At What Cost?

I believe you get what you pay for. Case in point: I have a pair of shoes I purchased in 2004, Rockports, and they’re in pretty good condition. Now, sometimes you might get a bad specimen, but for the most part, I’ve been pleased with this brand. I do not recommend buying shoes at Walmart. You will pay significantly less, but the quality is so bad, the shoes will only last about three months. The same could be said for almost anything.

In 1993, I bought a large frying pan, Revere with a copper sandwich plate on the bottom for heat distribution and to help the pan retain its shape. It was my go-to pan for decades. Then, a couple years ago, the welds holding the handle started coming loose. Eventually, the handle broke off completely, and the pan was rendered useless (at least for my purposes). I suppose I could have taken it to a metal shop to have the handle reattached. But I had the thing for nearly 25 years. The cost of the repair would far outweigh the benefits. Besides, a new pan with more modern materials and better construction was on sale, and I couldn’t resist.

But repairing that old beat-up frying pan could have helped someone other than myself. A local artisan might have appreciated the business. I’m sure $50 or thereabouts might not have made a difference in the local economy. But what if everyone went with a similar alternative every once in a while?

Ouch!

Sometimes you really have to spend the money. One of my lenses was almost destroyed when it fell out of my camera bag about five years ago. Thankfully, I had spent about $30 for a protective filter, seen above. The filter took the brunt of the impact and was completely smashed, beyond repair. But I was grateful my lens was undamaged (visibly). It still works just fine. I later purchased another protective filter. It’s like paying for insurance. You hope you will never need to use it, but shit happens.

Back to the shoes. Another pair of Rockports hasn’t held up as well as the first. Actually, I wear them all the time. They’re perfect for work, and they’re also good all-around shoes for any occasion. Unfortunately, the uppers have torn away from the sole, and my initial thought was that I needed to replace them. I did, with a pair in brown, which I wanted anyway. But I hesitate to throw out the now defunct pair. My thoughts went to finding a cobbler in my city. Surely I could find someone who specializes in shoe repair. Surprisingly, there aren’t as many as you would expect. I guess part of the problem is we tend to throw away things that have lost their usefulness. That’s unfortunate.

I make attempts to reuse things, or at least I make the things I have last longer by protecting and maintaining them. I still have cookware I purchased in 1991, when my wife and I first moved in together. We also still have the plates, cups, and bowls we started out with. They’re decent dishes. One reason we hang onto them is also their sentimental value, I admit. But why get rid of them? They’re quite functional, and they serve a purpose.

I think I’ll call a couple shoe repair shops in the morning. I’d like to know how much it would cost to fix those shoes. I’m curious if it might be more expensive than buying a new pair. But what if it’s about the same cost? My shoes would be as good as new, and I could support a local business in the process. It seems like a win-win. If it turns out to be more costly to repair them, I’ll consider that, but I might just spend the money anyway. What could it hurt?

 

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A Long, Long Time Ago Very Soon

 

New_Planet

Two weeks ago, astronomers made a huge discovery: for the first time in human history, we are able to witness the birth of a planet. The new planet, named PDS 70 b, is about 370 light years from earth. That means it is so far away, that what we’re seeing today actually happened 370 years ago, long before the foundation of the United States, before the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach. Centuries of human history transpired in that time. And yet, it will be billions of years before that planet is fully formed.

Scientists have discovered more than 1,000 of planets outside our solar system. Most of them orbit bizarrely close to their star. Others are super gas giants, many times the size of Jupiter. The methods used to discover these planets might explain why we have almost no found worlds that are potentially hospitable to human life. Eventually, we may have the ability to locate more planets outside our solar system, ones that are more like earth, with similar gravity. Perhaps someday we can determine whether a planet has a breathable atmosphere and similar diurnal cycle. Getting there is another issue altogether.

