Category: Quality of Life
There are four subjects the polite American avoids discussing in public: Politics, Religion, Sex, and Money. The ostensible reason for this taboo is to avoid offending anyone. But here I argue that this over-correctness is a causative factor in the decline of a civilization.
Let’s do money, first. As far as I know, this is a particularly American obsession. My European parents had to learn not to talk about money when they came to this country. Other places, the question, “So, how much do you make?” is as normal as “Are you married?” But in the U.S.A, we maintain a fiction of a classless society. We ask the same question only obliquely: “Where did you go to school?” is a good indicator of family income and social position. It is to the advantage of the landed class employers that their serfs employees not compare incomes, as well. By not allowing people to honestly gauge their economic value, they stay insecure. And insecurity leads to all manners of submissive behaviors, shoring up the security of the ruling classes, both secular and religious.
Sex is a more generally repressed topic. There is no stronger drive, yet we must never directly say what we feel about it. Western churches even teach that one should deny and ignore the strongest drives within ourselves, leading to all sorts of perverse (read as counter-social) behaviors. To discuss it in public would allow people to see how normal their lusts really are, removing a major source of insecurity. Minor curiosities would not blossom into obsessions and perversions. Such openness would reduce the influence of those very organizations that profit from its repression, like churches and (other) marketing firms, whose urgent short-term goals are only occasionally and accidentally in line with continuing our civilization.
Religion is a big one. People wear “subtle” symbols to let others of the same brand know they can be approached on the subject. The third eye, a cross or fish, a Koranic verse, and a star are some of the more obvious “secret” symbols. But it is a major faux pas to overtly declaim about your own faith to someone who may not agree. Unless, of course, the purpose is to stir controversy or solicit, two disreputable (completely human) drives. Again, by not knowing when and to whom you may come out,one feels insecure. This gives the leaders the upper hand. Especially when they strive to sow divisiveness, as in malignant fundamentalist sects.
Finally, politics. This is the least stringent of the social prohibitions. I think this is in part because the churches and marketing firms rule the field, anyway. In our land, there are basically two sides: The established American parties, and those who can barely tell them apart. The parties do have differences. One wants to conserve our resources, reduce capitalist predation, and protect the underclass in hopes of a better tomorrow, and the other wants government to protect the minorities (specifically the rich, the unborn, and corporations) and let God (or the invisible hand) sort out the others until the imminent judgment day.
So it occurred to me that hiding from these basic topics destabilizes civilization. Social groups balkanize into small, trusted segments that define themselves by their perceived differences. Each of the 30,000 Christian sects publicly claim the sum of all members of all denominations as supporting them, yet privately know that most of the 30,000 others are wrong and hell-bound. We have been divided, and conquered. If the people knew where they stood, and knew where the leaders stood, we would have actual checks and balances as were envisioned by our founders. Without such things, our nation may well founder.
According to Scientific American, there are more dangers to smoking cigarettes than tar and nicotine. There’s also polonium:
[P]eople worldwide smoke almost six trillion cigarettes a year, and each one delivers a small amount of polonium 210 to the lungs. Puff by puff, the poison builds up to the equivalent radiation dosage of 300 chest x-rays a year for a person who smokes one and a half packs a day. Although polonium may not be the primary carcinogen in cigarette smoke, it may nonetheless cause thousands of deaths a year in the U.S. alone. And what sets polonium apart is that these deaths could be avoided with simple measures.
The print edition of this article reveals that most of the polonium could be removed from cigarettes by removing it from the fertilizer and by washing the tobacco leaves with a dilute solution of hydrogen peroxide. What follows is an old sad story: the tobacco industry has long refused to incorporate these changes to reduce the polonium. The good news is that the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, passed in June 2009, requires the tobacco industry to address this problem, which it has ignored for more than four decades.
Now let’s be conservative with the numbers. Let’s assume that only 2,500 people needlessly died each year from polonium poisoning for the past 40 years. That’s 100,000 people who have been sent to early deaths by tobacco executives. That’s the moral equivalent of dropping an atomic bomb on Green Bay, Wisconsin. Yet no tobacco executives have ever been prosecuted, much less thrown in prison for this hideous conduct.
