All posts by ryk

Trumpeka Blues

My latest assignment with the Salt Handlers Inspection Team has me evaluating the salt mines in the greater Topeka, Kansas area. Despite the fact that Topeka is the capital of Kansas, it is not a very interesting place to kill a weekend. (I googled a few lists of things to do here and a bowling alley appeared on at least two of them.)

Luckily I rode the scoot over from Misery, so I’ve been contenting myself with exploring the surrounding countryside. I had planned to post a few photographs, but I ended up not taking any. In more than 300 miles of riding, I saw nothing but fields of corn and soybeans, and cow pastures. It’s pleasant riding, the roads are pretty good, with very light traffic, but I saw not one damned thing worthy of pulling over to take a photo.

The salt miners I have been working with are just about as interesting. I hate to sound elitist, but on several occasions in the past week, while making conversation during the long drives between salt mines, the word “dullard” has entered my mind.

But my sample size is small, and consists solely of salt miners. I’ve had very little interaction with the local civilian population. However, this morning, while I was eating breakfast before my ride, I did happen to overhear a lively conversation between two fans of our reality teevee preznit. It was a couple of late middle-aged white men (because, Kansas) discussing the “diabolical” plot by our previous preznit to destroy our country. These two gentlemen expressed concern that this plot might still not be entirely foiled, because Michelle’s husband had so divided our country that it might take strong measures from our cartoon-character-in-chief to set things right.

I don’t know exactly what measures these men were referring to, but I recognized the implied violence behind their words, because I have heard this same argument so many times, in so many places, from so many white men, ever since a black man had the audacity to get himself elected preznit. It was an event that evoked such a rage in a portion of the populace that I honestly don’t know if they will ever get over it. A rage so intense that it blinds them to the incompetence of our reality teevee preznit. They can’t see it here in the heartland, but the rest of the world certainly can. From The Guardian:

The common factor in all these situations is Trump’s self-induced powerlessness and ignorance, his chronic lack of credibility and presidential authority and consequent perceptions of US and western weakness. And in the case of all three actual or potential adversaries – North Korea, Iran and Russia – these perceptions are highly dangerous. Precisely because US responses, actions and reactions can no longer be relied upon or predicted, by friends and enemies alike, the potential for calamitous miscalculation is growing. This uncertainty, like the chaos in the White House and the extraordinary disarray of the American body politic, stems from Trump’s glaring unfitness for the highest office. As is now becoming ever plainer, this threatens us all.

Ouch. That would leave a mark on anyone less clueless.

More Minnesota

I set a new personal one-day distance record on my return trip from Minnesota. I rode my fancy, German motor scooter 640 miles in 10 hours, 20 minutes. And I was hurting afterwards. I don’t know how those Iron Butt Riders can regularly do 1,000 mile days. For the last hundred miles or so, I was periodically standing up like I was riding a dirt bike, just to ease the pain in my not-even-close-to-iron glutes.

It’s nice to be home, but I sure did enjoy the low temperatures and low humidity of the north. The locals there say the summers can almost make you forget the six months of snow on the ground in winter. Almost.

During the second week of my stay, I made a couple of day trips to an area north of Duluth known as the Iron Range, where I got to see what open-pit iron mining looks like. In short, it looks horrible. It is incredibly jarring to the senses to travel through vast areas of scenic natural beauty, seeing nothing but forest for mile upon mile, and then suddenly be confronted with a barren moonscape like this. 

It is difficult to describe the sheer size of this mining operation. The pictures just can’t do it justice. (It has been suggested that amateur bloggers/philosophers should learn how to use the panoramic feature on their phone camera if they want to go posting photos on the intertoobz, but I can’t be arsed.) Here is another shot, similar to the first, but you can see a tiny, yellow dump truck down in the pit, on the far left side.

To get an idea of the scale, the tires on that yellow dump truck are taller than the average man. In case I am not making myself clear, this is one whopping big hole in the ground. I left there wondering if it can be seen from space. It is big, and it is ugly. But it is pretty much the only source of good-paying jobs for the residents of several small towns in the area.

I also got to look at another pit like this, only the mine had been shut down back in the 1960s. Check it out.

I find it comforting that in fifty-some years — basically my own lifetime — Mother Nature can turn a man-made atrocity into something beautiful again.

The Great Green North

My duties with the Salt Handler’s Inspection Team have called me north to the salt mines of Duluth, Minnesota and vicinity. At this time of year, at this latitude, there are about 16 hours of daylight in the day. Perfect for exploring the surrounding countryside on a fancy, German motorcycle. If one were so inclined.

