Monday, July 30, 2012

Sextet

The book, 2004
The movie, 2012
These days when I go the local library, I peruse the "new" section, despair over the sorry periodical selections, pick an old magazine from the giveaway pile and leave otherwise emptyhanded.  The leading area library in Camp Hill, with its excellent facility, has a much larger "new" section full of just three types of offerings:  health/self-improvement, right-wing diatribes (every single one of the latest), and thriller mysteries.  Yawn.
Several years ago, I read a review of Daniel Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and actually found it a few months later in the library.  At that time I hadn't run out of finding books of interest, so I didn't think it was the last time this pleasing event would occur.  It seems now the ones you might be eager to read are regularly withdrawn and end up in the dumpster or at the periodic sales.  What circulates is the trash, and that is what remains on the shelves.
If you can't find it for loan, do get a copy on the internet.  It doesn't resonate with everybody, but if it is for you, you won't forget it any more than you can  A Catcher in the Rye.
The six stories span centuries from about 1850 to the future, and each is cut off halfway as the next one begins, until the last one, when the telling is completed in reverse order.  One reviewer compared the structure to playing the notes in a chord as an arpeggio.  Each is based on documents preserved (but teasingly only in part) through time, and each is told in its own vernacular style -- the 1850 diary entries, the beginning of it all, are filled with early Victorian words and expressions that will send you in search of a large unabridged dictionary.
Much like the new television series "Touch," the theme is the interconnectedness of everything.  I can't spoil it for you, but at the end it will become clear what the connection is.
The film version will open in October 2012, which may or may not be a good thing.  Despite their skills and attractiveness, or because of them, I'm not sure that stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry won't overwhelm such a complex and subtle story.  In the end, though, film and theatrical treatments do not harm the originals, and often save them from obscurity (or the dumpster!).

Life's an enigma, my friend
So read on, read on,
The answer's at the end.

               --  Inscription at Friar Park estate, Henley-on-Thames

   

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fast, Hard and Loud

We've always wanted to check out the Abbey Bar, on the top floor of Appalachian Brewery's very old building in Harrisburg, and last night was the right time:  legend Dick Dale was stopping by on his relentless 2012 tour.  He's 75, but you would not know it; this force of nature gives 100% every night -- he was in Cambridge, MA the night before and heading to Brooklyn, NYC for Saturday night!  He was right at the merch table with his wife a few minutes after the blistering show, and I got a beautiful poster autographed.  He couldn't hear anything, but I thanked him for coming to our little burg.
The evening began with Buzzchopper, a trio from Lancaster that I can't believe I'd never heard of before.  I guess you could call their sound psycho-surf, and you can hear how heavy metal and punk clearly owe their origins to take-no-prisoners live surf music (not the 2 1/2 minute commercial singles we all heard on the radio).  No vocals -- the pure thing.  Guitarist Paul Keareney plays his homemade Frankeninstrument which rests on a stand; it seems to be a modified Telecaster with a Gibson lap steel attached to it.  Drummer Aaron Shiflet kept that  dat dat....DAT  classic beat sharp, and the stage was also graced by rhythm guitarist Cynthia Sin, a petite gal in black wielding a black SG.  They began, grinning, with the Twilight Zone theme, which got the packed house grinning, too.  Ended with "Pipeline," the set was unexpectedly awesome and too short.  They're playing at some place called The Depot in York soon, at a "Freaky Tiki Surf Party," and I think we should make the trip (as it were).
Mr. Dale has some new bandmates:  his bass player of over 20 years left to rejoin the current lineup of the Surfaris and has been replaced by the insane Sam Bolle.  He looks exactly like a young Al Franken, and never stops jumping, weaving and bobbing, playing off the unpredictable Dale like he's been doing it for years.  Son Jimmy Dale is the drummer, and he, like his dad, never lets up for a second.  Dale joined him in the drum solo for "Bo Diddley," then took his sticks and played on the bass which Sam held at shoulder height.  Dale can play anything, and it's always in no usual way.
Highlights were a threatening-sounding "House of the Rising Sun," "Summertime Blues," "Misirlou" twice, "Nitro," a Johnny Cash mashup featuring "Ring of Fire," and the closer, "Amazing Grace."
Surf's up, Harrisburg!  What a night.

"Thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become your character, and your character becomes your desitny.  Figure that out."  --  Dick Dale

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Frankie Say: Relax

One more thought about work/life, then I'll shut up about it, I promise.
All over the world, people, companies and governments are trying to do something about the ridiculous surplus of people in or trying to enter the workforce.  This week's Newsweek lead article is about the Millennial generation (those 18 - 35) getting royally screwed, economically speaking.  I've certainly observed that situation growing over the past few years and I feel for them.  I'm doing my part by exiting the work force (OK, not voluntarily) to make way, but the idea of early retirement is fading among us older Boomers as people cling to jobs or start back at the bottom after layoffs to keep some kind of income, well, incoming. 
There have been books, essays and proposals since the 1920s about reducing the standard workweek to spread employment around.  I don't remember which company (maybe Kellogg's) tried it, but they instituted a 30-hour week in the mid-20th century with great success; it proved economically viable for both employer and employee and was popular with most everybody.  The story of why they abandoned it is murky, but I'm sure there was pressure from somewhere. 
In the late Roman Empire, and in its successors in the Latin world today, there were as many as 175 holidays a year.  It wasn't until the beginning of the industrial age that workweeks expanded beyond endurance (14 hours a day in America in 1800).  The population was increasing, labor was cheap and could be made progressively cheaper in the factory system.  Herbert Hoover proposed a standard 30-hour week in 1932 as a measure to deal with the Depression and in 1933 the bill passed the Senate,  only to be blocked in the House by FDR (!), partly due to pressure from businessmen and partly due to a desire to advance his own agenda whole.  The Supreme Court fought it through the 1930s, but gradually some parts were enacted, and by 1940 a standard of 40 hours per week at a minimum wage of .40/hour was set.
Studies have shown (as anyone who has worked intuitively knows) that productivity declines and errors increase after a certain mid-point in the day or week.  And since our collective productivity is up by almost  four times compared to that of 1950, we have the leverage to solve several problems simultaneously with some creative rebalancing.
It can and has been done, probably better from the bottom up than the top down.  Nucor Corporation, the #3 steel producer in the U.S., has been very flexible in its labor policy and has avoided layoffs for 20 years so far.  A nonquantifiable benefit is that lack of fear about unemployment = solid morale = safer, better work produced and experienced people retained.  When work is slow, everyone goes to a 3-day workweek at $8/hr.  When contracts roll in, the schedule expands up to 7 days a week at up to $22/hr.  Everyone sacrifices and benefits together -- how uncapitalistic of them!  BMW in Germany operates under a similar plan.  The vast majority of companies, however, believe that it's cheaper to lay off than reduce hours.  That's simplistic third-grade arithmetic.  And, years of workforce reductions with no loss of productivity prove that the 40-hour standard is no longer realistic.
Local governments (and states, like Utah) and universities are trying out the four-day week, primarily motivated by energy savings; it's much appreciated and it works well.
Or, you can start with just yourself:  one fellow in Massachusetts negotiated a 4-day workweek at 80% salary in order to enjoy his hobbies.  In a recent survey, almost everyone responded that they would take a pay cut to have more free time.  These couldn't have been people just hanging on with part-time minimum wage jobs, but it is consistent with what workers have said, when asked, many times before.
Now what was that, written long ago, about the lilies of the field?