In the three minutes it takes to view this excellent National Geographic video on the rapidly increasing numbers of people, earth’s population will increase by 170 people. That explosive growth has real life ramifications that will affect our quality of life:
I applaud the willingness of National Geographic to discuss this critically important issue. Many people and organizations shy away from the topic of the earth’s carrying capacity.
Another organization dedicated to making sure that we don’t shy away from the topic is Global Population Speak Out (GPSO). Here is GPSO mission statement:
The Population Institute, based in Washington DC, is seeking prominent scientists, scholars, and other concerned citizens to participate in this international program of action. The mission is to raise awareness in the global community about the current size and growth of the human population on Earth — and to highlight the challenges this size and growth present as we attempt to achieve planet-scale ecological sustainability.
I am proud to say that I am Pledger #36.
I’ve previously posted on Philip Zimbardo’s excellent discussion regarding the “Secret Powers of Time.” He has convinced me that one’s perception of time (or even a nation’s overall perception of time) affects one’s character (or the nation’s character) in profound ways. It certainly affects the pace of life.
Tonight, I stumbled upon a ten-minute cleverly animated version of Zimbardo’s presentation. Citing the work of Robert Levine, Zimbardo indicates that you can identify countries and cities by their pace of life. In those places with the highest pace of life, “men have the most coronary problems.” He proposes that the basic purpose of schools is to take present-oriented children (which he defines as our natural state – see 5:30 of the talk) and attempt to turn them into future-oriented children. In American, a child drops out of school every 9 seconds, and it’s often a boy and a minority student. Here’s the context. By the time a boy is 21 years old, he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games, and many more hours watching shows, including pornography, which they tend to do alone. This means that many hours are not being spent developing social skills. These children thus live in a world they create. Bottom line is that they will never fit into a traditional classroom, which is analogue–it is incredibly boring to them. The commonly-heard cure for our educational ills–that we need more classroom time reading, writing and arithmetic is thus a recipe for disaster for these present-oriented students. Traditional classrooms offer the lack of control and delay of gratification; this is not at all interesting compared to life in front of a video screen.
Zimbardo argues that we are “under-estimating the power of technology in re-wiring young people’s brains.” They get upset even waiting an extra minute or two booting up their computers or downloading files. We bark at our kids to avoid hedonistic addictive activities, but they are already aware of the consequences, but they are not future-oriented kids, so there is no feedback loop to alter their behavior.
Bottom line: Many of the disputes we have with other people are due to our differences in the perception of time.
As the new year began, I found myself finishing up the January, 2011 edition of National Geographic. This is not a magazine to be merely scanned. In my experience, National Geographic deserves its own special time. It needs to be read slowly so that its exquisite prose and photography can be deeply appreciated. Every minute invested is paid back tenfold, and National Geographic has been written in this high-quality way for as long as I can remember. So… If you’re going to put me on a deserted island and I can only have one magazine subscription, please make it National Geographic.
The cover story of the current issue is “Population 7 Billion: How Your World Will Change.” In the introduction, the Editor notes that “the issues associated with population growth seem endless: poverty, food and water supply, world health, climate change, before station, fertility rates, and more.” Therefore, it would seem that we would insist on discussing the carrying capacity of Earth. We talk about the capacity of motor vehicles and houses and hotel rooms and conference centers, because we can’t deny that human animals take up space and use up resources. We can’t put 12 people in a boat that is designed to carry four, because it would cause a disaster. Yet many of us simply refuse to consider whether there is such a thing as a carrying capacity of the earth, and we utterly refuse to attempt any sort of quantification of the carrying capacity of the earth. Therefore, as we are approaching 7 billion people on earth, it is preordained by many people that population is simply not a problem, even though societies all over the earth, rich and poor, traditional and modern, are exhausting the resources that are available to them.
In one of the episodes of the original Twilight Zone television series, an introverted fellow is desperate to be left alone so that he can read books. He loved reading, but he was driven to desperation because other people constantly interrupted his reading. In that TV episode, the introverted fellow got his wish, more or less. Today I was reminded that hundreds of people can read quietly together. I witnessed this every day event at the main branch of the New York City Public Library. More specifically, I witnessed this phenomenon at the Deborah, Jonathan F. P., Samuel Priest, and Adam R. Rose Main Reading Room.