The problem lies in getting here. It’s a good, long ride from Misery to Minnesota, with a lengthy, flat stretch in the middle, known as Iowa. The following is a list of all the interesting things I saw on my ride across Iowa.

The license plates here say Minnesota has 10,000 lakes. I suspected that was an exaggeration, but a quick check of the intertoobz proved me wrong. Minnesota has 11,842 lakes of 10 acres or more. I bet I’ve seen a couple hundred of them on my rides, including one rather large one to the east that I rode along the shore of for almost a hundred miles. Here are a couple of photos I took when I stopped to pee. To the right:

And to the left:

It’s so pretty here during the summer that you can almost forget there is snow on the ground six months out of the year. Almost. When that snow melts, everything turns green and starts growing like crazy. Pretty soon the disc golf courses look like this:

Searching for a disc in thick, knee-high weeds and boulders on a damned cliffside, while fighting off hordes of mosquitos is not much fun. But the motorcycling sure is good.

The Ugly Amurkin

I don’t want to become a one note Johnny, but damn! Our reality teevee preznit is making it hard for me to think or talk about anything else. He just completed his first trip abroad since taking office, so now he is truly an international laughing stock.

The first stop on his trip was Saudi Arabia, where he read (poorly) a speech in which he lectured Iran about human rights and funding terrorism. I know what you’re thinking. Is that the same Saudi Arabia that is owned and operated by a single family, where women are basically property, not allowed to drive a car or even be outdoors without a male escort? Is that the same Saudi Arabia that practices an extreme form of Islam called Wahabbism, holds public beheadings and funds Sunni extremists and terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIL all over the world? Is that the same Saudi Arabia from whence Osama bin Laden and 19 of the 9/11 hijackers came? Why, yes. Yes it is.

But they signed a contract to purchase 100 billion dollars worth of products from our defense industry, and they pledged 100 million dollars to his daughter’s slush fund non-profit organization. So I guess that counts as a win, right? He did say, during his campaign, that we would get sick of all the winning. I think I’m there.

From there, the preznit moved on to Israel. I was traveling home from Wisconsin, so I may have missed it, but other than declaring he had just got back from the Middle East (?!?), it appears he didn’t step on his dick while there. Of course, I did hear that he was exhausted, so maybe he slept the whole time.

Then it was on to Brussels for more embarrassment at the NATO summit. In his speech there, the preznit refused to confirm U.S. support for Article 5 of the NATO agreement. (That is the part of the NATO agreement which assures support for any member which is attacked, basically the heart of what NATO is.) He did, however, find time to chide the several countries which are not yet meeting their commitment to spend two percent of their country’s GDP on defense. (He seems to think those countries somehow owe that money to the U.S. and is clearly oblivious to the fact that they have until 2024 to meet that spending commitment.)

So, to restate, our preznit lectured several countries about their failure to meet future commitments while refusing to meet our own current ones.

And then it was on to Taormina, Sicily, Italy for the G7 summit.  It appears the rest of the assembled world leaders had never seen The Apprentice, and therefore did not envision our preznit as the super smart and successful billionaire he played on his reality teevee program. Instead, they saw the ignorant buffoon he is in real life, describing his diplomacy as that of a “drunk tourist.”

The six other nations of the G7, along with 150 or so other smaller countries, reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Our preznit did not.

The leaders of the six other G7 countries went for a stroll on the cobbled streets of the ancient city of Taormina. Our preznit followed in a golf cart.

Sigh.

And then it was home, where he declared his trip a great success. His admirers ate it up and labeled any evidence to the contrary as fake news. I know one supporter who says he “woke up a lot of the world’s leaders to the fact that there is a new sheriff in charge and he is making himself heard.” At least that one is partially true. The rest of the world has woken up. They have woken up to the fact that we elected a narcissistic, imbecilic film flam man as preznit. He is not respected at all, only feared, because he is so ignorant and unpredictable.

His incompetence is showing more and more every day. On the world stage, he can’t just keep saying he is doing a great job and have people believe him like he did on his reality teevee program. The rest of the world can see he doesn’t have a clue what he is doing and is not interested in learning. But surely he is capable of feeling shame, right?

Right?

