All posts by ryk

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 (Interestingly, in both cases the person will have a glassy stare, and be withdrawn and irritable.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.

 

In The Time Of Trumpanzees I Was A Monkey

We are into our second week of life in Amurka with a reality teevee preznit, and surprising absolutely no one, our new government has turned out to be a shit-show. Our new preznit has zero knowledge of how to run a government, and zero interest in learning. Like the campaign before it, his administration will be based on bombast and spite.

And it will be largely fact free. Our new preznit has powers that are truly Orwellian. He has rendered objective reality malleable. Truth is meaningless if enough people are willing to believe the “alternative facts” and dismiss empirical evidence as fake news. Sadly, there are a lot of believers. If there are as many as he thinks there are, this country is in deep shit, because when all that matters is belief, there is no difference between government and a cult.

But I’m an optimist at heart. I’ve got my own beliefs I guess. I believe sooner rather than later, most Amurkins will see this man for the petulant 70-year-old child that he is. Vastly unqualified, unfit for the office, and so insecure that he is still whining about an election that he won and claiming his dick inauguration crowd was bigger than Michelle’s husband’s was.

The people who elected this man might be gullible enough to believe his bullshit about bringing all the good-paying manufacturing jobs back while they continue to spend most of their disposable income buying cheap Chinese crap from Wal-Mart, but they can’t ignore a government as off-the-rails as this one. They aren’t insane. I’m pretty sure…

Erin go Bragh

Like most Americans I am worried about what might be awaiting us when the reality teevee administration takes over our government. Even the Republicans know it is going to be a train wreck, they just don’t care, as long as they get a tax cut and a chance to destroy the social safety net.

But some time around the new year I realized the absolute worst-case scenario might play out a few months from now if when the reality teevee preznit gets chased out of office for corruption. (Or quits in a fit of pique because someone said something mean about him on Twitter.) That would make Mike Pence preznit. Mike Pence the evangelical asshole. We could end up living in a country where atheism is illegal. (I know it sounds far-fetched, but nobody thought we would elect a narcissistic, reality teevee con man preznit a few months ago either.)

Anyway, I thought it might be prudent to start scouting around for a country to seek refugee status in if worse comes to worst. The first candidate I thought of is a certain Emerald Isle in the north Atlantic that I have always heard good things about. Last week I set out to see if it might be a good fit.

So as not to draw attention to myself, I parachuted into the ocean a few miles west of the island and swam ashore. This turned out to be a more difficult task than I first imagined, as I found my way blocked by the Cliffs of Moher. Here are a couple of photos I later took from the landward side.

As you can see, the cliffs are pretty much impassable without climbing gear, and since I had left mine in my other wet suit, I was forced to swim a few miles northward where I was finally able to make landfall. But the “land” I first set foot upon had a truly bizarre and eerie look. Check it.

I still don’t know what to think of that, but as I made my way inland the landscape transitioned to verdant peat bogs, with fat sheep and cattle tromping about in the mud. I continued eastward to the other side of the island, and took lodging in a city called Dublin. The hotel was very dated, but pretty well maintained, and not offensive to look upon.

I spent a few days sightseeing and getting a feel for the place, enjoying the moderate climate, eating massive chunks of fried cod and drinking a refreshing local beverage known as “Guinness.” All in all, I found it to be a very pleasant country. The natives are friendly, and they speak a language that sounds a great deal like English, if you listen very carefully. The biggest problem I ran into was the local currency — something called “your ohs” — doesn’t fit properly in an American wallet.

Warren

I haven’t posted since the election, but not because I am still in shock that we elected a reality teevee star preznit. I am still in shock, but that is not why I haven’t been posting. Nor is the fact that I have been busy fortifying the Abandon Mythology Command Bunker in preparation for the coming shit storm remodeling my basement. Or that I am battling my annual winter-long cough due to cold.

No, the reason I haven’t been posting is I have been feeling down. Way down. More than just low-light, winter solstice SAD. A couple of days before the election, one of my oldest friends committed suicide, and it really set my mind reeling. I haven’t slept well since. Many nights I wake for my 2 AM piss break and cannot return to sleep because my brain comes alive with memories.

I knew Warren since high school, so almost 40 years. For 15 of those years he was married to my sister. Back in the day, when we were brothers-in-law, Warren and I spent a lot of time together, both working and playing. But honestly, when you are young and strong, hard work with a good friend is almost more fun than play.

We would roof a house over a weekend for side money, or pull the motor of a car on a Friday night, knowing that motor had to be rebuilt and back in the car, running, by Monday morning, so someone could get to work and not get fired. We spent untold hours in his garage arguing the merits of Ford versus Chevy, irrespective of whose old shitter we were currently wrenching on.

Those times didn’t seem all that important or significant when they were happening. Just a couple of guys in their 20s figuring life out, sharing the struggle. But it is mostly those memories that come back to me now as I lie sleepless watching the night drain away on my bedside clock. It is only in hindsight that I recognize how foundational those memories are to the man I later became, to the man I am now.

Warren and I drifted apart after he and my sister split. We still saw each other a few times a year, but we weren’t close like we had been. I was busy raising a family and he was busy doing what many middle-aged men do when their marriage blows up, so our lives didn’t overlap that much. I saw him often enough to know he drank too much, gained too much weight, and wasn’t happy in his second marriage, which ultimately failed.

The other memory that comes to me in the night is my last conversation with Warren, about a week before he died. I don’t know if it is my survivor’s remorse or I genuinely missed an opportunity to keep my old friend around a while longer. I knew he was struggling with depression, and I know what a roller coaster ride that is. But I knew about Warren’s problems secondhand. He had not shared this information with me. As a result, I bumped up against the line between casual and serious conversation, hoping he would open up to me, but I did not cross that line. I can’t help wondering if a little more effort on my part right in that moment would have made a difference.

Proud atheist that I am, I believe everyone’s life belongs to them, and to them alone, so I respect the individual right to end one’s life. I reserve that right for myself, as we all do, since it is truly a right that cannot be taken from us. In Warren’s case, I would just like to have had the opportunity to present an argument.