2017, why do we not filter potable rainwater as it reaches our suburban rooftops? Hacking into the computer of a water treatment plant and readjusting infusions of chemicals like fluoride to create vastly toxic consequences seems like one of the more obvious terrorist scenarios. (And some of us, besides, don’t completely trust the competence of our public servants.) I collect rainwater to grow my garden; how sophisticated could the technology be that would allow every homeowner—and even apartment-dweller—to produce a cheap, reliable stock of drinking water from the bounty of the heavens? Or are we already so helpless that we can’t bear the thought of accepting anything that hasn’t passed through Big Brother’s expert hands?

There must be a dozen (or more) situations like this one: cases where lives might be saved with minimal integration of rather simple technology into our routine… but where nothing happens because nobody gets the idea to take the first step.

And why, finally (for this is a facet of the same conundrum), do we keep fretting about how to reduce our carbon emissions by substituting absurdly inefficient technologies (e.g., wind turbines) or covertly but fiercely toxic ones (e.g., solar panels) when the immediate and obvious strategy should be to reduce energy consumption? Home-grown water treatment would be a step in this direction. So would promotion of backyard gardens—the ultimate in effectively applying the sun’s energy to life. Why don’t we create more commercial venues and destinations within our residential areas, allowing citizens to drive less or even walk if they wish to eat out or need a gallon of milk? Our towns were all like this before World War II. Why have we grown so insane?

Of course, Big Brother doesn’t want us to solve any problems on our own. We might mess up!

Perspective: Nowhere in Sight

(I wrote the following last weekend, before Harvey made landfall.  Now our most publicized preoccupations seem more idiotic than ever.)

Let’s get really ticked off about Confederate statues and monuments that have sat collecting bird droppings for well over a century! That’s an important issue: everybody pile on–show your true colors or forever be branded a racist bastard! Never mind that many of the works were created with real artistry and add to their ambiance (I mean, by being stone or bronze); never mind that most people nowadays actually take zero leisurely walks per year across the town square or the capitol grounds; never mind that almost no one today could tell a Confederate colonel’s uniform from that of one of Her Majesty’s fusiliers without the nameplate on the plinth, or that we could easily cover up any distinctive marking on the jacket and then replace the plate with, “unknown soldier of the nineteenth century”.

The statues are a huge problem–much bigger than, say, the piddling inconvenience that most recent high school graduates believe the nineteenth century to be the 1900’s, or that most cannot place the Civil War in the correct century, anyway; or that an immense majority is unaware of the role African Muslims and Yankee slave ships played in human trafficking, or that certain Northern states allowed legal ownership of slaves–and that Lincoln grandfathered in their privilege when he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Stop muddying the issue! It’s clear racism! Statue… racism! It’s that simple!

And let’s start getting serious about Climate Change now that Texans are being punished by the Weather God for collectively deriding the notion! Let’s save the planet while we still can! Never mind that climate is not weather, and that weather patterns of about half a century are required to propose any hypothesis about climate–and that the atmosphere is only about .04% carbon dioxide, or that plants love the stuff and need it to breathe out oxygen for us, or that the same highly centralized government upon which we want to confer the clean-up duties has been covertly fooling around for two decades with the strategic manipulation of weather systems. It’s the capitalist private sector that’s responsible for poisoning us–shut up about the satellite photos of yellow smog over major Chinese cities! And I know nobody wants to hear about how the Soviets were planning to warm up the climate in the early Sixties by channeling the Humboldt Current far up into the Arctic.

We could actually be applying all the money and brainpower that’s researching Climate Change to figuring out how the super-volcano under Yellowstone Park might be diffused before its next eruption, likely to envelope the planet in a nuclear winter that could quite possibly exterminate all terrestrial life. But no, you’re right: those waters inching their way up beaches along Chesapeake Bay are much, much more worrisome.

