Fanboys & Gentlemen

Yesterday I was treated some rude, but otherwise harmless commentary on an old post about the myth of the Apple tax. It was pretty clear from the “points” the commenter wrote that he was simply an Apple hater or an Android fanboy, making claims of less functional, smaller screens, no Flash, etc. ad nauseam. I replied that they’re simply different tools for different users and “hating” one made as much sense as hating a hammer for not being a saw.

Lesson #1- Do not feed the trolls.

From there it devolved from rude and classless behavior into all-out name calling and vulgarity from him, and me generally questioning how an internet tough guy like my commenter gets along with society in the real world. It was plainly obvious he hadn’t read any of my linked posts about my frustrations with Apple, nor was he interested in having a discussion. When I deleted his comments (for vulgarity) he got a new email address and tried to post claiming that I delete comments that “disprove” me, replete with copious personal insults for full effect. The funny thing is that while he was calling me a moron for defending Apple, the idiot was posting all this from the same IP address.

I don’t know if the commenter’s rage was due to deindividuation or simply being from back east. (Massachusetts? New Jersey? Being a west coaster, they’re all the same to me.)

From Urban Dictionary:

fanboy, n, 1. A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture who lets his passion override social graces.

It’s the combination of “fanboyism” and deindividuation that… “Distresses” is too strong a word, but these factors are why I largely avoid certain regions of the internet. I only frequent forums with good moderation, and generally avoid any Apple/Android, Glock/1911, 9mm/.45, or Xbox/PlayStation/Nintendo debates as vigorously as the plague, herpes, or YouTube comments. While the conversations have been done to death, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having them. It’s personal insults and trolling that make me question the state of humanity.

Most recently, this blog has been about motorcycles because that’s what I’m really into at the moment. But while I loathe cruisers, I don’t think buying or enjoying one makes you a moron, pretentious, child rapist, etc. (There’s a better than average chance you like classic rock, but that’s about it.) When I did the Handgun Podcast my loathing of Hi-Point pistols was no secret, but I never attacked those who owned them as a lesser life form. It’s the personal nature of the attacks that just bewilders me.

I’ve often wondered if it’s from identifying too closely with the item in question; if by pointing out shortcomings in a thing causes the owner feels personally attacked and, unable to distinguish between the two, the owner begins to personally attack the critic. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me. I hope it’s not a mental illness, because the pervasiveness of the behaviour reflects far too great a percentage of the populace for society to continue much longer. I definitely believe this ill-mannered behavior is more common of the younger generations. Is this the result of hippie child-rearing? Are we seeing the consequences of no spanking manifesting later as societal meltdown?

It’s worth noting that bad behaviour online is almost always couched in anonymity. Security isn’t a bad thing (there’s a reason I don’t post my home address, etc. online), but using anonymity as a license for bad behaviour is nothing short of cowardice and immaturity. There’s a reason I blog (and comment on select forums) with my real name. First, because I am unafraid of taking ownership of my words. But second, and more important, is that it both keeps me accountable and helps foster discussion rather than figurative bomb-throwing.

I weep for the future of America, because I spend too much time online and see a depressing lack of class. Basic civility has been forgotten, manners are mocked, and gentlemen seem to be a thing of the past.

I refuse, in person or online, to not be a gentleman. It won’t die on my watch.

In that spirit, here are a couple links that are always worth reading. Art of Manliness has a post of 6 Ways to Bring Civility Online. Another article that I should try to adhere more closely to is 37 Conversation Rules for Gentlemen from 1875, as they’re applicable just about anywhere in life.

I really do believe the greatest cause of societal ills is the failure of males to be men, or specifically gentlemen. Intellectual, artistic or athletic gifts (nerds, weirdos, and jocks) shouldn’t matter nearly as much as a code of honorable conduct that we pass on to our sons (and daughters). No man is perfect, but a dad who tries to be a better man and teaches their kids to to the same is a boon to any community.

I guess there’s no real point to my essay today, since this narrative has wandered so much. I can repeat maxims like the Golden Rule, or “if you don’t have anything nice to say…”  Or the great philosophers Wyld Stallyns, “Be excellent to each other.” But I’ll break the rule my high school English docked points for and end this post with a quote. Worse, a quote that contains a quote! From the linked article above:

One simple antidote to this seems to rest in the very old-fashioned idea of standing by your good name. Adopt a pseudonym and you are not putting much of yourself on the line. Put your name to something and your words are freighted with responsibility. Arthur Schoepenhauer wrote well on the subject 160 years ago: “Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality,” he suggested. “It is a practice which must be completely stopped. Every article, even in a newspaper, should be accompanied by the name of its author; and the editor should be made strictly responsible for the accuracy of the signature. The freedom of the press should be thus far restricted; so that when a man publicly proclaims through the far-sounding trumpet of the newspaper, he should be answerable for it, at any rate with his honour, if he has any; and if he has none, let his name neutralise the effect of his words. And since even the most insignificant person is known in his own circle, the result of such a measure would be to put an end to two-thirds of the newspaper lies, and to restrain the audacity of many a poisonous tongue.”

The Final Weapon

Man cannot survive except through the use of his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons–a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man–the function of his reasoning mind.

But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act–the process of reason–must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.

-Howard Roark, The Fountainhead

Brain food

Growing up, I heard the term “brain food” bandied about as if to say certain foods would improve cognitive function and make me smarter. Somewhere along the way, popcorn was believed to be a brain food. Whether or not popcorn is biochemically beneficial for thinking ability isn’t really the subject of my post today (though I would argue that dousing it in butter and salt then setting mindlessly in front of a movie isn’t exactly intellectual stimulation). In fact, what we call brain food is really just what we need to perform up to par rather than excel. For the past ten days off from this blog I’ve been engaging in real brain food- writing a daily letter to my wife back home, journaling, and reading lots of books.