Here’s how the room is described at the library’s website:
[The reading room] is a majestic public space, measuring 78 feet by 297 feet—roughly the length of two city blocks—and weaving together Old World architectural elegance with modern technology. The award-wining restoration of this room was completed in 1998, thanks to a fifteen million-dollar gift from Library trustee Sandra Priest Rose and Frederick Phineas Rose, who renamed the room in honor of their children.
Here, patrons can read or study at long oak tables lit by elegant bronze lamps, beneath fifty-two foot tall ceilings decorated by dramatic murals of vibrant skies and billowing clouds. Since the General Research Division’s opening day on May 23, 1911, vast numbers of people have entered the main reading room. . . . In one of his memoirs, New York Jew, Kazin described his youthful impression of the reading room: “There was something about the. . .light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning smooth the tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted—that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves.”
A few years ago, a friend urged me to visit this reading room, but it always seemed that when I happened to be in New York and when I happened to be walking by the main branch, it was after closing time. This week I found myself in New York for an extended stay thanks to a massive snow storm. Thus, there were no excuses. I was stunned by this spectacularly beautiful room filled with traditional table lamps and a most unusual collection of people. They were unusual because they were so absolutely quiet.
[More . . . ]
I spent an hour this evening fixing an appliance that I bought at a yard sale many years ago for a coin. Not only that, but I solely and regularly use this appliance for my daily work. You may wonder, how do I use a potpourri crock pot for work? As the heater part of a small double boiler for an etchant that can eat through glass or titanium, of course.
And what can go wrong with a crock pot? Well, this one has been dropped a couple of times. But the crack was dealt with well enough some years ago by a liberal application of Acrylic monomer (Super Glue).
So what was wrong now? The crack had weakened the heating element (the hair-thin Ni-chrome filament) and it finally burned through.
So I took the thing apart and spliced in a bit of brass wire that I had lying around. That delicate job turned out to be the easy part, given strong magnifying goggles, tiny tools, and decades of fix-it experience.
But these diabolical inexpensive units are designed to not-be reassembled. They had actually added an extra part to the design to make reassembly impossible. It took me over a half hour to outwit the designers and get the base re-attached in a manner that would let me take it apart again in the future.
For a dozen tax-deductible dollars I can have a new one delivered to my house via eBay. Why do I regularly chose to repair disposable appliances?
My parents both went through economic times much worse than the U.S. Depression, each losing nearly everything but their lives. They raised me with essential parsimony. Not actual deprivation, mind you. Just a frugal mindset that pervades my being.
But now I have predictable (if meager) income, and no debt. I have money in the bank, and could afford nice things. But it just feels wasteful to throw away something that I can fix. I mentioned this in “How Does a Microwave Work?”
Things I no longer need may end up on eBay. I usually net less than minimum wage for my time on most of these sales. But the widget/parts/book gets a new life with someone who really wants it, and the post office makes some money.
Yet I regularly ask myself, “Is it worth it?”
In an 1982 article, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling announced their “broken windows” theory of crime:
Broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the normsetting and signalling effects of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime.
Here’s more from Wikipedia:
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.
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I claim to be a traveler. But I don’t travel for business. I work from home, so there is not even a daily commute. I have been on only two commercial jets trips in the last decade. So how can I claim to be a traveler?
My wife and I take road trips. During our most recent one, we distinctly experienced the disconnect between “travel” and “vacation.” Recall National Lampoon’s Vacation, but a longer trip, no kids, and most of our destination sites were (barely) still open. Had we left a few days later, and we would have missed much more.
This latest trip (click on the map for more details) was an effort: We drove 6,000 miles in 22 days, across thirteen states, in a sedan that I’d bought new for $12k in 1998. It now has over 185,000 miles on it, but still averaged better than 36 mpg for the journey. We took some stretches of older roads to better see America.
My narcissistic self photo-blogged as we went. At least on days when there was enough time left for writing and digital darkroom work. About half of the trip got posted only after we got back. But my subscribers could keep track of where we were because I’d skip days and back fill rather than writing from beginning to end. I didn’t report certain points in my travelogue, in the interest of time.
A tour guide under Seattle asked the group how far we’d traveled. The farthest was from Japan. I mildly resented the question, because the farthest of these “travelers” simply walked into an aluminum tube and were delivered to this city a few hours later. Practically teleportation. But our trip was a journey of several days longer than that of any of these other folks. We worked harder to get here, and know the route.