Dispatch From Packerland

My work in the Salt Handlers Inspection Team has brought me 500 miles north to Green Bay, Wisconsin. And seemingly a few weeks back in time. Back home in Misery, Spring has sprung. Butch, the groundskeeper on the estate, has already been mustering working parties left and right. When I escaped had to leave, the pool was open and the garden was tilled and fenced and ready for planting. And my back was barking.

Here, it is still early Spring. Some of the trees are still almost bare, and many more have the pale yellow-green color of new leaves. I wanted to ride the scoot up here, but got spooked by weather forecasts calling for temps in the 50s and rain. And it looks like the forecasts were correct. This has been the view from my hotel room for most of my stay here.

Cold. Gray. Drizzle. I wouldn’t have wanted to get out and explore the beautiful country around here anyway. It’s mostly been too wet and/or muddy to play disc golf also. Luckily there is a refuge from the weather and the boredom within walking distance of my hotel.

Ned Kelly’s Pub is warm and dry and has 100 craft beers on tap. And free peanuts. It’s not as much fun as motorcycling along the bay would have been, but it sure beats running a shovel back home.

Life In Pitchers

The guy who originally finished the basement here on the estate was high on energy and execution, but low on money and experience. As a result, mistakes were made. He hopes to do better this time, despite being quite a bit older and slower and prone to back problems.

But before construction can begin, de-construction has to happen. Not the easy and fast destruction of demolition, but tedious and time-consuming disassembly, in order to keep the space livable while the project is under way and salvage raw materials to be re-used. (Because that shit costs money, man.)

So that’s what I’ve been doing in my spare time over the last few months. The worst part was removing the tile floor. Hours and hours of chiseling the tile up with a rotary hammer, loading the pieces into buckets and hauling them away, just to get to this point:

Which is a long, long way from finished. All the thinset you see in that photo that didn’t come up with the tile was stuck solidly to the concrete floor and had to be scraped/ground off. This is an extremely dusty process. If you ever decide to do a job like this, I highly recommend that you empty the space completely before you begin. Otherwise your furniture and all your stuff will look like this when you are done.

What looks like a white sheet covering my pool table started out as a clear piece of plastic. The dust was so fine, and so thoroughly filled the air, that even the furniture that was covered became filthy. Every square inch of every surface, and every single item in my basement had to be vacuumed and then wiped down with a cloth dampened with a solution of water and hydrogen peroxide. We are still wiping dust.

But the dust bowl days have given me an opportunity to rediscover some long-stored possessions. For instance, I found my bowling ball.

I haven’t had the old Black Diamond out since 1992. I didn’t open the bag, but I’m pretty sure there are some mid-’80s era bowling shoes in there, too. Today’s discovery is even older. The hockey skates I begged for, and eventually got, on Christmas in 1975.

Those were pretty good skates in their day, made in Canada by Daoust, with Phil Esposito’s signature on the back. But that was back when hockey skates were just stiff leather boots with blades riveted to the soles. It was also back when it got cold enough around here in winter for the canal by my neighborhood to freeze thick enough to play hockey on. Those days are long gone.

Back then ice skates didn’t have any insulation, so everybody bought their skates a couple of sizes too big in order to wear extra socks. My feet stopped growing before I ever outgrew these skates, which is why I’ve been toting them around for over 40 years. It gave me a little twinge of melancholy when I tossed them in the trash. My feet still fit the skates, but the rest of me knows too damned well not to put them on.

Intelligence Is A Constant, However Population Keeps Increasing…

I’ve noticed over the years that a good snapshot of my mental health at any given time can be found in my reading habits. Since I am always reading something, usually more than one thing, a casual observer would just see some goober staring at a tablet and assume I am watching cat videos or porn. But it is books that have always been my sanctuary. A relative measure of my overall happiness lies not in the quantity of reading material I consume, but the quality.

I’ve usually got some works of fiction or literature going, and when my life is relatively stress-free and relaxed, I like to read about science and history, philosophy and sociology, even politics and economics. But when my mind is troubled, I gravitate towards science fiction, so it is with some concern that lately I find myself diving into John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. It’s good stuff, but I’ve already read it, so these are indeed perilous times.

I’ve come to the conclusion that our democracy is broken. Sure, it was damaged before, and for a long time our government has been mostly millionaires busily making the world a better place for millionaires, while the rest of us race to the bottom in our trickle-down economy. But our new reality teevee preznit has destroyed any sense of normalcy. His know-nothing theory of governance seems to be to just do or say whatever pops into his head at any given time and then brazen it out when someone points out that he once said or did just the opposite. It is like watching a clumsy ten-year old boy fall down and then, when his friends laugh at him, lamely pretend that he did it on purpose.