Daily writing has proven to be good exercise not just for my penmanship, but my imagination. One hopes love letters never get stale, but there’s still the motivation to try and keep each letter unique and interesting; it becomes an exercise in creativity to constantly come up with a new idea or angle on “I love you” to write home. Some days I resort to using the letter as a journal about the day’s events. [I've also finally begun to write in my actual journal about my thoughts and observations here in Afghanistan. Alas, these have a slim chance of ever being published on the blog due to OPSEC. Nothing classified gets written down, it's just... personal.] But other days, the Groundhog Days, a little more creativity is required. [Sweetheart, quit reading the rest of this paragraph unless you want mild spoilers about letters still winging their way home to you in the mail.] Some of my proudest ideas and missives home have come from defying convention of the letter home and penning my own poem to her about our life and courtship, or deciding to poorly illustrate a story using stick figures and overt comedy. These breaks from the typical letter are remarkably refreshing as the author because they remind me that the only limitations being imposed are that of the paper’s dimensions and my own imagination. The sky isn’t the limit when you’re writing- you can sail right past atmospheric limitations. What goes down on the paper is a new world to be crafted with no rules but those set by its creator.

Which brings me in an unexpected fashion to discussing one of the books I’m reading, actually. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, basis of the Coen brothers’ 2007 film of the same name, is like nothing I’ve ever read before. In some ways I’m glad I saw the movie first because the book is so unlike any other leisure reading that I could imagine having trouble constructing its tone in my mind. Having Tommy Lee Jones’ voice in my head for Sheriff Bell’s narration doesn’t hurt, either. But another startling realization for me is that whether by McCarthy’s artistic choice or a product of poor e-book transcribing there are no quotation marks signifying any of the dialog. Conversations still happen, but there are no defining queues establishing its rhythm. There’s very little in the way of punctuation at all, actually. The language is steeped in ruralization or capturing the dialect of the region and time, much like reading Mark Twain. And there are run-on sentences galore as McCarthy describes the actions of Llewelyn Moss, using “and” four or five times to stretch small actions into one longer process. I haven’t noticed this in the passages describing Anton Chigurh and I can only assume McCarthy does this as if writing in deference to the character. It’s fascinating and effective at making me pay much closer attention the words used in deducing the action, rather than “coasting” through with punctuation as my guide.

I accidentally left my kindle [left lowercase a la the logo] back in the tent tonight, and I can’t recall an exhaustive list of everything I’ve read from memory. Among them was The 4-Hour Body (interesting, scientifically based, and fun to read), Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness (just scratched the surface so far, since philosophy truly requires study to absorb), Rich Dad, Poor Dad (which has me thinking about saving and investing in a whole new light), and finally what I think might be the most interesting book of them all, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea.

Fea does something really interesting in this book: he actually looks for the answer to the question and even questions the question itself, rather than cherry-picking examples of text to support his own predetermined conclusion. The result is one that Daniel Walker Howe was quite right in describing as “a scrupulous presentation of evidence that may surprise people on both sides of this hot topic.” Fea truly comes across as having no agenda at all, but simply presenting the evidence of both arguments and, as such, much more honestly than so many other voices in the debate. I’ve only read the preface, introduction and Chapter 1 so far, but already it is like a breath of fresh air without any axe to grind or “fisking” and skewering of others’ work (though that may come later). The narrative is clear and easy reading, with the establishment of the time and cultural climate done well. Expect more updates on this book.

Some of what chapter one makes stand out in my mind is that the United States were not formed as a Christian nation as a de jure standard (not du jour), but as a de facto existence owing to the overwhelmingly Christian population. Christ and Christianity are mentioned precisely nowhere in any of our government’s founding documents, and yet plentifully abound culturally at the time in personal correspondence and around our framing documents. Most interesting is the example of the American Civil War, where both sides firmly believed they were on the side of angels while the other was atheistic and hell-bound. (The Confederate states even had God directly written into their constitution.) Looking at it from a historical point of view, one can even see the origins or similarities to today’s “Bible belt” South and New England liberal elitist stereotypes. What seems very clear already is that the question and the answer are much more complicated than the simple black/white answers sought or used for political posturing.

Both the North and the South interpreted the Bible and their view of history to how they saw fit in order to compliment their lives. This is probably not so different than what people have always done, or what happens today (on both sides of the issue). The truth is, we’re discussing real people who lived back then and had stories to tell, circumstances to live through, and events shape their lives. How accurate would it be for somebody else to tell your story after you’re dead and gone and simply peg you as “this” or “that” with no further dimension to who you are? This is what Fea avoids, because hinging the argument of America’s founding as a Christian nation is too deep a subject to simply declare that “the documents prove we’re secular” or “the culture proves we’re Christian” and never the twain shall meet. The truth, and the story, is nuanced just like the people who wove it.

One of my favorite podcasts is Hardcore History by Dan Carlin, and one of the things he says is that you can predictably see a trend in historians’ accounting of an event over time. First there will be an overwhelming trend to portray the event or time period in a certain light, and this can be either positive or negative. But as time passes, it becomes more fashionable for the historians to become contrarian to the previously established history and begin to portray the event in a completely different light which, relative to my last sentence, would now be either negative or positive, respectively. Eventually, as enough time passes, cooler heads (perhaps further removed from the circumstances) begin to discern the truth that lies somewhere in the middle as they empathize with both sides while taking neither. So far, it seems like this is what Fea has done, and I can’t wait to read more. It’s early in the book for me to be recommending it, I know, but it seems like something both the pious and the secular need to read for a little bit better understanding.

Like I said earlier, expect an update as I read more. At only 246 pages (excluding notes and references), it should be a quick read.

Hours in the Day

I finally had to take some time off from writing here simply because there’s so much else to do. I’ve written about this before- trying to consciously choose doing something constructive with my time and thoughts here on the blog rather than fritter away the hours I have on Facebook or browsing celebrity gossip. And even then, there’s so much to do it can’t all be crammed in to each and every day.

So for the past while, I’ve been reading every single chance I’ve had. A physical book may still be preferable to e-readers, but my kindle lets me slip a thousand books in the back pocket of my jeans. And considering weight and space limitations when deployed (as I currently am) to Afghanistan, this little thing has become my best friend over here. Well, my kindle and the cans of flavored Blue Diamond almonds my wife sends me to break up the chow hall monotony.

