Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Rockwell Scale/Degree of Hardness

Do I have your attention? Thought so.
The hardness/brittleness/resilience of materials is important to know, either precisely for the engineer, architect or product designer, or just enough mostly empirical knowledge for the homeowner or hobbyist to get by without making an inconvenient or dangerous mess of a project. The Rockwell scale applies to metals, and I haven't looked up what applies to plastics, but I think with plastics it is simpler and depends on the amount and type of additive chemical (if you've ever made candles, it's similar in the amount of stearic acid used to soften the wax so it will melt in advance of the flame at the rate desired). OK, now I've lost your attention -- here's the real topic after that dull intro:
After mulling over differences between succeeding generations during yesterday's post, I thought an awful lot has been written about and by the Boomers, but I wish there were more analysis of the mental world inhabited by the Greatest/Silent generations except for the usually mentioned and obvious profound effects of the Depression, WWII, and the deserved relief of the 1945 - 1963 period (peace and rebuilding ended by the sudden shock of the Kennedy murder). I've seen some other distinct patterns in their behavior, however, that beg a psychological/sociological explanation. We can understand their thriftiness when as young people they earned maybe $25 a week and remembered their parents being unemployed for long periods. That can easily be carried too far, but in general we can agree it makes sense to keep your head on straight when easy temptations all around are causing others to lose theirs. Their parents learned their values in the Edwardian world: discipline, submission to authority, beliefs held without question even if the belief system was full of glaring contradictions (if it were ever examined). Even in the early 21st century, the Greatest generation's bedrock of belief lies in the late Victorian world.
I recently re-read the Studs Lonigan triology, great fiction but really a social analysis that should be used in place of a lot of textbooks. The very Irish Catholic family in Chicago (depicted during the WWI to early Depression era) votes Democratic, because that's what urban immigrants did, but their values are reactionary, xenophobic, narrow and uninformed in the extreme, and utterly conformist. They supported with barely controlled violence institutions and systems that were not in their own interests at all. Isolated and easily perturbed peasants of hundreds of years before were hardly much different despite the skyscrapers, airplanes and worldwide communication and transportation that made the material world this generation and their parents lived in.
Rigidity as the core of their mind-set can be observed in some curious behavior:
I had an assistant once who worked part-time as a retirement job, mostly to stay active and get out of the house. He did the same procedure each day with minimal supervision, which suited both of us since after he was gone, I knew no one younger would put up with such dullness for very long. Once he said, "It's Tuesday, spaghetti night." He explained that he and his wife had a set meal for each night of the week. This routine was easy, I guessed; no decisions to be made -- as if it were a most desirable goal not to exercise the brain the slightest bit. Archie Bunker liked complete predictability, too. I wondered about the costs of giving up the freedom of making choices and the delights of experiencing or learning something new.
I see a couple nearby who go out in their car at the same times each weekday and arrive back home at the same times, indicating a particular task assigned to each day. I think this harks back to the farm life of their progenitors; my grandmother had specific work designated for certain days of the week: Monday was laundry day, period. Probably in her youth Saturday was bath day; there were reasons behind this arrangement, like the impracticality of bringing lots of water to boil on a woodstove more than twice a week. Routines, habits, beliefs and traditions are maintained after the reasons for them are mostly forgotten: for example, a mandatory Spring cleaning, thorough beyond our imagining, was absolutely required to remove the effects of heating with dirty coal for a longer and more severe winter than we're used to. There were probably rational bases for complete or seasonal religious food prohibitions which are still taken seriously; those reasons have disappeared due to refrigeration, scientific germ theory, or great social changes but the form persists after the content has gone missing.
So people must somehow now try to cope with a world changing more rapidly than humans ever experienced before, stuck with the mental equipment of their parents' generation which comes from a century earlier.
As Ringo sang, "It ain't easy!"