Yesterday the Pulitzer prizes for 2017 were announced. David A. Farenthold of The Washington Post won the National Reporting prize for a series of articles detailing how our new preznit boasted for years about giving millions of dollars to charity, when in reality he gave away almost none of his own money, and routinely diverted funds from his charitable foundation for personal use.

…the Trump Foundation’s largest-ever gift — $264,631 — was used to renovate a fountain outside the windows of Trump’s Plaza Hotel.

Way to give back, Donnie. That’s just the kind of person he is, though. David Farenthold won a Pulitzer for chronicling what anyone who has been paying attention has known for decades. Long before there was an internet for him to scam people with his phony university or his phony vitamins or his phony charitable foundation, Donald Trump was the jackass who routinely stiffed the contractors who worked on his development projects and the banks that financed those projects.

Before he set out to destroy our government by running it like a business, he was the guy who filed for bankruptcy protection six times. Before he wasted 90 million dollars worth of missiles on an empty airfield in Syria in a show of leadership, he was the cretin who brought his wife and his mistress on the same skiing vacation, and bragged about it.

The only people who believe his constant stream of bullshit are the ones who long ago turned their right to think for themselves over to the Fox News Outrage Channel and the rest of the right-wing noise machine. The problem is, that still amounts to millions of people. Here is a brief, pretty much verbatim conversation I had with a co-worker a couple of weeks ago.

Him: [reading a story in the newspaper about our reality teevee preznit taking credit for a company deciding to expand and create a few hundred new jobs] “You know, a couple of hundred jobs here and a couple of hundred jobs there. Pretty soon that starts to add up. He’s putting some people back to work.”

Me: [pointing out a paragraph in the story that states in plain English that the expansion and new jobs were first announced two years ago] “It looks like this decision was made before he even started his campaign.”

Him: [nodding] “Yeah, he’s really starting to make a difference.”

This militant ignorance is what passes for modern conservatism. Half of our citizenry isn’t even paying attention, and half of the remaining half is willfully blind because their team of incompetent, racist greed heads is winning.

I think about a Voltaire quote from way back before the United States existed as a country: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” And I worry about what will happen when this administration inevitably goes off the rails. Who will they scapegoat?

Like I said, we are broken. We are an empire on the downward slope, perhaps irrevocably, and it feels like the only thing I can do about it is stock up on ammunition and sci-fi novels.

Normalizing Nuttery

Did you ever find yourself in public, like on a Metro train or standing in the beer line at a sporting event, talking to a total stranger, when you realize in the middle of the conversation that the person you are talking to is crazy? You are just passing the time, maybe you say something about the weather, and the next thing you know, they start rambling on about HAARP and chemtrails, or UFOs and alien abduction, or the Illuminati, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It has happened to me numerous times over the course of my life, and since I’m pretty sure I don’t lead an extraordinary life, I assume it happens to most people every now and then.

I also assume most people handle it the same way I do. Just lock a friendly smile on your face and nod along with whatever nonsense the crazy person is saying until you can extricate yourself from the conversation. You don’t want to escalate the situation, so you avoid conflict, don’t argue, just pretend you agree with them until the train reaches your stop, then bail out. It’s not your responsibility to try to rescue some stranger from the acorn box in the depths of their mind.

It’s different if it’s someone you know. You would try to get some help for a friend you suspect has been doing a lot of drugs or an elderly relative who has been spending too much time watching Fox News Outrage Channel. (Interestingly, in both cases the person will have a glassy stare, and be withdrawn and irritable. You can tell the difference because the latter will occasionally cry out “Benghazi!”)

You would try to help that elderly relative get a little better handle on reality. But what if they had no use for reality? What if they had created their own, more enjoyable universe in their head? What if every time objective truth intruded into that made-up universe they just created a new lie that they instantly believed and insisted everyone else must believe as well? It would be difficult and troubling to deal with that person, but we make a lot of allowances for family.

But what if that elderly individual was not a relative? What if they were merely someone you knew? Or someone you didn’t really know, but knew of through the media? What if that old, crazy person was preznit of Amurka? What would you do then?

That is the dilemma facing our nation right now. Our reality teevee preznit is floundering badly because he’s an incompetent fraud and con man who never expected to get elected and probably never really wanted the job. He has no idea how government works and has no interest in learning. He is the dog that caught the car.