I’m guessing it took me a total of about three weeks to read all seven Harry Potter books, and I’m really glad I did. I enjoyed them immensely. This deployment has been really good for me in some ways, as my last one was spent mostly writing in this blog, then watching movies and playing video games. I feel more… Aware? Quicker thinking? The description for what I’m feeling is escaping me at the moment. I think I’m just happy to love reading again. I loved reading as a kid, and then television slowly took over… Some books by Ayn Rand and then The Art of Racing in the Rain rekindled my love for reading a scant few years ago. I loved reading a novel that seemed to qualify as “literature” and actually finding it engaging instead of boring and dry (or relying only on thrillers).

I thought for a brief moment I was going to get to be one of the literati, a high and mighty intellectual snob looking down my nose at those simpletons that watch American Idol. Turns out, not so much. (Though I still shake my head at the popularity of reality TV.)

I’m guessing I don’t read as quickly as I used to. And certainly the chaos of my office mates raucously shouting at each other, launching aircraft (actually having to work), and letters home to my wife or messages on Facebook all conspired to slow my reading. Because of this, I sometimes wonder how educated on a topic some people can really be. There’s so much to be caught up on, and seemingly even peer pressure to be aware of everything in the news. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, the latest book or album, the movie sure to be nominated for an Academy Award… That’s before the quite possibly endless amount of distraction on the internet from YouTube, Facebook, etc. (Fun fact: more hours of video were uploaded to YouTube in the last year alone than ABC, CBS and NBC have ever broadcasted in their existence combined.)

Frankly, this makes me think a lot of those oh-so-learned folks are full of it. Everyone who claims to have been through The Chomsky Reader and Dharma Bums and also professes to speak from any position of authority when combating, say, the Tea Party or Ayn Rand’s views or Cato Institute… And then turn around and comment on the latest in pop culture… No, I think it’s far more likely that even those who preach from on high simply fill their heads with what they prefer and take summaries or allow their opinions to be dictated to them by others. There’s just no way they’ve actually read all sides of so many social arguments. I just can’t believe any men’s magazine like Esquire is staffed by people who are actually up on everything they publish (which is why they have so many different contributors to create an issue).

So I don’t feel that bad about skipping my blog for a few days in order to read more or write my wife more love letters. And I certainly don’t feel bad about not seeing this movie or that TV show. I still have my vices, and can’t wait for the last few episodes of Breaking Bad. And I don’t feel inadequate or “lesser” for reading what I assumed were kids’ books instead of the latest hoity-toity novel by some pompous author. (Right now I’m thinking of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The books becomes monotonous and excruciating to read, while the film made the same points much more succinctly.)

And even now, with all the noise from aircraft, phones ringing, and a coworker who is the stupidest, loudest, and most boorish individual I’ve had to bite my tongue around in years… I’m still somehow strangely appreciative. Because as much as the interruptions frustrate and annoy me, or even fluster me when I’m under pressure or time constraints, it’s reminded to me to prioritize and maintain a clarity of focus. If I have to ignore the blog to prioritize writing to my wife (or reading books she loves so I can share that with her), then it’s worth it. And if it’s ignoring inane reality television, so much the better.

I know the best way for me to try and cram all my goals into the time I have is probably to block off certain hours of the day, or even dedicate certain days of the week to certain projects. But I still wish I had 37 hours a day so I could accomplish even more.

Flyover Country

While researching a brand of wristwatch yesterday I chanced upon an article where the term “flyover country” was levied most certainly as a pejorative.

I’ve been guilty of this myself a few times. It’s no secret that I don’t see eye-to-eye with the local culture/way of doing things in Fargo, ND where I currently reside at my employer’s pleasure. I only volunteered for the Fargo posting because nobody else wants to go there and I was sucking up to curry favor with management for my plan to request Italy, Germany, or England in another year or two. It became very apparent to me that I’m just not a midwest personality. I ache to be out west again, in mountain country and to have a city large enough to support a Cheesecake Factory within an hour’s drive. My wife heard an old man from Bismarck say they couldn’t live with the “hustle and bustle” of Fargo. We cracked up laughing, not derisively, but in amusement at our own culture shock. How two different people observe the same subject but see two different things. He sees “hustle and bustle” where we see a quaint, small town.

But as miserable as Fargo sometimes makes us (Arizona natives in a Fargo winter are a pretty bad match) and as firm as we are in our plans to leave when possible, one thought keeps shouting at me from the back of my mind.

These people that big-city folk like to call “hicks” grow and provide all our food.

Let that sink in a minute. I might really enjoy big city life, but you tell me what metropolis in America isn’t a net importer of everything that sustains living? Millions upon millions of people in America would starve if it wasn’t for those “hicks” or “bumpkins”. Think California or New York could feed their own state’s population if they had to? Not on your life. Texas could probably feed Dallas/Ft. Worth. The pacific northwest (where my wife and I dream of moving) would be fine. I don’t know how well Arizona could support Phoenix and Tucson.

My point is this: I don’t like living in the midwest or the way they do things here, but I also don’t grow my own food and wasn’t raised as a hunter. My food comes from the grocery store. So now I do my very best to keep my mouth shut and be grateful, because my well-paying job doesn’t actually make me self-sustaining.

Believe me, this is flyover country and there is little if anything noteworthy here. But for the sake of manners, consider what you eat for a month and then consider being nice.

The Right Stuff

I recently watched the 1983 film The Right Stuff, but this isn’t a review. No, this is more of an after action report of the recent Father’s Day. This is a collection of my thoughts over the past silent weeks of this blog.

I took the week off from writing (which nearly drove me nuts at points) while I was on vacation with my sister and her husband and kids. We all went to Walt Disney World and it was truly a delight to spend time with my niece and nephew in that environment. Seeing my six year old nephew so excited about Disney characters, watching him sulk and pine for rides when we did boring “grown-up stuff” in Epcot… It was a window into the past where I could see myself as a child. I actually found myself promising I wouldn’t do that to my kids and it would be all rides and fun- and almost instantly recusing that thought because I don’t want to raise a spoiled brat. Kids need to learn to cope with disappointment, it’s a vacation for the entire family, and someday my kids will look back through the exact same nostalgic lens I gazed through.