Thursday, July 12, 2012

How NEET

Going back to post #3 on 2/18/09, "That Thing You Do" -- work, play and life:
Would that we could see ahead, identify the big shifts and threats, and develop strategy and tactics to navigate around the rocks to land safely on the far shore...but only a few (like John Kenneth Galbraith) can see ahead clearly.  Think of someone who chose a college major that would turn out to be in big demand exactly four or six years later:  winner.  Then there's someone who just followed his own drummer or was wrong in his timing or choice and was kept off life's superhighway by recession or a glut in his chosen field (sometimes it's teaching, then it's law, then it's engineering; never seems to be anything computer or healthcare-related).  I faced a recession economy when I finished my Army service in mid-1973 and read much later that situation can put you behind about 10 years if you don't have a timely Plan B in place.  I thought a really good military record and quality work experience would make up for being three years behind getting started, but found that was not the case -- no one was the least bit interested.  My Plan B wasn't that great.
Automation and mechanization was predicted to result in more prosperity and leisure time, but that was not to be universal and automatic; you still need to think for yourself and strategize to skirt the inevitable downsides like the global arbitrage of labor -- outsourcing -- and that rising "productivity" would not equal an ongoing rise in real wages, and that the wealth derived from smaller payrolls would just go straight to the top.  A machine does the work of 100 people, and those 100 are thrown out of work.  Some fall through the cracks, some stagnate, and overall they spend less, save nothing and the economy gets the shakes.  Old Karl Marx would say, "there's the inherent, fatal contradiction of global capitalism!"
"Primitive" nomadic societies spend less than 20 hours a week working, and don't really distinguish time between that and other things.  The phrase "work-life balance" did not even appear in our society until the late 1970s.  In the industrial age, work lives and hours became  hellish, and even included elementary school age children in the mass workforce (right here in PA, too).  My grandfather was forever grateful to Woodrow Wilson and the institution of the 40-hour week (old union slogan for a just workday:  8 for work, 8 for rest, 8 for what you will).  Until then he had to labor 10 hours a day, six days a week.  Immense private and corporate fortunes were made from this arrangement, and despite the Reagan delusion about it trickling down, wealth always flows upward.  Now, the trick is how to fiddle with that economic plumbing so that you can benefit.  Despite what we're taught, I don't think you or I are here to make the plutocrats fatter and stupider and then conveniently die, worn out, in our forties.
Most people fear freedom.  We pretty much only know the orbit we're in and feel we understand, and hesitate to do any free-range thinking.  After all, we see success comes in one of two standard ways:  being born into it, or aping and adopting the values of those on top.  And significant success leads to power which leads to wealth and the high regard of others.
What if you value autonomy, contentment and being inner-directed, and don't think much of power, excess wealth and the approbation of the those who really seem to be amoral?  We didn't, by and large, take advantage of the exceptional opportunities over the past 60 years to be free; we trapped ourselves in consumerism.  Look into your home, your closets, your garage:  way too much.  We now have three televisions, and I had to get rid of two to get down to that number.  I collected books and records because they're rich in pleasure and information and are relatively compact, but at one time I collected furniture.  Too much! I thought and let it go.  Very nice pieces, but they had to be gone. 
And there's one of the two keys to making success of your and your family's life but on your terms and according to your principles:  reduce discretionary expenditures and trim your structural expenses way below what those in your class consider the norm now.  But maintain just enough to stay where you're comfortable, unless you are more fearless than most. So many things are not in your power, but this technique definitely is.  We had three cars in the 1990s, and despite working overtime and hauling in the money, it just flew away (partly because it put us in too high a tax bracket).  I found the main problem was that the average car costs $8000 a year in depreciation, operation and maintenance, and figured that must mean earning $11,000 a year before taxes to support each.  Getting rid of all but one meant an extra $16,000 to save per year or $22,000 one didn't need to earn.  Previous to that, we realized our far-suburban home was eating too much in improvements, utilities and yard expenses ($300 a season on lawn mowers alone!), so we moved and downsized.  Rather than semi-retire early, we decided to simultaneously  save and pay off debt (all credit, then the mortgage).  The amount saved on interest payments, when we no longer made any, was phenomenal.  Interest received is going into the light; interest paid is falling into the dark abyss.
Simply:  lower your expenses and acquisitions so you can eliminate debt and interest and then glide down into a much lower tax bracket.  And get rid of stuff you should not have been accumulating anyway.  Expensive toys are exciting for the first month and when the thrill is gone they become an ever-increasing burden.  Everything you own owns you and demands to be fed.
The second key is one we did not, and probably could not, pursue, but it works wildly well for some.  Check out the mrmoneymustache.com blog to see how a couple in their forties have already been retired for a while now, live in a beautiful home in Colorado, and easily afford a family.  The short story is, he had a talent for math and earned several degrees in computer engineering, was blessed with an engaging personality and made a large amount of money in about 15 years.  But he did not spend it. Early on, he decided to use a bicycle as primary transportation, eschew the luxury madness, build a house with lots of sweat equity as soon as possible, and save over 50% to invest.  He found that a family can live with careful frugality on $20,000 a year, and if you're making a good deal more than that, it should all be saved so you can buy a future full of free time.  (You won't go anywhere on minimum wage without crime or a windfall -- check out Nickled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.  It's horrifying, and it's how millions live in our rich country.)
Years ago I found and read both of Helen and Scott Nearing's books, and sort of thought about frugality, simplicity and disengaging from the consuming/debt trap over the years without much idea of how to go about it while tied up in day-to-day reality.  Then I came across Your Money or Your Life (by Joe Dominquez and Vicki Robin, 1993) in the library after seeing it recommended in a related book or article.  The second, 1999, edition is probably in libraries, and you can get it on Amazon, used, for very little.  It will be your best purchase this year.  Mr. Dominguez was a well-paid financial analyst on Wall Street, but felt early on that he was making a bad deal trading all his "life energy" for money.  He determined that if he analyzed his own expenses and trimmed them down ridiculously, he could use most of his income to purchase a variety of Treasury bonds and retire early to write, lecture and teach (he accomplished this at age 31).  I sort of woke up at that, with the realization that I had no idea an individual could buy "T-bills," and why it's a better strategy than just saving in an account.  Like another tremendously significant book you won't find just anywhere --  Limits to Growth, first and second editions --  this is one you should spend a little effort to find and study.     
Think past the conventional, be creative, and divert some of that wealth flowing ever upward in the economic pipes toward you and yours. To develop your strategies first see through the delusions that middle-class people should live like aristocrats, that debt is O.K., and that you should kill yourself to acquire and maintain so much.  There are problems along the way, of course; health problems that keep you tied to employer-provided private insurance (unlike the rest of the developed world!!), too many children too soon, a derailing mistake like getting a criminal record, or getting stuck in a high cost-of-living area.  We aren't here that long; a worthy goal is to get the time to do work that seems like play.
And what is NEET?  It's a government term for "not in employment, education or training."  Get your "eff-you" money saved up and be one of those who can enjoy being in that category.