Assuming we could travel to the stars, as Carl Sagan hoped, we might decide to plant colonists on those worlds. Humans are fairly adaptable, so we could adjust to a different planetary rotation, where a day is 30 hours or 15 hours. The gravity could be weaker, like on Mars, or stronger. There might not be seasons. For the most part, those varying conditions occur on earth (except for the gravity bit). Residents north of the Arctic Circle experience long periods of daylight and darkness, depending on the season. People in tropical regions experience summer all year. People living in Nepal and Bolivia breathe thinner air than most of us.

With the turmoil of our current world, it’s easy to feel like we can’t possibly survive long enough to find our way out there. Some might question why we should even bother, with all the problems we’re facing here. We can’t seem to resolve our own conflicts without killing each other, not to mention that there are people literally dying to find a better life for themselves and their families. Refugees are turned away. Families are separated. Humanity isn’t looking like it’s worth saving.

But we could start over. Travel across the galaxy to a new world. Do it right this time, we’ll tell ourselves. This world will possess none of the negative things we left behind on earth. How will we overcome our human nature? Will we have rid ourselves of our greed, our need for revenge, our taste for violence? How will we end bigotry and xenophobia? How will we rid ourselves of the worst parts of our nature?

It seems that the only way we can make it to this bright future is that we evolve. Traveling outside our solar system will require collaboration on a global scale. We will have to overcome many obstacles that currently plague humanity. Until we conquer these negative aspects, we are grounded. Our best chance is to work together. Human development has a long way to go. It might be thousands of years before we are capable of achieving this.

In the meantime, we’re stuck with each other. We will see changes in our world that would stupefy our ancestors, and our grandchildren will come to accept things that would leave us speechless. Our world will change dramatically in that time, a thousand generations from now. Languages will shift (modern English is less than 1000 years old), attitudes will change, cultural norms will be unrecognizable. A thousand generations ago, humans had just migrated to North America. The Great Pyramid would not be built for millennia. So much can change in that time. Everything will change.

Really, the thing I am concerned about is not whether we blow ourselves up. I am more concerned about a stray asteroid or a mutated virus. If we can survive these things, I’m sure we can travel to the stars. When we get there, I’m not sure we will still be human.

Now You See Me

I like my privacy. I do have a Facebook presence, and I use my real name there, but lately, I have drawn back from that existence in the name of privacy. It all started a few months ago when someone I work with was perusing Facebook (while at work), and I asked him to look me up. He and I have no connection outside work, so I was confident what he was going to see was what any stranger would also be able to pull up on me. So there I was, toothy grin of a man who recently had braces removed in his forties.

Surprisingly, my public profile was oddly, well, public. I had things out there that I wasn’t comfortable with strangers knowing about. Furthermore, if I went looking for a job, prospective employers can and do look at our social media posts to collect as much information about us as they can before spending precious time in interviews. I was fully aware of this prior to my experiment, but I wasn’t prepared to realize how politically vocal I was in 2012.

That was the year of the general election, where Mitt Romney was challenging Barack Obama for the White House. Things got really heated, and the political landscape was being marred by a deepening divide between two opposing camps. Misinformation was the weapon of choice, and it separated families and friends. In many cases, healing has yet to commence, some 6 years later.

For my part, I decided to rid my Facebook feed of all political detritus. I began purging my profile and news feed, but it took a long time to clean it to my satisfaction. Now, my Facebook presence to an outsider will appear spartan and unadorned, all in the name of privacy and security.

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When I think about keeping my information safe, I imagine it being locked away in a fireproof lockbox I keep in my house; my insurance policies, passport, and other difficult-to-replace documents and items I dare not lose. On the contrary, our information is quite public. Anyone can look you up, based on your license plate number or facial recognition, or any other data you and I might not be able to conceal from strangers. On the other hand, the Maryland newspaper shooting investigation was partially aided by facial recognition software which, though controversial, was very helpful in identifying the suspect, who was not cooperating with police.

