Saturday, November 26, 2011

Occupy Something

I didn’t know there was a local Occupy Something group until I read a story in the local newspaper about a young woman who had, at the time of the story, spent three weeks camping in the park in front of the local city library.  This really surprised me; I was at that library a week ago and hadn’t noticed any sign of a protest.  I didn’t think we had any 1% types in our small town to protest against, in any case.

It turns out that we are a hot bed of wild and angry protest.    The dozen, well… half-dozen protestors were just boiling with rage as they cooked their Dinty Moore stew over on a Coleman stove.  If not rage, then they were at least filled with seething apathy.  I know for a fact that the dog that licked my hand could have turned violent--he had that wild feral look you only see in a demented cocker spaniel.
 There were several tables displaying literature, a few more tables for food, several propane barbecue grills, and half a dozen tents.  Except for the pamphlets, it looked like a deer camp.  I wondered about camp sanitation until I spotted one of the protestors walking back from the library.  What they do after dark, I have no idea.  Perhaps they depend on the kindness of the police station across the street.  Nah!  I’m sure that the Voice of the People wouldn’t want to take anything from The Man. 
Truthfully, it was a sad little protest.  They seemed mostly to be upset at the coming orgy of shopping on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving).  “Stay at home, don’t go to the stores,” explained one of the protesters from the comfort of a folding lawn chair.  “If you do go shopping, only buy things made locally.”

I think this is an excellent idea.  This Christmas, I’m going to only give gifts made locally.  Would you like pecans, chilies, or sand?   While I may not go shopping, I’ll bet my wife does.  You have a better chance of slipping a hamburger past a fat man than of getting the Doc to miss a sale.  If I stood between her and a 20% off sale at Tuesday Morning, she’d stomp a mud hole in me and never look back.
Other than being upset at large box stores, I’m not too sure what they were protesting.  There was a general sense of anger, but I’m not sure what they were angry about.  I did take a picture of a protest sign, but I’m not sure it really provides much in the way of answers.
I’m fairly sure the author of the sign does have a degree in Social Work.  That would explain the grammar and spelling.  And possibly the author’s confusion.
 Who promised her a free education?  Or free housing?  Or free medical care?  I work at a university and I want their paychecks to clear the bank.  I own a few apartments, and I expect rent.  And my wife, the Doc, wanted to be paid for medical care.  In actuality, the university doesn’t pay me much, my tenants usually have problems with the rent, and my wife only got paid about 50% of the time.  Maybe I should start my own protest movement.
I believe there is some confusion about the American Dream.  This phrase is frequently bandied about, but I don’t think too many people understand the concept, so let me explain.  You can count this as your free education.
In the days of Thomas Jefferson, the American Dream was to own a farm.  Jefferson did not trust cities or the men who worked in them.  If you drew wages, you would always be beholden to the man who paid you, and thus you could never truly be free.  But the owner of a farm could truly be independent and subject to no one.  Only a free man could be trusted with the reins of citizenship in a democracy.  Jefferson believed that a young man might have to work for a while, but eventually he could head west and start a farm of his own.  Obviously, there are a few logical holes in this plan: some don’t want to be farmers, somebody had to make the farmer’s iron plow, and eventually there is no more land to the west to “win.”
The American Dream changed over time.  By the beginning of the Civil War, the American Dream for many was to work and learn a trade until you could save up enough money to start a shop or a business of your own.  Ante-bellum America was full of small businesses; the largest employer in the country was the Baldwin Locomotive Works, where roughly 600 men worked.  You might start as an apprentice, but you could aspire to own a shop of your own.
Early in the Twentieth Century, the American Dream had changed again, to the desire to learn a skill, become a professional, and start a career.  This takes more education, but just as much work and forethought.
The American Dream has evolved constantly in our history, but a few of the details remain the same.  If you work hard, save for the future, and plan and put forth an effort, you can achieve independence and financial security for yourself and your family.  Nothing in the American Dream has ever said anything about something being free.  And it shouldn’t.  Anything that comes that easy is rarely worth keeping, and is never a dream that will inspire you to achieve.
I had a nice long talk with the protestors; I read their signs, took their handouts, smiled, and even wished them the best of luck.  I probably spoiled the effect a little when I got in my wife’s Mercedes and drove away.  Of course, they don’t know we bought it second hand.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Target the Trash

Volkswagen is sponsoring a new and fun initiative—literally.  It is called the TheFunTheory.Com and as the website explains, “This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”