Monday, March 29, 2010

Winter is Coming

It's been a long time, so of course memories sift and drift down below consciousness and any possible recall, but once in a while I shock myself with the thought that I only can remember two events in my low-rent academic career at VCU without really digging. One is a multi-media presentation I gave on African art in a large Colosseum of a classroom, which went far beyond the requirements. It preshadowed my short but productive career at Richmond Public Schools in Media Services and gave me one chance to actually use the skills I'd learned while happily working in radio. The second was during a class entitled American Ideas, captained by the wise Dr. Ruth See, in which I found out about not only the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s but that it was followed in the next century by another one which also resulted in revolution and civil war twenty years later. Hmm -- was there a trend here, and could we identify it when it came around again?
If spurred to look in depth at such historical cycles, what you will easily find are best-sellers like Future Shock and The End of History or, heaven help you, the barrels full of partisan screaming matches that fill our libraries and the whole front area of the giant bookstore chains. Don't waste your time. For example, The End's thesis was that the end of the Cold War was the last big event ever. If you submitted this drivel to Dr. See, she would have politely and gently made you eat it.
I mentioned way back in a previous post a long-ignored and barely available book by an eccentric jewel of a writer (considered undereducated and nonprofessional by the critics) named Freya Stark, whose Rome Beyond the Euphrates analyzed fatal over-reaching by empires. Too bad for us and millions in the Middle East that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld triumvirate did not, and could not in any case, learn its timeless lesson. A cycle of very successful resource exploitation followed by population growth which overshot those resources or drastic climate disruption which decimated them was postulated in 1972's Limits of Growth and its sequel 30 years later. Denial has been the response to this "inconvenient truth," because we currently believe in exponential growth simply because we have had a century of affordable energy which has made for very successful resource consumption and we like it that way. It's non-negotiable, as old Dickie spit out. Like saying summer isn't going to yield to the next season just because we don't want it to.
Embarrasing as it is to admit, The Fourth Turning came out in 1997 and I only heard about it this year. The authors (Strauss and Howe) apply generational theory to history and find that America in particular has recurring 80-100 year cycles. Each of these has four turnings, or four seasons, of about 20 years each, reflecting underlying rhythms which are hard-wired into the nature of our society. Generations have different characters than the one preceeding and the one following, in a repeating pattern. The first is the High, wherein the mood is confident, conformist and complacent (The Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy years). The second is the Consciousness Revolution, an era of personal liberations (the 60s campus revolts to the 80s tax revolts). Civic institutions come to be mistrusted. The Culture Wars is the third turning (Reagan to the 2008 financial meltdown). Institutional decay and drift follow the glitz and official optimism with aggressive moralism and violence-tinged nativism. Finally, after a dramatic tipping point (the Boston Tea Party, John Brown's raid, Pearl Harbor, Black Tuesday and 9/11+2008), comes the monumental Crisis, oddly enough often triggered by the miscalculation of a foreign power.
In the current as well as the past Culture Wars periods, parents fear that the American Dream which was there for their parents and barely still there for them will not be for their children. They don't believe civil institutions are worth paying for. Decency campaigns are waged by anxious, tired old radicals whose heyday was thirty years before (the Gay 90s for those in the 20s and of course the late 60s for those today).
Short-lived triumphs of the French and Indian War, the Mexican War and WWI led to unravelings like ours after the end of the Cold War. Pessimism inevitably followed the wearing-out of collective purpose. The hardened Abolitionists of the fractious 1850s were once the spiritualists who explored Transcendentalism and utopian communities thirty years previously (I'd say like the Tea Baggers/60s idealists right now).
When the Crisis arrives, people have to put community ahead of self once again; there will be new leaders and a new social contract will develop. Winter will come in its time and things will die before new growth emerges.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Half-Baked Proposal

Seeming reactionary mass hysteria to the contrary, some people out there are thinking. A short while ago someone in basket-case Detroit (suffering possibly as high as 50% unemployment now) suggested that those hundreds of former city and suburban blocks that are not only abandoned but have only one to three buildings still standing be razed and rezoned as agricultural. The idea is to draw back the physical boundaries of a financially unsupportable array of city services are still mandated in these areas, and encourage close-in food production. Less municipal cost, more microeconomy jobs. The few remaining residents would be given substantial help to relocate to functioning areas which may thus be revitalized.
Likewise, longtime activist John Sinclair plans to open the first marijuana collective in Detroit, to help turn the city around in a situation where no other growth industry is on the horizon (all that possible new cheap agricultural land could make this work). Fourteen states have already approved medical marijuana and fourteen others have legislation pending. Massachusetts has almost decriminalized personal use of the herb, and California has it on the November ballot now. The CA proposal would ban public use, smoking while minors are present, while driving or on school grounds, and leave it to local governments to decide on permitting and taxing sales.
It's estimated that $13 - $42 billion could be saved in prohibition costs (50% of drug arrests are pot-related) while raising $7 billion annually in taxes. The figures are only speculation at this point, but it seems like common sense to work with the only burgeoning domestic industry: the amount of the weed grown in the U.S. in a 25-year period ending in 2006 increased 10 times, and it is much higher quality than the Mexican competition (so I read -- I'm not personally interested and don't want any kind of smoke in my lungs). Most of Mendocino County's economy is cannabis right now. The availability of very few other jobs turns people into entrepreneurs who wouldn't be considered criminals if they were starting, for example, nonproductive sleazy rent-to-own or check-cashing businesses.
Another factoid about the size and potential of this crop: California's annual revenue from citrus is $1.2 billion; the weed industry brings in $14 billion. Untaxed, while we pay for helicopters and agents to destroy it. I guess it's a lot easier than confronting the gangs of L.A., where this law enforcement muscle should be.
Apple and Hewlett-Packard were started in garages by young visionaries. DeMille's first feature, at the beginning of one of our biggest industries, was filmed in a horse barn. In rigid, conservative cultures like late Imperial China, Russia and the Ottoman, Roman and Byzantine Empires innovation didn't happen and opportunities were not seized or even looked for. Tightened borders after 9/11 had the unexpected consequence of jump-starting a new, flexible, efficient web of small businesses with high standards in the United States. Why is a part-time job at WalMart the legal thing instead?
(Most of the facts came from Rolling Stone, issue 1101.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Let's Get Together...or Not