So where is the balance between privacy and security? When I flew recently from Las Vegas to DFW, I was subjected to an uncomfortable array of security measures; I performed the requisite shedding of hat, shoes, belt – anything that might pose a threat, I suppose. Then I removed all items from my pockets and allowed myself to be bathed in radiation while a giant all-seeing robot looked into my soul. Now the TSA knows one of my testicles is larger than the other. I hope it was good for them, too.

These things I have come to expect, actually with some acceptance because I know that there are people who do want to harm innocent people. In order to assure the public of a sense of security, we put ourselves through this, even though there have been some pretty alarming mistakes. Still, I think we’re safer than we were before 9/11.

We allow authorities to have a look into our private lives. We accept it as citizens, but we rarely speak up when the gradual intrusion becomes too much, probably because by the time we notice it, it’s too late, like that proverbial frog in the boiling bath.

Do yourself a favor from time to time, and take a look at what the public can see of your social media presence. In Facebook, from your own profile page, click on the ellipsis next to the “Activity Log” button. Select “View As…” to see what strangers can see. Over the last few months I have been systematically removing old posts. It might be a bit obsessive, but I feel a little safer knowing some things are not out there for anyone to see. Do I worry about slipping into the oblivion of anonymity? Perhaps, but not enough for me to blast my opinions recklessly around the internet. I just hope no one mistakes my desire for privacy for a defiant stance against authority.

Envelope or envelope?

Texture: Envelope - Green
Flickr Photo by: Jeric Santiago

I sometimes listen to a show called A Way With Words, which I usually catch on Sunday afternoon. Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett host the hour-long program, covering topics like regional sayings, idiomatic expressions, word origins, and so on. They invite listeners to call in with their stories or questions about language. I’ve never gotten a response, but I wonder about word pronunciation.

For instance, I hear some people pronounce envelope like ahn-ve-lope, while others pronounce is with a short ‘e’ sound at the beginning (ˈen-və-ˌlōp). It’s the same with enclave. I never hear anyone pronounce entourage with a short ‘e’. I wonder why we don’t pronounce courage the same way. Either, neither, be-lie-ver?

I asked once whether Caribbean should be pronounced with stress on the ‘i’ or on the ‘e’. (kə-ˈri-bē-ən vs. ker-ə-ˈbē-ən). The person simply answered, “it depends on whether or not you’ve been there.” (Not helpful, even if it was just a sarcastic jab.)

I’m pretty annoyed with malapropisms. That’s when a person uses one word in place of another similar word, or maybe not so similar. For example, well, here. People say things like “for all intensive purposes” and “he told me pacifically.” I’ve heard someone use the word “jubilee” when talking about jambalaya. One surprising one to me was that apparently “another think coming” is correct. I’ve heard people say (evidently incorrectly), “she has another thing coming”. I believe most people were unaware of this.

English is hard for many reasons, but mostly because it has been adulterated over the centuries. Modern English does not resemble its ancient roots any more than Icelandic resembles Japanese. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Every language has its problems. French is described as having a few rules and the rest is idioms. I’m reminded of a Star Trek TNG (The Next Generation) episode, Darmok. Here, Captain Picard is stranded on a planet with an alien adversary whose language is incomprehensible to anyone in Star Fleet. Picard and the other captain finally do work out their communication obstacles, but at great cost. It’s one of my favorite episodes, and I recommend watching it. I believe Netflix is still streaming the show.

It’s time for bed now. I tend to dream in English, but sometimes also in Spanish. Perhaps that’s why I find all this so interesting. Language is entirely too complex a subject for me to tackle in this publication. I’m looking forward to hearing back from “A Way with Words” soon. By then I’ll probably have 100 more questions.

 

Vikings in Oklahoma?