Then, I shot that squirrel video.

Things got really weird after shooting and uploading that video. And it was fun, but in a bizarre way I found myself really thinking deeper about seemingly unrelated ideas like legacy, fame, the American zeitgeist, and where I could get a really good chili dog. (That last one was just to see if you’re paying attention.)

See, the squirrel video started to explode on the internet, and in no time at all I was answering emails from CNN, ABC, the Today show, MSNBC, licensing with Spiral Viral, etc. In no time at all it became my most viewed YouTube video, and I started to wonder if I could make it profitable but also became a little irked that the hard work I had previously put into the Handgun Podcast and informative firearm videos was almost instantly trumped by a rodent being “cute”. It just seemed like another example of a culture that can name American Idol contestants, but probably fewer than a dozen U.S. Presidents from memory. I’ve suddenly contributed to the vapidity I loathe.

Silly as it may be, this frustrates me a great deal because I’m now torn between wanting to destroy the video and delete it (and the inane comments) from existence or exploiting it as best I can profiting (hopefully wildly) off the stupidity of the masses. Part of the reason I quit doing gun videos and podcasts was burn-out, and part was the frustration of constantly beating my head against a figurative wall as I tried to educate people about reality. From anti-gun people in denial of their ideas’ abject failure, to pro-gun folks propagating nonsense like “just drag ‘em inside yer house!” or head shots… But I digress.

If I were to verbalize a single career goal and/or how I would like to be remembered in the annals of history, it would be as a raconteur. I want to be a story-teller that entertains and informs. There’s something in every man that wants to be remembered. We all want to be remembered somehow. Theodore Roosevelt is just as dead as the next guy, but he’s remembered as a great man and we all instinctively crave this. John McClane may be the star of the Die Hard film series, but we’re all the star of our own stories. Think back to when you were a kid playing imaginary games- did you want to be Batman or Robin? The Lone Ranger or his sidekick Tonto? The thought of being secondary in social relevance to a damned squirrel video really makes you take stock of a few things.

I recently watched Amadeus and (as I previously mentioned) The Right Stuff, both of which I highly recommend. What struck me in both these films is a man having to take stock of where he sits when the realization hits him that another man is going to upstage him in the record books. Salieri was driven mad (thereby giving us a delightful unreliable narrator) by Mozart’s upstaging. Nothing quite so grandiose happens in The Right Stuff, but we see Chuck Yeager coping with not being selected as an astronaut, as well as the struggles of the Mercury Seven as each mission trumps the last. Ultimately, where history places us is beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean it never crosses our mind.

The realization that I’m not in the forefront of any great frontier is not a new one to me. Lewis and Clark had their go. I’m too young to have competed in the space race, and Al Gore invented the internet without me. My strength in spinning a yarn is much more suited to amusing anecdotes than the Great American Novel. What’s left is most likely ventures in business and capitalism. I could be quite successful in these ventures, but practicality says very few people that pursue this path will achieve the status of Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg. Heck, Jeff Bezos made a fortune founding Amazon.com but how many people know that?

(That last sentence may be inconsequential since I’ve already lamented the state of a society that can name the cast of Jersey Shore but not if and/or what number president Ben Franklin may have been.)

So why this long-winded meandering diatribe? What point am I eventually trying to get to that will tie all these disparate ideas into a cohesive thought? Well it all came together for me on Father’s Day. As this Father’s Day approached I had no idea what to get for my Dad. And suddenly, through a flash of serendipity I saw through the commercialization of the date and started thinking about what actually matters. My Dad has plenty of stuff; he doesn’t need more mere things. In what was a brilliant (and horrible, should I fail to replicate it for Mother’s Day) idea, I chanced upon the perfect Father’s Day gift. Cheap fares back to Tucson for a surprise visit, a hand-written letter of personal stuff just between me and Dad (opposed to a card for any ol’ Dad), and his dad’s wristwatch reconditioned for daily wear. What really matters is thought, time, and quite frequently intangibles like character. My dad will likely never have his own entry in a history book, but he’s made one hell of an impression on me.

So what if I’ll never set a land speed record in Guinness? Or if I’m not the first man to discover an uncharted land? I may never be a “great” man as is varyingly defined through the ages, but I have something far more important: my dad taught me how to be a good man. And I slip up. We all do. But my Dad taught me to pick myself up, dust off, and try again. He taught me to be thoughtful (or at least try), and courtesy to others. He showed me how to be a good husband, when that day comes. My dad taught me about character, the importance of keeping your word, what a good name is worth, and more about being a man than these kids running around today in “skinny jeans” will likely ever comprehend. So I don’t really care if that squirrel video goes on to be “greater” than me, because it occurs to me that the values of such a shallow society don’t really matter to me at all. What I’ve got, my family, my ethics, etc. are far more valuable. Why? Because my dad gave me the right stuff.

PS- I’ve recently been enjoying “If” by Rudyard Kipling and “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, and am attempting to commit them both to memory. Linked here for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Staying Classy

After (and even during) my post on class yesterday, I was struck by a few things.

1. I sometimes don’t even know where my thoughts are going to end up. I had begun writing that post really thinking I was setting out to blast low-class, boorish people. On the drive to work yesterday I was slowly coming up behind a car on the highway and I couldn’t tell what it was; something about the taillights mystified me and I could only tell it was either a very nice car or a crap car masquerading as a good one. Turns out it used to be a fairly classy Audi. When I got closer, the source of my confusion was revealed. Because I’m a little colorblind, I couldn’t distinguish the dark green paint from the blacked-out treatment on the taillights. A safety item, and the knucklehead driving has obscured them presumably to look “balla“. The limo tinted windows, gaudy chrome wheels, and additional blacking out of the headlights just cemented my judgment. Blacked out taillights are tacky enough, but the headlights just sent me over the edge on a desire to rant about the stupidity of looking cool at the expense of actually being able to see the road. I wanted to lump him in with the chowderheads that buy blue headlights for their cars rather than real HIDs, or put dollar store “fart can” exhausts and budget rear wings from Auto Zone on their Honda Civics without doing any actual performance gaining work to the car. I wanted to grab them all by their collective throats and demand if they do something then they do it right and quit doing a half-assed job of it. (“Half-assed” is in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, incidentally.) I couldn’t fathom how somebody could have the taste to buy a current generation A4, and then so tastelessly adorn it, and I wanted to demand the driver give a better showing of himself.