And we’ve got to do something about people using gender-specific pronouns! EMP… EMSchmee! What does that stand for, anyway? Who cares? Everybody knows the talk about the power grid going down is just a bunch of claptrap meant to distract us from exploring our gender identity! Ninety percent of Americans won’t really die in a year if Kim Jong Un explodes one of his raggedy-ass little nukes in our stratosphere (or if the sun has one of its overdue major flare-ups). Haven’t you seen all those windmills out west? We’ve got that covered. Now, let’s get back to important things. What’s on your restroom door?

I want my society and my nation to survive… but what concerns me more every week is that, in a Darwinian sense, we seem unworthy of survival. Why should so many idiots be allowed to occupy so much of the planet’s limited space?

Denver: Infernal Paradise

My trip to Colorado already seems a distant memory. I thought I could probably write about it for weeks on end… but did it ever even happen? I keep drifting through my “new old” life saying to myself, “Two weeks ago, we were at the foot of Saint Mary’s Glacier—my son, my wife, and I…”—and the next day, “Two weeks ago, I was watching my boy’s shoulders merge with the night as he left us in the parking lot to return to his apartment….” I hate how life slips away like that, at least the good parts. The bad parts just don’t want to go away.

But I feel that I have to attempt some kind of wrap-up, some general verdict on what I saw. It would be this. Denver, like so many of our other major cities, is too “wide open”. I realize that that’s an attraction for young people, especially those who have grown up in small cities and towns. The situation has been repeated so often that it has become a rhythm characteristic of our national life: the young leave the farm for the city lights, jobs flourish in the city because so many people are pouring in, the cost of living also shoots up because the demand for everything has skyrocketed, public amenities are strained and local taxes soar through the ceiling, crimes related to vice and violent invasion surge because so much loot is lying about and so few neighbors know each other, the streets grow unbelievably congested… it’s a bonanza for some, and a descent into Hell for others. And here I’m talking about any large American city.

In Denver, this paradoxically “infernal paradise” phenomenon has been magnified by the legalization of marijuana. People have transplanted themselves to Colorado for no better reason than that here they may smoke their weed unmolested. The streets grow even more congested, the apartment complexes even more prolific, and the taxes even more onerous. The catastrophic failure of state economies to the west (California, Oregon, and increasingly Washington) has also generated a flood of “white-collar refugees” who want respite from ruthless taxation yet have not divested themselves of the political opinions that created the mess they left behind. In fact, I find Denver to harbor an unusually high density of contradictions rooted in “pampered white professional” fantasies.

Just consider. Denverites want the traffic, the pollution, and the unsightly and cheaply constructed apartment complexes to go away, yet they declare their burg a sanctuary city.

They view themselves proudly as defenders of the natural environment, yet they pour into the Rockies whenever they have a few hours of free time with bikes attached to vehicles and smother Mother Nature beneath their collective human mass.

They cheerfully accept being designated as health nuts and surrender substantial chunks of their paychecks at upscale grocery stores that grossly overcharge for cashew butter and bison steak; yet their appetite for kinky sex, socially lubricative beverages, and—yes—the inhaled smoke of certain incinerated leaves rivals any city’s anywhere in the country.

Half the population seems to possess racing bikes or mountain bikes, complete with skimpy biking clothes that cling like duct tape, streamlined water bottles, saddlebags of trail mix, etc.; yet the city sprawls too much for anyone to bike to work, and it’s so overrun with traffic that no one could actually get much exercise waiting for all the lights to change while biking a few dozen blocks.

Denver has no sense, over all. Like its horde of young residents, it hasn’t thought anything through. It likes to flash images of what it wants others to think about it and wants to think about itself; but these surfaces can no more resist profound realities than a grand vista can soften the threat of the daily afternoon thunderstorms that rage down from the mountains.

I have to believe that the pockets of surviving Denverites from generations back are no happier than long-time residents of Austin, Santa Fe, or Phoenix. You sometimes see evidence of a few of them: a pasture where horses graze boxed in by humming highways. How they afford the tax on their property is more than I can answer. Perhaps they’re holding out for someone to offer them a million bucks per acre… but at some point, you have to sell up and move on.

