Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Il Est Plus Tard Que Tu Ne Penses

When young and ignorant and somewhat trusting, I still always had the feeling that the simple truth, the real story rather than the commentary with an agenda, the uncolored and unfiltered fact, was hidden behind one of those narrow always-locked doors in the school hallways -- inaccessible, to render us powerless. We were filled with canned, frozen and processed foods at home, asbestos tile below us and artificial fabrics around us, plastics and media noise... John Wayne was always on television to teach us our history, the churches spelled out morality down to the most nonsensical detail, the President and the generals were there to wisely lead us.
Except, cognitive dissonance (not that I knew that phrase, or any other defining word; just commonplace truisms) rang around in my head. If we should trust the President, why did Nixon look like an evil troll, a slimy amoral salesman? Why did Jesus, a Semite, look like a cocker spaniel, an Aryan superman? Why was the conquest of Jericho told as a triumphant story from a glorious past -- was it right to slaughter a people to steal their land? I did have a feeling those questions should be kept unspoken in my spinning mind; I resolved to dig like an archaeologist or snoop like a spy to find out why these things did not seem to make sense, no matter how often or insistently they were repeated.
In public school, we were fed (you can't say "studied") American and Virginia history. No broader exposure until college, and even then those not in the humanities were not in the least interested; they'd had enough. I looked at some textbooks recently, and the current ones are sometimes even worse than those bound sleeping pills we had. Only the outside reading, paperbacks mostly, opened up the history of humanity to us. We don't have much to learn from history as "taught." It's up to you, if your curiosity hasn't been stamped out forever already.
Way back in an earlier post, I recommended Freya Stark's Rome Beyond the Euphrates. Thanks to the internet, you may find an old used copy. Why this volume is not in libraries or in print is beyond me. I found another recently, just a pamphlet, also by a wise, forgotten British writer. Take a look at the silly, shallow, partisan trash on the front tables today, in the USA, at chain big-box bookstores and you'll see why we need to dig really deep and far to find some wisdom about history and what we can distill from thousands of years of it (that should be enough data for some solid conclusions, right?).
Sir John Glubb was a soldier and a servant of the British Empire. His (long out of print, of course) The Fate of Empires analyzes the remarkably similar stages, from inception to collapse, followed over the millennia by great states, regardless of which political system they embodied. An empire, it seems, lasts about 10 generations (250 years on the average). The stages seem strangely inevitable, and as it says in the Rubaiyat, "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ/Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit/shall lure it back to cancel half a line/nor all thy tears wash out a word of it." They are (summarizing Glubb):
1. Outburst: a little-regarded people appears on the scene, a new and formidable nation which is practical, experimental and unified in purpose. Rapid conquest of adjacent lands proceeds faster and less successfully opposed than anyone can imagine.
2. Commercial Expansion: Within the new large territorial unit with a single administration, commerce is aided and expands in the peace that follows conquest. Making money, not the seeking of glory, becomes dominant.
3. High Noon: Ours was probably the early Seventies (peak U.S. oil production = 1970; highest GNP per capita was 1968). For the Romans, the second decade of the second century. (Glubb divides the Republic and its rise and extinction separately from the Empire).
4. The Age of Affluence: The wealth of the great cities draws many migrants. A multitude of universities arises and intellectualism, with surprising advances in science, develops. With too much wealth and power, in time selfishness and discord, proliferating but lowbrow arts, cleverness, entangling legalism, debate, and inaction make founding values like sacrifice and duty noncompetitive. Education no longer equates to learning and virtue, but is just a route to honors and riches (today 40% of U.S. Ivy League graduates go into finance).
5. Decline and Collapse: Pessimism and frivolity replace confidence and optimism. The heroes of declining nations are always athletes, singers and actors. Economically, the empire costs more than it can collect in revenue, and the mercenaries and heterogenous populations within, reverting to old loyalties and grudges, see no reason to support it any longer.

We were limited, in the junior and senior years of high school, to about one "elective." I had to pass on World History in order to take "Creative" Writing. I didn't miss much, since these worldwide patterns which would have gotten some of us thinking and made some things clear would never have been mentioned anyway. The "regularity of the rise and fall of nations passes unperceived" by writer, teacher, student and citizen. If you don't see the patterns in science, history or most anything else, you are just left with some myths, names, dates and selected information.