2. A few years back (2006, I’d guess) I was having a discussion with my Mom where I tried to claim there was a real difference between working on a Ducati and enjoying a pint of a microbrew, vs. wrenching on a Harley and swilling a bunch of Bud Light. I don’t recall my Mom’s exact rebuttal, but it was something along the lines of, “No, there’s not.” What’s interesting now is I think we were both right. See, I think simply boiled it down to both situations involving an alcohol-imbibing mechanic. My focus was on the self-control of just one beer, enjoying a craft beer rather than mass-market yellow water, and the mentality of precision work for the Italian bike over celebrating the simplicity of American iron and just hitting it with a hammer until it works. In other words, Mom doesn’t like beer drinking regardless of it’s label, and I was being a snob.

3. Here’s the biggest thing about a post like I wrote yesterday, or what I’ve written in the past about fostering excellence: I have to live up to it, myself. Yeah, I write these essays or thoughts out for anyone who cares to read them, but my real purpose is writing these things down for me. See, I’ve got no right to demand anything of anyone unless I’m meeting the standard I set first. (Even then, I know, I still don’t have the right to demand anything of anyone. Hush. I’m making a point.) So I’m constantly working to strike a balance in the tone of what I write, because it’s a public reminder to myself of what I believe I should be setting out to achieve and type of man I should be but I also need to serve a public audience so anyone can establish a bearing for the type of character they get out of my writing. I would type “I think” a whole lot more in what I write, but because it’s my blog they’re already my thoughts and I don’t want to dilute the decisiveness of my convictions by two words of hedging my bets. All that so say: nothing I type on this blog is a command for your behavior, it’s a demand of mine.

4. I didn’t expect a fourth point here, but I think that’s why I softened a bit at the end of yesterday’s post and began exhorting the reader to aspire to excellence rather than blast them for not being good enough. Because let’s face it, gentle reader, there are more than enough sources of denigration, tearing down, and voices saying “you can’t” in the world. Society is full of monkeys that will keep you from reaching for the banana, whether they’ve been hit with the water hose or not. To quote Antonio Banderas’ character in Desperado, “It’s easier to destroy than to create.” In typing out my thoughts on class, I realized my original mindset was actually quite petulant and I wasn’t living up to what I was demanding of others. Sure, maybe I had the external appearances of good taste, but the content of my character was sorely lacking and further negativity wasn’t going to advance anybody. Any good post, in my humble opinion, needs a dense of denouement or catharsis and that means griping should not and cannot be an end unto itself. Not in my writing. So I choose to answer my own challenge, and do the very best I can to encourage, build up, and say “you can”. Because I can. And if I can, so can you. It doesn’t even matter what the goal is, the point of an obstacle is to be overcome, and deep down I honestly believe we can accomplish whatever we set our minds to. I’m not going to let the small, petty man that lives inside me overcome my optimism and hard work. I choose to pursue excellence, good character, and be a classy guy. And I hope to inspire others to do that same.

Stay classy.

Class.

Of everything I’ve done, written, or said, this will likely be the one to make me unelectable as U.S. President. Past mischief I’ve gotten into can be dismissed as youthful recklessness, and indiscretions with women are only harmful depending on your political party (e.g. Bill Clinton vs. Herman Cain). Thankfully, none of mine ever involved marital infidelity. But what makes this capable of sinking my 2016 Presidential election campaign is that I’m about to expound upon my thoughts of class, both social and economic. These are ideas I have and things I believe; and independent thought is dangerous, even in a “free” country.

Discussing class issues is perhaps even more dangerous than speaking out about race and racism. For one, I’m part of a younger generation that missed the strife of the Civil Rights era, and frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. I believe the majority of racism today is propagated by the very people who claim to combat it; they keep it alive because if it truly dies then they’ll have no access to the public spotlight. We all bleed red, and discussions of race and racism have been beaten so thoroughly that it’s an easily dismissed dead horse. Beside, one’s skin color is beyond their control and a remarkably stupid way to assign value to their person. But class? This is much scarier than race, because not only can we assay a person’s worth based on class (and we do), but it is something in our direct control. If we’re found lacking in terms of class, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. And self-accountability is a scary thing.

Now, “class” can have varying definitions so I turned to Webster’s for help.

class – noun

a: a group sharing the same economic or social status

b: social rank; especially: high social rank

c: high quality : elegance

This really doesn’t help me very much, because we can see that social rank is lumped in with or equivocated to economic status and I don’t believe they’re necessarily the same. This goes back to correlation vs. causation, but one’s earning power or tax bracket doesn’t define one’s caste or mastery of social graces. Here in the good ol’ U. S. of A., one can observe quite disparate examples of class both residing in the same person.

Trailer trash. Snob. Dirtbag. Preppy. Slob. Anal-retentive. Lazy. Workaholic. 99 percent vs. 1 percenter. Hippie. Yuppie.

I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with these denigrating terms, and nine times out of ten they’re used by somebody to describe someone outside of their own perceived economic class. An interesting thing to note is that while politicians may engage in class warfare in order to secure themselves more votes, they almost always do it obliquely and never directly confront the issue. Dan Carlin noted in episode 218 of his excellent Common Sense podcast that some will even deny a class system exists. That said, let’s address…

The Tax Bracket. This one’s easy, because most people are familiar with it. We know there are different economic classes, how they work, where we fall, etc. And most people would like to increase their standing here. I’ve long felt that there are two universal truths for mankind: we all want to be loved, and we’d all like to make more money.

