Blog Archive

24 September 2010

Memory Row Week- 2012 & The End of the World

I have to admit, I really enjoyed writing this piece and have enjoyed discussing it even more. Some follow-up comments are at the end.

I was listening to some REM yesterday when I began to wonder why it seems like every time I turn on the television, I am bombarded by end of the world programming- The Nostradamus Effect, Life after People, Lost book of Nostradamus....why not just tune in for a whole week of Armageddon programming as advertised by the History Channel ? Just can't get enough ? It is rumored that a television series based on the recent blockbuster 2012 is being considered as a replacement for Lost. I usually enjoy watching the History Channel, Discovery etc. with the kids because they have some pretty good shows that are a bit more educational than Sponge Bob or Ren and Stimpy- okay, maybe not Ren and Stimpy but you get my point.

Recent programming, however, makes me wonder if blocking both porn and the History Channel might not be a bad idea. My older son (age 9) has been pretty upset about the whole end of the world media blitz that we are being subjected to and he has every right to be so. After all, when you are 9, the prospect of being vaporized before you turn the ripe old age of 12 has to be pretty upsetting. It reminds me of another kid that was always worried about the end of the world- me. When I was my son's age, it wasn't television that pushed the whole end of the world agenda, it was a book "The Late Great Planet Earth" by Hal Lindsey that my father read and then rather absentmindedly decided to share with the whole family. Armageddon, nuclear war, revelation all mixed up into a potent cocktail that scared the living hell out of me. (I'm happy to note that my old friend Hal is still making a living peddling his bullshit as evidenced by his rather snazzy website. Despite the fact that he was completely and utterly wrong in his assertion that the world was going tits up in 1981, 2012 has breathed new life into his career from what it looks like.) Seeing my son so upset really pissed me off so I decided it was time to sit down and talk through what he was thinking.

While discussing our imminent demise at the hands of planet X, avenging angels or a return of the Smurfs, I taught my son about Occam's Razor "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" which is a lovely little theory to apply to situations like this. What is more likely- a) The Mayans were able to predict the future and identify the exact date the world is going to end. b) The media has found out that pushing Armageddon sells lots of advertising so they are throwing together programming that supports this conclusion. Congratulations, if you chose "b" you are a rational human being. If you chose "a," please get back to work on your bomb shelter and tinfoil helmet.

What is it in the human mind that just loves predicting our fate ? I think eschatology, prophecy and all of that fun stuff is simply hardwired into our brains. I saw an interesting show the other night on PBS (actually Armageddon free, which was nice) where a scientist noted that we are only species that worries about the future. Zebras, for example, have been observed being attacked by a pride of lions, escaping and then nonchalantly munching grass 5 minutes later a short distance from the lions that chased them in the first place. Unlike the zebras, we constantly worry and obsess about the future- money, our jobs, our families, the economy, the weather, our kids etc. Add a pinch of special effects, a cup of Mayan prophecy that I don't think anyone has actually read, a dash of Nostradamus and the human brain starts accelerating into a brick wall.

Time to throw on the brakes. I think that the prospect of the world ending December 21st, 2012 holds some appeal, especially for those that are living miserable, unfulfilled and unhappy lives. A date certain for destruction somewhat alleviates us of the drudgery of getting up for work, dragging ourselves to our jobs, dealing with the boss and waiting for the next paycheck. What's more scary than December 21st, 2012 ? December 22nd, 2012 when you awake with an Armageddon party induced hangover, stare at the cold December sky and realize that making photocopies of your ass at work the day before probably wasn't the best idea.

"A-ha" you say, "you won't be laughing when you die on December 21st, 2012 !" Guess what cupcake, we are all going to die. I think that the avoidance of the subject of death in modern Western civilization has led to a generation of people that think they are going to live forever. I'm going to die, you're going to die, we're all going to die. "Strive diligently, for all things must pass" were the words of the Buddha and they are as relevant now as they were over 2000 years ago. I don't know if I'm going to kick off on December 21st, 2012...or maybe 2011...hey, I've got good genes I should at least reach 2050 unless I'm a total loser. Car wreck, heart attack, cancer, plane crash, who knows ? All I know is that I'm going to die at some point and I'm fine with that fact. Try meditating on that fact sometime. It makes life even better.

As the clock continues to tick down to December 21st, 2012, the media drumbeat goes on. The plethora of doomsday television shows and books continues to roll off the assembly lines, proving once again that nothing sells as well as potential disaster. You can take your pick of 2012 theories- magnetic pole shifts, mysterious planets slamming into earth, asteroids, demons, UFO's and somebody out there will sell you their theory on it and how to survive it.