Travel, to me, is a process in the spirit of the Odyssey. Popping to a new town by jetliner isn’t really travel because there is no transition. A flight to New Orleans is exactly like a flight to San Francisco. But if you drive, one route traverses woods, bayous and moss forests, and the other covers mountains, deserts, and ferny rain forests. When driving, you know that you are in a different world, and get a feel for why the endpoint is how it is.
We do hit the road with a destination in mind, but remain open to seeing what we can see. As in “The bear went over the mountain” song, the target is the mountain. But the goal is yet to be determined. Yes, this song was stuck in my head a few times on the trip. But some of the best stops were unplanned detours.
In my youth I was a poor candidate for a road tripper; I got car sick. Any ride more than a half hour, however smooth, had me heaving. I survived family trips to Florida and Michigan, and an annual week at Bull Shoals Lake (about 8 hours away back before I-44 was opened). By the end of each trip my car sickness would subside. We even drove all over Europe when I was 11, so I decorated roadsides in many countries. Travel was not a good word to me.
But I had enjoyed reading Henry Reed’s Journey so much when I was 8, that I re-read it annually till I was as old as — and even a few years older than — the protagonist. I’ve also read several other classic road trip books. And there was the TV Series “Route 66“. I even have a cousin featured in a chapter of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. So my early nauseated travel disposition was largely trained and enticed out of me.
Sadly, the tradition of a road trip grew until 1960′s, and then withered up. I think that three major factors did it in:
- Dropping air fares made flight cheaper than road travel except for the largest families. Figure in gas and motels versus car rental, and a trip longer than a couple of hundred miles became cheaper to fly.
- The Eisenhower Interstate system created level and straighter and restricted access routes, often replacing or bypassing the WPA Roosevelt Federal Highways. This turned travel from adventure to boredom. How can you stop for the cutie in the produce stall when they are forbidden to be within 100′ of the road on which you are forbidden to park? At 75mph, a tourist draw needs to be advertised miles in advance on huge and expensive billboards, and is expected to provide every amenity.
- And television brought the world into your living room in living color. The producers want you to feel as though you’ve been there. But until you actually go to these places, you don’t know how much you are missing. Now the internet lets you view almost any place you want to, real time and on demand. Why go anywhere? Here’s the Colorado River in Canyonlands. But you cannot feel the breeze, hear the subsonic rumble of the water, or smell the piñon pines.
One now can cross the country on the ground without ever seeing a town smaller than a big city. The older roads were slightly slower, but much more interesting to drive. One had to slow down for towns and see things by the road. Even in between towns, you were only feet away from the cows and trees, not 1/4 mile away.
As Piet Hein put it in his 1960′s Grook
another winding road,
will take another load
They’re busy making bigger roads,
and better roads and more,
even faster than before
that everything is everywhere alike.
I disagree that everywhere is alike. Sure, the near-instant transportation that the end of the 20th century took for granted is homogenizing culture. So too is the media endorsement of multiculturalism making all products available in all cities. But there is still regional pride. But you may have to get off the interstate to find it.
Also, some of the improved divided Federal Highways are not quite as bland as interstates. Yet. These sections of road have one direction on modern, flat, straight pavement, and the other way is still the old, scenic roller coaster road. US-36 in Missouri is still like that. If you are going east, it is almost like taking the old roads.
Alas, our country is now full of ghost towns. Not just the old wild-west and mining boom towns that were tourist stops half a century ago. A few still are. But now most of the highway tourist boom towns of the 30′s through 70′s are largely boarded up. Some states worked to preserve the old highway life. As did Oklahoma with its turnpike paralleling US-66. But the old classic motels and diners of the heyday of mid 20th century travel are dead or dying where the old road drifts too far from free interstates.
Road travel is a somewhat poignant experience, as I feel nostalgia for the era I missed. But there is still a living culture of travel. TV shows like Rare Visions Road Trip and websites like RoadsideAmerica.com try to keep it alive. But relatively few people actually go to these locations. Too many are satisfied to see them on their HDTV, not knowing what they miss.
And the only way to find out is to travel. Knowledge may be what you read or are told. But wisdom is what you find out the hard way; what you work to learn. The serendipitous adventure of a road trip, however well planned, brings wisdom and understanding of our country, its culture, and its destiny.