If we read anything on the issue of class, this is usually what’s being discussed. We hear discussions of concern about “the disappearing middle class” (a fairly modern invention, by the way) and socio-economic class and earning power ad infinitum ad nauseam. And there’s certainly merit to the discussion, because of the strong correlation between economic power and education. Note I said correlation. I’m not getting into causation on this issue because education later translates back into earning power and it becomes a “chicken or the egg?” argument. Frankly, you can tell the Wikipedia page on the topic was written with left-leanings in mind, because consequences of nutrition boil down to education as well and it can be successfully argued that those “with low socio-economic status” being imprisoned more often is a red herring because they simply commit more crime.

This is where I feel using one generic term like “class” makes the conversation less clear. It’s a limitation of our language similar to saying “I love pizza” and “I love my spouse”. (Because if food and your spouse elicit a similar emotional response, we have more to discuss than the nuances of the English language.) Even those commenting on the issue will refer to “socio-economic class” when the bleed over is obvious and they refuse to confront the problem of

Culture. I used the term caste earlier, but now I’m fairly certain I was incorrect in doing so. Because while a caste system is applied for social stratification (and does factor in earning power), it is also something that is imposed on the individual and they can knowingly want to improve their standing even if it’s not possible. The problem with culture on the other hand, is that it is something that is embraced by the individual and they take ownership of. And this is where I’m going to run the risk of really offending people, but like I’ve stated before, this is my blog and I can say what I want here. I do this for my pleasure, not yours.

Remember back in 2006 when Britney Spears was photographed by paparazzi “flashing” with no panties on as she got out of a car? It wasn’t too uncommon to hear “You can take the girl out of the trailer park, but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl.” The mentality behind this quip is the far more interesting, meaningful, and dangerous side of the discussion that gets glossed over whenever “class” is debated. Much like the allegory of the monkey, banana and water spray experiment, the culture we decide we are a part of and the class we limit ourselves to become a self-inflicted prison.

I swear, I’m trying very hard not to be judgmental or condescending here but some of these observations are quite simply going to make some people mad. Most likely, they’re going to offend those who are guilty of limiting their social standing through their own choices. Because unlike the caste system we were taught about in school, there is nothing limiting what you can achieve in America except you. This is why we love movies like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and The Pursuit of Happyness. They’re stories of somebody breaking out of the caste they were born into, and they can be reality if we work hard at them. The ugly side of the monkey experiment allegory (and somebody’s going to claim this is racist now, just you watch) is Herman Cain’s treatment when he tried to run for president and people said he “wasn’t black enough” or was an “Uncle Tom”. The truth is Mr. Cain came from humble beginnings, but chose to work his butt off and achieve more. He is the very model of an American success story.

The low-class individual that gets tattoos all over their face and/or neck, or pierces their face into a grotesque circus show can claim they’re being discriminated against when they don’t get a high paying white collar job, but the fact is they chose to permanently set their social class all on their own. The economic class then became a consequence. I’ve known two phlebotomists and they were wonderful people, but the fact is they chose to limit what they could achieve by taking the easy way out with a 12-week class rather than study nursing like they claimed was their goal. And I’ve seen more than one nice car (high end Audis or BMWs) that have been ruined by grossly oversized chrome wheels and low profile tires that have destroyed good handling the car is coveted for in the first place; because money can’t buy good taste, wisdom, or class.

So where does class come from, or more pointedly, how do we become classy individuals? Because being classy is never a bad thing. As much as I hate to simply link to another site or page for the answers to my question (because stuff like Yahoo Answers is completely worthless with eHow not much better), this article at wikiHow really does hit the nail on the head. Please, please head over there and read all the sub-points because they really do outline an excellent way to live our lives no matter our gender, political orientation, or earning power. It’s a self-improvement guide to be a person that everyone (even you) will like and respect summed up in six basic tenets.

  • Be real.
  • Respect others.
  • Don’t be mean.
  • Look your best.
  • Seek wisdom.
  • Be responsible & considerate.

Each of these is capable of much more expansion and thought, but I’ve said enough for now. I’ll close with my favorite suggestion on the list and the summary, which is to be real. Nothing says you have to be somebody else in order to be classy. Rather, it’s a call to excellence of character for whoever you are. These principles can be applied to your life whether you’re a tattooed rockabilly aficionado, an uptight Wall Street type or somewhere in-between. Manners, integrity, and always trying to be one’s best will lead to people saying “That’s a classy individual.” And that, in turn, will lead to success. We’re not trapped by the circumstances we’re born into, only by the limits we impose on ourselves.

Stay classy, people.

Diminishing Returns

This is the last in an unintended trilogy of posts on efficiency, effectiveness, etc. See the first and second posts in their respective links.

Efficiency is a wonderful goal, and I think it should be upheld as a moral value. I think efficiency is the real argument people confuse when they steer clear of “high tech” solutions in the belief that old fashioned means of accomplishing a task are “simpler”. But as I stated in my second post on this general topic, it doesn’t always lead to the best results. I went on to give examples of newer “high tech” items that are actually simpler than their older forebearers, but it’s time to talk about achieving the best possible results and the biggest threat in any individual endeavor: diminishing returns.

As a general statement, efficiency in accomplishing a task is a more important consideration when producing multiples of a thing. (That’s such an awful sentence, I know, but bear with me.) If I’m McDonald’s, my focus is on producing millions and millions of hamburgers per day and maintaining an acceptable level of quality; and it’s no coincidence Ray Kroc was a businessman instead of a cook. If I’m Folgers, I need to produce a coffee that will perform in the relatively cheap Mr. Coffee units most Americans buy. If I’m the U.S. Army, I need to train a large amount of new soldiers in a short amount of time to be proficient enough with a firearm.