Brother Steve sent me another 60s music book, a genre of which I am very fond, and Cliff also sends some originals from the era as he clears out his hobbit abode. The Zappa chronicle in particular was delightful: I think any collection of his interviews could be entitled, "Say Anything." Frank was never intimidated by any person or institution, and never doubted who he was or where he was going.

A fun fact that jumped out of Michael Hicks' Sixties Rock was that the hippie era mega hit "Get Together" originally came out of the Greenwich Village environment as a civil rights anthem, circa 1963. Dino Valenti brought it with him when he moved to the S.F. area where the Airplane and the Youngbloods later took it out into the popular mainstream. He also (falsely) claimed authorship of "Hey Joe" and collected royalties on it for a while (and Jimi Hendrix ripped off his slow, tragic version of it from a mostly unknown Tim Rose).

I've got endless patience for vacuuming up music trivia like this, since it's entertaining as peeling off layers from some giant mysterious onion: no matter how much you learn, there are always more lost and obscure facts to be found as you follow the connections, convoluted by Fortune and Time.

"Get Together" makes as great a theme for parties and backyard cookouts (and Be-Ins back in the day) as "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" does for organization meetings. I knew several people years ago who were in the Harrisburg Canoe Club, and once I finished my 16' two-person kayak, I was eager both to use it and take local trips with like-minded people. So...I went to a meeting intending to join, have some fun and learn about the local waterways. But the meeting was, for its entire duration, about fund raising. I waited politely for the end but never went back. The annual meetings of our 18th-century reenactment group were made so thoroughly miserable by parliamentary procedure and arguments to change rules that a couple of us suggested a second, purely social, get-together each year at a colonial tavern where we could wear our finest, be armed to the teeth, and enjoy much food and drink (no children allowed for this one event), and thoroughly entertain the 20th century civilians who were out for a nice evening not expecting this at all. And just as Alice opined that a book without pictures was of little use, no one should be expected to attend a meeting without food and drink. That's just not civilized.

The spouse of a certain blogger is plagued with meetings all her work-week, many times back to back. Managers who supervise people who have not only a steady regular workload, but who have to pour on extra effort when emergencies and problems roll in every day like unpredicted storms should not be either expected or required to waste time. I wonder if people in brother Ron's situation possibly enjoy or profit from meetings, since he associates with both highly educated and creative people. Even if not productive, they may be pleasant or stimulating. Not that anyone, anywhere, is above politics, agendas, or personality disorders! Funny thing about the quality of those you must meet with, though. Everyone at the Museum of Scientific Discovery was a college graduate, and it being a non-profit, you can be sure there were lots of meetings held to avoid doing any actual work. Poor and uninformed decisions, outright lies and desperate alliances were the stuff of these off- off- Broadway farces. One mandatory emergency meeting was held on a Monday morning (the traditional closed day for museums, when most full-time staff and all part-timers are no-shows) for two hours on the subject of what recommendation should be made to the Board about three days' vacation pay for an individual who had attended an in-law's funeral (for three days?). I kid you not.
At EMO Communications, everyone was high-school level, but meetings were only called to introduce new things (phones, vehicle assignments, benefits election) or to provide specific training (the day-long session on fiber optic fusion splicing with the new $50,000 instrument was one of the best days I can remember in over 40 years of work). Anyone who lied, argued too long, or had an agenda was effectively silenced and we did not waste energy or time.
I try to do a little good and no harm in the community where we live, but not as part of an organization because I will never attend another meeting.
As for cookouts, count me in. I'll bring some good wine.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Round Again

So urgent, the crocus rockets to the light
White and yellow and blue
At the same time and same place
No surprise, but fresh and new.
Like a newborn spider
I busily spin hypotheses
And remember back to '59
The first "sweet Virginia breeze."
Still showing up each spring
It's what the crocus and wanderer do
The temperature is over sixty
And, dude, you are too.