      













Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Yin and the Yang

AquaPro Groasis waterboxes
Baby elephant in Jadav Payeng's new forest
We passed by the motel on the corner, the one I walk by most every day, and I got a jolt.
They have been renovating for a very long time (covering the building with that DryVit junk and littering the entire area) and as a nice final touch, they cut down three well-shaped, healthy trees between the pool house and the road.  Why?
Walking in near 100-degree temperatures requires that you find shade as much as possible, and that is becoming less and less possible:  along with such wanton pointless acts of destruction by business owners, PennDOT and our own Homeowners' Association, there's nature's overefficient destruction from wind and snow.  We've probably lost over 30 trees in our neighborhood in a year.  All the trees damaged by the October wet snow were removed and not replanted by our Association; the Shell gas station's owner cut down a large and healthy locust tree that was not damaged or threatening anything.  Triple Crown's apartment development near us cut down all but three of the trees lining the boulevard for no discernible reason. The roasting sun is becoming unavoidable.  The grass, once shaded, turns to brown dust.
At the same time, I found out about some remarkably successful efforts all around the world to replant areas lost to desertification (which is where our area seems to be headed!).
The Fertile Crescent in the Middle East fostered civilization before that same growing civilization destroyed it with overgrazing, erosion, salinizing the soil with groundwater irrigation, and of course decimating the trees (the Greeks cut down all theirs for ships to build successive empires now gone.  They're still stuck with the rocky, arid slopes they created, though). 
Permaculture designer Geoff Lawnton, an Aussie, began a small demonstration project several years ago on 10 flat, hopeless acres in Jordan (92% desert) near the Dead Sea that he called Greening the Desert.  With volunteer labor and little money (he hasn't found any funding for the last six years), he employed an idea that created a healthy localized climate:  building up curving swales of soil with compost and leftover green materials from what farming there is, which harvested every drop of winter rainwater that had washed away and evaporated quickly before.  Salt levels in the soil dropped due to natural filtration, and humidity increased to a level that mushrooms grew (the locals had never seen that).  Trees with nitrogen-fixing roots were planted on the swales, then food producers such as figs, date palms, citrus and pomegranates.  Nature followed the cue and took over; without any further input, the new environment has grown and thrived.  Even in Scotland, reforestation has resulted in more rainfall (though they don't need it), proving once again that trees = more moisture and productive land.
Oracle founder Larry Ellison recently bought almost the whole island of Lana'i in Hawaii for $500 million.  Think what a tiny portion of that amount could do for projects such as Lawnton's, who says, "a garden can solve the world's problems." 
In Assam, far eastern India, Jadav Payeng lived alone on a sandbar island in the mighty Brahmaputra River, determined to make something of it.  In thirty years, he planted a forest by himself, starting with bamboo.  As it grew, he found birds, insects and animals moving in and learned more than a few things, among them that red ants change the soil's properties.  He lacked $500 million and a big fat ego, but the man has something much more valuable.
Just as human activity has created and expanded deserts worldwide, the rainforest north of Rio in Brazil has been wrecked over several centuries by coffee farming, charcoal making and cattle grazing.  At the age of fifteen Mauricio Ruiz resolved to bring the forest back from the dead, inspired by a poet who championed it -- words to action.  He and over a hundred others have planted over a half-million trees of 55 native species (one of them called an alligator tree -- wish I could find one which would eat local motel and gas station owners).  The goal is to cover 70 square miles.  Mauricio made it a win-win situation by convincing land owners that the project would benefit them in several ways, including being eligible for government subsidies.  The city of Rio is behind it, since the reforestation is clearing up the previously muddy water supply.
How do you grow trees in the worst of places that need them the most?  A Dutchman has recently introduced an invention which solves the vexing problem of getting seedlings to survive, which he calls the AquaPro Groasis, basically a plastic tub initially filled with four gallons of water which it dispenses very sparingly through a wick.  The roots are encouraged to grow further in search of more water, which is usually 3 - 4 feet down in arid plains.  The device cools faster than the surrounding air and so catches and collects condensation (dew) which replenishes the reservoir.  It can be removed and used again in about a year, and has had an 88% success rate in the Sahara (vs. 10% for the plant-and-hope method).
I wonder if I can convince Mauricio to come to New Cumberland?