Add 250 to 1776.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nice Try

I'd rather be in Margaritaville, but the reality is that it's snowing and each night the temperature settles into the teens. The old heat pump grinds away (for how much longer?), keeping it 65 degrees inside; quite comfortable with thick socks and my trusty Old Navy fleece vest on. We are totally dependent on electricity and have no backup if it went out -- and it can: last winter's ice storm in western Kentucky and Tennessee left people without for up to three weeks. You'd better know how to turn off your water and drain the system when that happens. If your home is old and uninsulated, like Zach's or many of those in rural areas, lack of heat is going to freeze those pipes much sooner than later. Years ago, we had a kerosene heater like everyone else around here, but quickly found out that it was even more dangerous than smelly. As a backup, it would only be marginally good for a very short while.
We don't have a good record of choosing alternatives to stave off emergency or save on energy consumption. The kerosene heater was abandoned years ago (I just used it to heat garages when working in them; ours now is too small to be useful as a shop), and recently we gave up on the electric on-demand hot water heater. Zach's two Chinese-made electric space heaters both died just when he needed them this month. Our Bosch on-demand water heater's performance was bizarrely erratic and it produced only a tiny stream of hot water. So much for going for a quality brand instead of a cheaper Chinese piece of junk.
In the county seat of Carlisle, they're making much more progress. The school district has started up their solar farm, and Dickinson College has had an environmental studies program since the 1970s. In 1990, an experimental dorm, the Center for Sustainable Living (known as "The Treehouse"), was established and it was extensively renovated four years ago. The residents practice a self-directed, low consumption lifestyle, composting merrily, drying clothes on lines, and have hit a mark (in mild October) of using 12 kilowatts of energy all day. That's less than one KW hour per person, while an average residential customer uses 30 KW hours.
The ES Department has renovated its building to include a green roof, solar, geothermal, natural lighting, and major water conservation. It was LEED Gold certified. Those ES students walk the walk in class, in the community and at home. They were also involved in the school district's success in building the solar farm -- speaking of which, they have a 6-acre vegetable farm, too. They have installed wind turbines and solar arrays on their campus; the solar hot water heater for their dorm was designed by Dickinson physics professor Hans Pfister and built by them using recycled parts.
They're doing a lot better than we are!
I'm thinking, after much of my usual low-quality research, of a liquid-alcohol fuel fireplace as backup heat if the power goes out. Gel alcohol fuel in cans is more expensive and has to be delivered; liquid denatured alcohol is available locally. It's half as much per gallon if you can get it in a 55-gallon drum, but you're not supposed to store that inside and it may not be legal anyway. More data needed. Alcohol burning produces nothing but CO2 (as much as a person breathing) and a little water vapor; such a fireplace does not require coal, wood full of insects, piles of wood pellets in 50 lb. bags, or a big ugly LP gas container outside. It would heat about 500 square feet, or our main living/dining room and stairs.
Anyway, the wheels go round and round, thinking about what should or can be done to be ready for energy-supply loss, sudden or gradual.
If the example at Dickinson had been embraced all over the world decades ago, we could face diminishing energy supplies with some confidence.
If houses had been built smaller, well-insulated, passive solar, with rain-collecting/graywater recycling systems, we would not be so pathetically vulnerable.
Nice try, Dickinson.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Untold Tales

"F. Scott Fitzgerald...liked Champagne or gin, but when he was trying to cut back would limit himself to thirty bottles of beer. A day."
Makes you stop a second, but a story not out of line with what we know about Fitzgerald's long slow suicidal dance with alcohol. And when we read stories about the irascible Mark Twain, with knowledge of his dark final days, they ring true even though some of them are probably partly fictional. A good story that fits the context is a good story, not a lab report.
And we're all curious about what others are up to, from the lows of celebrity gossip to research into lives bigger and more interesting by far than our own. I'm long past shallow hero worship; what makes exceptional people tick is fascinating, then instructive. And the more you explore, the more funny, bizarre and astounding things people are capable of you come across.
Bill Peschel, copy editor and page designer at the local Patriot News, has written Writers Gone Wild, full of generally unknown aspects of writers' lives. Creative types' lives are the most interesting to me (vapid celebrities and amoral politicians, not so much), and probably you. They seem to be, when long-suppressed details become known, bigger even than their estimable creations. Badder, too.
Peschel said writing this book cured him of the "pretty notion that art can improve your life...great works are created by unhappy bastards -- Hemingway, O'Hara, Rhys -- and it didn't improve their lives one bit."
One story, though, is just good fun and, a hundred years later, still makes you grin.
Like Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf's life arced from a promising beginning to a desperate end. But before she was Woolf, she was Virginia Stephen, one of the brilliant Bloomsbury Group. In 1910, she and five others pulled a prank on the Royal Navy: they wangled an invitation to board the fleet flagship, HMS Dreadnought, posing as a royal delegation from Abyssinia (picture above -- note the darkened skin). They spoke gibberish, exclaiming "Bunga bunga!" to show their appreciation of modern things. An officer familiar with Virginia didn't recognize her! The Navy was mighty embarrassed, but the imposters hadn't broken any law, and they got away with it.
Later, during World War I, after the Dreadnought had rammed a German submarine, some wag sent a congratulatory telegram which read "Bunga bunga!"