The whole idea is similar to Freakanomics--that behavior can be changed by altering the monetary incentives--but Volkswagen has decided that fun is a better incentive, at least in advertising, than cash.
One of the better examples of Fun Theory is a trash can that produces the sound effect of a falling whistling bomb whenever someone puts something in the receptacle.  The explosion at the end of the fall is worth the wait. 
I like this idea so much that I want to expand it.   If the addition of a simple sound effect will more than double the amount of trash put into a park trash can, what could we do for highway litter?  We need to think BIG.  And sounds!  And lights!
I call it the Trash Target.  Put a large drum on the side of the road and surround the drum with large metal rings so it looks like a bull’s-eye target.  Naturally, it needs a lot of paint (mostly red).  I picture something about ten feet across.  These targets could be put on the side of the interstate about every 50 miles or so.  Since every driver will want to legally dispose of the car’s litter even while driving alone, the targets should probably be placed on the driver’s side of the highway. 
Picture it with me.  You drive down the highway drinking Dr. Pepper and eating beef jerky when you see the sign:  “Trash Target Ahead 3 Miles.”  This gives you about three minutes to get your window down and reach under the seat for that empty bottle.  You have to time this right, gauge the distance, judge the speed and calculate for the wind—and you toss the bottle at the target.  As you pass the target, you check the rear view mirrors just in time to see the pulsing strobes and hear the klaxon.  A direct hit--success!
Naturally, most people will probably miss the target, so I suppose we should have some form of consolation prize.  A donkey’s bray?  A recording of the governor saying “Thank You?”  No, wait--that’s redundant.
I would imagine the ground around the trash target might get a little messy.  But at least the trash will all be gathered at one point instead of spread up and down the highway.  It should be easier to clean up that way.
In the spirit of Fun Theory, I have one more suggestion for your car:  a new ashtray.  A fun ashtray.  All you have to do is put a venturi (that’s a funnel-shaped intake that forces air through a narrow opening to create a vacuum effect) under the car, run the vacuum hose up into the car and have it come out of a hole mounted flush with the dashboard near the driver.  As you are driving along, just flick the cigarette anywhere near the vacuum hose.  The suction will suck up the ashes right out of the air, through the tube and eject them safely under the car.
I know what you are thinking.  No, it’s not going to start a fire.  It’s a cigarette ash, not a piece of burning coal.  By the time that the rushing air pulls that ash through about 6 feet of hose, then dump it under the car, those flakes of cigarette ash will be about as cold as a mother-in-law’s heart.
I don’t even smoke, but I’d be tempted to play with this thing.  I call it the Ash Hole.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Men Do What They Do

Sandy, a colleague of mine at Enema U, was bragging this week about her husband rescuing her from imminent doom: he changed a flat tire on her car.  I know and like Sandy’s husband—and I know exactly why he changed that tire.  And so does every other man alive.

It is absolutely amazing what men will do for…uh…women.  I maintain that women are the main reason that man has ever accomplished anything.   Continents have been explored, rivers bridged, and castles built--all for women.  The Taj Mahal is not the only monument built for a woman--everything created since the invention of the upholstered cave qualifies.

To be fair, man--alone without female companionship--would eventually have created a few other things (a list most likely limited to hunting, fire, and beer).  I am sure that one day primitive man would have sat around a campfire, sated after a large meal of burnt meat, and as he slowly sipped his beer would have daydreamed about inventing a large block V8 engine with dual carburetors.  And then that same man would have thought about how much work that would require and probably would have gone back to drinking beer.  Civilization, without woman, would have peaked at the invention of the barbecue.

Naturally, I will offer you a story as proof.  Whole broad swaths of this story are demonstrably and provably true.  There are a few details, however, that might possibly be a little hard to track down, so I am changing a name.  It probably wouldn’t be that hard to figure out the guy’s real name--after all, I am using his real photo.  If you want to take the time, go for it.

Starting in the 1950’s and for the next 40 years, Red Adair was famous for blowouts (oil well fires).  Some of these oil rig fires shot flames hundreds of feet in the air.  Adair’s method of battling these fires was about as dangerous a job as imaginable.  First, a catskinner (that’s a bulldozer operator) would slowly approach the fire, with the rest of the crew walking behind the dozer to escape the heat.  An explosive charge was placed at the wellhead, and then the crew, all of whom were wearing special suits to protect them from the incredible heat, would withdraw.  With a large enough explosion, the fire could be blown out.  Then a new valve could be lowered onto the wellhead and Red Adair could fly home to Houston with a very large check.