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we2018 04 23_5043 enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to acc

ept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma. The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

We recently went camping in Oklahoma in the Ouachita National Forest near the town of Heavener (pronounced “heave-ner”). The town has a nice little diner called the Southern Belle, an old passenger rail car converted into a cozy eatery. I had the S.B.C. (Southern Belle Chicken) sandwich. For dessert, we shared a slice of cherry cream pie. While we enjoyed our food, we struck up a conversation with a few of the locals who told us about the “Heavener Rune Stone”, but they were hesitant to say much more. We were intrigued, so we went in search of this mysterious thing from the past. We drove for what seemed to be much farther than “just up the road”. Eventually, we saw signs for the “Rune stone” with unclear directions about which way to turn. Finally, there is was, a former Oklahoma State Park, now the park is privately run. There was no entrance fee, but the gift shop is a pleasant place to spend some money. One of the volunteers (apparently, they don’t make enough money to pay for staff) was viking4 pretty enthusiastic about the stone, reportedly carved in the 7th or 8th century by Viking explorers to North America. While many scholars have come to accept the notion that Vikings visited as far west as modern day Canada (Newfoundland), it seems very unlikely they would have ventured to the Great Lakes via the St. Lawrence River, then somehow past Niagara Falls, eventually making it to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, connecting to the Arkansas River, and into Oklahoma. Possibility and probability are two very different things. I suppose it’s possible that Native Americans traveling up and down the Mississippi could have come into contact with these Norse explorers. It is also possible that these or similar Native Americans could have copied Norse runes and etched them onto the giant monolith. Regardless, we were there, gawking at the enormous stone, with the faint runic message of “glome”. It is a matter of intense debate, not just the meaning of the supposed runes, but also the probability of Vikings ever having visited Oklahoma.

The site was cool, with a “waterfall” and a treacherously slippery stone path. There is a handrail on some of the steps (but not all). And there is a precipitous overlook. The gift shop/museum store sells souvenirs and books, especially regarding all the evidence of the Viking presence here.

Whether you believe any of it or not, it’s a beautiful site. They even have led-lighted viking helmets. Say hi to the staff at the Southern Belle, and order the cherry cream pie. You will have a good time. You just have to kind of roll with it.

Resting, Period

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I Googled “are Americans sleep-deprived?” and there were so many results, that I couldn’t decide which one to link, so I’ll just let the reader do the work. Many articles confirmed my suspicion – something I’ve known about myself for years – that about 35% of Americans are not getting enough sleep. Many doctors, including mine, as well as researchers at the CDC, recommend adults get at least seven hours of sleep regularly. The thing is, sleeping through the night is not that easy, and, when you look at human history, it may not have been possible, at least for some groups. People who followed herds across vast plains may have needed to pick up and move at a moment’s notice. Also, the threat of lurking predators might have required sleeping with one eye open. A modern study was conducted on present-day hunter-gatherer groups, all in the equatorial area or in the southern hemisphere. It found that those groups’ sleep patterns were very much like those of industrialized cultures. These modern hunter-gatherers live somewhat cut off from other societies, with no electricity. The thought was that they would closely resemble our ancestors going back about 10,000 years (granted, they couldn’t reproduce every facet of the environment). So, if we are to accept the findings, all our electric lights, smartphones, monitors and screens of every kind, they are not necessarily to blame for the general sleep-deprived state of about a third of us. So why are we so exhausted all the time?

Everyone is different. I have a friend who really only needs about 5.5 hours of sleep every night. As for me, I am useless with less than 8. Lately I have found myself getting very sleepy, in spite of sitting in front of my computer, around 10:30. What I discovered is that since I have been working out more, especially training on hills, I’ve found I need more sleep. Apparently there is some science to this, but I was only getting results from body building sites when I Googled it. But I can say that after an intense workout (intense for me, a middle-aged office worker) I get sleepy earlier than usual, and I sleep “harder”. What I mean by this is my sleep is more resilient, more sound. My dreams tend to be more vivid, and I wake up with no soreness now. It seems that healing is among the benefits of sleep. The morning after a workout, if I’ve had enough sleep, I do not feel any pain I might have experienced while exercising, not that I’m pushing myself that hard, I’m just clawing my way back to a semblance of fitness, and I have a way to go.