And he’s more than a little bit bonkers. From the moment he took office, flagrantly lying about his inauguration crowd being the largest ever, he has reeled from one outlandish, demonstrably false statement to the next. He lies so brazenly and frequently that our journalistic media, and most of the country, seem dumbfounded and unprepared to hold him accountable. When they have the temerity to ask for evidence to support his outrageous claims, they get steamrolled by his skeletal spokesmodel saying stupid shit like “He knows things we don’t know.”

Well, Kellyanne, I’m pretty sure he also hears voices we don’t hear. We are all strangers on the train with him now, friendly smile locked in place, nodding along, hoping to get off the train before it pulls into crazy town.

 

Fuck The Experts

One day during my recent trip to New Mexico, I was driving along in my rental car with a co-worker, who I will call Curtis. We were admiring the landscape when I said something about how what is desert now was once a river flood plain and the city of Albuquerque sits atop millions of years worth of sediment from the Rio Grande. I already knew Curtis was religious, I just didn’t realize he was young earth religious until he went on a bit of a rant:

I don’t think they have the foggiest idea how old the earth is. They claim they do, and they are just as arrogant about that as they are about climate change. How can they tell me what the climate was 10,000 years ago, and predict what it will be 10,000 years from now, when they can’t accurately tell me what the weather will be next week?

There was more, but this is the part I remember well enough to give a near-verbatim quote. The word “they” is doing a lot of work in those few sentences. It starts out referring to geologists in general, then flips to climatologists in general, before landing specifically on Curtis’ local meteorologist. The written quote of this mini-Gish Gallop doesn’t really convey the disdain in Curtis’ voice for all of them.

I am far from a scientist, but I could have provided Curtis some good information about the methodology behind scientific estimates of the earth’s age. Or I could have pointed out how his tired, old argument against climate change conflates climate and weather, but honestly, the older I get the more I feel that life is too short to waste time arguing with Creationists and other magical thinkers. I changed the subject of conversation.

Curtis is an intelligent man. He did not come to his conclusions through ignorance. As with all ideologues, he chose to believe what he believes, therefore questioning his beliefs is tantamount to questioning his judgement, and will only be met with anger and a tighter clinging to those beliefs. Eventually ideology becomes more than an obstacle to the exchange of ideas, it becomes a barrier to objective reality.

Only slightly apropos of that, I purchased an e-copy of a new book by Thomas M. Nichols entitled The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Here is Amazon’s blurb about it:

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

As Tom Nichols shows in The Death of Expertise, this rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement.

Nichols has deeper concerns than the current rejection of expertise and learning, noting that when ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy-or in the worst case, a combination of both. The Death of Expertise is not only an exploration of a dangerous phenomenon but also a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age.

That last paragraph sounds remarkably prescient, doesn’t it? If no one respects knowledge and intellectualism any more, we could end up with our government run by a dangerously ignorant, astonishingly arrogant, loudmouth blowhard reality teevee con man. Sounds pretty scary.

I haven’t started the book yet. I’m going to dive into it as soon as I finish the trashy sci-fi paperback I’m currently working on. I’m not feeling optimistic that Nichols will offer any realistic solutions, though. We are way, way down the rabbit hole.

 

Al Buh Kwerk Wee

My work with the Salt Handlers Inspection Team has brought me to the high desert of New Mexico. The city of Albuquerque, where the air is thin, the chile peppers are mild and green, and the natives put them on everything.

This is big sky country. You can see for miles in any direction, but honestly there is not much to see except the Sandia Mountains to the east. Here is a photo I took this morning of the peaks shrouded in clouds.

It doesn’t look like much. The photo just can’t show the scale. That peak is six or eight miles away and a mile higher than the city. A total of 10,378 feet above sea level. A couple of days ago I rode the cable tram jogged up that same peak and had a look around. Here is another shot about halfway up.

Once again, there is no scale to my crappy phone photo. Those individual chunks of rock are as big as buildings, and that peak is still way up there. Here is a shot from the peak looking out over Albuquerque.

You can get a little sense of the altitude from this one. And you can see little pockets of snow on the mountainside. It was 70 degrees at the base when I started up, and mid-40s at the peak. But the really cool thing is when you turn around from this view and look down the other side of the mountain and see this.

One side is almost completely bare and the other side has 30 inches of snow just a few steps over the peak! Watching those skiers and snowboarders really made me want to give it a try, but I think my old body already has enough nagging injuries and aches and pains.