Now let’s shrink back the scale of operation and see what happens to the product. In-n-Out doesn’t serve anywhere near McDonald’s number of burgers each day, and they employ far more people in the kitchen to keep up with the pace of business. It’s nowhere near as efficient but they make a better burger (even if the fries still suck). A smaller operation can focus on individual quality even more. Lindy’s is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, as was the Heart Attack Grill before they moved to Las Vegas (and lost something in the transition). Starbucks is considered to be better coffee than Folgers, but again, look at the scale of coffee sold on the shelf of your average American supermarket and they have a much smaller stake (though I wish I had a LexisNexis account to verify my assertion…). The same goes for high quality coffee makers and grinders as opposed to Cuisinart or a $15 Mr. Coffee. And no offense at all is intended to our armed forces when I say better firearms instruction and proficiency is available, it simply costs more time and money than is feasible when training so many so quickly.

These are just three examples, and I’m speaking in generalities, but overall I find this trend to be true. A mass-produced Kimber 1911 may have a great advertising campaign, but they really don’t work all that well and a small custom house like Ed Brown makes a more accurate and reliable pistol. A tailored suit will fit better than something off the rack at Dillard’s. A child that’s actually raised at home by their parents tends to come out more socially adjusted than a daycare kid (and no, I don’t care who I offend by saying that). Efficiency is something to strive for, individual attention applied by somebody with strong ethics should always produce superior results.

I haven’t even touched on the threat of diminishing returns yet, but I have to pause first and wonder why it is that individual attention matters so much more in a result. I believe the answer lies in both the customer and person at work. When the scope is narrowed on who the customer is, it becomes easier for the worker or producer to figure out the needs of their clientele. Lindy’s isn’t trying to appeal to the entire nation; they’re focused on making the best burger in the downtown/4th Ave. area and by consequence have made the best burger in Tucson (Zinburger is all pretense and no taste). Starbucks (despite all their locations and rampant late ’90s expansion) isn’t trying to be in every home coffee maker in the U.S., but targets the premium coffee crowd. A tailor focuses on one customer at a time. A parent focuses on just their child. That focus brings clarity to the needs of the job.

The danger in eschewing all modern production methods in a search for the best quality is that of diminishing returns. The most obvious example is the cost of every single example I’ve listed so far. Lindy’s costs a lot more than a Big Mac. A tailor-made suit will cost more than having something from Men’s Wearhouse altered. Starbucks costs more than Folgers, Ed Brown is more expensive than Kimber, and a stay-at-home parent isn’t bringing in another source of income (although they’re working just as hard, imho). The individual attention costs more time, which we recompense with money. If only there were a clever saying for that…

More than that, this post started with talking about efficiency and my first essay on this train of thought mentioned personal efficiency. We pay for quality, whether by virtue of more work being put into a thing or price controls from the manufacturer (Intel actually put more work into Celerons to slow them down and increase profit margin on Pentiums, or Porsche restricting the Boxster and Cayman so the flagship Carrera is faster). But at what point do we start working disproportionately harder for a smaller increase in return? And how do we quantify this on a personal level, when our project may not be so easily measurable?

This is the real problem that faces the person that chooses to be “old fashioned” in the face of modern means; this is where they face diminishing returns on their effort. It’s easier to discuss when it’s something that can quantified as in a business: paying 20% more overtime to employees and receiving only 5% more in return revenue is very clear. But I don’t have a profit margin in mind when I’m shaving with a brush and safety razor. Sure, I may be saving money because blades cost far less than cartridges, but I spend a lot more time shaving now, and what’s my time worth? Do I really get a better shave, or is it just for a sense of personal satisfaction and what is that worth? Eric Johnson is such a demanding tone freak it’s been said it takes him the better part of a decade to finally be happy with his recordings and release a new album (long version here, worth the watch). Would he be better known to non-guitarists if he put out more music? Am I really going to get the bore of my rifle that much cleaner by using a countless number of dry patches that remove less and less carbon each time?

The only fair answer I can see is that it has to be personal judgment call. Washing my car to the point of obsession is different in different people’s eyes; the battle of preserving a vehicle is good condition vs. the reality of future dirt isn’t worth the same amount of exertion to all drivers (or for all cars). I have no illusions of a career as a musician or author, so I don’t practice my guitar for 3 hours a day nor do I author this blog on a reliable schedule. But what if somebody told Michael Phelps he was swimming too much? What Lance Armstrong listened to the voices that said he was cycling too hard (or spending too much effort to figure out how to hide doping, if you prefer)? What if Lenny Kravitz gave up? (He’s far more talented than his limited number of chart-toppers would suggest.)

While those at the top of their game, from athletes to musicians and authors, are probably near the zenith of diminishing returns (as far as improvement resulting from their efforts), they’re also at the top of their game and maintaining the edge that makes them the best. That’s why sometimes, it’s worth the work. And even in a high-end manufacturers case (Bowers & Wilkins, Bose, Porsche, Starbucks, etc.) they’ll search out the most efficient means for them to accomplish their goal and maximize the return. But it’s their call.

So really, I guess it all comes down to something I’d not considered inserting into this essay until now but has been looming in the background of all three: value.

Value now makes all three of these essays true, but reflects an individual’s estimate of worth. I find it worth my time to shave more laboriously with natural means, where others don’t mind synthetic gel foams and disposable razors. The 2005 Boxster S I found at $24k was a far greater value to me than a dime-a-dozen Ford Mustang, but I don’t value one enough to pay the $60k they can go for new. The capabilities of my Apple products makes them more valuable to me, whereas an Android phone is more valuable to a power user. Everything I’ve discussed as far as efficiency, work-applied to a task, old fashioned vs. newfangled high tech; they ultimately start to become abstract ideas as we refine/redefine arguments and our meanings or examples begin to bleed over into other aspects of life. This is part of being human and life’s ever-changing nature, I think. But the overall principles I’ve discussed are sound as general guidelines if we remember it eventually comes down to the value we place on a thing.

So, Dear Reader, what do you value and why?

The old ways are not simpler

In my last post I had a realization that I don’t chase down the latest technology, but the most efficient means of doing things. My buddy who “accuses” me of simply chasing down the latest high-tech gizmology commented that he prefers old fashioned stuff “because they are simple and work” and went on to say that “efficiency is not always a boon”. This statement really bothered me, but I was unsure why. It must’ve lodged in my subconscious overnight, because this morning the realization hit me: my friend couldn’t be more wrong if he tried.