About 15 years ago I decided to perform an experiment. I went without the use of any kind of alarm clock. I started this while I was on vacation, as it were, so I didn’t have to risk being super late for work if it went awry. The first morning was interesting. I woke up a little earlier than usual. I spent my day doing stay-cation kinds of things. That night, as I had pledged to do, I went to bed when I was sleepy. The next morning, I woke up, completely alert, at 5:25 am. That night, I was in bed around 9:45. I mean, I was out. That’s the thing about me: I have never had trouble falling to sleep. I just like to find things to do to keep my mind occupied. I continued living without an alarm clock for several months. That lasted until my job changed and I needed to work nights from time to time.

Sleep is kind of a waste of time. If we are to get 8 hours of sleep each night, that’s a significant portion of our time. Sure, we have artificially divided the day up into blocks of 60 minutes, regardless of how much daylight there is. 24 hours is non-negotiable in our society. So if I need more sleep than someone else, I feel cheated. Given the difference, I might waste the extra time. Maybe not. I’m guessing that the researchers who compiled the sleep data on those hunter-gatherers probably lost some sleep, working overtime. I hope they got paid well.

Playing it Safe

I take up space. I sit at a desk most of my life with two zero-bezel high-def monitors blasting artificial light in my face, meanwhile sitting underneath a battery of fluorescent lights and the constant din of office chatter, mobile devices and white noise produced by climate control. An utterly gray existence. Actually, gray is somewhat pleasant. My life is more beige.

But, I love hiking and camping; I may have mentioned it before. I’m very fortunate that my wife loves the outdoors. We’ve been on many hikes together, from Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to Hickory Nut Falls in North Carolina. She loves waterfalls, and she’s kind of particular about them. For instance, at Hickory Nut Falls, she loved the mists created by water cascading down a nearly 200 meter cliff, creating a unique ecosystem where ferns and other plants clung to the rocks in the perpetual spray of the falls. Abrams Falls near Cades Cove in Tennessee was larger in volume, but she didn’t like it as much.PaloDuroCCC

I recently went back to Palo Duro with some work friends. We have been on several hikes in Texas and Oklahoma, and one of two of the guys started talking about a hike in Arkansas, the Eagle Rock Loop. This hike is over 45 km, over steep ridges and river crossings. Some can finish it in two days. I question whether our group should attempt it at all, especially since we’re basically weekend warrior types. On our trip to Palo Duro, one of the guys developed a painful blister on his right heel. Fortunately we were able to return to camp and rest. If we had been backpacking, we might have been forced to turn around or add a day to our trek. My proposal was to try one overnight backpacking trip. A couple of us are in our 50s, and not all of us are in decent shape. But I’ve been accused of playing it safe, not seizing the day, carpe diem and all that bullshit. I think a person is only as old as he or she feels, but there are some realities we must face. Mature bodies do not bounce back like they did in their 20s. That said, I didn’t even try hiking until I was in my 40s. Who knows if I would have enjoyed it at all. I did enjoy mountain biking in my 20s, and I still have the desire to ride canyon trails, but I discovered my physical limits when I attempted this in Palo Duro a few years ago.

I think playing it safe can save your butt. It means being better prepared and better informed. I watch other people’s videos about a trail before going on it. I listen to what other people are saying about what to watch for. I also like to take my time because the reason I hike is not to reach point B quickly. I want to see the nature that I’ve surrounded myself with. It’s also important to be aware of hazards like poisonous snakes, ticks, biting insects, and large animals like bears and pumas. Large cats are not present in most of the US, but black bears are found in large parts of North America. Oh, and there’s this:

Maybe playing it safe takes the fun out of things. Well, Dwight wan’t likely to maul Jim for encroaching in his space. Fact: bears eat anything they can find, including food in your tent. Backcountry camps sometimes provide food storage cabling like those along the Appalachian Trail. You can not play it too safe out there.

I’m hopeful I will be able to persuade my fellow hikers to wait before taking on what some have called, “the most difficult Arkansas has to offer.” But eventually, we’ll need to do it. It is what our beige existence requires, apparently.