Some of the fires put out this way are legendary. The Devil’s Cigarette Lighter shot flames 450 feet into the air for 5 months until Red Adair blew out the fire.  On average, Adair put out about 40 such fires a year.  After helping to extinguish the fires in Kuwait following the first Gulf War, Red retired.

In 1962, as Adair and his crew were flying back from one of those famous fires, a newsman and a camera crew were waiting for him on the tarmac at Hobby Field in Houston.  Live cameras were new, and this reporter was hoping to get a story big enough that the New York office might notice him and move him out of Houston and off to the big show back east.  It was a longshot, but just the year before, a local reporter named Dan Rather had taken a camera down to Galveston and reported on the approach of Hurricane Carla.  That story had earned Rather a job in Washington D.C.

As the firefighters got off Adair’s private plane and made their way to their matching red Cadillacs, the reporter, followed by his camera crew, ran up and shoved a microphone under Red’s nose.

“Why do you do such dangerous work?” the reporter asked.  Adair glowered at the man and walked around the microphone.  Before the reporter could turn around and face the live camera, Three-Fingered Wallace reached out with his mangled hand and pulled the microphone over to him.

Three-Fingered Wallace was a catskinner and had worked oil fires alongside Adair for years.  Driving that bulldozer was dangerous work, accidents were frequent, and in one of those, Wallace had lost two fingers. 

“Son,” he asked as the camera focused on him, “did you ever try to fuck a hungry woman?”
Why do men do what they do?  That pretty well sums it up.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's Still 'Gee Whiz' To Me

Not long ago I was driving across West Texas.  It had a long time since Interstate 20 had been repaved and the tires hitting the sundried cracks in the asphalt produced a rhythmic thump like a cat in a clothes dryer.  It pains me to admit it, but the scenery isn’t much to look at either.  If you have seen one pumping station, the next few thousand aren’t much to look at.

That’s a straight and flat road, so either the monotony of the drive, or the constant thump-thump-thumping of the wheels lulled me into thinking about what this country must have been like a hundred years before.  There I was, driving my wife’s SUV just outside of Abilene, my iPod playing through the car's stereo, and the trip was being tracked on the car’s GPS, picking up signals from multiple satellites orbiting the earth in space.

Fairly fancy technology when you consider that this is pretty much the same ground my grandfather traveled in a covered wagon.  Has it really been so little time?

Recently, I told a student that my grandfather had been born in the nineteenth century; she looked at me as if I had just admitted to having personally participated in the Battle of Troy.  In her eyes, I must have been the very personification of old age.  Yet it is true--a little over a hundred years ago, my grandfather decided to move the family from West Texas east to Arkansas.  The family possessions were loaded into an old mule-drawn wagon and he drove the team the long trail to the rail station in Abilene.  There, the wagon was loaded and tied onto a flat car along with a wagon belonging to another family.  The fare to Arkansas cost each family $21.

The family did not do well in Arkansas, and in just a few years, the same trip was done in reverse, and the Milliorn family returned to West Texas.  I have no idea what happened, but it could very well be that my grandfather couldn’t adjust to the idea of farming with both good soil and adequate rainfall.  Within a few years after their return, my father was born.  So, my grandfather had traversed by covered wagon the area that I was driving through--twice.  I guess I was traveling about twenty times faster, and my version of a covered wagon had air conditioning and a few other amenities.

Somewhere along the line, all the high-tech gadgetry we all possess today fades into the background and we cease to actually see it.  At what point can I pick up my iPhone and not automatically think, “Gee Whiz!” in marvel at this impossibly clever device?  Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  But when does the magic wear off?  How many times do we have to see the trick before we stop being in awe of the magician?    

I know it is a generational thing.  Of course we take for granted the technology that was around when we were born, no matter how revolutionary.  I can remember when my nephews visited and looked in puzzlement at a rotary dial phone; they kept stabbing their fingers into the holes trying to push some non-existent buttons.  My sons cannot remember a life without cell phones and the internet.  But I can.  When did I stop being amazed?

It was at this point that I realized I had missed my exit by the same distance my grandfather could have covered in about a day with his covered wagon.  I really should pay more attention to my driving.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  So does a fall down a flight of stairs.