Now, he’ll likely ready this so I need to clarify and get my premise clearly stated right away. First, there is nothing wrong with an interest in antiquated technology. For some bizarre reason I still want to build a steam engine, and I have no idea what I would do with it once complete. I used to collect old computers and mode theater devices like Commodore 64 pieces and RCA SelectaVision. But the notion that older stuff was simpler is a red-herring, and completely untrue. Many older technological devices were far more complicated, and if they were simpler they required far more work from the end user.

Let’s start with the assertion that “efficiency is not always a boon”. This, I think, is what really was gnawing at my subconscious because efficiency is always a benefit by its very definition! Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense is always a good thing! However, it doesn’t always achieve the best possible results. For example…

Completely unrelated to anything man-made, look at the way a large bird flies. The flapping of the wings provides his thrust, but they alternate from flapping and soaring. Aerodynamic drag will eventually cause him to slow and descend if all they did was soar, but if all he did was flap his wings he would tire and fall out of the sky just as surely. Flapping his wings provides the “best” outcome for flight, but efficiency of action keeps him in the air. Applying this to one of my examples from yesterday, only getting your vehicle detailed will keep it the cleanest but it will drain your pocketbook quickly and simply isn’t feasible.

But what about technology? What about “simpler” mechanical designs that came before modern contraptions? While a few (particularly automotive) examples may actually be simpler, I think it’s very hard to argue they do anything better as a result.

First, let’s look at a classic argument from the firearms world: the Glock pistol vs. a Colt 1911. Both are excellent guns, but it is inarguable that the Glock is a simpler, more robust, and better functioning design. This is not a condemnation of the 1911 and has nothing to do with caliber effectiveness debates. This is simply a realistic look at the design and mechanics of the pistol itself. The Glock has a total of 27 pieces that make up it’s functioning pieces and is far less complicated than a 1911. It continues to function better with neglect in cleaning and high round counts. Caliber preferences aside, the Glock is a simpler (more efficient) firearm. In this case, it is both simpler and works better.

The other example (and this one will be much longer in examination) is anything related to automotive technology. Because this one has so many facets, for the sake of clarity I’ll need to address them all as separate points.

Carburation vs. Fuel Injection. Old-school die hards have actually claimed to me that the problem with fuel injection is that “you can’t re-jet it on the side of the road” when proclaiming the superiority of carburators. What they completely overlook is that you don’t need to! The notion that carburators are simpler than fuel injection is absolutely crazy, perpetuated by shamans that believe anything involving a computer needs a witch doctor and bag of chicken bones thrown on the ground in order to deduce it’s will. It’s just not the case. Once the fear of an ECU is conquered you learn that the components involved in fuel injection are so much simpler than the mechanical complexity of a carburator it’s almost laughable. Carburators are more complex, less efficient, generate less power, and are less reliable in elevation changes.

Air-cooled vs. liquid cooling. This is obviously a debate only a Harley lover would engage in, since to my knowledge there are no more air-cooled engines being put into cars (maybe Tata does in India). The insanity of this argument is that even a Harley guy will admit that it doesn’t work well when you’re stuck at a traffic light in Arizona or Nevada (because the silly design doesn’t have the cylinders out in the air flow to be cooled). At least BMW and Moto Guzzi cool both cylinders (and thus, they don’t care about this debate). In Harley’s case they’ve made it work, but it doesn’t work well. The air-cooling simplicity is hampered by the design. The thing is, water cooling isn’t that much more complicated. A radiator, some hoses, a pump and paths for the coolant to move through the block is all it takes to make more power, provide longer engine life, and improve the effectiveness of the engine. It doesn’t affect the suspension, or ignition system, or anything unless the engineers implement it poorly; but since Harley’s air-cooling is already implemented poorly the question becomes “what do you have to lose?” The old way might be (barely) simpler in this case, but it’s also detrimental. (edited to add: liquid cooling is simple and robust enough to meet the needs of the USMC in the field. Air-cooling doesn’t cut it.)

Overhead cams aren’t really more complicated than pushrods, they’re simply driven differently and cause less internal work for the motor. An old rotary phone retains a certain charm, but Steve Jobs was a well known minimalist and the iPhone exudes simplicity despite all it is capable of. Even my own example of shaving makes it clear that the modern, more efficient shaving method is simpler.

So where, then, does that leave us and point of this post? Despite my proclamations that the old ways of doing things were not simpler, I harbor no ill-will to them. Devices may be more complex, but the user has less to do. Conversely, a way of doing things that is simpler in the individual components will require more effort of the user to own, use, and maintain. Efficiency is always a boon, and simplicity is a red herring; the question is simply where does one to make the trade-off of effort, in the device or their own time/effort/expense? I don’t believe there’s any right answer here, anymore than there’s a correct answer in the great debate of chocolate vs vanilla ice cream; it’s down to one’s own preferences. But bad arguments for the basis of one’s perpective I can’t abide.

So, dear reader, what say you? If asked to succinctly state why somebody would prefer the older method of accomplishing a given task, what do you think is a truer or more accurate core statement? I believe it’s intangible and illogical, but valid nonetheless. I believe it’s one of emotion. Arguments ranging from “even in the Garden of Eden, God placed man there to work” to the much simpler human touch and connection reading a hand-written letter vs. the cold electrons of an email all eventually fall on our emotional response. Clutch less paddle shifters have been used in Formula 1 racing for ages now, and are inarguably a better, faster means for changing gears and more efficient power delivery; car nuts cling to manual transmissions not for the better performance over automatics as they claim, but for love. Something intangible that transcends performance numbers and makes them feel “at one” with the car. I contend that’s why we shave with more laborious methods, hand write a letter that takes longer to reach our recipients, drive what we do (if we can afford preferences over necessities), or even cook and eat what we do. The extra effort, and overcoming the limitations of our chosen methodology sometimes produces better results, but more important than that I believe it is more fulfilling and makes us feel more alive. More human, in this digital age.

But then, I’m just waxing philosophic now. What say you?