Here's my theory and I'm not charging you a thing for it- it's bullshit, pure and simple. I'm beginning to think that this mania is tied to our fat and lazy existence here in the U.S. I seriously doubt that hungry people in Africa are agonizing over this or citizens in not so fun places like Iran or North Korea are worried that Planet X is going to slam into us in a couple of years. Our easy consumer driven lifestyle has created a demand for artificial fears- since we no longer have the primal fight/flee response sitting in Starbucks, we now have to replace the lion chasing us with maniacal theories to scare ourselves and remind us of our own mortality.

I would like to propose a bet with any 2012 proponent out there to put their money where their mouth is. I will pay them $ 100 cash money, right now, on the wager that nothing will happen in 2012. In return, if nothing happens, they will pay me $ 200 on January 1st, 2013. If you are completely sold on 2012, this is a no brainer- you get to enjoy $ 100 during your final days on earth, and know that it's a sucker bet for me since neither one of us is going to be around to collect my winnings when it all comes to a crashing end. Terms and conditions apply, subject to approval by my legal staff.

So come on people, are you gonna get your $ 100 and party like its 2011 ?

23 September 2010

Memory Row Week- The World That Never Was

I finally picked up a copy of this book and will be reading it on vacation this week. I'll post a review when I get back.

"The World That Never Was- A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists & Street Agents" by Alex Butterworth. 2010. Pantheon Books.

Book review by Stuart Christie, The Guardian.

Sounds like a good read. I'm going to pick up a copy. The book is available on pre-order for June 15th, through Amazon.

An interesting observation from the review-

"The main story, however, is of the penetration of these groups of often naive utopians by the sinister functionaries of the secret state whose job it was to protect the status quo: the policemen and spymasters who lurked in the shadows seeding uncertainty and dissent, cultivating tensions, beguiling with deceits, and luring credulous and impressionable idealists into committing crimes they may never have otherwise conceived."

History has indeed shown that idealists and revolutionaries are often long on ideas and short on proper counter-intelligence techniques !

22 September 2010

Memory Row Week- Funeral for a Soldier

I wrote this article in May 2010 about the death of a local soldier in Afghanistan. My comments are at the end.

Last week, a soldier killed in Afghanistan was laid to rest in a small town near where I live. By coincidence, my son goes to elementary school in the same town and met the soldier a few years ago when he stopped by to visit the children. By all accounts the soldier was an all American type of kid- well liked by his neighbors, a good athlete and respected throughout the community. I picked up my son at school the day his body was brought back to town and the children had lined the streets waving small American flags as the hearse passed by. The light poles were adorned with yellow ribbons and the town had turned out in a show of unified sympathy you only see in small town America.

For a 10 year old, my son asks some pretty tough questions. "Why did he die ?" he asked, followed by "Are we winning the war ?" The local news had covered the story in print and on television and it led the six o'clock news for a couple of nights so it became a running discussion between the two of us. I struggled to explain the war in Afghanistan to my son, the nuances of counter insurgency, the difficulty in defeating a group of guerrillas vs. a standing army. During my time in the Army I had been an intelligence analyst while serving in the Ranger Regiment. My job was reading intelligence reports regarding the Soviets and their invasion of Afghanistan- how they operated, their tactics and techniques and then condensing them for dissemination to the three Ranger battalions for what we thought was an inevitable hot war in Europe. Back then I gained a grudging respect for the Mujahedin and their ability to bloody the Russian bear. Little did I know that the seeds that would eventually lead to Al Qaeda, Bin Laden and 9/11 had been planted.

So why did he die ? The interviews with local citizens on television mostly addressed that question with the answer that he died "defending our freedoms" and "protecting us." I'm not so sure about that. I'm pretty sure that he died first and foremost, as soldiers have for generations, for his comrades and his unit. Grand geopolitical strategy was probably not going through his head in his final battle- he was probably looking out for his buddies and doing the best he could to stay alive. Although I tried to make the case in my head that he died protecting us here in America, I just couldn't make the mental jump that would connect the Taliban and scattered Al Qaeda forces to a direct threat against me and my family. Thinking that through made me feel horrible- he didn't need to die for me and my family, we would have gladly taken the remote chance of a Taliban-Al Qaeda attack on Pittsburgh if it mean't he was safe and sound.