And then the sharks gather, like the faceless conglomerate that owns my son’s former apartment complex and tried to stick him with a $3,000 bill for undocumented damages months after his departure. That was my final impression of Denver this trip. Know what? You can have it.

Colorado, Where the Sublime Becomes an Amusement Park

A connoisseur of words and ideas would not say that the Rocky Mountains are beautiful; they are (in that useful but forgotten term of the eighteenth century) sublime. Beauty attaches to things that manifest an intricate, mysteriously harmonized order; sublimity belongs to things too vast to be appreciated by the human eye. The Milky Way, an ocean that fills the horizon, a cloudbanks whose muscular swells obscure each other as they obliterate the sky… these are natural objects that (according to yesteryear’s philosophers) cause a person to understand his puniness and to cringe in awe before the majesty of cosmic forces. Sublime sights may well reveal a dominating order to the theoretical analyst in his laboratory—but merely mortal eyes cannot behold them directly and grasp their logic from so shrunken, ant-like a perspective.

That’s an important idea to hold in reserve if you want to follow along as I try to explain how I feel about Denverites. I’m completely willing to grant that they appreciate natural beauty… but I don’t think they begin to understand sublimity. You treat a sublime object with trepidation and respect: you don’t go dance on it or throw a party beneath it.

My son led my wife and me up to Saint Mary’s Glacier during our brief visit. Having just come from a city about 500 feet above sea level, I think we two old folks acquitted ourselves well on the trek up to 11,000 feet. The climb was the more challenging in that the only way up was through a dry wash strewn with stones of every size from pebble to boulder. But a still greater challenge, we found, was the steady stream of local hikers who poured past us on their way both up and down. There were more than hundreds. Late that Saturday morning, as we began the ascent, I would place the figure at a couple of thousand up and down the two-mile arroyo. It wasn’t as bad as waiting to reach the ticket window of a Colorado Rockies game… but it was worse than negotiating the aisles of a typical grocery store on a typical weekday.

For these people, most of them young (since Denver is definitely a young person’s town), the jaunt was something like a weekly jog along an unusually scenic track. Believe it or not, a few even brought skis. They would continue their hike around the glacier’s lake and up to the top of its immobilized white blanket, then shoot down to its base. We saw a few actually doing so as we arrived (suffering from just a touch of altitude sickness) at the lake’s chilly but sunlit, placid waters. Others had galavanted all the way up to the highest ridges. I thought of the Lilliputians dancing and prancing on Gulliver’s recumbent form.

The whole thing seemed just a little bit insane to me. Do Colorado’s gorges not spill down torrents after sudden afternoon thunderstorms, as happens dangerously in the mountains of West Texas and New Mexico? Considering how quickly the weather changes in this area, I kept hearing a little voice repeat, “We can’t be here in mid-afternoon. Too risky.” Yet the trail of pilgrims showed signs only of thickening as we finally reemerged from the arroyo’s bottom and the sun increasingly ducked behind dark clouds. I recalled my feelings during last spring’s visit about seeing a huge open-air theater constructed directly beneath the titanic sandstone walls of Red Rocks—fissure-riddled cliffs that could release thousands of tons of rock at any moment. But, hey… marijuana is legal in Colorado. Chill out!

Among the young, supposedly educated demographic that claims to worship the environment and always votes for more state control of it, I’ve often been shocked at the absence of rudimentary scientific knowledge. The love affair that young Denverites have with their Rockies seems to me to be of a, “Hey, let’s play!” variety: somewhat infantile and disturbingly void of a healthy fear for nature’s raw power. I think of joggers in this same demographic who’ve gone running or hiking along Southwestern trails outside of LA or Phoenix and been attacked by mountain lions—sometimes fatally. More distance, please! If you really must live so close to this caged beast, then don’t lean up against the bars!

But the young citizens of Denver just keep right on hiking, biking, skiing, and sledding up or down any slope that looks fun to cuddle with. They certainly show no sign of suspecting that their sheer numbers are smothering the grand spectacle… and one can only hope that the gods of the mountains do not exact a terrible vengeance one day when they awaken.