Did he, and over 1,700 other coalition soldiers, die to bring freedom to Afghanistan ? I'm not too convinced on that score either. This wasn't like U.S. troops rolling into Paris or Holland during World War 2. Afghanistan was never really a country in the traditional sense, even during the best of times. Tribalism, war lords financing private armies through the drug trade and various religious factions just don't fit the profile of a country begging for liberation. The U.S. and its allies have suppressed the Taliban to a large extent in many areas of the country but its likely that once the U.S. pulls out the result will be an immediate slide back into its quasi feudalistic former self.

I'm still struggling with the answer. The U.S. invasion after 9/11 made sense- root out and destroy Al Qaeda and those responsible for harboring them. On that count, it is widely agreed that the operation was a success. Al Qaeda, which some reports show as having no more than a couple of hundred members in the country, has been dispersed and generally hunted down. I highly doubt that they have constructed some super secret underground facility in the mountains and are working on a nuclear bomb that will soon go off in the U.S. It is more likely that they are living like moles, reluctant to venture outside and risk being vaporized by a drone attack. If they no longer pose a direct strategic threat to the U.S., why is the Department of Defense adding thousands of new troops into the mix and billions more in funding ? Forget the money for a minute- most importantly, why is our most priceless asset (our troops lives) being spent on this hell hole ?

My guess is that it comes down to money. Billions of dollars for procurement of new weapons, logistical support contracts, beans, bullets and everything else that a modern army consumes. Congressional districts that rely on defense plant spending, corrupt leaders more worried about their own political skins versus those of the troops in the field. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, no larger than a German infantry division in World War 2 (at best) are on the receiving end of the full economic and military might of the U.S. I'm sure that some accounting geek at the Pentagon has examined the grim calculus of death and figured out that every dead Taliban was killed at the cost of about $ 1.5 million to the U.S. taxpayer. An elephant stepping on a gnat isn't even an appropriate analogy to the imbalance between the amount of military and economic horsepower being thrown at the situation.

So, why did he die ? I still don't know, maybe somebody out there can help me figure it out.

Since I wrote this article, the command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was changed by an article in Rolling Stone, and a massive leak of documents regarding the war has been released. Over 285 coalition troops have been killed since then, many more wounded and billions of dollars have been pissed down this black hole. I am still very pessimistic about the future of Afghanistan and the prospects for the coalition forces to defeat the Taliban. Unlike the U.S. and allied forces fighting at the end of a very long supply line, the Taliban are fighting in their own back yard with access to protection across the border in Pakistan. Most importantly, they have the advantage of time- they can simply wait out the Americans, force the Afghan government to the table after U.S. forces withdraw and create their own state within a state. When the war transitioned from pursuit of Al Qaeda to building a new Afghanistan, the war was effectively lost- not by the forces on ground, but the elected ones playing geopolitics in Washington D.C.

21 September 2010

Memory Row Week- 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Review

I wrote this article back in January after we purchased our new 2010 VW Jetta TDI. My update is at the end.

Last weekend, we finally traded in my Nissan Pathfinder for a new vehicle. The old girl had 147,000 odd miles on it, the exhaust system was falling off and it was doing annoying things like shutting off when I applied the brakes too hard. As if to make the point that it really didn't want to go to the big recycling plant in the sky, it died at the largest intersection between my house and the dealer where we had been looking at cars the week before. After a bit of swearing, pleading and pounding on the steering wheel, it wheezed into the dealer's lot and gracefully expired as it coasted into a parking spot.

After weeks of test drives, visiting dealers and doing some research, we settled on the 2010 VW Jetta TDI (diesel.) I've always had a sneaking love of German cars, born of racing AFX cars in the basement, reading racing magazines and dreaming about flying down the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans in a Porsche 917. My first German car, a used 1998 Audi A6, sealed this love affair and also confirmed everything that my engineer father thought of them- "over-engineered and over-priced" he would fume at the dinner table. Being an engineer he just couldn't see any point of designing anything beyond the functionality of an engine, four wheels and a steering wheel. The Audi was like dating a beautiful, temperamental woman. When it worked, it was an absolute blast to drive, luxurious and absolutely bulletproof when driving way beyond the safety limits on a snowy highway. When it bitched and was in a snit, it was horribly expensive to fix, cranky and temperamental. At one point I actually owned two Audis as I re-built a 1991 Quattro V8 which I bought for $ 3,500 cash but that's a story for another day.

Anyways, in the rush to build green vehicles with great gas mileage, Volkswagen has gone back to the future in the TDI. Years of building diesel vehicles (and testing them on the racetrack in Audi's TDI program) has yielded a vehicle that seems to do the impossible- get great gas mileage and yet be fun to drive. Many of the problems that hounded diesels in the past such as engine noise, wet and cold start issues ("don't call me when it's four degrees out" huffed my dad) have been eliminated. The interior is very well appointed, functional and the fit and finish is nice and tight. Turn the switch to the first position, wait a second for the glow plug light to go out and the 4 cylinder diesel rumbles to life.

4 cylinder you say ? No power you think ? Wrong again. Although the engine only generates 140 horsepower, it also pushes nearly 230 pounds of torque to the front wheels. Mash the pedal, wait amount for the turbo to spool up and the beast punches you back into your seat (rumor has it that Audi's new electric sports car will generate over 1,000 pounds of torque.) This is no breadbox with batteries stuffed into every nook and cranny, it is 3,600 odd pounds of solid German iron that makes me shake my head everytime I see a Prius. Although diesels have never really caught on in the US the way they have in Europe, Volkswagen may have finally come up with the right package of fuel efficiency, power and luxury to make more car owners take a serious look at vehicles like the TDI.

So far, so good. The car now has 19,900 miles on it after enduring two very long trips- one to southern Texas, another to northern Maine. As the engine is now broken in, the mileage from the little diesel continues to impress. During the trip to Texas, I averaged 48.5 mpg and slightly less during our summer trip to Maine. One thing that took getting used to was wondering if the fuel gauge had broken- on long highway trips, it barely budges. Getting nearly 700 miles of range out of a 14 gallon tank forces you to think differently about your trip- no more saying to the kids, we'll take a break when we stop to fuel up since that can literally be a few hours away. Despite the fears of my father, we have had absolutely no problems starting the car even during the extremely cold winter we had in Pittsburgh.

Mechanically the car has had no issues except for the hood shocks needing to be replaced. Although this gave me shudders concerning German reliability, they were replaced at no charge under the car's warranty. I am also liking the fact that the diesel only needs to have its oil changed every 10,000 miles and this is covered at no cost as well. The car rides well, is a blast to drive and the Satellite radio and I phone hook up are a godsend on long trips. On the downside, it can be a bit noisy inside the cabin during long trips and the seats aren't that well suited for marathon trips. Still, I can't complain. For a little less than $ 25,000, the car has been an absolute bargain.

20 September 2010

Memory Row Week- Home Grown

I wrote this article last Spring as we began our foray into trying to build a deck garden. My follow up comments are at the end.

I constantly daydream about living off of the grid. My thoughts are filled with a hand built house on some acreage in the wilderness, solar power, a big garden and smokehouse full of fish and game living free of the annoyances of modern life. "Mother Earth News" has replaced "Playboy" in terms of my fantasy reading as I eagerly read articles about really cool projects like building alcohol fuel stills.

Reality, usually in the form of a conversation with my wife, soon comes crashing back in and dispels these visions of grandeur. I did, however, take a recent small step towards self sufficiency by planting a deck garden. Whether or not this venture yields anything worth eating remains to be seen, but we have been happy to see the seeds sprout and the plants starting to grow above the top edge of the planters.

For around $ 10 bucks worth of seeds, we planted lettuce, spinach and a good assortment of herbs (cilantro, dill, chives, parsley and basil- I suggested another more profitable herb but was met with an icy stare of disapproval from my spouse.) I built the planters out of cedar boards and bolted them to the deck rail which proved prudent after a couple of severe storms roared through our area. I drilled holes in the planter bottoms for drainage and we filled them with a layer of rocks at the bottom to also help the roots from getting waterlogged. The three planters are all 4' long and cost about $ 40 total to build.

Update- Our deck garden was very successful and the amount of food we produced was far beyond my expectations. For about $ 10 worth of seeds we had multiple harvests of herbs including parsley, cilantro, basil and chives. We started our tomato and pepper plants here and then transplanted them to my in laws garden- the production we received was incredible. We processed most of the tomatoes into sauce and salsa and now have every square inch of our freezer filled with containers.

The peppers turned out great as well, although very hot. The lettuce and spinach did not do well at all and we will probably not plant them again next year. I think the problem was in the depth of the planters on the deck and the weather in the spring was too warm for them to get going properly. We were able to use produce from the garden in just about every dinner over the summer and it has saved us a great deal of money. For next year, I am working on getting back up to speed on canning and looking into building a rain retention and diversion system for our back deck. Using diverted rain water not only makes environmental sense, it makes economic sense as well.

19 September 2010

Memory Road Week

This week I will be heading 20 hours north of my current location to do some work on my family's house in Northern Maine. Rather than let a week go by without anything for you to look at, I'll be re-posting some of my past articles along with updates to the stories. I hope you enjoy them and have a peaceful and prosperous week.